The outbreak of war
That Friday, September 1st, 1939, was different from all the days. All of Siedlce had already felt disaster was approaching, but no one imagined that the Jews were being annihilated. In the late morning hours, planes appeared in the sky. The opinions were divided: Some said they were “ours” (Polish), others said it was German planes. In the meantime, they have not touched Siedlce, but the turmoil was great. The residents rushed to the grocery stores to stock up on groceries, but many of the products were already missing from the shelves.
During the Sabbath and the following day, reconnaissance planes circled over the city. On Monday, they came back for “a visit”, dropped some bombs out of town – and disappeared. The next day, Tuesday, they reappeared, threw several bombs and hit a peasant wagon.
On September 7th, the enemy demonstrated its presence in a large number of aircraft. The bombing began at ten-fifteen before noon and lasted until three in the afternoon. When the “all clear” signal was given we came out of the shelters and horrors were revealed to us: destroyed buildings, and deep holes gaping where the bombs exploded near the houses. Entire families were found dead among the rubble. From beneath the ruins came calls for help.
After the bombing, thousands began to leave the city. They went without knowing where or to whom. With young children on their hands and bundles on their backs, all set off. The terrible bombings lasted four days. The Germans began their murder early in the morning and continued until evening. At night the city was terrified. In the distance, it seemed that Siedlce was burning from all directions. Criminals took advantage of the opportunity, broke into shops, looted and took whatever they could. The bombs hit Jewish homes mainly. There were about 1,500 dead. 60% of the city’s buildings were destroyed.
Before the establishment of the Ghetto
On September 12th, the Germans entered Siedlce. Fear and terror attacked everyone. There were rumors in the city that all the men would be executed. On the second day of Rosh Hashana, men were kidnapped to send them to work in East Prussia. Three days later another series of kidnappings took place.
At three in the afternoon, shots were heard. We wanted to see what had happened, but we were forbidden to go out into the street. They drove us back to the yards and the houses. We immediately understood what was happening: some of the men hid. Others were afraid to do so. They remembered that on the first day of the abductions, the Germans shot the men and women in hiding.
At each gate was a German soldier who did not let any man out. At the same time, officers holding pistols moved from house to house and ordered the men to leave. And the pretext: shots were fired from the houses of Jews. Jewish men were taken out – me among them – and marched in the streets to prison. The Germans searched each and every one. Rummaging through pockets, confiscating valuables or throwing them away. The road was terrible. We had to run, hands up. Those who did not keep pace were beaten.
Next to the prison gate we were greeted by blows of rifle butts, sticks, and belts. Many were seriously injured. Evening fell. In a cell for two or three prisoners, 15-20 people were crammed. There was no room to move, let alone sleep. Those for whom room wasn’t found in the cells remained in the yard. After a whole day without food, they remembered to take care of us and gave us pieces of dry bread.
On Wednesday morning, September 21st, the Germans ordered us to go down to the yard. Women holding packages were waiting in front of the prison gate. They came to say goodbye. With bitter tears and hearts full of despair, we went towards Monkbid. As we passed Polish villages, the villagers wanted to give us water, but the Germans prevented them from doing so. Some of us managed to escape from the convoy. Others were shot while fleeing.
Our convoy consisted of about 8,000 men – Jews and Christians. We were guarded by forty soldiers, mounted on horses or on bicycles. Towards evening we arrived at Vongrob, I and around which people weren’t caught for work. Many thought of escape, but it was almost impossible. They led us to one of the city squares and ordered us to lie down. Tired and exhausted from the long road, each fell in his place and fell asleep immediately. No one felt the rain that fell at night. In the early hours of the morning the men went out to search for places that were less closely guarded and began to flee. Those who fled had to jump over a two meters high fence. By the time the Germans noticed them, several dozen managed to escape and including myself and my father. I must have been among the last ones, for after I jumped, shots were already heard.
When they brought water to the convoy, several more people escaped. The Germans led her away, to Astrolnka. On the way came an order to free everyone.
