The Germans’ entry. First persecutions
On September 1st, 1939, Siedlce was conquered by the Germans. They came from the direction of East Prussia, and as soon as the first days of October they launched into the murder: They caught Jews and non-Jews, and with blows of rifle butts and sticks, without food or a drop of water, chased them on foot, to Vonagrob.
Siedlce served as an important junction for trains heading to the Russian front. Every day, 1,500 workers left the ghetto for work. In addition, workers who had a personal exit permit left for regular workplaces.
The need for laborers increased day by day, and more workers were brought to the town from the surrounding towns. Meanwhile, terror increased, the Gestapo murderers went wild, Jews were executed every day near the gates of the ghetto, and the fear of the inevitable end increased.
The Judenrat, headed by Dr. Henrik Label, tried repeatedly to reassure. Citing the Germans words of falsehood that “it will not happen in Siedlce.” Warsaw is impossible to maintain a large Jewish center, but Siedlce is spared due to its high capacity for work – the 3,000 workers were employed every day!
Even on the terrible day of August 21st, 1942, the Judenrat promised, on behalf of the Germans of course, that nothing would happen. But that same evening employed workers who were outside the ghetto returned with the news: the Polish police, called “grenades Police” as in the days of Pilsudski and faithfully served the Germans, was called to the point of deployment at 3 at night.
That night – Friday night between 21st and 22nd of August – the ghetto was surrounded by a dense belt of Gestapo soldiers, gendarmes, “Sonderdeinst” – special operations, and the Polish police. Soon there were shots and the first victims fell: Jews who tried to cross the barbed-wire fences and sneak out.
The Jewish policemen carried out the orders of the Germans. They dispersed throughout the ghettos and read Gestapo instructions.
The number of people at the gathering was rising. There were about 12 thousand already. But these were not all. The Germans and their aides combed the houses, sowing death and destruction and expeling the Jews with their whips. The “triangle” Jews – part of the ghetto bordered by 11 Blistofad, Sokolov, and Aoslnobitz’h streets – were assembled in the yard of a house to be all shot by the “Zondrdinst”.
For three hours the Jews have been in the assembly place. They must lie on the ground. Whoever raises his head gets a bullet. There are already 300 dead, and many wounded. The Germans force the Jewish policemen to accompany them to the houses and to point to the apartments where Jews live. The Jewish policemen carry out the orders. At noon the commander of the Jewish police receives an order to prepare lunch for 15 people. Chicken and wine for each. A meal of murderers, prepared by their victims. Immediately after this order, the SS commander appeared and demanded that they bring him two pairs of new silk stockings. They immediately gave him the “gift.”
The “Umschlag Platz” – the assembly place, where 12,000 condemned prisoners lay, including hundreds of dead and wounded, became a stage for macabre entertainment. Beyond the barbed-wire fence, on Pilsudski Street, were many Poles watching the murder. The German murderers put a table in the middle of the street, and had their meal of cannibals in front of the dead and dying. Among the killers a group of Germans stood out, taking photographs of horror. The photographers approached as close as possible to the poor victims, trying to produce better focused and clear pictures.
Selection for life and death. Night of the massacre
Throughout the night between Saturday and Sunday the Germans raged in the ghetto, searching for Jews who hid in their hiding places, looting and burning houses. 200 Jews who were discovered in hiding places were shot and killed. German Bakenstos of the “Zondrdints” murdered 30 Jews hiding at Yankel’s bakery by shooting, including the family of the baker himself. Fifty people were shot in the area of the Mikve. 20 were murdered in the Judenrat office, including the family of Efraim Tzelnik.
On Sunday morning they began to collect the dead from the streets. This work was carried out by a group of “elected” members of the “Triangle” ghetto, headed by Rubinstein, the commander of the Jewish police.
For two days and two nights the miserable who weren’t murdered, lay in the assembly square. In the daytime, the heat tortured them and they were paralyzed with fear of the shooting, which did not stop. Only on Monday did the Gestapo set up a group, lead it to the freight train station and put its people in the death cars. The death train’s path was short: from Siedlce to Treblinka the distance is 53 km only.
On the first transport there were no brave ones to try to jump off the train. But in the following shipments, there were already many who pulled out planks from the sides of the cars and jumped through the openings in the hope of escaping their bitter fate. The German soldiers who accompanied the transport shot them. Many were killed; others were beaten to death by police officers and by Polish peasants. Each path of the railway line from Siedlce to Treblinka was strewn with dead and wounded. Only a few managed to survive. They returned to the town and slipped into the “small ghetto.”
