Abraham Vered (WARAT):
Living in the Shadow of the Holocaust
Kibbutz Ramot Menashe, 1988.
Translated by Eli Lapid and edited by Ada Holtzman, courtesy of Bialystok Landsmanschaft in Israel (the "Vaad")
The "Action" (Akcja): 5-12.2.43
The ghetto was closed at the dawn of Friday, February 5th, 1943; the Germans entered the ghetto and took positions in the Judenrat (The Jewish councils in the occupied cities and ghettos, which were appointed by the Nazis). The head of the Judenrat, Barasz, was rushed to be present in the murderous acts committed by the German "supreme-being". We, my father, mother, sister, Golda and I managed to avoid the Jewish Ghetto Police and to reach Ciepla Street and to squeeze into the bunker of the young watchman and managed to squeeze through the narrow entrance into the bunker before the Ghetto Police arrived. Liba and her daughter Raia were headed to another bunker; we lost all touch with her and there wasn't time to say goodbye. This hunt by man-animals, very vicious animals, people who lost all sense of humanity were out to prey. They shot and killed anyone who happened to be in their way. They walked in the company of the Ghetto Police and probably possessed lists and when they realized that people are missing they turned their rage on the people that they captured and killed them.
Our bunker was located in one of the houses on Ciepla Street. Even today I am not certain of the exact place. It was a one story building; the digging was beneath the floor along the girder that supported the floor; the entrance near the kitchen stove that was operated with wood and therefore there was a tin cover over the floor that protected it from the burning wood. When burning coal fell on the floor, it fell on the tin. This tin cover, which was 50 cm long and 50 cm wide, was the entrance; the last person that entered the bunker closed the tin cover from the inside, so that from the outside it would not be recognized that there are people underneath. Of course, there was complete silence inside and the people who were hiding underneath held their breath and their coughs in the suffocating air. This, as remembered, took place in February, an especially difficult month; the earth in the digging was freezing, but it melted because of the body heat of the people inside and caused puddles of freezing water that reached the knees, the feet were nearly frozen..
We heard the Germans in the next door yard; we heard shouting and gun fire; they entered our house and we could hear every word they said and every step they took with their nailed boots and suddenly shooting. The echo of the shots was as loud as cannon shots. They also tried to crack the floor with spears, but I suppose that our bunker was located under a main girder because we heard both the shots and their steps and spears from the sides and not exactly over us, and that was what probably saved our lives.
At night, we went out searching for food. We looked in open houses and took whatever we could find including water; we were thirsty to death and we haven't heard anything from Liba. At dawn, we returned back to the bunker; another day of fear, concern and tension; more agony that no human being can endure. People were sick and coughing; we begged them to leave and spare our lives. They angrily tell us that if we abandon and expel them, they will give us away. Even amongst us the moral has gotten to its lowest level. A person in distress is under the profound influence of egoism. We were later told that there were actual cases in which people handed over the locations of bunkers where Jews were hiding. On the 4th night, we were told that the workers in the factory were safe; we went at night to the factory in which my father worked and we were let inside. This time we were saved, but were very worried about Liba and Raia'le; we had no news regarding them. I managed that night to reach our house and to gather food from there.
At that night, we also found out the fatal destiny of our loving sister, Liba; a heroic mother and a Jewish mother in all sense. She was a Jewish mother in the highest meaning that a mother can be; she managed to enter the bunker on the first day of the "Action". Because Raia'le was the only baby in the bunker, my sister was demanded by the people inside the bunker to place a pillow over the baby's face until she stops breathing. Liba didn't think twice and got out of the hiding place. She was seen searching in distress for a new hiding place, but was captured by the police who handed her over to the Germans. Subsequently, when I returned to Auschwitz, I was told by friends and acquaintances that Liba arrived in Auschwitz with Raia'le, where they were both killed. Their memory will be cherished forever. I don't know if this is heroism, but undoubtedly this is a mother's love to her daughter, which was stronger than death.
