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In the Bielsk Ghettos and the Camps
The Establishment of the Ghetto
After having been in the town only about two weeks, the Germans declared the establishment of a Ghetto and ordered the Jews to construct an enclosure themselves. All of us worked on the construction of the fence; boards and planks were brought from various places, and within three days a solid wooden wall was constructed to a height of three meters, enclosing an area bordered by Beit Midrash Gras, Gottka Grass, Yagilenska, and Dubisch Road.
The area of the Ghetto included not more than one quarter of the town, possibly less. After the Russians had fled the town there remained approximately 5,000 people, all of whom were confined to the Ghetto — three or four families crowded into an apartment. Within a few hours everyone had been cruelly herded into their new quarters. We had been informed, prior to the actual establishment of the Ghetto, that everyone would have to leave his home and move there. Each person was allowed to take with him those of his possessions which he could carry. The movement of the townspeople from their homes was a distressing sight: children and old people laden with bundles; each family attempting to save that which they could, lest looters take what they left behind.
In order to establish their authority over the town, and to ensure that the Jews would not dare to disobey them, the Germans took all the local dignitaries — the intelligentsia — hostage. Among the first to be taken, I remember, were: Menachem Stupinskt, Appelbaum, Melamdovitch, Luzovsky and Kusovitsky. The latter two were said to have been taken for cooperating with the Russians.
The fact that we didn't know where the hostages had been taken had a marked effect. The town, without its leadership, was left in a state of depression — no one could imagine it possible to arrange everyday affairs, to establish a relationship with the new regime, or to orient themselves to the new situation. All this added to our doubts and confusion.
The main cause of lowered Jewish morale was that the hostages were not returned, and rumor circulated that on that same day they had all been shot and buried in a field outside the town.
The first days we were left in a state of anarchy. They had locked us in the enclosure and we did not know why they had herded us in or what they intended to do with us. By their actions they gave us the impression that they wanted to make use of something in the town for entrenchment and fortification, and that they had evicted us so that we would not interfere with them or reveal any of their secrets. I myself don't know what caused such thoughts, but others also felt this way. Those days frayed our nerves to the point of madness.
After a few days they appeared; order was restored and the reason for our being in the Ghetto was revealed to us.
The Germans appointed a Judenrat and made Shlomo Epstein chairman, The members were: Moshe Scheerln, Yakov Schneider, Lipa Slokhovsk and others who were not prominent and whose names I do not remember.
The terrible duty of fulfilling the quotas of laborers, imposed by the Germans for forced labor was delegated to the Judenrat. They were also held responsible for fulfilling the levies of silver, gold and jewelry imposed on the people of the Ghetto, and providing boots, woolen footwear and furs for the stores of the German army.
The Judenrat was in a terrible position. The Jews of Bilsk, who had always been accustomed to neighborly assistance, could not now order those of their own number to become forced laborers. But what choice did they have? They could not evade the order, for if they did every Jew in the Ghetto would have paid dearly.
German directives were always closed with the same phrase:
“..Anyone not following an order or a command directed towards him, will be shot like a dog in the place where he is found.”
The headquarters of the Judenrat were in the Yaffe 'Ainaiyim synagogues. I saw them many a time, miserable and despairing, struggling with questions of morals and conscience: “How can we do this? How can we refuse?” They were all good Jews—my heart ached.
The Germans made as if to come to their aid. A Jewish police force was founded, headed by a contemptible individual from Orla, and the Germans felt they could rely on this arrangement. They knew, it seems, that Weinstein could be trusted.
I don't recall any Jews from Bilsk on the force. The lowest classes of the Jewish sector had been sought out, and it was they who lorded it over us. Among their ranks were bastards — sons-of-bitches. If I had been told that such vile beasts, capable of losing all vestige of humanity, existed among the Jewish people, I would not have believed it. There were among them some boys from Madrovitchin who licked the boots of their 'masters', the Germans. They revealed secrets, endangering the very lives of their fellow Jews, thinking nothing of their actions. They wanted only to save their own skins, but not one of them survived.
