The Bialystoker Memorial Book - Der Bialystoker
Yizkor Buch, the Bialystoker Center, New York 1982
(c) Copyright by the Bialystoker Center
Agony Before the End
Dr. Szymon Datner
Bialystok Region in Ruins
Dr. Szymon Datner
The Ghetto in Flames
Surrounded by Blood and Fire
PEJSACH KAPLAN’S GHETTO DIARY
(Editor’s note: Pejsach Kaplan, the prominent Jewish writer and editor of the Bialystok daily newspaper, Unzer Leben, became the official archivist of the Bialystok ghetto. He had the opportunity to observe and record daily events in the ghetto, including important facts about the establishment and conduct of the Judenrat. Concerning the notorious “February Action” in 1943, which marked the beginning of the Bialystok ghetto’s liquidation, Kaplan wrote as if with blood the following words: “How does one describe the destruction of Bialystok as the author of the Book of Lamentations would have adequately done? It is possible for me only to record cut and dried facts, indelibly inscribed in my memory, about the recent bleak and bloody days.” The following are excerpts from Kaplan’s diary, found after the war in the ruins of the ghetto, together with other records of the Judenrat. Shortly after completing the diary in March 1943 Kaplan died, no longer able to withstand the pain and suffering of his times.)
On the very first day of the Nazi occupation, the commandant, a general, summoned Rabbi Dr. Gedalja Rozenman and ordered him to form a Judenrat of twelve members. Rabbi Rozenman and other Jewish leaders well understood they had no choice but to comply. Later on, the Judenrat was enlarged to twenty-four councilmen.
Although members of the council made it clear from the beginning that they were required to carry out the orders of the Nazi command, nevertheless, because they had previously been respected personalities in the Jewish community, the Judenrat was held in high esteem. Given the nature of its mission, however, the council was often unavoidably autocratic in carrying out its functions.
Rabbi Rozenman, the Chairman, and his ViceChairman, Efrajim Barasz, usually started their day in conference with Nazi officials. Thereafter, they would meticulously carry out every order, taking pains to make certain the Jewish community in the ghetto faithfully obeyed the rules. The slightest infraction brought about severe consequences, every rule bearing implicit or explicit threats of grim reprisals if transgressed.
Because of Rabbi Rozenman’s advanced age and poor health, he was forced to resign and was succeeded by Vice-Chairman Barasz, who continued as Chairman of the Judenrat until March 1943. Others on the Judenrat presidium were: B. Subotnik, finances; J. Goldberg, and Liman, administrators and heads of rationing. Barasz was considered by many the dictator of the ghetto. Actually, he was the only one able to carry on a successful liaison between the Nazis and the Jews. He deftly encouraged the Germans to reduce the severity of their requirements and, on the other hand, insisted that the Jews avoid any pretext that could be used by the Nazis to mete out punishment. Barasz possessed unusual energy, stability, stubbornness, supreme punctiliousness, and, above all, scrupulous honesty. He consulted his presidium several times a day on important decisions, explaining his policies from time to time to the public at the Linas Hatzedek hall.
The Nazis and the Judenrat
Relations between the Germans and the Judenrat were chaotic, mainly because the German administrative structure was actually a conglomeration of competing power centers: the military, civilian and police authorities. Often the orders issued by these different branches of the regime contradicted one another, sowing confusion among the Jews and the council. This uncertainty was, of course, no mere academic matter. Lives literally hung in the balance and threats were routinely made that half the Judenrat or the whole Juden rat would be shot, or alternatively several hundred Jewish citizens would be executed. Subsequently, the anarchy lessened when the German civilian ghetto administration provided the Judenrat with an “ironclad guarantee,” insisting that it was the sole authority. Despite this helpful development, the number of authority figures and pretenders was astronomical.
Every item the Jews possessed could be requisitioned by the Nazis at a moment’s notice. Nothing was exempt. Even things not readily available had to be produced on time, usually in a short time, the alternative being punishment or execution. Requests were not made. Commands were given on pain of death. The Nazis demanded that their orders be carried out to the letter; no deviation, however minute, was permitted. Since the German authorities frequently changed, their replacements would often impose new standards in the ghetto, sometimes contradicting those of their predecessors. Things that had been satisfactory to one administration became unacceptable to the next. The Judenrat and the Jewish community it represented found themselves in a constant uphill battle to appease the whims of the Nazi masters.
The uninterrupted barrage of ordinances, regulations, requisitions and the like emanating from the German command center on an hourly basis threatened to inundate the Judenrat. Its function under these conditions was to remain eternally vigilant, anticipating what might come next. At times its members sensed it was best to swallow a bitter pill. At other times they exercised whatever influence they could to modify an edict. The confiscatory contributions the Nazis demanded from the Jews in the amount of five million rubles, five kilos of gold and three hundred kilos of silver taxed the Judenrat’s resourcefulness to the limit. People had to give up their last bit of money to satisfy the quota imposed on the public-at-large. At the end, when everyone had been cleaned out, the Judenrat was able to bargain the Nazis down two million rubles, thereby fulfilling the requirement.
Thanks to the uncanny diplomatic skills of the Judenrat, the decree to build and move into the ghetto was implemented with a lot less difficulty than had been expected. The council succeeded in negotiating for a larger, more spacious ghetto in a better part of Bialystok. The deadline for moving into the ghetto was extended and the ten million rubles demanded for not cleaning up the abandoned homes were waived. The Judenrat insisted on public calm and patience throughout this horrible ordeal.
The Jewish Police in the Ghetto
The Nazi authorities declared that the ghetto was a state within a state and that the Judenrat had unlimited powers if only it fulfilled the orders of the regime. Ostensibly this meant that the Germans had no interest whatsoever in interfering in ghetto affairs, leaving everything to the discretion of the Judenrat. This was, of course, untrue.
The council immediately created its own police force of more than two hundred young, healthy men under the command of Izak Markus, former fire commissioner. Later, Mojsze Berman was appointed his assistant. The police received special shields for their hats and arm bands to identify them. The ghetto was divided into four police precincts under a unified command. It was indeed difficult for the Judenrat to maintain the unpaid police officers at the highest level of efficiency and, not infrequently, there were police failures. Generally speaking, however, the apparatus worked quite well and if the ghetto did not drown in filth and the people did not trample upon one another in the streets, the credit had to go to the police.
Their main function was to preserve law and order, ensuring free passage and keeping Jewish passersby away from the Nazi soldiers. In addition, the police were responsible for public sanitation, regulating business activities, assisting the German guards at the gates of the ghetto to prevent smuggling, and issuing summonses for forced labor and evacuation.
The Jewish police were, of course, also charged with preventing robberies and arresting perpetrators, detaining culprits in a makeshift cell underneath the Judenrat building or in a real prison at another location. Sometimes the police were required to deliver a suspect to the Gestapo outside the ghetto.
Another problem facing the police was that food provisions allotted each Jew were inadequate to sustain life. People were forced to barter, smuggle, speculate and seek additional income. The Jewish police officer could look the other way, if his palm were greased, or he might strictly invoke the law, which could be fatal to the violator. This corruption demoralized the population, and virtual anarchy prevailed for a while.
The Judenrat did ultimately purge the police force of undesirable elements. At the same time, it exhorted the people to obey the policemen and to treat them with respect. The Judenrat did everything possible to create an effective and honest force, recruiting as many idealistic and honest young men as it could.
To the extent possible the Judenrat organized a satisfactory criminal justice system, appointing professional judges to preside over trials that were carried out according to law. Punishments were meted out in light of ghetto conditions.
Other Judenrat Departments
Finance — was responsible for collecting the necessary funds to carry out the orders of the Nazi command. It formulated a budget to husband resources and provide a clear outline of expenditures. It imposed taxes upon those with means and controlled revenues generated by work outside the ghetto.
Rationing — the Judenrat assumed the responsibility of apportioning scarce food rations among the Jewish population. This was a particularly difficult task, upon whose success depended many thousands of lives. The council made herculean efforts to obtain food and distribute it as equitably as possible. Often, some people had to go hungry. But everything humanly possible was done to provide sustenance for the greatest number. The Rationing Department fed not only individuals but supplied the remaining social institutions as well. It also controlled heating supplies.
Labor — this department had the burden of meeting the slave labor quotas set by the Nazi command. From the outset, these manpower demands were capricious and virtually impossible to fulfill, usually accompanied by an absurd deadline of a couple of hours. The types of work were mostly back-breaking and intolerable. The slave laborers were brutally beaten for the slightest infraction. Frequently the work hours were interminable and the locations remote and rugged. No complaints or refusals were permitted; no excuses were accepted. This department was one of the most difficult to operate in the ghetto.
Neuvelt Bet Midrash (house of study) in ruins.
Charity — The Judenrat made major efforts to assist the impoverished. As soon as the council began organizing its funds, it established an old age home for about two hundred elderly people and invalids; two children’s homes, which took care of infants as well as older youngsters; and kitchens offering hot meals at a pittance. Orthodox Jews took the initiative of forming their own kosher kitchen.
Health and Sanitation — the Judenrat established a hospital for acutely ill adults and a second facility to accommodate sick children. A third hospital took care of contagious patients. This department was also responsible for sanitation and hygiene throughout the ghetto. The Linas Hatzedek building housed a unit for treating ambulatory patients, staffed by a large number of doctors. Dental and therapy services were provided in the Linas Cholim building. In addition, an obstetrical section was created, which, surprisingly, was used a great deal. Each factory had its own doctors and nurses who administered treatment on the spot. The Sanitation Department operated a number of public baths. The Nazis, who crammed the large Jewish population into pigsty conditions, paradoxically required absolute cleanliness, so as not to infect the Aryan German race. In this Bialystok distinguished itself. For example, there was not one case of typhus reported. Any infectious disease that did occur, probably originating outside the ghetto, was promptly isolated, entire streets in the ghetto quarantined until the contagion was eradicated.
Housing — this responsibility was difficult, for by definition, the Judenrat had to house thousands of people in a limited number of dwellings. Their first step was to assume jurisdiction over all privately owned homes. No one was permitted to occupy a room without a written order from the Housing Department. Those who did so without authorization were forcibly ejected by the police. Every effort was made to obtain the mutual agreement of people to live together as neighbors. Nevertheless, there was much unhappiness, and many disputes broke out. This department also carried out building inspections and supervised the collection of rents.
Economy — this was the section that gathered the precious possessions of the Jews in response to Nazi extortion demands and as leverage to mitigate the strictness of certain orders. In addition to jewelry and other valuables, all kinds of items were stocked so the Judenrat could respond at once to a German requisition for supplies.
Construction — although there was no need to construct new buildings in the ghetto, existing structures required maintenance. This work was supervised by the Construction Department of the Judenrat.
Culture — one of the most noble of the Judenrat’s functions was creating a school system through its Culture Department. Two schools were established, one a secular facility that taught in both Yiddish and Hebrew, and the second a religious school. The secular school was coeducational and accommodated about 1600 pupils in six grades and thirty-nine classes. The religious school taught about five hundred children in two shifts, but segregated boys and girls. These institutions brought a bit of light into the ghetto, not permitting the children to run wild and at the same time educating them in the spirit of Judaism. In November 1942, when the Nazis carried out bloody reprisals against the Jews of Greater Bialystok, outside the ghetto itself, its territory was reduced and the two schools closed. The Culture Department also conducted vocational courses to teach young people trades.
Census and Vital Statistics — This department was crucial in counting the number of people in the ghetto. Their statistics had a direct effect on the issuance of food permits and rations. The census office was in a small room on the third floor of the Judenrat building under Dr. M. Bergman’s direction. This bureau issued bread ration cards to the people and compiled various lists required by the authorities. Dr. Pilecki, statistician, administered the vital statistics department. S. Rawet directed the Bureau of Records.
Industry — the largest and most important section of the Judenrat was the Industry Department. They oversaw Jewish productivity, which rendered the ghetto prisoners still useful to the Nazis. As long as this usefulness continued, the Jews had a chance to live. The Industry Section created a large number of factories, including a shoe-maker shop, a clothes factory, a knitwear plant, a felt factory, a belt-manufacturing plant, carpentry, a bedding-goods plant and a wheel-making shop. The department promoted apprenticeships in electronics, brush-making, cardboard and carton manufacturing, and factories producing liquor, marmalade and starch. The most important industries directly served the German military and thereby employed thousands of Jews in the ghetto. At first, the means of production were invariably primitive in all sections, but, in time, more sophisticated equipment was either obtained or built.
The Ghetto Exhibit — one of the most fascinating but diabolical aspects of life in the ghetto was the display of products manufactured by its industries. This was meant as a showcase for Nazi visitors to the Bialystok ghetto. One would think from the masterful way in which the exhibit was arranged, as well as by the sheer perfection of the displayed objects, that one was visiting one of the finest museums in a highly civilized city. It was possible almost to forget that this exhibit was situated in the midst of a human sty, surrounded by barbed wire and maintained by force of arms. In any event, the ghetto exhibit was the pride and joy of the Nazi officials as well as of the Jewish population. After the grim events of November 1942, when the ghetto was taken over by the Gestapo, the exhibit was shut down.
The Judenrat also included a secretariat, which carried out the clerical functions of the council as well as of the German command, and a comptroller’s division, which did the accounting and bookkeeping for the Judenrat. There was also a fire brigade and a section that dealt with the cost of electricity, water and soap.
The above is a brief description of the various organs of the Judenrat within the Bialystok ghetto, composed by an observer on the basis of his personal impressions.
THE DEATH OF PEJSACH KAPLAN
(Editor’s note: In a letter to the Bialystoker Stimme, written by Refoel Rajzner in the May-June 1946 issue, the author offers the following details about Pejsach Kaplans’s death.)
On February 5, 1943, when the Nazis began to liquidate the Bialystok ghetto, Pejsach Kaplan was in hiding, virtually suffocating. At night he risked going outside for some fresh air, but he caught a cold. On the third day of the bloodbath he found it possible to go to the factory in which his eldest daughter Sonja occupied a responsible position. Kaplan, ill with fever, ran from one window to the other, risking a bullet to the head, to see how the empty streets looked and how the Jews sentenced to death were being led about.
The scenes were horrifying. Groups of thirty to forty people, sometimes reaching one hundred, most of them women, children and the elderly, were taken to the slaughter. The stronger helped the weaker. Many were already half dead, exhausted by hiding for days. Should one dare to fall down and stop on the way, he was immediately shot on the spot. In this way, the Nazi murderers left approximately one thousand dead bodies littering the streets of Bialystok. Pejsach Kaplan, taking all of this in, found it unbearable.
He warned his friends and acquaintances that he would not survive this experience. “Remember,” he said to them, “when the time comes for taking revenge, pay them back what they have earned.” After the slaughter was over, Kaplan was confined to bed, at first rallying and then relapsing. He died cursing Hitler’s Germany.
The Judenrat arranged a large and dignified funeral for Kaplan, unprecedented in the ghetto. Plans were made to eulogize him, but the SS officers interfered. The many thousands who escorted his body to the cemetery went away brokenhearted that they had lost such a dominant figure in their lives, the man who recorded their daily trials and tribulations. May his memory be a blessing for all of us!
One of the thousands of starving children in the Ghetto.
DR. SZYMON DATNER
BIALYSTOK REGION IN RUINS
(Editor’s note: Dr. Szymon Datner, the esteemed educator, researcher and historian, the author of a number of important volumes about the Holocaust, devoted the postwar years to recreating in detail much of the gruesome saga of the destruction of East European Jewry. Dr. Datner, who was the first Bialystoker Jew to return to the city, in ruins after the war, and who became the Chairman of the first Jewish Reconstruction Committee in Bialystok, has earned a prominent place commemorating the glory that once was Bialystok.
Following are excerpts from Dr. Datner’s well-researched articles about the Bialystok ghetto, the suffering, resistance and extermination of its Jews.)
Although the Nazis set a quota of 12,000 Jews to be deported to Pruzane, the Judenrat in Bialystok produced only between 5,000 and 6,000. The reasons were that those not included were still valuable for slave labor, some who had been summoned to the deportation center never showed up, and some on the list somehow managed to obtain papers and employment. The Nazis, thanks to the influence of the Judenrat, did not press the twelve thousand maximum.
It was widely believed that the 5,000 deportees would never reach Pruzane alive. But several days after their departure from the Bialystok ghetto they sent word back that they had indeed arrived in Pruzane and were alive. This brought a wave of relief throughout the ghetto.
Circumstances in Pruzane were even worse than in Bialystok. There a ghetto was also built and Pruzane’s Jews were forced to squeeze into it. The Bialystokers’ arrival increased the discomfort and the overcrowding. Nonetheless, the Pruzaner Jews welcomed their Bialystoker friends with open arms and with extraordinary grace.
It soon became clear that Pruzane would need financial assistance from Bialystok to accommodate the exiles. An emissary from Pruzane visited the Judenrat in Bialystok each month to raise funds on behalf of its people in Pruzane until the end of November 1942, when Pruzane, along with other smaller communities, was totally destroyed by the Nazis.
