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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
"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
"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
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
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
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
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
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