In the “Small Ghetto.” The murder of the hospital staff
On Wednesday the large ghetto was not yet completely empty. 60 patients were found at the Jewish Hospital, four doctors, two paramedics, nurses, auxiliary staff and survivors of the massacre in the gathering square – altogether some 100 persons, except members of the hospital, which stay in place was officially approved by the German authorities, as well as an additional unknown number of Jews who hid in various hiding places, cut off from the whole world, without food and with the threat of death, waiting moment by moment in the hope that they may still be able to save their lives.
Once the last shipment left for Treblinka, a unit of Ukrainians under Faibis came to the hospital, and he ordered all the staff to lineup in the courtyard. Everyone went: Dr. Labell with his wife and son, Dr. Leon Glazobski, Dr. Shaul Schwartz, Dr. Shlomo Tanenboim, the two old paramedics Joseph Alberg and Yankel Tanenboim, chief nurses Fela Friedman and Adzeka Alberg, laboratory director Lola Salzman, with her mother and sister, the service team with Tzesha Temkin, Dora Goldblatt, Sala Rabinowitz and Bronka Soferman.
When they were all gathered in the courtyard, the SS soldiers approached the hospital rooms and opened fire. They murdered the patients lying in bed, including some newborns. Then the killers and shot Dr. Labell and his wife. Finally, they murdered all the staff one by one.
Hard labor, suffering and death
The Germans continued to plant the illusion that we would survive. City commander Faibis promised that if everyone went to work in an orderly fashion, no harm will come to the “Small Ghetto”. To further increase the illusion, women who were found hiding in the big ghetto were allowed to pass freely to the small ghetto. They were assigned a special: every day they had to go to the large ghetto, to the empty houses, to sort and arrange the things found there. Indeed, under the protection of the Polish police, 30 women were brought to work. In the evening they were taken by trucks to the Jewish cemetery, where they were shot, on the pretext that they stole clothes in the abandoned houses and wore them.
City commander Faibis and Gestapo commander Dobe were “frequent visitors” to the ghetto. They came every day. Every visit ended with sadistic harassment of “elected” workers or the kidnapping and killing of a few people. A few hours later, the victims were buried by the Jewish policemen. When Faibis called them, they took shovels with them. They already knew what they were called for.
Hunger and distress had so weakened the Jews that they no longer had the strength to go to work. So the Germans led a hunt for workers: Each morning, around five and a half, police, soldiers and soldiers of “Zondrdinst” showed up in the ghetto. The hunt began. They took out to the yards old and young people, healthy and sick. They were beaten, tortured, and women were not spared.
The Judenrat in the “Small Ghetto”
At the head of the Judenrat, in the “small ghetto” stood the deputy chairman of the Judenrat in the large ghetto, Hersh Eisenberg. His aides were labor commissioner Moshe Ratbein, and director of the supply department Anatol Goldberg.
Because of the hunger, the dirt and the hard work, the “small ghetto” was plagued by diseases and epidemics that caused many casualties. These were added to the Jews who were shot by the Germans, on various pretexts.
The high mortality rate in the ghetto was caused quite a bit by the German corporation “Recman” whose administration was based in Berlin, and dealt mainly with laying railways and building railway stations to transport freight. The company employed several hundred Jews, who were forced to work until their strength was exhausted. They were beaten bloody for trivial matters. The food Recman provided to its employees was nothing but a plate of watery soup, with a few pieces of potatoes and an unidentified vegetable. In these harsh conditions, and until late at night, the Jews were busy unloading railroad cars and laying railroad tracks for endless military convoys, moving eastward. Only a few lasted more than a few weeks. For those sent there, this work was a death sentence, which everyone refused to impose on themselves. It is not surprising, then, that the guards of the corporation and its supervisors conducted a daily search of the ghetto, in which even the abduction of women was carried out, in order to fill the quota of those leaving for forced labor.
Every evening people came back from work, collapsing from exhaustion. It was a terrible caravan: a few dozen skinny Jews with bundles of clothes pushed trolleys on which waxy yellow-faced people lay, their bodies swollen with hunger or disease. The guards marched behind.
