By Yitzchak Shikhor (Schwartz), Translated by Dr. Rose S. Ages (Kleiner, Neufeld)The following pages are chapters of personal memories from the Holocaust period. Several years ago I submitted these chapters to the Jewish Council (Vaad) in Lodz. They were published, in part, by the Jewish Council, in the Polish-language collection, Akcie i Wysiedlenie (Aktsias, or Murderous Roundups/Raids, and Deportation).
This is not only the story of my life, during the Holocaust, but the story of the life of the whole kehila (community), and that of my parents, sisters, and my colleagues and friends. May these pages serve as a humble monument to their memory.
The Russian conquest, in l939, took place with almost no fighting. But the limited opposition, by the Polish nationalists in town, to the entry of the Russian soldiers, and the few bombardments and shootings, were regarded by us as 'the real thing.'
I was a young lad, age l2, when the war broke out in l94l. However, I was quite alert, and I grasped clearly the reality of the times. I followed closely as events unfolded.
The cruelty of the Germans and their attitude toward the Jews were well known. There were many Jews who tried to retreat with the Red Army into the interior of Russia. But only a few succeeded to do so.
The Russians, whose retreat was very hasty, were not interested in taking along members of the general population with them. They took only those who had fulfilled official duties during the Soviet occupation of the town. Most of the retreating Jews of Buczacz were caught by the Germans on the road, and a large number of them returned to town after a few days, or several weeks.
The period of the first German conquest was relatively easy, compared to what came afterwards. The persecution of the Jews at this time consisted mainly of the abduction of people for different kinds of work, the wearing of the Star of David on the sleeve, the marking of all the houses in which Jews lived, the confiscation of radios, and later also of fur coats.
Of course, it also meant the destruction of all the sources of income. Enormous taxes were levied - the term 'contributions' was used in their language - on the community, at whose head they placed the 'Judenrat.'
In the early days of the conquest the Germans and the Ukrainian militia used to seize Jews for work from among those who came within their reach: old people, the sick, pregnant women, etc.. The arrangement by the 'Judenrat' with the German rulers, regarding the supply of labor, appeared much more suitable.
After a specific order for man power was received, a type of 'employment office' was created, and it was to this office that the requests of the Germans for laborers were directed. The office then tried to supply the number of workers required.
The purpose of the 'Judenrat' was to mediate between the Jewish population and the German authorities, to soften the harshness of the edicts, and to attempt to divide the burden of the demands equally among the people.
I have no doubt that this was the aim of the members of the council, and that they truly believed that they would succeed in lightening the burden placed on the Jews, and that they were working for their benefit.
They did not see, at least at the beginning, that in the end they would be turned into tools in the hands of the Gestapo, and would be forced to participate and execute all the orders of the authorities.
At the beginning the 'Judenrat' was chaired by Mendel Reich, who had been head of the community council before the war. With him on the council were Baruch Kremer (he was the subsequent head of the 'Judenrat'), Dr. Seifert, Dr. Hecht (who was in the 'Judenrat' only a very short time) and others. Altogether, I believe, there were l2 people.
Many achievements and merits can be attributed to the 'Judenrat' during the period of the first occupation, especially its organizing of mutual aid. In the summer of l941 Buczacz was inundated with thousands of Jews who had been expelled from the Carpathian foothills, which were part of Russia. Most of them were very poor, had large families, and were extremely religious, so that even in our town they appeared somewhat out of place.
For about two months these refugees lived mostly in the different study houses and synagogues of the town, while a minority of them were billeted in private homes. One must note the great assistance that the townspeople, through the good offices of the Judenrat, gave to the refugees. After some time passed these unfortunate people were sent away to an unknown destination. Some say to the TransDniester region.
The Judenrat organized a kitchen for the poor, attended to housing for the refugees, who had come to Buczacz at a somewhat later period, from the small towns of Monastyszyska, Potok Zloty, Yazlovtse and others, when the latter were declared to be 'Judenrein.'
However, despite these activities, and despite the fact that the role of the Buczacz Judenrat was much more extensive than that of many other 'Judenrate', it is better to pass over its record in silence, especially during the period when its chairman was Baruch Kramer. I also prefer not mentioning the disgraceful role of the 'Ordnungsdienst,' which, at the nadir of its decline and decay was headed by M.A..
The various regulations and decrees came out with urgency and haste. Each one was more severe and cruel than the previous one. During one fall day in l94l an order appeared demanding that all men, aged l8-50, were to come to the town square (which was nicknamed hogs' square) for registration. Anyone who did not respond to this order, and did not appear, was liable to be punished by death.
A rumor spread that those who showed up at the town square would be transferred to labor camps. But despite the severe warning not to miss the registration, many escaped to the forests and the villages, and did not register.
At this point the Nazis' psychological manipulation found its most brilliant expression, as a part of their total annihilation plan. Here is what followed. Those who appeared for the registration were duly signed up, and after several hours were permitted to return home. And those who had avoided the registration procedure lived for a time in the shadow of the terrible punishment that awaited them.
After several weeks passed the men, aged l8-50, were again ordered to appear at a specific time, at the same square, for an additional registration. And actually this time most of them, if not all, appeared, relying on the first such experience of presenting themselves for registration.
Over 350 men, the best and the brightest of the youth and the working intelligentsia, gathered in the square. But suddenly the square was surrounded on all sides by units of the S.S. and the German militia, and a curfew was announced in the town. No one could leave or enter.
There were those who said that they saw how the men were led, in small groups, in the direction of the 'Fedor.' And actually after several hours shots were heard from that direction. However, no one was able to find out what really happened to the men. Had they been shot on the 'Fedor,' or were they transferred to various concentration camps?
Unlike the other aktsias, which were carried out, periodically, more in public, this event remained cloaked in darkness, and I believe that to this day it is difficult to know exactly what the fate of those unfortunates was.
And so during the span of one day hundreds of parents were bereaved, hundreds of children were orphaned, hundreds of women were widowed, and there was hardly a house without someone who had lost a loved one.
It is impossible to describe the heavy sorrow that descended on the Jews. The 'Judenrat' tried to send gentile 'messengers' to bring back some news about the fate of the men, and it contacted the authorities to this end, but without results.
Rumor followed upon rumor. According to one the men had been taken out to be shot on the 'Fedor.' But this rumor did not make sense. With all the bitter experiences that we had been subjected to during the months of the first German conquest, and despite the rumors of the atrocities that reached us about the Nazi activities in other places, no one could conceive, that it would be possible in the middle of the day, in broad daylight, to take out several hundred men to be killed.
The next day I, and some other children, sneaked out of our homes. We climbed up to the 'Fedor,' where some of us looked for their father, some for their brother, and some for other relatives. This exploration almost cost us our lives.
When we approached the forest, an armed Ukrainian policeman burst forth suddenly from behind one of the trees, and he asked us why we were walking about in the forest. We answered that we were searching for members of our families who had been taken away from us the day before.
The policeman smiled and 'promised' to bring us to them. Who knows how this matter would have ended, had not the forest guard appeared suddenly and asked the policeman to let us go home. Obviously I did not tell anyone at home about this adventure in the forest.
Another rumor said that the men were transferred to the Borki Vilki camp, and to other labor camps. And actually once a gentile related that he met one of the men, named Zeidman, in the 'Yanovsky' camp in Lvov, and this news planted new hope in the hearts of the unfortunate families. But it is very doubtful whether the men had been sent to any camp.
The 'Borki' camp was more or less an open camp. It was possible to send the inmates packages and letters. Information from the 'Yanovsky' Street camp also somehow got through. The lack of certainty with regard to the fate of the 'registration' victims aroused new hope from time to time, but there was nothing substantial on which to base that hope.
On the day which was set for an 'aktsia' S.S. bands, Gestapo, and Ukrainian policemen would surround the town and close all its entrances. They raided houses, searched basements, attics, sewer pipes, etc. and rounded up all the Jews.