There are known heroic acts of Jews from that time. Once, when the blood thirsty soldiers entered the house on 29 Kupiecka Street, the young Yitzhak Melamed managed to pour hydrochloric acid in the eyes of the first Gestapo man, who opened fire with no distinction, killing his Gestapo friend standing next to him. Yitzhak Melamed took advantage of the state of panic that the murderers were in and run away. The Germans arrested all the people in the yard and added about 130 people, if recall correctly, men women and children and led them to the Praga Park, where they killed them all. In addition to this, they gave an ultimatum: If Melamed does not give himself up - they will kill all of the people in the ghetto. Yitzhak Melamed, the hero, gave himself up in order to save the lives of the people in the ghetto. He was severely tortured and executed by hanging at the center of the ghetto and was left there hanging until the end of the "Action"; he will be remembered as blessed hero.
There were more courageous acts like the one in 10 Kupiecka Street, where the people there organized and resisted with knives, axes and shovels. They were all killed. There was no other organized resistance; however there were heroic acts of the underground members here and there.
On one time in the days of the "Action", I was sitting on top of a factory roof, hidden, observing the ghetto. This building was 4 stories high; I saw people with their hands over their heads being led into cars; I saw a group of young people being led from Fabryczna Street towards Jurowiecka Street and in the corner of these streets they were placed against the wall and a killer waited there with a machine gun who opened fire at them just like that with no warning. After that, the Germans left the area and continued their business; despicable murderers, human animals!
The "Action" was over on the 12th of February; a week of torture, inhuman pain and death; much, much death. People started to come out of their hiding places like mice going out of their holes. There were heart breaking sights of parents who lost their children and children who lost their parents; also, tears of joy and happiness when some families were fortunate to find their loved ones and reunite. At the end, the death count was horrible; 12 to 15 thousands people were taken or killed; they were all taken to the Treblinka and Auschwitz death camps.
Life in the Ghetto between the "Action" and the Ghetto's Liquidation 12.2.43-16.8.43
At home, we are very sad; we long to Liba and her daughter very much. Mother doesn't stop talking about them; her voice is strangled by her cry, how sad.
The couple who lived with us was taken together with the other victims to extermination. Eliyahu, my brother, brought a young man to a room that became vacant; a tall person with a forelock of hair. Eliyahu introduced him as his friend. He was not from Bialystok; I think he was from Vilna. His name if I am not mistaken was Yendze; probably a member of Hashomer Hatzair Zionist movement and the underground. He was a very convenient tenant; occasionally he came to sleep, but certainly not every day. I was accepted to that my father worked in; I quickly learned to sow stitches in uniforms with a special machine and I worked in shifts.
Eliyahu went out to the forests as a representative of Hashomer Hatzair Movement, according to a decision of the underground. Back home, the atmosphere is controlled by grief. Mother's situation is bad; she feels responsible for the death of Liba and Raia; she cries all the time and becomes hysteric easily. In fact, she is not living in this reality anymore; her will to live is gone. Father is stronger, he is busy at work. There, he meets his friends and they encourage him. Thus, only Golda and I were left at home.
Life in the Ghetto at this point was the last stage towards the complete liquidation. We could feel it; I hear from the tenant that lived with us about the Warsaw Ghetto Revolt in April. There was not much news yet. Social life has stopped completely, at least for me. Most of my friends have disappeared and the ones that remained have lost their parents, brothers and sisters. Everyone remained in his home and there was no mood for anything. Amongst my friends, were Biniamin (I can't recall his last name) and Leybel Kot ("Bajby"). We would meet every evening when I didn't work the night shift. One evening, they told me that they told me that they joined the underground and they are about to begin their training. They are still not sure of what they are about to do and they do not have weapons yet.
Subsequently, I asked them to connect me to their contact person. I wanted to join them. I met the man and he decided that I am suitable for the job of connecting between the posts. I participated in several training sessions; learned to attack with a knife and to improvise Molotov Cocktails and other things.
