PATHS OF FATE
The Beginning of the German Occupation in Bialystok
The Ghetto Erected
My Polish Friend Romak Wichul
Artur Schade, an Honorable German
Haim Lipchinsky, a Member of the Underground
Life in the Ghetto Continues
The February 1943 Aktion (akcja)
The Last Months of Ghetto Bialystok
The Final Liquidation of the Ghetto 16-17.8.1943
In The Blizin Labor Camp
Auschwitz - Birkenau
Death March and Liberation
We suffered a great deal, the citizens of Bialystok and myself, during the Second World War. First came the Soviet occupation, then the Germans invaded us and the Ghetto was built. I went through two years of suffering there until the revolt and the destruction of the Ghetto. Then another eighteen months in labor and annihilation camps. Yet I survived somehow. Volumes could be written on all these camps, all the terrors of the Holocaust.
Forty years after the Second World War I decided to describe the terrible events I suffered and witnessed at the time of the Holocaust in 1941-1945.
The Beginning of the German Occupation in Bialystok
Iwas born in Bialystok on December 19, 1924. Father was a textile worker with a good mastery of looms. Mother was a housewife. I was the youngest child. Mina, my elder sister, was born in 191o. My brother Moshe (deceased) was born in 1919.
Our family was secular and free minded. All three children were therefore sent to secular schools - Yiddish secondary school and the vocational school of Bialystok. My sister continued her studies in the state teachers' academy.
At the time of my birth, Father was member of the city council as representative of the Bund Jewish-Socialist Workers Party. However, the political influence of the Polish working class declined toward 192o and particularly after Pilsucki came to power.
Ihave no memories of Czysta Street, as my family moved from it in my early childhood. But I do remember Mitzkevich Street, where I had quite a lot of Polish friends, this being a mixed residential area. Among them were Yorek Piwonsky and Roman Wichul, who will be mentioned again below. For the time being I can note that Roman was the son of a railroad worker. We were close friends. He was a real friend of Jews; he thought Poland was drifting closer to Nazi Germany in its attitudes and inclinations against Jews.
Iremember quite well a residential building at 32, Warshavska Street, from which one could reach 3, Bernitzka Street - the address of the Jewish school where we studied, all three of us, children of the family. That was the Jugend-Verein [Jewish Union] Elementary School. On graduating from that school I continued my studies in the vocational school of our city. Shortly before the outbreak of the war I began to work at Textile Factory No.6, located at 15, Mickewicz Street.
Numerous changes took place in the life of our family during the two-three years that preceded the war. My sister Mina married Yosef Losovsky, a young man who had managed to graduate from the Seligman Secondary School and had a leftist outlook. Being a Jew, he was not drafted into the Polish Army. With the help of my father he began to study spinning at the textile plant. My brother Moshe married Zviya Krugilyak and heft home in early 1940. So I remained alone with my parents.
On June 21,1941 I was visiting my sister Mina and her husband Yosef. In the afternoon we cycled round the city. We continued that wonderful promenade until late in the evening and so I stayed overnight in their apartment at 11, Yurovitzka Street. At 5 a.m. we were awakened by a terrible attack by German bombers. From our third-story apartment we could see quite clearly the sorties of the bomber planes from the Kriwelyan airfield, where numerous Russian planes were parked in peacetime.
That event propelled us into the most terrible and tragic period of my life, which lasted until May 5, 1945.
From the first moment of that bombardment I felt an urge to return home as quickly as possible, where my devoted mother was anxiously waiting for me. Her first question was, "do you want to stay or to run away?" I answered: "I'm staying, I won't leave you alone here!". Nevertheless I hurried to pack my things in a rucksack in any case, in view of the ominous circumstances.
Father returned home from the Russian jail, where he'd been imprisoned for his activity in the "City" workers movement in the period before the war.
Four days later, German columns were already marching in the streets of Bialystok, and they immediately began their deadly mission, indiscriminately killing peaceful citizens.
On June 27, 1941, the Germans set fire to the Jewish quarter of the city, chasing the Jews toward the big synagogue, which was already in flames as the Jews locked inside cried for help. The Germans forced the Jews into the burning building. Those who resisted were shot on the spot, and the bodies were thrown into the fire. The flames gradually spread and engulfed the entire Jewish quarter of the city.
That day God abandoned the city of Bialystok and its Jews. Does He still exist in the aftermath?
About 1,500 Jews were burned alive in the fire that raged in the synagogue, and hundreds of Jews who showed any resistance were shot dead.
Afew days later I passed by the ruins of the synagogue and saw the indescribable. Hevra Kadisha people were removing burned limbs from under the blackened ruins, incinerated fragments of holy books, remnants of so many innocent people, fathers and brothers, my people.
That was one of the most inhuman sights I ever saw during my four years of suffering in the Ghetto and the concentration camps. That indescribable horror of the Bialystok synagogue will remain indelibly imprinted in my memory.
On Saturday, July 12, 1941, the Germans unleashed a massive campaign against the Jews of Bialystok. Some 5,000 innocent Jews were caught in their homes on that bloody Sabbath, herded off to the outskirts of the city and shot. The martyrs of that campaign are known. as the "Sabbath victims".
It is noteworthy that the victims of the synagogue and Sabbath horrors were men aged 1o to 75. As a result, thousands of families were left without men. The women and small children were left helpless to fend for themselves. My brother Moshe Kizelstein and the father of my future wife, Yehiel Lynn, were killed on that black Sabbath.
Persecutions and killings continued relentlessly. Many tried to find refuge inside the Ghetto in the hope of escaping from the murderous hand. Every German was free to kill without any cause, taking his pick among the innocent victims.
The Ghetto Erected
Much has been written about the deportation of Jews into the Ghetto. To avoid repetition, I will only add some details about my family and myself. We spoke with a Polish peasant about the transport of clothing, household articles and furniture into the Ghetto. The peasant received most of our furniture as his fee. We exchanged my bicycle for a bag of potatoes, which was whwas loaded on the cart together with our luggage. We moved into my sister's apartment at 11, Yurowitzky Street.
On August 1, 1941, the Bialystok Ghetto was sealed off with all of the city's Jews inside, together with deportees from neighboring towns - a total of about 60,000 people.
Some minimal subsistence could still be found during the first days because people did their best to hoard food as best they could before entering the Ghetto, having exchanged furniture for food. At first, people could more freely about the Ghetto, which was in a way a relief, especially for the young in their striving for air and some measure of freedom.
On August 8, a week after the closure of the Ghetto, my brother-in-law Yosef Losovsky was arrested by the Gestapo, and we never saw him again. So the number of men in the family dwindled still further. That was a heavy blow for my sister Mina and the whole family. We did our best to stay together, all in the same apartment.
Meanwhile the Germans began the count and registration of Jews for various works. I was assigned to help in construction works - a sought-after occupation.
