I was born in 1906, in Chelm, Poland.
My family was a traditionally Orthodox one, and I had one brother and
two sisters. My father was a grain merchant on a very small scale; he
bought a sack here, a sack there, and resold the contents to eke out
a very meager living. My brother died from hunger during World War I.
Notwithstanding our poverty, my father always invited some poor unfortunate
to share our Sabbath meal with us. These poor derelicts often stank
and were filthy, but my father never deviated from this Sabbath observance.
Whatever poor fare we had we shared -- the Sabbath was the Sabbath,
a special day.
My father wanted me to join him
in his grain "business" (if it could be called that), but
I saw that there was no future at all in it. I had been sent to a traditional
religious school, a cheder, but I had no secular education because we
could not afford the small tuition. I taught myself to read and write
Polish in the attic. When my cheder training ended I secretly went off
and apprenticed myself to a carpenter. That was unheard of in our family
and our milieu--there was some kind of a stigma attached to working
with one's hands. I remember that when I told my aunt that I had almost
finished my apprenticeship as a carpenter, she started to cry.
My sisters had a friend, a pretty
girl, Yocheved, and we took a fancy to each other from an early age.
She used to visit our home often, and a strong love grew between us.
Yocheved, from the age of 12, used to drag a pushcart filled with sewing
notions (needles, threads, fabric trimmings, etc.) from one hamlet marketplace
to another, selling to the local peasants. She came from a religious,
impoverished family and her mother, a prematurely worn-out woman who
always wore a sheitl (wig worn by Orthodox Jewish woman), sometimes
used to accompany her on her selling expeditions. Their "profits"
allowed them to subsist on a diet of onions, radishes, black bread,
and on rare occasions, a piece of herring. They were often waylaid by
gangs of Poles and Ukrainians who robbed them of their meager profits
and stole their stock. The two women were helpless against such bandits.
I started to accompany Yocheved
on her selling expeditions while we were still engaged. At least I could
protect her from the "brave" bandits who liked to pick on
defenseless Jewish women. We married in 1932 and a few weeks after we
were married I borrowed small amounts of money from my father and her
two brothers and rented a small store with showcases for merchandise.
I bought stock and went into the sewing notions and fabric business.
My small store prospered, and I was soon able to hire an elderly woman
to help out with the housework and the baby. We had been blessed with
the birth of a very special son, Yossele, in 1934.
At the beginning of 1939 my wife
and I were sitting in our store when we heard that a general mobilization
had been proclaimed. All reservists and young single men were to report
for military duty. Very soon after that, menacing, dark bombers appeared
in the blue sky over Chelm. My wife and I left the store and ran to
the fields to hide. We wanted to hide in the tall wheat, but the wheat
had just been harvested and we were exposed. We were terrified. German
planes kept firing down at us with their machine guns, and they seemed
to shriek like wild animals as they dived with their bombs and bullets.
We decided to run home, and we made our way through the streets filled
with panic-stricken people who were shrieking hysterically. When we
arrived home, we found the old woman we had hired under the bed, holding
our infant girl, Pesha, in her arms. She was so petrified that she was
When the bombing ceased we went
out, as did many others, on the street. Groups of people were standing
around, exchanging news and rumors. The news was bad: there had been
many casualties in Chelm from the bombing. The Polish Army was taking
a beating, and it was rumored that the Germans were nearing Chelm. Chelm
was soon inundated with haggard, barefoot fleeing Polish soldiers who
had discarded their uniforms. They had been abandoned by their superiors
and they were hungry and demoralized.
It became quiet in Chelm. All authority
had collapsed. There was no civilian or military government. That night
Polish and Ukrainian bandits went on a killing spree--killing Jews,
of course. Without a functioning police force they had a free hand,
and they were quick to realize that. 50-60 Jews were killed that
night and many others were severely beaten. Robbery and rape were widespread.
The Ukrainians and Poles generally didn't get along well with each other,
but when it came to attacking defenseless Jews they had found a common
You can believe me when I say that
we welcomed the dawn. We heard that the Russians were coming in. We
were happy--authority would be re-established. The bandits would no
longer have a free hand. On Sept. 14, 1939 we saw the first Russian
tanks and trucks and we ran out to greet them. Women and children hugged
and kissed the soldiers.
Our joy was short-lived. After
10 days we heard that the Russians were going to withdraw from Chelm
as a result of the Soviet-German agreement. We saw the Russians stowing
their gear on trucks, packing their equipment, and preparing their vehicles
for the departure from Chelm. Articles appeared in the newspapers saying
that whoever wanted to depart with the Russians was welcome to do so.
Trucks would be supplied for these people and they could bring their
belongings with them. Several hundred young people accepted this offer
of evacuation, but this was only a small fraction of the Jews who could
have done so. People faced a dilemma then. How could you abandon your
home? Your friends? Your work? Your relatives? We had heard that life
under the Russians could be very hard. And, besides, the image of the
Germans that had been left over from World War I was that of a civilized,
advanced people. My younger sister left with the Russians. I, however,
like so many others, remained behind in Chelm with my wife, my son,
and our infant daughter. Whatever would be, would be! At least I would
be on my home ground, in my beloved Chelm.
Some days went by. After two weeks
of occupation the Russians had disappeared. Once again there was no
civilian or military authority. The Polish and Ukrainian bandits recommenced
their attacks. Fear gripped us, especially a fear of the long, dark
autumn nights. When the dawn rose, on Oct. 7, 1939, we went out on the
street and heard that the Germans were due very shortly. Believe it
or not, many Jews were happy to hear that. The night time beatings and
murders by the Ukrainian and Polish bandits would stop. That very day,
Oct. 7, 1939, we saw the Germans march in. We saw long columns of motorized
vehicles and files of marching, singing men. And already some of them
were spitting at us and cursing: "Verfluchte Juden, Schweinische
Juden." We saw that we had made a mistake by not retreating
with the Russians, but it was too late. The mistake had been made. That
very day, when the Germans came in, they started beating Jews and looting
Jewish stores. I locked my small store and went home. I told my wife
that bad times had come on us.
The next day, on Oct. 8, my father
came to my store to visit me. As we were standing around and talking
about the bad times that had come upon us, several SS men came into
the store and started shouting: "Verfluchter Jude!"
One of them gave my father two hard blows to the head. They proceeded
to ransack my stock, taking for themselves only the best goods. Then
one of them came over to me and gave me a tremendous blow to the stomach.
I doubled up from the pain, and for a minute or so I couldn't breathe.
The German shrieked delightedly at me: "Ja, ich habe dir bezahlt."
He meant that the vicious blow was his form of payment to me for my
goods that he was taking. He also said, with smug satisfaction: "Ja,
ich habe dich gut versohlt." (Yes, I beat you up well). On
many of the German vehicles they had printed a slogan: "Wir
Fahren nach Polen um Juden zu versohlen." (We're going to Poland
to beat up the Jews.) So his statement that he had beaten me well was
a logical extension of that popular German slogan. Laughing heartily
the SS men left my store. My father and I just looked at each other
helplessly. What could we say?
