Third Witness

 By Elyash Khalfan, Translated by Alejandro Landman and Norbert Porile

The following is the testimony of Elyash Khalfan

Events of the Past


I write these words while I am in a refugee camp in Germany, where I arrived with the hope of leaving the Galut and begin a new life in my fatherland (Israel). Only now am I in a position to take stock of these past days, which reach back to my early childhood.

It is the terrible days of my youth that are most clear in my mind. It is four years since the day that started the tragedy of the Jews of Buchach, some 8,000 souls at that time. That is the time when the German murderers began their threats to annihilate the defenseless Jews. The initial attack took place on August 23, 1941. The Gestapo ordered the " registration" (so they called it) of all men between 18 and 50 years old. Over 1,000 men of various ages gathered on the square next to the Judenrat [1] to wait for the orders of one Koznowski, the commander of the Ukrainian militia.

The word of the Ukrainian-German command came at 19:30. The Jews on the square were ordered to arrange themselves in columns in order to march to an unknown destination under the guard of the Ukrainian police assassins. They were marched to the prison yard and there they were pushed together by blows from truncheons and rifle butts. The Gestapo chief, the tyrannical Atmaniuk, began the registration by choosing those men who met his criterion of "being able to work" and ordering them to one side. People did not know which side was good and which was bad.

Finally, nearly half the persons present were chosen, leaving some 625 men who were among the most outstanding in the community: university teachers, people with higher education, physicians, among whom were some women, young men, etc. They were left under the guard of the Ukrainian killers, who took advantage of the opportunity to rob them of all their valuables. Their families waited for their return all night. Only at 4 in the morning did they learn the terrible truth, which shook the entire town: the 625 men were taken from the prison yard to the Fedor Sosenki forest [2]. Pits had already been dug there by those of our Christian neighbors who lived nearby. All one could do was to listen to the shots and cries of the dying.

Hysteria broke out in the town. People wailed in the cemetery for entire days and walked around as if in a trance. The situation was exacerbated by troublemakers who claimed to have seen survivors of the massacre with the sole goal of extracting something of value from the families, such as cash or clothing. Meanwhile, new restrictions and demands were imposed on the Jews of Buchach. They were forbidden to use the main streets in the town and were restricted to the left side of the secondary streets. All Jews were forced to wear a 10 cm wide white armband inscribed with the Mogen David in blue.

Things were calm as winter approached. The only harmful activity going on was the forcible assignment of the able bodied to work camps, the men to Braki Wielkie and to Kamienik, and the women to Yagolnitza. However, word came from nearby towns of the "Aktions" [3] carried out by the Gestapo. People began to prepare hiding places a few weeks before the first Buchach pogrom or aktion: the 28th of Tishri, 5702 (corresponds to October 19, 1941, NP).

The word spread that the Gestapo would arrive on the following day. All began to gather food in order to stock their hiding places. The Gestapo arrived at dawn, armed to the teeth as if they were afraid of the defenseless Jews. All one could hear were the shouts and curses of the Gestapo, who found it difficult to enter the locked houses. With the help of the Ukrainians the Gestapo spent all day searching for the hiding places of the Jews. The searched houses remained open during this time and our Christian neighbors took advantage by stealing all that they could. The Nazis rounded up some 1500 persons and gathered them first in a square and then marched them to the railroad station where a train was already waiting. Only a few were able to save themselves by jumping from the train as it was speeding towards the Belzec concentration camp.

The following day we realized that the Aktion was over. Slowly, everyone began to emerge from their hideouts onto the streets, which only a day or two earlier had been full of children playing, and of Jewish men and women. It seemed strange to us that yesterday we were being rounded up and killed and today we were being left alone. People were busy trying to find out which of their relatives had managed to save themselves from the roundup. The Jewish police had to remove the bodies of murdered Jews from the Jewish hospital and take them to the cemetery. The sick were the first to perish at the hands of the "Deutsche Volk" (local population of Germanic origin. They had special privileges and were German collaborators).

In those days an Aktion took place in the nearby village of Monstryska. Some 1200 Jews were taken. Women and children were sent to Belzec and men to the camp in Janovska. Afterwards a decree was issued instructing all the Jews in the villages neighboring Buchach, including members of the Judenrat, to move within 7 days to Buchach, where a Ghetto was to be set up. The affected villages were Monstryska, Potok-Zloty, Uscie Zielone, Koroptza, Barish, and Yazlowitz [4]. The decree took effect and people from the six villages were squeezed into the Ghetto. Living conditions were terrible as only those with enough money to bribe the Judenrat people could get acceptable accommodations. The rest were squeezed into the synagogues, where they were hungry and miserable.

