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Sefer Vladimirets

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Between the Straits

From: Sefer Vladimirets, 1963

Author: Yaakov Dik

** Webmaster Note: The following is a translation from Hebrew by Laia Ben-Dov as sponsored by George Zilbergeld. Additional clarifications are provided in parenthesis ( ).

BETWEEN THE STRAITS

The character of Vladimirets, the Jewish town with all of the charm of its attributes as we knew it – a many-branched existence – whether it was a religious Chassidic existence or one of secular popularity – the youth movements and political parties – all these came between the straits in 1939, with the entry of the Soviets into the town. 

The Sources Were Blocked

The life of its trade, the sources of its economy, which also were an expression of its character – all these changed completely.  The stores became empty; trade was halted.  Jews who were still occupied in matters of commerce knew very well that there was a great danger in doing so, and that tomorrow, or the next day, this source of income would also be blocked.  A mark of disappointment and worry was imprinted on the faces of most of the residents.  It was as if all of their labor over the years had been uprooted.  Only a small portion of the residents found some support also in this situation – these were the few residents of the town who received government positions.  But the wages of government clerks were very tiny, without the possibility of survival.

Every house that the regime regarded as appropriate for use as an office or an institution was confiscated, without many calculations.  The owner of such a house received an order to vacate, and he was required to fulfill the order within 24 hours, without any consideration at all of the size of the family.  That was, for example, the fate of the Tscherniak family, the Beider family, and more.

The actual government was in the hands of local people who were close to the new regime, in the hands of those who in the past had seen themselves as deprived.  Now they began to prepare to settle various accounts that had originated in days gone by.  Thus, there was created a class of newly deprived, and a new resentment arose – the fruit of the Soviet regime.  Many people who had owned property lost their assets and became poor.  Many left Vladimirets and wandered to other places.  But there also were classes into which the new regime had blown the breath of life, and these accepted it gladly.  Thus matters continued until the German invasion. 

In the Days of Withdrawal

With the breakout of the German-Russian war, you immediately felt the confusion that reigned over the new government.  A general draft to the army was proclaimed immediately, but it was all done without any order.  All activities were confused and mixed up.  Not every draftee reported to the draft offices, and the parents of those who did report and were drafted were sunk in great sorrow, because they knew that it was possible, without any difficulty, to evade the draft.

I well remember how Shlomo Yaakov, Moshe Shlita's father, would tearfully remember the foolish deed of his family when they consented that his son Moshe would go to the army.  Shlomo Yaakov was not in Vladimirets at the time, and he was certain that if he had been present, his son would not have joined the army.  His worry over the fate of Moshe grew greater after he found out from some Ukrainians who had fled from the ranks of the Red Army that the entire convoy of draftees, who had been transported by train, was bombed by the Germans and many of the travelers had lost their lives.

I was a frequent visitor to the members of this family, and every time I was witness to the tears of sorrow with which they mourned the bitter fate that befell their dear son and themselves.  I would attempt to comfort them:

"As long as the war has not ended and there is no clear information but only rumors and hearsay, don't mourn, because in times of emergency it is impossible to know the real truth.  It is not impossible that Moshe was rescued and nothing bad happened to him." 

One Sabbath 

Only a few days passed from the time that war was declared until the Russians withdrew from Vladimirets.  I well remember the day of evacuation.  It was a Sabbath in the month of Tammuz [roughly corresponding to June/July], and it was also the yahrzeit [anniversary of the death] of my father.  It was a lovely, clear summer day.  That Sabbath, I went to the community synagogue and was called up to the Torah.  The gabbai [sexton] was Mottel Burko and I was honored with maftir [the last portion of the Torah reading, including reading of the Haftorah].

Spirits were already confused and rumors were circulating.  There were those who saw the withdrawal of the Red Army as a threat, because there was a great fear of the Germans.  Opposed to these, were Jews who suffered greatly during the Russian regime, and now, with the Russian withdrawal, they tasted some kind of revenge.

"They should go, these fleabags, to the Devil with them!  All hope is not yet lost," someone angrily proclaimed.

