We Remember Jewish Opoczno!

Opoczno, the Synagogue (Photograph from 1949, "Pinkas Hakehilot", Yad Vashem

Year

Population

Jews

%

1764/65

(?)

1349

 

1827

2961

1922

70%

1857

2334

1472

63%

1860

2984

1713

57%

1878

4975

2412

48%

1897

6076

2425

40%

1909

6412

4025

63%

1921

7224

3376

47%

1939

(?)

2954

 

Opoczno in Pinkas Hakehilot

Extracts from the Communities Database of the Nahum Goldman Museum of the Jewish Diaspora

 Opoczno, town in the central Poland. Opoczno was the birthplace of Esterka, according to legend: the mistress of Casimir the Great (1333-79).
In 1588, the Polish sovereign authorized the town to expel the Jews living there, but a Jewish Community had resettled in the environs by 1646. The settlement was not permanent: a judgment of the supreme tribunal in 1714 again prohibited Jews from living in the town.

According to the census of 1765, however, there were 1349 Jews in Opoczno and the vicinity (excluding infants under one year old). They owned 12 plots of land outside the town and 41 houses within it. A number of crafts were exclusively pursued by Jews. Judah Leib, son of Eliezer B. Solomon Lipschuetz, author of "Respona Dammesek Eliezer" officiated as Rabbi of Opoczno at the end of the 18th century.

During the Holocaust.

The German army entered the town September 6th, 1939. In November 1940 a Ghetto was established and the town's Jewish population was crowded into 115 houses. In June 1942, about 1200 Jews from nearby villages were deported to Opoczno Ghetto which grew to over 4200. In July 1942 about 400 men were deported to the "Hasag" slave-labor camp in Skarzysko Kamienna. On October 27, 1942, the Ghetto was liquidated and all its inmates deported to Treblinka death camp. Only 120 men were left until January 3td, 1943 and then exterminated.

At the time of the mass deportation in October 1942, scores of Jews fled to the forests and organized partisan units there. The best known unit, "Lions", under the command of Julian Ajzenman- Kaniewski, conducted a number of successful guerilla actions against Nazi forces and the Opoczno-Konskie railway line.

After the war, the Jewish Community of Opoczno was not reconstituted.

A Map

A German Army military map, printed in 1936: Opoczno and vicinity

The Map of the Transport to Treblinka: Opoczno, Ujazd, Koluszki, Treblinka

The Wolf Lewkowicz Collection

Opoczno Cemetery, in IAGJS Cemetery Project

Opoczno Shtetl CO-OP Project

Gideon Carmi

Lodz and its Region

Remember Jewish Lodz

Treblinka

Trip to Poland - July 1997


In Memoriam


We Mourn our beloved family, father: Itzhak Eliezer Chmielnicki, mother: Ester nee Lewkowicz, our brother Menachem Moshe, our sister Bracha and her husband Shlomo Dawid Orenbuch, our sisters Rachel and Malka
who perished in Treblinka by the Nazis and their collaborators, may their names be blotted out, together with all the Jewish Community of Opoczno.

Their memory will dwell for ever in our hearts
We commemorate them in sorrow and grief
Brothers: Zeev, Yosef and Aharon Carmi (Chmielnicki)
and their families
Uncle Tzvi Carmi
and his family in Kibbutz Revivim
Sol (Shlomo) Zissman, Roza Cohen, Rivkah Samler and their families,
Chicago


THE JOURNEY TO "ERETZ ISRAEL"

By AHARON CARMI

This material can be used for educational and research purpose only, and is fully copyrighted!

Recorded and edited by Aaron Meirovitch, "Sefer Opoczno, Yad Va'Shem Le'Kehila Shekharva" "The Book of Opoczno, Yitshak Alfasi, Association of Emigrants from Opoczno and Vicinity , Tel Aviv, 1989, (H,Y, E)

The deception which the Germans called "The Journey to Eretz Israel" was nothing other than a journey to the death camp. The description given below of the inferno of the train journey in the parting from the members of the family and the jump from the couch, is only one part of a long and varied testimony, which begins in the small town of Opoczno in the Kielce Government Region of Central Poland under the German Occupation, and ends in the Toebbens-Schultz area during the Revolt of the Warsaw Ghetto.

