By Israel Gelbert, Translated by Alejandro Landman and Norbert Porile
The Germans marched into Buchach on July 4, 1941, following numerous rounds of machine gun fire. The first killer in green uniform appeared at 4 am, hid in the ruins of a destroyed house, and waited for the rest of his company while keeping watch. His company followed and then the rest of the army arrived. While Jewish houses were kept under observation, no atrocious acts occurred initially. However, immediately after the German entry, the non-Jewish inhabitants of the town took off their masks and turned into monsters. Ukrainians detained Jews on the streets and dragged them off to perform forced labor, cleaning sewers, fixing roads, etc.
On the 6th of July my youngest son, age 6, disappeared. We were desperate and searched for him everywhere. We found out after a lengthy search that a Ukrainian youth, wearing the characteristic Ukrainian cap, had taken him in the direction of Guzenka. I went there and saw my son in the distance. While crying he told me that a Ukrainian from Guzenka had kidnapped him and forced him to package used nails that he had stolen in order to sell them.
The Ukrainians completely changed their relationship with the Jews and started to abuse them at every opportunity. If they happened to spot a prosperous Jewish home they broke into it at night and stole its contents. Often, the residents were taken to the Fedor and killed. Many Jews were murdered in this manner, under the eyes of the complicities Ukrainian leadership and intelligentsia. Among others, those killed included the tailor Kruh, Israel Landman, the wife of Dr. Foks, and the shopkeeper Polak. The Ukrainians engaged in the same form of killing in nearby villages: in Pabshovka, Zaleshchiki, Midvadbach, Plalikobich, etc. They razed Jewish homes in plain daylight, robbed and murdered, all under the uncaring view of the Germans.
After several weeks, a provisional municipal government called "Ortskommandantur" was formed. The Ukrainians stopped their killing but began to hunt down Jews who were not wearing armbands displaying the Star of David. When they found such a person they dragged him to the police, harassing him on the way. The Ukrainians, acting on their own and independently of the German authorities, organized their own police under the temporary command of Taras Hatkovich of Naguzniki. Later, one Koznowski from Gaiow, who encouraged the seizure and abuse of Jews and was involved in a number of killings, took command of the Ukrainian police.
At first, the Ukrainian command issued a series of orders designed to limit the freedom of Jews and assigned them to forced labor on their own initiative. Later, these orders had to meet with German approval. They let us know that by order of the Ukrainian police all men between the ages of 18 and 50 years had to present themselves on August 10, 1941, at 5 am at the square called Pig's Square to go to work. This order caused panic in the Jewish population since everyone knew that this was not a real call to work but represented a grave danger. However, in order to avoid reprisals against the rest of the Jewish community, the affected men agreed to present themselves. I remember that I woke up at 4 in the morning of the above day. Looking out the window I could see small groups of Jews who were meeting at the side of the Beit Hamidrash. I could see that some put on a brave appearance while other looked sad. Some were accompanied by their wives and children but all were afraid and insecure. I was living on St. Nicholas Street, next to the Beit Hamidrash, and I could hear the noise coming from the street. After saying goodbye to my family I went out to the Square at 5 am, together with my brother Bernard. We were met on the Square by some Jewish university students, who told us that we shouldn't let insults provoke us. The head of the Jewish community at that time was Mendel Raij, a man of rectitude who gave strength to the Jews facing the Germans. The German commandant and the Ukrainian mayor were there along with some 100 Ukrainian police, who began to insult the assembled Jews, singing obscene songs. The German commandant appointed Raij as chief of the Judenrat (Jewish Council) and demanded a substantial contribution of money and valuables from the Jewish community. The Jews were divided into groups and assigned work while the professionals and merchants were allowed to leave. I too was allowed to leave thanks to Abin Bubik, the Ukrainian mayor. Most of the Jews were pressed into forced labor but were allowed to return home at night.
At this time the Judenrat of Buchach was fully established. As stated above, its president was Mendel Raij. The other members were Dr. Shtern, Dr Isidor Neuman Honik, David Kanar, Baruch Kramer, Yacov Ebenstein, and Dr. Zaifer. I want to emphasize that, in contrast to other towns, the Buchach Judenrat members were honest and cared about their fellow Jews. Dr. Zaifer was the only one of them to survive the War.
