By Alexander Kimel
My father found a peasant who was willing to hide us. The ghetto was on the verge of liquidation, but my sister and I hesitated. We belonged to a resistance group, and we felt uneasy quitting. Father was adamant. p>
"I am leaving, and if you children want to waste your lives, that is your choice."
But what about my pride. I prided myself of being fearless "fighter" On the beginning of the ghetto I walked around with a sharpened kitchen knife, bragging that I am going to kill a German. Fighting the Nazis was the dream of my life. And here when the dream is about to come true, I am going to run away. After some soul searching, I decided to join my Father.
After two days of preparations we were ready to leave the ghetto. I packed my backpack, in a military fashion, with a rolled up blanket on top of it. Then, I checked once more the backpack and discovered that my sister put in the "Tefilin" the prophylactics inside. Without saying a word I took them out and not wanting to let fall into German hands and be defiled I burned them. I burned the bridges behind me. I was ready to go.
After two weeks of staying with Matusiak on the Khutor we settled down to a routine. It was a beautiful summer with warm and dry days. Warming in the sun, listening to bird singing, and not being afraid. This was paradise.
During the days we stayed in the forest and at night we slept high on the mountain of straw in the barn. The food was abundant although simple. Potatoes with sour milk filled my stomach, although I did not lose my psychological hunger.
One day I heard the rattling noise of the peasant wagon. We immediately backed off the dirt road. A wagon in this part of the country, in the middle of the day spelled out troubles. Hidden in the forest underbrush we observed the road. "If the Germans are coming, we have to crawl away and hide in the forest," warned my father.
I looked closer and I recognized Danilo. The peasant that brought us here. "I am afraid that he is bringing bad news."
Father, don't exaggerate. Be a little optimistic?
"Optimistic? How can a Jew get good news those days? When he dies and loses his fear."
Father was right. Danilo brought us bad news. It was a letter from Luba. It was short and to the point.
November 2, 1996 the situation in the ghetto worsens from minute to minute. I fell like "The last days of Pompeii. I am running scared. Please come back to get me. "
PS. I hope you come in time.
Without hesitation my Father took his walking cane, put on an old vagabond coat brought by Danilo and left on the dangerous journey to the ghetto. I remained alone.
Next day Matusiak brought me the shattering news that the liquidation of the ghetto had begun. I never expected to see my family again. I remained alone in this cruel world.
The whole day I spent lying on the forest ground, reminiscing about the past, and trying not to think about the future. I could not touch the food. Even my chronic hunger was gone.
When my father arrived in the ghetto, he found the mood drastically changed. Gone were the jubilation and excitement caused by the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. It was a foreboding mood; people expected to be killed in a few days and were paralyzed by fear and helplessness. Rumors were flying endlessly. The Ghettos in surrounding towns were being liquidated and a mass hysteria spread, as the community was waiting for death.
The Group finally decided to leave the ghetto for the forest, but they could not do it without increasing the panic. Meir the leader of the Group faced a dilemma; the Group had weapons and could survive in the forest but he could not abandon the sinking ship. Fearing that people might leave the ghetto and take the weapons with him, he ordered the concentration of the weapons at one central point. "When we are ready to move we will distribute the weapons and sort out the various ammunition." Declared Meir.
My father never believed in resistance. "Russia, America and England can't do it, so what are our chances? Luba, pack your stuff and let's leave the ghetto immediately." He said to Luba upon arrival.
"Father, the Gestapo liaison from Tarnopol, telegraphed to say that this weekend the "rochim" the murderers will stay home. It is Friday, we have at least one day to sleep in our own beds before we become homeless. Please, let us stay one night at least." She begged him.
"I left Josh in the forest. He is all alone."
"One night will not make the difference. I want to enjoy the comfort of my own bed, for one more night. Please."
The idea of sleeping in a bed, after all those nights in the barn appealed to my father and he agreed. "One night and no more. Tomorrow morning we are leaving for the forest."
The telegram turned out to be one of the psychological warfare hoaxes, perpetuated by the Gestapo. Ten hours later the ghetto was surrounded and its liquidation began. Instead of sleeping in their own bed, my father and my sister were sitting in the bunker waiting to be killed.
Luckily they were alerted in time and everybody reached the bunker safely. Before they settled down the drama of the liquidation unfolded; muffled screams, shots, and the familiar shouts "Judendraus" interrupted with powerful explosions of the firebombs.
The Judenrein action, the liquidation action, differed from previous actions. Now, the Germans did not send the Jewish Police to bring out the victims, they firebombed the bunkers. The Germans never entered a bunker themselves, they were afraid.
After two hours of vigil, Sam Hecht who was sitting near the trap door, motioned for silence. " I hear German voices above. They found us. Please keep silence."
"Oh my God," cried my sister, "I feel so guilty of bringing my father back."
"Quiet," hissed Sam, "I recognize the voice of our neighbor Tunis. The old son of a bitch is giving us out."
They sat in silence and in total darkness, listening to the muffled voices from above. "Nobody is here," Mr. Tunis was reporting to the Germans. "This bunker is used only for storing clothing and valuables."
Afterwards was a complete silence, interrupted by close shot. "This jerk is brought the Germans to the bunker. What a jerk," hissed another neighbor.
"We don't know maybe the Germans forced him to enter the bunker. He saved us,"
I hope they don't bomb us, said Sam.
