After plunging through the forest
in a half-crazed state, I found myself with about 55 other escapees.
I rejoiced to see that my friend Shlomo Elster had made it out of
hell too. There were a few other men there who had worked in the tailors'
shop. We were fortunate because our leader and the architect of the
escape, Sasha Pechersky, was in our group, and he had a compass. We
often crawled into ditches that wound their way through the forest
and we became disoriented; Sasha would use his compass to point us
in the right direction.
Sasha seemed to know something
about the area we were in, while all of us were in a state of hysterical
shock -- none of us could think straight.Sasha
led us for days and nights. He no longer had any bullets left. We
would sneak into hamlets to beg for food--any food. The peasants saw
that we were many, so they would grudgingly hand over some bread.
There were some female escapees with us too. Had they been alone they
wouldn't have had a chance with those wily and cunning peasants, but
the fact that they were accompanied by many desperate men protected
them. The first
peasants we approached soon after our escape told us that they had
heard that Jews who had escaped from Sobibor had been caught by special
German squads, so we took off immediately and moved further away from
Sobibor. Every time we approached peasants we heard the same sad tale--more
Sobibor escapees had been caught. Our fellow survivors were being
slowly and methodically hunted down.
It was evident that Sasha was
nervous as a result of the behavior of some of us. His own Russian
soldiers could follow orders perfectly, but some of our Polish Jews
could not walk single-file without falling back and getting lost.
Or they would whisper to each other, sometimes loudly, when Sasha
had ordered total and complete silence. Some even shouted to each
other: "Shloime, where are you?"
Sasha announced that he was taking
nine of "his" people to buy weapons or bullets or food.
A hat was passed around, we all tossed money into it, and soon Sasha
and "his" soldier comrades were gone. We who were left behind
became very frightened. We had a feeling that something was wrong.
However, Sasha and the others had said that they would return, so
we waited. And waited. And waited. Nobody from that group returned
We became extremely nervous because
we thought that those ten men, all seasoned soldiers, had been lured
into a trap and wiped out. After the war I found out that Sasha
had felt that he had done for us what he had promised: he had led
us successfully out of Sobibor. He wanted to strike out swiftly for
the Soviet lines and we were a burden to him--we endangered him. And
so he never came back. (He reached the Soviet lines and continued
the war as a Red Army soldier. He was later decorated for military
battles in which he participated).
However, we who had been left
behind didn't have any choice--we had to keep going. So we went further
and further into the trees. We avoided roads and paths, and kept to
the dense undergrowth. Our numbers diminished every day -- people
took off on their own. They saw that we were wandering aimlessly,
so small groups left. They thought that the fewer the better -- in
small groups there would be a lesser chance of being noticed and getting
caught. We were down to 12 men; Shloime Elster was still with me.
He had worked at my side as a carpenter in Sobibor, and we were still
We had only one pistol, but we
all had sharp knives hidden in our tattered pants. We went into hamlets
at night to buy food and weapons. All of us contributed a little money
for these expeditions, and we always went at night. We were more at
ease at night because the Germans didn't search at night--they were
afraid of Partisans.
So the days and nights passed.
Shloime and I became more and more disconsolate and depressed. We
were haunted by fear, consumed with hunger, weakened and filthy. We
washed as best we could. We were thirsty, so we drank much water.
Our thirst drove us to take chances and drink from streams and rivulets.
We were bitten all over by lice. At night we would be preoccupied
by one thing: to find a hiding place, because the day would soon come.
Our nerves became more steady when we stumbled upon thick forests.
Sobibor was not that far away
from Chelm and I started to recognize the area we were in. I knew,
in a general way, where we were and what the surrounding area was
like, and so I disagreed vehemently with the other members of our
group--they wanted to go in a certain direction which I was sure would
lead them straight back to Sobibor. We couldn't resolve our differences
and we were all very angry.
The night came and some of our
group approached a hamlet to beg for bread. One of them had a rifle
but he had no bullets for it. They got small bread loaves, pirogen,
and some potatoes. In our 12 man group, Shloime and I were by far
the oldest. The others were all 17 or 18 years old, and they were
uncomfortable with us. They obviously felt that we were a burden to
them. That night, when they returned with that food, they gave Shloime
and me very, very little--much less than an equal share. After we
ate our pittance, we had to start preparing our hiding place for the
following day. We had to rip up bushes, make a clearing under branches,
dig a hole, etc.--all with our knives. We had to make mini-bunkers
and mask the entrances, so that anybody 2 meters away would not see
the hiding places. As we dug and ripped, I saw the others looking
angrily at Shloime and me. We were hungry, so we worked slowly. We
needed strength--which we lacked--to rip up bushes, hack off branches,
etc. Perhaps the others discriminated against us because Shloime was
on the "slow" side -- he was very shy, almost semi-retarded.
If we would have had sufficient food we would have had the strength
to rip up the bushes, cut the branches, etc. So I decided to speak
directly and truthfully to our fellow escapees. I told them that they
weren't behaving properly. Everybody should share equally. It wasn't
right that they should eat till they were full, give us tiny rations,
and then expect us to work like horses digging hide-outs, etc.-- it
just wasn't fair. I told them: "When I'm well-fed I can work
like a horse--I've been a worker all my life, but with what you give
us I simply can't find the strength." And I started to cry as
I was pleading with them. I told them that although they were younger
than I was, I would leave them. '"We all faced death together
every day in Sobibor," I said, "and now that we're free
is that a way to behave?" I told them that they were animals,
not humans, and I cried. I told them that with such behavior they
I spoke to them like that for
a few days, not just on one occasion. And I told them that eventually
they would be captured because of their greediness which led them
to take too many chances. They used to go into hamlets and get whiskey,
spirits, and other strong drinks. My instincts told me that, quite
apart from their treatment of Shloime and me, if I remained with them
I would be finished, sooner or later. However, they were not all bad.
I remember one of them, named Kratke, who only ate bread and drank
water. He was very devout -- perhaps he had been a rabbi. He wouldn't
touch anything with meat and avoided soup because he didn't know the
I cried often now. I told our
fellow escapees that they were ignoramuses and fools. My heart told
me that sooner or later they would meet a bad end, and this strengthened
my resolve to leave them. I had had enough. I invited Shloime to come
with me. I told him, "Shloime come with me! We can't remain with
these slobs any longer. We no longer have homes to return to, but
to stay with such people is impossible. It's suicide. I'm not telling
you what to do, Shloime. Maybe we'll get caught...maybe we'll starve
to death. But staying with those fools is suicide. If you want to
come, Shloime, I'll take you with me. It's up to you." Shloime
told me that he didn't want to come with me. One of the young men
told me that he would shoot me for talking like I did. He said that
I was frightening everybody. I told him, "I no longer have a
mother, father, wife or children. My home is gone. So go ahead--shoot
me if you want to. I don't give a damn anymore!"
I said goodbye to all of them
and I invited Shloime once more to come with me. When they saw that
I was really leaving and not just talking, they conferred with each
other and handed me a parting gift--a 2 kilogram loaf of bread. That
bread filled me with courage. I would start off on a positive note.
It was as if somebody had handed me a big diamond. Regardless of what
had transpired, I shook hands with them, wished them luck and left.
After 5 minutes I heard a noise
behind me. I turned around and there was Shloime plunging through
the undergrowth towards me. He had changed his mind! We hugged each
other and clung to each other, crying and sobbing all the while. We
wandered around in the pitch blackness. We had to take care not to
fall into a hole or ditch. We heard the voices of our fellow escapees
become more and more faint as we plunged ahead, into a big forest.
I planned to get back to Chelm,
where I knew every square meter of land. There I would be on home
ground. So we continued to move ahead until we saw a small house at
the edge of the forest. It was still night so we went up to the house,
knocked on a window, and asked how many kilometers it was to Sobibor.
We were afraid of inadvertently circling back to Sobibor. Our aim
was to get as far away from that hell as possible. A man came to the
window; that was good--he was one and we were two. And we did have
extremely sharp knives on us. Shloime and I weren't "delicate"
people--we had been manual workers all our lives, so we were still
fairly strong, notwithstanding all that we had been through. The man
at the window was a Ukrainian, although he spoke Russian to us. He
said he would show us where we were--we should come in through the
door. He would open it for us. He was so friendly, so warm, so affable.
However, one of us noticed that he was hiding an axe behind his back.
So instead of going to the door we took off.
Shloime ran faster than I could
run--he practically flew! But as he was running he fell into a deep
puddle of freezing water. I pulled him out. He was shivering and he
kept on shivering--it was a very cold night. I was well-dressed; I
had dressed with a triple layer of clothing on the day of the uprising
because I felt that warm clothing would be very useful. Some of our
fellow escapees had prepared small packages of clothing and furs which
they carried with them during the uprising, but those packages seemed
to have slowed them down and most of them didn't get away from Sobibor.
Perhaps the packages made them inviting targets for the German and
Ukrainian soldiers. My topmost layer of clothing was a raincoat, so
I took it off and put it on Shloime. His own clothes had become soaked.
We rested a while and continued on, going all night in the direction
of Sabeen, a village near Chelm where we used to go, in pre-war days,
to sell at the market. From there we could easily get to Chelm since
we knew all the roads.
Once again we went up to a house.
The roosters had started to crow, and that meant that the dawn was
coming. An old man lived in that house. When we asked him how many
kilometers it was to Sabeen, he "crossed" himself and said
that it was 8 kilometers away. He was frightened and we were frightened
too, because the dogs had started to bark loudly. We kept going and
when the dawn came we slipped into a thick forest. Now, with the light,
we could see hares jumping through the undergrowth, scattering at
our approach. We kept far away from the paths in that forest; we often
had to cut our way through the thick growth. From a thicket some distance
away from a nearby road we saw many marching German soldiers. They
fired their rifles in the air; this seemed to be a deliberate procedure
which they followed when moving through a forest. Perhaps they sought
to frighten partisans away with gunfire, but it terrified Shloime
and me. The German soldiers, however, soon marched further and further
away from us.
When the night finally came we
ran over to a peasant driving a horse-drawn wagon and asked him the
distance to Sabeen. He answered that it was 5 kilometers away. When
he drove into Sabeen he must have immediately reported our presence
to the German authorities, or the "Soltis" (Mayor-Municipal
Chief). Shloime and I were sitting in the forest and resting, and
suddenly we heard shooting. We both panicked. Shloime remained frozen
to a tree and I ran off. That was the last I saw of Shloime Elster
till the post-war period. I was now utterly and completely alone.
As I plunged on wildly I felt my legs give way and I blacked out.
I woke up in a ditch in that
forest. I didn't know who I was or where I was. I didn't know how
long I had been in that ditch. I had, literally, been frightened out
of my wits by the shooting. I had lost my sanity. As my sanity slowly
returned and I started to remember, I started to cry, a convulsive
and loud cry. Now I was all alone in the world, with nobody and nothing.
I stood up and looked at what had become of me. What was I to do now?
The bread was gone--perhaps I
had lost it when I ran like a madman through the forest. I was very
hungry. I stumbled on a big field where row upon row of cabbages had
been cut. I used my sharp knife to cut some stalks which I ate right
there--they were delicious--and I put some in my pockets. I was still,
however extremely thirsty. I kept wandering through the countryside,
moving all the while towards Chelm. By luck I stumbled across a well
and drank my fill.
The next day I found a small
forest. I entered it and dug myself a hide-out in a thicket. I took
off my topcoat and used it as a cover; by pulling it over my head
I warmed myself with my breath. After a few days in that hide-out
I moved on, and one night I saw the lights of Chelm, far away. I had
come a very long way, avoiding all roads and paths. Now I had to cross
the railway tracks to get to Chelm, and those tracks were patrolled.
I slipped across them, my heart beating like a loud clock. The insane
asylum I mentioned earlier was nearby and many Germans were quartered
Late at night I entered my beloved
Chelm. I had a good business friend, a Ukrainian, to whom I had entrusted
much of my merchandise for safekeeping. He lived on Palestina street.
So, in late October of 1943, worn-out and filled with despair, I knocked
at his door. When he answered, I greeted him and begged him for a
piece of bread. He looked angrily at me and shouted: "You scum,
if you don't leave immediately I'm calling the Gestapo to come and
get you!" When I heard that I ran away. Near his
house there were large, ditch-covered fields where peat had been dug
up. These ditches were full of water, and I crawled into a deep ditch
Near that area there
was a small forest that I knew well from my boyhood. We used to go there,
in groups of boys and girls, to pick blueberries. This was near the
Chelm cattle slaughterhouse. I had to pass that slaughterhouse, now
used to murder Jews, to get to the small forest. I crawled on my belly.