Aaron Carmi (Chmielnicki), who made the report, is a former member of the "Gordonia" Halutz Movement. He was born in Opoczno in 1921. When he jumped from the train he had only one objective. He wished to reach the Warsaw Ghetto and join Eliezer Geller, his kinsman and fellow townsman, who was one of the commanders of the Jewish Fighters' Organization. On his way there he repeatedly saw death face to face, and it was pure chance that delivered him from all danger. He reached the Warsaw Ghetto, joined the Organization and took part in the Revolt as a fighter. On the 29th April 1943, Carmi and fighter comrades left the Ghetto and reached the Lomianki forests. He afterwards went to the Wyszkow forests where he fought as a partisan until the liberation. After the War he left Poland and arrived in Eretz Israel in October 1945 on the "Transylvama".

The entire evidence was recorded and edited in 1956 at the Ghetto Fighters' House.

AHARON CARMI (Chmielnicki), pages from the book :"Min Ha'Dleka Ha'hi" ("From that Fire"), published by the Ghetto Fighters' House Holocaust and Jewish Resistance Heritage Museum. For the memory of my mother, father, my brother and my sisters and all the family who has been together with me in the death train and did not survive. God Revenge Their Blood. And to all my family members who transported to Treblinka in the first transport. God Revenge Their Blood.


One day at the end of December 1942 the gendarmerie came to the Judenrat of Opoczno very cheerfully, as it seemed, and announced that orders had been received to prepare a list of Jews who had relations in Eretz Israel. The purpose was to arrange for an exchange of prisoners of war. For every German prisoner of war who was released they would permit ten Jews to proceed to Eretz Israel. The Jews would be taken by passenger train to a neutral country, where the exchange would take place.

At first we viewed this rumor suspiciously, regarding it as a trick to deceive us. But judging from the preparations and the efforts which the Germans devoted to the lists and to their inquiries, we began to believe that there must be something to it. They set about these lists with characteristic German thoroughness. In the questionnaires we had to fill in the occupation of the relation, when he had gone to Eretz Israel, the town in which he might be living and the precise relationship. Special officials checked every detail. And this exactness was what misled us.

Once again the light of hope began to shine in people's eyes. Everybody began searching for letters and envelopes, in order to remind themselves of forgotten addresses. People who had no real relations "tricked" the Germans. They gave the addresses of acquaintances, they attached themselves as kinsfolk to those who did really have relations, and all in order to be among the happy ones. The prospective journey kept us busy day and night. We argued the business in all directions. Jewish humor began to flicker and sparkle in our downtrodden souls. "You'll see, those Germans will be short Jews yet, and they'll have to mobilize Gentiles and send them as Jews." They began to treat us better. Jews hiding in the villages were allowed to return to the Ghetto without punishment or guards. The German policing was almost withdrawn, and the task was left to the Jewish Police only. Faith encompassed us all - a madness of belief. Each list of relations was handed over to the Gendarmerie Secretary Baumgarten; and in order to show that the matter was too urgent to allow of any delay, each list was sent on by teleprinter to the Gestapo at Tomaszow.

Even Jews with false Polish papers returned to the Ghetto and straightened themselves out, and were all included in the list of those going to Eretz Israel. According to the information we received, the exchanges were to take place on the German-Swiss frontier. Hence it followed that our journey was to be westward to Germany, and afterwards to the Swiss frontier. Nobody even imagined that in order to liquidate a few hundred families the Germans had to make use of such tactics and deceit. We were entirely in their hands, after all. The official orders and the various notices regarding the journey to Eretz Israel were wonderfully styled, and the readers drank them up thirstily.

The Poles joked and said "We always used to shout - Jews, go back to Palestine! And now it's coming true!." On the 4th of January we were informed that we were leaving next day. Everybody prepared bags and baggage. We felt that we were happy and wept for all those who had perished and had not been privileged to see the great day. The official order declared that each person was entitled to take with him both money and belongings, not exceeding a weight of 15 kilos.

Early in the morning of January 5th, 1943 we were all dressed and. ready with our bundles in the street at the house entries, waiting for the journey. The gendarmes received their last gifts. They explained that we were traveling to the Ujazd station, and would go westward from there.

"The war's over for you at Ujazd you'll get on special trains and go off to Eretz Israel."

