|Cover||Narrative||Outbreak of War: 1939|
|Germans adulate Hitler after anschluss with Austria|
By the late Nineteen Thirties, war and genocide in Europe were inevitable. Hitler was insatiable in his territorial demands. His campaign against the Jews was relentless. The new countries in Eastern Europe which had been carved out of the Austrian Empire were hit hard by the economic depression of the Thirties; scapegoats were necessary; State anti-Semitism, legitimized by Germany, now became policy in most of these countries. (In the narrative that follows I’ve combined Mechel and Tsivye’s voices, unless indicated otherwise.)
In ’36 Pilsudski died. Until then there was plenty of trouble. But when he died the anti-Semites really started to raise their heads, and gave us to feel them. First of all they imposed taxes, unbearable taxes. We couldn’t pay, so many people went bankrupt. We wanted to emigrate, but there was no place to go. They passed a law to forbid Jews from attending university. So those who could afford it sent their sons to Czechoslovakia or Italy, let’s say to study medicine. These sons came back and wanted to establish themselves in Poland. There promptly came out a law that with foreign diplomas you couldn’t practice. This was around 1937. Why did they want to come back to Poland? I don’t know if they had some possibility to go anyplace else. It was very hard. Nobody wanted us. At first it wasn’t clear what Hitler’s plan for the Jews was. But after Kristallnacht in 1938 we knew. We heard everything. And there was another thing -- Hitler expelled all the Polish Jews in Germany who didn’t have German citizenship. He expelled them and took their possessions; he didn’t let them take even a pin.
Still, nobody could believe it would go to this extent… Hitler said everything that he will do, but nobody believed that it’s possible to do what he did. People were waiting for miracles, but miracles didn’t come.
|Signing of Ribbentrop - Molotov Pact|
On August 23, 1939, the foreign ministers of Germany and the USSR, Ribbentrop and Molotov, signed an agreement: in the coming war, Polish territory would be a shared by their two countries. It was determined that in the south, the demarcation line between the two forces would run along the River San. Once Hitler was certain of Stalin’s support, he attacked, from the north, south, and west, on September 1, 1939. The Soviet Union invaded Poland from the east on September 17. It was no contest.
|German troops entering Polish village|
The first Germans to enter Dubiecko were regular Army units; they did no harm to the Jews. But they were followed several days later by SS task forces – the Einsatzgruppen – which roamed behind the front lines and terrorized and murdered civilians, especially Jews. Dubiecko wasn’t spared. Because of their proximity to the San, the Jews of Dubiecko could escape the Nazis by crossing over to the Russian zone. Ultimately, perhaps two hundred thousand Jews fled to the Soviets; most of them were from towns near the new border, but there were many others from all over Poland.
The War started on a Friday, two weeks before Rosh Hashanah. We knew there was going to be a war. The Germans demanded one thing after another from Poland. Poland mobilized, but it was too late. We were so far from the border we thought it would be a while before war would come to us. In the First World War it took three years of warfare, armies moving back and forth, before Galicia surrendered; it didn’t go easy. There was a fortress at Pshemish where there were battles. They didn’t have airplanes or tanks then. But this time there was no fight, they just marched in – or actually, they flew in: they bombed bridges and roads, and the Polish Army got stuck, it couldn’t do anything. On the very first day of the War we saw squadrons of bombers flying overhead on their way to drop bombs on Pshemish. There was an important bridge over the San there. They took Poland in a blitz. They had a motorized army. Poland was very much behind. The Polish Army pulled back.
We remember this: Mechel was doing business with a landowner in Nienadowa. Mechel had given him money, and he was supposed to deliver wheat that was in his barn. When the Polish Army retreated they burnt down everything of value so the Germans shouldn’t get it; also the barn with our wheat in it. We watched the fire burning, and saw how our money was going up in smoke.
The Russians only came three weeks later, after Sikkes. The whole thing lasted a short time, in three weeks Poland was gone. The Russians and Germans divided Poland along the River San. At first the Germans even went further than the San, then later when the Russians entered the War they pulled back. And wherever they went there was death and disaster, right away.
