To Sobibor and Back: An Eyewitness Account of the Chelmer Kalmen Wewryk
I was born in 1906, in Chelm, Poland. My family was a traditionally Orthodox one, and I had one brother and two sisters. My father was a grain merchant on a very small scale; he bought a sack here, a sack there, and resold the contents to eke out a very meager living. My brother died from hunger during World War I. Notwithstanding our poverty, my father always invited some poor unfortunate to share our Sabbath meal with us. These poor derelicts often stank and were filthy, but my father never deviated from this Sabbath observance. Whatever poor fare we had we shared -- the Sabbath was the Sabbath, a special day.
My father wanted me to join him in his grain "business" (if it could be called that), but I saw that there was no future at all in it. I had been sent to a traditional religious school, a cheder, but I had no secular education because we could not afford the small tuition. I taught myself to read and write Polish in the attic. When my cheder training ended I secretly went off and apprenticed myself to a carpenter. That was unheard of in our family and our milieu--there was some kind of a stigma attached to working with one's hands. I remember that when I told my aunt that I had almost finished my apprenticeship as a carpenter, she started to cry.
My sisters had a friend, a pretty girl, Yocheved, and we took a fancy to each other from an early age. She used to visit our home often, and a strong love grew between us. Yocheved, from the age of 12, used to drag a pushcart filled with sewing notions (needles, threads, fabric trimmings, etc.) from one hamlet marketplace to another, selling to the local peasants. She came from a religious, impoverished family and her mother, a prematurely worn-out woman who always wore a sheitl (wig worn by Orthodox Jewish woman), sometimes used to accompany her on her selling expeditions. Their "profits" allowed them to subsist on a diet of onions, radishes, black bread, and on rare occasions, a piece of herring. They were often waylaid by gangs of Poles and Ukrainians who robbed them of their meager profits and stole their stock. The two women were helpless against such bandits.
I started to accompany Yocheved on her selling expeditions while we were still engaged. At least I could protect her from the "brave" bandits who liked to pick on defenseless Jewish women. We married in 1932 and a few weeks after we were married I borrowed small amounts of money from my father and her two brothers and rented a small store with showcases for merchandise. I bought stock and went into the sewing notions and fabric business. My small store prospered, and I was soon able to hire an elderly woman to help out with the housework and the baby. We had been blessed with the birth of a very special son, Yossele, in 1934.
At the beginning of 1939 my wife and I were sitting in our store when we heard that a general mobilization had been proclaimed. All reservists and young single men were to report for military duty. Very soon after that, menacing, dark bombers appeared in the blue sky over Chelm. My wife and I left the store and ran to the fields to hide. We wanted to hide in the tall wheat, but the wheat had just been harvested and we were exposed. We were terrified. German planes kept firing down at us with their machine guns, and they seemed to shriek like wild animals as they dived with their bombs and bullets. We decided to run home, and we made our way through the streets filled with panic-stricken people who were shrieking hysterically. When we arrived home, we found the old woman we had hired under the bed, holding our infant girl, Pesha, in her arms. She was so petrified that she was speechless.
When the bombing ceased we went out, as did many others, on the street. Groups of people were standing around, exchanging news and rumors. The news was bad: there had been many casualties in Chelm from the bombing. The Polish Army was taking a beating, and it was rumored that the Germans were nearing Chelm. Chelm was soon inundated with haggard, barefoot fleeing Polish soldiers who had discarded their uniforms. They had been abandoned by their superiors and they were hungry and demoralized.
It became quiet in Chelm. All authority had collapsed. There was no civilian or military government. That night Polish and Ukrainian bandits went on a killing spree--killing Jews, of course. Without a functioning police force they had a free hand, and they were quick to realize that. 50-60 Jews were killed that night and many others were severely beaten. Robbery and rape were widespread. The Ukrainians and Poles generally didn't get along well with each other, but when it came to attacking defenseless Jews they had found a common cause.
You can believe me when I say that we welcomed the dawn. We heard that the Russians were coming in. We were happy--authority would be re-established. The bandits would no longer have a free hand. On Sept. 14, 1939 we saw the first Russian tanks and trucks and we ran out to greet them. Women and children hugged and kissed the soldiers.
Our joy was short-lived. After 10 days we heard that the Russians were going to withdraw from Chelm as a result of the Soviet-German agreement. We saw the Russians stowing their gear on trucks, packing their equipment, and preparing their vehicles for the departure from Chelm. Articles appeared in the newspapers saying that whoever wanted to depart with the Russians was welcome to do so. Trucks would be supplied for these people and they could bring their belongings with them. Several hundred young people accepted this offer of evacuation, but this was only a small fraction of the Jews who could have done so. People faced a dilemma then. How could you abandon your home? Your friends? Your work? Your relatives? We had heard that life under the Russians could be very hard. And, besides, the image of the Germans that had been left over from World War I was that of a civilized, advanced people. My younger sister left with the Russians. I, however, like so many others, remained behind in Chelm with my wife, my son, and our infant daughter. Whatever would be, would be! At least I would be on my home ground, in my beloved Chelm.
Some days went by. After two weeks of occupation the Russians had disappeared. Once again there was no civilian or military authority. The Polish and Ukrainian bandits recommenced their attacks. Fear gripped us, especially a fear of the long, dark autumn nights. When the dawn rose, on Oct. 7, 1939, we went out on the street and heard that the Germans were due very shortly. Believe it or not, many Jews were happy to hear that. The night time beatings and murders by the Ukrainian and Polish bandits would stop. That very day, Oct. 7, 1939, we saw the Germans march in. We saw long columns of motorized vehicles and files of marching, singing men. And already some of them were spitting at us and cursing: "Verfluchte Juden, Schweinische Juden." We saw that we had made a mistake by not retreating with the Russians, but it was too late. The mistake had been made. That very day, when the Germans came in, they started beating Jews and looting Jewish stores. I locked my small store and went home. I told my wife that bad times had come on us.
The next day, on Oct. 8, my father came to my store to visit me. As we were standing around and talking about the bad times that had come upon us, several SS men came into the store and started shouting: "Verfluchter Jude!" One of them gave my father two hard blows to the head. They proceeded to ransack my stock, taking for themselves only the best goods. Then one of them came over to me and gave me a tremendous blow to the stomach. I doubled up from the pain, and for a minute or so I couldn't breathe. The German shrieked delightedly at me: "Ja, ich habe dir bezahlt." He meant that the vicious blow was his form of payment to me for my goods that he was taking. He also said, with smug satisfaction: "Ja, ich habe dich gut versohlt." (Yes, I beat you up well). On many of the German vehicles they had printed a slogan: "Wir Fahren nach Polen um Juden zu versohlen." (We're going to Poland to beat up the Jews.) So his statement that he had beaten me well was a logical extension of that popular German slogan. Laughing heartily the SS men left my store. My father and I just looked at each other helplessly. What could we say?
Bad news swept through Chelm -- news of beatings, robberies, shootings and murders, news that Jews were being seized all over the town for "forced labor." Every day this litany of bad news was repeated. We wondered what would become of us. There were many helpless women amongst us; their men had been taken away and never returned. SS men went into these women's homes and did whatever pleased them there. SS men roamed the streets with dogs and whips, rapaciously looking for victims. And every day they issued new "laws" and "rules" and "regulations". The Polish police force still functioned, but the policemen were now under German orders and they zealously carried these orders out. They helped seize and beat Jews who were wanted for "labor."
Polish police came to my house every day, looking for me. "We want Kalmen Wewryk," they shouted. I hid in a false beam which I had constructed as a hiding place. There was a tiny opening in a wall of this beam through which I could see the street below. On hearing the heavy tread of the police as they ran up the stairs, I would leap into my hiding place and close the entry hole behind me by tugging on a rope. My hiding place was very skillfully camouflaged--nobody could say that a man was hiding there. I was sought because the authorities had given them my name. Rich men could be exempted from "forced labor" by paying, and their places would be filled by poor men who would be seized as replacements. The days before the war broke out I had traveled to Warsaw where I bought new merchandise, so I was not liquid. I had no cash. I could not pay the authorities, so I was a prime target for this "forced labor." Every day Jews were shipped off for "forced labor" and few of them returned. We really regretted the fact that we had not retreated with the Russians, but it was too late. We were now caught up in a daily nightmare. Some days I remained in my hiding place all day because the police came to my house several times a day, looking for me. How I waited for the "all clear" signal from my wife so that I could emerge from my dark hole and take a drink of water' Once I had no time to hide in my false beam. I made it up to the roof and hid behind a massive chimney.
It was quiet for a while and then we heard that an official Judenrat had been formed. Only God knew what new troubles this would bring on our heads! The police were very frustrated with my "case." Because they couldn't find me, they dragged my wife and our two children off to jail. They were kept in a cell deep in the cellar of the jail. They were given no food. The policemen told her that if I didn't report to them she would remain in jail indefinitely with the children. The baby was crying ceaselessly and the boy, only 6 years of age, cried too. They were not given a drop of water. My wife later told me that when she begged for water for the children the Germans laughed uproariously. And they didn't give the poor children a drop of water. After two days, when the sadists saw that they couldn't get my information out of her -- she steadfastly denied knowing of my whereabouts – they gave her several hard lashes with a whip and threw all 3 of them out of the jail. She dragged herself home with the crying and frightened children. When I saw the 3 of them my heart wanted to break! They looked so bad! But we all hugged and kissed each other. We rejoiced. We were together again.
After a few days the police started looking for me again. They had no other real work to do except to search for Jews like me. I had reported to the German barracks to work as a carpenter. I was allowed to come home every night and sleep at home. Sometimes the work was hard ditch-digging, etc.-- but most of the time I worked at my own trade in workshops manned by skilled or semi-skilled Jews--shoemakers, carpenters, tailors, masons, etc. We were not paid at all and worked long hours but they gave us each a small piece of bread. It wasn't nearly enough for one person but it was better than nothing at all. One fat SS man used to take particular pleasure in whipping us with iron whips, but we generally worked amongst Wehrmacht personnel. And some of them were decent, humane people who could see the condition we poor Jews were in. Under my workbench I would often find a loaf of bread (a treasure at that time), tobacco or a piece of shoe leather left for me by sympathetic Wehrmacht men. I had a chance to "borrow" pieces of wood and take them home. I particularly remember my joy when I found 4 or 5 good sized potatoes under my workbench.
My work in the barracks didn't stop the Polish police from searching for me. They burst into my house several times a day. They made inquiries and found out that I was working in the barracks. They came to the barracks and took me away. I believe that those Polish policemen were acting on information furnished to them by the Judenrat. The Oberscharfuhrer who was my superior was absent when the Polish police came and took me away. They tossed me, like a sack of potatoes, into a cell in that same jail where they had imprisoned my wife and children earlier.
My wife knew, from our conversations, that the "Oberst" liked my work. I had worked hard for him; I made him all kinds of things for his own use, like wooden briefcases, bookshelves, boot removers, etc. My wife ran to the barracks and told this Oberscharfuhrer that the Polish police had taken me away. He first checked all that she had told him (they were very exact and methodical), and when he verified her story he himself drove to the police station and I heard him bellowing: "Den Schreiner sofort Auslusen" -- the carpenter is to be released immediately. The police weren't happy to see him, while I was in their hands they whipped me several times a day. They gave me no food or drink at all. But the police had no choice in this matter. They released me and the Oberscharfuhrer took me straight back to the barracks.
We were getting hungrier and hungrier. And the Germans were demanding more and more work from us. My wife asked me: ""Where will it all end? We'll all die from hunger." My wife had kept selling off things from the house to buy food. By this time the house was virtually empty -- there was nothing more to sell. I decided to take a chance -- I was desperate. During the noon break I went over to the Wehrmacht living quarters and begged for food. Some soldiers used to throw a piece of food at me. They had good food--the best. Others chased me away, shouting "Vefluchter Jude!" When I was chased away like that I would run to another barrack and continue begging. There were hundreds of companies there, waiting to go to the border build-up. There were SS men amongst them, probably placed there to watch them, and sometimes an SS man used to run out of a barrack and beat me.
I saw that I couldn't go on like that. My wife and children were still starving, getting weaker from day to day. They started to beat us regularly at work. SS men would come and take some of us away for various jobs. These SS men were not like the Wehrmacht soldiers. They would whip us often with iron-trimmed whips. I thought about our situation. It was the end of 1939, and it didn't look like our situation would change for the better. I decided to leave the barracks and the workshop and take my chances elsewhere. I had to do something.
I left my house at night, carrying my carpenter's tools on my shoulders, and went 10 km. to a nearby hamlet where I had done some work before the war. When I reached the hamlet it was dawn. I knocked on doors, asking if people had work for me, and I found a job -- somebody wanted some windows made. There were no Germans there, they had not solidified their control yet over such small hamlets. I worked all week making those windows and my employer gave me food for my work. Friday night I left for home. On my shoulders I carried a sack of butter, chickens, potatoes and other food -- my hard-won pay. All the way home, over fields and in forests, I was very, very frightened but I kept going.
My wife worried as Friday drew closer. Would I come home safely or had something terrible happened to me during the week? My wife sat up all night by the door, waiting for me. I came very, very quietly up the stairs. When my wife recognized my footsteps, how happy she became! I had a password which I whispered to her as she unbarred the door. My wife kissed me. Yossele was sleeping. We hugged each other and I told my wife about my week and the trip back home. She cried over the hard times that had befallen us. I couldn't stand her tears, so I ran over to my sleeping boy and kissed him. He woke up, shouted "Papa", and leapt at me, hugging and kissing me hard with his little hands around my neck. He seemed to understand what I had been going through, what we were all going through. I went over to my precious sack, opened it and laid out the food that I had brought, as if I were uncovering a treasure. Yocheved saw how much I must have worked to earn that food. She took a piece of bread and a slice of onion and they started to eat with immense appetite. I had the greatest pleasure watching the way they ate. I enjoyed every bite they took. I relished the knowledge that they would have food for the next short while. I was happy; I was with my loved ones, at home. However, I slept fitfully, a very uneasy sleep. Apparently I was still being sought by the police. I was afraid that at night they would burst into our house.
This kind of existence lasted for 4 or 5 months. I had to be extremely secretive in my comings and goings. I came and went at night because unfriendly eyes were everywhere. The neighbors mustn't see me. People were starving, and some were ready to kill for a piece of bread. People had become brutalized.
Just before dawn I got up very early, went to see my relatives and started my journey back to the hamlet. I returned, a frightened man, to my employer. I said: "Good morning." He answered me "Shin Dobre, Shin Dobre," (Good Day, Good Day) and he crossed himself. He himself was very frightened. He had heard about Jews being waylaid and killed in the woods; he realized how dangerous my journey was. He gave me a good breakfast, and I started to work with great eagerness.
Several weeks went by and I finished many jobs for him. On my trips back home, I used to carry my sack on one shoulder and my tools on the other shoulder. It was a heavy load but I was quite strong then. At times wild animals would dart by me. Many times I stumbled into holes and ditches; it was pitch black, I couldn't see a thing. Sometimes I remained prostrate in a ditch where I had fallen, I sighed, and I would start to cry a little about the times we were living in. However, soon after that I would pick up my load again and continue my journey.
I found other work in the hamlet, making beds and tables. My employers were very happy with my work. I worked from dawn to dusk, virtually without respite. I thought only about my family. I worried constantly about them. Things were quiet in that hamlet--there were no Germans there yet.
Once, on my trip back home, a heavy thunderstorm started. I had to get back home before the dawn. My family was waiting for me. I was soaked to the skin, and the paths were covered with slippery mud; it was hard going for me but I was happy to be going home to my loved ones. As I approached Chelm I sat down for a few minutes to rest and when I looked around I thought I saw somebody up ahead waiting to ambush me. I shook with fear. I got up and moved forward very cautiously and quietly. When I got closer, I saw with relief that my fears had been unfounded. The cause of my fear turned out be a deformed tree stump that looked like a person from afar. What a relief I felt!
When I finally reached my home, my wife gave me bad news: Jews were being caught on the streets, Jews were being shot on the spot for trying to slip through to neighboring hamlets like I was doing. I was at a complete loss -- I didn't know what to do now. I was afraid to return to the hamlet, so I remained at home. But the food was rapidly disappearing, and we had to start rationing the little that was left. I saw billboards with notices that a Jewish Police Force was being formed, so there would soon be Jewish police who would be carrying out German orders. Meanwhile, Jews were disappearing. I heard the SS yell as they seized people. These SS were wild, yelling constantly with shrill voices: "Dreckische Juden, Verfluchte Juden!" They made lightning attacks on houses, looking for Jews for forced labor or simply to murder them.
As soon as the Jewish Police Force started to function, a new decree was announced: all Jews had to hand over a certain amount of gold. Everybody ran and brought gold to the Judenrat offices. They thought that they would save themselves by handing over this gold. Up to now, conditions were chaotic, unclear. But now, people felt relieved by this decree: it was finally clear--you could save yourself and your family by handing over gold. Nobody really knew what was going on, but they desperately wanted to think that there was some logic to all that was happening. When the collected gold was officially handed over to the Germans, the Jews emerged from their houses, walking around confidently, feeling that they had been spared. The danger was gone -- they would be O.K. now! The worst was over.
The few peaceful days passed quickly. Before long we heard about Jews again being seized for forced labor. The savage cries of the SS men again echoed through our narrow streets and some Jews were shot. Since it was so dangerous for Jewish men on the streets, their wives would sneak out at night to visit Christian acquaintances and sell them something in exchange for food. The bad times were back.
After a short while a new decree was proclaimed: all Jews had to hand over to the Judenrat a certain amount of wool. For a while things became quiet and peaceful on the streets while this wool collecting was going on. It took a few days till the Judenrat could collect the stipulated amount of wool. If you couldn't supply your family's quota of wool--the Jewish police would come for you. Whether or not you had the wool to begin with, or whether you could or could not obtain the wool--this did not interest the Jewish police. They did not want explanations or excuses--only wool. If you had no wool, or not enough wool--say goodbye to your home, your loved ones and your life. Forever.
After the wool levy, things again became quiet for a short while. Jews went around openly, free. The worst had passed, and they had survived. Things would get better now. People met on the streets in small groups to converse and exchange news. They had no real news to communicate to each other, only rumors. Optimistic rumors.
All of a sudden the Jewish and German police started surrounding streets and taking those Jews caught there away for forced labor. Those Jews whom they caught were beaten mercilessly. Mothers were shrieking hysterically, and children wailed pathetically -- they didn't know where their men were being sent. After a while, escapees from "forced labor" limped back to town. Some were terribly crippled. My own father had been beaten up very badly. I myself was caught once but I was lucky. I was beaten savagely and covered with blood but I made it back home. Remember -- there were no concentration camps yet. It was just the beginning of the nightmare.
Soon we were ordered to hand over all furs (coats, collars etc.) to the Judenrat. From all sides Jews came running with their furs. The familiar pattern repeated itself. After the furs had been handed over, Jews crawled out of their attics, bunkers and hiding places and went about their ordinary activities. And the Germans marched around the streets, not seizing a single person; they didn't beat or molest Jews. Jews felt "fine" -- the worst was over. Their names were sure to be on the "list" -- a list supplied to the Germans by the Judenrat stating who had handed over furs, wool, gold, etc. and how much each had "contributed."
Things hadn't changed: When a rich man was seized to be shipped away for hard labor he still had an "out" -- he would pay the Judenrat a huge sum and a poor Jew would be seized by the Jewish police and handed over to the Germans in place of the rich man, who was freed. They tried on a number of occasions to catch me as a "replacement," butt always managed to get away.
During the last days of November, 1939, a new notice appeared on all billboards and walls: All male Jews, ages 14-60, had to report on December 1st to the "Pletzl," a small market square in the center of the city where Jews had stands and sold various things. The Jews became confused. What could this mean? One Jew ran to another asking what he should do and nobody knew anything. Things looked bad.
In the early morning of December 1st I went out on the street and I saw Jewish men running around aimlessly like wild dogs. They were in a state of extreme fright and panic. Some ran back and forth, while others were running home. Jewish men were arguing with themselves- to report or not report to the Pletzl? I went closer to the Pletzl and stood off a little way, looking at what was going on, trying to guess at the proper action to take. I, like the others, was in a quandary. My parents lived at the far edge of town, so I ran there and asked my father what I should do. He didn't know what to tell me--nobody could give me advice at that time and in that place. There was no precedent for our predicament. My wife Yocheved also didn't know what to tell me.
After a short time I decided that I had better report to the Pletzl. Then I changed my mind and decided not to report. I changed my mind several times, but I finally decided to report. As I approached the small square I saw Jewish women standing in groups, at a distance. Christians were walking around freely. I stood at a distance and tried to understand what was going on. It was 8 in the morning. I took off my Star of David armband and put it in my pocket. I had a "good" face -- I didn't look Jewish. And I mingled among the Christian spectators, who were somewhat nervous and frightened too.
I saw masses of Jewish men and boys report to the square. I noticed especially the large numbers of 14-15-16 year old boys who were reporting. As a Jew reported to the uniformed SS men standing resplendent in their shiny boots and holding their long whips, the Jew got a whack in the head, from the whip, for "openers". Many Jews yelled "Shma Yisroel" and just stood there after they were beaten. I was frightened to death as I stood there and witnessed the beatings. I moved rapidly away from the Pletzl and ran home. I described what I had seen to my wife. I asked her: "Yocheved, what should I do? Should I report there?" She started to cry--she didn't know what to tell me. In those times and under those circumstances, we all had to make our own decisions. Nobody could give you advice. I took my wife and my son in my arms and we all cried.
I went down to the street and I ran to my uncle Mechel. I still wasn't wearing the mandatory Star of David armband. Mechel had seen everything, because one of his windows overlooked the square. I asked him what he was going to do and he replied that he wasn't going to report. But he was running back and forth, highly agitated, with tears in his eyes, wrestling with his own thoughts and conscience. His wife was crying, as was his daughter Roochale. And I started to cry too when I looked out the window at many more Jews reporting. Meanwhile, time was passing and it would soon be too late even if we wanted to report. My uncle Mechel was by now running through the house like a deranged man. He stopped answering me after a while, and he seemed to become oblivious to everything around him. His wife was afraid that I should remain in their home. If the SS should come in and see us both there it would be worse for all of them. I saw she was right; I was endangering them by being there.
I left Mechel's house, running like a crazy man. I took a roundabout route away from their home and I crawled into the cellar of a house. I hid there, thinking all the while that the SS would come for me and shoot me on the spot. I was afraid to leave that cellar. I thought that perhaps I had, after all, made a mistake by not reporting to the Pletzl. So, dreadfully frightened, I lay in that cellar for many hours, crying and moaning. I wondered what had happened to those men who had reported. I heard shooting, and I thought that the shooting was drawing closer to me in that cellar. Perhaps they were searching for me. I was afraid to move a muscle.
After some time I mustered up enough courage to look out through a crack in the wall. I saw that it was getting dark. I waited a short while and I soon heard people talking, but I couldn't make out what they were saying. When it became completely dark I got up and left that cellar. I saw Jewish women and children standing around and crying uncontrollably. They told me what had happened to those Jewish men who had reported to the Pletzl. They had been herded down the road to the Chrubyeshoov forest and as soon as they approached the forest the Germans started firing at them with submachine guns. A few Jews had managed to escape and return home and they told how Germans were riding on horses, holding automatic weapons and shooting up the whole row of Jews.
Through a back lane I made my way back to my family. I had told my wife that I was going to report to the Pletzl, and I was afraid that she would faint when she saw me, so I spoke very softly. My boy and my wife hugged and kissed me. They thought that I had been killed. The joy in my simple home was enormous. I ran through back streets to my older sister's home and I saw my father there. He too hadn't reported. We hugged each other with joy. I told him how I had hid in a cellar, how I heard the shooting. My father lived in the direction of that forest into which the Jews had been herded and he had heard the yelling and shooting. He told me all about it.
Then I went to Mechel's home and I saw his wife and daughter crying. I knew right away that Mechel must have reported to the Pletzl but I was afraid to ask. I finally asked her what had happened to my uncle. His wife didn't answer me--she was crying so hard that she couldn't answer me. Then I understood everything, so I told her: "Wait. You'll see--he'll come back'" She quieted down a bit and stopped crying--I had given her a hope to hang onto. After she wiped away her tears she told me how agitated Mechel had been at what he had seen through the window, how he ran around crazily. All of a sudden he had dashed out of the house to report to the Germans in the Pletzl. He had always been a very law-abiding man and he probably felt that he had to obey the "legal", official police order to report. His wife and little daughter had seen, from the window, how he had been whipped on the head.