Groups of Jews were sent out to do forced labor for a period of time. At the same time, there were labor roundups on the streets. Then came the terrible day of August 25, 1941. All men between 18 and 50 years were ordered to congregate next to the Kehila at 5 pm. Some 800 Jews gathered. They were divided into groups and taken by the Ukrainian police to jail, where they were held till dawn. At that time they were taken to the Fedor where they were all shot to death around 9 am. People could not believe what had just happened. There were various rumors some of the missing had been seen in Chortkov, people had received letters from others, etc. So it went until it became known that the Germans had killed the Jews in what came to be called Aktzias the Germans called them Judenaktion Judenaussiedlung (Jewish campaign Jewish evacuation). That day we lost the best people in town: doctors, lawyers, merchants, young men, etc. We subsequently received word from Stanislow that on the day of Hosana Raba (October 12, 1941, AL) the Germans had killed tens of thousands of Jews.
One day in August a group of Hungarian Jews, guarded by Ukrainians, passed through Buchach on a forced march. Jews were forbidden to stay on the street while these poor souls walked by. Many ignored this restriction and they were grabbed by the Ukrainian police and forced to join the march. Among them was one of my sons. I took off my Mogen David bracelet and ran after the marchers in order to rescue him. A Ukrainian acquaintance denounced me to a German policeman but when I explained the situation he let me follow. I reached the group and found my son near the rear, where he was helping to carry a child. I joined the group and then tried as best I could to leave with my son. I knew that they were marching us to our death. We reached the train station and they left us standing next to some shacks. The Ukrainian police took advantage of this wait by taking the best-dressed persons into a shack and robbing them. This also happened to me and they took everything I had in my pockets. I had almost lost all hope when I spotted a Ukrainian client of mine passing by on horseback. He was from Kiziuk and worked for the chief of the Buchach police. I asked for his help and he ordered the police to let us go. I took advantage of this opportunity and succeeded in freeing some other Buchach Jews: Knabler and his son Izi, Moshe Rozen, Altshuler, Aronkrantz, the son in law of Hakan, and others. I also managed to secure the release of two young Hungarians, whom we took into town with us. On the way back a Ukrainian policeman who accompanied us ordered us to sing. We had no choice and Moshe Rozen, who was the only one who knew the song, sang. Several days later we learned that all the Hungarian Jews had been killed near Monterzyska.
The Jewish population was forced to turn over to the Gestapo assorted contributions on an ongoing basis. In November 1941 several new German administrative structures were formed: the German police, a Landkommissar, and a Landrat (district commissioner). The police chief was a certain Maister, an older man who was not totally anti-Semitic. With this appointment the situation improved somewhat. The Ukrainian bands stopped their killing. The Germans ordered the formation of a work detail for men between 16 and 50 years of age. They were sent to Borki Wielkie, near Tarnopol. The men had to present themselves to the Judenrat with three days worth of clothing and food. Disobedience was punished. Many Jews could not stay alive under the conditions prevailing at Borki despite the fact that they were not particularly mistreated by the Germans.
Mayor Abin Bubik, a very diplomatic middle-aged man, maintained good relations with the Jews, had a friendly attitude and always defended them, and opposed the establishment of a Ghetto. He received Jews in his office and helped them often. He personally saved those that he could from the Aktzias and never failed to greet a Jew on the street. I emphasize all this because such behavior was highly unusual. Bubik was the son of a poor shoemaker but reached the top position in the town and was able to alleviate somewhat the suffering of the Jews in these terrible times. Jews living in other towns of the region tried to move to Buchach to take advantage of these better conditions and the Jewish population increased considerably. The head of the Judenrat at this time was Baruch Kramer, who had ready access to the German authorities. Both Dr. Zaifer and he could solve whatever problems the Jews might have with the German authorities. Life was calm until the autumn of 1942. Jews who arrived from other places said that Buchach was heaven and thus the number of Jews in August 1942 increased to 15,000. Since Bubik had opposed it there was, strictly speaking, no Ghetto. The local authorities did not persecute the Jews and they could move quite freely in their zone. It was like being in one country within another, with the governing power residing in the Judenrat, supported by the Ordnungsdienst (security police).