The evacuation to Pruzane led to tragic aftermaths. Those who failed to appear for deportation were forced to live underground. Their names were taken off the vital statistics list, which meant they were no longer entitled to receive food rations or other assistance from the Judenrat. They were forced to throw themselves on the mercy of family and friends. Those able to find work outside the ghetto managed to survive a while longer.
Another reverberation of the expulsion to Pruzane was that in the spring of 1942, some 1,500 Bialystoker Jews left Pruzane and sneaked back into the Bialystok ghetto. When the Nazis learned of this, they threatened mass reprisals, forcing the Judenrat to warn the evacuees not to return. To some extent, these warnings decreased the incidence of illegal return but did not stop it altogether. On the other hand, the Germans did not continue to press the issue.
What was most important to the ghetto inmates was that their kinfolk did arrive in Pruzane alive and that regarding this matter, at least, the Nazis had not lied to them.
Enslavement Before Final Liquidation
The continued existence of the Bialystok ghetto and the Jews within it depended on the extent to which they were perceived as useful to the Third Reich. This was why most of the Jews in the ghetto voluntarily sought work of any type. Certainly the Pruzane evacuation was an additional incentive for people to find employment — to avoid expulsion from the ghetto. Another motivation was to prevent a repetition of the ferocity with which the Nazis had run through the streets of Bialystok prior to August 1941 when the ghetto was constructed, conscripting people for forced labor. If one was already gainfully employed, he could avoid this harsh treatment.
Announcements and orders proclaimed by the Judenrat — as dictated by the Nazi command — clearly reflect how important the availability of slave labor was to the Germans, as well as punctuality, discipline and productivity. The following are excerpts from these orders:
Order No. 126 — By order of the German authorities, all ghetto men aged eighteen to fifty-five must have a job. We command all men without exception in this age group who are not yet employed to appear at the Judenrat building tomorrow morning, October 16th, at 6:00 A.M. We warn anyone who fails to show up that he will suffer severe consequences, including evacuation from Bialystok.
Order No. 328 — A reserve brigade of one hundred women is hereby created according to the following conditions: whichever woman must work on a certain day will receive a half kilo of bread per day and will be paid in cash at the going rate. Women who are not scheduled to work will remain in the reserve pool and will receive a certain sum per day.
(These reserve brigades were the Judenrat’s answer to the constant need to fill labor quotas. The council’s worst fear was failure to fulfill a demand for manpower. This would surely mean doom for everyone.)
Order No. 235 — The German Labor Department announces: it has been established that discipline among the Jewish workers is lax. That is why in all workplaces productivity lists have been instituted recording how many hours the Jews are working per day. It appears that on certain days, people do not show up at all for work, or work only part time. The exact reasons for these violations are unknown. The Labor Department acquiesced in the Gestapo’s punishing these shiftless Jews. In the future anyone found not discharging his work obligations will be turned over to the Gestapo for severe punishment.
A Warning: Order No. 157 — The Judenrat issues the following warning! Report punctually for work! Do not leave your place of work without permission! For leaving work without authorization, the following have received corporal punishment: Mojsze Nowokolski, Josef Lew, Jakow Racki, Mojsze Stupnik, Ben-Cyon Lipnik, Chaim Talinski, Binjomin Halpern, Chajkel Glas. Those who continue violating this order face possible execution. Judenrat, Bialystok, November 18, 1941.
Order No. 173 — For lateness and unexcused absences from work, the following received severe forced-labor assignments as a penalty: Josef Korn, Mordechaj Galant, Mojsze Ridak, Aron Bernsztejn, Lejb Galant, Hirsz Berezowski, Hilel Furman, Lejb Wajnsztejn, Fajwel Wajnsztejn. We warn you to fulfill your work obligations. Do not leave your posts. Avoid harsh punishments. Judenrat, Bialystok, December 3, 1941.
Order No. 166 — The following received severe corporal punishment for avoiding slave labor: Isroel Kagan, Mojsze Sapirsztein, Krawic, Hirsz Grochowski, Szya Feder, Izchok Melamed (Malmed), Nochum Nowik, Szymon Szwecher. Judenrat, Bialystok, November 25, 1941.
Loading the Jews in cattle cars at the Poljeser Railroad Station.
Order No. 225 — For lateness at work, the following received corporal punishment and were assigned to the penal brigades: Mates Gniazde, Lejzer Sokolski, Anszel Kaplan, Dowid Bereslowski, Gedalja Klajnsztejn, Hilel Rudeler, Lejzer Macher. We warn: Come to work on time! Do not leave your posts without permission! Protect your lives! Judenrat, Bialystok, February 21, 1942.
Order No 383 — The Labor Department announces that the following were whipped for (a) leaving the ghetto without authorization: Izchok Note, 10 Chmelna Street; Mordechaj Nisebojm, 12 Smalne; (b) for not reporting for forced labor: Isroel Naszelski, baker, 19 Polna Street; (c) for not showing up at the assigned workplace: Melech Dinersztejn, 12 Neuwelt, construction; Hirsz Nisebojm, 39 Fabryczna; Awrom Palanski, 1 Bialoscaner; Ludwik Cytronenberg, 13 Fabryczna; Gerszon Kantrowec, 19 Chmelna, construction; Izchok Kadysz, 22 Kupiecka, construction; Fiszl Rozenberg, Gedawe Street. For further violations, harsh punishment awaits the perpetrators. These acts can lead to ghetto-wide reprisals. Labor Department, Judenrat, Bialystok, January 18, 1943.
On the Eve of 1942
Generally speaking, life in the ghetto at the end of 1941 seemed to stabilize. People had already grown accustomed, more or less, to the chronic misery in which they were forced to live. Jewish men, women and children were able to pass through the ghetto unharmed as long as they wore their yellow badges. The Judenrat was functioning like a well-oiled machine, thanks to the impeccable integrity of its Chairman, Efrajim Barasz.
Two new orders were issued by the Judenrat on December 31, 1941, which stand in stark contrast to one another. Order No. 194 concerns registration of children in Jewish schools, while Order No. 195 imposes confiscatory taxes upon the Jews. In one announcement, the Jewish community expressed the wish to teach its children Torah and secular subjects, entrusting to the next generation the glorification of the human mind and spirit. The Germans, on the other hand, revealed just a small part of their plan to plunder the peoples it had enslaved, the Jews among them treated with unprecedented barbarism. German precision and efficiency dictated that first you extract the life’s blood from your victim and afterward eliminate him.
The following order illustrates the extortionate Nazi demands on the Jews:
Judenrat Order No. 92 — August-September 1941: You are required to submit to the regime the following by Wednesday, September 10, 1941, 6 PM: 30 tablecloths, identical in form and size; 20 curtains with cornices and shades; 10 large rugs; 10 table scarves; 10 lampshades; 10 wall pictures; 10 flat plates; 10 soup bowls; 100 small plates; 100 coffee cups; 100 coffee coasters; 100 plain beer stems; 100 crystal beer stems; 100 dessert dishes; 100 wine cups; 100 liquor glasses; 50 champagne glasses; 50 coffee pots; 15 sugar shakers; 15 milk pitchers; 20 ashtrays; 100 spoons; 100 forks; 100 knives; 100 forks and knives for fish; 50 tea glasses; 5 samovars, 15 meat platters; 15 cake plates; 14 sauce pans.
The German nation, which always pretended to the role of leader of the civilized world, effortlessly shed its thin mantle of culture, ridding itself of its humanity as though it were an unnecessary burden. The beast removed its mask. It was sure that it would be victorious. This ferocious animal was finally to be conquered, but not without the world paying a high price. Jews made the greatest sacrifice — the loss of six million, among them fifty thousand Bialystoker Jews.
A Tragic Celebration in the Ghetto
On June 29, 1942, the first anniversary of the Nazi occupation of Bialystok, a celebration was held in the ghetto, attended by the members of the Judenrat, directors of the ghetto institutions, factories and a number of other prominent leaders of the past and present. Understandably, there were many who thought they should have been invited and, because they were not, felt slighted.
The “elders of the ghetto” sat at nicely decorated tables and those in positions of responsibility shared their feelings with the others present about the events of the past year, as well as their hopes for the future. The main figure at this gathering was of course Efrajim Barasz.
Barasz explained why it simply was not possible to skip over this anniversary without taking stock of what had occurred. Addressing the group, he said, “I possess no adequate means of describing what we have endured during the past 365 days. It is hard to believe, and I suspect others in the future will be incredulous, what befell us. Happily we cannot predict the future, for if we had foreseen what would occur this past year we surely would not have survived the vision itself. Were I to issue a list of our troubles, just mentioning but not describing them, that list undoubtedly would be very long.” Then Barasz proceeded detailing a litany of twenty severe problems, “most tragic and unexpected.” “We have not enjoyed one peaceful day when we did not have to fear that our lives were in danger.” He credited the Judenrat with causing various adverse edicts against the Jews to be rescinded or to be made less severe. He then listed some of the Judenrat’s major achievements:
1) Our ghetto factories, some created from nothing, have won the respect and admiration of our enemies.
2) The ghetto display demonstrates our achievements and our potential for further progress.
3) We established schools and vocational training centers.
4) Our social relief organizations, including the hospital, continue to serve needy people as they did before the war.
5) Our vegetable gardens and other activities prove that Jews are useful.
From various remarks made by Barasz and others, it was clear the Judenrat did not enjoy the unanimous approval of Jews in the ghetto. Apparently some felt the Judenrat was too close to the Nazi command and too eager to please it. Barasz insisted, therefore, that the council was doing everything possible to save the Jewish community of Bialystok and that its decisions were taken in an atmosphere of harmony and unity. The meeting ended with Rabbi Dr. Rozenman, the figurehead Chairman of the Judenrat, reciting a blessing for Bialystok and for the Jewish people.
That blessing unfortunately did not come to pass, for on the second anniversary of the Nazi occupation, June 29, 1943, neither the Judenrat nor the Bialystok ghetto existed anymore. Not one of the leaders of the Jewish council survived the liquidation of the ghetto.
The Bialystok Ghetto in the Aftermath of the Annihilation of Surrounding Jewish Communities
On November 2, 1942, the entire vicinity around Bialystok, containing approximately 150,000 Jews, was evacuated. This meant that these unfortunate people were either murdered in their home communities or sent to the Treblinka death camp for the “final solution.” This unmitigated catastrophe left a pall of terror over the Bialystok ghetto; the Jews wondered when their turn would come.
Moreover, the Nazi command ordered that the ghetto be made smaller — that is, several streets were officially removed from the ghetto boundaries, resulting in even less space for a dense population. The overcrowding and the suffering multiplied. Homeless men, women and children were forced to trek through the streets with their sacks on their shoulders, seeking refuge among their families and friends. Everyone assisted; the Judenrat building opened its doors to those thrown out in the street.
Another oppressive development was the order that all gates leading outside the ghetto be locked. For three weeks in November 1942, no one was allowed to enter or leave the ghetto. People who had jobs outside were not permitted to go to them. Moreover, the practice of smuggling food and other necessities inside stopped. This brought intolerable hardship upon a population already close to the limits of its endurance.
The Judenrat, to its credit, created jobs for the newly unemployed, seeing to it that additional work would be available under its own auspices. People struggled to obtain current work cards, their insurance for survival a little while longer. It was feared the Nazi command was considering evacuating the several thousands thrown out of work after the gates to the ghetto were closed. The Judenrat issued desperate orders that everyone must apply for and show up for work. This was the key to salvation.
After the gates were reopened on November 18, people with jobs on the outside were encouraged to return to them. Food started becoming more plentiful inside the ghetto. The Jews breathed more easily.
On November 2, the day the provinces were liquidated, the Nazi command levied a fantastic tax of five million rubles on the Jews in the Bialystok ghetto. It was the Judenrat’s duty to make certain that everyone paid his share. Announcements were posted every day that, read between the lines, made it clear that the consequences of not paying these taxes would be death and destruction. At a .Judenrat meeting, Berel Subotnik demanded severe penalties — arrest and isolation — for those who refused to pay taxes. Jankl Goldberg stressed that the poor responded, while the rich sought to place the burden of taxes on the destitute.
Various theories arose concerning the Nazis’ motive in reducing the ghetto area. Some felt the local German command wished to keep the ghetto going for a while longer and, as a quid pro quo for this extension, had to take measures that would seem harsh to their superiors in Berlin. Others, including Barasz, felt that the authorities in Germany planned to settle 5,000 Aryans in Bialystok and needed the place for them. Barasz was convinced that if he and the Judenrat voluntarily surrendered some ghetto territory, it would appease the Nazis. His compromise perhaps delayed the liquidation of the Bialystok ghetto. But he failed to foresee that this action and other steps could not ultimately save the ghetto and its inhabitants. The end was approaching.
Bialystok Ghetto Is Deluged with Jews From the Provinces
The mass deportations of Jews from surrounding towns and villages led to many escapes, either at the evacuation depots or on the trains heading toward Treblinka. These escapees sought refuge in a safe place — and the only sanctuary in which they had any confidence was the Bialystok ghetto. Soon many additional Jews were sneaking through the fence and the population within the ghetto was noticeably expanding.
At a meeting of the Judenrat on November 29, this matter was considered. Should the council put a stop to these illegal entries or should they be allowed to continue? The argument for ending the influx was that the Nazi command would view a growing ghetto population as deliberate sabotage and might launch severe reprisals against the Judenrat and the Jews. On the other hand, there was a moral imperative for Jews to save other Jews. Rabbi Rozenman pointed out that throughout Jewish history our people did everything possible to save other Jews and, at the very least, did nothing to harm them in desperate circumstances. The Judenrat took the position that if the ghetto had to be liquidated, and that was the probability, at least Jews should go down helping each other.
The Incident of the Wolkowisker Girls
In October 1942, orders were issued that girls and women, from sixteen to fifty, must report for slave labor. The specific task was harvesting potatoes from the fields, so the new requirement to enslave women became known as the “potato edict.” This was a most upsetting development for the Jews in the Bialystok ghetto.
It was known that a similar order had been issued in Warsaw, which was considered the safest ghetto for Jews. The result was that many were sent out of the Warsaw ghetto never to return. Bialystokers felt the “potato edict” was the harbinger of mass evacuations to Treblinka, which by now was understood to be a death camp.
Parents who failed to send their daughters to work in the fields outside Bialystok were jailed. Judenrat Order 336, September 20, 1942, named some parents who were punished: Fejge Calewicz, 33 Fabryczna; Mire Antman, 9 Fabryczna; Rochel Kucharewski, 16 Biala; Itke Lipowski, 21 Kupiecka; Arje Lejb Ogurek, 5 Polna; Szmuel Eplbojm, 11 Neuwelt; Pesze Sibirski, 33 Polna. Nevertheless, mothers and fathers were reluctant to part with their daughters and risked whatever punishment was in store for them. Married women obeyed the new regulations only in small numbers. Most were responsible for their families or were employed inside the ghetto. Consequently, the practical effect of the new rule applied exclusively to young girls.
The Judenrat under Barasz was determined to save the Bialystok ghetto at all costs. It was suspected that in his dealings with the Nazi command, Barasz conveyed his feeling the provincial towns be sacrificed before Bialystok. The Judenrat, therefore, dispatched a platoon of Jewish policemen to round up about three hundred young girls, loading them on wagons to Wolkowisk to gather potatoes in the fields. When people in the ghetto learned that Jewish police participated in capturing young Jewish girls against their will, they were revolted. That the Judenrat should be an accomplice in this shameful act was, in retrospect, thought by some to have been the forerunner of the even more disgraceful cooperation of the Jewish police with the Nazis in beginning the ghetto’s liquidation in February 1943.
The parents of these “Wolkowisker girls” were outraged and disconsolate. Other parents who still had their daughters with them used their connections with Christian Polish families outside the ghetto to hide them. The ghetto population was under the impression that a death warrant had already been issued by the Nazis for the entire Bialystok district, including the ghetto. Then, on October 31, the news spread that Bialystok would be saved but the towns surrounding it would be liquidated, including Wolkowisk.
The parents of the three hundred girls sent to Wolkowisk were convinced their daughters had been sent away for extermination together with the other citizens of that town. They and many others organized stormy demonstrations outside the Judenrat building, demanding of Barasz: “Give us back our daughters.” Barasz assured the parents he was doing everything he could to save them. The demonstrations continued night and day without interruption. At last, Barasz’s efforts met with success.
In announcement No. 367, the Judenrat informed the parents and relatives of the three hundred girls that they would be returned to Bialystok within a few days. On November 27, 1942, the “Wolkowisker girls” reappeared in the ghetto, emaciated, malnourished and extremely frightened. They were saved from among thousands of others in Wolkowisk who were loaded upon trains to the Treblinka gas chambers.
Three Hangings at the End of 1942
Three executions by hanging were carried out in front of the Judenrat building in the Bialystok ghetto on December 31, 1942, New Year’s Eve. Much of the Jewish population was summoned to attend these proceedings as a “deterrent” to further crimes.