The police dragged people physically to forced labor. Sometimes they added the old and the weak to the work details, despite the fact that these people had not been designated by the Judenrat. They were not responsible to the Judenrat, allowing them to do the dirty work of preparing lists of who was to be singled out for forced labor, and after having obtained this public authorization to conscript laborers against their will, they did as they pleased with the lists. Perhaps what was said—that they had accepted bribes from some people and taken others in their place — was true. The police force, instead of aiding the Judenrat, brought unending grief. As we knew them, the men of the Judenrat could not have been capable of such treachery.
I shall never forget the most despicable act which these irresponsible police committed. It occurred as follows: when the Russians fled the town they left, in their great haste, storehouses filled with merchandise and foodstuffs. The Jews took from these stores various items for the hard times we all knew would come, and anyway, had we not taken these abandoned goods, they would have been looted by peasants or thieves. Upon moving to the Ghetto we attempted to bring as much as we could of these abandoned supplies.
During my stay in the Ghetto I kept everything concealed in my apartment. Those people who did take goods, actually brought very little with them to the Ghetto; everyone wanted to bring beds, bedding, furniture and other items, but as there were no wagons or other means of transport they carried whatever they could on their backs. It was these goods that saved the Jews of the Bilsk Ghetto, where there were no ration cards or distribution of basic necessities. This saved us and gave us hope, for if we were to continue living and survive we had to remain worthy of a normal life such as we had known. So what did these 'police' do? Somehow they found out about the goods, and immediately they squealed to the Germans. This was too much! Who would have suspected such actions of them!
There was another affair which darkened the lives of the residents of the Bilsk Ghetto and depressed us greatly.
A Polish woman, returning from Lublin where she had been caught in the midst of the changing regimes, told of a Prisoner of War camp in Lublin in which there were three young Jewish men from Bilsk who had been captured by Polish soldiers. She proposed that we give her “money with which to bribe the camp guards” so that she could bring these young soldiers home. We gladly agreed. The money was collected immediately, and the woman left and did indeed bring the three back — Barcht's brother, Radlovsky, and my own brother Michael Peker.
There was great and tragic rejoicing. It was the happiness of being together! This was our great dream, the great remedy for the families — and an this despite the fact that they could not appear openly in public The three young men were concealed by their families, until the fact was discovered by the 'Drovitchin boys', who squealed to the Germans.
According to the story circulating at the time, the Germans took them “back to Lublin”, but the truth was discovered later; the three young men were held in the Bilsk jail and forced to work as grave diggers. They did all of the 'burial' work: they buried Jews who had been shot, dead animals, and also refuse which was a potential spreader of disease.
One thing was clear however; these three were the ones 'privileged' to dig the communal graves for the Jews of Bilsk and Orla slain in one day. They saw with their own eyes the enormity of the tragedy — the horror of parents, relatives, friends and acquaintances wantonly shot. They were forced to bury them, still breathing, alive and feeling, pleading with their eyes for help.
When the three had finished their task, they too were shot by the Germans. Jewish eyewitnesses, and also people who heard the event second-hand from Gentiles of the area, corroborated the story.
The behavior of the Jewish police doubled the anguish of the Judenrat. Despite this, they had from the beginning attempted to plead a case for the young men. “They're provincials, they don't know Yiddishkeit; they must be spoken to; if things are explained to them, they'll be good boys.” However none of their attempts helped them to gain control over the police, who continued to take advantage of these prestigious Jews of the Judenrat and treated brothers cruelly. The members of the Judenrat became increasingly despaired and sought some way of relieving themselves of their position, but this was impossible, and their anguish only grew. Shlomo Epstein wasn't able to bear the burden of the situation, and at the first opportunity he fled. But more of this later.
The Jews did not receive any instructions on how to arrange family and community lives. How could the economic problems of a community suddenly deprived of its livelihood and community-oriented work be solved?' No-one dared ask why such instructions for organizing the economy of the Ghetto were not given. The Germans hinted at their aims, but without leaving any literature, and soon even the announcements dwindled. If the rumored fate of the hostages, taken without reason or trial, was hint of the relations between the Jews and the authorities, then the Germans' intentions with regard to the economy was already quite clear to the Jews.
