Voices from the Abyss: Letters and Essays, edited by Leon Kilbert
A Bit of History
Plock, the capital of the province of Masovia, was probably the seat of the oldest Jewish settlement in Poland. There are references to a Jewish community there in 1237, long before any other Polish city. Thus Jews lived continuously in the city for over seven hundred years.
Plock had always been an important cultural and historical Polish city with a population of over thirty thousand at the beginning of World War II. Almost one-third of its population (about ten thousand people) were Jewish. Excluded from any municipal or government jobs, many supported themselves as artisans and as merchants. They were also well represented as professionals in the areas of law and medicine. It was a lively and vibrant center of Jewish activity that had a multitude of political parties, three cooperative banks, several sports clubs, amateur theater groups, and newspapers. The community had also established a network of social services that included a home for the aged, an orphanage, a library ("Hazamir"), and a hospital that was founded in the 19th century.
The city was also a Jewish cultural center with secular, religious, and trade schools that served not only the communitv but also neighboring townships. In the twentieth century the noted painters Nathan Korzen, Fishel Zylberberg, Max Eljowicz, and the miniaturists David and Felix Tuszynski lived and worked in Plock. The poet Zyshe Landau, and the writers Yakir Warsawski and Sholem Asch lived in the city, as did the Zionist leaders Nahum Sokolow and Yitzhak Gruenbaum.
There is quite a bit of information about what transpired in Plock during the German occupation that ended with the expulsion of all the Jews from the city in February of 1941, of life in Bodzentyn and Przysucha where the Kilbert and Karo families slowly starved, and their end in the gas chambers of Treblinka.
By September 9th, 1939, eight days after the start of World War II, Plock was occupied by the German army. Soon, thereafter, civilian authorities took over the administration of the city. It was incorporated into the Reich and the persecution of the Jews began. In October it was ordered that all Jewish commercial, industrial, and craft establishments were to be turned over to designated individuals, mainly Germans. All Jewish establishments were confiscated with the stroke of a Nazi pen. Jews in Plock were impoverished overnight and they could survive only by selling personal possessions.
Hitler's decree dealing with the resettlement of Jews from German territories resulted in the expulsion of Jews from surrounding small towns and their concentration into a few larger settlements, including Plock. At the same time a campaign to demoralize the population was taking place. The Jewish population was ordered to wear large yellow stars on their clothing. They were caught in the streets and forced to work. While they were working they were often beaten mercilessly. When meeting a German a Jew had to bow and remove his head covering. Religious Jews, recognized by their garb, were forced to pray, dance, and exercise in the streets. The Gestapo entered Jewish apartments at night, beating the inhabitants, and robbing them of their belongings.
Jews were terrified and reluctant to venture into the streets. Younger members of the community started to leave the city and cross over the Soviet border. It is estimated that some 2,000 people left the city, either escaping to the eastern part of Poland occupied by Russia, or relocating to the General government, mainly to Warsaw. However, before the end of 1939 the Soviet border was closed and escape from the city became, for all practical purposes, impossible.
During this time, the Germans took hostages from the Jewish population and levied contributions. Executions often took place; people were shot without reason. Thus forty-two inhabitants of the local old-age home were murdered in a forest outside of Plock. Terror reigned in the city.
Toward the end of 1939 a Judenrat was established, with the obligation of organizing and supplying workers for the Germans. Another important step in the process of the annihilation of the Jews was the creation of a ghetto in Plock. Jews living beyond the ghetto, which consisted of two and a half streets, had to relocate there immediately. At the time the Jewish population of Plock amounted to over ten thousand people; consisting of seventy-six hundred natives and another three thousand people from neighboring townships. With the resettlement of Jews from the city proper, and the continuous arrival of others from the surrounding towns, the scarcity of apartments became painful.
The Jewish population was being squeezed into a small and limited area. Every available apartment was occupied by several families. Jews were forbidden to leave the ghetto and thus the purchasing of food became very difficult since the ghetto inhabitants could not easily make contact with the Polish population.
EXPULSION FROM PLOCK
The last stage of Jewish life culminated in the brutal expulsion from the city. In just two nights, February 20th and 28th, 1941, the over seven hundred year historv of the frrst Jewish community in Poland came to an abrupt end.