I left Mechel's house and started to return home. There were small groups of Jews in the now-quiet streets, talking in low, hushed voices, almost whispering to each other. I heard an escapee explain how the Germans, riding on their horses, had kept on shooting at the Jews. If a Jew couldn't run fast enough--one shot and he was finished. There were fairly deep ditches on both sides of the road, so those who had been shot were shoved into the ditches. The whole way to Chrubyeshoov was littered with bodies. They drove those poor Jews like wolves attacking sheep, decimating them all the while. The Germans were yelling and shrieking: "Los, Los Verfluchte Juden!" (Faster, Faster, accursed Jew!") 1800 Jews had reported to the Pletzl. First the cripples were shot. Then whoever had a good pair of shoes or boots was shot. Those who became tired -- shot. The weak -- shot. 14-15 year olds--shot. The Jews had to keep running fast. Those who fell behind -- shot. The youngsters were shot because the soft soles of their feet became blistered and they couldn't run any more.
I don't understand one thing: those Jews saw how doomed they were. They saw death hovering over them, seizing on one Jew and then another. I don't understand why they didn't throw themselves on the Germans or why they didn't take off in different directions. There weren't that many Germans there. And the Jews were quite numerous. They could have accomplished something. Admittedly, the Chrubyeshoov forest was not thickly wooded, but still -- this forest stretched a very long way. The Germans couldn't have killed all of them. Or even half of them. And those Jews saw with their own eyes how their number was being diminished every minute.
The SS were shrieking like wild animals all the way from Chelm to Chrubyeshoov, a distance of 15-20 kilometers. The whole road was littered with blood and bodies. Those Jews who escaped and returned looked horrible--most were badly wounded. An acquaintance told me how he saw with his own eyes how my uncle Mechel was shot on the outskirts of Chrubyeshoov. 200 or 300 men were left of the original 1800. They thought that they would be freed. When they came to Chrubyeshoov, however, they were lined up in the market square. A roundup of Jewish men from Chrubyeshoov had taken place, and those men were herded together with the Chelm survivors. The Chrubyeshoov Jews looked to the Chelm survivors for information but the latter were afraid to talk because the Germans were watching them. The women and children of Chrubyeshoov were crying pathetically, much as had been the case in Chelm.
The Chelm and Chrubyeshoov Jewish men were then herded out of town. The shooting started again. The survivors were driven to the Bug river. The Russians were on the other side, where they held a town called Sokal. As the Jews got closer to the river the Germans started to fire indiscriminately at the mass of men. Many Jews were killed, and the rest ran into the water. Those who were good swimmers were able to make it across to the Russians, but many Jews drowned. The banks of the Bug were littered with Jewish corpses. The Russians were, all the while, shooting too. The border was suddenly being stormed by a mass of men. The Russians didn't know what was going on. When it was all over the Germans stood on the river bank, laughing riotously. They had had a great time!
Meanwhile, back in Chelm, bad news started to circulate -- we would be confined to a ghetto. However, it turned out that we would not be restricted to a completely closed-in ghetto. We would be concentrated in restricted quarters -- a small area. And we would not be allowed to walk on "Christian" streets. We were terrified by this news, as it meant starvation. If you couldn't move around freely, you would be unable to sell or barter for food. The leader of the Judenrat, Biederman, ordered that we should move into the designated small area. He wasn't a bad man; he had to order us to do that as he had no choice at all in the matter. He was a learned man and he wasn't as bad as other Judenrat leaders I heard of.
We cried at this new disaster. How could 3 or 4 families live in one room? But crying didn't help -- since we were already in the restricted area we didn't have to leave our home, but we now occupied a small part of one room in the flat. Our home was now full of relocated families -- strangers. When the order to relocate had been given, we saw Jews launch themselves into feverish activity -- packing the few things left to them and dragging them through the streets on broken and rickety kiddy wagons, everything piled up precariously. All of this forced moving was accompanied by crying and shrieking and lamenting. The street scenes were terrible. Some bent-over old Jews and old women tried to carry their life possessions on their shoulders, and they dragged themselves through the dark streets. And most people, not only the old, had taken on a skeleton-like appearance. They had that beaten look. They didn't look like human beings any more -- they looked like cadavers. Many of them felt that we were doomed anyway. Whether we would die of hunger, or other causes, was immaterial -- we would all die anyway. Some Jews said: "Why don't we throw ourselves on the Germans--we have nothing to lose!" But most Jews were too terrified to do anything.
The SS came with dogs to "inspect" our restricted area. They looked 12 feet high in their polished leather boots. Many Jews fainted from just looking at what seemed to be superhuman giants. Some Germans came to look at us out of curiosity. Others came to seize Jews for hard labor. Now that the Jews were concentrated in a small area the SS didn't have to run all over the place to seize them. They could be grabbed much more easily now.
Now they seized women and girls for hard labor too. Jews lined up in the streets every morning. All Jews carried a spoon and a small pot. The young girls' feet were swathed in rags -- they had no shoes. The SS came, with Jewish police to keep order, and they selected Jews. Those who were selected were already weak, so they couldn't work hard. The SS, however, whipped them terribly while they worked. Many who were hit on the head died at the work site and were hastily buried there. After a few days, the survivors of those who had been selected returned and told horrible things about what had happened to them.
My wife and I asked ourselves: how could we go on like this? How long could we last? Our hunger pangs were terrible, and our son Yossele was looking worse from day to day. I had hidden a little merchandise but I could get to it with great difficulty because it was out of the restricted area. Once, when I had managed to lay my hands on some of this fabric, my wife and I took a chance. One night we took off our Star of David armbands and we went to a friendly Christian on a non-Jewish Polish street. We were risking our lives; we could have been shot straight away -- no explanations allowed. My Christian acquaintance became very frightened when he saw us and crossed himself over and over. What a chance we had taken, he told us. We gave him the merchandise and he gave us food in return. He went cautiously to the window, peered out very, very carefully and told us that we could leave. We ran out, scared stiff. We cut across fields and back lanes. We hid in a ditch because we saw a German walking some distance away. We came out of that ditch when we could no longer see him. The fright we felt cannot be communicated in words. We finally reached our home and found our neighbors somewhat angry and ill-tempered. They said that our baby had kept on crying and had disturbed them, and our boy had woken up and cried, saying: "Food, please, food! I'm hungry! I'm very hungry!" My wife and I took out the food we had brought and we gave the neighbors some. We woke our children up; my wife breast-fed the baby and we gave some food to our son. He ate with such enjoyment! His eyes were sparkling with joy!
We heard that special camps were being built where Jews would be killed. News of such places filtered through to us, but we heard so many rumors that we did not give undue attention to this one. We believed what we wanted to believe, and we certainly didn't want to believe such rumors.
I was caught one day on the street for hard labor and we were herded over to several large sleighs. We had to push and pull those sleighs while the SS kept yelling: "Schnell! Schnell! Los! Los!" and whipped us continually. I was worried because my wife wasn't home when the Germans caught me and she would worry, not knowing what had happened to me.
The SS were on the sleighs and we were pulling and pushing while they kept on whipping us. I thought that my end had come -- I would never see my loved ones again. This continued for 2 hours until we reached a certain area of forest. When we were told to stop we were very frightened -- we thought that the Germans intended to shoot us there. However, they explained to us that our job would be to flush the rabbits out of the forest, and the Germans would shoot them. We would be "beaters".
It was so muddy. We sank up to our knees in the muck, and yet we had to chase the rabbits. A few Jews collapsed in the mud and drowned. Perhaps they had had heart attacks. The mud mixed with snow made for very hard going. We had to chase the rabbits to the edge of the forest and when they emerged from the trees the Germans shot them. We chased those rabbits all day, while we in turn were chased by a few shouting and cursing Germans. It seemed impossible to chase anything in that mud but we were so frightened that we did our best.
They filled those sleighs with dead rabbits and, when it started to get dark, we had to push and pull those sleighs back. We didn't know whether the Germans would let us live or finish us off after this. The sweat was dripping from us. We hadn't eaten all day and we were in a weakened condition to begin with. We finally got those sleighs to what had formerly been a mental asylum on the outskirts of Chelm where SS officers were now quartered.
There was one notoriously famous SS man at that asylum -- a creature with blond hair and a bristling red face. He was a real murderer -- a wild beast. When Jews were brought there he would line them up against a wall and shoot them. He must have heard that we were coming because from a kilometer away we heard him bellowing with pleasure. He ran over to us like a wild man and started to whip us mercilessly on our heads. He seemed to be enjoying every moment of it. When his sadistic instinct was satisfied he let us go.
I dragged myself home and told my wife what kind of a day I had had. She was aghast at what I looked like -- I was covered with blood and welts. She gave me a bite to eat --there really wasn't much to give me -- and I started to cry. I was crying from joy, joy that I could still be with my loved ones, my family. I felt that I had been spared.
The next day I got up very early because I had found some "work" (unpaid, of course) at the irrigation ditches of the waterworks department (Wasserwirtschaft). Thousands of Jews "worked" there. On the street outside my home a German approached me. I took off my hat before him, as we were supposed to do, and kept walking. He yelled at me to stop and started to berate me: "Why had I taken off my hat for him? We were all "Kameraden" -- friends -- so I didn't have to do that." I didn't say anything -- I just stood there. He gave me a slap and told me to go back and walk past him without taking off my hat. So I did what he ordered me to do. Then he started yelling again: now he was angry at me for not taking my hat off. "Was I being deliberately disrespectful of a soldier of the Reich?" He was trying to torment and torture me. I was thoroughly confused by this time. He ordered me to bow and kneel before him, and then he let me go.
When I got a short distance away from him I was caught again for more forced labor. I was pushed into a mass of bloodied and beaten Jews, and then we were herded for 2 hours until we came to a field. We were ordered to line up in fours and we were given shovels. The Germans gave us a few whacks in the head and ordered us to dig ditches. We were petrified -- we thought that we were digging our graves. But when we finished we were sent to dig more ditches in another field. It finally dawned on us that we were digging up "Torf", peat. As we dug the ditches filled with cold water. And we stood in that water a whole day, without food and drink, digging.
When it started to get dark the Germans yelled at us: the peat had to be loaded into a wagon. They whipped us to make sure that the peat was stacked in a certain, exact way. Those who were slipshod in their stacking were beaten even harder. And we had to pull the wagon back, the SS sitting high up on the wagon and shouting "Los! Los", whipping us all the while. We dragged the loaded wagon to the mental asylum. There were cellars there, with heavy covers, like root cellars. Every Jew had to go and lift those covers. Those who couldn't lift them up were whipped into unconsciousness. The SS whipped with gusto, as if we had personally insulted them. After the unloading we were told to stand against the wall with our hands up. We stood for hours like that, expecting to be shot at any moment. One SS man told us that we would be shot. So we made our "vidui," (last confessions), quietly. The Germans started to yell that we should count until 10, then until 20. They shot one Jew. Then they tormented us with simulated "ready-aim-fire" orders and other of their "games." We finally understood that their aim was to terrorize us. They took great pleasure in this. At last, when it seemed as if our nerves could endure no more, they chased us away from the asylum with their whips.
I dragged myself home. My little son jumped at me when I came in, asking me where I had been all day, why I came home so late. What could I tell him? Wasn't the poor child suffering enough? Did I have to add to his terror? And what could I tell him? How could I explain that a German I had known before the war, with whom I had traded and had cups of tea, was now a "Volksdeutscher" and took the greatest pleasure in tormenting Jews. My wife held the baby nestled in her arms and she was crying at what I looked like. She didn't have to ask me what had happened -- she could see it on my face. She gave me something to eat. It was very little but I couldn't ask her for more because I knew what the answer would be: she had nothing more to give me. Starvation isn't something you can communicate with words. Only those who have been through it know. A starving person is no longer a human being--he is just an animal with one obsession -- food. Nothing else concerns him.
The next morning I took a side road to get to the waterworks department. I didn't want to get caught for more forced labor. When I arrived there, the SS man in charge came over and started berating me: why hadn't I come the previous day to work? I told him what had happened to me, so he telephoned to check my story. The asylum corroborated my explanation; they had methodically written down all our names. Had I not told the truth the SS man would have shot me on the spot.
So I continued working in the workshop of the waterworks department. For the main work there, digging irrigation ditches, the Germans brought only young Jewish girls. They had once been pretty, but now they looked like 80 year-old women. They were like skeletons, wrapped in rags. They were skin and bones -- exhausted, drained and barefoot. And you could see that they once had been pretty, young. They had to dig irrigation ditches so that the water would run off. Thousands of Jewish girls stood on the fields, knee and hip-deep in cold water, and the Germans kept yelling: "Schneller! Schneller! " (Faster!). Those girls were hungry; nobody gave them any food. Those who got tired were taken to a room and shot. Every day the Germans shot 100 or so Jews that way. Many Jews simply died while working -- they fell in the fields. There were always two SS men in that room, waiting for their victims. I know this because I worked near that room. I heard the yelling and then the shot. In the workshop I worked with a Roumanian-Jewish woman. I asked her: "How is all this going to end? We're not going to be able to survive such hard work." I went home with some other Jews and we talked amongst ourselves about the impossibility of surviving such conditions.
The next day I worked hard, but my supervisor, an elderly German soldier (he must have been close to 60) whipped me very hard. He beat me mercilessly. I was making ladders. Two Germans came over to me and asked me what I had been saying to that Roumanian-Jewish woman, the charwoman and general clean-up lady of the workshop. The Germans asked for my papers, examined them and took me away to another room, where there were 2 more Germans. One sat me down roughly on a chair in the middle of the room and ordered me to tell them exactly what I had told the woman. I said that I had told her that with such hard work and without food we wouldn't be able to live much longer. I had told her that I had no bread to bring home to my family. That Roumanian-Jewish woman had obviously squealed on me to the Germans. They kept probing, asking me all kinds of things about contacts I might have had with other "rebellious" Jews. Of course I had no such contacts. I had simply made a few innocent and sincere remarks to that woman. The Germans started to yell at me and ordered me to turn over and pull down my pants. They then started to whip me. They whipped me for a long time till I was unconscious. They must have taken a pail of water and thrown it on me They let a savage dog loose on me; he bit me terribly. Then they shoved me, staggering badly, out of the room and shouted at me that the next day I would be finished off. I crawled home and told my wife that we were finished. She cried and my son cried too. All of this happened a day before Shavuoth, 1942.
The next day we heard that there would be an Aktion. My wife, with the children, ran to my parents to hide, since they still lived on a street which had a majority of Christians. I heard shooting outside. I looked outside through my small crack and I saw Germans shooting Jews, grabbing small children and throwing them into wagons dripping with blood. I saw a woman who tried to run and hide. She was spotted by a German who ran over to her and shot her dead on the spot. Her children fell on their dead mother's body, and they too were shot by the Germans. The Germans were running around all over the place looking for more victims. They were completely wild. I started to cry. I kept worrying about my family.
After a while I heard somebody knock at the door. I recognized my mother's voice so I crawled out of my false beam and I let her in. We sat down and she told me how an SS man had come to her door and had seen the baby at my wife's breast and my little boy holding her hand. The SS man left them alone. They had been, almost miraculously, lucky. They had hit on the one SS who may have had a spark of human decency left in him. My mother cried terribly for the half-hour she sat with me, and then got up to go. I said: "Ma, where are you going? I'm not letting you go. Don't you see that they're killing women and children in the streets?" My mother was stubborn, however. She insisted. She had to go. She had collected valuables from Jews and she owed this to friendly Christians who had given her food. She explained that she had to settle her debts with those Christians. She was a very pious and honest woman. She pulled herself away from my hands and left the house. That was the last time I saw my mother. She was seized on the street by the Germans and thrown into a truck.
Shortly afterwards my wife and children came in. They told me how my father had escaped from the Aktion by hiding in his attic, but his Christian neighbors squealed on him and told the Germans exactly where he was. The Germans came for him, beat him mercilessly and took him away. My wife saw that she couldn't stay amongst such squealers, so she came back home. My wife was realistic; she must have had a foreboding of doom. She made a package of a few diapers, some food and a small coverlet. Remember: I wasn't supposed to be there at all. I didn't have proper papers. When we heard heavy footsteps coming up the stairs, I dashed into my false beam. I heard 2 SS men come in and ask my wife: "where is your husband?" She answered: "I no longer have a husband." They turned to my little boy: "Where is your father?" He said: "I no longer have a father." He was a smart boy. The SS men shouted "Verfluchte Juden" and took my wife and children away. I heard the shouting of the SS and the shrieking and howling of the terrorized Jews. Through my crack I saw Germans pulling bloodied people, like sacks, out of buildings. Later, when I came out, I saw that our whole stairway was covered with blood. I saw blood-covered hats on the stairs. Even now, so many years later, my heart beats so hard and fast when I recall this, but how can I forget it? How can anyone forget such a thing?
I remained in my hiding place till the night came and then I looked out and saw people walking around, unmolested. I ran to my parents' house and my sister was there; she told me over and over how the Christian neighbors had squealed on my father and how she had hidden and saved herself. I ran to my mother-in-law to see how she was. She was crying terribly; she knew what had happened. I started to cry too. Yocheved's mother said that a catastrophe had struck the Jews. It had been sent by God. She said we shouldn't cry because the same fate would soon happen to all of us. The Messiah (Mooshiach) was coming soon -- very soon -- so all of this was foreordained. It had to happen. She was a very pious woman, exceedingly religious, and she tried to comfort me as best she could. Then, when she saw the depth of my grief, she tried to comfort me with other words: "Maybe they took Yocheved and the children to a labor camp."
I ran to my mother-in-law's brother, Elya, and with a pleading voice I asked him what he thought. He answered: "What are you crying for? You see that we'll all shortly be dead anyhow -- it's impossible that we'll remain alive." I returned to my house; a few people were left there. I looked at the clothing of my wife and children. There are no words powerful enough to express my feelings at that time.
The remaining Jews thought that the tragic period was over. Things would become quiet and no such terrible Aktions would recur. The SS did become quiet for awhile, and the Jews thought that this was the way things would remain. Then they started to catch Jews again. This was the system they used: they alternated terror with tranquillity. The Jewish police were still doing their "work"; the Judenrat was still operating. The Jewish police went to each house after the Aktion and made new lists of the remaining population -- those who had survived. The Germans then ordered the survivors to live closer together, in a more narrowly restricted area. Two new families, with 4 children, were sent to live in my home. I could no longer use my hiding place. My new neighbors resented my presence -- they would have preferred to have the house all to themselves.
So life, if it could be called that, went on. There were some Jews left. People's spirits improved, but I was shattered. I was completely dejected, totally depressed. In my house there were strangers now who dressed in my wife's clothes; their children wore my little one's clothes. I was a broken man; I couldn't sleep. When I saw them in those clothes I just couldn't control my tears. They slept in my bed and I no longer had a bed to sleep in. I kept a bit of merchandise in a chest, so I slept on the lid of that chest. I had lost my bed because I was outnumbered by them; they simply took the bed over and that was that. I had been left all alone. I only had memories now.
Time passed and it was quieter now in Chelm. One day I felt that I was at the brink -- I was at the breaking point. My sanity was going. I ran to my sister and I told her that I couldn't take the troubles any longer. I just couldn't stand it any more. She comforted me and reminded me that we still had each other. Her presence did something for me, because she was a reminder and a remnant of my former life. As long as I could reminisce with her I still had a past. I was caught for forced labor when I left her house. I was lucky, however, because they released me at the end of the day.
A big camp, using the military barracks of Chelm as a nucleus, was built. All the Jews from Chelm and the surrounding shtetlach were "invited" to report there. So a whole procession started -- women in rags, children with little wagons pulling a few possessions, old men dragging bundles, stalked by fear. Where could they run to? So they reported to the camp. I saw all of this procession of "volunteers" drag themselves to the camp. The Judenrat and the Jewish police were still operating (only later were they taken away with all the rest). The policemen wore special hats. Then a new order was issued: all Jews had to report to the barracks. There were many thousands of Jews in that camp. It was fenced in with guards. There were Jewish kapos there too. People slept crowded together on 5 or 6 levels of wooden bunks. The Jewish prisoners were given 100 grams of bread a day and a kind of weak soup. They had to work very hard and were beaten regularly.
I didn't report to that camp. Some of my neighbors in my flat also didn't report. Because of them I could no longer use my false-beam hiding place. Anyhow, they wanted to get rid of me. With me gone, there would be one less body in the crowded room. And they could "help themselves" to my meager possessions. One woman in the flat had lost her husband so she wanted all Jewish husbands everywhere to die. Another had lost 2 brothers who were my age, so she looked at me and her eyes seemed to say: "Why are you alive and they're not?" Somebody in my house squealed on me. One day the Gestapo burst into the flat, ran right over to me and told me to tell them where I had hidden my merchandise. They didn't have to beat me-they knew I was totally helpless in their hands. I showed them where all the merchandise was. They brought a truck and I had to load all the merchandise on it. All the Gestapo were billeted in a new area of Chelm, so I had to go with the Gestapo men there and unload the merchandise. When I finished they beat me and drove me straight to the big new military barracks camp and shoved me in. I was no longer a free man.
I was shown a bunk where I would sleep. Every day thousands of Jews were shipped into this camp and every day thousands were taken away, never to be heard from again. Nobody knew where they had been taken. The SS, with whips in hand, would supervise these "shipments." There were men, women and children in this camp. A very tense and melancholy atmosphere hung over the place. Security was very strong -- electric fences, dogs, etc. People were talking openly now; they said that those who had been taken away had been gassed in gigantic gas chambers. I spoke quietly to some Jews. "Let's try something, let's do something." I said. But I was told time and again: "This is the time of mooshiach's (Messiah's) arrival, we have to die anyhow so why waste effort?" Every morning there was "eintreten" -- lining up in three's. Some were sent to work, others were shipped out of the camp and were never heard from again. Few returned from the work details, but those few who did return told horrible things about digging ditches and having to throw their own children into those ditches. My brother-in-law Bergmann told me he had seen this with his own eyes.
There was a kapo there named Scherer, who used to live on my street in Chelm. He used to buy flour from my father. He had been our friend, and yet this tall kapo used to beat me mercilessly in the camp. I asked him: "You know me. You remember me. How can you hit me like that?" He answered: "Here I don't know anybody and I don't remember anybody!" I said: "We used to give you credit when you lacked money. We sold to you at very cheap prices because we knew you were having a hard time. We were good neighbors." For an answer he hit me hard several times and shouted: "Here nobody is my neighbor! Here everybody is a stranger to me!" Every day Jews became weaker. The food rations weren't nearly minimally sufficient.
People are odd. Like Scherer, other ordinary, "normal" people underwent massive personality changes at this camp. I saw a man I knew, Tishler, a carpenter. He had had a wife and 4 children all shipped to their deaths. And yet Tishler was dancing and singing and partying with the other kitchen kapos. He looked well because he ate well. Once, looking at him, I burst into tears. My friend said: "Kalmen, why are you crying? They'll kill you if they notice you crying!" I found the scene of that Tishler carousing like that disgusting. He had lost all that was meaningful to him, and there he was partying, enjoying and having a great good time!
I saw a woman I had known in pre-war Chelm. Her family had owned a big shoe store; she had been a refined woman with two children. At the camp, she thought that her husband and children were dead (as it turned out, he was in Russia and survived the war). She started to carry on with a gang of vulgar kapos in the most lascivious way. I can't forget her dancing and singing, like a cabaret stripper of the lowest type. She was later shipped to Sobibor in "my" transport, and that was the end of her.
One morning, at "eintreten", they asked if there was a cabinet maker amongst us. I picked up my hand -- I was a carpenter but I could also make cabinets. A Wehrmacht man came over and took me away, to show me some windows that needed repair. He took me to his room and he must have perceived that I was very sad because he spoke to me openly, on a man-to-man basis, with much sympathy, and understanding. We all were afraid to look directly at a German's face, and here was a German who spoke to me like a friend! He really restored my feelings, my image of myself as a human being. He told me that Hitler had ordered the liquidation of all of the Jews; this would be followed by the liquidation of the Poles, and of many other races. I saw that this Wehrmacht man was a decent human being, so I unburdened myself to him; I told him that my wife, my two children and my mother and father had been killed by the SS. Had I spoken like that to an SS man, well, that would have been unthinkable! But my punishment would not have been unthinkable -- a slow and painful death.
This Wehrmacht soldier gave me excellent food from his own rations. Then he gave me some tools to fix his windows. He told me: "You must be constantly working. What is most important is that you must always be seen to be working or you'll be reported! There are terrible ‘reporters’ around here!" He explained that he didn't have very much for me to do there, so I had to return to the barracks to sleep at night. However, when this window job would be finished, he would claim that he needed me for more work. He said that I should listen to the "talk" in the barracks because the kapos knew when big transports of Jews were to be shipped out of the camp. He said that if I heard about an impending shipment of Jews out of the camp I should tell him immediately and he would protect me by coming at once and taking me away to work. He had registered me in some administrative office of the camp and this allowed me to walk around freely there with some tools.
One night, in 1942, in summer, at 3 A.M., the SS surrounded our barracks and took about 1,500 of us out. People were yelling and crying terribly; most knew what this meant. We were herded to freight wagons. Such trains kept going day and night, transporting Jews to their deaths. Before this, the Wehrmacht soldier had saved me twice, but this time neither he nor I had any foreknowledge of the transport. I couldn't notify him and I therefore lost my protector.