As Bigotzky was walking to his house to fetch some flour, and he did this quite innocently, not thinking that there was any need for caution, two Germans spotted him and shot him dead in the middle of the street. They also went into the Steinberg's house while their brother was hammering on a box in preparation for rations, and they took him outside and murdered him.
Inside the Ghetto Kaddish went to get some water; some Germans standing nearly watched to see where he went, and as he began to draw water they shot him and left him lying in the street. These events had taught us that the Germans were not interested in allowing the Jews to provide for themselves. Neither ration cards nor food were distributed, and the Jews starved.
There were Gentiles who sensed the starvation situation in the Ghetto, and they began to establish ties with their Jewish acquaintances. They would call to them through the fence, throw them bits of food, and receive their compensation in the form of clothes or other goods. There were also non-Jews who would enter the Ghetto in some mysterious way and arrange on-the-spot exchange. Some brought leather to shoe-makers or cloth to tailors in order to get shoes or clothes in return. There were no craftsmen apart from the Jews of Bielsk to serve the local non-Jews, and the devastation which was brought upon the Jews caused these Gentiles much discomfort. Formerly they had accused the Jews of living off others, but now, seeing that the Jews were laboring only to survive, they went into the Ghetto to seek them out.
After a while the Jews began to leave the Ghetto as forced laborers. At the beginning most were afraid to leave the Ghetto and evaded
being assigned. However after they realized that they could get food to bring back to their families, many wangled their way into work details. I was taken, together with other craftsmen, to make clothes and shoes for the Germans in workshops outside the town.
In one respect, my situation was not too bad. I was always able to dig up a potato, some seeds, roots and plants which I happened to find along the way. Although it was only a handful of people who managed to do this, it did satisfy the needs of some of the families, but there were many who literally wasted away from hunger and who were beyond help.
Community life had almost ceased completely. Jews prayed alone in their homes—if at all. The synagogues were closed lest they become a rallying point for the Jews. The 'Yaffe Ainayirn' synagogue had been concerted into the meeting place of the Judenrat and the Jewish police and the Germans stormed the place from time to time. The once favorite meeting place of friends became the scene of nightmarish terrors where murder could be viewed from every opening and every window. The Jews, who had once found the friendly mass meetings a source of life giving strength, were now condemned to the oppression which loneliness brings.
The role of the Rabbi had become meaningless and he, aware of this fact, attempted to bring salvation through self-sacrifice. Once the situation had stabilized, and there was no reason to expect any change as slowly death from starvation consumed the Jews, the Rabbi abstained from eating and began a long fast. He fasted for many days and became an invalid, his body feeble and his spirits low. He could not stand unaided and could not walk without holding on to the wall. And so he staggered on his wasted legs, half blind, feeling his way along the walls of the houses. He spoke to no-one, and no-one spoke to him. Perhaps he felt that through fasting triumph would come; but he remained alone in this belief.
Jewish religious life collapsed completely. Kashrut was no longer necessary—the thought of a pure and ordered life never even entered anyone's mind. Everything came to a halt; the institutions and community endeavors became things of the past, and no-one thought of the past.
Family life was also permeated by a sense of loss and despair. Everything had been undermined; the relationship between father and son, as well as between husband and wife. The family was a unit bound by love and moral commitment, and people believed in these until the end. Everyone knew, though, that it was only a matter of time until this institution would also collapse.
Before its destruction, the Germans brought the surviving Jews of Orla to the Ghetto. There were maybe 200 of them, not more.
In one day all of the skilled workers were moved, with their families, to Bialystok, and the unskilled were left behind.
Lazar and Michael Dodovitch moved together with me. The work shops around Bilsk had been destroyed.
It was during this transfer that Shlomo Epstein fled. We had no idea how he did it, but he hadn't been noticed on the way, and it was only on arrival in Bialystok that his escape was discovered.