There are quite a few eyewitness accounts of the expulsion, the days in the concentration camp at Dzialdowo, and of life in the little towns and villages near Kielce that were similar to Bodzentyn and Przysucha where the Kilbert and Karo families were slowly destroyed.
The following excerpts, from an eyewitness account offer a succinct version of the occurrences. *
"...our expulsion happened at night toward the end of February. It was accomplished rather quickly in a beastly manner. They brutally drove us from our apartments, beating us with truncheons over the head. I remember a horrible detail of this evacuation. My grandmother was sick and bedridden. The Germans shot her that night..."
"... The Germans lined us up on Kwiatka (Szeroka) Street and pushed us in the darkness into military trucks. Weaker women and children were suffocated because too many people were forced into these trucks. These trucks went to Dzialdowo, a transit camp near MIawa..."
"...In Dzialdowo we had to give up all our possessions and money, everything with the exception of the clothing one was wearing. The most horrible experience for me were the public bathrooms on an open field, used jointly by men and women. At night this place was brightly illuminated...
"...We were in Dzialdowo for three days. I didn't eat anything during our time there, although they gave us soup and bread. I tried to avoid eating, because I didn't want to go to the bathrooms. On the third day they assembled us in a yard and we waited for trucks that were supposed to take us to the train. Then I saw, through the wire fence, a group of men with shaved heads who were dressed in prison garb. The Germans were forcing them to exercise. These were Jews from Plock, whom the Germans abducted a few days before the evacuation. We found out later that these Jews were executed the next day and buried in graves that they had been forced to dig..."
LIFE IN BODZFNTYN
(The same eyewitness account continues:)
"...My family and I were assigned to Bodzentyn. In Bodzentyn the conditions were horrible. Our family, with two other families, twelve people altogether were living in an empty little store. Children were swollen from hunger and cold, and an epidernic broke out...
"...Our people died en masse from cold, hunger, and typhoid. Whole families were dying in a single day. So did among others, the noted families of Szperling, Elberg, and others. I remember Mrs. Elberg, the wealthy lady before the war, in Plock. They owned an apartment house across the street from the factory where I worked. Here, in Bodzentyn, she was walking around barefoot with open wounds and in rags, begging..."
"...After some time I again started to smuggle merchandise to Bodzentyn. In the little town I could not recognize our people. They were transformed into skeletons. All of them were in rags; they had open sores and they were all begging. Thus appeared our compatriots before the end ..."
A book, The Memoir of Dawid Rubinowicz, was published in Poland**. It was written by a twelve-year-old boy from the village of Krajna, near Bodzentyn. The editors of The Memoir established the exact date of the mass murder of the Jews from Bodzentyn, Przysucha, and other neighboring townships.
The following are excerpts from the last chapter entitled:
"The Further Fate of the Jewish Population of Bodzentyn".
"In September 1942, probably between the 15th and the 21St, the Germans drove the whole Jewish population of Bodzentyn by foot to Suchedniow, a distance of twenty-five kilometers. For the old, the women, and the children a few carts were supplied. The forced march was escorted by the gendarmerie and the police who beastly tormented the unfortunate, driving them by beatings and forcing them to maintain the speed."
"Jews from Blizyn, Samsonow, and other towns were brought at the same time to Suchedniow, which had a railroad station... On Monday, September 21st, 1942, the solemn day of Yom Kippur, the forty-five hundred Jews that had been assembled were loaded on cattle cars that were prepared and sprinkled with lime... Ths train with the deported Jews from Suchedniow headed through Malkinia to the extermmation camp of Treblinka."
"There is no doubt where the execution of the Jewish population of Bodzentyn, Suchedniow, etc., took place. Without exception, all transports of Jews that were deported from the Kielce province were directed to Treblinka.
"Between July 1942 and September 1943, in the gas chambers of Treblinka over eight hundred thousand people, mainly Polish Jews, were exterminated. They were put to death by introducmg gas from internal combustion engines into the chambers.