The Germans took over the city. The streets were filled with Gestapo, gendarmerie and Folksdoitz’h – Poles of German origin who were enthusiastic collaborators with the Nazis, and with them – the issuing of decrees on the Jews. One of these was the confiscation of their stores when a gentile sought out a Jewish shop, and soon the store was confiscated and handed over to him. In most cases, the Jew was not even able to get the merchandise out of there, and he had to hand over the entire store, with its contents, to the new owners.
Jews from the provinces annexed to the Third Reich began to arrive in our town. The Siedlce natives welcomed them with open arms and did everything in their power to ease their absorption. Judenrat was established, headed by Dr. Bell, the public figure Nahum Weintroib, Secretary Hershl Tenenboim and others. Life in the city knew a “normalization” of some kind. But we had to salute every German in the street. Whoever didn’t notice a German and saluted, was beaten up.
On the night of Christmas, the Germans set fire to our beautiful synagogue.
On December 31st, an order was issued stating that all Jews should wear a blue-and-white armband and a Star of David stamped on it.
On the eve of Shavuot of 1940, work began to clean the river Liooiitz. The work was supervised by Polish engineers and supervisors. The work-groups numbered 15 people. The work was not difficult, food prices were not yet high and it was still easy to obtain. The price of a kilo of fresh bread rose to 17 Zloty and a kilo of potatoes to 3.25 Zloty. Money was still in the pocket, the weather was good too. The people called the cleaning work “summer vacation.”
But the resort did not last long. One day a few Gestapo agents appeared. They got out of their cars, inquired about the conduct of the work, and asked the Polish overseers to point out those who were negligent in the work. With rubber whips the Gestapo thugs attacked the workers, whipping their bare brows, knocking them to the ground, beating them with blows and kicking their bodies. Fifteen people were beaten; wounded and bleeding they were taken to the hospital.
In early March 1941, a Molotov cocktail was thrown at German soldiers and one of them was wounded. The Germans, who were behind this provocation, accused a Jewish girl of acting and went out to riot in the city. In the middle of the night they came in large groups, broke doors and windows, shot, beat men, women and children, leaving behind dead and wounded. It was not until a few days later that the Judenrat managed to calm the rioters, not before handing over a large sum of money to them.
When Russia entered the war, faith arose in everybody’s heart that liberation is near. But the size of the faith is the size of the disappointment. At the end of August the decree came out: all the Jews had to move into a special quarter, set for them only. Thus, the Jews of Siedlce crowded into two ghettos: large and small. The large ghetto had to gates – one gate near the monument of Pilsudski and the second – at the end of Aoslnobitz’h street in the corner of November 11th street. The second ghetto, called “triangle”, had one gate, accross of the large ghetto’s gate on Aoslnobitz’h street in the corner of November 11th street.
In the ghettos
On September 15th, 1941 we were already living in ghettos. Those who had the means were able to stock up food for themselves for difficult times. It was clear to all of us that such times were coming. The Jewish police, which were entrusted with maintaining order in the ghettos, guarding gates, and so forth, locked the gates of the two ghettos. On the eve of Yom Kippur, we waited with a heavy heart for the holy day. We wanted to cry, cry out, but that was hard too. 10-12 people crowded together in a room which normally housed two people. Diseases spread undisturbed.
Again and again people were kidnapped for forced labor, even though the Judenrat provided the Germans with 3,000 workers a day. Siedlce became an inexhaustible source for Jewish workers. Only those who had permits from the German employment authorities could leave the ghetto. These Jews made it very easy for us: they smuggled into the ghettos from the Polish side: bread, potatoes and other essential foodstuffs. Women and children also cooperated. They carried sacks of potatoes on their backs. Unfortunately many have paid for it with their lives. It was enough for someone on the “Aryan” side to denounce some one as a “Jude”, and he immediately was arrested and brought to the Gestapo headquarters. There they brutally beat him to a pulp, and led him back to the ghetto at night, ordered him to get inside through the barbed wire, and when inside the ghetto – shot him to death.
Every day there were victims. The numbers have also increased by the harsh winter – very cold, frost and plagues, and the lack of heating. Even malnutrition, which caused diseases of various kinds, epidemics such as typhus, killed hundreds of people.