The three condemned Jews, Lipa Szczredrowski. Eli Dworski and Jakow Jablonski, who worked in a German cooking-oil factory, were accused of stealing quantities of sunflower seeds. Nazi guards were instructed to be vigilant about smuggling into the ghetto from factories outside. The Judenrat warned the Jews against this illegal practice. Nevertheless, a short time afterward, ten Jews entering the ghetto were caught with the contraband. The Gestapo commandant ordered Barasz to place these alleged criminals in the ghetto jail. After a brief trial, three of the defendants were found guilty and sentenced to death on the gallows. The Judenrat Construction Department was immediately ordered to prepare for the executions. With great difficulty, the scaffold was erected. The three condemned men were placed atop stools, nooses were tightened around their necks, and the stools were kicked out from under them.
One of the condemned asked to speak some final words, which the Nazis permitted. He shouted, “You murderous beasts, you Germans, are a so-called cultured people. You are robbers, animals in human form. You will pay for your crimes. You will lose the war.” Then the man spat in the direction of his Nazi executioners.
The Nazis greeted the New Year according to their custom, by getting drunk and shooting off their pistols and rifles. The Jews, on the other hand, had nothing but gloom in their hearts, suspecting that 1943 would be the last year of their existence.
Reverberations of the Armed Revolt In the Warsaw Ghetto
Against the backdrop of mass deportations of Jews in the nearby communities, escalating severity of punishments in the Bialystok ghetto, liquidation of Jaszynowka and Pruzane, where 4,500 Bialystoker Jews had been sent in the fall of 1941, the young factory workers in the ghetto began to prepare for armed resistance.
In February 1943, Bialystok learned of the heroic uprising in the Warsaw ghetto on January 19, 1943, against the German police. During the bloodbath that ensued, the Jews there demonstrated rare courage and self-sacrifice, and shattered the myth of Jewish timidity. An underground Polish newspaper declared: “The wondrous bravery of the Warsaw Jews should serve as an example for us Poles.”
Psychologically strengthened and inspired, the Jews in the Bialystok ghetto began armed resistance against the Nazis in February 1943, and also gave moral support to the Jewish Partisan movement.
DR. SZYMON DATNER
THE ARCHIVES OF TENENBAUM —TAMAROF AND MERSIK
Life in the Bialystok ghetto was chronicled in several languages (Yiddish, Hebrew, Polish and German), under the supervision of Mordechaj Tenenbaum-Tamarof and Hersz Mersik. Tamarof was one of the leading organizers of the armed resistance in the ghetto.
When World War II erupted, Tamarof and Mersik, then a twenty-six-year-old man, lived in Wilno. Tamarof believed that Wilno had the tragic distinction of being the first city in which the Germans, together with their Fascist Lithuanian countrymen, carried out mass murders against the local Jewish population. From Wilno, additional barbaric “actions,” meaning official German extermination campaigns, spread to other Jewish communities in Central and Eastern Europe.
Mersik and Tamarof were caught in the thick of the living hell that Wilno had become for its Jewish population. In fact, Mersik miraculously escaped death on three occasions, fleeing in a hail of bullets, sometimes being captured, but managing to elude death. Tamarof leaped over roofs of buildings, cheating the devil.
With the help of a German soldier, Tamarof, Mersik and several others left Wilno for Bialystok, which, relatively speaking, was still quiescent. In the spring of 1942, Tamarof traveled on to Warsaw. Mersik remained in Bialystok and urged the Judenrat to have all barren land within the ghetto sowed and planted.
Many young people volunteered for these activities. Mersik became the spokesman and ideological mentor for his followers. Later, at the time the surrounding communities were destroyed, Mersik began collecting his documents for the ghetto archive. Tamarof later described Mersik’s role as “meeting with the survivors of nearby towns and collecting historical materials about the annihilation of the Jewish communities in the area.
We can therefore safely establish that the Mersik - Tamarof archive was set up in November-December 1942, after Tamarof returned to Bialystok from Warsaw. Both Tamarof and Mersik were motivated to set up the archive because of the following considerations: the destruction of Warsaw, the liquidation of the Bialystok provincial towns, the impending catastrophe for the Bialystok ghetto, the personal experiences of the two men, and the uncertainty whether anyone would survive the Holocaust to tell the world about the crimes of the Nazis. To Tamarof and Mersik it was essential that future generations find out what had befallen Eastern European Jewry and apply the lessons learned to their own times.
Unfortunately, in the midst of gathering documents describing the ruination of the region around Bialystok, Mersik contracted typhus, apparently from one of the refugees who brought the disease with him into the Bialystok ghetto. On January 28, 1943, around midnight, Mersik died, but not before he left with Tamarof all the information about his archive activities. Three days later, on January 31, a massive funeral was held in tribute to Mersik, attended by large crowds within the ghetto. Mersik’s death was a horrible blow to Tamarof, who, a month later, was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Nevertheless, Tamarof found the strength to help prepare for the armed ghetto resistance, after which he decided to take his life.
Tamarof also continued collecting materials for the archive, meeting with survivors and encouraging them to write about their nightmarish experiences. He also kept a personal diary. There he described his feelings about the situation in which he and his fellow Jews found themselves.
Tamarof needed a safe place to hide the archive should the ghetto be liquidated. He felt that concealing the archive outside the ghetto in a secure location would ensure its ultimate retrieval.
Two days before the first liquidation campaign in the Bialystok ghetto in February 1943, Tamarof made plans to transfer the archive outside the ghetto into the hands of Bronja Winicka, one of his contacts.
The Archive Is Retrieved
In August 1944, a year after the ghetto had been liquidated and Bialystok had been liberated from Nazi rule, Bronja Winicka began searching for the archive. Also looking for the documents was Dr. Lejb Blumental, who finally dug up the archive in August, 1945, after a map pointing to its hiding place had fallen into his hands.
Evidently, the archive was buried outside the ghetto sometime in April 1943, since the documents do not describe events after that month.
Dr. Blumental, in addition to receiving the map, was informed by his brother that the archive had been hidden in two tin boxes. It took a year to unearth the documents because Blumental was drafted by the Polish army after the liberation. He carried the map with him that entire time.
The archive was uncovered underneath a stable outside the ghetto that belonged to a trustworthy Pole named Filipowski, who helped conceal the records.
DR. SZYMON DATNER
TRAGIC MESSAGES FROM THE LAST JEWS
I returned to Bialystok in the early days of August 1944, after a brief bout with typhus. Soon I became a member of the National Reconstruction Council, which immediately plunged into the herculean task of rebuilding the Polish and Jewish communities in Bialystok.
In September or October 1944, it was learned that many messages were carved in the walls of the prison in Bialystok in Polish and Yiddish, apparently by the last remaining Jews in the ghetto. Since these inscriptions might possess historical significance, the reconstruction committee sent a delegation, including me, to inspect these areas.
We found the graffiti quite legible but heartrending. As the only Jew in the group, it was my task to translate the Yiddish words. All the inscriptions mentioned the names of their authors, the dates on which they met their brutal deaths, and the refrain, “Do not forget us. Avenge our death.”
In death chamber 81, three wall inscriptions were carved in Yiddish. Lea Perlsztejn, the only girl in the cell, wrote her name phonetically three times.
The second message was engraved in Yiddish and Polish: “Jechiel Gurwicz was murdered January 23, 1944, because he was a Jew.” [The date appears to be incorrect.]
The third inscription belonged to a family.
Death cell 80 had five wall carvings, two in Polish:
“Szolem Zinger; Koczkowski brothers, Z.L.; Awrom Lew and Sokoli; Purim, 1944; Telman, Dowid, Zgierz; Goldfarb, Zalman, Slonim.
“Izchok Kulkin perished in the Bialystok prison 15.7.44 for the Jewish people. Avenge his death.
“Born at Bielsk-Podlaski, 1921. I was the last Jew in the prison. Enach Gofman. Go to your death with head held high. Farewell to my friends, the Okun and Pozanski brothers. Avenge my death. They tortured me but I revealed nothing. Avenge me.
“We go to our death calmly; we can fight no longer. Avenge us. Awreml Boczkowski, Bialystok; Kirszenbojm, Kulkin, the Lifces brothers, Meir Prusak, Grodno.
“Their fate should be worse than what they did to us Jews. The last day of our life, 15.7.44.”
These macabre last words were inscribed during the final days of Nazi rule in Bialystok. On July 27, 1944, the first battalions of the Red Army entered Bialystok, together with Partisan forces containing many Jews. The Nazis murdered a few remaining Jews until five minutes before the Russians arrived. The last testaments of their victims, however, remained scribbled on the walls of the prison.
Years afterward, when I opened my notebook where I had written down the words of these martyrs, the cry for retribution still rang in my ears. How is it possible to avenge the more than 100,000 Jews who perished in the Bialystok region? Can we ever fulfill their last wish? Perhaps the greatest retaliation is that we, their survivors, are here to tell their story.
Suicides in the Ghetto
Life, in the Jewish tradition, has always been of supreme value. Taking one’s own life was looked upon as an act of murder. The family of a suicide was stigmatized for generations afterward. This attitude also prevailed in Jewish Bialystok.
But the apocalyptic events of the Nazi occupation did bring about a small incidence of suicide. The mass incineration of 2,000 Jews in the Great Synagogue, the “Thursday,” “Saturday,” and “Sunday massacres,” the construction of the ghetto, the yellow badges, the sadistic jeering, the poverty, the slave labor, continuous fear and insecurity, thousands of human sacrifices, young children suddenly orphaned — all these phenomena broke down some Jews’ will to live and severely demoralized the entire community. Some susceptible individuals turned to suicide. But these desperate acts never took place on a large scale in Bialystok.
After November 1942, when it became clear that all Jews in the Bialystok region were destined to be exterminated — the specter of gas chambers pressing on the minds of Jews in the Bialystok ghetto — some people made their decision: better to die by one’s own hand than in a Nazi death camp. On the eve of the February liquidation campaign in 1943, some poisoned themselves, while others fashioned gallows. These included: Kagan, the fruiterer, whose store was on Lipowa Street; Chaim Grynsztejn, bricklayer, who lived on Supraselske Street; Szlojme Jankelew, barber; Dr. Franka Horowicz, instructor at the Hebrew Gymnasium; three orphans killed themselves in a suicide pact at the orphanage on Czestochowski Street. Most of the people I knew, however, albeit shattered and in deep mourning, wanted to continue living.
In August 1943, when the Bialystok ghetto was finally liquidated, more suicides took place, among them Mordechaj Tenenbaum-Tamarof, one of the founders of the secret ghetto archive, and Doniel Moszkowicz, the communist. Only their Jewishness bound these two very different men to the same fate. In the surgical department of the Jewish Hospital on Fabryczna Street, as the patients were led away to be shot, Polja Dlugacz, the good-natured nurse, took her life.
Particularly gruesome was a mass suicide by Bialystoker Jewish women, carried out in a railroad car heading for Treblinka after the ghetto was destroyed on August 16, 1943. As the train neared Treblinka, panic engulfed the women. Sobbing, they pleaded with several women doctors in the train to spare them the agonies of the gas chambers by ending their lives in the train. One of the doctors acceded to these desperate requests by slashing someone’s wrist arteries with a razor blade. Other women soon followed this example, slashing their own wrists.
As it turned out, this train never arrived at Treblinka but instead went to Majdanek, near Lublin. When the car doors were opened in Lublin, a sea of blood gushed forth. Even the Gestapo officers were taken aback. Some of the women were only barely alive. Berta Sokolska, a survivor, recounted this story to Dr. Tuwja Cytron at the Blyzin concentration camp, and he told it to me in April 1946 while he stayed in Bialystok. The Gestapo did not interfere as Jewish slave laborers administered first aid to these unfortunates.
The Tragic End of the Jews In the Provinces
Of all the difficulties for the Jews in Bialystok, perhaps the most debilitating was uncertainty over the future. What would tomorrow bring? Everyone sensed a horrible end for all was approaching quickly and inexorably. Yet few wished to give up hope. Instead, people clung to whatever glimmer of encouragement seemed to appear on the horizon.
But each day brought news that sent waves of disheartenment throughout the ghetto. In the fall of 1942, rumors spread that the Nazis were preparing to annihilate the Jews within the communities around Bialystok. The Bialystok district encompassed scores of towns and villages — including Bialystok, Bielsk, Grodno, Grajewo, Wolkowisk, Wisoki-Mozowieck, Augustow, Lomza, Sokolka and Pruzane — which contained about 200,000 Jews. Word also spread that after the Nazis got through with Jews in the provinces, the ghetto in Bialystok would be next.
These unwelcome prospects generated panic as well as a sense of urgency among Jewish inmates in the ghetto. They began feverishly building hiding places so it would be difficult for the Nazis to find them in case the ghetto was attacked. Not everyone, however, had the wherewithal to construct these shelters. Those who did not sought advice from the members of the Judenrat, who were unable to offer any useful suggestions.
The Horror of Treblinka
Mordechaj Tenenbaum-Tamarof established close contact with members of the Judenrat, particularly with its Chairman, Efrajim Barasz. At the end of 1942, when the Jews in the provinces were evacuated, Barasz turned over to Tamarof certain photographs and documents, some of which contained horrifying information. These papers were found in the clothes of provincial Jews sent away. The jackets, after proper disinfection, were returned to Bialystok so the textile factories could recycle them. While sorting these garments, the workers found papers written by their former owners. The name “Treblinka” often appeared. And so the ghastly truth the Nazis had been concealing — what “deportation” really meant — was uncovered.
When Tamarof obtained these materials from Barasz, he was stunned.
The secret finally was revealed that the Jews of the provinces had in fact been evacuated to Treblinka, where they would surely be exterminated in its gas chambers and crematoria. The inmates of the Bialystok ghetto realized their own end could not be far off. Tamarof wrote in his diary about the heroism and courage, the stoicism and pride shown by the provincial Jews as they were sent to their deaths. Their bravery will shine in the annals of Jewish history.
* * *
Mordechaj Tenenbaum-Tamarof won an important concession from Chairman Barasz at the end of 1942 — the right to copy the Judenrat archives for the benefit of the resistance leadership within the ghetto. The archives contained minutes of the Judenrat meetings and announcements by the council to the Jews in the ghetto. After the war these records were found and printed in numerous publications. Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, the Holocaust documentation center, also published a large portion of the Bialystok ghetto archives.
THE “ACTION” OF FEBRUARY 1943
At the end of January 1943, rumors spread that Chairman Barasz of the .Judenrat had received an order from the Gestapo to put together a list of 12,000 Jews, ostensibly for work assignments. These disturbing reports only increased the tension among the people, who already understood that catastrophe was near.
The young people active in self-defense and planning armed resistance feverishly prepared. Certain trustworthy people were clandestinely sent out of the ghetto to obtain more weapons. A large quantity of acid was distributed among the more daring Jewish women to hurl in the faces of the Nazis, should they attack. Not much more could be done. Too little time remained.
Many others constructed new hideouts, working surreptitiously night and day to complete them. The more resourceful stocked up on water and electrical power. In fact, some shelters were built with exits leading outside the ghetto and could each accommodate about one hundred people.
It quickly became known that the Judenrat had already compiled the lists of the 12,000 Jews. The first to go would be the elderly, the ill and the mentally unbalanced. After them would be the unemployed. It was unknown who was included in the third group, a secret closely kept by several members of the Judenrat. The atmosphere in the ghetto was as tense as could be, for tragedy lurked at the door.
At the moment it was learned the Judenrat had already selected the 12,000 and was ready to give their names to the Nazis, a well-known Partisan and Judenrat member, Cwi Wider, decided to end his life. After leaving notes for the council and his wife, he hanged himself in his own home. His heroic deed was talked about for a long time thereafter with awe and reverence, Wider from then on was considered a martyr of the ghetto.
On February 3, 1943, a Gestapo committee arrived outside the ghetto to inspect its walls and fences. All exit permits held by Jews, which had authorized them to work outside, were confiscated on February 4. On the same day the Gestapo took possession of the list of the 12,000.
In isolated instances, a number of leading local members of the Nazi party, including managers of the factories outside the ghetto, confided to their Jewish slaves what awaited them. Some even suggested that Jewish workers remain in the factories, where they would be safe as long as the forthcoming slaughter continued. Most of the Jews, however, refused to follow this advice, not wanting to leave their families alone during such a difficult time in the ghetto. Only a few accepted the recommendation, thereby saving themselves during the “February action.” On the night of February 4-5, 1943, most of the Jewish inmates of the ghetto could not sleep.
On that night, at 2 A.M., many cars with Nazi soldiers, led by Gestapo Commander Gustav Friedl, entered the ghetto. Friedl stopped at the Judenrat building and ordered the Jewish police to bring Chairman Barasz immediately so that he could observe.
In a few minutes the Nazis surrounded the main streets of the ghetto, and launched a barrage of machine gun fire. With lists of the 12,000 in their hands, they broke into the houses of the intended victims but failed to find any of them. The targets had found out they were selected and managed to disappear. When the Nazis discovered they had been foiled, they started an indiscriminate bloodbath. Attacking house after house, they dragged anyone found into the streets. Jews who were unable or unwilling to go with them were shot on the spot.