Horses and carts had been brought from Opoczno and the neighboring villages in order to take us off. The carts were lined up along the main road in the Kilinski Square. The Jews were formed in line and began to march out of the Ghetto. We were ordered to climb onto the carts. Unnecessary bundles were taken from their owners and placed on the ground. We felt that there was something not quite in order if they were treating us like that when we were leaving. But we consoled ourselves with the thought that the real reason was insufficient room in the carts. Then all of a sudden they began to pull good coats off a number of the Jews. "You're going to a hot country and you won't need overcoats."

The convoy was ready to start. It was headed by an S.S. man with all the various documents and papers. At the end came a number of Polish policemen who were Opoczno residents. We had few to guard us, and the official reason for their presence was to defend us against robbers and highwaymen. There were a great many of us, and we could have liquidated them with ease on the way and far from Opoczno, but we never even dreamed of any such thing.

Local Polish residents stood on either side of the road and parted from us with farewell cries and gaze. Some of them shouted to their acquaintances to throw them a keepsake, and a few of us did so. From time to time we looked back at the town where we were born. We could see the Berek Josselewicz Street, named after the Jewish fighter for Polish liberty. It was desolate, with open doors and windows. And now we passed the horse market where the first expulsion had taken place. At the end of the square stood a cross with the crucified Jesus gazing pitifully at the convoy. Here was the "Casimir the Great" School. Children came out into the street, stared and pointed their fingers. Poles stopped along the road. Passers-by stared at us in astonishment and asked "Whither?"

It was hard to answer that we were going to Eretz Israel. We felt that there was something ridiculous in such an answer. Maybe we knew deep within ourselves that we were not being sent there. And how about running away? The idea occurred to someone, flickered there for a moment or so and promptly went out. For it is so good to be at ease, in the bosom of belief... We faced a riddle which we solved too late; and that delay was going to cost us our lives. At that moment everyone felt concerned with the riddle and wished to solve it. "Let's see where they'll take us, east or west. If they take us off to the west, it's a sign that they were telling the truth."

The cold began to bite, and from time to time people jumped off the carts to warm themselves a bit by walking. The police paid no attention. When we came to a forest they allowed us to enter, in order to pause awhile and attend to the call of Nature. The whole world was white. A thin snow was falling. There was a vast expanse all round. A very long time had passed since we had had a chance of enjoying the beauty of the world. The hope of staying alive awakened our sense of the surrounding amplitude and landscape; of the landscape we knew so well and in which we had seen good years too.

We reached Ujazd as day turned to evening, but here all our belief was undermined. All of a sudden we realized that there were disguised and hidden guards all round us. The sense of freedom which we had felt on the way vanished as at a wave of the hand. Our hearts began to thud in fear, and our knees trembled. On either side of the road appeared Germans who began to urge the carters on with shouts and curses. Ujazd is a railway junction, and beside it was an abandoned and desolate village. The S.S. man with the papers handed us over to the local commandant.

Here we found many Jews from all the small towns of the neighbourhood. They told us the same story: They were being taken to Eretz Israel, to be exchanged against prisoners of war. We of Opoczno were the last, and with our arrival the concentration of those to be exchanged was finished. We began to look for people from Przysucha. I found my sister Bracha and her husband.

Evening had already fallen and suddenly we saw many campfires all round us. They were the campfires of the camouflaged guards, who were looking after us while we stood, as it were, in a circle of fire. Our mood was very gloomy indeed. The girdle of fire enclosed us and gave us the feeling that we were all trapped. The brave Yurek, who looked like a gentile, tried to run away. A fusillade of bullets could be heard. The first victim. Our spirits collapsed entirely.

Next morning we heard the yells "Juden raus!" (Jews, out!). Standing behind us we saw the Ukrainians and the "Blackies" - Germans in black uniforms. One of us cried: "They're the extermination squads!"

They began to line us up in fives. Family members crowded together not to be separated. From here we were led to the railway station. One of the officers counted the groups of five. Somebody plucked up courage and asked where we were going, and the answer was, "Nach Deutschland !" (to Germany).