A typhoid epidemic broke out around that time. Dozens died each day. One night a rumor spread that arrests would be made the following day. Everyone went to his hiding place and spent the night there. The next day it was learned that the Ukrainian militia had detained 80 persons and sent them to Chortkov, where the Gestapo barracks was located. Everyone staid indoors during the next few days in fear of the Ukrainian killers, but food supplies quickly ran out. Persons who had the distinctive "W" (for Wehrmacht, i.e. they worked for the German army) and "Rashtaf" (?) card were free to move about without being bothered and they supplied the Jewish homes with food.

On the evening of November 24, 1942, a rumor made the rounds that an Aktion was about to begin. Most everyone went to his hideout while some fled to nearby villages. Everyone worried about his own safety, without regard for that of others. The sick were left without help and the first shots heard the following morning signaled their death. The Aktion lasted all day. Some 1200 persons were arrested, mostly the poor people whose lot it had been to dwell in synagogues or house ruins upon coming to the Ghetto. None were able to escape from the train wagons carrying them to Belzec as they were searched while still in the station and any object of potential use in an escape was confiscated.

Life in the Ghetto went on undisturbedly, but not for long. There were rumors that there would be no more Aktions, that the Gestapo had promised so. News of the victories of the Red Army reached us and everyone was impatiently awaiting liberation. No one had a radio but everyone was saying "Sie Zain Guit" (it will be OK), although without knowing exactly why. However the Gestapo was aware that the respite they were granting to the Jews would lull them into a false sense of security.

The third Aktion took place on February 2, 1943. Some 1400 persons were rounded up and taken to the Fedor forest, where pits had already been dug by the "Boi Dinst", a band of Ukrainian murderers who engaged in finding Jewish hiding places and in killing the occupants, whose chief was Bolek Flaks. Two children were able to escape from the covered pits. One of them was Leizer Bider Maizlovich, who lives in Natania, Israel, and continuously relives in his dreams the cruelty of the Germans and Ukrainians.

Neither the remaining survivors nor the dead were left alone after the third Aktion. The pits had been dug very close to the source of drinking water for the town and there was concern that the blood of the exterminated Jews would contaminate the water. The corpses of the victims were therefore moved elsewhere, a task carried out by groups of arrested Jewish men and women. New pits had to be dug and the bodies were moved, at times in pieces, under the supervision of the Boidinst bandits, who took advantage of the situation by removing from the corpses whatever items of value remained, including gold teeth.

The restrictions and new demands continued. Miraculously saved refugees arrived from neighboring villages, bringing with them new techniques in the construction of hideouts. People worked intensely on this task in their homes and one could hear the sounds of tools at work during the night, indicating that this work was in high gear. No one believed in anything any more, just the certainty that the final pogrom would come one of these days. This had happened in nearby villages, where liquidating Aktions had taken place and these villages had been declared to be " Judenfrei".

So it was that on April 1, 1943, a large group of Gestapo and " Zonderdinst" (selected troops) led by the torturers Ruksa and Atmaniuk left Chortkov by train towards Buchach. Their sealed instructions, which were to be opened on reaching the station before Buchach, stated that part of the group was to detrain prior to reaching Buchach and the others were to get off at Buchach. The latter had orders to prevent the access of any Aryans to the Jewish quarter and thereby alert the people of the coming pogrom. The Jewish homes on the outskirts were taken by surprise in this unexpected attack. When the first shots were heard everyone jumped out of bed and rushed to their hiding places, but many did not have enough time to reach them. The first group of killers left and the second group arrived in order to search for the hideouts. The search went on all day. They rounded up 1500 persons, who were taken to the prison and then, the next morning, were ordered to march in files to the killing site in Fedor where the communal pits had already been dug.

Christian youths kept up their search for Jewish hideouts and those who were found became the next victims. The machine gun fire that one could hear was the sign to those who were still alive that the Aktion was still in progress. The new group of murderers who came to the killing site tried to take all the valuables that the victims might have on them. The victims were ordered to take off all their clothes and those who refused were tortured. The naked were forced to lie down in the pits, where they were shot from above and thereby either killed or wounded. A new layer of naked Jews was forced to lie down on top of the first layer, like sardines in a tin, and the killing continued.

The Aktion was nearly over, only 400 women remaining, whom the Gestapo chief wanted to send to the work camp in Yagolnitza. However, the commander of the Ukrainian militia objected and promised the Gestapo chief that he would round up another group of women. Thus, at the last moment, they were all taken to the killing site. One of the women, Mrs. Gros, made a brief statement in front of the pit: "We are innocent and are being murdered, but you will not be able to kill everyone. We will be avenged as you will not win the war." With these words the first of the women perished and the rest followed.