Some time later I was called to the Ghetto's labor office and was given a permit to work in construction outside the Ghetto, at the Krivolian airfield, which was closely guarded by the Germans. That was my first forced labor. My group numbered 30 workers. They assigned me to a master builder and together we began preparations for construction of a building. The rest were employed in sorting out bombs left behind by the Russian Army.
The proximity to a Polish village enabled us to buy food from the peasants, mainly potatoes for the coming winter. On several occasions I managed to smuggle various hats out of the Ghetto, as these were in great demand among the peasants. In return they gave me potatoes and dairy products.
Days were dragging slowly by. News from the front was bleak indeed. Nobody believed any more that the war would be over by the end of the year.
The Ghetto authorities began a registration of the unemployed. All of these were gradually transported to the town of Pruzhny. This marked the beginning of a deportation from the Ghetto. My cousin Gisha Kaplan, her husband. Yosef and their two children were taken away to Pruzhny. That was yet another blow to our dwindling family.
About a year later, in November 1942, all Jews were returned from Pruzhny to Bialystok. They were housed in barracks of the 10th Regiment together with Jews from nearby towns.
We managed to release my cousin Gisha and her family thanks to her sister Mara, who had the necessary ties. So my family found itself in the Ghetto again. That was the only case of a successful rescue of Jews from the barracks, and it kept them alive for some time.
All Jews locked in the barracks of the 10th Regiment were taken off to Treblinka, and none of them came back.
The year 1941 was approaching its end, and there were no signs that the war would be over soon. Conditions in the Ghetto were becoming worse every day. Our food stores were depleted, and there was an acute shortage of staples. Many took advantage of various opportunities and found work in local workshops: sewing, carpentry, shoemaking, etc. The pay consisted of 200 grams of bread. People had to do with this meager pay in the hope of surviving somehow, which was their only dream.
In the spring of 1942 I began work in a group of construction workers paving the road between Warsaw and Bialystok. My task was to erect small buildings along the road for storing tools and various paving implements in them. In early April 1942 we all began work according to a precise schedule on the road section between Novosiolky and Horoshetz.
My Polish Friend Romak Wichul
One morning, the German guard assigned to us went to one of the nearby Polish houses to eat and drink, and remained there till noon. Suddenly a Jew, frightened to death, ran to me, pointed at a nearby grove and whispered: "A naked man is lying there, could we help him?" I told him to keep quiet to avoid attracting the Germans attention, and went to the place. There I saw a naked man lying in bloodstained mud. After overcoming my initial shock, I arranged for some hot water to be brought from our campfire, then I approached him cautiously and asked him how he'd got there in such state.
After drinking some water and recovering a little, the man began to tell the story of his suffering and rescue. He'd been brought together with a group of other Poles from the Bialystok prison to the killing grounds. After being stripped of their clothes even before taking off, they were pushed into the specially prepared pits in order to be shot dead. Somehow he fell without being hit by a bullet, and became covered by a mixture of mud and blood, the blood of heroes. Confident that all their victims were dead, the Germans covered the bodies with a thin layer of soil.
In deep shock and horror we heard the rest of his story. Under cover of darkness he managed somehow to creep out of the mass of bodies in the pit and get here in the hope of finding people to help him before being devoured by a beast.
After recovering somewhat, he began to wash the bloody dirt off his body. We Jews collected some clothes for him and gave him of our meager food rations from the Ghetto. His appearance gradually became human. As we were talking, he asked me whether I really used to live in Mitzkevich Street. On hearing my affirmative reply he even remembered my name. I could not identify him, as his appearance had changed beyond recognition. He was Romak Wichul, our neighbor down the street, the son of the railroad worker. His whole family had a warm and friendly attitude toward Jews.
Idid my best to help Romak. When the German came back from his eating and drinking, Romak was already dressed, sitting and eating with us by the fire. Then abruptly he took off toward the bushes and hid there. Our eyes followed him until he could be seen no longer.
We remembered him on returning to the Ghetto in the evening.
In the spring of 1940, on my first visit to Bialystok after the war, I went to visit the Wichul family on Mitzkevicz Street. In trepidation I knocked on the door. A voice from within told me to come in. As we were exchanging greetings in Polish, my eyes were scanning the modest room with its furnishings: the same table, same pans, and same cabinet with glassware. In the middle of the room was standing a young girl looking at me in wonder. I asked her whether Romak was home. Then suddenly Romak's mother appeared, dressed in black. On seeing me she stopped for a moment, looked at me with her tired eyes and asked me whether I used to live at 9, Mitzkewicz Street. When I presented myself, she sat by the table and began to tell the story of Romak's life and death. When the Germans invaded Poland, Romak decided to help people any way he could. He tried to contact the underground and participated in various operations against the invaders. He used to carry a weapon for self-defense and also for protecting others who needed his help.
In early 1942, she went on, Romak was arrested by the Germans and deported to Novosiolky (where many victims were killed). Rescued by miracle from the bullets, he'd fallen into a pit filled with corpses in bloody mud, and that had saved him. Romak had told her how the Jews helped him and made it possible for him to reach home in the evening after his close encounter with death. Some time later, friends came to see him and he went off with them to the woods, never to return again. In 1943, his family received a notice that he had fallen in battle in the Augustow forest. His comrades managed to smuggle to his family his posthumous medal for bravery against the invader.
Iwas still standing as she told me the story. Afterwards they invited me to sit down. I remained there till evening, listening to the stories of Polish friends in their struggle against the occupation.
Artur Schade, an Honorable German
In 1942,Father was working in Textile Factory No.4. He tried hard to get me a job in the factory as a spinning worker in order to save me from the road building work. In the summer I started to work with Father. At first I failed to understand that was it that Father had in common with the plant manager - a swastika-bearing German. Gradually I realized that in their long conversations, Father was teaching him the basics of textile work.
The German was relatively young, only 38, and his name was Artur Schade. Before Hitler came to power he was a Socialist; he joined the Nazi Party to avoid being drafted to the front. So he was dispatched to Bialystok to manage the textile plant.
Father used to meet with him after work, and together they used to go to the commander of the local underground. This was done together with other Germans who used to cooperate with the partisans. One of them was Benischek, manager of Textile Factory No.1. He moved in to live together with Schade on learning secret of their common views. Schade's home became a hotbed of anti-Nazi activity. He used to hire workers who had connections with the underground. He even managed to collect various weapons and send them to the partisans. This in addition to valuable information on the German military. He remained plant manager until the spring of 1944. Shortly before the Red Army entered Bialystok, he loaded his car with weapons and important maps and joined the underground, where he and his exploits were well known.
After the war, Schade became a lecturer in Leipzig University. His subject was political economics. Schade was one of the very few honorable citizens of East Germany. He died in 1982 after a grave illness.