Bad news swept through Chelm --
news of beatings, robberies, shootings and murders, news that Jews were
being seized all over the town for "forced labor." Every day
this litany of bad news was repeated. We wondered what would become
of us. There were many helpless women amongst us; their men had been
taken away and never returned. SS men went into these women's homes
and did whatever pleased them there. SS men roamed the streets with
dogs and whips, rapaciously looking for victims. And every day they
issued new "laws" and "rules" and "regulations".
The Polish police force still functioned, but the policemen were now
under German orders and they zealously carried these orders out. They
helped seize and beat Jews who were wanted for "labor."
Polish police came to my house
every day, looking for me. "We want Kalmen Wewryk," they shouted.
I hid in a false beam which I had constructed as a hiding place. There
was a tiny opening in a wall of this beam through which I could see
the street below. On hearing the heavy tread of the police as they ran
up the stairs, I would leap into my hiding place and close the entry
hole behind me by tugging on a rope. My hiding place was very skillfully
camouflaged--nobody could say that a man was hiding there. I was sought
because the authorities had given them my name. Rich men could be exempted
from "forced labor" by paying, and their places would be filled
by poor men who would be seized as replacements. The days before the
war broke out I had traveled to Warsaw where I bought new merchandise,
so I was not liquid. I had no cash. I could not pay the authorities,
so I was a prime target for this "forced labor." Every day
Jews were shipped off for "forced labor" and few of them returned.
We really regretted the fact that we had not retreated with the Russians,
but it was too late. We were now caught up in a daily nightmare. Some
days I remained in my hiding place all day because the police came to
my house several times a day, looking for me. How I waited for the "all
clear" signal from my wife so that I could emerge from my dark
hole and take a drink of water' Once I had no time to hide in my false
beam. I made it up to the roof and hid behind a massive chimney.
It was quiet for a while and then
we heard that an official Judenrat had been formed. Only God
knew what new troubles this would bring on our heads! The police were
very frustrated with my "case." Because they couldn't find
me, they dragged my wife and our two children off to jail. They were
kept in a cell deep in the cellar of the jail. They were given no food.
The policemen told her that if I didn't report to them she would remain
in jail indefinitely with the children. The baby was crying ceaselessly
and the boy, only 6 years of age, cried too. They were not given a drop
of water. My wife later told me that when she begged for water for the
children the Germans laughed uproariously. And they didn't give the
poor children a drop of water. After two days, when the sadists saw
that they couldn't get my information out of her -- she steadfastly
denied knowing of my whereabouts they gave her several hard lashes
with a whip and threw all 3 of them out of the jail. She dragged herself
home with the crying and frightened children. When I saw the 3 of them
my heart wanted to break! They looked so bad! But we all hugged and
kissed each other. We rejoiced. We were together again.
After a few days the police started
looking for me again. They had no other real work to do except to search
for Jews like me. I had reported to the German barracks to work as a
carpenter. I was allowed to come home every night and sleep at home.
Sometimes the work was hard ditch-digging, etc.-- but most of the time
I worked at my own trade in workshops manned by skilled or semi-skilled
Jews--shoemakers, carpenters, tailors, masons, etc. We were not paid
at all and worked long hours but they gave us each a small piece of
bread. It wasn't nearly enough for one person but it was better than
nothing at all. One fat SS man used to take particular pleasure in whipping
us with iron whips, but we generally worked amongst Wehrmacht
personnel. And some of them were decent, humane people who could see
the condition we poor Jews were in. Under my workbench I would often
find a loaf of bread (a treasure at that time), tobacco or a piece of
shoe leather left for me by sympathetic Wehrmacht men. I had
a chance to "borrow" pieces of wood and take them home. I
particularly remember my joy when I found 4 or 5 good sized potatoes
under my workbench.
My work in the barracks didn't
stop the Polish police from searching for me. They burst into my house
several times a day. They made inquiries and found out that I was working
in the barracks. They came to the barracks and took me away. I believe
that those Polish policemen were acting on information furnished to
them by the Judenrat. The Oberscharf¸hrer who was my superior
was absent when the Polish police came and took me away. They tossed
me, like a sack of potatoes, into a cell in that same jail where they
had imprisoned my wife and children earlier.
My wife knew, from our conversations,
that the "Oberst" liked my work. I had worked hard
for him; I made him all kinds of things for his own use, like wooden
briefcases, bookshelves, boot removers, etc. My wife ran to the barracks
and told this Oberscharf¸hrer that the Polish police had taken
me away. He first checked all that she had told him (they were very
exact and methodical), and when he verified her story he himself drove
to the police station and I heard him bellowing: "Den Schreiner
sofort Ausl–sen" -- the carpenter is to be released immediately.
The police weren't happy to see him, while I was in their hands they
whipped me several times a day. They gave me no food or drink at all.
But the police had no choice in this matter. They released me and the
Oberscharf¸hrer took me straight back to the barracks.
We were getting hungrier and hungrier.
And the Germans were demanding more and more work from us. My wife asked
me: ""Where will it all end? We'll all die from hunger."
My wife had kept selling off things from the house to buy food. By this
time the house was virtually empty -- there was nothing
more to sell. I decided to take a chance -- I was desperate. During
the noon break I went over to the Wehrmacht living quarters and
begged for food. Some soldiers used to throw a piece of food at me.
They had good food--the best. Others chased me away, shouting "Vefluchter
Jude!" When I was chased away like that I would run to another
barrack and continue begging. There were hundreds of companies there,
waiting to go to the border build-up. There were SS men amongst them,
probably placed there to watch them, and sometimes an SS man used to
run out of a barrack and beat me.
I saw that I couldn't go on like
that. My wife and children were still starving, getting weaker from
day to day. They started to beat us regularly at work. SS men would
come and take some of us away for various jobs. These SS men were not
like the Wehrmacht soldiers. They would whip us often with iron-trimmed
whips. I thought about our situation. It was the end of 1939, and it
didn't look like our situation would change for the better. I decided
to leave the barracks and the workshop and take my chances elsewhere.
I had to do something.
I left my house at night, carrying
my carpenter's tools on my shoulders, and went 10 km. to a nearby hamlet
where I had done some work before the war. When I reached the hamlet
it was dawn. I knocked on doors, asking if people had work for me, and
I found a job -- somebody wanted some windows made. There were no Germans
there, they had not solidified their control yet over such small hamlets.
I worked all week making those windows and my employer gave me food
for my work. Friday night I left for home. On my shoulders I carried
a sack of butter, chickens, potatoes and other food -- my hard-won pay.
All the way home, over fields and in forests, I was very, very frightened
but I kept going.
My wife worried as Friday drew
closer. Would I come home safely or had something terrible happened
to me during the week? My wife sat up all night by the door, waiting
for me. I came very, very quietly up the stairs. When my wife recognized
my footsteps, how happy she became! I had a password which I whispered
to her as she unbarred the door. My wife kissed me. Yossele was sleeping.
