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ALEXANDER KIMEL - HOLOCAUST UNDERSTANDING & PREVENTION

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AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL NOTES

Written by Alexander Kimel

I receive many requests for interviews, and unfortunately I don't have the time to engage in personal exchanges. So, I decided to put in most information on this page:

I was born in a small town, Podhajce, in Galizia. In 1939 my hometown was occupied by the Red Army, and a year later my family was thrown out from our house and the business was "nationalized." Fearing that we will be sent to Siberia, my father moved the family to another small town, Rohatyn, where we survived the ghetto. Between 1941 and 1943,the German killed almost all the Jews. Out of ten thousand inhabitants only 100 survived. I personally have never been to a concentration camp.

The Killing Process:

On March 21,1942 the Ghetto was raided by Einsatzgrouppen and 3700 Jews, men women and children were driven en to a ditch, about a mile from the Ghetto and shot in cold blood.

A few months later, about 2000 people were caught in a so called Action (Pogrom), loaded into cattle cars and driven to the Belzec Death Camp, for gassing.

Three months later, on the day of Atonement of 1942, the Germans raided the Ghetto, catching the people praying in makeshift synagogues. Again about 1500 people were packed into cattle trains, and without food, water taken for gassing to Belzec.

On June 8, 1943, the Ghetto was liquidated and all Jews caught were shot. The area was declared Judenrein, which meant that any Jews caught afterwards was executed on the spot. I personally escaped the Ghetto a month earlier and hid in the forest and surrounding villages. After the Liberation I went back to school and in 1959b I emigrated to the USA.

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Fast Life.

Life in the ghetto was dangerous and challenging. A day in the ghetto was like living a month under normal conditions. A month was like a year, and a year was a lifetime. Never a dull moment. Buying a quart of milk was wrought with danger. They catch you and you are dead. One day they caught a Jewish family outside the ghetto, and were shot on the spot. A couple with two beautiful cuddly daughters.

Another amazing thing was the unbelievable level of adaptation of the human species. The will to live was so strong. In between the spurts of danger young people were falling in love, women getting pregnant, quarrels erupting between neighbors. Even parties were given in the ghetto. They used to call them "barbarki."

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One of my fondest memories from the ghetto, are connected with panics. Yes, panics. I loved panics. Whenever a German appeared in the Ghetto, panic erupted. P

eople were screaming, yelling, calling the children and hiding in the bunkers. I usually stayed above ground and made myself. . . .potato pancakes. In the ghetto we suffered from chronic hunger. I always wanted to eat. How delicious those pancakes tasted.

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Ghetto Life

Life in the ghetto was physically and emotionally draining. Almost every day I was sent salve labor assignments like cleaning sewers, digging ditches or working on the railroad. At night we were digging bunkers as the hideaways were called. The digging and disposing of the dirt had to be done in secrecy, from the neighbors and the Germans.

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Rumors

The ghetto was full of rumors. We used to joke the ghetto is running his own news service, called JIWO, "Jidden Willen Azoj" (The Jews wish so). The Germans confiscated all the radios and without newspapers, it was easy to float rumors. The news coming down the grapevine was very encouraging, like:

Roosevelt declared that every Gentile that saves a Jew will be awarded with 5 acres of land. Or, a transport of Jews was intercepted in Przemysl by the German Army. The army is rebelling against the killings.

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General Staff.

In the Ghetto we had our own General Staff, comprising of old Jews sitting in a makeshift synagogue and planing the conduct of the war. "The British have to attack Italy." Another "general" `suggested attacking Rumania. If only the Allies had listened to their advice . . .

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Punishment for Hitler

Another favorite pastime in the ghetto was devising a creative punishment for Hitler. The most favorite variant: Hitler will be caught and put into a mobile cage, and transported from town to town, so that each Jew can spit into his face. Unfortunately it was never realized.

Despite all the killings we believed that the Germans are going to lose the war and we will survive. My guess is that a young healthy person cannot imagine his death. The sun will stop shining, the birds will be silent, darkness will prevail. Death is hard to imagine.

