Dov-Ber Blechstein: The last 2,000 Jews of Siedlce

Beaten, sick, and feverish, I was brought to the hospital. The building contained a corridor, a kitchen and a large room. In the room where I lay, three beds stood against the wall. Opposite them – a few sacks of straw on the bare ground. Patients were lying there with dysentery, typhus, pneumonia and other diseases. Together with me in the same bed lay a wounded man who was shot while jumping from the death train and managed to return to the ghetto. In the other bed was an elderly Jew who, while working at the Recman Company, a pile of stones collapsed and a stone broke his leg. In the third bed lay a wounded Jew. Opposite us – other patients: a woman and several men. At the door was a bucket, where we had defecated. The stench was great, but even more tormenting were the fleas, lice and fleas.

The Judenrat provided the hospital with black bread and coffee. The servant who worked in the kitchen emptied the bucket, and for a small fee he brought soup, wherever he could get some from.

Throughout the day, the hospital had a lot of traffic: patients came to the doctor, others sought refuge, and some came to visit their relatives-patients. Even at night, there were people wandering around looking for a place to lay their heads.

When I could not stay in the hospital any longer – it was also dangerous, as an SS soldier appeared there and looked for people for labor – I left it and began to roll from one place to another. I already knew the square of the ghetto with all its corners and holes. I knew the few wooden huts, crumbling and falling, the few stone houses, which were no better. There was no sign of the walls between the houses. All of them were in fact one structure, and it was possible to move from house to house through the walls that were there, with holes in them. The whole area of ​​the ghetto was a large garbage heap. Wherever we turned, the barbed-wire fences that surrounded the Jewish Quarter were visible to us. People lived everywhere, in every hole: in the warehouses, in the stairwells, in the laundry rooms on the roofs, in the freezing cold and in the freezing frost, there were sick beds where they lay. In all this overcrowding, a number of rooms were allocated to the residence of “foreign workers” and “auxiliary forces”, Germans or locals. Another three rooms in a one-story wooden hut next to the ghetto gate were used by the Judenrat and the ghetto police.

The four-story brick house, the best in the ghetto, belonged to the gypsies, who numbered several hundred souls. They carried a special badge on their sleeve, with the word “Gypsy” on it, and they were discriminated in every way. A gypsy, who tried to escape the ghetto and was caught, was fined. For a Jew, such an escape would involve the death penalty.

One day I passed by the Judenrat window. A pleasant Jew, whom I did not know, a red bearded man, called me. It was Efraim Tzelnik. He gave me 30 Zlotys, and when he noticed that despite my difficult situation I was ashamed to take a handout from a stranger, began to talk and finally convinced me to take the money and buy myself a shirt. He also gave me soap powder, from the Judenrat warehouses.

The Judenrat was also responsible for collecting mail from the ghetto’s Jews. I had a postcard from the German Red Cross. I had since my days as a mail clerk of the Jewish ghetto, and I addressed it to one of my relatives in Eretz-Israel – the only moments of hope we have known were always associated with nostalgia there. Tzelnik took my card and years later I learned that this regards, sent through the Red Cross, and had reached its destination. The German extermination machine used every opportunity to deceive the world and let it believe that the Jews were still alive.

An acquaintance of mine, a Razdin Hassid from Otwocek, offered me a job at the “Fledbaoamtr Der Luftwaffe” – the Air Force Labor Authority – in Novo Siedlce. The work included loading and unloading of building materials. Workers were housed in the barracks with bunk-wood and straw mats for sleep, and the living conditions here were better than those of the ghetto, and I said yes.

That night I was already asleep on a straw mattress, and I was also covered with another straw sack. Next to my place I found a small Siddur. I took it with excitement and joy, as if it were an archaeological finding, from a disappearing era. It was a long time since there were normal Jewish life here.

I woke up from sleep among the latter. I ate the piece of bread I had left from last night and was supposed to make two “meals”. Last night I could not get over my hunger and ate more than half of the dish. After a while, a Polish worker joined me and accompanied by a Ukrainian policeman, we went about six kilometers to the work place. There they read the name of each of us, and so they did every day. My name was already on the list, instead of the name of the one I replaced. In the “deal” that cost me quite a bit of money for that guy, I took his place. It turned out that his brother was in another camp, and made every effort to join him.

I introduced myself as a carpenter. Along with several other “Carpenters” – none of them real, we built crates. My hands were tired of sawing and hammering. During lunch break we ate soup. We swallowed it like wild animals.

I grew weaker and weaker. I could hardly stand up. My condition worsened from day to day. I was beaten again, with sticks and planks. I was frequently beaten by the Polish transport worker, Darkatz. He hit others too. One day we filled bags of potatoes for the Aryan workers. Darkatz gave the stick to one of the Poles to strike Jews. When the boy refused to use the cane Darkatz attacked him, shouting: “Shame on you! Aren’t you a Pole?”

We carried the heavy potatoes filled sacks to the gate. My strength ran out and I fell twice turning the wheelbarrow over. Behind me, a young boy pushed his wheelbarrow; he got a smaller bag to carry. He stopped next to me and said: “Let’s switch, pity on you, they’ll beat you to death.”

When I unloaded the sacks, I put some potatoes in my platter. When I left work, the guard at the gate, an old Ukrainian murderer, noticed and punched me with the butt of the rifle. For a long time I could not breathe. With great difficulty, I dragged myself to the barracks. The next day I was in no way able to go to work. I went back after a day of rest.

