The Nizkor Project: Remembering the Holocaust (Shoah)

The Memorial Book of Ostrow-Lubelski
Memories from the war years
by Bronya Wasserman-Eckhaus, Melbourne

I survived the holocaust with my child by a miracle, and like every survivor I should write my testimony, a document to commenorate the millions of innocent murdered victims -- children, young and old; leave a record of this dark age of the tyrannous and barbaric acts of the German Nazis.

I wish to share these memories with the readers of our Yiskor Book, so that the future generation never forget... I will tell about Ostrow, the native town of my father and my husband. My father used to tell us often about his family, his relatives and his neighbours and friends -- all honest people who were brutally murdered by the German barbarians.

My father, Moshe Wasserman, who was called Poleszuk, was born in Ostrow-Siedleck. His stories about his family and friends embraced the period before World War I, when Ostrow was part of Russia. The Jewish population was well-situated. Like in all the small towns, they maintained their own national and cultural autonomy. The gentile neighbours respected them.

My father's parents - Itzel and Sarah - were well established and beloved by their neighbors. They were well-off. They had a large farm, a comfortable house, a grain mill and an oil press. Peasants from the surrounding villages brought their products to be turned into flour and oil. The mill was powered by a horse. All around was a large square for the wagons and horses. There was a ditch in the square which was jokingly called the "Donau" since during the fall rains it used to overflow and flood the surrounding neighborhood and cause great damage. In the winter children used to slide on the frozen water and had a very good time.

My father had a large family. Together they were seven brothers. Simcha, Abraham, Moshe (my father) David, Asher, Leizer and Yossef. Generally there was a maid at home since the mother, Sarah, was occupied with the business, with the mill. His father studied a great deal and prayed and discussed religious subjects. From time to time he left town on business matters and also for religious purposes.

The children were educated in the Hassidic spirit, but secretly also learned to write and read Russian and Polish. They didn't learn any trades since this contradicted the established conceptions of prosperous religious families. When they grew up their spouses were chosen by their parents. After their marriages uncles Simcha, Abraham, David and Leizer stayed with their families in Ostrow and made their livings from the same flour mill and oil press. As one can imagine, their economic situation was not too good since there were many families making their livings from the same source, especially since the mill's motor was not replaced by a new electric one and the horse remained the main source of power.

My parents lived in Lublin. Uncle Asher and aunt Mindele settled in Maekusow, and youngest uncle, Yossel, with his wife Perele, in Lueartow.

During and after the first world war the inhabitants of Ostrow underwent many troubles since the front had passed through the town. The frequent attacks by bands of all kinds and the fires made ruins of the town. Our father used to tell us that antisemitism and the difficult economic conditions complled many young people to leave the town and their families and to move away - some to the larger cities and some overseas - to Brazil, Argentina and the U.S.A.

I recall that in Lublin we were often visited by our faintly, neighbours and friends from Ostrow. They used to come by wagons. which had their gathering places at Finkelstein's Square on Lubartowsky Street. My father knew every Jew from Ostrow, even by his first name, since he was close to everyone. They came to Lublin on business, very often with a sick person to see the doctor or to the hospital, and many times to arrange a wedding match. Mostly they arrived at our home very early, for the morning prayers. After breakfast they went away to arrange their affairs. More than once they stayed overnight. My parents received them very friendily [sic] and with a great deal of hospitality.

All the Ostrow Jews treated my parents with great respect. As I remember, most Ostrow Jews were good-heartcd honest people. They worked hard to support their families. They all perished in the Holocaust... My mother and father, Golde and Moshe, and my youngest sister Sarah, who were then in Ostrow, were among the victims of the Nazi murderers, as also my uncles, aunts, cousins, friends.

I was born in Lublin. When I was a little girl in primary school and later a student in high school, I had so many plans.. so many dreams. That was the time after World War I, the era of the League of Nations, and I believed that there would bc no more wars, that mankind would live in peace, without apartheid, without antisemitism. I have had many disappointments. The worst was World War II, when the Nazis murdered innocent people; thousands, millions of children, women, men old and young. Why? Why?

In September 1939, I escaped from Ostrow-Lubelski, which at that time was occupied by the Germans after overcoming the only weak resistance of the Polish army. My parents and my sisters were at that time in Ostrow. I escaped together with Misha Eckhaus, my future husband, since we were known for our socialistic views, to the other side of the Bug River to the territories occupied by the Soviets. The separation from our parents and families was a very sad one. Everyone was in tears but nobody imagined that we were separating forever.