Summer moved slowly with no joy. It was the most difficult summer in my life. Every day there were new edicts, hunger, danger; carts with bodies were sent more and more every day to the Zabia cemetery. Each time the convoy was longer. We pray that plagues do not burst because the hygienic conditions were very difficult; no water supply or sewage system; the living conditions became more and more unbearable due to the significant reduction of the living space of the Ghetto. They decreased the area of the ghetto more and more: they took all of Zamenhofa, all of Zydowska (the Jewish street), and a major part of Kupiecka near the gate and on the other hand they brought into the Bialystok Ghetto, the remaining of the Grodno Ghetto and the close and remote surroundings. It was very crowded. There was no medicine for the sick; especially for the chronically ill who needed medicine on a regular basis.
At that time, there many commissions visited the Ghetto. I could see them all. The stitches machine was placed at the center of the building and everyone passed through me. Sometime they stopped by me to see how I sew the stitches in the uniforms of the murderers. Among them were many people in civilian clothes, but most of them were dressed in uniforms.
In the underground, we increased our training. I knew all the passages in the Ghetto, especially from Jurowiecka towards Ciepla, Nowogrodzka and all the way to Smolna. There, I knew every backyard, roof or possible passage. We moved by night, when it was dark. Rumors started to increase about a big "Action" or maybe even a complete liquidation of the Ghetto. We were told that if the Germans will break into the Ghetto, our rendezvous point will be the Ciepla Street and the sign for the beginning of the revolt will be a pole of fire.
The Liquidation of the Ghetto- August 16th, 1943
Sunday, the 15th of August started out as a regular day with nothing particular; at least, I can't remember anything particular on that day. I went over at some friends and in the evening, I returned home before the curfew so that I wouldn't have to sneak through the back yards. We sat at our downstairs neighbors, the family Furman. They had two sons at my age and a daughter who was Golda's very close friend from before the war; a very pretty girl who despite a scar on her upper lip was very beautiful and special.
Ican't recall what we did specifically on the evening; the evening that nobody thought it would be the last evening. 48 hours later almost all of us would be taken to death or to torture in concentration and death camps.
Iwent to sleep at around midnight. In the middle of the night we felt heavy movement on the streets. I climbed to the window. It was a window of the attic with a very wide ledge in the roof. I saw people running in the streets. I ran to the street and met already on the stairway neighbors who said that the Germans entered the Ghetto and are taking positions in key places. That is it, the liquidation has begun. Indeed the Judenrat told everyone: men, woman, elderly and children are ordered to go to the concentration area on Jurowiecka Street with their heads facing to Polska Street, but the goal of the Germans was to implement the "Ubersiedlung" policy, meaning the re-settlement policy. We knew exactly the meaning of this. This time we won't be fooled, there will be resistance; I wanted to believe this very much.
While parents are preparing packages, especially clothes - we may need them after all - I went to my commander to ask what to do. He told me that the sign for me will come from Ciepla or Bialostoczanska - Czestochowska, it will be a pole of fire or smoke.
Iquickly returned home to part from my loved ones. Mother was completely silent, she didn't cry, as if she accepted her bitter destiny and sincerely believed that she is about to meet Liba and Raia'le. I parted in silence, embracing and kissing each other. We knew we would never see one another again. I am not sure if we felt like that then or if it is what I think we felt when looking back; I guess it is both.
Iran through the back yards in order to reach Ciepla Street. I wanted to avoid passing through the streets of Kupiecka and Jurowiecka, but it was impossible because I had to cross the river and I could only cross it through the Kupiecka Bridge. But, there were Germans who drove away all the people from there towards Jurowiecka Street. I crossed the bridge and managed to pass through one of the yards, and from there I came to a yard that leads to Jurowiecka. Now, the most difficult task was ahead of me. People rushed in an incredible flow towards the gate. From both sides of the flow of people there were black Ukraine guards who shot anyone who deviated. I entered the flow and crossed with it to the other side. There, I needed to find one opening to run away from. I made sure I was far from the guards and at one point I managed to get away. I found an entrance in an opened house, entered it and through a window in the back I managed to get to the back yard. I think I got to Nowogrodzka-Ciepla at the moment they lit the hay stacks in the Judenrat gardens. Fire broke everywhere. Suddenly, all Ciepla street was on fire, as well as Chmielna, Waska and the surrounding streets were on fire. All of the houses were burning; shots were everywhere. I couldn't tell who was shooting at who because I had no experience in this. I was all alone and totally helpless.
