In putting to paper the story of my life, since the earliest day I can recall, I have no intention of using clichés, recount imaginary stories or fairy tales. My wish, quite simply, is to write about my roots – my parents, my brother and the other members of my family – and about the course of my life.
I do this for my children and grandchildren and their descendants, so that they would know who I am. Our sages of blessed memory said: "Know where thou came from!" and so I wish to recount here where I had grown up and what I had gone through.
Since the Holocaust and even during the Holocaust, I always dreamt that if I survived, it would be my duty, first and foremost, to tell others what I had gone through so that my descendants, and anyone who reads my life story, would know what Amalek had done to the People of Israel, so they never forget the Nazis' intention to eradicate the Jewish nation from the face of the earth.
Therefore, I will do my best to describe what I experienced personally and saw with my own eyes, and everything the Germans and their collaborators were capable of doing.
Anyone reading my story must understand: everything that happened could, God forbid, happen again, as such things have happened before. We, the Jews, must preserve the unity of our nation and safeguard our homeland; as such catastrophes can only happen when a nation does not have its own homeland.
I am Shmuel (Shmilek), son of Yacov (Yankl) and Rachel (Rochtche) Liederman. I was born in 1922, in the town Siedliszcze Male, which the Jews used to call Kleinzlisch, in the Rowne district, province of Wolyn, south-eastern Poland.
WHO AM I?
My grandparents on my father's side, Rabbi Aaron (Orke) and Gitl, were farmers.
How could Jews own land although this was forbidden in the days of the Russian Czar Nikolai, whose realm included ?
Well, as far as I can recall from the stories of grandmother Gitl, whom I remember vividly (I cannot remember grandfather Orke, as he had passed away when I was only two years old), grandmother's father was one of the "abducted". In those days, recruiting officers of the Russian Army of Czar Nikolai would raid Jewish settlements and practically abduct children for military service, for a period of twenty-five years. These abducted children were known as "Cantonists". When grandmother Gitl's father had been abducted in this manner, he was nine years old, and when he was discharged from military service, he was thirty-four. Many of those abducted children had lost any contact with their families after so many years, and most of them did not even know the places where they had been abducted from.
In exchange for their extended military service, the discharged "Cantonists" received a gift from the Russian government – their own agricultural land. This is how the town, or village, where I was born had been established. My grandmother's father received a property of about 250 donums from the military upon his discharge, and that property was bequeathed to my grandmother and subsequently to my father and to his brother Joseph.
The town was located in an afforested area, and in the summer people would come there for their vacation. The Zamczysko River crossed the town and a bridge over it linked both parts of the town together.
The local population – Jews, Ukrainians, Poles and Germans – was about 1,000. The majority were Jews, with about fifty Ukrainian families, about twenty Polish families and about fifteen German families.
My grandfather and grandmother supplied food and other provisions to the 44th regiment of the Polish Army, stationed in the town of Osh. When my grandfather died, he bequeathed two haberdashery shops and my grandmother became the provider of the family. Of all her brothers and sisters, she was the only one who studied at a Russian high school. She was an educated, wise and kindhearted woman.
In addition to farmers, the Jewish population of our town included other trades. Grandfather Orke was a builder.
Initially, my father was a contractor at a glass blowing factory in our town. He later devoted himself to agriculture, but traded in timber, grains and gold as well. As far as timber trading was concerned, he was involved with the local Polish "Paritz" (land owner) – Proczynski. Eventually, when we were under Soviet rule, they treated my father adversely because of his past contacts with this rich land owner.
My father was also the town mayor ("Soltas" or "Soltis" in Polish) from 1922 until the end of the Polish rule in 1939.
THE MEMBERS OF OUR FAMILY
For many generations, my extensive family, on my mother's side as well as on my father's side, had lived in a region that belonged to and Poland alternately.
Firstly, I will describe the family of my mother, Rachel (Rochtche), whose parents were Malka and Joseph Katz. I never met my grandfather Joseph, who was a scholar. He died from pneumonia at the age of thirty-four, before I was born, leaving behind eight children – five daughters and three sons. I remember their names and will name them by order of their birth: Golda, Esther, Rachel (my mother), Sarah-Elka, Rivka, Yacov, Aaron and Yom-Tov.
My grandmother Malka remained a widow until the end of her days. She was a very wise woman who lived at the home of her eldest son Yacov all those years. She died at an old age. Regarding my grandfather, she told me that after their wedding he continued to study at the Yeshiva while receiving subsistence and support from her father.
I remember that almost every year, during the annual holiday, I would travel to the home of grandmother Malka in the town of Osh, Rowne district, twenty five kilometers from our town. Most of the inhabitants of Osh were merchants, and some of them were wealthy. My uncle, Rabbi Haim-Shmula, the husband of Sarah-Elka, owned flour mills and was famous throughout the region. I will never forget the vacations I had spent at the home of my aunt and uncle.
I will now recount what I know about my father's family.
Firstly, I was never able to determine the origin of the surname Liederman (in German, "lied" means "song" and "Liederman" means a songwriter). It is possible that when this name had been given to one of my ancestors, he lived in an area inhabited by Germans.
My father's parents, grandmother Gitl (daughter of Shmuel and Deborah) and grandfather Aaron-Orke (son of Itzhak-Yacov), had six children: three daughters and three sons, whose names, by order of their birth, are Schöendl (the eldest), Rachel, Yacov (my father), Joseph, David and
Deborah. Schöndl immigrated to Argentina in 1912 and was followed by Rachel, David and Deborah. My father and my uncle Joseph remained in Poland and were murdered during the Holocaust. My grandfather had passed away in 1924, two years before I was born.
My uncle Joseph and his wife Haika had four children: Deborah, Shifra, Shimon and Gitl. All were murdered during the Holocaust. I will not list the names of other members of my extensive family on my mother's side and on my father's side. I submitted all these names to "Yad Vashem" in Jerusalem. Regrettably, all of them were murdered during the Holocaust except the son of my aunt Golda, Yacov Rivnik. During the war he was in France and while serving in the French military he was captured by the enemy and survived as a prisoner of war.
CHILDHOOD & ADOLESCENCE
When I turned four years old, I began studying at a "Heder" (= traditional private study classroom) with Melamed (= tutor) Shmuel Kupperschmidt. The Heder was nothing like a current kindergarten, where the children play and sing songs. At the Heder we began immediately to study the Hebrew alphabet, and subsequently began reading the Pentateuch. The pupils of our Heder helped the Melamed feed the chickens in his yard and assisted with other chores in his farm and house.
I was a privileged child, as my father was the town mayor ("Soltas"). He was also the "Gabai" – manager of the local synagogue affairs, while Shmuel the Melamed was the synagogue "Shamash", or caretaker. When the old synagogue building had begun to deteriorate, my father devoted two years to the building of a new synagogue, which turned out very nice. There were two rabbis in our town. One was regarded as a "left winger" in his views while the other was considered a "right winger". My father was among the followers of the "right winger" rabbi.
We lived in a semi-detached house with my father's brother Joseph. We lived a life of affluence. Our home was always stocked with the best: bread, butter, milk and fruit were always plentiful. Next to our house was a large courtyard with apple and pear trees, and beyond it was a vegetable garden where we grew potatoes, cucumbers, tomatoes, beans and other vegetables. We had a cowshed with cows and a stable with horses, as well as a large barn.
In our farm, we employed Ukrainians as well as Poles and Germans as hired hands. In my youth I showed interest in the various chores of the farm and was proficient in many of them.
I continued studying at the Heder for three years, until the age of seven, as from this age, the law made it everyone's duty to attend a Polish elementary school. Anyone who failed to send his children to school was penalized. While studying at school, a private tutor would come to our home every day, two hours after the end of our school lessons, to teach us Hebrew, Bible with Rashi commentary and Talmud. I also took violin lessons and my brother Joseph learned to play the balalaika.
At the Polish elementary school I studied for seven years, as it only had seven classes. We studied Polish, arithmetic, geography, history and religion. At the age of fourteen, I completed my formal studies. There was no high school in our town, and in order to pursue a high school education one had to travel to Rowne, which was too far away. My father found a solution, though – I continued studying with a private tutor until just before the breakout of the war.
At the age of eight, I joined the Zionist youth movement "HaShomer HaTzair", as there was no other movement in our town. It was a very positive movement. During our meetings we studied and spoke Hebrew, lit up bonfires and danced.
At our home we observed the Shabbat, so I was not allowed to go to the movement "cell" on Friday nights and Saturdays, as their activities involved the lighting of bonfires. On Shabbat nights I was free to do what I wanted, but had to be back home by a certain time.
When I was twelve years old, a chapter of "HeHalutz HaTzair" was organized in our town. I subsequently belonged to this movement, which was similar to the movement "Gordonia", until the breakout of the war. As a member of "HeHalutz HaTzair" I had hopes, in 1939, shortly before the breakout of the war, of going to a training camp in preparation for my future immigration to Eretz-Israel.
