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The Jewish Ghetto
Międzyrzec Podlaski, Poland


   
           

Defy the Darkness
A Tale of Courage in the Shadow of Mengele
by Joe Rosenblum
with David Kohn

The Nazis began hammering at us much sooner than my parents could possibly have imagined, smothering our lives with regulation after regulation, telling us what we had to do, and how and when we had to do it. We had to wear patches above the left pocket on our shirts. The patches displayed a yellow Star of David, a six-pointed star which symbolized our religion. We had always thought of it as an emblem of pride. The Nazis wanted to make it a badge of shame.

If a German spoke to a Jewish man, the Jew had to take off his hat. We could no longer walk on the sidewalk. Only the Polish and German Gentiles could walk there. The Nazi method of enforcement was direct and brutal. If we refused to take off our hat or dared to walk on the sidewalk, Germans would beat us with their fists, with sticks, with a cane, with anything.

We were good people, used to obeying the rules of our religion and our city and country out of pride. Now, we obeyed because we had no choice. Whatever they did to us, we had to accept it meekly and quietly. If we didn't, then the treatment would get worse. At least, that's what we believed. Nobody dared to criticize the Germans openly.

 


Joe Rosenblum
year unknown

 


We couldn't even criticize them in private, except to our closest friends. The Germans had spies everywhere. However, because this was a closely knit community, we knew who the spies were, and we made sure we told them nothing incriminating.

Soon drunken Nazi soldiers and SS showed up on our streets, and when they did, they would beat us. We had always prided ourselves on our clean and safe streets. Now we had nowhere else to walk but the streets, and they were full of danger.

A lot of people who had gone to Russia were dribbling back into our city, dejected and scared. Winter in Russia was bone-chilling, and they had nowhere to live. At least here they had a home, no matter how humble.

But the people with the best homes were in some danger, too. The Germans had evicted only some of the rich people. Those remaining had a lot of goods stashed away. Many times I saw Germans pull up to a rich person's house in a cart. I could hear the screams and yells as they beat the Jews, mostly the men, and then came out with their arms full of fine furs, clothing, as well as gold and silver objects of all sorts.

One time I saw a horse-drawn cart pull up to the house of some people I knew well. The people in the cart were laborers. Many of them, with few places to find honest work, were helping the Germans loot Jewish homes as a way to make a living. The SS and Polish police walked around a corner on foot, then banged on the door. When it opened, the SS yelled, "We know you've got bristle."

It didn't take much intelligence to figure that out. The man had owned a bristle factory.

"We want the product. We know you have it," the SS screamed.

The fact they had bristle was so obvious the family would have been killed if they'd lied. So the father took the Nazis to the back of the house where his warehouse was. The laborers tramped through the house, loaded up on bristle, and took it away. If the family had denied having bristle they would have been beaten to death and the Germans would have found it anyway. I  didn't stay around to watch the rest.

After the Nazis left, I saw the family's son on the street.

"They cleaned us out. They took our jewelry, our bristles, the silk and flannel we had for special clothing, everything," he said mournfully.

Our family wasn't spared. Those few of us who had radios or telephones had to turn them n. The Germans confiscated Yudel's.

"They just came and pulled them out of the wall, no questions asked," Yudel told me. "All they said was that if I didn't like it, the alternative was a bullet."

There was no escaping into anonymity, no hoping the Germans wouldn't know who we were or where we lived. We had to carry a passport which showed our nationality and age, but no photograph.


LAZAR AND THE JEWISH COUNCIL

In addition, we had to register immediately with the Jewish Registry. In every city there was a Jewish agency which controlled Jewish affairs. In our city, there was one already in existence. It was the Jewish Council, which had been there for hundreds of years. The council's duties covered a wide spectrum of our lives, ranging from working on voluntary donations for various causes, to helping the poor, as well as choosing the rabbi and assistant rabbi for the city. It also supported the Jewish schools, hospitals, fire department, and orchestra. It collected taxes on each household. Because our town was so heavily Jewish, the Council essentially was the city government.