And so came the terrible day. It happened on Rosh Hashanah of 1942. The Jews had a premonition that danger was near. There was talk of an Aktzia called Judenaussiedlung and people began to build hideouts in their basements, attics, and other possible locations. As always, the Jews gathered on Rosh Hashanah to pray. The first day I prayed at the home of Erlich and everyone was afraid for his life.
The Aktzia that all were waiting for, since it had already taken place in the nearby towns, came on November 31, 1942 (sic). It was a beautiful and sunny fall day. I was looking at the street through a crack in the curtains and all appeared normal. People were walking outside but I couldn't hear a single Jewish voice and I realized that the Jews had disappeared from the streets. The Aktzia began at 7 am and lasted until 7 pm. We could hear in our hideout the screams of Jewish victims who were being removed from their homes. The Gestapo also searched our house but didn't find our hideout. Next morning we heard Jewish voices and realized that the Aktzia was over. On this day 2000 Buchach Jews were taken to the gas chambers at Belzec. A few young people were able to jump from the wagons and return to their homes.
Following this event, the Christians completely changed their behavior towards us. They seemed to be telling us that the world was not for us to live in and that even though we had managed to save ourselves this time they would get us sooner or later. Around this time the Germans forced the Jews living on several streets in the suburbs to move into our zone and this led to considerable crowding.
The second Aktzia took place on December 1, 1942. Rumors of a new Aktzia were in the air on November 30 and many Jews took to their hiding places or hid in the forest. However, some were unprepared and were captured without opportunity to hide. The Aktzia began at 6 am, when the first shots could be heard. The Viennese professor, Dr. Klein, an outstanding individual who had lived among Germans all his life, was among those killed. He had arrived in Buchach together with his wife and they lived at the home of Sommerstein on Podhaitzka street. He refused to hide when the Aktzia began despite the entreaties of his landlord. When two Gestapo men arrived he asked them in and in a beautiful German explained that he was innocent and that he had dedicated his entire life to German science and teaching. He further told them that he was Freidenkend und innerlich überzeugter Deutscher (a free thinking German to the core). The Gestapo listened and then stated Sie sind doch Jude (yes, but you are Jew). The same fate befell Dr. Klein as the other Jews since he was guilty according to the German rules. He was taken from the house and killed.
Some 1800 Jews perished in this Aktzia, which lasted until 5 pm. After it was over the Jewish living quarter was restricted to the following streets: Grundwalska, Buznica (the synagogue street), Kolejowa, Podhajska (left side only) and St. Nicolas. A few Jews were able to remain outside this Jewish zone by permission of the Landkommissar (none of them survived).
At this time the moral degradation of the Buchach Jews began. Even though the local authorities acted in acceptable fashion, the continuing visits by the Gestapo always led to victims and provoked mortal fear. One day in December 1942, Aba Shechter, an older Jew, and two youths were taken to the Judenrat by the Ordnungsdienst. They were ordered to line up and wait. Standing next to them was a well-known Buchach killer, the German policeman Paul. He took them to the rear entrance of Shimon Abenstein's house and there he killed them. The Ordnungsdienst immediately removed the bodies. I saw it all from my window.
Around this time a typhus epidemic broke out in the Jewish population and many died. The epidemic was caused mainly by overcrowding and malnourishment. A Ukrainian physician paid us a visit on behalf of the municipal authorities and concluded that the Jews had caused the epidemic and had to be eliminated.
Near the end of December 1942, there were street arrests. The Ukrainian police grabbed the Jews and took them to their station. Mrs. Schporn (born Hirshhorn) was killed that day as she tried to escape. Most of the prisoners were moved to Chortkow and were rescued only upon the payment of a large ransom. In January 1943 the Judenrat issued an order requiring all men between age 18 and 50 years to be taken to a work camp in Borki.
The third Aktzia, which lasted two days, took place in early February 1943. A very small number of Jews were left in Buchach when it was over. Many hideouts were discovered, a task in which Ukrainian criminals participated. At the end of the Aktzia the streets were full of corpses and blood. I will never forget these two days. My family and I, as well as Mrs. Godfrid, were in our attic hideout. My parents and a few neighbors were hiding in the basement. The Aktzia began at 6 am. I saw a Gestapo agent going into the Weiss home and kill a Jewish girl who was running to hide. We could hear from our hideout how they entered neighboring homes, discovered the hideouts, and removed the victims. Those who did not want to leave were killed on the spot. Jews were assembled throughout the day and then taken to the Fedor forest and killed. We heard the shots and knew that each one represented another victim. On this occasion the Jews were not transported to Belzec but killed right in Buchach's own Fedor. The following day cars full of corpses could be seen passing through town.