While I was thinking what to do, I suddenly saw my friend Bajby; we hugged each other. He had a big bandage on his forehead, which was bleeding. I asked him if he will make it and he nodded affirmatively with his head. We consulted about what we should do and both came to the same conclusion: staying here will mean death for certain. We decided to head out to Jurowiecka and to blend in the crowd of people. We were shocked: a great stream of people walking, dressed in winter clothes - coats, sweaters, and large bundles over their shoulders- a surrealistic picture from another world, a nightmare; a block of people moving constantly and for some reason this block was black. I remind that this took place on Monday, the 16th of August, a very hot summer day. We were swallowed in the crowed and were not far from the gate. After a walk that I cannot estimate its length, we reached a wide field. Even today I am not sure exact where that was; they say that it Pietrasze near Antoniuk or Bialostoczek. In any case, it was near the railway lines and this is what mattered to those organized man-animals: the train, the time of departure and the accuracy of the raw material for the death industry. Human kind will never forget and will remind them of their devilish acts for generation and generations to come.
The field was a hell that cannot even be described. There is no way to describe these situations in which human beings are at the mercy of blood thirsty, sadistic animals - damn the mothers who gave birth to such people - that you can see the joy on their faces when they throw babies in the air and catch them with their spears in front of the babies' mothers. A picture of a German soldier shooting a woman in the neck while she is holding her baby, (the photograph is in Yad Vashem), is running through our head all the time. We cannot be wrong. We know exactly what to expect. I am trying to locate my parents; pressured inside the block of people and trying very hard not to stumble and fall, for if I fall I will be crushed by the crowd. But, miraculously I see my parents not too far from me, but I can't reach them.
Ilost Bajby the moment we reached the field and since then I lost track of him and I don't know what has become of him. By the time it became dark I managed to reach my parents and sister. It made them a little happier; they thought that now, we can at least die together and hold each other's hands. Father all the time said "together", "together", he was very scared; scared because of us or scared because he was close to death. Either way, it was natural to be scared.
The bandits probably enlarged and loosened this giant circle because suddenly it was a bit freer and we were able to sit on the ground, thirsty, hungry and completely exhausted in the depth of our souls..
Ithink it was pouring rain and windy. I remember it like in a nightmare that I woke up from wet. I cannot be sure if it was or was not like this, but this is how I remember it.
All night there were shooting, many, many people were shot. There were many escape attempts of groups or single people. Some people managed to escape but most of them were shot and killed at the end of the field. Bodies were piling more and more, but it didn't deter people from trying to escape only to be shot down and killed.
After the first light appeared, we saw the train coming on the railway, long and frightening with cattle freight-cars. The doors opened and there was a selection point. I will soon get used to the term "selection". This is the first time I heard of it. People forced with severe beating; beaten and wounded people pushed into groups and the Nazis choose roughly the people for the transport.
We went already with the first deportation. Father didn't let us get to the edges where people received beatings from the handles of the rifles. This is why he made sure we were always at the center of the crowed, far from the blows. Everyone fought for their lives; and if not for their lives then at least they fought not to get wounded because the wounded people suffered inhumanly. My parents moved towards the train; we were sent back. I saw mother returning back to us and father pulling her forward. Me, my sister Golda and her friend Sonia Furman tried to pass once more. I received a beating on my back from a whip. Well, at least it's not as bad as from the rifle handle, but still, the pain is sharp, maybe my skin is torn. My parents are moving away; we can not see them. We try once more to look for them; maybe we will see them. We wanted so much to be with our parents. Sonia also wanted to stay with us; she remained all alone and we were the only people to hang on at the last days of her life. We realized that she lost her parents. We didn't see them. Maybe they were already in the cart. Golda and Sonia pass me. Again, there are shoving; this time it is a Jewish policeman. I am pushed to a group of young people like me. I was not yet aware of the meaning of this.