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Will to live.

It is hard to imagine that with all the tragedies, pain and hunger, there was only one case of suicide in the ghetto. The more life is unattainable, the more it is desirable and the will to live is getting stronger and stronger.

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Night Life.

Believe it or not, there was an intensive night life in the ghetto. Every few houses, maintained their own night watches, to guard against a night or predawn raid by the Nazis. Going out, meant keeping the night watches together. In the crowded conditions of the ghetto, young people had their chance for privacy.

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Shame.

One of the most painful memories is connected with my refusal to share bread with a hungry man. At that time I was sixteen years old, working in a quarry. Every morning I got up at five o'clock in the morning and took an hour ride to the quarry. Splitting boulders with a 20 lb. hammer, was exhausting. For our labor we received and an additional ration of 200 grams of stale bread.

One day, during the "lunch break," a neighbor of mine approached me and asked for a piece of bread. I refused, because I was hungry myself, A few weeks later the neighbor was killed. Interestingly enough, this small episode stayed with me all my life, always causing a feeling of shame. Still, today I am ashamed of my actions.

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Death of my mother.

A baby in the ghetto was a kiss of death, at least for my mother. Our neighbor Ania, got pregnant and refused to have an abortion. Tow adjacent houses, the Gutman's and the Acht's shared a bunker, and kept night watches together. The bunker was made from an old pickle cellar. The outside entrance door was bricked up and a new camouflaged trap door installed in the kitchen.

The bunker saved our lives in the last two actions, and now we faced a dilemma. Despite our pleas and threats, Ania was scared to have an abortion. There were no doctors in the ghetto. Soon she was so heavy that she should not pass through the trap door into the bunker. In case of an action we will all get killed.

It was decided that Ania will slowly descend into the bunker and stay there until she gives birth. And, so poor Ania stayed alone in the dark, damp hole. My mother decided to help her and volunteered to sleep with her in the bunker. In the unsanitary conditions, my mother was infected with typhoid. Her heart conditions coupled with the lack of medication, caused her death. My mother died but the baby that was born, miraculously survived and lives in Israel now.

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The Concert.

One day I was invited to a violin concert in the ghetto. It was an event that I will never forget. In a small dark room about fifteen teenagers gathered to listen to a violin recital by one of our friends.

I looked at those emaciated faces, wrinkled with pain, the downcast eyes re electing the distress of their souls. They were like withering branches cut off healthy trees.

The violinist played cheerful Russian songs like Katiusha, Capitan, . . and suddenly he switched the tune . . . and the known melody of the Hatikva, filled the room. "Od Lo Avda Tikvatejnu- Our hopes are still alive."

The tune, the words brought me to tears. I stood up and through tears I looked at the beautiful youth condemned to death and asked myself a question: Why? Why is this happening to us? A scene from the Bible appeared before my eyes. The blinded Samson bringing down the Philistine Temple. At this moment I would not mind be blinded if only I could bring down this cruel world.

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My Beliefs

I matured in the ghetto, and grew up with the notion that danger of life is a normal state of being. I rarely experienced fear. I had this strong inner conviction that I will survive. To this date, I asked myself this question, was I predestined to survive, or were my beliefs a self-fulfilling prophecy? I was caught twice by the Germans, and every time I calmly bluffed myself out. I acted, because I believed that I will survive. Sometimes I wonder if everybody else had the same feelings.

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The Collapse of the Bunker.

A few months after my mother's death we faced a major crisis - our bunker collapsed. We shared a small one-bedroom apartment with three spinsters. One night we were awakened by a loud rumbling, followed by a strong quake, and in a few seconds the outside wall collapsed. Just like the walls of Jericho.

It turned out that the water from the melting snow, penetrated the ventilation shaft of the bunker and caused its collapse. The next day the Germans came to survey the strange phenomena. Luckily, they accepted our explanation that the spring water undermined the flimsy foundations.

