The Bialystoker Memorial Book Der Bialystoker
Yizkor Buch, the Bialystoker Center, New York 1982
(c) Copyright by the Bialystoker Center
The Victims' and Witnesses' Accounts
Dr. Samuel Pisar
Rabbi Lowell S. Kron
Tzirl (Berkowicz) Steingart
Nechama (Drogoczynski) Dinur
MY VISIT TO BIALYSTOK IN 1977
In 1945, returning to Bialystok after the war, I was horrified how thorough Hitler's destruction of our hometown was. It was incredible that such devastation could be visited upon our city during the war years. Most of what we cherished had disappeared.
In December 1977, when I revisited Bialystok after 32 years, it had changed entirely. Jewish Bialystok has been replaced by a modern metropolis.
I returned to Poland as a delegate of the Federation of Polish Jews in America, together with other distinguished colleagues. Our mission, representing Polish Jews all over the world, was to negotiate several important issues with ministers of the Warsaw government. Our committee included Rabbi Dr. Alexander Schindler, Chairman; Shlomo Ben-Israel and Eli Zborowski, Vice-Chairmen; Ben Gray, Los Angeles; Jechiel M. Dobekirer, Secretary; Kalman Sultanik; and myself as Treasurer.
In Warsaw we met with officials of Polish Government ministries. We insisted on free access to Jewish archives and documents in Poland; the release to Jewish communities all over the world of religious articles used in worship that remain in Poland; the erection of monuments at the mass graves of Jewish victims of the Nazis scattered in the Polish earth without appropriate markers; a Jewish museum depicting the horrors and Jewish heroism at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, to be founded with the guidance of Jewish experts in the field; and the payment of disability benefits and pensions to Polish Jews who were required to renounce their citizenship before being allowed to leave Poland after the war.
In addition to Warsaw, our delegation went to Lublin and Krakow. Visiting the concentration camps at Auschwitz, Majdanek and Treblinka, where millions of our Jewish brethren were liquidated, was painful. Particularly heartrending were some 800 large and small stones, at the site of the gas chambers in Treblinka, inscribed with the names of destroyed Jewish communities in Poland. The 800 stones signify, as indicated on a sign when one enters the camp, 800,000 Jews killed there. I found a big rock upon which the name Bialystok was etched. My eyes brimmed with tears, and I uttered a silent prayer.
To be sure, I reserved time to visit Bialystok as soon as I knew I would travel to Poland. Tuesday, December 13, 1977 was free. Dr. Szymon Datner, who lives in Warsaw, knew in advance about my plans and was prepared to accompany me to Bialystok. We left Warsaw Tuesday morning in a taxi. Little did I realize that a bitter experience awaited me later that day.
The ride took 2½ hours. The trip seemed endless. The signs along the road reminded me of towns and villages familiar to all Bialystoker landsleit. For in those places, Jews had lived their culture to their heart's content until the "Final Solution" buried them. Today not even a hint can be found of what once was.
As we know, prewar Bialystok counted some 90,000 inhabitants, among them approximately 60,000 Jews. Contemporary Bialystok sprawls in all directions; its population numbers more than 200,000. Sadly, the Jewish contingent has shrunk to nine people. Living in different parts of the city, they have little to do with each other. I asked them why they remained in this unfamiliar, rebuilt, modern city that was once our beloved hometown. Their answer was that the war left them isolated, broken and sick. It was difficult for them to travel about looking for other places to live. It was easier to remain in Bialystok. Their names are: Szyja Bartnowski, Abram Sidranski, L.M. Penner, Lejba Bielski, Erszel Jalowski, Kalman Kania, Jankel Chaszkes, Szloma Pachter, and Szymon Zlotorynski.
The Bialystoker Center in New York is in touch with these people, and several times a year we send them money orders. Jerry Mink, our Center's devoted supporter, established a fund for the remaining Jews in Bialystok, shortly after he returned from a visit there several years ago.
When Dr. Datner and I arrived in Bialystok, Szyja Bartnowski guided us to sites where memorable buildings and other places of interest used to be. We were saddened that the three Jewish cemeteries in Bialystok are neglected. The Bagnowke Cemetery was desecrated, monuments either gone or vandalized. Houses were built on its grounds. The old cemetery on Minski Street has been shut down; a pedestrian walkway crisscrosses it to the center of town. The Zabia Cemetery within the Bialystok ghetto was converted into a park. Thirty-five hundred graves were disturbed, the remains exhumed and reburied together in an obscure corner of the area. A monument draws attention in Polish to this fact. Szyja Bartnowski promised me he would take care of this monument. I looked around, hoping against hope that something familiar would appear, that my alienation would subside. I became increasingly depressed as I wandered through the city.
I looked for particular Jewish houses, factories, organizations and institutions, newspapers, theaters, schools, sports clubs, trade unions and any other evidence that there once was an organized, well-developed Jewish community. Some reminders do exist.
Bialystoker landsleit remember the Great Synagogue where the Nazis burned 2,000 Jewish men, women and children on Friday, June 27, 1941.
After the war, Jews who returned to Bialystok collected remnants of the synagogue. I discovered that even this modest attempt to memorialize the destruction failed. On the site of the singed iron remains of the shul stand modern houses. If you look carefully, you can find an inconspicuous inscription stating that there was once a synagogue there. Similarly, Cytron's Bet Hamidrash no longer exists as such; the building is intact but it now houses the Polish Center of Culture and Art.
The Hebrew Gymnasium, that remarkable institution where hundreds of boys and girls received a fine Jewish education, has been replaced by a hospital. Dr. Datner, who accompanied me on the visit, had taught there for more than 25 years. Seeing what happened to his beloved school, he sobbed uncontrollably. His display of emotion overwhelmed me.
I left Bialystok heartbroken. After Dr. Datner and I said goodbye to Szyja Bartnowski, we rode away in our taxi, turning around for a last glimpse of the town where we spent our youth and where so many of our beloved relatives perished.
In our subsequent talks with the Polish Government, we emphasized the disgraceful condition of Jewish cemeteries. The ministers assured us that they would restore many of these burial places and, upon my insistence, they promised to rehabilitate Bagnowke Cemetery in Bialystok.
Jewish Bialystok no longer exists in Poland. Rather, it survives in the form of our great Bialystoker Center in New York, which perpetuates its hallowed traditions. It is our obligation to uphold its ideals, heritage and aspirations in America and other countries where Bialystokers live. Let us pledge to fulfill this sacred responsibility that our martyred families passed on to us.
FOR US THE WAR HAS NOT YET ENDED
(Editor's note: The following is the text of an address Chajke Grosman delivered at the Zionist conference in London in September 1945.)
A colleague asked me, "How do we come by our calm and restraint?" I answered that we were calm all along. Our friends who resisted in the Bialystok ghetto demonstrated the same serenity at the time of the Nazi slaughter.
Planting mines is easier than speaking before an audience. Our resistance movement was great and mighty. Even when crushed, it retained its nobility.
We live on. To live requires no great talent. We must rather know how to live and, even more important, how to die. We knew that our death did not spell the end of everything; that our martyrdom would become an exalted model for our young people to follow. We gave much thought to this in the ghettos; our not fearing death became a gospel that we calmly studied throughout. The heroes of our people were not only the political leaders; they also included small people, the gray-haired and silent.
I recall the days of the first liquidation in Bialystok in February 1943. We did not fight then, before the Warsaw ghetto uprising. Thousands of Jews perished in the ghetto without commotion.
We, the pioneer movement, never considered ourselves leaders and politicians. Hundreds of our friends died quietly with a profound belief in the land of Israel as the Jewish homeland.
The saga of our catastrophe in Poland is lengthy and complicated. But we survived, in spite of the suffering, horror and annihilation. We claim the right to live that we and the entire Jewish people earned. We shall never rest; for us the war has not yet ended. Despite the mass grave which is Poland, we established a Zionist youth movement there, determined to settle in Israel by any means. We are not broken and depressed but determined that no obstacles will stand in our way. We appeal to you and to the people of Israel to strengthen our hand. We shall not leave Poland until we reinforce our movement there. All of us are tired; so am I. I shall not go to Israel so fast. We will emigrate there when Poland has kibbutzim, aliyah and a full-blown Zionist movement.
Only then will we live in the kibbutzim with peace of mind. If we do not receive the requisite assistance, then a grievous sin will have been committed.
Calmness - the most beautiful virtue of our Jewish girls who fell in the Holocaust. They were the nerve center of our movement, who brought word of our efforts to the people. Never shall we forget them, and their memories will serve as an everlasting symbol from generation to generation.
It was no accident that the other speakers today did not detail their war experiences. Surely they have much to share with you. But we came here to describe our problems, not to boast about them. We proclaim to you that we are still alive, that we will immigrate to Israel at all costs, and that we are united with you.