There were some who remembered the Germans from World War I, and these memories encouraged them and quieted their fears.  I myself had some kind of position with the Russians, and I regarded the situation with a great deal of worry.  The general feeling was of depression.  Even those who expressed harsh words toward the Russians also knew that their words had been said under pressure, and that in their hearts there was fear of tomorrow.

We went out of the synagogue.  Next to the Christian church there was a gathering of many residents of the town – Jews and Christians alike – who were looking toward the army camp that had centered itself there before leaving the town.  We, who had come from the synagogue, also did not hurry home, but we stood and watched the soldiers.

One of the army men said:  "Jews, you must leave the town and run away from here.  Join us.  It is forbidden for you to remain here. "

But only a few joined the withdrawing army.  Only a few left the town.  All that day, the convoys of soldiers continued to pass through the town and move east.  The last groups passed through toward evening,   In the town there was an oppressive silence, a kind of silence before the storm.

In the afternoon, I went to see Chana Appelboim.  She was a close friend of mine, and we hoped to marry.  I went out with Chana into the street, and there we saw the two Kot brothers, loaded down with bundles, preparing to leave the town.  They both joined the men of the Red Army going eastward. Indeed, the Kot brothers were dedicated and faithful Communists, but now they both looked broken and depressed.  There was something shocking in the look on their faces…

At the end of the day, I went to pray the afternoon and evening prayers – before that, I promised Chana that after the prayers, I would go home for a short time and afterwards I would come back to her.

I came home to see my mother, who was alone.  My brother Chaim was already serving in the Red Army, and my brother Eliezer was learning in Russia.  Ima [mother] was sunk in sorrow and great worry for her two sons, as well as for me.  I therefore saw a necessity to stay with her.  When I came home, I suddenly heard explosions.  I hurried out to the fence, to see what happened.  I saw people fleeing in confusion from their homes toward the parks and fields.  I went into the house and told my mother, and together we went out to the park to find a hiding place.  We lay down in the flower beds.  From a distance, we heard the shouts of rioters, who had begun to take over the town.  Relatives approached our hiding place – uncles and cousins from the Beider family and from Mottel Dik's family.  We hid together all night among the plants in the park.  At dawn, we left the park and each of us began to sneak back to his house.

The First Sacrifices

The streets had an appearance of the aftermath of rioting: torn pillows and quilts, broken furniture, feathers flying around.  Mottel Burko, whom I had seen only yesterday in his position of gabbai in the synagogue and who had honored me with a call up to the Torah and maftir, was now lying dead in the street.  I was shocked by the sight.  It was found that he had refused to leave his house and the rioters murdered him.  Our house was not touched, and nothing had been taken.  And then we received the fearful news that Benjamin Bas and Shmulik Shustak had been injured in the bombing.  That entire Sunday passed in fear, which increased with the coming of evening.  Again, everyone fled from their homes and hid in all kinds of places.  The night between Sunday and Monday was more difficult than the previous night.  The riots became stronger.  That night, two more Jews were murdered:  Berel der gunter and Shlomo the humpback.

On Monday, we found out that the organizer of the riots was the Ukrainian priest and that the living spirit of all of the deeds of this organization was the son of the priest from the village Ostrowiec.  The orders of the organizers were to take all of the possessions from the Jews, but not to kill them.  If someone were to show any objection, he should be murdered.

On Monday, several Jews gathered in Chana Appelboim's house and it was decided to send a chosen delegation to the Ukrainian priest and request that he try to restrain the rioters.  At the head of the delegation were Yaakov Eisenberg, Natan Tscherniak and Ben-Zion Zhuk.  When they returned, they told us that the priest had promised that in the future, they would try not to harm people and not to spill blood.  Among other things, they told us that the son of the priest from Ostrowiec had adopted the language of a "scientist" and spoke to them as follows:

"History teaches us that every time that the Jews laugh and are happy – the Christians cry.  And the opposite is true – every time the Christians are happy, the Jews cry.  Therefore, it is better that we will be happy and you will cry."

