Dr. Avraham Khalfan

By N. M, Translated by Jessica Cohen

It was at the beginning of this century, during the early days of the flourishing of Zionism in Herzl's days. At that time, there was a great awakening among the youth studying in Galicia. A national organization called “Tzeirei Zion” [Zion Youth] was established. Its center was in Lvov, and the youth leaders of the time were very active in it, university students such as Avraham Silberstein, N. Karton-Czaczkes, Kofel Schwartz, Yosef Tenenbaum and others, including the young author and teacher, the late Asher Barash.

One of the active branches of the organization was in Buczacz. That was where the gimnasjum youth convened in Zionist clubs under the leadership of A. Silberstein, Matityahu Weinrab and others. There was a quiet, serious, modest and shy young man who stood out in our Zionist club, and he diligently studied Jewish studies and Hebrew: Avraham Khalfan. He had been brought up in a traditional Jewish home, and we both participated in a special Bible studies lesson in Hebrew, directed by A. Silberstein. And when the Hebrew school was established and run by the Eretz Yisrael teacher B. Berkowitz, who lives here with us, we both learned from him during Hebrew lessons. Apart from Avraham Khalfan and his sister, Tova, other participants included Zvi Heller and his two sisters, Pnina and Khaya. Avraham was noted at that time for the deep interest he showed in his studies.

When he later became a medical student at the university in Vienna, Avraham joined us in founding a Jewish academic association, “HaTkhiya,” which was under the influence of such prominent Jewish activists as Dr. Haim Tratkover, Dr. Avraham Baruch (then, Rosenstein), mathematician and meteorologist Yosef Ritzes, poet Avraham Ben-Yitzhak (Soneh), author Zvi Disendrock, may their memory be a blessing, and Prof. N. Tur-Sinai, Dr. Avraham Sharon (Schvadron), Dr. A.Y. Brawer and Dr. Efraim Korngrein, may they live long and prosper. “HaTkhiya” was at that time the Jewish spiritual center for the semi-assimilationist Zionists in Vienna, because it was the first student association in the world where Hebrew was the language of conversation, lectures, extra-curricular classes in Hebrew literature and Jewish history, and arguments.

In 1911, A. Khalfan was elected president of the association, due to his distinguished character and talents. Dr. Benzion Mosinzon, who was visiting Vienna at the time and lecturing on the Hebrew culture in Eretz Yisrael, was chosen as an honorary member of the association. In those days there was also much activity in our association to support the Hebrew language and culture within other Zionist academic associations, such as “Bar Kochba,” “Theodore Herzl,” “Kadima” and others.

In 1914 Khalfan completed his studies in medicine and was drafted into the Austrian army, where he served as a physician until the end of the First World War.

In 1920 Dr. Avraham Khalfan settled in his hometown of Buczacz, where he was the town doctor and was later appointed as director of the internal medicine department in the town hospital. When the Nazis entered Galicia, Dr. Khalfan endured all the departments of hell which the holocaust brought, he was in a ghetto and later in the underground. In 1944 he moved to Lodz, where he directed the lung and X-ray department in the government health fund until 1948.

His great desire to make aliya did not materialize quickly, despite his many efforts and the endeavors of his friends, particularly his nephew here in Israel. He found some consolation in his life-long study of Hebrew literature, which he would read and reread in his great library in Buczacz, which was destroyed during the holocaust. In 1949 he managed, together with his wife, to escape the diaspora and make aliya to the land of his dreams. With him, he brought a Torah scroll which had been saved from destruction. Here in Israel, he entered a miserable period of searching for work, despite his training in an important profession. He almost despaired, for he could not find a sympathetic ear among the authorized persons and institutions. When he was accepted after many efforts to fulfill a professional public position as a roentgenologist in the League for the Prevention of Tuberculosis, first in Haifa and later in Hadera, he found satisfaction in this job. He devoted all his energy during the day to public work, particularly to treating the new immigrants. And in the evenings he would renounce the world outside in favor of the Torah and would meditate on both religious and secular writings. He would buy books and truly devour them. He was by nature a “matmid” [diligent yeshiva student] and wanted to grasp and acquire all that he had not been able to acquire while in the diaspora. He was noble spirited and quiet, but when he lectured he was like a perennial spring. He had a weak and sensitive heart, and when he lectured on occasion about the holocaust, which he had experienced first-hand, he would become extremely emotional.

The hard work exhausted his strengths, he became ill with angina, which hastened his end, and he died on 13 Shvat 5714 [January 17th, 1954].

N. M

Letter from Dr. Avraham Halfan

Translated by Israel Pickholtz

Lodz, 28 January 1946

My friend!

I am happy to see that after so many years you have not forgotten us and that you are inquiring after the Buczacz survivors. It is no surprise that you do not hear from Buczacz, because Buczacz now exist only on the map. The city was destroyed. There are only two Hebrew families and there are no Jews in the entire county. There were more than ten survivors and about 65 from the county who went west to Silesia and on from there in order to get to Eretz Israel or other countries as quickly as possible. Don't send packages, they never arrive. My opinion is that everyone dreams of aliya to Eretz Israel, not of packages… The streets of Buczacz are covered with weeds and thorns and thistles are brought forth [this is a Biblical expression]. The houses are destroyed, synagogues are public lavatories. The cemetery has been plowed under and the tombstones taken to tile the pig market. The high school, the schools and other important buildings are destroyed. The people live on the banks of the Dnieper and the Volga. More than ten thousand Jews of Buczacz have been sent from this life' their bodies in mass graves on the "______," the ______, in the forests and the fields. [These two words are not Hebrew. I do not know what they are. The first says "fedur" and the second "bashtim."]