We hugged each other and I told my wife about my week and the trip back
home. She cried over the hard times that had befallen us. I couldn't
stand her tears, so I ran over to my sleeping boy and kissed him. He
woke up, shouted "Papa", and leapt at me, hugging and kissing
me hard with his little hands around my neck. He seemed to understand
what I had been going through, what we were all going through. I went
over to my precious sack, opened it and laid out the food that I had
brought, as if I were uncovering a treasure. Yocheved saw how much I
must have worked to earn that food. She took a piece of bread and a
slice of onion and they started to eat with immense appetite. I had
the greatest pleasure watching the way they ate. I enjoyed every bite
they took. I relished the knowledge that they would have food for the
next short while. I was happy; I was with my loved ones, at home. However,
I slept fitfully, a very uneasy sleep. Apparently I was still being
sought by the police. I was afraid that at night they would
burst into our house.
This kind of existence lasted for
4 or 5 months. I had to be extremely secretive in my comings and goings.
I came and went at night because unfriendly eyes were everywhere. The
neighbors mustn't see me. People were starving, and some were ready
to kill for a piece of bread. People had become brutalized.
Just before dawn I got up very
early, went to see my relatives and started my journey back to the hamlet.
I returned, a frightened man, to my employer. I said: "Good morning."
He answered me "Shin Dobre, Shin Dobre," (Good Day,
Good Day) and he crossed himself. He himself was very frightened. He
had heard about Jews being waylaid and killed in the woods; he realized
how dangerous my journey was. He gave me a good breakfast, and I started
to work with great eagerness.
Several weeks went by and I finished
many jobs for him. On my trips back home, I used to carry my sack on
one shoulder and my tools on the other shoulder. It was a heavy load
but I was quite strong then. At times wild animals would dart by me.
Many times I stumbled into holes and ditches; it was pitch black, I
couldn't see a thing. Sometimes I remained prostrate in a ditch where
I had fallen, I sighed, and I would start to cry a little about the
times we were living in. However, soon after that I would pick up my
load again and continue my journey.
I found other work in the hamlet,
making beds and tables. My employers were very happy with my work. I
worked from dawn to dusk, virtually without respite. I thought only
about my family. I worried constantly about them. Things were
quiet in that hamlet--there were no Germans there yet.
Once, on my trip back home, a heavy
thunderstorm started. I had to get back home before the dawn. My family
was waiting for me. I was soaked to the skin, and the paths were covered
with slippery mud; it was hard going for me but I was happy to be going
home to my loved ones. As I approached Chelm I sat down for a few minutes
to rest and when I looked around I thought I saw somebody up ahead waiting
to ambush me. I shook with fear. I got up and moved forward very cautiously
and quietly. When I got closer, I saw with relief that my fears had
been unfounded. The cause of my fear turned out be a deformed tree stump
that looked like a person from afar. What a relief I felt!
When I finally reached my home,
my wife gave me bad news: Jews were being caught on the streets, Jews
were being shot on the spot for trying to slip through to neighboring
hamlets like I was doing. I was at a complete loss -- I didn't know
what to do now. I was afraid to return to the hamlet, so I remained
at home. But the food was rapidly disappearing, and we had to start
rationing the little that was left. I saw billboards with notices that
a Jewish Police Force was being formed, so there would soon be Jewish
police who would be carrying out German orders. Meanwhile, Jews were
disappearing. I heard the SS yell as they seized people. These SS were
wild, yelling constantly with shrill voices: "Dreckische Juden,
Verfluchte Juden!" They made lightning attacks on houses, looking
for Jews for forced labor or simply to murder them.
As soon as the Jewish Police Force
started to function, a new decree was announced: all Jews had to hand
over a certain amount of gold. Everybody ran and brought gold to the
Judenrat offices. They thought that they would save themselves
by handing over this gold. Up to now, conditions were chaotic, unclear.
But now, people felt relieved by this decree: it was finally clear--you
could save yourself and your family by handing over gold. Nobody really
knew what was going on, but they desperately wanted to think that there
was some logic to all that was happening. When the collected gold was
officially handed over to the Germans, the Jews emerged from their houses,
walking around confidently, feeling that they had been spared. The danger
was gone -- they would be O.K. now! The worst was over.
The few peaceful days passed quickly.
Before long we heard about Jews again being seized for forced labor.
The savage cries of the SS men again echoed through our narrow streets
and some Jews were shot. Since it was so dangerous for Jewish men on
the streets, their wives would sneak out at night to visit Christian
acquaintances and sell them something in exchange for food. The bad
times were back.
After a short while a new decree
was proclaimed: all Jews had to hand over to the Judenrat a certain
amount of wool. For a while things became quiet and peaceful on the
streets while this wool collecting was going on. It took a few days
till the Judenrat could collect the stipulated amount of wool.
If you couldn't supply your family's quota of wool--the Jewish police
would come for you. Whether or not you had the wool to begin with, or
whether you could or could not obtain the wool--this did not interest
the Jewish police. They did not want explanations or excuses--only wool.
If you had no wool, or not enough wool--say goodbye to your home, your
loved ones and your life. Forever.
After the wool levy, things again
became quiet for a short while. Jews went around openly, free. The worst
had passed, and they had survived. Things would get better now. People
met on the streets in small groups to converse and exchange news. They
had no real news to communicate to each other, only rumors. Optimistic
All of a sudden the Jewish and
German police started surrounding streets and taking those Jews caught
there away for forced labor. Those Jews whom they caught were beaten
mercilessly. Mothers were shrieking hysterically, and children wailed
pathetically -- they didn't know where their men were being sent. After
a while, escapees from "forced labor" limped back to town.
Some were terribly crippled. My own father had been beaten up very badly.
I myself was caught once but I was lucky. I was beaten savagely and
covered with blood but I made it back home. Remember -- there were no
concentration camps yet. It was just the beginning of the nightmare.
Soon we were ordered to hand over
all furs (coats, collars etc.) to the Judenrat. From all sides
Jews came running with their furs. The familiar pattern repeated itself.
After the furs had been handed over, Jews crawled out of their attics,
bunkers and hiding places and went about their ordinary activities.
And the Germans marched around the streets, not seizing a single person;
they didn't beat or molest Jews. Jews felt "fine" -- the worst
was over. Their names were sure to be on the "list" -- a list
supplied to the Germans by the Judenrat stating who had handed
over furs, wool, gold, etc. and how much each had "contributed."
Things hadn't changed: When a rich
man was seized to be shipped away for hard labor he still had an "out"
-- he would pay the Judenrat a huge sum and a poor Jew would
be seized by the Jewish police and handed over to the Germans in place
of the rich man, who was freed. They tried on a number of occasions
to catch me as a "replacement," butt always managed to get
During the last days of November,
1939, a new notice appeared on all billboards and walls: All male Jews,
ages 14-60, had to report on December 1st to the "Pletzl,"
a small market square in the center of the city where Jews had stands
and sold various things. The Jews became confused. What could this mean?