Haim Lipchinsky, a Member of the Underground
Iwould like to tell now about one of the heroes of the Bialystok uprising, a good friend of my sister's and an acquaintance of mine. His name was Haim Lipchinsky. He was born in the town of Lapi. His uncle, a glassblower by occupation, lived there and Haim himself learned the secrets of the trade. He proved very talented in school. This gained him admittance to the Bialystok State Teachers Academy, where he was the only Jewish student. The following year, my sister was also admitted there and so Haim's ties with my family became even closer. Father found him a paid job as secretary of the Local Textile Master Workers Association. But he soon was arrested for his leftist outlook. Released from prison in 1935, he left Bialystok and moved to Warsaw, where he could find more job opportunities. There he married and raised a family. He visited us several times before the Ghetto was sealed off.
In early 1943, Haim came back to us and even lived with us in a small room in the crowded Ghetto. With the help of Father and my sister he contacted the underground. During a dark, cold night in the summer of 1943 he managed to join the partisans together with his wife, brother-in-law and some other Jews. From there he visited the Ghetto several times. On one of his visits he showed interest in assembling a radio receiver. I introduced him to the Fransky family because I knew that Izhak Fransky used to assemble such devices and had also earpieces for listening. Regrettably, he was too sick for such work. But he had passed on his knowledge to his talented son Israel Fransky, who managed to scramble together the necessary parts and build a radio set which Haim handed over to the partisans.
The same Srulik Fransky joined the underground as well, in late 1943. He managed to survive all horrors, and now he lives in Israel.
In August 1943, Haim Lipchinsky returned to the Ghetto and was caught in the campaign of final annihilation with all the heroic feats that preceded it. He formed a group of fighters operating near the fence on Nowgorodska Street. Armed with a pistol, Haim attacked the Germans surrounding the Ghetto. When his ammunition ran out he attacked an SS soldier with an axe in his hand. Another German shot Haim dead in a burst of fire.
The life of a fighter and hero was thus extinguished. Haim's name is mentioned in many books that tell the story of the Bialystok Ghetto revolt. We shall remember him and honor his memory as a brave fighter during those days of Holocaust and heroism.
So far I've mentioned three persons out of the many I met in 1941-1943. They all symbolize the resistance to the invader and join the ranks of people from many nations who fought against Nazi Germany.
Life in the Ghetto Continues
Time was creeping at a sluggish pace in those terrible days in the Ghetto. The Germans continued their advance deep into Russia. News reaching us from the frontline was bleak indeed. The situation of the Jews worsened every day. Some of my friends who tried to escape from the Ghetto without any papers were shot on sight. Food was becoming scarcer by the hour.
Three Jews working in an oil factory were arrested on December 31, 1942. The charge was that they'd tried to smuggle out a few grains of forage. They were executed by hanging opposite the building of the Jewish Committee. One of them was Eli, owner of a fodder store and a person well known among the Jews of Bialystok. His son was one of my friends in the Ghetto. He told me the circumstances of the case. The Pole in charge of the store sold some raw material to buy alcoholic drinks for himself. At year's end, auditors came from Konigsberg and discovered that several tons of grain was missing. The drunken, evil man put the blame on the Jews. All Jewish workers were searched, and three of them were found to have hidden some grain. That was a sufficient cause for placing them on the scaffold.
The February 1943 Aktion (akcja)
In the night of February 5th, Germans entered the Ghetto (they usually avoided doing this at night for fear of encountering the Jewish resistance) and began evicting the Jews from their crowded apartments. The helpless Jews were herded off to the Polassia railroad station and loaded on cargo cars to Treblinka and Majdanek. That was the last station of our martyr brethren. None of them ever came back.
That was the beginning of the first operation, which lasted till February 12, 1943. It led to the deportation of about 10,000 Jews; another 2,000 were shot on the spot for refusing to leave the Ghetto, an act of passive resistance by these unfortunate people.
My girlfriend from the school days, Rivka Rafitkies, who studied in the Grosser school of our city, was caught by the Germans. Driven by her strong desire to survive, she tried to escape and was shot dead by the Germans. Her body was left on the ground until the operation was over, as it was impossible to bury her. I learned this on the tragic, bloody day of February 12,1943.
My parents and I lived in an attic the Germans seem to have neglected somehow. That was on the first day of the operation. During the night we moved to the factory in the Ghetto, where various weaving works were being done for the Germans. I remained there together with my parents until the end of the first operation. After those terrible days we learned that my sister-in-law, Zviya Krugeliak, had shown her resistance to the Germans by jumping off the train to Treblinka. German machine guns finished her off.
Many children were strangled during the first operation for fear that their crying would betray the hiding places to the Germans. Who can possibly describe the tragic situation of parents being driven to commit such acts. Not surprisingly, many of them had lost their mind out of anguish and remorse by the time the operation was over. The bodies of these infants were buried in a row of the cemetery, named "the row of the strangled children".
The Last Months of Ghetto Bialystok
After the first operation we had a certain period of lull. Hopes arose again that the survivors would be allowed to go on working in the Ghetto factories and will be saved from deportation. This state of mind brought us a minor consolation, and we lived with such illusions for a few months.
One day news of a German debacle at Stalingrad and of thousands of Germans being taken prisoners by Russians reached the Ghetto. This raised our spirit and brought us new hopes war will soon be over and that we were going to be liberated.
Father and I began work in Textile Factory No.1, which was close to our home at Yarowitzka Street. The food situation became desperate as only Jews were working in that factory. There was no longer anyone to barter goods with - some food in return for what was left of household articles. But worse of all, rumors were spreading about an impending annihilation of Ghetto Jews in all the surrounding towns. Several hundred Jews from Grodno were deported to Bialystok after the Ghetto there was liquidated. The Bialystok Ghetto remained the last one in the whole region.
Akind of lethargy fell upon the Ghetto as the days were rolling by. Even the active members of the resistance groups could not imagine the tragedy that lied ahead.
Apowerful explosion was heard in the Ghetto shortly before its final liquidation. It occurred at 8, Czista Street, where most of our relatives lived.
For describing that event in detail I must first explain the circumstances that provided its background and tell the story of the men who did this and paid for it with their own lives. At 8 Czista Street there was a bakery that belonged to my aunt Fogel Nakdimon. My cousin lived on the second floor with her two sons. The elder son, Burka Becker, was a pupil at the Jewish secondary school. Together with his father he managed to smuggle quantities of flour into the Ghetto, thanks to their good business ties with Poles. So they managed to bring in some weapons and ammunition. Burka began to prepare incendiary and explosive bottles in his room. Some error in the preparation work seems to have triggered the big explosion. Burka and three of his friends were killed in the explosion and the whole building collapsed in ruins.
For the Germans that was a signal that people in the Ghetto were hoarding explosives, which would make a liquidation campaign costly in terms of German lives.