Nevertheless, they promised that they would try not to harm any Jews, and that they would only take their property.  They added an explanation that the Jews must understand that taking their property is not wrong, because their property really belongs to the Christians, whom the Jews sucked dry like leeches.  Therefore, they suggested that when the Christians come to the Jewish houses, the Jews must leave their houses immediately and allow the arrivals to do whatever they wanted to do, as they would in their own homes.

During the nights of Monday and Tuesday, robberies took place as they had on the previous nights.  On Wednesday, the robberies took place during the day.  A mob of villagers from all the villages in the area arrived in town.  They stripped the clothes from every Jew that they grabbed in the street.  That happened, for example, to Michael Freidman, whom they presented stark naked on the main road.  But from that day onward it was obvious that the organizers of the riots began to calm down the plundering mob.  The riots began to subside, and thus matters continued until the Germans entered the town. 

With the Entry of the Germans

The Germans did not enter Vladimirets with a military parade and a show of glory.  They slowly arrived in the town – about 40 Germans in all.  Some of them were members of the S.S., and some were from the administrative units, whose task was administrative organization in the conquered lands.  The S.S. men settled themselves in Grushko's house, and the administrative men in Beider's house.  On the day of their arrival, they immediately called the representatives of the Jewish community and requested a list of its leaders, who would comprise the Jewish Council [Judenrat] and would be responsible to the regime with regard to fulfilling various orders.  Yaakov Eisenberg was chosen to be Chairman of the Council.  Members of the Council were the brothers Natan and Yaakov Tscherniak and Ben-Zion Zhuk.  The council was located in Sender Appelboim's house, and it conducted its meetings there.

The first thing that the regime requested was a precise list of the Jewish population.  Every Jew was obligated to wear a Star of David, which was later changed to yellow patches – a patch on the chest and a patch on the back, so they could be identified from the front and from behind.  A Jewish police force was organized.  Every policeman wore a ribbon on his sleeve marked "BeJuden Polizei" [Jewish Police].  Now, after the organizational tools were established, the decrees began.  All of the Jews of the villages, who belonged administratively to Vladimirets, were uprooted from their homes and moved to our town.

A decree that went out would be proclaimed on a Thursday, in other words, toward the Sabbath.  Also in times of trouble, Vladimirets proved that the brotherhood and mutual help, characteristics for which our town was famous in days of peace, also were very strong now.  A decree was put out that every Jew had to supply 4 grams of gold to the German coffers.  Those who were unable to do so were helped by those who were more established, who gave more than their share.  It was the same when the claim was issued to supply the regime with furs.

There was a pleasant attitude in the town also toward those Jews who had been uprooted from their homes in the villages.  Now, it was much more crowded in the homes, but everyone tried to bear the trouble with an attitude of understanding and to help each other as much as possible.  In general, the Jews remained living in their homes, but it was forbidden to go out in the street.  Therefore we would always leave by the back door, and that is how the connection from house to house was maintained.

The entire living inventory, such as horses, cows, chickens, was confiscated by the Germans.  All the Jews of the town, except for members of the council and police, were ordered to report every morning outside the offices of the Council for the purpose of filling various jobs, such as cleaning the streets, sawing trees, and working outside the town – in the sawmill and near the "koleika" [narrow gauge railroad] – this work was forced labor, with no payment whatsoever.

I and Pesach Tscherniak worked in the houses of the Germans.  We heated the ovens, cut wood and kept the courtyards clean.  At one o'clock in the afternoon, we would finish our work as usual and go home.  The food in the town was generally bad, but the mutual assistance did help more than a little.  The food was 200 grams of bread per person, per day.  Once a month, they would receive half a bottle of oil.  But no one died of hunger.  Ima planted corn and potatoes in our garden, and there was a plentiful harvest.  Ima shared with the neighbors, and she always said:

"Whatever we have, we will all eat together, and we will not worry about what will be afterwards.  We will put out trust in G-d."

Now, our family was bigger, since at the end of the month of Av [approximately August], my brother Eliezer came home.  Eliezer was born in 1923, on Chanukah.  Now, he was 18 years old.  During peacetime, he learned in the yeshiva in Stolin.  With the Russian conquest, he returned to our town.  After that, he travelled to Sarny to learn a new profession – to be a driver of a train.  He stayed in Sarny until the Russians fled.  When the Russians withdrew, he joined them and went east with them.  But after they had gone a distance down the road and the bombing of the Germans increased, everyone scattered in all directions.  He told us that he was trapped in Kostopol by the Germans and suffered greatly.