From a distance I saw Germans on guard duty, marching 10-15 meters in
one direction and then turning and retracing their steps. I had to slip
by several such soldiers doing guard duty. I had only one thing going
for me--I knew every square meter of that area. Finally, just as the
day dawned, I slipped into the forest.
I crawled into a cave and dug
a hide-out, where I rested. There were small mice there and they crawled
all over me. They weren't at all frightened of a human being; it was
almost as if they knew how helpless I was. I lay there all day, tormented
by thirst. When the night came I left my hide out and set out for
a small hamlet, Stolpeen, which was not too far away. When I got there
I went over to a well and I drank and drank till I was ready to burst.
Two peasants came to the well, filled some containers with water and
looked at me very coldly. I had an acquaintance in Stolpeen--an old
man who lived there with his wife. His family had converted to Catholicism
long before the war. I had done some carpentry work for him in pre-war
days. I knocked at his door and when he opened it and saw me he crossed
himself from fear. "Maske Boshke (Holy Mother),
Maske Boshke!" he kept exclaiming. I reminded him of the
job I had done for him and he remembered me well. He told me, in a
wavering and terrified voice, that Germans had come every day to Stolpeen
and taken the Jews away to be killed. He mentioned -- one I knew --
Itche Trabeeners, who had been killed right there. He told me that
when a Jew was found to be hiding in a Christian's house, the house
was burned to the ground. He knelt before me and begged me to go elsewhere.
However, he gave me a big piece of bread and a jug of milk. I realized
that Stolpeen was a dangerous place for me, because only Ukrainians
lived there now. All the Jews had been killed. I would stand out like
a sore thumb. So I ate my fill and said "Dobranitz"
(good night) to the old man; he answered me, in a much-relieved voice,
"Dobranitz," and I left.
I went into another small forest
and dug myself a hide-out. I used branches to cover it and I covered
the branches with clumps of earth and leaves. I prepared an escape
hatch out of my dug-out, just to be on the safe side. I crawled into
my hide out as soon as the dawn came. Many times young shepherds appeared
near me. Sometimes they came in pairs, one watching 20 or so cows
and another, a short distance away, doing the same thing. If a shepherd
would have started up with me I was ready to finish him off. I had
a big cudgel and my sharp knife. Moreover, they were young striplings
and I was relatively strong, and very, very desperate. I had one big
problem--my thoughts. I could not control what I was thinking, and
I spent many hours in my dug-out, thinking and remembering the life
I had before the war. The faces of my loved ones, now gone, flashed
before my eyes hundreds of times, and their voices echoed and re-echoed
in my ears. How many times did I hear my son's joyous "Papa,
I couldn't remain in my dug-out
any longer because peasants started to come into the forest to cut
wood. They were rough-looking, and sooner or later they would have
found me. I headed for a hamlet where I had made furniture at the
start of the war. I approached a house where I had worked. First I
checked it out completely to make sure that no strangers were in or
around the house. I knocked on the windowpane and the head of the
house came out. He didn't recognize me but he trembled from fear.
I spoke to him softly, reminding him of the table and beds I had made
him. He kept looking nervously around him as I spoke; he was petrified
that Germans might spot him talking to a fugitive Jew and burn down
his house. He was a decent man--he took me into the house, sat me
down, and gave me a jug of milk and a piece of bread. I told him all
I had been through--what Sobibor really was, how we revolted, etc.
I thanked him sincerely, but he told me never to return to him again.
He said that many fugitive Jews had been caught in that area, and
he was afraid to be involved in such matters.
I wandered all over the place
to kill time. I knew the area and I used to burrow into hiding places.
I often returned to a hamlet where I had made windows. Since I had
worked there many weeks, the dogs didn't bark at me--they ran up and
licked my hand, whimpering affectionately because they recognized
me. I was grateful for even these small affectionate gestures from
animals, especially since dogs were usually my enemies. The peasant
for whom I had made the most windows did not reject me. He took me
into his barn and asked me what I wanted. I asked him for bread and
water. He said he had no bread but he would give me drinking water.
And he offered me cooked potato peels that he kept for his pigs. He
had plenty of bread but he didn't want to give me any. So I drank
his water and chewed on the peels, grateful for even that small
pittance. I was very much afraid that he would tip-off the Soltis
and that would be the end of me. I'd be seized, handed over with great
glee to the Germans, and they would shoot me on the spot. Don't forget
that Poles were rewarded for catching Jews and turning them in. I
had an instinctive feeling that this peasant I had spoken to was not
to be trusted--he had probably made his move to contact the authorities
the moment I left. So I ran over to an enormous haystack--very high,
higher than a hut--and burrowed very deep into it. Looking at that
haystack, nobody would have ever thought that a human being was in
there. I remained there for several days, and every night I would
emerge from the straw, looking for something to eat. I could still
find cabbage stalks, or the odd cabbage leaf, in the fields. After
a few days I found an empty bottle, so I kept it filled with drinking
water and that made my situation somewhat easier to bear.
I couldn't stay
in the haystack forever, so I moved on and entered a hamlet that was
totally strange to me. I didn't know a soul there. I was looking for
a handout of food which would keep me going for another 2 or 3 days.
The dogs started to bark even when I was a fair distance away. I became
very frightened. A mean dog even attacked me, but I never moved about
without my cudgel. I fended the dog off with it and I beat and cursed
the animal. Who was he picking on? A worn-out, broken-down Jew who had
lost everything in life. I looked at that dog reproachfully--he too
had joined the ranks of my tormentors, of those who resented the fact
that even one Jew was still alive.
Many Jews had lived in that hamlet
in pre-war times. I knew this from the large number of ruined and
dismantled houses that dotted the village. These houses had been taken
apart by "pickers" those peasants who were looking
for gold, jewels, silver, etc. I hid in the ruins of one of those
dismantled houses and I dragged myself around at night, looking for
food. Nobody ever came near those ruins because they had been ransacked
so thoroughly. The ruin I was in was strewn with human excrement;
I didnt know whether Jews had been hiding there and had left
this excrement, or whether passers-by had used this place to relieve
themselves. Perhaps the scavengers, or "pickers" had relieved
themselves on the spot while looking for precious things. However,
that malodorous state of affairs was good for me because people would
keep away from such a smelly place. Anyhow, the whole area had been
declared "Judenrein" (cleaned of all Jews) so nobody
would go looking for Jews there. Jews were officially extinct.
I remained there
for many days, filling my water bottle every night from wells. The peasants
disappeared during the nights. They were afraid of the Germans, and
they were even more afraid of various and assorted bands of real partisans,
so-called "partisans", and thieves who lurked in the area.
So I wasn't noticed when I went out at night looking for water. The
peasants and farmers remained inside at night because, when darkness
fell anybody who was seen moving around by somebody else was assumed
to be hostile and was to be killed. Once, during a night-time expedition
for water, I had a stroke of luck: I spotted a whole sack of onions
behind a house. With great joy and much trepidation I took the heavy
sack on my shoulders and dragged myself back to my hideout in the wrecked
Jewish house. For days and days I munched on those onions with great
enjoyment. I savored every bite. That sack, to me, was a real treasure.
To this day, onions are something special for me because I remember
how I relished them then, during my darkest moments.
When the onions were gone I remembered
that I had worked, in another hamlet, for a certain woman who had
two sons, one 10 years old and the other 12. I had made windows for
her and small pieces of furniture. I packed my meager possessions
(water bottle, etc.) and I walked to her hamlet. I approached her
house and knocked at the door. I wasn't afraid because she had no
husband. When she opened the door and saw me she burst into tears.
I must have been quite a sight -- filthy, haggard, and wild looking.
I begged her for bread and I started to cry too. Her boys were also
crying. She mumbled: "Yezus, Yezus!" She mumbled
so loudly that I was afraid that the neighbors would hear her. When
she tried to shove me away from the door I pointed to the windows
I had made and I reminded her: "Do you forget the work I did
for you? It's me -- the carpenter. Please, give me a small piece of
bread -- I'm starving!" I offered to work for her, but she didn't
want to hear of it. She was crying, her boys were crying, and I was
crying. It was dark all around -- pitch black. She was very, very
frightened and started to yell "Diabel" at me. "Diabel,
Diabel! Yezus! Yezus!" She thought I was the devil. The place
had been Judenrein for a long time so she wasn't expecting
to see a live Jew. She didn't think Jews still existed, so she became
kind of hysterical. In her hysterical state she became very strong
and shoved me out, giving me nothing. I became very frightened of
that whole hamlet and I ran from there rapidly. I was afraid that,
in her panic, she would run to the Soltis who was deputized to seize
Jews and hand them over to the Germans. I couldn't understand this
woman's attitude. When I had worked for her she had given me such
large pieces of delicious bread and cakes and now -- the only response
I elicited from her were hysterical shrieks of "Diabel, Diabel!"
and "Yezus, Yezus!" I couldn't understand it.
And so I continued my wanderings
amongst these small hamlets--from Tereshin to Podubye, from Podubye
to Eleesev, from Eleesev to Benyantzu, and them on to Tereshanke.
I knocked on the window of a house where I had once made beds and
tables for a woman. When the woman came to the window she recognized
me immediately. She had no husband but was relatively wealthy. I remember
that she had a noticeable limp. That woman didn't let me into the
house, but she opened the window and thrust a big chunk of bread into
my arms. I grasped that bread to me like the most precious treasure.
I had worked a long time there making those beds and tables, so the
dog knew me. Although she told me to go away immediately, I was too
exhausted to obey her. I hid in her barn, where hay was stacked as
high as a house. I burrowed into it until I reached the furthest point
possible. The hay pile was an old one, so the hay was thick and matted,
providing excellent cover. If anybody came to get hay, they would
take it from the bottom part of the pile nearest them, not from the
back, and so I would remain unnoticed.
Every night I would tunnel out
of the pile and sneak down to the woman's cellar. I found apples there
and some vegetables stored away for winter. I ate whatever was edible,
and it seemed to me then that I had discovered a buried treasure.
With the apples I ate, very carefully, some bread, because I rationed
the big piece of bread which the woman had given me. I had enormous
willpower then, a willpower born of desperation, and I stretched that
piece of bread out to last as long as possible. I thought then that
I had found paradise! I believed that this form of existence was the
way the new life would be, at least for Jews.
Once, it snowed heavily. I had
sneaked, as usual, into the cellar to steal some food. The woman's
son saw footprints in the snow; he followed them and found me. He
seized me roughly by my arm. I begged him to leave me go. I reminded
him that I had made the very bed he slept on. I also reminded him
how well we had gotten along when I worked there. My pleas apparently
had some effect. He let go of my arm, shoved me away, and made me
promise never to return there. He was afraid that the neighbors would
see me lurking around the house; they would squeal, and then the Germans
would burn the whole house down. His fear was not just speculative--that's
what the Germans did. They locked the people inside and burned houses
down. I took off in a panic. I was afraid that he would change his
mind or notify the Soltis.
I headed straight for a forest
and plunged into it. I made myself a hiding place deep in the thick
forest. I used my knife to dig a hole and I covered it with thick
branches. My hole was invisible, even for somebody who was very near.
During the nights I resumed my nocturnal expeditions of looking for
food. Meanwhile, it was getting colder from day to day. I would sneak
into cellars, looking for carrots, potatoes, etc. Every minute I was
in extreme danger. I had trouble with dogs, but I invented a strategy
to deal with them. I pretended that I was throwing a stone at the
dog, meanwhile I grimaced terribly, making horrible faces at the creature.
This unexpected behavior threw the dogs off balance and they left
I was always very,
very hungry. Sometimes I heard noises near my hole--movements, talking,
etc.--and then I couldn't leave my hiding place for several days. So
I became even hungrier. And I was frightened too: what if I became so
weak that I would be unable to crawl out of my hole to search for food?
Those noises I heard came from shepherds. I wore good shoes, but my
feet would become terribly cold. Had I continued to wear the shoes in
my hiding place my feet would have frozen. So, curled up in my hole,
I took off the shoes and I would sit in such a way that I could massage
my feet to keep the blood circulating. I knew one basic fact that experience
had taught me: if my feet would go, I would be finished. The horrible
life I had been leading was a rapid and unforgiving teacher.