To the present day it remains unclear to me whether on August 16, 1943 the fighters used any weapons made in that workshop. The sudden encirclement of the Ghetto factories during the night and the eviction of the Jews from their workplaces signaled the beginning of the final liquidation.
The Final Liquidation of the Ghetto 16-17.8.1943
The news spread rapidly. Tension and unrest descended upon the Ghetto. Everyone was looking for someone, everyone was seeking advice and considering ways as to what could yet be done.
My friend Shindel Shoshkes came to us that evening with her mother and sisters. They were looking simply for company and maybe a more secure shelter. On hearing the news about the liquidation, my sister Mina left her home in the knowledge of a certain escape route from the Ghetto. Mother stood that day for hours on end on the balcony, listening to any shots. My sister managed to escape from the Ghetto and joined the resistance. Together with my cousin Mara Kaplan she survived all horrors; they both live now in Israel.
In the morning of that tragic August 16,1943, notices were posted of an impending transfer of all Jews from the Bialystok Ghetto to Treblinka and Majdanek. Those two camps were already known to us as factories of death.
Now comes the chapter about my participation in the uprising.
As I noted, we were living at 11 Yurowitzka Street, opposite Czepla Street. To the left of us there continues Novgorodska Street as far as the Ghetto fences. This was the proper place for any attempt to break into the Ghetto. So I went there to join the resistance groups. As I was approaching Novgorodska Street I saw two light tanks moving toward me near the fences. I retreated immediately to Yurowitzka Street and here I met my close friend Izhak Yudkes, who will be mentioned later on in my story.
So I managed to survive and go on fighting for my life. Back home I stayed close to my parents and my girlfriend in the Ghetto, Shindel Shoshkes. Together we were a compact group.
It is my duty to describe Yurowitzka Street, which had been chosen by the Germans as the gathering place for all Ghetto Jews. But such description is hardly possible....
Many thousands of destitute persons had reached a state of absolute despair. In their dreams and hopes they looked at the outside world, which had forgotten them and left them to their fate. Among those unfortunate people were the corpses of resistance fighters and of small children who were separated from their parents as all of them were being herded to the gates.
From the Yurowitzka Street gate began the road to Pitrasha Field, and beyond Bialystok there was the Polsia station, where the trains were already waiting.
On the first day the situation was still bearable, despite the provocations by the Ukrainians, who used to shoot and kill Jews just for fun. On the second day there began the chase toward the rail station. Masses of Jews were herded from one place to another just in order to exhaust what little strength they still had.
At noon they stopped the chase and separated the children aged 4-13 from their parents. The children were sent back to the Ghetto. Afterwards they were sent to Theresienstadt. The Germans intended to trade them against Germans taken prisoners by the British. This plan failed. The children remained in the camp until September 1944 and on the eve of Yom Kippur they were transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau and killed there in the second crematorium. After the war I heard that the tradeoff had failed because the Mufti of Jerusalem complained against it before Hitler on the grounds that the children would grow up as fighters against the Arabs.
The third day began with an a9ute shortage of water, which caused many people to lose consciousness. Some committed suicide by cutting their veins.
Another chase began at noon. Then we decided to march toward the rail station, because of the intolerable suffering. One of our main reasons for going to the rail station was the thirst and our feeling of helplessness. So we walked to our last destination. We walked in pairs, myself with Father, and my mother with Shindel behind us.
Suddenly I was pushed aside, to a place where several hundred young Jews were sitting. The German who had pushed me forced me to sit on the ground. My parents and girlfriend were herded along to the rail station. I managed to look at Father for a moment. Mother was leaning on Shindel and was barely walking. They were both weeping. I saw them no more.
Iwas sitting together with some 700 Jews on the ground. We were forbidden to speak or stand up. Then the order came to get up and walk to the trucks. From there I managed to see the mass of people far away, people who had nearly lost their human shape after so much suffering, thirst and hunger. We were all dead tired and in utter despair.
The truck brought us to the Bialystok prison, where they threw us without any reason and without trial. Our only crime was being Jews. I remained there for 12 days. During that time I met Berl Lev, son of Shmuel Lev, who was a friend of Father's and my music teacher. We tried to keep together, but failed; I was taken with others in a selection process in the prison.
Before they transported us to the Polls rail station, Jews who had been recruited for forced labor in the Makov region were brought to the prison. Among them was Naomi Kamnetzky-Seiff; after a stay in the prison she was transferred to the Stutthof camp and from there to Auschwitz. Despite everything, she managed to survive and now she lives in Israel.
Most of the imprisoned Jews were transportto the Polsia rail station. Only two groups Jews remained the prison. Among the first 20 was also Berl Lev and my future brother-in-law, Israel Dorn. All 20 of them survived, and some of them arrived in Israel.
The second group cono38 men. Their task was to burn and bury the corpses of Jews and others who were killed by the Germans. The one who escaped from this was Yehuda Amiel, who managed to run away when the Germans opened fire; after the war he emigrated to Mexico.
Berl Lev managed to survive the horrors. After living for many years in the Soviet Union he came to Israel in the big immigration wave of 1992.
Thus ended two years of my suffering in the Bialystok Ghetto. What happened next with me is described in the following chapters.
In The Blizin Labor Camp
The Terrible Journey to Majdanek
After two years of suffering in the Bialystok Ghetto, I was brought in the late summer of 1943 to a freight train at the Polsia station. There began the next chapter of my misery.
Packed with Jews, the train steamed off to Majdanek-Lublin after letting off several cars at Melnikia on their way to Treblinka. This separation was done even before the train had taken off toward Majdanek. That train was carrying the last survivors of the "little Ghetto" of Bialystok. Those who had remained in the Ghetto by the end of August were the firemen; the corpse carriers, who had ordered to dissimulate the traces left by the revolt; and the "Ladenkomando", whose job was to dismantle the Ghetto factories such as sewing workshops with their sewing machines; cobbler shop tools; leather goods factory; carpentry workshops; briefly, the whole industry of the Ghetto where the last Jews of Bialystok labored.
On reaching the rail station I saw there hundreds of Jews who knew exactly their destination. Even the slightest resistance on being forced to enter the cars was cruelly punished by the trained Ukrainians with their sticks and dogs. Then they locked the cars from outside.
We were crowded to suffocation. Today I cannot estimate how many of us were packed in there, but there must have been 100 to 150 people. Cattle are transported in better conditions. For the first time in my life I experienced a suffering beyond human endurance. The stench of excrement and urine was intolerable.
Almost everyone was crying in despair, as we all knew our destination. The cruelty of our German and Ukrainian guards knew no limits. The Ukrainians, or 'black ravens' as we called them, were only too happy to shoot into the train. After 48 hours of torture we reached Lublin-Majdanek.
First the numerous corpses were unloaded from the train. Some of them were women who had cut their wrist veins during the journey in order to escape death in the gas chamber.