Forced labor became impossible to bear. Not a day, nor a night, not a Saturday, nor a Sunday. Work without a break. Many people have changed so much that they could not be recognized.
The food rations distributed by coupons were reduced further and further. The portion was about 100 grams of bread a day. Those who still had any valuables sold them and bought bread. Kitchens were opened for the needy. Many suffered hunger. Things came to such a degree that the living envied the dead.
On Passover there were rumors that the Jews of Lublin had been exiled. Where – was not known. On July 1st, 1942, the Gestapo notified the Judenrat that it needed workers with wagons at the railway station. For what purpose – no one knows, these were provided immediately. They were taken to certain railroad cars and were ordered to open them. When they opened the doors, their eyes dimmed. Dead people were lying there, dressed in new suits and new shoes at their feet. It was clear that these Jews, who had just left, were a shipment of the Jews of Haraum. For the first time, a Jew in Siedlce witnessed such a spectacle.
After a while, more transports began to pass through Siedlce, in sealed cars. Jews were taken to Treblinka. This death camp was 53 kilometers from Siedlce. The danger that threatens all of us has become more palpable than ever.
The first Aktion
On the night of August 22nd, 1942, rumors circulated in Siedlce. One of them said, something is happening in Minsk-Mazowiecki. What exactly? No one knew. It was clear that the Jews were being transported to Treblinka. Representatives of the Judenrat tried to deny the rumor, claiming that the Jews of Minsk already suffered the disaster, but it is quite possible that some of them knew exactly what happened there. It was not too late to arrive to us.
At 2 am the two ghettos were surrounded by gendarmes and Polish policemen. Shots were heard from all sides, fear and terror were cast. In the morning it became known that the ghettos were locked and nobody was going to work. Indeed, the danger loomed over everyone. Hard to believe, the managers of the Judenrat did not know before – at least a few hours earlier – what was going to happen. I blame them with being frivolous. If only they were hinting at what was waiting for us, there must have been hundreds of young men running away from the ghettos and saving themselves.
The Jews, who lived for almost three years in fear and terror, depressed and without hope, were now desperate and helpless. In the morning the Jewish policemen appeared, moved from house to house, and ordered people to prepare to leave their house at a certain hour. Those who refused to leave did so under the pressure of the police. And so, with bundles in their hands, they came out in work clothes. Others – in fine clothes, as if going to a party.
Outside, the Gestapo urged us. Whoever had fallen behind, his career was shortened – shot. We were taken to the cemetery near the synagogue alley. Where they gathered the Jews from both ghettos. My family members were there, my mother and two sisters. My father was lying sick in the hospital. Next to the cemetery we were seated on the ground. Thousands were there, packed to one another and the Folksdoitz’h people and Polish policemen watching over us. You could not raise your head, let alone get up. The Gestapo and other scavengers celebrated meanwhile: shot, beat, and kicked our heads. Now our desire for vengeance awoke. We wanted to do something, to shed the blood of our enemies. But the hands did not move.
At 11 AM, the death unit personnel headed by Gestapo chief Faibis arrived, and immediately became our rulers. Now we were subject to a negotiation between the German official for labor affairs and the representative of the Treblinka extermination camp. The first demanded that professionals be left in place; the other claimed as many victims as possible for the death camp. Meanwhile the people thirsted for water. The murderers did not let us drink. Sadistic laughter brought deathly fear.
At 2 pm the order was given: men aged 16 to 40 would be at the front of the assembly. We did not know what the order meant, but a small group of men got up. It was difficult to understand how the boys left their parents, men – their wives, separated from their loved ones and getting up to go to the place specified, in the synagogue lane killers were waiting for us, standing on either side of our line holding sticks, rifles and pistols. The sorting started. Whoever to the right – to work, and whoever to the left – back to the cemetery. But all had to pass the familiar alley.
The workers were seated next to the fence of the former Polish Red Cross hospital. At 5 o’clock the Gestapo commander came and spoke to us. He said that we were lucky to have stayed alive and that we would be happy: “You will work; we will allocate three houses in the small ghetto.”