Once, when I was in my hiding
place, I heard loud Ukrainian voices. "Zlatke Ivraitchik,"
they said, catch the Jew and shoot him on the spot. I peered out through
a tiny hole and saw, near me, four Ukrainian men with rifles. They
wore heavy winter clothes. I heard one say: "When we catch the
Jews, we'll finish them off fast!" I had been noticed in a certain
hamlet. These four men thought that there were many Jews hiding there.
That's what they were looking for--a group of Jews, a family. For
them, this was an ongoing pastime: catching and killing innocent,
fugitive Jews. Many Jews saw the fate that awaited them, so they took
off for the woods. And every couple of days, one or another family
group was caught and killed. Once a Jew is spotted in one hamlet,
all the hamlets in the area know about him. It's like an invisible
communication system--the news spreads like wildfire. In one hamlet
I had heard much talk about a "Sobiboru" who was
hanging around in the vicinity, so I obviously wasn't much of a secret
anymore. I was fair game for the bloodthirsty hunters of innocent
human beings. I was ready to raise my hands and surrender to those
four Ukrainians but something held me back. I was afraid to breathe.
After what seemed like an eternity the four men moved off. I had been
Meanwhile it was
getting colder and colder. I kept looking for partisans but I could
never find them. Once I had the good fortune to stumble into a hamlet
peopled by Baptists. They believed in the sanctity of human life, they
would not kill their fellow human being. They gave me food and spoke
kindly to me. One Baptist man even shaved me. That shave made me
feel like a human being again. I didn't know what day of the week it
was, what month--nothing. I hardly had a human identity, and that shave
made me feel human again.
I was, by this time, obsessed
with one thing, finding the partisans. A man alone was nothing--a
Jew alone was even less than that--but with a partisan group a man
had half a chance. Or a quarter of a chance. In any case, being a
partisan would be a vast improvement over my present forlorn state.
And it was bitterly cold by now. After much importuning and pleading,
the son of one of those Baptists took me aside and whispered to me
that he knows of a partisan group operating in a nearby forest, called
the Bontzhe forest. I asked him how I could contact them. The peasants
by now seemed to be more aware of partisans, because there were bandits
and partisans in the woods. Every peasant had to have eggs, butter,
potatoes and sour milk ready to hand over at all times, even if he
himself was starving. If this wasn't ready when they appeared, he'd
be killed instantly. The young man told me that the partisan leader
lived in a certain house of unusual appearance. He gave me some general
directions concerning its location.
I wandered around
all of the next night looking for that house. It was very cold outside
but I finally found it. I knocked on the door and a very tall, well-dressed
woman answered. I asked for the man I was looking for. I explained to
her that I had escaped from Sobibor and that I had been looking for
partisans for a long time. She told me that I was out of luck. She said
that two days before there had been a strong German anti-partisan raid,
and they had gouged the eyes out of those partisans they had caught.
Her husband had managed to evade capture, but she didn't know where
he was. When I heard about the eye-gouging I trembled from fear. She
told me that my best bet was to get away from that house and area as
fast as possible. I ran like mad after hearing that, I don't know where
I found the strength.
I was continually hungry and
thirsty. I remember approaching a hamlet named "Maidanek"
(not connected to the site of the infamous extermination camp). Since
there was some snow on the ground, I took pieces into my mouth and
drank them. Then I started to beg for bread from the houses. One house--they
slammed the door on me, another house--they cursed me and spat at
me, a third house--they said, in Polish, that they had no bread. On
knocking at the fourth house, I saw a young Ukrainian coming to the
door. He was ominous looking, bristling with anger. He asked me for
my papers. I said I didn't have any. He grabbed my arm firmly--he
was very strong--and I couldn't pull loose from him. He growled at
me in Ukrainian: "I'm taking you to the Soltis. He'll
get for you, filthy Jew, the treatment you deserve!" He called
out to his son to bring a rope. And when the son came over with the
rope, he said to him, "Tomorrow this Jew dog will be shot!"
He was elated! Catching a live Jew was an achievement of excellence!
He would become a big man in the hamlet, a celebrity! They both gleefully
tied me up and threw me into the attic.
I knew what awaited
me. I had no illusions anymore. Sobibor had destroyed my ability to
create illusions for myself. The hours passed and my terror grew and
grew. My heart pounded in my chest and a film of sweat covered me. Finally
my desperation drove me to do something: I started to gnaw at the
rope with my teeth. A whole night I ripped at that accursed rope with
my teeth. I had my own teeth then and my desperation gave me a certain
wild strength. After what seemed to be a very long time I finally bit
through the bonds around my wrists. With my hands now free I untied
the ropes around my feet. I crawled out of the attic and scurried off
as fast as I could. At least I had robbed that Ukrainian and his son
of the glory they had hoped to gain by turning me in. And I was still
My running brought me to a Polish
hamlet. A Polish-speaking man with a gun accosted me. I started to
cry. He turned out to be a decent man, however. He took pity on me,
and told me where to hide. I followed his directions, went into a
forest and made a hide-out. The forest was full of wild blackberries.
Every day I picked some; I could only eat them 2 or 3 days later when
they turned reddish in color. So I dug holes and squirreled away these
berries for future use. I lived on those berries for many days.
During the nights
I used to wander around, examining the paths into and out of the forest.
I taught myself all there was to know about it. When dawn came I used
to go down to a river and drink. I was there for about 2 weeks
and I thought that this kind of life was the most luxurious I could
hope for. The peaceful days and nights also allowed my nerves to stabilize
and regain their normality.
I was, however, tormented by
my intense desire to find and join the partisans, and this desire
finally pushed me to leave that forest. Besides, most of the nearby
hamlets were "Judenrein". Germans didn't show up
there for weeks and even months. They would turn up if somebody squealed,
but generally they kept away. So, hiding in ditches, I left that forest
refuge I had found. I saw a farmer in a wagon driving down a dirt
road, so I approached him. I never approached two people--only one
person. I was afraid of being jumped. These farmers weren't armed
but they were tough, so I had to be wary. I asked this farmer, "Do
you know where I can find partisans?" I had learned to judge
people by the tone of their voices, and I saw that this farmer, as
he answered, could be trusted. He said, "Go ahead over there.
The hamlet is called Teryesheen. An old woman living in the first
house will help you. Some Jews are hiding in that hamlet." I
had a gold piece so, from gratitude, I shoved it into the farmer's
hand and ran off.
When I found the
house I noticed an old woman sitting by the fire, cooking. She asked
me who I was. I told her, "I'm a Jew. I've been told you can help
me find the partisans. I want to join them." The house was a very
primitive one and the interior reeked of poverty. The old woman asked
me all about my background, my experiences. I answered her eagerly.
I was crying from joy--here was somebody who spoke to me in a human
way and wanted to hear about my past. A 16 or 17 year old girl came
over to me and started to talk to me. She seemed to be a typical peasant
girl, but I figured out after a while that she was Jewish. I spoke to
her in Yiddish, but she answered only in Polish. She evidently refused
to believe my story and, as she told me later, she thought that I was
a provocateur, an agent sent to ferret her out. I still had my family
photos in my pocket, those photos which I had refused to surrender in
Sobibor. One of those photos showed my father as a bearded Orthodox
Jew, in Hassidic garb. When the girl saw that photo, her attitude toward
me changed immediately. She now believed me. She gave me some potatoes
to eat and told me that I must not be seen in that house. She led me
to another area of the hamlet and hid me in an abandoned stable. She
said that she would, that very night, contact her father Moishe and
tell him about me.
Late that night Moishe and his
brother came to the stable. They told me that they were part of a
family group of 5 Jews in hiding. The girl I had met was called Shaindele.
Moishe told me that many Jews used to live in that hamlet in pre-war
days. Everybody in the hamlet knew that this family was hiding, but
nobody knew where and they didn't want to know where. Moishe told
me how they were loved in that hamlet -- there were decent people
there. Moishe gave me a roll of bread to eat and told me directly
that I couldn't hide with them. They had problems enough of their
own without a "Sobiboru" attracting more attention
to them. I understood--he was afraid that I would attract the attention
of one of the numerous squealers who were always waiting for their
"big" chance. Moishe wished me good luck and he slipped
I remained in hiding
in that stable and pondered my next move. Meanwhile, I saw the comings
and goings of Moishe's family during the nights. Moishe's father Mendele
was a very religious man. He used only his own kosher pots and utensils.
So at night I saw him scurrying around with his pots. Moishe's family
may have felt that they were loved in that hamlet and that it was full
of decent people, but I learned that they remained alive by stealing
at night, "visiting" neighboring hamlets. They knew every
square foot of that area and they became adept thieves. At night I could
see them moving around rapidly, like ghosts.
After a few days gnawing hunger
pangs forced me to leave the stable, so I approached a house in the
hamlet and begged for bread. A man gave me a piece but said that I
shouldn't tell the neighbors that he had given me anything. They were
all terrified of the Germans and each other. The next day I went to
the opposite end of the hamlet, to the last houses on a road. People
in one house told me to avoid the last house on that road--the farmer
there had killed a whole family of Jews. He wiped them completely
out. They warned me to keep away from his house. The farmer there
had hidden a Jewish family, but he became frightened. So, to rid himself
of his burden, he took them out one by one and shot them. A man gave
me a cabbage and I appreciated it very much. I crawled back to my
"new" shelter -- the attic of what had once been a 2 story
house. This house was full of remnants of human excrement. Nobody
would think that a worn-out, hunted Jew could be hiding there. I nibbled
at my treasure, the cabbage, till it was finished and then I resumed
begging. I was given a few carrots here, a piece of bread there--every
bite a bit of life for me.
Once, in the middle
of the day, while I was curled up in my hiding place I heard somebody
moving around. I could tell that somebody was putting a ladder against
the opening leading to the attic. Looking down, I saw a peasant holding
a revolver coming up after me. I jumped from the attic and headed for
a small thicket of trees. I was trembling from fright as I plunged into
the trees and the safe haven they provided. Being taken by surprise
like that in the middle of the day -- that was what I had always feared.
And now it had happened! I had established a routine already and felt
a bit safe, but I was always haunted by the fear that one day they'd
come after me. And they did. I remained in that thicket all day, at
night I fled from there.
I reached a nearby hamlet and
approached a house to beg for food. This was a hamlet inhabited by
Baptists, and their religion seemed to impose a respect for human
life on them. I gathered that they would not harm their fellow human
being. So every day I went to a different peasant and begged for food.
They gave me small amounts of food and begged me not to tell the neighbors.
Every single one of them was living in terror, afraid of the neighbors
on either side. Their terror was contagious--I was afraid to stay
in that hamlet so I returned to Teryesheen and hid in another ruined
Jewish house. At night, when I went to beg for food, I ran into somebody
from Moishe's family. I told him about the close call I had had when
the peasant climbed into the attic with his revolver, looking for
me. Moishe's relative, however, knew all about this incident. He was
obviously very well informed. He said that the peasants were only
out to scare me and chase me away from Teryesheen. Moishe's family
gave them enough to worry about. They were afraid that Germans would
come and burn the whole hamlet to the ground. They would also be shot.
These words, however,
did not deter me from seeking food. I was awfully hungry so I continued
to beg for food. However, at several houses I heard that they were expecting
a German raid. I became very nervous and disturbed at that news, so
I crawled into a big haystack. It was snowing that day so the haystack,
besides providing a hiding place, would keep me somewhat warm. However,
it was my luck that on that very night the treacherous peasant in the
last house, the one who took out the members of a Jewish family and
shot them one by one, was robbed. All of a sudden I heard footsteps.
I heard them poking into the haystacks with long poles. My heart seemed
to rise into my throat. I suddenly felt my feet being seized and I was
dragged out like an old sack. My footsteps in the fresh snow must have
given me away. I started to cry quietly. The treacherous peasant looked
at me and told me that a cow had been stolen from him that night. In
the same breath he told me that he wasn't after me--he knew that I was
not the one who had stolen his cow. He apparently knew all about me.
He told me that I could stay in the haystack and that I had nothing
to fear from him. I crawled, with great relief, back into the hay and
he left. I waited for 5 or 10 minutes and I ran away. I didn't believe
him. I had reached the point where I didn't believe anybody. I didn't
know where I was running--I just ran. I finally stopped and hid in a
big forest 3 or 4 kilometers from Teryesheen.