DR. SAMUEL PISAR
GROWING UP IN THE BIALYSTOK GHETTO
(Editor's note: Samuel Pisar was born in Bialystok, the son of David and Helen Pisar. When he was deported by the Nazis for liquidation, together with his entire family, he was thirteen years old. All his relatives were annihilated by the Nazi murderers. Young Samuel endured unspeakable horrors at their hands, in Auschwitz and in other death factories. In the spring of 1945, he was liberated from his nightmare by the American Army, near Munich.)
After the war, as a boy of sixteen, Samuel felt lonely visiting Germany and France. Shortly thereafter he migrated to Australia to be with his two maternal uncles, Nachman and Eliezer Suchowolski. When he was twenty-three, Samuel left Australia for the United States. In America he graduated from Harvard University as a lawyer with great distinction and later received a doctorate. He specialized in the juridical problems of world trade, particularly between East and West.
Now Dr. Pisar is a renowned international lawyer with offices in Paris, Washington and other cities. He was awarded American citizenship by special act of Congress and is a member of the American Bar Association. He served as a consultant to the U.S. State Department, as well as to President Kennedy. He also was an adviser to President Nixon's special commission on international trade; in addition, he helped guide the Joint Economic Committee of the U.S. Congress.
Pisar also participated in important international conferences in Moscow and Kiev. While in the Soviet Union, he visited the mass Jewish graves in Babi Yar, together with the famous banker David Rockefeller and former Senator Frank Church of Idaho.
Sam Pisar did not forget his Bialystoker origins. In 1980, he published Of Blood and Hope, in which he described life as a young Jewish boy and how he escaped Nazi extermination.)
The following excerpts are from OF BLOOD AND HOPE by Samuel Pisar. Copyright (c) 1979 by Samuel Pisar. English-language Version Copyright (c) 1980 by Auctor Publishing, B.V. Quoted by permission of Little, Brown and Company:
On my thirteenth birthday I had my bar mitzvah in a shabby little synagogue, just inside the barbed wire of the Bialystok ghetto, in full sight of the Nazi sentries who were marching back and forth with their fingers on the triggers of submachine guns. I was not animated by any great religious fervor, and at home my parents observed the High Holidays more out of respect to their parents than out of deep faith. But reading the Bible in my captivity brought home to me truths that seemed timeless. The ascetic-looking rabbi talked to me about the eternal persecution of Jews by the pharaohs, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Romans, the Spanish Inquisition, the Russian czars, and now Hitler's Reich. I felt close to those families which through the ages had to celebrate the bar mitzvahs of their sons clandestinely, not knowing what the future might bring. I understood their eternal quest for freedom and knowledge, and how the timeless bonds of suffering that tied them together had forged the identity of a people. I felt privileged, perhaps because the persecution was now at its highest point, to belong to that people for better or for worse.
When I stepped away from the scrolls of the Torah to make my ritual speech the words came naturally: pointing through the window of the synagogue at the tall fence outside, I said: "As always let us turn to pray toward Jerusalem, but today our Wailing Wall is right here."
* * *
Finally, the ghetto was razed. Incredibly, many young Jews, both men and women, tried to resist the military assault, killing a handful of Nazis. Unarmed their resistance was as heroic as it was futile. All were mowed down. One, Malmed, threw a bottle of sulfuric acid into the face of an SS officer, blinding him forever. I saw Malmed's hanged body that night in the middle of Commerce Street, the main ghetto artery.
For the rest, all I remember is flames in the night - the three of us scurrying past burning houses, over dead bodies littering the streets - and hiding by day. Somehow we found ourselves in an underground bunker where some thirty people had been holed up for days. By the glow of a candle I made out the features of my teacher of Latin and history. Professor Bergman, a fragile and kindly man, was rocking his infant son, trying to stop his coughing. On the other side of the trap door above us came the shouts of German search parties and the barking of their dogs. We all fell silent; only the baby's coughing continued. "Shhh," hissed a burly man near the door. The coughing did not stop. The man crawled over and placed a hand over the baby's mouth. The coughing ceased. Minutes passed. The child sank limply to the ground. All the while, Professor Bergman sat petrified. I knew he was not a coward. Even then, I understood that if he could think or feel anything at all, he was weighing one life against thirty, even if that life was his own son's.
The next day we found refuge in a private hospital. Its director, Mr. Kniazeff, had been uncle Nachman's best friend. Other fugitives also clamored for shelter. He let us in when he saw Mother at the gate. Another night passed. At dawn, an announcement was made that the SS would evacuate the hospital compound. We were to be taken elsewhere. The men, we were told, would go separately from the women, the children, and the sick.
We had fled our room with our last few belongings. Now my mother folded my clothes for me as calmly and methodically as though she were sending me off to summer camp.
"Do you think you ought to wear your short pants or your long pants?" She was thinking out loud.
She hesitated for a moment, looked at my sister then again at me, and said, "If you're dressed in short pants, they'll let you go with Frieda and me. If you wear your long pants, we'll probably be separated. You will go with the men. You're a big boy now, maybe it would be better if – "
"And you?" I asked. "And Frieda?"
She did not answer.
* * *
We were marched off. Helplessly I looked back. Mother and Frieda were being marched the other way. My eyes were glued to the two frail shapes as they moved off in the distance. With one hand my sister held on to my mother; with the other she clutched her favorite doll. They too looked over their shoulders. Then they disappeared from sight.
Could my mother have sensed - she could not have known; none of us knew anything - that a young man able to perform physical labor for the Nazis had a better chance of surviving than a child classed as useless, unneeded, an extra mouth to feed? Did she, in pushing me away from her into the cruel adult world, hope to give me a chance at life, if only one chance in a million? That moment when I saw her for the last time pursues me to this day with its load of agony and guilt and unquenchable anger.
When the two lines of prisoners separated and I could see them no longer, a rage against man and God tore through my breast. Choking with tears, I raised my fist to heaven in a blasphemous cry against the Almighty: "Gazlen! - Monster! How dare you!"
MY BELOVED HOME
(Editor's note: The well-known Bialystoker stage actor, Israel Beker, lives in Israel, a prominent director of the Habima National Theatre in Tel Aviv. His dramatic presentations in the United States, Europe, Latin America and other parts of the world have made major contributions to Yiddish theater. Beker spent World War II exiled in the Soviet Union, studying acting in the Jewish State Theater in Moscow. He also achieved fame by producing and appearing in a number of films. He is an artist of renown in Israel and in other countries; his paintings and drawings are well received. His art book appeared as part of the festivities in connection with the sixtieth anniversary of Habima. At the beginning of this album, titled The Stage of My Life, Beker wrote a long introduction. We reprint excerpts below, describing Beker's relationship with Bialystok.)
I was born in Bialystok, a mother city for the Jewish people. Had I spent my youth in another place, my life would have been quite different. No, I don't come from Bialystok; I am a Bialystoker, and that is something more. The street and neighborhood where I lived, the things and happenings etched in my memory, have great significance for me.
My family lived in the tallest building in town, a "skyscraper" consisting of 4½ stories, which looked down with pride upon the entire area. As I peered through the attic windows at the large city lying at the foot of my house, I beheld roofs in various forms and colors: roofs of batei midrashim and factories, for-and three-cornered roofs, the pointed tops of churches that pierced the clouds, and chimneys atop factories. The streets below appeared distant; the people seemed like ants. I remember best a vibrant, bustling Bialystok from that vantage point.
I returned there in the winter of 1945. The snow covered everything. From afar I could hear the thunderous echoes of armies fighting each other, and the ruins of Bialystok were gripped by silence. Through the heaps I rushed to where my house had been. I knew that I stood at the right place. Remnants of walls, the fence - above, the balcony of our apartment hanging as if by a thread. As I looked upward, it seemed that in just another moment my mother would appear gazing in all directions, toward the town clock, the noisy streets, the row of stores where my father had his business. Soon I would extend my hand and grab her dress. Then I knew I was dreaming.
As I stood upon the snow-covered ruins, my entire life flashed before my eyes. I rummaged through the debris, overturning bricks, removing iron bars and, suddenly, I unexpectedly found something - a salt shaker, that was above the oven in our kitchen, emblazoned in blue with the word, "Salt." If I held the salt shaker, it was a sign they were here; they once existed. A moment before, I thought that no one had existed, no father, no mother, brothers and sisters, neighborhood, Bialystok. Everything had disappeared and if that was true, then so had I.
I turned my head; someone was watching me. From the demolished buildings people stared, apparently Poles, curious as to what a Jew was doing in the area. Probably he came to remove a buried treasure. Their faces conveyed something ominous. I threw the salt shaker in their direction and fled....
RABBI LOWELL S. KRONICK
SAM SOLASZ -
FROM DEVASTATION TO TRIUMPH
Surely it is a miracle that Sam Solasz is alive today. He could have turned out to be another grim statistic, counted among the six million Jews who perished during the Holocaust. It is a tribute to his amazing resourcefulness and love of life that he walks the earth while countless others lie buried in unmarked graves.