Once we were chased out of the train, my only hope was for some water. The terrible heat and crowding had dried our bodies to the extreme. We were all half unconscious. Then I noticed blood stains on my coat. That was the blood of a friend of mine who was standing next to me in the car as an Ukrainian shot him from outside. Those blood stains have remained indelibly in my memory, my first encounter with death, face to face.
We were quickly absorbed into the camp. They cut all our body hair, herded us to a cold shower, took everything we had with us. We were given other clothes, ragged and torn ones. And then off to work. Doing what? We had to carry ten pairs of shoes in a blanket from one end of the camp to the other end and then bring them back. An intentionally senseless toil.
September came, bringing cold and wet weather. Our suffering became even more intense. Starved and dressed in rags, we had to be all day outside, worse than a dog's life. Unable to withstand such conditions, many people succumbed to illness. The sick ones were moved to the "sick barracks", from which no one came back.
Occupational Selection and Transfer to Blizin
On one rainy September day they forced us to stand longer on the parade ground. We stood, soaked wet in the rain, half frozen, afraid to move a finger. After what seemed an endless wait, a number of SS men came to us together with an elegantly dressed civilian. They asked the tailors among us to march out, and a large group of us ran to the designated place. Then the Germans sealed off the group, allowing no one to approach.
The second call was for cobblers, and it went in much the same way, only this time the group was smaller. Standing beside me was a friend with whom I used to work in the textile factory of the Ghetto. He suggested that we answer the call for metal fitters, should such call be made. Not far from me was standing a neighbor of ours from 11, Yarowitzka St. in the Ghetto. That was Mayudovnik, who used to work in the leather factory of the Ghetto. And when the Germans called for belt makers, he pulled my hand and said: "Come, Shamay, you can be my assistant even if know nothing of the trade". I took his advice and without waiting for the call for metal fitters to come, I went off with him. As it turned out, that was a lucky choice on my part. They had no need for metal fitters. They took us to a waiting train already loaded with machinery and tools from the dismantled factories of the Bialystok Ghetto.
All other Jews, some 18,000 of them, were killed in Majdanek on November 3, 1943. They were shot dead and buried in mass graves at the camp. I learned this in the spring of 1944 when we were in the Belsen camp: one day they brought dismantled barracks to the camp and on one of them I saw a blood-curdling 'goodbye message' from those Bialystok Jews.
"Natural Death" of Hunger and a Slice of Bread from Outside
We boarded the cars and so began another terrible journey of two days and nights, without any human utilities. In the night we reached a small town named Blizin, between Skarzhisko and Konska. There we saw warehouses filled with bricks, some wooden barracks nearby; the whole site was surrounded with a high barbed wire fence.
I'll try to describe the Blizin camp, former estate of a Polish dignitary. At the entrance to the main road was a small mansion where the owners lived. Farther on there were luxury houses surrounded by gardens; that was the quarters of the Germans and their helpers. The warehouses were converted into factories. Beyond the gate there were barracks where we were allowed to rest after a day of toil.
In the Blizin camp we saw Jews from Radom, Bielsko and the environs. They had arrived here a long time before, straight from the Ghettos, bringing some of their possessions along. Here we saw the difference between the Bialystok Jews, who arrived here with nothing but their shirts on, and the 'ancients', who for some reason had retained part of their possessions. Another difference was that they had managed to 'settle' in better working conditions. In those days the Blizin camp was regarded as a labor camp where conditions were relatively tolerable. Here they erased my name. I ceased to be a person and became a number - 3096 - for the first time in my life.
We were sent to work according to trades, and so I found myself in the belt workshop. The job was not too hard for the 18-year old youth whom I was, especially as I realized things could be worse.
Iwill not describe the hunger that ate us into a slow death: words are too weak for this. Nor can I describe the mental suffering of all of us martyrs in our forced labor, humiliated and destitute.
I met my friend Borka Zabar of Bialystok. We had reached Majdanek in the same transport, and now I saw him again in the belt shop. How much he had changed! I could barely recognize him. As we were exchanging a few words, he said: "l'm going to the grove too".
From the look of him it was clear that his days were numbered. The 'grove' - so we called the cemetery near the camp, where they used to bury the sick and dying... And Borka was the first victim of 'natural death' - hunger.
Apart from the "regular" starvation and torture, the Germans enjoyed every oto make our life even more miserable. Shortly after our arrival to Blizin they found a young Jew in possession of an "unexplained" slice of bread, and that was sufficient cause to sentence him to death. They forced him to run throughout the camp just in order to show everyone the punishment finding a slice of bread from outside, after which they sand buried him while still alive. The parade in honor of that event was intended entirely to put more fear in our souls and body, in addition to the hunger, cold and dampness.
The rags we had put on in Majdanek began to fall into pieces. So we had to endure the cold, almost naked and barefoot, succumbing to disease one after another. We lived in mortal fear of one terrible fate: being carried off to the "sick barrack", where nobody survived.
The Typhus Epidemic
So came the winter of 1943 and a typhus epidemic spread on the camp with German uniforms, which we had to clean and mend. Those uniforms were filthy, soaked with blood and infested with lice. Our starved and exhausted bodies could not withstand this attack of disease that invaded us from those stinking uniforms. So the epidemic spread over the camp. There were no means for control of the disease and no hope of recovery.
They assigned me and my friend Avraham Vered (now in Kibbutz Ramot Menashe) among the most severe cases against our will, and we had no choice but to keep one another alive and prevent the Germans from carting us off to the "grove" together with the dead and dying. After all, our condition was not much better.
Our only food consisted of black, bitter "coffee". With the last vestiges of our strength we had to nurse one another in order to fight the high fever that burned our bodies so pitilessly. And who can tell? Maybe our mutual devotion saved both of us from a certain death.
Scores of bodies were being removed daily from the "sick barrack". The camp population dwindled continuously. At some stage the Germans decided to eradicate the epidemic, and after a thorough disinfecting of the survivors they indeed succeeded. From then on the camp was renamed from Blizin Work Camp to a concentration camp, and our life became even worse. First of all there were the 'parades'. These became protracted and exhausting, and after them we had to run off to work. Command over the camp was handed over to SS men, who administered only one punishment for any infraction: a mortal bullet.
During the spring of 1944 I was transferred from the belt workshop to the quarry, where the work was far more exhausting. I was left with the only thing in my possession - my hope of survival, which never left me. Our work at the quarry consisted in loading stones on carts. People died like flies under the unbearable strain. My friends Avraham Vered and Shia Orkin shared the same fate. We helped one another to survive. We used to divide whatever food we had among us as the cold was freezing our almost naked bodies. Indeed we were barely recognizable as humans in our plight.
The summer of 1944 was approaching and it brought rumors of German defeats on the fronts, which instilled a fresh hope in the minds of the handful of survivors. Regrettably, the end of the war was not as near as we had hoped, and many of us succumbed during the year until our salvation.