An aktsia generally continued for 24-48 hours, and whoever succeeded in saving his/her life during those hours, being in a hiding place, in the forest, in the field, or in a nearby village, was granted the gift of life until the next 'aktsia,' and then the cycle would repeat itself.
These 'murderous operations' were carried out with typical German thoroughness. They were planned according to the best Prussian traditions. The destruction did not happen all at once, but in stages, each stage more brutal than the previous one.
I do not intend at this time to touch upon the reasons for the lack of an uprising and the lack of rebellion among Polish Jewry. However, in my opinion, one of the most important reasons for this is due to the fact that the liquidation was carried out gradually, by stages.
Those who remained alive after the announcement that the 'aktsia' had stopped were, more or less, safe for several months (in the period between July l942 and April l943 the aktsias occurred in 3 to 4 month cycles), and Jews, who are optimists by nature, believed that perhaps the calamity would not extend to them.
They comforted themselves with the hope that the Russian army would soon return , and the German front would collapse, and the Jews then would experience 'light and joy.' From time to time a baseless rumor would circulate, that America had warned Germany not to harm the Jews.
The rumors, the belief in an impending rescue, and the exaggerated hopes, were like a life-giving elixir for the people, and they held on to them like a drowning person holds on to a straw. Even intelligent people, experienced in the realities of life, were influenced by these false rumors and believed in them.
The Christians made a mockery of the hopes of the Jews. The city's local paper published an article with the caption: Zydzi mowia: s'wet zajn gut (The Jews Say That Things Will Be All Right), thus ridiculing Jewish optimism.
During the months of May, June, and July, l942 the murderous activities were carried out in the cities and small towns of the surrounding area, while Buczacz was spared for some reason at that time. Rumors were constantly circulating that an 'aktsia' was imminent, that the 'aktsia' would be on the following day, or week, or that there would not be any more 'aktsias' at all.
Meantime people did not sleep in their homes for weeks on end. There were those who stayed with a farmer in a nearby village, or who slept in the forest, or in the open field. The nightmare of the 'aktsia' pursued us for months, and when it did not come the tension was somewhat reduced.
One September day in l942, I believe it was a Saturday morning, a large number of units of German soldiers, along with the Ukrainian militia, surrounded the town and spread out through the houses in order to search for Jews. Most of the people succeeded somehow in hiding in bunkers which had been prepared in advance.
My parents, and sisters and I were then in a bunker on Gimnazyalna Street, in Zhaleznik's house. The search that was carried out in that house was very thorough. Several times groups of German and Ukrainian soldiers came into the house, one after the other. They ripped out the floors, broke walls, dug in the yard, but they did not find the bunker. The officer in charge of the 'aktsia' was Krieger, the commander of the Gestapo in Stanislavov.
During the day over l600 people were caught - men, women and children, and were brought to 'Hogs' Square', and from there were transferred by vans to the train station. Many tried to escape from the vans, and almost 200 people were shot in houses and on the streets.
The train took the people to the Belzec camp, which was near Lvov. Many dozens of people were put into a closed, airless freight car. The men used to carry with them small breakout tools (a saw, pliers, etc.) in order to be prepared for any trouble that might come. With the help of these tools, many succeeded in breaking out of the freight cars and in jumping out of the train.
The transport was heavily guarded, and many of those who tried to jump out of the train were shot by the Germans. Some were killed by jumping out the wrong way; some were run over by the wheels of the train. It was said that after every 'transport', many dozens of dead and injured people were found scattered, lying all along the train tracks, and the surrounding area, that led to Belzec.
Over time various rumors began to reach us about what was going on in this camp. It was said, that those arriving at the camp were required to undress, and had to go into a shower, so to speak, that was really a disguised gas chamber.
It was also rumored that in Belzec the Nazis were making soap from Jewish bodies. Most of the Jews, even the most informed among them, refused to believe that the Nazis had sunk to such a low point in their satanic madness.
On the same day that the murderous activities were taking place in Buczacz, similar activities were taking place all over the district. Later all those Jews who remained alive throughout the area, were expelled to Buczacz. Jews came from Monasterzyska, Yazlovtse, Potok Zloty, and from other small towns in the region, and the Jewish population in the city ballooned to more than ten thousand.
Jews who were broken and dejected, widows, orphans, people without any means of support, flooded the city by the thousands. There was the occasional person who could afford to rent a room, someone who found shelter with his relatives, but the majority of the people crowded into small, dark quarters, sometimes ten or more to a room.
It is not surprising that under these circumstances a typhoid epidemic broke out, and it consumed about l5-20 people daily. There was almost no house in which there was not someone struck by typhoid. The disease would spread and infect the whole household.
As a result of the epidemic the authorities became even more strict about not allowing contact between Jews and Christians. And the economic situation kept getting worse. Among the Jewish population a severe famine broke out. A kind of vicious cycle was created.
The famine helped spread the epidemic, whereas the epidemic tightened the noose around the Jewish population even more. That lead to more famine, and thus the cycle would repeat itself. The epidemic did not spare me either. One day in December, l942, I returned from a lesson with the 'Pinsker,' - whom I will discuss later - and I was consumed with fever. Within several days it was clear that I was indeed stricken with typhoid.
My mother went to the pharmacy to buy medicine for me. To our misfortune 'street abductions' were taking place at that hour, and she too became one of the kidnapped. No one knew what was done with those who were kidnapped or where they had been taken. However, it was clear that the chances that they would be returned to their homes were very slim.
During that period I lay with a 40-degree temperature, without much hope of overcoming the disease, and my heart trembled with longing for my mother. My mother, whose soul was so tied up with mine, and who was dearer to me than anything, had been suddenly taken away from me. My distress grew even more with the knowledge that she had endangered her life for my sake, and because of me she had fallen victim to the beasts of prey.
That day several hundred people were rounded up and transferred to Chortkov. There they were put into prison. For two weeks during their incarceration they were given a piece of bread and a little water only once every 48 hours. Many died from hunger and thirst. My mother was among the lucky ones, who, through an open hatch, were able to gather some snow to break their thirst.
On January 4, l943 the prisoners were put on freight trucks that drove to the mountain, where they were supposed to take out the victims to be shot. But something unbelievable happened. Because of a heavy snow storm the road was in bad condition and the trucks could not go up the mountain.
The Germans spent half a day trying to move the trucks up the mountain, but in vain. In the end they freed the people and allowed them to return to their homes. Among the lucky ones who returned home was my mother.
One cannot describe the joy the night that we saw her again, after we had almost lost all hope. That night I slept with a very high fever, and I believe that my consciousness was somewhat blurred. However, as soon as my mother opened the door, my eyes lit up. For hours she sat by my side as I looked at her, and could not get enough of that vision. How much nobility, love and intelligence were reflected in her eyes. How beautiful and fresh she looked despite everything that she had endured during those weeks.
The Nazis, trying in various ways to weaken the vigilance of their victims, exploited the above-mentioned incident to prove that there would be no more 'aktsias,' and that from then on the Jews had no need to fear for their lives.
Rumors circulated in town that an order had gone out from the world's leading powers, in the wake of American intervention (for some reason the Jews believed that America was not silent and was making many efforts to save Jews), indicating that henceforth there would be no more 'aktsias', and that the living conditions of the Jewish population would be restored to their normal pattern.
It is possible, indeed, that this assumption was strengthened somewhat by the fact that certain concessions had been granted by the authorities. But little time was granted to the Jews for diverting themselves with vain illusions.
One night, at the beginning of February l943, after midnight, a Jewish girl (my sister's friend), knocked on our door and told us that there were rumors in town that an 'aktsia' would take place on the following day. A Ukrainian policeman reported this to Duhl, the shoemaker.
Panic erupted. It was impossible to flee to the fields and forests because it was winter and the footprints in the snow were bound to betray those who fled. Accordingly, most of the people fortified themselves in the bunkers, which had been prepared some time earlier.