As a result, the Jews in our city had already registered with the council. The registry had on file our name, birthday, age, family members, and address. Now the Nazis were perverting the council's registry to their benefit. In addition, any new German regulation would be posted by the council.

The Germans were particularly interested in all Jews ages fourteen through sixty, because these were the ones who could work. The council members chose who would be picked as slave labor for the various jobs Germans assigned to us.

The council consisted of eight members, each of whom had inherited the job, one his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather had held too. The Germans, however, added a member: Lazar. Lazar was about six feet tall, with thick arms, prominent cheekbones, movie star looks, and a deep voice.

Often he would dress in a nice suit jacket and tie. He was beardless. The Germans had forced Jews with beards to shave them off, but men his age didn't wear beards anyway.

Lazar was a peculiar man. He was brilliant. His sisters and brothers were nice people who worked hard, gave to various charities, and were generally admired. Lazar had married before the war, but his parents refused to give him anything. They told him to build up his fortune on his own.

Lazar had decided he would indeed make his own fortune, and he was in a hurry to do it. Supposedly Lazar was a furrier by trade, working in a factory making coats. In fact, he had ten to fifteen men working for him who would break into shops and warehouses, then steal furs, pelts, bristles, and anything else of value. They would either sell their booty on the black market or ransom it back to its original owner. Lazar also ran a protection racket, making sure the police didn't bother people who were running a business without a license.

He suited the Germans' purpose perfectly. They had sought him out to make him head of the Jewish Council because he was he local underworld king, a strong man with a strong mind. But if Lazar hadn't done the job, somebody else would have. He was basically a messenger for the Gestapo, who made sure they had the work force they required.

People still respected Lazar because he couldn't have stopped the Gestapo. People also were afraid of Lazar, and that's a quality the Germans admired.

Lazar was particularly useful to the Gestapo, two of whom had been assigned to the city to liquidate the Jews. Heinrich and Dietrich were their names. They were there because in December our city had been declared a ghetto, a dumping  ground for Jews from all over Europe. We didn't know this fact at the time, but we found out soon enough.

We learned very quickly the difference between the SS and the Gestapo, at least in our city. The SS hunted down partisans and people who were prominent in politics. They were the ones who closed up the businesses and were in charge of shipping out of the city anything the Third Reich might have needed. The Gestapo were in charge of beatings and killings.

Heinrich and Dietrich would roam the streets all day. Together and separately, they would whip Jews with a short-handled riding whip whose braided leather lashes were lashed with wire. The whips hung from their thick black belts, the handles sitting right next to their Lugers. they were their own law. If  they didn't like you, if they'd had a bad day and wanted to take it  out on you, there was nothing you could do.

Lazar would tell them whatever they wanted to know: who had a lot of money, who worked in the government, who was part of the intelligentsia: teachers, doctors, lawyers, rich manufacturers, politicians. In short, anybody who was wealthy or prominent. To the Germans, these people were particularly suspect. Lazar also would tell who belonged to Zionist or Communist organizations. I knew about what he was doing because news traveled very fast.


BLOOD LUST

The minute the Germans came in, beating became a sport. Almost immediately, some of them satisfied their blood lust by hitting us. At first, the men from the regular army, the Wehrmacht, didn't do beatings. Later, however, even these relatively decent men turned to attacking us. As time went on, more and more of the Germans would beat us, until there were very few who restrained themselves.

There were ample opportunities for  hitting and kicking us. Many people were forced to work for the Germans, cleaning the buildings the Germans lived and worked in, chopping wood, that kind of thing. In order to approach many of the buildings, the Jews had to walk on the sidewalk. There was no other way to get indoors. But because we were forbidden to walk there, the Germans would use that as an excuse to start hitting us with their fists, with belts, with anything they wanted to.

It happened to me several times. When the Germans saw that Jewish star patch, their faces narrowed, their fists  knotted, and they would just jump on us and start flailing away.

"Juden, Juden, Juden. Pigs. Scum," they would yell. Then they would start kicking us with their heavy boots. Those boots, if they hit the right spot, could break bones. To fight back was to risk worse punishment, so people just curled up in a ball, waiting for the Germans to get tired.