On a summer day of 1944 they held us for a long time on the parade ground because they gave us new uniforms - the striped "passiaks" as we called, them, as befits veteran inmates of a concentration camp. Immediately afterwards they forced us to board freight cars at the place where we had arrived one year earlier and the train took off southward to a place between Krakow and Katowice - to the Auschwitz-Birkenau annihilation camp.
Auschwitz - Birkenau
After two years in the Bialystok Ghetto and a year in the Blizin camp, in the summer of 1944 I was transferred to Auschwitz-Birkenau (Bzezinka) together with all the Jewish inmates. That was the site of the crematoriums of the Auschwitz concentration camp. We arrived there dressed in our "striped" shirts - an indication of our "veteran" katzetnik (inmates of the Nazi camps) status.
We alighted from the train cars amidst shouts of the SS men and barking of their dogs. Their task was to clear the train as quickly as possible; then we passed the first selection, performed by the notorious Dr. Mengele. Our appearance seems to have satisfied him. He ordered that we all be placed in the camp. We passed close to the women's' camp, near which there began the road to crematoriums No.2 and No.3. Further on there were the sports grounds. We were herded into a large building located nearby. That was a true public bath. Those who emerged from it waited outside. From here one could see the two crematoriums 400-500 meter away. As it began to darken we saw tongues of fire emerging from the chimneys.
Then suddenly the SS man in charge of us shouted at us and ordered us to form ranks and start moving. The order was "forward!", and so we began to move toward the crematoriums. I marched in one of the front rows. Thinking of our predicament, I was frightened at the prospect that we'd be herded into one of the crematoriums. Yet we passed by and went on marching toward another gate bearing the sign:
Arbeit Macht Frei (Work Frees).
As the SS were shouting and pushing us, we passed the gate and stopped by barrack 3. Then we realized that the immediate danger was over. We were living katzetniks again. Because of the late hour they had barely time to push us in. It was very crowded, and some of us, including myself, remained outside all night. Wee were unable to sleep. Our eyes were all the time pointed at the crematoriums with their firing chimneys.
Dark thoughts went incessantly through my mind. We tried to guess what would happen the next day. Were we doomed already? Was it possible to do something that could save us from death? Finally we stretched on the ground and fell asleep, exhausted.
Suddenly we were awakened by shouts of the SS men. Beating us mercilessly, they ordered us to form ranks in order to get our "breakfast" - nothing but a muddy, bitter coffee. Then they began to tattoo numbers on our arms. At that moment we ceased to be human being for the second time; my new number was B-1968. After all Blizin inmates were so branded, they paraded us with our new numbers. The SS men made a meticulous count. Then we became genuine Auschwitz inmates.
One of us was staggering with exhaustion. One cruel SS blow and he was on the ground. Then an SS man placed 'a thick stick on the victim's neck, stepped on it with both his feet and began to swing on it until the poor man showed no longer any signs of life.
The SS guard ordered that the body be placed at the gate together with the piles of other bodies intended for the crematoriums.
That case depressed us to the utmost. Then we began to exchange "impressions" on it. But that was not the only occurrence of this sort. A few days later the same SS man strangled a Jewish boy whose only crime was failure to greet the guards properly from the proper distance. So far about how some of my friends were murdered.
Now a few words about the terrible hunger in the camp. We were so hungry, we could eat soil. It is impossible to describe this hunger, this starvation that lasted for months and even years on end. A hunger that only became worse after the muddy soup that was our daily meal. A hunger that forced some of us to throw themselves at the electrified barbed wire to finish their miserable existence.
Selections in the camp took place during the evening parade ("Appell"). Those condemned to die were taken straight to the gas chambers near the crematoriums. Several months after our arrival at Auschwitz-Birkenau they began to make selections in the morning. The selections were done by two SS men. One of them was Dr. Mengele. Two men in civilian clothes were also present. They used to write down the inmates' numbers, including mine - B1968. Then they separated us from the rest. We were a group of 40. They took us to the camp gate. Two truckwere waiting for us, and we were ordered to board them. I noticed the sign on the other truck: I.G. Farbenindustrie. After a short drive, we reached Buna.
After two years in the Bialystok Ghetto and a year in the Blizin and Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps, I reached Buna in the late summer of 1944. Buna was a camp near an industrial plant. It was intended mainly to supply cheap labor for the factory. Our lives mattered little to them. We alighted from the trucks and remained standing on the parade ground. Here they divided us into a number of groups and marched us to our barracks, where a place was assigned to each group. The appearance of the whole camp and its inmates indicated the tough regime that prevailed there: slave labor done "efficiently". Our impression turned out to be correct.
After some time, a young man approached me and asked me whether I was from Bialystok. In response to my affirmative answer he introduced himself. His name was Yaakov. I could hardly recognize him, though I'd known him before the war. He was a pupil of the Jewish secondary school at Povarichna Street. I learned some details about the camp from him, about the work and how the Germans treated their slaves. Our conversation was brief: we were called up to the parade grounds in order to be assigned jobs. I was assigned to night work, unloading coal from the trains. Night work was regarded as good. In the early evening they paraded us for the first time in the camp. I went to the parade together with Yaakov.
An atrocious picture beyond imagination struck our eyes. Several inmates were hung on low poles. Their feet we're on the g. They were dead. Yaakov explained to me that these inmates had been hanged for being absent from work. Their sentence had been carried out with animal atrocity. Their scaffolds were set so as to have only their toes touch the ground. Exhausted from having to stand on their toes, they had given up and succumbed to the tightening noose. The parade was brief, as we had to go to work.
As far back as 1944, I.G. Farbenindustrie was making synthetic petrol and rubber products. Oil shale served as raw material. The production process involved the release of gases and odors that gradually poisoned the inmates. My work - unloading coal from the trains - was extremely exhausting, but it had its advantages. Only a handful of SS men used to guard us at night, so that we could work at a less murderous pace.
The nights were cold, but the coal emitted some heat and we used to lean on them for a short rest. In the serenity of the night we could hear the thunder of distant cannons - a clear sign that the front was approaching us.
Sunday afternoon was a time for rest for the whole camp. On those afternoons they used to make the big weekly parades to punish those who were absent from work during the week. The culprits were tied to poles, their toes barely touching the ground, as described above. That was one of the most merciless methods of killing I've ever seen.
One Sunday afternoon, a large and long pit was dug in the middle of the parade ground and was filled with quicklime. Then, as we were standing by, they poured water on the quicklime and placed a long, narrow plank over the pit. The inmates whose weakness had caused them to avoid work were brought in.