We were led to these three buildings. The walls of the houses were broken and ruined. We could not recognize them.
The night between Saturday and Sunday was terrible. All night the shooting of the Jews who remained in the cemetery continued. On Sunday morning, wagons led the victims. Some were wounded, still alive. The owners of the Polish carts removed the clothes, shoes, and everything they found on their bodies.
On Saturday afternoon, the Jews were deported to the railway station. The road from the cemetery to the station was terrible. The Polish residents looked very pleased. Only a few of them were sorry.
Broken and thirsty, the persecuted came to the station. There they had to wait for the train. It arrived a few hours later, with cars with barbed windows. Into every car they crowded 40 – 50 people. Those who remained were shot on the night between Saturday and Sunday.
The story of the road of terror from Siedlce to Treblinka was told to me by my cousin, Shlomo Kave, who was led in those cars and fled from the train just before the gate of death;
“On the floors a lot of chlorine spilled, the freight train made its way to the place known to everyone, families huddled together, unwilling to part, wanting to get together, the screams and the crying were unimaginable. The heat in the cars intensified. Because of the chlorine and stink in the air, many fainted. Some took off their clothes because of the terrible heat. Everyone had only one plea – a drop of water, before death. There were also those who drank their own urine.
The train stopped on a side track, three kilometers before the camp. No convoy entered the camp directly, and deliberately; So that the cries of rift from there would not be heard. The Siedlce convoy did the same. The shipment was on the side track for a whole day.”
At midnight the train moved on to the railroad tracks to Treblinka. A fraction of the unfortunate arrived at the death camp, including even my beloved mother and two sisters. When the train started moving, many jumped of the cars, including Shlomo, my cousin. Many were shot during the escape or were killed by their jump. Shlomo came out safe and sound. The Nazis caught him and put him on another train, which also went to the death camp. He managed to escape from this train as well.
After the first Aktion
We, who remained in the ghetto, waited for our bitter fate. In the meantime, many, women too, began to leave their hiding places. We numbered more than 1,500 people.
On Monday afternoon shots were heard again. They did not spare the hospital either. In cold blood the patients were shot first, followed by the staff. Among the murdered patients was my dear father.
August 25th, 1942. On Tuesday morning, representatives from various workplaces came to take workers. The ghetto was in turmoil. Every place looked better than the other. I was assigned to the railway workers’ group. In the “little ghetto” only a few old women remained. The large ghetto was on fire and could no longer be entered.
We were led to the designated place, two kilometers from the train station. We got a shack, and our bundle of tired bones had to be laid not on beds, but on planks covered with a little straw. A kitchen was opened for us, whose employees were the ones who avoided work. The food we were given was not enough for existence: fifteen pounds of bread and a bit of black coffee in the morning and at dusk – muddy watery soup, many could not eat. More groceries were allocated for us, but the kitchen staff made sure that we didn’t get them. They sold a lot of what was supposed to be cooked for us. For those who had money, could manage.
The railway workers were dispersed among various works. Who to unload coal, who to load sand. I was assigned to a Polish company that worked for the Germans and worked there before these events. We were a group of 20 people, including Nalkenboim and Livrant. We were led by a Polish overseer to and from work. We were forbidden to walk without him between the railroad tracks; whoever was seen there alone – was shot. Once, the German railway police caught three workers walking alone among the tracks. Towards evening, the policemen brought them to our platform and shot them in front of us. These unwanted guests would often come to us at night, chase us out, keep us outside for a couple of hours, hitting, shouting – and walk away.
We had no contact with the Germans. The engineer on behalf of the company was a quiet man of about fifty, kind and good-hearted. He spoke kindly to us, and did not hide the rumors from us: This is temporary work. Soon they’ll kill us all. He advised us to make warm clothes, boots, and hit the road.
Things fell on attentive ears. We must look for an outlet.
