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THE VACATION I AM TRYING TO FORGET
A True Story
When mother told us that we were going to Europe, my sister and I were in a maze of excitement for several days. Finally the day of departure arrived. Although it was only going to be a three-month trip, we packed enough clothes to last us a year.
I was a boy of ten and since my eight-year-old sister was suffering from polio, our doctor suggested that the trip abroad might help our spirits.
It was on the evening of June 6, 1939 that a small group of friends gathered on the pier in Hoboken, NJ to see us off as we boarded the Polish liner Batory that was to take us to Poland to visit our relatives.
For us, life aboard the ship was one of constant delights journey. Most of the time we sat on the deck enjoying the ocean breeze, and on the fifth day out we encountered the liner Batorys twin sister ship Pilsudzki. The ship was returning from Poland. Both ships greeted each other with a handful of hoots from the foghorns and as the ships passed by we noticed a crowd of people waving to us, so we waved back.
The voyage lasted ten days and on June 16, 1939, we arrived in Gdynia, Poland. The entrance of the ship to the port was greeted with bands playing, people singing and dancing. It made us all feel very welcome.
Today when I think of it, I realize that we were very blissful and excited on that day. we had no inkling of what horror was soon to beset us.
After passing through customs, we boarded a train for Warsaw. When we arrived there on the next day, my mother phoned a friend who was also visiting from the United States and was expecting us to call. We had dinner together at a restaurant and as my mother was telling her friend the details of our plans of where and how long we were going to stay in Poland, I was paying more attention to the delicious Polish style dinner that the waiter had just brought to us. The friend told my mother; "Dont stay in Poland too long, there are many ominous rumors and even threats of war". Later we spent the evening sight seeing and after being exhausted from the days activities, we settled down for the night at the Hotel Royal. We rested up for our further trip east into Poland (which was actually today in white Russia- It became part of Poland in 1921) where our relatives were already eagerly waiting for our arrival.
The next morning mothers friend picked us up in a Hanson and took us to the railroad station. After bidding him farewell, we boarded the train. We traveled through
Scores of scenic farming communities and charming hamlets. Our travels lasted for two days until we arrived at our final destination. Here many of our relatives came to meet us. The station was called Bogdanowo.
Our relatives looked very odd to my sister and I. Very few of them wore shoes and their style of clothing reminded me of the gypsies I had once seen in a movie.
They greeted us with much endearment, but I must say that most of that did not interest me much because I had immediately noticed that one of my uncles seemed to be celebrating our arrival with much too much vodka. He would take a slug out of the bottle then give his horse a slug too. We found out later that the horse liked vodka just as much as our uncle did.
They pulled up with their horses and wagons; loaded our baggage, and then we rode off in form of a procession.
Along the edge of the road, the trees were in full bloom. Daffodils blanketed the countryside and the air smelled clean and fragrant. The road itself was made of rocks and was very bumpy, so by the time we reached the village we were practically shook up. There more adult relatives and their children met us.
The homes in the village looked very odd to us. The walls were made of logs and most of them had straw roofs. My uncles house had one large room, and the floor was made of red clay. There was no electricity so a kerosene lamp that was hung from the ceiling was the only source of light. In one of the corners stood a huge oven and there were five wooden beds lined up around the rest of the room. The beds were covered with straw and raw linen sheets. In the middle of the room stood a table surrounded by four benches.
To celebrate our visit, they threw us a big party. Visitors came from all over the area to see us. Almost everyone brought a bottle of vodka with them. By sundown most of them were cockeyed. The next morning my mother and uncles took us out and showed us around the village. The people lived almost the same as our relatives; they did their own farming and raised animals. We visited the family burial plot and the home where my mother was born. We kept busy for some time by visiting more and more relatives and seeing so many different places each day, that the months passed by all too quick.
We had to board the liner Pilsudzki on the fifth of September, so we said our goodbye to our relatives in the early morning on September 1, 1939. Then we loaded our baggage on a wagon, and one of my uncles drove us to another station called Juraciszki. We got on a train, and after bidding my uncle farewell, we left. We had to change trains in Lida, and from there continue back to Gdynia. The train schedules told us that the train would arrive in an hour, and since it was a nice day, we decided to wait on the ramp. My sister was sitting on the suitcase playing with her doll and my mother was scolding me for getting some dirt on my clothes, when suddenly all hell broke loose.
The screams of sirens shattered the morning air and a mass of planes were approaching from the west. In the fury of excitement, my sister strayed away from us and was lost. We left our suitcase standing on the ramp and we ran for shelter. We crowded into an inadequate bomb shelter and we stayed there hoping and praying that my sister was all right.
The Germans hurled machinegun fire and aerial bombs, which caused a havoc of destruction wherever they fell. Hundreds of bombs ripped open the homes in the first major bombardment. The shells left death and destruction in the streets. Windows were shattered and a disorder was brought to the neat and tidy people who lived there. One shells landed less than twenty yards from the station and ripped through our suitcase.
When war came to Poland, the bombing brought much fear to the people and left its ugly mark on the bright, sunny streets. After the planes left and a sense of peace prevailed, the village was filled with dying men, women, and children and the smells of calamity cut through the air. The cries of people who lost their loved ones were heard everywhere and the sight of this unholy pandemonium turned us almost into robots. We did not know whether my sister was all right so we started searching everywhere we could.