During that three-year period, I became interested in my father's business affairs – both commerce and the management of the agricultural farm. We were good farmers, running a model farm. People would come to visit our farm and were always impressed by our work. Our financial situation was sound. We produced everything we needed: bread, meat, oil, eggs, milk and other kinds of produce, everything, of course, except salt, sugar and kerosene. I point this out because during the Nazi occupation, until the time of the "Final Solution" and subsequent extermination, we hardly experienced any shortage.
When I was twelve years old, my mother gave birth to a baby girl, which brought a lot of joy to our home. My mother and father were delighted. When my baby sister was twenty one months old, she suddenly came down with meningitis and passed away within a week. Our family fell into deep mourning, as if an older child had died. I can clearly remember how my baby sister could speak well at the age of one year. She practically made speeches.
Relations between my brother Joseph and me were excellent. He was twenty one months older than me, but we were as one. We looked like twins. Joseph was wise, smart, handsome and brave. He was afraid of nothing. Our father introduced him into his commercial affairs and he practically ran the business, as our father was preoccupied with public and community affairs.
We lived peacefully until the war came and put an end to our piece of heaven.
UNDER SOVIET RULE
Within a fortnight or more of the breakout of the war on September 1, 1939, soldiers of the Red Army of the USSR came to our town.
THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING
In August 1939, the communist and Nazi Germany had signed a treaty of neutrality and cooperation, in the context of which they agreed to divide Poland between them. The Germans invaded Poland from the west on September 1, 1939, thereby starting World War II. Shortly thereafter, on September 17, the Soviets invaded Poland from the east. Within ten days, Poland was split in half along the river Bug. In fact, the Germans captured the western part of the country, with its predominately Polish population, and the Russians captured the eastern territory, which had a predominately Ukrainian and Byelorussian population.
When the Russians arrived, they announced that they were liberating us from the burden of capitalism, that we would be free, that there would no longer be landowners and wealthy individuals, and that everyone would be equal. That announcement was proven false immediately. The Soviets took everything, initially confiscating the property of the rich. They converted the villages into collective "kolkhoz" farms and deported the rich to Siberia. We were on the list of would-be deportees, too, but my father had no enemies. The people of our town spoke well of him, saying that he had served the entire population well, and so we were not deported with all the others. Nevertheless, we knew that the Soviet authorities could deport us at any minute, and prepared parcels at home for that eventuality.
By then, I was seventeen years old and my brother Joseph was nineteen. I was very glad with the arrival of the Soviet forces, as they had saved us from the Nazis, although in those days we knew very little of what Hitler had in mind for the Jews and what he had already initiated with regard to the Jews.
My father thought otherwise. He remembered the Germans from the days of the Austrian emperor Franz Joseph, and did not fear them. Moreover, my father and I lived alongside Germans. The population of our town was made up of Jews, Poles, Ukrainians and Germans, and as my father was the mayor, he had daily dealings with the entire population, including the German inhabitants. He refused to believe that the German nation was capable of doing what Hitler had planned to do to the Jews.
For this reason, my father was not happy when the Soviets arrived. Our town was fairly close to the USSR border – about twenty-five kilometers away – and in the past we received information about what the Soviet regime had been doing to the population in its territories and how, back in 1935, the Russian communists had either eliminated or deported to Siberia every person who opposed the conversion of the villages into collective kolkhoz farms.
SUSPECTS IN THE EYES OF THE AUTHORITIES
My father's negative sentiments regarding the communist regime proved justified, as far as he was concerned. We were the owners of an agricultural estate occupying an area of about 250 donums. We were farmers, but also the employers of Ukrainian, German and Polish workers. No wonder that my father was troubled, as he feared the Russian authorities might regard him as an "anti-Soviet" element.
During the Soviet rule, which lasted about a year and nine months, my father grew apprehensive and introvert, always watchful of current affairs. As property owners, we faced deportation to Siberia. Both mentally and practically, we were prepared for this eventuality and expected it to happen
every night. We lived with these fears until Nazi Germany waged war on the communist USSR on June 22, 1941.
During the Soviet rule, my brother Joseph and I were being observed by the authorities, as we had been regarded as both wealthy capitalists and Polish patriots. The authorities wanted to send one of us to a forced labor camp, leaving the other at home so that he would help with the agricultural work. Consequently, at my own initiative, I decided to learn a trade so that I may assimilate into the Soviet way of life, thereby lifting the threat of one of us being sent to a forced labor camp. For this purpose, I traveled to the county town of Rowne in order to become a motorist.
I studied the motorist's trade for six months. These days, you take a few driving lessons, pass a driving test and become a driver. Under the Soviet rule, you had to attend classroom lessons for eight hours, and study the structure of the motor vehicle, mechanics, automotive electrical systems and even how to perform an overhaul, namely – how to rebuild an engine, all in the Russian language. When I completed the course, I had to pass examinations in all of those subjects of mechanics and electricity, and only then could I take the driving test. Finally, I qualified as a "Driver's Aid" and sent to work at a government automotive workshop in Kostopol, twelve kilometers away from our town. My aunt (my mother's elder sister) lived in Kostopol, so I stayed at her home.
I worked at the workshop until the war with the Germans broke out, by which time I was already aware of what was in store for us should they invade the territory where we lived. When the war broke out, I came home and told my parents that I had the opportunity of taking the entire family and driving by car into , and suggested that they do so, but my father opposed this idea. In the meantime, Joseph was taken to become a forced laborer at an airbase and was confined to camp, so the opportunity of driving into Russia was put off.
The Germans launched their surprise attack against the on June 22, 1941. Compared to everything that happened after that, life under Soviet rule seemed like paradise.
THE NAZI OCCUPATION
It is extremely difficult for me, emotionally, to begin writing about the Holocaust period, but I feel it is profoundly necessary that my children and grandchildren should know and never forget what the Germans had done to my family and to the Jewish people.
THE GERMANS INVADE
I remember every little detail. I have been living with it twenty four hours each day. Even at night, even during joyous family events, I cannot shake off my thoughts about those days of horror and the memories of the terrible things I saw with my own eyes. These visions haunt me day and night and never let go.
As I stated, the war between the Soviets and the Nazis broke out on June 22, 1941. The German army moved east and within less than ten days, the entire system, the tremendous strength the Soviets had in our area, this entire mighty army fled, leaving everything behind, including the airbases with the aircraft burnt to the ground in German air strikes without having the chance to take off. It was similar to – and possibly worse than – what happened to the Egyptian air force during the first hours of the Six Day War of 1967. We saw the Soviet might at the time of its worst weakness.
After the German troopers marched into our town, my brother, I and the other Jews ran to the fields. It was a time when the grain crops were at their tallest, and it was easy to hide among them. But how long can you lie flat on the ground? No more than a day or two. Our parents did not leave the house, and only my brother and I fled. We were in our own fields, fairly close to our home, and when we returned home, very cautiously, we could still see the German forces advancing into .
ROBBERY & LOOTING
The first thing the German conquerors did was looting. They pillaged the houses of the Jews, taking whatever they could find, tearing and smashing anything they could not take along, leaving the houses in a state of devastation. The Germans walked into the houses, threw the contents out, and the local gentiles would gather outside and take everything. While they were leaving the houses, they gestured at us, moving their hands across their throats, thereby promising to us that when the time came, they would slaughter us.
To the end of my days, I will never forget this image.
After a few days of horror and fear, things quieted down. The Jewish inhabitants who had fled to the fields began coming out of their hiding places and returned to their homes. People were beginning to get used to the new situation.
At first, there were hardly any Germans in town, so the Ukrainians took matters into their hands. They shouted and announced that they had been waiting for times like these for three hundred years, since the days of their leader Bogdan Chmelnitski, damn him. They accused us of being not only Jews but communists as well, and shouted at us: "Death to the Jews, the communists and the Poles!"
The Ukrainians dominated us. They behaved like animals. During the night, they would rape girls. They assigned the youngsters to forced labor, such as cleaning the streets, even though there was nothing to clean, as the town only had two streets. They did all this simply in order to abuse us, and during the actual work they would beat us and would not let us rest. They practically gave us hell.
At first, they did not kill any Jews. There was only one case where they took a man named Moshe Schleifer, the grandson of our slaughterer. One of the gentiles informed the authorities that Schleifer had been a communist during the Soviet rule. The Germans beat him, led him to the cemetery and buried him, practically still alive. He was the only victim in our town until the "Action".
Following this event, at the demand of my father, who was still accepted by the entire population, three German officials were sent to supervise local affairs and run the local post office (which did not serve the Jews, as no one wrote letters to the Jewish population in those days). These German supervisors published a written notice to the effect that they were in charge, and only they and no one else were authorized to kill Jews. They began to run the local daily life, assigned the youngsters to forced labor projects and demanded that we hand to them, according to an allocation system, the grain crops, fruit and cattle, and little by little they also took such private property as fur coats, jewelry and fabrics from the stores, and ordered civil suits for themselves and for their friends and had parcels sent to their homes in Germany. They simply robbed us.