Following the Aktzia, the Judenrat gathered all the belongings that were left in the homes of murdered Jews and closed off the streets on which they had lived. Their houses were given in trust to the municipality and were then sold for next to nothing to Ukrainians.
Around this time a work camp was created under the command of Z. S. H., with L. K. acting as guard commander. They acted as if they owned the young Jewish survivors and ordered their detention. One day, my 16-year-old son was stopped and taken to this camp. I resolved to rescue him, went to see the camp commander, and asked him to let my son go, even if just for a brief time. He answered that all those in the camp had to stay there all the time and, furthermore, that I should be happy because they were safe there. In March all the members of the Judenrat along with their families were also moved to the camp. Anyone wishing to visit had to pay off the commander.
The situation of the Jewish population was getting worse. They were allowed to shop only in the market on the side streets and then only for two hours a day, from 10 to 12 in the morning. The Ukrainians harassed vendors who sold to Jews despite the fact that people already knew of Hitler's defeats. In the middle of March 1943 the Ordnungsdienst of Tarnopol came to Buchach to rob the surviving Jews. They went from house to house taking any decent furniture. At this time there were few Jews left, there wasn't a family that hadn't lost someone, and all knew that they had been condemned to death. The Jews began to sell all their possessions for half price. It was actually forbidden for Jews to sell anything since all their belongings had been declared property of the state.
A very disorganized Aktzia began at the end of March. Jews were killed all day long every day, whether on the street or in their homes. Janek Hirschhorn was killed at this time right next to our home. He was first gravely wounded and begged for his life because he had two sons. He showed his work papers but the German assassins gave him the coup de grace. The stones on which his body was left remained bloodstained for weeks.
At the beginning of April 1943, there was another Aktzia, in which several
hundred Jews were killed. Several Jewish families were hiding in the home of a
German in Naguzniki. Their presence was discovered and among those killed were
Dr. Isidor Neuman, a Buchach lawyer, Sami Angelberg, and others. The surviving
Jews drew hope from the news about Allied victories in North Africa and
elsewhere. People speculated that there would be Allied advances from one side
and Russian advances from the other and this gave them hope. The behavior of
the non-Jewish population towards the Jews also varied with the news from the
About this time the members of the Judenrat, the Ordnungsdienst, and other people with connections were moved to a camp where Zalman Schterenberg was the commandant and Leon Kanar the chief of the guard. Right from its formation this Jewish zone, where several hundred Jews still lived, was attacked at night and its inhabitants were killed on the spot or taken to the cemetery, where they were shot. Among those killed at this time were Yona Glazer and family, Mrs. Sztern and son, Fraibrun's brother-in-law (he of the shoe store, whose name I don't remember). I could hear how this man begged the Ukrainian killers to spare him and gave them money and valuables, but he was killed just the same.
Our house, which was on St Nicholas Street near the Jewish Hospital, was occupied by my parents and my sister and her children on the ground floor and by my family upstairs. The house was well protected, with bars on the windows. Yet nobody slept in their beds but, rather, on piles of straw scattered on the floor. I was the first to hear shots and shouting at 3 am one night. I alerted my family downstairs and even before going back upstairs I could hear the Ukrainian killers banging on the front door and shouting, open up Jews. On that particular night an old tailor, an invalid, was staying with us. Our house had two hideouts, one in the attic and another in the cellar. The kitchen window faced the synagogue street and through it I could see armed Ukrainian guards stalking their Jewish victims. It was difficult for the impaired tailor to move rapidly. My family was already hiding in the attic and I was left alone with him. I grabbed him by the hands and, with almost superhuman strength, dragged him down to the basement where my parents were already hiding. We could hear the footsteps of the killers on the stairway but they did not discover our hideout.