It was customary to call every hiding place a bunker, but the hiding places which could be regarded as real bunkers, were few in number. Mostly they were built in basements, and attics, etc., and were disguised as well as Jewish inventiveness could make it.
In order to build an underground bunker it was necessary to overcome many difficulties. First, it was essential that no untrustworthy persons become aware of it. It happened that the Nazis would torture one of their victims so that he would reveal the hiding place of the other Jews in the house, or they would promise to free the victim if he would reveal the hiding place.
Many actually did not pass the test. Of special note is the notorious case of N.L., the owner of the kerosene warehouse on Podhayetska Street. In return for the Nazi promise, that his life would be spared, he exposed the location of a bunker with dozens of people, among them members of his own family. One of the people in that bunker, attacked Landes with an ax. The Nazis allowed the unfortunates to avenge themselves on the traitor and the man killed him on the spot.
The major difficulty with building a bunker was where to dispose of the soil that was dug up (the Ukrainian militia carefully followed activities in the Jewish houses), and how to get an adequate air supply.
Somehow they overcame these difficulties, and in many homes bunkers were built which could withstand the most exacting searches. Much inventive talent, arduous labor, and lots of money were invested in their construction.
During the second 'aktsia' we lived in a house on Koscielna Street, in the long alley, where there was a coffee house. Our family lived in that house along with the Koffler family (the Hebrew teacher), the Dretler family, the Bick family and the rabbi from Pinsk.
The hiding place in the basement was too shallow, but it was well concealed, and the moment news about the 'aktsia' reached us, all the inhabitants of the house went down to the hiding place. We spent over 24 hours in that terrible hiding place, when each minute seemed like an eternity to us.
All the time we could hear the heavy boots and footsteps of the German and Ukrainian murderers, who turned the house upside down in order to find the hiding place. We also heard the footsteps of our Christian neighbors, who came to plunder booty. To their credit it must be noted that they were very selective and did not take everything that came into their hands.
During all those hours, I recall, Chaim Koffler, who was both my Hebrew teacher and a man that I highly respected, sat and took notes. He told me that he was recording the last events of the town's Jewish population, because, even if we didn't survive, the world had to know about the Nazis' savage and murderous acts. And one day the world would take revenge for us.
How naïve that belief looks today - that those condemned to death believed the nations of the world would avenge the spilled Jewish blood, after the victory over the Nazis.
Just as the Jews were certain of a victory by the Russians and the West over Hitler, they were also certain of the revenge that the victors would take on the Nazis. I recall a conversation between my father, may he rest in peace, and our neighbor Arthur Bick.
Bick argued, whether facetiously or in earnest, that at least we were assured of one thing after the Russian return: a military band and floral wreaths on an annual basis on memorial day. My father told him that he was deluding himself, and that in his opinion the Russians would be secretly pleased with Hitler's acts of destruction, and that, in any case, one could not assume that they would mourn these actions. To our regret, my father was right.
About l600 people fell victim in the second 'murder action'. Most of them were driven out of their hiding places, or were caught trying to flee the city, around which a tightening noose had been placed. They had planned to stay in the nearby villages until the danger would pass.
The people were transferred in groups of 50 to the train station, loaded onto freight trains and transferred to Belzec. The elderly, the sick, and those who attempted to flee on the way to the train station were killed by the murderers on the spot.
The day after the 'aktsia' the city streets were strewn with the dead. The Nazis used dumdum bullets on the Jewish victims, and as a result the victims' faces were disfigured to the point that most were not recognizable.
The responsibility for picking up the corpses in the streets and their burial was placed upon the 'Judenrat'. In spite of this many of those who were caught succeeded in escaping. Some of them were able to bribe the Ukrainian police guard, who turned a blind eye to their escape. However, the larger part of those who returned consisted of persons who had jumped from the train that was taking them to Belzec.
On the other hand a large part of the population felt that the destruction would not reach them. There were those who hoped that with the help of God, or with the help of a 'miracle', they would be granted life until the coming victory, and be able to witness revenge on the enemy.
This part of the population felt that with time they would prevail, and that the main problem was how to hang in there under all circumstances and under all conditions. These people were under the illusion that whoever succeeded in holding out during this 'aktsia', would be assured of staying alive in the coming months.
In the meantime salvation might come. There were those who hoped that the war would end, or that the Nazis would be forced to end their murderous activities, because of the pressure of world public opinion.
They heard nothing in Buczacz about Treblinka or Auschwitz, and with regard to the Belzec camp many tended to believe (at least during the first period), that it was not an extermination camp, but only a labor camp.
The Nazis, in order to make their work easier, wanted the Jews to live with such illusions, and all their planning was directed toward this goal, to the point where they themselves would spread good rumors. They divided the Jewish population into carriers of 'good' certificates (skilled workers, specialists), which made one immune to the 'aktsias', and into those who carried regular certificates.
The purpose of the interludes between one murderous period and the next was also to reinforce the illusion that all would be well. The interludes sometimes lasted several months and sometimes one month. Meanwhile life made its own demands, and between one 'aktsia' and the next the Jews of Buczacz tried to carry on the best they could.
They loved and hated, envied and competed, and searched for ways to make a living, etc There was also much resentment on the part of the poor toward the rich, because the poor were the first candidates for extermination (mostly because of their lack of means to build good hiding places) and they were hit the worst by hunger and the epidemics.
A moral decline was felt among a large part of the youth, and the most widespread slogan was: 'This way Fedor and that way Fedor' (no matter how we conduct ourselves, our ultimate fate is on the Fedor). There was no way to make a living. The Jews followed the dictum, 'make your living one from the other.' Of course, they also traded with the Christians, but from time to time various edicts were enacted to prevent any contact between the two groups.
The most common form of trade with the Christians was 'barter,' or as they called it then 'minyalo.' In this market one did not use currency, but paid with clothes, furniture or other valuables for basic food necessities. For a fur coat, for example, one could get a certain number of potatoes, for a gold watch, a certain amount of flour, etc.. The prices in this 'barter' market were, understandably, dependent upon the season and were subject to change.
Cultural life was also not entirely neglected. Whoever was able to do so looked after their children's education. I do not remember by whom, and how, the thousands of children in the town were educated during the period of the first occupation. However, if one is to judge by my own case, I think, that even in this area not a little was accomplished.
My father, of blessed memory, made great efforts to continue my education and that of my sisters. He did it either because he felt that very little time was left for us to acquire an education, or because he wished to remove us from our environment of persecution and humiliation, to an environment of Torah and learning.
I had time to finish only five grades of public school before the Nazi invasion. There were three grades in the Polish school, until l939; a year in a Yiddish grade (l939-l940), and a year in a Russian grade (l940-l94l).
As is known, with the Russian entry into western Ukraine in l939, the government established Yiddish schools in the Jewish centers, in accordance with the principle of the cultural and linguistic autonomy of each and every nationality within the Soviet Union. This arrangement was abolished in l940 and, I believe, no one was sorry to see it happen.
This Yiddish school created many problems. First, there were no competent teachers (the principal of the school was a Ukrainian named Lutsiov); there were no textbooks for most of the subjects, and there was no coordinated program.
The result was a very low standard of education. But the basic problem was that the grades that followed were all in Ukrainian or Russian, and the transfer of children from a Yiddish school to continuing grades in Russian or Ukrainian, was bound to create problems both for the class and the student.
Obviously five years of such fragmented learning could not give a child what he would learn in five consecutive years at one school and in one language. My father taught me math, reading and writing. I learned Hebrew and Hebrew grammar with the teacher, Chaim Koffler, who lived in our neighborhood. I learned Bible and Talmud with the 'Pinsker.'
The 'Pinsker', or as was his full name, Rabbi Yosef Halevi of the Horowitz family, was, until the Russian Revolution, a rabbi in Pinsk. With the outbreak of the Revolution he fled to Poland, like many others of the 'Klei Kodesh' (religious ministrants). His wife and two daughters remained in Russia, and the rabbi knew nothing about what happened to them during all those years.