One Jew ran to another asking what he should do and nobody knew
anything. Things looked bad.
In the early morning of December
1st I went out on the street and I saw Jewish men running around aimlessly
like wild dogs. They were in a state of extreme fright and panic. Some
ran back and forth, while others were running home. Jewish men were
arguing with themselves- to report or not report to the Pletzl?
I went closer to the Pletzl and stood off a little way, looking
at what was going on, trying to guess at the proper action to take.
I, like the others, was in a quandary. My parents lived at the far edge
of town, so I ran there and asked my father what I should do. He didn't
know what to tell me--nobody could give me advice at that time and in
that place. There was no precedent for our predicament. My wife
Yocheved also didn't know what to tell me.
After a short time I decided that
I had better report to the Pletzl. Then I changed my mind and
decided not to report. I changed my mind several times, but I finally
decided to report. As I approached the small square I saw Jewish women
standing in groups, at a distance. Christians were walking around freely.
I stood at a distance and tried to understand what was going on. It
was 8 in the morning. I took off my Star of David armband and put it
in my pocket. I had a "good" face -- I didn't look Jewish.
And I mingled among the Christian spectators, who were somewhat nervous
and frightened too.
I saw masses of Jewish men and
boys report to the square. I noticed especially the large numbers of
14-15-16 year old boys who were reporting. As a Jew reported to the
uniformed SS men standing resplendent in their shiny boots and holding
their long whips, the Jew got a whack in the head, from the whip, for
"openers". Many Jews yelled "Shma Yisroel"
and just stood there after they were beaten. I was frightened to death
as I stood there and witnessed the beatings. I moved rapidly away from
the Pletzl and ran home. I described what I had seen to my wife.
I asked her: "Yocheved, what should I do? Should I report there?"
She started to cry--she didn't know what to tell me. In those times
and under those circumstances, we all had to make our own decisions.
Nobody could give you advice. I took my wife and my son in my arms and
we all cried.
I went down to the street and I
ran to my uncle Mechel. I still wasn't wearing the mandatory Star of
David armband. Mechel had seen everything, because one of his windows
overlooked the square. I asked him what he was going to do and he replied
that he wasn't going to report. But he was running back and forth, highly
agitated, with tears in his eyes, wrestling with his own thoughts and
conscience. His wife was crying, as was his daughter Roochale. And I
started to cry too when I looked out the window at many more Jews reporting.
Meanwhile, time was passing and it would soon be too late even if we
wanted to report. My uncle Mechel was by now running through the house
like a deranged man. He stopped answering me after a while, and he seemed
to become oblivious to everything around him. His wife was afraid that
I should remain in their home. If the SS should come in and see us both
there it would be worse for all of them. I saw she was right; I was
endangering them by being there.
I left Mechel's house, running
like a crazy man. I took a roundabout route away from their home and
I crawled into the cellar of a house. I hid there, thinking all the
while that the SS would come for me and shoot me on the spot. I was
afraid to leave that cellar. I thought that perhaps I had, after all,
made a mistake by not reporting to the Pletzl. So, dreadfully
frightened, I lay in that cellar for many hours, crying and moaning.
I wondered what had happened to those men who had reported. I heard
shooting, and I thought that the shooting was drawing closer to me in
that cellar. Perhaps they were searching for me. I was afraid to move
After some time I mustered up enough
courage to look out through a crack in the wall. I saw that it was getting
dark. I waited a short while and I soon heard people talking, but I
couldn't make out what they were saying. When it became completely dark
I got up and left that cellar. I saw Jewish women and children standing
around and crying uncontrollably. They told me what had happened to
those Jewish men who had reported to the Pletzl. They had been
herded down the road to the Chrubyeshoov forest and as soon as they
approached the forest the Germans started firing at them with submachine
guns. A few Jews had managed to escape and return home and they told
how Germans were riding on horses, holding automatic weapons and shooting
up the whole row of Jews.
Through a back lane I made my way
back to my family. I had told my wife that I was going to report to
the Pletzl, and I was afraid that she would faint when she saw
me, so I spoke very softly. My boy and my wife hugged and kissed me.
They thought that I had been killed. The joy in my simple home was enormous.
I ran through back streets to my older sister's home and I saw my father
there. He too hadn't reported. We hugged each other with joy. I told
him how I had hid in a cellar, how I heard the shooting. My father lived
in the direction of that forest into which the Jews had been herded
and he had heard the yelling and shooting. He told me all about it.
Then I went to Mechel's home and
I saw his wife and daughter crying. I knew right away that Mechel must
have reported to the Pletzl but I was afraid to ask. I finally
asked her what had happened to my uncle. His wife didn't answer me--she
was crying so hard that she couldn't answer me. Then I understood everything,
so I told her: "Wait. You'll see--he'll come back'" She quieted
down a bit and stopped crying--I had given her a hope to hang onto.
After she wiped away her tears she told me how agitated Mechel had been
at what he had seen through the window, how he ran around crazily. All
of a sudden he had dashed out of the house to report to the Germans
in the Pletzl. He had always been a very law-abiding man and
he probably felt that he had to obey the "legal", official
police order to report. His wife and little daughter had seen, from
the window, how he had been whipped on the head.
I left Mechel's house and started
to return home. There were small groups of Jews in the now-quiet streets,
talking in low, hushed voices, almost whispering to each other. I heard
an escapee explain how the Germans, riding on their horses, had kept
on shooting at the Jews. If a Jew couldn't run fast enough--one shot
and he was finished. There were fairly deep ditches on both sides of
the road, so those who had been shot were shoved into the ditches. The
whole way to Chrubyeshoov was littered with bodies. They drove those
poor Jews like wolves attacking sheep, decimating them all the while.
The Germans were yelling and shrieking: "Los, Los Verfluchte
Juden!" (Faster, Faster, accursed Jew!") 1800 Jews had
reported to the Pletzl. First the cripples were shot. Then whoever
had a good pair of shoes or boots was shot. Those who became tired --
shot. The weak -- shot. 14-15 year olds--shot. The Jews had to keep
running fast. Those who fell behind -- shot. The youngsters were shot
because the soft soles of their feet became blistered and they couldn't
run any more.
I don't understand one thing: those
Jews saw how doomed they were. They saw death hovering over them, seizing
on one Jew and then another. I don't understand why they didn't throw
themselves on the Germans or why they didn't take off in different directions.
There weren't that many Germans there. And the Jews were quite numerous.
They could have accomplished something. Admittedly, the Chrubyeshoov
forest was not thickly wooded, but still -- this forest stretched a
very long way. The Germans couldn't have killed all of them. Or even
half of them. And those Jews saw with their own eyes how their number
was being diminished every minute.
The SS were shrieking like wild
animals all the way from Chelm to Chrubyeshoov, a distance of 15-20
kilometers. The whole road was littered with blood and bodies. Those
Jews who escaped and returned looked horrible--most were badly wounded.