From Ujazd to the railway lines it was about half an hour's walk. When we left the town it was already bright day. The Germans were lined up to the right and the left of us. Ahead marched the officers with the documents, and on either side were the S.S. men. After we had all passed through the exit gate it was closed behind us. On either side of the road along which we passed there were ditches, beyond which were slightly elevated paths - the pavements. Along these paths we were accompanied by the German guard. The officers who went ahead carried pistols. The S.S. men held "Schmeissers" (sub-machineguns), and the Ukrainians held rifles. The presence of the Ukrainians frightened us very much. We knew that they were always summoned to liquidation actions.

Each one tried to keep with his family and friends. Our family concentrated in two groups, one next to the other; my brother Moshe and I in the center and my sisters on either side. We could see all of them. Mother entreated Moshe to ask one of the Germans where we were being taken. Moshe refused. There was nothing to ask, said he, the question wouldn't help and wouldn't change anything.

Mother was upset and impatient and she herself asked, "Mein Herr, Wo fahren wir ?" At first the German did not answer, but afterwards he doubtless felt sorry for her and answered in a Yiddishised German, "Wein nicht, wein nichit, Mameshi, mir fahren nach Deutschland" (Don't cry, don't cry, Mamma, we are going to Germany).

Every report of this kind spread as on wings and was passed in a whisper from row to row. There was a fresh whisper every little while. But all the whispers made it clear that we were going to Germany, westward. Now we drew near the railway lines. All the people of the whole district were already there from the smaller and the larger towns. The people of Opoczno walked together, including the Rabbi and a woman belonging to his family; a very old pair. We remembered the Rabbi with the long white beard, but now he was without the beard. It had been cut off. One of the S.S. men shouted at us to keep in fives and not to loiter. He paced along the earth banks beyond the ditch, and shouted, "Anyone who hangs behind will be killed on the spot!"

People began to crowd together. The police walking in the rear began to lay into them with their whips. The crush grew worse. But many could not continue at the pace required, and broke up the fives. A S.S. officer wearing spectacles jumped across the ditch, dashed among the rows, caught the rabbi by the hand and shouted, "You're messing up the row!" The rabbi fell in fear and exhaustion. The other pushed him with his foot into the ditch and emptied a round of bullets into him. That was the second victim from the time we had left Opoczno. The woman began to weep and wail, and he killed her as well.

These were followed by other murders. It was dreadful to see a man lying dead on the snow. The white and the blood were startling and terrifying. Now all our faith was lost, but belief and trust began to steal in from some other dark corner. Our belief was obstinate and sought air to breathe. Would they be afraid to tell us the truth if it were really something different? After all, we were in their hands. So it followed that they must be taking us to Eretz Israel. Yet at the same time a shiver ran down the back in case, in just a little while, they should hit you, you the believer of all people. And so we reached the railway.

The officers and all the non-commissioned officers stood in front of us, and the privates behind. There they were, standing joking together, smoking cigarettes and pointing at us with their fingers. Meanwhile it grew colder and colder, and we began to stamp our feet in order to warm up. Many members of the Jewish police came with their official caps. They believed in the power of the cap and hoped that it would help them. Somebody moved over to one of the policemen and said:

"Well, big shot that you are, well, show what you can do! You drank together with them! Ask them, maybe they'll tell you where we're really going."

The fellow lowered his eyes and did not answer. There were people who wanted to get their own back on those who had been policemen, but this was just helpless fury. We were dead afraid, and this fear compelled the people to stare westwards, expecting the train to come from that side and take us to the east.

All of a sudden a prolonged whistling was heard, but it came from the east, definitely from the east. Once again the whistling changed, and we could already hear the wheels rattling. As the train approached the whistle began for a third time. It was so prolonged and piercing that we felt the world must be coming to an end. Out of the trains came Ukrainians and Mongolians, and opened the carriage doors. Then came the order:

"Put down any parcels you are holding, at your feet!" We all put down our bundles and parcels. Then came a second order, short and sharp:

"Up with all this crap."

They divided those who were standing there according to carriages and then began the climb into them. At first it was possible to help the women and tired ones, but within a few moments the overcrowding and pushing began. People grabbed hold with their fingernails in order to get up and get a place. The carriages were already full to overflowing. The Ukrainians began to shoot into the people in the carriage. They pushed and tried to shrink together in dread and fear of death, and lo and behold, there was room for more. As each carriage filled up, it was closed and barred from the outside.