In the evenings we could relax a little. The quickest among us brought coal and set up the stove. We sat together until late at night. A few friends cooked something and gave it to the others. With us was a young man from Sokolov, who was almost naked. He had no clothes at all. The friends collected some money, and at night a tailor sewed a warm overcoat. Despite exhaustion and after an exhausting day of work, we had a good time together and had close ties. I met a lot of people, including Jews from another camp – “Fliger Horst”. In this group I met my friend from university, Mr. Tz’ernobroda.

Day by day the number of patients increased. One night an SS soldier entered, a young man of about 20, and looked around. Someone was smoking in his presence – audaciousness! The soldier drew his gun. The Jew hastened to say “Shema Israel”. Luckily, he was not killed. Only experienced fear-to-death. The sergeant with the skull-insignia had not shot him. He asked me why I was lying. I replied that I was very tired. I was afraid to say I was sick.

“They’ll kill you soon enough, anyway,” laughed the young German, and left.

Moving to “Ganesha – Bharkey” camp was on the agenda again. The name itself symbolized something terrible. The next day the Germans announced that all the patients and many of the workers would be sent back to the ghetto. There was a lot of uproar and sobbing. People were looking for “favoritism” to stay in Novo Siedlce, but to no avail.

Under the guard of the black uniformed men, we set out and marched in the familiar direction: the “small ghetto” of Siedlce.

When we arrived in the ghetto, everyone spread among acquaintances and relatives, but I remained standing in my place. I had neither acquaintances nor relatives. I had no one. Whom shall I go to? My first steps were into the “waiting room” of the Judenrat and ghetto police hoping to find a human heart, and with good reason, one of workdays at “Recman” I was slapped by a Jewish policeman, for stepping out of the straight marching line, my cheek swelled. But not all Jewish policemen followed suit. Some of them felt disgusted at the indecent role they played, and sought to “redeem” themselves.

So when  I was taken by two policemen – a Pole and a Jew – to die in Otwocek, the Jew cried all the way, hugged me and said: “Oh, dear me, I am leading you to your death” and a policeman in Siedlce once tossed 20 Zlotys to me, and when I wanted to give it back – he refused. “The coin is not mine” he told me …

In the end, the Germans announced that the ghetto must be emptied, and everyone will be transferred to “Ganesha – Bharkey”. There, added the German, all will survive until after the war. So why cannot we stay in Siedlce? Depression was deep. We all maintained a glimmer of hope to survive. People clung to the word “must”, as if there is a hint of something.

Throughout the day carts loaded with bedding and other household items went towards “Ganesha Bharkey”. Whoever had money and “Protektzia” could deliver the essential belongings. The Judenrat also transferred the soda, soap and simple remedies, with the permission of the Germans: it was important for them to demonstrate that they have “no bad intentions”, but that “the Ghetto must empty”.

Soon the gates of the ghetto will open, and this time – another gate, passing the Judenrat and ghetto police. But the exit was delayed. There seemed to be an order not to hurry. No German was seen. Only Polish police.

Finally the grim convoy began to move in the snowy white streets. I was again among the last ines. We walked very slowly. There were many sick and old people among us. On the sides of the street, on the sidewalks, few Polish policemen guarded us. We approached the church street. Aryan Poles, curious and satisfied, went out to the street to watch the convoy of Jews pass by.

We arrived to “Ganesha – Bharkey”. Three-story red brick houses stood in the shape of the letter “Het” near the road. In the middle was a large courtyard with two water pumps. The area was surrounded by barbed-wire fences, but not all. Rolls of wire were set aside, to complete the fencing work in places that were still open. The gates, too, were not yet guarded.

My legs dragged me to the new place of residence with great difficulty. I wanted only one thing: to find a place to lay my head and my tormented body.

After yesterday’s black day life began to flow. I was happy to meet one of my acquaintances again who led me to a woman who sold food and cooked soups and continued her “business” here. It’s amazing how in one small room there is room for the kitchen, the store, and the place of residence together. I finished the hot soup, and despite the heavy crowding, I stayed there for as long as I could. When I left there I went to the Judenrat’s office, where I met Efraim Tzelnik and his son in law, Adv. Eisenberg, and I informed them that I intend to return to the Warsaw ghetto. Tzelnik invited me to his home, which was densely populated by some relatives. His wife handed me a bowl of soup, and another. I sipped the soup hungrily, forgot all the rules of etiquette, and was not the only one. While I sat there, more hungry people kept knocking on the door again and again, and the members of the household gave them pieces of bread.

When more and more people entered, I left the place. I was tormented again for a few hours until night fell. I relied on Tzelnik’s promise that I could sleep in the Judenrat’s office, and he would lock me in there from the outside. Indeed Tzelnik put me in a room, left me a candle and matches and I put up a small kindling fire. I fell asleep sitting at the table. In the morning Tzelnik came and took me away. Again, I ate soup in that kitchen and paid with the potatoes I had with me. From there I went outside to keep wandering in the cold.

The yard was lively with traffic. Some pushed around the pumps to get some water. In another corner, they had buried those who froze to death at night when they found no place to lay their heads. A policeman led several dozen people to work in the city. Work was now a real privilege.

My legs were very swollen. As I walked, my knees rubbed together. But I was determined that I was going to the Warsaw Ghetto. The gates, as mentioned, have not yet been guarded, and I went out to the Kaluszyn road joining a group of Jews who walked there. My legs swelled even more. I was behind them.

I arrived in the Warsaw Ghetto shortly before the Jewish revolt. When I asked about the fate of the last Siedlce Jews who were deported with me to “Ganesha – Bharkey”, I learned that everyone was transported to Treblinka.

Hebrew version written by Dov-Ber Blechstein in “Ancesters Tell Siedlce”.
Translated from Hebrew by Mr. Yuval Romano.