Memoirs of A Survivor
Piotrkow, a city of 50,000 inhabitants, is in pre-war western Poland, not far from the capital, Warsaw. It is one of the oldest cities in Poland, dating back to 1102. It was mentioned for the first time in official documents in the year 1217. Parliamentary sessions took place there until 1867, when they were transferred to Warsaw.
In the year 1578, King Stefan Batory ordered that Piotrkow become the seat of the Highest Tribunals for all of Poland, thus the name Piotrkow Trybunalski.
At the outbreak of World War II, there were about 13,000 Jewish inhabitants in our city, about 26% of the total population.
The Jews in Piotrkow did not just exist there. Like in many other major centers in Poland, it was a thriving community with religious, cultural, social and political parties, i.e., the Bund (Jewish Socialists), prototype of the P.P.S., (Polish Socialist Party), all Zionist organizations and the outlawed Communist Party. Most of the political parties had their own youth movements, with sports clubs, choirs, orchestras, dramatic circles and so on.
There were three Jewish weekly newspapers published in our city. Many Jewish printing shops were working full-speed publishing Jewish religious books, demanded in almost all of Europe. Our great synagogue was world renowned because of its oriental style and massive structure. It was built in 1791 by the great Jewish architect David A. Friedlander. In 1850 the synagogue was ornamented with beautiful wall paintings by the artist David Goldstein. It was renovated in the 1930s by Peretz Willenberg of Czestochowa.
We also had a Jewish Higher School of learning. There they educated our future teachers, lawyers, doctors and writers. We could see in the schools and in the party organizations a vibrant, lively youth very anxious to contribute to different endeavours.
In the 1930s, a cool political and military wind started to blow from our western border. The Nazi menace in Germany turned its expansionist propaganda toward the south and the east. Hitler Germany rearmed its war machine, while the western countries yawned themselves to sleep. Eventually they were awakened, but too late for everybody concerned.
WORLD WAR II
On Thursday, August 31, 1939, the German radio broadcast a communiquÈ, claiming that a group of armed Poles attacked the radio station in Gliwice. This and other fabricated lies served Hitler Germany with an excuse to invade Poland.
Early Friday morning, September 1, we heard an awful monotonous noise in the sky. I ran down into the street and looked up in the clear blue heaven. I saw many high flying birds (bombers) heading undisturbed in an easterly direction. Then the Goebbels propaganda radio announced that "the Polish Army tried to cross the border into Germany, and by repulsing them, the German Armed Forces made a preventive thrust into Poland." The same morning the Polish radio began to play the National Anthem "Poland has not perished yet". We were waiting impatiently to hear something from our side. At 1O a.m. President Moscicki spoke to the nation and the world: "Citizens of the Polish Republic. The eternal enemy, the German crusader has brutally attacked our homeland and is sowing death by a dreadful bombardment of open cities and villages in our country. God and history are our witnesses. Justice is on our side".
Panic swept through the country and our city. It was more pronounced later in the afternoon, when the first refugees from Kalisz arrived in our city. They recounted terrible stories of cruel bombardments of the civil population. Confirmation of civil carnage occurred on Saturday morning, the second day of the undeclared war, when the bombs began to fall on our town. The first victim was the young student Romek Zaks. He was killed by a splinter of a bomb that exploded on Narutowicza Street. Lolek Epstein was also killed while guarding the city's water reservoir.
There were no military installations to speak of in Piotrkow, yet the German Luftwaffe continued its unmolested incursions into our city, causing unnecessary casualties and untold sufferings. Waves of German warplanes came in from the west. They closed in on their targets, dove and unloaded their deadly cargo. I heard many detonations and saw the planes turn around and fly back west to their bases in Germany. They destroyed the outmoded little Polish air force in the first few hours of the war.
On Sunday September 3, England declared war on Germany. With some glimmer of hope, we looked up at the sky with the expectation of seeing some aerial dogfights. Our hearts were filled with more hope when we learned that France had also declared war on Germany. We were bitterly disappointed when on that same Sunday at ten o'clock in the morning, German warplanes attacked our city with a massive bombardment. They destroyed many public buildings, including the Post-Office, Police station, Bank Polski and the water reservoir. There were many casualties dead and wounded. After that raid, people tried to take refuge in the nearby forests and neighbouring little towns. The worst tragedy of our people in the first days of the war occurred in the little town of Sulejow, near Piotrkow. On Monday afternoon, the German bombers levelled Sulejow, burying most people underneath the little huts. Most of those who tried to save themselves by escaping unto the highways, were machine-gunned by the low flying fighter planes.
Thus, the promised assistance of England and France turned out to be no more than a promise on paper.
The Nazi air-raids over cities and towns grew more deadly every day. In Warsaw, for example, German warplanes often chose Jewish districts as their targets. There were thousands of casualties. At the outbreak of the war, Poland had a larger Jewish population than any other country in the world.
THE GERMANS IN PIOTRKOW
Tuesday afternoon, September 5, after five days of war, the German Army closed in and began shelling our city with an artillery barrage. When the pounding was too dangerous for our upstairs apartment, I decided to take refuge in the basement of our landlord. I could not stand it for too long. I felt suffocated among people praying and children crying from fear. With each whistle and subsequent crash of the German artillery shells, families embraced themselves and decided that if hit, to die together. I felt that to hide from death would have been futile. It was better to inhale fresh air and to look death in the face. I was never afraid to face the world of reality. I wanted to see as much as possible how a war was being waged. I left the dark basement and went into our back yard. It was not better there, but at least I saw the shrapnel flying and crashing with a tremendous blast into buildings nearby. At least I knew when to run and jump out of the way when the splinters were falling into our big yard.
One girl in our neighborhood was killed from a piece of shrapnel that flew through her window while she was lying in her bed.
Soon afterwards I went out to the front of our house. What I saw in the street depressed me more. The Polish Army was retreating in great panic. They were poorly equipped and had confiscated all the horses to pull its heavy artillery. As the highly mechanized German Army approached our city, the Polish soldiers could not undertake a substantial counterattack anymore with their inferior armor. They began to run and whip the poor horses to get away as fast as possible from the speedy motorized Germans. Then, on the corner of Wolborska and Plac Litewski, I saw retreating soldiers whip and yell at four horses that were pulling a heavy gun. The soldiers crashed the horses with the heavy gun into a telephone pole, I decided that I had seen enough of this war and went up to my apartment and lay down on my bed. The German artillery was pounding our poor city for several hours and then it suddenly stopped. This silence was also terrifying, because of the approaching unknown. The Germans captured our city at 4 p. m.
The next morning at dawn everything was so peaceful. I looked out my window and at the corner of the street, I saw the first three German soldiers with machine-guns just standing there. I did not dare go out first, although I wanted to. After watching them for a few minutes, I noticed two women and a boy walking in great fear toward the corner. As they passed, the German soldiers just joked and laughed at them.
The next morning I ventured down to the corner of Jerozolimska and Pilsudskiego, across the street of our great synagogue. There were not too many people in the streets. The few that I saw, rushed about with fear, dismay and disbelief.
Standing on that corner, I observed the German Army driving through our city in an endless array of motorized vehicles that dazzled my mind. As soon as one unit had passed, another came into view. I asked myself: "What could I do against such an onslaught? Anything?" Many thoughts crossed my mind. Suddenly a burly German officer in glasses, leading a battalion of different motorized vehicles, stopped everything and came up to me with a map in his hands, asking: "Where is the way to Lodz?" He was leading his troops down from Wolborska Highway and should have proceeded straight ahead on Filsudskiego Street. So I replied: "This way to the right." He thanked me politely, mounted his motorcycle and ordered his troops to follow him. They turned to the right on Jerozolimska Street, where the road led to the Jewish cemetery. I was almost certain that the only way out of the cemetery, was to turn back. Frightened of the consequences, I waited impatiently until all those tanks, heavy artillery and many different vehicles had passed. I waited about half an hour and then ran to my friend Burech Leber's house, since his windows looked out on Jerozolimska Street and I could see their embarrassing "retreat".
Well, it happened. After an hour of looking out that window, the burly, now red-faced German officer could not hide his shame at being fooled. He returned from the Jewish cemetery angrily looking around to find me. Instinctively I leaned back from the window when he was looking up. Then, as he approached the same corner of Jerozolimska and Pilsudskiego, he stopped his whole battalion and studied his map again, together with a few of his officers. After a few minutes of debating, they all agreed to proceed the right way down Pilsudskiego Street. Thus, at least I did accomplish some tiny deed to hamper them as much as I could and got some satisfaction out of it.
Soon the whole picture changed. The SS (black uniformed storm troopers) and the SA (yellow uniformed storm troopers) set up headquarters in our town. With Jewish rights outlawed, each day or night would find the German soldiers, SS and SA troopers out on a rampage for Jews to be put to work. They did not care that our stomachs were empty, and even when we came home, there was nothing on the table. They were indoctrinated that Jews never worked. In their mind every Jew was an usurper, banker or a Communist. So, they proceeded to grab us from our beds at night, from our hiding places or attics. We had to work hard, long days or nights without food. Most of the SS men seldom talked, they liked to yell or hit us.
In the beginning they could not recognize Jews, so some of our Polish neighbors and their offspring showed them where the Jews lived or hid. The hunt for Jews intensified in the days before and during the High Holy Days, about the middle of September. They cordoned off the main streets and grabbed all Jewish males they considered able to do slave labour. They formed groups and distributed them to work in different places. Some posts had work to be done. Others had none, and the SS men just ordered especially the older religious Jews to perform "gymnastics".
On Rosh Hashana they raided our great synagogue and other smaller religious establishments. They arrested about thirty religious Jews, cut off their beards and sent them to a concentration camp in Germany. A few days later they completely demolished the inside of our synagogue. They took out the thirty highly religious scrolls and tore them up. On the day of Atonement, they grabbed Jews to work twenty four hours a day to unload big gas barrels. When at last they let them go home, the Jews had to go through a double cordon of SS men who clobbered them with sticks.
On September 17, our panic stricken city learned that the Polish government had fled to Romania. This confused us completely. We felt like abandoned sheep.
By this time Warsaw was surrounded by the German Army and mercilessly bombed from the air in round the clock raids. The capital of Poland was left fighting alone, face to face with the most ruthless enemy--the Nazi war machine.
Suddenly we received the news that the Red Army had crossed the Polish border from the east. At first we thought that the Soviet troops were bringing the long awaited help that we so badly needed. We learned later that it was only wishful thinking. Soviet Russia just grabbed half of Poland for themselves.
On September 18, Warsaw--although surrounded--still fought bravely. The sky over the city was covered with smoke and flames. In the meantime, England and France were "helping" Poland with their long distance assurances.
In October 1939, the Wehrmacht (military) transferred the administration of our city to the civil authorities under the direction of Oberb¸rgermeister Heinz Drechsel. He did not wait very long with his ordinances. He set up the Jewish Council (Judenrat) to carry out his instructions. Some members of the Council thought that they would run the affairs of the ghetto in the pre-war tradition of Jewish self-government.
They were misled, deceived. Drechsel ordered the former vice president of the Jewish Council Zalman Tenenberg to form a Judenrat. Teneberg was a member of the Jewish socialist Bund organization. He was short, slim, athletic and had a strong character. He surrounded himself with twenty-three co-workers, mostly his party members, some of whom had served on the Council before the war.
On October 8, 1939, Drechsel ordered that the 16,000 Jews, including refugees from other towns, who lived throughout the city, move into a crowded section. He wanted to accomplish this task within a few days. It was humanly impossible. It took a lot more time to shift people around, and Piotrkow became the first ghetto in occupied Poland.
THE FIRST UNDERGROUND MOVEMENT
The Bund did not lose too much time in establishing the first underground movement in Piotrkow. They were contacted by their Central Committee in Warsaw, which went underground after the Germans entered the capital. The only underground organization of significance in the beginning of the German occupation was the Bund in Warsaw. They soon spread their activities to all major cities of Poland. They organized a network of couriers, utilizing their young brave men and women. Thus illegal literature flowed into our Judenrat right under the noses of the Gestapo. The Jewish Council under Tenenberg tried their utmost to alleviate the hunger and pain of the downtrodden Jewish population. They organized an orphanage, a folk kitchen and a folk bath, which was essential for the overcrowded ghetto. The Piotrkover Judenrat, unlike other ghetto administrations under Hitler Germany, worked illegally. Tenenberg was a very ambitious and persuasive person, and was able to deal with Nazi officials. He used money as bait to corrupt them in some "delicate" matters, like freeing Jews from jail and the like. He also conducted the illegal activities in the Judenrat building.
The Jewish Council also tried very hard to put a stop to the wild and chaotic hunting for Jews in the streets to be put to work and shame as slave labourers. They were given a thousand workers a day to fill their every need, but to no avail. The SS men said that it gave them enormous pleasure to hunt for Jews.
Once the following happened to me: After shoveling snow on a highway all day without food, the SS men did not let us go home. Instead, they brought us before the Jewish Council Building on Pilsudskiego Street. They called out all the present Judenrat members on the balcony. Suddenly they began to whip us and then inform us what we were supposed to do. They would put questions to us and we should answer them: "The Jews," very loudly, so that the whole world would hear. Then came the questions: "Who are the greatest warmongers?" From the hungry and half-frozen crowd of captured people came out a slight murmur: "The Jews." The SS men became very angry at the low voiced reply. They hit everyone again, yelling: "Louder, louder!" Then more questions: "Who wanted the war?" Only a few weak voices were heard, accompanied by snaps of their whips. "The Jews." "Who are the Communist bloodsuckers?" "The Jews." Again it was heard mixed together with the yells of the SS men and the cracks of their whips, "Who are the capitalistic world leaders?" "The Jews." And so on. The spectacle went on for some time, and the SS men could not understand why we did not yell loud enough.
The result of such humiliating treatments was that our young blood began to boil. We could not stand the hard work and hunger, nor could we tolerate their sickening warped imaginations.
In view of their systematic daily terror and their military strength, we could not undertake any active resistance whatsoever at that time. Then they introduced the "law" of collective responsibility. They knew very well how to utilize these psychological factors in the most ruthless way: in case one German would be harmed, a hundred or more Jews would be shot. We were ready for hard times, but did not anticipate such vicious cruelty.
In the beginning of their occupation we experienced various German schemes like: getting slapped by some soldiers for not taking off our hats for them. Other soldiers did not like our innocent gestures and called us over, saying: "Come here Jews, since when are you my friends?" Once again we were insultingly hit.
We also encountered some soldiers who cared for our good work. For example, when we worked in a certain place and we were not mistreated by the German soldiers we showed up voluntarily for work every day without being hunted. Sometimes they gave us a piece of bread or a cigarette in appreciation for showing up for work every day. Another officer of a different group looking on did not like our performance and he mistreated us. When our good German saw that, he became quite angry and scolded him and went over to his group and whipped his Jews. He then said to him: "You have no right to hit my Jews. If your hand itches, whip your own Jews."
Once a soldier gave me a German newspaper to read. This one did not care about Jews or Gentiles. He did not know the difference. I asked him when they intended to attack England through the channel. He answered: "Dass kommt n”chst." (It's coming next). He was from a village and did not know very much. We encountered very few soldiers like this one.
Despite humiliation and degradation, the Jews in the Piotrkover ghetto were very well-dressed. Not only the women dressed in their best attire, but the men too liked to uphold the dignity of men whenever they were not bothered. Men have always had their hair cut and were shaved, so as not to show their inner concern for the destiny that awaited them.
ACTIVITIES OF HASHOMER HATZAIR
Only a few selected persons knew that in Piotrkow there were several underground movements. This was because of several demented individuals who served the Germans in order to save their own skin. They tried but ultimately they too vanished without a trace.
Our young people who grew up in the youth movements of the diverse parties, like: Zionist, Bund and Leftist, learned quite early in life to oppose tyranny. They had to curb their anxious desire for revenge, because of the collective responsibility put upon us by the Nazis. This temporarily restrained our hunger for resistance.
The youth of Hashomer Hatzair in Piotrkow tried to organize themselves in some kind of group to see if anything could be done to oppose the Nazi oppression. The house at Pilsudskiego Street No. 21, where Meir and Rinka Ziarnowiecki lived was visited by Mordechai Anielewicz in the beginning of 1940. He came to Piotrkow from Lodz in order to establish a connection with the Warsaw organization. He accomplished his mission. Later the contact between Hashomer Hatzair in Piotrkow and the Merkaz in Warsaw was kept up on a regular basis. Couriers with "Aryan" looks from Merkaz in Warsaw visited Piotrkow, bringing in the underground issues of Hashome Hatzair. Jankiel Aronowicz was sent to Warsaw on a mission to the gathering of that organization's representatives.
AMERICAN "JOINT" DISTRIBUTION COMMITTEE
The Piotrkover Judenrat was in dire need of money to feed the impoverished and displaced Jewish population in the overcrowded ghetto. To facilitate the desperate upkeep of social help, medical help, folk kitchen, work brigades, housing problems, refugee problems and others, they received some subsidies from the American "Joint", Centos and Toz organizations. The American Joint Distribution Committee operated in occupied Poland until the United States of America entered the war against Germany. They used to send out delegates from Warsaw into the provinces with allotments of money and food supplies. However, all this help was like a drop in the ocean. The "Joint" delegate for Piotrkow, which was in the Radom district, was Israel Falk with the help of Esther Lazar-Melman and others.
A TRY TO GET OUT OF THE GERMAN CLUTCHES
I made up my mind to run away and get rid of the Nazi scourge. At that time many of our youth crossed the Bug river to get away from the Germans. They preferred the lesser of the two evils - Soviet Russia. I gathered some money that I had hidden in the attic, and took my younger brother Faywel with me. We said goodbye to our parents. I also persuaded my friend Isak Kalinski to come with us. We bought train tickets to Warsaw. We were not allowed to travel, but we did anyway. There was no way I would obey all their orders. Very few of our people did. These strange ordinances were forced upon us. I considered these orders illegal in our country.
On the train we encountered some queer looks, as if we were subhuman. We got off the train in Warsaw and walked through the bombed out streets. When we crossed the bridge to the suburb of Praga, we hired a horse and wagon and headed east to the Bug river. When we arrived there, we went into a hut to negotiate a fee for a barge. We had to wait around until enough people gathered for the quota. We met some friends there and did not have to talk over our plans with them, because everyone had the same aim in mind: to get across the river.
Just before we were ready to get unto the barge, a German border guard came out of a hut yelling: "Spielt nicht keine verfluchte Komedie hier." He meant we should not make too much noise here, but get it over with. We were surprised that he did not mind us crossing the border.
It was dark when we got on the barge, and while the paddlers were working diligently, we were thinking that we would soon be free. We reached the other shore and headed into the woods. While walking in the dark, my brother stumbled over a loaf of bread. He picked it up and found a wristwatch in it. He hid it by putting it on his ankle. We heard noises and soon we saw the Russian border guards running toward us. They yelled out, "Davay nazad" (Get back). They pushed us back onto the barge with outstretched bayonets. We pleaded with them that we escaped the Nazis but it did not help. They said that they had their orders. When we were in the middle of the river, the Ukrainian crew demanded everything we possessed, or they would drown us. They were armed. We had to empty our pockets.
BACK TO HELL
We undertook our journey back home to the ghetto, hungry, tired and very disappointed. We had to walk some of the way and we hitch-hiked a ride. The three of us entered a peasant house and Faywel offered his new-found wristwatch for some food. The housewife cooked a potato soup for us three hungry boys. Such a meager soup never tasted so good.
As we came back home, we found that the situation had not improved. On the contrary, it became apparent that the Nazis embarked on a policy of terrorizing the Jewish communities in the occupied territories.
Segregated Jewish quarters (ghettos) were being established in both large and small towns. Compulsory labour was introduced for Jews between the ages of 14 and 60. We had to wear arm-bands with the Star of David, to facilitate their hunt for slave labour. The Germans had succeeded in confusing the Jewish communities with their propaganda and terror tactics into a complete lethargic sleep. We were entrapped in the surrounded ghetto. We were not allowed to own property any more. My parents were forbidden to own and operate their butcher shop. We were not allowed to earn money, but were forced to work for them without pay. Many, many more decrees followed, one worse than the other.