The highways and roads were filled with refugees walking or riding in wagons. Carrying our few belongings in small packages, we finally arrived at the city of Kovel (a Jewish population of about 20,000), where we found a place together with many comrades from the socialist movements and some former political prisoners. In that house we were fed, very often we heard lectures, held meetings and discussions, but it was not permanent.

One early morning in June 1940 the Soviet army arrested all her husband Getzl, Misha's brother, and my youngcst sister Tamara, all arrived in Kovel. My youngest sister Sarah remained in Ostrow with our parents. My sisters and brother-in-law tried to find a place in Kovel but it was not easy to find a decent place to live and work, and, like many refugees, they decided to register to go back to German-occupied Poland. Unfortunately, the Kovel Jews did not show any sympathy or hospitality for the refugees - they were unable to understand or to believe what the Nazi murderers were capablc of doing.

I obtained citizenship and started to work at the railroad station.

One day, at the end of October 1939, my older sister Shasha, with those who had registered to go back to German Poland. My two sisters and my brother-in-law were among those arrested and were sent deep into Russia, to Novosybirskaja Oblast. Who could then imagine that they had a better chance to survive than we who remained in Kovel?

Misha and I decided to get married. It was a small ceremony, in the presence of some friends. My parents and my little sister Sarah and Misha's parents were in Ostrow. My two sisters and brother-in-law were in Siberia. Their letters were desperate ones; they suffered from cold end hunger. I remember how we started to send them parcels of food and clothing. We shared everything with them and they were very grateful.

In October 1940 I became pregnant. Through my working at the railroad station's bookkeeping department I made friends with many Polish railroad workers and also with a Jewish girl, Basha, who came every day to the office from Kamen-Kashirsk. We became very good friends.

At that time the political situation was not a very happy one. The news told about Germany's military victories in Western Europe. The world was dreaming, indifferent. But still, we believed in miracles. We were young and enthusiastic. At the end of March 1941 my husband, Misha, was called to military exercises for a few months. Actually, we could have arranged for him to stay home since I was pregnant and without any other relatives, but our views did not allow us even to consider this. We believed that it was our duty to be prepared to fight against the enemies - the Nazis.

Our separation was a very sad one. Misha was to return from his military service at the end of June 1941. I tried to manage the best I could. My friends at work were helpful, especially Basha. She often brought me tasty food. She looked after me. She was so good...

One Friday evening, June 19, 1941, my son was born in Kovel State Hospital. On Sunday, early in the morning, sounds of air bombardment aroused us. There was a turmoil, but soon high-ranking Soviet officers assured their wives and us that these were only aviation exercises. They were mistaken: it was the beginning of the war. German airplanes and bombs were making the noises. At the hospital there were many patients: sick people and women with newborn babies. Husbands and relatives came in a hurry to take them home. I asked myself constantly: "What to do? Where to go? To whom could I turn?"

My husband's parents and my sisters were far away. The house where I lived was closed because it was situatcd near the railroad station and that area had been heavily bombarded. What to do? On Tuesday morning my friends Henia and Fajvel Hammerman came to the hospital and took me and my child to their home, even enough they themselves lived in one small room. They told me that on Monday most of the Soviet citizens, officials, police and miltary personnel had fled Kovel but had returned on Tuesday morning. Howevel, no one knew what any moment or any hour would bring. My friends Henia and Fajvel were in the streets attempting to hear some news. On Wednesday evening they returned with the news that the Soviets were leaving again and that empty cars were waiting at the station to evacuate the people, to take everyone who wanted to go. On Thursday my friends left in a hurry. I, with my six-day old child, didn't feel the strength to go with them. I was too weak.

Kovel was occupied by the Germans. On June 29, 1941, hell broke loose... My landlords asked me whcn I would be Ieaving the room since they knew my marital situation and didn't want to have such a tenant... Where to go now? I don't know how, but I remembered the Silberman family, which I asked if I and my child could stay with them. Abraham Silberman, born in Lublin, and his wife Malka, born Kagan in Kovel, had three children: Marale, Sheivale and Menashele. They accepted us; they were very good and noble people. Malka's mother, her two married brothers, with their wives and children, sister, nieces and nephews, were friendly to me and I felt like part of the family.