An acquaintance told me how he saw with his own eyes how my uncle Mechel
was shot on the outskirts of Chrubyeshoov. 200 or 300 men were left
of the original 1800. They thought that they would be freed. When they
came to Chrubyeshoov, however, they were lined up in the market square.
A roundup of Jewish men from Chrubyeshoov had taken place, and those
men were herded together with the Chelm survivors. The Chrubyeshoov
Jews looked to the Chelm survivors for information but the latter were
afraid to talk because the Germans were watching them. The women and
children of Chrubyeshoov were crying pathetically, much as had been
the case in Chelm.
The Chelm and Chrubyeshoov Jewish
men were then herded out of town. The shooting started again. The survivors
were driven to the Bug river. The Russians were on the other side, where
they held a town called Sokal. As the Jews got closer to the river the
Germans started to fire indiscriminately at the mass of men. Many Jews
were killed, and the rest ran into the water. Those who were good swimmers
were able to make it across to the Russians, but many Jews drowned.
The banks of the Bug were littered with Jewish corpses. The Russians
were, all the while, shooting too. The border was suddenly being stormed
by a mass of men. The Russians didn't know what was going on. When it
was all over the Germans stood on the river bank, laughing riotously.
They had had a great time!
Meanwhile, back in Chelm, bad news
started to circulate -- we would be confined to a ghetto. However, it
turned out that we would not be restricted to a completely closed-in
ghetto. We would be concentrated in restricted quarters -- a small area.
And we would not be allowed to walk on "Christian" streets.
We were terrified by this news, as it meant starvation. If you couldn't
move around freely, you would be unable to sell or barter for food.
The leader of the Judenrat, Biederman, ordered that we should
move into the designated small area. He wasn't a bad man; he had to
order us to do that as he had no choice at all in the matter. He was
a learned man and he wasn't as bad as other Judenrat leaders
I heard of.
We cried at this new disaster.
How could 3 or 4 families live in one room? But crying didn't help --
since we were already in the restricted area we didn't have to leave
our home, but we now occupied a small part of one room in the flat.
Our home was now full of relocated families -- strangers. When the order
to relocate had been given, we saw Jews launch themselves into feverish
activity -- packing the few things left to them and dragging them through
the streets on broken and rickety kiddy wagons, everything piled up
precariously. All of this forced moving was accompanied by crying and
shrieking and lamenting. The street scenes were terrible. Some bent-over
old Jews and old women tried to carry their life possessions on their
shoulders, and they dragged themselves through the dark streets. And
most people, not only the old, had taken on a skeleton-like appearance.
They had that beaten look. They didn't look like human beings any more
-- they looked like cadavers. Many of them felt that we were doomed
anyway. Whether we would die of hunger, or other causes, was immaterial
-- we would all die anyway. Some Jews said: "Why don't we throw
ourselves on the Germans--we have nothing to lose!" But most Jews
were too terrified to do anything.
The SS came with dogs to "inspect"
our restricted area. They looked 12 feet high in their polished leather
boots. Many Jews fainted from just looking at what seemed to be superhuman
giants. Some Germans came to look at us out of curiosity. Others came
to seize Jews for hard labor. Now that the Jews were concentrated in
a small area the SS didn't have to run all over the place to seize them.
They could be grabbed much more easily now.
Now they seized women and girls
for hard labor too. Jews lined up in the streets every morning. All
Jews carried a spoon and a small pot. The young girls' feet were swathed
in rags -- they had no shoes. The SS came, with Jewish police to keep
order, and they selected Jews. Those who were selected were already
weak, so they couldn't work hard. The SS, however, whipped them terribly
while they worked. Many who were hit on the head died at the work site
and were hastily buried there. After a few days, the survivors of those
who had been selected returned and told horrible things about what had
happened to them.
My wife and I asked ourselves:
how could we go on like this? How long could we last? Our hunger pangs
were terrible, and our son Yossele was looking worse from day to day.
I had hidden a little merchandise but I could get to it with great difficulty
because it was out of the restricted area. Once, when I had managed
to lay my hands on some of this fabric, my wife and I took a chance.
One night we took off our Star of David armbands and we went to a friendly
Christian on a non-Jewish Polish street. We were risking our lives;
we could have been shot straight away -- no explanations allowed. My
Christian acquaintance became very frightened when he saw us and crossed
himself over and over. What a chance we had taken, he told us. We gave
him the merchandise and he gave us food in return. He went cautiously
to the window, peered out very, very carefully and told us that we could
leave. We ran out, scared stiff. We cut across fields and back lanes.
We hid in a ditch because we saw a German walking some distance away.
We came out of that ditch when we could no longer see him. The fright
we felt cannot be communicated in words. We finally reached our home
and found our neighbors somewhat angry and ill-tempered. They said that
our baby had kept on crying and had disturbed them, and our boy had
woken up and cried, saying: "Food, please, food! I'm hungry! I'm
very hungry!" My wife and I took out the food we had brought and
we gave the neighbors some. We woke our children up; my wife breast-fed
the baby and we gave some food to our son. He ate with such enjoyment!
His eyes were sparkling with joy!
We heard that special camps were
being built where Jews would be killed. News of such places filtered
through to us, but we heard so many rumors that we did not give undue
attention to this one. We believed what we wanted to believe, and we
certainly didn't want to believe such rumors.
I was caught one day on the street
for hard labor and we were herded over to several large sleighs. We
had to push and pull those sleighs while the SS kept yelling: "Schnell!
Schnell! Los! Los!" and whipped us continually. I was worried
because my wife wasn't home when the Germans caught me and she would
worry, not knowing what had happened to me.
The SS were on the sleighs and
we were pulling and pushing while they kept on whipping us. I thought
that my end had come -- I would never see my loved ones again. This
continued for 2 hours until we reached a certain area of forest. When
we were told to stop we were very frightened -- we thought that the
Germans intended to shoot us there. However, they explained to us that
our job would be to flush the rabbits out of the forest, and the Germans
would shoot them. We would be "beaters".
It was so muddy. We sank up to
our knees in the muck, and yet we had to chase the rabbits. A few Jews
collapsed in the mud and drowned. Perhaps they had had heart attacks.
The mud mixed with snow made for very hard going. We had to chase the
rabbits to the edge of the forest and when they emerged from the trees
the Germans shot them. We chased those rabbits all day, while we in
turn were chased by a few shouting and cursing Germans. It seemed impossible
to chase anything in that mud but we were so frightened that we did
They filled those sleighs with
dead rabbits and, when it started to get dark, we had to push and pull
those sleighs back. We didn't know whether the Germans would let us
live or finish us off after this. The sweat was dripping from us. We
hadn't eaten all day and we were in a weakened condition to begin with.
We finally got those sleighs to what had formerly been a mental asylum
on the outskirts of Chelm where SS officers were now quartered.
