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Personal Accounts During the Holocaust

November 24, 2009 | by


Even though the Jewish newspapers carried articles about Hitler and the Nazis, and even though we heard Hitler's hate-filled speeches on the radio in the town café, much of what we read and heard was met with a kind of numb disbelief. Then too, hadn't we heard this sort of hate speech for hundreds of years?

After a period of persecution, things always seemed to have returned to a workable calm. We reacted to Hitler's propaganda, therefore, with a strange mix of concern and indifference. He seemed to us a deranged man in the neighboring country who would not last long. If only Jews in Chorostkow had known what was to befall us within the next few years, I am sure we would have worked much harder at getting out of Poland and into Israel.


Overall, even though there was a long history of anti-Semitism in the Ukraine, and occasionally we could feel its undercurrent, for the most part the residents of Chorostkow, Jew and Gentile, merchant and farmer, lived and worked together on good terms. There may not have been intensive socializing, and certainly inter-faith marriages were almost unheard of, but the communities were friendly.... For the sake of business and in the name of human decency, everyone made sure to go out of his way not to hurt one another.

... Of course, all this changed. Judging by our lives before the war, I could never have predicted the hatred and sadism that was directed toward the Jewish community by some Gentile neighbors. A very small number did risk their lives to save Jewish friends. But were it not for such Poles - unfortunately, a very tiny percentage of the population - I, my brother, my wife, and countless others would not be alive today to tell the story of what happened. Very few righteous Gentiles risked their lives and the lives of their children to hide Jews, and unlike Oskar Schindler, most of them have not become famous for the good deeds. They remain unknown except to those Jews who owe them their lives.


Rabbi Eliyahu Ellis:

My dad told me a story once. He was a young man living in Germany at the time, and he worked in a big department store. He said that one day he was working late, and the boss told him to stay overtime.

Everyone went home, and my dad and his boss were the only ones left in the store. And then the boss said, "Pull down all the shutters, let’s black-out the store." So they did. He waited a couple of hours after dark. Up pulled an S.S. command car, and out popped, very quickly, an S.S. general and his wife. They ran into the store, and my dad’s boss closed and locked the door. What was going on? When my dad was young, he was an athlete. He was a very, very good soccer player on the regional soccer team. Apparently, the S.S. general had seen him play one time, and really admired my dad. So, while his wife was shopping around in the store, he wanted to chat with my dad. So my dad asked him, "Please, Mr. General, what in the world are you doing, coming here to shop?" So the general said, "I like to come to Jewish stores because I know I’m going to get a good deal." It was a crazy time!

In fact, it’s a good thing that this connection was made, because my dad actually got out of Germany through him. It was very hard to get out during those later years. But he finally found a route out. However, there was a problem: My dad’s papers were held up somewhere, he just couldn’t get them. So he asked his boss if he could approach the S.S. general, maybe get some "protectzia," and the boss said, "Fine." So my dad went up to the fellow, and he said, "Can you help me out?"

The S.S. general said, "Don’t worry, you’re under my personal protection." My dad thanked him very much, but said, "I think I should leave," and this general agreed. A day later, his papers showed up.


Things are lively in Mr. Birkmann's 7th grade boys' class today. The teacher is talking about the Jews. Mr. Birkmann has drawn pictures of Jews on the blackboard. The boys are fascinated. Even the laziest of them, "Emil the Snorer," is paying attention, not sleeping, as he so often does during other subjects. Mr. Birkmann is a good teacher. All the children like him. They are happiest when he talks about the Jews. Mr. Birkmann can do that well. He learned about the Jews from life. He knows how to put it in gripping terms such that the favorite hour of the day is the "Jewish hour." Mr. Birkmann looks at the clock.

"It is noon," he says. "We should summarize what we have learned in the past hour. What have we talked about?"

All the children raise their hands. The teacher calls on Karl Scholz, a small lad in the front row. "We have talked about how to recognize the Jews."

"Good. Say more!"

Little Karl reaches for the pointer, steps up to the board and points at the drawings.