We finally found her with a group of people. They took her to with them to a shelter after finding her alone in the street.
Or baggage was destroyed and all that was left in our possession was one bullet-riddled suitcase. The train tracks were destroyed during the bombing and we could go no further. We had to get out of Lida as soon as possible. The thunder ad lightning of war struck the area and it could strike again. We found out that a train was soon leaving on a track that was not destroyed. It was going in the direction of Juraciszki, so we had no choice but to return back to our relatives. Arriving in Juraciszki we found out that we could not get any further transportation, all the trains stopped running. Subsequently we started walking. My mother carried the suitcase and we followed her behind. We kept asking her "what the heck just happened here?". We walked through the woods and dirt roads and stopped to rest once in a while. After a long walk we finally made it to a friends house that was located a few kilometers from Bogdanowo. He was a middle-aged man named Vojganica, and since it was already late and he saw how tired and beat we were, he offered to let us spend the night with him and his family. He had a large family so there was no room in the house. Kindly, his wife set us up for the night in the barn.
We went to bed but could not sleep because we could hear the constant bombing that had started up all again. The roar of planes and the explosions of striking bombs outside a city sounded like a distant thunder. The roars lasted until the set of dawn; with the first crack of light once more the region turned serene.
The next morning we got cleaned up and opened out our suitcase in order to get some clean clothes, only to find that they were all full of holes and looked like they could only be used as a fishing net.
Vojganica offered to take us the rest of the way to Bogdanowo. He hitched up his horse to a wagon and once again we were on our way. He dropped us off at my uncles house and rode off. My uncle was glad to see us for he thought that something bad might have happened to us.
All the Polish officials such as mayors, police or anyone in political position, soon deserted their posts and they all went into hiding. The wealthy people also left their homes and disappeared. They must have known that the Soviet Russians did not tolerate anyone that was even slightly prosperous.
On September 17, 1939, the Russians and Germans divided Poland (without much resistance from the Polish forces) The Russians took over half of Poland up to the river Bug, while the Germans took the western half. Bogdanowo and surrounding towns were soon bursting with Russian soldiers. Red banners were flying everywhere as the tanks and heavy artillery shattered the rocky roads into powdered dust. Cringing in fright, we watched from a distance as the men who looked as monstrous and evil as their machines rolled swiftly by.
We stayed with my uncle for a short time but after a few days he told us that he could not keep us any longer, for there was very little food in the house and he has his own family to support. Since we had no more money left to pay for food and lodging, most of our relatives refused to take us in. So there we were in a strange country without a home or money and seemingly running out of friends.
In order to sustain us and keep us together, mother took some jobs knitting sweaters for people who could afford to give us food and a place to sleep for a while. Eventually one of my uncles who lived on the outskirts of a town called Traby, offered to let us stay with him for a period of time. In return, we were to help him in his farm by digging potatoes, laying fertilizer, or any other farming job that came up.
A newly constituted police force consisting of former Polish communists hand in hand with the N.K.V.D., went from house to house arresting everyone who was suspected of sympathizing with the Anti-Soviets forces. Many former Polish soldiers were captured and thrown in jail. Most of the victims were executed, while others were jailed or taken to the torture chambers.
Sometime in November of 1939, the N.K.V.D. found out that Americans were living in the area. They came to the farm and arrested my mother. They took her to their headquarters and threw her in jail. They put her in a lonely cell with no light, heating, or water. Only a handful of straw covered a wooden bed. There they began their routine interrogation.
They asked for her name and what she was doing in Poland. They tried to accuse her of being a spy, but at the end she was able to convince them that she was in Poland only for a visit. She was here with her two children and could not leave the country because of the war.
My sister and I went to town to try to see her, but the N.K.V.D. chased us away. We went back to my uncles home and waited and prayed that God would hear our appeals and she would be released.
On the third day, she was let out, very weak and nervous from her ordeal. We were happy when we saw her coming up the road and we ran out and helped her into the house. After a few days of rest, she left us at our uncles house; she walked from one town to another, trying to survive the financial chaos of war.
There were no newspapers or radios available for us. Anyone having a radio in his possession was immediately arrested and put in jail as a spy. News form the outside world was almost obsolete. We spent the Christmas of 1939 with my uncle in Traby. The holidays were quiet because the Russians had closed down the church and the priest was murdered while on call to a sick person. He was found about two miles from town, badly beaten with a hole in his head.
The food was meager but, it was enough to provide us with a little of the Christmas spirit. Outside one could hear the voices of people softly singing Christmas carols.
Since there was no electricity or any others a source of light, we burned long strips of wood.
We had no warm clothes and wore what other people would give us. The rest of our clothing, my mother would hand-sew out of any pieces of cloth she could find.
The first part of 1940 was comparatively quiet; later in the year people were being arrested because they resisted forced collectivization. Their arrests were to serve as a warning to all the Polish people. The men, women, and children guilty or not, were packed into cattle cars and sent to the Siberian slave labor camps. Many were never seen again.