The next night I gingerly approached
a house to beg for food. The inhabitants knew all about me -- how
the treacherous peasant had found me hiding in the haystack, etc.
There were no secrets among these peasants. Everybody knew what was
going on in their neighbors' houses. These peasants shouted at me
forcefully: I must leave their hamlet. A Jewish family was already
living off them. I was endangering everybody by my presence. So I
left Teryesheen and returned to the big forest. I roamed all over
it, looking for partisans, but I didn't find them. I found ashes of
fires mixed with old egg shells, potato peels, etc., but I couldn't
find partisans. I wandered aimlessly around for some days. I was still
Hunger and solitude
can push a man very hard. One night, begging for food, I entered a house
and only after I was in it did I notice a German there. I became terribly
frightened. I was afraid to take off immediately because he would chase
me. So I pretended not to see him and edged myself very slowly back
to the door. When I was near it I dived out and ran for my life.
The next day, when I approached
a house in a nearby hamlet, the inhabitants all laughed at me. They
knew exactly what had happened the day before with my "escape"
from the "German". They told me that the "German"
wasn't really a German; he was a partisan who was visiting his girlfriend.
He wore a captured German overcoat. They all had a big laugh at my
expense. From sheer relief I laughed too. Meanwhile, it was getting
colder every night. Half the time I didn't know where I was.
Once, as I approached
a house at night, I saw a sheet hanging inside, near a partially open
window. How I wanted that sheet! Doubled up, it could serve me as a
blanket during the cold nights. I slowly lifted the window all the way
up and crawled half-way through the window until I was hanging in a
position which enabled me to reach the sheet. There was a dog in the
room but--this was most strange--it just looked at me. It didn't bark
or make any sound at all. I grabbed the sheet and ran. Cold can be extremely
painful: it can cut into you like a sharp knife. That's why that sheet
was a treasure for me. I ran deep into a nearby forest, folded the sheet
carefully, and pulled it over my head. It helped a lot! The cold couldn't
get at me like before. The sheet wasn't a perfect solution, but it was
better than nothing. When I covered my head, my feet were exposed and
cold. But the rest of me was warm.
The next morning I went up on
a hill to see where I was--where the nearest village was. Germans
generally avoided hills because they didn't want to give their location
away to partisans who may be lurking in the vicinity. From my hilltop
position I saw a hamlet nearby. I didn't know the place. When night
came I went into that hamlet. I was afraid of an utterly strange hamlet
that might harbor vicious informers, etc. but I actually had been
looking for a new hamlet to go to. When I begged for bread in a hamlet
I made sure not to go back there for a week or two. I didn't want
to become a subject of public conversation. A piece of bread satisfied
me and I didn't want to push my luck. As I approached the houses of
that new hamlet an intuitive fear seized me--a panic. I couldn't go
on. I turned to leave the hamlet and kept on looking behind me to
see if I was being followed. There was nobody following me. I saw
that a farmer, standing far away, had noticed me. He shook his head
at me in an odd way -- he wanted to attract my attention but he didn't
want to do it by waving at me or beckoning to me. That could cost
him his life later! As I looked at him and he was sure that I was
watching, he put down a small package. I didn't approach the package
immediately. I waited till the farmer moved off and I approached the
package a few hours later, in a very roundabout way. What I found
there was a treasure! It was an enormous fresh bread, cut into pieces.
It still smelled of the oven! What a noble man that farmer must have
been, to take pity on a helpless fellow-human and to do something
concrete about it. I dashed into the forest, sat down with my treasure,
and divided it into 3 parts. That bread would last me for at least
3 days! Three more days of life!
Some time later,
when this bread was finished, I went out of the forest to beg for more
food. As usual, my cudgel was in my hand and my knife was in my pocket.
The third house I approached belonged to a seemingly wealthy woman who
was in the process of baking big pirogen (Polish dumplings) and
rolls. She sat me down and fed me, and gave me a big roll and some cabbage
to take with me. She was a golden person, this woman, and I ran back
gleefully to my hiding place. Some days later I ventured out to beg
at the other end of the hamlet. I usually approached houses which were
some distance from main roads. This time, I was rebuffed at every single
house I went to. The inhabitants chased me out and set their vicious
dogs on me. I became frightened. I saw that the people in that area
were rotten. It was strange, but usually if one person in an area gave
me food others did the same too. And if one was rotten they usually
all turned out to be rotten. I know it doesn't sound logical but that's
the way it was. I speedily left that area and that hamlet.
I had no luck in a nearby village,
so I returned to the wealthy woman's house. She told me that the peasants
were saying that a "Zhid" (Jew) was hanging around in the
vicinity of the hamlet. She gave me some milk and bread and begged
me not to return to her again. She said there were squealers in the
area. Her house could be burned down; she could be shot. As a parting
gift she gave me an enormous pirogen, stuffed with onions and cabbage.
I took one bite out of it and it was so delicious! So fantastically
good! I was, at that time, wearing an old overcoat that I had found
in a field. Some farmer must have thrown it away. It was ripped and
tattered, but it was very heavy and enormous in size--it came down
almost to my ankles. It had big pockets, so I put the pirogen in
a pocket. I thanked the woman and left for my hide-out. When I was
almost there I reached into the pocket and -- disaster of disasters--I
saw that I had lost the pirogen! I started to cry like a baby,
as if I had lost the most precious diamond. Until dawn, I retraced
my steps, combing the area, but I just couldn't find that pirogen.
An animal in the forest had probably pounced on it. I had counted
on a few days of peace and quiet with that pirogen. And now nothing!
Where should I go! Who cared if I lived or died! I was a burden to
everyone I came in contact with. I wandered around that enormous forest
in a depressed mood. Was all this suffering worth anything! And if
I survived--for whom and for what would it be?
As I plodded along
I heard wood being cut far off in the forest. In a forest such sounds
can be heard for 2 or 3 kilometers. The sound of the wood-chopping got
louder and louder. I hid in a clump of bushes to see who the woodcutter
was. I hoped it was the partisans. However, this hope was soon dashed
when I saw a young boy, dressed like a typical peasant lad. He looked
to be around 13 or 14 years old. I approached him. He became very, very
frightened when I drew near. Don't forget that I had, from long experience,
trained myself to move noiselessly. He had thought that he was all alone
in that area. I started to speak to him in Polish, and as I spoke I
saw him becoming more and more uneasy. Then, on an impulse, I switched
to Yiddish; the color returned to his face and he smiled. I told him
that I had been with other Jews in a terrible extermination camp called
Sobibor; I explained the uprising we had made. As I went on, he embraced
me and hugged me with evident heartfelt sincerity. He told me to wait
a few minutes and then he scurried off.
The boy returned a short while
later and led me to a very deep hidden bunker made of wood. It was
extremely wet and damp in there. It was also quite cold. The stench
in that hole was horrible--like the odor of fried rancid lard mixed
with the stink of old rags. There was a kind of a makeshift bed knocked
together from old boards and covered with rags. The boy's mother came
over to me and asked me who I was. There were 2 small children with
her in the bunker. The boy I had found, Mendele, carried a rifle as
did his 16 year old brother who was away at that time. There was ham
and pork in that bunker; it was full of food. The mother told me to
take whatever food I wanted; she was obviously afraid of me. She asked
me very nervously how I had managed to find her son. She wanted to
know if somebody had told me about this family in the woods. She repeatedly
asked me: "Did somebody say that there was a bunker in the woods
sheltering a Jewish family?" Again and again, sometimes semi-hysterically,
she returned to this question and asked it anew. And each time I had
to repeat to her that nobody had told me about them--I had stumbled
upon her son Mendele by accident. I told her many times how I had
heard the sound of her son chopping wood. I also told her all about
Sobibor and my unsuccessful search for partisans.
As if to show me
that she was not a vulnerable woman, she told me that she had a husband
nearby, named Isack. When she said that it rang a bell. I had heard
of him. He went around with a 10 or 12 man band to rob food, clothing,
etc. from the area peasants. I had heard of him because many
of the peasants spoke of "Nasha Isack" (our Isack).
He used to rob the peasants white. He had a horrible reputation among
them. They used to tell me: "Sobiboru, let Isack ask us
for food--we'll give him! But why does he come with his gang and rob
us like that? He's a bloody thief!" Others had told me: "Our
Isack, our friend from the pre-war years--how could he come and rob
us at gunpoint like that?" Isack came from that area and he was
well-known to all. Whatever his gang could steal they stole. His wife,
as if to justify her husband and her sons, told me that from time to
time they went on punitive expeditions to area peasants who had betrayed
Jews. Her older son had returned to the bunker by now, so I told him
and his brother that I wanted to join them. They told me straight off
that they didn't want me. I had been in the bunker for some time now
and the night was coming. The woman told me to take as much food as
I wanted. They had enough to spare, she said. I took some food from
her but I didn't want to overload myself. Besides, I now knew the way
to the bunker, so I figured that I could return to it for more food
in the future. So I said goodbye to all of them, thanked them
for the food and left. As I left I looked around carefully for landmarks
to make sure that I could find that bunker again.
I found a hut in the woods. It
was covered with straw and boarded up. I lifted two boards, crawled
in and pulled the boards back into place so that nobody could see
that a person had gone in there. The place was full of straw so I
made a hiding place for myself in the straw. I her enough food, at
least for the next short while. But I was always worried about food
for the next week, and the week after that. You can become obsessed
with food when you don't have it. I rested for several days in that
hut and regained my strength. It was warm in there, with all the straw.
When the food was finished I went out at night to return to the bunker.
I found it easily, but it was completely deserted. When I went down
into it, it was full of water and pitch black. It had formerly been
illuminated by a small oil lamp. The bunker had obviously been abandoned.
Big rats--like kittens--were scurrying around in there. I ran out
of the bunker immediately. Isack's family had obviously moved away.
So I resumed my
wandering, searching for food. Night was coming, so I remained in that
forest for the night. I didn't make it back to the straw hut. I had
found some potatoes in an abandoned cellar, so I roasted them on a small
fire, gulped them down and fell into the deep sleep that only the utterly
exhausted can experience. In the middle of the night I was awakened
by something moving in the woods. I became very frightened. I burrowed
into a thick clump of bushes. I was afraid to stand up -- I could be
easily seen that way. Peering out of the bushes, I saw a horse and wagon
drive straight to my hiding place. The wagon stopped near me and I saw
two women and two men. Th men were very well armed. I was afraid of
coughing or sneezing; I was terrified that even my agitated breathing
would give me away. Those four people were scavengers of human beings--they
went into the forests to search for fugitive Jews. They were criminals,
bandits who sought to rob defenseless people and murder them. One of
the men carried a torch. As they were poking around the area, the rays
of the torch illuminated my thicket. I was afraid that they had seen
me. However, I was lucky or they were careless. They missed me. They
remounted the wagon and drove off. As they moved off, I saw that the
wagon had a fair amount of food and clothing in it. They had obviously
been "successful" in their hunting expedition before they
came to my thicket. They must have found a bunker sheltering Jewish
unfortunates, whom they speedily murdered. I started to breathe normally
when I was sure that they were far away.
After five or six days I ran
into Isack's two sons in the woods. They were well armed. I told them
that I had gone to look for them in their bunker and had found it
abandoned and deserted. I begged them to let me come to them from
time to time. I promised that I would not abuse their hospitality--I
would come a few times, at widely spaced intervals. However, they
absolutely refused to tell me where their new bunker was. They told
me that they had abandoned the old bunker the night after I had come
to it. They hadn't trusted me. This is how it was then--everybody
looked out for his or her own skin. Anybody and everybody else could
go to hell! This is what the war did to ordinary people--turned them into egotistical
and suspicious animals. I begged the two boys for a gun but they laughed
at me. Finally one said that, for gold, he would give me a gun. I
still had a few pieces of my wife's jewelry, so I save them the jewelry
and they sold me a rifle. When they got up to leave I wanted to accompany
them but they refused to allow it.
I returned to the
straw hut, spent several days there, and started to make the rounds
of the hamlets where I had previously been given bread. Now that I had
the rifle I even went to a hamlet where I had been refused bread. I
smeared my face with black dust, as a disguise. And yet some peasants
recognized me immediately. They called me "Sobiboru."