The SS brutes were yelling, swearing and cursing loudly. They shoved us into the freight-wagons like animals. The wagons were packed with small children, sick and wounded people, corpses and hysterical Jews; the crying and yelling was indescribable. My wagon was filled with the last survivors of the Chelm Jewish community. They hadn't been in the camp. They had been herded directly from Chelm to the train for direct shipment. Ukrainian brutes had been used to drag these Jews out of bunkers, attics and assorted hiding places. The freight-wagons had no windows. Many of the Jews said that we were being taken to gas ovens, to our deaths. A few even knew the actual name of the place -- Sobibor. But who could believe them? After all, those Chelm Jews had been caught at night, and many of them were disoriented and confused.
The wagons had been packed chock-full of people and the doors had been sealed shut with a loud sound of heavy metal scraping on other metal. That summer night was a hellish one! There were two Ukrainian soldiers in our wagon, and they said openly that we were all being taken to be gassed. We were finished -- we would never come back. They said our destination was Sobibor, a "vernichtungs lager" (extermination camp) that had been opened a short time earlier. There was no way out and no way back, they said. They were heavily armed, and they ordered us to hand over to them all gold, money and jewelry. Many Jews handed over whatever they had, but I didn't. I gave nothing. I had a piece of gold, rings, etc and they came in useful later on. I still have my family photos today -- they are my most precious possession. I had had my wife's wedding ring specially made for her, but I had to sell it later on in order to survive. Maybe it's better that I sold it -- I couldn't bear to look at it then, and I probably couldn't look at it now.
The Ukrainians kept beating mercilessly because not all Jews had something to hand over to those animals. They had to beat it out of some Jews. There were soon many bloodied Jews in our wagon. Many of the freight-wagons had no Ukrainians, but ours had them. The Germans obviously lacked enough personnel for each wagon. A few Jews, knowing that we were all being taken to extermination, ripped up some wooden slats of the wagon wall and jumped out as the train passed slowly through very thick forests. The Ukrainians had the train stopped and they went out to pursue the fleeing Jews. Of course, some Jews got away but most were brought back dead to the train and tossed back into the wagons. In my own wagon they tossed in 2 dead Jews who had been shot while trying to get away. They re-sealed the freight-wagons and the train continued on its hellish way. The train trip took most of one day; the train stopped many times during the trip.
When the train approached the camp we could hear the SS shouting. We smelled a stench of burning human flesh. A big gate opened to allow the train to enter the camp and then it came to a full stop. We heard the grating sound of metal on metal as the doors of the freight-wagons were opened, and then, facing us, we saw a poster: SS SonderKommando Sobibor. We saw the SS standing with whips in their hands. Near them were Ukrainians with whips too, and Jewish kapos. A German bellowed: "Austreten von den Waggonen" (Exit from the wagons) and people started to jump out of the wagons. They were petrified with fear. Many people died of heart attacks, others were shaking, as if palsied, from fear. Many were in a state of hysteria, while others were covered with urine and excrement. No food or water had been given to us throughout the journey.
20 men (Jewish prisoners) of the train-commando (Bahnhofkommando) stood around with carts. Sick people, unconscious people, cripples, the dead--all were piled into those carts which went immediately straight to the gas chambers. Those carts were made of metal. Many small children and infants were thrown into the carts too. (Abraham Margulies, now living in Israel, was in that train-commando). Those carts went on narrow rails. The bodies in those carts were piled up every which way--heads down, heads up, limbs dangling, etc. Many SS men were standing there, "supervising" the "process." And they were enjoying the "progress" of the "work." Oberscharfuhrer (Oberst) Gustav Wagner, a tall, blond good-looking man, supervised the whole scene. If the unloading didn't go as fast as the Germans wanted, they darted among the Jews and started to whip mercilessly. They slashed away viciously. 7 freight-wagons could be unloaded at a time, so 7 were taken in and the gate was locked. The 7 wagons were unloaded and then hauled out, to be replaced by another 7. In my train there were about 40 wagons, with 1,500 unfortunate Jews. 12 of us were selected for work--the rest all were sent up the "Tube" (a narrow, enclosed path) to Lager (Camp) III, where they were killed.
The train commando was only one of many commandos at Sobibor. There was a packing commando (to pack the victims' clothes, shoes, valuables, etc for shipment to Germany), a commando responsible for undressing the poor Jews, a barber commando to shear off their hair, etc. A kapo was at the head of each commando.
Oberst Wagner, the commander-in-chief of the whole operation, was usually bellowing and shouting orders. When he shouted "Austreten von den Waggonen" he could be heard for miles. Even the SS men trembled at the sound of his terrible voice. When all the Jews had left or had been dragged out of the wagons, Wagner started to bark out methodical orders, shouting all the while. He shouted: "Men separate, women separate, children separate!" Many mothers didn't want to leave their children, so Wagner gave an order to SS men and Ukrainians standing near him. They ran over and started to rip the children out of the mothers' hands. The children were crying; some of them felt what was in store for them, and others were simply terrified of the monstrous murderers. Some children remained silent--they knew everything and had resigned themselves. Many mothers fought valiantly to keep their children--they resisted and clutched the children to their chests. But it was all futile.
First Wagner shouted: "Kinder links!" (Children left!) "Frauen links!" (Women left!). That meant that they were destined straight for the death camp and its gas chambers. From us --the men--Wagner made a "selection." He shouted: "All carpenters: raise your hands'" And he also called out for various other craftsmen. The Germans selected 2 carpenters: Shlomo Elster (he's alive in Israel today) and me. Shlomo is a simple, good man; we worked side-by-side in Sobibor. I remember that 2 brothers, named Moiras, were selected too. Everybody else had to remain standing, completely still.
The kapos stood waiting. Wagner barked out an order, and the kapos led groups away. The kapos told us--12 men- to line up and remain standing to the side. Each kapo knew where to lead his group. Some Jews plaintively asked where they were being led to. The kapos told them that they were being taken to the showers, to be disinfected. Those Jews were happy to believe this. It was true--they were filthy because they had been dragged out of their bunkers and had not been given any water at all. Many were covered with lice. Sure--they needed showers. They needed disinfecting. It was obvious.
We--the workers in the Sobibor shops--were told about the whole process by the kapos. If the SS had found out they would have killed those kapos immediately and us too. The actual killing process was kept very secret. However, after 2 or 3 days there, the all-pervasive stench was self-explanatory.
You could tell most Jews one thousand times what was really going on there and they wouldn't believe you. People believe what they want to believe, or hope to believe- anything but the truth, if that truth is horrible enough. I myself spoke to some women wearing crucifixes, from Germany. They or their parents had converted to Christianity. I asked them: "Do you know where you are? Do you know what happens here?" I told them and they didn't believe me; they couldn't believe that such a place was possible. They answered me: "What do you mean when you say that they gas and burn people here? Such things in the middle of the 20th century? Are you crazy?" They simply couldn't understand it. Had people believed what was in store for them they would have resisted, but nobody believed. This was in 1942.
After we were ordered to stand to the side, the kapos led the Jews to the gas ovens. First, the women were undressed and all the hair was shaved off them to be packed for shipment to Germany. The barbers (20 men) were technically a part of the train commando. They worked rapidly and effectively. The men were sent directly to the gas chambers after undressing.
I remember a certain transport from Holland--ach, this was horrible! There were too many Jewish children to be "processed" rapidly so they were in a long, steadily shrinking circular line from morning to night. Such beautiful children, gorgeous little blonde girls with pigtails, decently dressed' These poor unfortunates were well-fed, with pretty, round little faces. Their parents must have loved them so, must have lavished such care on them, and now... Many of them carried small suitcases or bags. It was pitiful, so sad! The SS men were watching over them. We weren't supposed to even glance at those Berelach and Yosselech and Estherlech; saying one word to them was out of the question! Some of the kids were crying; they probably understood. The soil was sandy, so some children made circles in the sand and they played with pebbles and branches. After all, they were only children. If an SS man would have caught one of us glancing, even sideways, at those children, showing any interest at all in them, we would instantly have been taken to the gas chamber. But we managed to see what was going on. The Ukrainians and the SS were very nervous and wild that day. They were usually wild, but now they outdid themselves. Some children's eyes were full of fear--they were wide-eyed with fear. It was a day straight out of hell! And every minute less and less of them, less and less. The line got shorter and shorter. And my Berelechs and Yosselechs and Estherlechs became smoke in those accursed skies. After it was all over, the SS men went to get drunk in their casino.
The clothes of the unfortunates who had been undressed were carried to another area for sorting and packing, as were the shoes. The sick couldn't undress fast enough- everything, had to be fast, fast, fast--so the train commando's undressing detail had to rip the clothes off their bodies. Boonyek, a short, fat kapo was a decent man who often confided in us although he risked his life every time he did so. Perhaps he had to tell somebody to lighten his heavy heart. He told us how many of the unfortunates had raw wounds and festering sores; their clothes had become stuck to the congealed blood and scars. When the clothes were ripped off them their pain was enormous--they yelled at the top of their lungs. I worked in the carpentry shop and I heard, many times, the yelling of such unfortunates. Had I shown any interest at all I would have been shot on the spot. Sobibor was supposed to be a "secret"--nobody was supposed to know anything. Anybody who showed any interest in the "process" was immediately shot. But the train commando were ordered to do this, and the tempo was extremely fast. At Sobibor all Jews were not supposed to walk--they had to run.
The whole "processing" took between 1-2 hours. Wagner came over to the 12 of us who had been placed on a side. He told us that we were going to "Arbeitslager" -- the work camp (Lager I). Whoever had anything at all in their pockets should put it on the ground in front of them--money or paper or photos or jewels. Pockets had to be emptied completely. I saw where I was but I thought: maybe I'll be able to survive, somehow. That's the way human nature is--I can't explain it. I decided then and there not to hand over my precious photos (I still have them today) and my wife's rings. Wagner didn't have to search us--we were completely in his hands. Anything hidden would soon be evident. Wagner shouted: "If anybody hides anything, he'll be shot immediately'" But I stood my ground and surrendered nothing. With the photos I still had my past, and with the rings--a future, maybe.
After the ground in front of us became littered with odds and ends which Jews had emptied from their pockets, a few Ukrainians with whips came over to us. There were many Ukrainians at Sobibor--horrible murderers! Extraordinary sadists! They led us away. We couldn't walk--we had to run. The Ukrainians, whipping and beating us, herded us like animals, they yelled "Parshive Zhid" (Filthy Jews) and all kinds of vile curses at us. They took us to an enormous truck loaded with wood from demolished Jewish homes. The nails were still in the boards, and we had to climb into the truck and pull out the boards. You can't pull out boards when many people are standing on the woodpile, but that's what we had to do, and the Ukrainians were beating us all the while. The Germans used such boards to build Sobibor. They didn't bring new lumber; they dismantled Jewish houses and used the boards. These houses had been expertly dismantled by Jewish prisoner carpenters who probably had been killed afterwards.
At lunchtime they drove us into a big camp. There was one barrack there for Jewish women and two for Jewish men. Sobibor prisoners told me that 400 Jewish men and 200 Jewish women were kept there for work. They explained everything to me; one told me that I was in a "vernichtungslager"-- an extermination camp. Although the Ukrainians had told me that on the train, I hadn't believed them. But now that I saw the place with my own eyes I knew. The kapos yelled "Eintreten!" (line up); a kapo stood by the kitchen with a whip in his hand and Jews lined up for food--a watery soup. A piece of bread, 10 deko (a deko is short for dekogram and is a measure of weight), was given in the morning.
I slept in that area, called Lager I. We slept on bunks of rough wood made out of logs. There were 4 levels of bunks, and 3-4 Jewish prisoners slept in each bunk. At night people, some deranged and at the end of their sanity, were biting, scratching, tearing and clawing at each other. I heard many cry from hunger; others shrieked and moaned. The door was locked at night so little pots were brought in as toilets. There was no light at all in the barracks- this was strictly forbidden--and hundreds of us were packed in there. Many of us had dysentery and diarrhea; so the pots quickly filled up and overflowed. By morning there were 40 or 50 or 60 full pots and a mess all around them. The kapo came in the morning (all kapos had separate, private cubicle sleeping quarters) and he started to beat us because of the mess. He was under strict orders to keep the barrack minimally "clean" -- although such a thing was evidently impossible under the circumstances. So the kapo kept on beating us till the pots were taken out and emptied. The stench in our barrack was stifling. Many times during the night, while making your way to the pots, you stepped on people or fell on them. All night long people were crawling to those pots, which were placed in the narrow passage near the door, between the tall rows of bunks. Some people, getting down from an upper bunk in the dark, fell and twisted their ankle. The next day they were taken to the gas chamber. The barrack was either very cold or very hot, and some days we were locked in there from 4 PM. on. Some people died from the lack of air. We paid no attention to those who were taken away in the morning to die. We had become conditioned to see our existence as the new, "normal" way of life for a Jew. Those who could not condition themselves to this way of life--well, they left us during the nights. They committed suicide. They obtained sharp pieces of metal and slit their wrists. Their blood would drip down slowly on those sleeping on the bunk immediately beneath them.
After a transport was "processed" the Ukrainians and SS celebrated. In their Lager they had a casino, so they drank and sang and gorged themselves ("fressed"). I knew the whole process well because 2 or 3 times we were woken up in the middle of the night, driven out and ordered to unload transports of human beings who had been brought in during the middle of the night. Transports were coming day and night, and Sobibor was an especially busy hell on Fridays, because transports from Holland usually came on Fridays. That night ordeal of unloading innocent people to their deaths--I can never forget it!
Once a transport of ultra-Orthodox (Hassidic) women was brought to Sobibor. The poor women were shrieking horribly. When they were ordered to get undressed with their children, they were yelling "Shma Yisroel" at the tops of their lungs. You could have heard them kilometers away. All of them, with their children, were gassed. Not a single one was spared. I remember a group of Dutch Jewish women who had been brought in a transport. They kept yelling nervously and, in some cases, semi-hysterically, "It's impossible! It's impossible! It can't be! It can't be!" They couldn't believe that such a place could exist in the middle of the 20th century.
I worked with a group of carpenters. We had much to do because the Germans were always expanding and "improving" Sobibor. These were make-work projects devised by the Germans so they shouldn't be sent to the front. The eastern front was a meat-grinder, devouring people en masse, so the Germans were eager to seize on any excuse to make themselves look busy.
I remember when Dutch Jews were tossed into our group. They didn't know anything about lumber, and had no experience of hard, manual labor. They needed a lot of food, which they didn't get, and so they suffered horribly. They lasted 3 or 4 days. A few lasted a week. They couldn't survive longer. The Germans would spot those who weren't workers and would make life particularly hard for them. Then they would take them away.
While the Jews worked, Germans would go around and check every one--how they were working, how each looked. I worked in an area that was less tightly checked by the SS. They rarely came in. There were a few Chelm Jews with me; they depended on me to keep them alive because they weren't really craftsmen at all. They had been petty merchants. Some became very weak after a time; they couldn't hold a hammer any more. They couldn't pick up a piece of wood. They begged me plaintively: "Kalmen, take me to work with you, or I'll be finished off! Please, Kalmen, take me! Take me!" What could I do? I didn't have the authority to select those who would work with me. I couldn't appoint assistants. That was the truth, and that is what I told those poor unfortunates. What could I tell them -- that if I helped them I would provoke the Germans and get myself sent to the gas chambers too? The Germans were constantly looking for excuses to beat and torture us, to "discipline" us. The next day those poor unfortunates were gone. Taken away.
I remember when a transport of rich German Jews was brought to Sobibor. This transport subsequently became known as "The Rich Jews from Germany Transport." Those Jews looked really prosperous, they radiated an air of well-being, ease. A few were selected to join us for labor -- cutting trees, digging ditches, etc. However, those Jews didn't last long. They needed massive amounts of food and they had no work-skills at all. The Germans were experts concerning shirkers and those who were inept so they soon pounced upon such "amateurs" Within a matter of days the last of those German Jews disappeared from our work force.
Thousands and thousands of refined and educated Amsterdam Jews were shipped to Sobibor with First Class Round-Trip tickets. They were very well dressed. They had been told to bring their valuables. Food and drink was served to them in sumptuous dining cars, equipped with the best silverware and linen tablecloths. How do I know this? Because a few of them were thrown into my shop to work. They had been transferred three times during their trip to Sobibor: from their First Class carriages to other less luxurious ones, and finally to the sealed cattle cars which brought them to Sobibor. On the Sobibor arrival ramp they still clutched their "Round Trip" tickets in their hands. I remember one Dutchman, distraught, yelling: "Help! This is impossible! Look--here is my Round-trip ticket! Help!" They couldn't believe what was happening to them. I told that distraught Dutchman to forget about the Round-trip ticket, but he still wouldn't believe me. As long as a person doesn't see death right before his eyes he doesn't believe it.
I was sent to do carpentry jobs in various locations within Sobibor. Sometimes I was lucky enough to be sent to areas where no SS men were around. I often found sardines, marmalade, butter, etc where Jews had been unloaded and undressed; they had brought this food with them for their "resettlement." Sobibor was built on sandy soil, so I used to bury that food in various places and dig it up and eat it when I needed it. I usually did such things during the Germans’ lunch period. I used to try to get myself assigned to the sorting area.
Clothes, gold, shoes etc were sorted there. Somebody was responsible for burning rotten clothes, while others packed valuables for shipment to Germany. The unfortunate Jews had been told to bring their goods and valuables--they would need them for their "resettlement." Once a whole wagon-load of bread came. They must have transported a bakery to Sobibor. There was a mountain of bread in the midst of all the starving Jews.
There was a tall Jewish water-carrier in the train commando (Bahnhofkommando). I heard him say to Oberscharfuhrer Karl Franzl: "When is a transport coming? I'm so hungry'" Franzl answered: "Don't worry--another couple of days and they'll start rolling in again." I can never forget this short conversation--never! (Later, when we were escaping, this water-carrier yelled at me: "Kalmen, Kalmen! Carry me! I've been hit! Carry me!" They were shooting at us and he must have been hit. I showed him then the same consideration he had expressed for the poor Jews brought in on the trains to the gas ovens).
The train commando came to sleep in our barracks one night and they kept us awake all night. They were so happy, they were in such high spirits. They thought that they had cheated death -- it was only for others. They were in such good spirits because their stomachs were full. They had had a feast and their pockets were full too--with cookies, salami, and even whiskey. They had obtained their "goodies" from the incoming Jews they had unloaded from a train. Fine foods--rare under wartime conditions--were brought by "Western" Jews from Holland and Germany. These foods were usually in excellent condition, quite fresh. Such booty was obtainable only from "western" transports; the trainloads from Poland brought Jews who were generally in bad shape.
Some people are animals--they only think of their full bellies. They can't see beyond their stomachs. That water-carrier figured that he was working, he was being "productive," and his stomach was full--and that was it. He figured he was O.K.--he had a future. He wouldn't share the fate of all the "others." Human beings can be very foolish creatures. Many prisoners thought that others would be gassed and burned, but not them. They were "special." They could believe this even when death was staring them straight in the face. And even those who were brought to be killed -- every single one of them was hoping to survive, and they were looking for any small sign that they would not be killed. Had they psychologically fully come to accept the fact that they were destined for the gas chambers there would have been more resistance. But the manner in which deportations were carried out and the speed of the final "processing" prevented them from realizing their true fate, or if they did realize it, it was too late for real resistance.
In 1942 the Germans brought transport after transport to Sobibor. Every couple of days transports came from Holland, Germany, and even France. Jews who had been in labor or holding camps there had been told that they were being resettled to other labor or holding camps. These Jews came with their possessions--gold, money, merchandise, medical equipment, etc. Russian and Polish Jews came with nothing, but the western Jews came laden with baggage. And those western Jews looked good too, wearing nice clothes, accessories, etc. Their children still looked fresh and clean.
On two occasions I could have escaped. A big forest fire broke out near Sobibor and they took us to put out the fire. The Germans said that the partisans had started the fire. The smoke was very thick. I was sent to get some sand. I was half a kilometer away from the main group of prisoners; the smoke covered everything and the area was heavily wooded. I wanted to take off and run, but then I had qualms. Where could I hide? They would start a massive search for me; they would search like that because they didn't want the "secret" of Sobibor to get out. How far could I run before I tired? Remember--I was weak. And, curled up in some hole, could I really fool the dogs they would bring in? Anyhow, I became frightened and dropped the idea of escape.
Once I was taken to work outside the camp with some other prisoners. Two Ukrainians guarded us. One Ukrainian remained with 5 of us while the other went with the rest of the Jewish prisoners to buy "schnapps." (whiskey) Those Jews, from the train commando had gold which they had taken during the unloading process on the arrival ramp. I told the 4 Jews with me: "Let's finish him off and take off! We can overpower him easily." But they refused.
The Ukrainians were not completely trusted by the SS. They weren't allowed near the sorting stations by the railroad tracks, where there was, amongst many other things, gold and gems. Jews of the train commando did have access to that gold and gems, so they hid a piece of gold here, a gem there (all at the risk of their own lives) and traded with the Ukrainians. This way they obtained fine food, drinks, etc.
I once saw 4 of those train commando Jews sitting and eating bread and butter, cakes, and other food. I was extremely hungry. I begged them: "Please, fellows, give me a piece of bread. Or half a piece." They answered: "Go to hell." They refused me with such gross insults. They swore at me and cursed me viciously. They were so full of confidence, those pigs. However, after a time the Germans got wind of which Jews were trading with the Ukrainians. Those Jews were soon taken away to the gas ovens.
Jews were always escaping and they were always getting caught. They knew how to escape because Jews had built the camp and knew every square centimeter of it. Jews had done the wiring of the electrified fence. Those who tried to escape usually did so at night. One friend of mine, a "chessler" (one who builds houses with an axe) escaped at night and was never caught. I often wonder what became of him.
One spring day in 1943 about 30 men of the Waldkommando (forest commando) were taken out, under Ukrainian guards, to work. Later that day we saw the Ukrainians herding a much smaller body of Jews back to the camp. The Jews were bloodied, in bad shape. They were dragging many corpses with them. We were told that two of the Jews, Kof and Podchlebnik, had asked for permission to go to a nearby well and bring back water for their fellow prisoners. This was around mid-day and the men were thirsty. When they got to the well, they attacked the Ukrainian guard accompanying them, took his weapon and ammunition, tossed him into the well, and took off. When they didn't return with the water, the other Ukrainian guards became suspicious and herded the remaining Jews together, under heavy guard, until the matter would be clarified. These Jews understood what had occurred; they knew that they were finished whatever would happen. When one or two escaped from a group, the whole group was killed. So these desperate Jews took off in all directions, the Ukrainian guards firing at them and pursuing them.
Some of those Jews were said to have successfully escaped. However, those who were caught alive were brought back, tied up (hands and feet), sat down and ordered to look straight ahead while they were savagely clubbed by the Ukrainians. We were ordered to stand in a semi-circle and to watch the "spectacle"; we were also ordered to laugh loudly during the ordeal of our poor fellow Jews. These unfortunates, however, had the courage to shout out, while they were being tortured. One, a religious Jew, yelled: "The end of the Hitlers is coming!" Another shouted: "Shma Yizroel!" Then the Ukrainians shot them all; one unfortunate had to be shot 3 times before he died. The Ukrainians were foaming at the mouth as they clubbed them. Sobibor was full of those Ukrainians, the henchmen of the SS. For 2 or 3 months after this incident we were tormented and abused even more than usual.
A group of Dutch-Jewish prisoners hatched a plan to poison the Germans as a prelude to a mass escape. They had their people working in the SS kitchen, so they were well placed for such a plan. Many transports brought, amongst others, pharmacists, and these pharmacists had been ordered to bring their supplies for "resettlement." So those Dutch Jews had a good supply of poison which they had carefully accumulated. I knew at an early point about this plot; we figured that, having poisoned the Germans and Ukrainians, we would seize their arms and escape into the woods. We'd be well supplied with ammunition and food. However, at the last minute, somebody squealed on them. Sobibor had all kinds of people -- the most noble human beings and the worst scum, lower than animals. One of the scum must have alerted the Germans.
A few minutes before we were to line up for food, a kapo came running in, yelling: "Don't distribute the food!" And then we heard Wagner bellowing the "eintreten" order. We looked apprehensively at each other, expecting the worst. All of us were gathered in one place. Wagner ordered the Dutchmen to step out; he took them by the hand and led them in a column to Lager 4, straight into the gas chamber. In an hour all 70 or 80 of our Dutch fellow prisoners were dead. We were lucky; the squealer must have reported that this was a Dutch plot--he obviously hadn't mentioned Polish Jews. Many more of us would have been killed had the Germans known that we were in on the plot or, at least, had foreknowledge of it. Wagner spared only one Dutch Jew--a great artist. He used to make special paintings for Wagner. The rest of them--gone! Forever.