The commandant read out the order of the day: three of the culprits had to walk along the plank placed over the pit with the boiling lime. The first inmate was cut loose; staggering, he began to tread cautiously on the plank. He did not go very far. Exhausted, he fell and was swallowed by the lime. Then the second inmate lost equilibrium, struggled for a few seconds and fell in the pit. Now the third had his turn. Having seen the fate of the first two inmates, he mustered all his strength and began to walk slowly, and with great effort he reached the other side; only to be shot by the Germans and thrown into the pit. Afterwards we were ordered to march forward and look left. They forced us to see the fate of the three victims. Three bodies were immersed in the lime, still quivering, with bloodstains and burned pieces of skin around them.
In late September 1944 they brought us back to Auschwitz, where I had to pass a third selection managed by Mengele. Our group was loaded on a train, which took off for southwestern Germany.
After two years in the Bialystok Ghetto and a year and a half in various death camps, I arrived in 1944 to the work camp in Ordruff in southern Germany, at the foothills of the Alps. At this site, the Germans began building a factory for the production of armaments. After the war, it became known that they were building a factory for the production of V2 rockets. Up until January 1945, it was a work camp; afterwards, it became a death camp. Some details about the camp: It was built in 1944 and had not yet been surrounded by barbed wire. The barracks had windows and were even heated.
Iwas in barrack 12, next to barrack 10, which housed the inmates that took care of the dead, those that died of exhaustion or those that were hung on the commandants' field in view of everyone.
The dead were collected in a small hut for two or three weeks. Afterwards, the dead were sorted for the removal of golden teeth from their mouths. The dead were removed using a large carriage attached to a tractor. The dentist and his assistant checked each corpse, after which the corpse was thrown onto the carriage.
The work was carried on at a fast pace, but nevertheless took a long time. After the work was finished, they could not move the tractor from its place because of the late hour and because of the bitter cold. The carriage and the corpses remained outside our window. During the night, when we went outside to go to the toilet, we passed by the carriage from which hung arms and legs swinging in the wind. We were not afraid of this sight, because each one of us knew that in the near future his own body might be placed in the same position.
The work was staggering. We were excavating a huge tunnel in the mountain to facilitate the building of a plant for the production of V2 rockets. We removed the rocks and rubble from the mountain. The food in the camp was miserable, as was the case in all the death camps. The cold in the mountains was bitter and our clothes were inadequate. These factors caused many of our number to reach complete exhaustion. Anyone that fell exhausted did not get up again - he was shot where he fell.
Since the camp was close to the Swiss border, some of us had the idea of escaping from the camp, getting to the border and crossing into Switzerland. Ordruff held inmates from all over Europe. In our barracks were Jews, Poles, Hungarians, Russians, French, Dutch, Greeks and even Germans. Among the Germans were those who were interred in the camp for six to eight years. The Polish Jews were few in number. The Hungarian Jews were broken quickly from malnutrition, cold, and hard work.
In January 1945, two Russian prisoners of war approached me with the idea of escaping with them to the Swiss border. I knew the two of them from our barracks and from working together on the mountain. After a conversation in the fields where we went to the toilet (no one could hear us there), we decided to take advantage of the first opportunity to escape.
At the beginning of February, we took advantage of the fact that the Germans were lax in their security, and we took off as fast as we could to an afforested area where we hid. We stood freezing on the spot to see if anyone noticed our escape. After we saw that all was quiet, We began to walk in the direction of the Swiss border. Our speed was not that of exhausted individuals, but our will to live and the hope to reach freedom spurred us on. Soon, our legs became heavy and the deep snow hampered us further.
The next afternoon, We reached a German town. All was quiet and stealthily we entered a barn with straw on the ground. I began to think about predicament. I must add that the two others had already escaped from the camp in the past, were captured, and re-interred. Now we thought how to avoid the same mistakes so as not to be retaken. My fatigue and the warm barn combined to put me to sleep.
As it turned out, the two Russians did indeed repeat their mistakes of the past. I awoke alone to the barking of dogs and the shouting of Germans. German S.S. surrounded the barn. When I went outside, I saw the Russians standing beaten beside a truck. I too received a beating. The commandant ordered us to get onto the truck and told the driver to take us back to the camp.
After a short time, We found ourselves standing before the camp commandant, a man known for his cruelty. He shouted: "Tie them to the post in the commandant's field." I heard them erecting scaffold behind us. It's hard for me to say how long we stood like that. All the camp inmates came to the commandant. They discovered that the escapees had been captured and would soon be hung.
An S.S. junior officer read the order of the day curtly and in a language I didn't understand. Afterwards, a German approached the first of us, who was tied to a post. He freed his bonds and dragged him to the scaffolds. I heard a shout from those who were in the commandant's field. After a few minutes, an S.S. man with the help of two other Germans freed the second Russian and took him to be hung.
At the time, I thought of my parents and my brother Moshe, who was taken by the Germans on Saturday well known in Bialystok. I thought of my sister, Mina, who left the Bialystok Ghetto for the partisans, I thought of my friends and acquaintances whom I had met during my brief life of twenty years.
Idon't remember if it was my intention at that time to take leave of this life and to remain hanging from the scaffold. A German approached me and released me from my bonds. I tripped and the heavy arm of a German dragged me towards the scaffold. At that moment, I saw a horrible sight, the two Russians who had escaped with me, hanging from the scaffold, dead.
Inoticed that there was no third scaffold. Strong arms dragged me in the direction of the scaffold. There I saw the bench they used for whipping. They lay me down on the bench and I still managed to hear, "Fifty strokes," and the order, "Count the strokes." I don't know whether I counted, I don't know how long they beat me or how long I lay there. Apparently, I lost consciousness and finally fell in the snow.
Ilay there with my senses dulled and the snow chilling my beaten body. A sharp pain in my right shoulder and a sticky fluid by my left eye brought me to the thought whether I was still alive or whether they had beaten me to death. I felt the cold dry snow beneath me chilling my beaten and wounded body. Suddenly, I heard light footsteps on the snow approaching me. I thought that it was probably someone from barrack 10 coming to collect the dead from the scaffold and from the commandant's field. I was alive, but how could I let them know? I began to move the arm that hurt very much. I was unable to feel the other arm. I tried to make some sound and I heard myself making noises that were not human. My voice was very quiet. The footsteps stopped and the man that approached me asked: "Shamai, are you alive?"
Itried with all my might to move my arm and to get some louder sound to leave my lips so as to answer his question in the affirmative. The footsteps retreated quickly. Again, I lay with my face in the snow, at the base of the two scaffolds.
Idon't know how much time passed, but suddenly I felt hands lifting me from the snow and supporting me gingerly. They led me in the direction of our barracks. I had teeth missing, my head was injured and my eyes were swollen. (I'd like to add that for a long time after my release, I suffered numerous complications, my urine was bloody, I would lose my balance and fall).
My friend who asked if I was alive saw that indeed I was and when he saw that I hadn't lost all my senses went to the old man of our barracks and told him that I was still alive. The old man of our barracks ordered the others to bring me back to the barracks, and he himself went to the camp commandant to inform him that I was still alive.