"One can most easily tell a Jew by his nose. The Jewish nose is bent at its point. It looks like the number six. We call it the Jewish six. Many non-Jews also have bent noses. But their noses bend upwards, not downwards. Such a nose is a hook nose or an eagle nose. It is not at all like a Jewish nose."

"Right!" says the teacher. "But the nose is not the only way to recognize a Jew..."

The boy goes on. "One can also recognize a Jew by his lips. His lips are usually puffy. The lower lip often protrudes. The eyes are different too. The eyelids are mostly thicker and more fleshy than ours. The Jewish look is wary and piercing. One can tell from his eyes that is is a deceitful person."

The teacher calls on another lad. He is Fritz Müller, and is the best in the class. He goes to the board and says:

"Jews are usually small to mid-sized. They have short legs. Their arms are often very short too. Many Jews are bow-legged and flat-footed. They often have a low, slanting forehead, a receding forehead. Many criminals have such a receding forehead. The Jews are criminals too. Their hair is usually dark and often curly like a Negro's. Their ears are very large, and they look like the handles of a coffee cup."

The teacher turns to the students.

"Pay attention, children. Why does Fritz always say 'many Jews have bow legs', or 'they often have receding foreheads,' or 'their hair is usually dark'?"

Heinrich Schmidt, a large, strong boy in the last row speaks.

"Every Jew does not have these characteristics. Some do not have a proper Jewish nose, but real Jewish ears. Some do not have flat feet, but real Jewish eyes. Some Jews cannot be recognized at first glance. There are even some Jews with blond hair. If we want to be sure to recognize Jews, we must look carefully. But when one looks carefully, one can always tell it is a Jew."

"Very good," the teacher says. "And now tell me about other ways to tell Jews from non-Jews. Richard, come up here!"

Richard Krause, a smiling blond lad, goes to the board. He says: "One can recognize a Jew from his movements andbehavior. The Jew moves his head back and forth. His gait is shuffling and unsteady. The Jew moves his hands when he talks. He 'jabbers.' His voice is often odd. He talks through his nose. Jews often have an unpleasant sweetish odor. If you have a good nose, you can smell the Jews." The teacher is satisfied.

"That's how it is, kids. You have paid attention! If you pay attention outside school and keep your eyes open, you won't be fooled by the Jews."

The teacher goes to the lectern and turns the board. On the other side a poem is written. The children read it out loud:

"From a Jew's face
The wicked Devil speaks to us,
The Devil who, in every country,
Is known as an evil plague.

Would we from the Jew be free,
Again be cheeful and happy,
Then must youth fight with us
To get rid of the Jewish Devil."

from: Story from Der Giftpilz, an anti-Semitic children's book published by Julius Streicher, the publisher of Der Stürmer. He was executed as a war criminal in 1946. Translation copyright © 1999 by Randall Bytwerk


After the morning roll call we were marched downtown, under heavy guard, for work. Even under those circumstances it felt good to be out of the ghetto and breathe fresh air. At the same time we felt our deprivation at the sight of the unchanged world going on around us: normal people living normal lives. We passed carefree children playing in the streets; toddlers led by their mothers, chatting and giggling, unafraid of sudden, forced separation. There were grandmothers pushing their infant grandchildren's carriages, exuding joy and anticipation; young people holding hands, smiling and conversing, facing the future with confidence. We marched on.

Jewish homes occupied by the Poles. Jewish businesses taken over by the Germans. And the Jews themselves, plundered of their joys, torn from their families, dressed in tatters, degraded, hunted, and herded like animals. They would extract some work from us, squeeze the last drop of blood from our veins, and then finally discard the useless bodies.

Yes, there was still a normal world outside the ghetto walls. There the Poles, laughing and jeering, relished the sight of the ravaged, tattered Jews. "What, are they still around?" they asked. "Hasn't Hitler killed them all off?"


Cutting Beards

On my way home one afternoon, I found a large group of young men lined up against a wall, their hands raised.