In the fall of 1940, the Russians opened a school near Bogdanowo. My mother, knowing that we had already lost a lot of schooling, moved to Bogdanowo once again. There, we occupied a room in one of the homes that the rich people who escaped the Russians, left deserted. The school was about two kilometers from Bogdanowo. In the winter, the snow sometimes came up to our waists. We had no warm clothes and our shoes were made out of tree bark and pieces of a tire from a truck.
The school, once someones home, had three rooms. Each room had tables and benches where we sat and studied. Since there was no heat, we spent only three to four hours a day in school.
Mostly all they taught us was how to be "good future leaders for Russia", and "how lucky we were to live under their just rule". They did everything in their power to make us believe this to be true. Even little children were brainwashed. One time the teacher asked the children in their first year of school if they had pencils or paper. When the children said "no", the teacher told them "close your eyes and pray to God to see if God would bring you pencils or paper". The children, doing what they were told, closed their eyes and prayed to God. When they opened their eyes they found nothing. Then the teacher told them "close your eyes once again and pray to father Stalin and see if he would answer your prayers." They did, and when they opened their eyes they found pencils, paper, and even little gifts and candy on their desks. Now the children were truly convinced that father Stalin had heard their prayers while the prayers to God had not been answered. We went to this school for a while, but since we knew better and all they were teaching us was the Communist doctrine, we quit.
Late in 1940 it seemed like we received a break. A Russian soldier told us that there was an American embassy in Moscow. Since I knew how to write in English I quickly sat and wrote a letter asking if there was indeed an embassy at this address and to please help us get back to the United States where we belong. In the meantime, we also tried writing to our friends in America, but it seemed to us that the letters never reached their destinations.
It was quite a pleasant surprise when one day we received an answer to our letter from the embassy. At least we were now reassured that someone knew where we were. The embassy informed us that a friend in the United States by the name of Paul had started an inquiry about what had happened to us and as to our whereabouts. It also stated that we should write to Paul and other associates to contribute money to the embassy so it could be used for our repatriation. We received another letter from the embassy stating that unless we delivered 9,500 rubles for the purchase of tickets, they would be unable to help us and that so far, no funds had been received for us.
The holidays passed unnoticed. We worked hard, each of us had some kind of a job, and we also asked our relatives to help us as much as they could, promising to repay them as soon as we could get back to the United States. Finally, with the money we had earned, and with the help of others, we raised 2,560 rubles, which was sent by telegram to the embassy on February 26, 1941. Our wish was not granted. On June 22, 1941, three days before we were to leave, came a serious setback.
Suddenly, on June 22, 1941 the Germans hit Russia in a surprise attack, which had a great impact on everyone, especially on us because all communication in or out was cut off. No mail was able to get through. We had no way to regain contact with the American Embassy.
Here we were stuck again! We hung on to the 2500 rubles as best we could, not realizing that now the rubles were of no value. But again we refused to give into complete hopelessness. We still hung on to threads, but they were hard threads to hold on to. We had to keep telling ourselves over and over, that the American Embassy would find a way to get through to us. They had to. After all, we have the funds now and we are American citizens. But every time I would try and convince myself that they could not just leave us here, the same question would always creep in. And that was, "CAN THEY?"
Everything was in turmoil once again, and within six or seven days the Germans occupied the Bodganowo, Wisniewo the Minsk area. The people were so frightened, and even though there was only a little fighting at the time, the people still grabbed what they could of their personal belongings and scattered into the forest for safety.
The forest was pitch black at night. Not even the light from the moon could have reached through the thickness of the trees, but you could hear the night sounds of the fore and in the distance the occasional gunfire of war. We had to live on dry bread, some berries and mushrooms; otherwise no other food was available during the time we hid in the forest.
Finally when we no longer heard gun fire we cautiously came out of hiding to find the German army had now occupied Bogdanovo, Wisnewo and in areas as far away as Minsk. There were German soldiers everywhere. They made their headquarters in a nearby town of Wisniewo about six and a half miles from the village Bogdanowo and about four and a half miles from the Bogdanono train station. There they occupied the building called the Gmina. I guess you would call it City Hall in English. The Germans formed a police force with local people, including my mothers long time friend Vojganica, who with others received a high position in the new police force under the command of Paszkowski.
Oddly enough the people felt that the Germans were liberating them from Russian oppression. However, it was soon evident that this was not to be. We had to vacate the house that we lived in on the Ruszczyc estate in Bogdanowo that he abandoned during the Russian occupation and now returned to claim his property. Others and we had to find a new place to live. The Catholic Church in Bogdanowo was burnt to the ground and the priest; Father Kozlowskis was still missing ever since the Russians took him away. The priest in Traby a town not to far away was found murdered and thrown into a ditch.
My mothers friend Vojganica was eager to help my mother by getting her a job in the kitchen next to the Gmina cooking for the police and the Germans. He was also able to get us two small rooms across from the Orthodox Church in Wisniewo. Now my mother was able to feed us with leftover food from the kitchen, so for a time, my sister crippled by polio and myself had a place to live, food in our stomachs and felt safe. Every morning and evening I would pick up whatever meal was left at the kitchen, then take it home for my sister and I to eat. Mother had her meals at work.