Sam (Mejszl) Solasz was born in Knyszyn, on the outskirts of Bialystok, on May 5, 1928. Both his grandfathers were important religious functionaries in their communities. His mother's father was the Rabbi of Biala-Podlaska, a small town near Lublin. His father's father served as a sexton in Newark, New Jersey. Raising seven sons and four daughters, Mr. Solasz's parents were devoted to one another, and observed the traditions of their Jewish faith.
Solasz remembers that as a young boy, he accompanied his father every day into the city of Bialystok to do business there. This is how the lad developed a love for it, as well as a cartographer's knowledge of each street and alley. To this day he often reminisces about his joyous experience as a youngster walking through the "Big City," alive and bustling, creative and prolific - only to be jolted by the knowledge that the citadel of his youth with which he once had a love affair exists no more.
In 1939, during Solasz's eleventh year, Bialystok became a pawn, moving back and forth between Russian and Nazi hegemony. Under the Russian occupation, Solasz moved from Knyszyn to Bialystok. When the Nazi invaders constructed the infamous ghetto in Bialystok in 1941, he returned to Knyszyn. Life was fast becoming precarious for every Jew, the Solasz family included.
Mr. Solasz often thinks back to November 2, 1942, a day when twenty towns officially surrendered to the Germans. Most of the Jewish inhabitants of these hamlets were rounded up; whole families were separated and placed into trucks carrying them into the cattle cars that would transport them without knowing where on their final destination to Treblinka, the efficient Nazi death factory sixty miles from Bialystok. Inevitably, sleds pulled up to the Solasz home in Knyszyn, herding all of its residents to a transit camp in Bialystok, the port of embarkation for Treblinka.
Young Solasz, now fourteen, sensed it was time to steal away or else. So he and a friend climbed onto a truck and hid inside a large rubber tire, out of the enemy's sight. In this way he was able for ten months to slip undetected in and out of the Bialystok ghetto, smuggling food inside for the slowly starving prisoners.
Outside the ghetto, he posed as a Polish youth. To make this disguise convincing, he wore a cross around his neck. Although hovering between life and death, he was able to fool the Nazis.
Mr. Solasz likes to tell how he once saved a Jewish man from certain death. This man, Paul Chorowski from Zabludow, lived in the Bialystok ghetto. During the day, the Nazis forced him to perform work outside the ghetto near the highway. Whenever Chorowski returned, he would sneak a bit of food inside. One day, when he went to a nearby village to obtain some food, a Polish peasant went to Solasz's father with the story that peasants had murdered Chorowski.
"As winter began in 1943," recalled Mr. Solasz, "I left the ghetto one day to find some food. Suddenly I saw Chorowski approaching me from a distance, terror all over his face, in imminent danger of being caught by the Nazis. When he saw me, he was overjoyed. He asked how he could sneak back into the ghetto, because the Gestapo was not far behind him. In fact, they had fired several shots and almost captured him. Without hesitation, I told Chorowski he should turn right on to Biala Street and enter the ghetto there. He followed my instructions. Not a minute after he had disappeared, several Gestapo officers came over to me. They were sure I was a Polish boy because of the cross around my neck. In an enraged tone they asked me where the Jew went. I answered that he had turned left. They hurriedly went off in the wrong direction, following my instructions. Their search, of course, was futile, because Paul Chorowski was already back inside the ghetto."
Paul Chorowski was deported from the ghetto to various concentration camps, where he suffered horribly. Nevertheless, he survived the Holocaust. After the war he came to the United States and raised a fine family. Today he lives in Long Island City, New York.
The Bialystok ghetto was liquidated in August 1943 and Sam Solasz was finally caught and given a one-way ticket to Treblinka. Once again, knowing that he had to escape, he plunged from the railroad car in motion, rolling toward the surrounding forest where he found refuge. He left behind his parents and many of his siblings, who ultimately suffered extermination.
For the next year he fought with the Russian partisan forces, which conducted guerrilla warfare against the Nazis. On July 1, 1944, he and the others were liberated by the Russian Army and allowed to return to Bialystok. There he had to rub his eyes to make sure that what he was seeing was in fact true. The city was reduced to rubble, all of its houses and institutions razed to the ground. Everything familiar to him had gone up in smoke. The foul stench of destruction pervaded his consciousness.
The next years Mr. Solasz spent in displaced-persons camps in Germany, gradually attempting to rebuild his shattered life. He acquired experience in meat handling, formed new relationships and renewed old ones. Later survivors in the DP camps talked about immigrating to Israel, where the establishment of a Jewish State was in the works. In 1948 Solasz joined the Aliyah Bet, illegal immigration of Jews wishing to settle in Israel, later volunteering for combat duty in the Israeli armed forces during the War of Independence. Assisted by the Government, he went into business and discovered that his father had some relatives in the United States. With the aid of HIAS, he arrived in New York in January 1951. Finding a job in the third largest meat corporation, he developed an intimate knowledge of the meat-processing and packing industry and, in September 1957, founded Master Purveyors, Old Bohemian, Temple Beef and S & S Meat companies. These firms provide meat to the largest hotels, restaurants and institutions in the United States and abroad. As a result of his sharp mind, his retentive memory and his ambitious drive, Sam Solasz has become a prosperous entrepreneur.
Yet business is not Mr. Solasz's only interest. An extremely charitable and hard-working individual for Jewish communal causes, he serves as the President of the Bialystoker Center and Home for the Aged. Before that he held several other important leadership positions within this institution.
Mr. Solasz married Rose Cohen on June 29, 1957. Her parents, Sephardic Jews, were born in Salonika (Thessaloniki), Greece. Mrs. Solasz was born and raised in New York along with two brothers.
Sam and Rose Solasz have three children, Diane, Scott and Mark.
Sam Solasz's saga restores confidence in the human capacity to overcome extreme adversity. Moreover, his pride in his origins, his zest for living and helping others are a fitting tribute to his beloved Bialystok, whose legacy he has scrupulously fulfilled.
HOW I SURVIVED THE HOLOCAUST
As I write these lines, I cannot help but relive those bitter Nazi years. Although painful, one needs to record those experiences for future generations, who must know what happened to our people - and what must never happen again.
Before the war, I owned a water-purification and heating business. My partner was Jidl Las. When the Russians arrived in Bialystok in September 1939, circumstances changed drastically. My business, like all others, was nationalized. The Soviets employed me as an engineer, sending me to the Russian interior so that I could bring back to Bialystok raw materials.
The Nazi occupation of Bialystok ruined our lives to an extent unimaginable beforehand. I cannot comprehend how we endured the suffering.
Together with one hundred fifty other tradesmen, I was packed into a sealed bus whose capacity was thirty, taken to an unknown destination on a brutal journey. As it turned out, we were driven to Grodno and confined to its prison. Three days later, we boarded the bus again, convinced that we would die of thirst and heat. Our next stop was Lomza, where we were incarcerated in a prison resembling Sing Sing in New York.
Life in the Lomza prison was horrendous. The only food given to us was potato peels and warm water. Our guards were sadists. We lived like this for several months, which seemed like an eternity. One day we boarded buses, and several days later our vehicle was taken aboard a ferry. We thought the Nazis meant to drown us. The next day, when the boat docked, we were driven into a large forest. At the entrance a sign read: "Forest Camp." We later learned that this island was near Danzig (Gdansk), a labor camp for Poles. It would take too much space to describe how the Polish inmates hated the Jews brought to their camp.
Its name was Stuthof, where the Jews of Danzig and vicinity were exterminated. But the Nazis needed to build factories for their war machine and, at the same time, required capable tradesmen. That is how I remained alive. The number 26652 was tattooed on my arm, a permanent reminder of what I endured.
None of us believed we would ever leave Stuthof alive. Incredibly, I held out until March 1945. Each day, the other Jewish prisoners and I were sent out to perform slave labor under the strict supervision of Ukrainian and Lithuanian guards with large attack dogs. It would have been impossible to escape even without such vigilance. Stuthof was on an island surrounded by water. Often, as I carried out the backbreaking assignments, some of the British and French prisoners of war in the camp would give me extra bread that they had received from the Red Cross. In turn, I threw the bread over the fence into the women's camp populated by Jewish survivors of the Wilno ghetto. In time, the Nazis removed all the Jews from the Bialystok ghetto to Auschwitz, where they died in the gas chambers. My beloved father was among them.
In early April 1945, shortly before the end of the war, the Nazis selected about 1,400 people from the camp — among them, me — and forced us to march through many miles of snow. All along the way, many people dropped from exhaustion or were shot. Only three hundred survived. We were taken to a prison in another small town near Danzig, only to suffer additional barbarities. But a miracle occurred, which taught me that a person must never give up hope.
In May 1945, German army units suddenly surrounded the prison, ordering all inmates into the large courtyard. I sensed that the Nazis were preparing to shoot all of us. On my way outside, I noticed a tub with four legs. Quickly I hid underneath it. Something told me that we would soon be freed, if only we could hang on just a bit longer.