DAYS OF MURDER & MASSACRES
We lived under such conditions for about nine months. In the meantime, there were no mass killings. They let us get on with our lives, but we lived in constant fear, day and night.
Little by little, the Germans began taking Jews to forced labor projects. They took me and my brother, but not our father. My father was taken to Gestapo headquarters in Kostopol, where he was held in the basement for a few days. His German captors tortured him so that he would tell them where our gold and money were hidden, in the sense of "Have you killed and also taken possession?"
Later on, we received information that ghettos were being established for the Jews. In the town of Kostopol, the district capital, whose population was five thousand, the Germans established a ghetto where they concentrated all of the Jewish inhabitants. They lived in the ghetto for nine months until one day, my father, who used to sneak into the ghetto from time to time, heard that the Germans were planning to exterminate everyone very soon.
We received information about it, so we expected that day, too, but the German did not detain us, the people of Kleinzlisch, in a ghetto. We interpreted it optimistically, believing that the Germans regarded us as different from other Jews, as we were farmers living by the sweat of our brows and not exploiting the gentiles. This proved to be an illusion – a matter of wishful thinking. We thought so based on our innocent belief that we would be the exception. The murderers did not think so, as they knew that the day of the Jews of Kleinzlisch would come.
Indeed, on the night of the 13th of Elul in the year 1942, the Germans decided to exterminate the Jews of the Kostopol district – all in one day. For this purpose, Ukrainian workers had dug trenches near Kostopol, at a place called Khotinka, about three or four kilometers away from the town, and the Germans began transporting the Jews to that place. All of the Jews of the Kostopol district were murdered in a single day. They were thrown alive into the trenches prepared beforehand, and then shot inside the trenches. Prior to that they had been forced to strip, leave their clothes on the ground and run into the trenches. Alternately, they were ordered to line up along the trenches, where they were killed by machinegun fire.
THE "ACTION" IN KLEINZLISCH
Even prior to the "Action" conducted in our town, the feeling we had at home was that a massacre was being formulated. We all shared this feeling, as on Sunday our father returned from a visit to Kostopol in a very bad mood. He said he had heard bad things over there. We went to bed but
could not sleep. Suddenly, at three in the morning, we heard gunshots and shouts: "Out! Out of the houses!"
Germans of the "Zonderkommando" unit, along with local German collaborators, surrounded us and closed in on us, then began to pull people out of their homes. People did not have time to put on their clothes. Everyone simply came out and did not know where to go.
The distance between the town and the woods was about one to one and a half kilometers. When we first heard the Germans' shouts, we still had a chance to attempt to flee to the woods and hide there. I do not know what would have happened if everyone had fled. In reality, only seven people escaped, as I will describe later.
The Germans led all of the Jews to a large lot located near the house of Moishe Stern the blacksmith, where they conducted a "selection": the sick and infirm were separated and led to the town cemetery, where they dug a mass grave and each one was shot in the back of the head. Some were buried alive. My mother was among the people who were murdered there.
It is extremely difficult for me to write these things, despite the fact that I have been seeing these images repeatedly ever since, as I experienced all of this in person, albeit not there but somewhere else, as I will describe later.
Later on I found out that my father and mother did not go together. He was taken to questioning so that he would reveal where his money was hidden. Someone who escaped Gestapo custody in Kostopol and subsequently joined us in the woods had seen my father in the torture chamber they had there. As far as I was able to establish, my father, along with my uncle Joseph and his children were shot at the mass grave in Khotinka.
About my mother's fate, the Poles told me that the local Polish inhabitants treated her a little better than the others. She was taken along with about two hundred others to the local cemetery, where they were all murdered by gunfire. The remaining Jews of the town were transported to the slaughter in Khotinka, seven kilometers away from our town. There, pits or trenches had been dug in advance, the Jews were lined up along these trenches, ordered to strip and lay their clothes on the ground, and the Germans then shot them with machineguns and they dropped inside, dead.
ESCAPING TO THE HIDING-PLACE
How did I survive that operation of total murder?
My father, who knew that the day of murder would come, decided in advance to prepare a hiding-place in the barn we used to store the grain crops we had harvested in the fields. He and my brother Joseph used planks to build a cabin, over which we loaded the crops. Entrance to the hiding-place was through the heap of straw used for feeding the cows. The problem was that the entrance had to be concealed from the outside.
When the "Action" started and people emerged from their homes, our father ordered us: "Run to the hiding-place, quickly!" We jumped out of bed barefoot and without even putting our clothes on – all we had on were our "Long Johns" and long-sleeved undershirts – we ran straight to the barn.
My brother, I and four other members of our family entered the hiding-place, and then my father told us: "You, children, get in quickly and I will cover the tracks you left in the barn. I would then wait until they come and take me to my death. I want the same fate for myself as for everyone else – and the same goes for mother".
To the end of my days, I will never forget my father's words.
In those days, my mother's sisters, aunt Golda and aunt Sarah-Elka, as well as uncle Eliyahu and uncle Haim and their children, were living with us, as they had nothing to eat and we had everything. The Germans took them along with my father and mother.
Inside the hiding-place we had water and even food prepared in advance. We had a small four-year old boy with us – uncle Golda's grandson, Melekh'ke. We were afraid that he would cry, but he was a clever child and kept quiet.
On the side wall of the hiding-place we made a small aperture through which we could observe the main road, and so we saw how the Nazis ran wild and how they abused our people. I do not have the mental capacity to describe everything, but everyone knows how those murderers behaved.
Throughout that day we remained in the hiding-place. The Germans, accompanied by the local Ukrainian collaborators, entered the barn on several occasions, looking for us. We could hear them speak, and I remember it clearly – I will never forget this, either – how one German told a Ukrainian: "This must be a wealthy Jew. Look at the perfect order in this barn!" The Ukrainian replied in German: "This belongs to the town mayor, the 'Soltas'".
That evening, after darkness had fallen and we could no longer hear any shouts or gunshots outside, we started thinking about escaping from the hiding-place. We knew that we had to leave, as on the following day they would have certainly found us. So, my brother Joseph exited the hiding-place first, and I followed, as usual. I always followed his example. Everything he ever did was positive and properly calculated. The others followed us.
We dashed across the road and continued straight into the fields, or more accurately – into the marshes. I asked my brother where we should run to, and he replied "to Antonowka". That town was seven kilometers away. Contrary to our own town, it did not have any Ukrainian inhabitants. It was much smaller than our town. The Jews there engaged in commerce and various trades, but not in farming, for the most part. Antonowka was a part of a different district. The Germans conducted their "actions" district by district, and there they had not operated yet.
We arrived in Antonowka before dawn, barefoot, wet and with hardly any clothes on. The local inhabitants were still asleep, and as we found out later, they knew very little about what had taken place in our town. Everyone was indrawn and kept to himself. We knocked on the window of one of the houses and spoke with the owner, and then they let us in and gave us something to wear. I remember that I did not receive any shoes. We continued walking toward the nearby woods, as we knew that the murderers would be coming to this town, too. It was only a matter of time.
We roamed the nearby woods for a few days until we despaired and gave up on life. We did not care about anything anymore. We decided to go back to Antonowka, where we met a few survivors from our town, who had managed to escape the valley of death. Their state was just as difficult as ours. We remained there with them for a few more days.
The days that passed since our community had been eliminated were like an indescribable hell on earth for me. If I said that my life was a dog's life, I would not be fully realistic, as in fact – I envied the dogs. I asked God to reincarnate my soul into a dog, as no one would harm a dog as long as it had not bitten anyone.
During that time I became ill and ran an extremely high fever. By then I really did not mind dying, as I could not even lift my head up. I was down and out, with no food or shelter. There were no doctors and no drugs.
ON THE VERGE OF EXTINCTION
One fine day – I remember it was a Wednesday afternoon – we suddenly heard gunshots and shouts, the same shouts I remembered from the "Action" in our town, and before my brother and I could think what was happening, we were surrounded by the Ukrainian murderers and Nazi Germans. Once again, the same shouting and pushing and beating and the same command: "March!"
"March to your death!"
The murderers herded everyone they found, but most of those apprehended were Jews who had managed to escape the killings in our town and in other settlements. We were about two hundred people. They marched us to the nearby woods, escorted fore and aft by the murderers.
When we reached the woods, the murderers picked me, my brother and four other men, gave us each a shovel and ordered us to dig a grave for our own burial. The murderers stood by us and kept shouting: "Faster! Faster!" and anyone who stood up straight, even for a second, was beaten with a rifle butt, so we dug our own grave.
The other Jews, children, women and the elderly (including our copyist of the Scriptures, Yankl Fidl Habas, with his children) were ordered to lie face down on the ground until the digging of the grave was completed.