On the tenth day of the War the German Army captured our town. At first they did nothing. They didn’t bother anybody, or check us. We started to buy and sell with them – they bought in our stores and paid – it was a different type of soldier, not brutal. They were not bad. It was a regular army. The SS came after. We thought that things would be alright. Thursday and Friday were Rosh Hashanah. We prayed in synagogue and blew the shofar as usual, and we weren’t so afraid, we’d got used to them. Germans even came into the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah to find out what we were doing. They saw that there many people were gathering, and they wanted to be sure we weren’t plotting something. Jews wearing their talaysim explained what we were doing, and the Germans went away. Tsom Gedalia that year was postponed because of Shabbos; the fast was pushed off to Sunday. On Tsom Gedalia, early in the morning, when people had gone to say sliches, the SS descended on us. The SS were specially chosen murderers.
Actually it began the night before. An advance group of SS arrived in Dbetsk Saturday night from Dynow, 14 kilometers away. They arrested the Rabbi and his wife, they said they were holding them hostage to keep the Jews quiet, so the Jews wouldn’t resist. They also arrested Christians -- the mayor and the priest – to guarantee there wouldn’t be problems. They set fire to the main synagogue. There was a small study house, a kloyz, next door to us which the Germans wanted to burn down too, but the goyim wouldn’t let them because this was in between their homes and they were afraid their homes would catch fire too. As the synagogue began to burn Jews plunged inside to save the holy Torah scrolls. After the fire the SS released the Rabbi and his wife, but they had no place to go, they had no clothes to change into; the Rabbi and his wife had no children, they’d lived in rooms in the synagogue building and all their possessions were gone. They wandered around, dazed. They went to neighbors, they didn’t have a shirt to wear. The rabbi's wife's head was bald, her wig was gone, she went about with her bald head uncovered. The Rabbi too was bareheaded. This was sacrilege to us, terrible to see.
On Sunday morning the main body of Gestapo arrived in town. They came into the kloyz and arrested whoever they wanted to. Women and children stood by, crying. Benno your cousin was crying too, because they’d arrested his brother, Mechel’s sister Henne’s son. He was in the kloyz together with Aryeh Leib. The Germans told Aryeh Leib, “You go home and the boy we’re taking.” They didn’t take everyone, they chose young people. They said, “We need some work to do and we’re taking you there.” They held the prisoners overnight and beat them murderously. Then the next day they took them away and shot them. These were the finest men of our village.
In the days that followed we tried to convince ourselves that the men were still alive, that they’d been taken off to do labor. Women travelled all over looking for our missing people. We heard they’d been spotted here, that they’d been spotted there. Then a Gentile boy, he was a baker’s apprentice, came and said, “Don’t fool yourselves. Your people were murdered at such and such a place, they were buried there, and after the Germans killed them they stacked up their weapons, sat down and made themselves a meal.”. Even after that, it was hard to understand what was really happening. We couldn’t believe they would kill people for no reason. It was easier to believe that they were pulling people away to work somewhere.
But we also learned about other pogroms. After the War broke out there were many groups of Jews fleeing east away from the Germans. There was one group, from Silesia, next to the German border, which arrived in Dbetsk before Rosh Hashanah. When they arrived in our shtetl they found that Germans soldiers were already there; they were everywhere. So the Jews thought, “Where will we run? We’ll go back to our homes.” This was before the Russians entered the War. These Jews spent the holiday and Shabbos with us, and Saturday night they headed back to their homes, on the road going west from Dbetsk. At Bachorzec, they ran into the SS coming from Dynow. Earlier that day, in Dynow, the SS took two hundred Jews into the fields and shot them. We didn’t know about it because it was a holiday. The SS unit pulled those Silesian Jews off the road and shot them. Afterwards goyim came into town and said that the Germans offered them half a zloty for each Jew they buried.
From our shtetl they killed twenty-three people. It was the same in every town. They went murdering from one village to the next. After us, on Monday and Tuesday, they were in Pshemish, and there they killed more than a thousand, maybe fifteen hundred, including children, out of a Jewish population of maybe thirty thousand. They couldn’t go any further because by then they knew the Russians were coming, so they behaved even more brutally. In another town they drove the Jews into a bathhouse and set it afire. This was in Ropschitz or Dembitz. They drove the Jews inside, poured kerosene on the walls and set it afire. They also brought three Jews from another village to our village and killed them, and the old people buried them in our cemetery.
Later, when we crossed over to the Russian side, during the Intermediate Days of Sikkes, we could see the graves with our own eyes, and take out the bodies. We don’t know where the dead of our town are until today, but in Pshemish, because the Germans pulled back, it was possible to see the bodies. How the Germans executed Jews was like this: They would take out Jews and order them to dig a pit. Two people were left aside, the others were shot. Then the two people had to fill in the pit, and then they too were shot. Or else they took along goyim who filled in the pits.