A unit of Italians was stationed in the city; they lived in the cars at the railway station. At that time Italian soldiers were fighting on the Russian front, and many of them were passing through Siedlce on their way to and from the front, and this unit was meant to take care of them. Livrant raised the idea of “doing something” with the Italians. And the plan was to be carried out by Yavlonovsky, who worked with them and believed that the idea was feasible. Livrant and Nelkenboim joined him, and after a while – even I did.
Only a few knew about the plan. We did not have much time to lose. Siedlce railway station was a waiting spot for Italian freight trains, traveling in the direction of Warsaw and carrying the Italian soldiers who returned from the Russian front. Sometimes they were delayed for an hour or two, and sometimes – for a whole day.
We decided to be ready at any moment. For weeks each one of us dragged two kilos of bread and a bottle of coffee to work. On the night of October 23rd, 1942, I suggested to Shlomo, my cousin, to join us, but he refused: he was tired of running away. It was the same cousin who had fled the train to Treblinka two months before.
On Friday, October 23rd, 1942, on our way to work as every day, we had the feeling that something “good” was waiting for us. In order to get to work, we had to cross three kilometers of railroad tracks. And then we noticed an Italian train on a side track, and then another one. We walked on as if nothing had happened, but we decided that if the train left the station before noon, we would leave for the second train at noon. If both of them stayed at the station until noon, we could leave for the second train at noon. If both of them stayed at the station until noon, we could leave after work. Luckily, the two trains did not leave the station all day long.
We waited impatiently for a moment. After six-thirty in the evening, we said good-bye to our friends and left “home”, as usual. Boldly, with our heads up, we marched to our goal. At ten past seven we passed through the Siedlce railway station. The policemen of the railway police, who stood there, measured us from head to toe, but they did not stop us, and so with greater courage and confidence, we took firm steps and faithfully continued on our way. We approached the Italian train and checked how we could sneak in. Every moment seemed to last for an hour.
In one of the last cars we found an opening through which one could enter. One by one we climbed into the car and with bated breath we waited for more. We did not know when the train would move and where it was going. We left it to the blind fate.
The road to Italy
On Friday night, October 23rd, 1942, the train moved and left Siedlce. It was only when it had left the city that we began to look around. We opened a bottle of brandy and drank “Le’Chaiim”. Although being a freight car it had benches, and in its two corners – two small iron stoves for heating and two wooden boxes, including firewood.
We spent the night in the Praga district of Warsaw. On Saturday, at 8 am, the train stopped in Skrniiooitz. We hurried to lie down on the benches, and indeed a Polish train operator opened the door and immediately closed it; luckily, he did not notice us. Now we started looking for better places to hide. Two of us hid in our wooden crates. It was possible to move from one car to another. So the third found a place in the second car, under piles of cotton wool. From time to time we went out of our hiding places and peered out to find out where we were. We passed Pietrikob.
On the Sunday morning inspection, a soldier discovered one of us. At the end of the conversation, in sign language, the soldier noticed that this was a guard guarding the contents of the car. At night we would go out of hiding to extricate ourselves, since the squatted and curled position numbed our feet. We had enough bread. We had no drinking water. We were already in German territory. We passed Cottbus, Glogau, Munich and many other cities.
On Monday night, in Tyrol, Austria, we were all discovered us by a slightly drunk Italian soldier, who spoke a few words in German. When he promised to remain silent, we told him who we were and what our purpose was, and he explained to us that eight hours later we would be in Italian territory. I pushed a few rings from home and a silver coin of ten Zlotys, but he refused to take them. Thirsty, exhausted, and dirty, we lay down again on the benches, waiting for the morning.
At 6 am on Tuesday morning, the train stopped at once. The car opened and closed immediately. This time, too, they did not notice us. However, we could no longer reach our hideouts, because they heard our footsteps from below and soon they took us out of the cars. It turned out that we were in the border town of Brenda, Italy. The border police treated us well, we had access to water, apples and cigarettes – and they reported us to the train commander. He appeared accompanied by two soldiers. When he heard that we were coming from Warsaw, he patted our shoulders and offered us cigarettes. When daylight broke they led us to the commander of the city, a gentle man in the middle of his life, who investigated us – individually – and took our fingerprints. In conclusion of the investigation he asked – whether we want to return to Poland or stay in Italy? Our answer was clear. The Commissar promised our documents will be sent to the Interior Ministry in Rome, where our fate will be decided. In the meantime we had a meal, as we had not seen in weeks.