We were safest in our own area. Where my family lived wasn't near the main street or any important buildings, so the Germans weren't much interested in us. Whenever we went to the main street, though, we were in danger. Most of the shops there still had the pockmarked boards that had been nailed over them during the bombing. Yudel's egg and bristle businesses were shut down. the few businesses that were open had been taken over by Christians.

If a woman were wearing a Jewish star, the Nazis would insult her in the same way as they would a man. But they didn't rape the women, nor did they beat them. Not at first. For some reason, they wanted to show what they considered a good face. That pose lasted for a few weeks, but the mask quickly fell off. Then they treated women the same, beating, kicking, spitting on them as much as the men. They'd kick the face, the groin, wherever their arrogance led them to.

We could not even have our homes to ourselves. The Jewish Council soon told us Jews wee being transported to our city from the western half of Poland, and we would have to take in one family apiece. We found out only when a member of the Jewish Council came to our house and announced we would be taking in a Jewish family from another city. the family was right behind him at our doorstep. All they had were a couple of small suitcases, a couple of bundles of underwear, and a small pot.

"You must take in these people. Make the best of it," he said.

We're in for a very long ride, I thought.

The family was pitiful. They had no friends or relatives here. The little boy and girl huddled together in a corner. The father looked at us soulfully and said, "Please do what you can for us. We didn't ask to be here."

"We'll do the best we can," my father replied.

"Don't worry about us," their father said. "We'll make it as long as we have a roof over our head. We're not going to make your life miserable."

It was a very tight squeeze. Our home was only somewhere between 450 and 600 square feet. That first night both families are together. We felt sorry for them. Our situation was pitiful, but at least we knew the neighbors and were living on our own street. They knew nobody. We had a dinner of potatoes and bread and Father said a little prayer: "Thanks to God, that we have what we do have."

Our new family, whose name I don't remember, had two parents and two children. The husband was middle-aged, perhaps forty-five. The wife was in her forties, with long black hair. The children, a boy and girl, were ages seven and eight.

The man and woman were always apologetic about being there. They were aware the Jewish culture requires seeing to the well-being of guests, but it wasn't as though we had invited them to move in. They knew this was going to be a bad time. We already had five children and my parents there. Now we had four more people....

My father often would share our food with other families. Seeing people go hungry tore at his heart. He did the same for the family living with us. Their father was working hard just to feed his family, but sometimes they had nothing.

"How could I let them go hungry under my own roof? my father would ask me. I admired his attitude, and I understood sharing food was one way to express that we were still human beings, not animals. It is a belief I've carried through-out my life....


THE JEWISH POLICE

The Germans made the Jewish police station from a nearby converted synagogue, intentionally desecrating our religious institutions. Our lives were further complicated by traitors among us. Within the first few months of their occupation, the Germans formed a Jewish police squad. The ones who joined were in their late teens and early twenties. They all were from rich  homes, so they were accepted because their parents had enough money to bribe the Germans. I knew the families because Yudel had introduced me to them. They were all sons of manufacturers,  people whose businesses had made leather soles, bristles, carriages.

Being a Jewish policeman was a good deal for people without a conscience. They got extra food and they could move around the city a lot more freely than the rest of us. I was never approached for the job, and my father never would have let me do it. He wouldn't have hurt a buzzing fly on the wall.

"The traitors. They're not going to help our agony. They're making it worse for us for their own selfish reasons. Those bastards," he muttered. He hardly ever swore in front of us. This time he was angry.

Still, I hadn't seen any Jewish policemen. Then one day I turned a corner and saw a half dozen of them walking smartly, patrolling our street. They had a hat and uniform similar to those of the Polish police, with two differences: The Jewish police had to wear a Star of David on their cap, and they didn't carry any weapons, just a rubber truncheon.

It's not enough we have the Germans on our backs. Now we've got our own people sucking up to the Germans. They're going to turn us in, spy on  us, beat us, make our lives even more miserable. These traitors think the Germans are going to be grateful and save them. They're wrong, I thought.