"We can even ascertain when the death train loaded on the 21st of September, with Jews from Suchedniow, arrived in Treblinka. The timetable Nr. 587 of September 15, 1942 stated that the train with Jews from Suchedniow going through Skarzysko and Radom will arrive at Treblinka September 22nd (Tuesday) at 11:24 A.M. and return empty the same day at 3:59 P.M."
"Considering and remembering that people from the train transports were directed to the gas chambers and killed within a few hours after arriving at Treblinka, we can state that Dawid with all the others from the transport from Suchedniow perished on the 22nd or 23rd day of September 1942..."
Thus ended the saga of the Kilbert and Karo families - almost a year after the last letter from Bodzentyn was written.
THE WARSAW GHETTO
Meanwhile in Warsaw, Fela Pokrzywa was living with her two children and their spouses, and the three-year-old granddaughter Hanka, "beautiful as a little angel".
Itzhak, his wife, their eight-year-old daughter, and perhaps a member of the Karo family were also living in Warsaw.
The annihilation of the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto was carried out over a prolonged period of time. We don't know exactly how and when these members the Bernstein family perished.
Itzhak, as we found out alter the war, was an associateof Emanuel Ringelblum. Although Celina received only two short notes from him, he wrote feverishly while in the ghetto. A number of his essays were preserved in the Archives of the Ghetto. Although much of his writing was damaged by moisture, son of it remained legible.
(Note: These Ringelblum Archives, named after the historian who conceived and founded a clandestine records office, functioned in the Ghetto under the pseudonym of the Oneg Shabbat (Joy of Sabbath). Hirsh Wasser, a survivor of the group; indicated:
"...the most important function was the collectioni and recording of everything that went on... All that was required of the material to be accepted was that it be true. It was of the utmost importance that the historians who came later should have at their disposal material that had been noted down with absolute precision...")
The following are excerpts from Itzhak's essay, Hunger in Warsaw***. Perhaps, if he could, he would have mail it to his sister in New York, as he did over the years with his other writings. It tells us of life in the Warsaw Ghetto. These vignettes must serve as a proxy for the lives of the remaining members of the Bernstein family who perished in the Ghetto.
"... I saw today a black wagon; its open door let me see a box with a corpse. A woman bereft of strength hurried after it, her cry only to herself. A street filled with people who looked at her and heard her cries, astonished yet silent. She ran, she dragged herself after the coffin, like a bird that is wounded and every one around her looked and stared. My friend told me today that of a family of eight in his neighborhood only two remained, a mother and her son. He did not know whom of the two hunger will cut down first. And they walk about, mother and son, yellowish, dried out bodies, lit up with phosphorous shine...
"...You could see emaciated babies on cushions upon which were written pieces of paper asking for food, while their mothers, dark as shadows, stood by in silence...
"... "I am hungry, I am hungry, I am hungry," cries and walks with haste a man, as he turns to bystanders and to sunny but broken balconies. "I am hungry." No other words but these-"I am hungry." His body emaciates from week to week, from day to day, and his voice becomes stiller and hoarse. There is haste and wildness in his voice. What will be his last word? He will stand stlll and crow with a stifled sob -"I am hungry." His cry is taken up accompanied, as by a flock of crows, by other and similar sounds-"I am hungry, I am hungry, I am hungry." They say it with a wild look in their eyes and an outstretched bony hand. The hasty word and the wild look will soon cease to be, together with the body which brought them about. Yet, the protest of hunger will be heard from the drwan lips of others..."
..."Children were sitting and lying on the sidewalk. Thin bodies like sticks and skeletons and dried-up faces. Only one of them had a swollen face, bloated as with yeast iin a spoiled dough. The face was square, unnaturally large and immobile. It resembled an old wall clock which gives out the only sound in an uninterrupted monotony: Bread, bread, bread." Children's hearts twitter as do birds, "Beard." The magic word "Beard" which is both memory and hope. "Bread" - children's fingers have not touched it for a long time, nor will they ever touch it again..."
* - YIVO Archives-collection of Evewitness Reports of the Holocaust. Record group #104, second series. Testimony of F. Finlay - Fela Rawicka).
** - Pamietnik Dawida Rubinowicza, Ksazka I Wiedza Warszawa 1987
*** -The compete essay is reproduced on pages 130-135.
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