The 'Pinsker', as he was known among the people, was a Torah genius, learned and erudite. He established new interpretations of the Torah, and he was a fiery Zionist (a member of Mizrachi, I believe).
I don't know what the rabbi was doing in the years l9l9-l940, even though he talked to me a lot about it. I believe that he used to travel from town to town, and from village to village, in Poland, as a maggid (itinerant preacher), preaching and advocating a return to the land of Israel.
His appearance bespoke dignity. A long white beard framed his face and his words were like sparks of fire, brilliant and witty, and they were flavored with a subtle but sharp humor. To this day I remember several of the Pinsker's speeches, that he used to read to me in the evenings. They made a very strong impression on me.
In l940, for some reason, the rabbi settled permanently in Buczacz. There he gathered a group of students around him and disseminated Torah study. With the Nazi invasion, and because there was no possibility of attending a school, my father decided that I too should study with the 'Pinsker' (until then I had private lessons with Kirshner).
After a short time I did very well in these studies. I became very close to the rabbi and his influence on me was tremendous. Even though a long white beard framed his face, he was a considerably progressive man, with a broad general knowledge, and well informed about the ways of the world.
From among the group of students that he had four of us have survived: Mordechai Halpern, Menachem Kriegel, Yona Tsaler and I. Three of us became in the meantime 'apikorsim' (skeptics), while Yona Tsaler is still keeping the 'flame' alive, and is a student at the Ponevich Yeshiva in Bnei Brak.
On winter evenings the 'Pinsker' liked to reminisce about Bialik, with whom he had studied together at the Volozhin Yeshiva, and about different Zionist personalities. He especially liked to tell humorous tales about the 'rebbis' (Chasidic rabbinic leaders). He himself was, like all the Halevi Horwitz family, a strong 'mitnaged' (opponent of Chasidism).
Another person who had much influence on me at that time was, as I mentioned earlier, my Hebrew teacher, Chaim Koffler. He succeeded in bringing out in me a love of the Hebrew language, and within a short time, relatively speaking, I knew the language and grammar fairly well.
I recall at that time we went over the novel, The Love of Zion, by Mapu. The book made an enormous impression on me and planted within me a strong love of Zion. With what love and longing did my teacher read to me, and explain those chapters which describe the Judean hills, Jerusalem, and the life of joy and tranquillity in the lap of nature. Once he even expressed his feeling that he would never forgive himself for not realizing his lifelong dream of going to Israel and settling there.
All his life he preached to others to go to Israel, but he himself did not go. He had by then already lost his two sons - Hebrew teachers also - and his crippled daughter was with him. A year later he died of typhoid fever (if I recall correctly), and his wife and daughter were lost in one of the 'aktsias.' It was said that the Nazis wanted to take his wife to the Belzec transport train, but they wanted to leave the crippled daughter behind (in order to kill her in the immediate vicinity). However, the mother refused to be separated from her daughter, and both were shot by the murderers in their apartment.
Jews were permitted to live in the western section only. The reason is understandable - to make the work easier for the Nazis. Every Jew who was found in the second section, would be punished by death, along with the Christian, at whose place he was caught.
And again there was horrendous crowding, poverty and shortages. But the Nazis saw to it that the excessive crowding in town would not last, and a month after the second murderous aktsia, that is in March l943, the town was suddenly surrounded by powerful Gestapo forces and Ukrainian militia units.
The third 'aktsia' had begun, and it was the most terrible of all that had taken place previously. For almost three days and nights the blood thirsty beasts of prey went mad, and the number of casualties in those three days and nights came to 2800.
My family left the apartment on Koscielna Street, which was in the Christian section, and we moved to my uncle's place in Folkenflok's house, on Podhayetska Street.
On the other side of that street, in a small house, the residents had built one of the best bunkers in town. From the basement they dug a seven meter deep tunnel, and from there they extended a trench which was several dozen meters long, and about three meters wide.
The entrance into the basement was through a well concealed stove. The entrance from the basement into the bunker was also extremely well concealed. Even if the Nazis discovered the basement, it is unlikely that they would have succeeded in discovering the hiding place.
When the rumor spread at night about the approaching 'aktsia', several of us went down into that bunker. The entrance was most complicated and was particularly difficult for the older people.
A special challenge was involved in taking my uncle down, because he was crippled in both legs (having been wounded during World War I). The bunker was closed and covered up by someone on the outside. That person had to seek shelter elsewhere, and at the end of the 'aktsia' he was supposed to come and inform us that the aktsia was over.
After a 24 hour stay in the bunker we felt a serious shortage of air. The air tube had been blocked, it seemed, and we were facing the danger of suffocation. A match could not be lit because of the absence of air. Women started to faint, and breathing became unbearably difficult.
As for me, I was a very healthy youth and during all those hours when the danger of being suffocated threatened us, I was in a deep sleep and didn't feel what was going on around me. Because of the danger to individual lives, and the risk to the bunker as a whole, several men went up at night and dug an additional opening for air to come through. This way we felt some relief.
During this 'aktsia,' unlike the earlier ones, they did not transport the people to Belzec. They transferred them, in groups of 50 people, to the 'Fedor', and killed them there with machine guns. The harvest of death was formidable, as was already pointed out: almost 2800 souls.
The streets were strewn with dozens of bodies of those who had attempted to escape during the transfer to the 'Fedor.' The Christians from the area pillaged and laid waste to the Jewish homes. As soon as the rumor spread in the villages that the 'murderous activities' were taking place in town, the farmers immediately rushed to town to plunder and to seize the spoils.
There were even those who removed gold teeth from the mouths of the victims and removed the gold rings from their fingers. Some of them cut off fingers to make it easier to remove rings. In contrast there were few cases when Christians actually did something, for humane reasons, to save Jews.
It was said that on the 'Fedor' one woman, Dr. Gross, addressed her fellow victims, before she was taken out to be shot. She denounced the murderers as 'heroes' against an unarmed population, and she prophesied for them a speedy end and vengeance for their crimes. She was taken first to be shot, and they even mutilated her body.
Had there been any illusion whatsoever, before this 'aktsia', about the fate of those who were captured in previous murderous actions, and taken to Belzec, this massacre, committed in the open and in public, proved to those who were still deluding themselves, that only one fate awaited all those whom the Nazis targeted.
The Germans seized the youth, beat him hard and then led him, with hands and feet in handcuffs, to the city hall. There they doused him with gasoline and burned him alive. In another group a youth of l9 attacked a German with a knife. His fate too was death by brutal torture.
After this 'aktsia' an announcement was made that the remaining Jews had to move to Tchortkov, Kopychyntsa and Tlusta. In Buczacz itself the Germans set up a camp for 'skilled workers' in a section of Podhayetska Street. For a substantial sum of money it was possible to obtain from the authorities a 'skilled worker's' certificate and thus remain in the camp.
Since we had family in Tlusta my father decided that it would be better to move to that small town. In Tlusta, up to that point there was no ghetto, and there was hope that here it would be easier to escape death than in the other small towns. For this reason most of the remaining Buczacz Jews moved to Tlusta.
In Tlusta during that period there was horrendous congestion, extreme poverty, hunger and sickness. About 8-9 thousand Jews were crowded into this small and wretched town. Several families lived in one room. Some lived on stairwells, in attics and in basements.
Because we had family in town, our situation was a little better, and we were given the small kitchen in which five people crowded together, my parents, my two sisters, and I. Right on the day of our arrival a rumor spread, that on the following day there would be an 'aktsia.'
We spent that night in a forest, about 7 kilometers from the town. On the way we met hundreds of Jews, since everyone was searching for shelter, some among the Christians in the nearby villages, some in the field, and some in the forest.