The Jewish police turned out to be worse than I imagined. Lazar was in charge of them as well, and he made sure they did the Germans' bidding. In fact, the Jewish police later became spies for the Germans, turning in many people who were going into hiding.

For now, they were just patrolling. Sometimes they would accompany us to our work sites. To show their loyalty to the Germans, they would beat us harder than the Germans did.

I was stunned that some of our own people would turn on us. I knew their parents had English pounds, dollars, gold, and lots of material goods and connections to carry them through the war. Poor people didn't stand a chance, and these traitors were living proof. Even so, they still had the nerve to live among us as neighbors...


THE DEAD OF WINTER

The winter went on like a curse. The roads still were choked with snow and the Germans couldn't move their vehicles. All winter we cleaned  off snow; the next day the roads would be covered again.

Even so, the Germans were still pouring  more Jews into our city. Teenagers and people in their twenties and even thirties were being shipped off to factories as slave labor. The old, middle-aged, very young, the sick and the crippled, were taken to us. The Germans knew the one thing we had in abundance was lots of empty factories, warehouses, and synagogues.

We knew Jews were being evicted from their homes elsewhere. We could see the factories filling up, and we saw more and more people going door to door begging for food. We knew people slept on the floors of these buildings with no food, running water, or heat. We knew people in these buildings were shivering, covering up their faces and heads with only the clothes they had with them for warmth.

Many died. There was no heat in those buildings, and the corpses were cast out in front of the doorway, mostly children and old people, hundreds of them. The grave diggers had a small, two-wheeled pushcart on which they loaded eight or ten corpses and took them to the graveyard to be dumped in mass graves. Then they'd go back for more. Most of the corpses were frozen solid.

I tried foraging for food when I came home from work. We were all vultures, looking for something to break up so we could keep warm. One day I followed the grave diggers from the factories and the synagogues to the cemetery. Over and over again, I saw the mass graves, the piles of arms and legs and death-grinning heads, their eyes open in a kind of wide-eyed amazement that they died such a terrible death. Dead from starvation or freezing to death. I threw up.

We saw many of the dispossessed at our door. The parents would send their young children, because they knew people had more compassion for kids. With them they'd have a little plate, which they held out while looking at us with pitiful eyes.

"Please, please, give us whatever food you can spare. We're starving," they'd say, with big round eyes and runny noses. We would give them a little crust of bread, a small piece of potato. The children came all day and night.

The family living in our house was no exception. They sent both children out to beg, even after the husband had gone to work helping the farmers. I didn't resent their being in our house. It could have happened to us. They were our brothers and sisters. They  belonged to this country. They just wanted a happy home, a job, and a chance to raise their children. These children didn't fight or whine. I even gave them some of my old shoes, shirts, and some blankets.

"We have everything; you have nothing," I told them. "Hitler took away all of our freedoms. And so it is with you."

Our people had always kept to themselves, had always been proud of being good neighbors. But when people are starving, they're bound to steal. We had piled potatoes and carrots under some straw, but the supply kept dwindling. We knew our neighbors were stealing food from us, but my father only shrugged his shoulders.

"It's no shame to steal when you're starving. People need to survive," he said.

There was a Jewish hospital in a now-abandoned synagogue. It was staffed by volunteer Jewish doctors, who did the best they could. However, the hospital had no medicine. People were dying by the hundreds. Because Yudel's house was right across from the hospital, I saw what went on there far more than I cared to.

Then one day, as the snow was melting in small rivers around the city and the sun began to feel warm again, a sign appeared in the town square. the sign said: "All young people gather in the square in a week to report for job assignments. Whoever does not show up and is caught will be shot."

We didn't know the meaning of the sign, but we knew it could not be good.
 


SNATCHED AND SHIPPED

Even without radios, we knew about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in April 1943. The Jews there had launched an armed rebellion against the Germans--a revolt which ultimately would be crushed in three weeks. A few Jews were acting as Gentiles, traveling between our city and wherever they were living now. They spread the news.