There was one notoriously famous
SS man at that asylum -- a creature with blond hair and a bristling
red face. He was a real murderer -- a wild beast. When Jews were brought
there he would line them up against a wall and shoot them. He must have
heard that we were coming because from a kilometer away we heard him
bellowing with pleasure. He ran over to us like a wild man and started
to whip us mercilessly on our heads. He seemed to be enjoying every
moment of it. When his sadistic instinct was satisfied he let us go.
I dragged myself home and told
my wife what kind of a day I had had. She was aghast at what I looked
like -- I was covered with blood and welts. She gave me a bite to eat
--there really wasn't much to give me -- and I started to cry. I was
crying from joy, joy that I could still be with my loved ones, my family.
I felt that I had been spared.
The next day I got up very early
because I had found some "work" (unpaid, of course) at the
irrigation ditches of the waterworks department (Wasserwirtschaft).
Thousands of Jews "worked" there. On the street outside my
home a German approached me. I took off my hat before him, as we were
supposed to do, and kept walking. He yelled at me to stop and started
to berate me: "Why had I taken off my hat for him? We were all
"Kameraden" -- friends -- so I didn't have to do that."
I didn't say anything -- I just stood there. He gave me a slap and told
me to go back and walk past him without taking off my hat. So I did
what he ordered me to do. Then he started yelling again: now he was
angry at me for not taking my hat off. "Was I being deliberately
disrespectful of a soldier of the Reich?" He was trying to torment
and torture me. I was thoroughly confused by this time. He ordered me
to bow and kneel before him, and then he let me go.
When I got a short distance away
from him I was caught again for more forced labor. I was pushed into
a mass of bloodied and beaten Jews, and then we were herded for 2 hours
until we came to a field. We were ordered to line up in fours and we
were given shovels. The Germans gave us a few whacks in the head and
ordered us to dig ditches. We were petrified -- we thought that we were
digging our graves. But when we finished we were sent to dig more ditches
in another field. It finally dawned on us that we were digging up "Torf",
peat. As we dug the ditches filled with cold water. And we stood in
that water a whole day, without food and drink, digging.
When it started to get dark the
Germans yelled at us: the peat had to be loaded into a wagon. They whipped
us to make sure that the peat was stacked in a certain, exact way. Those
who were slipshod in their stacking were beaten even harder. And we
had to pull the wagon back, the SS sitting high up on the wagon and
shouting "Los! Los", whipping us all the while. We dragged
the loaded wagon to the mental asylum. There were cellars there, with
heavy covers, like root cellars. Every Jew had to go and lift those
covers. Those who couldn't lift them up were whipped into unconsciousness.
The SS whipped with gusto, as if we had personally insulted them. After
the unloading we were told to stand against the wall with our hands
up. We stood for hours like that, expecting to be shot at any moment.
One SS man told us that we would be shot. So we made our "vidui,"
(last confessions), quietly. The Germans started to yell that we should
count until 10, then until 20. They shot one Jew. Then they tormented
us with simulated "ready-aim-fire" orders and other of their
"games." We finally understood that their aim was to terrorize
us. They took great pleasure in this. At last, when it seemed as if
our nerves could endure no more, they chased us away from the asylum
with their whips.
I dragged myself home. My little
son jumped at me when I came in, asking me where I had been all
day, why I came home so late. What could I tell him? Wasn't the poor
child suffering enough? Did I have to add to his terror? And what could
I tell him? How could I explain that a German I had known before the
war, with whom I had traded and had cups of tea, was now a "Volksdeutscher"
and took the greatest pleasure in tormenting Jews. My wife held the
baby nestled in her arms and she was crying at what I looked like. She
didn't have to ask me what had happened -- she could see it on my face.
She gave me something to eat. It was very little but I couldn't ask
her for more because I knew what the answer would be: she had nothing
more to give me. Starvation isn't something you can communicate with
words. Only those who have been through it know. A starving person is
no longer a human being--he is just an animal with one obsession --
food. Nothing else concerns him.
The next morning I took a side
road to get to the waterworks department. I didn't want to get caught
for more forced labor. When I arrived there, the SS man in charge came
over and started berating me: why hadn't I come the previous day to
work? I told him what had happened to me, so he telephoned to check
my story. The asylum corroborated my explanation; they had methodically
written down all our names. Had I not told the truth the SS man would
have shot me on the spot.
So I continued working in the workshop
of the waterworks department. For the main work there, digging irrigation
ditches, the Germans brought only young Jewish girls. They had once
been pretty, but now they looked like 80 year-old women. They were like
skeletons, wrapped in rags. They were skin and bones -- exhausted, drained
and barefoot. And you could see that they once had been pretty, young.
They had to dig irrigation ditches so that the water would run off.
Thousands of Jewish girls stood on the fields, knee and hip-deep in
cold water, and the Germans kept yelling: "Schneller! Schneller!
" (Faster!). Those girls were hungry; nobody gave them any food.
Those who got tired were taken to a room and shot. Every day the Germans
shot 100 or so Jews that way. Many Jews simply died while working --
they fell in the fields. There were always two SS men in that room,
waiting for their victims. I know this because I worked near that room.
I heard the yelling and then the shot. In the workshop I worked with
a Roumanian-Jewish woman. I asked her: "How is all this going to
end? We're not going to be able to survive such hard work." I went
home with some other Jews and we talked amongst ourselves about the
impossibility of surviving such conditions.
The next day I worked hard, but
my supervisor, an elderly German soldier (he must have been close to
60) whipped me very hard. He beat me mercilessly. I was making ladders.
Two Germans came over to me and asked me what I had been saying to that
Roumanian-Jewish woman, the charwoman and general clean-up lady of the
workshop. The Germans asked for my papers, examined them and took me
away to another room, where there were 2 more Germans. One sat me down
roughly on a chair in the middle of the room and ordered me to tell
them exactly what I had told the woman. I said that I had told her that
with such hard work and without food we wouldn't be able to live much
longer. I had told her that I had no bread to bring home to my family.
That Roumanian-Jewish woman had obviously squealed on me to the Germans.
They kept probing, asking me all kinds of things about contacts I might
have had with other "rebellious" Jews. Of course I had no
such contacts. I had simply made a few innocent and sincere remarks
to that woman. The Germans started to yell at me and ordered me to turn
over and pull down my pants. They then started to whip me. They whipped
me for a long time till I was unconscious. They must have taken a pail
of water and thrown it on me They let a savage dog loose on me; he bit
me terribly. Then they shoved me, staggering badly, out of the room
and shouted at me that the next day I would be finished off. I crawled
home and told my wife that we were finished. She cried and my son cried
too. All of this happened a day before Shavuoth, 1942.
The next day we heard that there
would be an Aktion. My wife, with the children, ran to my parents
to hide, since they still lived on a street which had a majority of
Christians. I heard shooting outside. I looked outside through my small
crack and I saw Germans shooting Jews, grabbing small children and throwing
them into wagons dripping with blood. I saw a woman who tried to run
and hide. She was spotted by a German who ran over to her and shot her
dead on the spot. Her children fell on their dead mother's body, and
they too were shot by the Germans. The Germans were running around all
over the place looking for more victims. They were completely wild.