The 'aktsia' was not held the next day and we all returned to the town. However, not much of a rest was given to the persecuted. During one of the first days of May (I do not remember the exact date), on a Thursday just before sunrise, a large contingent of Gestapo, S.S. units, and Ukrainian militia, suddenly surrounded the town, and no one had a chance to escape.
Most of those who attempted to escape to the fields met their death at the hands of the guards, who were stationed at the entrances to the town. For many weeks people had slept in their clothes. However, that particular night we slept peacefully, hoping that the danger was not close.
The shootings woke us up and within minutes the Nazis began to break down the gate. Most of the inhabitants in the house, my sisters included, managed to go up to the hiding place, that had been built in the attic. I, my parents, and several others remained stuck in the kitchen, as the S.S. men, and the militia, ran through the house.
From the kitchen there was an opening to a little cellar that served as a storage area for potatoes, coal and wood. It had not occurred to anyone to convert this little cellar into a hiding place. Since we had no other hope of escape we went down to the little cellar and covered it with the bundles of straw that had served us as bedding during the night.
The murderers entered the house four times, conducted thorough searches, removed floor boards, and dislodged bricks, but they did not find our hiding place. In the attic hiding place there were about 30 people, and among them my two sisters. They were seized, together with the others in that hiding place, and taken to the yard near the church. From there they were taken to the Jewish cemetery, where they met their deaths.
My two dear beloved sisters, who were inseparable in their lives and in their deaths: Malia, the l2-year-old, blond and beautiful, with sky-blue eyes and golden locks, and Mania, the l7-year-old, with her long black braids, the serious and intelligent one!
During all this time I, my parents, and some other people sat in the little cellar, as death hovered above our heads, and our fate hung by a thread. Neither food nor water touched our lips during all those hours.
Over the 30 hours of this murderous 'aktsia' about 3600 Jews fell victim. They were forced into the square near the church, and from there they were taken in groups of 50, under heavy guard, to the Jewish cemetery. There they were machine gunned.
The Ukrainians participated in this 'aktsia' as much as the Germans. The murderers donned dark glasses and black gloves. The Ukrainian policeman, Shaf, envious of those who were engaged in the killings, asked to join them. After he was given permission to do so, he began shooting with sadistic glee, and killed dozens of people.
Hundreds of the dead were strewn about the streets and in the houses, and for about 3-4 days bodies were being collected and buried in the cemetery. After the 'aktsia' I went out to search for my two sisters. I thought perhaps they had succeeded in escaping, or perhaps were hiding somewhere.
My feet carried me to the cemetery, and a horrible sight unfolded before me: corpses, corpses, corpses. Among them I recognized the 'Pinsker', acquaintances, neighbors and friends. Fragments of currency bills, documents and photographs were strewn about the whole area. The following day the mass graves, in which hundreds of the victims had been buried, began oozing with blood, since many of the wounded had been buried alive, and only a thin layer of soil covered the graves.
Christian doctors and engineers were brought to the place. They examined the condition of the graves, and ordered that they be covered with thick layers of soil, and that lime be poured over them. After that came the order for setting up a ghetto in Tlusta, and within 24 hours all the Jews were obligated to move to the ghetto area.
On Sunday, June 6 - it was a very beautiful summer day - I went to the market in the morning to buy something for the house. Suddenly the Ukrainian militia started grabbing Jews to work, and I was abducted as well. They took dozens of people to the village of Kosigora and they ordered us to weed potato bushes. I worked several hours in the burning sun, while a Ukrainian policeman taunted us all the time.
I knew that my parents were very worried about me and I decided, along with my friends, to escape as soon as the noon break came. The village was about ten kilometers from Tlusta. We walked through fields and woods, and tried to avoid going through any villages. At about 2 p.m. we arrived at the train station. How very shocked we were to see transport trucks loaded with German soldiers and Ukrainian militia entering the town from several directions.
Before we could get our bearings, we heard shots from all directions and the village was surrounded by soldiers and policemen. This was the first time that an 'aktsia' was held on a Sunday, and it had started in the afternoon hours. On Sundays the murderers generally rested and the Jews used to breathe more easily. This aktsia was a deviation from the usual strategy and custom of the murderers, and its goal was, apparently, to exploit the element of surprise.
The panic was great, everyone tried to run for shelter. My friends and I began to run backwards, but one of the policemen was watching us and he began to fire in our direction. The bullets hit people who were running to my right and to my left. The screams and moaning of the wounded and of the dying filled the air.
I ran with bated breath, as long as I could hold out, while the bullets were buzzing around me. After about l50 meters of running from a shower of bullets I found myself in a corn field. I survived. My friend also succeeded in getting through the thick rain of bullets that flew around us, and together we went on our way.
About l4 km from Tlusta there is a forest named Charnohora. We turned in the direction of that forest, and we decided to stay there until the end of the 'aktsia.' On the way we met farmers who were rushing, running to town, some by wagon, and some on foot, to claim their booty.
The Christians from the area around Tlusta were mostly poor. Many had no independent means, and supported themselves by working on the estates. Every small item was of value to them. One could see them during the 'aktsia' dragging old featherbeds and pillows, broken furniture and used clothing - items which the Christians in Buczacz would not want to even look at.
This much should be known: The destruction of the Jewish population did not merely satisfy the feeling of hatred of the Christian population in the towns and villages. It also brought them great material benefits. Thousands of Christians became wealthy on account of the Jewish tragedy.
For every service, connected with saving a life, Jews were ready to pay fabulous sums, and the 'Christians' exploited this opportunity. Many bought from the Jews luxury furniture, furs, jewels, expensive clothes and more for next to nothing. During my wanderings in the villages, I would see, on more than one occasion, a costly piano in the home of a destitute peasant, who was a day laborer on one of the 'folwarks', or estates.
On the way we met a group of farmers who were heading to town for plunder. When they realized that we were Jews they demanded money from us, threatening to make us return to town with them. By chance I had l50 zlotys, and my friend had l00, a sum too small. We offered them the money. At first they weren't ready to accept it. But when they realized that we did not have any more, they took the money and left us alone.
We continued on our way to Charnohora, and before evening we entered the forest. Many Jews hid in this forest during the day and night. The peasants from the surrounding area attacked them en masse when they felt there was a chance to plunder. They would assault the people with axes and pitchforks. The echoes from the voices of those who were being robbed and murdered reached all the way to us. It was a night of heavy terror, a night that I shall never forget.
I did not know the forest paths. I ran about like a hunted animal among the thorn bushes, that were twice as tall as I. To add to my grief, I also lost my friend. After hours of wandering about in the forest, I settled down among the bushes and waited for daylight. I hoped that with sunrise I would somehow find my way back.
Worry for my parents gnawed at my heart, and I could not stop crying. Who knows if I will ever see them again. Only a miracle could have saved them. And the miracle happened. They had stayed in the little cellar, that was in the kitchen where we lived, with several other families, and the tentacles of the murderers had not reached them.
At sunrise I left the forest and decided to return to town. It was a very beautiful summer day. The Ukrainian landscape unfolded before me in all its glory: A forest, golden wheat fields, grazing stretches and gentile youths leading the cows to pasture. Streams of water. All these sights warmed my heart, and distracted me from my agony. On the way I learned from the Christians that the aktsia had ended.
I rushed to return to town, and about noontime I found myself standing in front of the house where we were living. My heart was beating hard: Had the miracle happened, or would I hear, heaven forbid, the worst.
I knew few moments of joy during all those years, but the moments of this meeting were, perhaps, the happiest of my life. My friend managed to return to town before me and he had told my parents that I was in the Charnohora forest. My father paid a large amount of money to a peasant to search for me in the forest and to bring me home. But meantime I had managed to get back by myself.
As I have mentioned earlier, there were several estates in the region of Tlusta, and near them a number of Jewish work camps. In these camps, too, life was not secure. But people there hoped that they would be able to hold out at least until the end of the harvest season, and perhaps until fall. Under these conditions they did not think ahead, about what would happen in a few months. They felt that time was working in their favor, and the important thing was to simply carry on.