I remember how, while I was digging the grave, one of the Ukrainian murderers approached me. He was my own age, and we were at school together. We shared the same bench for seven years and he was my best friend. His name was Alexei. He told me, quite shamelessly: "We are going to kill you very soon, so if you have on your person any gold, jewelry and a watch, hand them over to me before you die". Naturally, he received no response from me.
When the pit was ready, the Germans shouted at us, the six diggers: "Aus ziehen!", namely – strip and get into the pit. We were to be shot first. At that moment I said to my brother: "This is the end…" My brother said the same to me.
ESCAPE FROM DEATH
And then, at the very moment we were ordered to strip, one of us, a forty year old Jew from Antonowka, named Shmuel Kashmi, started running. He was followed by a friend of ours, David, the son of our copyist of the Scriptures, Yankl Fidl Habas. My brother and I followed suit.
Shmuel managed to get away, but David was shot in the head and fell to the ground. My brother was not hurt but I, after running about twenty meters, took a bullet in my hand.
I fell to the ground and my hand felt hot. At first, I did not know what was happening, whether I was alive or dead.
This moment has haunted me ever since. I see this image, very vividly, right in front of my eyes – even now. Looking back, it seems that what had taken place there lasted a long time, but in fact everything happened in an instant.
I was wearing my Long Johns and an undershirt, and had no shoes on – only wooden clogs. I recovered very quickly. I felt my hand bleeding but realized my body was otherwise intact, and then I stood up and continued running. I heard gunshots from behind but did not look back. Instead, I kept zigzagging as fast as I could, like a chicken that had not been slaughtered properly. I do not know where I had gained the strength to run like that and how I had known that I should be zigzagging, but I guess whatever your intelligence does not do for you, the circumstances complement very quickly. So I ran through the trees in the woods, and luckily did not sustain any additional injuries. After running for about five minutes, I spotted my brother Joseph from a distance. I shouted: "Yosl! Yosl!" and he heard me, but did not turn around, only gestured to me to keep on running and follow him.
When I emerged from the section of the woods with the tall trees, I slowed down a little, and then joined my brother and we sat down by a pond. It was getting dark. I cleaned my wound with water and in order to stop the bleeding, applied thick mud to the wound. Then I tore off a piece of my Long Johns and bandaged my hand.
To this day I cannot understand where I had gained the strength and stamina to do what I did, taking into account that I was running a high fever (possibly higher than 39 degrees) and was starving and dehydrated. The divine providence must have come to my rescue, or maybe it was not thanks to me but thanks to the graces of my ancestors. My mother was known as "Rochtche the righteous". She and my father Yankl were both religious, they both lived not only for themselves but always endeavored for the benefit of the general public. They always helped others through anonymous donations, through benevolence and charity, by visiting the sick and by caring for orphans. My father did not distinguish between Jews and non-Jews. He helped anyone who needed help – whoever they may be. When poor young couples in town could not afford a wedding celebration, my mother would finance their weddings and she often invited such couples to stay in our spacious home for a week. It is possible that all of these good deeds benefited us, my brother and I, and saved us.
We sat there for a few hours. I was pessimistic and asked my brother whether the effort was worth it. My brother replied: "It's not important. We were saved. Tomorrow is another day. Let's live another day. We will not be late for our own death."
When darkness fell, we continued walking, barefoot and half naked. We had to walk cautiously, so as not to be seen. Anyone who spotted us would have known that we were Jews who had escaped from the killings.
AT THE HOUSE OF STANISLAW JASINSKI
We decided to go to the house of a Polish farmer named Stanislaw Jasinski, who lived nearby – about three or four kilometers from where we were. This man was an old acquaintance of our father's, and the only Pole with whom we had a chance to hide.
The following story describes how Jasinski and my father had become friends.
In 1914, during World War I, some rich Germans had dwelt in our town and the Russians deported all of them to Siberia as they feared they might be spies. Jasinski took possession of the large estate of one of those Germans, which occupied a territory of 50 hectares. In addition to the main house, the property included a cowshed, a stable and a barn. A few years later, during the Polish rule, some of the local inhabitants claimed that the estate in question belonged to them, rather than to Jasinski, and pressed my father, who was the local mayor, to file charges against Jasinski. My father filed a motion and a court judge ruled that Jasinski should vacate the property. Eventually, bailiffs arrived and drove him and his family out of the estate.
Jasinski found himself without a roof over his head, and he had small children. He was a humble peasant, who probably could not even read or write, but he was a sensible man. He actually walked to the Supreme Court in Lublin, two hundred kilometers from our town. There, without a lawyer, he faced the judges and claimed that the law of limitation should be applied in his case. His claim was accepted and then he returned to town, came to my father, shook his hand and said: "You did not wrong me. You did your duty. From now on we will be friends!"
By the time we decided to go to him, Jasinski was eighty years old (possibly older) and almost blind. He was a widower and lived at the house of his middle daughter, Emilia Slodkowska.
So, we decided to try our luck and approach this man. He was the only gentile who offered a chance of help.
We reached Stanislaw Jasinski's house and knocked on the door. He asked "Who's there?" and we replied that we were the sons of Yacov Liederman, the "Soltas". He opened the door for us. He was not able to see us, but he recognized our voices and told us immediately: "Whatever happens to you will happen to me. You have nothing to fear. Your fate and mine will be the same." He also said: "Tozo bilu tela sniesh", namely – the fact that your father had apparently wronged me is no longer a factor. Now you have to be saved.
He then proceeded to wash my wound with water and poured some cologne over it for disinfection, as that's all he had at home. He bandaged my hand with a piece of cloth, gave me something to wear and placed us in the barn so we could go to sleep. We slept like logs. In the morning, I heard the barn door open. Jasinski brought us bread, potatoes and some milk. He said: "You should not remain in the barn during the day. It's too risky. I thought all night what we should do. So, we will dig a pit in the stable, cover it with planks, cover the planks with straw and place a horse over everything. You will spend the daytime in the pit and during the night you will sleep in the barn. In an emergency, you would be able to run to the woods."
And so we did. During the daytime we hid in the pit, which was so narrow we were unable to sit or lie down. We had left a small opening for air in our hiding-place, so that we would not suffocate, but all we could do was stand and smell the stench of the horse's urine. In the evening, Jasinski would signal us to come out and then we could breathe some fresh air and have something to eat.
We spent two or three weeks in this manner, and then two friends from our town came to Jasinski's house. They knew he was a good man and assumed that as my brother and I had disappeared, we were probably hiding at his place. They asked him about us and hinted that they knew we were there. Their purpose was to save themselves, and although they did not press him, they asked that he conceal them, too.
Jasinski came to us and asked what he should do. I told him that if he agreed, we would have those two join us and manage together somehow. One of them was Akiva Cramer, the son of my father's cousin – his grandmother and my grandfather were brothers. They came, we embraced and let them in, and Jasinski gave everyone food – as much as he had at home.
Jasinski was not a man of means. His daughter Emilia and her husband Joseph were poor peasants, living in a shabby house. They had a cow or two, two horses and some chickens. After a while, the Germans transferred them to , to work in agriculture. After the war, they did not wish to return and live among the Ukrainian murderers, so they immigrated to America. They had three children.
Emilia and Joseph knew that we had come to their house and that we were hiding in the stable. Emilia helped us, despite the fact that she lived in constant fear. She cooked food for us and brought it to our hiding-place, and took care of our clothes.
At some point my brother and I decided to go home in order to dig out and find the iron cash box we had hidden from the Nazis. The distance from Jasinski's house to our home was about seven kilometers. The cash box was not too large. We dug it out and found in it some gold coins and jewelry that had belonged to our mother, and gave Jasinski some of the contents, so that he would sell it and buy groceries for everyone. The rest we kept and subsequently used it to purchase firearms.
We could only purchase firearms from Polish sources. Ukrainians would have turned us over to the Germans immediately. We trusted the Poles, as they were being persecuted, too. The Germans did not kill them, but sent them to as forced labor.
4. A BUNKER IN THE WOODS
LEAVING JASINSKI'S HOUSE
After we were hiding in his barn for two months, Jasinski found out, from relatives, that rumors were circling that he was hiding Jews. He came to us and said that if they came and caught us, they would murder us and him, too, and burn down the house. The Germans had already done that in several places. He did not demand that we leave. He only explained the dangerous situation in simple terms, and added that now it was the Poles' turn – they were being pulled out of their homes and sent to as forced labor.
We had no choice. It was clear to us that we should leave. We packed our few belongings and headed out to the woods. The woods in that area were twenty kilometers deep. According to my calculations, it was November 1942.
We were four: my brother Joseph, I, our cousin Akiva and Shaya Fodler, who was a liveryman. At nineteen or twenty, I was the youngest. Akiva and Shaya were thirty five to forty.