No-one could understand the reason for the move, and great anxiety gripped us all. We made all kinds of guesses, but none of us dared guess their real intent. The same day of the move, the Germans had gone from house to house distributing sacks of potatoes according to the number of persons per family. This act had left us totally confused. If they wanted, heaven forbid, to do 'something' to us, why then were they pacifying us with food? We left feeling a little easier— perhaps, despite everything, we would all meet again.
Several days later, another group of craftsmen passed us, among whom were the two Tetermans, Perez and Sima, who passed on to us the news that the Ghetto had been destroyed. They told how first the old people had been taken out of the city and killed, and than after a day or two the remaining Jews were shot. The killings took place in the cemetery, and it was there that they had been buried.
The graves were dug by the three 'Lublinars' who had been forced to witness the wholesale slaughter, and afterwards they had to bury those who had fallen, whether dead or still living. Their task completed, they too were shot, beside the communal grave.
The Ghetto had existed from mid-1941 to the beginning of 1943, about 19 months. With its destruction, not one of the Jews of the Rusk Ghetto who had lived under the German Occupation remained, except for Lazar and Michael Dodovitch, the Tetermans, and myself. It appears that those who fled with the Soviets also survived. Of those latter, one was Walodevsky, who had been hidden by one of his non-Jewish friends, a Gentile who stood the test of friendship all along. However, when he saw that the Ghetto had been destroyed and that the
Jew was hiding was the last to remain, the Gentile turned him over to the Germans, who murdered him on the spot.
As I said, before the complete destruction of the Bilsk Ghetto all of the skilled laborers had been taken to Bialystok. At first we worked in the workshops, and later we were transferred to a place on Yarovsky Street in an area called Petrashai, which had been a type of recreation center for needy children. We were housed in the drab shacks which here already there. A few days passed and we had not yet been put to work in our trades. Then word got around that we were to be transferred to Treblinka to work.
I prepared a bunker not far away, and there concealed myself with my wife and eight-month~old child. I thought that maybe the Germans would leave after disposing of the Jews of Bialystok, and I could then come out of the bunker and find a way of escape. It was also said that only the Jews who had been brought to Bialystok would be transported and that the Jews of Bialystok would be left behind. If this was so, then my wife, my child and I would also remain.
From our hiding place we could see the Germans going from house to house and removing the refugees, as if from a precise list. Literally hundreds were gathered together and transported, but it appeared that these numbers were insufficient. They returned for a day or two and announced over loudspeakers that the workshops would remain for shoemakers and tailors, and these tradesmen could come out and begin to work, so this is what we did.
On the way Sender Picotzky said to us: “Go and tell your brother, he is hiding in a bunker some distance away and hasn't heard the news.” I met with my brother, Ely. He told me that while in the bunker his baby had begun to cry and that those hiding had been forced to gag the child, and the baby choked to death. They were forced to take the dead infant outside and bury it, and in doing so had been discovered by the Germans. The Ukrainians came and beat them mercilessly, and finally brought them, wounded, to Petrashai.
Actually, the Germans had lured us out so as to do away with us too. What caused them to leave us, in spite of their intentions, remains a mystery.
The following day they announced that shoemakers and tailors were being taken to Bilsk, and we were taken to the Bilsk Ghetto. We worked in the shoe factory on Rozbensky street across from 'Linat Hazedek'. Lieberman was the foreman and things weren't too bad: above all, we were alive.
Two weeks passed quietly with decent working conditions— when the Germans needed our work they related to us according to our usefulness. After these two weeks however, they began to taunt and ill-treat us — they claimed that we were hiding unskilled workers. It irritated the Germans to think that a Jew continued to live despite his lack of usefulness to them. Someone informed on Shlomo Epstein and another Jew whom I had taught something of the trade, and whose work I had corrected in addition to my own work. I don't mention his name for personal reasons.
A similar case was that of Aron Glachinsky whom we had all liked and had taken in to live with us. He was a strong optimistic lad and he kept a small radio under his bunk. Nobody knew how he had obtained it, but he was always bringing news reports. Most of these were encouraging—as if of his own desire.