The first few months were upset by the difficult conditions.  A list of the products imposed upon the Jewish population to provide included suit fabrics, jewelry, a great amount of winter clothing – such as sheepskins – blankets and sheets – all this for the army.  In addition to that, 5 grams of gold and 100 Russian rubles per person had to be handed over.  These claims were beyond the means of the Jewish population to supply, because part of the Jews were completely impoverished, and the other part, who still had some resources in its hands, did not want to part now with all of its property.  Again, I was a witness to shouting in the offices of the Council.  Day and night, the members of the Council sat and conferred.  They made lists and persuaded people to give more than they were able.  I know that many of the Polish population, when the severity of the situation became known to them, brought donations to the Council in complete secrecy and at the peril of their lives, in order to help the Jews in their time of trouble.  The head of, and first to perform, this kindness was the Polish priest.  He served as an example to his congregants, and many of them learned from him, saw what he did, and did the same.  In that way, the Jews somewhat overcame the new decree.

The condition of supply, as I mentioned, was very difficult.  Those who managed to obtain something from the Ukrainian villagers, after they had endangered themselves, were exposed to new dangers, because from time to time, the Germans conducted searches in the houses.  We had to hide the food in special, secret places.

On this background of relations with the non-Jewish population in order to obtain food, there also were incidents of murder.  Once, a Jew from the village Dibulya, Asher-Aharon's son, tried to exchange a bit of yeast for bread and was caught.  They tortured him severely, until his soul left him.   The members of the Jewish council applied to the regime and asked them to give them his body so that he could be properly buried, but all their efforts did not help and his body was not handed over.

It was forbidden to go out of town.  Guard duty was in the hands of the Jewish police.  From time to time, the council received a special permit to go to Sarny for its own matters.  Most of the time, the one who travelled there was Yaakov Eisenberg.  The situation continued that way until the month of Av [roughly, August].  One day during this month, when I came back from work in the sawmill, I was told that a parade of the Ukrainian militia had taken place in the town, in which they had sung songs of abuse toward the Jews. 

On the Threshold of Destruction

It was a Sunday.  That day, I did not go out to work.  I came to the offices of the Council.  Depression was visible on the faces of everyone.  I was told that one Ukrainian had said that pits that were being dug on the way to the village Zholkin.  Yaakov Eisenberg went to the Gestapo to clarify the matter, but he was told that these were false rumors and no more than that.

The next day, when we went to work, we found out that the guard over us had been strengthened.  Ukrainian police waited for us next to the spirit factory and brought us to work.  When we returned in the evening, a group of police again accompanied us to the town.  That same day, one of us overheard a conversation between the Ukrainian police.  One policeman told another that they were intending to eliminate all of the "idlers" among the Jews who were not fit to work and that only the professionals would remain alive.  In the town, people walked like shadows.  It was said that Vladimirets was surrounded by police guards.  That same day, Leizer Zhuk (the butcher) was killed.  Yaakov Eisenberg, who was supposed to travel on behalf of the Council to Sarny, was not allowed to leave the town.

On Wednesday, when I returned from work, my mother told me that Eliezer had sent a message with someone that he would not return from work.  I went to Appelboim, where I found out that the members of the Council were sunk into a mood of complete depression.  They counted the money that was in the Council's fund and divided it between everyone who was present.  The previous day, Eliezer told me that he and several friends had turned to the members of the Council and suggested burning down the entire town in order to create a situation of confusion, something which would awaken people to flee from the town.  But the members of the Council did not see their suggestion as realistic.  After the matter was rejected, Eliezer and his friends decided to flee from the town, and that is what they did.  They left, a group of 13 young men and one girl – Rachel from Tykowicz, to flee and hide in the forests.