In the evening they brought us to the beautiful town Vipiteno, located 27 kilometers from the Brenner pass in northern Italy, and put us in a local prison – a prison for those who stole across the border or committed similar offenses. There, we sat in a lovely mountain setting for 40 days. The prison staff consisted of an Italian family, who took care of all our affairs, and when she found out that we were Jews – a concern for all our needs and helped us as best she could.
On December 6th, three carabinieri came, put handcuffs on us and tied us three with a long chain. Even before we learned that we sent to Ferramonti. Where it is and what awaits us there, no one could tell us. But it was enough for us knowing, is Italy.
We made the trip on regular passenger trains, and even on luxury trains. On our way north we passed through beautiful landscapes, mountains and valleys and beautiful cities – Bologna, Verona and Naples to Calabria in the south. Our escorts, the Italian guards, were very sympathetic and more than once, during the journey, they collected money in the car for us.
The trip took only two days. On December 8th, 1942, we reached Teraso, and from there we walked. We arrived at Ferramonti at noon. All arrangements were made quickly. We were allocated in residential areas and turned to free people. Bernstein, a Jew from Warsaw, who lived there, helped us take the first steps. We cut our hair, we shaved, we put on our clean clothes, and we were born again. All the residents knew that three Jewish boys had arrived, who had fled Poland.
Ferramonti is in Calabria, which is in the south of the Italian “booth” in a valley between the mountains. In the detention camp, where citizens from various countries were located, Christians were also present. We were not forced to work. They provided us with our food, and we were able to do whatever we wanted. The camp staff – manager, security personnel and police (in black shirts) – treated us fairly.
We acclimated quickly. We have acquired friends and many acquaintances. Nilkenboim and I joined a group of young people who worked in the forest, not far from the camp. The work was good for our health and economically beneficial. It enabled us to obtain additional food: the portions we received at the camp were quite meager.
The sanitary situation was reasonable. Families lived together in small houses, individuals – shared large barracks, we had a pleasant social life and cultural activities, and waited for the war to finally come to an end.
Life became tenser when news reached that Allied armies had landed in Sicily and were moving towards Calabria. The air of liberation began to hover in the air. At the same time, there was a certain fear in our hearts, for a major road had passed near the camp and we were afraid that the German army would use it during the retreat. The Italians removed the barbed wire and allowed us to leave the camp.
Most of the detainees went to the mountains, to wait there for the day of liberation. The German army, in its retreat, did use that route.
After a few days in the mountains, we learned that the camp was visited by officers of the Allied forces. We went back there.
One day a car, adorned by the Star of David, appeared in Ferramonti and within soldiers from Eretz-Israel. Jews stood before us free, not to mention – from the Land of Israel, and are proud soldiers, armed. Many of us shed a tear. We did not leave them alone. We wanted to be with them all the time, longing for news from the country. And they did respond to our desire and visited us frequently.
After a while, Nilkenboim and I left the camp and set off. The goal: to reach Eretz-Israel. We reached the base of Eretz-Israel soldiers near Bari, and after a long conversation with the unit commander, Major Sakharov – later chief of police, Y. Shhar – were taken to work in the kitchen at the base of the Jewish Brigade.
Weeks and months passed. There were rumors of a shipment of aliya to Eretz-Israel, and indeed we were included in it. On May 29th, 1944, we boarded a Polish luxury-ship – “Bathory” in Trento, which brought us, together with hundreds of British soldiers to Alexandria in Egypt. From there, at midday, we continued on the train, excited and in an extremely high mood, toward the country. The next morning the train crossed the border, and here we are on the land of Israel! At Atlit, the train stopped, and we went down to the platform and danced the “Hora”. When the winds calmed down, we turned to relatives and to immigrants-homes. We began a new life.