What is it? I wondered, running over to see. A robbery? What did the boys do? Why did the Germans line them up in this way?

There stood a young SS officer with shining black boots, clutching a whip. He reminded me of a dog trainer glaring down at his charges, expecting them to jump on command and satisfy his lust for pain. Another SS man wielded a pair of scissors, jeering as he ripped beards off the agonized, bleeding faces.

"Hands up," the dog trainer shouted, "and pray to G-d. Let Him help you."

Silently the Jews stood there, hands elevated. The dog trainer raised his whip and struck their faces, left, right, and left again, leaving bloody welts on their cheeks. But their lips were sealed.

"Wo ist euer Gott? Warum hilft Her euch nicht?" the Nazi asked with a mocking smile. "Where is your G-d? Why doesn't He help you? Pray again!" he screamed.

I ran over to him, determined to stop his whip. With a scornful laugh he pointed at the bleeding, half-shorn boys.

"Fraulein," he addressed me with a nonchalant smile, "haben sie schon so was gesehen in Zwansigsten Jahrhunderd? So was in Zwanzigsten Jahrhunderd," he repeated. "Did you ever see anything like that in the twentieth century?" He meant the beards.

No, it wasn't a twentieth-century scene, and I had never seen its like: "Nein, ich habe niemahls so was gesehen in Zwanzigsten Jahrhunderd," I answered with disgust, stressing "so was" to refer to his ugly deed.

His smile faded as he realized the meaning of my words. He glared at me, fingering his whip. I expected it to come down across my face. Instead, he spun on his heels. "Come on, Fritz," he said to his companion. "Let's find other ones and have some more fun." He saluted me lightly as he stalked off. How cultured these Germans were, how gentlemanly.

It was the first time my blue eyes had saved me; the brute had mistaken me for a Polish girl. It was also the first time I had witnessed German bestiality.


This story is from a Nazi children's book designed to teach hatred of Jews. It was put out by Julius Streicher, who specialized in anti-Semitic propoganda. He was convicted in the Nuremberg trials, 1946, and executed for his role in the Holocaust.

Jewish Toadstools

Jewish Toadstools
photo courtesy of German Propaganda Archive

A mother and her young boy are gathering mushrooms in the German forest. The boy finds some poisonous ones. The mother explains that there are good mushrooms and poisonous ones, and, as they go home, says:

"Look, Franz, human beings in this world are like the mushrooms in the forest. There are good mushrooms and there are good people. There are poisonous, bad mushrooms and there are bad people. And we have to be on our guard against bad people just as we have to be on guard against poisonous mushrooms. Do you understand that?"

"Yes, mother," Franz replies. "I understand that in dealing with bad people trouble may arise, just as when one eats a poisonous mushroom. One may even die!"

"And do you know, too, who these bad men are, these poisonous mushrooms of mankind?" the mother continued.

Franz slaps his chest in pride: "Of course I know, mother! They are the Jews! Our teacher has often told us about them."

The mother praises her boy for his intelligence, and goes on to explain the different kinds of "poisonous" Jews: the Jewish pedlar, the Jewish cattle-dealer, the Kosher butcher, the Jewish doctor, the baptised Jew, and so on.

"However they disguise themselves, or however friendly they try to be, affirming a thousand times their good intentions to us, one must not believe them. Jews they are and Jews they remain. For our Volk they are poison."

"Like the poisonous mushroom!" says Franz.

Franz's Lesson

Little Franz Gets A Lesson
photo courtesy of Yad Vashem

"Yes, my child! Just as a single poisonous mushrooms can kill a whole family, so a solitary Jew can destroy a whole village, a whole city, even an entire Volk."

Franz has understood.

"Tell me, mother, do all non-Jews know that the Jew is as dangerous as a poisonous mushroom?"

Mother shakes her head.