16.8.1943, The final Aktion (Akcja)
They guarded us and didn't let us approach each other. We spent another night in the field. Again, escape attempts; again, many killed. We tried to talk amongst ourselves, but even this was impossible: immediately severe beating and shooting. The morning came and we were pushed to the carts, running and receiving beatings from all sides. There was no way to avoid this. The Ukraine and Lithuanian traitorous slaves were worse than the Nazis themselves. They were from another planet. How can these people who received all the lives a socialist-humanitarian education based on the Marxist Internationalism - and I am talking about the Ukraine people of course - behave like this? The young Germans have been taught in ideological Nazi schools and were educated to murder - as simple as that; but the pupils of the Communist regime? Even today, while writing these words I can not grasp this. My hatred and fury towards them increases when I remember that disastrous day; they were even more sadistic, as if they were enjoying seeing people suffer. I absolutely decline their excuse that they were forced to do this by the Germans. No! They did those horrific acts with pleasure and on their own initiative - they simply enjoyed it.
The strength is running out. Exhausted and beaten, we climb to the carts which its floor is very high. Those who cannot make it are severely beaten. Inside, the cart is filthy; the stench is immense and there is excrement. People are falling on the floor; unable to stay on their feet anymore; more and more are shoved inside; people are sitting crowded, almost one over another. People excrement in their clothes from fear; the doors are shut and air comes in only from two small windows above that are closed down with barbed wire.
The train is moving. It accelerates and honks the horn all the time. Why does it honk all the time? It is as if it wishes to say move aside, the lepers are coming to their death.
Inside, some of the young people are trying to open the floor. They have tools, they thought about this ahead. Maybe they can make it. Some people are also trying to open a crack in the wooden door.
Inside the train cart, there were two friends of my brother Eliyahu: his best friend Eliyahu Pszebolski and Chaczek Zabludowski. I remember him in particular: when I spent a short period of time in Hashomer Hatzair Movement, in the "Bnei Midbar" group ("Desert Sons Battalion"), Chaczek was my instructor. He was the initiator and the organizer. The boys managed to open a board in the floor; enough to squeeze through and get out. People hesitated; the train was moving very fast and it was very scary. There was nothing to cling to. You needed to put your legs on the ground while the train was in motion and to immediately let go of your hands or you will be killed by the axle, and this is what happened. Chaczek went first; he said to me with no fear that we are going to die anyway, so lets at least choose to die free and at out own time and way.
Only few people chose to try and escape like that. We heard gun shots all the time from the guards. The guards were standing on the roof of the carts and shooting with no distinction. I don't know if my friends managed to stay alive and escape safely and I never saw Chaczek again in my life.
The train stopped after several hours. Time lost its meaning and I couldn't estimate how long we were in motion. I only know this: we started moving early in the morning, I don't know the exact time.
We passed Lapy; this means we are moving towards Warsaw, but where? Here is Malkin, a small Jewish town between Bialystok and the Capital, Warsaw. I had friends from Malkin who went to school with me. They say in the wagon that we stand in Treblinka, extermination camp, here we die. In the meantime, the murderers reveal the hole in the cart near the door and they stick a rifle through it and start shooting with no distinction at the people on the floor. There are screams; people are hurt; climbing on each other to find shelter from the murderers' bullets. Blood is bursting the walls; those who die are lucky; the suffering is over for them. But, those who are wounded are in the worst condition. They had no chance of survival and in the meantime their pain was unbearable. They pleaded that the others would end their suffering, but nobody dared to do so. But there were some few cases where they were helped to die.
The train continued to stand. It was as hot as an oven inside and people are suffocated to death. The wounded ones were aching of terrible pain in a heartbreaking cry, but there was is nothing one could help there was not a drop of water for the thirsty. They are constantly crying for water! Water! Help! Until they suddenly become silent or die or lose their consciousness. Suddenly, the train starts to move. At first, it moves slowly as if in hesitation, but then it starts accelerating; maybe it is moving towards the Treblinka Camp, but it moves fast. Some people managed to find tiny cracks in the train cart walls and observed as much as possible. They told us that our cart is the one before the last. Meaning, the Germans have left half of the transport in Treblinka and we are going somewhere else. Where? We don't know, maybe Treblinka is too full and we are deported to another hell.
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