I started to cry. I kept worrying about my family.
After a while I heard somebody
knock at the door. I recognized my mother's voice so I crawled out of
my false beam and I let her in. We sat down and she told me how an SS
man had come to her door and had seen the baby at my wife's breast and
my little boy holding her hand. The SS man left them alone. They had
been, almost miraculously, lucky. They had hit on the one SS who may
have had a spark of human decency left in him. My mother cried terribly
for the half-hour she sat with me, and then got up to go. I said: "Ma,
where are you going? I'm not letting you go. Don't you see that they're
killing women and children in the streets?" My mother was stubborn,
however. She insisted. She had to go. She had collected valuables from
Jews and she owed this to friendly Christians who had given her food.
She explained that she had to settle her debts with those Christians.
She was a very pious and honest woman. She pulled herself away from
my hands and left the house. That was the last time I saw my mother.
She was seized on the street by the Germans and thrown into a truck.
Shortly afterwards my wife and
children came in. They told me how my father had escaped from the Aktion
by hiding in his attic, but his Christian neighbors squealed on him
and told the Germans exactly where he was. The Germans came for him,
beat him mercilessly and took him away. My wife saw that she couldn't
stay amongst such squealers, so she came back home. My wife was realistic;
she must have had a foreboding of doom. She made a package of a few
diapers, some food and a small coverlet. Remember: I wasn't supposed
to be there at all. I didn't have proper papers. When we heard heavy
footsteps coming up the stairs, I dashed into my false beam. I heard
2 SS men come in and ask my wife: "where is your husband?"
She answered: "I no longer have a husband." They turned to
my little boy: "Where is your father?" He said: "I no
longer have a father." He was a smart boy. The SS men shouted "Verfluchte
Juden" and took my wife and children away. I heard the shouting
of the SS and the shrieking and howling of the terrorized Jews. Through
my crack I saw Germans pulling bloodied people, like sacks, out of buildings.
Later, when I came out, I saw that our whole stairway was covered with
blood. I saw blood-covered hats on the stairs. Even now, so many years
later, my heart beats so hard and fast when I recall this, but how can
I forget it? How can anyone forget such a thing?
I remained in my hiding place till
the night came and then I looked out and saw people walking around,
unmolested. I ran to my parents' house and my sister was there; she
told me over and over how the Christian neighbors had squealed on my
father and how she had hidden and saved herself. I ran to my mother-in-law
to see how she was. She was crying terribly; she knew what had happened.
I started to cry too. Yocheved's mother said that a catastrophe had
struck the Jews. It had been sent by God. She said we shouldn't cry
because the same fate would soon happen to all of us. The Messiah (Mooshiach)
was coming soon -- very soon -- so all of this was foreordained. It
had to happen. She was a very pious woman, exceedingly religious, and
she tried to comfort me as best she could. Then, when she saw the depth
of my grief, she tried to comfort me with other words: "Maybe they
took Yocheved and the children to a labor camp."
I ran to my mother-in-law's brother,
Elya, and with a pleading voice I asked him what he thought. He answered:
"What are you crying for? You see that we'll all shortly be dead
anyhow -- it's impossible that we'll remain alive." I returned
to my house; a few people were left there. I looked at the clothing
of my wife and children. There are no words powerful enough to express
my feelings at that time.
The remaining Jews thought that
the tragic period was over. Things would become quiet and no such terrible
Aktions would recur. The SS did become quiet for awhile, and
the Jews thought that this was the way things would remain. Then they
started to catch Jews again. This was the system they used: they alternated
terror with tranquillity. The Jewish police were still doing their "work";
the Judenrat was still operating. The Jewish police went to each house
after the Aktion and made new lists of the remaining population -- those
who had survived. The Germans then ordered the survivors to live closer
together, in a more narrowly restricted area. Two new families, with
4 children, were sent to live in my home. I could no longer use my hiding
place. My new neighbors resented my presence -- they would have preferred
to have the house all to themselves.
So life, if it could be called
that, went on. There were some Jews left. People's spirits improved,
but I was shattered. I was completely dejected, totally depressed. In
my house there were strangers now who dressed in my wife's clothes;
their children wore my little one's clothes. I was a broken man; I couldn't
sleep. When I saw them in those clothes I just couldn't control my tears.
They slept in my bed and I no longer had a bed to sleep in. I kept a
bit of merchandise in a chest, so I slept on the lid of that chest.
I had lost my bed because I was outnumbered by them; they simply took
the bed over and that was that. I had been left all alone. I only had
Time passed and it was quieter
now in Chelm. One day I felt that I was at the brink -- I was at the
breaking point. My sanity was going. I ran to my sister and I told her
that I couldn't take the troubles any longer. I just couldn't stand
it any more. She comforted me and reminded me that we still had each
other. Her presence did something for me, because she was a reminder
and a remnant of my former life. As long as I could reminisce with her
I still had a past. I was caught for forced labor when I left her house.
I was lucky, however, because they released me at the end of the day.
A big camp, using the military
barracks of Chelm as a nucleus, was built. All the Jews from Chelm and
the surrounding shtetlach were "invited" to report
there. So a whole procession started -- women in rags, children with
little wagons pulling a few possessions, old men dragging bundles, stalked
by fear. Where could they run to? So they reported to the camp. I saw
all of this procession of "volunteers" drag themselves to
the camp. The Judenrat and the Jewish police were still operating
(only later were they taken away with all the rest). The policemen wore
special hats. Then a new order was issued: all Jews had to report
to the barracks. There were many thousands of Jews in that camp. It
was fenced in with guards. There were Jewish kapos there too.
People slept crowded together on 5 or 6 levels of wooden bunks. The
Jewish prisoners were given 100 grams of bread a day and a kind of weak
soup. They had to work very hard and were beaten regularly.
I didn't report to that camp. Some
of my neighbors in my flat also didn't report. Because of them I could
no longer use my false-beam hiding place. Anyhow, they wanted to get
rid of me. With me gone, there would be one less body in the crowded
room. And they could "help themselves" to my meager possessions.
One woman in the flat had lost her husband so she wanted all Jewish
husbands everywhere to die. Another had lost 2 brothers who were my
age, so she looked at me and her eyes seemed to say: "Why are you
alive and they're not?" Somebody in my house squealed on me. One
day the Gestapo burst into the flat, ran right over to me and told me
to tell them where I had hidden my merchandise. They didn't have to
beat me-they knew I was totally helpless in their hands. I showed them
where all the merchandise was. They brought a truck and I had to load
all the merchandise on it. All the Gestapo were billeted in a new area
of Chelm, so I had to go with the Gestapo men there and unload the merchandise.
When I finished they beat me and drove me straight to the big new military
barracks camp and shoved me in. I was no longer a free man.