All our family did their best to be together, and now we helped one another to climb up. When I got in, the carriage was already half full. The smell of chlorine caught at my nose. The walls and floor were white. This was some disinfecting material. I at once felt a strange dryness in the mouth and throat, and an acidity. Thirst began to torment me. Instinctively everybody tried to reach the windows, where there was clear air from the outside, but the windows were already taken. We crowded into an empty corner and clung together. With us were my sister Bracha, and her family. And now the door of our carriage was closed and we were cut off. Voices from the outside were harder to hear. Those next to the window were a kind of lookout, and gave us information about what was taking place outside. Every trifle became something remarkable and rare. "The engine-driver is filling the tank with water." "A German has gone out." "A German has come in..."

Before we entered the train, and when we were ordered to leave our little bundles beside the rails, many who had hidden their money and valuables in the bundles began to claw through them in order to save something. They were beaten mercilessly. These were not encouraging signs of our being taken to Eretz Israel. Now those who stood beside the window reported that the officers who had handled the papers had already left, and only the Ukrainians remained. The transport was ready for the journey.

I do not know how long we waited in the train. The moments were long. Before the train started off there was another terrifying whistle, which continued for a long time. No, no, this was no ordinary whistle. It had a special meaning. And that meaning was surely as dreadful as the sound... A tormenting whistle that made you crazy and never stopped.

At last the wailing died away and the train moved. From moment to moment it became hotter. Some fluid began to drip as it condensed from the steam. People began to unbutton their coats to ease the heat and the choking feeling.

It grew hotter from moment to moment, and the situation grew worse. We were stupefied, half-crazy. The instinct of survival seemed to operate on its own, without any control. Our consciousness grew clouded. Here and there could be seen clear signs of lunacy. To this day I shiver when I remember the fellow who cried out the Deathbed Confession, and asked the dreadful question:

"What did I do all my life long? What did I do all my life long? I stole I robbed, I hid money away and kept it. I became rich. Curse the money I have with me... What shall I do with the money I have with me! I'm going to my death... I'm going to my death... To my death, that's where I'm going."

There was black terror all round. The man shrieked and tore his hair and rolled his eyes. Everybody began gazing into his own soul and life. I turned to look at my family. Father was sitting moaning quietly. He sighed more and more; dumb sighs without words. Mother sat weeping bewailing all of us, mourning for us as you mourn for the dead... All of a sudden she wailed piercingly, "They are taking us to our deaths, to our deaths."

We all stood weeping, and in a choking voice I tried to calm her. Father's sighs grew louder. My little sisters held on to mother and also cried. I stood between father and mother, with my brother Moshe beside me. I gazed at his face. There was a heavy cloud on it. There were unshed tears deep within his eyes. But despite all the gloom, I saw that he was thinking all kinds of thoughts, that plans were being woven. Dear Moshe with his inventions. He did not lose this quality even here.

"Can you see where we are?" he asked me quietly.

He repeated the question several times. I casually turned my head towards the window. It was high up, and those who stood beside it barely reached it with their heads. It was a long narrow window with an iron mesh over it.

The heat increased. I took off my overcoat, rolled it into a bundle, put it on the floor and stood my little sisters on it in turn, so that they should have some air to breathe. Were we going to Treblinka? But the train came from the Last. If they had wanted to take us to Treblinka, would anybody have stopped them? What was the logic in having the train coming from the East? And how link this fact with the dreadful conditions under which we were traveling? And yet the will to live wishes to interpret each detail favorably in spite of everything.

We had already been traveling for hours. Thirst was burning our throats and mouths. All of a sudden the train stopped. A tumult broke out in the carriage.

"Why have we stopped? Why have we stopped?" came the question from every side. Those beside the window answered that the train had stopped to take on water. The very word made us even thirstier.

"Shout out and ask for a little water. Shout through!" came the suggestion from every side.

Those who stood by the window shouted and asked for a little water. Outside the Poles - workers on the railway line. From time to time one approached the carriage, picked up snow from the ground, rolled it into a ball, and shouted to those at the window:

"Give us money and you'll get snow"

Somebody flung out a coin, and a snowball was flung into the carriage for him. People started up from all parts of the carriage to buy snow. Hands containing coins were held out to the window. From outside came the cries of the railway workers, "Money, give money!"