I would point the rifle through the window but it didn't seem to bring
me success. Some of the peasants laughed at me, even though the rifle
was pointed straight at them. One said: "Ah, Sobiboru,
we know you! What are you pointing a gun at us for? You wouldn't shoot
us--you know that!" I returned, hungry, to my hiding place.
The next night I returned, without
the rifle, to that same hamlet. That peasant who had spoken to me
the previous night, said: "Sobiboru, you're lucky! If
you would have returned with that damn rifle, I'd kill you! Here's
a chunk of bread. Eat it in peace. We are Baptists here and we have
sympathy for a fellow human being in distress. If you come with a
gun we won't give you a thing and we'll defend ourselves. But if you
beg us for bread we'll give you. Even with your smeared face we knew
it was you! And we know you're not a murderer. But bandit robbers
we don't like. We know how to handle them." He even gave me a
big glass of milk. I was very bedraggled and weak, so he had pity
on me. I thanked him profusely and left.
About one week later
I had a particularly unsettling experience. I was holed up in the straw
hut, fast asleep, when I felt myself being prodded awake by a rifle
butt. I looked up and saw Isack's two sons glaring down at me. The 16
year old said to me: "OK, Sobiboru, where's the rifle?"
I told him that I had bought it from them fair and square, I had paid
for it with my wife's precious jewelry. That jewelry meant a lot to
me. It was a link to my wife and my past life, and I had parted with
it painfully. But I needed a rifle, and I had paid for it in full. The
two boys laughed at my pleading. I told them that I had left the rifle
with a peasant for safekeeping. They didn't believe me, and the 16 year-old
said, "Mendele, search the place." It took Mendele less than
5 minutes to find the rifle while his brother kept me covered with his
own rifle. They laughed when they found the gun and dashed out of the
straw hut. I was once again defenseless. And the way I had been treated
like that by fellow Jews pained me greatly. Had all of the world become
completely savage? Was there no more decency left? Besides, I had heard
that, to be accepted by partisans, one had to have one's own rifle.
So that rifle represented my passport to the partisans, when and if
I would find them. And now I had lost that passport. This incident left
me deeply depressed.
I couldn't hang around that Baptist
hamlet any longer, so I went to another one, Pozshalev. I had worked
there at the beginning of the war. I arrived there at night and I
hid under a bridge. I was very hungry but I waited for the dawn. When
the sun started to rise I approached the house of a man who had employed
me there. In spite of my terrible appearance he recognized me immediately.
He greeted me with a "Good morning" and I asked him for
a drink of water. He gave me the drink and then gave me a piece of
bread and a jug of milk. I devoured the bread and gulped the milk
down before his eyes. I asked him if he was satisfied with the work
I had done for him. He replied that he was very satisfied. I was eager
for a sympathetic human ear--I wanted to pour out all that I had held
bottled up in me, so I told him what I had gone through, what Sobibor
was, how we had made the uprising and killed more than a few Germans.
My former employer became frightened when he heard about Sobibor from
me. He crossed himself a few times while I was talking to him. I told
him that I wanted to hide in his barn and go out at night to look
for partisans. I explained that I wouldn't bother him at all--he wouldn't
even know I was there. But he refused. He told me that the Germans
had discovered Jews hiding in that hamlet and had killed them all,
together with their protectors. So that was that--there was no refuge
for me in the barn. I returned to the bridge and hid there.
The next morning
I peered out of my sanctuary under the bridge and saw the peasants driving
over to the market in Chelm. I recognized a Ukrainian woman and her
husband who used to buy merchandise from me before the war, when I had
a textile store. They were good customers, decent people. I went over
to them and begged them: "Please, on the way back, take me to your
hamlet! Hide me! Please, save my life!" The woman said I should
wait there by the bridge; she'd see me on the way back. I waited there
patiently and, in the afternoon, I saw another woman running over to
me. She was very upset and shouted at me: "Zhidek, Zhidek
(Jew, Jew), run away! Escape! Fast! Fast! You've been squealed on!"
Neighbors in town had told her that Germans had been sent out to look
for a Jew hiding under the bridge. This woman who ran to me, one step
ahead of the Germans, was a noble human being. I will never know her
name, or anything about her, but she will shine in my heart as long
as I breathe. Hearing her ominous words, I took off like a wild animal.
I ran into a small forest and hid there till the night came. I was in
a bad emotional state--the woman I had trusted had betrayed me. For
my good customer to do such a thing to me--this depressed me horribly.
And why would one human being do such a thing to another? I was tormented
by such thoughts.
The next day I wandered around
looking for places to hide. As I wandered, shepherd boys used to chase
me, yelling at me: "Szlab Zhide, szlab zhide!" (Catch
the Jew! Catch the Jew!) I always was a very fast runner so they could
never catch me. For them it was the greatest sport to chase a Jew
and hunt him down. One thing kept me going: my obsession with finding
partisans. When I would find them, I would start taking revenge for
all my loved ones, for Chelm, and for my Sobibor comrades who never
made it out.
There are many forests
in Poland, and in these forests there are Kolonias. That means
loosely grouped houses, standing alone, separated by 3-4 kilometers.
Germans never came to those houses unless they had very specific reasons
to do so. I saw a Kolonia house near a forest and went over to
an elderly peasant standing near it. When I told him that I came from
the death camp Sobibor he became very frightened and led me into his
horse-stall. I told him how hungry I was. He was a poor man but he brought
some bread and water in to me. He told me that his son-in-law was a
shoemaker so I showed him my ripped shoes. The old peasant took my shoes
and said he would take them to his son-in-law, who lived nearby. He
left and returned some hours later with my shoes repaired. I kissed
him from gratitude. He told me that he was a Baptist and I was overjoyed
to hear that. He told me that he had a wife, two daughters (one 15 and
the other 18) and a son. His earthly possessions, besides the poverty-stricken
house, consisted of one skinny cow and a small vegetable plot. He could
hardly get by and had a very difficult life. When I heard how hard-up
he was, I took out a piece of my wife's jewelry that I still had and
passed it into his hand. I told him that he could exchange it for money.
He said that next day was a market day and he would take the jewelry
to the market and use it to buy some necessities. My hopes rose as I
talked to him. I was afraid to beg him for shelter, but I didn't have
to; he took me into his house, which was built close to the ground.
He took me into the attic, which wasn't very high, a man could jump
out of there easily if he had to. He dragged a bench over to the front
of the attic for me and said that, for the meantime, I could stay with
his family. He showed me a tiny opening through which I could peer out
and see if danger was approaching. He said that I should be constantly
on the look-out. He told me that he was too poor to feed another mouth
-- I would have to slip out and beg in nearby hamlets. And, if I succeeded
with my begging, he expected me to share whatever I received with his
That evening he boiled a mixture
of black poppy seeds and water and he shared it with me. No bread,
no milk--just this unpalatable mixture. Hungry as I was, I couldn't
take it into my mouth. It tasted like poorly refined or stale castor
oil. The peasant's family members were all very religiously observant,
they prayed all the time, especially before going to sleep. During
their prayers, when they mentioned Jesus and his ordeals, they looked
at me with baleful, malevolent eyes, as if I had personally tortured
their Jesus. I slept on the one board bench with my clothes wrapped
into a small bundle which I kept in my hand. If something happened
I could jump out of the attic with my clothes in one hand and take
off. The peasant had told me to take those precautions.
Meanwhile, the lice
were eating me up alive. I was so itchy that I thought I would go crazy!
I slept on the board without anything to serve as a sheet or a mattress.
In wartime an ordinary rag had value and I didn't have one to put under
me. I slept a feverish sleep, haunted by fear. Every night I went out
to the nearest hamlet-- Podoobye-- to beg. This was a Ukrainian hamlet,
and their young men had joined the Germans to fight the war, so I circulated
amongst the old people who were left over there and I begged. Some of
them took pity on me--a few potatoes here, a small cabbage there. The
hamlet dogs were no threat to me personally, but they ruined my begging.
When one dog started to bark all the other dogs barked too. That's how
the peasants knew that a stranger was in the hamlet, so they remained
indoors and bolted their doors. Nobody came out. They were afraid of
partisans, and the nights belonged to the partisans. I used to drag
myself wearily back to my bench in the attic with whatever I had managed
to beg. I slept from extreme exhaustion.
Life would start up again several
hours later, when the cock crowed. The house came alive; the family
members started to cross themselves and say their prayers. And, as
usual, when they said their prayers they cast ominous glances at me.
Their religion forbade them to kill another human being but they wanted
to get rid of me so they gave me almost nothing to eat, although I
managed to obtain some food from my begging. I got around that by
eating some of the begged food immediately, before I returned "home."
They even cast covetous eyes on my sweater, with the suggestion that
it would fit the son-in-law very nicely. However, as the saying goes,
"beggars can't be choosers." At least I was warm and had
a place to lay my head. I was still alive, and that was what counted.
I wanted to live to find the partisans and join them. And I wanted
to live to tell the world about Sobibor.
Every night, when
I went hunting for food, I asked the peasants if they knew anything
of partisans in the area. I once came into a house and there were some
armed Jews there who had come for food. These armed Jews didn't want
to tell me where they were hiding out. They didn't want to have anything
to do with me. They had heard about the "Sobiboru"
and they were afraid that the general knowledge of me in the area as
a survivor of the horrid death camp would sooner or later cause the
Germans to mount a special and massive operation to catch me. I begged
these armed Jews to allow me to join them; I asked for their mercy,
but it was all to no avail.
The peasants of the next hamlet
I went to, Aleezoof, told me that the Russians were doing very well
at the front. They gave me milk to drink and a large loaf of bread.
When the Russians did well at the front I generally got better treatment.
My spirits improved. I spent all of my days at the tiny opening in
the attic, looking out.
Just before New
Year's day the old peasant told me that I would have to remain for some
time in the attic and not go out because a round of partying would soon
begin. Poor as he was, he had made a big batch of "bimber"
(a strong alcoholic drink) for the festivities and strangers would come
around. They must not know that a Jew was hiding in his house.
So I remained hidden in the attic.
Once a day they brought me some water to drink and three small potatoes.
They were hoping I would die of hunger; they were tired of me. And
they were afraid. At night I heard such nice music; the peasants were
dancing, singing and carousing, and I was up in the attic, crying.
I soaked the bench with my tears. I took out the few photos I had
left--momentos of a past life which I had treasured through the worst
hell--and hugged them to me. I remembered my mother and father, my
wife and children, our little home. This had been my own family, and
now families were celebrating downstairs and I was all alone in the
world. I couldn't cry loudly--that was too dangerous--but the tears
poured from my eyes. My body shook for hours and hours with my sorrow,
with only the photos as mute witnesses to my grief. I heard them call
the dog: "Booket, Booket, eat, eat!" They were probably
throwing morsels of food to him. I also heard them call the one cow
they owned. The animals ate regularly--3 or 4 times a day--but for
me there was hardly any food. I was thrown those tiny potatoes once
a day. It wasn't food enough to live, but it wasn't enough to starve
me to death either. The water they gave me left me continually thirsty.
At times I thought of leaving that place. But where would I go? As
long as I was there I had a roof over my head; at least I was warm.
The worst thing about that time was my own emotional state--my thoughts
about my family and friends--indeed, my whole world--that tormented
me ceaselessly. And during all this time I could hear the people below
me singing and carousing drunkenly.
This lasted for
7 or 8 days. They finally told me that I could come down. I took my
cudgel and set out in the newly fallen darkness to beg for bread. A
few peasants gave me food, which I brought back to the family which
was sheltering me. They grabbed the food eagerly because they were very
hungry. They left a small portion for me. I kept on making contingency
plans about what I would do if the worst would happen. That's the way
I am; I've always done that. I have a kind of superstitious belief that
if I'll plan for the worst, things won't turn out quite that bad. I
saw, through many small indications, that the peasant and his family
were looking forward to my death. They wanted to get rid of me. The
peasant was afraid that the Germans would find out about me but he couldn't
kill me because of his religious beliefs. He became very nervous and
started to drink a lot; he began to cry regularly too. When he was drunk,
he told me how frightened he was of the Germans. One day when I was
stretched out in the attic on the board, peering out of the opening,
he came up and cried out; "Sobiboru, there are Germans in
the nearest village! They say there're heading this way to find a hidden
Jew! Get out of here! Fast! Now!" Had he taken a knife and plunged
it into me I wouldn't have been more distressed. A panic seized me and,
in broad daylight, I ran from the house like a wild animal. I can't
describe the depth of my panic at that time. I plunged into a forest
and I remained there till the night came. Then I warily approached a
hamlet I knew, named Onantse. I picked houses at random and begged for
food. I was given some raw potatoes and a piece of bread, which I put
in the sack which I always carried.