Wisniewo was a small town where many Jewish people lived and did business. Before the war my mother and family went to Wisnievo many times to eat and drink at the restaurant type bar and walk around and shop at the square near the Jewish synagogue. We had parties with our families from Bogdanowo Traby, Pierchaily. The food was wonderful. And everybody had a good time.
A few months later, as I was going home with the food, I noticed a man that was walking on the street had a star on his chest and as he passed by there was one on his back, I wondered why? Is he some kind of an official? Then there were more people with stars, in fact all over Wisniewo. We soon found out about the order that was issued. All Jews will wear a yellow star on front and back of their clothes and are no longer permitted to walk on the sidewalk; "any one disobeying this order would be punished." I began to wonder why couldnt a Jew walk on the sidewalk? I had no Idea that Jews were supposed to be hated. In America we had many Jewish friends in Paterson, New Jersey on lower Main St. where we bought herring, rye bread and other types of food.
We could not celebrate our own holidays unless we had some kind of Jewish food to go with it. Some of the Jews even wore the same type of silly hats like they did in America.
One evening as I was waiting at the Gmina for my mother to leave work, two policemen with rubber hoses attacked a Jewish man. They beat him severely and dragged him into the Gmina yard and threw him in one of the four what looked like large horse stalls that were situated on the left side of the Gmina yard. This was supposed to be a jail where prisoners were kept His only crime was walking on the sidewalk. Other Jews tested the police and the Germans and wound up severely beaten also.
One of the policemen was mothers friend Vojganica. When my mother came out of the kitchen, I told her what I have seen and she told me it would be better if I did not wait for her at the Gmina anymore, she said to me she did not want me to see what is going on and stay around the house. But that did not deter me, I still had to pick up the food or go hungry. Every day you could see something new happening.
I would be sitting on the steps to the kitchen and several times a day you could hear screams coming from inside the Gmina and then see people at different intervals being dragged into the horse stalls. The reason I call these horse stalls is because, when one day the door to one of them was open there was straw all over the floor but no horses. The small windows on each unit had iron bars. I reasoned that it must be for people to lay on (I will refer to these as jail) Beatings with rubber hoses was a common thing and even local people were beaten for some reason or another. My uncle was beaten one time for being drunk and spitting at a policeman that he knew.
I remember one day a German took one of the Jewish prisoners out of the jail and behind the building and with his bayonet traced out an area on the ground the size of a grave and handed the Jewish man a shovel. "Dig!" He ordered.
I am sure the man thought he was digging his own grave as he slowly began to dig. As he labored I could see the cold sweat of fear envelope his body. He dug very slowly, probably contemplating his death and his love for his family as he dug. When the hole was around four feet deep. The man began to panic. "Please dont kill me, I have a wife and children, " the man pleaded.
"Stand right here," the German barked" "Please" again the man pleaded. The German then took the man into the kitchen, picked up the wet garbage and told the poor man to bury it. After the German and the other soldiers had their amusement, he released the shaken and pale man and told him he could to go home.
Each day we seemed to have less hope. The idea of going home seemed to slip further out of reach. With the war now on Russian soil there might not be an American embassy in Moscow and then no one would know of our existence.
I was tired of moving, not having enough to eat or any shoes or good clothes to wear. "We will be here forever," I said hoping that there was a better answer than having to wait and see. This war was taking its toll on us. Every day life became harder and harder.
MORE BAD NEWS
Again we got some bad news. Vojganica told my mother not to let my sister and I speak English, hide our passports and tell no one that we were American citizens. He was worried that he might get in trouble for not reporting us to the Germans. We all agreed that it was the best thing to do, but what about the people in Bogdanovo, they knew and some didnt like the idea that my mother was working for the Germans and the police, These people did not take into consideration that she had to feed and shelter her children and herself. She just worked for leftover food and a place to live. There was no other way. Our relatives could not help us, and there were no jobs available anywhere.
A few months or so later the Germans and police were directed by the Gestapo to fence off the Jewish area of town. Soon a tall barbed wire fence and a large gate enclosed that section. The Jews were now imprisoned in a ghetto. With guards all around it. There they were beaten at will. Also many were taken to the Gmina and beaten there. Once there, they were locked up in jail. Some were let out of the ghetto to perform work for the Germans in Wisniewo and some went to work at the Bogdanowo train station. And others were sent to work in other places wherever the Germans needed them. They looked pale and hungry and I always wondered how hungry these people might be, and where they got their food from, but by the looks of these poor souls, it didnt look like they had enough and no one could help them, because the order was "Anyone caught helping the Jews by giving them food or any other help would be shot."
By this time the jail was getting very full and you could see hands and faces sticking out of the one foot by two and a half foot windows, you could hear people moaning and crying. All four stalls seemed to be full.
A short time later, near noon while I was on my way to the Gmina and when I got there, I saw around 60 or 70 people standing in formation in the yard, some were fully dressed others had only pants. German SS. and the police surrounded them. I could not get into the yard because of the activity that was taking place, so I waited across the street. After a few minutes, around twenty five more Jews carrying shovels and surrounded by guards marched up from the Ghetto and stopped on Vilna St. about fifty feet past the Gmina. The SS gave the order to move out and they marched out towards the street and made a right turn, joining the others wondering what was going on. So I followed behind at a distance. They marched past the Orthodox Church then made a right turn on the road where the Jewish cemetery was located.