As soon as the firing began, the 50,000 Jews in the ghetto fled to their hiding places. The rush to hide prevented people from taking anything with them, even drinking water. Valuable possessions were left behind, only to be stolen by the Nazis.
Izchok Malmed Heroically Throws Acid Into the Face of a Nazi Soldier
When the Nazis attacked the house at 29 Kupiecka Street, rounding up all of its residents into the street, a bold young man, Izchok Malmed, whipped out a jar of acid from his pocket, hurling it in the face of a Nazi soldier, who was blinded at once. Seeking revenge, the sightless Nazi fired his revolver several times, hitting another Nazi soldier and instantly killing him. In the melee, Malmed vanished.
Commandant Friedl, after learning what had happened, ordered that one hundred men, women and children living in the area where the incident occurred be rounded up and force-marched to a nearby garden, where they were lined up against the wall of an adjacent bet hamidrash and shot with machine guns.
Afterward Nazi soldiers captured another group of Jews, forcing them to dig a large pit for the bodies of the one hundred martyrs. A thin layer of earth covered them. Some were still alive, their hands groping upward through the earth.
The Nazi soldier accidentally shot by his colleague whom Malmed had blinded was carried to the Judenrat building, and his body was placed on Barasz’s desk. Friedl then proclaimed to Barasz, “See what your Jewish criminals have done. Now we shall take revenge. You shall see what we can do.” Friedl issued an ultimatum for the perpetrator of the crime to surrender within twenty-four hours. Failing that, the entire ghetto would be destroyed with everyone in it.
The framework of the Great Synagogue in which two thousand Jews were burned alive by the Nazis. This street became known as The Street of the Ghetto Heroes.
Barasz knew the Nazis meant what they said. He sent word to Malmed to give himself up and thereby save thousands of Jewish lives. As soon as Malmed heard, he surrendered himself to the Nazis.
Tamarof’s diary described in detail Malmed’s courage. Asked why he killed the Nazi soldier, he replied: “I hate you. I regret I only killed one. Before my eyes my parents were murdered. Ten thousand Jews in Slonim were liquidated before me. I have no regrets.” Tamarof tried to slip poison to Malmed but failed. Even the police could not get near the prisoner.
The next morning, Izchok Malmed, a hero of the ghetto, was hanged in the square where he had performed his act of courage. Despite the horrible torture to which he had been subjected, Malmed cursed the Nazi murderers. After several minutes of hanging on the gallows, the rope broke and the body fell to the earth. Instantaneously, the Nazis riddled Malmed’s corpse with bullets and re-hanged the body for another forty-eight hours.
As other Nazi soldiers descended upon a building at 10 Kupiecka Street, its residents courageously resisted, attacking the invaders with axes, knives and iron bars. The brave wife of one Mendl Kurjanski threw acid into the faces of the Nazis and prepared immediately to set fire to the building. The German soldiers, after calling out reinforcements, captured Mrs. Kurjanski and threw her out a second floor window. Subsequently they pushed her child out the same window. Managing to pick herself up and run, this heroine was shot many times, her bloodied body falling on top of her dead child.
When Commandant Friedl found out about this fresh wave of Jewish resistance, he rushed to the building like a wild tiger, personally shooting in the head Jews who fought against his troops. Within several minutes, a mountain of Jewish bodies lay outside 10 Kupiecka Street. At 8 o’clock in the morning of February 5, the slaughter was temporarily interrupted so the murderers could have their breakfast.
At 10 A.M., the carnage recommenced, this time with the assistance of Ukrainians and White Russians, who lusted for blood. They forced Jewish police officers and firemen to accompany them during their diabolical acts.
The Jewish police were ordered to seek out Jews in their hideouts. In rare instances, the Jewish police officers did turn in some Jews to the Nazis, but, for the most part, they risked their lives by telling the Gestapo they could not find anyone.
The Jewish firemen were ordered to climb onto the roofs to look for concealed Jews, and to use axes to tear the roofs apart as well as the walls of the houses. The firemen, however, did not turn over any Jews to the Nazis.
The slaughter lasted an entire day from 2 A.M. until 5 P.M. Friday, February 5. The Gestapo succeeded in rounding up about 3,000 Jews. They were taken to the Judenrat building, by then the makeshift Nazi headquarters. From the Judenrat they were led away to the railroad station, forced into trains and sent to Treblinka and Auschwitz.
In an average bunker, where about twenty to twenty-five people could reasonably hide, some seventy-five jammed in. It was almost impossible to breathe. Arguments erupted. Often the din of bickering drowned out the Nazi footsteps outside. This could end in the shelter being exposed and everyone arrested.
In addition to overcrowding, a second problem arose — crying infants. Although the majority of mothers administered a sleeping potion to their babies, it often happened that a child would awaken and start wailing. Tragically, in order to save the lives of everyone in the hiding place, mothers ended up smothering their children.
People with coughs also posed dangers in the shelters. Many who wished to be admitted to a hideout denied that they coughed. Alternatively, a cougher would threaten to expose the hiding place if he were not allowed to stay there. In one such case, sixty Jews were turned over to the Nazis because a cougher carried out his threat.
For more than a week, Jewish men, women and children were constrained to live in these unbearable conditions.
* * *
At first most Jews in the ghetto did not know they could escape death during this “February action” by reporting to work in their assigned factories. The Gestapo told Barasz that legitimate factory workers were immune from attack. When this information reached the hideouts, regular workers in the ghetto factories took their wives and children to their places of work. Many who were not workers joined with the regulars in virtually tearing down the doors of the factories to seek refuge. Yet the guards and the Jewish police admitted only those who worked in the factories, sending away their wives and children.
Chairman Barasz incessantly pleaded with the Gestapo to allow the workers’ wives and children admission to the factories. The Nazis promised this exemption would be granted although at first their pledge went unfulfilled.
The massacre continued for seven days from February 5-12, 1943, except for Sunday, when the Nazi soldiers took their day of rest. Trucks of soldiers would arrive inside the ghetto punctually at 7 A.M.; the searching, shootings and evacuations would continue until 5 P.M. This lent a measure of predictability to the carnage, an advantage for the Jews hiding in their shelters. If the enemy’s mode of operation could be anticipated, the Jews could find ways of outwitting the Gestapo. After 5 P.M., when the methodical Nazis called it a day, some women would emerge from the shelters and re-enter their homes, where they prepared food for their famished families. Some of the babies went days without a drop of water.
The methodology of murder soon became familiar. At the appointed hour in the morning, a caravan of cars and trucks would enter the ghetto, cordoning off the streets. Entire buildings would be damaged, roofs torn apart, floors uprooted, halls smashed, streets excavated, no stone left unturned.
On the third day, February 8, Barasz succeeded in obtaining from the Nazis permission for wives and children to be admitted to the factories with their husbands. As a result, buildings that could accommodate three hundred fifty persons at one time, had to let in all 1,000 workers of the three shifts together with their families, which totaled about 2,000 people. The walls bulged. It seemed there was no room even for a small pin to be thrown inside.
Barasz managed to obtain exemptions and permits for a number of leading Judenrat figures and others in important positions within the ghetto. They included Mojsze Wisocki, Oszer Irzanowicz, director of the Measurements Department, S. Rawet and Ch. Goldberg.
Particularly poignant was the plight of Pejsach Kaplan, one of the archivists of the Bialystok ghetto. Having earlier caught a severe cold, after spending a few days in an overcrowded shelter, he sought asylum in a clothes factory where his daughter worked. Although weak and debilitated, forced to lie in bed in the factory, his awareness of what was happening to his fellow Jews in the streets made him compulsively run back and forth to the window of the factory to look outside. Kaplan observed hundreds of Jews rounded up for evacuation to Treblinka. These scenes had a terrible effect on him. Pacing up and back in the long factory hall, he raised his fists, crying, “Jews, let us take revenge! I can’t stand this! My end is near!” Following these outbursts, Kaplan went back to bed, no longer able to walk to the window. His wife and daughter never left his side. But when he and his family left the factory several days later when the operation ended, Kaplan had become critically ill.
Gestapo Commandant Friedl, not satisfied to leave the factories alone, sent his men into these supposedly safe havens to ascertain whether there were people who should not be there. Of course, there were. These unfortunates were either shot on the spot or sent to Treblinka.
On the fourth day, February 9, the Gestapo, unhappy with the quota of Jews captured the previous day, took a new approach. Whenever they uncovered a hiding place, they would order the frightened Jews to tell them where other shelters could be found, promising the informers their freedom. Some decided to save their own necks at the expense of their brothers. In most cases, the Gestapo let the betrayers alone. But sometimes those who gave information were shot as the Nazis jeered, “You die as a Jewish traitor.”
Rarely, Nazi soldiers did show some compassion. In one such case, when a shelter was exposed, a woman carrying her child was discovered among the inhabitants. In panic, she threw her child into an adjacent well. One of the Gestapo soldiers who saw this horrible scene ordered three Jewish policemen to save the child. One of them, at great risk to himself, descended into the deep well and, with great effort, brought the child to the surface. Afterward, the Nazi soldier did everything possible to save the child’s life. While all this was going on, an elderly woman emerged from the shelter and the Nazi wanted to arrest her. But the Jewish police told him that the child’s mother had already been taken away, her destination Treblinka. The Gestapo officer agreed that the elderly woman should carry the child to the nearest hospital and take the place of its mother.
* * *
Abramczyk, an orphan residing at the orphanage at 7 Czestochower Street, tried to persuade the other orphans to commit suicide because, failing this, they could look forward to a painful death in the gas chambers. Only two other orphans obeyed him, the three hanging themselves at the entrance to the orphanage. As it turned out, their death saved all the other children in the institution.
Despite the Red Cross emblazoned on the front of the building, the Nazis did not hesitate to enter. But as they beheld the macabre scene — three young children hanging by the neck — the soldiers left the premises with bowed heads, even their ruthless hearts unable to inflict any more damage in this place. Some one hundred orphans escaped immediate extermination as a result of their three friends’ bravery.
The new practice of forcing Jews to become informers against other Jews turned out to be an effective tool. Many more victims were found in their hideouts. Moreover, the increasing number of dead bodies was fast filling the ghetto streets. Barasz was ordered by the Gestapo to clear the streets of this Jewish “litter.” He instructed the Chevra Kadisha (burial society) to recruit several hundred assistants to help them bury the dead. This proved an ingenious method for these people to save themselves from imminent execution.
Almost every day, Barasz tried to intervene with the Gestapo to save prominent Jewish leaders such as A.S. Herszberg, the historian of Bialystok, Awrom Tyktin, former head of the Jewish community, and his neighbor, Dr. Bejlin. All these efforts were unavailing.
After about 6,000 Jews flowed into the factories seeking refuge, the shelters became more roomy and slightly more comfortable. It was now possible to take a nap and the women found it easier to re-enter their homes to cook food for their families.
By Friday, February 12, it became apparent that the Gestapo had reached its quota of 12,000 victims and that the “February action” was coming to an end. On Saturday, February 13, there were no further liquidations or roundups. People began to walk the streets of the ghetto in larger numbers and with less inhibition. In the hiding places, life had previously been impossible. People had slept alongside dead bodies. Had the carnage continued even one more day, it is doubtful that many who were hiding would have survived. Now people were leaving the bunkers like Noah and his family from the ark after the flood.
The realization that the terror had finally ended brought relief and joy to the survivors. People kissed each other and wept.
The appearance of the streets, however, left everyone in a state of shock. Homes were robbed, their walls torn down and their roofs chopped apart. Some families were wiped out. Dead bodies were strewn about. A significant number of suicides by poison was discovered as well as bodies of dead children smothered by their mothers. In other places, Jews had hanged themselves. The grief, the wailing and the sorrow were indescribable. A collective surge of anger developed when it became known certain Jews had informed against other Jews.
The Jewish police, who knew the identities of the traitors, arrested three and technically charged them with robbery, which was punishable by death under Nazi rules. After the three were beaten, they were hanged; their bodies were left on the gallows for three days so all the Jews could see what happened to informers. People were ashamed that among them could be found such evil.
Throughout the Sunday after the end of the “February action,” men, women and children ran wild through the streets looking for relatives. Many went to the ghetto cemetery, where heaps of corpses were piled up. People recognized some of their relatives in these grim mounds, and the tragic scenes that ensued were heartbreaking.
Cantor Czudin (former cantor of Neuwelt Bet Midrash), who in the last few years was the only one to recite memorial prayers at Bagnowke Cemetery, told friends half-jokingly that he did not wish to he laid to rest at Bagnowke. He died of a heart attack during the liquidation and was buried at the Zabia cemetery.
The statistics of that week in February 1943 reveal the extent of the Nazi brutality: about 2,000 Jews were shot in the ghetto. Six thousand were sent to Treblinka, where virtually no one survived. Several scores of Jews, after enduring the living hell of Auschwitz, did manage to remain alive.
The Painful Aftermath of the February Slaughter
Mordechaj Tenenbaum-Tamarof described the feelings of the survivors of the “February action” as they emerged from their shelters:
“Finally, one begins to comprehend the full gruesomeness of the past few days; scores of madmen are running through town looking for their kin. They run and fall, get up and fall again. Smothered children are being dragged from the shelters. They began crying during the searches and were suffocated. It seems everyone is carrying belongings. Everywhere there are tears. Police enter the cellars, attics and other places collecting corpses. The residences of the evacuees are sealed. At the cemetery, gigantic heaps of dead bodies are buried in mass graves. Again, loud wailing.
“Today a snow has fallen, covering the bloodstains on the ground. Underneath the whiteness of the snow appears a shiny redness. In the afternoon, it rained. All has been washed away.”
With similar despair, Pejsach Kaplan described the wretched situation he found:
“Monday morning we resumed life as usual, awaiting a renewed shaking of fists, the murderous rage and the unrelieved terror in the face of imminent death, which we see before our eyes. Our souls are tortured by the unanswerable question: how much longer will our lives be prolonged — for days or for weeks? Optimists believe we will be permitted to live for another month, while the pessimists disagree. People move about like shadows, physically and mentally shattered, their gazes reflecting hope extinguished, moving about automatically through inertia, like lunatics.”
Tamarof recorded a personal indictment against a particular violation of the Nazis that contravened all international conventions: “I refer to the use of ‘dum dum’ bullets. The fact of their usage was established by post-mortem examinations. There are no wounded, only dead, as a result of these bullets. A bullet of this type in the head meant an open skull plus pieces of brain extruding from the wounds, faces torn apart beyond recognition.”
Pejsach Kaplan also referred in his diary to the appearance of the mortally wounded: “Terrifying was the picture of hands and feet resting upon decapitated heads — bloodied, split open, torn apart like slaughtered calves.”
THE LAST CHAPTER OF THE COMMUNITY
(Editor’s note: Refoel Rajzner, who was incarcerated in the Bialystok ghetto until the end, recorded shortly after the war all his experiences before, during, and after the ghetto. We offer here excerpts of his descriptions of the final liquidation of the Bialystok ghetto as well as the annihilation of its Jews, borrowed from his book, The Destruction of Bialystoker .Jewry 1939-1945, published in 1948 by the Bialystoker Centre in Australia.)
In mid-July, 1943, a rumor circulated that an important Gestapo committee would arrive in the ghetto, which was awaited with the greatest apprehension. On that day practically no one appeared in the streets. Word had it that this committee would be the last, its decision final as to whether the ghetto would live or die. It seemed as though the Nazis had to choose between the two remaining larger ghettos: Lodz, with its more than 80,000 Jews, and Bialystok, with its 40,000. One of these ghettos would surely be promptly destroyed by the Nazi murderers. After the visit by the committee, Efrajim Barasz confided in his closest associates that he was not optimistic. This cryptic assessment made it clear that Lodz would be left alone and that Bialystok was slated for liquidation. Some members of the Judenrat, however, still clung to the hope that somehow a final tragedy could be averted.
The resistance forces in the ghetto struggled to complete their last preparations for battle. Workers were instructed to keep the Nazis away from the factories at all costs, and when it became clear that the cause was hopeless, they should set fire to them.
For the next four weeks, the Jews in the ghetto were plunged into deep fear and despair, awaiting the tragic outcome. The waiting, which seemed like an eternity, took its toll on the lives of these unfortunate people.
On Saturday, August 14, 1943, a Gestapo committee inspected the fences and the gates around the ghetto. Those people who worked outside returned to the ghetto before dusk, informing their families and friends that many empty railroad cars had arrived at the station and that numerous Ukrainian Gestapo soldiers were fanning out through the city.
Another clue to the impending catastrophe was that the Germans were requesting the return of their broken watches from Jewish jewelers, even before they could be repaired, claiming they had to leave right away. The ghetto Jews well understood the import of this, since the Nazis had done the same right before the February slaughter. Both the members of the Judenrat and Wehrmacht soldiers attempted to reassure the inhabitants of the ghetto that they had nothing to worry about.