As usual, I did my begging systematically.
I would approach a house, and then I wouldn't go to the next one,
the one adjoining it, and the one after that. I was afraid of being
watched. The dogs barked terribly but I was used to that by now. After
some time I returned to "my" peasant's house. When they
saw me they fell to their knees and crossed themselves. They looked
at me with disgust; they were obviously very disappointed that I had
returned. Their disappointment was tempered by their poverty, however.
They grabbed my sack and voraciously devoured almost all that I had
begged. The story about the Germans in a nearby hamlet was a fiction
which they had invented to rid themselves of me. Their plan, however,
had not worked out. I was back.
One evening, as it became dark,
I moved away from the tiny opening which was during the daylight hours,
my window on the outside world. The peasant and his family were downstairs
playing cards. I didn't notice anything amiss. All of a sudden, a
strange face appeared at the attic entrance. The stranger pulled himself
into the attic and came over to me. I noticed, with great unease,
that he carried a rifle. He gave me a friendly slap on the back and,
calling me "Friend," started to speak to me in Ukrainian.
He explained that he was a bandit, a crook. He had an associate who
went with him on robbing "missions," but this associate
had been killed by angry peasants. At that time there were many 2,
3 and 4 men groups who robbed, looted and murdered. He told me that
they stole whatever they could lay their hands on; they weren't very
selective. He told me that from now on I would be his new "associate,"
and we'd go robbing together. From his words I pieced together the
truth. I had given the old peasant some jewelry when he first sheltered
me. He knew that I had a few small pieces left and he must have told
this to his son-in-law, who mentioned it to this Ukrainian. This Ukrainian
bandit thought that he had found himself an easy victim. The story
about becoming his "associate" was all a con; he wanted
to take me into the forest and kill me.
The old peasant, who was still downstairs,
had heard everything. He asked the bandit to come downstairs. Escape
was impossible for me. They sat together for a long time and I sat upstairs
on my bench, afraid to move. I could smell the pungent odor of the "bimber."
They must have drunk a fair amount. I could hear some crying too. The
old Baptist, when he used to get drunk, would start crying and sobbing
convulsively. However, he never would lose control of his faculties.
He remained logical. Finally, the bandit and the crying old Baptist
came up to me. They were both quite drunk. The bandit said to me,
"OK, Jew, come with me to the forest." He obviously intended
to shoot me. I started to cry terribly. I went on my knees before the
old Baptist and I pleaded with him; "You're a pious man. I know
that. You know that I've come from hell; I've told you everything. You
know where I've been. You believe in God, you believe in your religion--do
you want to have forever on your conscience what is going to happen
to me now?" When the old Baptist heard this, he sat down for another
round of hard drinking with the bandit and then told him to leave. The
bandit said in Ukrainian, "Don't worry, I'll be back!"
The next night I ran away from
that house. I made myself a new hideout in the forest. I went around
to the hamlets that I knew well by now and I begged bread. When I
came to the peasants and begged, some of them told me that a Ukrainian
was looking for me. He kept asking the peasants if they had seen me
around, begging for bread. He seemed to be ceaselessly looking for
me. He wanted to finish me off. I suffered greatly in the woods cause
the nights were getting colder and colder. My general condition was
weakening rapidly. I had, relatively speaking, built my physical condition
up at the old Baptist's house, but now I was losing ground rapidly.
The cold was eating into my bones. I couldn't go on that way, sleeping
in the bone-chilling woods.
I returned, after
much vacillation, to the old Baptist and asked him if the Ukrainian
had come there looking for me. He said that the bandit hadn't shown
up there yet. He knew, however, that the Ukrainian had been making many
inquiries about me in the neighboring hamlets. I told the old Baptist
all that had happened to me since I left him and I begged him to let
me return to his house. He saw that I was looking very bad and he took
pity on me. He allowed me to return to my old bench in his attic, and
my former way of life as an unwelcome house guest and night-time beggar
The worst time of day for me
when I was in hiding there was when I would prepare to sleep. I was
afraid that the Ukrainian bandit would show up while I was asleep.
One night, while I was dozing off, I heard a scratching sound coming
from the window. The Ukrainian was trying to crawl into the house.
My eyes were closed but there was no mistaking the sound coming from
that window. When I opened my eyes and confirmed my worst fears, I
jumped up and shrieked in Polish, "Help! Help! He's here! Help!"
The old Baptist came running to me. I grabbed my small clothing package
and ran out of the house and into a forest. I was running in my underwear.
It was very cold outside and I was shivering. I hid in the woods for
a whole night and the following day. All this time I was obsessed
with one thing: finding partisans. I sat in the woods, without food,
and longed for partisans. At least with them I would be able to take
revenge. I never thought about a better life in the future. I only
thought of revenge. Constantly! Obsessively!
When I finally started
moving around in that forest I started to hear ominous sounds. Diving
into some bushes, I perceived 2 peasants going prowling about with axes.
I thought they were looking for me, so even when they passed I remained
in the bushes till the next night. Then I got up and went into one of
"my" hamlets. A few peasants gave me some raw potatoes and
drinking water. I returned to the forest and roasted the potatoes over
a small fire. They were undescribably delicious! Only a starving man,
like I was then, can really appreciate food! The lice, however, were
biting me terribly; they tormented me non-stop. I found a small stream,
so I washed my shirt in it. I had no soap, but I thought that perhaps
the lice would drown. When the shirt dried, I put it on and wandered
into another hamlet. More than one peasant told me that a Ukrainian
was prowling in the vicinity, asking, "Where is the Jew named Sobiboru?"
That's what I was called in those hamlets, 40 or 50 km. from Sobibor.
The peasants asked me: "Why is the Ukrainian looking for you like
that? What does he want with you?" I said that I didn't know what
he wanted with me. Had I mentioned jewelry or gold I would immediately
have become the target of another 15 or 20 such bandits.
Now my nerves were really on
edge. When twigs cracked or branches rustled, I became petrified.
I thought that maybe my luck had left me; perhaps my time had run
out. I became depressed. Such a life -- hunger and cold and terrible
fear! Maybe it was time to call it a day and end this miserable life
of mine! However, the thought of finding partisans possessed me ever
more strongly at this time. If I found them, I would be able to take
revenge! I would avenge all of the helpless Jews who never had a chance
against the German beasts and their willing "friends". I
would avenge my sister, ripped to death by dogs, my mother, my father,
my wife, my children! The desire to take revenge--that was the only
thing left to me. But it was enough to keep me alive. It was reason
enough to go on living!
Many times heavy
snow fell. Then I had to remain in my makeshift shelters or, to be more
accurate, holes because my footprints would stand out in the fresh snow.
So I was chilled to death, unable to move, hungry and shivering. When
I was curled up in my hole like that I often used to take off my ripped
shoes and rub my feet continuously so that they shouldn't freeze. My
feet were always getting cold and I saw that this rubbing helped a lot.
If I wouldn't have done this I would have been finished.
The days and nights dragged on
like that. I no longer had the courage to go back to the old Baptist
and my attic bench there. The Ukrainian bandit would surely get me
there. I heard from various peasants how he continued to inquire about
my whereabouts. But then -- good news! One peasant told me that the
Ukrainian had robbed them continually. They were poor people who had
very little and could not afford to lose anything. So they banded
together, set a trap and killed "my" Ukrainian bandit! This
was really a piece of good news to me then! I had been living in a
heightened state of fear, I was afraid of the rustle of branches,
the movement of shadows, the barking of dogs. I was in the state of
continuous apprehension which animals must constantly be in, forever
afraid of wild predators. So what the peasant told me was really welcome
news. At least one major cause of my anxiety was gone. I didn't however,
let the peasant see that I was happy at the news of the Ukrainian's
death. They might become curious, and then....
I moved on to a hamlet I had
visited before, Aleezoof. It was terribly cold outside and all the
dogs were barking, as usual. They no longer frightened me. I had my
cudgel and if any dog would try to bite me he would feel its full
force cracking down on him. I once hit a savage dog so hard that his
pained cries could probably be heard for 3 or 4 kilometers. The inhabitants
of the first house I approached told me they had no food to spare.
I then went to a house that was 3 houses removed from that one and
a woman there gave me a piece of bread and a big glass of milk. I
thanked her very, very profusely. She kept looking at me as if she
wanted to tell me something but couldn't quite bring herself to do
it. I asked her if she knew of partisans in the vicinity. She replied
that she'd heard of a partisan band either in that hamlet or the next
one -- she wasn't sure, she didn't know exactly where they were.
My spirits were
high when I left that woman. I was close now! Revenge was near! I searched
all over that hamlet during the night, looking for the partisans, but
I was unsuccessful. I was exhausted, my shoes were torn and my clothes
were full of holes. I kept on wandering around in the dark, hoping for
a bit of luck, but my search turned up nothing and nobody. However,
as I left the hamlet and made my way to a nearby forest I saw, far away,
a group of people, a mass of men. My heart skipped several beats! I
approached closer to get a better look and suddenly a figure shot up
in front of me and barked out: "Halt or I shoot!" I don't
know to this day what was wrong with me then, but I just kept on approaching.
Again he shouted: "Halt!" His words didn't register in my
consciousness -- perhaps I was in an advanced state of exhaustion, or
depression. I had been in a very despondent state at that time. Like
a robot, I walked straight over to this man, who was a guard on the
perimeter of the partisan group's position. Luckily, he didn't shoot;
he just grabbed me by the shoulders, searched me rapidly for hidden
arms, and shoved me down into a sitting position. He told me later that
I had been one hair-length away from being shot; his finger was on the
trigger and he had me in his gun sight as I plodded on towards him.
He told me that what kept him back from shooting me was my appearance--I
looked too bedraggled and pathetic to constitute any kind of threat.
The partisans were occupying
a whole house there. Some men came for me and shoved me into a small
room which was heavily guarded. I was continuously interrogated and
had to repeat everything--and I mean everything--from my past time
and again. And again after that. And my later accounts were checked
against my earlier ones for inconsistencies. All the while guns were
pointed at me. After a while I learned that I had stumbled into a
group of "official" Soviet partisans, under the leadership
of Dadia Pyetcha.
After several days
a doctor came to see me. He was Jewish and spoke Yiddish. He examined
me carefully, but that was not the real purpose of his visit.
I had already been examined quite thoroughly by several doctors. While
he "examined" me, he conversed in Yiddish with me. He was
checking on the authenticity of my story. Chelm Jews speak a particular
kind of Yiddish, with many Ukrainian words as part of their vocabulary.
Yiddish is a language of many dialects, so this doctor was checking
to see whether my spoken Yiddish corresponded with the details of my
life which I had told them. People were very suspicious of each other
at that time and these partisans were particularly wary of infiltrators.
After the doctor left, I was
given a more substantial meal. The next day I was taken out of that
room and given a rifle and bullets. They tested my shooting skills,
I had had military training before, so I knew how to shoot and how
to properly maintain a rifle. I think my "teachers" could
not have failed to see how eager I was to get into combat.
My first engagement
with the enemy had a somewhat odd origin. We were encamped near a small
village which was known to be a pro-Nazi stronghold. When the order
would be given, we were supposed to move in on the village and clean
it up, that is, get rid of the Germans and their "friends."
One night, our commander said he was going to reconnoiter before the
attack. Several other partisans followed him but, as per his orders,
kept their distance from him. Suddenly, our commander started whipping
his white horse madly and it galloped straight into the enemy-held village.
The other partisans who were nearby looked on, stupefied. Our commander
was gone in an instant, before anything could be done to stop or intercept
him. According to rumors which circulated amongst us later, the commander
was quite drunk.