My intuition proved right. Those who had entered the courtyard were shot by the Nazis with machine guns. Immediately after this mass execution, the German soldiers fled in panic. It did not take long for the Third Reich, a rapacious regime that had devastated Eastern European Jewry, to suffer a crushing defeat. After five years, during which Europe soaked up the blood of six million Jews, the end of Hitler's hell had finally arrived.
Everyone lost beloved family members. Can we allow our children and grandchildren to forget? Surely we are obliged to remind them that what happened in the past can recur if we forget.
Throughout the forty years since those terrible days, I never forgot what my life was like. I frequently daydream and have nightmares about the past. What I have written in this article is a drop in the bucket, considering all that we endured. Never again will we allow beasts in human form to inflict such torment upon us.
A FATHER'S GRIEF FOR HIS DAUGHTER
(This moving poem was written by Ruwen Rybalowski in memory of his daughter Frida, killed in the Bialystok ghetto uprising on August 16, 1943. He wrote these lines while standing over the grave of seventy heroes buried in the Zabia cemetery in Bialystok, his daughter presumably among them. Ruwen Rybalowski, who spent the war years in Russia, returned to his hometown at the end of the war. He submitted this elegy to the Jewish Reconstruction Committee in Bialystok in December 1946. Mr. Rybalowski, the late brother of Izaak Rybal, General Secretary of the Bialystoker Center in New York, spent the rest of his life in Uruguay, where he died in 1955. His younger daughter, Liza, whom he mentions at the end of the poem, also passed away there in 1972. This poem was copied from the original by Dr. Szymon Datner.)
* * *
In memory of my beloved daughter Frida, who lost her life for the greater glory of God while defending the Bialystok ghetto, August 16, 1943.
At your grave I stand with head bowed;
You died a heroine, not a meek lamb.
My dear, small, sacred Frida,
Your soul was as perfect as crystal.
Your zest for life and good deeds
Led you to the company of wonderful friends,
Now all of you lie together in one mass grave
In a large cemetery, in endless, unmarked tombs.
I have come to bid you farewell, my child,
My tears streaming atop your grave.
Where once parents, brothers and sisters stood
Are now ruins and grief.
I recoil at the desolation and the bloodbath,
Among strangers who have settled here
Who will light a candle for you, my child, on your yahrzeit?
Who will pour out his heart at your grave?
May your devoted friends always visit you in this place
And plant lovely flowers during better times to come,
One day your heroic deeds will be recorded,
The murderers' nest will crumble because of your innocent blood
I, your grieving father, and your friends,
Will always miss you,
Your sister in mourning, Liza,
Will always remember you....
THE FAMOUS ARTIST, BENN
One of Bialystok's outstanding personalities is the artist, Benn, who lives and paints in Paris. Over the years Benn has grown into one of the leading artists in the world. Particularly after World War II, he achieved fame, not only in France but in other countries as well, among Jews and non-Jews. After the war, he produced more than one hundred major works of art, based upon Bible stories. Benn completed these paintings, which evoked a warm response in France during the war, while hiding from the Nazis in a bunker.
Benn has received many awards and citations from the French government and other prestigious quarters. Benn, whose real name is Ben Cyon Rabinowicz, is actually a down-to-earth Bialystoker landsman, one of us, someone of whom we can be proud.
Benn is the descendant of a prominent family in Bialystok: his grandfather was a rabbi in Nowarodok. His father, Szlojme Jakow Rabinowicz, was a distinguished architect who designed, among other buildings, the Great Synagogue in Bialystok. Already as a youth of fifteen, Benn drew and painted portraits of those around him. Later, he gained recognition from a wide variety of Jews in Bialystok, painting leading Jewish figures. When the Habima appeared in town for the first time, in 1926, Benn did portraits of the entire company. Every year afterward, he became more famous as a portrait artist.
In Paris, Benn painted many hundreds of important Frenchmen, Jews and non-Jews, including authors, actors, communal leaders and others. He also honored people from America and other countries with his paintings. Benn's wife is the famous actress, Gera.
In 1929, Benn received a stipend from the Bialystok municipality to study art in Paris. He never returned. In Paris, the city of lights and the center of art, the talented young man achieved prominence. His first art exhibit there took place in 1931 and was warmly received by the critics. His subsequent efforts also won critical acclaim. One reviewer dubbed him the "artist with a soul," because his portraits reflected his personal warmth and sensitivity.
His paintings were purchased by the aristocracy in France, museums and art galleries. But throughout the years, in all of his creations, Benn remained the devoted, down-to-earth Jew from Bialystok.
His attachment to his Jewish origins has helped him complete his greatest achievement - over one hundred Bible pictures, which have astonished everyone.
When World War II erupted, Benn found himself in danger in Paris and for several years hid in a cellar with a Christian family. Even there his creativity didn't die. He vowed that if he survived this ordeal, he would produce one of the greatest works of art, which would thrill Jews and non-Jews alike. He fulfilled his promise, as his Bible paintings will testify.
Benn continues to delight art lovers everywhere. He has brought much pride and honor to his Bialystoker landsleit. We are proud to claim him as one of our own.
The famous singer Rosa Raisa and her father, Hirshl Burstein, in New York in 1922.
I TESTIFIED AGAINST A WAR CRIMINAL
(Editor's note: Mr. Bursztejn, of blessed memory, wrote this article in 1961, during the historic Eichmann trial in Jerusalem. A prominent communal activist in Bialystok and a Holocaust survivor, Bursztejn was one of the prosecution witnesses, together with other surviving Jews from Bialystok, at the West German trial of the Nazi war criminal, Arthur Gosberg. Bursztejn lived in Israel after World War II, where he played a prominent role in the Bialystoker landsmanschaft until his death several years ago.)
The Adolf Eichmann trial in Jerusalem has re-exposed the wounds of his victims. It is as if the graves of the martyred Jews opened, sounding anew the death rattle of a nation being annihilated. The flames of the crematoria dance again as the trial unfolds.
We now have the satisfaction of being Eichmann's judges rather than his victims. Before an Israeli tribunal stands one of the most horrible murderers the world has ever known. In order for justice to be served, it is our fate to submerge ourselves in our spilled blood and to reopen wounds just barely healed.
In the name of the concentration-camp survivors, we have expressed our gratitude to Gideon Hausner, Eichmann's chief prosecutor. He penetrated the forbidding spider web of our destruction, and, to his great credit, brought to the world's attention the full scope of the Holocaust tragedy, although he personally did not experience it.
We also confront a most tragic phenomenon — that even some of our own people do not understand us. Unhappily, we have encountered some who questioned our conduct during the war years: Why did you not fight back?
Our attempts through the years to explain our behavior have failed to persuade the skeptics. The fact that we were up against a formidable enemy, his highly trained armies having conquered numerous lands in a few months, has not convinced these doubters. Everyone was helpless against the Nazi juggernaut — not only us Jews, but other peoples, confined to ghettos and concentration camps, isolated from the rest of the world and from one another, suffering hunger, overcrowding, filth and disease, wearing yellow badges, incarcerated in barbed-wire fences, besieged on all sides. What other people, slowly and sadistically tortured to death, could have achieved such great heights in the midst of it all? Through the Nazi oppression we retained our culture and out theater. Moreover, we did launch the uprisings in the Warsaw, Wilno, Bialystok and other ghettos; we did fiercely resist death outside the gas chambers of Auschwitz, Treblinka and other extermination camps. Approximately one and a half million Jewish soldiers in various armies fought against Nazism, in partisan militias in France, Belgium, Holland, Greece and other countries. Jews made up forty percent of the resistance forces in Eastern Europe — and we are still accused of meekly going to the slaughter like sheep!
No. Eichmann was not alone. Millions joined him in annihilating us. His trial will not be our last reckoning with the German murderers. The score will not be settled once Eichmann has received justice!
Thousands of Nazi war criminals roam about freely in both Germanies, holding responsible positions. In many other countries they continue preaching anti-Semitism and hatred for humanity. They are preparing a resurgence of Nazism, perhaps ultimately to restore the gas chambers and crematoria but at present utilizing subtler and more respectable methods to complete the "Final Solution."
Several months ago, I observed the Germans' comfort and luxury — after they lost the war. Once again I noted their meticulousness, which reminded me how efficiently their trains carried Jewish victims to Auschwitz. Dr. Mengele, that monster with the white gloves and monocle, who today moves about freely, examined the new arrivals — sending them to their deaths with one small motion of his cane.
Several years ago I testified in Germany against an Eichmann on a smaller scale: SS officer Arthur Gosberg, commandant of the labor camp Blyzin. There thousands of Bialystoker Jews perished.