I was shown a bunk where I would
sleep. Every day thousands of Jews were shipped into this camp and every
day thousands were taken away, never to be heard from again. Nobody
knew where they had been taken. The SS, with whips in hand, would supervise
these "shipments." There were men, women and children in this
camp. A very tense and melancholy atmosphere hung over the place. Security
was very strong -- electric fences, dogs, etc. People were talking openly
now; they said that those who had been taken away had been gassed in
gigantic gas chambers. I spoke quietly to some Jews. "Let's try
something, let's do something." I said. But I was told time and
again: "This is the time of mooshiach's (Messiah's) arrival,
we have to die anyhow so why waste effort?" Every morning there
was "eintreten" -- lining up in three's. Some were
sent to work, others were shipped out of the camp and were never heard
from again. Few returned from the work details, but those few who did
return told horrible things about digging ditches and having to throw
their own children into those ditches. My brother-in-law Bergmann told
me he had seen this with his own eyes.
There was a kapo there named
Scherer, who used to live on my street in Chelm. He used to buy flour
from my father. He had been our friend, and yet this tall kapo
used to beat me mercilessly in the camp. I asked him: "You know
me. You remember me. How can you hit me like that?" He answered:
"Here I don't know anybody and I don't remember anybody!"
I said: "We used to give you credit when you lacked money. We sold
to you at very cheap prices because we knew you were having a hard time.
We were good neighbors." For an answer he hit me hard several times
and shouted: "Here nobody is my neighbor! Here everybody is a stranger
to me!" Every day Jews became weaker. The food rations weren't
nearly minimally sufficient.
People are odd. Like Scherer, other
ordinary, "normal" people underwent massive personality changes
at this camp. I saw a man I knew, Tishler, a carpenter. He had had a
wife and 4 children all shipped to their deaths. And yet Tishler was
dancing and singing and partying with the other kitchen kapos.
He looked well because he ate well. Once, looking at him, I burst into
tears. My friend said: "Kalmen, why are you crying? They'll kill
you if they notice you crying!" I found the scene of that Tishler
carousing like that disgusting. He had lost all that was meaningful
to him, and there he was partying, enjoying and having a great good
I saw a woman I had known in pre-war
Chelm. Her family had owned a big shoe store; she had been a refined
woman with two children. At the camp, she thought that her husband and
children were dead (as it turned out, he was in Russia and survived
the war). She started to carry on with a gang of vulgar kapos
in the most lascivious way. I can't forget her dancing and singing,
like a cabaret stripper of the lowest type. She was later shipped to
Sobibor in "my" transport, and that was the end of her.
One morning, at "eintreten",
they asked if there was a cabinet maker amongst us. I picked up my hand
-- I was a carpenter but I could also make cabinets. A Wehrmacht
man came over and took me away, to show me some windows that needed
repair. He took me to his room and he must have perceived that I was
very sad because he spoke to me openly, on a man-to-man basis, with
much sympathy, and understanding. We all were afraid to look directly
at a German's face, and here was a German who spoke to me like a friend!
He really restored my feelings, my image of myself as a human being.
He told me that Hitler had ordered the liquidation of all of the Jews;
this would be followed by the liquidation of the Poles, and of many
other races. I saw that this Wehrmacht man was a decent human
being, so I unburdened myself to him; I told him that my wife, my two
children and my mother and father had been killed by the SS. Had I spoken
like that to an SS man, well, that would have been unthinkable! But
my punishment would not have been unthinkable -- a slow and painful
This Wehrmacht soldier gave
me excellent food from his own rations. Then he gave me some tools to
fix his windows. He told me: "You must be constantly working. What
is most important is that you must always be seen to be working or you'll
be reported! There are terrible reporters around here!"
He explained that he didn't have very much for me to do there, so I
had to return to the barracks to sleep at night. However, when this
window job would be finished, he would claim that he needed me for more
work. He said that I should listen to the "talk" in the barracks
because the kapos knew when big transports of Jews were to be
shipped out of the camp. He said that if I heard about an impending
shipment of Jews out of the camp I should tell him immediately and he
would protect me by coming at once and taking me away to work. He had
registered me in some administrative office of the camp and this allowed
me to walk around freely there with some tools.
One night, in 1942, in summer,
at 3 A.M., the SS surrounded our barracks and took about 1,500 of us
out. People were yelling and crying terribly; most knew what this meant.
We were herded to freight wagons. Such trains kept going day and night,
transporting Jews to their deaths. Before this, the Wehrmacht soldier
had saved me twice, but this time neither he nor I had any foreknowledge
of the transport. I couldn't notify him and I therefore lost my protector.
The SS brutes were yelling, swearing
and cursing loudly. They shoved us into the freight-wagons like animals.
The wagons were packed with small children, sick and wounded people,
corpses and hysterical Jews; the crying and yelling was indescribable.
My wagon was filled with the last survivors of the Chelm Jewish community.
They hadn't been in the camp. They had been herded directly from Chelm
to the train for direct shipment. Ukrainian brutes had been used to
drag these Jews out of bunkers, attics and assorted hiding places. The
freight-wagons had no windows. Many of the Jews said that we were being
taken to gas ovens, to our deaths. A few even knew the actual
name of the place -- Sobibor. But who could believe them? After all,
those Chelm Jews had been caught at night, and many of them were disoriented
The wagons had been packed chock-full
of people and the doors had been sealed shut with a loud sound of heavy
metal scraping on other metal. That summer night was a hellish one!
There were two Ukrainian soldiers in our wagon, and they said openly
that we were all being taken to be gassed. We were finished -- we would
never come back. They said our destination was Sobibor, a "vernichtungs
lager" (extermination camp) that had been opened a short time
earlier. There was no way out and no way back, they said. They were
heavily armed, and they ordered us to hand over to them all gold, money
and jewelry. Many Jews handed over whatever they had, but I didn't.
I gave nothing. I had a piece of gold, rings, etc and they came in useful
later on. I still have my family photos today -- they are my most precious
possession. I had had my wife's wedding ring specially made for her,
but I had to sell it later on in order to survive. Maybe it's better
that I sold it -- I couldn't bear to look at it then, and I probably
couldn't look at it now.
The Ukrainians kept beating mercilessly
because not all Jews had something to hand over to those animals. They
had to beat it out of some Jews. There were soon many bloodied Jews
in our wagon. Many of the freight-wagons had no Ukrainians, but ours
had them. The Germans obviously lacked enough personnel for each wagon.
A few Jews, knowing that we were all being taken to extermination, ripped
up some wooden slats of the wagon wall and jumped out as the train passed
slowly through very thick forests. The Ukrainians had the train stopped
and they went out to pursue the fleeing Jews. Of course, some Jews got
away but most were brought back dead to the train and tossed back into
the wagons. In my own wagon they tossed in 2 dead Jews who had been
shot while trying to get away. They re-sealed the freight-wagons and
the train continued on its hellish way. The train trip took most of
one day; the train stopped many times during the trip.