Right after the first days of the occupation the Germans and their Ukrainian collaborators began their sadistic actions against the Jewish population. Every day, every night, there were different orders, arrest raids, groups of Jewish people killed. Abraham Silberman was one of the first victims. The Ukrainian police arrested him together with more well-known Jewish citizens and massacred them. They were forced to dig their own graves. I saw this, I was a witness. Malka, the unfortunate widow, the three little orphans, together with the whole family and I, mourned Abraham Silberman's death.

Notices appeared to volunteer for work but not one of those who went to the labor camps was ever seen again. We lived in continual fear. The names of Kassner and Manthel, the district commandants, were enough to frighten the Jewish population. I was watching when Mr. Motel Kagan, Malka's brother-in-law, was killed, shot together with some other strong young men. (I was a witness in Oldenburg in Germany in 1965, against the two Nazi murderers, Kassner and Manthel.)

My parents wrote that I with my child should come back home to Ostrow; how could I appear with an uncircumcized child? By the end of July my son was circumcized. An old mohel with trembling hands carried out the Operation. Pesha Kagan, Malka's sister-in-law, was present. My son was named Reuven after my husband's grandfather. It was a very sad ceremony, never to be forgotten.

At first we were marked With arm-bands bearing a Star of David, later with yellow patches. Every Jewish house was marked. In the spring of 1941 two ghettoes were constructed--one in the old city around the old synagogue not far from the market, the second in the new city, not far from the railroad station. At first there was a free choice where to stay. but one morning before Shavuot an order of segregation came: people with work certificates should stay in the New City Ghetto; the others, the elderly, people with children, the sick, were to stay in the Old City Ghetto (without work certificates). By the afernoon everybody must be in his place. The whole day was a shocking chaos, turmoil--impossible to describe. People were running back and forth; families and friends were separated.

I and my child should have gone to the Old City Ghetto, but I decided to stay in the New City Ghetto and to wait for an inspection. I took the risk.

I remember well that day, the evening... The people around me... The night and the early next morning when the rumors came to the New City Ghetto that thousands of Jews had been shot and killed... dragged off in trucks from the market place to sand pits and thrown in, dead or half-dead, and covered with soil... Can we understand such things; that such murders can happen?... Rumours came from Polish people that the earth was shaking a long time afterwards. I and my child were supposed to be in those pits; we were saved by chance.

Now we remained alive and were ordered to go with our bundles to the Old City Ghetto. We were cramped together, thousands on thousands, the remnants of many previous selections, all humiliated and in a state of continuous danger. Together - the sick and the healthy.

There was a shortage of food and medicines. Everyone had one desire--to survive. To survive, to take revenge... Revenge!

The second ghetto had a short and tragic end. One day in July 1942 rumours came that Kassner and Manthel, the Nazi commanders, had appeared in the city, that the ghetto was surrounded. This was always an ominous sign. Everybody went into hiding in hiding places prepared in advance. We did not have any choice. Together with my child I hid in a shelter on the roof, together with the Silberman family, the Kagans and others... Twenty twenty-two people. The shelter was dark and small. We hid behind a wooden partition. We were cramped, thirsty, hungry, dirty... The few chamber pots were emptied downstairs at night. All the time we heard gunshots and screams, orders in German and Ukrainian. Days and nights passed in fear, cramped together, but still with the hope of surviving. Hope that after a few days the action would stop...

My child was hungry, dirty and wet. He was suckling. What did he have to suck from me? I hugged him, but he cried, and one afternoon we heard knocks on the wooden wall of our shelter and voices in Ukrainian: "Fellows, a child was crying here. We must get an axe to destroy the wall." They left and didn't come back; they were sure we could not run away.

There are no words to describe the tension in the sheler. I felt guilty. As night fcll I heard whispers: "You have to do something with the child. He can't stay here alive'... We must do everything to survive, to take nevenge'... Somerbody gave me a big scarf... I was holding the child and the scarf... I knew that my unfortunate frienns were right. The child was looking at me and I didn't know what was going on in my mind. The friends around me, the women, men, girls, boys, the darling children: Marale, Sheivale, Mcnashale, Esterl, Dvoshale-- they all loyal my child very much... They were all frighte- ned... They suffering, the sadness in their eyes. I looked around and I whispered: no... no..., I am not going to kill my child... I am going d.own With the child. It was dark; very dark for all of us. Somebody prepared a ladder and I came down to the empty, plundered house with gaping doors, open windows, wrecked and robbed.