At the end of this "successful" Aktion the Ukrainian killers gave a going away party for the Gestapo, who left the town at dawn totally drunk. The Jewish survivors slowly left their hiding places knowing that the Aktion was over. Everyone was spiritually broken as there wasn't a family that hadn't lost at least one member. A profligate life style developed as every one lost all hope knowing that only the "Fedor" lay in the future. People sold or exchanged their belongings for next to nothing, stopped believing in anything, did not worry about anything, and just tried to make the most of each moment.

The Nazis gave a brief respite to the Jews but on May 15, 1943, they informed them via the Judenrat that the entire remaining Jewish population was to move to the work camps located in towns some 40 to 48 km from Buchach: Lomza, Kopechince, and Tlusti. People became desperate because they knew that, while they had hideouts where they might survive in their own town, they were certain of death in the first Aktion in a strange town. People went out of their minds and offered large amounts of money to local peasants to hide them. Many were able to avoid a move this way. Those without means had to trust their luck and moved to two of the above towns. Their fears were well founded as they were unable to even settle into their new surroundings. The liquidating Aktion was in progress when they arrived and they were immediately taken from peasants' cars in which they were being moved in order to be executed. The peasants returned to Buchach in a contented state, in possession of the belongings of the Jews. The Jews who were following this first group saw the empty cars full of belongings returning and immediately understood what was happening. They either escaped into the forest or returned to Buchach. The Gestapo then decided to open a work camp in Buchach. However, it was not open to all Jews, only to those who paid substantial amounts to the Judenrat.

In the middle of June, 1943, [5] the Gestapo decided to to complete the liquidation of the Buchach Jews, including those in the work camp. They went to execute this task but this time they met armed resistance. The Jewish police (Ordnungdinst), who were also due to be killed, obtained some primitive weapons and began to resist the Nazis. The strongest resistance was mounted in the suburbs, at the home of Gerber, where several Nazi bandits were either killed or wounded. However the Nazis brought in reinforcements and attacked the house from all sides, gassing and burning the people hiding inside. From then on the Germans entered Jewish homes with caution, often first sending in their Ukrainian lackeys, who were also scared of the Jewish resistance. The confusion caused by this resistance enabled many of the survivors to hide in the forest or in the homes of those farmers who were willing to hide them.

The Aktion continued in the town. People who were detained, including those in the work camp, were taken to a field next to the Jewish cemetery where they were killed in front of the non-Jewish population. When the killing was over, Buchach was declared to be "Judenfrei". The Germans then put a price on the head of any remaining Jews. This action led to the discovery of many additional hideouts. The people so captured were first jailed and then exterminated.

A certain Yacob Margalit was in one of the groups taken to the killing site. He displayed a stubborn and defiant attitude until the last moment, refusing to obey the Nazi orders and to undress. He was stoned to death. His son later went and blessed the place where he died.

As was always the case after executions of this type bands of " our Christian neighbors" came by to search for anything of value. One time a group of them heard voices coming from the already covered pits. A child was asking his mother "Mother, am I still alive?" The mother answered " Sleep child, sleep"and the child responded" It is so hard". The peasants ran to the police to tell them that some of the victims were still alive. The police came to the site, uncovered the pits and killed anyone who was still alive.

Terrible things were happening in the town and its surroundings during these days. The peasants who were hiding Jews started to kill them for their belongings, or threw them out naked into the fields, or denounced them, or kicked them out during daylight hours, all of which meant certain death.

Armed Jewish groups that had been formed after the liquidation of the Ghetto reacted to these deeds. Their first action was against a Polish woman who had turned a Jewish woman and her son over to the Germans. These Jewish boys, who were already known as "Jewish partisans", decided to avenge them and thereby frighten the peasants. They promptly arrived one night at the house of the Polish woman. A group of them entered the house and another group grabbed her husband. The Polish woman woke up and started to scream, thereby attracting many of her neighbors to her front yard. The Polish woman was punished for her crime in front of all of them. The partisans advised the shocked neighbors that the same fate awaited them and then returned to the forest. The news that a group of Jewish partisans had avenged the death of one of their women and had promised to take further revenge against future deeds spread quickly among the peasants. As they also had exaggerated the Jewish response, the result was a decrease in acts against hidden Jews.

At this time there were still numerous hideouts in town, some in the ruins of Jewish houses and others in Christian homes. Many killers were bent on discovering these hideouts. One who was effective at this task was a certain Nahiobski, who along with his band spent the day roaming through town. Whenever he came across a suspicious site he informed the police, who accompanied him to the site of the hideout. The Jewish partisans then confronted Nahiobski and his group and shot them dead.