I cut across the field and hid in an old first war bunker across from the cemetery and waited. When the Jews arrived a few minutes later the Gestapo and police prodded the Jews towards the hole that had been dug previously. There were shouts, I could not hear very well what was being said, but I assume that they were ordered to line up in front of the holes. Some moved very slowly and reluctantly. Others were shoved towards the hole. A signal was given. The guns fired loudly piercing the still air. The prisoners slowly slumped and fell into the open holes. It looked like some tried to escape, but I dont know if any made it. (A few did according to the Yizkor book. Abraham Podberesky the son of Mordechai fiva sliped out of the pit were he was buried, he survived the war and immigrated to the U.S. Berl Novopruzki was able to slip away to the line of the grave diggers and buried his own father; Libel and brother; Lipa. He saved his brother Chaim who was buried alive. They hid in the graveyard the entire day and were able to escape at nighttime. They later perished. Their story was told in the Yizkor book by their cousin, Cheyna Rabinovitzt) From the bunker where I was hiding I could plainly see that some were still alive but already they had a crew ready to cover them up with dirt to smother and die. (The yizkor book has a list of 39 people who perished that day. The list of people who were to be killed included eighty names. The police kept alive a few dozens who they sold for good money to the Jewish community. Witnesses said that Yeshayahu Grizon yelled "Dont cover me I am still alive", from the Yizkor book)
My knees were weak and I was shaking. I barely made it home. I told my mother what I had seen.
"They shot them all, but some were still alive, "I whispered." I saw some of them move. "Shot? How could they just shoot people? They were not bad people. They didnt do anything wrong." I said in disbelief.
Mother became angry and murmured that she would like to poison their food. She tried to get me not to think about it, and then she said quietly that we have to get out of Wisniewo. My sister sat listening to all this agreed she wanted to go back to her uncles house in the village of Bogdanovo or the uncle in Traby.
" From now on you must be careful." She would say over and over," and stay away from the Gmina and do not roam around where there are soldiers or police around."
We heard that the same thing happened again, but to a fewer non-Jewish people. But we were no longer in Wisniewo. My mother was ordered to begin work as a cook at the Bogdanowo train station. We moved there as soon as we could. When we arrived there, we found that these Germans were different. They were there to run the train station.
They wore black uniforms with gold and red trims there were hardly any visible swastikas. The officer in charge was Edmund Lang. My mother was told that the previous cook was Jewish and that was no longer allowed. A non-Jew was now required to do the cooking.
We were given two rooms above the station. Life now was better. We had food and no frightening things were happening. The Germans at the station were completely different from the regular army or Gestapo. They were not cruel and often smiled and played around. When my mothers hand was infected so she could not carry water to the kitchen from the outside pump in front of the station, they provided her with two Jewish girls from the ghetto as helpers. One was Rivka the other name I dont remember. (Rivka Kelman who immigrated to Canada after the war and Cheina Rabitowitz the sister of Yehoshua , once a Tel Aviv Mayor. Cheina Rabinovitz wrote in her memoire;
...On the day of the inhalation my friend and I were doing our routine daily choirs in Bogdonova we were getting ready to bake bread for the Germans and a Christian friend of mine came in. She approached me and said "Cheina it is very difficult for me to tell you the information, but you must know that Vishnevo is burning and the Jews were murdered to the very last one." Cheina was later with the partisans and participated with other Jewish partisan natives of Vishnevo when they burned Vishnevo. Eilat.) They would help her in the kitchen as well as helping to clean the rooms at the station. They also brought food upstairs from the kitchen for my sister and I to eat. Rivka and the other girl were allowed to have meals also.
I became a "wheeler-dealer" as the modern saying goes. I took every opportunity I could to earn some marks. I learned that even in bad times, if the situation was played right, one could turn the bad times to better. I raised rabbits, picked and sold berries at three marks a cup to the Germans going to the Russian front. This took care of most of our other needs.
Life was sort of normal although we could not get in touch with anyone to help us get home so we did the best we could. Everyday we watched out the window as every hour or more, hospital trains sped by at high speed carrying wounded Germans home and fresh troops and supplies to the Russian front. My mother and Edmund Lang became friends. Now he was like a father to us. Christmas time came and the Germans at the station put up a Christmas tree for us with gifts around it. We felt like we were home. Often dances were held in the large waiting room at the station and local people were invited to attend. There was a barrel of free beer and everyone was having a good time. Then it seemed that my mother found out that she had a rival. Edmund Lang had previously had a lady friend by the name of Podbierewska and my mother was so occupied keeping her away from him, that she seemed to forget most of her other problems. That lady friend became a pest in my mothers life.
Everyday on the left of the station there were two or three Jewish men from the ghetto in Wisniewo who were sent to cut firewood for the station and another house full of regular German soldiers next to the station.