During the German occupation of Poland, we suffered many food shortages. The most important of all foods at that time was flour for baking bread. We had bakeries all over Piotrkow, but they could not obtain sufficient flour because work at all the mills had come to a standstill.
On the corner of Pilsudskiego and Jerozolimska Street there was the famous Rozpendowski bakery. Somehow Mr. Rozpendowski was receiving flour more often than anybody else. Whenever I found out that he was baking bread, I used to run down early in the morning, sometime at dawn, to get in the line. After a couple of hours of waiting in the line, they opened the window for distribution.
Most of the time there was bread for everyone. But we had some anti-Semitic Poles who thought, like the Nazis, that Jews--although they received coupons--did not deserve to eat. Gangs would look everyone over and pull out of the line anyone they thought looked Jewish. I was lucky. For some unexplained reason they never touched me. Maybe because I had blond hair. Or maybe they were afraid to start a fight with me because I looked like a boxer with a battered nose.
Once two such hooligans pulled a Christian woman out of the line. They thought she was Jewish--she had black hair. Unfortunately for those bullies, she was a policeman's wife who lived next to our apartment. She attacked them by screaming and kicking at them. All of a sudden one of the enforcers yelled out with a tremendous screech, as she had hit him in the groin.
Many similar instances of pulling Jews out of bread lines happened very frequently. Jews in the ghettos resisted this kind of inhuman treatment by acquiring hand-mills, and making their own flour for baking bread. Nothing could stop our people from getting outside the ghetto and buying grains necessary to produce flour. Many were shot dead for "trespassing" into the forbidden zone. Stubbornly, we used to defy the German "laws" and risk our lives by making excursions outside the ghetto for the necessary provisions to survive. Survival was the greatest warrant for our defying deeds.
I still remember going into the house of my dear friend Isak Kalinski on Staro-Warszawska Street, in the beginning of the German occupation. His whole family defied the Germans and worked at a hand-mill. I used to try and help with the hard task of constantly turning that handle.
As I remember, Isak with his three sisters--Zosia, Hela and Gila--worked hard at that illegal trade, contributing to the well being of their family, in those crucial times. Their father Jankiel Kalinski risked his life by removing his arm band and getting out of the ghetto to bring in the needed grain from friendly villages.
Some Jewish bakeries tried to bake bread over the prescribed norm. At 2 Litewska Street, there were two Jewish bakeries. One in the front belonged to Shaya (Psite) Gomulinski, and the other one in the back, to the Gele Tobe Jutkiewicz. (One of her seven children survived. Chaja lives in New York). They used to bake more bread than was permitted and with my help for one loaf of bread as payment, they achieved their goal with the illegal distribution. I used to rise in the middle of the night, take a sack and carry the contraband loaves of bread into my house and literally hide them under my bed. After they distributed the allowed allotment, they gave the unlucky ones a piece of paper with my address and that way those outcast people could also buy bread.
Once a Jewish policeman burst into our house to catch us for work. While searching for more members of our family, he looked under my bed and saw the loaves of bread. His eyes lit up at the found "treasure". It took me a lot of talking, begging and explaining and three loaves of bread as payment, to make the policeman forget what he saw. It also took Miriam, Shaya's sister time to believe my story. I did not know if she ever believed my account, but she continued to give me her merchandise on consignment.
A BAD TASTE OF SLAVE LABOUR
In the spring of 1940, the Jewish Council was ordered to provide all able bodied youth for slave labour camps in the Lublin district. With some maneuvering, my older brother and I got out of it. My younger brother was taken to Belzec, along with several hundred Piotrkover boys, to dig ditches at the new Russian border. We received disturbing news from those forced labor camps, that our boys had been badly mistreated by the SS men. A delegation of mothers and relatives raised their voices in the Jewish Council, when we talked about it with Mr.Tenenberg. He said that he had been sending food and clothing parcels for the boys regularly (so did we). He also promised to do everything in his power to bring the boys back home. He kept his promise. With the advice and help of our Rabbi Lau and others, he sent Salomon Gomberg with money to the Lublin district in order to take the "sick" boys out of those slave labour camps. After their return home, they related horror stories about the treatment of the SS men under the direction of Oberleutnant Dolf.
OUR RESISTANCE TO SLAVE LABOUR
Usually the Germans had a hard time catching us. My brother and I had a good hiding place in the attic. Sometimes with the help of a tipster they succeeded. Once they caught us in October of 1940. First we had to walk under guard all the way to Wolborz, a little town near Piotrkow. Some of us sneaked out of the marching line on the highway to "organize" some carrots or other vegetables from the fields. We had to be alert not to fall into a state of apathy. They did not feed us, so we had to take care of ourselves somehow. We had to risk being whipped for this kind of "sin."
When we at long last arrived in Wolborz, the guards handed us over to the SS men of the local camp who were not even prepared to lodge us. We had to sleep in shacks in the open fields near the Wolborka river.
In the morning they took us to work. Yelling, they rushed us into the river fully clothed, so that we should clean it from the debris. Whoever hesitated to enter the cold water, was whipped mercilessly and forced into the river. After a long day of working, we were exhausted, wet, hungry and without any dry clothes to change into.
My brother and I decided to run away. We conceived a plan to sneak out at night. Shivering, we were again taken into the shacks for another night in our wet clothes. At about midnight we began to crawl on our hands and knees from the shack to the highway which led to Piotrkow. We had to do it very carefully, in order not to attract the attention of the guards.
As we were nearing the highway, we had to hide in a ditch for a while, because of an oncoming patrol. After the Germans had passed, we climbed out of the ditch onto the dark highway and all we could hear were the barking dogs. We just wanted to get home as quickly as possible. We were approaching Plac Litewski. There we had to be very careful not to be caught by the Jewish Police patrolling the ghetto. We sneaked home through back yards.
We entered our home quietly, so as not to awake anyone. Finally we could remove the wet clothing and sleep in our own beds.
That morning we learned that it was too dangerous to stay home. The Jewish Council, on orders from the German authorities, had sent Gendarmes and Jewish Policemen to hunt for the escapees. We hid in the attic. My father pretended to be sick in bed and my mother looked out the window to watch for the Police. The situation in our home became unbearable, as there was no more food. We decided to run the risk and get out of the ghetto to the countryside.
Early next morning, my mother, my brother and I started on our way. At the edge of the ghetto we removed our arm bands with the Star of David. After a few kilometers walking, we reached the friendly village (before the war our family used to rent an orchard there for summer vacation). By promising the villagers to do some sewing in exchange for food, we were welcomed.
Soon our tranquility came to an end. Too many neighbors became interested in us and it was dangerous to stay any longer. We headed back home to the ghetto carrying a supply of precious food. Our vacation had lasted only two weeks.
Before entering the ghetto, I stopped at a Polish tailor shop and asked the owner for work. He needed help badly and told me to report the next morning. The tailor shop was situated near Slowackiego Street, outside the ghetto.
Approaching the ghetto, we put our arm bands back on and carefully reached our home. For the next few weeks I risked the danger of leaving the ghetto in the morning and reentering it at night. I was not paid much, but I was unwilling to be expendable for the German forced labor. When the Polish boss told me that he was afraid of the grave consequences for employing a Jew, I had to remain home and again became prey to the SS men and the Jewish Police.
The constant arrivals of new refugees from other towns, resulted in the overcrowding of our ghetto. The worst plight was suffered by the Jews of Tuszyn. They were driven out of their homes in a hurry in the middle of the night. It happened to be a very cold, frosty night and many of their children arrived in our ghetto frozen to death. These unfortunate people were placed in the butcher shops (yatkes), where there were no living facilities. We took a Tuszyn family of six into our home. Other refugees were lodged in our synagogue and in other smaller religious institutions.
The result of such overcrowding and hunger was that people became ill. In 1941, there was among other sicknesses, the typhus epidemic. For that purpose the Judenrat arranged a special isolation unit in the Jewish High School Building.
When my younger brother Faywel was stricken with typhus, I was concerned about him because he was a very weak boy. He was put in hospital and the Jewish Council had to pay all the hospital bills to the Germans. When I visited my brother, I saw in the next bed a friend of ours named Rivele Briger. He was a very strong, stocky person. Before the war we used to play cards together. When he took off his shirt on a hot day, he was covered with hair all over his body. He looked like a gorilla. Now he was sick with typhus. He had to stay in bed for the first time in his life.
I joked with him about not giving up his "bonus", the ration card, He retorted with self-assurance: "Oh no, I would never give up my "bonus". Forget it." But that vigorous boy succumbed to the typhus sickness and died. Maybe he was luckier than others.
THE ISOLATION UNIT
After my brother was taken to hospital, the Sanitary Police isolated our whole family in the Jewish High School Building. In the beginning I did not like that place. There was always a Jewish Policeman at the gate standing guard. The food was awful. There was a Jewish lady doctor named Neumark, working like the proverbial horse. I offered to help her out with the distribution of food and checking the people's temperature. She agreed enthusiastically. She was always fighting with the Judenrat inspector for more help. Dr Neumark was a dedicated human being and tried very hard to alleviate the hunger and pain for the people in isolation. She boasted and showed the inspector that I agreed to work there without any benefits or privileges from the Judenrat. The inspector seeing that, recommended some more help, and the Judenrat sent in a young nurse, Lilka Nutkiewicz. She was a shy little girl, but a dedicated nurse. The three of us demanded better food from the Judenrat and were able to improve the situation a little bit for the children.
When the time came for our family to leave the "isolation" unit (my brother left the hospital), Dr. Neumark insisted that I stay on. I did, and by doing so, could avoid getting caught by the Germans to perform slave labour.
THE GLASS WORKS KARA AND HORTENSJA
The typhus epidemic was eliminated and fewer victims were admitted to the "isolation" unit. At that time I learned that the glass foundries in our town Kara and Hortensja required new workers. My brother and I went to the Hortensja. We entered the office and were asked our names. When I said Kotkowski, one tall clerk jumped up from his chair and called us over to his desk. He told us in a whisper that we might choose light work if we wished, because he knew the Kotkowski family well. I answered that we wanted to work under the gasakes (place for feeding coal and cleaning the ovens). He looked at us very surprised and said, "You don't have to work hard, I'll see to it. Your father was my friend, we used to play cards together." I still insisted to work under the gasakes. Then I told him that he had played cards with my uncle Josef Kotkowski. Next morning we began to work and were happy not to be hunted for slave labour any more.
The ugliest part of our predicament was that we had some informers in our midst. There was Josek Szwartz from Litewska Street, who would denounce rich Jews to the Gestapo. They, in turn, usually liquidated the informers after their information was exhausted. The worst stool pigeon of them all was Joine Lewi. Before the war, he was a furrier and used to partake in amateur theatres. What was happening to some of our people? It boggled my mind. He associated himself with William of the Schutzpolizei. William was the "phantom" of the ghetto. He would come in with his big German shepherd dog and terrorize the ghetto population. Aside from robbing people at will, he would say to his dog: "Man, get that dog." (meaning the Jew). His dog, trained to attack, would hunt Jewish man or child, bite the victims and tear their clothing. We had informers--beside our own--refugees from other towns. We had to be careful and watch out for them.
DISASTER OF THE BUND UNDERGROUND
Between June and July 1941, the underground activities of the Bund in Piotrkow were uncovered somehow unexpectedly. During a routine check of the train station, a Gestapo man spotted a suitcase filled with Polish and Jewish leaflets destined for the Piotrkover Bund and other provincial centers. They arrested a Polish courier from Warsaw, part-time actress Jadwiga Wisniewska, who belonged to the Polish Socialist Party (P.P.S.). They found in her lipstick case an address of the Bund member and Judenrat employee in Piotrkow, Tanchum Freund. They also found addresses of Bund members in Tomaszow Mazowiecki, Radom, Czestochowa and Krakow. The Gestapo employed their "skill" of torture, but could not get any names in Warsaw from Mrs. Wisniewska. After five days of questioning, they sent her to the Auschwitz concentration camp (Mrs.Wisniewska survived).
All the Bund members were alerted and they went into hiding. The Gestapo went after the found address in Piotrkow searching for the occupant. They arrested Mrs. Freund. She was tortured, but the Gestapo could not learn from her anything. After a few misses, they eventually caught up with Mr. Freund. They tortured him mercilessly and he finally gave in. They also caught Shaye Weingarten, whom they battered beyond recognition.
The Gestapo arrested many Bund members and also the President of the Jewish Council, Zalman Tenenberg.
One of the beloved Bundists in Piotrkow, Yaakob Berliner, surrendered to the Gestapo voluntarily, thinking that he might spare other members from arrests. His altruistic deed did not bear fruit. They questioned and tortured them all in the cellars of the Gestapo. After two months of "special treatment" with no positive results, they took them out of the Piotrkover prison and sent them to Auschwitz to be murdered. Tenenberg, with his gallant troops of Bund members, gave their lives not only for the cause of their party, but because they were Jews and enemies of the Third Reich.
Two Bund members escaped to Warsaw: my Yiddish night class teacher Itzhak Samsonowicz and Leon Kimmelmann. A third Bundist, Jakob Leber, escaped to Czestochowa.
The Gestapo also arrested members of the Bund organization in Tomaszow, Radom and Krakow. The German Secret Service thought that they had gotten rid of all revolutionaries.
THOUGHTS OF ARMED RESISTANCE
In the beginning of 1942, the Hashomer Hatzair organization received an invitation to send a representative to their farm in Ziarki. They sent RÛzka Guterman with a false passport, as she had better looks. On the farm in Ziarki, she met Mordechai Anielewicz and Arie Wilner. They told her that the groups in Piotrkow should try to get into German establishments, get connections with other illegal organizations and somehow obtain arms.
A contact with a Communist group was later established, but they could not take anybody out into the forests because of their Jewish appearance. There were also meetings taking place by members of the right wing militant Beitar organization. Taking part in these "what to do" discussions were Chaim Samelson, the Goldberg brothers, David Perlowicz, Abram Weinrich and others. Mr. Jakubowicz the watchmaker, even manufactured a hand-made "weapon" as a start for preparation for an armed struggle. Everything fell apart when the two Goldberg brothers and the two Liberman brothers were caught in the Paradyz woods with revolvers and fake bullets in their hands that could not shoot. The story was that the four boys were swindled out of a great sum of money for four useless guns. They had befriended a Pole at work and confided in him. He in turn told them that he belonged to Armia Krajowa (A.K.) - Land Army, and that he would take them out into the woods. He left them there and told them to wait for him, as he was going to join them with his troops shortly. All of a sudden they heard shots being fired in their direction. In vain they tried to defend themselves. Wounded, they tried to escape, but were caught by the SS men.
Next morning, they were brought back to the Polish hospital in our town. They were questioned and tortured for several days. They tried to withstand the pain of torture and finally succumbed to the Nazi murderers. The four of them, along with the hat maker and the Jewish Policeman, were shot at the Jewish cemetery and buried in one grave. Thus had a dream ended for several young desperate boys, who wanted to do battle against the Nazi oppressors.
THE UNDERGROUND "WORKER"
We marched each day from the ghetto to the glass works Hortensja. It seemed that the cobble stones would sink lower from the rhythmic clatter of the wooden soled shoes of the marching workers. We were not allowed to march on the sidewalk. We were led by the Jewish Police, Volksdeutsche guards and the glass works firemen. There were different kinds of guards. Some of them did not like our uneven steps. They corrected that with a crack of their whip. This was their easy and only proof of "heroism."
There was one fireman who did not enjoy his job very much. I could see it in his face. His name was Waclaw Bordo. He never yelled or hit anyone. I enjoyed marching when he was near me. Before the war he had belonged to the Polish Socialist Party (P.P.S.). I had an urge to talk to him. One day I approached him and his answer to me was--not looking in my direction--not to talk to him while marching. Rather, he said, he would visit me at work. He came to me and we exchanged one of my shirts for bread. We also traded some pillow-cases for money. After a while, we became friends. We talked about our situation and filled me with some hope. He used to say that soon our difficulties should improve, that there would still be a better world to live in. He told me that his whole family was liberal-minded socialist. He also had a brother living in Warsaw who constantly supplied him with outside news. For example, he learned that in the Warsaw ghetto there was a general apprehension of a more grave threat than gradual starvation. On November I7, 1941, eight Jews had been shot for smuggling food into the ghetto. One hundred and sixty four German Jews (including a large number of Chalutzim) were recently brought to Warsaw. They had prepared to emigrate to Palestine, but were sent to a new camp named Treblinka, near Sokolow. In a few weeks only thirty-eight were left alive.
In the spring of 1942, Bordo told me with a sad tone in his voice, that I had better run away from the ghetto. "There are bad times approaching for you Jewish people, much worse than up to now," he said. I replied that it was useless to run away from the ghetto alone. If I had a gun, I would form a group. He seemed to be very perturbed. I asked him what was the matter, as he walked around in circles. Obviously, something very serious was bothering him. Suddenly, he stopped in front of me and began to relate a story, mumbling terribly: "There were blood curdling rumors of..." He stopped, because he could not speak straight. He put something in my pocket and said, "Go to the washroom, read it, and destroy it afterwards". I did as he told me. I pulled out of my pocket a reduced-size copy of the prewar socialist newspaper Robotnik (Worker). I read about a terrible massacre that took place in Lublin: "About half the ghetto population was murdered and a considerable number were deported in cattle wagons to an unknown destination. Eight thousand Jews remained out of the original forty thousand."
"In Wilno, forty thousand Jews were exterminated without a trial or charges. Just over ten thousand were left alive...."
"In Slonim someone killed a Nazi. They knew very well that the murderer was not a Jew, but it was a good opportunity for a bloodbath. Eight thousand Jews were shot to death outside the town..." There was also news from the fronts.
From this time on, he brought the underground paper to me regularly. I risked taking it home now without his knowledge and read it thoroughly. I also gave it to my closest friends, Burech Leber, Yudel Kurtz and Isak Kalinski.
Reading an underground paper in those dark days of the ghetto, lifted our spirits and we forgot about hunger for a while. We breathed in fresh air about a far away world that we had almost forgotten. We opened our eyes while reading the news about the latest difficulties the Germans encountered on all fronts.
RESETTLEMENT IN THE WARSAW GHETTO
In the meantime the Aktions in the Warsaw ghetto continued. The chairman of the Warsaw Judenrat, Adam Czerniakow, tried his utmost to deal with the SS in order to save the remaining children of the ghetto and his staff. When they arrested his wife and most of his Council members, he reached his breaking point. He committed suicide.
When the Germans blockaded the orphanage of that great educator Janusz Korczak, in August of 1942, he was ready to die together with his two hundred orphaned children. While walking to their untimely death, the children were nicely dressed and each of them was holding a little bag with bread and water. Dr. Korozak marched in front of them to the train. At the last moment he was given the opportunity to be saved, but refused because he would not abandon his children.
The underground Bund in Warsaw wanted to find out where the Jews were being deported to. They dispatched a courier, a tall blond-haired man, Zalman Friedrich. He befriended a Polish socialist railway worker, who was employed on the Warsaw-Malkinia line. Once he traveled with his friend to Sokolow and learned that the Germans constructed a new sidetrack to the Treblinka station. In Sokolow Friedrich met a wounded escapee from Treblinka, who told him that the transports of the Jews that arrive here were being gassed. He returned to Warsaw and related the news to his party. The result was that the Bund issued a new underground paper Oif der Wach (ON GUARD), in which they warned the Jewish population of the Warsaw ghetto not to volunteer to the Umschlagplatz. About fifty thousand workers were still left in different shops. The report was late, but it was a warning of things to come.