I found a place to wash my child and to feed him. I even found some aspirin tablets to make him sleepy. Nobody came in... Outside there was shooting. I stayed in that open house for a few long days and long nights. There was less shooting, less screams, and I began to think that I should go out and that the aktzion was finished. I was mistaken. I left the house with my child in my arms. It was a hot day in July--summer in Poland.. I came to the high fence of the ghetto, not too far from the gate to the unfinished bridge, and I could hear orders in Cerman and Ukrainian: "Halt, halt, come here, come herel"

I remember that I was thinking that we were going to be killed. I came closer to the gate and a Ukrainian asked me: "Where are you going?" and I could hear my answer in Polish: "I came in and I don't know how to get out."

The only possibility was to have "fallen from the sky," but surely they all were drunk. I can hear the answer: "Go through the gate." I went through the gate. We were out! Out of the ghetto... A big free world, but not for us... a homeless woman with a child without a right to live...

Days, nights, Weeks, months, years passed Life was not easy for us. I was young, healthy. I didn't look Jewish. Still I wondered where I found this strength and courage to fight for life for myself and my little circumcized son.

How many nights I spent in the open, in the cold and in the rain, in the snow... We were lost in a forest, in swamps. I wanted to meet partisans but I didn't know where to find them. All there was to eat was grass, leaves, raw potatoes. I cleaned my child near every stream and by every river. I saw big farms, small farms, hut where was I to go?

Richard was a very good child. Sometimes I thought that he understood our fear and hunger. In sickness and in pain he never complained too much. He didn't Cry much either. He smiled, and his smile helped me a lot in the most desperate moments. More than once people wondered at his behavior. I met different people... Some were frindly, some helplul, some were mean. In a lot of places I met hostility.

How many times I was ready to give up and to surrender, to go to the first person, to the police, and to scream: "Here I am, a Jewish woman with a Jewish child," and at the last moment I looked at the child who had suffered so much, who still had a smile on his little face... I carried on. "Why do I have to give up?" and started walking again.

August 1942. I was working on a Polish farm in Janowka. There I met a woman from Kovel. Her name was Mrs. Voloshinsky. She came to exchange clothes for food. Despite the fact that she recognized that I was Jewish (the child was circumcized), she gave me her address in Kovel and suggested that whenever I came to Kovel and was in need, I should visit her. Mrs. Voloshinsky was surely aware of the danger this involvcd. The slightest help given to a person of Jewish background threatened the penalty of death.

A few times when I was in a hopeless situation I visited Mrs. Woloshinsky. She was always very friendly and helpful and she encouraged my faith in fighting for survival through this nightmarish period. Mrs. Woloshinsky more than once displayed her good-heartedness, courage and heroism.

I remember one night in March 1943, a cold winter night. I was homeless and I wanted to stay overnight in the open entrance to Mrs. Woloshinskiy's house. With my child pressed close to me I was sitting in a corner when somebody unexpectedly opened the door and I was compelled to stand up and go in. Mrs. Woloshinsky and her older children, a son of about 20 and a daughter of about 18 years of age, were very frightened. Her husband and her little son, if I remember correctly his name was Leshek--a 3-4 year old, were asleep. Death faced the whole family for any help to a Jew. However, what that woman said to her children, I will never forget. "If you are afraid go and stay overnight with your friends, but that woman and her child will stay here." The children stayeed home. The night passed. My child and I were able to rest in a friendly place. Next morning, after breakfast, Mrs. Woloshinsky and her husband and children told me the latest news from the front. The Germans had started to withdraw from the Russian territories and the Soviet Army was not far away. These were happy news but my situation was still a hopeless one. My friends advised me to go back to the countryside and not to give up.

Mrs. Woloshinsky gave me a package of food, a coat of her little son's for Richard, and a shawl for me. She even accompanied me a few kilometers out of the city... She spoke to me friendily [sic] and wished me good luck. We parted. I had more courage, more confidence, more hope. I had met good people. I survived with my son... In 1944 my husband was transferred from the Russian Army to the Polish one, which was then in Lublin. While stopping over in Kovel my husband met a Ukrainian woman who had known me and she told him that I was staying in Rozyczcze. He came to find us and we were united.

After the liberation we were physically, mentally and spiritually exhausted--wrecks, after the war. We had to start from the beginning. It was not easy, but we did not complain.

Many years later I was able to find Mrs. Woloshinsky thanks to the Red Cross in Warsaw. I am happy that Mrs. Woloshinsky was rewarded for her noble behavior with the title of the "Righteous of the Nations" from Yad Vashem. The medal she was awarded testified to the good in humanity and offers the hope that the years of Nazi barbarism will never be forgotten and hopefully never repeated.

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