Even when we heard how Jews were killed here and there, we couldn’t believe that there was actually a plan for total annihilation. After all, we’d spent a few days with them at the beginning of the War and we saw that they were normal people. Later on in Russia we couldn’t imagine that what was going on back in Poland. During the First World War we were also afraid of what the Russians would do to us when they invaded Galicia. They didn’t kill like the Germans, but if they caught a Jew on the side they would kill him. They tried to kill Mechel’s father. Those were private actions, there were Cossacks and others who were murderers. But this was official policy from the Government.
|Murder of Jews in Ukraine|
Coming back to the day the SS invaded our town… On that day, twice Mechel almost met his death. The first time was when the Silesian Jews we mentioned before were leaving Dubiecko. Mechel wanted to go with them. The reason was, because at that time we’d given out wheat for milling, and the mill was located on the road the Jews were travelling home from our village. Mechel wanted to get to the mill and pick up flour. We had a lot of wheat there and people needed flour. Mechel thought it wasn’t dangerous, it was quiet until then. Tsivye and Grandmother Pesche begged him not to go. Mechel said, “It’s quiet, they’re not doing anything, you see they let us have our prayers,” and so forth. They made him swear he wouldn’t go. Twenty people were shot on the road, and Mechel could have been one of them.
The second time was the next morning. During the holidays we’d had many guests. We’d baked a lot of bread and challah before the holidays, but by the end of Shabbos everything was gone. There was no more bread. Sunday morning Mechel is getting ready to go to the kloyz next door to us to daven, he has his tallis and tefilin, but Pesche tells him to go get flour so she can bake more bread. So he puts away his things and goes for flour. At that moment the Nazis arrested Jews in the kloyz. If Pesche hadn’t sent him for the flour he’d have been among the arrested.
It was like this: We had a grocery. We were living in a flat above our store, but the customers bothered us morning and evening – there were no hours. So we rented a new place away from our store and intended to move into it after the holidays. We bought new furniture – but in the end we left everything. When war broke out the radio announced that it was forbidden to hoard foodstuffs, that everything should be released for sale. This meant that everyone could buy from us, but that we weren’t supposed to keep anything for ourselves. What did we do? Secretly Mechel took supplies and stored them away in our new house.
So Mechel was in the new house getting flour. Pesche comes running – she tells Mechel not to go back, not to show himself. There was a hidden loft above the attic of that building. That’s where Mechel hid, he and his landlord. Pesche took the flour by herself to bake. They didn’t bother women then, but men were afraid about being taken off to work – who knew where they would take us? – or worse.
All the Jewish males in Dbetsk went into hiding. You didn’t see a man in the street, only women and children. After the SS arrived the Germans changed their behavior, they were violent, they looted stores and stole. A Pole in our village had a large dog. The dog’s name was Hitler. A German heard this Pole calling to his dog – “Hitler! Come here!”—and when he heard this he shot him. Or there was a Polish woman who was killed over a chicken. A German grabbed a chicken that was running around, because he was hungry. He had the right – after all, he was military. The woman ran after him for her chicken, so he shot her. It was a lawless situation, they did what they wanted. They shot Poles when they didn’t answer them the way they wanted; but the main plan was to kill Jews.
[From here, Mechel] The building we were hiding in was a large and nice house, and at night a squad of Germans came in and slept there. We lay in our hole, and they lay in featherbeds. Somehow we lived through the night, and in the morning they left. We stayed hidden there until after Yom Kippur. When it was quiet we would sometimes come down. The SS didn’t stay in one place, they would come in, do their destruction, then get in their trucks and go on to another place. On Yom Kippur morning Mindl Melber, my brother’s wife, came running from the other side of the San. She says that I should take heed – my brother Benjamin begs me to come over to him on the other side of the San. They just learned that the Russians are coming in from the east. Where I am my life is in danger. Jews are being murdered. On his side the Russians will take over. I considered what Mindl said, but I was also afraid of the Russians, I didn’t want to be a Communist. So I didn’t go. On Yom Kippur we prayed up in the attic. Yom Kippur was on Shabbos. Tuesday after that, two days before Sikkes, the Germans made an announcement. They said that the situation in the town is no good – nobody was doing anything, all the stores were closed. They said we that we shouldn’t be frightened, we should open our stores. They know we’re hiding and they could come and get us, but they don’t want to harm us, and we’ll be safe if we come out. We felt we didn’t have a choice. We came out.