After the denunciation, we were moved, for the third time, from the factory back to Petrashi. This time we were put into a barbedwire enclosure and guarded by blood thirsty Ukrainian murderers.
For pleasure, these Ukrainians would drink themselves into a stupor. The Jews, injured and starving, sat outside all day not blinking an eyelid, and following every movement of the Ukrainians, suffering random beatings. When finally things quieted down and the drinkers had passed out, the guard also having stretched out and begun to snore, they made good their escape. Some of them fled to the forest, and were not discovered, but the more unfortunate ones were captured and suffered greatly.
I had contemplated escape, but because of my small child, could not see us succeeding, and so we remained. There were a few other families in the same position. It was my misfortune to have to stay and see what befell those who were captured by the murderous Germans.
A girl who had fallen behind the escapes, was caught, and in the course of the terrible tortures which followed, admitted that she had broken through a board in the toilet against the fence, and escaped. They tore out her hair and poked out her eyes with their fingers, and when she had already lost consciousness, they killed her.
There was also a young man who had returned of his own accord. It seems that he was frightened of going into the forest and believed that they would pardon him and allow him to go back to work in his trade.
He was, undoubtedly, afraid of the Gentiles in the area, as he had handed over the roving Jews to the Germans. With his capture, the beastly and vicious tortures began. The German in charge of the Ukrainian guards broke the boy's hands, first one, then the other, joint by joint. This done, two Ukrainians stretched him out on a chair, still half conscious, and broke his back; they then laid out his lifeless body, like an empty sack, and emptied their rifles into it.
I saw these things with my own eyes, and curse the day on which I was forced to witness such bestial atrocities. For many days this picture could not leave me, the face of the bound youth, contorted with terror from the tortures, the eyes protruding from sockets as if they were two superfluous items detached from the face. It is hard to forget.
At midday a train arrived and a German with a stick separated the prisoners, some to the left, some to the right. I was parted from my wife and child. A Russian guard, one of the P.O W's a Gentile as good as any Gentile, was pleased to announce to us that those on the right were to be taken to a labor camp, and those on the left to Treblinka. He already knew our fate. I never saw my family again.
All of those sent to the right, and I among them, were men. We were transported first in cattle cars to Maidanek. At this camp there was a large bathhouse. We had already learnt from Aron Galchinsky's radio what Maidanek was. We were immediately frightened, for we knew this was the end, and when they ordered us to strip and enter the showers we all felt that death was only a moment away. It was straight from the showers to the crematoria—that's how they did it.
At the entrance to the bathhouse sat a cruel, fearsome-looking German. He gave his orders in the form of slaps and kicks. I had found some dollars, apparently thrown away by some Jew before his death. Some people had also found gold rings. We dug a hole and buried these things so we could retrieve them if, by some chance, we did return from the showers. As they stripped us, word circulated that there were not really showers, but gas chambers. But what could we do? We went.
As it turned out, it was really only a bathhouse. We exited from the other side, naked, without any material belongings. We received clothes, apparently those of previous victims. The clothes were not distributed according to proper size, and everyone looked ridiculously misshapen. A tall man would receive the pants for a dwarf — wide and short; a short man would get pants which hung down over his feet, and he would stumble as he attempted to walk. I received the pants of a ten year old child. We think of clothes as being a trivial matter, but the Germans, in their cruel way, knew that they could demoralize people by dressing them like the village idiot or a broken beggar. It was a crushing situation.
I could not tolerate it. I threw down the pants I had been given, and in so doing endangered my life. I jumped back into line, and succeeded in getting pants my own size. My joy was boundless. It may seem ridiculous, but to this day I can still remember the joy or having saved myself from the humiliation of wearing clothes not of my size.
After this sadistic episode, some order was made of the distorted and ridiculous. There were Jews in the camp from various places. The Germans ordered all shoemakers, stitchers and tailors to move to the right side. The group which formed was quite large, and aside from myself, there were no shoemakers from Bilsk. I befriended Patek as well as another tailor from Bilsk named Hayat. We were constantly together, each man was a source of strength to the other, and together we arrived at Belsen, where we were for eight months.