"Unfortunately not, my child. There are millions of non-Jews who do not yet know the Jews. So we have to enlighten people and warn them against the Jews. Our young people, too, must be warned. Our boys and girls must learn to know the Jew. They must learn that the Jew is the most dangerous poison-mushroom in existence. Just as poisonous mushrooms spring up everywhere, so the Jew is found in every country in the world. Just as poisonous mushrooms often lead to the most dreadful calamity, so the Jew is the cause of misery and distress, illness and death."

The author then concludes this story by pointing the moral:

German youth must learn to recognise the Jewish Poison-mushroom. They must learn what a danger the Jew is for the German Volk and for the whole world. They must learn that the Jewish problem involves the destiny of us all.

"The following tales tell the truth about the Jewish poison-mushroom. They show the many shapes the Jew assumes. They show the depravity and baseness of the Jewish race. They show the Jew for what he really is:

The Devil in human form."

from: Story from Der Giftpilz, an anti-Semitic children's book published by Julius Streicher, the publisher of Der Stürmer. He was executed as a war criminal in 1946. This summary and partial translation is taken from a 1938 publication issued by the "Friends of Europe" in London.


On April 7, 1943, about six months after my father had been taken away and murdered at Belzec, the Germans did enter Trembowla and, together with the Ukrainian police, surrounded the city. It was early morning, and nobody knew what was about to happen. Was it going to be city-wide Aktion or only a smaller roundup? Everyone who could, escaped into hiding. Some wanted to run to the nearby forests but were prevented from doing so by soldiers and policemen stationed all around the city. Arie went into a bunker with about forty or fifty people; thank G-d, they were never discovered by the Germans.

My mother, of blessed memory, refused to go underground, and at fifty-four years of age, she would not even consider trying to survive in the forest. So she, along with about 1,100 Jews that included my aunts, uncles, and cousins, was rounded up. The Germans decided that transporting this group to Belzec would be too costly. Instead, 1,100 people were ordered to undress and then, in underwear, were marched through the city of Trembowla to a little village called Plebanowka, about two kilometers outside the city limits.

My mother had a heavy gold chain and some money with her. She gave these valuables to my little cousin, Herzale, who was about seven years old. When the group passed a small bridge, she told Herzale to hide underneath, instructing him to wait until dark and then find Arie back in Trembowla and give him the packet of money. Herzale did just as he was told and managed to survive until two months before liberation when Anna Bartestka, a woman in town, betrayed his whereabouts for five kilos of sugar.

Ditches had already been dug for the Jews from the Trembowla ghetto. The group was lined up at the edge of the ditches, and each received one bullet apiece before falling into the grave. The soldiers were instructed not to waste any more bullets. A Jew, they were told, was not worth two or three bullets. As a result, some people were not dead when they fell into the ditches. The Germans covered the corpses with dirt.

When I came back after liberation, the local Ukrainian peasants told me that for days they could see the earth moving in this mass grave since many of the Jews had been buried alive. Some of these poor souls may have clawed their way out, but the local residents did not lift a finger to help them; indeed, they may well have finished off any who did manage to escape from the mound of corpses.

A day after the massacre, a young woman from Plebanowka, Nusia Grossberg, who was nineteen years old, came to the site of the mass grave and sat beside it crying all night. Her mother, three sisters, and little brother had been killed and were among the pile of corpses. Nusia wept as the mass grave moved up and down, not caring if the Nazis found her. She, too, wanted to die.

In the morning, a peasant woman taking her cows to pasture found the young woman sobbing by the graveside.

"Run away," the peasant told her. "There's nothing you can do for them. Save yourself. You're young. You can live."

After protesting, Nusia did run away. Today, she lives in Brooklyn with her two children and grandchildren.

The final liquidation of the ghetto in Trembowla took place in July 1943. After the liberation, only fifty or sixty people from the entire community had survived.

And so our beloved mother was also gone. My mother who had lived only for her family, who worked so hard alongside my father in the store, who would have walked to the ends of the earth to save her children, was no longer with us. I had not even finished saying Kaddish for my father when I had to begin praying for my mother. Now, only Arie and I were left. And who knew for how much longer.