The terrible hunger killed hundreds each week. All of us were swollen, our edematous legs unable to carry even our skin and bones. The intolerable congestion and filth, the impossibility of washing ourselves, and the tattered clothes that covered our starved bodies spawned a deadly typhus epidemic, finishing the job the famine, torture and slave labor began. Typhus claimed more than one thousand Bialystoker victims. Now I was called upon to testify at the trial of the Blyzin commandant.
Immediately after our liberation I vowed never to set foot again upon the cursed German soil. It was my duty, however, in this instance to bring a Nazi war criminal to justice.
In the hundred-year-old court building the echoes of our pain and suffering resonated. In the dock sat a ruddy faced, fleshy German wearing gray civilian clothing, looking like thousands of Germans one saw in the streets. Perhaps the average citizen was involved in the same activities for which Gosberg was charged.
A fellow prosecution witness told of Jews with broken bones and cracked skulls who sought medical attention in the small infirmary at Blyzin. The witness, a doctor, testified that the accused came to see how he was treating the wounded and did not permit him to administer any anesthesia. "No chloroform! No ether! It is enough to anesthetize Jews with a hammer-blow over their heads."
Another witness, a carpenter, recounted how Gosberg ordered him to construct a special table upon which to beat the Jewish inmates. According to a design Gosberg had personally formulated, the table should restrain the victim and expose the bottom to beating. The witness mentioned that he had received twenty-five lashes for failing to provide a certain part for the punishment table. He added that two Jews were shot for asking to see their wives.
A third witness told of how the women suffered in the camp as a result of inhuman slave labor, famine and filth. Frequent beatings and lashings were the order of the day. Impossible production quotas were imposed and severe punishments meted out for not filling them.
Dr. Tuwja Cytron, a fourth witness, described how healthy young people turned into skeletons in a short time, with swollen feet; he used the term "muselmann," connoting extensive physical deterioration where people became living corpses. Others became incontinent; their bodies slowly rotted. He recalled that some victims had no flesh underneath their skin; their bones protruded under a fold of yellow parchment. The commandant provided such inadequate food rations that everyone suffered emaciation. The camp also contained a "sick bay," where ill and wounded Jews were allowed to die without medical treatment.
Then I was called to the witness stand, desperately trying to avoid looking at this accused monster. I wanted to retain my composure and not succumb to the burden of my memories. It was important for me to testify calmly about everything that had occurred, once again having to leaf through the pages of the bloody past and re-endure the entire chapter of suffering.
I recounted how I emerged from the "sick bay" after a difficult bout with typhus and internal hemorrhaging. I was a skeleton standing on two swollen sticks for feet, threatening to burst from the edema at any moment. More than once we heard at night an explosive noise — the sound of a leg fissuring, the skin falling off, exposing white bone. I told how the accused beat my legs and left me unconscious in my cell.
Twelve judges listened. Who knows what thoughts ran through their minds? Perhaps some were accomplices in our destruction. Maybe others were ashamed of what their people did. Above their heads on the large wall of the courtroom I noticed a multicolored mural, depicting the famous Biblical story of Solomon and the child, whom two different women claimed as their own. King Solomon was portrayed with the child on his lap, grasping a sword with which to divide it in two, as were the two women who came to him seeking justice.
The chief judge interrupted my musings by asking what I could add about the accused's actions. I described how during one morning roll call, as 4,000 men and women lined up, the commandant asked a Jewish girl of about twenty to approach him, whispering something I did not hear. Subsequently I learned that the guards found a piece of bread on her, as she returned from work through one of the gates of the camp. She refused to name who gave her the bread and the commandant ordered that she receive one hundred lashes.
The girl lay down on the whipping table. Suddenly, SS officer Arthur Gosberg, representing the German Aryan race, ordered: "Pick up her dress and rip off her panties so that she can be beaten while naked, and the four thousand inmates of the camp can watch." The girl at first screamed, then fell silent. After the beating she was removed to the "sick bay." She died several days later.
I then told the judges: "Perhaps you are wondering how I remember this incident so well? After all, seventeen years have passed and I suffered many other horrible experiences in the shadow of the gas chambers and crematoria of Auschwitz. But in this instance with the girl, I saw a reversion to the law of the jungle. I witnessed basic human values and decency violated." At that moment I looked at the King Solomon mural over the judges' heads. I told them this was the symbol of the German court, binding nations and faiths. Every religion teaches that man was created in the image of God. Together with that young Jewish girl God was also ravished!
Tears welled up in their eyes. I do not know, nor do I wish to know, why. They are Germans and who can understand them?
True, not all of them are alike.
During the recess, the prosecutor invited me for lunch in the court's restaurant. I declined. He pulled a document out of his briefcase and handed it to me. It stated that he had spent five years in one of the worst prisons in Germany — Spandau — for anti-Nazi activity. I then accepted his invitation.
The public defender's young secretary approached me, saying, "When Hitler was in power, I was five years old. Do you want to talk to me?"
I discovered there were high German officials in the present government who suffered for their resistance against the Nazis and are doing everything possible to bring war criminals to trial. Things could have been different. Many more Germans could have helped the Jews by resisting.
On a flight between Düsseldorf and Munich a young German next to me said he had saved Jews during the war who today live in America. No longer able to contain myself, I said, "I have just spent a week in Germany. Every German I met claims to have saved Jews. Where are all these rescued Jews? If these claims were true, we would today number eighteen million."
He showed me photographs taken when he last visited the family he had rescued. Sitting with him at a table were Jews with beards and yarmulkes, their children and grandchildren. Another photograph showed them in Central Park and at the Empire State Building in New York. So he spoke the truth.
I repeat, the Germans could have helped the Jews. How many really did? Only a handful. However, ninety-nine percent of the German people actively or passively participated in the worst crime in history: annihilating an innocent nation because they were Jews.
As long as one Nazi war criminal or accomplice remains free, we will not be satisfied. All will be summoned to judgment and punished. Never again anti-Semitism and hatred! Never again the gas chambers and the crematoria!
Only when the last criminal is brought to justice will the souls of our martyred Jewish brethren finally rest in peace.
I DISGUISED MYSELF AS A MAN
My husband, Sholem Garfinkel, and I endured much suffering during the terrible Nazi occupation of Poland. Our shared misery began in the Bialystok ghetto, where we were imprisoned with our families. My husband came there with his family from Trestina at the end of 1941, when the Nazis began expelling and liquidating the Jews in the small surrounding towns. His family consisted of about one hundred people. After the war, however, he remained the sole survivor. His father, Szymon Garfinkel, who was forty-three, joined the heroic resistance in the Bialystok ghetto. The Nazis shot him along with other freedom fighters. As for my large family, only I, an older sister, and a cousin remain.
The two of us were then young people, engaged to be married. In the summer of 1943, when the Bialystok ghetto was destroyed, real trouble began. Sholem was then a young man of seventeen, I a bit younger.
While thousands of Jews were taken to Pietrasze Field for eventual transfer to Treblinka, my husband was spared early death because, as an expert shoemaker, he was needed for Nazi factories. We were confined to the courtyard of the former Jewish social welfare agency.
Suddenly people screamed, sensing that some evil was about to befall them. The Germans and Ukrainians rushed about with their rifles, chasing the tormented Jews. They separated women and children into one group, the elderly and the sick into another, and the young, healthy men into a third. Sholem Garfinkel was then a young, handsome man assigned to the third group. I expected that my death was imminent, because I was placed in the women's group. A thought ran through my mind. Standing next to Sholem, I quickly whispered, "I am in trouble! The young men will be taken to work, but the women and children will be sent to their death. My end is near. Save me. Dress me up as a man and I will go with you!"
Sholem was wearing three pairs of pants at that moment, as others did, to take extra clothing on the bitter journey. Hastily he removed his top trousers, which I donned. Some of our friends surrounded us so that I would not be seen. Meanwhile, the women and children were taken away in cattle cars to the concentration camp. Garfinkel also removed his jacket and hat, which I put on. With a cobbler's knife, he cut off some of my hair so that I would lo like a man. I pulled up the pants and fastened them around my body. An SS man who noticed me shouted to the other guards at the gate that a Jewish girl, disguised as a man, was with the other men.
The young men were shoved to the exit, five men to a row. Sholem went in one line and I in another so we wouldn't be seen together. The Nazi guard searched each person who emerged from the gate, opening his jacket and shirt, to ascertain if this were a man. When my turn came, the Nazis immediately discovered I was a woman. They tore off my clothing, leaving me clad in only a short undershirt.
The guards took me to one side and beat me. I still have scars on my forehead from that beating. Wounded and bloodied, I was placed against a fence not far from the gate, where eight Jews were lined up who earlier had attempted to flee the ghetto. We all faced the wall, hands raised, about to be shot. In fact, the Nazis commenced firing on the others, killing one after another. I felt that the bullets would soon get me, that my life was about to end. Once the murderers shot all eight, one of them said to me, "You will be shot running," and they ordered me to run. I started to race, not knowing what would become of me. The Nazis fired behind me to one side. Two Ukrainians ran after me. Each time they caught up with me, they beat me mercilessly, throwing me to the ground and picking me up, chasing me and beating me again.