Shlomo Elster, my friend and fellow-carpenter, was very angry with me because I knew about this poisoning attempt and, on the day it was to take place, I took him to work in a certain area where there were supplies which I figured we would need "on the outside." When the plan was discovered, Elster glared at me as if he wanted to kill me with his eyes for involving him in this dangerous business. After this failed attempt, we really received rough treatment--merciless beatings, food deprivation, etc. We used to be able to rest after work, but this was no longer permitted. We were chased all over the place. For months the tension was very, very thick.
The commanding officer of Sobibor was Oberscharfuhrer Gustav Wagner. He was a terrible beast of a man, a sadistic murderer who was instinctively smart. He was a very cunning man; he seemed to have a sixth sense. One look at you and he knew what you were thinking. He was lean, tall and very handsome. We planned the uprising when Wagner was away on furlough. Sasha (Alexander Pechersky), the leader of our uprising, said: "While Wagner is here, we can't accomplish anything!" I'm sure that, had Wagner been present when we revolted, not a single one of us would have survived. Our plan would probably have never got off the ground. You could die of fear just looking at Wagner's murderous face.
Given his thirst for Jewish blood, I find one incident of my survival hard to explain. Once, Shlomo Elster and I were ordered to erect a low, one-story Polish-style peasant house with a straw roof. We were to use wood taken from dismantled Jewish houses. The wooden boards were supposed to fit tightly together, with no spaces between them. However, I left some spaces on the upper parts of the walls; we didn't have a ladder, so we couldn't reach those areas properly. Elster said, "Kalmen, you've been careless. We're going to get into trouble." I replied, "To hell with you, Shlomo! To hell with the SS! If I don't have the proper tools, how can I do a decent job?"
When Wagner examined the job, he noticed the spaces between the upper boards. He became very angry. His eyes blazed wildly. He gave me 20 lashes, and beat me up severely -- before shoving me back into the barracks. I don't know how I survived those 20 lashes. The next day he stalked into the barracks and shouted at me: "Tishler, komm!" (Cabinet maker, come with me'). When he spoke like that, with that expression, usually he took the person by the hand straight to the gas chamber. Every Jew knew that. That was his habit. As we were walking he said to me, "Oder schaffen oder die ufen." (Work or the gas oven). I was feverish, I couldn't even talk. I was swollen all over, in a terribly battered condition. However, when I heard Wagner's voice I suddenly came to my senses. He took me over to the house we had built and said: "Fix those bad spots! Now! Properly!" I started to work from sheer terror. That terror drove the fever out of my body. Seeing death right before my eyes caused me to work like mad, and I did the job properly. Why Wagner let me live, why I received a second chance--this I cannot say. I don't know.
Some prisoners were in continuous pain from various untreated ailments and diseases. They received no medicines -- nothing at all for their sickness. So prisoners were always committing suicide. Some just broke mentally and took the suicide route too.
When food was given, it was handed out according to a predetermined order. We would all line up for our pathetic portion: a bit of erzatz (fake) coffee and 100 grams of sawdust-like black bread. Suddenly we would hear a loud, bellowing "Eintreten" (roll call) and we would have to run to roll call and work. Many of us didn't have time to eat, and if anything remained in our bowls it would be splashed out by the jostling and scurrying that followed the "Eintreten" order. Prisoner existence in Sobibor was conducted at a very rapid pace -- everything was hurry, hurry, "schnell, schneller," interspersed with terrible beatings. At 3:30 our work day would end. We would line up in fours for roll call, then we would be chased by a kapo to our barracks where we slept. The Germans would come into our camp to count us to make sure that nobody had escaped. They knew who was no longer capable of work; they had an eye open for such people, so they would "select" them -- take them out, and sit them down to the side. They were then ordered to lower their pants, and they were savagely beaten; they were forced to count the strokes. And all of us were forced to look and laugh. This went on day in, day out. They did the same to the Jewish women too (we were 400 men and 200 women): They took them out and beat them till they died.
The Jewish women prisoners at Sobibor worked in the laundry and kitchen. Some tried to postpone their deaths by using make-up (from incoming transports) to look more alive. Some were great beauties and were lovers of kapos, who brought them the finest delicacies to eat. Kapos had their own cubicles, and they would bring their lovers there. One kapo was so dehumanized and beastly that he entered the women's barracks to find a girl who had caught his eye. He found her lying on a bunk with her mother beside her. The kapo lowered his pants and jumped on the girl. The mother had to watch while the kapo had his way with her daughter. Had the mother uttered one word of protest, she would have been finished. When a kapo brought food to one girl, she would usually share it with others. So many of the women didn't look too bad. Some of the women, in their desperate desire to look healthy and please "their" kapo, would change clothes 3 or 4 times a day. Sobibor had no shortage of clothes, all taken from the incoming transports. Kapos organized "parties" in the women's barracks. Some women, however, simply could not shed their morality, nor could they become close friends with those women who prostituted themselves to the kapos. These principled women suffered greatly; some of them looked like walking skeletons.
A kapo could, within certain limits, issue orders just like the Germans or Ukrainians did, and the ordinary Jewish prisoners were terrified of the kapos. If a Jew didn't obey a kapo, that Jew was reported to the Germans who soon took him away to his death. The kapos had limited but tremendous powers. Within those limits they were all-powerful, and controlled the lives and deaths of those unfortunates beneath them. There were some good kapos, although most had become brutalized.
Every kapo had a group of prisoners under him. The kapo was told by the Germans what to package, how to wrap it, etc. The kapos then made sure that the men under them carried out the orders properly. I was as afraid of my kapo as he was of the SS. He carried a big whip, was well-dressed, had his own room and a private life. He wore a special hat, like a chauffeur's hat, with a small visor. The kapos were, in a sense, the foremen of the enormous plant. SS men, going on furlough, took diamonds and gold with them to "enrich" their visits with their loved ones. They got these diamonds and the gold from the Jewish experts who were responsible for sorting and packing it for shipment to Germany. Sometimes these Jewish prisoner-experts threw unusually large diamonds into the garbage -- they didn't want the Germans to get them. Many times my group worked on furniture that was to be shipped to Germany. Only the Jews actually worked. The Germans went around snooping for shirkers and weaklings. Everywhere we worked the ultimate boss was an SS Oberscharfuhrer; the kapos had the right to go to the SS man when they needed instructions, etc. When the SS man was called he came into the workshop right away. They were very happy to come--it gave them something to do and allowed them to look busy. They were bored between transports, and they didn't want to be sent to the front. The arrival of a transport galvanized these Germans into action--they came to life and all of their sadism and savagery welled up. They lusted for those transports. When no transports came, the Germans ordered the prisoners to plant trees and flowers, build bathing areas for the SS, etc. There was always work to be done.
Once a commission of investigators (high-ranking SS men) came to inspect Sobibor. They were given a guided tour of our hell. They were shown how spotlessly clean the barracks and workshops were. Nobody was beaten that day. The high-ranking SS men wore green dress uniforms and feathers in their hats. The kapos were all dressed in civilian clothes with blue insignia. In our barrack it was said that the visiting delegation was led by Himmler or Eichmann. The delegation didn't spend much time in Sobibor, but while they were there we were petrified with fear. We were afraid to look at those big shots. Prisoners had been given certain prepared answers to questions they would be asked. We were afraid that one of the Germans would approach us and ask a question, and we would give the wrong answer. We knew that we would be punished with the gas chamber for a wrong answer. We had a tremendous inferiority complex; we thought that we, as Jews, belonged to a level of life below that of animals. And we feared like the most helpless cattle. The Germans had succeeded in depriving us of our self-image as human beings, with the dignity that that entails. That was why the revolt which later came was so important. Whether we would live or die, we would at least regain our dignity as human beings. Our ringleaders, Alexander Pechersky and Leon Feldhandler, restored us to the human race. That alone was a great achievement.
The men's two barracks in Lager I were separated from the women's barracks only by a kitchen building. We could approach the women's barracks because the Germans didn't make a point of hanging around our camp. They came for roll-calls, or for some special investigation, or to take out a prisoner. But they generally didn't loiter amongst us. I myself would go into the women's barracks and beg for food, because some of them were well supplied with food by "their" kapos. I was always tormented by hunger, and some of those well-fed women used to have pity on me; I would get a spoonful of jam here, a slice of bread there. Whatever I got was precious to me because I could trade it for something else. As a carpenter I was often moved around the camp, and this gave me the opportunity to trade.
Many SS men were present at the roll calls. They went around with their whips and looked at people's faces. When an SS man didn't like a prisoner's face, he took him out of the line-up. Whoever had displeased an SS man, for one reason or another, or no reason at all, was taken out. The SS men would shout, "Let your pants down!" The other SS would join "the party," and they would beat the prisoner mercilessly. The blood would flow, and we were strictly ordered to look at the scene attentively and laugh. If a German saw that a Jew was not looking, the Jew would get beaten too. The beaten Jews were thrown into the barracks after the beatings. However, the next day they couldn't go to work -- they were in such bad shape. They were then taken straight to the gas chamber. These incidents happened almost every day. Women were not spared this treatment too.
I was confused then, as we all were, but I soon learned that this one word – Sobibor --was synonymous with a corner of hell. A living hell. Sobibor was situated on a spur of the Chelm--Wlodawa railway line, not far from Bludowa, a small shtetl. The whole area was very heavily covered with enormous forests. The camp was large in size; it covered about 6 square kilometers. It was surrounded by electrified barbed wire, a strip of explosive mines, and a water-filled ditch. At places there were 2 and 3 rows of this barbed wire. There were watchtowers, with little cabins on top, at key points on the perimeter of the camp. They were manned mostly by Ukrainians with machine-guns. The barracks were built with lumber from Jewish houses that had been demolished in that area. A railway track had been extended to the camp.
The camp was divided into sections. The "vorlager" was the receiving and storage area. The SS chiefs had their offices there, and the Ukrainians' barracks were there too. There were storage rooms for Jewish shoes, luggage, clothing, etc. all of which had been seized from incoming Jews. The barbers who sheared the hair off Jewish women worked here too. There were various sorting stations on the grounds too. We, the Jewish prisoners who had been given a short reprieve, "lived" (if it can be called that) in camp No. 1, which had various kitchens and workshops--tailors' and shoemakers' shops, a saddle workshop, a carpenters' barracks (where I worked), a blacksmiths' shop, a painting shop, etc. It was like a big factory. We had every possible kind of craftsmen--jewelers, tailors, shoemakers, etc. Jewish prisoners were in charge of shipping clothing to Germany, repairing and shipping shoes, etc. The only things that were unusable were the poor Jews who had worn those shoes and clothes--they were "disposed of." But everything else was saved for the Third Reich. Our area, camp No. 1, was fenced-off with barbed wire, but this wire was not electrified. Camp No. 2 was for the SS beasts. There was a checkpoint between our camp and the Germans' camp. Their barracks were very neat, very proper, decorated with flowers. Valuables were stored here -- silverware, jewels, etc. There was a stable, a pigsty and a chicken coop in this area too. The fences were not all electrified. Only the perimeter fences and those around Camp No. 2 were electrified.
The gassing and burning was done in Camp No. 3. About 200 Jews lived permanently in that slaughterhouse, but we had no contact with them. We weren't even allowed to look in the direction of Camp No. 3. That slaughterhouse, Camp No. 3, was supposed to be very secret. We were supposed to pretend that it didn't exist, and that we were totally unaware of it. However, only a severely retarded person could remain ignorant of what went on there. The smoke and the smell said it all and we occasionally heard a terrified "Shma Yizroel " echo over to us from there. A friendly kapo once told me that, after the poor Jews had been gassed in the "showers," the floor would open up and the bodies would drop down, to be dragged away by those prisoner-Jews for burning. The kapo told me that one of the Jews there had seen his own wife's body in the tangled mass of corpses. Many Jews resisted and had to be beaten into the gas chamber. The kapo told me that the healthier Jews took longer to die from the gas. They suffered more.
Once a group of Jews was working near the death camp; as part of their job they were moving cement or mortar in little wagons. A couple of wagons rolled down a slope into the death camp area. Some of the Jews ran down there to retrieve the wagons. Those Jews never returned from there. They were swallowed up by the big "secret". All Jews who worked near the death camp area were scared stiff.
After our work was over, at 3:30, we were chased back into our Camp No. 1, where we waited for the SS man Karl Franzl to come and count us at roll call. He was a fat sadist. Once I spoke to a fellow-prisoner who had been ordered to help prepare Franzl's valises before he went on a furlough. The prisoner told me that Franzl's valises were full of Jewish gold, diamonds, etc. -- enough so that his children's children would never have to work for a living. This Franzl was responsible for our roll calls. After we were counted, we were given a bit to eat and our day was over.
I was once sent to do some carpentry work in an empty barracks. I was weak and demoralized; I didn't intend to work more than I had to. Nobody was around, so I figured that I could take it easy. A Jew with a sallow, yellowish complexion poked his head into the barracks and saw me loafing. He ran straight over to Wagner and squealed on me. He wanted to become a kapo, and he figured that reporting me would show how strict and avid he was. I cannot explain what happened, but Wagner took this squealer by the arm and led him straight to the death camp. That was the end of the squealer, but to this day I can't understand why Wagner behaved that way.
I saw, on one occasion, a group of new arrivals: Western, refined-looking Jews who had been fed and told that they were in a work camp. They were sat down at a table and ordered to write letters or cards to their relatives and friends back home. They were told to reassure their relatives and friends and tell them that they were in a work camp where the food was good and the conditions were reasonable. They wrote these letters and cards, some of them writing with a flourish, searching for "poetic" expressions, signing their names with verve and dash. Right after writing those letters they were taken out for "showers", gassed and burned. This happened many times, but once I myself saw them seated at long tables and writing away. Those letters and cards were diabolically designed by the Germans to make their task of rounding up Jews easier.
Many times big transports of Jews arrived from Russia. These Jews were unlike their Dutch or German brothers in that they knew where they were going. They had no illusions, so they resisted. They would throw themselves on the Germans when they were unloaded from the trains, and they had resisted before they were caught. So, after a while, the Germans instituted a "refinement": the Jews in the Russian transports were moved completely naked to Sobibor. They undressed them to make their escape more difficult; being naked, those Jews couldn't conceal weapons in their clothing. Some tried to bolt from the unloading ramp and fight the SS, but without weapons their cause was utterly hopeless. The Germans, who used a degree of "relative gentleness" on the unloading ramp in dealing with Dutch and German Jews, changed their tactics for the Russian Jews: they beat them continuously and viciously the moment the train doors were opened. They slashed at these Jews as they herded them towards the gas chambers. Some of the Russian Jews were yelling "Shma Yizroel, Shma Yizroel!" And then their cries became fainter and fainter and fainter.
Every day brought new horrors. I remember when the Germans even arranged a "wedding" of two Jewish prisoners. This was a complete wedding celebration, with rabbis, festivities, music, etc. They picked a Jewish singer dancer from France as the chief soloist at the festivities. Ach, did she sing! So beautifully, and with such expression! The Germans had prepared this wedding celebration for their own grotesque propaganda purpose. They filmed the wedding completely, and right afterwards all the participants, including the French soloist, were taken to the gas chamber.
You had to watch who you spoke to, even amongst the Jewish prisoners, or else you could end up in the gas chamber. The train kommando prisoners were in better shape the than rest of us and many of them thought they would live forever. It was dangerous to talk to some of them--they were terrific squealers. They went around looking for somebody to squeal on. There was one Oberkapo from Berlin (we called him "Berliner") who spoke an excellent, refined German. He was about 40 years old, and did not have the emaciated, hang-dog look of the rest of us. He thought that he would be spared because of his excellent German, a sign of his "enracination" in the great German "culture." When Oberst Franzl went on a furlough, this kapo thought that his chance had come -- he would show Franzl how devoted he was, how efficient! If he saw a straw in the wrong place, he beat the nearest Jew mercilessly. He caused many Jews to be sent to the gas chambers. He was so bad and so sadistic that, believe it or not, the other kapos got together and jumped him. They beat him terribly, and all the while he was yelling that he would change his ways and become "good." His cries, however, didn't help him; he was beaten to death. It took 2 hours of steady beating to kill him. And when Franzl returned he didn't even ask for him, or about him. Franzl never inquired what had happened to his zealous helper. We prisoners could breathe a little easier now that the Berlin kapo was gone.
Once, during winter, in the middle of the night, we were woken up by an "einteten" (roll call) order. Although it was very cold at that time, we didn't have time to grab our miserable shoes. There were many SS men with whips waiting for us, and they started to beat us continually. They beat us in shifts--when a group of SS men became tired, they were replaced by fresh "beaters." This beating went on for the rest of the night, and we didn't know why we were being beaten like that. Later on we found out that partisans operating in the area had tried to establish contact with some of us. The Germans thought that the partisans intended to break into Sobibor and rally the Jews to their side, so they beat us to discourage any thought of resistance. After this night time winter beating many Jews died--they must have caught pneumonia from the cold, or they must have gone into shock. We were, after all, a bloodied mass after this beating. Something must have been going on around the camp, because I heard the sounds of much motorized movement in the area then.
I remember one incident when the Germans didn't like the fact that a certain enormous tree had some branches hanging over the electric wires around the camp. A work party of Jewish prisoners was organized to cut the tree down. One of those prisoners was Babyulis, a stocky, tough Russian Jew. He was Sasha's (Pechersky's) friend. He was ordered to climb the tree to the very top and lean in a certain way so that the tree, when cut, would fall in the desired direction. Two Jews were put to work cutting through the enormous tree trunk with a big saw. They cut and cut and the tree fell straight onto the wires. Babyulis, who survived the fall, was beaten so badly by the Germans that his whole body was a mass of raw flesh. Then the Nazi beasts threw him back into the barracks. Although we were particularly short of food then (no transports had arrived for a while), we all chipped in with part of our food rations and fed Babyulis till he could recover and return to work. He was one of Sasha's key men in organizing and carrying out the uprising, but he didn't survive the revolt. Incidentally, a number of other Jews were killed when they were ordered to the tops of trees. When the trees came crashing down, those poor unfortunates were killed. The Germans regarded this as "entertainment."
Once something happened in the women's area--perhaps they weren't working properly there, or something like that. Some of them worked at shipping Jewish shoes, cosmetics and fabrics to Germany, others repaired clothing, and others worked in the camp laundry or kitchen. They had various functions. There were piles and piles of gold at Sobibor -- all this had to be sorted and packed. It was now the "holy" property of the Third Reich, and some women worked on these piles. Something must have gone wrong, however, because the Germans took some young, beautiful girls, undressed them completely, bound their hands and feet, and beat them mercilessly. We had to look at the beating, listen to the pathetic shrieking and crying of the girls, and laugh out loud. Some of those beaten girls were led to the extermination camp afterwards.
The key event in our lives, and the reason that I am alive today to write this memoir, is an event that took place in September of 1943: the arrival at Sobibor of Alexander Pechersky (Sasha). Sasha, a Soviet-Jewish Prisoner-of-War, had been shipped to Sobibor from a Minsk work camp. He was an educated man, and had been an officer in the Red Army. When his transport came to Sobibor, the Germans asked if any of the prisoners were "schreiners" or "tischlers" (carpenters or cabinet-makers), and Sasha, a tall man, said that he was a carpenter. Although he knew nothing about carpentry, he saved his life by lying at that time. The Germans took him and some others out of the mass of arriving prisoners, doomed to death, and threw them into our barracks. Sasha had thrown away his officer papers and insignia, because had the Germans known that he was a Soviet officer they would have disposed of him immediately. The Germans killed educated people and officers first, with the political commissars.
One of us, Leon Feldhandler, the son of a Rabbi, had been in Sobibor for close to a year. The transports to Sobibor had virtually stopped, and Feldhandler figured that the camp and every single eyewitness-prisoner would be wiped off the face of the earth. He had organized a team, composed largely of shop-chiefs, and they were plotting to escape from the hell that was Sobibor. Feldhandler was excited by Sasha's arrival, because he saw that Sasha and his friends were POWs (Prisoners of War). They had military experience. They knew all about guns, bullets, etc. They would not be squeamish about hand-to-hand combat. Feldhandler, however, was no fool. First he had to sound Sasha out--see how he reacted, etc., and find out what kind of a man this POW was.
Sasha got to know us after several days, so he told us about all his experiences. He had confidence in us and saw that he could trust us, so he confessed that he was not a carpenter. He told us that he needed our help--he had to be given jobs where his ignorance wouldn't show. The Germans generally weren't around the workshops--they came in only occasionally. So we could cover-up for a man if we really wanted to. Sasha didn't want the Germans to notice his ignorance. He said: "Boys, if I survive, we're going to pull something off here!" Sasha got to know us very well, because he made it his business to get to know as many prisoners as he could. He wanted to find out who the squealers were. He set a task for himself: to study Sobibor as methodically as he could. Action would come later.
We were all very impressed with this Sasha. He radiated an air of command and control. Since Sasha spoke no Yiddish, Feldhandler communicated with him via an intermediary, Leitman, a cabinetmaker who worked in our shop. He was originally from Warsaw, and had been shipped to our camp from the Minsk work camp, where he had met Sasha and become his friend. Leitman became Sasha's interpreter, since Sasha spoke only Russian and a bit of German. Sasha's right-hand man was another Soviet POW, Boris Tsibulski, a husky, strong former miner.
So Sasha first studied Sobibor methodically. Remember: what went on in Camp No. 3 was the big "secret." Nobody was supposed to know of it, or even hear of it. But Sasha soon learned the truth. Feldhandler made sure of that. He told Sasha all about the kapo talk and the notes that had been smuggled out of that infernal slaughterhouse.
Sasha said it would take time till we'd get to know "our" people--those who could be trusted. He told us to get to know personally as many Jews as possible, especially kapos. He told us, in very general terms, what he had in mind. He warned us: one slip and we'd all be dead. The plan would never get off the ground. He told us not to discuss anything about it with anybody.
The plan was as follows: The uprising was to take place in a one hour period around the time of roll-call (4:30 P.M.). The German SS men would be killed off, one by one, using trickery and deception. They would be lured into the workshops under some pretext. They would have to be killed without a sound, and in a limited time period. If their absence would be noted, that would be the end of our plan. We would line up at 4:30, as usual, for the roll call. Things would have to move fast because after we were counted the Germans lined up in their camp and were counted too, so the absence of any of them would cause a general alarm to be sounded. The idea was that our kapos would march us through the gate manned by Ukrainians. This would be unusual, but the Ukrainians, seeing the kapos "in control," would be confused long enough to allow our men to pass. Another group of prisoners, myself amongst them, had "prepared" the fence near the carpentry and smith workshops -- we had cut the electrified wire, hidden the pieces, determined the mine-free areas, etc. We would break out through the fence. The telephone wire to the camp would also be cut and the pieces hidden. We knew there were no spare parts in the camp to make quick repairs to the phone line.
All of the time spent in preparing the uprising was marked by silence; we couldn't breathe a word about it to anybody. Our leaders, Feldhandler and Sasha, had 5-7 immediate associates. They were in on the planning and had key tasks assigned to them. They controlled 30-40 other prisoners who had lesser assignments to carry out. I had a cousin, Kramer, from Benkeh, an intelligent and refined person. He was one of the 30-40 who were in on the actual execution of the uprising. Sasha surrounded himself with refined people, not gross types. Many of the other prisoners only found out about the uprising during the hour preceding the actual events, when we had to distribute the knives that had been so carefully hidden and sharpened. Anything that could serve as an arm had been prepared; every piece of metal was precious. The soil was very sandy in Sobibor, so it was relatively easy to hide weapons. And the Germans weren't really suspicious because they never imagined that such pathetic, skeleton-like terrorized prisoners could do anything. Some Germans even walked around Sobibor without carrying arms. The place was so "secure" and full of their own Ukrainian murderers that they felt they had absolutely nothing to fear.
It was absolutely necessary to have certain key kapos in on the plan. They could move masses of men around, they had the authority to do certain essential things, and their leadership could provide us with a few vital, extra minutes by confusing the Ukrainian guards. There was a one-eyed kapo from Warsaw--Porzyczki, a tall fellow. He was a brutal kapo with murderous instincts. And yet he played an important role in the uprising. Sasha had determined that, bad as he was, Porzyczki was not a squealer. He had never informed on anybody. (The Berliner kapo I spoke of earlier was an informer. I think the other kapos killed him because of this).
I remember the day of our revolt clearly--October 14, 1943. We prayed in our barracks because it was Succot, the Feast of Tabernacles, a holy festival in the Hebrew calendar. Of course, we did this praying in secret, in the dark as we had done on Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana.