We entered the great Polszcinski woods and looked for a safe place, were we would not be easy to reach – not necessarily an area with tall trees, but a remote location that would be difficult to access. We looked and found a spot with no roads, and dug ourselves a bunker. We covered the bunker with tree branches, earth and vegetation.
While we were in the woods, we had to obtain food, and what we could not get willingly from the huts of the peasants on the edge of the woods, we took by force. Our food consisted mainly of bread and potatoes. Sometimes, when we trapped a chicken, we slaughtered and grilled it over a bonfire. One or two of us would always stand guard near the bunker. That is how we lived from January 1943 until the end of December 1943.
Thanks to my good memory, I knew my way around the woods and could get out and return to our hiding-place without difficulty, as in those woods it was easy to become lost, and so wander into the hands of the Ukrainian murderers. I had no shoes. Instead, I used "Posteles"- a kind of wrapping I fabricated out of thin tree bark.
One day, I went to the house of a peasant who lived on the edge of the woods. I had heard he was hiding Jews. He had with him a girl from my town and a couple of shoemakers, as the gentiles needed shoemakers to make shoes for them. He kept them in his barn. There was also a Jewish tailor who would sew for them. When I came over, the peasant told me: "Do some work in the barn first." We harvested the crops and sieved the wheat grains, and they would use it to make bread. I would work for him for a few days, and he would prepare a few loaves of bread, potatoes and cheese for me, which I would take to the bunker.
THE SECOND ESCAPE
When I walked through the woods at night, even when I was armed, I envied the dogs that barked at me. The dogs ate the food reserved for the pigs, and I would have loved eating that food. When we approached the peasants' houses and their dogs started barking, they knew that Jews were approaching and began chasing us. In some cases, we had to exchange fire with them.
Once I went with another member of our bunker group to get the latest news. We wanted to know what was going on. They said that the Germans had already been defeated at Stalingrad. We did not have newspapers and could only gain information from the Poles. We sat at the home of a Pole whom the Ukrainians had suspected of collaborating with the Russians during the Soviet rule. Three Ukrainians who came looking for us caught us there. They knew immediately that we were Jews. They did not have handcuffs, so they tied our hands behind our backs with a rope and loaded us onto a horse-drawn cart along with another gentile, whom they also suspected. That gentile knew he would be shot and decided to run. When he ran, they fired at him while we were standing there with our hands tied behind our backs. The runaway was shot and killed, and the murderers said: "It is not enough that we have killed him, we need to pour salt over him".
These Ukrainians drove us into the woods and there, in all probability, they intended to kill us after finding out where other Jews were hiding. My fingernails were as sharp as a cat's and so, with my hands tied behind my back, I cut the rope, thread after thread, with my fingernails during the ride in the cart. With both hands free, I told my friend: "Let's run. They will probably torture us and drive us to our death so that we tell them where other Jews are hiding. Let's run before they kill us!" He did not respond, so I decided to run on my own.
I was barefoot. One of the Ukrainians, armed with a pistol, guarded us. The other one went to speak with the third Ukrainian. I took advantage of an instant when the guard was not looking at me (as no person can focus on the same spot all the time), and when he looked away I jumped off the cart, fell to the ground and started running. It happened in the woods, at one or two after midnight. The Ukrainian opened fire but could not aim properly in the dark. The firing stopped. I knew that if I remained there, they would come for me in the morning, when they would find and kill me. I walked away in the moonlight and just before dawn I arrived back in the bunker and told my story to my brother. He was confident I was no longer alive. He thought that I had been apprehended and killed. Such instances of mortal danger were commonplace. Murders occurred every day. Today, I find it hard to believe that I had personally experienced all of this.
THE MURDER OF MY BROTHER JOSEPH
One day, when I wanted to go over to the peasant who employed me, my brother told me: "Don't go today. Go some other time." I found no reason to accept, so I went anyway. When I returned two days later with a sack of food for our bunker, I found all my three friends dead. They had been taken out of the bunker and slaughtered with axes. Near the bunker, we had dug a cistern for collecting storm water. The killers dumped the three bodies into the water cistern.
Many Jews who had survived the German "Actions" and managed to escape to the woods were subsequently murdered by Ukrainians. Generally speaking, the Nazis could not have accomplished their total extermination plan without the assistance of the Ukrainians.
When I saw the body of my brother Joseph, I was shocked. I wanted to throw myself into the water cistern along with my dead friends, but after a moment I had the sense to ask myself whether this would do any good. I ran back to the house of the peasant who employed me, and, shouting and crying, I told him what had happened. He tried to calm me down, saying: "Come, come, my son" and took me, on horseback, back to the bunker. We buried my friends and covered the grave. Afterwards, he took me to his home, fed me and let me stay there. After a day or two, I met the girl from our town that was also hiding there. Her name was Bluma.
I stayed at the peasant's house, but after a while realized that it was too risky. Numerous Ukrainian murderers were roaming that area, the Russian front had moved westward and we could already hear the distant thunder of artillery fire. The Ukrainians who had been hunting and killing Jews were now hiding in the woods, too, as they feared the advancing Soviet Army.
One day, a gentile neighbor walked into the peasant's house. His name was Ivan. When he saw me, he wanted to embrace me, but I told him: "Leave me alone, you are a killer! You killed Jews along with your associates!" When he left, I told the peasant I wanted to leave. He asked me why and what had happened, and said: "Stay here, where would you go?"
I said: "No. Here they will kill me", then called Bluma and told her: "You'd better get away. They will kill us. Soon they would be liberated."
She did not listen to me and said that the peasant would protect her. I went back to the woods, to where our bunker had been, about five or six kilometers away from the peasant's house. In the woods, I found a few Jews and told them about the disaster we had experienced. They let me join their group and took me into their bunker.
At that place, I contracted typhoid, as I was full of lice that transmit that disease. After a while, we heard that the killers were coming for us with intent to kill us all. Everyone fled, leaving me behind in the bunker, sick and helpless. I was lying there for twelve days, without food or water. I was so sick, I defecated lying down.
5. THE WAR IS OVER
The time passed, I was in a daze, until one day I heard footsteps. Someone opened the bunker door and stepped in. It was a Russian soldier. I remember his red insignia.
The soldier asked: "Who are you?" in Russian, and was ready to shoot me. I could speak Russian, and told him: "I am a Jew", so he closed the door and went away. He disappeared without giving me even a drop of water.
I remained there, helpless, until I felt my soul was leaving my body. I said to myself: "Come what may, I am going out for some fresh air". When I exited the bunker, the snow outside was about a meter and a half thick. It was January.
Where would I go? I did not even know where I was. I picked up two sticks, so as not to collapse, and started walking. I wanted to go back to the house of the peasant who had put me up. When I arrived at his house, he welcomed me and said: "Do you know that the Russians are already here? You have nothing to fear. Come, I will wash you and give you food and a shirt and underwear."
While he was washing me, a few gentiles walked into his house. They had come to kill the remaining Jews so that there would be no witnesses to their murders. When I saw the gentile neighbor among them, I thought I was looking at the angel of death. The moment he left the house, I told Bluma: "Let's go. He will be back with his gang and they would kill us".
She said: "No. The Russians are already here".
I decided to get away. I did not know where to go, but I remembered how to get out of the woods and go to the nearest town, Mesritz, about twelve kilometers away. I walked, I fell, I stood up and continued walking until I arrived. I saw abandoned houses and asked someone for the name of that place. A gentile told me it was Mesritz. I continued walking until I met a Jew. I did not know he was a Jew, but he could see, by the way I looked, that I was a Jew and asked in Yiddish: "Bist du a Yid?" (Are you a Jew), to which I replied: "Yes", and then he said: "Ich bin auch a Yid" (I am a Jew, too), and asked where I was from.
I told him I was from Kleinzlisch and then he said: "Do you know you had an aunt and uncle here, with children? None of them survived!"
We went into an abandoned house, sealed it with a few planks and I asked that man who had survived in that place. He replied: "Only I survived. Come, stay with me". He turned out to be the same age as I.
I told him that I suffered from scabies and sores, because of the lice, and that the itching was driving me crazy. He said he had scabies, too, and when I asked him how we could get some kind of medicine for it, he asked whether I had any gold. I said I did and gave him five Rubels. He took the money and found a military veterinarian or orderly of some kind, who prepared an ointment of butter and mercury. We applied that ointment and it brought us some relief.
After we rested for a while, we went outside. Children from here and there gathered around us, and a woman came with her daughter and said she was from Kostopol. No one from my town was there. I told her I had an uncle in Kostopol, whose name was Rivnik, and she suggested we go to Kostopol together, to which I replied: "Why should I go there? I know they would kill us all over there." She said: "Here they will kill us. It is a small place. The killers would come and kill us. Let's go to a bigger place, where they have police and military forces."
I agreed to go with her, and then a wife and her husband appeared. They were former residents of Lodz, who also survived in the woods. They said to me: "Where are you going? You will fall by the roadside. You can hardly breathe. Wait for a while. In the meantime, stay here with us." I stayed, and later they decided to go together – a group of twelve people, first to Tulchin, from Tulchin to Rowne, and from Rowne each one would go to their respective hometowns.