When this misfortune was reported
to our High Command a short time later, our whole Otryad (military
unit) was mobilized and we were ordered to attack the village and
find our commander, dead or alive. We fought for most of the night
against the enemy, who contested every house and shack. The Germans
fell back very slowly, taking heavy casualties. We had losses too
but I was elated. I should have been afraid during this, my first
engagement, but I wasn't. I had a weapon in my hands now; I was surrounded
by people who shared my objective -- to pay the Germans and their
collaborators back for all that they had done to innocent women and
children. The whistle of flying bullets was music to my ears. It sounds
somewhat corny now, but that's the way I felt then. For a long time
I was lower than a cockroach on this earth. I was fair game for virtually
everybody, soldier and civilian alike. My life was a nightmare peopled
by squealers and bandits. And now I was hitting back! Yes, I might
fall, but it would be in battle, while I was repaying a long overdue
debt to the Germans and their collaborators. For the first time in
a very long while I was happy.
After we took the
village we searched every single house, shed, barn and stable, looking
for our commander. It was all in vain--we never found him. The retreating
Germans must have taken our leader with them. We burned the whole village
to the ground.
We took up new positions in a
big forest. The Germans flew overhead constantly, searching for partisans.
We remained dug in among the thick trees which served as our cover.
We were always ready to move out at a moment's notice; we carried
our food and ammunition on horses. We were in a state of constant
readiness and every partisan kept his fully loaded rifle at his side
for 24 hours of every day. It would have been impossible to take us
Our High Command
sent teams of partisans to reconnoiter the enemy positions. After some
days, we were ordered to move in and attack a collaborationist village.
This village had a terrible reputation; its Ukrainian inhabitants took
great pleasure in hunting down lone and solitary Jewish survivors and
other "enemies of the Reich." There was a problem, however.
This village could be approached only by a bridge which was heavily
guarded by Germans. We took wood in the forest and improvised sections
of a narrow bridge. Under cover of night we transported these heavy
sections to an unguarded point of the river and assembled them. When
the bridge was ready we moved across in force. The Ukrainians were taken
by surprise; they had thought their position was impregnable under their
German protectors. They retreated after a brief battle and only
old people remained in the village.
Our orders were strict. From
Ukrainian collaborators we could take whatever we wanted. From decent
villages, especially those of Baptist Ukrainians, we couldn't take
anything. I went into a house and "confiscated" a pair of
fine boots. My own boots had been covered with holes. I also "borrowed"
a shirt and a pair of pants. My own were infested with lice and covered
with holes. We were hungry by now, as we had run out of eggs, cheese,
etc., so we gulped like starved maniacs. I must have eaten 8 or 10
eggs at one time. We loaded a wagon full of "schnapps" and
other goodies. We also loaded up with arms and ammunition because
we found an armory in the village. We moved out of that village and
kept going all night. Mobility was our major weapon--we had to be
on the move constantly. I was picked with two other partisans to shepherd
14 head of cattle. We had problems with them, because a few took off
to return to their home village. The three of us were worried about
what our commanders would say, but in all of the hurry and confusion
the shortage of several cows was not noticed. We were dead tired when
we stopped in the morning. Several partisans came over, selected a
cow and led it off for slaughter. Some hours later every group of
5 men received a large pot of beef stew. What a delicacy! We ate like
Our beef stew feast
was a very rare one because we were bombed almost every day by the Germans,
so we couldn't cook. A fire would have given away our position. I, like
many of my partisan brothers, did not like to dig in and hide in the
forest. We itched for a battle with the bloody German murderers and
their Ukrainian helpers. We lived for revenge and to us our own lives
were cheap. Only one thing mattered revenge!
After several days an air of
unusual tension gripped our encampment. Something was brewing! We
soon found out what it was. A train loaded with German soldiers was
to pass on tracks near our forest. Our commanders knew the exact time
of passage of this train. 25 of us were picked to play key roles,
and I was one of the 25. Every one of us was given a mine. We dug
in under cover not far from the tracks. We couldn't be too close to
the tracks. Our comrades had dug in behind us. At the proper moment
-- the timing had to be exact--we lunged forward and buried our mines
in the track bed. We then turned and ran back to our prepared positions.
We waited, and the air was filled with tension.
All of a sudden
we heard the sound of steel on steel getting louder every moment. The
train was coming! When the noise became very loud we heard a thunderous
explosion and the ground shook. We leaped out of our positions and charged
the train. Much of it was wrecked, but some cars, especially those at
the end of the train, remained upright on the tracks. Many Germans had
been killed in the wreck, but a fair number survived. They took off
for the woods where our partisan brothers were waiting for them.
We hunted those uniformed Germans
like rabbits. Many of them had been wounded in the explosion, but
they still tried to escape. The Aryan supermen bled like pigs! Don't
let anybody tell you otherwise--revenge is sweet. A whole
nation had dedicated itself to annihilating my brothers and sisters,
and now I was giving them what they richly deserved. I enjoyed every
minute of it! Five wounded senior German officers were captured and
placed to one side by our commanders. I was ordered to guard them
till they would be interrogated. One of them begged me, "Bring
us a doctor! You must know the Geneva Convention concerning prisoners
of war! Be fair! We're wounded! We demand medical attention--sofort!
Immediately!" The blood rose to my head. "You are
beasts," I shouted at them. "You killed my wife and children!
Did you apply the Geneva Convention to them? You are a gang of murderers!"
I hit one of them hard with the butt of my rifle. I turned on another
and asked him if he had heard about Sobibor and other death camps.
"That's where you monsters gas innocent people," I told
him. "You've turned our women and children into smoke. What harm
could they ever have done to you?" I shrieked. And I hit him
too, very hard, with my rifle butt. I was losing control of myself
very rapidly. Fortunately, a partisan comrade saw me from the corner
of his eye and he came running over. He pacified me. I was lucky--another
moment and I would have lost control of myself completely and killed
those German animals. And my orders were to guard them, not kill them.
Anyhow, after they were interrogated they were given the treatment
they deserved, and it was a treatment not prescribed by the
Geneva Convention. They richly merited the treatment they got.
We were exhausted
when we reached our encampment but orders immediately
came through that we were to move another 40 kilometers
immediately. When we completed the move we rested for 3 days. Then word
came down that parachutists from Russia would be dropped in our area.
We were to prepare for them. We built giant pyres of wood at specific
places to delineate a large landing area. Each pyre had an allotment
of colored flares. When the pyres would be lit with a designated color,
the drop would proceed. A partisan was assigned to guard each pyre for
a specific period of time, so the pyres were constantly manned on a
rotational basis. Each partisan was given the password of the day to
be used to identify anyone approaching. Our orders were simple: a certain
colored flare would serve as the order to us to ignite our pyre.
I ran into a narrow escape here.
If a partisan was found guilty of dereliction of duty, he was shot.
I had, as one of my supervisors, a Ukrainian who had very little love
of Jews. He would have been delighted to do me in but I was very careful.
He assigned me a night watch at one of the pyres after I had had a
particularly difficult day. So, as I was guarding my pyre, I heard
him sneaking up. I asked for the password, which he gave, and he pretended
to have come to check up on the position of the pyre. He really had
come hoping to find me asleep. He alone couldn't have denounced me--he
needed a witness--so he brought another partisan with him. Had I been
asleep, that would have been the end of me. He was a very disappointed
man the next day and he kept glaring at me angrily.
After several days
the drop was finally made. The parachutists were senior Soviet officers,
dressed like Germans. Crates of ammunition were dropped with them, and
they brought Soviet newspapers, which we devoured eagerly. Their arrival
encouraged us greatly because they were a link with an outside world
which fought with us against the murderous Nazis and their collaborators.
Running around in the forests, we had felt so isolated, so alone! And
now we saw representatives of our brothers in this fight-to-the-death.
The parachutists remained with us for a short time, but they all seemed
to be intelligence experts and they told us good news about the progress
of the war against the Nazis.
The Germans continued to search
for us incessantly. They searched mostly at night, using small spotter
aircraft. After sundown, we couldn't cook or light any fire whatever,
since it would have given us away. We retreated to our dugouts and
bunkers, and sat huddled together in the dark. During these days and
nights groups of dynamiters and supporting detachments left
on missions and, from what I heard, they wreaked havoc on the German
troop and freight movements. Our men always came back in high spirits
from these missions. They had hit the enemy hard! Many of our men
were Soviet escapees from prisoner-of-war camps. They had been in
the hands of the Germans and they had suffered horribly, so they welcomed
any small repayment they could make to the Germans for the way they
had been treated. They were the best fighters because they were utterly
determined never to fall into German hands again.
One morning we were
roused from our sleep by the sound of gunfire. We had been surrounded
during the night, a time of day when we usually felt most safe. We loaded
our horses with food and ammunition but the shooting got closer and
intensified and the upright horses, presenting ready targets, fell like
flies. Our commanders ordered us to form small groups and move out of
the forest using the one escape route left--a treacherous way through
swampy ground. Those swamps were so muddy that they were almost quicksand
but we had no choice--it was either swamp or death. After a time I found
myself with 30 men and one horse, in a waist-deep marsh. After several
days our food supply ran out. We killed the horse and ate the meat.
We were all soaked to the skin and extremely depressed. We had lost
contact with our commanders and the other groups, and we were afraid
to move. After a week, some of us began to mutter about dying of hunger
and exposure there in the marsh. Our leader called for volunteers. Some
of us would have to go and find a way out of this mess. I volunteered
and two others joined me. They had a compass and a rough map.
We set out at nightfall and went
all night, slowly making our way back to the forest where we had originally
had our encampment I approached the door of a big house and knocked
very warily. My two comrades lay hidden in nearby bushes, their rifles
cocked and ready to back me up if I should run into trouble. A woman
answered. I asked her, "Are the Germans still around here?"
She answered, " No, they pulled out the day before yesterday."
I breathed a sigh of relief. She could have been a liar, so I asked
to see her papers and noted her name and address. Many on our side
had been betrayed by seemingly "friendly" peasants, but
now that the Germans were steadily retreating the likelihood of betrayal
was diminished. Every peasant now wanted to be on the winning side,
in case he or she would have to eventually account for their behavior.
At a signal my comrades approached the door. We asked the woman for
bread, milk and sauerkraut, and we brought these supplies back to
our hungry comrades with the good news that the Germans had left that
area. After a short time, all of us left the marsh and returned to
our original encampment. In a short time other groups drifted back
and our Otryad was restored to its former strength.
We had 50 seriously
wounded men but we lacked a field hospital. Moreover, the necessity
for instant mobility made nursing them quite impossible. Our injured
comrades were therefore placed with "friendly" peasant families
in the vicinity. These families were supposed to keep our men hidden
while they recovered. In return, the families received much-needed food
from our stocks. I, with several others, was at this time assigned the
task of travelling to those houses with the food. This was a difficult
and dangerous assignment, because we had to remain unseen and approach
those houses only at night. And perhaps the "friendly" peasant
had decided to switch sides and give our comrade away. I was more apprehensive
about these missions than I was about open combat.
As the front advanced, our forests
became an operational zone of the Red Army. We were first told to
halt all operations and dig in; we then heard the ominous sounds of
heavy artillery pounding away. The nights were lit up by shells as
we lay in our holes and bunkers. After a short time, in February or
March of 1944, we were ordered to move out to the Shelitz area. Shelitz
had been liberated already and I was overjoyed because it was close
to Chelm. I still had illusions about finding my family or some relatives.
I had heard that some of the Jews who had fled to Russia at the beginning
of the war had returned to Chelm. I went to my commander, explained
my situation, and asked for a furlough to go to Chelm. My commander
was sympathetic but I wondered about one point. He kept on insisting
that I take my rifle, fully loaded, with me. I thought it odd that
he was so insistent since the area had been liberated, but I followed
his order, took my rifle, and started to walk to Chelm on my two week
As I plodded along
I noticed frightened faces staring at me from the edges of the woods.
The moment they spotted my rifle they took off. They were probably Jews
who didn't know that the Germans had retreated from the area. There
were some Jews who had been living in total isolation in the forests,
without maps, compasses or any news from the outside world. They had
no contact with anybody or anything. I kept going, because I had a long,
long way to walk.
One evening I went into a roadside
small hotel, rented a room and ate a meal. The owner asked me who
I was and where I was going. I told him all about Sobibor, its gas
chambers and the masses of innocent people whose lives were snuffed
out there. My eyes filled with tears when I noticed how he seemed
to enjoy my description of how the innocent Jewish women and children
were brutally murdered. He said to me, "Don't worry. There are
more Jews around now than ever! You people multiply like rabbits!