When the time came, Jews at various workplaces had to be given the signal that the kapo was to go call the German--that meant that the men and weapons were all ready to finish him off. Knives and axes were mostly used. One German was choked to death in the shoemakers' workshop because we wanted no loud gunshots to be heard. As each German was lured into a workshop and killed, his pistol was taken and given to one of our organizers. However, the Germans and Ukrainians only carried 5 bullets each.
Sasha wasn't sure of one kapo, Spitz, so in the hour preceding the uprising he spoke to him and told him that he had better be with us. He was watched very carefully from that point on. Two of our people were assigned to watch Spitz carefully. One false move, one yell, and he would have been suffocated. This kapo had noticed that something was going on; he saw that prisoners had become very nervous and were whispering to each other, etc. It was imperative that he be "supervised", and so he found himself surrounded and helpless.
Many kapos had richly deserved reputations as cruel beaters but when the time came they were in on the uprising with all of us. I remember Bunyem, a short, stocky kapo. He used to beat people terribly' But when the hour of decision came, he was with us in carrying out the uprising. There were many like him.
One Jew's permanent work assignment was to supervise the electric wires around the camp. He had been an electrician in pre-war days. He was in on the uprising with us, so he was given a special signal to cut the flow of electric current. Everybody had his own signal--a spit or a word or a certain hand signal--which launched him into action. These signals were all kept very, very secret. That electrician had a complex role to play during the uprising because he not only cut the wires but he had to scatter the pieces and hide them well, leaving the remaining wire in an irreparable condition. The barbed wire was treated the same way. We were surrounded by 3 rows of electric wires and a rivulet, so you can see what a task that electrician had.
One German, Sergeant Greischutz, used to come in to the shoemakers' shop near the end of the working day to get his shoes shined. He had to bend over in a certain way while his shoes were being shined, so various Jews were assigned the task of finishing him off. He was killed with one blow, one Jew had the responsibility of mopping up the blood, and others were given the job of getting rid of the body. That was easy, because there were mountains of shoes in that shop. Ten bodies could have been hidden in those mountains. Of course, many Germans could not be lured into our work area and they provided the greatest obstacle to our uprising.
Just after the uprising, I was in the woods with a 12 man group. One of them was a tailor, and he told me what had happened in the tailors' shop. Oberst Johny Neimann was the supervisor of the gas chambers where hundreds of thousands of Jews were killed. Neimann used to ride around the camp on a horse, and a Jewish 13 year old boy was responsible for the care of this horse. He had to feed and groom him, etc. Our tailors used to make "special order" coats for the SS men. Neimann had ordered a coat so he was told to come for a try-on, a fitting. He rode up on his horse to the tailors' shop. There were 12-13 men working there and the kapo said: "Herr Oberst, the coat will not fit you because your revolver is sticking out- we can't fit you well with such a bulge." So Niemann took off his gun belt with the revolver and hung it up. While he was trying the coat on, they turned him around in a certain direction. Right away they gagged his mouth, took his revolver, and cracked his skull with one smashing blow of an axe. His body was dumped in a massive pile of clothing, in a hollowed-out place specially prepared beforehand. (After the war the Poles said that the Germans had searched for Niemann for 2 weeks till they found his corpse.) The Jews were worried about the horse outside, but the 13 year old boy, its caretaker, went out and slapped it on its rear and it galloped off to the stables.
So, by 4:30, the wire was down and many key Germans, those who were used to circulating in our area, had been wiped out. We had foreseen that 200-300 Jews would be killed during the breakout, but we were mentally prepared for the high human cost because we were very, very desperate people. We know that the Germans had sentenced us all to death sooner or later, and we had survived up to that point against all odds, so our number would soon be up. Casualties had no meaning for us because we were all dead men anyhow, and we knew it.
Our uprising was carried out while Wagner was away on a furlough. Our commanders had planned it that way, because Wagner was clearly the smartest of the Germans. He would have sniffed out the fact that something was in the air. Wagner was almost a mind reader; he could look at a Jew and know his thoughts. Sasha was afraid that Wagner would have caught on.
Shloime Elster and I were given knives for our pockets. They taught me how to cut the wire properly. At the gate there was a Ukrainian guard-post, and some Jews had the job of blowing it up. So we were marching back to our barracks area, the kapos with their whips in the air, and we all sang as we usually did. We were lined up in rows. Oberst Franzl had to come, as usual, to count us; he would have been eliminated right there, but he never came. Of all the survivors, I am the only one to state the following: I saw Franzl march over to our camp. He stopped at the fence, looked in, and turned right around and walked away. Franzl had never been one minute late, and now he just turned away. He obviously had suspected something. We, who were about 400 in number, were waiting to be joined by 200 men who were to be marched in from Camp 2.
When we saw the 200 prisoners join us, somebody yelled "Hoorah NaStalinya" and this cry was taken up by others. Stalin was our God then; every Jew looked to Stalin as his savior. First one man, then 20 men, and finally many, many others shouted "Hoorah NaStalinya." The cry spread like wildfire. This was the signal, and everybody took off in a mad dash for freedom. Some headed for the gate, while others, myself included, made for the fence near the workshops. The plan for an orderly march-out past the gate manned by the Ukrainians was obviously forgotten. I was later told by a survivor, now in Israel, that he saw Franzl by the gate, on one knee, firing at the escaping Jews and mowing them down like grass.
We had left ladders in the weeds near the fence, and we ran helter-skelter to those ladders. Some of us dragged the ladders up against the fence, and as we scrambled up the ladders the fence was weighed down, making it easier for those who followed. Meanwhile, there was a mad mixture of sounds--shooting, shouting, cries and groaning. We ran like panicked animals, heading across a field to the thick forest. I saw some of our people turn, drop to one knee, and fire directly at the enemy. Others fell like flies from the bullets which were whizzing through the air around us. A friend of mine was yelling to me: "Kalmen, save me, please, I've been hit, I've been hit!" Who could stop and help anybody? We were obsessed with getting away, reaching that forest escaping from that hell that was Sobibor.
After what seemed like an eternity, but was really only a few minutes, the trees grew larger and with my last breaths I ran headlong for them. Where I got the strength to run like that I'll never know. And then--finally--I was in the trees. Sobibor was behind me.
I was free.
After plunging through the forest in a half-crazed state, I found myself with about 55 other escapees. I rejoiced to see that my friend Shlomo Elster had made it out of hell too. There were a few other men there who had worked in the tailors' shop. We were fortunate because our leader and the architect of the escape, Sasha Pechersky, was in our group, and he had a compass. We often crawled into ditches that wound their way through the forest and we became disoriented; Sasha would use his compass to point us in the right direction.
Sasha seemed to know something about the area we were in, while all of us were in a state of hysterical shock -- none of us could think straight.Sasha led us for days and nights. He no longer had any bullets left. We would sneak into hamlets to beg for food--any food. The peasants saw that we were many, so they would grudgingly hand over some bread. There were some female escapees with us too. Had they been alone they wouldn't have had a chance with those wily and cunning peasants, but the fact that they were accompanied by many desperate men protected them. The first peasants we approached soon after our escape told us that they had heard that Jews who had escaped from Sobibor had been caught by special German squads, so we took off immediately and moved further away from Sobibor. Every time we approached peasants we heard the same sad tale--more Sobibor escapees had been caught. Our fellow survivors were being slowly and methodically hunted down.
It was evident that Sasha was nervous as a result of the behavior of some of us. His own Russian soldiers could follow orders perfectly, but some of our Polish Jews could not walk single-file without falling back and getting lost. Or they would whisper to each other, sometimes loudly, when Sasha had ordered total and complete silence. Some even shouted to each other: "Shloime, where are you?"
Sasha announced that he was taking nine of "his" people to buy weapons or bullets or food. A hat was passed around, we all tossed money into it, and soon Sasha and "his" soldier comrades were gone. We who were left behind became very frightened. We had a feeling that something was wrong. However, Sasha and the others had said that they would return, so we waited. And waited. And waited. Nobody from that group returned to us.
We became extremely nervous because we thought that those ten men, all seasoned soldiers, had been lured into a trap and wiped out. After the war I found out that Sasha had felt that he had done for us what he had promised: he had led us successfully out of Sobibor. He wanted to strike out swiftly for the Soviet lines and we were a burden to him--we endangered him. And so he never came back. (He reached the Soviet lines and continued the war as a Red Army soldier. He was later decorated for military battles in which he participated).
However, we who had been left behind didn't have any choice--we had to keep going. So we went further and further into the trees. We avoided roads and paths, and kept to the dense undergrowth. Our numbers diminished every day -- people took off on their own. They saw that we were wandering aimlessly, so small groups left. They thought that the fewer the better -- in small groups there would be a lesser chance of being noticed and getting caught. We were down to 12 men; Shloime Elster was still with me. He had worked at my side as a carpenter in Sobibor, and we were still together.
We had only one pistol, but we all had sharp knives hidden in our tattered pants. We went into hamlets at night to buy food and weapons. All of us contributed a little money for these expeditions, and we always went at night. We were more at ease at night because the Germans didn't search at night--they were afraid of Partisans.
So the days and nights passed. Shloime and I became more and more disconsolate and depressed. We were haunted by fear, consumed with hunger, weakened and filthy. We washed as best we could. We were thirsty, so we drank much water. Our thirst drove us to take chances and drink from streams and rivulets. We were bitten all over by lice. At night we would be preoccupied by one thing: to find a hiding place, because the day would soon come. Our nerves became more steady when we stumbled upon thick forests.
Sobibor was not that far away from Chelm and I started to recognize the area we were in. I knew, in a general way, where we were and what the surrounding area was like, and so I disagreed vehemently with the other members of our group--they wanted to go in a certain direction which I was sure would lead them straight back to Sobibor. We couldn't resolve our differences and we were all very angry.
The night came and some of our group approached a hamlet to beg for bread. One of them had a rifle but he had no bullets for it. They got small bread loaves, pirogen, and some potatoes. In our 12 man group, Shloime and I were by far the oldest. The others were all 17 or 18 years old, and they were uncomfortable with us. They obviously felt that we were a burden to them. That night, when they returned with that food, they gave Shloime and me very, very little--much less than an equal share. After we ate our pittance, we had to start preparing our hiding place for the following day. We had to rip up bushes, make a clearing under branches, dig a hole, etc.--all with our knives. We had to make mini-bunkers and mask the entrances, so that anybody 2 meters away would not see the hiding places. As we dug and ripped, I saw the others looking angrily at Shloime and me. We were hungry, so we worked slowly. We needed strength--which we lacked--to rip up bushes, hack off branches, etc. Perhaps the others discriminated against us because Shloime was on the "slow" side -- he was very shy, almost semi-retarded. If we would have had sufficient food we would have had the strength to rip up the bushes, cut the branches, etc. So I decided to speak directly and truthfully to our fellow escapees. I told them that they weren't behaving properly. Everybody should share equally. It wasn't right that they should eat till they were full, give us tiny rations, and then expect us to work like horses digging hide-outs, etc.-- it just wasn't fair. I told them: "When I'm well-fed I can work like a horse--I've been a worker all my life, but with what you give us I simply can't find the strength." And I started to cry as I was pleading with them. I told them that although they were younger than I was, I would leave them. '"We all faced death together every day in Sobibor," I said, "and now that we're free is that a way to behave?" I told them that they were animals, not humans, and I cried. I told them that with such behavior they wouldn't survive.
I spoke to them like that for a few days, not just on one occasion. And I told them that eventually they would be captured because of their greediness which led them to take too many chances. They used to go into hamlets and get whiskey, spirits, and other strong drinks. My instincts told me that, quite apart from their treatment of Shloime and me, if I remained with them I would be finished, sooner or later. However, they were not all bad. I remember one of them, named Kratke, who only ate bread and drank water. He was very devout -- perhaps he had been a rabbi. He wouldn't touch anything with meat and avoided soup because he didn't know the contents.
I cried often now. I told our fellow escapees that they were ignoramuses and fools. My heart told me that sooner or later they would meet a bad end, and this strengthened my resolve to leave them. I had had enough. I invited Shloime to come with me. I told him, "Shloime come with me! We can't remain with these slobs any longer. We no longer have homes to return to, but to stay with such people is impossible. It's suicide. I'm not telling you what to do, Shloime. Maybe we'll get caught...maybe we'll starve to death. But staying with those fools is suicide. If you want to come, Shloime, I'll take you with me. It's up to you." Shloime told me that he didn't want to come with me. One of the young men told me that he would shoot me for talking like I did. He said that I was frightening everybody. I told him, "I no longer have a mother, father, wife or children. My home is gone. So go ahead--shoot me if you want to. I don't give a damn anymore!"
I said goodbye to all of them and I invited Shloime once more to come with me. When they saw that I was really leaving and not just talking, they conferred with each other and handed me a parting gift--a 2 kilogram loaf of bread. That bread filled me with courage. I would start off on a positive note. It was as if somebody had handed me a big diamond. Regardless of what had transpired, I shook hands with them, wished them luck and left.
After 5 minutes I heard a noise behind me. I turned around and there was Shloime plunging through the undergrowth towards me. He had changed his mind! We hugged each other and clung to each other, crying and sobbing all the while. We wandered around in the pitch blackness. We had to take care not to fall into a hole or ditch. We heard the voices of our fellow escapees become more and more faint as we plunged ahead, into a big forest.
I planned to get back to Chelm, where I knew every square meter of land. There I would be on home ground. So we continued to move ahead until we saw a small house at the edge of the forest. It was still night so we went up to the house, knocked on a window, and asked how many kilometers it was to Sobibor. We were afraid of inadvertently circling back to Sobibor. Our aim was to get as far away from that hell as possible. A man came to the window; that was good--he was one and we were two. And we did have extremely sharp knives on us. Shloime and I weren't "delicate" people--we had been manual workers all our lives, so we were still fairly strong, notwithstanding all that we had been through. The man at the window was a Ukrainian, although he spoke Russian to us. He said he would show us where we were--we should come in through the door. He would open it for us. He was so friendly, so warm, so affable. However, one of us noticed that he was hiding an axe behind his back. So instead of going to the door we took off.
Shloime ran faster than I could run--he practically flew! But as he was running he fell into a deep puddle of freezing water. I pulled him out. He was shivering and he kept on shivering--it was a very cold night. I was well-dressed; I had dressed with a triple layer of clothing on the day of the uprising because I felt that warm clothing would be very useful. Some of our fellow escapees had prepared small packages of clothing and furs which they carried with them during the uprising, but those packages seemed to have slowed them down and most of them didn't get away from Sobibor. Perhaps the packages made them inviting targets for the German and Ukrainian soldiers. My topmost layer of clothing was a raincoat, so I took it off and put it on Shloime. His own clothes had become soaked. We rested a while and continued on, going all night in the direction of Sabeen, a village near Chelm where we used to go, in pre-war days, to sell at the market. From there we could easily get to Chelm since we knew all the roads.
Once again we went up to a house. The roosters had started to crow, and that meant that the dawn was coming. An old man lived in that house. When we asked him how many kilometers it was to Sabeen, he "crossed" himself and said that it was 8 kilometers away. He was frightened and we were frightened too, because the dogs had started to bark loudly. We kept going and when the dawn came we slipped into a thick forest. Now, with the light, we could see hares jumping through the undergrowth, scattering at our approach. We kept far away from the paths in that forest; we often had to cut our way through the thick growth. From a thicket some distance away from a nearby road we saw many marching German soldiers. They fired their rifles in the air; this seemed to be a deliberate procedure which they followed when moving through a forest. Perhaps they sought to frighten partisans away with gunfire, but it terrified Shloime and me. The German soldiers, however, soon marched further and further away from us.
When the night finally came we ran over to a peasant driving a horse-drawn wagon and asked him the distance to Sabeen. He answered that it was 5 kilometers away. When he drove into Sabeen he must have immediately reported our presence to the German authorities, or the "Soltis" (Mayor-Municipal Chief). Shloime and I were sitting in the forest and resting, and suddenly we heard shooting. We both panicked. Shloime remained frozen to a tree and I ran off. That was the last I saw of Shloime Elster till the post-war period. I was now utterly and completely alone. As I plunged on wildly I felt my legs give way and I blacked out.
I woke up in a ditch in that forest. I didn't know who I was or where I was. I didn't know how long I had been in that ditch. I had, literally, been frightened out of my wits by the shooting. I had lost my sanity. As my sanity slowly returned and I started to remember, I started to cry, a convulsive and loud cry. Now I was all alone in the world, with nobody and nothing. I stood up and looked at what had become of me. What was I to do now?
The bread was gone--perhaps I had lost it when I ran like a madman through the forest. I was very hungry. I stumbled on a big field where row upon row of cabbages had been cut. I used my sharp knife to cut some stalks which I ate right there--they were delicious--and I put some in my pockets. I was still, however extremely thirsty. I kept wandering through the countryside, moving all the while towards Chelm. By luck I stumbled across a well and drank my fill.
The next day I found a small forest. I entered it and dug myself a hide-out in a thicket. I took off my topcoat and used it as a cover; by pulling it over my head I warmed myself with my breath. After a few days in that hide-out I moved on, and one night I saw the lights of Chelm, far away. I had come a very long way, avoiding all roads and paths. Now I had to cross the railway tracks to get to Chelm, and those tracks were patrolled. I slipped across them, my heart beating like a loud clock. The insane asylum I mentioned earlier was nearby and many Germans were quartered there.
Late at night I entered my beloved Chelm. I had a good business friend, a Ukrainian, to whom I had entrusted much of my merchandise for safekeeping. He lived on Palestina street. So, in late October of 1943, worn-out and filled with despair, I knocked at his door. When he answered, I greeted him and begged him for a piece of bread. He looked angrily at me and shouted: "You scum, if you don't leave immediately I'm calling the Gestapo to come and get you!" When I heard that I ran away. Near his house there were large, ditch-covered fields where peat had been dug up. These ditches were full of water, and I crawled into a deep ditch and hid.
Near that area there was a small forest that I knew well from my boyhood. We used to go there, in groups of boys and girls, to pick blueberries. This was near the Chelm cattle slaughterhouse. I had to pass that slaughterhouse, now used to murder Jews, to get to the small forest. I crawled on my belly. From a distance I saw Germans on guard duty, marching 10-15 meters in one direction and then turning and retracing their steps. I had to slip by several such soldiers doing guard duty. I had only one thing going for me--I knew every square meter of that area. Finally, just as the day dawned, I slipped into the forest.
I crawled into a cave and dug a hide-out, where I rested. There were small mice there and they crawled all over me. They weren't at all frightened of a human being; it was almost as if they knew how helpless I was. I lay there all day, tormented by thirst. When the night came I left my hide out and set out for a small hamlet, Stolpeen, which was not too far away. When I got there I went over to a well and I drank and drank till I was ready to burst. Two peasants came to the well, filled some containers with water and looked at me very coldly. I had an acquaintance in Stolpeen--an old man who lived there with his wife. His family had converted to Catholicism long before the war. I had done some carpentry work for him in pre-war days. I knocked at his door and when he opened it and saw me he crossed himself from fear. "Maske Boshke (Holy Mother), Maske Boshke!" he kept exclaiming. I reminded him of the job I had done for him and he remembered me well. He told me, in a wavering and terrified voice, that Germans had come every day to Stolpeen and taken the Jews away to be killed. He mentioned -- one I knew -- Itche Trabeeners, who had been killed right there. He told me that when a Jew was found to be hiding in a Christian's house, the house was burned to the ground. He knelt before me and begged me to go elsewhere. However, he gave me a big piece of bread and a jug of milk. I realized that Stolpeen was a dangerous place for me, because only Ukrainians lived there now. All the Jews had been killed. I would stand out like a sore thumb. So I ate my fill and said "Dobranitz" (good night) to the old man; he answered me, in a much-relieved voice, "Dobranitz," and I left.
I went into another small forest and dug myself a hide-out. I used branches to cover it and I covered the branches with clumps of earth and leaves. I prepared an escape hatch out of my dug-out, just to be on the safe side. I crawled into my hide out as soon as the dawn came. Many times young shepherds appeared near me. Sometimes they came in pairs, one watching 20 or so cows and another, a short distance away, doing the same thing. If a shepherd would have started up with me I was ready to finish him off. I had a big cudgel and my sharp knife. Moreover, they were young striplings and I was relatively strong, and very, very desperate. I had one big problem--my thoughts. I could not control what I was thinking, and I spent many hours in my dug-out, thinking and remembering the life I had before the war. The faces of my loved ones, now gone, flashed before my eyes hundreds of times, and their voices echoed and re-echoed in my ears. How many times did I hear my son's joyous "Papa, Papa"?
I couldn't remain in my dug-out any longer because peasants started to come into the forest to cut wood. They were rough-looking, and sooner or later they would have found me. I headed for a hamlet where I had made furniture at the start of the war. I approached a house where I had worked. First I checked it out completely to make sure that no strangers were in or around the house. I knocked on the windowpane and the head of the house came out. He didn't recognize me but he trembled from fear. I spoke to him softly, reminding him of the table and beds I had made him. He kept looking nervously around him as I spoke; he was petrified that Germans might spot him talking to a fugitive Jew and burn down his house. He was a decent man--he took me into the house, sat me down, and gave me a jug of milk and a piece of bread. I told him all I had been through--what Sobibor really was, how we revolted, etc. I thanked him sincerely, but he told me never to return to him again. He said that many fugitive Jews had been caught in that area, and he was afraid to be involved in such matters.
I wandered all over the place to kill time. I knew the area and I used to burrow into hiding places. I often returned to a hamlet where I had made windows. Since I had worked there many weeks, the dogs didn't bark at me--they ran up and licked my hand, whimpering affectionately because they recognized me. I was grateful for even these small affectionate gestures from animals, especially since dogs were usually my enemies. The peasant for whom I had made the most windows did not reject me. He took me into his barn and asked me what I wanted. I asked him for bread and water. He said he had no bread but he would give me drinking water. And he offered me cooked potato peels that he kept for his pigs. He had plenty of bread but he didn't want to give me any. So I drank his water and chewed on the peels, grateful for even that small pittance. I was very much afraid that he would tip-off the Soltis and that would be the end of me. I'd be seized, handed over with great glee to the Germans, and they would shoot me on the spot. Don't forget that Poles were rewarded for catching Jews and turning them in. I had an instinctive feeling that this peasant I had spoken to was not to be trusted--he had probably made his move to contact the authorities the moment I left. So I ran over to an enormous haystack--very high, higher than a hut--and burrowed very deep into it. Looking at that haystack, nobody would have ever thought that a human being was in there. I remained there for several days, and every night I would emerge from the straw, looking for something to eat. I could still find cabbage stalks, or the odd cabbage leaf, in the fields. After a few days I found an empty bottle, so I kept it filled with drinking water and that made my situation somewhat easier to bear.
I couldn't stay in the haystack forever, so I moved on and entered a hamlet that was totally strange to me. I didn't know a soul there. I was looking for a handout of food which would keep me going for another 2 or 3 days. The dogs started to bark even when I was a fair distance away. I became very frightened. A mean dog even attacked me, but I never moved about without my cudgel. I fended the dog off with it and I beat and cursed the animal. Who was he picking on? A worn-out, broken-down Jew who had lost everything in life. I looked at that dog reproachfully--he too had joined the ranks of my tormentors, of those who resented the fact that even one Jew was still alive.
Many Jews had lived in that hamlet in pre-war times. I knew this from the large number of ruined and dismantled houses that dotted the village. These houses had been taken apart by "pickers" – those peasants who were looking for gold, jewels, silver, etc. I hid in the ruins of one of those dismantled houses and I dragged myself around at night, looking for food. Nobody ever came near those ruins because they had been ransacked so thoroughly. The ruin I was in was strewn with human excrement; I didn’t know whether Jews had been hiding there and had left this excrement, or whether passers-by had used this place to relieve themselves. Perhaps the scavengers, or "pickers" had relieved themselves on the spot while looking for precious things. However, that malodorous state of affairs was good for me because people would keep away from such a smelly place. Anyhow, the whole area had been declared "Judenrein" (cleaned of all Jews) so nobody would go looking for Jews there. Jews were officially extinct.
I remained there for many days, filling my water bottle every night from wells. The peasants disappeared during the nights. They were afraid of the Germans, and they were even more afraid of various and assorted bands of real partisans, so-called "partisans", and thieves who lurked in the area. So I wasn't noticed when I went out at night looking for water. The peasants and farmers remained inside at night because, when darkness fell anybody who was seen moving around by somebody else was assumed to be hostile and was to be killed. Once, during a night-time expedition for water, I had a stroke of luck: I spotted a whole sack of onions behind a house. With great joy and much trepidation I took the heavy sack on my shoulders and dragged myself back to my hideout in the wrecked Jewish house. For days and days I munched on those onions with great enjoyment. I savored every bite. That sack, to me, was a real treasure. To this day, onions are something special for me because I remember how I relished them then, during my darkest moments.