Finally, the Ukrainians pursued me to the railroad cars, where several thousand Jews from the ghetto were being deported to the concentration camps. These cars were parked near others where the group of young men were placed. The Ukrainians wanted to shove me into a train that contained women and children, but it was already sealed. At that moment, Sholem saw me, barely able to recognize me because of the beating I endured. Slowly he inched toward me. Suddenly, the Nazis began pushing men into the trains, one hundred to a car. With lightning speed, Garfinkel pulled me into the compartment where he and the other young men were confined. Then the door of the car closed. I was one woman among one hundred men. The trains left, carrying us on our final journey.
As the train passed Lapy, the first stop outside Bialystok, people jumped from the trains. It soon became evident that we were being taken to Treblinka. Almost all who had leaped from the trains were shot. Armed Nazis soldiers were positioned along the tracks to execute would-be escapees. Guards standing on the roofs of the trains randomly fired into the cars. One bullet hit me in the left hand, which permanently damaged my finger.
When our train arrived at Treblinka, about twenty cars carrying women and children, the elderly and sick were separated. I can still hear the blood-chilling cries. These unfortunates were immediately taken to the gas chambers. Some of the other railroad cars, where Sholem, I and others were, did not enter Treblinka. We would be assigned to slave labor. After several hours, our train embarked, finally taking us to Majdanek.
Throughout the entire journey, I was dressed in rags, looking more like a man than a woman. I found myself among the wounded and beaten and helped them as much as I could. Garfinkel and the other young men were taken to the showers for "delousing" and a haircut. Later the Nazis gathered several hundred men, including shoemakers, tailors and other tradesmen, and loaded them onto a train. Once again I was selected for extermination at Majdanek. But at the last moment, when the men piled into the train, my beloved Sholem pulled me into the car. Our trains later arrived at the Blyzin labor camp.
There I encountered many Jewish women. Sholem Garfinkel worked in the camp as a shoemaker. After nine months, Sholem was taken to other concentration camps, after which he was liberated early in May 1945. I moved from Blyzin to Auschwitz and then to other camps. I was freed in April 1945.
Immediately after the war, I rejoined my future husband. We were married in Salzburg, Austria, and raised a fine family. From the time we arrived in America, we enjoyed a good life. We still cannot understand how we were able to survive those terrible times. Our beloved families were exterminated by the Nazis. We are consoled by being blessed with children, who will carry on our family lines. My husband and I love them and their families. Our son Shimon is in the textile business. He and his wife, Carol, live in Plainview, Long Island with their two beautiful children. Our younger son, Steven, who married Marlene, is a bookkeeper. They live in Brooklyn, New York.
Every time I remember the Holocaust and being saved by dressing as a man, I still experience much anguish. But it is important that succeeding generations know what happened to us.
A WALK TO DEATH:
MY FATHER'S STORY
It's still before my eyes and probably will be forever — the final moments of my father's life, those final precious minutes that we spent together crying, talking and touching for the last time. We would never see each other again now that the Nazi soldiers had entered our barracks looking for him. I walked him to the door and then he was outside on his way to meet the angel of death.
We were a family of five, living in the Bialystok ghetto, in one small room. There was a closet with another door within it, leading to an even smaller room. This room was rarely used until we got word that the Nazis were going to invade the ghetto. And just days later they did. The five of us — my father, mother and their three sons — hid in the little room for a full week. Outside there was violence. We heard shooting, cries for mercy and more machine-gun fire. One day during that week, we heard movement in the other room. We sat still, the five of us huddled together, not daring to make a sound and hardly taking a breath. We knew well that the slightest sound would mean our end. The Nazis shouted, "Are there any Jews hiding in here?" We sat silent in our little room, waiting. The soldiers did not find the room where we were hidden. It was February 1943. We survived the first part of the liquidation process of the Jews of Bialystok.
When the Nazis pulled out of the ghetto, my father and I left the apartment to see how our neighbors had fared during this ordeal. Some people who lived down the street from us had a similar experience to ours, though with a slightly different outcome. They had a daughter who had a little son. They too were hidden in a side room, not daring to utter a sound, lest they be found. Just then, the little boy wanted to cough. His mother motioned to him, not to make any noise. She put a towel over his face and apparently held it too long. The child suffocated to death.
We were stunned. When we walked into the apartment, the terror-stricken mother was still holding the child in her arms. The sight destroyed us. All around us was fright, suffering and hunger. Once again, pain had intruded into our tragic lives. That's how we lived, from day to day, not knowing what to expect. Until August 16, 1943.
It was on that infamous day that the Nazis reentered the ghetto and announced that all remaining Jews in Bialystok should assemble on Jurowiecka Street. This was the beginning of the final liquidation of the Jews of Bialystok. That was the Nazi objective — to make the once great and respected community of Bialystok Judenrein.
We could hear resistance to the Nazis. The Nazi soldiers rounded up and crammed us all into a small area on Jurowiecka Street. We were pushed together so that, thinking back, I don't know how we survived. The Nazis kicked us, pushed us and tormented us. They shouted orders for us to move in this direction and then in the opposite direction. Most of the Jews were in shock. They were confused and frightened. Many people collapsed from exhaustion.
Once we arrived at the Petrasze fields, we were allowed to stop while the Nazis counted our families. They then separated us — the young on one side, and the elderly to the other. My brothers and I were told to stay where we were. My mother and father were taken to the other side.
Hours later, we were still standing in the same place, waiting to see what fate held for us. Trucks passed by almost non-stop, their cargo areas filled with bodies of dead Jews. Other Jewish prisoners walked alongside these trucks, heads down, some trembling — making the constant effort to keep up with the trucks. I moved closer to where this was happening, and suddenly I recognized my father walking alongside one of the trucks, two steps behind the already dead. For just a moment, fighting broke out between the Jews and the Nazis; many Jews were killed in the shooting. But during the fighting and confusion my father rejoined me and my brothers. We were together again. My mother was already on her way to Treblinka, along with many others, where she was put to death.
Words could not explain how we suffered those next two weeks. The four of us were taken to Majdanek, where we were subjected to more pain, torture and hunger.
From Majdanek they took us to Blyzin - which was a forced labor camp. We worked for long hours, without sleep and without food. Many died. While in Blyzin my youngest brother, Yankel, and my father's brother, Beryl, contracted typhus and both died. In June 1944, they moved us again, this time to Auschwitz, where the next chapter of our tragic lives began.
In Auschwitz we were assigned to block No.9. At that time, there was a group of children with measles, so new inmates were all quarantined. Time and again, they pulled us out of our barracks, at all hours of the day and night, many of us wearing the thin cotton prisoners' uniforms and others naked. We stood in the cold, and they counted us. A German soldier walked up to each of us and looked us in the eyes. Off to the right stood the infamous Doctor of Death, Joseph Mengele. Whomever Mengele pointed to had his number written down. One day during the "Appell," my father's number was written down. We looked at each other. It was well known that when your number was written down you were just hours, or maybe days, from the gas chambers.
On the second day of Succos in 1944 — the murderers came to take my father from the barracks. My brother and I walked with him to the door. We kissed and we cried — we held each other close and said our final words to each other. It occurred to me that our tears might have reached the heavens. If they did, the heavens were silent. There was no answer to our cries, and the isolation, torture and liquidation of the Jewish people continued.
At the same time that my dear father was killed, groups of young Jewish children from Wilno were also being put to death. I remember sitting in my barracks, hearing those children pleading, "We are too young to die, we still want to live.
Please, let us live." Their pleading fell on deaf ears. The children were gassed and put in the crematoria with my father. I stayed up all that night, watching the smoke rise from the crematoria, where Jewish lives were being destroyed.
In November 1944, we were taken on yet another death march. I felt as though every minute we were on the threshold of death. Several months later, we were liberated from Hitler's clutches. My father, my mother, my little brother and millions of our brothers and sisters were victims of Hitler's unstoppable madness. And today, so many years later, I go about my daily business and concerns. I travel and go for walks, my head down, steeped in thought. But when I look up, I see them, as if they were still alive today — my father, mother and little brother.
But they are not.
A BIALYSTOKER JEW IN PAWJAK
(Editor's note: The author and his wife, who now live in Israel, spent the war years in Warsaw escaping death with false Polish identity papers. Szereniec, born in Bialystok, used the name Kazimierz Raczkowski. This article illustrates how some Jews who passed as gentiles were discovered and suffered Nazi abuse.)
The cellar of Pawjak Prison's main building in Warsaw contained eight sections — seven for Poles and one for Jews. After the Warsaw ghetto uprising in April 1943, only two of the eight sections were used. Not enough Jews were alive to fill the remaining pens.
Jewish prisoners spent their first night in cell 287, a transition pen. The next morning they were transferred to a burned-out building at 27 Dzielna Street, a hell hole opposite the compound's main gate.