On Sunday, August 15, quiet pervaded the ghetto and some permitted themselves to hope that the Wehrmacht officers were telling the truth. People tried to persuade each other that their fears were exaggerated. Most went to sleep that night, choosing to believe they would awaken to another “normal” day.
Those Jews who lived near the ghetto fence suddenly heard suspicious noises Sunday morning, August 16, 1943, at 2 A.M. These were the heavy footsteps of Nazi boots. Confusion and panic spread immediately.
Conference of representatives of the Hebrew gymnasiums in Bialystok, held in 1939.
In moments, almost all the 40,000 Jews left in the ghetto found themselves in the streets running to and fro in the darkness in a state of virtual madness. Questions were asked: Is this the end? Is there no more hope? Will the entire ghetto be liquidated or only a portion? No one had answers.
At 3 o’clock on the morning of August 16, several hundred well-armed Nazis moved into the ghetto, immediately occupying the factories and the Judenrat building.
At 5 o’clock, it was learned that Barasz had been told all the Jews of Bialystok, together with the machines and the factories, would be transferred to Lublin, where they would carry on their work. An order was issued that all Jews who lived on Polna, Neuwelt, Czestochower, Bialostoczaner, Okrongle, Szliacheczke, Linas Hatzedek, Czysta, Zytnia, Zamenhof, Kupiecka, Geldowa and nearby streets, must report to depots at Jurowcer, Fabryczna, Czepla, Nowogrudska, Chmielna and the Judenrat gardens at 9 o’clock in the morning for transfer to the railroad station. Those not complying with this deadline would be shot if found in the prohibited areas. It thus became clear to everyone that the entire ghetto was targeted for destruction. Already at seven in the morning, it was impossible to pass through the streets because so many thousands of Jews were painstakingly making their way toward the depots.
The sudden Nazi attack caught the resistance forces inadequately prepared. Moreover, since the Nazis took over the factories right away, the plan to wage the fight from them and later to set them on fire had to be canceled. Well before 9 o’clock, the deadline, leaders of the resistance decided it was imperative to let the people know they were not going to Lublin but to Treblinka.
One leader of the resistance made the following announcement to a mass of Jews: “Be aware that you are being taken to Treblinka for gassing and we, to our great misfortune, will share the bitter fate of the entire Jewish people in Europe. The only way out of this hopeless situation is to burn our homes with all of our property, in order to deprive our enemy of any benefit. Take weapons in your hands, which you will find aplenty, and let us try together to escape into the forests, where our brothers in the Resistance are hiding.” When he finished his speech, the young people, inspired by his words, grabbed their weapons. It was also decided that in order to facilitate the burning of the fence around the ghetto, it would be necessary to torch all the buildings nearby. Perhaps in this way a small number of Jews would be able to escape.
These Are the Sorrowful Dates of Our Bialystoker "Yizkor" Calendar:
FRIDAY, JUNE 27, 1941
The Nazi vandals entered Bialystok and on that very day, herded 2,000 Jews into the large Synagogue, where they were burned alive, along with the city's Sage. In the chronicles of annihilated Bialystok, the victims of that tragic day are known as the "Freitogdige."
THURSDAY, JULY 3, 1941
The murderers shot to death 300 Jews, the city' intellectuals, in the village of Pietrasze, in the vicinity of Bialystok. These martyrs are known as the "Donershtogdige".
SATURDAY, JULY 12, 1941
On that "Black Sabbath" the German monsters dragged 5,000 Bialystoker Jews into an extermination camp on the city's outskirts, where they were shot to death. The victims of that horrible execution are known as the "Shabbosdige."
FRIDAY, AUGUST 1, 1941
The barbarous Nazis set up the Bialystoker ghetto where 60,000 Jews were imprisoned.
The German beasts exiled 6,000 Bialystoker Jews to Pruzhany (Belarus), for forced labor, where they were savagely tortured.
During that period, Jews of the cities and towns in the vicinity of Bialystok were slain in mass executions and deportations to death camps, and the beautiful Jewish Bialystok environs, along with their 200,000 Jews, were obliterated.
FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 5, 1943
The first liquidation of the Bialystoker ghetto was launched, during which 12,000 Jews were exiled to death camp Treblinka.
AUGUST 16-23, 1943
During this period the final liquidation of the ghetto took place, marked by heroic resistance of the ghetto Jews against the monstrous oppressors. In that sorrowful week, the ghetto was completely wiped off the face of the earth, the resistance crushed in a wave of blood and murder of the remaining 40,000 martyrs and Jewish Bialystok was turned into a huge heap of ashes and dust.
That’s the tragic score of what has happened to a flourishing city and its Jews— wiped off the map by the greatest brutality and heinousness in human history; only a cold slab over a mass grave bears mute witness to the great, horrible tragedy.
But the memory of our beloved Bialystok and its sacred martyrs has not been obliterated from our minds and hearts. We shall ever remember them with pride and reverence.
May this photo-gallery serve, therefore, as our monument to the remains and memory of our hometown and landsleit who — in annihilation and death — have entrusted to us the heritage of LIFE, their last will and testament, bidding us to continue the links in Bialystok’s golden chain in every community throughout the tar-flung earth.
Honored be their name, revered be their memory!
August 15, 1943
Bialystok Ghetto Resistance Organization
Fearsome days have come upon us. More than the ghetto and the yellow badge, hatred, humiliation and degradation — we now face death! Before our own eyes our wives and children, fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters are being led to the slaughter. Thousands have already gone; tens of thousands will shortly follow.
In these terrible hours, as we hover between life and death, we appeal to you as follows:
BE AWARE — five million European Jews have already been murdered by Hitler and his hangmen. All that remains of Polish Jewry is about ten per cent of the original Jewish community. In Chelmno and in Belzec, in Auschwitz and in Treblinka, in Sobibor and in other camps more than three million Polish Jews were tortured, suffering the most gruesome deaths.
BE AWARE — all those deported are going to their deaths! Do not believe the Gestapo propaganda about letters supposedly received from the evacuees. THAT IS A DAMNABLE LIE! The road on which the deportees have gone leads to gigantic crematoria and mass graves in the thicket of the Polish forests. Each one of us is condemned. We have nothing to lose!
Do not believe that labor will save you, for after the first liquidation there will be a second and a third — UNTIL THE LAST JEW IS KILLED!
Dividing the ghetto into various categories is a sophisticated Gestapo method of deceiving us and making their dirty work easier.
Jews, we are being led to Treblinka! Like mangy animals we will be gassed and cremated.
Let us not passively go to the slaughter like sheep! Even though we are too weak to defend our lives, still we are strong enough to preserve our Jewish honor and human dignity by showing the world that although we are in shackles, we have not yet fallen. DO NOT GO TO YOUR DEATH WILLINGLY!
Fight for your lives until your last breath! With tooth and nail, with axes and knives, with acid and iron we will greet our hangmen. Let the enemy pay for blood with blood! THEIR DEATH FOR OUR DEATH!
Will you cower in your corners when your nearest and dearest are humiliated and put to death? Will you sell your wives and children, your parents, your soul, for another few weeks of slavery?
Let us ambush the enemy, kill and disarm him, wage resistance against the murderers. And if necessary — DIE LIKE HEROES!
Except for our honor we have nothing to lose! DO NOT SELL YOUR LIVES CHEAPLY!
AVENGE the destroyed communities and uprooted settlements! When you leave your home — set fire to your households, burn and demolish the factories!
Do not let the hangmen inherit our possessions!
Jewish youth! Follow the example of generations of Jewish fighters and martyrs, dreamers and builders, pioneers and activists — go out and fight!
Hitler will lose the war. Slavery and murder will vanish from the face of the earth. The world will one day be cleansed and purified. For the sake of mankind’s bright future — you must not die like dirty dogs! To the forest, to the resistance fighters!
Do not flee the ghetto unarmed, for without weapons you will perish. Only after fulfilling your national obligation, go to the forest armed. Weapons can be seized from any German in the ghetto.
A Group of Zabludower Communal Leaders
Right to left: Fishel Chorowski, Shabsai Becker, Nahum Wagman, Rabbi Y. Mirsky, Jacob Chesler, Aaron H. Chesler (father of the famous violin virtuoso Samuel Chesler of New York), Gershon the sexton, and Hershel Chesler.
THE GHETTO IN FLAMES
At 8 A.M., August 16, 1943, entire streets in the ghetto were in flames, gutted by the Jewish resistance. About 20,000 Jews were forced to congregate in the Judenrat gardens, hoping for a respite from imminent death. Yet there was no escape. As soon as the Nazis saw that the ghetto streets were burning, they began to fire with machine guns, rather than wait until 9 o’clock, as scheduled.
The shooting generated mass confusion and panic. Within a few moments, hundreds of Jews had fallen —shot or trampled. The shouts and cries of the masses could be heard far away. These terrible scenes remain indescribable to this very day.
Another thousand Jews fled to the Jewish hospital building, assuming it would be immune from destruction, as it had been during the February operation. This time, however, the Nazis opened fire from all directions, and the vast majority of Jews in the hospital perished. Among those killed was the well-known pediatrician, Dr. Segal.
From another side of the ghetto, well-armed Ukrainian and White Russian Nazis entered the streets in tanks. They were greeted by hand grenades hurled by the heroic young Jewish resistance fighters. Chawe Chalef, a heroic 16-year-old, was killed in a hail of bullets as she threw the first grenade. The slaughter of the ghetto Jews was carried out with typical German efficiency and precision. Gestapo officers on motorcycles made the rounds of the streets, spraying everything in sight with machine gun bullets and hurling grenades. These couriers of death remained in constant contact with Gestapo headquarters at the Judenrat building. Approximately 3,000 Nazis participated in liquidating the Bialystok ghetto.
Despite continuous sniper fire from windows and attics carried out by Jewish resisters, an army of 700 Nazis finally made its way to the Judenrat gardens, where many thousands of Jews had assembled. Already hundreds lay dead and wounded. A fierce confrontation followed between the resistance fighters and the Gestapo.
The Heroic Jewish Youth
The young Jewish heroes of Bialystok fought to the death against the Nazis. As soon as one fell, two others took his place in battle. Dedicated Jewish women handed over grenades and bullets to the men. Quite a few young girls were killed before they had a chance to pass the ammunition. But this did not deter other heroines from aiding the resistance effort.
Abrasza Galter, one of the fiercest young resisters, saw his sister severely wounded in the Judenrat garden, after she carried ammunition to fellow fighters. Unable to tolerate her suffering and hoping to prevent her from falling into Nazi hands alive, he shot her once through the head.
The courageous battle in the Judenrat gardens continued for about half a day, leaving several scores of Nazi soldiers dead and approximately fifty wounded. The majority of the ghetto fighters perished in this inhuman and unequal combat, which they had to wage with primitive weapons against such overwhelming military might. Some of the resistance fighters managed to flee and lived to carry on the fight in other places. At about four in the afternoon the siege of the Judenrat gardens was concluded.
Among the brave martyrs of the Judenrat gardens was Welwel Wolkowiski, liaison between the Partisans and the ghetto fighters, whose home at 13 Czepla street was the meeting place for the resisters.
With virtually no Jews left alive in the gardens, I observed the apocalyptic scene from our attic for quite a while. In every direction, dead bodies were strewn, mixed with other Jews half dead and groaning. Those still alive asked for some water and others shouted with their last breaths, “Help!” Some even pleaded: “Shoot me in the head. I can’t take the pain any longer.”
While the struggle was taking place in the Judenrat gardens, a group of Nazis entered the ghetto streets with a fire engine to put out the blaze near the ghetto fence. From the windows and attics, the resistance fighters immediately started shooting, causing confusion and panic in the Nazi ranks. Two daring 15-year-old friends, Szmuel Rajzner and Nochum Kozak hid in an attic at 12 Czepla Street. They killed two Nazis standing near the fire engine with well-aimed shots.
As it grew dark, I sneaked out of my hiding place and, disregarding the danger, crawled on my belly to a neighboring building. There I looked around, rummaging and calling to someone who might answer — but no reply. Nobody was left alive. Then I moved along to the gardens, where bullets were flying in a thick hail. I found myself creeping over dead and half-dead bodies, the latter moaning with their last strength. To my horror, I saw live children next to lifeless mothers, the tots apparently unnoticed by the Nazis. The muted whining of the children was unbearable.
In some cases, Jews who had succeeded in escaping from the gardens were captured by sadistic Poles, who handed them over to the Nazis. These unfortunates were shot on the spot in the presence of the Poles, who laughed in delight to see the Jews murdered.
Because most of the remaining Jews hoped to survive in the hideouts for a long time, they left their bunkers, despite the barrage of gunfire, to seek food in the abandoned houses.
In these dark ruins, the survivors unwittingly trod upon corpses, torn apart by exploding grenades. For a long while they combed these dwellings in fear for their lives, then returned to their hideouts with some supplies.
The Massacre at Pietrasze Field
About 25,000 Jewish men, women and children, among them the elderly — those who had not lost their lives in the gardens — were crowded into a narrow corner of Bialystok called Pietrasze Field. The overcrowding and severe heat caused many to suffocate.
This mass of people was surrounded on three sides by Ukrainians, Lithuanians, White Russians and Germans, armed with machine guns. They stampeded, trampling many people to death. During breaks in the crush, the Nazis opened fire. The terrible thirst cost many hundreds of lives. For a few drops of water, many Jews offered to give away their last possessions, only to be disappointed when no water came.
The Ukrainians beat the people with sticks, pulling rings off women’s fingers. Adding to this living hell, a torrential rain so drenched the mob that hundreds perished from exposure.
From afar people could see the fires in the ghetto petering out, just as the lives of the Jewish victims were slowly ebbing away on Pietrasze Field. A small group of ghetto fighters, who were also among this sea of humanity, met death in the most cruel manner imaginable.
On the second day of the August liquidation, the Gestapo command dispatched murder squads of ten men each to stamp out Jews still hiding inside the ghetto. One squad was enough to attack a smaller building; two squads were assigned for larger structures. These marauding bands turned everything upside down, pillaging everything left of value. In a house suspected of containing a shelter, the soldiers would order everyone to emerge or else they would blow up the building. No one would answer because the Jews hiding knew painfully well what was in store for them. Let the beasts do as they wish. Without waiting for an answer, the Nazis hurled grenades. Parts of bodies flew through the air. Every building was attacked at least ten times a day by roaming death squads.
The Living Hell In the Hideouts
Only someone who endured life in the hideouts can begin to describe those places of desperation, attacked every hour by the Nazi murderers. People literally asphyxiated from the overcrowding. In such circumstances fights broke out, leading to the exposure of the shelter.
Many bunkers housed small children, who, of course, did not understand the dangers in crying. All too often an infant’s wail resulted in the liquidation of the shelter. Everyone’s nerves were on edge, and great fortitude was required to tolerate the tension and suspense. Some could not stand the stress and decided to put an end to their lives.
With the help of various technical devices, including listening apparatus and bloodhounds, the Nazis succeeded in capturing 2,000 Jews from the bunkers on the second day of the August liquidation. Some of those arrested were shot on the spot and the rest were dispatched to Pietrasze Field, that infernal place where Jews were caught in a human stampede. On that day the Gestapo shot Jakow Goldberg, head of the ghetto Rationing Department.
A small group of Jews, who continued working for the Nazis in the ghetto, were ordered on the second day to repair the gutted sections of the ghetto fence and to collect the thousands of dead bodies littering the streets and gardens for burial in mass graves.
At night, many emerged from the hideouts into adjacent buildings to seek food. Sometimes when they returned to the bunkers, new Jewish faces would appear, unseen before. There was suspicion until the newcomers identified themselves. People began exchanging information about the events of the day. The Nazis had uncovered many shelters, shut off all water to the suspected buildings, forcing the concealed Jews to draw water from distant wells, which meant they could be traced by the tracks they left.
These new Nazi methods led the Jews to devise countermeasures to avoid detection. People were advised to obtain water from the wells only at night and not to cook during the day, because the smoke from the stoves was easily noticed.
Meanwhile, some of the remaining resistance fighters made attempts to escape from the ghetto or to burrow under the fence to the outside. These efforts resulted in numerous casualties and, on the whole, failed.
At two in the afternoon the next day, several high-ranking officers of the Gestapo command, headed by Friedl, appeared at Pietrasze Field, demanding that everyone fall into line. The masses, frightened by this group, refused to obey and pandemonium broke out. Suddenly a hail of bullets sprayed the field, increasing the panic. One Nazi officer ordered a cease fire and explained to the throng that if they failed to line up as usual, the entire population in the field would be exterminated. His calmly delivered ultimatum quickly restored order.
The Gestapo officers made their way through the lines of Jews, carrying long canes with u-shaped handles. The Nazis used these canes to collar the younger and stronger Jews, hooking the handles around their necks and pulling them out of line for slave labor. Many of those selected resisted, for they did not wish to leave their wives and children. They were beaten over the head with the canes and were forced to go with the Gestapo anyway. In the next four hours, some 3,000 people were removed from Pietrasze Field, including several hundred young women.