When we reopened our store there was a rush to buy. People wanted to stock up on food. We sold everything in the store, we made 2700 zloty – this was nice money. It was quiet that day, but the next day they called us all together to the Rynek, the market. Everybody came. They told us that within the next hours all the Jews had to leave town, if not, then we would be shot. They knew the Russians were coming, and they wanted to get rid of us.
So now we didn’t have a choice, we had to go to my brother Binem. I hired a Pole he knew who had a wagon and put our things on it. But where Binem was, the Russians hadn’t yet come and the Germans weren’t there; it was lawless, the goyim were attacking each other and everyone else. Nearby us lived a priest whom I knew and trusted. I did business with him. I came with the wagon to the priest and left most of our things with him. He said he hoped that we would return, and I believe he meant it. With just a handful of possessions we crossed over the San to Binem.
|Soviet forces in Poland, 1939|
This is how Tsivye described their escape to the Russian side.
We went barefoot over the San, every last Jew from town. People went to whoever would take them in, Pole or Jew. Mechel’s brother Binem lived on the far side. Half the Jews of Dbetsk went in to him with their sacks and packs, they squeezed into the house and kitchen and store; it was so crowded by Binem there wasn’t even a place to stand. This was a hamlet, and Binem was the only Jew who lived there, so everyone tried to get into his place. Fortunately Mechel knew a goy in this hamlet, and we went to stay with him instead. At Binem’s, in order to make room, the Jews stored away their belongings in bins outside. At night, a gang from this town attacked Binem’s house, they threw stones; they shattered the windows, they broke the roof. The Polish government no longer existed, the Germans retreated, the Russians hadn’t yet come; it was lawless. When people went out to try and stop them they were beaten. One Jew, a sick man, was crushed to the ground. They wanted to kill us, and we just managed to beg for mercy. While part of the gang was attacking the Jews, the rest opened up the bins and took out everything: bedding, clothing, food, all the luggage. Our things were safe with the goy, although he was a murderer too, but when we were by him he didn’t do anything. He came in to his place all excited and told us enthusiastically that at Binem there’s a riot, there’s robbery. It made him happy. It was a night of hell. At the time, we thought this was the worst thing that could happen.
For four days there was no law, until the Russians came. They arrived on the third day of Sikkes. There were Jews among the soldiers. Binem told them what the goyim had done. They arrested the ringleader and sent him away.
Binem couldn’t keep everyone, so the Jews had to continue on. There were other villages where people had friends or relatives: Bircza, Pshemish, Mosciska, wherever they could find shelter. Sometimes underway people slept in barns, like worms; then the goyim set fire to the barns, and burnt the Jews inside. They were happy, they were baking Jews.
We continued to stay at Binem’s, but Mechel got restless, there was nothing to do in this hamlet. He decided to go on his own to Pshemish, to see what he could do. He looked for an apartment there but it was impossible. In Greiding, halfway between Pshemish and Lemberg, I had a sister, and also Mechel had cousins; so he continued there, and took a place. Then he came back for us. This all took a long time, six weeks. When we left for Greiding it was November.
First we had to get to Pshemish. To Pshemish we traveled by wagon. Previously there was a direct road there, but now the roads were ruined and crowded, we had to detour all the time, the way was more than twice as long, and they were overflowing. There were Poles who had run away, or wanted to return to their homes, soldiers who had thrown away their weapons and deserted. There was no food to be had. Everything was scarce. There was mud everywhere, the wagon kept getting stuck and had to be pulled out. Every so often the Pole driving our cart would demand more money. We stop, because I don’t have tea or water for Tsili, and she’s crying. I go in to a house and beg for something for her. I can’t even remember all the things we went through. Finally we come to the railway station at Pshemish. There were people lying around everywhere, wherever you went. They were sleeping in the streets, on the bare stones, on rucksacks. It was already winter, it was cold.
From Pshemish to Greiding we took a train. It was murder, but we fought our way on. We arrived in Greiding filthy, lousy, what not. My mother, Scheindl, Avrum, and Monye were already there; they arrived from Lezhensk. Lezhensk was also on the San. They crossed in one place and we at another.
The apartment we got was one room, which we shared with Asher Barber and his two children, and also Aryeh Leib. There was a kitchen for us all. I was no longer mistress of my house.
We lived there eight or nine months, until after Shveeus. After that, we were sent to Siberia.