Many of us had money ready and waiting. Others began to search round, to take it from its hiding place. There were some who did not have any money at all. A price of a hundred zloty was promptly fixed for each snowball. At first these reached those who were paying for them, but within a few moments the whole carriage was in a whirl. Hands stretched out to seize a few melting snowflakes, like a drowning man flinging up his arms for aid. Everyone was thirsty, and hands beat against one another. Each person stuck out his tongue and licked the bits wherever they fell.

All this took place at the first stop. Suddenly a shot sounded in the open, and the trade in snow stopped. We were sitting in a distant corner, and therefore were not privileged to receive this "vital" commodity. My hand with the currency note in it stretched out in vain.

Moshe kept on trying to find out where we were. I heard him shouting to one of the fellows standing beside the window, "Mendel, look well and see where we're going!" Mendel calmed him down, and answered that we were traveling westwards to the Koluszki Station. But the entry was difficult. This was a railway junction in which were many trains. We were detained there for a long time.

The snow story began again. This time prices had increased and they demanded 500 zloty for a snowball. Since the goods had become more expensive, far more care was taken of them. Somebody put out a pot and the snowball was placed in it, so those strangers should not grab any. Those who had no money went wild. Somebody wailed and shouted, "Give me a little snow as well, I'm also a human being, I also want to live!" We also paid the price of the snow, and after waiting and shouting our turn arrived at last.

There were some families which looked after one another and divided the snow equally among themselves. But snow which contains no salt or minerals, only increases the thirst. The throat becomes more dry and sore from moment to moment. The temperature rose. Drops of water began running down from the ceiling. Those who stood by the walls licked the moisture as it dripped down.

Manners and good behavior which we had known in the past had completely vanished away. Full freedom of expression was given to the will to live and breathe. Women of all ages, young and old, removed their overcoats and tore their dresses off. Everything seemed to be uprooted. Your very consciousness seemed to be clouded over. People lost their entire balance.

There came another long whistle like that at our starting point. Now it was even longer, 3 satanic hooting that was enough to turn one crazy, piercing like a drill through the ears, through the brain and the skull. We entered Koluszki, and here we met with the crisis and collapse.

After the whistling there came a deep strange silence. Everybody was still listening to the echoes, which were barely dying away. It was the quiet before the storm. All of us kept still in order to hear how the train was moving and in which direction. I looked at Moshe and saw that he was thinking hard. The train stopped. The watchers by the window reported that they could see many Germans, policemen, trains, and so on. Suddenly came a bumping, first backwards and then forwards. Moshe had been listening hard all the time, and a sudden cry of alarm burst from him. But he promptly controlled himself, went on listening for a few moments and then whispered to me "That's the engine. When it's uncoupled from the carriages, you feel a movement like that. If what I'm afraid of is true, we'll soon feel a jerk like that from behind."

Meanwhile the watchers at the window reported that the engine had been uncoupled from the train. The apprehension and fear had not yet burst forth and become a sheer apprehension of death. Somebody calmed himself and the others. He was sure that the engine had just gone to load up with coal, and would come back at once. The engine passed the length of the train, closed up from behind and once again we felt a jerk as before, but reversed; first forwards and afterwards backwards. We had learnt that several carriages containing more Jews had been attached to the train outside Koluszki. Within a few moments the train began to move off. At first there was a terrifying silence. Everybody waited for a miracle to happen or an abyss to open.

But the miracle did not happen, and within a few moments we knew definitely that the train had changed its direction and we were traveling eastwards. It was as though there were an explosion and a collapse in the carriage. People shrieked to the high heavens. The little children in the carriage could not understand what it all meant, but they also began to cry at the tops of their voices. I looked at my own family members and it seemed to me as though they had all grown old in a single moment. My little sister Malkale, who was nine years old, understood what it all meant and was weeping bitterly, "Mother, but I never did anybody any harm." My sister Rochele, who was twelve years old, clung to me and said, "Aaron, I am terribly afraid. Look after me..." and she clung to me with all her strength.

My sister Bracha, who was pregnant, wept in a loud voice She was about twenty-eight. "But my baby hasn't even been born yet, and never sinned, why is he doomed?" Her husband stood stroking her hair. Looking at them I could no longer restrain myself, and also began my weeping; but did my best to weep silently, so that my voice should not be heard.

