Shoah Echoes in Buczacz


Translated by Jessica Cohen


A fourteen-year-old girl writes

The United Committee for Assistance to Polish Jews received this letter, sent from a 14-year-old girl to her relatives in Israel. The girl escaped Buczacz, in Eastern Galicia, and reached Trembowla. She sent this letter on June 5.

“My dear Aunt Fruma and Uncles Beryl and Isaac,

I send you very sad news. I have been through terrible, difficult days. As I write this letter, tears run from my eyes. You will probably not believe me. I was left on my own, entirely alone. No one is left from the entire family; of all the relatives, only I, Rosa, remain. I have lost my mother, my dear, devoted mother, Father, Rivka, my little brother Avram, dear Grandfather and Grandmother. There were extermination acts in Buczacz, and each act sent 1500 Jews to their deaths. My Grandmother Leizi was killed on February 2, 1943. [Yiddish] Grandmother was killed during the third massacre, and she is buried on Fedor [Hill] in Buczacz. Where once people took walks, now there are 8000 murdered Jews. Together with Grandmother, we lost Devorah from Potok, and Aunt Esther with her husband and children. Not one of our relatives remains alive. After the last extermination act, my father gave me to a rural woman who hid me from May 10, 1943 until March 25, 1944. Father found a cave in the forest, and the whole family fled there. They were in the cave for 8 months. Then the Germans discovered the cave and killed them all. I do not know where there bones are.

I somehow managed to stay alive through this time with the Germans – I will tell you when I am with you in Israel.

On March 25, 1944, the Soviets occupied Buczacz. They stayed for 5 days and then the Germans came again. I barely escaped alive, and went with the Soviet army to Trembowla. I stayed with a Christian woman and shepherded her flock, because the Jews who were still alive – and there were only a few – had no food. Like myself, all they had saved was their souls. I cannot describe everything to you because I am very anxious. We are now about 22 kilometers from the front. All we hear is airplanes and sirens. I am begging you: please, take care of me; please, bring me quickly to you in Israel.

Davar,” 1946

P. Lander, special correspondent for “Ha'Aretz”, reported:

The story recounted here occurred the day before yesterday in a crowded spot in Paris. A young Jewish man from Buczacz, Adek W., who is currently visiting Paris, was strolling through the Place de Republique on a Saturday. He saw a well-built figure approaching him from a distance. He immediately recognized him as his townsman and childhood friend, who during the Nazi occupation had been the head of the Jewish “Ordnung-Schutz” and served as a representative of the Nazi Gestapo leader, sending hundreds and thousands of Jews to their deaths. He shouted to him in Polish:

“Are you the murderer of the Jews of Buczacz and the murderer of my family?”

The other young man froze in his place, stunned by the sudden cry. Then he replied: “Yes, it is me. What do you want me to do?” Adek W. replied simply: “Come with me.”

The two went to Adek's hotel. When the door closed behind them and they were both in the room, Adek asked the murderer: “Have you reflected about what you did? Did you know you were executing innocent people, your own people? Tell me, murderer, why did you do it?”

For apart from the general score of the murder of Jews, Adek also had a personal score. His childhood friend had come to their house during one of the aktzias and executed his mother and father. Only he and his brother remained. During another aktzia, this friend came again to take them both away. The brother was taken to the death camps and never returned, and he, Adek, managed to escape during the search. He hid out through the entire Nazi rule, and manage to stay alive. When Poland was liberated, Adek began to search for this murderer, his childhood friend. He heard that he was still alive, had left Poland and disappeared. Now when he came to Paris with a student delegation, he suddenly found the murderer walking through the Place de Republique.

“Murderer, why did you do it?” he shouted again at his friend the murderer.

And the latter replied calmly: “I admit that I have 'killed and also taken possession.' At the time, I did not contemplate the things I was doing, but now I know, and I am willing to be punished.

Adek W. knocked his friend to the ground and beat him viciously. Then he began to stomp on him. The murderer was covered with blood, but he did not utter a word. Adek W. beat the murderer with heavy objects and smashed some bottles against his head. The murderer lay in a pool of blood without moving, although he could easily have overcome his tormentor.

Finally, Adek W. said: “And now I will tattoo your forehead, so that everyone shall know who you are.” And with a large needle he began to carve out the word “ ordnung-schutz ” on the murderer's forehead. He got as far as the Latin character “O”, and could not continue. He was exhausted.

Finally, he said to the murderer: “Give me your papers.” The latter was bleeding heavily, wounded and cut, his clothes ripped and dripping with blood. He silently took out his papers, including his passport and an entry visa to Venezuela, and gave them to Adek W.

“You must come back tomorrow at ten,” Adek W. ordered him.

The murderer agreed.

Then next morning at 10, the murderer returned to Adek W.'s hotel. The latter beat him again, until he was exhausted. Then he said to the murderer: “Come with me.” They went to the nearest French police station. There, Adek W. reported the case and demanded that the murderer be arrested. The police officer tried to evade the demand and said that it was not within his jurisdiction, and that he should address the higher authorities. Adek W. went to the Polish consul in Paris. After the Polish consul intervened, the French police agreed to arrest the murderer. When the next shipment of criminals to Poland leaves, the murderer of the Jews of Buczacz will also be sent, and will stand trial there and surely be punished.