The remaining Jews tried to be accepted for work in the 'folwarks,' and, of course, this depended on bribing the authorities. About 40 Buczacz people, among them my parents, decided to return to Buczacz and join the 'skilled workers' camp there. We hired seven wagons and at midnight set out on the road. We had to cover 56 km. It was impossible to go on the main road, and we traveled in a roundabout way, through corn fields and forests.
Even though the peasants that we hired for this trip were our acquaintances, and considered trustworthy, they did not hesitate, every few kilometers, to threaten to force us off the wagons in the middle of the journey, if we did not give them more money, because, according to them, the danger was greater than they had reckoned.
Before morning we passed one village where, to our misfortune, that night a punishment detail of Gestapo people had arrived. The farmers said that as a punishment for the killing of two Gestapo men, whose bodies were found in the village, the Germans had taken out all the men who lived there, and killed every tenth one among them.
We had entered straight into the lion's den. However, before the Germans had time to grasp who we were and how we had gotten into that village, we escaped into the nearby forest. A heavy fire from hand- and machine-guns rained down on us and again ll people fell dead.
In the meantime the peasants had run away with the wagons and with all our possessions, and we made the rest of our way to Buczacz on foot. I had a special feeling of relief when we approached the town, a kind of feeling of security. Everything, the streets, the houses, the trees, were so familiar to me and so close to my heart!
A Jewish mechanic by the name of Haber lived near the 'black bridge', in Buczacz. Because of his expertise, and the work that he did for the Germans, he even had a permit to live outside of the camp. At 2 a.m. we reached his house.
He was amazed when he heard that we came from Tlusta, since the Jews of the Buczacz camp were fleeing to Tlusta. These people learned that the camp in Buczacz was to be liquidated within 3-4 days, and its inhabitants were to go to other places. Several additional families from the camp joined our group. We hired new carriages and that same night we left to return to Tlusta.
About 3 km from Tlusta we got out of the carriages and decided to sneak into town in secret, in order not to arouse any special attention. It was on the day of l2.6.43, before sundown. The farmers were returning home from their work in the fields. We learned from them that on that same day, at noon, Tlusta had been proclaimed 'Judenrein'.
The authorities provided carriages for the remaining Jews to take them to the Chortkov ghetto. We hesitated: Should we return to Buczacz? Whatever will be with the several hundred of her remaining Jews that will be with us. Or perhaps we should turn straight toward the forests in the area? It was decided to return to Buczacz, and so we found the people sitting on their suitcases ready to move on.
The Germans announced that the camp inhabitants were to prepare food, linen and bedding and to be ready to move to camp Svidova that is near Tlusta. A part of the youth left for the forest, a part went out to hide with the farmers, who had prepared bunkers for them.
For most of the camp inhabitants, including us, there was no choice but to join the convoy that was taking the people to Svidova. On June l5, at 9 a.m., dozens of wagons arrived in the camp, and in a long caravan we moved off, accompanied by a heavy guard of S.S. units and Ukrainian militia. In late afternoon we arrived at the camp.
Svidova was one of the many estates in the area, and perhaps the largest one. Its peasants were well known in the whole vicinity as anti-Semites. Before the war eight Jewish families had lived in the village, and one night between the time when the Russians were retreating and the Germans were entering the village, the peasants staged a pogrom and murdered every one of the Jews.
About 560 people were housed in the camp, and among them several hundred that were brought from Buczacz, a small number from Tlusta, Yagolnitza, Zalezhchiki and other places. Most of the Jews in the camp, if not all, were wealthy. The Christians were interested in doing away with them quickly, in order to plunder their possessions.
Thus, in addition to the regular guard of the Ukrainian militia, the Christians set up volunteer guards from among the peasants of the village, and they, too, guarded the entrances of the camp. This camp was fenced in with double barbed wire.
The conditions in the camp, relatively speaking, were not the worst, even though we worked from dawn till sunset. The manager of the estate, a Pole named Musial, an evil person and a scoundrel, did his best to make life difficult for the people in the camp.
Sometimes, 'when he was in a good mood,' he would order, spitefully, that the Jews should dig up the potatoes, or weed out the green fields, on their knees. Sometimes he would order that no water be given to thirsty workers. But because they had the funds, the Jews bought the essential foods, milk and fruit, from the peasants, who used to bring the best foods to the camp gates.
Since this was a 'busy season' for field work, and there was a shortage of workers in the area, there was room for hope, that the camp's security was assured at least until after the harvest season. Life in the camp began to slowly get organized. Several cultural evenings were held, readings, singing, etc.
Among the camp inhabitants there was also the Buczacz cantor, Beno Shifman. I still remember the days when the whole town was astir because of Shifman. It happened perhaps in l937 or l938, and I was still a little boy at that time.
From time to time the great synagogue used to have cantorial evenings, and famous cantors, with their choirs, used to appear at the concerts. On one of those evenings Shifman was the featured cantor. He was a very young, handsome man, from Lvov, and he had a beautiful, sweet voice.
His appearance made an enormous impression, and he was invited to serve as the permanent cantor of the synagogue. However, for a large part of the population (especially the ultra-orthodox sector) Shifman appeared too much the 'free-thinker' and they did not agree under any circumstances to his candidacy.
Some argued that the old cantor, though not a great one, was at least orthodox, and there was no reason at all to replace him with Shifman, whose 'fear of heaven' was regarded with skepticism. A sharp dispute raged for some time on this issue.
The city was in turmoil and the community almost split into two factions, the supporters of the old cantor, and the supporters of the new one. In the end the supporters of Shifman came out victorious. And indeed he was a great artist in his field. What he lacked in 'fear of heaven', he made up with a voice that was full of power and feeling.
He was a very young man when he died, perhaps at age 35, and I have no doubt at all that he was destined to have a place among the great cantors in the world. After the Soviets entered the city, Shifman served as a teacher of song, and choir leader, at the school that he organized. In this area too he was very successful.
The attitude of the town's people towards Shifman was demonstrated by one small incident. During the 'High Holidays' of l941 Shifman was not considered 'kosher' enough to conduct the holiday services (as the community's representative before the Almighty), because during the Russian occupation he had worked on the Sabbath, and had walked about without covering his head.
He had also publicly desecrated the Sabbath. Despite this a large part of the townspeople did not want to cancel his services. It was suggested that he lead the services at one of the small synagogues on the outskirts of town, and Shifman accepted.
He used to delight us with his singing when we were in the camp. He did not sing only cantorial pieces but also various operatic arias. Even though I did not understand any of it at the time, I enjoyed his singing very much. At the camp there was also a dramatic reader from Chortkov, and she too did her share to maintain the cultural evenings.
It all happened so suddenly, and by surprise, that there was no time for anyone to flee. Every attempt to escape meant certain death. The peasants of the area participated to the best of their ability in this 'aktsia.' Despite this a few people - including my father, mother and I - succeeded in making their way out of the camp.
We jumped into the standing corn that surrounded the camp. By crawling we reached the pit, which was about 30 meters from the camp fence, and which served as a storehouse for potatoes in winter. Breathing heavily, and white as plaster, we entered the pit and our first thought was: We have been saved! However, we were saved for only two hours.
Bands of the Ukrainian militia 'combed' the whole area and spread out in the fields to check if indeed anyone had escaped. Ten Ukrainian policemen made their way into the pit and removed all the people. Somehow I found myself inside a pile of straw, in the pit, that my mother had covered well so that my hiding place was concealed. It is impossible to describe these terrible moments, moments of parting from those who were most dear to me!
That same day they also brought to Svidova people from the Mukhavka and Morluvka camps, and from other estates in the area. All the Jews were concentrated in the camp's square and from here they were transferred in small groups to the field, where they were taken to be killed.