This Aktzia lasted from dawn to 8 or 9 pm. At 8 it became quiet and one could no longer hear Jewish voices or screams. It was the silence before the next storm. Those who were still alive fled the town in order to hide. Many killed themselves. I remember that my sister Bronia told us on returning to our hideout (these days there were no longer Jews on the street) that the Erlich, Zajdman, Kohan, and Raij had committed suicide. A Jew who did not have a farmer to hide him was as good as dead.
On Sunday, June 13, 1943 my wife and I left Buchach. We successfully crossed
the town and followed our farmer across the Fedor to his house. The farmer's
name was Nicolai Zaharchiuk and he was Ukrainian. He and his Polish wife,
Marina, lived in Choitova, near Buchach. We arrived at the farmer's home and
went to his barn where our 12 and 18-year-old sons were waiting for us. They
were very happy to see us as they had heard of the last Buchach Aktzia and had
had no news from us.
The last Aktzia in Buchach took place on June 25, 1943. Many hideouts were discovered at this time and the Jewish quarter and its remaining inhabitants were liquidated. Among the hideouts discovered was the one of my parents. They took my 75-year-old father, my mother, my sister with her two children, and others who were hiding there. On this day they also killed the members of the Judenrat and Ordnungsdienst as well as others who thought that they would be spared.
News reached us daily about the discovery of hideouts in the vicinity of Buchach. Our farmer went to Buchach two or three times a week and brought us newspapers and gossip. We were afraid that he would denounce us each time that he left. The search for these Jewish hideouts was carried out by a Ukrainian killer who was the son of Nahaiobski as well as by other bandits. They turned their victims over to the German police, who took them to the Jewish cemetery and killed them.
About this time a small group of surviving Jewish youngsters, between 17 and 22 years old, assembled in the woods surrounding Buchach. The group included the two Bravar brothers, List, Friedlander, Fritz, etc., a few dozen in all. One night this group burst into the home of the Ukrainian Nahaiobski and stabbed him to avenge the murder of Jews. The news of this event spread rapidly through town. The Ukrainians became so concerned that they suspended the search for Jewish hideouts in fear that the rumor that there were Jewish partisans in the Buchach woods might be true. It is worth noting that we felt safer in our barn attic hideout since that day as the farmers stopped denouncing Jews for fear of the partisans. Additional incidents in which Jewish partisans attacked Ukrainians who turned Jews over to the Germans also occurred. Thanks to the actions of these groups some 1,000 Jews were able to survive in Buchach until the first Russian takeover. We also had the help of a few Catholics who were different in this respect from the majority.
The Jews who survived the period between June 1943 and March 23, 1944 did so in underground or attic hideouts, or in the woods. They lived in indescribable conditions, always hungry and in fear of capture. We passed the time in our attic in darkness, lying down and talking about what was going on. We ate a late breakfast, essentially consisting of potatoes, in the afternoon or evening. Our farmer improved our treatment, as the situation on the battlefront got better. We received better food and once every four weeks he allowed us to go to his house to bathe, shave, and change our clothes. These were our happiest moments. We began to get milk when the Russians captured Kiev.
The day of liberation came on March 24, 1944. We really felt elated when a
woman told our farmer that the Russians had conquered Buchach. My son began to
cry at the news and lost his voice. He is still presently receiving medical
treatment for this condition in Vienna. The Russians abandoned Buchach after 10
days and the Germans returned so after leaving our hideout we went to
Chernovitz. Some 1000 Jews remained in Buchach after the Soviet army left. They
went back to their hideouts expecting the Russians to return in a few days.
However, the Russians delayed their return by 4 months and the front was
located in the vicinity of the town. A short time after the Russian retreat all
civilians were evacuated and the Jews were forced to leave their hideouts. I
estimate that no more than 50 Jews finally survived. These survivors abandoned
Buchach and traveled to the West. I have no idea how many Jews returned from
German entry into Buchach: July 4-5, 1941 Registration and execution at Fedor: August 27, 1941 First Aktion: October 17, 1942 Second Aktion: November 27, 1942 Third Aktion: February 1-2, 1943 Fourth Aktion: April 1943 (semi-continuous) Liquidation of Ghetto: June 26, 1943 First Russian entry into Buchach: March 23, 1944 Second Russian entry into Buchach: July 21, 1944