Paris, early January 1947.

The story of a girl for whom gold was promised

When the Jewish population of Buczacz in Galicia found out that they would soon be deported to the death camps, Ms. Sleicher brought her only daughter, Leah, to the Polish woman Helena Poloch, and told her:

“Take the child and care for her as the apple of your eye. Her father lives in America, and after the war he will pay you in gold.”

The Polish woman could not resist the promise of dollars, so she took in the girl and raised her. After the war she began to search for the girl's father in America, but was unsuccessful. She happened to hear that in Lodz there was an institution which took in Jewish children and paid for their care during the occupation. Mrs. Poloch went to Lodz with the girl, and after negotiations the committee took the girl and paid the woman 360,000 gilden. But when Mrs. Poloch went home, she found a letter from America written by the girl's father, in which he wrote that he was trying to obtain an American entry visa, not only for the girl but also for her, the Polish woman who had raised his daughter. So Mrs. Poloch hurried back to Lodz and demanded that the girl be returned to her. When the committee refused, because the girl was already settled at an orphanage, the woman went to the attorney general and invented a terrible story: that three of the committee members had broken into her apartment and kidnapped the girl. The attorney general summoned the committee representatives, and they showed him a receipt from the woman for the 360,000 gilden. The attorney general not only revoked the woman's claim, but also sued her for libel.

Of course, the girl is being sent to her father in America.

Haboker”, 9/12/1947.

A. Lanman

Yitzhak Bornstein, “HaAretz” correspondent in Warsaw, published the following description on 9-28-1949:

Anyone wishing to know if there were Jewish survivors of a Polish town that was destroyed, needs only to glance at the number of typed pages neatly classified and stacked at the archives of the Central Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw. Each town has its own corner at the institute – namely, the history of its destruction. The material includes testimonies give by Jews who miraculously survived the hell. If a town does not have much of this literature of destruction, you can surmise that the destruction there was great, massive and terrible…

I was interested in one town, a vibrant Jewish town which had barely been mentioned until now; a town of 16,000 Jewish artisans, laborers and merchants. A town which had a strong Jewish social life. A town with any number of Jewish parties, from the Haredim to the extreme left. There were also people from Belza, Czortkow, Boyany, Sasowe, Zydaczow and many more. Of all these, not even a single typed page remains. With great effort, a living Jew from the town of Stry is sought, so that he can give testimony. There is one testimony there, less than two pages long, from a living Jew from Stry who escaped the terrible Janowska camp in Lvov. But from Stry itself, not a soul survived – so awful was the destruction there.

The town whose history of destruction we are describing here belonged, much like Stry, to the area where the “spirit” of the infamous SS General Katzman prevailed (according to rumors, he is now located in Lebanon). The name of the town is Buczacz, it is located on the way from Stanislaw to Czortkow. Buczacz is the birthplace of the famous Jewish historian, Dr. Emanuel Ringelblum, may the Lord avenge his blood, who, during the terrible Ghetto Warsaw days, led a group of people from the Jewish intelligentsia in recording and writing anything relevant to the time. And when the murderers opened fire in the streets of the Warsaw Ghetto as the Jews were being led to the deportation square, these devoted people managed to bury all this material. It was excavated two years ago, and constitutes the historical Ringelblum Archive.

An Occupied Town with no Ghetto

In contrast to Stry, the town of massacres, Buczacz has a rich collection of historical material. This town, whose Jews numbered less than half the number of the Jews in Stry, occupies a prominent place at the Jewish Historical Institute archives. Many testimonies were collected about Buczacz, detailing how the Jews of the town were killed. Some of the Buczacz survivors describe the town before its destruction, when there was vibrant Jewish life. The many testimonies complete each other and combine into a whole picture of the town.

One of the Buczacz survivors, Yosef Kornblei, says that until the awful war there were 7,500 Jews, 1,000 Poles and 3,000 Ukrainians in Buczacz. It was, therefore, a Jewish town. For 45 continuous years, the town mayor was the Jewish Bernard Stern. After his death in 1921, until 1937, the position was occupied by the attorney Dr. Emanuel Marengel.

Kornblei recalls that Dr. Emanuel Ringelblum's father died of natural causes during the occupation, while his mother was murdered by the Nazis.

There were two synagogues in Buczacz, which were counted among the town's historical sites.

There was no permanent Gestapo office in occupied Buczacz. Once in a while the Gestapo officers would come down from Czortkow or Stanislaw. Incidentally, the Gestapo did not need to be present in Buczacz because they had people they could trust there…there were Ukrainian murderers who excelled at their job no less than the Hitlerists. In any case, it is clear that the absence of Gestapo officers in the town did not alleviate the bitter fate of Buczacz Jews.