There were some attempts made by the different Jewish underground leaders to organize a unified structure to defy the Aktions in the Warsaw ghetto. It was observed that the Nazis embarked on a methodical extermination of all Jews. It appeared that, step by step, the Germans had put into effect their devilish plan to annihilate all the ghettos. I told everyone whom I trusted that the Germans had been emptying the ghettos and that the trains had been going to Treblinka where the Jews were being gassed. People did not and could not believe it.
It was a hot day in August of 1942, when I read about the gassing of the Jews in Chelmno. I did not know if the perspiration on my face was the result of the heat or from reading those terrible stories. It did not matter either way.
Now, what could be done? To call for resistance in the ghetto meant causing collective reprisals by the Nazis, which would lead one to expect the slaughter of the majority of the people. How could anyone resist such German power without arms? Within the context of the ghetto, revolt with out any means to fight with was foolish. I talked with my friends about it. Everyone was just staring at me helplessly without uttering a word. It was incomprehensible. An undertaking of any kind should have been studied thoroughly. But who could I talk to? Tenenberg was no longer in the Judenrat. He was done away with in Auschwitz for his part in the illegal activities. Now, there was Warszawski chairman of the Judenrat. To talk to him about these pressing questions was an invitation to be shot. How could even an armed resistance be undertaken without any help from the outside? As far as I knew, nobody volunteered any help to the other ghettos before the Jews were exterminated. How about other countries? Where were all the correspondents of the world newspapers when the Nazis did away with hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women and children?
Soon we read about the massacres in the Warsaw ghetto. The Germans were trying to liquidate the largest ghetto in Poland. Scores of train-loads, six thousand Jews daily, were being taken forcibly to Treblinka. There were some escapees from there, telling horror stories of people being gassed to death. It was unbelievable.
Although my brother and I had secure jobs, I did not feel certain that it would spare us. We could feel that the storm was closing in on us. There were many beautiful girls in the ghetto who were proposing and getting married to boys who had good jobs. They even married policemen in order to survive.
Everyone wanted to be productive in some capacity. People scurried back and forth to find something to safeguard themselves and their families. Some people were paying money or jewelry to get a good and secure job. There were opportunists who took advantage of the situation, no matter if it was successful or not. It was a whirlwind situation. A matter of life or death.
EXTERMINATION OF THE PIOTRKOVER GHETTO
Storm clouds were gathering and a cool wind was blowing. In the second week of October 1942, the workers who were employed outside the ghetto, were told to bring some of their belongings with them and to stay on their jobs. By saying goodbye, mothers cried and hoped that at least the young should be spared and somehow survive that catastrophe. Now it became clear for us too, that our ghetto would share the same fate as all the others.
During the night of October 13, 1942, our ghetto was surrounded by SS men and Ukrainians. Dark clouds covered the sky over Piotrkow and obscured the empty ghetto streets. Here and there, loud drunken voices of the Ukrainians could be heard readying themselves for their ugly festivities. The "action" of "resettlement" started in the early morning of October 14, and lasted a whole week. The chairman of the Jewish Council, Szymon Warszawski, sent the Jewish police to aid the SS men and the Ukrainians to deport over 22,000 inhabitants of the Piotrkover ghetto. Street by street, they emptied the houses, taking by force men, women and children. In their desperation, most victims knew that they were being taken from their homes to be exterminated in Treblinka. What could they have done to avoid it? They were completely isolated from the outside world. The young people were separated, working and kept inside the factories, outside and far from the ghetto. Mothers had to take care of their young children. The old and the sick were shot on the spot if they would not or could not move fast enough. What could they do with their bare hands against those young SS men, and vicious Ukrainians, who were so well-trained and armed?
There was some passive resistance in the form of not obeying the Nazi orders. Some were shot while hiding, or simply preferred to die in their own home. Two Jewish policemen surrendered their caps when they learned that they could not save their families and went to Treblinka with them. Our last Rabbi Lau showed his determination to have his say at the assembly place. He urged his people to try and hide themselves and not to go like sheep to the slaughter. Then in Treblinka, he delivered a fiery speech to the unfortunate people about Kiddush Hashem: "Better a live death, instead of a dead life, and everyone who perishes as a Jew, is a Saint. I call upon all of you to realize the will of God to die for him with dignity." Then he said his Vidoi --his affirmation of faith--and the crowd repeated after him crying out "Shema Israel". Rabbi Lau helped some with his inspirational speech to lift the spirits of these innocent victims of Nazism. The religious Jews could breathe easier, knowing in their hearts that they were fulfilling their duty to God. The rest of the crowd looked around in disbelief that nobody was able or willing to help them, and thus resigned themselves to their untimely end. Others yet, were relieved that this would mark the end of their long suffering from hunger, degradation, man's inhumanity to man and the disinterest of the whole world.
The same late afternoon, while we were standing near the ramp of the "Hortensja", I saw the first train with the deported Piotrkover people. For some reason the train was moving very slowly and I noticed many resigned familiar faces at the little windows. My eyes were glancing nervously around, to see if any of my family members were on it. I hoped to see them for the last time. Suddenly I heard a shrill cry from a window: "Chil, Chil' Watch over Moshe' Take care of him. Avenge all of us. Chil...." By the time I sadly nodded that I would, Sarah Leber disappeared from view with her anguished cry. She was a friend of mine and wanted me to keep an eye on her younger brother, the only member of her whole family that remained working at the Hortensja. I turned to the fence to wipe off the tears from my face... I could not endure any longer and had to let them run freely... At the fence I was consoled and encouraged by a friend and distant cousin named Szlingbaum. He also had tears in his eyes. He said to me, putting his arms around my shoulders: "We have to be brave now more than ever. We are all on a sinking ship. We should not let ourselves down".
Many pieces of rolled paper with notes were thrown out of the little windows. They fell too far away from our fence. Christian boys picked them up after the train disappeared. Some were delivered to the remaining family members.
It began to snow lightly, covering the dark ground. Nothing could alleviate the state of depression of the slave workers who remained alive with a feeling of disgust and hatred against the murderers. We were standing around thinking what was going on. There was an indifferent world outside watching silently as a mass murder was being carried out in Chelmno, Sobibor, Belzec, Auschwitz and Treblinka. This was happening in the Twentieth Century. We hated the cultural German Herrenvolk and their aides, the Ukrainians and some Poles.
Thus had a vibrant Jewish cultural and physical life come to an end in our town of Piotrkow. The only solace and hope that remained was the few hundreds of thousands of slave workers here and there.
Our working days during the Aktions of "resettlement" were symptomatic of our feelings. There was a state of apathy in our whole process of thinking. The whole world looked like a mirage to me. We adopted a dangerous "I don't care" attitude. For the first time in my life I felt like walking off the globe of the world. I felt guilty for being alive while our people were being slaughtered in Treblinka. My parents, my friends were being routed up from their homes. I felt a deep emptiness and disgust.
On October 15, while trainloads with our people were passing by the Hortensja, I had to work near the ramp. I was working at the gasakes and taking coal from the big heap near the fence with a wheelbarrow. I was not very choosy as to the quality of the coal. I fed the furnace and the coal did not burn as required. There was more smoke than fire. Consequently there was not enough energy for the machines. The Polish foreman was yelling at me, I could not hear him too well. I saw in his eyeglasses the reflections of the trainloads with our people passing by. As a result of my poor effort, I was demoted to do menial jobs. I did not care. Then I was sent to wheel away spoiled masses of red-hot glass with a wheel-barrow. It was quite a hard job. It looked like a punishment, but I could not care less. I moved like a robot. My mind was slowing down. To me it seemed that everybody was moving too fast. I was losing my perspective. Now I worked with the "ghost dancers" (explanation of the term will follow) near the oven.
While they were pouring the material into the oven, I was wheeling away the heavy loads of hot glass. Something snapped and I overturned a wheelbarrow with the load. I do not remember what happened next. At first I felt my right palm hurting. Somebody put my hand in a pail of hot dirty oil to stop the bleeding. Another one yelled that this was not the right procedure. "Let's get him to the doctors," I heard a young concerned voice. The young boy had tears in his eyes. They led me to the infirmary while blood was dripping from my right hand. I was in a state of shock. I could hardly hear what they were saying. Someone told Dr. Chwat that he thought that I wanted to commit suicide. Although I was still in a daze, I denied it vehemently. I would not give the Nazis the satisfaction. They could not succeed with me; I had to survive them, I felt it in me. I really did not know how I fell onto the hot glass and cut a vein between my wrist and palm. After a few days I forgot what had happened.
We, the so-called "lucky ones", should put our heads together and analyze our situation. Who had chosen us to still be alive? Was it God? Was it destiny? Whatever the reason, we were going to do something about it. We had to wake up from our lethargic sleep, open our eyes and seek out every little opportunity to the outside world. Our duty now came down to at least keeping ourselves alive, and whoever would survive, would be the hope for the future and witness to these crimes.
This world looked indifferent to us, but I knew from reading the underground press, that there might be a glimmer of hope. Among this silent world outside, there were still some decent people who would like to help.
THE JEWISH FIGHTING ORGANIZATION (Z.O.B.--ZYDOWSKA ORGANIZACJA BOJOWA)
In October Or 1942, different groups of Zionists and Bundists got together in Warsaw to form the "Jewish Fighting Organization". It was the military wing of the Coordinating Committee, in which all Jewish parties participated. The Bund party members had some difficulties, but everything was ironed out. The aim was to acquire weapons and to fight against further German Aktions.
In the Autumn of 1942, the Zegota was organized in Warsaw. It was the underground "Council of Help to Jews." The Council consisted of the representatives of various groups both Polish and Jewish. I longed to get in touch with them.
THE SMALL GHETTO
A week after the Aktion in our town was completed, we, the "legals" were taken from the working places to a prepared small ghetto on Staro-Warszwska Street. We were marching through empty, quiet streets that were once lively Jewish quarters, pulsating with cultural life. Glancing now at the houses, a deep emptiness filled my heart.
I did not see the black-eyed children looking out the windows. They were all gone. The innocent, fearful expressions on their little faces were gone as well. If those windows could speak, they could have told us what had happened here a week ago. Now, all the streets, houses, broken windows and doors were bound in a conspiracy of silence.
The small ghetto, consisting of virtually one street, was fenced around with barbed wire and guarded by Ukrainian militiamen. We were introduced to our new living quarters in this small ghetto. It was about the 22nd of October 1942. We were uprooted and hungry. We were orphans and had nobody to turn to. I noticed that some boys were searching all over the new premises. My brother and I went up to look at the attic. We found there a "treasure" of some cheap materials. It belonged to a victim who was sent to Treblinka only a week or so ago. We took it down to our room of about 15 boys. One of them suggested to pool the found merchandise and to exchange it for food, The idea was a good one, but not too much was found afterwards. On the ground in the yard I also found the only memento from my home. It was a torn picture of my American cousin Sarah Weissblatt of Fort Worth, Texas. I could not understand how this one, of so many pictures, landed here.
Soon the small ghetto began to get crowded. On November 5, Szymon Warszawski, our Judenrat chairman ordered all "illegals" to come out of their hiding places to be registered. He promised to obtain for them legal status in the small ghetto. Most of them came out of their bunkers, because they were hunted by the informers. After a few days, all the new "legalized" people were picked up by the Jewish police and taken to the synagogue and jailed. Later they were taken out and added to out-of-town transports for extermination.
Everyday we marched back and forth to work accompanied by guards. After work I usually took a stroll through the yards of the small ghetto. Prior to the war, the yards were divided by brick walls. Now these barriers were broken. We were not allowed to walk in the streets.
During one such walk I noticed a commotion further down the yards. Someone was running and being chased. When they were closer, I saw a friend of mine being chased by Israel Gruszkowski, a Jewish fireman. He had a whip in hand. My first reaction was to stop Gruszkowski. He was very angry that I had gotten in his way to catch an "illegal". He needed him badly. I saw it in his red angry face. He yelled at me, "Do you know what you have done? It took me a long time to track him down. And now he is gone. Next time stay out of my way and don't be my friend anymore." He lifted his whip and struck at the corner of the house, where his intended victim disappeared. I tried to talk to him, to gain more time for my friend. I pretended that I did not understand why he was so important to him. I asked him "What did he do to you? You can hit him back tomorrow. And why do you need a whip? You are stronger than him!" He looked at me so bewildered, that he lifted his whip again as if to strike me with it. But at the last moment he yelled at me to get away from him. He hit the ground and a cloud of dust sprung up. He yelled while proceeding forward in the same direction, "Times have changed and I don't need you any more. Don't ever get in my way again, or..." I could not hear his last words, because he was running further with his whip striking the air with frustration.
I had not known that Gruszkowski worked for the Gestapo now. I remembered him as a young movie fan who used to climb trees in the Wolborz woods and imitate Tarzan. He also used to stop me in the middle of the street to ask questions about the movies. He was tall, well-built with thick blond hair and blue eyes. I must admit that he looked like a German.
My next experience was even worse than the previous one. While walking by the Jewish Police station, I noticed one of my pre-war friends, Pola Wolkowicz with her baby in her arms, looking out the basement window. She was married to my friend Jankiel Jolowicz. They were "illegals". I was in no position to help them. As I came closer to the window, I had to turn my head cowardly the other way. I could not face her. It made me cringe to the very depth of my soul. Pola's beautiful eyes piercing up from the cellar of death with a little baby in her arms! I was walking freely and was not bothered by anyone. I could not take it. But this was not the time to be a hero. I would only share her fate. The only thing I could do was to bite my lower lip until it bled. I walked away with a bitter feeling of helplessness and frustration.
The cellar was the first stage for the condemned. When it got overcrowded, the victims were taken to the synagogue. Our place of worship was now a modern hell. The Ukrainian guards had a free hand in handling the victims. They terrorized the unfortunate "illegals" by aiming and firing shots through the windows.
The captives had to sleep on the cold floor without any heat or light. They had to defecate right there, because the door was locked and guarded. Some brave women escaped through the second story windows, but most of them were either shot or caught and brought back in. The Ukrainian guards, with the participation of Oberleutnant Lukner, showed their "bravery" by burning Jewish babies in iron bowls in front of the synagogue.
Five women escaped from the synagogue and succeeded to climb the fence into the nearby hospital Swietej Trojcy. The nuns of that hospital, seeing the distraught five women, had pity on them and let them in.
According to the German "laws", they were not allowed to harbor or aid Jews, but the nuns risked their lives and hid them. They provided them with food, clothing and shelter for a few days. When the escapees recovered sufficiently from their harrowing experience, one nun from eastern Poland, Franciszka Narloch, helped them in their further escape. At night she led them past the Ukrainian guards to a safer place.
When the Germans kept their Jewish prisoners a whole day waiting for their execution, the nuns clandestinely provided them with food and water. Franciszka Narloch, with other nuns, also helped a Mr. Kimmelmann get out of the ghetto when his stay became too dangerous. They placed his two children, who were outside the ghetto, in a more secure hiding place.
In the morning of Saturday December 19, the Germans took out 42 men from the synagogue. The Jews were told by the Germans that if they would work hard, they would not go back to the synagogue, but to the small ghetto. They were led to the Wolborz woods, where the Gestapo men had been waiting for them in an auto. They were given picks and shovels and led to the Rakow woods. They were ordered to dig five long ditches.
In the afternoon when the ditches were finished, they were forcibly lined up along one of the ditches and rushed about with whips to undress quickly. Seeing that they were deceived, some of the 42 prisoners put up a struggle and the rest tried to run in all directions. Most of them were shot, but about a dozen disappeared in the Rakow woods. (Hersz Gomulinski, one of the escapees, survived to tell the story).
In the early hours of the next day, the Gestapo men took out groups of fifty people from the synagogue. The prisoners were taken to the same Rakow woods. They were ordered to undress alongside the prepared ditches and were shot. If the murdered person did not fall into the ditch, the Nazi murderers kicked them in with their boots. They buried the wounded together with the dead. Some wounded victims managed to dig themselves out through the corpses at night. One of them was Saneh the "skinner", who had worked in the Jewish slaughter house. Almost naked and bloodied, he ran into his former friend's house, the Piotrkover dogcatcher, who lived near the woods. Saneh did not expect his former friend to be a rat. The dogcatcher accommodated poor Saneh, prepared fresh clothes for him and told him to wash up. While Saneh was cleaning himself from the dirt and blood, his former friend called the Gestapo. (The dogcatcher was to be sentenced in Piotrkow after the war, but upon learning about his imminent arrest, he hung himself).
A LITTLE HOPE
In those gloomy days of our small ghetto, I learned that the "leftist" group made contact with the Communist People's Army (A.L.). My friend Melech Zilberstein, a leftist, confided in me that Nachum Wengliszewski, a Bundist, had the contact. Naturally they had to keep a low profile, not to fall into the hands of the Gestapo. There were too many informers in this one street ghetto. I did not know Wengliszewski personally, so I asked Zilberstein to press upon his friends to take me into their group. It was-presumptuous of me, but I was desperate. When he tried, they did not agree because I was not a leftist. Then I showed him an underground issue of the Worker, in which we read stories about the beginning of the Warsaw ghetto uprising: "The Germans were met by a barrage of bullets upon entering the ghetto streets to round up Jews for the extermination Aktions." This report was about the January 1943 fighting. We read further, "For the first time the Germans had to retreat." They were startled. Jews were fighting back! German blood was spilled by the Jews.
My friend was stupefied. We heard that there was some fighting going on in the Warsaw ghetto. It was sketchy and hearsay. But in the underground newspaper we saw it in black and white. Our spirits were lifted. We felt human again. It meant that we could fight back, but we needed weapons. How could we acquire weapons? I asked my friend if they had any. No, they did not. He said that it was very complicated to obtain arms, even for money. We did not have any money anyway.
As we were fenced in this small ghetto, the German propaganda machine did not rest. They let rumors fly that there would be an exchange of ghetto Jews for German citizens living abroad or in Palestine. A similar incident happened in October of 1942, when two ghetto Jews, Jakob Kurtz and Rozenthal were permitted to leave for Palestine.
Many Jews in our ghetto were anxious to be chosen to leave the ghetto. The only problem was that Oberleutnant Muschala wanted Jews with university degrees. So he chose lawyer Zilberstein (then Jewish Police Commander) with his wife. He drove them around the city several times until nightfall and then brought them to the Jewish cemetery. They also chose Dr. Maurice Brahms with his wife and their 16 year-old daughter, his sister-in-law Mrs. Kogan, Szymon Stein, the young lawyer, and Dr. Leon Glatter the Psychiatrist. At the cemetery they added the watchman with his wife, so as to have ten Jews to be shot and buried in one grave. Before executing the ten victims, some of the SS officers and gendarmes held speeches denouncing Jews as the greatest war mongers in the world. The speeches were addressed to the invited guests of official Polish representatives of Piotrkow and environs. Similar bloody spectacles were carried out in other ghettos in Poland. This was Purim 5703.
There was another bloody execution at the cemetery on April 21, 1943. Some Jews obtained "Aryan" documents in order to escape from the small ghetto, but they were denounced by our informers.
On April 30th, our small ghetto was surrounded by Gendarmes and nobody was allowed out to work. We were kept inside for four days. This was an order from the German High Command. They were careful that such uprisings as in the Warsaw ghetto should not occur anywhere else where Jews were concentrated. During these four days I pleaded with my friend to take me into their group. He asked me for the illegal newspaper as bait. Although it was very dangerous, I gave it to him. It seemed to help. They too were hungry for news from the outside world.
They thought that perhaps I was also involved with a partisan group because I had access to illegal literature. Their leader Jumo Kudisz agreed that I attend their next meeting. It was set for May 4, 1943, the first day we were let out of the ghetto to go to work.
Everyone was waiting anxiously for Wengliszewski to arrive. When he finally appeared at the meeting, he looked very disappointed. Kudisz met him at the door and they engaged in a whispering dialog. Wengliszewski then wearily sat down on a bed, just staring at the wall. He did not even notice me, a stranger in the room. Kudisz announced that the meeting was off, because the courier did not show up at the designated point. He castigated Wengliszewski in front of everyone. I learned afterwards that Wengliszewski was supposed to meet the courser of the "People's Army" on May I, when nobody was allowed out of the camp. Therefore I could not understand why he was blamed for it. He still tried several times to meet the courier at the same place, but to no avail.