Unfortunately, there is nothing you can do to help us make aliyah. We appreciate your sacrifices and your efforts and we suffer with you. Perhaps there will be a change and the survivors will be permitted aliyah. – In any case, we are encouraged by the knowledge that someone under the sun thinks about us and wants to help us. You write that you have no news from Buczacz. How can I describe the situation – any description would be pale and would not truly reflect reality.

The tragedy began in July 1941 – beatings, forced labor, theft and corruption were common practice. In mid-August at four in the morning, 350 young Jews were shot on the "fedur." [see above] The young women were forced to clean the shoes of the executioners when they returned from this mass execution. People died of starvation. Outside the sword did its plunder, at home there was death. There were always new decrees, supervised by the "Jewish Council" (Judenrat) and carried out by the Jewish police. If any of these reach you alive, they should receive "special treatment." The Judenrat sent those who couldn't pay ransom to the death camps and the Jewish police hunted and beat the resistors. The Judenrat knew only dollars and gold. Furs had to be given to the Germans. Hiding furs brought the death penalty, because Jews were considered "warm" even without them. The Jews didn't know which was worse, the Judenrat or the Gestapo. This relatively good situation continued until the summer of 1942. Then began the five act tragedy – the "actions." The Jews of the towns and villages were brought to larger, central locations and from time to time there were "actions," generally late at night or towards morning. Germans, Ukrainians and Jewish police would burst into homes and whoever did not hide in basements, ditches, etc. was killed. There were several thousand victims of each "action." Terrible things happened in the hiding places. Mothers smothered their crying children or drugged them, without question. And outside death reigned. Sometimes those who were caught gave away the hiding places of their neighbors. After two days it would stop and bodies were removed from the houses and the streets and fines were paid by those who remained alive. The commerce continued: through the Judenrat you could buy and sell anything – gold, watches, jewelry, _______. [another foreign word] The non-Jews behaved badly towards the Jews. They were happy to hide their jewelry for them.

This is the way we lived from "action" to "action." each one eating away at several thousand victims. After each "action" the population was pushed into a few streets until eventually everyone was at the bottom of Podhajke Street, where the last were killed.

The tragedy had some tragi-comic scenes. There were a few instances where a person buried alive succeeded in working his way out of the ground and returned naked to the ghetto at night. Eliezer Binder, a memeber of my family, was twelve years old when he escaped from a mass grave which included his parents, brothers and sisters. A priest in the village, where I spent a certain amount of time, said "The Jews cheat. They jump into the graves, pretend to be dead then leave at night. You can expect anything from these Jews." Another scene: after one "action" a woman heard a child near a fresh grave "Mamma are you still alive?" A German policeman murdered the boy. He was the son of the dentist Gefner. Another story. Mrs. Clara Gross (nee Kornbluh) the wife of Gross the attorney, told hundreds of women and girls near the mass grave on the fedur "Be strong and do not fear. Any moment now and G-d will punish them… " Yaakov Margolies the baker yelled "Why are you being slaughtered like sheep and not dying with weapons in your hands!" He refused to undress before the "action" at the Jewish cemetery and spat in the face of the German. He was stoned and afterwards buried with his wife and sons.

After each "action" there were fewer hands to dig the graves and fewer people to pay the tributes. The Judenrat was killed last, in May 1943. Also killed were the Hecht, Mandel and Reich families as well as the work camp. The rest were sent to Kopicienice and Taluste [spell these how you like!] and killed there. The area was pronounced Judenrein. Any Jew found afterwards was murdered on sight. The murderers received 100 Zlotys per Jewish head. Heads fell – old and young, men and women. Anyone who succeeded in paying the last of his money to a farmer in exchange for a hiding place, was killed by the farmer or by the rural gangs or by the Ukrainian gendarmes. Oscar Friedenthal and his sister, Dr. Gross, Dr. Stern's daughter, Sabina Spiegel, the Kaner, Honig, Weiss and Zilberschlag families, Dr. Fuchs, Dr. Binenwald with his wife and sons and the wife of Dr. Hirschhorn were all killed this way. In Medidbecze [spelling??] a farmer killed Mrs. Chana Frankel and twelve others with an axe. The Glatners, the Schulmans, Mrs. Merangel, Mrs. Nacht and many others too. The city became like "the valley of the shadow of death." The Jewish bandits were no better than the murderers. They fell on the Jews in hiding, on the Jews in the forests and robbed them naked. That happened to Shaul Enderman and others. These bandits warrant "special treatment" at your hands. Jews were hunted in the villages, the fields and the forests. My wife and, my sister-in-law and her son hid in the village in the house of a farmer. It cost us much money. On 28 March 1944, the Soviets invaded but after a week, they retreated. Three and a half months – a second period of Hell. Another 600 Jews were killed, among them Dr. Goliger and her family, the physician Dr. Neuman and the Zigmans.

On 21 July 1944 we were finally freed. The count in our county was sixteen thousand murdered. Sixty five survived. They wait to be allowed to make aliyah. Try to make it as easy for them as you can. Investigate and examine the behavior during the occupation of every potential immigrant.