When the onions were gone I remembered that I had worked, in another hamlet, for a certain woman who had two sons, one 10 years old and the other 12. I had made windows for her and small pieces of furniture. I packed my meager possessions (water bottle, etc.) and I walked to her hamlet. I approached her house and knocked at the door. I wasn't afraid because she had no husband. When she opened the door and saw me she burst into tears. I must have been quite a sight -- filthy, haggard, and wild looking. I begged her for bread and I started to cry too. Her boys were also crying. She mumbled: "Yezus, Yezus!" She mumbled so loudly that I was afraid that the neighbors would hear her. When she tried to shove me away from the door I pointed to the windows I had made and I reminded her: "Do you forget the work I did for you? It's me -- the carpenter. Please, give me a small piece of bread -- I'm starving!" I offered to work for her, but she didn't want to hear of it. She was crying, her boys were crying, and I was crying. It was dark all around -- pitch black. She was very, very frightened and started to yell "Diabel" at me. "Diabel, Diabel! Yezus! Yezus!" She thought I was the devil. The place had been Judenrein for a long time so she wasn't expecting to see a live Jew. She didn't think Jews still existed, so she became kind of hysterical. In her hysterical state she became very strong and shoved me out, giving me nothing. I became very frightened of that whole hamlet and I ran from there rapidly. I was afraid that, in her panic, she would run to the Soltis who was deputized to seize Jews and hand them over to the Germans. I couldn't understand this woman's attitude. When I had worked for her she had given me such large pieces of delicious bread and cakes and now -- the only response I elicited from her were hysterical shrieks of "Diabel, Diabel!" and "Yezus, Yezus!" I couldn't understand it.
And so I continued my wanderings amongst these small hamlets--from Tereshin to Podubye, from Podubye to Eleesev, from Eleesev to Benyantzu, and them on to Tereshanke. I knocked on the window of a house where I had once made beds and tables for a woman. When the woman came to the window she recognized me immediately. She had no husband but was relatively wealthy. I remember that she had a noticeable limp. That woman didn't let me into the house, but she opened the window and thrust a big chunk of bread into my arms. I grasped that bread to me like the most precious treasure. I had worked a long time there making those beds and tables, so the dog knew me. Although she told me to go away immediately, I was too exhausted to obey her. I hid in her barn, where hay was stacked as high as a house. I burrowed into it until I reached the furthest point possible. The hay pile was an old one, so the hay was thick and matted, providing excellent cover. If anybody came to get hay, they would take it from the bottom part of the pile nearest them, not from the back, and so I would remain unnoticed.
Every night I would tunnel out of the pile and sneak down to the woman's cellar. I found apples there and some vegetables stored away for winter. I ate whatever was edible, and it seemed to me then that I had discovered a buried treasure. With the apples I ate, very carefully, some bread, because I rationed the big piece of bread which the woman had given me. I had enormous willpower then, a willpower born of desperation, and I stretched that piece of bread out to last as long as possible. I thought then that I had found paradise! I believed that this form of existence was the way the new life would be, at least for Jews.
Once, it snowed heavily. I had sneaked, as usual, into the cellar to steal some food. The woman's son saw footprints in the snow; he followed them and found me. He seized me roughly by my arm. I begged him to leave me go. I reminded him that I had made the very bed he slept on. I also reminded him how well we had gotten along when I worked there. My pleas apparently had some effect. He let go of my arm, shoved me away, and made me promise never to return there. He was afraid that the neighbors would see me lurking around the house; they would squeal, and then the Germans would burn the whole house down. His fear was not just speculative--that's what the Germans did. They locked the people inside and burned houses down. I took off in a panic. I was afraid that he would change his mind or notify the Soltis.
I headed straight for a forest and plunged into it. I made myself a hiding place deep in the thick forest. I used my knife to dig a hole and I covered it with thick branches. My hole was invisible, even for somebody who was very near. During the nights I resumed my nocturnal expeditions of looking for food. Meanwhile, it was getting colder from day to day. I would sneak into cellars, looking for carrots, potatoes, etc. Every minute I was in extreme danger. I had trouble with dogs, but I invented a strategy to deal with them. I pretended that I was throwing a stone at the dog, meanwhile I grimaced terribly, making horrible faces at the creature. This unexpected behavior threw the dogs off balance and they left me alone.
I was always very, very hungry. Sometimes I heard noises near my hole--movements, talking, etc.--and then I couldn't leave my hiding place for several days. So I became even hungrier. And I was frightened too: what if I became so weak that I would be unable to crawl out of my hole to search for food? Those noises I heard came from shepherds. I wore good shoes, but my feet would become terribly cold. Had I continued to wear the shoes in my hiding place my feet would have frozen. So, curled up in my hole, I took off the shoes and I would sit in such a way that I could massage my feet to keep the blood circulating. I knew one basic fact that experience had taught me: if my feet would go, I would be finished. The horrible life I had been leading was a rapid and unforgiving teacher.
Once, when I was in my hiding place, I heard loud Ukrainian voices. "Zlatke Ivraitchik," they said, catch the Jew and shoot him on the spot. I peered out through a tiny hole and saw, near me, four Ukrainian men with rifles. They wore heavy winter clothes. I heard one say: "When we catch the Jews, we'll finish them off fast!" I had been noticed in a certain hamlet. These four men thought that there were many Jews hiding there. That's what they were looking for--a group of Jews, a family. For them, this was an ongoing pastime: catching and killing innocent, fugitive Jews. Many Jews saw the fate that awaited them, so they took off for the woods. And every couple of days, one or another family group was caught and killed. Once a Jew is spotted in one hamlet, all the hamlets in the area know about him. It's like an invisible communication system--the news spreads like wildfire. In one hamlet I had heard much talk about a "Sobiboru" who was hanging around in the vicinity, so I obviously wasn't much of a secret anymore. I was fair game for the bloodthirsty hunters of innocent human beings. I was ready to raise my hands and surrender to those four Ukrainians but something held me back. I was afraid to breathe. After what seemed like an eternity the four men moved off. I had been lucky!
Meanwhile it was getting colder and colder. I kept looking for partisans but I could never find them. Once I had the good fortune to stumble into a hamlet peopled by Baptists. They believed in the sanctity of human life, they would not kill their fellow human being. They gave me food and spoke kindly to me. One Baptist man even shaved me. That shave made me feel like a human being again. I didn't know what day of the week it was, what month--nothing. I hardly had a human identity, and that shave made me feel human again.
I was, by this time, obsessed with one thing, finding the partisans. A man alone was nothing--a Jew alone was even less than that--but with a partisan group a man had half a chance. Or a quarter of a chance. In any case, being a partisan would be a vast improvement over my present forlorn state. And it was bitterly cold by now. After much importuning and pleading, the son of one of those Baptists took me aside and whispered to me that he knows of a partisan group operating in a nearby forest, called the Bontzhe forest. I asked him how I could contact them. The peasants by now seemed to be more aware of partisans, because there were bandits and partisans in the woods. Every peasant had to have eggs, butter, potatoes and sour milk ready to hand over at all times, even if he himself was starving. If this wasn't ready when they appeared, he'd be killed instantly. The young man told me that the partisan leader lived in a certain house of unusual appearance. He gave me some general directions concerning its location.
I wandered around all of the next night looking for that house. It was very cold outside but I finally found it. I knocked on the door and a very tall, well-dressed woman answered. I asked for the man I was looking for. I explained to her that I had escaped from Sobibor and that I had been looking for partisans for a long time. She told me that I was out of luck. She said that two days before there had been a strong German anti-partisan raid, and they had gouged the eyes out of those partisans they had caught. Her husband had managed to evade capture, but she didn't know where he was. When I heard about the eye-gouging I trembled from fear. She told me that my best bet was to get away from that house and area as fast as possible. I ran like mad after hearing that, I don't know where I found the strength.
I was continually hungry and thirsty. I remember approaching a hamlet named "Maidanek" (not connected to the site of the infamous extermination camp). Since there was some snow on the ground, I took pieces into my mouth and drank them. Then I started to beg for bread from the houses. One house--they slammed the door on me, another house--they cursed me and spat at me, a third house--they said, in Polish, that they had no bread. On knocking at the fourth house, I saw a young Ukrainian coming to the door. He was ominous looking, bristling with anger. He asked me for my papers. I said I didn't have any. He grabbed my arm firmly--he was very strong--and I couldn't pull loose from him. He growled at me in Ukrainian: "I'm taking you to the Soltis. He'll get for you, filthy Jew, the treatment you deserve!" He called out to his son to bring a rope. And when the son came over with the rope, he said to him, "Tomorrow this Jew dog will be shot!" He was elated! Catching a live Jew was an achievement of excellence! He would become a big man in the hamlet, a celebrity! They both gleefully tied me up and threw me into the attic.
I knew what awaited me. I had no illusions anymore. Sobibor had destroyed my ability to create illusions for myself. The hours passed and my terror grew and grew. My heart pounded in my chest and a film of sweat covered me. Finally my desperation drove me to do something: I started to gnaw at the rope with my teeth. A whole night I ripped at that accursed rope with my teeth. I had my own teeth then and my desperation gave me a certain wild strength. After what seemed to be a very long time I finally bit through the bonds around my wrists. With my hands now free I untied the ropes around my feet. I crawled out of the attic and scurried off as fast as I could. At least I had robbed that Ukrainian and his son of the glory they had hoped to gain by turning me in. And I was still alive!
My running brought me to a Polish hamlet. A Polish-speaking man with a gun accosted me. I started to cry. He turned out to be a decent man, however. He took pity on me, and told me where to hide. I followed his directions, went into a forest and made a hide-out. The forest was full of wild blackberries. Every day I picked some; I could only eat them 2 or 3 days later when they turned reddish in color. So I dug holes and squirreled away these berries for future use. I lived on those berries for many days.
During the nights I used to wander around, examining the paths into and out of the forest. I taught myself all there was to know about it. When dawn came I used to go down to a river and drink. I was there for about 2 weeks and I thought that this kind of life was the most luxurious I could hope for. The peaceful days and nights also allowed my nerves to stabilize and regain their normality.
I was, however, tormented by my intense desire to find and join the partisans, and this desire finally pushed me to leave that forest. Besides, most of the nearby hamlets were "Judenrein". Germans didn't show up there for weeks and even months. They would turn up if somebody squealed, but generally they kept away. So, hiding in ditches, I left that forest refuge I had found. I saw a farmer in a wagon driving down a dirt road, so I approached him. I never approached two people--only one person. I was afraid of being jumped. These farmers weren't armed but they were tough, so I had to be wary. I asked this farmer, "Do you know where I can find partisans?" I had learned to judge people by the tone of their voices, and I saw that this farmer, as he answered, could be trusted. He said, "Go ahead over there. The hamlet is called Teryesheen. An old woman living in the first house will help you. Some Jews are hiding in that hamlet." I had a gold piece so, from gratitude, I shoved it into the farmer's hand and ran off.
When I found the house I noticed an old woman sitting by the fire, cooking. She asked me who I was. I told her, "I'm a Jew. I've been told you can help me find the partisans. I want to join them." The house was a very primitive one and the interior reeked of poverty. The old woman asked me all about my background, my experiences. I answered her eagerly. I was crying from joy--here was somebody who spoke to me in a human way and wanted to hear about my past. A 16 or 17 year old girl came over to me and started to talk to me. She seemed to be a typical peasant girl, but I figured out after a while that she was Jewish. I spoke to her in Yiddish, but she answered only in Polish. She evidently refused to believe my story and, as she told me later, she thought that I was a provocateur, an agent sent to ferret her out. I still had my family photos in my pocket, those photos which I had refused to surrender in Sobibor. One of those photos showed my father as a bearded Orthodox Jew, in Hassidic garb. When the girl saw that photo, her attitude toward me changed immediately. She now believed me. She gave me some potatoes to eat and told me that I must not be seen in that house. She led me to another area of the hamlet and hid me in an abandoned stable. She said that she would, that very night, contact her father Moishe and tell him about me.
Late that night Moishe and his brother came to the stable. They told me that they were part of a family group of 5 Jews in hiding. The girl I had met was called Shaindele. Moishe told me that many Jews used to live in that hamlet in pre-war days. Everybody in the hamlet knew that this family was hiding, but nobody knew where and they didn't want to know where. Moishe told me how they were loved in that hamlet -- there were decent people there. Moishe gave me a roll of bread to eat and told me directly that I couldn't hide with them. They had problems enough of their own without a "Sobiboru" attracting more attention to them. I understood--he was afraid that I would attract the attention of one of the numerous squealers who were always waiting for their "big" chance. Moishe wished me good luck and he slipped out.
I remained in hiding in that stable and pondered my next move. Meanwhile, I saw the comings and goings of Moishe's family during the nights. Moishe's father Mendele was a very religious man. He used only his own kosher pots and utensils. So at night I saw him scurrying around with his pots. Moishe's family may have felt that they were loved in that hamlet and that it was full of decent people, but I learned that they remained alive by stealing at night, "visiting" neighboring hamlets. They knew every square foot of that area and they became adept thieves. At night I could see them moving around rapidly, like ghosts.
After a few days gnawing hunger pangs forced me to leave the stable, so I approached a house in the hamlet and begged for bread. A man gave me a piece but said that I shouldn't tell the neighbors that he had given me anything. They were all terrified of the Germans and each other. The next day I went to the opposite end of the hamlet, to the last houses on a road. People in one house told me to avoid the last house on that road--the farmer there had killed a whole family of Jews. He wiped them completely out. They warned me to keep away from his house. The farmer there had hidden a Jewish family, but he became frightened. So, to rid himself of his burden, he took them out one by one and shot them. A man gave me a cabbage and I appreciated it very much. I crawled back to my "new" shelter -- the attic of what had once been a 2 story house. This house was full of remnants of human excrement. Nobody would think that a worn-out, hunted Jew could be hiding there. I nibbled at my treasure, the cabbage, till it was finished and then I resumed begging. I was given a few carrots here, a piece of bread there--every bite a bit of life for me.
Once, in the middle of the day, while I was curled up in my hiding place I heard somebody moving around. I could tell that somebody was putting a ladder against the opening leading to the attic. Looking down, I saw a peasant holding a revolver coming up after me. I jumped from the attic and headed for a small thicket of trees. I was trembling from fright as I plunged into the trees and the safe haven they provided. Being taken by surprise like that in the middle of the day -- that was what I had always feared. And now it had happened! I had established a routine already and felt a bit safe, but I was always haunted by the fear that one day they'd come after me. And they did. I remained in that thicket all day, at night I fled from there.
I reached a nearby hamlet and approached a house to beg for food. This was a hamlet inhabited by Baptists, and their religion seemed to impose a respect for human life on them. I gathered that they would not harm their fellow human being. So every day I went to a different peasant and begged for food. They gave me small amounts of food and begged me not to tell the neighbors. Every single one of them was living in terror, afraid of the neighbors on either side. Their terror was contagious--I was afraid to stay in that hamlet so I returned to Teryesheen and hid in another ruined Jewish house. At night, when I went to beg for food, I ran into somebody from Moishe's family. I told him about the close call I had had when the peasant climbed into the attic with his revolver, looking for me. Moishe's relative, however, knew all about this incident. He was obviously very well informed. He said that the peasants were only out to scare me and chase me away from Teryesheen. Moishe's family gave them enough to worry about. They were afraid that Germans would come and burn the whole hamlet to the ground. They would also be shot.
These words, however, did not deter me from seeking food. I was awfully hungry so I continued to beg for food. However, at several houses I heard that they were expecting a German raid. I became very nervous and disturbed at that news, so I crawled into a big haystack. It was snowing that day so the haystack, besides providing a hiding place, would keep me somewhat warm. However, it was my luck that on that very night the treacherous peasant in the last house, the one who took out the members of a Jewish family and shot them one by one, was robbed. All of a sudden I heard footsteps. I heard them poking into the haystacks with long poles. My heart seemed to rise into my throat. I suddenly felt my feet being seized and I was dragged out like an old sack. My footsteps in the fresh snow must have given me away. I started to cry quietly. The treacherous peasant looked at me and told me that a cow had been stolen from him that night. In the same breath he told me that he wasn't after me--he knew that I was not the one who had stolen his cow. He apparently knew all about me. He told me that I could stay in the haystack and that I had nothing to fear from him. I crawled, with great relief, back into the hay and he left. I waited for 5 or 10 minutes and I ran away. I didn't believe him. I had reached the point where I didn't believe anybody. I didn't know where I was running--I just ran. I finally stopped and hid in a big forest 3 or 4 kilometers from Teryesheen.
The next night I gingerly approached a house to beg for food. The inhabitants knew all about me -- how the treacherous peasant had found me hiding in the haystack, etc. There were no secrets among these peasants. Everybody knew what was going on in their neighbors' houses. These peasants shouted at me forcefully: I must leave their hamlet. A Jewish family was already living off them. I was endangering everybody by my presence. So I left Teryesheen and returned to the big forest. I roamed all over it, looking for partisans, but I didn't find them. I found ashes of fires mixed with old egg shells, potato peels, etc., but I couldn't find partisans. I wandered aimlessly around for some days. I was still utterly alone.
Hunger and solitude can push a man very hard. One night, begging for food, I entered a house and only after I was in it did I notice a German there. I became terribly frightened. I was afraid to take off immediately because he would chase me. So I pretended not to see him and edged myself very slowly back to the door. When I was near it I dived out and ran for my life.
The next day, when I approached a house in a nearby hamlet, the inhabitants all laughed at me. They knew exactly what had happened the day before with my "escape" from the "German". They told me that the "German" wasn't really a German; he was a partisan who was visiting his girlfriend. He wore a captured German overcoat. They all had a big laugh at my expense. From sheer relief I laughed too. Meanwhile, it was getting colder every night. Half the time I didn't know where I was.
Once, as I approached a house at night, I saw a sheet hanging inside, near a partially open window. How I wanted that sheet! Doubled up, it could serve me as a blanket during the cold nights. I slowly lifted the window all the way up and crawled half-way through the window until I was hanging in a position which enabled me to reach the sheet. There was a dog in the room but--this was most strange--it just looked at me. It didn't bark or make any sound at all. I grabbed the sheet and ran. Cold can be extremely painful: it can cut into you like a sharp knife. That's why that sheet was a treasure for me. I ran deep into a nearby forest, folded the sheet carefully, and pulled it over my head. It helped a lot! The cold couldn't get at me like before. The sheet wasn't a perfect solution, but it was better than nothing. When I covered my head, my feet were exposed and cold. But the rest of me was warm.
The next morning I went up on a hill to see where I was--where the nearest village was. Germans generally avoided hills because they didn't want to give their location away to partisans who may be lurking in the vicinity. From my hilltop position I saw a hamlet nearby. I didn't know the place. When night came I went into that hamlet. I was afraid of an utterly strange hamlet that might harbor vicious informers, etc. but I actually had been looking for a new hamlet to go to. When I begged for bread in a hamlet I made sure not to go back there for a week or two. I didn't want to become a subject of public conversation. A piece of bread satisfied me and I didn't want to push my luck. As I approached the houses of that new hamlet an intuitive fear seized me--a panic. I couldn't go on. I turned to leave the hamlet and kept on looking behind me to see if I was being followed. There was nobody following me. I saw that a farmer, standing far away, had noticed me. He shook his head at me in an odd way -- he wanted to attract my attention but he didn't want to do it by waving at me or beckoning to me. That could cost him his life later! As I looked at him and he was sure that I was watching, he put down a small package. I didn't approach the package immediately. I waited till the farmer moved off and I approached the package a few hours later, in a very roundabout way. What I found there was a treasure! It was an enormous fresh bread, cut into pieces. It still smelled of the oven! What a noble man that farmer must have been, to take pity on a helpless fellow-human and to do something concrete about it. I dashed into the forest, sat down with my treasure, and divided it into 3 parts. That bread would last me for at least 3 days! Three more days of life!
Some time later, when this bread was finished, I went out of the forest to beg for more food. As usual, my cudgel was in my hand and my knife was in my pocket. The third house I approached belonged to a seemingly wealthy woman who was in the process of baking big pirogen (Polish dumplings) and rolls. She sat me down and fed me, and gave me a big roll and some cabbage to take with me. She was a golden person, this woman, and I ran back gleefully to my hiding place. Some days later I ventured out to beg at the other end of the hamlet. I usually approached houses which were some distance from main roads. This time, I was rebuffed at every single house I went to. The inhabitants chased me out and set their vicious dogs on me. I became frightened. I saw that the people in that area were rotten. It was strange, but usually if one person in an area gave me food others did the same too. And if one was rotten they usually all turned out to be rotten. I know it doesn't sound logical but that's the way it was. I speedily left that area and that hamlet.
I had no luck in a nearby village, so I returned to the wealthy woman's house. She told me that the peasants were saying that a "Zhid" (Jew) was hanging around in the vicinity of the hamlet. She gave me some milk and bread and begged me not to return to her again. She said there were squealers in the area. Her house could be burned down; she could be shot. As a parting gift she gave me an enormous pirogen, stuffed with onions and cabbage. I took one bite out of it and it was so delicious! So fantastically good! I was, at that time, wearing an old overcoat that I had found in a field. Some farmer must have thrown it away. It was ripped and tattered, but it was very heavy and enormous in size--it came down almost to my ankles. It had big pockets, so I put the pirogen in a pocket. I thanked the woman and left for my hide-out. When I was almost there I reached into the pocket and -- disaster of disasters--I saw that I had lost the pirogen! I started to cry like a baby, as if I had lost the most precious diamond. Until dawn, I retraced my steps, combing the area, but I just couldn't find that pirogen. An animal in the forest had probably pounced on it. I had counted on a few days of peace and quiet with that pirogen. And now nothing! Where should I go! Who cared if I lived or died! I was a burden to everyone I came in contact with. I wandered around that enormous forest in a depressed mood. Was all this suffering worth anything! And if I survived--for whom and for what would it be?
As I plodded along I heard wood being cut far off in the forest. In a forest such sounds can be heard for 2 or 3 kilometers. The sound of the wood-chopping got louder and louder. I hid in a clump of bushes to see who the woodcutter was. I hoped it was the partisans. However, this hope was soon dashed when I saw a young boy, dressed like a typical peasant lad. He looked to be around 13 or 14 years old. I approached him. He became very, very frightened when I drew near. Don't forget that I had, from long experience, trained myself to move noiselessly. He had thought that he was all alone in that area. I started to speak to him in Polish, and as I spoke I saw him becoming more and more uneasy. Then, on an impulse, I switched to Yiddish; the color returned to his face and he smiled. I told him that I had been with other Jews in a terrible extermination camp called Sobibor; I explained the uprising we had made. As I went on, he embraced me and hugged me with evident heartfelt sincerity. He told me to wait a few minutes and then he scurried off.
The boy returned a short while later and led me to a very deep hidden bunker made of wood. It was extremely wet and damp in there. It was also quite cold. The stench in that hole was horrible--like the odor of fried rancid lard mixed with the stink of old rags. There was a kind of a makeshift bed knocked together from old boards and covered with rags. The boy's mother came over to me and asked me who I was. There were 2 small children with her in the bunker. The boy I had found, Mendele, carried a rifle as did his 16 year old brother who was away at that time. There was ham and pork in that bunker; it was full of food. The mother told me to take whatever food I wanted; she was obviously afraid of me. She asked me very nervously how I had managed to find her son. She wanted to know if somebody had told me about this family in the woods. She repeatedly asked me: "Did somebody say that there was a bunker in the woods sheltering a Jewish family?" Again and again, sometimes semi-hysterically, she returned to this question and asked it anew. And each time I had to repeat to her that nobody had told me about them--I had stumbled upon her son Mendele by accident. I told her many times how I had heard the sound of her son chopping wood. I also told her all about Sobibor and my unsuccessful search for partisans.
As if to show me that she was not a vulnerable woman, she told me that she had a husband nearby, named Isack. When she said that it rang a bell. I had heard of him. He went around with a 10 or 12 man band to rob food, clothing, etc. from the area peasants. I had heard of him because many of the peasants spoke of "Nasha Isack" (our Isack). He used to rob the peasants white. He had a horrible reputation among them. They used to tell me: "Sobiboru, let Isack ask us for food--we'll give him! But why does he come with his gang and rob us like that? He's a bloody thief!" Others had told me: "Our Isack, our friend from the pre-war years--how could he come and rob us at gunpoint like that?" Isack came from that area and he was well-known to all. Whatever his gang could steal they stole. His wife, as if to justify her husband and her sons, told me that from time to time they went on punitive expeditions to area peasants who had betrayed Jews. Her older son had returned to the bunker by now, so I told him and his brother that I wanted to join them. They told me straight off that they didn't want me. I had been in the bunker for some time now and the night was coming. The woman told me to take as much food as I wanted. They had enough to spare, she said. I took some food from her but I didn't want to overload myself. Besides, I now knew the way to the bunker, so I figured that I could return to it for more food in the future. So I said goodbye to all of them, thanked them for the food and left. As I left I looked around carefully for landmarks to make sure that I could find that bunker again.