The weather was very cold. On one occasion when the weather was real cold, Edmund Lang would allow them into the waiting room to warm up and my mother would hand out some hot water with some chicken fat and spice in it as well as some black bread, but I never saw them eat the bread, they probably took the bread back to the ghetto to their family. After they warmed up they returned to work. One day when the weather was real bad I took one of these men to our room at the Station to warm him up. He was afraid but I kept pulling at him. When he got up stairs, I sat him in front of the stove and gave him some food. He opened the door so he could see the flames of the burning wood. He began rocking and crying and making some kind of chants. I could not figure out what he was doing, any way when he warmed up, he thanked me and I took him back downstairs and he went back to work.
Later partisans kept making life miserable by blowing up tracks and attacking the other German units that were around the station. But for some reason they left the train Station alone. I later found out that Edmund Lang had something to do with this.
I overheard my mother and him talking about him looking the other way when the partisans tried to steal kerosene from the tanker rail cars parked on reserved tracks away from the station.
At other times he would provide passes for some local people. That wanted to travel to Minsk or Lida. I am sure that he knew certain partisans and they knew him. He also knew that my uncle who visited us many times at the station was a partisan and both of them had an occasional drink together.
In august of 1942 my mothers helpers reported for work very early in the morning as usual. Edmund Lang confided to my mother that he had information that something was going to happen in Wisniewo. My mother was telling my uncle who was visiting us of what she heard; I overheard this and the next thing that happened I was on my way to Wisniewo.
I got there about an hour later and found that a lot of commotion was going on near and at the square. There were trucks and some gunfire and a German truck that was blocking the road would not let anyone pass through.
I asked a man standing near by what was going on and he replied that they are taking the Jews out of the ghetto and moving them up the street where the ghetto ended. (Note I forgot the name of the street) They were taking them there by foot and the ones that were too old, sick or too slow were driven by truck. I got as close as I could. I heard terrifying screams above the gunfire. I knew that some one was being hurt, but I did not go to find out. I remembered what had happened at the cemetery and I didnt want to see something like that again. Instead I decided to leave and return to the station.
When I got home, I found that my mother already knew what was going on but the two Jewish girls that helped my mother hadnt known yet of the heinous event. My mother knew they must be told and that they must escape. She worked up enough courage to tell them.
"I dont know how to tell you, but you must know. You can NOT go back to the ghetto"
"Why?" They wanted to know.
"All your people have been killed, and possibly your families too." The girls wept and covered their faces. They later went outside and saw a large black cloud of smoke that spiraled in the sky in direction of Wisniewo. Now they knew for sure that something was terribly wrong.
"You must get away from here; maybe the partisans could help." Mother approached Edmund Lang for help. He told them that after supper was over to remain in the kitchen and not to come out. The next day they were gone. They must have run into the forest and joined the partisans. We didnt hear from any one of them until the end of the war.
The next morning my mother and I walked to Wisniewo. When we got there we entered the synagogue the door was open and there were no Jews inside except local people rummaging through the building for something that might be valuable. Then we entered the Ghetto. The gate was swung open. We continued walking and we noticed local people running in and out of the empty homes in the Ghetto looting them of anything they could grab. It seemed sacrilegious or out right stealing even though the Jewish people would no longer need any of those things left behind.
We walked through the ghetto and all the way to the top and end of the street. When we reached the top, made a left and there, we were looking at what happened yesterday.
There were lots of people at this site it seems according to witnesses that lived near by that the Jews were herded into two buildings at this site. One was a house with a sort of a basement where potatoes were kept in the winter to keep them from freezing and the other was a barn. Later it was rumored that the Dr. Pudzelver and his family was found in there.
Jews that did not want to enter the buildings were shot and thrown into the buildings with the live ones. The doors and windows were nailed shut with boards but you could still see and hear the people inside, The Gestapo poured gasoline on these buildings and set them on fire. Then spraying the burning buildings with machine guns on any one trying to escape.
When we approached the site of the burning we gagged and covered our noses and mouths. There were two large piles of corpses where the buildings were. Then there was a third smaller pile that was not burnt. Some were charred black (hardly recognizable) and pressed tightly against what had been the doors and windows in their futile attempt to escape. You could also see some bodies that looked like they were glued together.
The hardest was seeing the woman that was still clutching her child to her breast. The scene was hideously unbelievable and very unreal. A scene that I will never forget.
The horrid stench was overpowering and became worse as the local people used pitch forks, pliers and hooks in order to strip the bodies of the people under the burnt bodies which were still in human shape, of their gold teeth, glasses, watches or anything else of value or use. They would actually pull open the mouth and if there were any gold teeth in it they would pull them out with a pair of pliers or knock them out. I saw them do this with my own eyes and I could not believe the completely immoral and disgusting behavior of these people. Some of whom I knew personally.
The Germans and the police already took everything of value. Before the Jews were taken to die. We were told that the Gestapo told the Jews to take with them a small bundle of their most important possessions, which was taken away from them before they died.
The Germans and the police left the area shortly after the slaughter leaving the burial of the dead to the people. We did not see the exact spot in that area where they finally buried the remains we never returned to Wisniewo again.
For days following these events I was unable to think about anything else. I could taste the smoke and smell the stench of burning flesh. I had terrifying dreams and I imagined I could hear screams everywhere I turned. At night when I closed my eyes I could see those chard bodies and for a long time I could not shake my thoughts of that gruesome sight. Since there were no more Jews left in Wisniewo to torture and kill the Wisniewo local killer police and the Gestapo turned their sights on the Partisans and their many sympathizers.