Moshe began to talk openly and to estimate the situation. He said in so many words that we were lost, that he had not wanted to upset our belief all this time. But now it was plain that we were being taken to Treblinka.

I looked round at the people. They were images of dread and horror. Some tore their hair, some flung themselves about in despair, and some cursed with all their strength. A woman clutched her baby to her breast with all her force. The child began to make strangled noises, while the woman whispered loving words to it and pressed it to her heart all the more.

"Look what she's doing, look what she's doing... She's gone mad," came cries from all sides.

"It's my child, mine, and I want him to die a holy death. Let him die a holy death." And by the time people succeeded in getting the child away, he was choked.

One Jew near us went mad. Round his neck was a white scarf. He took it off and tried to tie it to one of the iron hooks in the carriage wall in order to hang himself. People tried to stop him. He punched and kicked with tremendous force and cried: "Let me hang myself !" They succeeded in dragging the scarf out of his hands, and he collapsed in the corner. Many refused to accept the idea of death, and prepared to resist and prevent any-body from touching them.

It was evening already. The train was traveling very fast. Moshe was weaving plans. He was weaving them hastily. Our Moshe was blessed with an imagination. What he imagined was never naked or bare or unattached, and he always found some starting-point in the realities from which he could realize it. He calculated that we would reach Treblinka that night. It meant that this was our last night and our last opportunity. Everything was quite open and quite bare in the carriage. There were no longer any secrets or things to be hidden. Everybody still capable of thought was thinking aloud. Many were making their death confessions, but not according to the established formulas and verses. This was a stormy, demented confession of all that the hopeless heart could remember. Father remembered the preparations he had made long ago to proceed 'to Eretz Israel, preparations which had never been followed up. Now he remembered that mother had been against it, and among other and more serious arguments she had said jokingly that she was afraid to travel by boat.

"We were afraid to travel by boat", said father, thus taking part of the blame on himself. "We were afraid to travel by boat... but it seems that this has been decreed on high and it is not our fault."

Moshe whispered to me that this was our fateful night. We had to try to jump out of the carriage, for otherwise we were doomed. The rest of the family heard him whispering. Mother sat at a loss. "What will happen to us? Don't leave us. Don't let us separate. Don't let us separate. Death is lying in wait everywhere. Let us die together at least."

Father sat silent, his head hanging down as though he had fainted. I had a little bottle of home-brewed liquor in my pocket. Now I took it out and gave it to father to drink and gain some strength. When he saw the bottle he became very excited, but would not drink. "My sons, worse moments are ahead of us. Let us leave this for those moments." He had begun talking about the bottle, but went on about something else. "Look, children, I am more than fifty years old already. At that age there are people who die a natural death, so it's easier for me to accept the finish ahead of me. But you, children, you are young. If you can do anything to escape from here and save yourselves, don't miss the opportunity. Don't miss it, children." Mother broke in: "No no no, there's no escape. There's nowhere to run away, and to whom will they leave Rochele and Malkale, and all of us? Only together, to the last breath."

It seemed to me that this was not mother talking, but a stranger whom I had never heard before.

Once again father spoke to us, saying that we must run away if there was any opportunity, and that he was not suggesting this, but ordering us to do it; for every moment was precious, and in an hour's time it might be too late, God forbid.

Moshe unquestionably took heart from father's words, and decided to go. For the moment this was only a bare idea, with nothing real to it. It was night already. The moon was shining in at the carriage-window.

Suddenly the train stopped. Outside could be heard the beating of iron and creaking of bars. Then the door was opened. The half-light of nighttime and the chill air burst into the carriage and beat down on the exhausted and fainting travelers. What was this? Had we already reached Treblinka, came the thought. Had we already missed our chance? Into the carriage climbed a group of Mongols and Ukrainians, submachine guns in their hands. The carriage was crowded from end to end, but still room was made for them. Everybody crowded and crushed together in fear, while they began to rob and pillage the passengers. Ample experience had taught them where such travelers hid their belongings. First they went to the women, tore off whatever clothes they were still wearing, thrust their hands into their bosoms and their private parts, and found money and jewelry. They pulled rings off fingers. Most of the travelers were exhausted and had no spirit of resistance. The few who refused or resisted were beaten with the riffle butts.