That winter an epidemic of typhus broke out in Belsen, and many died from lack of medical care. My friends Patek and Hayat among them. I also fell ill, but they still needed me so they gave me medical care. It was by chance that a German officer passing through the quarantine room noticed that on my chart it was written that I was 'Schuster Meister' — a master shoemaker.
He called over the man in charge of the patients and ordered him to save me. I was given one injection, and I recovered. They did not want to waste one shot needed to save those who were not needed.
The next day I left the quarantine room and, according to orders, was made to run to the gathering place for those who were 'necessary'. I was so weak that I could barely drag my legs. I fell behind. From the distance I could see a German, and I knew that if he were to intercept me, he would trample me, so I gathered all my strength and ran. As I approached the meeting place, I almost fainted.
The shoemakers were rounded up and sent to Paliashow near Krakow. After four months, as the front approached Krakow, together with the crushed and retreating German army, we were sent to Mauthausen in Austria.
When we arrived in the camp, there was a pile of bread. Although we were all starving, no one dared to take even a slice without the order being given. I couldn't resist. I was so tired and hungry that it didn't matter any more if they killed me. I grabbed a slice of bread and ate it. As I was eating, I bit into something hard; I spit the dough into my hand, to discover a gold coin. I hid this coin, and guarded it as if it were a symbol of life itself — a symbol sent from heaven. I figured out how to guard my new-found 'wealth' I hid it in my daily bread ration.
From Mauthausen we were taken suddenly to Mulk in the Tyrolean mountains, where we worked in a sub-terranean munitions factory. I cleared the rubble after the German demolition teams finished deepening the tunnel.
After Mulk we were again moved, this time to Awenze in Austria. I felt that I could no longer endure the hard labor, and gave my gold join to a Jewish Kapo. who transferred my to the shoe-shop.
Prior to the liberation, they had planned to take us to the crematoria. We learned this from the same Kapo, who said that they wanted to liquidate all of the witnesses to their atrocities so that we could not testify against them at their trials.
At midday I hid myself by digging under the floor of one of the shacks. There I remained day and night. A few others did the same, and we survived to see the others being taken to the crematoria, only hours before what would have been their liberation. They all knew what the Nazi beasts and their Austrian helpers intended, but there remained neither the strength to resist nor the will to live. Maybe they believed that the Germans would be defeated before their time would come. Surely this must have been their reasoning.
There was a tunnel under the mountain at Avenze. The Germans, not having strength left to murder us with their own hands, tried to lure us into the tunnel, claiming to want to “protect us from the American bombing”. Suddenly they became friendly and spoke gently to us; but we preferred to remain in the open. We suspected that they had concealed explosives inside the tunnel, and that when we had entered, they would detonate them, burying us alive.
We did not enter, and within an hour was indeed an explosion and the tunnel, along with everything and everyone in it disappeared.
We saw that the Americans were coming, and so did the Germans. Suddenly a German Kapo appeared, a bloated primeval beast whose cruelty included the barehanded murder of dozens of Jews. Suddenly he had become weak and emotional and he began to plead with us not to turn him in for he had “done many favors for the Jews to whom that madman Hitler had sought to do evil”. As he finished his pleading three boys overpowered and killed him, here in the same camp where he had been sole ruler.
We killed every one of the German oppressors who fell into our hands before the arrival of the Americans in the enclosure of the camp. This was our revenge for our loved ones whose blood had been spilled at the hands of these heathen German beasts.
It was only by a stroke of luck— even if tainted luck — that I had survived. For all this I have felt indebted to all of our martyrs to tell the terrible truth of what was done to us by the German beasts. I have told only a small part of what we suffered. As for the remainder, there could never be strength enough to recall it all.
Credit: From the book "Bielsk-Podliask," Editor: Haim Rubin, Published by the Bielsk Immigrants' Association of Israel and the United States of America, Tel Aviv, 1975.