The next evening, I also went to the Council's office.  I told Ima that perhaps I would not return home, and that I would sleep at Appelboim's.  Many people were in the office, and all of them were very depressed.  The members of the Council tried to calm the atmosphere and prove to the arrivals that it was forbidden to be discouraged.  I went into Chana's room, and together we went to the Eisenberg family.  Found there that evening were the Tscherniak, Appelboim and Zhuk families; Perel Weisblatt and her husband; Michael Freidman, and more.  Everyone sat there gloomy with despair and with lowered heads.  Now, it already was certain that they were going to eliminate the Jews who were not productive.  At a late hour of the night, a few Ukrainians came and called Yaakov Eisenberg to come outside.  He took his coat and his cane and went out to them.  An hour later, he came back and told us that they had proposed a safe place for him to hide until the rage would pass.  He went out to them again to give them his answer.  A short time later, he entered, confused and upset.  He threw down the coat and cane, and said:

"It is forbidden for me to find shelter.  The fate of everyone will be mine.  I will not separate myself from the Jews of Vladimirets." 

To Flee!

Thursday morning, I parted from all the members of the family.  Chana had tried to convince me that I should do everything in order to be able to flee and not come back to the town.  The hour was early, and I saw a gathering next to the drugstore neighboring our house.  It became clear that the pharmacist, his wife and their daughter had committed suicide – this family was not one of the older residents of Vladimirets, but they were refugees who settled in our town during the Russian conquest.

I didn't have time to stay there and look.  I hurried into the house, before I went to work.  I parted from Ima.  I told her that I was going to try to escape during working hours.  I remember that while I was working, I overheard a conversation between two Germans who were guarding us and stood not far from me.  One asked why had they strengthened the guard so much?  And the second German answered him with a wink of the eye and by putting his hand into the shape of a pistol and aiming it at his head.  In other words, they are intending to eliminate the Jews.

When we returned home, Itzik the builder asked one of the policemen what he knew about what was going to happen, and he answered him that all of the necessary Jews would remain alive, those who were not necessary would be killed.

Ima told me when I came home that she had found out that Eliezer had left the town safely.  That night, several families sat together in our house.  My relative Yisrael and his wife Batya, and their little daughter; Leibel and his sister and her husband – Yaakov Perchik, the family of Mottel Dik – Baruch Feldman and his brother-in-law, and more.  I was tired from the previous night and when I lay down to sleep in my clothes, I fell asleep immediately.  At three o'clock in the morning, my mother woke me and said that there was a possibility to leave the town.  She coaxed me with words, saying that she was certain that I would be saved by the merits of my father, of blessed memory.  She gave me several ears of corn – food for the road – showered me with kisses, and I went out.

We were a group of 10 people.  Yisrael and his wife Batya and their daughter Chaya; Leibel Dik; Hinda and her husband Yaakov and their daughter Shulamit; Baruch Feldman, his brother-in-law Yaakov, and me.  Leibel was the organizer of our exit.  He was the one who gave the money to one of the police and arranged with him to bring us outside the town, there to leave us alone.  But the policeman was not satisfied with the money he took.  He also wanted to take our souls.  He prepared several policemen who waited for us in a certain place and intended to kill us.  We arrived behind the hospital.  Leibel went first, and I went last, next to the policeman.  Suddenly, a policeman came out of hiding and attacked Leibel.  Leibel began to struggle with him.  I managed to see how the policeman stabbed him with a bayonet, and I heard Leibel cry out.  Baruch began to shout at me:  "Yaakov, run away immediately!"  I suddenly gave the policeman, who was walking next to me, a strong punch in the face.  He became confused, and I began to run.  Baruch Feldman ran in front of me, and I followed.  We ran to the right.  We heard shots behind us.  Suddenly, I felt something scratch my boot.  "Maybe I am injured," I said to Baruch, and he answered, while running, "Don't talk about it.  Run, as long as you have strength, and don't talk!"

And so we reached the forest, and entered into a swampy area. 

After that, we found out that all of those who had been walking with us had been killed, and that Batya had succeeded in escaping and reaching the forest.  She wandered in the forest for two weeks, looking for me, until she was seized and murdered by the Germans.