Sadly enough, the villagers were unaware that the people that they talked to so freely were actually police for the Gestapo. These traitors were able to discover several names and other contact sources from the unsuspecting villagers. One of the police again was Vojganica.
Once the information was provided to the Gestapo they quickly surrounded the village. Bursting their way through locked doors, arresting men and women that they received their information on. All of them were herded from their beds and out of their homes. Each of them surely knowing that they would not be returning.
The entire village mourned as they watched family and friends being marched to their obvious execution.
While most of the arrested met with the speedy execution of a firing squad. Others were not as lucky. To suffer a slow death, they were taken to a gallows built for their execution and public display. Hung by the neck, each body would dangle from its rope for days to come as a warning issued by the Germans. (Some of this happened in the square in Wisniewo.) Their distorted faces as a gruesome reminder that the German order will not tolerate anyone sympathizing or was found to be in contact with the partisans. The partisans soon discovered that Voiganica was the lead man in charge of the group gathering information for the Gestapo.
They reasoned that Vojganica was just as guilty as if he would have pulled the trigger or tightened the rope around the executed necks himself, he, on the other hand, believed that, White Russia will be a part of Germany forever, and that his part in the murderous acts will be rewarded. Vojganica blinded himself with a sense of power from working under the German order. And because he felt, that he was untouchable, he continued his masquerade to gather more information for the Germans.
However, the connection between Vojganica and the slaughtered villagers did not go as unnoticed as he would have liked to have believed. Some of the people in one of the villages recognized him as one of the people who was asking questions. When the partisans were notified about Vojganica, his assassination was quickly ordered with the obvious intent to spare no mercy, or waste no time. Very early one morning the partisans sent members of their underground to his home in the village of Vojgany. Vojganica however, having left his house earlier that evening was safely far away looking for partisan sympathizers when the fatal knock came to his front door.
Although he displayed little concern for any possible acts of retaliation, the force that was applied to the knock at Vojganicas door did alarm his wife. But certainly she couldnt have expected that outside the door, stood the men that would soon execute her and her entire family. Except for her small 2-year-old daughter.
Knowing that not answering the door wouldnt even be an option, she quickly grabbed some blankets and pillows that were in her reach and spread them out to cover over her youngest 2-year-old daughter who was fast asleep in her mothers bed.
The news of Vojganicas family being murdered spread quickly through the village. Neighbors heard gun fire early that morning and decided to check the neighborhood. The door to tVojganicas home was left open and that is when they discovered the murders. At the door they found his wife in a pool of blood. She was stabbed with a bayonet. Both of his sons seven and twelve were shot in the ear as they slept. A twenty years old niece was beaten and shot near the boys bed, she was there to help with the sick grandfather. Both the grandmother and grandfather were shot in their bedroom. According to the neighbors, the grandfather was already on his deathbed when he was shot. The little two-year-old girl slept through the whole incident and survived or she was spared on purpose. The neighbors removed her to one of their homes.
A Female cousin of ours, (Kazimiera), came running up to the station winded and out of breath and notified us of what had happened.
Mother was close to the family. She knew them before she went to the U.S. the first time and also before Vojganica gave his loyalty over to the Germans, so she had me accompany her to Vojganicas home in Wojgany about four miles from the village of Bogdanowo. Edmund Lang put us on a next arriving freight train and told the engineer to let us off at the Vojgany train station. When we got there we had a short distance to walk to Vojganicas home.
Some of Vojganicas neighbors were already in the house when we arrived. They cleaned and dressed both bodies of the dead grandparents. Then the bodies were laid out on an evenly stacked pile of straw that was laid on the floor like a mat, covering the full length of the wall.
They had the mother in a wooden tub outside, bathing her dead body. When they finished, they dressed her and placed her next to her parents. As they did this to all the bodies the men were outside building the coffins.
I could feel the thick air of death around me once again. A lingering uncomfortable presence that is usually only felt where massive violence or emotional torment has occurred.
Most of the bodies that mother and I saw in Vojganicas home that day, were grotesquely positioned in unnatural twisted states. As if death had frozen their bodies in the exact moment that they made the last and final attempt to fight for their lives.
On the table, the partisans left a note for Vojganica telling him that the execution of his family was an act of revenge. A result of what happens to traitors or to those that give their loyalty over to the Germans. The note went on to warn Vojganica that he would be next to die.
At the time I didnt know why this happened to the family, but I thought to myself that it could have been for a number of reasons. Either it was for the Jew that Vojganica beat so severely for walking on the sidewalk, or for the men, women and children that were brutally murdered at the ghetto, or possible even for the incident at the Jewish Cemetery.
While some of the men continued to work on the coffins, others went out to look for Vojganica. When they found him at the Gmina in wisniewo and told him about the murder of his family he went hysterical from grief, shock and disbelief. Because of the threats against his life, Vojganoca had to be accompanied to his familys funeral by the Germans. They were all buried two days later in a large grave at the Bogdanovo village cemetery. My mother attended the burial, but I wouldnt go. I was getting to tired of seeing the dead.