At the same time, a second group of Nazi officers pulled the elderly and ill out of line, shoving them onto wagons heading for the ghetto cemetery. There the Jewish firemen, under orders from Friedl, had excavated a large number of pits. Many groups of several hundred Jews
were brought to the cemetery on the wagons; Friedl would arrive, issuing instructions for the elderly and ill Jews to be pushed to the edge of the pits. He would then fire his gun, which signaled other Nazi soldiers to open a barrage of gunfire. The victims, riddled with bullets, fell into the pit. Those who were still alive were pushed into the mass grave, which was immediately covered with earth.
Rabbi Dr. Rozenman, his wife and two daughters were also detained at Pietrasze Field. The girls, realizing what lay ahead for those sent to the ghetto cemetery, quickly shaved off their father’s beard to make him appear young and fit for labor.
Several hours later, Markus, one of the leaders of the Judenrat who still enjoyed a modicum of authority, succeeded in releasing Rabbi Rozenman and his family from the field. At once other Jews began pleading with him to save them as well. With tears in his eyes, Markus answered that he could not rescue everyone. Still, he managed to extricate several Jews from Pietrasze Field, taking them to the Judenrat building, where there were more than fifty Jews who were still of use to the Nazis.
The Rescued Children
The same group of Nazi officers that separated the young and strong for labor from the old and weak for death announced that children up to ten years of age would be removed from the field and assigned to other places, where they would be well taken care of. The parents of these children wavered, having no confidence in the Nazi promises. Nevertheless, recognizing that either way they had nothing to lose, many parents poignantly parted with their children, entrusting them to the hands of the authorities.
Twelve hundred children were sent back into the ghetto and put in a building opposite the Jewish hospital. Several scores of women came along to take care of them. And Jews officially under the protection of the Gestapo also helped look after the children.
Those Jews at Pietrasze Field deemed unfit for work were transported to the railroad station, shoved into freight cars, which were then boarded up with wooden slats. The next day they were already in Treblinka, where they were gassed and cremated.
The following day the scene at Pietrasze Field was the same. The masses were provoked into a stampede, resulting in the trampling deaths of many hundreds. When the tumult ceased from time to time, the Nazis opened fire. The heat also caused the deaths of hundreds of Jews, who did not even have a sip of water for days. When the sun rose, many hundreds of crushed, bullet-ridden or comatose bodies were seen lying all over the field. That was the grim climax of the second day.
On the third day, an 800-man Nazi force, armed with axes and saws, systematically continued to tear down all the buildings they suspected of harboring Jews. Whenever they found people hiding, the Nazis hacked them to death. The shut-off of water and electricity made some Jews conclude that they could not survive in the hideouts. As a result, some three hundred willingly surrendered to the Nazis.
The Heroic Resistance of the Jewish Fighters
On Jurowcer Street, not far from the ghetto fence, some eighty resistance fighters hid in a shelter, making preparations to escape from the ghetto by armed force. Apparently they were noticed by someone, because at two in the afternoon the bunker was suddenly surrounded by a platoon of over a hundred Nazis. A desperate life and death struggle ensued. The young Jewish combatants fought bravely, killing a number of Nazis with their bullets. Following a three-hour battle, when only ten of the eighty fighters remained alive, the Nazi forces succeeded in blasting the shelter with hand grenades and machine guns. Noticing that the hideout offered no more resistance, the Nazis descended into the bunker and quartered the bodies of the young Jews with their hatchets.
The tragic yield of the third day was a thousand Jews exposed, some murdered right away and most of the rest sent to Treblinka.
The wagon drivers were assigned the grim duty of carting hundreds of dead bodies to the ghetto cemetery. In some instances, however, the Ukrainian Nazis would load people who had fainted, but were still alive, onto the wagons. Not infrequently, some of these victims would regain consciousness and plead with the driver to let them go. But the Nazi escort insisted that these people be buried along with the dead. Some wagon drivers occasionally recognized relatives or friends who were still breathing, yet had no choice but to transport them to their final destination at the cemetery. Consumed with guilt, a few of the wagon drivers later committed suicide.
The Gestapo was determined to remove the factory machines and merchandise from the ghetto as quickly as possible. They increased the number of slave laborers assigned to this work. Subsequently, the Nazis ordered that a fence be constructed around the Jewish hospital building, a sort of “mini ghetto” where the small group of slaves could stay while their services were required.
Meanwhile, conditions in the hideouts were deteriorating from moment to moment. The number of concealed Jews diminished each day. A sense of despair pervaded the shelters, people becoming resigned to the fact that, sooner or later, they would be killed. Some, unwilling to accept the inevitable, began frantically building new shelters that would be even more difficult for the Nazis to expose.
On the third day a house near the Judenrat building went up in flames. Some twenty-six Jews perished in that fire. Attempts were made to pinpoint the cause of the blaze, but no explanation could be found. Many Jews suspected that the Nazis set the fire, an ominous new method of liquidation in the hideouts. On Wednesday, August 18, 1943, the task of emptying Pietrasze Field of its throng of Jews was completed. Most had been deported to Treblinka; some 10,000 others were dispatched to Lublin-Poniatow or Majdanek.
On the Way to Liquidation
At 12 noon a large group of Jews was divided into ‘‘suitable for work’’ and ‘‘unsuitable for work.’’ Those in the first category were forced with cattle prods into the forward twenty cars of a train. Thos ho were unsuitable were jammed into the rear twenty railroad cars, and locked in. On the roof of each car, a Nazi with a machine gun stood guard, making sure no one jumped from the train. A number of Jews, as they were being forced into the train, managed to grab weapons from the soldiers but were immediately shot. The train then left Bialystok in the direction of Warsaw.
The terrible jamming and the scorching heat caused hundreds to suffocate or to be trampled. The cries from the cars were heartrending. The Nazi guards on the roofs began firing into the train, leaving many killed or wounded. Some daring Jews did jump from the train, provoking a fusillade of bullets. If some escaped being shot, all was not yet well, for along the entire length of the Bialystok-Treblinka route, well-armed Nazis had been placed to capture escapees.
At the railroad station in Malkin, the train stopped, because Malkin was the way-station for the newly constructed route to Treblinka. The rear twenty cars where the unsuitable workers were trapped were uncoupled from the rest of the train. Quickly a second locomotive was attached to these twenty cars, carrying them off to Treblinka. Suddenly cries and screams from the Treblinka train became deafening and were heard in the other twenty cars with the suitable workers. After a while, the noise abated and the train to Treblinka vanished into the forest.
The Nazis then turned their attention to the remaining twenty cars. Some of them had breeches in their walls made by Jews trying to escape. In retaliation, the Nazis dragged ten Jews outside the cars and shot them in front of everyone else.
As soon as these cars were shut and bolted, and the surveillance intensified, the train continued its grim journey, which lasted for about fortyeight hours. The dead bodies in the cars and human excrement created an unbearable stench.
When the approximately 3,000 Bialystoker Jews arrived in Lublin-Poniatow, they were met by the commandant of the concentration camp, who, riding on a white horse, inspected his slaves and shot many of those he considered less than adequate.
Back in Bialystok, on the fourth day, the Nazis revealed yet a new, even more diabolical, method of luring the Jews out of the hideouts in the ghetto. A group of Nazi soldiers would enter a house and thoroughly search it for about an hour. Then, finding nothing, they would leave the building in a noisy manner, giving the concealed Jews underneath the impression they had nothing more to fear. Actually, two soldiers would remain inside the house without making a sound. In the hideout the Jews, believing the Nazis had gone, began moving about freely and noisily. Some would start to cough. One of the Nazis would immediately summon reinforcements. The house would soon be surrounded by SS officers, who would shout orders to the Jews hiding that they should come out at once or be killed.
These sudden surprise attacks would confuse the Jews in the shelters, who did not pay any heed to the Nazi ultimatum to emerge. The Germans then threw hand grenades into the house and, when they discovered the exact entrance to the bunker, would throw more grenades inside. At once the shelter exploded and was destroyed. Men, women and children lay mutilated under the debris. Those who remained alive were dragged outside and brutally beaten. After a thorough search, the freshly exposed Jews were sent directly to the railroad station for deportation to Treblinka.
With this new method of uncovering hideouts, the Nazis captured more than 2,000 Jews on the fourth day, including a large number of resisters who, because of the surprise attacks, were unable to defend themselves. It became increasingly difficult for the resisters to plan any further escapes or offenses.
The Murdered Heroes of Chmielna
At 12 o’clock on the fourth day of the liquidation, a group of resisters, hiding in a shelter on Chmielna Street, was discovered and shot to death. Suddenly a large brigade of Nazi soldiers had appeared and surrounded the building with rifles and hand grenades, reinforced by machine gunfire from cars following them.
The din of the soldiers’ movements and the tumult spread hysteria inside the shelter. People began screaming. Not long afterward, the Nazis were seen taking away young Jewish boys and girls who were as pale as chalk. As they were being led away, they sang revolutionary songs.
Just how this particular hideout was uncovered was unknown. The shelter had been stocked with weapons and thoroughly camouflaged; its entrance was through a well. Two theories emerged. One was that the Nazis noticed smoke from the nearby well, leading them to the bunker; the second was that one of the Jews inside the shelter betrayed its inhabitants to the Nazis. This view was plausible, since such a saturation attack on a hideout was unprecedented. Evidently the Nazis had known in advance that this shelter was heavily armed.
A Gestapo officer dragged out four resistance fighters from the bunker, ordering them to start walking. The four began shouting anti-Hitler slogans. Immediately they were caught in a crossfire of bullets. At that moment the entire group began fleeing in all directions. Unfortunately, a machine gun had been placed outside the building that began shooting at the fleeing Jews. In a few moments, the group was felled by Nazi firepower.
It was estimated that by the close of the fourth day, no more than 2,000 Jews still hid in the shelters. This increased the feeling of despair among those who remained.
The Jews in the Shelters
The Judenrat garden was the chief meeting place of the Jews who emerged from the shelters at night. There information was exchanged about the events of the day and people advised each other of new ways of avoiding discovery. In the dead of night, the hungry Jews would pluck fruit and vegetables from the garden. Had the Nazis not previously removed wagon loads of vegetables from these gardens, many hundreds of Jews would have been able to sustain themselves a while longer.
It was decided that the best course to follow would be to sleep during the day, and cook and eat at night. In this way, it was hoped that people would be better able to evade the claws of the enemy for a while longer. In fact, this strategy slowed down the Nazi liquidation effort.
On Friday, August 20, the fifth day, the Nazis killed more than two hundred patients, as well as doctors and nurses, at the Jewish hospital. The seriously ill were loaded onto military wagons, which formed two rows. Those who could walk were forced to stand between the wagons. Under Friedl’s supervision, they were driven to the Zabia cemetery.
All the sick patients knew that they were making their last trip. Their cries and screams were bloodcurdling. Following his bestial custom, Friedl ordered the victims to stand at the edge of the excavated pits. He personally took a machine gun and opened fire; then Ukrainian Nazis shot at them. In ten minutes, the two hundred patients were lying dead in the graves. Another two hundred Jews were captured when their hideouts were uncovered. They too were forced to the cemetery where they were shot and thrown into mass graves.
The fence around the new “mini ghetto” adjacent to the hospital building was completed on the fifth day. The Jews in this smaller ghetto, who worked for the Nazis, were permitted to bring food supplies into their enclave. They hoped to continue living for quite a while, but, as it turned out, their prospects soon dimmed.
The 1,200 children who had been evacuated from Pietrasze Field were in several buildings, where they lived under quite good conditions with plenty of food provided by the Judenrat pantry. The children were cared for by a large number of women and received medical attention from physicians.
A particularly troublesome phenomenon occurred with increasing frequency. At night, when Jews left the shelters to seek food in nearby houses, they would find that thieves would also enter the houses by using the secret password. Panic would ensue and these people, who were discovered to be Polish, were suspected of being Nazi agents. In most of these cases, however, the Poles went away without bringing any harm to the Jews.
On the sixth day, about a thousand Jews remained in the ghetto hiding in the bunkers. The Nazis nevertheless believed there were many more and continued large scale raids against suspected houses. Their hunt became more and more difficult because there were very few children remaining and the total number of Jews had sharply dwindled. Frustrated, the Gestapo soldiers showed greater brutality and rage in their search operations. In the meantime, 700 Jews who had been assisting in closing down the ghetto factories were granted permits to enter the mini ghetto.
Noticing that the fence around the small ghetto was not carefully guarded, many Jews from the shelters sneaked in at night and obtained bread and other food from the legitimate inhabitants. This was important because up until then, the Jews who were hiding subsisted only on vegetables from the Judenrat gardens.
That evening, it was learned that many women and children had succeeded in gaining admittance to the factories as the workers were packing the machines into cartons. These workers claimed that the women and children belonged to them, thereby bringing them under the protection of the factory. The Gestapo guards didn’t believe these claims but nevertheless permitted them to remain in the factories, since in any event they would not escape alive.
The Second Week of the Massacre
On Monday, August 23, 1943, the second week of the Bialystok ghetto liquidation, the Gestapo dispatched smaller search and destroy teams because they realized the remaining number of Jews was quite small. But these diminished squads availed themselves of new tactics in exposing concealed Jews. They began searching the garbage cans to determine whether fresh refuse had been deposited and checked the stoves in the houses to spot recent fires. These clever methods only stimulated the Jews to increase their own caution and vigilance in carrying out their cooking activities at night.
Once the factory machines and the merchandise had been fully packed for transfer out of the ghetto, Friedl decided he no longer needed the 2,000 Jewish workers conscripted for this task. After spending a full day cramped in the mini ghetto, they were taken on Tuesday at 12 noon to the railroad station, where the women and children were placed in the rear section of the train, while the young men were loaded into the front area. The cars containing the women and children were sent to Treblinka and the young men in the forward section were transported to Lublin-Poniatow.
Arriving in Treblinka, the women and children were forced out of the cars, attacked and beaten by workers in the camp. Before they knew it, they were sent into the so-called “showers,” from which they never returned.
The men arrived in Lublin two days later, after a grueling journey in which many had been shot or trampled. A thousand people, comprising tailors, cobblers and other tradesmen, left Lublin for Blyzin, which was a work camp. Many believed Blyzin was worse than a concentration camp, because the combination of hard labor, the bitter winter cold, hunger and illness, caused hundreds of deaths.
Despite the energetic efforts of the wagon drivers to remove the bodies in the streets, they could not quite finish the job because new victims fell every day.
In the Mini Ghetto
Life in the mini ghetto was filled with suspense, depression and confusion. Every few hours the Nazis entered, checking papers to discover whether anyone was there without permission. Chairman Barasz was warned after each inspection that if even one person was found without proper credentials, all 700 inhabitants would be shot. Regardless of the harsh security, a number of Jews sneaked into the mini ghetto at night seeking relief from the horrible conditions in the hideouts.
The wagon drivers, who had been carting the machines and raw materials out of the ghetto, informed the Jews of the mini ghetto that these materials were destined for Lublin-Poniatow, which everyone knew was a work camp. Everyone hoped that when the mini ghetto was evacuated, the Jews would be sent to Poniatow, where they could continue living until the hoped-for liberation. It was widely felt that if the ghetto continued existing for at least another few months, the Jews of Bialystok could be saved. Reports reached the ghetto that the Soviet Union had launched a massive offensive in July 1943, and that its forces might well descend upon Bialystok in a couple of months. In any event, the ghetto was completely liquidated at the end of August and those Jews sent to Poniatow were exterminated shortly afterward.
The following were among those who were in the mini ghetto: Rabbi and Mrs. Rozenman and their two daughters; Mr. and Mrs. Barasz and son; Mr. and Mrs. Izak Markus and children; Mr. and Mrs. Liman and son; Dow Subotnik; and almost all the factory managers and their assistants.
On Wednesday, August 25, the number of Nazi soldiers carrying out search operations decreased from 400 to 200. About 500 to 600 Jews remained in the bunkers. New tactics were used to ferret out the holdouts, including measuring the buildings from inside and outside to see whether all the floors were of equal length and width. Should any discrepancy in the measurements be detected, the Nazis thereby would be able to discover a shelter. Not too many new Jews were found by these methods.
The Final Journey of the Children
The last 1,200 ghetto children were evacuated from Bialystok in the final days of August 1943. Under the supervision of Gestapo officers, physicians and women volunteers, these children were transported in closed railroad cars to Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia, where they were isolated in separate barracks. None of the other inmates of the camp were allowed to come in contact with them, on penalty of death.
A Jewish hygienist working in the camp reported after the war that many of these children were infested with lice, which necessitated shearing off their hair. The children refused to have their hair cut, interpreting this as a sign they were to be gassed. Evidently, the inmates of Theresienstadt were unaware of the gas chambers in other concentration camps; the children’s fears seemed groundless. Later on, however, it was learned that the youngsters had been telling the truth.