We heard about it from the Stein cousins, who had been in school with me. They had a lot of luck going for them: Their family was wealthy and they had blond hair and blue eyes. They were living away from the ghetto. Their parents had probably paid for phony passports as well. When the Germans started taking Jewish kids in 1942, the Steins also knew many Jewish policemen who made sure the cousins were left alone.

They were two of perhaps one hundred people who passed as Gentiles in our city, most of whom were women. I didn't dislike the Steins. They were nice fellows and intelligent. It was no crime to have money. My cousin, Hymie Kronhartz, also heard from Warsaw from his travels documenting the supposed glories of Nazis crushing their opponents.

The Warsaw news made us shiver all the more. We had good reason to be afraid. Soon afterward, in the same month, the Nazis completely enveloped our ghetto with soldiers one night. We had heard this might happen. My family slipped into the bunker beneath the house. All night and all day we heard the Germans knocking on the ceilings, walls, and floors. We heard their sharp raps and pounding.

They didn't care whether they damaged our house or us. We could hear them scraping away at the floor above our heads. When Jacob had built the bunker, he'd intelligently built a false floor underneath the first false floor, then lifted it, all they saw was dirt. We heard them cursing and screaming and yelling in frustration.

Still, we were all frightened to the point of paralysis. My cousins had three little girls, ages two, three and five. The women put their hands over each child's mouth. The children were frightened, and their contorted faces showed they were ready to cry. If they had, we would have been discovered instantly.

Every one of us was still. Even our breathing almost stopped. All we heard was the splitting, cracking, and chopping of boards above our heads. We knew what would happen if they found us.

But we had a little food to share; a few loaves of bread and two buckets of water. We didn't need much to eat or drink because we were so still. The  Nazis stopped looking for us when darkness fell, so we would use our toilet at night when they weren't around. We knew they would be back when the edge of daylight appeared.

Inside the bunker, after the Germans had left, my father and I had another long talk. We decided we couldn't flee because Yudel was too old, and his daughters and their three young children didn't have the stamina.

"Maybe a miracle will happen," I said, in a low voice.

"Maybe it will, God willing," my father said hollowly.

About 5:00 a.m. the next day, May 1, 1943, we heard a noise. We could tell it was the Germans, and they were cursing and screaming again. This time they didn't bother digging. They called for us to come out. When we didn't, they started firing into the house.

We could feel the sound of each bullet's firing magnified many times in our little space. It hurt my ears to the point of bursting. After several shots, Yudel was hit badly in his right arm. We heard him cry out. We could see the blood gushing.

"If you don't come out, we're going to throw a hand grenade into your bunker and burn your house to the ground," the Nazis yelled in German. "Raus, raus, raus, Juden," they screamed.

We could tell they knew we were there. We all looked at each other in despair. I said what we all were thinking: "We have no way out. If we don't leave the bunker, they'll kill us with fire or hand grenades. They'll kill us here or they'll kill us in Treblinka. This is the end of it."

We saw that Yudel's face was becoming more and more white. We took the handkerchiefs and wrapped them around his wounded arm. He was badly in need of medical attention. Yudel kept waving to us not to surrender, but we felt we had no choice.

"Kids," Yudel groaned to all of us. "This is the end of that."

We popped up the ceiling of our bunker, and the Germans reached in and grabbed us any way they could. They pulled us all up into what had been my parent's bedroom. As we were being pulled out of our hiding place, we could see Nachem, one of our neighbors, standing nearby, shaking, surrounded by Germans, with his head hanging in shame.

He didn't really belong there. Nachem had lived outside the ghetto, but when his aunt and uncle were taken to Treblinka, he moved in. He was a Jew, but he did small favors for the Germans in exchange for an extra loaf of bread or sack of sugar. He knew about our hiding place because he and his girlfriend had moved into our four-plex. They had heard us shoveling and seen us carrying dirt, so they knew we had a bunker.

I heard the Nazis talking to him in German, and they were saying they might let him live if he found some more bunkers. He told the Germans he would show them where quite a few bunkers were.