I read that the Jewish Fighting Organization outside the Warsaw ghetto received some weapons from the A.K. (Land Army). They also received some materials to manufacture their own weapons. Everything had to be smuggled into the ghetto. Young Aryan looking underground workers were used for this dangerous job.
We also read about the clashes in the Warsaw ghetto. The A.K. reported that they attempted to dynamite the ghetto wall in order to facilitate escape for those willing. The dynamite had exploded before the sappers reached the wall, killing a couple of their own people. This job was undertaken with poor preparation. Some other side actions were attempted by the Communist People's Army. They managed to attack some Germans with better results. This was all they accomplished. That was the outside help for the Warsaw ghetto fighters. The Z.O.B. did not even know about it. There was also an appeal by the Z.O.B. to the Polish population in Warsaw, written and signed by the Piotrkover member Itzhak Samsonowicz.
THE BLOCK AT THE KARA AND HORTENSJA
On August 1, 1943, our small ghetto was dissolved and we were quartered in an apartment building near the glass works Kara and Hortensja. The workers of the Bugaj camp (woodworking camp of one thousand and one hundred inmates) were housed in their barracks. The workers of the "Shop"(needle trade) were shipped out to Blyzin. The illegals were executed.
There were some apartment buildings situated on the left side of Aleja I-go Maja, about three hundred yards from the entrance to the Kara. The Hortensja was situated a little further from our quarters. One building was cleared of the former tenants and some barracks cleaned. We, the glassworks laborers, some seven hundred and twenty persons, were squeezed in. My brother and I were put in a ground floor front room of the building with ten other boys.
We named our new quarters "The Block." The big front yard was enclosed with a high wooden fence and topped off with barbed wire. There was a guardhouse (Wachstube) at the entrance. On the right side, looking from the entrance gate, there was a small building that we used as a hospital. We had two physicians: Dr. Jakubowicz and Dr. Chwat. Our chief nurse was the experienced Mania Blumstein who practiced in the pre-war Jewish hospital in Piotrkow.
In the back yard, there was a smaller building that contained the kitchen, laundry, bath and washrooms. There was an empty room over the kitchen.
Our Block leader was Salomon Gomberg. He was from Lodz of Jewish-Russian parents. He was tall, thin dark-haired and had vibrant black eyes. He smiled most of the time, although he was a sick man, suffering from a mild form of tuberculosis. He spoke mostly Polish. Listening to him, you felt that he was the head of the Jews that were employed in a very important and secure place. He was married to Dr. Jakubowicz's sister-in-law, and had with him his mother and Nelka, a relative.
Director of the glassworks was Mr. Christman. As a Pole of German origin, he was not as bad as the others. He was only interested in our sweat. One Jewish worker had to fill the shoes of two Poles. He had a son who never smiled. This son was "employed in the Kara" as an overseer so that he did not have to enlist in the German Army.
Director of operations was Vogel, also a Volksdeutsche. He was short, chubby and moved around very fast. He did not treat us very badly. The real menace was the Volksdeutsche Herford. He was a spoiled rotten son of a well-to-do farmer of Meszcze, a village near Piotrkow.
Every morning he arrived at our Block with his noisy motorcycle and placed himself at the entrance. He searched every one to see who brought food in. Whatever he found on the inmates: bread, butter or other products that were obtained in exchange for shirts, pants and sweaters, he confiscated. Immediately, he threw everything on the ground and trampled it with his boots. Many interventions of Gomberg by Director Christman did not help, because we were not allowed to bring in food. Understandably, Herford could not be told to look the other way in those perilous times. Some time ago, when I had worked at the Hortensja, he was not as ruthless. He was our foreman and told us to take it easy, not to work too hard. He used to boast that the two Kotkowski brothers were his best workers. Once he confided in me that he was not pleased with his job of being only a foreman, rather that he was suited to being a Director. He criticized the whole glass-foundry leadership, saying that they were all unfit to manage. He had a notion of becoming the "boss." Now, when Director Christman appointed him as Commandant of our Block, he sensed that he had hit the big time. With each day he grew worse. Although he never searched me, I did not trust him, because he stopped smiling at me when I greeted him. His eyes looked cold and icy now. He had changed completely.
CONTACT WITH THE OUTSIDE
It was the summertime of 1943. My friend the fireman delivered underground newspapers to me regularly. I read about the last tragic fighting in the Warsaw ghetto; about the acts of sabotage by the A.K. (Land Army); and about murders of Jewish escapees from labour camps by the anti-semitic groups of the A.K.
I felt that we should try to survive now for revenge only. It might become a reality by belonging to a partisan group. But so far, I only read about them. It seemed like an unattainable dream.
This dream began to take shape in early July of 1943. It was a cloudy, muggy day, when I came back from work to the Block. My brother Faywel waited for me at the entrance. As soon as I crossed the gate, he called me aside whispering that Wacek Bordo, the fireman, had given him something for me. He slipped it into my pocket. Bordo could not wait for me because he had to go home. He told my brother that it was strictly confidential and that he would be back later that evening to talk to me again.
I went to my room and climbed up to my brother's bunk, so that the other boys in the room would not see what I was doing. I pulled the letter out of my pocket and read it: "Dear friends, whoever has still in his heart the ideals of Chaim Weitzman, Itzhak Grinbaum, Vladimir Medem and others, should know that they are not left out in the wilderness. There is a collective body of people who long for their liberation. Greetings from Henryk Wiktorski."
I read that little letter over and over again and was not able to interpret the meaning of it or of its Polish sounding signature. What a mystery! I had to wait for the fireman for an explanation.
When he finally showed up in the evening, he took me aside and said that this was a contact with the Z.O.B. (ZYDOWSKA ORGANIZACJA BOJOWA) Jewish Fighting Organization in Warsaw. He also gave me another small letter. He explained that this was illegal underground business, and that he was sure I would accept the responsibility and make good use of it. Besides, he did not know anyone else as well as my brother and myself. Henryk Wiktorski meant Henryk Ehrlich and Wiktor Alter, the two prewar Bund leaders in Warsaw. He also said that it was sent here with a Jewish courier by Itzhak Samsonowicz. He urged me to have the second letter signed later this evening, because the courier was waiting to take it back to Warsaw.
Again I went to my room and read the second letter that had to be signed. It was written by Samsonowicz, my ex-teacher from the Yiddish night classes. He demanded a signature of receipt from the President of the Judenrat Warszawski, or from Motel Apelowicz.
Well, Warszawski was not here, he was at the Bugaj. I would not talk to that creature anyway. Samsonowicz, being away since 1941, when he escaped to Warsaw, could not imagine what Warszawski was like, that he was a tool of the Schutzpolizei. Apelowicz was the right person for the signature. He was a quiet and trustworthy Bundist who had a good reputation in Piotrkow. I wanted to have a third responsible person with me to lead the underground work. This was a dilemma for me because I did not have enough time to think. I scribbled some names down on paper Mania Blumstein, Binem Jachimowicz and Nachum Wengliszewski. In the absence of mature and experienced Bund members I was in a quandary. Mania was the best-suited person for our group. She was a faithful young party member who grew up in the youth movements of the Bund.
Still I was hesitant, because it would have been suspicious to meet with her. Jachimowicz was out right away, because he was a "Sanitary" policeman. Wengliszewski seemed to fit in because of his experience as a contact man for the leftist group.
As I left my room to look for these people, I saw Wengliszewski in the yard. I called him and he reluctantly walked over to my window where I was standing. We did not know each other. I began to feel him out slowly. First I asked him, if there was an opportunity to get out into the woods to the partisans, would he be interested. His eyes sparkled automatically, not even knowing what I had in mind. He soon brushed his thoughts aside by saying it was a good idea but not so easy to realize. Everyone wanted to get out of the slave camps, but how? Then I asked him if he remembered Samsonowicz. His eyes became inquisitive as he bent over to get a quick answer. He actually wanted to press something out of me when I mentioned that name. He grabbed my arm asking: "What about Sansonowicz? Tell me!" he insisted and did not let my arm go. I said to him, "Stand still and I will tell you. This way it looks suspicious." He straightened himself out, but his penetrating eyes remained staring into mine. I told him straightforwardly, that I had a contact with the Coordinating Committee and the Jewish Fighting Organization (Z.O.B.) in Warsaw. He was overwhelmed and could not utter a word, so I continued saying that I was inviting him to work with me. He agreed without question or reservation, just nodding his head to everything I said. Afterwards I mentioned that I needed a third person and it should be Motel Apelowicz. Puzzled, he looked at me and asked why we needed a third person. I replied that I required Apelowicz's signature. He said that he would give his signature, because Samsonowicz knew him. He had been a member of the Youth-Bund "Tzukunft" for many years. I grew impatient and told him that I had made up my mind that Apelowicz would be the third member. I told him to bring Apelowicz here. He left hesitantly. I went to my room and sat on the sill with one leg outside the open window.
He came back with Apelowicz, the latter shaking all over his body and nervously rubbing his hands. I noticed that he had already been told what I expected of him. I could see that his tense smiling face reflected joy and fear. No wonder. He was lucky in 1941, when many Bund members were arrested and subsequently murdered in Auschwitz because of illegal activities. After that calamity, he and Lilka Nutkiewicz maintained the contact with Warsaw on a limited basis.
Apelowicz agreed to give his signature, but before that I had told him that it would be dangerous to do so. It would be taken to Warsaw by a Jewish girl courier and she might get caught. Then I told him that we would wait for further instructions and we would design a plan of activities.
It was late in the evening when the fireman showed up for the signature. He gave me a smile and proceeded in the direction of the washrooms. I followed him and gave him the signed paper and he left quickly. My eyes were still glued to the exit gate a long time after he had left. I had undertaken an interesting, responsible and dangerous mission to fulfill. I had dreamed and waited for the moment to be able to do at least something against those hateful Nazis, since they had started to treat us like subhumans. Now I had the opportunity and was very anxious to do whatever I could. I never belonged to any particular political party and did not have the practical know-how about these activities. But I was certain I would receive instructions from Warsaw.
Meanwhile, Wengliszewski visited me quite often. Seeing his interest, I was sure that he would be suited for illegal activities. Apelowicz did not show up too often.
He relied on Wengliszewski for news. The fireman did not visit me too often now because we did not want anyone to see us together. He just brought the underground paper and left.
After a few weeks of impatient waiting he brought a letter from Warsaw. This was a long, warm letter, in which we were heartily welcomed as a new ring in the chain of groups of the Jewish Fighting Organization. They also mentioned among others, that we, the remnants of the exterminated ghettos in Poland, should not lose hope. We should be brave and proud and keep our spirits high. They would send us material and spiritual help. They would also send us further instructions about our functions.
We had to answer that letter promptly, because again the courier from Warsaw was a Jewish girl and could not stay here overnight. Wengliszewski and I were presently in the "Block," because we worked on shifts. We had to answer the letter fast and we could not locate Apelowicz.
We wrote that through this we entered the most interesting period of our bitter existence. We were ready to prepare our labour camp for any eventuality. But in order to accomplish our aim we would need weapons besides material and spiritual help. Wengliszewski was supposed to relay to Apelowicz the contents of the received letter and our answer that we sent back to Warsaw. In the meantime, I hinted to Wengliszewski that we had better take in two more members, a "Zionist" and a "leftist", because I felt that a contact with the Z.O.B. was bigger than the three of us. I had in mind one particular "Zionist" (I forgot his name) who tried several times to feel me out. He was the only one to approach me very diplomatically. I was very sorry that I could not tell him anything at that particular time.
The "Leftist" was supposed to be Jumo Kudish. I did not like his attitude because he did not care for Wengliszewski. He was still blaming him for the lost "Leftist" contact.
Each morning we marched from the "Block" to the glass works and back. The hard working days were dragging on. A big transport of coal arrived and we were summoned to work thirty-six hours without stopping. I was among many who had to do it. It was heartbreaking to see how we worked without proper food or rest.
They cooked watery soups in the kitchen and when someone complained. Gomberg replied that we should be satisfied with what we got. Herford continued to confiscate the food that was smuggled in. Those who worked hard were hungry. Only a small group who still had some money left could buy food from the Poles. What could those who did not have anything left to sell do? We had our kitchen in the "Block". After we ate our soup, we grew an appetite for more solid food. The Christian kitchen was situated in the glass-foundry. Every Wednesday they cooked a marmalade soup with noodles. It was very thick and nourishing. We could see the Polish workers having their lunch and at the nearby empty tables were sitting their Jewish helpers, waiting maybe the Christians might not finish their food... The most frequent "guest" waiting, was a young boy Israel Gruszkowski (no connection with the informer), a neighbor of mine, who had lived on Jerozolimska Street. He was from a poor household. He was tall and emaciated. He wore a pair of heavy wooden-soled shoes and could hardy walk. His face was small. His oversized cap came almost to his eyes, which were enlarged by hunger. When he talked, although with a meager smile, he did not make any movements because of weakness. He watched impatiently with two big dull eyes how things were proceeding on that other table... When the Poles left their tables, their Jewish under-nourished helpers gathered all the plates with the leftovers and put the food into empty jars.
Some hungry boys swallowed the freshly acquired food right then and there. Others buried the jars in the ground, hiding them from intruders. Later they "organized" potatoes, baked them and had a feast. It has to be understood that stealing from the Germans during their occupation of Poland was called "organizing." Starvation of Jews was one of their aims in order to liquidate us. Our answer was passive resistance in every way possible. "Organizing" food for survival was one of our ways of passive resistance against the Nazi beasts. Survival was too dignified and "organizing" was a Mitzvah Kodesh (a holy deed) for the soul. Many "organizers" had a better chance to survive. Not everyone had to wait at the tables. Those who still had some money could buy such satiating soup from the Christian workers.
MONEY FROM THE OUTSIDE WORLD
Once, while sitting in that kitchen, I noticed the fireman outside the window. As I walked out, he turned to the washrooms. I followed him. When I entered, he handed me something wrapped in brown paper. He whispered in my ear that there was a letter with 20,000 zlotys from Warsaw. As I started to leave he called me back saying that he should get 5,000 zlotys for his troubles and that he needed our answer to send back this very evening. I was perplexed and left speechless by his unexpected demand. Soon I came back to my senses and replied that this money was not mine. It was not sent to me for private use and before doing anything, I must read the accompanying letter. I would give him an answer after consultation with the other two. Now he became confused by my answer, when he heard my mention of the two other persons. He thought that I was in on the contact alone. Marching back from work, I was apprehensive about getting the letter and the money through the gate in case Herford would search us. It was a letter with 40 five hundreds, quite a package. My heart raced faster as I approached the gate. It seemed that good luck accompanied me: Herford was absent this time. I let out a sigh of relief and proceeded quickly to my room. I summoned Wenglissewski and Apelowicz at once to discuss the letter and the money. There were no instructions as to how to distribute it. The letter said among others, "We are sending you through Chil Kotkowski the sum of 20,000 zlotys, so that in the meantime you should not suffer from hunger. We, the Coordinating Committee and the Jewish Fighting Organization, are very glad and proud to be able to help you materially and spiritually. Please friends, do not lose your courage and self respect."
For the Coordinating Committee,
I could not understand why my name was mentioned. It was very dangerous. I must say that this letter did not satisfy us. There was not one word about the arms that we demanded. But we had a problem on our hands. There were no instructions about how to distribute the money. I proposed that we choose a cashier and it should be Apelowicz. He disagreed, saying that since the money came in my name, I should be the cashier and be responsible for it. Wengliszewski agreed and said it was 2 to 1, and so it was settled. I was afraid to keep the money on me so I proposed to distribute it at once.
Well, how do you offer money in such terrible times, when it was such a precious and dangerous commodity? Who should be the lucky ones? Wengliszewski and Apelowicz were Bundists, so they would take care of their friends. I was not a Bund member and I wanted to stay in the background. I had the contact and preferred that nobody knew me. It was safer to be unknown, invisible.
We agreed that they would take 15,000 zlotys for distribution in our camp. We also consented that we, like everyone else, would get 250 zlotys each. I would retain 5,090 in case we had an opportunity to send it over to the other camp, "Buga", or other places. We were also in accord that we should not pay the fireman, and if he was deserving, he should demand the money from Warsaw. It was dangerous enough to transport the money to us.
Meanwhile I hid the 5,000 zlotys in the floor in my room. Most of the other boys worked in the daytime. I utilized the opportunity when they were out to move my bed and force a board out of the floor. It was risky to hide it there, but there was no other choice.
We answered the letter and sent thanks for the money, but regretted that there was no word about the weapons that we asked for. We told Samsonowicz that although he did not inform us about how to dispense with the money, it would be distributed mostly to "Tzukunft" (Youth Organization of the Bund) members. We also mentioned that Mr. Szytenberg, the teacher, was at the Bugaj. Jakob Leber, Motel Kusznir and Laibl Brenner were at the "Hassag" in Czestochowa. Lilka Nutkiewicz and others were in Blyzin, and still other Bundists were in Skarzysko. If we got a chance, we would send them some money. We left 5,000 zlotys for other camps.
We thought that the Coordinating Committee in Warsaw should know where some of the remaining Bund members were placed. We also mentioned that we felt that receiving a letter from them with 20,000 zlotys, was one of the best moments of our bitter life.
A few weeks later I saw at our saw-mill Herszoldberg's older brother, Israel, a "Leftist." He was sent here from the Bugaj on camp business. It was the first and only time that we saw someone from that other camp. I summoned Wengliszewski and we went over to talk to him. I asked him if he met with Mr. Szytenberg there. He told me that he was very depressed and could not cope with the dog-life in that camp. We told Goldberg that we were in contact with the Z.C.B. in Warsaw, which consisted of all Jewish political parties. We were ready to send through him 5,000 zlotys for Szytenberg. He should organize a group of three, in order to distribute the money to the needy. I handed Goldberg the 5,000 zlotys and hoped it would reach the right person. He left and we never saw him again.
Occasionally I had the opportunity to watch our youth become accustomed to our situation. Fifteen or sixteen year old boys, like Mosze Leber, Josek Lipnicki, Michal Balsam, the younger Frajman and many others, became skilled craftsmen in a few short weeks. They learned the hard job how to blow and produce different shapes of glasses, bottles and crystal. But even worse was the work of the "white slaves." This was a group of hardworking boys headed by David Blum. They named their toil the "dance" (Shaidim tantz). They worked in their underwear with hankies serving as face masks. They were running back and forth with heavy loads of sand and soda in tragas (frame with handles at each end--barrow, used for carrying a load), to be poured and mixed with broken glass into the oven. Whoever did something wrong, was sent to work there as punishment.
The name Kara translates in the Polish language to punishment. To be transferred from the Hortensja to the Kara, was punishment in itself. The Kara commenced building a new glass furnace. Many workers were shifted over from the Hortensja. Rain or shine we had to carry out rocks, soil and mud from the large gorge. We called it the "circus", and the women also worked there, carrying loaded tragas out of the excavation and walking on wooden planks. Whenever we found ourselves in a precarious situation, we had to improvise, saying that it could be worse. Survival was more important than suffering. Sometimes after work, if we were not bothered, we sat down in a circle in the yard and some boys sang their hearts out. Szaya Pudlowski (the songwriter), Natan Naparstek, Mosze Leber and David Blum and others were the entertainers. Tears were running down our cheeks, as we reminded ourselves how we had fared only a few years ago, how our situation looked at present, and what was still in store for us in the future. Some other times we even had a laugh or two. We had a foreman named Wojdela, an illiterate Pole. Whether we felt like it or not, we had to laugh at his "sayings." When we loaded less sand than he thought we should, he would yell quite seriously, "How much dirt are you two carrying here? A fly possesses more fat on itself, than you have sand in this traga." When we complained that it was too heavy, he would say, "You call this hard work? To write or read is much harder." Once when the clock sounded out 7 o'clock A.M. to commence working, I was walking to the assigned labour point slowly, chewing on a piece of bread. Wojdela observing me, suddenly yelled out, "Kotkowski, Kotkowski. Don't run so fast, you might kill yourself!" I could not help laughing.