In time there was a “change for the better” in the “small ghetto”: they took the Gypsies from their quarters, and instead they brought the Jews. Once again the sense of security was strengthened, and the Jews toyed with hopes that nothing would happen during the winter. The months of September and October were therefore dedicated to preparing food and heating for the impending winter.
Towards the final extermination
On November 1st, the Germans issued a directive, according to which five large ghettos would be established in each area, each of which would concentrate Jews from the surrounding area. Until December 1st, therefore, all the Jews from the surrounding area of 40 km from the city must concentrate in the “small ghetto” in Siedlce.
The inhabitants of the “small ghetto” were divided in their opinions about the order. Some saw it as a good sign. Others felt that the danger has not passed, and expressed their opinion that the Germans had no intention but to concentrate all Jews in one place – those who survived in ghettos and those who were hiding, to make it easier on them, in time, to send everyone to Treblinka.
A few days later, the Germans announced that because of the typhoid epidemic, which plagued the ghetto and may cross over to the Arian side, the ghetto will be transferred to the area of labor camp “Ganesha – Bharkey”. This camp was three kilometers outside the city, in the middle of the field, and included three residential buildings occupied by unemployed citizens and had a bad reputation. “Ganesha – Bharkey” was an open ghetto, without fences or wires. The Jews felt freer, and when they arrived in the new place of residence, went out to buy food from the local farmers, and even bought straw for beddings. Everything looked pretty good, but for how long? No one knew.
The events were not long in coming. The day after the settlement in the new camp, the director of the labor authority announced that the Jews living in their workplaces must also move to the ghetto. Only those holding special Gestapo permits could live outside the ghetto. Thus “Ganesha – Bharkey” began receiving Jewish transports from the area, and one block was allocated to Gypsies. The atmosphere began to heat up. The disaster hung in the air.
The final liquidation
On the night of Saturday, November 30th, and Sunday, December 1st, camp “Ganesha – Bharkey” was surrounded by a hick ring of gendarmes, Polish police and Ukrainian police, specially brought there. While beaten cruelly, everyone was ordered to leave the house and sit on the ground, next to the houses. After a few hours sitting they began to get people up and prepare for a journey, but soon came a message that there were no cars in the station and now they were ordered to return to one building and not move. They were not even allowed to move from room to room. An unnecessary prohibition, since in any case the terrible crowding did not permit any movement. The narrow one-story building was crowded with 3,000 people.
The condemned prisoners spent a whole day in the overcrowded camp. There was no drop of water, and shots were heard all around them. The Germans and their aides shot anyone who dared to peek out of the windows. In the square between the houses, the chairman of the Judenrat, Hersh Eisenberg with his wife and infant daughter were shot, and the Jewish police chief, Abraham Bresler. He was murdered by a Polish policeman, who had personal accounts with the Jewish policeman.
On Monday morning they were all driven out again. They were lined up and marched to the freight trains station “Falmin”. There are no cars yet, and the victims were forced to sit in the snow – and wait. The Gestapo soldiers, meanwhile, took advantage of the opportunity, passed among the people sitting and robbed the poor of the little money they still had. They also robbed the rings, watches and other valuables. A few hours later the cars arrived and the loading began. The Jewish policemen tore off their insignia and wanted to join their brothers, but the murderers did not let them. For their “devoted service” during the ghetto’s existence, the Jewish police received a “reward”: a separate car.
Around four in the afternoon, the train moved. Destination: Treblinka.
When the train started moving, Siedlce’s well-known locksmith, Simha Vilk went into action with the devices he brought along. When the train reached its full speed, he broke escape hatchways in his car. Many of those condemned to death jumped off.
Only few were saved from the Jewish ghetto in Siedlce – only those who once received “Aryan” documents. Most of them joined underground organizations that fought the Nazis, and many of them fell, almost anonymously. Four fallen soldiers from Siedlce, whose names are known to me, are dentist Dr. Stanislaw Gilgon, who fell in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising; the brothers Anatole and Stanislav Goldberg-Gorki, taken hostage in Warsaw and tortured to death in the cellars of the Gestapo; Kuba Levin, who fell in Lublin as a freedom fighter.
Some of the Jews of our town with “Aryan” papers were sent to forced labor in Germany, along with other Poles. They suffered hunger and distress there, worked hard in the military industry, and in the spring of 1945 they were set free.
I was among them, too.