I found a hut in the woods. It was covered with straw and boarded up. I lifted two boards, crawled in and pulled the boards back into place so that nobody could see that a person had gone in there. The place was full of straw so I made a hiding place for myself in the straw. I her enough food, at least for the next short while. But I was always worried about food for the next week, and the week after that. You can become obsessed with food when you don't have it. I rested for several days in that hut and regained my strength. It was warm in there, with all the straw. When the food was finished I went out at night to return to the bunker. I found it easily, but it was completely deserted. When I went down into it, it was full of water and pitch black. It had formerly been illuminated by a small oil lamp. The bunker had obviously been abandoned. Big rats--like kittens--were scurrying around in there. I ran out of the bunker immediately. Isack's family had obviously moved away.
So I resumed my wandering, searching for food. Night was coming, so I remained in that forest for the night. I didn't make it back to the straw hut. I had found some potatoes in an abandoned cellar, so I roasted them on a small fire, gulped them down and fell into the deep sleep that only the utterly exhausted can experience. In the middle of the night I was awakened by something moving in the woods. I became very frightened. I burrowed into a thick clump of bushes. I was afraid to stand up -- I could be easily seen that way. Peering out of the bushes, I saw a horse and wagon drive straight to my hiding place. The wagon stopped near me and I saw two women and two men. Th men were very well armed. I was afraid of coughing or sneezing; I was terrified that even my agitated breathing would give me away. Those four people were scavengers of human beings--they went into the forests to search for fugitive Jews. They were criminals, bandits who sought to rob defenseless people and murder them. One of the men carried a torch. As they were poking around the area, the rays of the torch illuminated my thicket. I was afraid that they had seen me. However, I was lucky or they were careless. They missed me. They remounted the wagon and drove off. As they moved off, I saw that the wagon had a fair amount of food and clothing in it. They had obviously been "successful" in their hunting expedition before they came to my thicket. They must have found a bunker sheltering Jewish unfortunates, whom they speedily murdered. I started to breathe normally when I was sure that they were far away.
After five or six days I ran into Isack's two sons in the woods. They were well armed. I told them that I had gone to look for them in their bunker and had found it abandoned and deserted. I begged them to let me come to them from time to time. I promised that I would not abuse their hospitality--I would come a few times, at widely spaced intervals. However, they absolutely refused to tell me where their new bunker was. They told me that they had abandoned the old bunker the night after I had come to it. They hadn't trusted me. This is how it was then--everybody looked out for his or her own skin. Anybody and everybody else could go to hell! This is what the war did to ordinary people--turned them into egotistical and suspicious animals. I begged the two boys for a gun but they laughed at me. Finally one said that, for gold, he would give me a gun. I still had a few pieces of my wife's jewelry, so I save them the jewelry and they sold me a rifle. When they got up to leave I wanted to accompany them but they refused to allow it.
I returned to the straw hut, spent several days there, and started to make the rounds of the hamlets where I had previously been given bread. Now that I had the rifle I even went to a hamlet where I had been refused bread. I smeared my face with black dust, as a disguise. And yet some peasants recognized me immediately. They called me "Sobiboru." I would point the rifle through the window but it didn't seem to bring me success. Some of the peasants laughed at me, even though the rifle was pointed straight at them. One said: "Ah, Sobiboru, we know you! What are you pointing a gun at us for? You wouldn't shoot us--you know that!" I returned, hungry, to my hiding place.
The next night I returned, without the rifle, to that same hamlet. That peasant who had spoken to me the previous night, said: "Sobiboru, you're lucky! If you would have returned with that damn rifle, I'd kill you! Here's a chunk of bread. Eat it in peace. We are Baptists here and we have sympathy for a fellow human being in distress. If you come with a gun we won't give you a thing and we'll defend ourselves. But if you beg us for bread we'll give you. Even with your smeared face we knew it was you! And we know you're not a murderer. But bandit robbers we don't like. We know how to handle them." He even gave me a big glass of milk. I was very bedraggled and weak, so he had pity on me. I thanked him profusely and left.
About one week later I had a particularly unsettling experience. I was holed up in the straw hut, fast asleep, when I felt myself being prodded awake by a rifle butt. I looked up and saw Isack's two sons glaring down at me. The 16 year old said to me: "OK, Sobiboru, where's the rifle?" I told him that I had bought it from them fair and square, I had paid for it with my wife's precious jewelry. That jewelry meant a lot to me. It was a link to my wife and my past life, and I had parted with it painfully. But I needed a rifle, and I had paid for it in full. The two boys laughed at my pleading. I told them that I had left the rifle with a peasant for safekeeping. They didn't believe me, and the 16 year-old said, "Mendele, search the place." It took Mendele less than 5 minutes to find the rifle while his brother kept me covered with his own rifle. They laughed when they found the gun and dashed out of the straw hut. I was once again defenseless. And the way I had been treated like that by fellow Jews pained me greatly. Had all of the world become completely savage? Was there no more decency left? Besides, I had heard that, to be accepted by partisans, one had to have one's own rifle. So that rifle represented my passport to the partisans, when and if I would find them. And now I had lost that passport. This incident left me deeply depressed.
I couldn't hang around that Baptist hamlet any longer, so I went to another one, Pozshalev. I had worked there at the beginning of the war. I arrived there at night and I hid under a bridge. I was very hungry but I waited for the dawn. When the sun started to rise I approached the house of a man who had employed me there. In spite of my terrible appearance he recognized me immediately. He greeted me with a "Good morning" and I asked him for a drink of water. He gave me the drink and then gave me a piece of bread and a jug of milk. I devoured the bread and gulped the milk down before his eyes. I asked him if he was satisfied with the work I had done for him. He replied that he was very satisfied. I was eager for a sympathetic human ear--I wanted to pour out all that I had held bottled up in me, so I told him what I had gone through, what Sobibor was, how we had made the uprising and killed more than a few Germans. My former employer became frightened when he heard about Sobibor from me. He crossed himself a few times while I was talking to him. I told him that I wanted to hide in his barn and go out at night to look for partisans. I explained that I wouldn't bother him at all--he wouldn't even know I was there. But he refused. He told me that the Germans had discovered Jews hiding in that hamlet and had killed them all, together with their protectors. So that was that--there was no refuge for me in the barn. I returned to the bridge and hid there.
The next morning I peered out of my sanctuary under the bridge and saw the peasants driving over to the market in Chelm. I recognized a Ukrainian woman and her husband who used to buy merchandise from me before the war, when I had a textile store. They were good customers, decent people. I went over to them and begged them: "Please, on the way back, take me to your hamlet! Hide me! Please, save my life!" The woman said I should wait there by the bridge; she'd see me on the way back. I waited there patiently and, in the afternoon, I saw another woman running over to me. She was very upset and shouted at me: "Zhidek, Zhidek (Jew, Jew), run away! Escape! Fast! Fast! You've been squealed on!" Neighbors in town had told her that Germans had been sent out to look for a Jew hiding under the bridge. This woman who ran to me, one step ahead of the Germans, was a noble human being. I will never know her name, or anything about her, but she will shine in my heart as long as I breathe. Hearing her ominous words, I took off like a wild animal. I ran into a small forest and hid there till the night came. I was in a bad emotional state--the woman I had trusted had betrayed me. For my good customer to do such a thing to me--this depressed me horribly. And why would one human being do such a thing to another? I was tormented by such thoughts.
The next day I wandered around looking for places to hide. As I wandered, shepherd boys used to chase me, yelling at me: "Szlab Zhide, szlab zhide!" (Catch the Jew! Catch the Jew!) I always was a very fast runner so they could never catch me. For them it was the greatest sport to chase a Jew and hunt him down. One thing kept me going: my obsession with finding partisans. When I would find them, I would start taking revenge for all my loved ones, for Chelm, and for my Sobibor comrades who never made it out.
There are many forests in Poland, and in these forests there are Kolonias. That means loosely grouped houses, standing alone, separated by 3-4 kilometers. Germans never came to those houses unless they had very specific reasons to do so. I saw a Kolonia house near a forest and went over to an elderly peasant standing near it. When I told him that I came from the death camp Sobibor he became very frightened and led me into his horse-stall. I told him how hungry I was. He was a poor man but he brought some bread and water in to me. He told me that his son-in-law was a shoemaker so I showed him my ripped shoes. The old peasant took my shoes and said he would take them to his son-in-law, who lived nearby. He left and returned some hours later with my shoes repaired. I kissed him from gratitude. He told me that he was a Baptist and I was overjoyed to hear that. He told me that he had a wife, two daughters (one 15 and the other 18) and a son. His earthly possessions, besides the poverty-stricken house, consisted of one skinny cow and a small vegetable plot. He could hardly get by and had a very difficult life. When I heard how hard-up he was, I took out a piece of my wife's jewelry that I still had and passed it into his hand. I told him that he could exchange it for money. He said that next day was a market day and he would take the jewelry to the market and use it to buy some necessities. My hopes rose as I talked to him. I was afraid to beg him for shelter, but I didn't have to; he took me into his house, which was built close to the ground. He took me into the attic, which wasn't very high, a man could jump out of there easily if he had to. He dragged a bench over to the front of the attic for me and said that, for the meantime, I could stay with his family. He showed me a tiny opening through which I could peer out and see if danger was approaching. He said that I should be constantly on the look-out. He told me that he was too poor to feed another mouth -- I would have to slip out and beg in nearby hamlets. And, if I succeeded with my begging, he expected me to share whatever I received with his family.
That evening he boiled a mixture of black poppy seeds and water and he shared it with me. No bread, no milk--just this unpalatable mixture. Hungry as I was, I couldn't take it into my mouth. It tasted like poorly refined or stale castor oil. The peasant's family members were all very religiously observant, they prayed all the time, especially before going to sleep. During their prayers, when they mentioned Jesus and his ordeals, they looked at me with baleful, malevolent eyes, as if I had personally tortured their Jesus. I slept on the one board bench with my clothes wrapped into a small bundle which I kept in my hand. If something happened I could jump out of the attic with my clothes in one hand and take off. The peasant had told me to take those precautions.
Meanwhile, the lice were eating me up alive. I was so itchy that I thought I would go crazy! I slept on the board without anything to serve as a sheet or a mattress. In wartime an ordinary rag had value and I didn't have one to put under me. I slept a feverish sleep, haunted by fear. Every night I went out to the nearest hamlet-- Podoobye-- to beg. This was a Ukrainian hamlet, and their young men had joined the Germans to fight the war, so I circulated amongst the old people who were left over there and I begged. Some of them took pity on me--a few potatoes here, a small cabbage there. The hamlet dogs were no threat to me personally, but they ruined my begging. When one dog started to bark all the other dogs barked too. That's how the peasants knew that a stranger was in the hamlet, so they remained indoors and bolted their doors. Nobody came out. They were afraid of partisans, and the nights belonged to the partisans. I used to drag myself wearily back to my bench in the attic with whatever I had managed to beg. I slept from extreme exhaustion.
Life would start up again several hours later, when the cock crowed. The house came alive; the family members started to cross themselves and say their prayers. And, as usual, when they said their prayers they cast ominous glances at me. Their religion forbade them to kill another human being but they wanted to get rid of me so they gave me almost nothing to eat, although I managed to obtain some food from my begging. I got around that by eating some of the begged food immediately, before I returned "home." They even cast covetous eyes on my sweater, with the suggestion that it would fit the son-in-law very nicely. However, as the saying goes, "beggars can't be choosers." At least I was warm and had a place to lay my head. I was still alive, and that was what counted. I wanted to live to find the partisans and join them. And I wanted to live to tell the world about Sobibor.
Every night, when I went hunting for food, I asked the peasants if they knew anything of partisans in the area. I once came into a house and there were some armed Jews there who had come for food. These armed Jews didn't want to tell me where they were hiding out. They didn't want to have anything to do with me. They had heard about the "Sobiboru" and they were afraid that the general knowledge of me in the area as a survivor of the horrid death camp would sooner or later cause the Germans to mount a special and massive operation to catch me. I begged these armed Jews to allow me to join them; I asked for their mercy, but it was all to no avail.
The peasants of the next hamlet I went to, Aleezoof, told me that the Russians were doing very well at the front. They gave me milk to drink and a large loaf of bread. When the Russians did well at the front I generally got better treatment. My spirits improved. I spent all of my days at the tiny opening in the attic, looking out.
Just before New Year's day the old peasant told me that I would have to remain for some time in the attic and not go out because a round of partying would soon begin. Poor as he was, he had made a big batch of "bimber" (a strong alcoholic drink) for the festivities and strangers would come around. They must not know that a Jew was hiding in his house.
So I remained hidden in the attic. Once a day they brought me some water to drink and three small potatoes. They were hoping I would die of hunger; they were tired of me. And they were afraid. At night I heard such nice music; the peasants were dancing, singing and carousing, and I was up in the attic, crying. I soaked the bench with my tears. I took out the few photos I had left--momentos of a past life which I had treasured through the worst hell--and hugged them to me. I remembered my mother and father, my wife and children, our little home. This had been my own family, and now families were celebrating downstairs and I was all alone in the world. I couldn't cry loudly--that was too dangerous--but the tears poured from my eyes. My body shook for hours and hours with my sorrow, with only the photos as mute witnesses to my grief. I heard them call the dog: "Booket, Booket, eat, eat!" They were probably throwing morsels of food to him. I also heard them call the one cow they owned. The animals ate regularly--3 or 4 times a day--but for me there was hardly any food. I was thrown those tiny potatoes once a day. It wasn't food enough to live, but it wasn't enough to starve me to death either. The water they gave me left me continually thirsty. At times I thought of leaving that place. But where would I go? As long as I was there I had a roof over my head; at least I was warm. The worst thing about that time was my own emotional state--my thoughts about my family and friends--indeed, my whole world--that tormented me ceaselessly. And during all this time I could hear the people below me singing and carousing drunkenly.
This lasted for 7 or 8 days. They finally told me that I could come down. I took my cudgel and set out in the newly fallen darkness to beg for bread. A few peasants gave me food, which I brought back to the family which was sheltering me. They grabbed the food eagerly because they were very hungry. They left a small portion for me. I kept on making contingency plans about what I would do if the worst would happen. That's the way I am; I've always done that. I have a kind of superstitious belief that if I'll plan for the worst, things won't turn out quite that bad. I saw, through many small indications, that the peasant and his family were looking forward to my death. They wanted to get rid of me. The peasant was afraid that the Germans would find out about me but he couldn't kill me because of his religious beliefs. He became very nervous and started to drink a lot; he began to cry regularly too. When he was drunk, he told me how frightened he was of the Germans. One day when I was stretched out in the attic on the board, peering out of the opening, he came up and cried out; "Sobiboru, there are Germans in the nearest village! They say there're heading this way to find a hidden Jew! Get out of here! Fast! Now!" Had he taken a knife and plunged it into me I wouldn't have been more distressed. A panic seized me and, in broad daylight, I ran from the house like a wild animal. I can't describe the depth of my panic at that time. I plunged into a forest and I remained there till the night came. Then I warily approached a hamlet I knew, named Onantse. I picked houses at random and begged for food. I was given some raw potatoes and a piece of bread, which I put in the sack which I always carried.
As usual, I did my begging systematically. I would approach a house, and then I wouldn't go to the next one, the one adjoining it, and the one after that. I was afraid of being watched. The dogs barked terribly but I was used to that by now. After some time I returned to "my" peasant's house. When they saw me they fell to their knees and crossed themselves. They looked at me with disgust; they were obviously very disappointed that I had returned. Their disappointment was tempered by their poverty, however. They grabbed my sack and voraciously devoured almost all that I had begged. The story about the Germans in a nearby hamlet was a fiction which they had invented to rid themselves of me. Their plan, however, had not worked out. I was back.
One evening, as it became dark, I moved away from the tiny opening which was during the daylight hours, my window on the outside world. The peasant and his family were downstairs playing cards. I didn't notice anything amiss. All of a sudden, a strange face appeared at the attic entrance. The stranger pulled himself into the attic and came over to me. I noticed, with great unease, that he carried a rifle. He gave me a friendly slap on the back and, calling me "Friend," started to speak to me in Ukrainian. He explained that he was a bandit, a crook. He had an associate who went with him on robbing "missions," but this associate had been killed by angry peasants. At that time there were many 2, 3 and 4 men groups who robbed, looted and murdered. He told me that they stole whatever they could lay their hands on; they weren't very selective. He told me that from now on I would be his new "associate," and we'd go robbing together. From his words I pieced together the truth. I had given the old peasant some jewelry when he first sheltered me. He knew that I had a few small pieces left and he must have told this to his son-in-law, who mentioned it to this Ukrainian. This Ukrainian bandit thought that he had found himself an easy victim. The story about becoming his "associate" was all a con; he wanted to take me into the forest and kill me.
The old peasant, who was still downstairs, had heard everything. He asked the bandit to come downstairs. Escape was impossible for me. They sat together for a long time and I sat upstairs on my bench, afraid to move. I could smell the pungent odor of the "bimber." They must have drunk a fair amount. I could hear some crying too. The old Baptist, when he used to get drunk, would start crying and sobbing convulsively. However, he never would lose control of his faculties. He remained logical. Finally, the bandit and the crying old Baptist came up to me. They were both quite drunk. The bandit said to me, "OK, Jew, come with me to the forest." He obviously intended to shoot me. I started to cry terribly. I went on my knees before the old Baptist and I pleaded with him; "You're a pious man. I know that. You know that I've come from hell; I've told you everything. You know where I've been. You believe in God, you believe in your religion--do you want to have forever on your conscience what is going to happen to me now?" When the old Baptist heard this, he sat down for another round of hard drinking with the bandit and then told him to leave. The bandit said in Ukrainian, "Don't worry, I'll be back!"
The next night I ran away from that house. I made myself a new hideout in the forest. I went around to the hamlets that I knew well by now and I begged bread. When I came to the peasants and begged, some of them told me that a Ukrainian was looking for me. He kept asking the peasants if they had seen me around, begging for bread. He seemed to be ceaselessly looking for me. He wanted to finish me off. I suffered greatly in the woods cause the nights were getting colder and colder. My general condition was weakening rapidly. I had, relatively speaking, built my physical condition up at the old Baptist's house, but now I was losing ground rapidly. The cold was eating into my bones. I couldn't go on that way, sleeping in the bone-chilling woods.
I returned, after much vacillation, to the old Baptist and asked him if the Ukrainian had come there looking for me. He said that the bandit hadn't shown up there yet. He knew, however, that the Ukrainian had been making many inquiries about me in the neighboring hamlets. I told the old Baptist all that had happened to me since I left him and I begged him to let me return to his house. He saw that I was looking very bad and he took pity on me. He allowed me to return to my old bench in his attic, and my former way of life as an unwelcome house guest and night-time beggar resumed.
The worst time of day for me when I was in hiding there was when I would prepare to sleep. I was afraid that the Ukrainian bandit would show up while I was asleep. One night, while I was dozing off, I heard a scratching sound coming from the window. The Ukrainian was trying to crawl into the house. My eyes were closed but there was no mistaking the sound coming from that window. When I opened my eyes and confirmed my worst fears, I jumped up and shrieked in Polish, "Help! Help! He's here! Help!" The old Baptist came running to me. I grabbed my small clothing package and ran out of the house and into a forest. I was running in my underwear. It was very cold outside and I was shivering. I hid in the woods for a whole night and the following day. All this time I was obsessed with one thing: finding partisans. I sat in the woods, without food, and longed for partisans. At least with them I would be able to take revenge. I never thought about a better life in the future. I only thought of revenge. Constantly! Obsessively!
When I finally started moving around in that forest I started to hear ominous sounds. Diving into some bushes, I perceived 2 peasants going prowling about with axes. I thought they were looking for me, so even when they passed I remained in the bushes till the next night. Then I got up and went into one of "my" hamlets. A few peasants gave me some raw potatoes and drinking water. I returned to the forest and roasted the potatoes over a small fire. They were undescribably delicious! Only a starving man, like I was then, can really appreciate food! The lice, however, were biting me terribly; they tormented me non-stop. I found a small stream, so I washed my shirt in it. I had no soap, but I thought that perhaps the lice would drown. When the shirt dried, I put it on and wandered into another hamlet. More than one peasant told me that a Ukrainian was prowling in the vicinity, asking, "Where is the Jew named Sobiboru?" That's what I was called in those hamlets, 40 or 50 km. from Sobibor. The peasants asked me: "Why is the Ukrainian looking for you like that? What does he want with you?" I said that I didn't know what he wanted with me. Had I mentioned jewelry or gold I would immediately have become the target of another 15 or 20 such bandits.
Now my nerves were really on edge. When twigs cracked or branches rustled, I became petrified. I thought that maybe my luck had left me; perhaps my time had run out. I became depressed. Such a life -- hunger and cold and terrible fear! Maybe it was time to call it a day and end this miserable life of mine! However, the thought of finding partisans possessed me ever more strongly at this time. If I found them, I would be able to take revenge! I would avenge all of the helpless Jews who never had a chance against the German beasts and their willing "friends". I would avenge my sister, ripped to death by dogs, my mother, my father, my wife, my children! The desire to take revenge--that was the only thing left to me. But it was enough to keep me alive. It was reason enough to go on living!
Many times heavy snow fell. Then I had to remain in my makeshift shelters or, to be more accurate, holes because my footprints would stand out in the fresh snow. So I was chilled to death, unable to move, hungry and shivering. When I was curled up in my hole like that I often used to take off my ripped shoes and rub my feet continuously so that they shouldn't freeze. My feet were always getting cold and I saw that this rubbing helped a lot. If I wouldn't have done this I would have been finished.
The days and nights dragged on like that. I no longer had the courage to go back to the old Baptist and my attic bench there. The Ukrainian bandit would surely get me there. I heard from various peasants how he continued to inquire about my whereabouts. But then -- good news! One peasant told me that the Ukrainian had robbed them continually. They were poor people who had very little and could not afford to lose anything. So they banded together, set a trap and killed "my" Ukrainian bandit! This was really a piece of good news to me then! I had been living in a heightened state of fear, I was afraid of the rustle of branches, the movement of shadows, the barking of dogs. I was in the state of continuous apprehension which animals must constantly be in, forever afraid of wild predators. So what the peasant told me was really welcome news. At least one major cause of my anxiety was gone. I didn't however, let the peasant see that I was happy at the news of the Ukrainian's death. They might become curious, and then....
I moved on to a hamlet I had visited before, Aleezoof. It was terribly cold outside and all the dogs were barking, as usual. They no longer frightened me. I had my cudgel and if any dog would try to bite me he would feel its full force cracking down on him. I once hit a savage dog so hard that his pained cries could probably be heard for 3 or 4 kilometers. The inhabitants of the first house I approached told me they had no food to spare. I then went to a house that was 3 houses removed from that one and a woman there gave me a piece of bread and a big glass of milk. I thanked her very, very profusely. She kept looking at me as if she wanted to tell me something but couldn't quite bring herself to do it. I asked her if she knew of partisans in the vicinity. She replied that she'd heard of a partisan band either in that hamlet or the next one -- she wasn't sure, she didn't know exactly where they were.
My spirits were high when I left that woman. I was close now! Revenge was near! I searched all over that hamlet during the night, looking for the partisans, but I was unsuccessful. I was exhausted, my shoes were torn and my clothes were full of holes. I kept on wandering around in the dark, hoping for a bit of luck, but my search turned up nothing and nobody. However, as I left the hamlet and made my way to a nearby forest I saw, far away, a group of people, a mass of men. My heart skipped several beats! I approached closer to get a better look and suddenly a figure shot up in front of me and barked out: "Halt or I shoot!" I don't know to this day what was wrong with me then, but I just kept on approaching. Again he shouted: "Halt!" His words didn't register in my consciousness -- perhaps I was in an advanced state of exhaustion, or depression. I had been in a very despondent state at that time. Like a robot, I walked straight over to this man, who was a guard on the perimeter of the partisan group's position. Luckily, he didn't shoot; he just grabbed me by the shoulders, searched me rapidly for hidden arms, and shoved me down into a sitting position. He told me later that I had been one hair-length away from being shot; his finger was on the trigger and he had me in his gun sight as I plodded on towards him. He told me that what kept him back from shooting me was my appearance--I looked too bedraggled and pathetic to constitute any kind of threat.
The partisans were occupying a whole house there. Some men came for me and shoved me into a small room which was heavily guarded. I was continuously interrogated and had to repeat everything--and I mean everything--from my past time and again. And again after that. And my later accounts were checked against my earlier ones for inconsistencies. All the while guns were pointed at me. After a while I learned that I had stumbled into a group of "official" Soviet partisans, under the leadership of Dadia Pyetcha.