Buczacz did not have a ghetto such as the ones established in other occupied towns. This does not mean that the Jews of Buczacz were free to move around the town. For example, Jews were not permitted on the main street, Kolejowa. But the fact that the Jews of Buczacz were not fenced in and imprisoned was extremely important, particularly during the pogroms which occurred after a while: brave Jews who found out in advance that an “act” was being planned, fled to the surrounding woods, and those who had the strength to endure the travails and who were fortunate enough, survived. A witness named Ferber recounts that he hid in a bunker with 17 other Jews. This was in March of 1944. Fierce and bloody battles were raging in the Buczacz area at the time, between the Red Army and Hitler's brigades. Buczacz changed hands twice, and those Jews who were fortunate and managed to turn themselves in to the Red Army when it entered Buczacz for the first time, are still alive today. The Jews who were afraid to come out of the bunkers because of the heavy fire coming from both sides of the front, were eventually slaughtered by the Ukrainian Fascists and the Hitlerists as they withdrew.

The First Pogrom Victims

On July 1, 1941, the Soviet forces evacuated Buczacz. 500 Jews went with them to the USSR. On July 5, the Germans entered. The did not spend long in the town, but rather continued on their course. However, the Ukrainian nationalists immediately took control of all the authorities in Buczacz, and as early as the first day they shot dead 4 Poles and 2 Jews. From time to time the Ukrainians would kidnap Jews to send them to work for the German army. As they walked to work, the Jews were ordered to sing Hatikvah and whoever did not sing would be beaten to death. The Ukrainian fascists issued various decrees according to the German occupiers' orders, such as a 6 o'clock curfew for Jews, a prohibition against walking down the streets on the sidewalk, and so forth.

On August 27, 1941, 4 Gestapo men came from Czortkow and issued a command that all Jewish men between the ages of 18 and 50 must report in front of the courthouse. Some 800 Jews gathered. The Gestapo sent a few doctors and artisans back to their homes. The others were ordered to remain standing, and they themselves went to drink with the Ukrainian doctor named Bonoch. At 4 in the morning, they led all the Jews some 2 kilometers out of town to the Fedor Woods. There, they were told, cars would be waiting to take them to work.

There were no cars there, but there were large crates, and the Jews had to place all their belongings in them. The echoes of shots coming from the forest could be heard all morning in town. All the victims were thrown into pits that had been dug beforehand. Among the victims of this terrible massacre were some prominent Jewish townsmen: attorney Dr. Yedenfriend, two Lustgarten brothers, Elhanan and Avigdor Sterensus, Moshe Erlich, Elazar Iserlis (a descendent of Rabbi Moshe Iserlis), Getzil Schor, Leibusch Shoval, Buchwald, five members of the Hassidic family Kreitner, Anshel and Avraham Isakover, Yoseleh Worman (grandson of the tzaddik of Buczacz), Yisrael Fuhrman, and other martyrs. One heroic young man, Yitzhak Reich, escaped the executioners, but was murdered later.

Upheld their Honor

Establishing a Jewish council was not easy for the Hitlerists. Several times they summoned R' Mendel Reich, a Mizrachi member and former head of the community, and ordered him to establish a Jewish council with 12 members of the former community board. He managed to evade this “noble” job a few times with various excuses. Finally, he gave into a vehement order that was accompanied by a death-threat, and set up a council. Besides himself, the members were Attorney Hecht, Dr. Engelberg, Dr. Y. Stern, Munisch Frankel, Rabbi Haim Shapira, David Kaner, Kreigel, Dr. Zeiper, Zlaznik and Freund from the “Yad Harutzim” society. During the massacre on August 27, the Jewish council members were also rounded up, and Dr. Stern, Kreigel and Kaner were murdered.

It is evident from the testimonies of the Buczacz destruction that the members of the Jewish council, most of whom were Haredi Jews, were not “yes-men”, and took a stand of honor and pride. They did not kneel down before the executioners, and not all the Hitlerists' demands were carried out. They Jews told themselves that it was better to die with dignity than to die in shame.

On one occasion, the Gestapo agents from Czortkow came and commanded that by Sabbath eve (the witness did not recall the date) the Jews prepare 4 sets of luxury furniture for their salons. The Jews were in no hurry to fulfill the order, and the Hitlerists were furious when they came to town on Sabbath eve and the furniture was not ready. As punishment, they imposed a 25,000 gilden fine on the Jews, which was to be paid within half an hour. But the Jews paid no more than 5,000 gilden.

The Last Pogrom

In 1942, Jews from the nearby villages of Tlumacz, Cucniow and others began to be deported to Buczacz. Meanwhile, a terrible typhoid epidemic broke out, wreaking havoc on the Jewish population. Some of the Jews, who knew they were destined to die in the bleak Fedor woods or the forests of Belzec, began to flee to the surrounding woods.

March 21st marked the sixth anniversary of that freezing day when, early in the morning, the German officers and the Ukrainian police seized every Jew they could find, whether in their houses or on the streets, and led them all to the bleak woods on the shores of the Strypa river. That day, 1300 Jews were shot – men and women, old and young, even small children.

Ferber completes his testimony: “I recall some names of the executioners: Koznowski, the Ukranian Chief of Police and the officer Otomanjuk, and the Germans Hunt, Feil, Patz and Koch.”

But there were many, many others…

Yitzhak Bornstein