Paths of Wandering

Of what happened in Vladimirets, we did not know that day.  From a distance, indeed there were shots, but we didn't know their meaning.  We came to the general conclusion that we should not return to the town.  Baruch suggested that we stay together all the time and that we should not separate.  We decided to go to the village Zelenitsa, where my grandfather had lived in the past.  And that is what we did.  We walked and walked all night.  We were hungry, and we picked ears of corn from the fields through which we passed.  With this we revived ourselves.  We arrived in one of the settlements, where a farmer received us nicely.  He did not bring us into his house, but he gave us permission to go up into the attic, where he kept the straw.  We stayed in this attic for two days.  We knew nothing about Vladimirets; even the farmer didn't know anything.

The farmer brought food to us in the attic, until he informed us that we had to leave the place.  We went out toward morning, and walked in the direction of Zelenitsa.  I recognized the village from those days when I came there to visit my grandfather.  I approached the first house.  It was the house of Josip, a Polish villager, who had once been the soltis [head] of the village.  I knocked lightly on the window, and he awoke.  He approached the window and looked out.  He immediately recognized me, and brought me into the cowshed, between piles of wood and straw.  In general, it was possible to trust him, but he was very frightened and fearfully spoke about how he was putting himself into great danger.  Here we found out about the fate of the community of Vladimirets and about its destruction.  I was shocked and depressed by all I heard.  Toward evening, the farmer brought spelt porridge in a pot and a wooden spoon.  He didn't say a word; he just put down the pot and left.  In all of his deeds, we sensed his great fear, and the great burden we were causing him.

On the third day of our stay, Josip came to me and said:

"I am keeping you because of a good will to help you, but since you came – my life is no life…"

I decided to leave the place.  He told me that he had found Eliezer in the forest and had arranged with him a place where he would wait for me.  He gave me a loaf of bread, food for the road, and explained to me where the meeting place would be.  It was at a distance of 3 kilometers from the village.  At 9 or 10 o'clock that night, I came down from my hiding place and went out on the road, with a heavy suspicion that a trap was being set for me.  Thus, I walked carefully.  And when I came to the designated place, from a distance I saw two shadows.  I carefully approached, and I found that indeed, Eliezer was there.  The second person was Asher Guz, Menachem Guz's grandson.  Eliezer's clothing was very thin, and the nights were already very cold.  He told me everything that had happened to him during the days since he had left.  I told him that I had decided not to go again to the farmers' houses, after the days of fear I had experienced at Josip's.

The next day, Eliezer decided that he and Asher would both go to Vladimirets, they would secretly enter the town and go home to find some clothes that certainly remained.  At first, I accepted the plan, but after they left, I saw it as a terrible mistake and a dangerous attempt.  I suffered days of confusion and pain.  I could not rest, and I told myself that if anything would happen to them, I would kill myself, because it was my fault; I had let them go.

But they returned safely, and indeed they succeeded in bringing a few clothes with them.  We wandered around in the forest until Rosh HaShana, and then we decided to go to find Rachel, to Tykowicz.  Eliezer knew the village where Rachel was supposed to be.  We knocked at the door of one of the houses, but success was not with us.  A bearded goy came out to meet us, a kachap type.  He looked at us and announced:

"Zhids [Jews]?!"  He immediately turned around, picked up an axe, waved it in the air, and said,

"If you don't get out of here immediately, I will kill you on the spot."

We fled.  After many searches, we succeeded in finding the farmer's house where Rachel was hiding.  Here we also found Rachel's brother, Yaakov Ber.  We were together all that day.  The farmer told us that a few Jews were wandering in the area, and that he had made a plan for us – he would lead us deep into the forest, to the location of the swamps, and because the Germans almost never came here, we could build some kind of a building there, where we would hide.  And that is how it was.  The winter was relatively easy.  We stayed there for three months.  At night we would go out to find food, and we did that until the Partisans began to control the area and our situation improved.  When the Red Army arrived, we were drafted as soldiers and we participated in their battles, in one of which Eliezer was killed.  My brother Chaim also fell as a fighter in the ranks of the Red Army.

May their souls be bound in the sheaf of life.


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