The question if Tunis saved the lives or brought the Germans to the bunker was left to history to decide. The immediate problem facing the occupants was, what to do? The action started at five o'clock in the morning, it lasted already a full day. It was midnight. Staying in the bunker could only prolong the agony for another day. There was no hope.
Lustig got up and with slow motions approached the trap door. He was a big, heavy man and had difficulty passing the narrow passage, constantly tripping over the outstretched feet. "We better try to break out and run. Staying here is a sure death. I am going. Are you going with me, Chana? He turned to his daughter.
"No, Father. I am scared. I will wait here." `Chana voice was choked by fear.
Lustig slowly opened the trap door, stacked his head out, and afterwards lifted himself up. For a few seconds his feet were dangling in the opening and then, he was gone.
"Luba we are going next. Waiting is no good." Now, father got up from his clay seat and in the total darkness pushed himself toward the door through which Lusting left.
"Father I am scared. I can't move my legs. They are frozen, they feel like from clay . . . Let's wait another day. Maybe the Germans will withdraw tomorrow." Luba was in panic.
"No. Now the situation is chaotic. We have a fighting chance to escape. Tomorrow the Germans will bring in dogs. This will be our end. Get up. Let's go."
Before Luba got up, there was a tapping on the trap door. The hatch opened and Lustig appeared. He returned.
Lustig was all dirty. In the light of the flashlight, his face was twisted with terror, his eyes were popping out from the sockets. "It is murder out there. Houses are burning and the ghetto is illuminated like during daytime. The Germans are all over. I saw Meir's body hanging from a pole. The whole Group was hanged. I came back I want to die with my family. Where can I run?" He sat heavily on the seat next to Chana.
Chana embraced him crying. "Let's stay together. It will be easier."
There were about fifteen people in the bunker. Fifteen scared and resigned people, praying and hoping for an easy death. They wanted to get over with it.
After a while my father got up. "I am going to have a look. I am not ready to die. Not yet. "
"Let's wait a little," begged Luba.
"No, time is not on our side. Waiting is suicidal. I am not ready to die. Not yet. It is almost midnight. The Germans are tired by now with all this shooting."
"You are right Leon. It is time to go." Sam Hecht grabbed his wife's hand and pulled her. "Ania, let's go." They left. Deep silence.
Now, Luba was persuaded to leave. When they emerged from the bunker a wave of hot air hit them. The Hecht's house was on fire. The red flames illuminated the area. A real inferno. The Germans and Ukrainians patrolled the area shooting at any movable object.
"Bend down and crawl slowly behind me." Ordered Father.
Behind the house there was a big garden, with planted potatoes. At this time the potato plants were blooming and some reached a height of two feet. Father pulled out a few potato plants and camouflaged himself.
"Luba, do the same and follow me."
The house was located near the border stream. Illuminated by the hellish red light, two "living" potato plants were slowly crawling toward the stream.
After crossing the stream they turned around and huddled under a bush for a short conference. "I will go first and you follow me, at least a hundred yards behind, If I run into trouble you run."
"Where are we going, Father?"
"To Danilo. He lives on the outskirts of the town. Follow me."
After crossing the town, without turning to look at the burning ghetto, they safely arrived at Danilo's house. Danilo's lived in whitewashed hut with two small windows and a straw thatched roof. Behind the house there was a big stable. In the front yard a vicious dog was running on long leash.
When Father and Luba approached the house, the dog started to bark viciously, jumping into their direction. The barking drew a savage response from all the neighboring dogs. They had to withdraw and hide in the fields.
"I have to get to Danilo, before daylight. We can't stay here. What are we going to do? My father was at his wit's end. "To escape the ghetto to be caught by Ukrainians."
They again approached Danilo's house. The loud barking started again, but this time they were lucky. The small window opened and Danilo stuck out his head.
"Danilo! Danilo! Hissed Father. "Please let us in."
Danilo recognized him. A minute later they were resting in the safety of the stable.
Next day, at sunset they left for the forest. Danilo drove the wagon, on the front seat besides him sat Luba, and Father sat in the rear, his feet dangling through the ladder type railing. Dressed in an old Russian military coat, and a pointed cavalry hat called Budionowka. with his unshaven face and the lined face he looked like an old vagabond beggar.
My sister was dressed in a colorful skirt and a white embroidered blouse. She looked like a young Ukrainian girl going to visit her beau in the next village.
After driving in complete silence for about half an hour, they encountered another buggy driven by an old peasant: "The Germans set up a roadblock, two miles from here. They are looking for Jews."
Danilo proceeded for a while without saying a word. My father started to worry. "He is delivering us to the Germans," he said to Luba. Suddenly Danilo jerked the reins of the horses and turned around. They were now going back, in the direction of the ghetto.
"Where is he going? I am afraid to ask," said my father. Luba kept silence.
After proceeding for about half a mile, Danilo made a sharp right turn into a very narrow road that separated two properties. It was a private road. As they went, they passed peasants working in the fields. At each encounter, Danilo greeted the peasants with a customary: Bless the Lord, Jesus Christ.
The sun rose. It was a bright warm summer day. The singing birds proceeded with their courtship, women in white kerchiefs diligently raked and cleaned the potato fields. Nature and people were at peace with themselves, and only a few miles an enormous tragedy was taking place.
After a half an hour ride Danilo turned into a dirt road that lead them to the main road, bypassing the roadblock. Now, Danilo turned his toward Father, asking quietly: Don't you trust me, Leon"
In a few hours they safely arrived at the Khutor.