The Nazis held two kinds of people for interrogation in cell 258: Jews who produced convincing papers that they were Poles, Gestapo headquarters on Sucha Avenue detaining them at Pawjak for further review, and those who claimed they were Poles but were found circumcised during a physical examination. I was in the second category.
Every Sunday the Polish inmates received an extra loaf of bread from an organization that helped political prisoners. This supplement to the inadequate 100-gram ration of bread per day saved lives.
Some of our guards believed that since we were only being held for questioning, we might in fact be non-Jews. One Sunday, a soldier named Altmann, a good-natured farmer, gave a loaf of bread to each of us. Ecstatic at the unexpected gift, we awaited the same the following Sunday. After ten in the morning, realizing our supplement was not forthcoming, we demanded more bread. A Ukrainian guard, Zubenko, listened to our plea, promising he would convey it to higher authority.
Unfortunately the sadist Harder, an Austrian, was in charge that day. We called him "rat" because he crept everywhere and knew all. He said he would take care of us.
Furiously he tore into our cell, shoved us into the corridor and menacingly exclaimed, "I'll give you bread!" He then searched us for hidden bread, ordering the Ukrainians to inspect our cell and straw mattresses.
A few days earlier, five Gypsies were placed in our cell. At first they were treated better than we, for they were allowed to bring their own food. Subsequently the Nazis discovered many pieces of bread in their possession, finding a gold coin in one loaf. The guards pushed us into the yard, then beat the Gypsies in the corridor.
Little did we know what Harder had in store for us when we heard him say "frogs." The beast loved spectacles. He forced all twenty-five prisoners to jump on elbows and knees like frogs on the gravel-covered prison courtyard, while he raved and beat us on our backs.
During the first round we jumped at a fast clip. The second time around the yard we were in pain, our knees and elbows bloodied. The elderly and weak needed help so that the Nazis would not notice they were disabled. Completing the third circle required superhuman strength and willpower. Some were already half dead.
After the "show" Harder ordered us to line up. We had to support some of our friends because they could no longer stand. The commandant told us to lie near the prison wall face down. Surely this was our end and we whispered goodbye to one another.
Suddenly the "rat" ordered his henchmen to clean us up, probably so that we could enter the next world pure. They doused us with water; the mud thickened. Despite our pain we were numb. Then we heard someone shout: "Back to your cells!" Everyone ran, pulling those unable to move. Near collapse in the cellar, we couldn't enter our pen because the straw torn from the mattresses covered the floor. Our jailers gave us five minutes to refill the mattresses and tidy up the place. Wounded and in severe pain, we carried out the order and dropped on our "beds."
Toward evening, the Nazis removed the bodies of our friends who could not bear their pain and died. Harder, at the door, asked sarcastically, "Did you like the bread I gave you today?"
This nightmare occurred on a Sunday in June 1943.
A LEGACY FOR THE SECOND GENERATION
The words of Psalm 137 recall to me not only the Jerusalem Temple's destruction and the Babylonian exile, but the exile of Auschwitz, with the mocking Arbeit macht frei over its gates and its inmate orchestra, compelled to accompany the nightmarish moments of that hell. Jewish history has long been one of exile.
Over and over again, we have been forced to consider this psalm's question: "How shall we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land?" and it has become our central struggle. In Israel we see with great clarity the continuity of Jewish history, the link between Masada and the ghetto uprisings. In Jerusalem, on June 14-18, 1981, thousands of survivors of the Nazi attempt to destroy our people returned from this tragic exile to pass on to their children the need for remembrance and the legacy of their faith. I am the daughter of Chanah Goldfarb and Michael Kremer, one of the thousand children from twenty-seven countries who joined their parents for this extraordinary event, the World Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors.
The World Gathering had many purposes. It was, above all, a time to cherish the individual memories of murdered mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers, now called "the six million," and the memory of the life destroyed with them. Despite the emphasis by the media on the search for family and friends, all who attended knew how painfully remote the possibility of such reunions was. The sight of the meeting hall with its homemade posters and messages naming Polish streets and towns now empty of Jews, was a heartbreaking and embittering one for me. There would be no one from my mother's tiny, destroyed shtetl to remark on family resemblances. My aunts and uncles who died as children would not appear. At Yad Vashem I placed wild flowers where the memorial said "Treblinka" and "Auschwitz." A few months before, I had heard Elie Wiesel say to a Second Generation audience that our cemeteries are in our hearts, and our hearts are cemeteries.
But the World Gathering was not only a Yizkor. I sensed a deep desire among those who attended to acknowledge proudly the resistance in their very survival, and to end years of isolation from a world, often including the Jewish community, which found their suffering too difficult to face. The survivors laughed and sang as they felt the joy of speaking Yiddish and joined those with whom they shared so much. They exchanged pictures of grandchildren. I met people from Bialystok and Grodno who were with my father in the ghetto and in the camps and who knew my parents when they first married. Every day I marveled at the detailed childhood memories of home and school that were exchanged, so clear and so haunting. A feeling of redemption was in the air.
The final ceremony of the World Gathering was held at the Wailing Wall. As the pilgrimage ended, the survivors passed on their legacy to the younger generation in six languages. In response, we promised never to forget the world's indifference to the fate of Europe's Jews, and to assure that such destruction will never again befall any people. The legacy recited in Russian reminded us that many are still not free to live as Jews. For the last time, we sang together the Partisans' song and the Hatikvah, and were privileged to witness six rabbis blowing ram's horns, evoking a tribal past that for a moment transcended a thousand years of dispersion.
During the World Gathering, the survivors' children met to form an international network of Second Generation groups. Their purpose is to preserve Yiddish culture and record the Jewish experience during the Holocaust. As I listened to the discussions among the Israeli, American and European children of survivors, I realized that we face many of the same conflicts our parents confronted as modern young Jews in Poland in the 1930's, even though we do not live in societies as oppressive and openly anti-Semitic as that one. We too must confront the issues of our self-esteem and identity as Jews, and the meaning of life in the Diaspora and in the Holocaust, for, unlike the wistful Jewish socialists who tried to claim their rights as Polish citizens, we have full knowledge of the murderous potential of civilized nations.
We have inherited a world that still turns to anti-Semitism for solace. We can cherish no illusions about reason and culture as a refuge. Today there are people, even academics and "revisionist" historians, who deny the genocide of Europe's Jews. There are also those more respectable voices that state Jews were not the only victims of the Nazis, so why hold our suffering as special or sacred? We must never forget that Jews died not for their acts or politics but for the accident of their birth. And we, as children who know firsthand our parents' heroism, can take the lead in asserting that oppression cannot be blamed on the victim.
During the Second Generation meetings, the concern we shared was to transcend guilt and pain in order to give meaning to events that often defy interpretation. Feelings of isolation, of being irrevocably different from our peers, were brought up many times in my discussion group. Joining together to form a community at the World Gathering, we were able to accept our parents' legacy, which has sometimes overwhelmed us as individuals. I felt we had discovered what our parents knew since their youth that redemption is possible only through community.
TZIRL (BERKOWICZ) STEINGART
FOREVER IN MY MEMORY
(Editor's note: The writer is a correspondent for the Jewish Daily Forward.)
Although I left Bialystok, my hometown, many years ago, I still remember it fondly.
My family lived on a small street in a poor section of town — near the Great Synagogue. Nevertheless, we enjoyed a rich cultural life. My mother was a model of honesty and devotion.
My Bundist education gave me a strong feeling for social justice and equality without regard to national origin, color or creed. I also remained devoted to the Jewish people, its language and culture. I never saw any contradiction in these views. On the contrary, one reinforced the other.
As a young girl, I left Bialystok for Paris — in January 1933.I soon became active in Jewish social and political causes. My main interest was teaching assimilated Jewish children Yiddish and the history of their people. I and others trained children in the Bundist youth organizations to be proud of their heritage and respect the brotherhood of all peoples.
These efforts paid off during the Nazi occupation of France, when underground youth and resistance organizations were formed. Their dedication and combat readiness were the result of the Jewish consciousness they had developed in earlier years.
I will always remember those tragic times, when we were in daily danger of arrest, torture, deportation, and execution. Despite this, my friends and I enjoyed disrupting the Nazis' diabolical plan to destroy the Jewish people.
We often thought our nightmare would never end. Nobody believed we would survive to tell the world of our anguish.
In Paris, Lyons, Grenoble and other French cities and towns, there are memorial plaques on many homes of fallen Jews who helped liberate France. So many Jewish names appear on the markers - youngsters who fought alongside their gentile brothers against the enemy.
Under normal circumstances, most of us would have been incapable of hurting a fly. But the barbarity of the Gestapo and their French collaborators was so revolting that we became fighters overnight. Somehow we found the strength to carry on our illegal rescue and resistance activities.