Meanwhile we were marched down to the marketplace. There were already about seven hundred people just sitting there on the ground. Shortly after we got there, they forced us to lie on our bellies and put our hands on top of our heads. German guards were pointing rifles and pistols at all of us. We were almost the last people to arrive. During the next hour and a half, the Germans collected another ten to fifteen of us. The latecomers whispered to our family that the Germans had killed Nachem anyway, despite his betrayals.

Then the Germans started marching us toward the train ramp my family and hundreds of others were forced to build. It was a little less than three miles away, but some of us never got that far.

About eight of the traditional Orthodox Jews, all wearing black yarmulkes on their heads, refused to march and stepped out of line. They knew they were going to die, and they wanted to lie with their own kind in the family graveyard. I had no idea who they thought would give them a proper burial, but the Germans obliged. All eight were shot and left on the road. The rest of us were forced to march.

During that time, the forty-five to fifty guards, many of them teenagers, were visibly nervous. Their trigger fingers twitched and they kept shouting orders in high-pitched, harsh voices. The Warsaw Uprising was still going on, and many Germans had been killed there. These Germans were in charge of liquidating ghettos, and they had been in Warsaw days before. They were afraid we were going to jump them. Their eyes never stopped moving. They had a row of guards on each side  of us.

It's not as though we needed a lot of guarding. We were mostly women, children, and old men. The young men of working age had already been taken. We were just remnants. After about an hour, we reached the train station. The soldiers leaped up on the ramp and threw open the doors to grimy cattle cars. We climbed in, slowly, but they kept pushing and packing us: the young, the old, the sick, the healthy--it didn't matter. Inside, there was not a piece of food, not a toilet.

The cars were filled with dust stirred up by so many bodies. There was a rank smell composed of cow dung and urination, sweat, dirt, and straw. We were not very different from the cows. We sat down like animals, we were sixty-five people packed so closely there was no place to lie down. People were crying, "Help us. Who's going to help us? Where is God?"

He's on vacation, I thought, shocked by my own blasphemy. There was no water, and the hot summer air plus the smell of fear made the stink in our car even more sour. We wanted to die.

We could hear soldiers climbing up on the roof, and the clicking of safety catches on their submachine guns. My armpits started to gush. When the train started up, the guards started firing into the cattle cars, and we all tried to hide behind each other. Two people near me were killed. I cringed, along with the rest of my family, and wondered whether I would live to see out the day.

After a while, the firing stopped. By now it was nighttime. My father kicked out a metal window, as he had done before, the noises hidden by the clackety-clack of the train.

I heard him whisper to me, "Joe, you'll follow me and we'll meet in front of the village."

Then he flung himself off the moving train. A lot of people had been jumping off the cars and the guards kept firing. Just as I edged my way to the window and was getting ready to jump, I could hear the train's brakes squealing. The Germans were stopping the train and shooting. There was no way for me to jump off. My father had departed when the guards had still been unprepared. Now they'd recovered. The shooting stopped, and the train lurched ahead.

Then I could hear the popping of gunfire as the guards on the roof--Germans, Ukrainians, and Lithuanians--again started firing mercilessly into the cars. Two of my neighbors were wounded. The screaming and  shrieking filled my ears. People huddled up against each other as protection, crouching as low as they could. Still the blood welling up around my feet as though it were going to wash over my shoes.

The smell of people dying and letting go of their bladders and bowels, the sound of screaming and wailing, were almost like being in hell itself. Six or seven or us were killed, and twice that many were wounded. I felt numb, but I was never touched. I crouched down, lying between the dead and wounded, waiting for the Germans to shoot again.

They did, and the screaming and the flowing blood went on. I was lying on the floor by this time, and there were people on top of other people. The man lying on my legs screamed, then slumped, dead. The guy lying on my shoulder was shot, too.

This is the end, I thought.
 

 

Credit: From "Defy the Darkness: A Tale of Courage in the Shadow of Mengele," by Joe Rosenblum with David Kohn, 2001.

 


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