LEARNING A CRAFT ON AN EMPTY STOMACH
When the new construction in the Kara was erected, the production of glass increased. I worked everywhere and was eventually promoted to a breaker. On the ground floor there was a furnace as at the Hortensja. It was fed the sand and soda with pieces of cleaned, washed, broken glass. The heat of the big oven melted all that mixture into a thick red liquid. Then this fluid was rotated upwards by rollers, thinning it out and transforming it into sheets of hot glass. While it was slowly rolling upwards, Polish and Jewish observers were jumping around with thick gloves on their hands and with wooden sticks that caught fire, while touching the hot rolling glass. They had to warm and soften the "stones", i.e. not completely melted substances, to make them pass through the rollers. Each observer was responsible for his "stone" so as not to cause an accident. If a Jew was guilty of causing a mishap (the liquid mass fell down from the rollers and incapacitated the machine for 24 hours), he was beaten and demoted. One flight higher, there was Mosze Nowak, the under-cutter. He had a steady hand in cutting the rolling glass plates. He was tall, thin and always had a smile on his pale face. He was a refugee from Belchatow, near Piotrkow. A little higher still, I was breaking off the big plates of glass, and putting them down with great difficulty on a lower table. Breaking off the glass plates was not as responsible as warming the "stones" or undercutting. I had difficulty in placing the heavy sheets onto the table, because my hands were too weak. Therefore, I broke many plates on my body and caused many scars. Subsequently, I was demoted to do other jobs.
On Wednesday, sitting in the Christian kitchen feasting on a marmalade soup, I was gratified to see Gruszkowski's smiling face. Although he did not belong to the "Bundist" group, I saw to it that he and a few other poor boys benefited from the money that was sent to us by the Coordinating Committee.
While sitting in that kitchen, the fireman came in and told me the good news: that after two months of waiting, he was expecting someone from Warsaw. I was to be in the "Block" the next day at 5 o'clock in the afternoon. Until now he never knew when to expect anyone. At that time I worked from ten in the evening until six in the morning. As he said, he came into the "Block" at 5 P.M. the next day and handed me a large parcel. He did not tell me how much money there was, but again said that he would like to get 5,000 zlotys for his troubles. He also wanted our answer that night. I just gave him a look that he understood it was impossible. I was in no position to give him an answer now.
I called Apelowicz as soon as he arrived from work after 6 P.M. and we opened the parcel. There was a letter with 45,000 zlotys, and a special edition of the underground paper about Auschwitz. While we were reading the letter, we noticed that the number 45 was not clear. It looked like something had been erased. Apelowicz and I could not decide what to do, because Wengliszewski was at work. This week he worked from 2 o'clock in the afternoon until ten in the evening. The three of us could not always get together because of our working schedules.
There was a tense situation in our Block that day. Michelson, the banker's son had hidden a jar with valuables in the ground under a window. Someone outside the Block noticed something and reported it to the guards. They dug it up and showed it to our Commandant Herford. Gomberg, our camp leader was also informed about it. He in turn let it be known to be careful because they might search our rooms. When I heard that, I decided to take everything out of the "Block" to the glass-foundry and hide it there until the three of us could agree on how to distribute the money. We usually gathered at the gate about 9.30, to be at work at 1O p.m. This time we were waiting and waiting and the guards did not come out of the guardhouse to take us to work. One of our group knocked at the door to let them know that it was getting late. They opened the door and did not let him in. He noticed however that Herford was inside talking with Greger, another Volksdeutch. Nobody could have guessed that they were debating something about us. As we were pondering what their discussions in there could be about, Herford, Greger and the rest of the guards came out. Herford ordered us to form a line of two's, but did not let us out of the gate, instead they told the first two to get inside the guardhouse. Six guards remained outside to watch us. Something like this happened for the first time. To satisfy my curiosity, I looked through the window to see why they took the first two from the head of the line. What I saw inside sent a shiver through my body and a cold sweat formed on my forehead.
The first two stood-naked while Greger and the rest of the guards were searching through their clothes. Herford was looking on triumphantly. They let the first two out and directed the next two in. We could hear Herford's yelling, "Where have you hidden the American dollars? If you don't give them to me, you will be shot like a dog!"
I had been in many bad situations before, but this one was the worst. Each time it involved only myself, but this time I carried 45,000 zlotys and a special edition of the illegal newspaper about Auschwitz. What could I do now? There was no way out. The guards were watching every move we made. The only thing I could do was to move gradually down the line to win time. Maybe with luck some kind of miracle would happen.
The line-up was getting smaller. My watch indicated 10:30 p.m. We should have been at work half an hour ago. The former shift had to stay on until we arrived. The last time I looked through the window, Herford held in his hand quite a Bundle of foreign money. Although it was a cool evening, I perspired profusely, thinking of how I could avoid such a disaster. It would be too difficult for me to use my old trick to hold everything in my hands, because I would have to undress.
It was already 10:45 p.m. I was almost at the end of the line. The last two workers behind me were poor boys and they wore old torn coats. My coat was not in good condition either. I had noticed that when a poor boy was taken in to be searched, they did not spend too much time with him. Therefore, I took one more step and in front of my eyes all I saw was a torn and patched coat.
Now it was eleven o'clock and Greger came out to see how many of us still remained to be searched. He counted: "One, two, three, four." The one with the torn coat was frisked by Greger and pushed aside. Then he turned to me, "Kotkowski, you are also here?" and he leaned into the door and reported to Herford that there were still three unimportant persons outside. Herford retorted, "You check them yourself and let's get rid of them"' As soon as I heard that, I reached into my pockets for the money with my right hand, and for the Auschwitz edition with my left. Greger leaned back in our direction and took one step with his lame foot towards me, asking, "Well Kotkowski, how much money do you have?" He said that with a smirk on his face, sure that there was no way I could have money on me. But his question surprised me. I had the impression that he knew that I had money. Still I did not lose my composure. I smiled and said that he should take my wallet out of my pant pocket. He replied that he knew me too well, that I would never cheat and should show him my wallet. I quickly put my right hand into my pant pocket, left the money there, and took my wallet out and handed it to him. He did not want to take it, he only wanted to know how much money was in it. He trusted me, because I used to work for him. However, this was worse for me, because in order to open my wallet I needed both hands. It was a good thing that it was dark. Immediately I put my left hand in my pocket with the illegal paper, left it there, and opened my wallet to show him that I had two zlotys. He looked into it and said, "No, you don't have diamonds." and laughed. So did I. He did not even touch the last two boys and rushed them into the new-formed line. We were outside the gate in a hurry, because the guards wanted us to get to work quickly.
Never before had I marched to work with such excitement and glee as this time. I whistled with joy without making a sound.
When I came to work to take over the shift form Wengliszewski, he asked me why he had to work overtime, because we were not paid. I explained to him what had happened and he was elated that I managed to save everything. With a tap on my shoulder, he exclaimed: "Chil, you are quite a guy. I'll remain here all night in order to discuss things to be done."
First we had to figure out a way in which to distribute that kind of money. Again there were no instructions. The letter was very promising, but we expected a more constructive one. We thought that the Coordinating Committee should be more professional, with more discipline. Our questions were not answered in a precise manner. We thought that possibly the circumstances did not allow them to be perfect. It looked as we had acquired rich relatives and they were preoccupied with our material well being. I did not like it too much and I said so to Wengliszewskia, "It was very nice of them to be willing to help us materially in such dreadful times. But is it right to endanger the lives of young Jewish girls bringing the money here from Warsaw? Is our aim only to be able to buy another piece of bread?" He did not answer.
We had undertaken a mission--if we were destined to be liquidated by the Nazis--to be able to fight back with arms. We wanted to be better prepared in order to avoid the misunderstandings that occurred in the ghettos. We were the last remnants of our proud city.
Meanwhile we discussed the money. I proposed to hide half of it, possibly to buy a few revolvers, and to distribute the other 22,500 zlotys, so that each person--the three of us included--received 500 zlotys. He immediately agreed. He was supposed to tell Apelowicz about these decisions. First, we had to answer the letter. It was not easy this time, because of the missing 5.000 zlotys. We felt that Bordo would not be able to deliver our letter with the number 45,000. We decided to write this letter with a pencil, in order for him to correct it. We had no choice because we needed him.
It was impossible to find a direct way to correspond with the Coordinating Committee or the Z.O.B. in Warsaw. I asked the fireman many times to let me talk to a courier. He always said that it was out of the question. They came to his house, or he met them at the railway station. We believed him because most of the couriers were Jewish girls.
Meanwhile I gave him our answer. Then I talked to him about buying some revolvers for us, since we had the money now. As my brother was on good terms with him, I asked him to try and get a Warsaw address. After trying for a while, my brother got the address of his brother in Warsaw. Then Bordo showed off with a letter to a friend of his in Warsaw, and I marked the address down soon after he left. Now I had two Warsaw addresses.
The three of us decided that I should write a coded letter and send it in two copies to the two addresses. I wrote the letter in numbers, and with the help of a key, it signified the Yiddish A B C. For example: 1 was Z, not A; 2 was Y, not B and so on. It was impossible to decipher the meaning of the numbers without the solution.
I sent the numbers and the keys separately to the same addresses. I mentioned that whoever would receive these letters, to please deliver them to a member of the Z.O.B., or the Coordinating Committee. As the sender, I signed Kowalski and Swietochowski, two of the most vicious anti-Semites in pre-war Poland. These two names assured me of wiping away any trace. The contents of the code was, among others, about the missing 5,000 zlotys, and why we never received an answer about weapons.
Weeks passed by and I did not hear anything. I had developed a cyst on my leg and had to stay in the infirmary. Bordo came running in very excited. I thought that he had something very important for us. However, instead of slipping something into my pocket, he talked very loudly with tears in his eyes: "Kotkowski, ratuj mnie"' (Save me). When nobody was looking in our direction, he showed me a short death sentence letter. I read it, and it said something like this, "Comrade Waclaw Bordo, we are giving you a week's time to come up with and pay back the money. If not, you know very well what happens to people like you!"
Bordo pleaded with me to lend him 4,000 zlotys, because he had only 1,OOO. Since I was not sure whether the death sentence was true or not, I promised him that we would try to do something about it. And we decided not to. We wanted the Coordinating Committee in Warsaw to know that he had taken some money, but we still needed him.
Meanwhile, we gave him a letter saying that we lost 5,000 zlotys to the guards during a search. I was not even sure if he received his death sentence as a result of our code letter.
Again weeks passed by and we did not know what to expect. Bordo could not buy any weapons for us. Everyone was short of money, and Wengliszewski hinted to me that he needed money for cigarettes. I told him half-jokingly that I couldn't care less for cigarettes and he should come tomorrow with Apelowicz to discuss the money situation. They came and after some haggling, we decided to distribute 250 zlotys to each member, out of the 12,500. I retained 10,000 in case we got an opportunity to buy some guns.
The days of waiting to hear from the outside world became unbearable. We were now dependent on the Coordinating Committee in Warsaw. Our daily life seemed to evolve around them.
One morning, when we were out of the gate going to work at the Kara, I noticed a woman walking and looking in our direction. Instinctively I felt that this was the courier at last. She had a basket in one hand just like the other merchants, who tried to sell bread, eggs and other products to us. While the Polish women were conducting their business, the guards were sometimes lenient and looked the other way. Only if they saw someone important pass by would they chase the merchants away from the marching Jews. This time two guards saw a new face among the Poles. They observed that her eyes were riveted on a little girl. They were also curious why they had not seen this woman here before.
As soon as she approached little Renia Zaks and gave her something, they went over to the woman and asked her what she was selling. The woman replied that she was selling food to the Jews like all the others. However, they did not see any food in her basket, so one of them put his hand into it. He reached beneath the cover and found a large sum of money. He pulled it out and said to her half jokingly, "Ah, you deal in money! We have to check that. Come with us to our boss, let him believe you." They took her back to the "Block."
Meanwhile, when Renia saw the commotion, she in turn slipped the letter that she had received from the woman to her friend Hanka Pfeffer. Hanka hid it in her shoe. We went into the foundry yard and the gates were closed behind us. I was still anticipating that there was something going on and that it must have had to do with our contact. Soon I heard that Renia was also arrested.
At eleven a.m., the kitchen helpers usually brought our lunch from the "Block" to the Kara glass foundry. Our boys pushed the old cart with the food instead of a horse pulling it. This time Wengliszewski was among the pushers. He was supposed to come to work at 2 p.m. Now I was sure that something was wrong. As soon as the cart with the food was put in place, Nachum came over and told me that our courier was arrested with a lot of money. The first arrested Piotrkover woman had to tell Herford that a girl came from Warsaw and she was staying in her house. Two guards were dispatched to the woman's house and they arrested the courier from Warsaw and brought her to the Block. Herford found 75,000 zlotys on her. Now they confronted Renia Zaks with the woman and she denied vehemently that she knew or ever saw the girl from Warsaw.
Wengliszewski also found out that the woman from Piotrkow transmitted a letter for us to Renia Zaks. He wanted to get the letter from Hanka Pfeffer and asked me where she was working and we went over to talk to her. He told her that Renia asked him to retrieve the letter and she immediately complied and looked relieved to get rid of it.
We entered the washroom and read the short letter. It was written in Polish and stated among others, "Renia, please deliver this letter with the money--75,000 zlotys--to the brothers Kotkowski, or to Mania Blumsztein or to Nachum Wengliszewski. Thank you very much."
After reading the letter with our names in it, we were dumbfounded and could not utter a word. We just stared at each other and after a few seconds Wengliszewski got into a rage and pulled at his hair. He wanted to destroy it right away, but I calmed him down by saying that we had it in our hands and meanwhile we were safe. They just got the money and the women, but they did not know us. We would just have to follow further developments.
I did not want to destroy the letter because I felt it was a good document. A strange intuition told me that I would somehow survive since I had already hidden several letters and some important notes.
Nachum told me that he would find a substitute to take his place this day so he could find out more details about the woman. He rushed to push the cart back to the "Block."
It puzzled me why the Coordinating Committee did not use our code names. My code name was Karol Kotlarski, Nachum's was Wladek Wavgrowski and Apelowicz's was Mietek Wolborski. Mania Blumsztein was supposed to be Maria Boleslawska, but this was to be decided at our next meeting with her. It did not materialize because of the events that had taken place.
Why did the Coordinating Committee choose a new route? We could not understand this and it was a big mess.
I put the letter in a shoe-polish box and buried it under a heap of coal near the fence.
When I came home from work after 6 p.m., Nachum waited for me at my window and related what he had learned so far about the arrested woman. She was Ala Margules, about 24 years old, daughter of Dr. Margules from Lodz, whom the Nazis had killed as a Bundist. She now lived with her mother Dr. Anna Margules outside the ghetto in Warsaw and traveled with a German passport.
Meanwhile they jailed her in the empty room over the kitchen in the back yard. Since Director Christman was out of town and without whose knowledge and permission, nobody was allowed to report her to the Gestapo.
Now I wanted to see her, and we both went up one flight of stairs in the back of our building. We stood at the open window and Nachum whistled lightly and she slowly appeared in her window across from where we were standing. Her face showed a worried look and a slight smile. She figured that we were her friends, but was apprehensive. Nachum took the cigarette out of his mouth and indicated with his lips to her that this was Kot-kow-ski. She nodded hesitatingly with her head and then I showed her an envelope to make her aware that I was the one who wrote the letters to the Coordinating Committee, but she could not understand. She looked out the window pointing downwards, where the guard watched her door. Until I understood the meaning of it, Nachum had run down the stairs and entered the women's washroom. She disappeared from her window and I saw the guard lead her to the washroom and wait outside. After a few minutes she came out and the guard led her back to her room. Afterwards Wengliszewski came out and returned to the point at the window and related to me this short and excited conversation he had with her.
Nachum: "We will try to do everything to get you out of here!"
Ala: "Friends, don't be confused. Don't worry about me. Keep up your spirits, because their time is up soon..."
Nachum: "But Ala, you don't understand, your life is in danger. They are waiting for the Director of the foundry to report you to the Gestapo."
Ala: "I have been in similar circumstances in Warsaw many times and my lucky star will guide me through this time too."
Meanwhile Herford arrived on one of his frequent noisy visits. We could not hear the exact words, but it went some thing like this:
Herford (in Polish): "I know what kind of work you Jewish Communists do. Your place is in a concentration camp or to be buried and not to travel these days."
Ala (in German): "I am a German woman and would not ask a Polish swine like you what to do!"
Herford was stunned for a moment, then we saw him reach for his gun and yell, "You Jewish... You think I don't know who you are?! I can fire a bullet into your Jewish head and nobody would blame me for it! It is only a pity that you waste our bread! Ah, you will only live till tomorrow. Why should I waste my heart with you, you Jewish whore."
We could not hear clearly the rest of his yelling before he left. After we heard his shouting, I said to Nachum that we had better silence him somehow and so we decided to bribe him with our last 10,000 zlotys. I could try to talk to him, as he used to like me and since I was involved with the underground work, and therefore it would be too dangerous. Wengliszewski agreed that I should not try to get involved with him. We thought of possibly sending our Police Chief Josek Zamel, or our camp leader Salomon Gomberg to talk to him. We chose Gomberg to talk to him. We chose Gomberg, but we utilized both of them to save Ala Margules. It was impossible to uphold our anonymity now. We had to tell Gomberg the truth. We went to see him and declared clearly that if he wanted to keep this camp intact, he had to render three things for us: I) Keep Herford quiet with our ten thousand zlotys; 2) See that Renia Zaks was freed because she was not involved. 3) Go to Director Christman, when he arrived from out of town, to free Ala Margules.
Since the beginning of our meeting, Gomberg had a smirk on his face and only when he learned that the girl was a courier sent to us by the Jewish Fighting Organization in Warsaw did he become very respectful. He could not forgive himself for being unaware of such goings on behind his back in his camp. Anyway, I handed him the money to go and bribe Herford.
We told him that tomorrow we would give him new instructions on how to deal with Director Christman and he left immediately to see Herford. We went to see Apelowicz and could not find him, so we waited for Gomberg's return in my room at the window. When he came back, he was all smiles and assured us that Herford "accepted" the money and was freeing Renia with the other liaison immediately. He also promised not to interfere in the case of the "strange" woman.
The next day I did not want to go to work in order to supervise the freeing of Ala Margules and the best thing was to fake some kind of sickness. I sent my brother for the head nurse Mania Blumsztein while I stayed in bed. Mania came immediately and jumped in like a cat through the window and asked me what was the matter. I looked straight into her eyes and slowly said that I had a FEVER. Although we had never talked to each other she knew about me. Seemingly, she understood that I had to stay in the Block today and without saying a word she took my temperature. She did not wait long enough for the thermometer to warm up and gave me a pass that I was sick and could not go to work this day. She knew in her heart that she was also contributing to the saving of her comrade Ala Margules. She was risking her reputation and job by falsely stating that I was sick. I did not want to tell her - especially now when we faced danger - that she was very much involved and that her name was mentioned in the letter. She could have been arrested together with us if the guards would have intercepted our letter instead of the money. But she probably knew all of this from Wengliszewski and he could not always keep a secret from his party members. With the absence of veteran Bund party members, Mania was the main force in their movement and although I had never been a party member, I was now very much involved with them. I wanted to have her proven knowledge involved in our illegal work.
First we had to free the courier and later Wengliszewski and I went to see Gomberg again. We told him to explain to the Director openly and clearly that the woman was sent to us by an underground organization in Warsaw to make contact with the Jewish slave workers here. He should listen very carefully and if he did not free her the acts of sabotage in the glass foundry might increase and his life would be in danger. Did he really need that? To make the proper impact on the Director we told him to take our Police Chief Josek Zamel with him.