Approximately two months later filled with anger and the need for revenge Vojganica and a group of police and Germans went into the forest to search for members of the partisans. Shortly after the search began, Vojganica came across a small group of men that were working with the Partisans. As Vojganica was preparing himself to engage in armed mutual combat, one of his own police that had earlier entered the forest to search for the Partisans with him, shot him in the head and ran off into the forest.
The Germans, having heard the noise from the gunfire, rushed to the source of the sound. Upon locating the area, the Germans found nothing but Vojganicas sprawled out body on the ground. After recovering the body, the Germans had him buried with the rest of his family.
In the fall of 1943 to mid 1944 and as winter approached, the partisans underground tactics began to escalate. Their maneuvers of sabotage enhanced greatly. Both the Russian underground Partisans, (Known as "The Reds"), and the Polish Partisans, (Known as "The Whites"), combined forces, committed to the acts of; blowing up bridges, railroads and buildings that were German occupied. German soldiers were now more at risk of being shot by partisan snipers. Although the drastic measures were necessary in order to defeat the German occupation, the acts committed by the partisans would also endanger a lot of innocent civilians. Occasionally you would hear how partisans killed a civilian by mistake because he was thought to be a German sympathizer.
Things got so bad that the Reds (Russian) partisans would fight with the White (Polish) partisans. At other times both sides would attack the Germans at the same time. If you supported the Reds the Whites would shoot you. And if you supported the whites the reds would shoot you. It was such an existence.
There was one time that an abusive partisan came to a mans home near Wisniewo and demanded vodka and food then started abusing the mans wife. The man was helpless because the partisan was armed the husband wound up giving the partisan all the vodka he could drink. When the partisan had his fill, the husband grabbed the rifle and clubbed him over the head with it. When the partisan fell to the floor, the man stabbed him in the mouth with the bayonet. The man then loaded the dead partisans body on his horse drawn wagon and delivered him to the Germans across the street from the Bogdanovo train station. The man was treated as a hero but later he and his wife were found dead.
One of my relatives, who was a part of the partisans, (The Whites), was captures by the Germans while he was partaking in some operation. He was quickly taken before the Gestapo where he was then ordered to be shot the next day. While in custody he managed to strangle the guard and escape. His freedom was short. One night when he came home to see his wife he was ambushed by the Germans and killed.
It was near years end and things quieted down a little. A priest by the name of Ogerman set up a temporary church in Vojgany.
On Christmas morning, Theresa, mother and myself were leaving the church services we had attended. And as we came out to go home two men approached mother. And In a low voice, one of the men said, "Sonja you should quit your job at the station," After taking a look around he warned her, "You are in danger if you remain working there. You will be thought of as helping the Germans or as a German sympathizer." Thing will be different soon and you will be able to return to America. Your brother Chester asked us to talk to you,
Although the two men's approach to mother was bold; the words of their own message seemed to unnerve him. After taking another look around, the second man also urged mother to leave.
Mother listened while the two men talked. By the time they were finished mother was convinced that if she remained at the station, harm would come to us. I started thinking about my relative that was shot by the Gestapo, and how brave he must have been. Since mother was going to be no longer working at the station, I waited for an opportunity, so that I too could contribute to the efforts of our side.
When I felt the time was right. I snuck into the German room while he was on duty, stole a fully operational Russian rifle that I was after for a long time. The German was keeping it as a souvenir, I took it out of his room, wrapped it in rags and between two boards carried it out of the station and buried it in the yard. When the German returned from his duty to find that his rifle was missing, he raged with anger. To everyone that was around, he announced, "I will find whoever it was that stole my rifle. And he will be punished!" After a few days went by, the incident was not mentioned again since there was no thief that had been caught.
Shortly before we moved from the station, one of my uncles rode up in his hay wagon. As my uncle and mother were talking, upstairs in our room. I carefully placed the rifle under the bed of hay. Upon arriving home my uncle found the hidden rifle in which he gave to a member of the partisans.
I felt proud for what I had done. That I was able to remove at least one weapon from the German side and at the same time, provide a rifle to ours.
Edmund Lang was suspected of being too lenient with the ordinary people and was ordered to return to Germany. The next time I saw him was when the train with troops was heading to Orsha. He was wearing a green uniform, and on his way to the Russian front. He hugged us all said goodbye and ran back to the train, which soon departed. Three weeks later we heard that Edmund Lang was killed in Orsha.
Soon we left the station and moved in with some people that lived about a mile from the station. The Germans at the station were sent back to Germany. They were replaced. Germans in green uniforms ran the station. My mother was glad to be out of there and that she took the advice of those two men near the church. But now again we had very little food however the village people helped by donating milk, bread and other things that they could share.
Soon we were hearing something that sounded like thunder but there was no rain or clouds. It turned out to be Russian Katchiusha rockets. The partisans were destroying Wisniewo and some police were captured and hanged. German soldiers were captured and held in the waiting room at the train station in Bogdanowo then they were taken out and shot in the head in front of the train station. We knew now that the Germans were on the run and were finally retreating, but for us it was back again to the bunkers. Fear hunger and homelessness again under the Russians that lasted until 1946.