The camp commandant, after a hanging, used to assemble the S.S. men and drink with them into a stupor. Nevertheless, he listened attentively and said: "Let him remain until they transfer the useless to Sachsenhausen." The old man of our barracks was a Dutchman, a Christian from The Hague. On his clothes there was a red triangle, the mark of a political prisoner. The old man of our barracks requested from the commandant that I not be requested to leave the barracks for parade or for work. The commandant complied with his request. My friends supported me in everything, anything of which they were capable, some hot bitter coffee, a potato with its peel, an extra portion of greatly diluted vegetable soup.
In the middle of February 1945, I started to appear at parade. I realized that if I didn't work, the Germans would find an excuse to finish me off. Then, on the 18th of February 1945, during parade, they sorted us and I was among the first on the list to be shipped out. At night they closed us in our barracks and in the morning, they were to bring us to the train for Sachsenhausen-Oranienburg, by Berlin. Things became clear to us; Oranienburg was among the last camps where the crematoria were active in 1945.
In the morning, they gave us our daily bread ration and some bitter coffee. They arranged us in groups of five and counted us. We were put onto trucks. At the last moment, a friend of mine came running to me and gave me his bread ration that he received for the day. I still managed to ask him: "What will you eat?" His answer was: "I'm staying here and you're leaving."
Irode with the other prisoners in the direction of the Oranienburg death camp. For reasons unknown to me, We stayed at the same spot for three days. The conditions in the train were horrid. Every hour they would remove corpses. Finally, the train moved off, loaded with thousands of prisoners sentenced to death, without the benefit of a trial, of course. The destination was the Sachsenhausen camp.
After a short time, the train stopped again for several days. This happened a few times, and to the best of my recollection, we were under way ten to twelve days from the moment they loaded us on the train at Ordruff.
We stopped suddenly in a field. We didn't see anything, but we heard a horrible noise of airplanes filling the sky. There began a terrible shelling. The Germans opened the doors of the train and yelled: "Get out if you can!" I was among the first that left the train. The piece of bread that my friend has given me in Ordruff helped me to carry on despite the dreadful suffering. I was the first to leave the carriage. I ran about twenty or thirty meters and took cover under a bush. Other prisoners joined me there.
The shelling was horrendous. Many carriages of the train were destroyed and the locomotive was thrown from the tracks. After the destruction of the train, the airplanes turned in the direction of Berlin. We set in the field for several hours and the Germans looked at us not knowing what to do. The train was destroyed and there were no orders to shoot us. Hours passed like this and it began to get dark. A German that approached us yelled: "Stay where you are. If you move, you will be shot." We stayed seated until the following day.
The day began late as was usual for February. After the chill of the night, the sun rose in the morning and it got warmer. We looked all around to see where we could get something to eat. I felt that my strength was failing. At a distance, I saw a car and a truck approaching us. A number of Germans dressed in civilian clothes talked with the junior officer and the later began to scream: "Get up and arrange yourselves in rows!" Those that couldn't get up were shot. I stood in the first rowand understood that probably they would sort us and we would be taken to work.
AGerman civilian shouted: "Who among you an iron-monger?" I was among the first to raise his hand. The German asked me: "What do you know?" I answered: "I'm an electronic welder." In Bialystok, in the ORT technical school, I learned a lot about this subject. I always did this type of work with a fair measure of success, and now it would stand me in good stead.
"Go to the left." I heard. There were already tens of prisoners standing there. After some time, the German shouted: "Enough!" Those of us on the left were told to get onto the truck. Once more, I looked at those who remained in the field. I never saw them again. They were shot the same day.
The truck drove along an open road and after some time arrived at a gate with a large sign: "HENKEL WERKE". This was a large airplane factory employing strictly prison labor. Some details about the factory: among the factory buildings there were twenty barracks for the laborer. The majority of the laborers were French, Polish, and a large number of Germans in opposition to Hitler's regime. There were also a number of Jews. Like all the camps in 1945, here too the conditions were hard. People were weak from years of the Ghettoes, labor camps and death camps. I must point out that here recognized the difficulty of the work and as a result we received additional rations. We worked ten hours a day, but without the constant beatings off the S.S. This allowed my young body to regain its strength and to heal the wounds from the beatings that I had received at Ordruff.
Death March and Liberation
From April 1,1945, I began to work only eight hours a day, but the rations became worse. On April 20,1945, during parade, we were ordered to form close ranks, and we were marched in the direction of Hamburg. We walked for about two weeks. During that time, I met a young man from Bialystok, Yehiel Shedler. We tried to stay together, but because the frequent shelling and because of the large numbers of people walking along the road, we became separated after a number of days of walking together. Happily, I can report that Yehiel survived and lives in Israel and has a family.
On May 5,1945, the armies that fought against Germany and defeated her, liberated me as well. We became free people!
In 1956,1 immigrated to Israel together with my family and settled in Kiryat Bialystok. On the Day of Atonement, I went to the Bialystok synagogue to remember my family that was killed and the closest of my friends who were not left alive after World War II. After about half a day of prayers, the Cohens got up to bless the congregation. There were three of them. The first was Faivel Kagan. Everybody knew him. He was the treasurer of the council and many had received loans from him in order to get settled. The second Cohen was a young man, about thirty years old. He was strong and walked erect. When he approached the holy covenant, I couldn't see his face because it was wrapped in a large prayer shawl. The third man was the late Lindenfeld. Everyone knew him because he had a grocery store in the Bialystok neighborhood.
During the blessing, I bowed my head and thought about the Cohen that I didn't know. I was troubled by him. After the blessing of the Cohens, they each returned to their place, and the sexton informed us of a half-hour break in the prayers. I went over to the young Cohen who was calmly arranging his prayer shawl. He suddenly looked at me and once more I heard the words I had heard then in Ordruff in the snow: "Shamai, are you alive?"
Iimmediately recognized my friend Itzel, who played soccer with me in the fish market in Bialystok. Yes it was ltzel, who during the last moments of the Bialystok Ghetto together with me left Novogdozeska Street when the German tanks entered the Ghetto. Yes it was ltzel, who lifted me from the snow on the terrible night when I lay beaten almost to death at the foot of the scaffolds. It was the same ltzel who shared with me his bread of affliction so that I might have the strength to suffer my horrible wounds and recover. It was the same Itzel that at the moment that they were about to send me to the death camp, gave me all his bread that he was given for the whole day. Today he is Yitzhak Yudex, the young Cohen who a few minutes previously blessed the remainder of the refugees from Bialystok.
Today, forty years later, we meet with our families, and over a glass of wine, recollect what befell during those terrible and shocking days of World War II. A bond has grown between us, both of us longing to remain free. And a friendship that began in our birthplace, the city of Bialystok, continues to this very day!
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Last updated May 2nd, 2003