They were barely about twelve kilometers away from Mesritz when they were attacked by killers on horses and were all shot and killed. If I had joined them, I would have been murdered, too. We received the sad news that very evening – that everyone had been killed.
And so, I was saved yet another time.
I remained in Mesritz for a while, and yet I yearned to go to Kostopol. When our group was on the main road to Rowne, there were troops, tanks and artillery pieces driving by. We stood by the road and lifted our hands. A Studebaker car pulled over and the driver asked me, in Russian: "Kuda?" (Where to?), I said: "To Kostopol". He said: "Pojalsta" (please) and let me in his car. He was an officer, possibly Jewish. He took me as far as Rowne, the district town.
IN ROWNE & KOSTOPOL
Before the war, there were thirty thousand Jews living in Rowne. Now, I could not see a single soul. I roamed the main street, as I knew the town – I had gone to school there. Someone told me that at a certain house was a store with a few Jews. I went there and found everyone lying down. None of them made a sound. I left and went to the train station, where I took the train to Kostopol. In Kostopol I felt at home. My aunt Golda had lived there. Their house remained intact and was subsequently used for a museum of Ukrainian history.
When I went into my aunt's house, I found out that some gentile had settled there. I told him: "You know, this is my house", to which he replied: "This is not your house. Go away. They killed everyone and they will kill you, too!" and drove me away.
In Kostopol I saw armed Soviet soldiers and local civilians – but none of them were Jews. After a while, I heard that a local Jew had arrived in town. He was Yom-Tov Gendelman, who had a butcher shop before the war. When he saw me, he asked: "Are you the son of Liederman the 'Soltas'? I survived. They killed my wife and eldest daughter. Only I and my younger daughter Sonia survived." He invited me to his home and I accepted. He had a spare bed for me, and I washed and stayed there for a few days, then went to the house of my uncle Rivnik again. Yom-Tov Gendelman had told me: "You know, there, at your aunt's house, there's a cow. Go get it and we'll have milk to drink."
I didn't think twice. I took a knife, went into the yard, cut the rope and took the cow with me. The gentile who had settled there shouted and cried, but I told him: "I will kill you! This is all mine!" and led the cow to Yom-Tov's house. At that moment, two Russian soldiers arrived and said: "Is that you? You stole the cow? Come with us to the 'Procuror' (prosecutor). A woman came over and complained that you took her cow by force."
I went along. The prosecutor told me: "Are you aware that what you did is against the law?"
I told him: "You are the prosecutor, and you are telling me that that is against the law? Everything they have, they had taken from the Jews, and this cow belonged to my uncle," and I began to cry.
The prosecutor's secretary, a Polish woman, took pity on me but she could do nothing to help me.
RECRUITMENT TO THE SOVIET ARMY
I went back to Yom-Tov's house and stayed there for a week, until the Soviet authorities assembled all of the Ukrainians and sent them away to the front. When the soldiers came to the house of Yom-Tov Gendelman, who was about sixty, they took only him out. I told them I was a Jew, but they could not care less. The soldiers took me to the recruiting office and dumped me there along with all the Ukrainians. I was the only Jew there. Later on I could get out, but I had nowhere to go to, so I thought if I joined the army and fought, I would be able to get revenge. What do I have here? I have no one here.
The Soviet authorities eventually concentrated sixteen thousand killers, old and young, loaded us into cattle train cars and sent us into . The trip lasted ten or twelve days. The train was going at a speed of ten or twenty kilometers per hour. When we reached the town of Skalow they let us off the train. Many of us were sick. I was twenty-one and held firm. They gave us sugar, dry toast and hot water – nothing more. An escort made up of a sergeant-major and soldiers was waiting for us. They told us to form up in a three-deep formation and marched us somewhere. On the way, we passed a person whose facial features told me he was a Jew. He looked at me with pity and said: "Bist du a Yid? Kanst Yiddish Redn?" (Are you a Jew? Can you speak Yiddish?). He then told me he was from Odessa and that he was in charge of all the recruits. "We are taking you to receive firearms training, and then you would be sent to the front, but the place you are in is not good. Are you aware who you are with?"
I told him that I knew. I was the only Jew, surrounded by thousands of killers.
He said: "Correct, and we are sending you to the Russian front. These recruits are convicted felons, and they would be sent to the front line."
I asked him what I should do, and he said he would do something for me. His superior was an officer at the rank of major, a Jew, who served as a political officer. He had returned from the war and was awarded the Lenin Medal. He would tell him about me and arrange for me to remain there and work in the kitchen.
This Jew came back to me after a while, and said: "I am very sorry, but you are moving out of here in a few days. You are being sent to the Leningrad front. Leningrad has been liberated already, but they are still fighting there against the Finns, and it is going to be very bad there. Unfortunately, I could do nothing for you. You will have to get by. You will share the same fate as the others."
Once again, we all traveled by train for a few days. They let us off before Leningrad. The toast and water gave me diarrhea and every time the train stopped I would run over to defecate. One of the officers noticed this and told me: "Come over here, you have dysentery." They put me in quarantine with several other patients in my condition. A female officer walked in, probably the chief physician at the rank of major, accompanied by a captain. The captain wrote down my particulars and the female officer noticed that my name was Liederman, and ran around me as if she wanted to do something, but was afraid. Finally she came over and told me, in tears, that she was a Jew, too. She told me she was from Odessa and that all her family had been killed. She asked how I survived and what I was doing there.
I told her that I was the only survivor of my entire family, and then she said to me: "Listen, there is no time. Soon, an ambulance will be along and we will send all of the dysentery patients to the hospital. No one lasts there very long, but you will get by, come what may."
THE TRANSFER TO THE POLISH ARMY
The ambulance took me to a hospital. It consisted of small cabins somewhere out of town. They gave me a bed, gave me medicines against the dysentery and white bread to eat. On the following day a welfare nurse came over and asked how I was. She had apparently heard that I was Jewish and was probably Jewish herself. They kept me there for a few days and finally assigned me to a unit heading to the front.
At the entrance to the unit office sat a clerk and registered everyone. According to his facial features, I knew he was a Jew. When I told him my name was Liederman, he asked: "Bist du a Yid?" I said: "Yes", and he then informed me that a Polish army was being organized in Russia, that they had already liberated Maidanek and are now being sent to Lublin. He said: "Tell them you were not born in the Ukraine but in Poland, and that you are from Warsaw. Here, write a letter according to my instructions. There is a political officer here at the rank of Polkovnik (general). Run over to him and tell him that you request to be transferred from here to the Polish army."
I did what he had told me to do. With my heart beating, I reported to the general's office. I wanted to get in but a sentry stopped me. I told him I could not understand Russian, only Polish, and finally he let me in. I walked in and placed the letter in front of the general, but did not utter a word. The general read the letter and said: "What's the difference? This is our army and that is not our army." I told him: "But I don't know the language. Send me to the Polish army and I will fight with them." Without thinking for a moment, he wrote out an order to have me transferred to the Polish army.
I felt as if I had seen the Messiah. I left on the run and returned to the clerk who had advised me what to do. Now they assigned me to another group that waited for transport. It consisted mainly of Poles and a few Jews. A few days later they marched us to the train and we traveled for a few days from Leningrad to Lublin and from Lublin to Maidanek. The chimneys of the crematoria were still smoking.
A SERGEANT IN LODZ
I was assigned to a certain unit of the Polish army and they asked me what I could do. I told them I was a driver and that I had qualified as a motorist, and they assigned me to a transport unit. We waited for the fighting at the front to be renewed. In Warsaw, the forces stopped by the river Vistula and did not advance for a long time. All of a sudden, they sent us to Lodz. The city was empty. All we saw were white flags put up by the German inhabitants. We settled at No.5, Sebzka Street. I belonged to a tank repair unit. I could not drive a tank – only automobiles.
There were still eight hundred Jews in the Lodz ghetto. I helped them as much as I could. I told them I would help them obtain clothes and shelter.
In my unit I had a friend named Savitzki, who had fought with a partisan unit. We roamed the city together to get an impression of the extent of destruction. I met a Jewish doctor who had lived on the Arian side of the city and worked as a conductor on the train. His wife, who looked like a gentile, was a housemaid on the Arian side. This doctor asked me to help him. He said his father had left a two-storey house, and now a Polish woman was living there and claiming it was her house.
I took my friend and the doctor led us to his father's house, at No.25, Polodnowia Street. His father had been a dermatologist and a religious man. In the large courtyard, he had built a synagogue. We went in. The gentile woman was alarmed when she saw us in uniform, and told us that her husband was serving with the Polish Corps of the British Army, under General Anders. I told her: "Anders-Shmanders, this house belongs to this doctor. You get out or I will throw you out. We will be back in two or three hours, and you will no longer be here."