Meanwhile, we consulted with Zamel on what to do in case the Director would not be able to free her and proposed a sure way to let her out of our camp. We should assign a few strong people to dig a hole in the wall of the women's washroom and from there she could get out immediately. We promised him Berek Kurtz, Mosze Blumsztein, Hersz Lewkiwicz, Binem Jachimowicz and Szlomo Meizner.
The Director arrived in the glass foundry about 5 p.m. Gomberg and Zamel went to see him and after an hour of suspenseful waiting, we saw them come back to the "Block" with happy smiling faces. They persuaded the Director to make a crucial and dangerous decision, and after contemplating for a while, weighing the consequences, he decided to let her go free.
We found out later that Gomberg knelt for the Director and kissed his hands and thanked him in the name of all his Jewish workers. Soon afterwards, when we were standing and waiting with great anticipation in the front yard, we heard the great news that she was going to be freed. All camp inmates were coming out of their rooms and waiting impatiently, as we wanted to see her outside. Finally we saw the guards going for her to the back yard and all eyes were turned and riveted in that direction, and after a few minutes, the guards led her through the front yard. She walked with dignity as a brave Jewish daughter and was hopeful while in Nazi captivity that she did not falter in the face of danger. Here we had the rare opportunity to see before our eyes, one of many Jewish couriers who risked their young lives to bring some hope and material help for the downtrodden slave workers.
When she was in danger of losing her own life, she told us to be courageous and not to lose faith. And since she was leaving us and our thoughts were mixed, we found ourselves in a quandary. Without her, we remained here in our solitude, but we would like to see her outside as fast as possible. Now, she was already near the gate and turned her head to have a last glance at us - subjugated Jews. She left the yard and crossed the gate and a sigh of relief was heard all around. Or was it my sigh only?
I looked out through the openings of the fence and saw her walking away quickly and this took place about 6 p.m.
It took a long time before everybody left the yard, while the mystery and the release of the underground courier in our camp continued to be discussed at length. I was glad that nobody came to me for explanations.
After the crowd had left for their quarters, Nachum came into my room and we talked about our achievement until late in the evening.
About 10 p.m., we heard a wild commotion at the gate. We looked out the window and heard banging with mixed shouting, "Open up, you swines!" The guards opened the gate and a group of Gendarmes with motorcycles pushed their way in, yelling obscenities, "Where is the Jewess? Where is that cursed woman?" They left their motorcycles at the fence and entered the guard house.
The calmness of such a serene and joyful evening was interrupted with their wild shootings. We thought that after freeing Ala Margules everything would quiet down. Wengliszewski got very excited and scared, and exclaimed: "Chil, let's jump over the fence, let's run away! We were betrayed!" I tried to calm him down, to wait and see what would happen. We did not have any money and could not survive outside without it. He calmed down and we listened to what was going on in front of the guard house. Vogel arrived in his party uniform and somehow was able to restore order. After some haggling, he led them out of our "Block" and again we breathed easier.
Next morning we found out that one of the guards reported to the Schutzpolizei that there was a transient woman, Jewish yet, in our camp. It seemed that he was not satisfied that they had not shared the 75,000 zlotys with him, which they intercepted. We could not find out what they did with the money, other than that Vogel was the boss over it. There was a suggestion that it be donated to the German Red Cross. Vogel admonished the guard and sent him away. We did not see him anymore.
During all these events the fireman did not show up because he did not want to get involved in such dangerous proceedings. A few days later he brought me more leaflets and said that he had nothing to do with that courier and he praised me for being able to save her from the German claws. I told him that I did not accomplish that all by myself. He could not understand why she had not come to us through him as all the others had.
A LITTLE ACT OF SABOTAGE
It was a warm summer and we anticipated a Russian offensive at the Vistula river to break the stalemate on the Eastern front. We felt that if a breakthrough happened, the Nazis would kill us in the camps. We had to be on the watch constantly since everyone knew what had happened to all our people in the ghettos. It would now be much easier to prepare our youth for resistance, since our home life had been extinguished. We were deprived of our families and we felt free to work in the underground. The consequences of resistance were less dangerous now, since we had no families to be concerned with. Our main aim now was to at least get some guns and some additional weapons by force from the Germans.
Recently the fireman was more hopeful when we talked about arms. When I told him that not too many of us knew how to handle weapons, he said that this would not present a great problem. In due time, somebody would take care of it and anyway, he was very hopeful that we would soon get some arms from Warsaw.
Meanwhile, I prepared a place for it, and when no one was in my room, I moved my bed and forced a board out of the floor. I also removed enough soil in order to have sufficient space and then I put the board back in its place and moved my bed back over it.
I told Bordo that we were organizing our groups and he became very excited. Now he would visit me every day and we could feel that there was something in the air: The hopefulness of the Poles, the nervousness of the Volksdeutche and our hopeless plight.
It was July 1944. There were already several acts of sabotage committed by the A.K., with inside help, at our glass foundry Kara. The German leadership (Volksdeutche) of the foundry was fearful for their lives. All of them but Herford tried to gain our confidence by trying to be good to us. They were all Germans born and living here, and now they distrusted the Poles. They only put Jewish watchmen around the fence for the night to ring an alarm in case anyone wanted to approach it. We had our people among them and sometimes we told them to cause a false alarm just to scare the Volksdeutche.
The acts of sabotage committed by the A.K. were very good for us and although some working places were damaged, like the sawmill several times, it did not bother us. The opposite happened. They believed us even more.
Wengliszewski and I discussed a plan to sabotage the plate cutting hall. At that time I worked as a breaker at the new machines and Mosze Nowak was my undercutter. I broke a plate of glass and Nowak yelled out, "Throw it away"' I did, but a piece of it fell on my right hand and cut my middle finger to the bone. I ran down to the infirmary to see Dr. Chwat. He stopped the bleeding, put a clamp on, bandaged it and gave me a one-day pass to stay away from work. I told the doctor that I would not be able to break the glass plates with one hand as it was difficult enough for me to do it with both. He said that he knew quite well that it was impossible to work with one hand, but he was not allowed to give out passes for more than one day. If one needed more, he had to ask our administrator Vogel. I went to him and asked if he would please prolong my pass for at least two more days. Without looking at my finger he slapped my face, yelled and degraded me of my acquired profession. He demoted me to take down the rail cart with the glass plates to the cutting hall (krajarnia). This happened on a Wednesday, and Friday evening I had to start working in the assigned new place. Wengliszewski worked on the same shift at the gassakes.
I took down the first cart with the glass plates to the cutting hall and looked around. It was very quiet in the large hall where there was one Polish watchman fast asleep on a bench. At one time he was my foreman and we used to call him Panie Shefie (Chief). At night it was very eerie here. Only the night shifts were working. We could hear a quiet, monotonous noise from the machines.
I ran over to Wengliszewski and asked him to come with me to the cutting hall where I showed him what I wanted to do and that he should stand on guard outside. He agreed, but urged me to do it quickly. I took my empty cart up the elevator, readied another one to take down, and ran down the stairs where Wengliszewski stood impatiently outside while I entered the hall. Once more I checked the sleeping watchman and reached into my pocket for my knife, lowered the power handle and cut several conveyor belts. One for my ailing finger, a second for Vogel's slap, a third for my murdered parents and so on.
As I left the quiet hall, I was very excited, not so much out of fear, as of satisfaction and vengeance. I gave Wengliszewski my knife to be hidden and told him to run to the fence to order an alarm. I ran upstairs and looked out the window. Confusion reigned and my wish was fulfilled. Vogel yelled at the Polish watchman. He came running upstairs and found me sitting, because I could not take the carts down anymore. He very angrily asked me, "You miserable wretch, didn't you see anything?" (Ty szczerwo, ty zes nic nie widzial?), and he left in a hurry not even waiting for my negative answer. I went back to the window and saw Herford running with his revolver drawn, yelling and cursing. Watching that, made me forget my ailing finger.
All Poles and Jews became very optimistic. With each act of sabotage it looked like a signal to something very remote, almost unattainable, called FREEDOM. This little job looked a lot bigger the next day and we called it the "black Sabbat." The Volksdeutche ran around in a frenzy. Mostly Herford showed his cowardly behavior by barricading his room and putting up a machine-gun on his first floor windowsill. They trembled for their lives. They were sure that the Polish "bandits" again inflicted an act of piracy on the Kara. The result of that latest piracy was that they strengthened the fence with more Jewish watchmen and more alarm bells.
THE GENERAL WARSAW UPRISING
On July 27th, the fireman came running to me with sensational news. He was very excited and spoke very fast, "You should be prepared for very important events! Warsaw is getting ready for an uprising against the German Army and it might encompass all of Poland. The Germans might want to kill you, so you should be on guard." He also told me that he would inform me of any new developments as soon as he learned about them, and he left.
Although the overall situation was not clear, we had to bear in mind our precarious predicament. The worst part of it was that we did not have any money to buy arms.
Waclaw Bordo came back the same evening more excited than ever. It was very difficult for me to understand the way he talked this time. With short unfinished sentences, he told me that his brother arrived from Warsaw with an order from the A.K In case of an overall Polish uprising, they would incorporate us into their fighting groups. If the uprising would be limited to the Capital only, they would take our fighting groups to Warsaw and this way save us from annihilation. I replied that I would like to speak to his brother and that we would not make any move without a written order from the Jewish Fighting Organization. We would have to know if they would take part in the alleged uprising, because we were a part of them and also, we would not take part in any undertaking without weapons. He also told me that his brother would take care of our getting out of the camp and asked how many of us were able to fight. I told him that I alone could not decide these things and that I personally was against leaving the women and children. Such a crucial decision had to be determined by everyone. Meanwhile, we would prepare our fighting groups, but first he would have to come through with my requests. He told me that he would hand over my demands to his brother, who was an official of the A.K.
We went to see Gomberg and we told him about the A.K offer. He agreed to take over the military command if we could get instructions from the Z.O.B. in Warsaw. He would have to see the instructions first and was even angry with us because we had not confided in him about the Z.O.B. and the A.K. contacts.
As his aides, we agreed to assign Josek Zamel and Moniek Grinberg, who were also officers in the prewar Polish Army.
For the time being, we did not inform anyone about our plans since it seemed of no use to alarm people until we got the instructions. We just prepared 60 group leaders on paper. Each group consisted of 10 people including one woman as a nurse in some cases. We designated Mania Blumsztein as head nurse, and she would have the authority to take charge of the medical supplies in our camp hospital.
We added six more people to our Council which consisted of the following members: Chil Kotkowski, Nachum Wengliszewski, Motel Apelowicz, Mania Blumsztein, Salomon Gomberg, Josek Zamel, Berek Kurtz, Hersz Lewkowicz and Hersz Goldberg. It was still kept confidential, not out of fear of a disaster, but because I wanted to have the awaited instructions in my hands first. Everything was ready and we were supposed to call a meeting of all the nine Council members at Gomberg's room, where each group leader would receive a list of his group. Now we felt quite at ease to be trained in handling guns because of the general confusion among the Volksdeutsche.
There was an order issued by the A.K. Commander-in-Chief stating that, "cooperation between the Military Authority and Jewish Organizations was not to be limited to Warsaw and was to have embraced all of Poland." In February of 1943, the A.K. Commander-in-Chief ordered weapons delivered to the settled ghettos that wished to defend themselves. According to that order, Polish Military Commands (A.K.) were to give all possible assistance to Jewish communities subordinate to the Z.O.B., and the Coordinating Committee. Implementation of that order, which the Jewish Organizations and those who wanted to defend themselves in the slave labour camps had been urging so strongly aroused opposition from the local military elements. This order was sabotaged by some of the A.K. leadership in the province and therefore I had to be very careful with the wishes of the A.K.
Some group leaders who were close to Wengliszewski knew that something strange was going on in our "Block." He could not control himself from boasting. In the beginning he had advised me to stay mum and now I told him several times to refrain from talking until the time was right. I promised to give him a free hand as soon as I received the instructions.
The next day, the 28th of July, the fireman told me that he had related my three requests to his brother who left for Warsaw to have them resolved and that he would be back in three days.
On July 31st, Bordo reported the following to me, "Tomorrow, the first day of August, Warsaw would rise up against the German Army, which was engaged in a battle with the Soviets at the Vistula River. In case the Poles were able to take over the Capital before the Russian troops entered, these uprisings would spring up all over Poland. Meanwhile, all possible forces were concentrated in and around Warsaw. If we wanted, we could leave tonight. The A.K. had five trucks at their disposal with ten fighters armed with machine-guns. Each of us would be equipped in Warsaw." Everything was settled. The only thing his brother could not arrange was to talk with the Z.O.B. members, because they were all at their military posts. He relegated someone else to talk to the Z.O.B. and his brother assured him that the Jewish Fighting Organization would take part in the General Polish Uprising. Tonight at 8.00 p.m. his brother's friend would bring the order from the Z.O.B.
I was not impressed with all of that, and after he left, I talked to Gomberg about it, and we both agreed that without an order from the Jewish Fighting Organization, we would not comply with the wishes of the A.K. They would have to take out all seven hundred people, for we would not leave anybody here.
Wengliszewski was ready and anxious to leave with the first group of his close friends. We argued and he finally agreed to wait for the order. Why should we split up now, if we could prevail until August 1944? If one group would leave, the Germans would kill the rest.
I had told the fireman to come back with the order at 9.00 p.m. Wengliszewski could not rest until then. He ran nervously up and down the stairs, so that everyone noticed that something very important was going on. I did not see Apelowicz during all that commotion as he relied on Wengliszewski for most of the news and he preferred to shy away from big decisions.
I was sitting in my room at the window and my eyes were glued on one point: the gate at the guard house. The fireman was supposed to bring me an order from the Jewish Fighting Organization that would inform me of an arrangement for us to be transferred to Warsaw. We would be housed and taken care of by the Coordinating Committee because many Jews living outside the ghetto in Warsaw were cared for by them.
At last the fireman showed up, but with his head down, and he said that the other messenger did not arrive with the 8.00 p.m. train. Maybe something happened to him and we should wait until midnight. He left downheartedly. I sent Wengliszewski to tell Gomberg that they should all go to sleep and that I would wait at my window. He did, but came back to pace nervously again while everyone was uneasy and no one could sleep.
There were about twelve boys living in my room: my brother and I, Chaim and Jakub Rosenstein, Pinie Zyskind and his brother, Jakub Aisenberg, Israel Gruszkowski and others.
As I was sitting at my window, they too were waiting, this time sitting on their beds, as they felt that something nerve racking was going on, but still did not ask anything. Usually when Wengliszewski and Apelowicz came in, they would leave the room. They knew that our room was being used for secret meetings, but this night they stayed no matter who came in, since they felt that sooner or later I would have to tell them.
I secretly admired their patience and trust while I also hoped to tell them tonight that they too belonged to the Jewish Fighting Organization. I was proud of it and wanted them to be proud too, but I could not do it without proof.
Anyway, our destiny was a different one. At midnight Waclaw Bordo came into the yard and dejectedly told me that the messenger failed to arrive at 11:00 p.m. He still insisted that I provide one hundred young fighters, which the A.K. would take to Warsaw with five trucks. They were waiting for an answer from me and I told him flatly, without consulting all the others, that I was sorry, we would never agree to leave without the requested order. We would not move without weapons in our possession anyway, as we did not want anybody to do the fighting for us. He was gloomy and could not say anything anymore, but resigned to it, he left.
I entered my room through the window and tried to fall asleep. But who could sleep?
In the evening hours of August 1st, we heard about this outbreak of fighting in Warsaw. Now we could understand why their messenger was not able to bring the order. Jews who lived illegally in Warsaw took part in the Polish rebellion under the leadership of the Jewish Fighting Organization. Our contact was cut off.
Now it was painful for me to face people. It seemed to me that everyone was looking at me, but no one asked any questions. Wengliszewski was unhappy with me because I had not agreed to leave for Warsaw. Apelowicz had not showed up for quite a while and I was still hopeful that our contact might be renewed.
The Warsaw uprising lasted two months, when it was suppressed by the overpowering German Army. The Red Army stood silently by at the Vistula River, as this was a political move. The Soviets did not consider the Polish rebellion as one of their own. The Polish nationalists were too hopeful in the beginning of the uprising and boasted too much. Alone, with quite a bit of arms and manpower, they too found themselves no match to the superior equipped Germans.
The leadership of the Polish fighters capitulated because now everyone understood better the heroic fight of the Warsaw ghetto uprising. The A.K. too saw themselves isolated with no help from the outside against the most ruthless enemy--the Nazis.
Seemingly, the secret organization of Help to Jews were also involved in trying to get us out of our labour camps. They wanted to get in touch with us, but somehow did not succeed, as it was very difficult and dangerous for outsiders to come close to the slave camps. The hard working and dedicated couple of Tadeusz and Ewa Sarnecki came to Piotrkow many times to establish a contact with the slave workers of our camps. In view of the mass concentration of the German Military in Piotrkow, they could not get close enough to our working places in order to contact us.
And so this eventful summer came to an end. Director Christman showed his good will by offering us a little bottle of vodka for our High Holy Days, and he even came to listen to Kol Nidrei on the eve of Yom Kippur. He was happy that the "Block" with his Jewish slaves was calm now.
With the fall weather rushing in, and the Red Army still stationed at the Vistula River, we felt very apprehensive and insecure.
PIOTRKOW JUDENREIN (FREE OF JEWS)
It was the 27th of November 1944 and a cold wind was blowing. The last leaves fell from the trees and scattered all over the fields. Some were trapped near the gutters fluttering temporarily, until they too disappeared from the ground.
There was something else in the air. Gomberg, our camp leader was notified to prepare us for evacuation and this did not please him at all. He was a sick man, but here as our leader, he felt well and secure. Word spread rapidly that we and the workers of the Bugaj, the last Jews of Piotrkow, would have to leave as well. The Germans felt threatened by a Soviet offensive at the Vistula River and did not need enemies in their midst.
The next morning the SS men arrived. They yelled and rushed us in their usual manner and loaded us with our meager belongings onto the train at the Kara ramp. They unloaded us in Czestochowa, south of Piotrkow. Some male prisoners were taken to Buchenwald and the women prisoners with a few little girls to Ravensbruck. Some inmates from the Bugaj were directly evacuated to Buchenwald, and some to Czestochowa.
My brother and I were brought to the Hassag factory Czestochowianka, one of several labour camps that housed ammunition factories. Here there were machines installed from the slave camp Skarzysko Kamienna.
At this labour camp we were taught a new trade - to produce bullets. The teachers were mostly Jewish girls who had been interned here for a longer time. Their faces were yellowish in complexion, as we looked fresh compared to them. In a short time we were expected to know how to operate the machines or we were punished by the foremen.
Our new environment required a quick adjustment or it would be impossible to survive. The worst part was going to work and coming back. In the yard, there were always Kapos (Katzet-Polizei or Head foremen) or just "hitters", who walked around beating up everybody in sight. The worst offender of them all was a tall giant whom we called "Bulldog". His real name was Szie Biodra from Chmielnik. He would walk around with a whip, without feeling or conscience, like a robot, and hit everyone in sight. Fortunately, we only spent about seven weeks here and I felt very uneasy and helpless. Our underground group became separated. I did not see Wengliszewski and Apelowicz anymore, as they were sent somewhere else. My contact with the Z.O.B. had been cut off completely. Some minor members of the Piotrkover underground movement gathered around me in the hope that I still could piece something together and I felt lost. I tried to find out where the Czestochover Bund leaders Kusznier and Brenner were located. In 1943, I had seen to it that they were contacted by the Coordinating Committee in Warsaw and they too received moral and material help. I learned that they were also separated in two different labour camps, Pelery and Rakow.
The overall conditions in the Czestochowianka were so strict that I could not get in touch with anyone in another camp.