Even with false papers identifying one as a gentile it was hard to hide from the authorities and even harder to fulfill resistance missions. We never knew for sure who was a friend or an informer. Fortunately, there were decent gentiles who did not collaborate with the Nazis and who helped hide Jewish children; some provided forged documents and weapons for resistance groups.
I spent most of my time saving Jewish children, who were utterly helpless. Their parents breathed easier in their hideouts knowing their children were under our protection.
We also printed illegal handbills and posted them in the streets. These signs gave moral support to Jews who were in hiding and called upon the French public to assist them. We proclaimed that the Nazis were lying in their radio and newspaper messages; they were inciting the French against innocent people. The real enemy was the Nazis, not the Jews. The French were duty bound to banish the Germans from their land. I was also involved in illegally distributing the Bundist paper, Unzer Stimme, and the Bundist youth paper in French, Le Reveilleur des Jeunes.
We brought supplies to Jews in their hideouts and helped others flee French detention camps before they could be deported. We obtained arms for the resistance groups — not an easy task. And we instructed young people on how to take care of their weapons in the shelters and administer first aid in the event of enemy attack.
My husband, Henry Steingart, was one of the leaders of the United Jewish Aid and various action committees, which were involved in a broad range of illegal activities. Represented among these groups were Bundists, Jewish communists, right-and left wing Labor Zionists and religious Jews.
I shall not forget these efforts and the daily terror under which they were carried out. I still recall those who, like myself, hoped they would survive until France would be liberated, but did not. It is as if the courageous uprising in Villeurbanne (a suburb of Lyons), where Jewish youth fought alongside their French counterparts against Germans, took place yesterday.
The Nazis were then, in August 1944, armed to the teeth; we lacked adequate weapons supplies. After several days of fighting, the Germans crushed the Villeurbanne uprising. Homes were gutted and many resisters were shot.
Henry, who was one of the fighters, and some friends were missing for several days. I looked for them in the hospitals among the dead and wounded. Some days later, Henry and his colleagues returned to my hideout. The Germans had been after them and some French peasants had hidden them.
During an attack on a hideout, where we conducted secret meetings of the illegal United Jewish Aid Committee, six of us — representatives of various political persuasions — were arrested. I was the spokesperson for the Jewish Villeurbanne Committee, the Lyons United Jewish Youth Committee and the Committee to Rescue Jewish Children. I still wonder whether someone had informed on us.
We spent many hours thinking that we had reached the end of our rope. None of us believed we would escape the Nazis' clutches.
Just before we were to be handed over to the Gestapo, we succeeded in bribing our three captors to let us go. This was the only instance, to my knowledge, that an entire resistance group was able to save itself through bribery.
Our captors had, however, fooled us. They took our money and then called the Gestapo. A half hour later, when the Germans arrived, they found no one. Luckily, we fled the illegal hideout immediately after our captors left us. Later, I bleached my hair blond and, looking like a real gentile girl, continued my resistance work using a false identity.
After the long-awaited liberation of France, we were horrified to learn the full extent of Jewish destruction. Each of us, we discovered, had lost many beloved relatives and friends in the Holocaust.
I couldn't believe I had survived. Every Jewish stranger we passed on the street was a joy for us. For several months after the liberation, I remained in Lyons to reunite families that had been separated during the war. Later, with the help of the Workmen's Circle in Paris and the Jewish Labor Committee in New York, we established homes for Jewish orphans.
With fresh energy, I went to work rebuilding Jewish communal life in France. Once again I taught Yiddish to Jewish children and told them about the heroism of our young sons and daughters during the war.
Bialystok today has virtually no Jews, but our landsleit who survived continue its sacred traditions in all the countries where destiny has scattered them.
NECHAMA (DROGOCZYNSKI) DINUR
REUNION AFTER A PAINFUL JOURNEY
My maiden name in Bialystok was Laznik. I was Chone Ozder's granddaughter; he lived at 22 Zelazne Street. My husband is Szmuel Drogoczynski. We changed our name to Dinur. Since 1950, we have lived in Holon, Israel. We have a son, a daughter and four grandchildren, who have brought us a lot of nachas.
In the summer of 1941, when war between Germany and the Soviet Union broke out, I had been married four months. Afterward, my husband and I were in the Bialystok ghetto, where we suffered a great deal. Once, when my husband and brother attempted to smuggle food into the ghetto through the fence, they were arrested. The Nazi police brutally beat them and later sent them to the Bialystok prison, where few escaped alive. Every few days the authorities would take groups of Jews from the prison to the fields and shoot them.
After four months in jail, my husband and brother — the only two Jews who remained there — were freed. They returned to the ghetto six weeks after I gave birth to our first son. Shortly thereafter, the first liquidation was launched; 12,000 Jews were transported to the death camps. We lived at 26 Jurowecki Street in the ghetto, which housed two bunkers — one in the attic and the other in the cellar. Mothers with small children were advised to stay in the underground hideout so their youngsters' cries wouldn't be heard by the Nazi searchers. My younger sister, Sorele, who was ten years old, was with me. The children did not survive the first liquidation amid the horrible conditions in the bunkers. I lost my child, who was then eleven months old.
In the meantime, the Nazis exposed the hideout where my husband, my parents and his parents stayed. They were led out to Fabryczna Street. While being taken out of the ghetto, my mother caught my father's attention in a courtyard and whispered in his ear, "Save yourself! Go to the children." Somehow he managed to get to my bunker. Following the seven-day liquidation campaign, word spread that whoever had a job would be granted a permit to remain in the ghetto — a reprieve from immediate extermination. I got such a document and added my father's and sister's names to it. I went to work at Waksman's Knitwear Factory. We knitted socks and gloves for the Nazi soldiers. In this way, I hoped to get a bit of sustenance for my family.
A few months later, a second liquidation was unleashed in the ghetto. Panic and confusion spread as the remaining Jews who were deemed expendable were ordered to report to Czepla and Jurowecki streets, the embarkation point for concentration camp. We witnessed the resistance of our brave young men and women, who showed extraordinary courage in the face of overwhelming Nazi firepower. My family and I continued hiding in our bunker by day and foraging for morsels of food by night. Few bunkers remained. The Gestapo continually discovered and arrested Jews in hiding. Some were sent to Bialystok prison; others were shot. No Jews were permitted to stay in the ghetto, where signs were posted declaring it Judenrein.
Jews who were still in Bialystok were sent as slave labor or executed. The Nazis issued an ultimatum to those in the bunkers: surrender or be liquidated. Many preferred the grim conditions in the hideouts to surrender to the police. Electricity and water were shut off. We were forced to obtain water from a polluted stream that was filled with frogs. We filtered the water through a linen screen, and that's how we subsisted for two months....
Suddenly one night, our bunker was exposed. The Nazis attacked and shoved us in all directions; many fled. I panicked and was disoriented. I can't remember how I and fifteen others managed to find another hideout that had been uncovered earlier, its former occupants killed. We stayed there, for we had no choice.
I was lonely. My father and little sister had been killed with the other victims. We, the temporary survivors, hid in our new shelter for two more months. Meanwhile, we set fire to all the Jewish property we could find. At night we went from house to house, doused kerosene on everything, and burned it. We were determined that the Nazis would have little booty.
Finally, our bunker was exposed again. We were tortured and jailed for six weeks, and then transferred to concentration camps, including Stuthof, Auschwitz, Ravensbruck and Neustadt. Like many others, I suffered indescribably. Several times I was at the threshold of death; I wonder how I survived.
After being liberated in May 1945, I returned to Bialystok, my hometown, to see whether any of my family had survived. I had little hope of finding anyone. But then the incredible happened.
I went to 1 Minsker Street, where Jews who had survived the Holocaust or exile in the Soviet Union were staying. A girl came over, kissed me and told me my husband was alive. I couldn't believe it; I thought she meant my husband's brother. Then, a friend of my husband's who had been with him led me inside a building, where I found my husband lying in bed with a high fever. I called a doctor immediately; my husband went to the hospital, where he was treated for typhus for two months. Even after leaving the hospital, he was very weak. He walked with crutches. It took him a long time to recover.
I later learned he was sent to Auschwitz during the first liquidation in Bialystok. His mother told him, "Go, my son, and save yourself." Then he was separated from her and his sister. My husband's mother's words ring in his ears to this day.
My husband was later transferred to the Jaworzna concentration camp, where he worked in the coal mines for nineteen months. Afterward, he and others were force-marched to the Blechamer concentration camp. Two days after their arrival, the Bialystoker contingent dug a tunnel underneath the camp's fence and escaped. Among the brave Bialystoker Jews who fled Blechamer were Lejzer Olszanski and his son, Chaim, who live in Argentina; Jeszua Krawecki; Chaim Kurnianski; and my husband, Szmuel Drogoczynski.
Thus my beloved Szmuel and I were reunited after enduring the Holocaust. A miracle. Very few couples were so fortunate.
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Last updated July 21st, 2005