These children remained at Theresienstadt for about three months. In comparison with Jews in other camps, the Bialystoker children lived under reasonably good conditions. After a while, the people suddenly noticed that there were no further movements in the barracks where the children had been quartered. It was later learned that they and the personnel supervising them had been sent to Auschwitz, where they perished in the gas chambers.
A horrible incident occurred. As one of the Jewish workers, who loaded gassed corpses into the crematorium, was placing the body of a little girl onto the loading shovel, she begged him not to cremate her because she was still alive. The Jew, not hearing her plea, pushed her into the oven alive. The entire camp was awash with horrified conversations for the next few days. This hapless Jew shortly thereafter lost his mind and was shot and cremated by the Gestapo. It should be pointed out that many children, who had been gassed together with adults, still showed weak signs of life at the time they were to be cremated.
Back at the ghetto, the remaining Jews were convinced that the Nazis would not leave until the last Jew had been rounded up. Moreover, the scarcity of food in the hideouts was becoming more severe. Hungry people who yearned for a piece of bread left the shelters at night, stealing into what had been a Jewish bakery to bake some bread. This action cost them their lives, for when the Nazis smelled the aroma of baking, they quickly uncovered the bunkers where the bread makers were hiding. The increasingly unsanitary conditions caused an infestation of lice and disease.
Not more than 500 Jews remained in the bunkers at the end of the second week of liquidation. Many of them stole into the mini ghetto because conditions there were preferable.
The Liquidation of the Mini Ghetto
At the beginning of the third week, a rumor spread that the mini ghetto would very soon be destroyed as well. Clearly its Jewish inhabitants no longer had any useful function to perform, since all the machines, raw materials and dead bodies had been processed. The order came at the end of the week that more than 1,200 Jews in the mini ghetto would be transferred to LublinPoniatow.
When they arrived in Poniatow, they were assigned work in the local factories. On November 3, 1943, all of the Jews at the Poniatow labor camp, numbering 22,000 (including 9,000 Bialystoker Jews) were taken to an open place and shot under orders of the camp commandant. While these wholesale murders were being committed, the camp orchestra played Strauss’ waltzes. Virtually all of the leading personalities of Jewish Bialystok both before and during the war were killed in the Poniatow massacre.
During the fourth week, the Nazis were still looking for Jewish holdouts. The Jewish mood was one of resignation and apathy. There was no longer any hope of survival.
The Bitter End
On September 16, 1943, exactly a month after the final liquidation began in the Bialystok ghetto, it ended. The large search squads were replaced by a small group of older, less physically fit, Nazis. A few Jews succeeded in escaping because of the less stringent security in the ghetto.
(Editor’s note: Further on in his diaries, Rajzner mentions the few Bialystoker Jews who remained alive in and around the ghetto, who managed to continue hiding from the Nazis. He also describes Jews who were arrested, tortured and killed in the prisons as well as those deported to the death camps and exterminated. Only a handful of Bialystoker Jews who experienced the horrors of the Bialystok ghetto’s liquidation succeeded in avoiding extermination. They are alive today in numerous lands, frequently sharing their memories of those tragic times, exhorting us never to forgive or forget the wholesale slaughter of the Jews during World War II in Bialystok, whose magnificent heritage shall continue to be honored as long as they live.)
A group of refugees in a German DP camp.
SURROUNDED BY BLOOD AND FIRE
During the night of August 16, 1943, thick shadows, like black crows, spread throughout the Bialystok ghetto with its 40,000 captive Jews. It seemed as if the jet blackness of the night carried with it an omen - the sealed fate of death and ruin for the prestigious Jewish city and its proud community.
No sooner had we gone to sleep than the grim portents of our liquidation awakened us and we stood bolt upright in terror. The ghetto was swarming with soldiers and police, Germans side by side with Ukrainians and White Russians. Shocked by this rude awakening, by the jarring din of the wild animals in human form and their weapons, we scurried about, not knowing for sure what was happening. But the posters on the walls, which we noticed at dawn, clarified the purpose of the entire maneuver. These Judenrat handbills caused our hearts to stop, their grim message: "Bialystok is becoming Judenrein" (free of Jews). Everyone was required to abandon his house by 9 A.M., with permission to take along a small hand-carried bag. These were the orders of the Gestapo liquidation command headquartered in Lublin.
Thus we witnessed the beginning of the end and decided to implement the long-planned resistance - to fight with dignity and die like heroes, if necessary, not like sheep going to the slaughter. At six in the morning our young people, spanning the political spectrum from extreme right to extreme left, clandestinely assembled for the battle. To be sure, these valiant people constituted a small cluster in comparison with the overwhelming might of thousands of German, Ukrainian and White Russian soldiers armed with machine guns and tanks.
The dramatic resistance effort started at 9 A.M. We had three hundred guns, as well as a few machine guns and grenades. Our strategic position, however, was not advantageous, located as we were in wooden quarters. The Germans immediately hurled hand grenades on our positions, our inadequate strongholds going up in flames in short order. Although we fought like lions, about a thousand of our men were killed in six hours, and our resistance was virtually wiped out. Thus, our remaining forces were exposed to the direct onslaught of the enemy.
The Death March
Under a barrage of gunfire, the surviving resistance fighters were force-marched to the Pietrasze Fields. All of our belongings were confiscated, and we were jammed into a small area, treading upon one another, until hundreds were trampled or suffocated in the intolerable crush. Many lost their minds or poisoned themselves, the elderly and the very young dropping like flies.
On the second day the murderers began arresting children between the ages of six and ten, promising that they would be fed. Later on we learned that they were deported to Auschwitz and gassed. Some 1,200 Jewish youngsters were taken away. My own daughter, a seven-year-old girl named Mirele, begged me to save her. I grabbed her with my hand, attempting to hide her in the sea of humanity, out of sight of the predators. Subsequently we were force-marched to wagons that had been prepared for us in advance. Hungry and thirsty after four days without water, we had no choice but to moisten the parched lips of our young children with urine.
Near the wagons stood Ukrainian soldiers, who forcibly separated the men from the women and children, at which time I was taken away from my loved ones. I spent the night in the field with 800 other Jews. The next day, the Gestapo, seeking slave laborers, selected eighty people - seventy men and ten women - I among them. They removed us from the Pietrasze Field, and confined us to the prison in Bialystok.
In the Prison
Our group was incarcerated in four cells, men and women separate. Our food consisted of 150 grams of bread in the morning, mixed with potatoes, beets and other raw foods. For lunch we were served a portion of sour cabbage and for supper a bit of cornmeal cooked in water, as well as small quantities of drinking water. The Polish prison guards beat us and imposed backbreaking labor that was simply unendurable.
On the fifth day we were placed on trucks and transported to a farm that reputedly belonged to the head of the Bialystok Gestapo. The officer in charge of our transfer was a sadist; he beat us with canes, wooden boards and anything else he could get his hands on. The police ridiculed and beat us, and some even poked sharp objects into our abdomens. They beat up young Nochum Kozak, whose father, Herszel, a printer, was sent away with other printers to a camp in Germany. The most difficult work was being forced to load steel bridge sections onto wagons, which demanded superhuman strength. Many of us contracted infections during work, including Tewele Wrubel, whose fever raged for four weeks; Boczkowski, a locksmith and jazz musician; and Zylberblat, who owned a house near Druskeniki Gymnasium. Those who were deemed unsuitable for labor were immediately shot, while those who exhibited stamina continued living for the time being.
Our situation worsened from day to day. Life behind bars became loathsome. We decided to find a way out, to extricate ourselves from human bondage, even at the risk of death, for we felt we had nothing more to lose. Our plan was to escape and join the Partisan resistance fighters.
Transferring the dead from a garbage heap to a mass grave in the ghetto cemetery.
Several in our group suggested they could contact the Partisans through Polish connections. On November 1, 1943, we sneaked out of our place of work in the ghetto. Under the cover of night, we crawled on our bellies through the streets until we reached our Polish contacts. We numbered eight: Szymon Amiel, Berel Szacman, Mojsze Grotkowicz, who owned a locksmith business on Nowolipja Street; Trocki, Meir Bez, a weaver from Horodok; Henach Lupe, Drzakanski, and Icele, a barber from Lodz.
Unfortunately we were disappointed, for we were told that the Partisan who was to take us to the resistance forces had been shot and nothing more could be done for us. A Polish intermediary hid us for a couple of hours in a pigsty but soon afterward forced us to leave because he did not want to jeopardize his life. He told us the Gestapo was combing the area for us, since we, numbering eight men, had turned up missing. The cold, hunger and terror caused one of our group to develop a persecution complex; he repeated over and over that we were surrounded. We could do nothing to calm him down.
On top of everything, the night was bitterly cold. Our teeth chattering, ravenously hungry, our clothes in tatters, all alone, feeling useless, pursued by Nazi beasts and at the mercy of a cold-blooded peasant, we fell to his feet and begged him to save us. Apparently he was moved by our fervent entreaties, which could have melted a stone, and he promised to lead us to the forest where the Partisans hid out.
In the dead of night, with the help of the peasant's dim electric lamp, we sneaked out of the city, in a group, each man a hundred feet behind the next, our guide leading the way. Soon we lost one another and, after much straying, five of us were reunited while the other three were still missing. The Pole left us stranded at the edge of the forest and disappeared. We were abandoned in the frigid outdoors in the middle of the night without a clue as to where we should go next. Having no choice but to go into the forest, we entered the next stage of a living hell.
In the Forest
Almost secretive and suspicious, the tree branches of the ancient forest clinked under their icy cover, rocked by the cruel, cold wind. This haven of nature, which normally protects animals from hunters, was now called upon to grant asylum to five lonely, wandering Jews who had fled human beasts of prey. We questioned whether we would accomplish our goal of finding the Partisans and saving our skins, for the forest itself seemed like a trap. Dark doubts stirred in our tired brains.
We followed the Pole's directions. He gave us a password to utter when we met Partisans near a broken tank among the trees in the forest: "Marilke sent us." (Marilke Rudicka was a Jewish girl who served as liaison between the Partisans and the resisters in the Bialystok ghetto.) Hungry, frozen and exhausted, we advanced into the depths of the forest. The thorny path caused our feet to swell, blister and bleed. The skin and nails of our feet fell off. We ambled about for three days and two nights without interruption, unable to find the Partisans. We were trapped in a maze with no means of getting out. About to drop, exhausted from the long journey, the cold and the hunger, I began to hallucinate that I was surrounded by horrible monsters about to devour me. Drained of strength and anticipating imminent death, an irresistible urge came over me spend my last moments on earth eating. So, paying no mind to the dangers, I dragged myself to a nearby village, pleading for a morsel of food. Rebuffed by peasants everywhere, I returned to the forest even more drained than before. I resolved, however, to go back to Bialystok, hoping that one of my Christian friends would take me in, hide me and provide me with some nourishment. Taking leave of my friends I trekked to Bialystok on my last legs, from eight in the morning until six in the evening, arriving in town at the home of my gentile acquaintance.
Hiding out with the Gentiles
I went through yet another hell - drifting among attics, cellars and pigsties; from one gentile to another, like a hunted animal trying to avoid a trap.
My Christian friend was horrified to see me; for a moment he believed I was an apparition from another world, because he was simply incredulous that there were any Jews still alive. Providing me with food, drink and a bath, he permitted me to spend the night. The next morning, however, at 5 A.M., he rudely awakened me, insisting that I leave his home, for he was afraid of reprisals from the Nazis. Having no choice, I left. Subsequently I approached other non-Jewish friends, but they too sent me away. A young gentile woman did give me shelter in her cellar for a few hours, but toward evening she sent me on my way for fear of her husband, who usually came home drunk. She directed me to a nearby pigsty where I could hide. But the bitter cold outside was overwhelming. I felt I would freeze to death - and powerless, depressed and tormented, I went out into the night, throwing myself on the mercy of fate. I could no longer stand the life of a fugitive in hiding.
Back Behind Bars
It did not take long for the police to arrest me, and, in short order, I found myself back at the Bialystok prison from which I had earlier fled. The Nazis brutally beat me and said I would be hung the next day. They took away my belt, shoelaces and anything else with which I might take my own life, so they could have the sole pleasure of executing me. Unbeknownst to them, I carried a small razor in my pocket and the thought did cross my mind: perhaps I should slash my wrists and put an end to my wretched life. But at that very moment of despair, a spark of hope flashed through me. Maybe, maybe there was still a chance. No one can know for sure what may happen at the last minute. One moment of reflection can sometimes spell the difference between life and death. Furthermore, I considered the possibility of someone surviving from my family who would condemn me for my cowardly act, the deed of a weakling who could not hold out until the last and who took his own life. The stigma of a relative having committed suicide would be unbearable for any family. With these thoughts I spent the next seventy-two hours in my cell. Looking back, I am amazed that I did not lose my mind; but I suppose human beings are made of iron.
Later on, I was placed in a separate cell bearing the sign "solitary confinement". In that extremely narrow place, it was impossible to sit or lie down. I had to stand the entire time, remaining on my feet throughout the long night. The next day I was taken out half naked into the prison yard in the biting wind and bitter cold. I thought I had reached the end of my rope. But I did not notice some forty other Jews, who had been seized by the Nazis from their cellars, attics and bunkers. Apparently we were still considered fit for labor and we were once again thrown back into our cells. In addition, there were twenty children who were detained for several days and then shot. Among them were: a six-year-old boy, Awrom Najman's son; Nochum Karpl's ten-year-old; one or two children belonging to the Lipiec brothers from Grodno. We, the forty slave laborers, remained alive. The following were their names:
Zalmen Edelman from Bialystok; Awremel Karasik, Monjek Rajzner, Somojl, a carpenter; Judel Lew, Kulkin from Grodno; Bereszczanski, Ruwke Perlsztejn, Welwel Szyf from Jaszynowka; Judel Goldnfenik, a glazier; Owsejewic from Wilno; Lewitansi, a locksmith; Prusak from Grodno; Furmanski, a painter from Warsaw; Josef Lew, Kaplan, a carpenter from Polna Street; Aronczyk Zubowski, Szymon Amiel (writer of this article); Szlojme Rozenblum from Sanok; Nysel from Charuwjeszow; Abramowicz from Slonim; Dowid Rak from Grodno; Lipiec (three brothers from Grodno) Jeshaje Lipiec from Grodno; Lojkes from Grodno; Grodnicki from Grodno; Chaim-Berel from Grodno; Szlojme Gelbard, a painter; Slobodwic from Lapy; Zbinowic from Horodok; Mejszel Gerszuni, Tewele Wrubel, Jojne Lis, Chackel Fendzak, Szyjele Ofersztejn, Awremel Boczkowsi and brother.
On the first night of Passover, 1944, ten additional Jews, who had hid from August 1943 to April 1944, were imprisoned with us. Their names were: Rackowski (2 brothers from Sokola), Jankel Dawinski, a weaver; Mezbowski, father and son, Elson, Anatol Rabinowicz from Lodz; Borer from Grodno, and Slucki from Kiev. Our total reached fifty men.
I recall a particularly tragic occurrence involving one of the last remaining Bialystoker Jews - Judzik, son of the meat entrepreneur from Polna Street, corner Bialystocaner, his wife, daughter of Szlumiel from Rabinska Street, and her brother - who managed to avoid arrest until the beginning of May 1944, staying out of sight in a hellhole underneath a bakery on Gumjener Street. We could hardly recognize him, for he was covered with unruly hair, staring at us with wildly protruding and frightened eyes. Seeing us, this one-time he-man with the strong build began sobbing uncontrollably like a small child, sharing with us his incredible experiences in the bunker.
Our situation in prison was desperate. The Nazis provided us with inadequate food and beat us mercilessly. Our Ukrainian slave masters forced us to clean up human feces with our tongues. Our torment and humiliation were unbearable. We yearned for the release and redemption of death.
Grim Bonfires in the Augustow Forests
Then came another day - more gruesome than all that had preceded it. We were all loaded onto a special wagon, used to cart off condemned men to be shot, and, under stringent security by police armed with machine guns, we were taken to an open field in the Augustow Forests. The Nazis equipped us with shovels and hooks. Not knowing for what purpose we were to use these implements, we understood nevertheless that something terrible lay ahead. The place where we were left was cordoned off with barbed wire and surrounded by police with machine guns.
We were ordered to dig deep into the ground. At first we thought we were preparing our own graves, but, burrowing further, we uncovered a mass grave filled with corpses. These were the Bialystoker Jews who had been murdered by the Nazis during the ghetto's liquidation. Next we were ordered to lift the bodies with our hooks, place them one on top of the other on a pyre, pour kerosene on the heap and set fire to it.