We did not ave where to live and worst of all, we did not have a bunker. Without a solid bunker life was not worth living. Fortunately, my father found a solution. He promised to pay for the construction of a new bunker, if the neighbors will squeeze and give us a small kitchen, to live in.

Soon, a master builder was hired and the construction of a new, ultra modern piggy back hideaway started. The new entrance to the bunker complex was located in the cellar. Under an old piece of furniture, there was a masked entrance door to the first bunker, that was used for storing of clothing and other valuables. Another trap door, located under a pile of dirty clothing, led to the main bunker. It was a long structure carved in clay, with benches also carved from clay. The arrangement resembled a streetcar.

Interestingly enough, the collapse of the bunker saved our lives, a few months later. During the last "Judenrein" action.

The Germans discovered only the first bunker, did not find anybody there and left the door open. The other raiders assumed that the people inside were gone. hline.gif - 2.4 K

The Fortress - Sevastopol

Talking about bunkers, the creativity and the determination of people trying to save their lives, defies imagination. One mega-bunker, a marvel of ingenuity was built in our ghetto and was called Sevastopol, after the Russian fortress on the Black Sea. Everybody talked about it, and only a few saw it. As it was rumored, Sevastopol contained a series of underground chambers, equipped with running water, electricity and provisions for a one year.

The bunker could hold about 30 people, and they were the envy of the ghetto. As it turned out, Sevastopol survived about six months after the last "Judenrein" action, that took place in June of 1943. Early in the winter days, a German Gendarme that was patrolling the old ghetto area, discovered a column of vapor rising from a hole in the ground, that turned out to be an outlet of a ventilation shaft.

After the discovery, the Germans tried to flush them out throwing hand grenades through the opening. They almost gave up, when somebody suggested to flood the bunker. The Germans brought in a fire pumper, and pumped water for two days, until the Jews emerged. I knew those people, and I often wonder how does it feel to underground, and watch the water rising slowly, ready to engulf you. hline.gif - 2.4 K

Radical Medicine.

"We have to stop the typhoid ravaging the Ghetto. Please organize a hospital, and transfer all sick the people to his place." The Germans gave the Jewish Council two days to organize the hospital. On the third day, two Germans came and shot at point blank all the patients. The Nazis practiced radical medicine. hline.gif - 2.4 K

Resilience.

The Jews in our Ghetto, showed an amazing emotional resilience. Despite all the tragedies, pain and hopelessness, there was only one case of suicide. This was less than in normal times. It looks like that living in dangerous conditions has a therapeutic value. As it is written in the Talmud - "Sakanath Nefesh Doche Hakol." The danger of life overrides all other problems. hline.gif - 2.4 K

Humiliation.

I was often sent to work outside the Ghetto, where I could get a piece of bread. I hated meeting some of my Gentile classmates. Seeing me, they usually exclaimed

"You are still alive?" I felt like a dead man walking. hline.gif - 2.4 K

Swollen Legs.

As the time went on, I saw in the ghetto people walking on funny legs. After a while I realized that those people had swollen legs, from hunger. hline.gif - 2.4 K

Worms.

In the Ghetto, I discovered that I have worms. Realizing, that parasitic worms can kill a starving man, I decided to get rid of them and drunk a glass of kerosene.

For a few months my stomach was digesting and rejecting the kerosine. It almost killed me but had little effect on the worms. hline.gif - 2.4 K

Communal Disaster.

When I look at the Holocaust survivors today, I am amazed how well they adjusted to a new life. They all settled down and thrive in difficult conditions, I don't know any survivors that require public assistance. It is said in the Talmud -"Tzarot Rabim Chatzit Nechama." A disaster that strikes a community is easier to take. hline.gif - 2.4 K

Adjustment.

In the ghetto, I often recalled my examinations frights. "What a fool I was, to be scared of exams." To my surprise, after the liberations those examination frights came back. It looks like that our reactions and phobias are very strong. redbar1.gif

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kimel@systec.com

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