On the 16th of January 1945, the Germans were forced to evacuate the Czestochowa slave camps in a hurry. The Soviet Army closed in and bombarded the city. The Germans did not have time to dismantle the machinery and rushed us out of the barracks. We were led through a portion of the city to the train. The SS men and their Ukrainian aides, with their familiar hoarse sounding voices, yelled: "Los, Los, you cursed dirty Communists!" while the bombs were detonating nearby. They were hitting us over the heads with their shotgun butts and the whips landed everywhere. My brother and I did not receive any blows this time, as we huddled together and running on all fours, we became very small. They herded us into the cattle cars and we were glad to get in. Later we heard that some prisoners had been hiding in the camps and were then liberated by the Red Army. They were very lucky because we were destined for a lot more suffering.
The guards closed the cattle car doors, but did not bolt them. After travelling for a couple of hours the train stopped and it was very quiet. We did not hear the artillery and bombs anymore.
I was very curious and opened the door very slowly. Peering out, I saw that the ground was white from freshly fallen snow. I leaned out furtively and saw nobody out side. Then I asked if anyone in our wagon wanted to get out with me to see where we were. Nobody answered me. Most were still feeling their wounds and glad not to be bothered. They were humiliated by being taken to Germany against their will at a time when the war was finished in Poland.
I jumped off the wagon and proceeded slowly in the direction of the locomotive. I noticed another open wagon. Closing in cautiously to the open door, I saw about ten or twelve shotguns with little boxes of ammunition standing in the corner. It was so quiet and eerie here and I leaned through the doorway and looked to the left to see if anybody was in there. There was not a soul. I ran further and in the first passenger wagon I heard some commotion. I moved back a few steps and listened. The Ukrainian guards were drinking and laughing with their guttural voices. I did not see the locomotive at that time, so I ran back to my wagon and reported to my fellow inmates what I had seen. They were not very interested. When I asked who knew how to handle shotguns, Sumo Dudish, the leftist, answered that he did. But he said it was of no use, they would kill us all anyway. I looked at him with great pity. Then Hers Lewkowicz stood up and said that he would join me to get the shotguns if a few others would do likewise. Itzik Kleiman also nodded his head, but I needed more volunteers. Lewkowicz suggested that the rest would pull knots. No one had a handkerchief, so I picked up some straws from the floor, cut them to different lengths and whoever would pull out a short straw would help bring the shotguns. I needed at least ten volunteers. Kudish, seeing that his authority as leader of this wagon was being challenged, fell into a rage. He scorned us that we might ruin the serenity of this transport and that hotheads like us, not knowing how to use arms, might get us all killed.
I was ashamed and frustrated at not knowing how to handle weapons at this crucial time, so I closed the door and sat down on the floor and started to feel hungry, since we had not been fed. After a long while the locomotive was back and the train began to move again slowly. We traveled all night.
In the morning I opened the door again to find out our location. The sun was shining and the weather was cool, but it was so peaceful here. Meanwhile, our train crawled slowly onto sidetracks, and I saw a tall fence with barbed wire. A little further, SS men with big German Shepherd-like dogs were standing guard all around the fence. In a short time I saw the infamous, dreadful sign:
Arbeit Macht Frei
When the train slowed to a stop, the guards chased us out into a small yard and ordered us to undress. While doing so, I noticed a ray of sunshine--so to speak--approaching in the person of Nachum Wengliszewski with a big loaf of bread under his arm. When he came closer to see who had arrived, he saw me and exclaimed: "Chil, you are home!" I was speechless. What did he mean I was home, I wondered. "Give me a piece of bread." I said to him. "This bread is not for you. I will see you later." he answered and left.
Meanwhile, I received a smack in the back from an SS man because I did not undress fast enough. People tore up U.S. dollars and English pounds and threw them on the ground and stepped on them so that the Germans could not make use of the money. This episode occurred around January 18, 1945.
We were naked and trembling from the cold. They took us into a shack, cut our hair and rushed us into the bath to be thoroughly cleaned. And then next we received other clothing. I obtained a pair of big pants, the size of 48 or 50. I asked for a belt that was hanging on the wall. "You don't need a belt, you can hold your pants with your teeth from falling down," I was told.
After we were cleaned and "dressed", they led us to a big barracks No. 62. The bunks were overcrowded and we had to sleep on our sides. There I saw many Piotrkover packed in on the multiple wooden bunks. The barracks was huge, housing about 1,000 prisoners and it was not heated, but it was quite warm inside and the ceiling dripped with steamy condensation.
Each morning and evening we were driven out into the cold for roll calls (Appels), to be counted over and over again. Sometimes we had to stay outside for many hours, until everything was in order. I had to hold my large pants with one hand and close my jacket with the other because there were no buttons, and it was worse for others. Some did not have shoes and they had to stand barefoot in the snow. Some did not have jackets or coats, so they went outside for the roll calls wrapped in blankets.
Once, after the SS Commandant had finished checking and had left, some pushing began. As I approached the scene, I noticed a few men were beating and kicking someone lying on the ground in the snow. It was dark and I could not see very well.
The next morning, the same group of men came into our barracks and beat up the big "Bulldog" from Czestochowa. Later, when I saw him lying there on his bunk, which was situated close to the door, his face looked even larger than in Czestochowa. It was badly swollen and all bloody and his eyes were puffy and closed, and he was breathing heavily. He could not get up anymore for the evening roll call and was counted sick. This job was done by a special "hit-squad" under the leadership of an inmate called Gustaw, allegedly from Lemberg. He was tall, with light reddish hair and he wore a Polish military uniform and shiny boots. He was the Block leader of No. 66. The hit-squad watched every new transport of prisoners that arrived in Buchenwald and inquired as to who had been the "bad apples" in former camps. They then sentenced the culprits.
When Gustaw was informed of a traitorous Jewish foreman named Heinrich of Berlin, he told the foreman to hang himself. The cowardly foreman did not heed Gustaw's advice, so two days later Gustaw returned with his aides and completed the job for him.
Although I saw Wengliszewski once with Gustaw and his "hit-squad", he did not keep his promise to visit me. That was the last time I saw him. (Later Kudish told me that he was killed by the same "hit-squad" he had served). Allegedly he defrauded another inmate.
After a few days of holding up my big pants, I decided to do something about it. I entered the storeroom by climbing through a window and helped myself to a belt (organized). After I carefully left the storeroom, I saw the Jewish ex-Prime Minister of France Leon Blum, strolling along with an SS guard at his side. He was dealt with better than we were.
In the early morning we received black coffee and later a small slice of bread and a watery soup and that was our daily food.
We were miserable and hungry, but at least the young boys were treated much better here than anybody else. Gustaw took care of that. This was due to the inner camp administration headed by Dr. Herzog, former Communist Member of Parliament in Germany. He surrounded himself with other Communist prisoners and assigned them to help in his administration. His aides were also sent out to other concentration camps.
It was very clean here in Buchenwald. Once an SS man came into our barracks with his aide carrying a loaf of bread under his arm. He announced "Whoever finds a louse on himself, will get this loaf of bread." What we saw and heard was incredible but true, the scheming "sensitivity" of an SS man. Many prisoners began feverishly to look or just scratch them selves. Maybe a miracle would happen to find a miserable little louse on one's body and become an instant "millionaire" by owning a loaf of bread. To be able to cut a piece from a loaf of bread. This was our greatest dream in those dark years of starvation and nightmares.
There was a heartfelt commotion in our barracks one day when someone found a photograph of a little boy and it belonged to a Piotrkover, Israel Uszerowicz. Seeing a grown man cry from joy, kept many of us wiping tears off our faces. This was a rare occasion to see compassion and sensitivity in a concentration camp.
A new transport of prisoners arrived from Auschwitz and Chaim Altman, a Piotrkover neighbour of mine from Litewska Street came into our barracks. We were very perplexed to see him because we had not known if he were still alive. He was taken from the Piotrkover prison in 1941 and sent to Auschwitz together with the Piotrkover "Bundists" from the Judenrat. Everyone was curious and surrounded him, asking questions about himself and other Piotrkover who had been sent to Auschwitz. He looked thin, but kept himself well. I also wanted to ask some questions but could not get close to him, so I decided to talk to him the next day. Hersz Lewkowicz and other friends pleaded with him to stay in our barracks overnight, but he said he had to get back to his own. Unfortunately, he was deported to another camp the next morning.
After a couple of weeks in Buchenwald, we were told to report to the Cinema. This was the sign that we too were being dispatched to another camp.
Again we were loaded onto cattle wagons and taken to a camp called Flossberg, 30 kilometers from Leipzig. From the railway station we had to walk through fields and woods to the new camp. While walking, we looked for something to eat and we found some cabbage roots in the frozen soil. There was a heap of "clean" garbage near a house. Fruitlessly we searched for a bone or some other kitchen wastes. Nothing! Why, oh why did the Germans keep their kitchen wastes inside?!
At last we arrived at the new camp, tired and hungry and we gathered near a big barracks. The inside camp leader Vogt appeared in front of us. He was a political inmate from Buchenwald with a red triangle below his number. He had black hair and a dark complexion. He began with an inspirational speech that I was not prepared to hear at this time and place. He said among others, "that we should be brave and strong morally and physically, because of the intolerable conditions here."
When he finished and the confusion in my mind subsided, I approached him to offer congratulations for his kind and encouraging words. Then I said with pride that I came here with a group that belonged to the Jewish and Polish underground movements and could he help us in any way. He was startled and said that I should not talk about these things here. While we were talking, the SS men arrived to give him instructions about the work to be done in this concentration camp.
I went into my barracks where we received soup with a small piece of bread which was the meal for the whole day. The food was distributed by our Block leader Otto, who was German with a green triangle below his number. He was short, stout, pink faced and dragged his left foot behind him. He was sent here from Buchenwald, where he had served his time for murder. When someone asked him for another little bit of soup, he clobbered him over the head with the big ladle.
Vogt, our camp leader, came into our barracks the next morning and asked everyone out to form groups. As we stood in front of our barracks, he chose three tall men as foremen and gave each twenty prisoners, while he still continued to inspect our group. When he came closer, he looked at me for a while and singled me out as he remembered me from yesterday. He told me that I would be a schieber. I asked him what it meant and he said that I would soon find out. He told me to select ten people from amongst the prisoners and before I could utter another word, my brother and all my friends came running over to my side, along with others from the established groups. Vogt be came impatient and removed all but ten. He yelled: "No, no, only ten go with the Schieber.
As soon as all the groups were formed, a lot of SS men arrived with scores from the "Hitler youth." These young 18 year old boys were added to the working groups in addition to the foremen and Schiebers. Each of them had a revolver at his side and a stick or a whip in his hand. To my special group, which consisted of my brother Faywel, Judel Kurtz, Noah Rosenwald, Mosze Leber, Itzik Kleiman and a few others from the glassworks, a young SS man was assigned.
We marched into the forest to work. The first day was not too bad, because the SS man told me that I had only ten people to do the needed odd jobs. He also said we had to clear the stones here, because railway lines would be placed through the woods and there was not much work to be done. When we returned to our barracks in the evening, everyone was "happy." We drank black ersatz coffee for breakfast, which some of us washed ourselves with. Because of its awful taste, it was impossible to drink. We went to work and the whole day we were not fed. At six o'clock in the evening they led us back to our barracks and we received soup and a small piece of bread.
Once someone stole four loaves of bread. Forty people went without their portion. Our Block leader Otto said that those who did not receive their portion would have to suffer because there was no more. He suggested that if we wanted, we could start searching and maybe somebody would find the missing loaves of bread.
Those who did not get their portion were bitter and laid down on their bunks, while some of us started the search. Most were looking inside the barracks, so I looked outside. Across from our barracks was the latrine where I went to search, but found nothing. Frustrated I left the latrine and sat down on a stump of a tree, thinking about where anybody could hide four loaves of bread. I searched the outside of our barracks from top to bottom, and in the open space between the bottom and the ground. No one could get underneath the barracks because the opening was too narrow. I looked at the wooden step and tried to move it. It was loose. I removed it and there was a bigger open space where I pushed myself under and began to crawl on all fours. It was dark and I could not see a thing, so I wanted to turn around and get out of there, but I could not, because of the limited space. Then I noticed something white on the left. Now I was determined to get to the white thing at all cost. Although it was cold (the month of February), I was perspiring and breathing very heavily, while crawling on my stomach. When at last I got there, I found the four loaves of bread wrapped in a newspaper. One loaf was already started and instinctively I also wanted to bite into it out of vengeance and hunger. It was quite hard to resist, having so much bread in my hands. Another thought crossed my mind, even worse than the first one: "Why not leave them here for myself and get rich? Oh, no! Shame on me! What was the reason of my searching and getting here in the first place?" But my conscience overpowered my steady hungry will.
I started my treck back in the same position, i.e. crawling backwards. Now it was even harder, because I had the bread to contend with. Still, I managed to climb out of there with great difficulty and put the threshold back in its place. It was completely dark now and no one was outside, so I walked into the foyer of the barracks and on the right side there was the Block leader's room. I wanted to knock at his little window, but I was afraid of being punished for the missing piece of bread. Yet, I gathered my courage and knocked. "Who is that?" he asked angrily. "I found the four loaves of bread" I answered somehow frightened. He quickly opened the door and looking at the bread, he promptly asked me in. His pinkish face brightened up and it almost became red with satisfaction. When I told him that I found one loaf with a piece missing, he just looked at me angrily, but did not answer. I said that this was how I found it under the barracks. He rushed out to check how anyone could possibly get under there. He looked me over with his penetrating sneaky eyes and I could see that he found himself at a loss for words. I helped him out by showing him the wooden threshold. Then he said that he would have also guessed that this was the hiding place. He began to think, nodding his head, and said that he knew now who had stolen the bread. "I'll soon get my hands on that S.O.B.!" he said quietly to himself and gritted his teeth. Then he turned to me and said: "Let us first distribute the bread." We entered the barracks and he yelled out: "Achtung! Those who did not get their portion of bread this evening, should come to the foyer to get it." Then he pointed at me, adding: "This man had found the stolen bread and you ought to thank him." Only those who really missed their portion came to the front, as no one else would dare fool him. He was still short of bread for two people, so he promised them a double portion of soup next time.
The next day when we left for work, he summoned the Jewish German Kapo who hated the Polish Jews with a vengeance and always cursed us as unworthy citizens of the world. "You Polish Jews are not even worthy to go to hell," he used to say.
Otto beat him so badly, that we never saw him again. (We learned later that Otto hanged him). That did underscore the food situation in our slave labour camp, because even a Kapo had to steal. The hunger in Flossberg was incomprehensible. People stole potato peelings from the kitchen, cooked them outside over fire and ate them. It was noticed that after a long period of eating this diet, some prisoners died.
The SS men caught three Russians stealing potato peelings from their kitchen. They were tall, emaciated ex-prisoners of war who could not take the hunger and hard work anymore.
On Sunday, the SS men called us all outside to show how they would punish the thieves for their sin. They gave them picks and shovels and ordered them to dig a grave, and they began to dig very slowly, almost in slow motion, because they were undernourished like everybody else. The more tired they got, the more the SS men yelled and rushed them and hit them with their whips and sticks. When they fell down from complete exhaustion, they poured water on them (we had water at that time in Flossberg), revived them and yelled and hit them with the shovels. Two of them tried desperately to get up while the guards were hitting them, but fell down again. When they could not get up anymore, the SS men threw rocks on those poor souls and then buried them, probably still alive. It was heartbreaking to see such a transformation of human beings into apathetic living creatures.
Hersz Lewkowicz, one of my friends from the underground movement, worked in the SS kitchen. From time to time he used to give some of us something extra to eat. Once he stole a big piece of hot meat from the pot in the kitchen and gave it to me, but I had to hide it quickly in my pants pocket and as a result burned my skin. However, it was worth it. He also gave me frankfurters and sent some with Szlome Yukel Pinkusewicz for me, but the latter never gave them to me. Neither did Otto, our Block leader.
Before Lewkowicz acquired this job in the SS kitchen, he worked at the most dangerous spot in this slave camp. He had to climb up the trees and help topple them while others pulled them down with ropes. He often fell to the ground together with the big trees.
One morning another young SS man was assigned to our small group. He was of Ukrainian background and did not talk or yell very much because he had difficulty with the German language. He was just looking at me while I was attending to my group. As I did not have any experience working as a Schieber, I really did not know exactly what I was supposed to do. In the afternoon, the Ukrainian called me over to his side and said: "Go to the woods and find yourself a stick." While I passed by my group, going to the woods, my brother murmured to me: "I think he wants to start something." I answered: "We will see."
I really did not see any big sticks lying around and I picked up a thin little twig. When I came back and the SS man saw that thing in my hand, he could not help laughing and hit me lightly with his stick and said, "You must see that these cursed animals work." He sent me back to the woods for another stick, and ripped the twig out of my hand and threw it away. I went to the woods and again I picked up a branch and returned with it after a while. When he saw what I brought this time, he just looked at me in disgust, shook his head and murmured: "What an idiot." Later he told me, "Should an officer of the SS pass by, yell loudly, Los, Los." I did and he felt better and he did not have to yell or hit anyone.
Flossberg was a labour camp without water or food and everything had to be brought in. Most of the time it rained here and the ground was always muddy. We were building an ammunition plant in the midst of a forest. We had to get up to work at 4 a.m.
Mosze Leber, also from the underground movement, asked me to talk to the camp leader Vogt to give him some lighter work in the kitchen. As soon as I saw Vogt, I waited some distance away because he was in a conversation and offering the SS Commandant (Tzak Tzak) a cigarette. (They were very scarce). After they finished their conversation, I approached Vogt and spoke to him about Mosze Leber. I told him that the little guy was one of my group from the underground; that he was weak now and would not be able to continue working on the outside; that he should give him something to do in the kitchen. He looked at me angrily, slapped my face and yelled very loudly, "Here (meaning in a slave labour camp) we are at war, we have to fight and be hardy to stay alive and I have no place for weaklings! Los, Los, get away from me!" I left quickly, astonished and humiliated and could not grasp why he would not understand my plea for little Mosze. Maybe he received bad news from Tzak Tzak. He was German and had no compassion. I never spoke to him again.
The working conditions here worsened and we started to put down the railway tracks. The SS officers ran wild and ordered everyone carrying the rails to run with them. They were hitting everyone in sight. My brother Faywel was struck with a stick across his right eye by the SS officer who had one rubber hand. (We called him Lapka). Faywel had to be taken to the sick room for repairs.
One Piotrkover named Rosen, from Sulejowska Street, tried to protest the beatings he received from the same SS officer (Lapka) because he spoke German perfectly and told that SS officer that he was only half Jewish, therefore he should be spared the punishment. Lapka became furious and beat him more severely. The more he struck him, the more he protested, until he was all bloodied and could not stand the blows any more. He reached the breaking point and threw himself under a cattle wagon that was pushed by prisoners.
My friend Yudel Kurtz was bigger than the rest in my group and he was the target for most blows. Usually when my group had difficulties, I used to help out without any interference from some SS men. But this time it was different. While helping to push the wagon over a bad joint, I did not see Lapka looking on our laborious task. He rushed towards me with his stick and hit me over the head for my help. I was not allowed to help or maybe this was his only excuse to utilize his itchy one-hand. The assigned SS man to my group felt somewhat restless and he also wanted to get into the act. While I was checking my head wound, I noticed him looking at me as if contemplating something. Soon he called me over and began to ask me some dirty questions. He was smoking heavily and observed my moving away from him while exhaling his smoke. He did not like that and ordered me to come back closer to him. He shouted: "Komm mal her Jude Verrecke." (Come here dirty Jew). He continued shouting and suddenly I saw his red beastly eyes closing in on me. "Open your mouth you so and so," and I felt his strong claws force my mouth open and let a mouth full of filthy smoke into mine. I could never stand smoke, so I choked and coughed and moved away from him. Meanwhile, my group was frightened and worked diligently. He was not satisfied yet and ordered me back. "You look like a boxer," he said to me with a satanic smile on his face. He raised his fists toward my face, ordering me to do like wise, and in the meantime jabbing my nose and face with straight lefts. I was bleeding but hesitated even to raise a hand in defence of my battered nose. He just waited for such a move, to be able to shoot me for a "reason". At that time, as the Allied forces closed in, the SS men had a special silent order not to shoot prisoners unless they tried to escape or for any kind of resistance. As there were so few of us left to work, we were their protection against being called into action at the disintegrating Russian front line.