After several days a doctor came to see me. He was Jewish and spoke Yiddish. He examined me carefully, but that was not the real purpose of his visit. I had already been examined quite thoroughly by several doctors. While he "examined" me, he conversed in Yiddish with me. He was checking on the authenticity of my story. Chelm Jews speak a particular kind of Yiddish, with many Ukrainian words as part of their vocabulary. Yiddish is a language of many dialects, so this doctor was checking to see whether my spoken Yiddish corresponded with the details of my life which I had told them. People were very suspicious of each other at that time and these partisans were particularly wary of infiltrators.
After the doctor left, I was given a more substantial meal. The next day I was taken out of that room and given a rifle and bullets. They tested my shooting skills, I had had military training before, so I knew how to shoot and how to properly maintain a rifle. I think my "teachers" could not have failed to see how eager I was to get into combat.
My first engagement with the enemy had a somewhat odd origin. We were encamped near a small village which was known to be a pro-Nazi stronghold. When the order would be given, we were supposed to move in on the village and clean it up, that is, get rid of the Germans and their "friends." One night, our commander said he was going to reconnoiter before the attack. Several other partisans followed him but, as per his orders, kept their distance from him. Suddenly, our commander started whipping his white horse madly and it galloped straight into the enemy-held village. The other partisans who were nearby looked on, stupefied. Our commander was gone in an instant, before anything could be done to stop or intercept him. According to rumors which circulated amongst us later, the commander was quite drunk.
When this misfortune was reported to our High Command a short time later, our whole Otryad (military unit) was mobilized and we were ordered to attack the village and find our commander, dead or alive. We fought for most of the night against the enemy, who contested every house and shack. The Germans fell back very slowly, taking heavy casualties. We had losses too but I was elated. I should have been afraid during this, my first engagement, but I wasn't. I had a weapon in my hands now; I was surrounded by people who shared my objective -- to pay the Germans and their collaborators back for all that they had done to innocent women and children. The whistle of flying bullets was music to my ears. It sounds somewhat corny now, but that's the way I felt then. For a long time I was lower than a cockroach on this earth. I was fair game for virtually everybody, soldier and civilian alike. My life was a nightmare peopled by squealers and bandits. And now I was hitting back! Yes, I might fall, but it would be in battle, while I was repaying a long overdue debt to the Germans and their collaborators. For the first time in a very long while I was happy.
After we took the village we searched every single house, shed, barn and stable, looking for our commander. It was all in vain--we never found him. The retreating Germans must have taken our leader with them. We burned the whole village to the ground.
We took up new positions in a big forest. The Germans flew overhead constantly, searching for partisans. We remained dug in among the thick trees which served as our cover. We were always ready to move out at a moment's notice; we carried our food and ammunition on horses. We were in a state of constant readiness and every partisan kept his fully loaded rifle at his side for 24 hours of every day. It would have been impossible to take us by surprise.
Our High Command sent teams of partisans to reconnoiter the enemy positions. After some days, we were ordered to move in and attack a collaborationist village. This village had a terrible reputation; its Ukrainian inhabitants took great pleasure in hunting down lone and solitary Jewish survivors and other "enemies of the Reich." There was a problem, however. This village could be approached only by a bridge which was heavily guarded by Germans. We took wood in the forest and improvised sections of a narrow bridge. Under cover of night we transported these heavy sections to an unguarded point of the river and assembled them. When the bridge was ready we moved across in force. The Ukrainians were taken by surprise; they had thought their position was impregnable under their German protectors. They retreated after a brief battle and only old people remained in the village.
Our orders were strict. From Ukrainian collaborators we could take whatever we wanted. From decent villages, especially those of Baptist Ukrainians, we couldn't take anything. I went into a house and "confiscated" a pair of fine boots. My own boots had been covered with holes. I also "borrowed" a shirt and a pair of pants. My own were infested with lice and covered with holes. We were hungry by now, as we had run out of eggs, cheese, etc., so we gulped like starved maniacs. I must have eaten 8 or 10 eggs at one time. We loaded a wagon full of "schnapps" and other goodies. We also loaded up with arms and ammunition because we found an armory in the village. We moved out of that village and kept going all night. Mobility was our major weapon--we had to be on the move constantly. I was picked with two other partisans to shepherd 14 head of cattle. We had problems with them, because a few took off to return to their home village. The three of us were worried about what our commanders would say, but in all of the hurry and confusion the shortage of several cows was not noticed. We were dead tired when we stopped in the morning. Several partisans came over, selected a cow and led it off for slaughter. Some hours later every group of 5 men received a large pot of beef stew. What a delicacy! We ate like kings!
Our beef stew feast was a very rare one because we were bombed almost every day by the Germans, so we couldn't cook. A fire would have given away our position. I, like many of my partisan brothers, did not like to dig in and hide in the forest. We itched for a battle with the bloody German murderers and their Ukrainian helpers. We lived for revenge and to us our own lives were cheap. Only one thing mattered – revenge!
After several days an air of unusual tension gripped our encampment. Something was brewing! We soon found out what it was. A train loaded with German soldiers was to pass on tracks near our forest. Our commanders knew the exact time of passage of this train. 25 of us were picked to play key roles, and I was one of the 25. Every one of us was given a mine. We dug in under cover not far from the tracks. We couldn't be too close to the tracks. Our comrades had dug in behind us. At the proper moment -- the timing had to be exact--we lunged forward and buried our mines in the track bed. We then turned and ran back to our prepared positions. We waited, and the air was filled with tension.
All of a sudden we heard the sound of steel on steel getting louder every moment. The train was coming! When the noise became very loud we heard a thunderous explosion and the ground shook. We leaped out of our positions and charged the train. Much of it was wrecked, but some cars, especially those at the end of the train, remained upright on the tracks. Many Germans had been killed in the wreck, but a fair number survived. They took off for the woods where our partisan brothers were waiting for them.
We hunted those uniformed Germans like rabbits. Many of them had been wounded in the explosion, but they still tried to escape. The Aryan supermen bled like pigs! Don't let anybody tell you otherwise--revenge is sweet. A whole nation had dedicated itself to annihilating my brothers and sisters, and now I was giving them what they richly deserved. I enjoyed every minute of it! Five wounded senior German officers were captured and placed to one side by our commanders. I was ordered to guard them till they would be interrogated. One of them begged me, "Bring us a doctor! You must know the Geneva Convention concerning prisoners of war! Be fair! We're wounded! We demand medical attention--sofort! Immediately!" The blood rose to my head. "You are beasts," I shouted at them. "You killed my wife and children! Did you apply the Geneva Convention to them? You are a gang of murderers!" I hit one of them hard with the butt of my rifle. I turned on another and asked him if he had heard about Sobibor and other death camps. "That's where you monsters gas innocent people," I told him. "You've turned our women and children into smoke. What harm could they ever have done to you?" I shrieked. And I hit him too, very hard, with my rifle butt. I was losing control of myself very rapidly. Fortunately, a partisan comrade saw me from the corner of his eye and he came running over. He pacified me. I was lucky--another moment and I would have lost control of myself completely and killed those German animals. And my orders were to guard them, not kill them. Anyhow, after they were interrogated they were given the treatment they deserved, and it was a treatment not prescribed by the Geneva Convention. They richly merited the treatment they got.
We were exhausted when we reached our encampment but orders immediately came through that we were to move another 40 kilometers immediately. When we completed the move we rested for 3 days. Then word came down that parachutists from Russia would be dropped in our area. We were to prepare for them. We built giant pyres of wood at specific places to delineate a large landing area. Each pyre had an allotment of colored flares. When the pyres would be lit with a designated color, the drop would proceed. A partisan was assigned to guard each pyre for a specific period of time, so the pyres were constantly manned on a rotational basis. Each partisan was given the password of the day to be used to identify anyone approaching. Our orders were simple: a certain colored flare would serve as the order to us to ignite our pyre.
I ran into a narrow escape here. If a partisan was found guilty of dereliction of duty, he was shot. I had, as one of my supervisors, a Ukrainian who had very little love of Jews. He would have been delighted to do me in but I was very careful. He assigned me a night watch at one of the pyres after I had had a particularly difficult day. So, as I was guarding my pyre, I heard him sneaking up. I asked for the password, which he gave, and he pretended to have come to check up on the position of the pyre. He really had come hoping to find me asleep. He alone couldn't have denounced me--he needed a witness--so he brought another partisan with him. Had I been asleep, that would have been the end of me. He was a very disappointed man the next day and he kept glaring at me angrily.
After several days the drop was finally made. The parachutists were senior Soviet officers, dressed like Germans. Crates of ammunition were dropped with them, and they brought Soviet newspapers, which we devoured eagerly. Their arrival encouraged us greatly because they were a link with an outside world which fought with us against the murderous Nazis and their collaborators. Running around in the forests, we had felt so isolated, so alone! And now we saw representatives of our brothers in this fight-to-the-death. The parachutists remained with us for a short time, but they all seemed to be intelligence experts and they told us good news about the progress of the war against the Nazis.
The Germans continued to search for us incessantly. They searched mostly at night, using small spotter aircraft. After sundown, we couldn't cook or light any fire whatever, since it would have given us away. We retreated to our dugouts and bunkers, and sat huddled together in the dark. During these days and nights groups of dynamiters and supporting detachments left on missions and, from what I heard, they wreaked havoc on the German troop and freight movements. Our men always came back in high spirits from these missions. They had hit the enemy hard! Many of our men were Soviet escapees from prisoner-of-war camps. They had been in the hands of the Germans and they had suffered horribly, so they welcomed any small repayment they could make to the Germans for the way they had been treated. They were the best fighters because they were utterly determined never to fall into German hands again.
One morning we were roused from our sleep by the sound of gunfire. We had been surrounded during the night, a time of day when we usually felt most safe. We loaded our horses with food and ammunition but the shooting got closer and intensified and the upright horses, presenting ready targets, fell like flies. Our commanders ordered us to form small groups and move out of the forest using the one escape route left--a treacherous way through swampy ground. Those swamps were so muddy that they were almost quicksand but we had no choice--it was either swamp or death. After a time I found myself with 30 men and one horse, in a waist-deep marsh. After several days our food supply ran out. We killed the horse and ate the meat. We were all soaked to the skin and extremely depressed. We had lost contact with our commanders and the other groups, and we were afraid to move. After a week, some of us began to mutter about dying of hunger and exposure there in the marsh. Our leader called for volunteers. Some of us would have to go and find a way out of this mess. I volunteered and two others joined me. They had a compass and a rough map.
We set out at nightfall and went all night, slowly making our way back to the forest where we had originally had our encampment I approached the door of a big house and knocked very warily. My two comrades lay hidden in nearby bushes, their rifles cocked and ready to back me up if I should run into trouble. A woman answered. I asked her, "Are the Germans still around here?" She answered, " No, they pulled out the day before yesterday." I breathed a sigh of relief. She could have been a liar, so I asked to see her papers and noted her name and address. Many on our side had been betrayed by seemingly "friendly" peasants, but now that the Germans were steadily retreating the likelihood of betrayal was diminished. Every peasant now wanted to be on the winning side, in case he or she would have to eventually account for their behavior. At a signal my comrades approached the door. We asked the woman for bread, milk and sauerkraut, and we brought these supplies back to our hungry comrades with the good news that the Germans had left that area. After a short time, all of us left the marsh and returned to our original encampment. In a short time other groups drifted back and our Otryad was restored to its former strength.
We had 50 seriously wounded men but we lacked a field hospital. Moreover, the necessity for instant mobility made nursing them quite impossible. Our injured comrades were therefore placed with "friendly" peasant families in the vicinity. These families were supposed to keep our men hidden while they recovered. In return, the families received much-needed food from our stocks. I, with several others, was at this time assigned the task of travelling to those houses with the food. This was a difficult and dangerous assignment, because we had to remain unseen and approach those houses only at night. And perhaps the "friendly" peasant had decided to switch sides and give our comrade away. I was more apprehensive about these missions than I was about open combat.
As the front advanced, our forests became an operational zone of the Red Army. We were first told to halt all operations and dig in; we then heard the ominous sounds of heavy artillery pounding away. The nights were lit up by shells as we lay in our holes and bunkers. After a short time, in February or March of 1944, we were ordered to move out to the Shelitz area. Shelitz had been liberated already and I was overjoyed because it was close to Chelm. I still had illusions about finding my family or some relatives. I had heard that some of the Jews who had fled to Russia at the beginning of the war had returned to Chelm. I went to my commander, explained my situation, and asked for a furlough to go to Chelm. My commander was sympathetic but I wondered about one point. He kept on insisting that I take my rifle, fully loaded, with me. I thought it odd that he was so insistent since the area had been liberated, but I followed his order, took my rifle, and started to walk to Chelm on my two week pass.
As I plodded along I noticed frightened faces staring at me from the edges of the woods. The moment they spotted my rifle they took off. They were probably Jews who didn't know that the Germans had retreated from the area. There were some Jews who had been living in total isolation in the forests, without maps, compasses or any news from the outside world. They had no contact with anybody or anything. I kept going, because I had a long, long way to walk.
One evening I went into a roadside small hotel, rented a room and ate a meal. The owner asked me who I was and where I was going. I told him all about Sobibor, its gas chambers and the masses of innocent people whose lives were snuffed out there. My eyes filled with tears when I noticed how he seemed to enjoy my description of how the innocent Jewish women and children were brutally murdered. He said to me, "Don't worry. There are more Jews around now than ever! You people multiply like rabbits! Now you've brought the Russians down on our heads!" When I returned to my room and regained control of myself, I reflected a bit and decided to take off. Perhaps the owner would assemble his "friends" and they would murder me in my bed. I couldn't sleep there that night. I quietly opened the window and climbed out. I slept in a small forest that night.
As I passed through various villages and hamlets, I noticed the devastated and deserted sections where Jews had once lived. The houses there, or what was left of them, were in advanced stages of having been dismantled. I thought of the Moishelech and Berelech who had lived there, and prayed there, and hoped there. And my heart was full.
The mornings were a hard time for me. I would notice how the Poles were going about their normal lives--taking their cows out to pasture, grooming their horses, etc. And not one Jew did I see! The whole landscape would come alive with bustling people, but my Jewish brothers and sisters were not there. Only the ruins of their houses bore mute testimony to their having existed here so recently. I noticed that even the Jewish cemeteries were in a vandalized state. The peasants obviously stole the tombstones for their own uses.
As I approached Chelm, the first house I came across was my father’s. It had been in a non-Jewish area, so it wasn't dismantled. I saw that people were living there. An angry looking man, seeing me stare at the house, came over and said gruffly, "Hey, you, what do you want?" His eyes blazed with Jew-hatred. I answered, "Nothing." I turned away and left. And cried. I saw what had become of my former life. I ran down the familiar streets to my own former home--it was no longer there. All I saw was a rubble filled lot. The whole street was in ruins. I stood in front of the lot, where the entrance had been, where my little boy used to play with his friends, scratching out their games with small stones and sticks. I felt close to him then. My heart was bursting and I started to cry like a baby.
I stumbled along, a wreck of a man, to my sister's house. Only Poles lived there now. My sister's neighbor, a friendly Pole, told me how my sister had hidden in a nearby forest with her children. A neighbor had squealed on her and the Gestapo went after her with dogs. She and her poor, innocent children were torn to pieces by the ferocious dogs. My small store no longer existed too. The whole street had been flattened, but in adjoining streets Poles improvised stalls and were trading.
How can I express now how I felt then? I saw that, after everything, Hitler had succeeded. The enormity of what had happened sunk into my consciousness. I was heartsick. I stopped eating. I was supposed to return to my partisan unit but I became so apathetic about everything that I just remained in Chelm, wandering about aimlessly, sleeping in ruins. Seeing the tragedy that had befallen me and my people, I found each day a burden, a mountain to be climbed. And for what? For whom?
My mental despair, my disinterest in food, and my sleeping in ruins soon took its toll. I became sick with a type of influenza. I lay in a ruin in a feverish state, alternating between hallucinations and nightmares. I was periodically bathed in sweat. I couldn't move a muscle. And I didn't really care any more. How long I passed like that I don't know. Days or weeks--I lost track of time. When I recovered, I moved into an abandoned Jewish house. It had no windows and doors. I fixed it up as best I could. I went to a Polish coffin maker and explained that I was a good carpenter. In exchange for my work he let me hammer together some boards and make myself a bed.
I met my two brothers-in-law who had just returned from Russia. They too had lost their wives and children. We cried together. Our world had died. They remained two days and left. I had no money to go anywhere. I saw that it was not good for me to remain in Chelm because I heard that the Chelm Poles were muttering about killing the few Jewish survivors. Rumors were spread among the Poles that there were more Jews than ever and that they would take away all the property of the Poles. The atmosphere became very threatening. Some Jews were beaten in the streets and nobody cared -- Poles looked on and laughed. Many Jews left at that time--they saw the handwriting on the wall.
I went to Wroclaw (formerly Breslau) where a larger number of surviving Jews found themselves. I shared a room with a man and I started to buy and sell whatever I could to support myself. My aloneness ate me up. We heard, almost every day, bad news about returning Jews being killed here and there. But where could I go? I had no money, no papers and no contacts.
One day I went, as usual, to the Wroclaw market to try to sell my pitiful "stock." It was still 1944. Two Polish armed policeman came over and said, "Zhid, come with us! Bring your sack!" I went with them to the police station where they undressed me naked. They confiscated all I had; they took my documents, including one showing that I was a Sobibor resistance fighter. Four policemen started to yell at me when they saw it, "Zhidek, Zhidek, lousy blood-sucker, Jewish crook--you plan to take over the whole world, eh? You think you outsmarted the Germans, eh? They had your number, Zhidek--they knew what vermin you all are!" And they beat my naked body with hard wooden truncheons. They dragged me to a deep, dark cellar, beat me some more, and threw me in. The cell stank so--I've never smelt anything like it! It was full of human excrement. There was no light, no window, no air. It was stifling. Hellish! The Germans must have made much use of this place when they were the masters here.
I was in considerable pain from the beating they had given me. It was pitch-black all around me. I felt all around the wall, searching for an opening, but found none. I must have fainted then. How many days I was there I don't know. After a while I felt like I had been buried alive, so I started to yell hard, hysterically. They must have heard upstairs because a Polish policeman soon came down with a revolver in hand. I told him I wanted to go to the toilet. He laughed. He kept the revolver pointed at me and said, "Zhidek, one more yell and you're a dead man!" He left and I lay there like a sick dog.
I was in that cellar hole for another 8 or 10 hours. Then I heard heavy footsteps. I thought that they were coming to shoot me. However, they dragged me upstairs and gave me back all my merchandise and documents. They also returned a small sum of money that I had. They did not return my watch. I asked for it, but they said they never saw it. They must have released me because of my Soviet partisan papers--they were afraid of an inquiry which would be led by Soviet NKVD police. They shoved me out onto the street and told me to be careful--they would keep an eye out for me.
I went into a ruined house and lay down. I was utterly worn out, hungry and dejected. I stank too from that hole. I was in such pain from the beating they had given me that I couldn't move from the bruises. I got up after a while and went "home." My fellow roomer was home. He was frightened when he saw me, all banged up, but he embraced me with genuine joy. He told me that he kept hearing about Jews who were murdered by bloodthirsty Poles and he had had been afraid that such a fate had befallen me. We ate and I felt stronger. I told him all that had happened to me at the hands of the "new", people's Polish police.
I went to the local NKVD office, showed them my Soviet partisan papers, and told them my story. They assigned two men (who by sheer chance were Jewish) to my case. We went to the Polish police station. The Polish policemen, who had been swaggering as if they were 10 feet tall, were now cowering before the NKVD men. With the NKVD men watching, I went berserk in that office. I attacked my former jailer and gave him two good punches. I tore up papers on his desk and then turned the desk over. The two NKVD men were taken aback by my behavior but they let me continue. I emptied every drawer of every desk in that office till I found my watch. The NKVD men made detailed notes of all I told them and all of the abject excuses of the Polish policemen. They wrote down everything and told me they would make a full report. There would be hell to pay for the way I had been treated!
Several weeks later I ran into the two NKVD men. They greeted me heartily and asked me if I had been convened to a hearing. I said no, I had not been summoned to any hearing. They were amazed. They had submitted all the proper papers to the higher authorities. The evidence against the Polish policemen was clear and their report urged the strongest punishment for those goons. The two NKVD men, aghast at the lack of follow-up to their painstaking investigation and report, turned aside for several minutes and whispered to each other. Finally, one of them turned to me and said, "Listen, friend, what we're telling you now is strictly private, off-the-record. You understand? All of the police here--ours and theirs--are one big band of anti-Semites." They told me about conversations that they had heard amongst their own "comrades" and Polish policemen, filled with Jew hatred of the worst kind. Their hearts were heavy with what they had heard. They told me that I was lucky to have emerged alive from the hands of the Polish police. They had undoubtedly meant to kill me. They told me that the Polish police had, as a priority, the "elimination" of the surviving Jews. Crime, public order and civil peace--all these were secondary concerns of the Polish police. Their primary topic of conversation was ridding the homeland of the surviving Jews.
I looked for ways to leave Poland but I didn't succeed. We heard about the Kielce pogrom, where surviving Jews were first disarmed by the police and then the police set a gang of murderers loose on them, killing many. We heard about a train packed with surviving Jews returning from Russia. The train had been stopped en route, the Jews had been picked out and shot. We heard that now all returning transports of Jews from Russia had Soviet soldiers on board. These soldiers fraternized with the Jews in a very relaxed way while the trains were rolling, sometimes for weeks and weeks, across Soviet soil. The minute the trains crossed into Poland these soldiers, following strict orders, assumed combat positions on the roofs of the railway cars and in the doorways. The returning Polish Jews--a pathetic remnant of a once flourishing community--had to be protected from their Polish compatriots.
I remained in Wroclaw and went to work in a furniture factory that had been set up. I earned hardly enough to feed myself. Lodz had been liberated, so in 1945 I went there and met many survivors. I waited for papers to leave Poland; I had had enough of this accursed land, whose soil was soaked with the blood of my loved ones. Meanwhile, I had to live, so I bought and sold whatever merchandise I could find. My papers never came.
Next door to the rooming house where I lived there were 4 emaciated, skeleton-like Jewish girls living in a cellar. They were concentration camp survivors and they were living a life of semi-starvation. Once, when I was dragging a heavy sack out of my rooming house, one of the girls volunteered to help. I hired her and took her later to a restaurant. She must have eaten 6 or 8 bowls of soup before we could start to talk. I hadn't realized how hungry she had been. Perla Laja Fuks told me about her parents, her sisters and brothers and their small children--all except one brother gassed in Auschwitz. Perla was the only girl of her immediate family to survive the hell of Auschwitz. When she finished I told her all about my former life, and we both cried, and cried, and cried.
Life picked up slowly in Lodz and I was making a living. I heard that there were business possibilities in Biala-Kama, so I moved there and rented a stall on Raguta Street. Perla remained in Lodz. After some time, in 1946, I returned to Lodz to buy merchandise and spent some time with Perla. We agreed to get married. She returned with me to Biala-Kama, I found a Rabbi, and we were married in the traditional way in 1946.
I earned a living but I didn't want to stay in Poland--we heard too many stories about the murder of innocent Jewish survivors in the "new," "people's" Poland. In 1947 a son was born to us. I was filled with joy -- we had brought a new generation into the world. But every few days "special investigatory commissions" came to my stall, locked the doors and made an inventory. They were out to arrest me. I had to account for every meter of goods--this was the "people's property." Had I done business according to the rules we would have all starved to death. So it was all a game--but a deadly game. We lived in fear; any minute they might swoop down on us and close us up permanently.
In 1950 we were blessed with the birth of a daughter. But we were still stuck in Poland and surrounded by hatred. Near us, a gang of Poles went into the house of a family we knew. This happened in the middle of the night. They abducted the husband and tortured him for several days- they wanted to know where the "Jewish gold" was hidden. These Poles then returned to the wife and asked the same thing. The family had very modest resources, so there was no question of "Jewish gold," but very many Poles had a quasi-religious faith in the existence of "Jewish gold." They took the wife away, and she left her infant daughter with a nearby cousin. In a few days the husband and wife were found, cut up in pieces, in two sacks which had been dumped in the river. (The infant daughter lives in Israel today). We lived in constant fear in the "new Poland"; we only wanted our papers to leave.
In 1950 we closed the stall. A wave of repression was instigated by the government and private business became impossible. I went to work as a carpenter in Biala-Kama. We moved to Wroclaw in 1952 and I worked in a carpenter shop. In 1956 the long-awaited miracle took place! We received our papers. We first immigrated to France, where my wife had a brother, the one and only survivor of her large family. We moved to Canada in 1968, where I worked as a carpenter until I retired.
I thought that, as I would get older, the memories of Chelm and Sobibor and the dark forests would fade and become indistinct, hazy. But it hasn't happened that way. As I get older, I see even more clearly the lines of beautiful children waiting to be gassed; I see the desperate faces of my Sobibor comrades as we all planned and prepared and waited; and I see my little boy Yossele playing at the entrance of our Chelm home. I am called a "survivor," but did I really survive? I doubt it.