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Chapter Three

After Sobibor

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 to us.

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 together.

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 wouldn't survive.

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 contents.

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 there.

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 and hid.

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, 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 didn’t 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 me alone.

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 lucky!

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 alive!


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 out.

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 utterly alone.

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 family.


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 resumed.


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 by surprise.

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 kings!

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 pass.

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 that night.

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 father’s. 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 me.

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 surviving Jews.

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.



Table of Contents

Abstact and key Words

Editors' Introduction

Preface by Howard Roiter

Chapter One: To Sobibor

Chapter Two: Sobibor


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