So we roamed around Lodz and performed similar acts. There were homeless Jews who were not allowed to get back to their homes, and we helped them reclaim their property by force. Many of them recognized me after I immigrated to Israel. Here and there we received information about Poles who had served with the Gestapo, and handed them over to the police.
When I served in the Polish army in Lodz, I was promoted to the rank of sergeant. I met the Russian governor of the city and befriended him. I spoke Russian with him. He very much enjoyed speaking with me in his own language, and told me: "If there is anything you want to do, you can do anything in my name and with my authority." I was not concerned about my own welfare. I was not interested in money or any other benefits.
INVITATION TO PASSOVER SEDER
One day, as I was walking along Sebzka Street, near a restaurant where we liked to eat, I ran into a Jew who had heard me and my friends speaking some Yiddish and some Polish. He came over to me and asked if I would like to "do some business". I said: "What do I know about business? I am a soldier."
"I will teach you," he said. "Find me places where there are goods, bring them to me and I will pay." His name was David Burnstein. Before the war he had lived in Lodz and during the war he, his wife and their children stayed at a hiding-place on the Arian side of the city. After the Germans had retreated, he made a living by engaging in all sorts of business.
"I do not need money," I told him. "Don't pay me, but taking German property is a mitzvah."
There were several factories in town. We broke into them by firing our pistols into the padlocks. We had two Studebaker cars and we filled them with goods. I took some of the guys from the Lodz ghetto with me, and they helped me. I gave them and Burnstein whatever they wanted. We had vodka and wines and groceries, and they filled two rooms with leathers, wool blankets, socks, warm underwear, sweaters and other goods.
When I handed the goods to Burnstein, he pushed American dollars into my hand. I said: "Leave it. I do not need anything."
"So what," he said to me, "Is that how you live? In that case, I am inviting you to my place for Passover Eve and we'll have a great time."
One day we were sent to Warsaw. I was assigned to general headquarters in those days. Warsaw was demolished and we had no place to stay. For this reason, we were taken to the town of Bluchi, near Warsaw, where they put us up in private apartments. I was sent to live at the apartment of a woman, who received me very pleasantly. She introduced herself as the former cook of Pilsudski, and told me: "Get me good groceries and I will fix dishes like you have never tasted before." Indeed, I had a good time there.
A FRIEND NAMED GENIA
Just before Passover, I asked for a leave. The secretary of the political general Josevitz was Jewish. I went to see her and told her that I was Jewish and that I wanted to go to Lodz for the holiday. She arranged the leave for me on the spot. In Lodz, I went to Burnstein's house on Passover Eve.
Three female relatives of Burnstein's who had returned from the camps came to his house for the holiday. We all gathered at his home with other cousins and relatives and celebrated Passover properly, with fish and matzo bread.
My host was a religious man and wore a yarmulke. He sat me beside him at the table and told me, in Yiddish: "Nu, do you know how to say Kiddush?" I said: "I'll try." He gave me a Haggadah, but I said the Kiddush by heart, and then he said: "Oh well, you must have been brought up in a proper home…"
"That's not important," I told him, "What once was is gone." Then he said: "There are three ladies here who had returned from the camps. Go on, meet them and befriend them." Two of those ladies were twins, and I took a liking to one of them. Her name was Genia Halperin and she has been my wife for fifty-five years.
6. ON THE WAY TO ERETZ-ISRAEL
WE DO NOT BELONG IN
Since that Passover, I visited Burnstein's home every Sunday. During one of those visits, the girls told me that they had relatives in Palestine and urged me to go there with them. Renia, my wife's twin sister, had linked up with a Jewish guy, Vladek, and all of them spoke about the wide-spread anti-Semitism in Poland and about the fact that we had nothing to do in that country.
Anti-Semitism was indeed wide-spread in . I had experienced it myself. One day, while I was walking along Platkovska Street, the main street, two Jews who had come out of the ghetto were walking ahead of me, speaking in Yiddish. Two gentile women passed them, and one of them said to the other: "You see? They have not stopped speaking in that Semite language of theirs." I became enraged and was ready to kill her on the spot. I walked over to her and said: "I am a Jew! Jid!" She saw a Jew in uniform and could not believe it. I slapped her twice and kicked her.
All of us eventually realized that we did not belong in . A pogrom had taken place in the town of Kielce. They massacred Jews there, and soldiers were involved. When we heard the news, I said I was ready to go, but for that purpose I had to be discharged from the army, and that was out of the question, as I was twenty-two or twenty-three and this was right after the war, in 1945. I had no alternative but to desert, so I went back to the general's secretary and told her I had found out that my family might have been spotted and requested a leave for two weeks. The secretary, who knew I was Jewish, gave me the pass as per my request. I traveled to Lodz and told the gang: "Pack up, we're going!"
"How will we travel?" they asked, "Leave that to me," I said.
TO CZECHOSLOVAKIA, & GERMANY
I traveled in uniform, with my rank insignia and pistol, all the way to the border with . Our party consisted of three ladies and two men. At the border, I went into a restaurant and changed into a civilian suit. I packed the uniform and the pistol in a parcel and left it there. I then came out and told my friends: "Let's go on the train. We'll go by train and cross the border." And so we did. We boarded the train without any problems and made it safely to Prague, where we met other Jews who were also heading to Eretz-Israel. Food was unavailable. Everything was rationed and allocated in exchange for food stamps. We started walking along a rough road, and somehow made it to , where we crossed the Alps in order to get to Italy.
On the way, they caught us and sent us back. This was the French occupied zone. A French officer searched us and then let us go. Soldiers of the Jewish brigade from Eretz-Israel drove us to Munich. We stayed at the Deutsche Museum, which had been demolished. Only the basement remained intact, and dozens and hundreds of Jews, as well as Polish gentiles, who were fleeing from the Russians, gathered there. While we were there, we heard statements like: "A shame they had not killed all of the Jews." We apprehended two anti-Semites who spoke that way and handed them over to the U.S. Army.
In Munich I could no longer be the boss. The Americans were in charge there. The American colonel to whom we handed the anti-Semites said he would take proper care of them – they would not see Germany or Poland again, he promised. We beat them up a little and took off.
From Munich they transferred us to the town of Prabl, about thirty kilometers from the city. They put us up in a room and we received German army field rations from UNRRA. We made a living on the black market. Vladek and I sold sugar and cigarettes and that was our subsistence.
A WEDDING IN ROME
Eventually, they sent us to a training camp in , where they said there was no point in waiting for certificates. We would only be able to reach Eretz-Israel through "Aliyah Beth", as illegal immigrants. That was in 1947. We stayed in Italy for less than a year.
We stayed in Santa Maria di Leuca initially, and later moved to Modena and then to Rome. In Rome we met the Tanenbaum family – two sons and their father, Haim, who was a public activist helping the refugees, and prior to that he had been at Auschwitz. As it turned out, he was born in Szckajisko, near Kielce, where my girlfriend Genia had been born. He developed kin-like sentiments toward us, and told us: "You should get married here, before you go." I said to him: "What's the rush?", but he never rested until he organized for us to get married at the Great Synagogue of Rome. Both twins, Genia and Renia, were married one after the other. After that, they sent us to Torino and there we waited at a "Kibbutz" for our turn to travel to .
ON BOARD THE IMMIGRANT SHIP
One night, pick-up trucks of the "HaBricha" organization took us from the Kibbutz. It was just after the immigrant ship "Exodus" had sailed to Eretz-Israel. They drove us to the shore and dumped us in fishing boats that ferried us to a larger fishing vessel anchored at sea. On board this boat, they had built decks from planks. Originally, the boat could accommodate fifty people, but they loaded eight hundred onto it.
The voyage lasted twelve days. Before we reached Haifa, two British Navy destroyers intercepted us and escorted us to the port of Haifa. There, they moved in alongside, on both sides of the boat, and British soldiers jumped into our boat and took control.
INTERNMENT CAMP IN CYPRUS
At the port of Haifa, we disembarked one by one and were promptly transferred to a British ship, by which we sailed to Cyprus. In , British soldiers were waiting for us. They loaded us onto lorries and drove us to Internment Camp No.55 near Famagusta. At the camp, one tent was allocated to two families.
Now we found ourselves detained in a camp surrounded by barbed wire, guarded by soldiers armed with rifles. I said: "A broch! I came out of hell and now I find myself in hell once again!"
At the camp, the four of us lived in one half of the tent. A family of three lived in the other half. We remained there for a whole year. During that time, we decided that they might release us if we had a child, and then our eldest daughter, Deborah, was born on August 14, 1948.
Haim Tanenbaum, whom we had met in , was an "Aliyah Beth" activist and the administrator of our camp in Cyprus; when Deborah was born, he helped us move from our tent to a small hut, and our conditions improved somewhat.