The place of Nahiobski was taken by one Kowalski and his group, who showed a special flair in finding Jewish hiding places. The partisans resolved to put an end to his activities and arrived one night at his home. They only found his father, who began to scream in order to save himself but was wounded and died the following day in the hospital. That same day, at 2pm, while his funeral procession was passing through the streets, a young Jewish partisan armed with a gun left one of the houses and made his way through the crowd, approaching the coffin behind which the bandits were walking. He fired three shots but did not hit the mark, only wounding several persons. The young Kowalski hid under the coffin and then ran to the police, who arrived on the scene after everything was over and all that remained on the street was the coffin and some flags. The police were very alarmed by what had transpired. This event brought some respite to the Jews who remained in their hideouts.

Jews who were hidden by local farmers had to pay a lot of money for shelter. The frivolous peasants then traveled to town and spent with abandon. The peasants were very envious of each other, which aided the work of Ukrainian killers, who started to follow the spendthrift farmers to their homes, checked them out, and if they found any Jews hidden in basements or attics, killed them on the spot. So began again a wave of denunciations on the part of the peasants, who started killing or evicting their Jewish refugees. There were rumors that the Ukrainian bandits were killing both the Jews and the peasants who hid them, and then burning their houses. The peasants believed these rumors and attempted to extricate themselves from this situation, thereby facilitating the efforts of the bandits.

The Jewish partisans could do nothing to alleviate this situation. They too were having problems as other clandestine groups, such as the Ukrainian group "Bandera's band" [6] and the Polish group A. K. [7], appeared in the forests. Along with the German-Ukrainian police, these groups tried their best to annihilate the Jewish partisans. However, despite their scarce means and primitive arms, the partisans continued their attacks. Particularly noteworthy was their reckless attempt against the " Landkomissar" of the town.

Word of the Russian victories and of their fast drive towards Buchach began to arrive. The peasants realized that the Soviets were about to arrive and, in fear of revenge, started to leave the Jews alone. One began to hear the sounds of artillery and there was much traffic on the roads indicating that liberation was near. Large numbers of German troops, with their tanks and trucks full of looted articles, passed through in retreat. They were accompanied by hordes of Ukrainian militia, who were guilty of many killings, and who mixed in with the many refugees who arrived from the more Eastern regions. The peasants, seeing that the Russians were near, began to loot German property. They removed their spoils in their cars in plain daylight, without any fear.

When the Germans had nearly completed their evacuation of Buchach, they mined the various bridges before leaving. However, the Russians arrived before the Germans could blow them up. The Russians conquered the town without encountering any resistance on March 23, 1944 [8]. The surviving Jews began to leave their hideouts and return to town. More than 1000 survivors arrived in the course of the week. Everyone attempted to settle down without concerning themselves with the danger which awaited them.

Like a bolt from heaven, word came that the Germans had broken the encirclement near Tarnopol and Kamieniec Podolski and were moving with all their forces towards Buchach in order to join the rest of their army, which had stayed in Podhajce. The Jews waited desperately with their belongings all day in order to decide what course of action to follow in order to avoid falling into the Nazi claws again. All their choices seemed poor. The Soviet commander of the town asked them not to exaggerate the situation as " only a small group of Germans had been able to escape the entrapment" and "their advance would only last a few hours". These announcements were transmitted to all the Jews in town, who decided to stay in town near the Soviet garrison, which was in the town center. The Jews hoped that, in the event of a German success, they could escape along with the Soviet army. However, the Germans arrived unexpectedly from the side of the train station and captured the Soviet garrison, where everyone was asleep. The Jews, who had no time to escape, were also captured [9].

As long as I am alive I will never forget April 4, 1944. All day long word came of detentions and of the arrival of new groups of Jews. All were gathered in the jail from where some 700 persons were sent to Monterzyska and there killed. Arrest continued and each moment there were new victims. The advance of "a few hours" turned into weeks. The town was abandoned by its inhabitants (there were no more Jews except for a few who stayed hidden) [10].

The Germans began to fortify the town and prepare for the fight that lay ahead. The town was deadly quiet. At night all that one could hear were shots from all sorts of weapons, showing that the front was near. At times one could see the shadow of some Jew who had left his hideout in search of food in the ruble of destroyed houses. One could also see patrols of German killers going by. There was happiness in the Jewish hideouts only when one could hear the attacks on the German army by Russian planes. This reminded everyone that freedom was near.