An area of the square was designated as the gathering point for the booty. There were already a few Torah scrolls there, some shining in beautifully embroidered white silk, others clothed in gold or purple velvet embellished with golden thread, others still adorned with silver crowns. There they lay, their majesty and glory still evident, among the other objects stolen from the shuls of Miodowa Street.

Now they dragged out little Yisrael, Srulik the barber.... "Come on, verfluchter Jude! Dirty Jew!" they screamed. "Hurry up, you lazy swine, there's a lot of work to do. Gather all the silver and gold in one pile, the candelabra and candlesticks in another.... Now put all the crowns in another pile."

Srulik obeyed.

"Now undress those fancy scrolls. We can use the silk and velvet...."

Now what did they want of him?

"Are you dreaming, you filthy Jew? Didn't you hear me?" the brute yelled. "Undress your holy scrolls."

Yisrael stooped and picked up the one with the white silk mantle, prostrate in the dust, still dressed with majesty and glory for the High Holidays. He lifted the Torah to his heart, hands shaking, heart pounding: now she is all mine. He hugged her with all his strength, kissing her with awe and love.

"Now undress it and spit in its face!" the beast roared. "Do you hear me? Step on it; kick it!" Srulik was oblivious to the obscenities all around. He hugged his Torah closer and closer.

"Do as I command or I'll kill you!" the thug bellowed.

"How can you tell me to disgrace her, you stupid Nazi? Don't you know us?" Srulik embraced his beloved Torah and danced with her. He hugged her with ever-increasing strength, leaping even higher, whirling with joy. Closer, closer, faster, faster he jumped with his Torah. Hundreds of anxious eyes watched from the windows, hundreds of trembling hearts prayed for a miracle. He was good-hearted and simple, this Srulik, and we all loved him.

Two shots pierced the air, and the onlookers' hearts: one for Srulik the barber, another for his Torah. Still embracing, they fell atop the other holy scrolls, Srulik and his betrothed, united in an everlasting union of love.


The Jews are deported to Auschwitz daily, on schedule. They leave from the ghetto embarkation depots, on schedule. Conductors signal, "All aboard." Brakemen wave lanterns. German and Hungarian guards shoot a few reluctant travelers, club and bayonet a last group of mothers into the compartments. The engineeropens his throttle. And the train is off for Auschwitz, on schedule.

Eighty Jews ride in every compartment. Eichmann [said] the Germans could do better where there were more children. Then they could jam one hundred twenty into each train room. But eighty is no reflection on German efficiency.

The eighty Jews must stand all the way to Auschwitz with their hands raised in the air, so as to make room for the maximum of passengers.

There are two buckets in each compartment. One contains water. The other is for use as a toilet, to be shoved by foot, if possible, from user to user.

I wonder here, why the water and toilet buckets? One water bucket, one toilet bucket for eighty despairing men, women and children plastered against each other as in a packing case, and riding to death. Why? One water bucket, one toilet bucket are not enough to relieve the misery of these barely living ones. Jammed together, how can they use any buckets? They must urinate and defecate in their clothes. They must continue to burn with thirst until they arrive at the gas ovens. But the buckets are there.

I look at these two buckets as some curious souvenirs. Of what? I answer hesitantly; of the fact that humanity is hard to stamp out completely. It persists. It sneaks a token of itself into each foul-smelling, Jew-jammed compartment. The two buckets are like the spoor of some wounded thing - a German memory of humanity not quite dead.

from: "Perfidy," p. 134, by Ben Hecht, Julian Messner, Inc., New York, 1961


About 10,000 had been loaded into cattle cars, the floors of which were spread with deadly quicklime, bound - we found out later - for Auschwitz. The burning heat and poisonous fumes of the lime left only 400 of them alive when they reached their destination ... only to be gassed there with the other remnants of the Tarnow community....

...They cornered the mother and her frightened little boy, who clung to the hem of her white greatcoat. The color of her coat could not match the pallor of her face as the SS man approached.