As I was backing away from him in a circular motion, hands down with swift head movements, he recognized that I knew something about boxing. Seemingly, this infuriated him more and he continued to hit me harder, saying: "Come on, come on, let's see if a cursed (Verfluchter) Jew is able to hit back." Different thoughts whirled in my mind, but I. had to persevere and stay calm, so as not to get killed after all I had gone through.
I was bleeding profusely and suddenly a daring thought entered my mind. "Yes, this way I might get rid of him," I speculated. I stopped running and said to him: "All right, I'll box with you on one condition." And I continued, "Only if you take off your SS uniform." At first he was dumbfounded for a moment at my request, but soon his face became red with anger. He picked up his stick from the ground and struck me several times all over my body. When he was through with me, he went back to his observation post. Somebody from my group helped me to my barracks. The next day I was assigned to another SS man, but this one did not yell or hit, and he did not even carry a stick. He laughed at the way we spoke Yiddish. He had black hair and wore a mustache. "You speak with a throaty che-che, like the Dutch people in Holland," he laughed.
When the ammunition factory had been built around February and powder had been brought in to start the manufacturing of weapons, English bombers flew in one night and demolished all installations. I fell off my bunk from the impact of a nearby fallen bomb. I ran outside to see what was going on and the sky was lit as if it were daytime. The bombers were cruising around dropping their loads, but no German planes were in sight. The raid lasted about fifteen minutes, after which it started to rain and the airplanes disappeared; so I went back to sleep.
Next morning we were awakened at dawn with loud whistles and shouts. The SS men ordered us out of our barracks even without our usual "breakfast" - coffee to get washed with. They chased us to the bombed out factory in the woods where it looked as if a hurricane had passed. Since everything here was built from wood, so the boards and planks were scattered all over the forest. The bombs that failed to hit their targets made big holes in the earth and they were filled with water from the overnight rain.
How could the British fliers distinguish wooden factory buildings from our barracks? Not even one barracks received a direct hit, although one prisoner was killed and several were wounded outside. I had a feeling that this was done with the help of an insider and it seemed, in my mind any way, to be Vogt.
This made the SS men furious and they made us work out of vengeance and also they forced us to carry the broken boards and planks through the holes filled with water. We jumped into the water holes with our loads, but encountered difficulties getting out. This was because the planks were soaked and heavy and it was slippery. I saw the "Dutch" SS man yelling at some prisoners and I told him that it would be a great deal faster cleaning up this mess if we would carry the boards along the straight road, instead of through the water holes. He did not hit me, but retorted with gall and dismay in his voice, "This rotten job was done by your three brothers: Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin. And you, you and you," he angrily pointed to all of us, "have to clear out that dirt." For a second I was pondering what he had told me. I had not known before that I possessed three such powerful and influential brothers!!! With that in mind I went quickly back to work, but my advice did not materialize.
A few days afterwards, they brought in a new transport with half frozen Hungarian prisoners who died soon after because they could not adapt to the cold, hunger and beatings.
Prisoners were always disappearing, and they brought in others from different slave camps. A transport arrived from Schlieben and among other Piotrkover was my cousin Chil Bukowski. After exchanging some "niceties" about our situation, he gave me a cigarette and a hint about what to do with it. He knew that I never smoked, so he told me to look for dried leaves, crush them and mix it with the cigarette tobacco. I did, and then divided that concoction into five portions.
There was a sentry of older Hungarian SS men in our labour camp and their barracks were situated at the end of the camp, near the fence. Once I ventured into their latrine that was situated across their windows. They were always smoking heavily, so I decided that maybe they would like to exchange bread for tobacco.
When no one was around, I approached one open window where one of them was sitting and puffing heavily on his pipe. When he saw me, he observed me very curiously, not knowing what I was doing in this "neighbourhood." I showed him one portion of tobacco, and with the other hand I put a finger on my lower lip, indicating food. He looked at me somewhat startled and when he observed my hand with the tobacco, he promptly grabbed half a loaf of bread that was sitting on his table, looked out both ways of his window, gave me the bread and took the tobacco. "Los, Los, Schnell," he urged me to run along. Since that beginning, I made several deals with him.
My brother became ill and he was put into the sick room, and whoever went in there usually never came out alive. The guards were inmates and they took away their ration. I knocked out a back window and delivered bread and sometimes butter to my brother. As far as I knew, my brother was the only one to come out of there alive.
Berek Kurtz was sent from Buchenwald to Flossberg, and after a couple of weeks being here, he decided that this hell was not for him. He learned that they were sending a transport of sick prisoners back to Buchenwald and he asked me what to do, and I told him to be careful because "sick" was a dirty word in concentration camps. I was afraid but he was willing to risk it and decided to go ahead and he reluctantly went back to Buchenwald and survived. He felt that he had a better chance of survival there than here.
By the end of March our rulers, the SS men, wanted to give us a spring cleaning. There were no baths to take care of millions of lice, so we had to undress and stand naked waiting at a wall. After freezing for half an hour, they unleashed several fire hoses on us and not everyone was able to withstand that. Each thrust of water in the cold weather knocked us against the wall. There was no way out. How we survived that ordeal was beyond my understanding. I urged myself, "Hold out now! Don't give up the "bonus"! It really would be a shame to give up now." I was not religious, and I could not be for what I saw happening during this war. I had to reach out in my thoughts for some inspiration to withstand this cruel "treatment." I reminded myself of Charlie Chaplin's movie City Lights, when he said to his drunken millionaire friend who was ready to drown himself, "Tomorrow, there will be another day, the sun will shine again."
And so, with this reminder I somehow overcame that sadistic treatment from the Nazis. Besides cruel and vengeful SS men, we were also "blessed" with German civil engineers just before the end. They were often competing with the SS men to see who could hit harder.
There was one gray-haired villain, who could and would not understand us at all. It was April 1945 and the German Army was retreating on all fronts. These German civil engineers could not stomach what was awaiting them when they lost such a successful war. So all their bitter disappointment they unloaded on us.
My group was standing around not working because we felt that their end was near. We did not have an assigned SS man this day, and we felt very hopeful. I sent one boy away to "organize" some sugar beets in order to fry them, which we ate with great gusto. I, as a Schieber, posted myself to stand "watch", to see if an SS officer would show up. As I was concentrating my attention on the outside of the woods, I was hit with a stick in the back of my head and I began to yell. I fell down and lost consciousness. After I regained my senses, my group told me that I was struck by the gray-haired engineer. During my ordeal, I had shouted and warned everybody including my brother.
One engineer of middle age was good to me. Although he used to beat many prisoners, he sometimes gave me his lunch. Once he brought me an American leaflet that he had picked up after an air raid. The American bombers raided the German cities and towns usually in broad daylight. I read that the Allied Military Command under General Eisenhower had asked the German population not to support the German Armed Forces any longer. They had been beaten on all fronts. This news gave my group new moral encouragement to hold out a little longer.
Now, before the end, Vogt decided to distribute new shoes to Kapos, foremen and Schiebers. I did not go to get them because I was not talking to him any more, but he sent an aide for me, so I went into his office. He sat with his back to the door while his aide gave me two right shoes to try on which I refused to put on. He took them back to Vogt and brought two left ones. I saw that Vogt was amusing himself, so I got up and said to his aide, "Maybe you could wear two left shoes," and I left. After a while, his aide showed up in my barracks with a pair of good shoes.
One late evening, Noah Rosenwald came running to me with sad news. He told me that Yudel Kurtz had become very sick. It happened just before the evacuation of our camp, so both of us went to see him and asked him what was wrong, but he could not answer any more. He was just breathing very heavily. We were frustrated because there was nothing anybody could do to help him. The concentration camp was readied for evacuation. He died quietly during the night. Many prisoners envied him, since for him it was peace at last and I had lost a good childhood friend.
The next morning we prepared to leave and as we were standing ready to march out, Tzak-Tzak, the SS commandant, forced Vogt to take off his shiny boots and took them away from him. He also grabbed the boots off the Kapo of the electricians (this was the only privileged group in this slave camp).
THE AGONY OF THE AIMLESS TRAIN RIDE
We marched to the railway Station where they packed us into cattle wagons so that nobody had space to sit down. After a few dreary days of travelling aimlessly without food or water, many prisoners died. Now we could sit or even lie down and stretch out. Those who did not have shoes took them from the dead prisoners.
The rumor amongst the prisoners was that we were being taken to Mauthausen. Rosenwald and I had decided to find a way to escape. Somebody had a knife and we tried desperately to cut a hole in the wagon floor. We could not accomplish anything because the floor was too thick and too hard for a knife, so we thought of another way to achieve our goal.
My sick brother, lying on the floor, was so weak that he could not get up any more. I kept him alive by giving him salt to suck on in a piece of paper. When the train stopped, we removed the dead bodies and we buried them in a foreign land that was soaked with blood of our innocent people. While outside, someone found a big bone from a dead cow and brought it into our wagon. We tried to chew it, although it stank.
Once the train stopped and the Red Cross people distributed a cooked egg to the prisoners. By the time I took my sick brother out of the wagon, there were no more eggs left for us. Afterwards they cooked some soup out of green leaves. Lewkiwicz gave us a double portion, which we drank and vomited. Someone repudiated Lewkowicz because he did not give him a double portion of that soup.
Once we stopped and they attached a women's convoy to our long train. We mounted the train and continued our journey into the unknown. After a day and a night the train stopped again. This time it was dark outside. When dawn came, I lifted myself up to the little window and peered through the barbed wire. I saw that we were in Pilsen, Czechoslovakia. The train stopped because the rails had been bombed. Half burned cows were scattered over the railway tracks. Farther away I could still see the smoldering smoke from last night's bombardment. I lowered myself down and watched my brother as he chewed the salty paper. I closed my eyes and half-dozed off when the door opened and Arie and Shlome Yukel Pinkusewicz came in loaded with lots of bread. They were Kapos in Flossberg, and when the train stopped, they had gone in the dark to "organize" bread. Everyone looked at them in silence with big hungry eyes as nobody dared jump at them. I approached them and asked for a few crumbs for my brother because I knew them well. The younger of the two brothers, Szlome Yukel, got curious and crossed over to my brother to check as to why he needed bread crumbs. As he saw him lying on the floor, talking deliriously from fever, he got angry with me and shouted, "Why don't you let him die?"' and he hit me over the head with his thick, strong hand. I did not have the strength or stamina to hit him back. I told him that if I survived, I would not forget this. He did not like that and struck me again on the forehead even harder, so that I thought I received the blow in the back of my head. I fell down from shock near my brother and lay there helpless.
Lying next to my sick brother, I was thinking, "Is this really a Piotrkover? Yes, this is a Piotrkover who stems from the Chapuszes (catchers), the underworld, the scum of the Staro Warszawska Street. What could I expect of him?"
Why were they called catchers? Because their fathers and grandfathers were underworld characters and their job was to catch people wanted by the Tzarist police. His older brother Arie stood on the side continually eating and did not say anything.
Next morning at dawn, while the train was still standing, I went up to the window again and saw Czech workers coming to repair the rails. As soon as one of them came near our wagon, I stretched out my hand as far as I could. He understood that I was desperate for food, so he stopped and looked around and reached into his lunch box. He climbed onto the step of our wagon and stretched a little higher and handed me a piece of white bread. My first thought was, "There is still white bread on this earth! Five long years have passed by, without seeing white bread." I put the precious piece of bread into my pocket and quietly lowered myself. I put small pieces of bread into my brother's mouth, and he suddenly opened his eyes, and I also ate some. They repaired the rails and the train moved again.
ESCAPE IN A HAIL OF BULLETS
Later I discussed with Rosenwald and others the possibility of escaping. I said that we were in Czechoslovakia and they had bread here! I asked him to hold me while I untangled the barbed wire from the window. A new fighting spirit surged into us! Five persons agreed to jump from the moving train but I told them that I would not jump without my brother. When he heard that, he protested and decided to jump as well. Then I said to him, if he could only stand up, we would all escape, and he retorted angrily, "What, I can't stand up?" and in one motion sat himself up. When I saw that, I knew we were going to make it tonight!
A light rain started to fall and it became very dark outside. The little window was cleared of the barbed wire and I planned the best way to jump from the moving train, to avoid hitting the iron posts alongside the railway. It was about 11 o'clock in the evening when we started our dramatic escape to freedom. We had never realized what a spark of hope could do to skeletons like us and even my sick brother's eyes became livelier.
Here we go! Noah Rosenwald wanted to be the first to jump, so I lifted him up and with his legs out first, he held on to the window on the outside. When the opportune moment came, i. e. watching out for the iron posts, he jumped, while at this moment shots rang out. We lifted my brother and we had some difficulties holding him up at the window since we could hear more shots being fired outside. I climbed up quickly, and let him go when I saw an iron post pass. It seemed that some prisoners also escaped from other wagons; the shots continued. Then they helped me up. The shootings intensified, but I did not heed them because I wanted to get outside. When I held on to the window outside, I also looked out for the iron posts and when one came close, I jumped. As I fell into the ditch, a hail of bullets whistled by. I waited, lying there impatiently until the train left (it looked like it would never end) and the shooting subsided. It was dark and still raining lightly.
I stood up and walked alongside the ditch to find the others. First I found my brother still lying in the ditch and he had a bruised eye from the fall. Then Rosenwald joined us, and the three of us waited for a while to see if anyone else would meet us.
We looked at ourselves and said, "Are we really free? What do we do now? Where do we go from here?" We felt like three musketeers in the middle of nowhere. We had no money, no food and no real clothing to speak of. We looked around to decide which way to walk and then we saw a dimly lit object far away and decided to walk in that direction. We took my brother under our arms to support him and we wandered in the dark of the night into the free world.
After an hour of walking, we arrived at a village where we found the window from which we had previously seen the light. We did not know who lived there, so we decided to go into the yard and hide in the barn. On the way to the barn, we knocked over a vat with raw potatoes, so we grabbed some and devoured them, As we entered the dark barn, we stumbled over a goat and tried to milk her, but no milk. Then we found a barrel with oats, so we ate them too. Our stomachs began to crave for more solid food (we just whetted our appetite). I was determined to leave them both here in the barn, and go out and knock at the window to see who lived there, but the curtains were drawn. Then I mustered up all my courage and knocked at the door. As I closed my eyes for a moment and thought, "I hope that it is not a German." When the door opened, I let out a sigh of relief, because a tall gray-haired man stood in front of me. He spoke in the Czech language and asked who I was. I answered in Polish that I had escaped from a moving train and I needed something to eat. He said that he would give me food and asked me into his house. He did not say another word and brought a jug of milk into the kitchen with a big round country bread. Then I said, half mumbling, that I was not alone, and two more of my companions were hidden in his barn. He was not surprised, opened the door, looked around and told me to bring them in quickly. I did and we sat down at his table and then he served us the bread with the milk. I wanted to cut the bread, but I could not, because it was solid and I was trembling from hunger and excitement. My dream to cut from a loaf of bread had finally come true, but I did not have the strength to do it, so our host obliged. He watched in amazement at how concentration camp escapees feasted on their first meal in years.
After we finished that big bread and milk I asked him for an onion which baffled him, for he could not understand why I wanted only an onion. I explained that although we were full, we did not feel satiated yet, since something was still missing in our system. Later he said that he could not put us up for the night in his house (little did he know how dirty we were), because his son-in-law was German and he might show up any time. He lit a lamp and led us to another one of the barns and put us up for the night on straw among his cattle. He apologized and said that at 4 a.m. the next morning he would wake us up. He gave us an address in another village where we could be hidden until the end of the war. He told us that the American President Roosevelt had passed away a few days ago (April 12).
We could not sleep anyway because we were excited and dirty, and we could not wash or change clothes. At 4 a.m. he came into the barn with another half bread under his arm and explained how to get to the little town of Kdinie. We thanked him for his kindness and hospitality and left.
We started out in the dark toward our new destination and while we were walking on a side road, the German Army with heavy artillery and tanks was retreating on the highway. We rejoiced somewhat in seeing them proceed in the opposite direction.
It was dawn when we entered the little town, when suddenly a patrol of soldiers with machine-guns appeared at the next corner. We got frightened and Rosenwald said to get back. I said: "No, it was too late now, they might shoot after us." We proceeded as if nothing happened and when we came near them, they looked at us and one of them snapped in Ukrainian: "Do you have any cigarettes?" I answered calmly, "No, we don't," and we walked passed them without turning our heads in their direction.
Our clothing consisted of a pair of old pants, a jacket with a painted red cross on the back, and a cap with the same painted cross on the top. These soldiers were Ukrainian nationals who, under General Vlasow, served in the German Army. They did not do anything to us because they too were in a precarious situation with the oncoming Russian and Allied Forces, since they were turncoats.
We arrived in Kdinie and were directed to the given address, whereupon a family took us in and served us breakfast. For the first time we could not finish the food. We could not believe it! As our eyes were devouring the left over food, we heard some voices coming from their basement. This family could not accommodate us because they had hidden American, English and French fliers in their basement. They sent us to another family and meanwhile Rosenwald was able to obtain (organized) a German camera and took pictures of us.
Later we were taken by a horse and buggy to our hide-out, where we rode up a big steep hill to an abandoned resort, which now served as a look-out. We entered a log cabin and began to wash our only clothing and scrub our dirty bodies. That was some job!
At two o'clock in the afternoon, we were honoured with the presence of the past and future Mayor of the little town of Kdinie. He was dressed in a black suit, a Hamburg hat and brought us some lunch. He said that it would not take long now before he was back in his former office as Mayor of this town.
In the evening his wife brought us supper and, like a mother, she taught us how to start eating again. "Slowly, children, slowly start eating now, because your stomachs are not used to eating properly, they are like infant's stomachs."
In the morning, their two beautiful young daughters brought breakfast consisting of many cooked eggs. They also cautioned us to eat one egg at a time.
In the early morning of May 8 (my birthday), the American Army entered Kdinie and the Mayor again sent the horse and buggy up the hill and took us down to City Hall. The town was in an uproar and we were free at last! The City Hall employees grabbed my brother and Rosenwald, and carried them up the stairs. I did not allow them to carry me, proudly saying, "Now I am a free man, and I prefer to walk up the stairs on my own." They treated us with chocolate bars and later brought a camera crew and made a documentary film. They showed us off as the first freed concentration camp inmates. (It was later shown in the movie houses).
Later I went into town to see how the Czechoslovakian people welcomed the American troops. What a celebration! The women threw flowers upon the tanks and the soldiers responded with chocolate bars and cigarettes.
We slept in the quarters of City Hall with other freed Poles and Russians. The Czechs kept about sixty captured SS men in the cellar.
The Czechoslovakian Commandant in the City Hall took us down to see them. He called the visits "seances." The way they appeared to me, I could not believe they were SS men. Only after seeing their SS marks under their arms, I exclaimed: "They look worse than us!" It meant they got what they deserved! I had the honour of being the translator, but in the beginning of the "treatments", they protested their innocence, and some lied vehemently that they had never been near a camp. Some claimed that they only worked in the kitchen, and that they should be spared, and some pleaded passionately insisting that they were "only guard." But they could not deny their tattooed SS marks under their arms; so I questioned then thoroughly. My translation of their answers gave the ex-inmates more meaning in carrying out the punishment. They were severely dealt with by the Polish and Russian ex-prisoners. This was revenge enough for me, because I did not have the strength to do it.
My brother was taken away by a freed Jewish doctor named Szwartz who renewed his practice in his former house. After a thorough check-up, he sent him to a hospital in a bigger town where they had a better cure for tuberculosis. Today he is living in Israel, working for the Government.