The day of liberation came on July 21, 1944. Once again the survivors emerged. There were only some 30 souls, weak in body but strong in spirit. Additional Jews, who had managed to escape from elsewhere along the front, arrived. Slowly, they settled down and began to look alive once again. One of the synagogues opened and it was the site of daily prayers. We showed everyone that we were united in our religion, that we would stay united, and that we would never give it up. All in town could hear the voices of the survivors: "Shma Israel adonai eloheinu adonai ehad". We recited prayers to the memory of our murdered brethren and built them "Matzeibot". No one wanted to continue to live in a town where such unspeakable horrors had taken place. Thus everyone resolved by himself to leave Buchach and with it the Galut, and return to the true fatherland.

Elias Halfan

D. P. Camp, October 31, 1947

Translator notes (AL)

  1. Judenrat – local Jewish council selected by the Germans. At the beginning it was made up of decent people but with the passage of time it became dominated by Nazi collaborators and delinquents. (With a few exceptions this happened in nearly all towns.) Back
  2. Fedor – Relatively low mountain range on which Buchach is built. The forests that extend south to the river Diester begin here and are the site where Jews hid. Towards the north, in the direction of Tarnopol, there are no woods to hide in. The Fedor and the river Strypa, which runs along its base, are the defining features of Buchach. The slopes of the Fedor are built up and the houses have the characteristic mountain town features: one story on the side facing the mountain and two or three stories on the side facing the river. "Fedor Sosenki" means Fedor of pine trees, indicating that there was an evergreen forest on the Fedor. Back
  3. Aktion – "Aktzia" in Polish. German for action, task. This is the series of acts in which the massive killing of Jews (pogrom) was carried out during the Nazi occupation. Back
  4. The unpronounceable names of these villages have the following meanings in Polish: Potok Zloty = Golden Brook, Uscie Zelone = Green Exit, Braki Wielkie = Large Faults, Kamienik = Little Stone. Back
  5. I don't believe that this date is correct as I am sure that the Ghetto still existed on June 13, 1943, and that there was no Aktion on that day (I was in Buchach). The events described here probably occurred at the end of June. Back
  6. Stefan Bandera – Ukrainian general in the Soviet army who switched to the German side along with his entire army. His troops fought against the Russians on the front and were very active in the murder of Jews in the Ukraine and in Russia. Bandera and his men went underground prior to the German downfall. Well armed by the Germans, he continued his fight against the Russians and his killing of Jews and Poles for several years after the Allied victory. I could ascertain during my 1999 trip to the Ukraine that today Bandera is considered a national hero. All the towns have streets and squares named after him and there are many monuments dedicated to him. He is almost at the same level as two other Ukrainian heroes with Jewish blood on their hands: Bohdan Chmielnicki and Petlura. Back
  7. A. K. – Armia Krajowa = National Army. An underground Polish army that reported to the Polish government in exile in London. While they did not openly collaborate with the Germans in the killing of Jews, the ingrained Polish antisemitism prevented them from ever helping Jews about to be murdered, as was apparent during the uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto. The A.K. remained underground after the Communist takeover in Poland and was guilty of murdering numerous Jews, accusing them of being Communists. Back
  8. I don't believe that this date is correct either. I am personally sure that the first Russian patrol, consisting of an irregular group not in uniform arrived in the Buchach suburbs on the 21st of March around noon. Back
  9. I personally feel that this was the most terrible of all the tragedies suffered by the Buchach Jews, not for the number of victims, but because they had "survived" all the prior killings. As I was there at that moment I can state with certainty that a large part of the responsibility for this tragedy rests on the shoulders of the Russian authorities, who either did not know of the danger faced by the Jews or did not wish to protect them, even though they were now Russian citizens. I can add the following personal anecdote: On the ominous night of April 2, 1944, I was ten years old and was hidden in the home of a Ukrainian by the name of Synenko, who was a friend of my grandfather, Shaul Anderman. The Russian communications group was using this house for their operations and the soldiers allowed me to stay with them. They were communicating by radio and while most everything was encrypted I could tell from their comments and bearing that things were not going well. Well along into the evening the communications were suddenly interrupted and the receiver carried the following encrypted message repeatedly: "Tarif, Tarif, Yaglat". Although I only recently learned its meaning I remember the message clearly. The soldiers began to dismantle their equipment and carry it to their jeeps. I went up to the officer in charge and asked him to take me along. He told me to rest easy and go to sleep, that they were only changing location, and that I could get a ride in the morning from any one of the many trucks that were passing through. The following morning when I woke up the German tanks were going by on the road. Back
  10. On April 16, 1944, the Germans evacuated the entire population of Buchach in the direction of Tarnopol. The town remained deserted. Back