7. IN THE STATE OF ISRAEL
THE CAMP IN BEER-YACOV
Following the establishment of the State of Israel, it was a while before the British finally released us from their internment camps. The first in line to go to were families with children, and so we arrived in Israel on January 20, 1949.
We arrived at the port of Haifa on a rainy night, and they drove us from there to a camp in Beer-Yacov, where they put us up in a tent, once again.
Conditions were rough. Little Deborah caught a cold and came down with bronchitis. They took her to the Hadassah hospital on Balfour Street in Tel-Aviv, and we went along with her. At the hospital they told us that they had no room for us and that we had to leave. Genia went back to Beer-Yacov and I said I will sleep on the floor, but would not leave the child alone. I stayed there with her until she recovered.
THE APARTMENT IN JAFFA
In the meantime, I started looking for accommodation for us in Jaffa. I found an acquaintance there who had come to Israel before me. He was a clerk at the general administrator's office, and his job was to allocate apartments abandoned by their Arab owners. He gave me a few addresses and I found a three-room apartment at No.7, 150th Street. Unfortunately – we were only entitled to two rooms. I informed the administrators of the camp in Beer-Yacov that we were leaving, so they gave us two mattresses and a bed and charged us eighty lira.
After I had settled down, so to speak, I received a letter from an advocate demanding that I paid the eighty lira – which I did. My wife and I moved into the apartment in Jaffa and a girl named Fala lived in our second room. The general administrator sent another couple to our third room. We shared the kitchen and bathroom, and got along well.
Our second daughter, Harela, was born at that apartment in 1952. We lived there until 1954.
JOINING THE POLICE
Soon after we had moved to Jaffa, I was ordered to report to the recruiting center and join the army. I was twenty-six or twenty-seven. At the recruiting center, the interviewing committee consisted of an army officer, an army sergeant and a police sergeant. They asked me in Yiddish for my name. I responded in Hebrew. The police sergeant, whose name was Rosenthal, asked me where I was from, and I said I came from Poland.
" is a big country," he said, "Where in Poland?"
"From the Province of Wolyn," I told him, and then he said he was also from the Province of Wolyn, from Ostrow. I told him I came from a small town near Kostopol, and then he said: "Now I know where you learned Hebrew. I suggest that you join the police instead of joining the army. We are looking for people who can speak Hebrew."
I said: "No. I am not joining the police. I still haven't forgotten the police abroad," to which he replied: "Go home. You have a wife, consult her." And so they gave me a postponement for a week or two.
I came home and told Genia what had taken place. She said: "Absolutely not! You are not joining the police – only the army."
I knew that Moshe Baum, who was the head of our youth movement cell in Kleinzlisch, lived in Tel-Aviv, but I did not have his address. He had managed to immigrate to through "Aliyah Beth" a month before the war broke out. I spotted him somehow, he lived on Masaryk Street. He received me warmly and for a few hours I told him about my family and myself. Finally, I told him I needed his advice: I was sent to join the army and received an offer to join the police instead. What should I do?
He said: "Grab it. Firstly, it is a paying job and you will have a salary, no matter how high. Secondly, you will be close to home, in Tel-Aviv."
I told him that my wife did not agree, so he came over to our home and convinced her, too. So eventually I joined the police and was immediately sent to the first policemen training course in Shfar'am. The course lasted for six months, and they reopened all of my old wounds. We did armed foot drills and night field training and studied all of the laws and regulations. I became a soldier again, albeit a police trooper. I was one of the oldest men there.
When the course ended, they sent me to police headquarters in Tel-Aviv, and I initially served as a patrolman. Police headquarters were at 9, HaShachar Street. When they realized I could speak and write Hebrew, they made me a duty (desk) officer. I worked morning, afternoon and night shifts, and had neither day nor night. Later on they transferred me to the police station on Yehuda Halevi Street, where I served as a mobile unit investigator, as in the meantime I had passed an investigators training course.
One day I met a police officer who, during conversation, uttered a word in Yiddish, so I asked him where he was from and it turned out he was from Rowne. I told him I was from Kleinzlisch and he immediately asked me where I was serving. He said: "I am the camp commandant of police headquarters on 14, HaRakevet Street. I will have you transferred to my command," and so he did. I served there for almost ten years, until my discharge.
As a policeman I earned very little, but I did some moonlighting as a taxi driver, so I managed to save money.
Just before I left the police, they built several popular housing projects in Ramat-Chen, Ramat HaTayasim and Ramat-Aviv. As a new immigrant, I was entitled to an apartment in the popular housing project of Ramat HaTayasim.
THE RIGHTEOUS AMONG THE NATIONS
In our town, Kleinzlisch, lived – not far from us – the Glückman family. They did not own any property, so they had nothing to lose. When the Germans arrived – they fled to and thus saved themselves from the Holocaust, except for one family member who stayed and was subsequently killed by the Nazis. She was married to a man who owned property, and anyone who was well-established and owned property was not inclined to abandon the wealth that had been the fruit of his own toil and his ancestral heritage.
If we had fled to , we could have lived well there, but as I described earlier, my father did not want to leave. Even when I came for my family with a pick-up truck, after I had qualified as a motorist, and suggested to my father that we escape, he refused, saying: "No, I am not going anywhere, come what may." He still remembered the days of World War I, when the Germans had behaved properly. In those days, the Jews had prayed at their synagogues for Germany's victory.
And so, thanks to one of the daughters of the Glückman family who had immigrated to South America and one day came to for a visit, I learned the whereabouts of Emilia Slodkowska, the daughter of Stanislaw Jasinski, who had hidden me for two months. I asked her whether she kept in touch with anyone in Poland, and she gave me the address of our school headmaster in Kleinzlisch. His name was Grokhovski. I wrote him a letter in Polish and added a fifty dollar bill. In the letter, I asked him to put an advertisement in a Polish newspaper, to the effect that the son of Yacov Liederman, the "Soltas" of the town of Kleinzlisch, was looking for members of the Jasinski family.
Emilia's brother had seen the advertisement and sent me the address and telephone number of his sister in St. Louis. I called her immediately and spoke with her. We both became very emotional. It was a mixture of sadness and happiness.
After that, I wrote her a letter and asked her that she write to me about herself. She responded to my request and told me that her father had already passed away. Admittedly, her father as well as she and her husband had only put me up for two months, but if it were not for them, I would not have remained alive. Late at night, on the day that I had taken a bullet in my hand, I called at their house, bleeding and half naked, and they opened their door for me and for my brother. I never forgot this favor, so I called "Yad Vashem" and recommended that Jasinski and his daughter be recognized as "Righteous Among the Nations". My recommendation was accepted and I traveled to "Yad Vashem" in Jerusalem and planted a tree in their name. The Israeli Consul General in Chicago awarded Emilia an official Righteous Among the Nations certificate.
In 1982, I traveled to the and visited Emilia. I stayed at her home for four or five days. I could not stay any longer. I was unable to relax. Emilia had not harmed me in any way during the war, on the contrary, and in the USA I had nothing to fear, and yet – I did not feel comfortable at her home. Any Jew who had experienced the Holocaust lives in fear. I still live in fear. I cannot trust the gentiles
The gentiles in Kleinzlisch used to call my father "The Father of Everyone" – not just the Jews, but the gentiles as well. When the Nazis came, two brothers, gentile neighbors, came over and defended our house from robbers and looters. They announced that anyone entering Liederman's house with intent to steal will be shot. But after the Germans and Ukrainians had massacred all of the Jews in our town, those two – the same gentiles who had guarded our house and our property, were among the first who entered the house to take away whatever they could find.
One of those brothers had kept a lot of our possessions. One or two weeks after my brother and I had been wandering in the woods and had nothing to eat (it was after we had left Jasinski's house) I came to the house of this gentile, knocked on the window and asked for a loaf of bread. He told me that if I did not leave immediately, he would come out and kill me with an axe.
That is why I keep saying that to this day, I do not trust any gentile.
About Stanislaw and Emilia Jasinski in Wikipedia
After all I have recounted, I would like to conclude by saying that Jews around the world have no other place but Israel.
Thank God, I have established a nice family. I have three children and eight grandchildren, of whom the older ones have already served in the IDF. I also have a two-year old great-granddaughter. Admittedly, my life in has not been easy. I took part in the Kadesh Campaign of 1956, the Six-Day War of 1967 and the Yom-Kippur War of 1973. Prior to that, I had fought in the woods and as a soldier in the Polish army.
Based on my experience, I have come to the conclusion that if we had had our own country prior to the Holocaust, the Holocaust would have never turned out as it did. The lives of Jews, who did not have their own homeland, without an independent country of their own that would stand by their side, were fair game to anyone.
Poland did not like the Jews just as the Germans did not like them. Anti-Semitism in Poland was fierce, and the Jews were too prominent there. That is why the Poles accepted the killing of the Jews and the plundering of their property. They simply wanted to get rid of the Jews once and for all.
Jews who consider their future must realize that they should live in their own country.
May 27, 2000