Now you've brought the Russians down on our heads!" When I returned
to my room and regained control of myself, I reflected a bit and decided
to take off. Perhaps the owner would assemble his "friends"
and they would murder me in my bed. I couldn't sleep there that night.
I quietly opened the window and climbed out. I slept in a small forest
As I passed through
various villages and hamlets, I noticed the devastated and deserted
sections where Jews had once lived. The houses there, or what was left
of them, were in advanced stages of having been dismantled. I thought
of the Moishelech and Berelech who had lived there, and prayed there,
and hoped there. And my heart was full.
The mornings were a hard time
for me. I would notice how the Poles were going about their normal
lives--taking their cows out to pasture, grooming their horses, etc.
And not one Jew did I see! The whole landscape would come alive with
bustling people, but my Jewish brothers and sisters were not there.
Only the ruins of their houses bore mute testimony to their having
existed here so recently. I noticed that even the Jewish cemeteries
were in a vandalized state. The peasants obviously stole the tombstones
for their own uses.
As I approached
Chelm, the first house I came across was my fathers. It had been
in a non-Jewish area, so it wasn't dismantled. I saw that people were
living there. An angry looking man, seeing me stare at the house, came
over and said gruffly, "Hey, you, what do you want?" His eyes
blazed with Jew-hatred. I answered, "Nothing." I turned away
and left. And cried. I saw what had become of my former life. I ran
down the familiar streets to my own former home--it was no longer there.
All I saw was a rubble filled lot. The whole street was in ruins. I
stood in front of the lot, where the entrance had been, where my little
boy used to play with his friends, scratching out their games with small
stones and sticks. I felt close to him then. My heart was bursting
and I started to cry like a baby.
I stumbled along, a wreck of
a man, to my sister's house. Only Poles lived there now. My sister's
neighbor, a friendly Pole, told me how my sister had hidden in a nearby
forest with her children. A neighbor had squealed on her and the Gestapo
went after her with dogs. She and her poor, innocent children were
torn to pieces by the ferocious dogs. My small store no longer existed
too. The whole street had been flattened, but in adjoining
streets Poles improvised stalls and were trading.
How can I express
now how I felt then? I saw that, after everything, Hitler had succeeded.
The enormity of what had happened sunk into my consciousness. I was
heartsick. I stopped eating. I was supposed to return to my partisan
unit but I became so apathetic about everything that I just remained
in Chelm, wandering about aimlessly, sleeping in ruins. Seeing the tragedy
that had befallen me and my people, I found each day a burden, a mountain
to be climbed. And for what? For whom?
My mental despair, my disinterest
in food, and my sleeping in ruins soon took its toll. I became sick
with a type of influenza. I lay in a ruin in a feverish state, alternating
between hallucinations and nightmares. I was periodically bathed in
sweat. I couldn't move a muscle. And I didn't really care any more.
How long I passed like that I don't know. Days or weeks--I lost track
of time. When I recovered, I moved into an abandoned Jewish house.
It had no windows and doors. I fixed it up as best I could. I went
to a Polish coffin maker and explained that I was a good carpenter.
In exchange for my work he let me hammer together some boards and
make myself a bed.
I met my two brothers-in-law
who had just returned from Russia. They too had lost their wives and
children. We cried together. Our world had died. They remained two days
and left. I had no money to go anywhere. I saw that it was not good
for me to remain in Chelm because I heard that the Chelm Poles were
muttering about killing the few Jewish survivors. Rumors were spread
among the Poles that there were more Jews than ever and that they would
take away all the property of the Poles. The atmosphere became very
threatening. Some Jews were beaten in the streets and nobody cared --
Poles looked on and laughed. Many Jews left at that time--they saw the
handwriting on the wall.
I went to Wroclaw (formerly Breslau)
where a larger number of surviving Jews found themselves. I shared
a room with a man and I started to buy and sell whatever I could to
support myself. My aloneness ate me up. We heard, almost every day,
bad news about returning Jews being killed here and there. But where
could I go? I had no money, no papers and no contacts.
One day I went, as usual, to
the Wroclaw market to try to sell my pitiful "stock." It
was still 1944. Two Polish armed policeman came over and said, "Zhid,
come with us! Bring your sack!" I went with them to the police
station where they undressed me naked. They confiscated all I had;
they took my documents, including one showing that I was a Sobibor
resistance fighter. Four policemen started to yell at me when they
saw it, "Zhidek, Zhidek, lousy blood-sucker, Jewish crook--you
plan to take over the whole world, eh? You think you outsmarted the
Germans, eh? They had your number, Zhidek--they knew what vermin
you all are!" And they beat my naked body with hard wooden truncheons.
They dragged me to a deep, dark cellar, beat me some more, and threw
me in. The cell stank so--I've never smelt anything like it! It was
full of human excrement. There was no light, no window, no air. It
was stifling. Hellish! The Germans must have made much use of this
place when they were the masters here.
I was in considerable pain from
the beating they had given me. It was pitch-black all around me. I
felt all around the wall, searching for an opening, but found none.
I must have fainted then. How many days I was there I don't know.
After a while I felt like I had been buried alive, so I started to
yell hard, hysterically. They must have heard upstairs because a Polish
policeman soon came down with a revolver in hand. I told him I wanted
to go to the toilet. He laughed. He kept the revolver pointed at me
and said, "Zhidek, one more yell and you're a dead man!"
He left and I lay there like a sick dog.
I was in that cellar hole for
another 8 or 10 hours. Then I heard heavy footsteps. I thought that
they were coming to shoot me. However, they dragged me upstairs and
gave me back all my merchandise and documents. They also returned
a small sum of money that I had. They did not return my watch. I asked
for it, but they said they never saw it. They must have released me
because of my Soviet partisan papers--they were afraid of an inquiry
which would be led by Soviet NKVD police. They shoved me out onto
the street and told me to be careful--they would keep an eye out for
I went into a ruined house and
lay down. I was utterly worn out, hungry and dejected. I stank too
from that hole. I was in such pain from the beating they had given
me that I couldn't move from the bruises. I got up after a while and
went "home." My fellow roomer was home. He was frightened
when he saw me, all banged up, but he embraced me with genuine
joy. He told me that he kept hearing about Jews who were murdered
by bloodthirsty Poles and he had had been afraid that
such a fate had befallen me. We ate and I felt stronger. I told him
all that had happened to me at the hands of the "new",
people's Polish police.
I went to the local NKVD office,
showed them my Soviet partisan papers, and told them my story. They
assigned two men (who by sheer chance were Jewish) to my case. We
went to the Polish police station. The Polish policemen, who had been
swaggering as if they were 10 feet tall, were now cowering before
the NKVD men. With the NKVD men watching, I went berserk in that office.
I attacked my former jailer and gave him two good punches. I tore
up papers on his desk and then turned the desk over. The two NKVD
men were taken aback by my behavior but they let me continue. I emptied
every drawer of every desk in that office till I found my watch. The
NKVD men made detailed notes of all I told them and all of the abject
excuses of the Polish policemen. They wrote down everything and told
me they would make a full report. There would be hell to pay for the
way I had been treated!
Several weeks later I ran into
the two NKVD men. They greeted me heartily and asked me if I had been
convened to a hearing. I said no, I had not been summoned to any hearing.
They were amazed. They had submitted all the proper papers to the
higher authorities. The evidence against the Polish policemen was
clear and their report urged the strongest punishment for those goons.
The two NKVD men, aghast at the lack of follow-up to their painstaking
investigation and report, turned aside for several minutes and whispered
to each other. Finally, one of them turned to me and said, "Listen,
friend, what we're telling you now is strictly private, off-the-record.
You understand? All of the police here--ours and theirs--are one big
band of anti-Semites." They told me about conversations that
they had heard amongst their own "comrades" and Polish policemen,
filled with Jew hatred of the worst kind. Their hearts were heavy
with what they had heard. They told me that I was lucky to have emerged
alive from the hands of the Polish police. They had undoubtedly meant
to kill me. They told me that the Polish police had, as a priority,
the "elimination" of the surviving Jews. Crime, public order
and civil peace--all these were secondary concerns of the Polish police.
Their primary topic of conversation was ridding the homeland of the
I looked for ways to leave Poland
but I didn't succeed. We heard about the Kielce pogrom, where surviving
Jews were first disarmed by the police and then the police set a gang
of murderers loose on them, killing many. We heard about a train packed
with surviving Jews returning from Russia. The train had been stopped
en route, the Jews had been picked out and shot. We heard that now
all returning transports of Jews from Russia had Soviet soldiers on
board. These soldiers fraternized with the Jews in a very relaxed
way while the trains were rolling, sometimes for weeks and weeks,
across Soviet soil. The minute the trains crossed into Poland these
soldiers, following strict orders, assumed combat positions on the
roofs of the railway cars and in the doorways. The returning Polish
Jews--a pathetic remnant of a once flourishing community--had to be
protected from their Polish compatriots.
I remained in Wroclaw and went
to work in a furniture factory that had been set up. I earned hardly
enough to feed myself. Lodz had been liberated, so in 1945 I went
there and met many survivors. I waited for papers to leave Poland;
I had had enough of this accursed land, whose soil was soaked with
the blood of my loved ones. Meanwhile, I had to live, so I bought
and sold whatever merchandise I could find. My papers never came.
Next door to the rooming house
where I lived there were 4 emaciated, skeleton-like Jewish girls living
in a cellar. They were concentration camp survivors and they were
living a life of semi-starvation. Once, when I was dragging a heavy
sack out of my rooming house, one of the girls volunteered to help.
I hired her and took her later to a restaurant. She must have eaten
6 or 8 bowls of soup before we could start to talk. I hadn't realized
how hungry she had been. Perla Laja Fuks told me about her parents,
her sisters and brothers and their small children--all except one
brother gassed in Auschwitz. Perla was the only girl of her immediate
family to survive the hell of Auschwitz. When she finished I told
her all about my former life, and we both cried, and cried, and cried.
Life picked up slowly in Lodz
and I was making a living. I heard that there were business possibilities
in Biala-Kama, so I moved there and rented a stall on Raguta Street.
Perla remained in Lodz. After some time, in 1946, I returned to Lodz
to buy merchandise and spent some time with Perla. We agreed to get
married. She returned with me to Biala-Kama, I found a Rabbi, and
we were married in the traditional way in 1946.
I earned a living but I didn't
want to stay in Poland--we heard too many stories about the murder
of innocent Jewish survivors in the "new," "people's"
Poland. In 1947 a son was born to us. I was filled with joy -- we
had brought a new generation into the world. But every few days "special
investigatory commissions" came to my stall, locked the doors
and made an inventory. They were out to arrest me. I had to account
for every meter of goods--this was the "people's property."
Had I done business according to the rules we would have all starved
to death. So it was all a game--but a deadly game. We lived in fear;
any minute they might swoop down on us and close us up permanently.
In 1950 we were blessed with
the birth of a daughter. But we were still stuck in Poland and surrounded
by hatred. Near us, a gang of Poles went into the house of a family
we knew. This happened in the middle of the night. They abducted the
husband and tortured him for several days- they wanted to know where
the "Jewish gold" was hidden. These Poles then returned
to the wife and asked the same thing. The family had very modest resources,
so there was no question of "Jewish gold," but very many
Poles had a quasi-religious faith in the existence of "Jewish
gold." They took the wife away, and she left her infant daughter
with a nearby cousin. In a few days the husband and wife were found,
cut up in pieces, in two sacks which had been dumped in the river.
(The infant daughter lives in Israel today). We lived in constant
fear in the "new Poland"; we only wanted our papers to leave.
In 1950 we closed the stall.
A wave of repression was instigated by the government and private
business became impossible. I went to work as a carpenter in Biala-Kama.
We moved to Wroclaw in 1952 and I worked in a carpenter shop. In 1956
the long-awaited miracle took place! We received our papers. We first
immigrated to France, where my wife had a brother, the one and only
survivor of her large family. We moved to Canada in 1968, where I
worked as a carpenter until I retired.
I thought that, as I would get
older, the memories of Chelm and Sobibor and the dark forests would
fade and become indistinct, hazy. But it hasn't happened that way.
As I get older, I see even more clearly the lines of beautiful children
waiting to be gassed; I see the desperate faces of my Sobibor comrades
as we all planned and prepared and waited; and I see my little boy
Yossele playing at the entrance of our Chelm home. I am called a "survivor,"
but did I really survive? I doubt it.