"We got her!" he yelled, his fat, red face beaming with pride. "We got them, Herr Hauptscharfuhrer, the mother and the child." Proudly he turned them over to his boss.

A triumphant smile replaced the usual frigidity of Goeth's features. "I told you these Jews are smugglers," he sneered. "They smuggled in a child."

The German hero had won the battle. He had captured the Third Reich's most dangerous enemies, a helpless mother and her innocent child. Victoriously he shoved her down the two steps outside the boxcar.

The door slammed shut; again we were plunged into darkness. No one spoke. The stillness was frightening, as before a thunderstorm. Then came the inevitable. Two shots pierced the air: one for the "smuggler," the other for the eleven-year-old "contraband."

The massive body of compressed human flesh, its unified heart pulsing with love, felt the pain of helplessness, of despair and disappointment. It had offered its one hundred lives on the altar of human love and sacrifice, but could not even save one Jewish child.

Yet even now, as I witnessed the triumph of evil, I felt proud to be part of this wretched, tortured, haunted, yet great people.


A primitive gallows had been erected. On its platform stood six young men; hangmen were affixing nooses to their necks. I thought I recognized two of the young men: weren't they the Spielman brothers? Indeed they were. This was their "more merciful punishment."

"Look!" we were ordered from all sides. "Behold the fate of those who try to escape." I shuddered.

Then I heard one of the Spielman boys speak up. Defying the Nazis as he looked proudly into the face of death, he cried, "You can kill us, you can murder thousands of Jews, but you cannot destroy the Jewish nation. They will survive as they always have, and our G-d will take revenge for the innocent blood you've spilled!"

With this they recited Shema Yisrael, managing to proclaim "Hashem Echad - the L-rd is One" before they died.


... One of the policemen told me that we were headed to Chortkow, a town about twenty five kilometers away, although he wouldn't say why. Nor would he tell us our exact destination.

All along the way, men tried to escape. Each one was caught and brutally beaten by the Ukrainian police. We had been rounded up at nine o'clock in the morning, and by the time we reached Chortkow it was evening. We had spent the entire day walking in the bitter snow without food or rest. Everyone was thoroughly exhausted.

We were taken to a jailhouse. There we had to pass through a receiving line of SS soldiers and Ukrainian police, each with a rifle or stick, each waiting for a turn to hit a Jew on the head. There were about eighty of them, and it took a long time for a Jew to make his way through the line, being clobbered by everyone. If you were by chance hit on the neck or chest and not on your head, you had to go back and give the soldier another chance to "get it right."

Like everyone else, I tried to shield my face and head and lessen the force of the blows by jerking my head away a little, but this had to be done carefully; otherwise I would have had to return to the beginning of the line, and the second time I would surely have been hit even harder and more frequently. My technique seemed to make no difference, and by the time I got into the jail cell, I was bruised, cut, and bleeding. I wondered if the Germans intended to kill us or were just having fun.

After the ordeal, I was herded into a small jail cell packed with about sixty men. There was no room to sit down, let alone lie down. We had to stand, crushed one against the other, bleeding and in pain, frightened and hungry. All told, there were some five hundred men from the entire vicinity in the jailhouse, with every cell packed as tightly as ours.

We stood packed together like that all night, and in the morning we were sure we would be let out a little and given some food, but we were wrong. Nothing changed. The entire second day and night we stood, jammed together, hungry beyond belief. On the third day, we began to talk about how the Germans meant to kill us. One way or another, from starvation or lack of oxygen, we thought we would die locked up like this.

Many of the men began to recite Shma Yisrael, a prayer Jews are commanded to say, when possible, before death. Just then the Germans opened the door to the cell and took us out. Everyone stretched his limbs and gulped the fresh air. Although we were still starving and parched with thirst, the freedom from being pressed up against other bodies on all sides felt wonderful. Then one German began to toss pieces of bread at us, like one would throw scraps to a dog from the dinner table. Men hurled themselves at the bread, like animals, and stuffed it into their mouths before anyone else could steal it. A tub was filled with water, and we


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