Our team was divided into four parts with the following functions: digging, pulling corpses from the pit, chopping wood for the bonfire and igniting the pyre. The latter was the most revolting task that we were forced to carry out. Unhappily, I was one of those who cut the wood and ignited the corpses. Once again I endured the throes of hell when I pondered the bitter irony, which only the devil could invent, that I would find myself setting my own people on fire. As I carried out this grisly assignment, I was filled with pain and self-contempt, that I would have to sin against the dead, against my own flesh and blood, perpetrating the barbaric sacrilege of defiling corpses, not allowing lifeless bodies to rest in peace even after they had breathed their last in martyrdom for the glory of God's name. I cursed every minute of my slave existence under the damned Nazi yoke. I prayed that God and my people would forgive me. Instead of helping my slain brothers to be buried among their own people, I was made to incinerate their sacred remains into ash and dust, for I simply had no choice.
In this way we worked for two weeks in the Augustow Forests. After all the martyrs had been cremated, we were ordered to sift thorough the ashes in search of gold rings, watches, gold teeth and other valuables that might not have melted in the fire, and to turn them over to our masters. The ashes themselves were buried in a deep pit, over which trees were planted, in order to erase any evidence of Nazi savagery.
Our Futile Plan
On June 6, 1944, I accidentally found a piece of newspaper and learned that the tide was turning against the Nazis in Europe. One could already tell that the Germans were suffering battle losses and that the bloody play would soon end. This could also be seen in the increasing brutality with which the Nazis treated us. For instance, we were returned to the Bialystok prison. Security was tightened and we were completely isolated from the rest of the world. Our captors warned us not to reveal to anyone the type of work we had done in the Augustow Forests. The Nazis threatened to shoot anyone on the spot who dared breathe a word about these activities.
Two days later, we were confined to a barracks at 7 Kraszewskiego Street. Every morning we were taken to Nowosjolka, then along Zielona Street to Grabuwka, on forced labor. Thousands of Jews were shot there during the Bialystok ghetto's liquidation.
Rummaging through the debris, I found two documents, one belonging to a distant cousin, Zalmen Amiel, son of Jankl Amiel-Kulikowski, the manufacturer, and the second to Finkelsztejn, who owned the iron works at Kupiecka Street, corner Rozanski. His father and brother lived in the United States. I also found a note from America. Apparently he had hoped to contact his relatives there and go to the U.S., but his death at the hands of the Nazis interfered.
In spite of the strict security, we stole newspapers, where we learned that the Russians had broken through the front lines and were inching closer to us. It was then that I realized the Nazi beasts would not remain in Bialystok for long, and five of us decided to kill the two guards watching our cell and escape. Alas, our plan did not work. We had decided we would go into action immediately when awakened for roll call. For some reason, our guards did not stir us during the night and we slept through the appointed hour of our escape.
At Our Own Grave
On Thursday, July 13, 1944, we noted an extraordinary change. We were packed into airless trucks and taken to a field. We were ordered to cover up all the open graves containing dead bodies, and we understood that our work had come to an end. Near each one of us a soldier stood with an automatic weapon. One of them approached me and asked: "What will you do with us when we lose the war?" I remained silent. But he answered his own question sardonically: "You will take away our women and children as we did to you, and you will enslave us as we enslaved you. But, do not worry, for before the Russian bandits arrive, you will all be lying in your graves." I realized that our end was near, only a matter of a few hours. We were told that at twelve o'clock a high Gestapo officer would come on the scene and issue orders. We waited; time moved very slowly, like an eternity. And then the fateful hour, twelve noon. The Gestapo chief had arrived.
Among all the graves, only one remained open, which was very conspicuous to all of us. The Nazis confiscated our shovels and equipment, hurling them into the fire. They took away our jackets and shirts and made us surround the pit in a semicircle, engulfed by sixty soldiers with cocked guns. An order rang out: descend into the pit and sit down.
Fleeing Under a Hail of Bullets
Thus it seemed our last minute on earth had arrived. Our minds were numb; our blood ceased to flow in our veins. Before our eyes images of fiery wheels turned round and round. Staring death in the face, we knew what we had to do. I barely managed to shout: "Friends, let us run", and I was the first who began to flee, breaking through the cordon of soldiers. All this transpired so quickly that before the Nazis realized what was happening, we had already run quite a distance. To this day I do not understand how we were able to escape. It could only be that good angels carried us along the way and our own passion for life gave us the strength to run.
A hail of bullets flew over our heads, the noisy reverberations blending with the anguished screams of the wounded. From the forty of us who had run, many had been shot dead. Fresh Jewish blood had been spilled, saturating the already blood-drenched field.
My five friends and I, with minor wounds, fled to the highway - a brutal experience, running under a barrage of gunfire, pursued by the Nazi murderers. At the highway we found that we had fallen into a trap. Armored jeeps were rushing toward us, opening a fresh round of fire. We retreated, but behind us were sixty Nazi soldiers who continued to shoot like hunters, in hot pursuit of their prey. In all directions of the field we noticed many new victims. Nearby, we heard one of our Bialystoker friends, Josef Lew, pleading with a Gestapo officer to spare his life. But the brute shouted back: "You are a Jew, you have no right to live, march into the pit." We also saw the soldiers dragging the severely wounded into the trench.
Evening descended. We crawled on all fours into a bush and spent the night. The next day we sneaked out, creeping on our bellies, until we reached a swamp, into which we fell up to our necks in mud. Miraculously, we did not drown.
Thus for three days and three nights we lay outside in the frosty cold, naked and hungry, without food and water. Under normal circumstances we would not have been able to withstand it all. But we were fighting for our lives and we discovered that we possessed reserves of superhuman strength. On the third day we attempted to enter a nearby Polish colony, from which we were sent away with a warning that we would be handed over to the Nazis. We barely managed to escape with our lives.
On the fourth day, we found an underground shelter in the forest. There we hid for fourteen days, during ten of which we had no water. We managed to survive only by eating a few raw chickpeas, which we would gather in the field once every three days.
On July 26, we tried to search for food, but we were forced to go back because the forest was heavily surrounded either by the Nazis or the Russians. Thus I endured another hell - hungry, naked, homeless, besieged by an unknown enemy deep in the forest.
On July 27, 1944, we heard people singing Russian songs and we realized that our liberators had arrived. We left the forest and were treated to a friendly reception by the Red Army, which provided us with clothing, food and later took us back to Bialystok. For the first time in a long while, I breathed easier, once again feeling what it meant to be really alive. The following survived with me: Tewele Wrubel, Isroel Felder, Awrom Izchok Lew, Wolf Szyf, Mejszel Gerszuni, Anatol Rabinowic, Zalmen Edelman. Szejme Lyfszic also escaped, but we later heard he was taken away and evidently perished. Six months later, Awrom Karasik was found alive but wounded in Russia. He then returned to Bialystok.
The foregoing was one epilogue of the tragic destruction of Bialystok - a scene that unfolded for months after the Bialystok ghetto had been liquidated. We, the last of the Mohicans, remained to shed tears for the ruin of our hometown, which we ourselves witnessed. We are prepared to render testimony to the world on behalf of our people concerning the greatest crime ever committed in the history of mankind, the mass murder of our brothers and sisters.
Let all Bialystokers know that they have a responsibility to bury properly the martyrs in the field who were cremated, who never had the benefit of Jewish interment. Let us erect a monument over their graves and observe the anniversaries of their death.
Let us never forget what we went through!
REACTIONS TO THE RESISTANCE
The brave resistance and the self-defense waged by the Jews in the Bialystok ghetto called forth great admiration that went far beyond the borders of Bialystok. In a report by the Jewish National Committee dated November 15, 1943, to Dr. Izaak Szwarcbard in London, signed by Dr. A. Berman, Izaak Cukerman and Dr. D. Kaftor, the following appeared:
"We want the Jewish people in the entire world to know that our youth bravely fought for their lives and for the honor of our nation. After the heroic example of the Warsaw ghetto, we lived through in recent months a beautiful, noble fight carried on by the Jews of Bialystok... The liquidation of the Bialystok ghetto began on August 16, 1943... Fierce battles took place on several streets. The Nazis brought up about a thousand soldiers and Gestapo officers, as well as many divisions of Ukrainians. The Jews primarily had the use of hand grenades and Molotov cocktails. They also had a few machine guns and they fought with extraordinary determination... Several hundred Germans and Ukrainians were killed or wounded in these battles... The bitter combat lasted for eight days and sporadic armed \resistance by the Jews continued for a month, until September 16, 1943. The heroic battle of Bialystok will be recorded by history with the same high regard as the Warsaw ghetto uprising."
FRITZ GUSTAV FRIEDL —
Friedl — tiny, his eyes always darting, the eyes of a bandit, the terror of the Bialystok ghetto. Friedl is coming! The Jewish police begin chasing everyone from the streets. It is forbidden to stand outside while the monster is passing through. Some Jews had planned several times to assassinate him, but the more moderate elements argued against such a course. After all, it could lead to the destruction of the entire ghetto. So Friedl lives on.
On the morning of August 16, the Nazis rode into the ghetto in their cars. The bloody SS staff commandeered the spacious quarters of the Judenrat. The last to arrive was Friedl with other top officers. But he did not remain outside, preferring to give orders from inside the building. Then the heroic Jews of Bialystok began to fight back, and the mass murderer and his bodyguards were seen trying to sneak out of the ghetto at all costs.
Then a loud report. Not far from Friedl, a grenade fell. Of all the rotten luck, he escaped unharmed! After German soldiers secured the area, Friedl appeared once again with his sarcastic smirk. Now he is the hero once more, the strongman around the helpless Jewish children.
Gathering together the small toddlers with their frightened eyes, Friedl tore them away from their weeping mothers, whom he reassured they were being sent away for "labor." He lined them up in groups on Jurowecki Street, gazing at them with his sadistic smile. Suddenly he took an automatic weapon in his hand and shot down the screaming babies. Friedl laughed. Then he walked over to inspect the results of his murderous act.
Afterward a group of young girls, captured during the resistance, was brought to him. His penetrating stare stunned them, but the young girls scowled at him in contempt. He ordered them to sing, but no one would comply. He repeated his command; no one moved. The "hero" aimed his gun, but the children remained silent. Then a volley of gunfire was heard and our young heroines fell. But the murderer kept on shooting in rage, although everyone was already dead.
The executioner of the Bialystok Ghetto, F. G. Friedl, on trial in Bialystok in 1949. The courtroom is filled with eyewitnesses to his murders.
Dashing from house to house with a group of Ukrainians, Friedl captured more victims slated for a quick death. Abruptly an idea came to him and he quietly issued an order to take everyone to the Jewish cemetery called Zabia, the new burial ground in the ghetto. Large pits were dug and then Friedl commanded all the elderly men, women and young children to descend into the excavated earth, in keeping with his diabolical plan. He ordered the Ukrainians to bury the victims alive. Polish observers recounted afterward that the earth moved above still-groping hands for many hours.
That was how the "civilized" German nation under Nazi rule treated the Jews.
The top layer of the ditch into which the murdered victims were thrown.
TRIAL AND PUNISHMENT
Gestapo Commandant Gustav Friedl's trial took place in the Bialystok Appeals Court at the end of October 1949. Approximately twenty witnesses, who had suffered under the Nazis, gave testimony against Friedl at the trial, which lasted several days. Among them were: Chackel Fendzuch, Awrom Ostroburski, Dowid Kolesznik, Szlojme Blas, Chaim Wrubel, Isroel Bramson, Mira Knaziew, Efrajim Kisler, Fanja Lipinska, Dr. Tobijasz Cytron, Rochel Zacharijasz, Berta Knaziew and others. The prosecution's expert witness was the well-known historian and chronicler of the destruction of Bialystok, Dr. Szymon Datner.
In a special report by I. Bialostocki, from Bialystok, published in the January-February 1950 issue of the Bialystoker Stimme, Friedl's trial was described:
"The courtroom filled up at the appointed hour. People spoke in hushed tones, as if the master of life and death of thousands of Jews in the Bialystok ghetto and in the provinces were about to enter with his mighty forces - not the Friedl of today, clad in prison garb and guarded by four military police. Today Friedl would be called to justice, to render an account of his murderous activities in the Bialystok region. Spectators were reliving once again those days of Bialystoker Jewry's destruction, flashbacks of nightmarish experiences, hundreds of gory details returning to consciousness — all triggered by this criminal, Friedl, and his Nazi henchmen. That is why people sat in the courtroom with bowed heads waiting for Friedl to be led inside. Everywhere in the large room, people were quietly talking about those days, when the accused decided the fate of their loved ones — fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, children and grandparents — who had perished not so long ago. For everyone, Friedl was the symbol of death, the death of all, of a quarter million Jews of Bialystok and its provinces.
"The waiting was interrupted by the sound of heavy footsteps. The accused was brought into the courtroom by the four military guards. The Jewish faces blanched; voices exclaimed, 'There he is! The murderer of the Bialystoker Jews.' But one thing could not be understood: how one man could possess such animalistic brutality to carry out so many murders.
"Exactly at 9:30 in the morning, the judges took their seats behind the bench. The proceedings commenced with swearing in the witnesses, who were to give their testimony during the first day of the trial.
"In the indictment, Friedl was accused of committing many war crimes while Commandant of the Gestapo in Bialystok from November 1942 until 1945, resulting in the murder of thousands of people. As the officer in charge of Jewish affairs, he was responsible for the liquidation of 13,000 Jews in Zabludow; the murder of 2,000 Jews in the Bialystok ghetto, many of whom he personally shot; the transfer of 13,000 Jews from the Bialystok ghetto; and finally, its liquidation, transporting 50,000 of its Jewish inhabitants to the concentration camps. He personally issued orders to hang, shoot and kill several thousand people. Moreover, in November 1942, when Jews from Zabludow and other towns were brought to Bialystok, Friedl instructed that their food rations be reduced and he personally shot thirteen members of the Zabludow Judenrat. In November 1942 he shot two Partisans. In December 1942 he threw a Jewish man through the window of his office on the second floor. In the winter of 1942-43, he hanged three Jews for allegedly stealing sunflower seeds from an oil factory. In February 1943, during the first liquidation action, he shot an eighty-year-old woman in the street because she was unsuitable for labor. He directed and participated in the execution of a hundred hostages in retaliation for the Malmed incident. He shot Izchok Malmed after the latter's body fell from the gallows. On May 4, 1943, he murdered a group of butchers, and in that same month shot 150 men captured during a police raid. On August 20, 1943, he liquidated the ghetto hospital and personally shot 300 patients near the previously excavated pits in the Zabia cemetery. At Gestapo headquarters he personally shot three Partisans because they refused to stand with their hands raised. In November 1943, he took away a group of sixty children from their parents in prison and killed them. In 1944, he shot a group of lawyers. In the prison, he conducted two selections every week, resulting in the deaths of scores of people. During a visit to the Grodno prison he shot twenty-five Jews. He terrorized the Jewish population and robbed their possessions.
"During the first liquidation action in the ghetto in February 1943, despite the fact that Chairman Barasz had agreed to evacuate 6,000 Jews from the ghetto and had prepared the required lists of those to be transferred, Friedl took action that resulted in the death of 2,000 Jews and the deportation of 13,000 to the concentration camps.
"After the indictment was read, the accused made the following statements: he emphasized from the very beginning that he wished to tell nothing but the truth, for he had nothing to hide. He admitted to nothing. He stated that the liquidation of the ghetto was carried out by special envoys from Berlin. Then he accused other Gestapo officers of implementing the February and August 1943 destructions of the Bialystok ghetto.
AT THE GHETTO CEMETERY, 1948
Flowers are placed at the mass grave on the fifth anniversary of the uprising and liquidation of the Bialystok Ghetto. The fence in the background was erected with the aid of the Bialystoker Relief Committee in America.
"About twenty witnesses who had left Poland, who for various reasons were not able to appear at the trial, filed written affidavits. The court decided not to read them aloud but to make them part of the record, because the guilt of the accused had already been established by the witnesses who came to testify in person.
"Sixteen witnesses gave testimony, recounting terrifying details of mass murders personally committed by the accused. The testimony also confirmed that thousands of people were exterminated as a result of orders issued by him. There was not one terrorist act perpetrated in the Bialystok ghetto in which Friedl did not personally take part. He was well known by everyone in the ghetto as a hangman, the devil's partner. Everyone would hide in the shelters until he left the ghetto. To meet with Friedl in the street meant, under the best of circumstances, a brutal beating or instant death.
"In the numerous confrontations between the witnesses and the accused in open court, many of his orders and instructions were recalled, translated for him into German, all of which he denied in order to save his own life. After the summations of the prosecutor, Grembecki, and the defense counselor, Burak, the court rendered its verdict. Exactly at 2:15 in the afternoon, the sixth and last meeting of the court began. The courtroom overflowed with spectators wishing to hear the verdict. The judges entered. The audience rose; the presiding judge pronounced him guilty and passed sentence - the death penalty for Fritz Gustav Friedl.
"The reasons for the verdict were given: the accused was found guilty on all counts in the indictment. His guilt was fully established by some twenty witnesses who gave testimony in open court. The penalty was directed not only against Friedl himself but also against the regime that created Friedl and his ilk. May this be a warning for those rushing to follow in his footsteps. The verdict was received by the entire community with enthusiasm and satisfaction."
A group of pupils and their teacher in Bialystok in 1946.
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Last updated July 17th, 2005