In the evening peasants were brought in and were ordered to dig two pits, in which the slain were buried. Next to a half-destroyed, unmarked, graveside wall over 550 Jews from Buczacz, Tlusta, Chortkov and other small towns were buried.
I am almost the only one who escaped this murderous action, which was the most savage even by the standards of those cannibals. After two days I met a girl named Rosa, from Tlusta. Rosa was very beautiful, about 20.
She had been hit by two bullets, had fallen unconscious, and had been thrown into the large mass grave. After being buried for several hours she woke up. Feeling that she was still alive, she managed, after many attempts, to raise herself up from the grave.
These incidents, of the 'rising from the dead', were not uncommon in the history of Polish Jewry, which suffered such oppression during the years of the Nazi conquest. Rosa found shelter with one of the peasants, who was stunned by her story. After she recovered we wandered about together for some time, seeking shelter.
After a few weeks she joined another work camp in the area. Other Jews were working there too, but I decided that it was better for me to wander among the villages and work for the farmers.
When I returned to Svidova after the 'aktsia' the manager of the estate, Musial, was shocked to see me. He had been ready to bet anything, as he said, that not a single Jew had survived in the camp.
He stared at me for some minutes, and it seems some humane spark awoke in him. He said to me: 'Since you succeeded in saving yourself from the 'aktsia' in Svidova, it appears that it has been ordained for you to live, and so I will try to help you.'
The farmers in the area also found it difficult to comprehend how I had managed to save myself, and various rumors spread among them with regard to this matter. The blacksmith, the source of all the gossip in this village, and the local 'politician,' used to relate that he had seen me escaping.
He claimed that he saw them shooting after me, and that I had dropped down, and crawled to the fish pond. From there I was supposed to have swum to the other side until I had disappeared from view.
Others told of different heroic deeds that I performed. As for me, I confirmed all these rumors about me. I added still more stories, because I understood that these legends were bound to serve as a lifeline for me. Legends spread especially about Rosa.
I worked on the estate for a short time. I learned to do different kinds of work on the job and in the garden, but mostly I served as a cow herder. Together with the other gentile peasant youths I would go out before dawn to the pasture, and spend most of the daylight hours there.
I managed to win the friendship of the youths, with whom I went out to pasture, and each one of them saw it as his duty to bring me food. In time they worked out a schedule among themselves, taking turns. Each day somebody else would bring me food and drink.
I used to tell them stories and participated in their games. Even in the clothing I wore I was like one of them. I spoke a good Ukrainian but the 'r' used to 'betray' me, and by my accent it was at once evident that I was a Jew.
Say 'kukurudza' (corn) they used to mock me. And I used to answer jokingly, that it was preferable for me to say ten times 'pashonka' than once 'kukurudza' (both of these words have almost the same meaning). Nights I slept in the barn or the cowshed.
These were evil people, who volunteered to set up guards around the camp, from among their population, so that no one would escape.
These were the people who participated in the destruction of the Jews of Tlusta and the surrounding area. What did these same people see in me that they showed me a more or less humane treatment?
Not only that, but this attitude toward me was expressed already during the period after the region had been proclaimed 'Judenrein.' It had been announced that every peasant who helped catch a Jew, was promised a reward: A specific sum of money, a pair of shoes and a bottle of whiskey. Whoever knows the peasants of that area, knows what the power of bribery, in the form of a bottle of whiskey and a pair of shoes, meant to them.
One day Musial returned from Yagelnitse. He called me over, and said that at the German police station he was asked if the rumors were true that a young Jew, who had escaped the 'aktsia' in Svidova, was wandering about on his estate.
M. indicated that he had heard about it, but did not know the exact place where that individual was to be found. As a result of this inquiry at the police station, he ordered me to disappear immediately, and not to show myself again in Svidova.
A period of wandering began for me, from village to village, and from estate to estate: Mukhavka, Morluvka, Koroluvka, Ruzhanuvka, Lissovtse, Lashkovitz and others. In the daytime I worked for the farmers, mainly threshing and taking the cows to pasture. And at night I slept in the open field, or in the woods.
The farmers were afraid to have me sleep in their homes, because a death sentence awaited them for hiding a Jew. At times, during the cold nights, I used to sneak into a farmer's barn or an attic, and I slept there.
Mostly these experiences did not end well, as the dogs (every farmer's house had a dog) would give me away. Because of the danger of staying in one place too long, I used to go from village to village, then go again to the first farmer and repeat the cycle.
My good memory was very helpful to me. I remembered hundreds of the farmers by name. I knew their, their wives', and their children's names. More than once I used to come to a farmer in a village and I would tell him that I worked for his brother in the other village and that he had sent me to him.
The harvest days were coming to an end. Fall was approaching and the situation became more and more difficult. What would happen in the winter? There were rumors among the farmers that the German front had been broken and that the Soviets were advancing rapidly, but who knew if they would succeed in arriving before winter?
During those days they brought the remaining Jews from Chortkov. Most of them were skilled workers, who performed specific jobs for the German army, and because of this they survived. I returned again to Svidova. Close to l00 people were housed in the camp and the living conditions were, relatively speaking, not the worst.
I was sent to work in the distillery. As I mentioned above, the Svidova peasants had a special relationship with me, and this relationship found expression during my work at this factory: I used to help the person who kindled the fire in the furnace by supplying him with coal from the warehouse.
The work was not easy, but I did it gladly. I was a strong fellow. The hard work and sleeping in the fields had strengthened me. I became accustomed to dragging the wheelbarrows with coal from sunrise to sundown. I slept in the factory, and obviously, I had to help the workers who used to come at night to steal whiskey.
They used to insert a tube into the whiskey barrel, draining it, and in this way filling up several bottles. There was almost no worker who did not participate in these nocturnal visits. The manager, a 'Folksdeutsch' named Kotz, knew what was happening, but he turned a blind eye to it.
A large part of the workers grew to like me, and they promised that they would not allow anything bad to happen to me. They arranged a small hiding place in the basement, among gigantic barrels. When the Germans were visiting the factory I was to disappear into my hiding place.
They also brought me food, and at times they even invited me to their homes for dinner on Sunday. Most of them were used to drinking like fish. More than once they used to tease me: 'They say, that Jews are not able to drink, show us if this is true or not.' And I, in order not to shame 'the tribe' attempted not to 'fall behind' them in this area too.
If my lungs were not scorched, and the act of drinking did not harm my health, it is mainly because of the good food that the farmers used to bring me every day that I survived. However, I was never drunk. I felt that even among these 'gentiles', who seemingly took an interest in my well being, I needed to be on constant alert, and a state of drunkenness was bound to lead me to disaster.
My diligent work, the stories that I used to tell them (sometimes completely fabricated) about my experiences in other villages, and my ability to 'drink' like they did endeared me to them, and on Christmas Eve I received an abundance of invitations for the festive evening meal.
I chose to dine at the table of a good hearted old woman, whose concern for me was genuine. I felt that I could rely on her.
We had barely sat down at the table when suddenly her son, who served as a sergeant in the Ukrainian militia, arrived for the festive meal. When he found out who I was he was shocked, and made a scene before his mother: How did she dare invite me, knowing what punishment awaited her.
The old woman began to plead with him that he should let me live, because my life experiences were proof that it was God's will that I should live, and whoever would kill me would be eternally cursed.
Apparently, in order not to spoil the holiday festivity the policeman left me alone, with the understanding that I was to disappear immediately from the village.
The conditions in the camp became more severe with time. It was a hard winter, the work was back-breaking, and the food was inadequate. But a congenial atmosphere existed among the people. Our common fate brought everyone closer, and the people saw themselves as one family.
I was very happy to be among Jews again, brothers, in misfortune and in fate, and at every opportunity I used to come to the camp. There were evenings when people were sitting and singing. The wife of a dentist from Chortkov, Unger, was especially gifted in singing Yiddish songs. So also was Klara Bar from Buczacz (the daughter of Mendel Bar).