"Diengi davay!" (hand over the money), they kept shouting and cursing and abusing. It had been clear enough that we were being taken to slaughter, but now it was undeniable. Escape... But so far nobody had dared to be the first.

And now could be heard the terrifying shouts of Protas, who had commanded the Jewish police under the Germans. He had gone crazy, and shouted and wept and wailed in disjointed, incoherent phrases : "Me they've taken, me... Dem groissen kommandant (the big police commander)... They weren't ashamed to take me..."

He was still wearing his police hat.

What had happened in the carriage was being passed on from mouth to mouth... Przydlowski, head of the Judenrat, said that now the end had come, and anyone who could run away should do so.

We made up our minds, and began to take leave of the family. Father went on encouraging us, and tried to strengthen his words and raise our spirits with quotations from our sages of blessed memory.

"He who saves a single soul is as though he had saved a full universe. And if you are saved I shall also have been a cause of it, and the merit of your deliverance will be part of my own merits too." Mother took the money, which she had hidden with her and with Ma1kale and Rochele, and divided it equally between Moshe, myself and our kinsman Joseph Lewkowicz. We began to kiss one another. When I came to my sister Bracha I almost changed my mind and wanted to go back on my resolution.

"what has my unborn baby done ? Why is he doomed never to see the light of the world?" she went on whispering in a tremulous voice.

My hands seemed to weaken and my heart was lost. But I heard Moshe saying that this was the opportunity. In a little while it would be too late. What was happening with our family was happening with others too. It was like a signal passing through the carriage, and starting the young men and the healthy folk on their way: "To the window." Those standing at the window were ruffians, but they seemed to lose their strength in face of those who were daring enough to break out and try to run away.

We saw people climbing over heads. Moshe took hold of someone's shoulders and climbed over the heads of those standing, moving towards the window. I was stupefied. I didn't want to let go of Moshe, who was an experienced soldier. So I also quickly climbed up and began to crawl to the window.

And now quite a number of young fellows who were next to the window had resolved to jump out of the coach. We all took hold of the grating and began to tug at it, this way and that. The grating was fixed in a frame which was firmly set in the carriage wall, but as we dragged and tugged and pulled it began to creak and shift until it was pulled right out. We set the frame by the wall. It served as a kind of little step by which to mount and reach the aperture. Shooting could be heard outside all the time. You could feel the strange awe at the daring ones within the carriage.

But nobody wanted to be the first, nobody knew how to jump out of a noisy carriage; and we were all afraid of the jump itself. And now, as though automatically, Moshe became the central figure. He began to give explanations and instructions in a quiet voice, and everybody listened.

"Can you hear the fusillade?" he asked. "At the end of the carriages is a German guard. He shoots along the line of the windows to keep people from trying to escape. Each burst has ten bullets in it; then another burst and then another. Three bursts like that make one load for a Schmeisser. Now there's a pause and you don't hear any shots. He's changing the magazine and then the  shots start again. We've got to use the intervals."

And having given the explanations, he told us how to jump. The first who jumped was a lad from a small hamlet, wearing a longish khalat which caused him difficulties. His skirts caught on something and he had to get back inside and start again. Then it was my turn. I felt dead afraid. It was Moshe's idea that I should be first, so that he should tell me what to do before I jumped. We had arranged that I would wait for him where I was, and he would join me there.

I raised my hands and did all he had told me, waiting until the end or the three bursts. Before I jumped Moshe flung my overcoat out. And again I heard him: "Don't move from the spot, I'll come and join you!" This was the last time I heard his voice.

My brother Moshe Hy"d

I pushed myself out of the window. For a moment I flew through the air, then I landed in a ditch filled with snow and sank right in. It was a strange feeling; as though I had been born again and were alive... Night, sky and moonlight. I had known them ever since I could remember. How new they were! New and terrifying. I was in an alien and hostile world, frosty and cruel...


Images from the Abyss: Aharon Carmi's Album

My Beloved Family

My Mother Ester Chmielnicki nee' Lewkowicz

My Father Itzhak Eliezer Chmielnicki

My Brother Menachem Moshe Chmielnicki

My sister Bracha and her Husband Shlomo Dawid Orenbuch

My Aunt Nacha Fux (Chmielnicki) and her Husband Chaim

Nacha Fux nee' Chmielnicki


Originally posted in August 5th, 1999  - last updated 22nd April 2009