How much love and longing one could feel in their singing. How much yearning for that which was and no longer existed, for a world that was destroyed, for life that was fading. I was especially fond of the song, 'Tanchum'(Consolation). The evenings of song were a source of intense emotional experiences and comfort for us.
Not much time passed before there was another 'aktsia,' in which most of the people in the camp were murdered. The few who remained moved to other camps that were still scattered in the region, or they found shelter among the farmers of the region, understandably - in return for huge sums of money.
I knew who stood at the head of the pogrom that they held against the Jews of the village even before the Germans arrived. I knew which one of them had organized the brutal civilian guard around the camp. And I could point out from whom was stolen this piece of furniture, and who was robbed of that piece of clothing.
The peasants were very frightened of the Russian arrival. They were certain that the Russians would take revenge on them for the Jewish blood that had been spilled. Among themselves they even talked about who would be hanged, who would be exiled to Siberia, and who would be imprisoned.
I was not in that region after the war and I do not know which ones were punished. But if we are to judge by what happened in other places, then not a single 'gentile' was punished for murdering Jews, because there were too many of them to be punished. Or there was no punishment because the Russians did not care much about this matter.
I heard that several of the mob leaders in that village were hung, but not because of murdering Jews - this, apparently, was not a sufficient crime - but because of their association with the 'banderovtsy', and because they had murdered Russian soldiers, who had come to collect the produce quota owed by each village.
It was a hard winter night, one of those Ukrainian January nights. Outside a storm was raging. A boy my age knocked on the factory door. He told me that in the evening he had heard a conversation between his father and several other farmers that the time had come to do away with me, because if I were not disposed of I was bound to bring misfortune on the village after the Russians return.
Two days earlier another Jew, by the name of Schmeltzer, was confronted by the stoker, Semeniuk, who murdered him in cold blood, and burned his body in the giant furnace of the factory. It was clear to me that I had to flee. But where to go?
On the road between Svidova and Mukhavka there was a small forest and within it several huts. At one time the laborers of the estate used to live there, but as their lives 'improved' a little (mainly because of the plunder of the Jews), they built themselves houses in the village itself.
The huts then began to serve mainly as a midday resting place for the peasants who worked in the area. For me these huts served as a sleeping place for a period of several weeks.
Every time I came to this place, I used to meet Jews who also came to sleep here. In connection with these huts, one day something happened to me there that I find difficult to explain to this day. I was once returning before evening from my work in the field, where I had been working near a threshing machine.
Close to the huts I was overcome by a strange weakness. My head was dizzy and my feet refused to carry me. With my last strength I made my way to one of the huts. I went up to the attic and lay down on a pile of straw. A deep sleep came over me, and in my sleep I could hear my own moaning.
After some time I woke up. It was a nice morning, I felt healthy and refreshed and my heart was joyful for some special reason. When I reached the village I realized that I had slept for over 50 hours. To this day I do not know what illness hit me at that time, and in what miraculous way I was able to overcome it.
When the camp in Svidova was liquidated for the last time, several Jews arranged a hiding place in one of the huts. Often during the night I used to come into this hiding place, bringing food for the people and telling them what was happening on the outside.
That night, when I decided to flee from the factory, I made my way to that hiding place, and I stayed there over a week. Our main goal was a race with time. Time was working in our favor. We knew that every additional day that we held out, brought us closer to the day of liberation. But in those days, in particular, the situation became unbearable.
We learned that the Christians suspected that Jews were hiding in one of the huts, and it became dangerous to remain there. I was assigned the task of going out at night to search for another hiding place, and perhaps to even contact some farmer, who might keep us until the danger would pass.
When I returned after two days I found the hiding place broken into, and from the peasants I learned that the night before several members of the S.S. units, and Ukrainian policemen, had surrounded the huts and succeeded in finding the hiding place. Not a single one of the l8 people, who were in the hiding place, was able to escape.
Again I found myself wandering in the villages, from one estate to another. And those were winter days. The peasants became more and more brutal, because they were all afraid of witnesses to the atrocities they had committed. They decided to do away with the few Jews who were still roaming the area.
In a few estates: Litovtse, Mohilovtse and Shipovtse there were still camps with dozens of Jews. The conditions were dreadful and the people were living daily with the danger of dying.
The retreat of the German troops was in full force, and with them in retreat were convoys of the most prominent collaborators in Russia. They were known by the name of 'Vlasovtsy' (as is well known Vlasov was the Russian 'Quisling').
Together with their wives and children, their cattle and sheep, they traveled in the tens of thousands in wagons behind the Third Reich troops. It is impossible to describe the savagery and blood thirstiness of these people.
When a Jew fell into their hands - and that happened to dozens in that region - they used to murder him in the most savage manner, by hanging, stoning or beheading with an ax. These sadistic murderers poured out all their wrath, for being evicted from their land and homes, on the heads of their unfortunate victims.
For some time I stayed at the Soshinovtse camp. The manager of the estate was a 'Folksdeutsch' (as is well known, after the 'Reichsdeutschen' the 'Folksdeutschen' had the most rights) and he decided, apparently, to try to save us and promised us his protection.
We were l4 people on the estate, mostly l4-l7 years old. A house was put at our disposal, food was provided for us and the manager even ordered that we not be made to work too hard. However, because of an unforeseen event, we were forced to flee from this estate too.
Armed and organized gangs of Ukrainians were roaming in the area. They were part of the 'banderovtsy' whose slogan was an independent Ukraine, free of Jews, Germans and Soviets. They were in the habit of visiting estates at night in order to plunder them, and during those times they also were not above murdering Jews, when the opportunity presented itself.
One night such a band came to Soshinovtse. They stole pigs and horses, and after they finished their work they turned to the other side of the cow-shed where most of us were hiding that night, as an extra precaution.
Meantime the manager of the estate was able to notify the German police by telephone about the robbery, and within a few minutes a German unit appeared. An exchange of bullets began, great panic broke out, and in this way we escaped from the farm in the dark of the night.
We headed in the direction of a nearby estate, Mohilovtse, in whose labor camp there also remained dozens of Jews. But the fate of the Jews in this camp was not different from the fate of the Jews in the other camps.
The Jews knew the threat to their lives from the farmers of the area, and so they used to spend the nights in the barns or cow-sheds on the farm. On that fateful night, March 2 or 3, an attack came from dozens of Ukrainian policemen and dozens of people from the village.
Only one Jew, named Winkler, from Chortkov, and his sick son, were sleeping in the house, between the two floors, which had been serving as a dwelling place for the camp inmates. The rest of the people had looked for a more secure hiding place, without knowing that the villagers had been following them around during the previous two weeks, and that all their hiding places were known to them.
As for me, I used to sleep each night in the large residence, but, apparently thanks to the special instinct that I developed in those years, the instinct of a hunted animal, I went out close to midnight into the barn and 'buried' myself in a huge pile of straw. Actually the attack was carried out before dawn. This time 25 young people lost their lives, among them Klara Bar from Buczacz, who was like a sister to me. These savages took her and her boyfriend out into the wood and brutalized their bodies.
One day followed another and 'salvation' was not any closer. The Russian advance was stopped for some time near Zhitomir and it seemed that all hope was lost. I was holding on with my last strength: against the cold, hunger, wanderings, fear. But help came actually from an unexpected source.
Within the framework of the Hungarian army, that was retreating with the Reich forces, there were squadrons of Jewish sappers. These were army units for all intents and purposes, under Hungarian command. However, the Jews were forbidden to bear arms and their duty consisted entirely of digging ditches and carrying out menial jobs for the Hungarian and German troops.
Because of a temporary break in their retreat one Jewish division of diggers set up its camp in the area near the village of Lisovtse. For about two weeks I stayed with that camp, and ate and slept together with the soldiers of the squadron.
Yitzchak Shikhor (Schwartz)