On March 19, 1942, I
was sent by the Judenrat (the Jewish Council) to build underground
storage facilities. Our group was led to a bleak, desolate place
outside the city where a tall German with a red, square face told
us that if we worked hard we would get extra food rations.
After a long day of digging,
breaking up large boulders and carting away the dirt in wheelbarrows,
I went home with a coupon for an extra half pound of bread, and,
with some pride, I gave it to my father. But I was disappointed
when he said, "I've arranged a new job for you. You'll be a
carpenter for the German army." I was upset. I did not know
carpentry and I did not want to lose the extra bread rations.
Anxious and worried,
I left for my new job the next morning. It was still dark outside
and lights shone through the small windows. The ramshackle streets
were covered with a blanket of white snow. The ghetto seemed quiet
I was assigned to help
a German soldier named Hans. He turned out to be a friendly fellow
who laughed heartily at my clumsy handling of the saw. "To
make a straight cut you have to pull the saw gently. Don't jerk
it. Don't use force," he admonished.
I was so absorbed in
my work that I took no note of the sporadic shooting that erupted
At lunch time, I sat
at the roadside with Willy, the other Jewish carpenter. A passing
Ukrainian peasant warned, "They are killing the Jews in town.
Why aren't you boys hiding?"
"Killing Jews? What
are you saying?" I asked in disbelief.
he said, "see for yourself."
When I followed the old
peasant's pointing finger, I saw, about 500 yards away, heavy German
trucks disgorging groups of people who were then forced to walk
uphill. The shooting persisted, intermittently, but I could not
believe that killings were taking place.
I did not know what to
do, but before I could decide, Willy took off, running in the direction
of the railroad station. After a moment's hesitation, I bolted after
We found shelter in a
storage room, hiding in a far corner under a mound of cement. The
shootings grew louder and louder, soon turning into a continuous
barrage. I leaned against Willy and felt his heart racing.
We sat there for what
seemed to be forever. At 5 o'clock, the shootings stopped. Covered
with cement dust, we crawled out of our hideout, and, still dazed,
we walked back to the ghetto.
On the way home, I saw
a horse-drawn wagon heaped with stained clothing. The driver walked
alongside, whip in hand, and behind were five Jews.
I heard someone call
out, "Al, come help us. We are taking the bodies for burial."
It was our neighbor, Jankel.
It still made no sense. Nobody buries stained clothing. As I looked
more closely, my heart skipped a beat. The wagon did not haul bloodstained
clothing -- these were dead bodies!
I wanted to run home
to see what happened to my family. But how could I refuse? I joined
the other Jews behind the wagon.
Overloaded with the corpses,
the buggy swayed. The horses slowed.
yelled the driver. Grabbing the wooden railing, I saw, to my horror,
the face of a classmate. "Oh my God! It's Arnoldek." I
felt a tremor passing through my body.
Arnold Rek, or Arnoldek
as we used to call him, was a plump, good-natured boy. We shared
the same bench at school. He loved candy and his rustling of crushed
wrappers used to drive me crazy. Only yesterday I kidded around
with him. Now he lay dead, his head piercing through the wagon's
When we arrived at our
destination, a hideous scene unfolded: in a tremendous pit, bodies
floated in a sea of blood. The Germans were gone but the pit was
guarded by the Ukrainian militia. They told us to dump the bodies
into the pit and to collect those of the victims who had been shot
trying to escape.
After we finished our
ghastly task, Moses the Shoemaker called out, "Jews, let us
We lined up at the edge
of the pit and began to recite the age-old prayer. "Yisgaddal
w'yiskadash Shmej Rabu ... And the name of the Lord be sanctified
and extolled." But standing before this mass grave of innocent
victims, praising God seemed sacrilegious, blasphemous! I couldn't
I glanced at the mourners,
these broken people who with rhythmic motions repeated the sacred
prayer as their forefathers had for a thousand years. In them, I
had a glimpse of the indestructible Jewish soul, the source of our
strength and our weakness.
After the Kaddish, the
group moved slowly and silently toward the ghetto. Some passersby
glanced at us in shock, others laughed.
As we approached the
boundaries of the ghetto, my heart pounded wildly. I jumped over
the border stream and ran to our house. No one was in the kitchen.
A pot of blackened potatoes, soaking in water, was on the table.
My poor mother would never leave potatoes like that. I was certain
she was dead.
I ran out of the house
and to my great relief found my parents in the alley. "Mom,"
I screamed, "You are alive." I embraced my parents and
burst into tears. But when I didn't see my sister, I cried out,
" Where is Luba?"
My mother broke down,
sobbing, "My darling daughter must be dead. I will not survive
I had to find Luba!
Running through the ghetto
in search of my sister I saw doors ajar, furniture in disarray,
feathers, torn from bedding, floating in the air. But I will never
forget the people -- moaning, numb shadows -- moving about forlornly.
At one house, a little
boy, about 4 years old, was crying for his mother. His sister, Rachel,
a 6 year old, was trying to comfort him. "Don't cry, Mottel.
Mommy will come back." She pulled him up and with her small
hand she wiped away his tears.
At another, an ashen-faced
neighbor, Abe Tunis, was weeping quietly for his wife and three
children. Esterka, one of his daughters, was my age. She had red
hair, a freckled face, and was always neatly dressed in a black
school uniform with an immaculate white collar. Esterka's main concerns
in life were her freckles and her grades. She spent all her lunch
money on exotic creams to rid her face of these blemishes. Now she
I did not know what to
do or what to say. Silently, I left the crying man and continued
my search for my sister. When it grew dark I returned home.
My mother was still standing
in the alley, waiting. "Did you find out what happened to Luba?
Where were you all this time? I'm so scared."
I turned my head in pain
and just then I spotted my sister walking with Mr. Baczynski, the
Commandant of the Ukrainian Police. Luba had been working as a cook
for his outfit. Not knowing what to do or where to run, she had
spent the whole day cooking.
Seeing her alive and
well, I felt euphoric! "We made it! We're all alive!"
Amid all the human devastation in the ghetto, I was unable to suppress
my exhilaration! But at the same time I felt ashamed of my good
fortune. I repeated over and over again, "You are a selfish
This feeling of shame
has stayed with me throughout my adult life. It is only recently
that I came to understand the precariousness and limitations of
the human existence. A man can't control his feelings and, in time
of danger, he rarely controls his deeds.
I often think of my friend
Willy with whom I survived this dreadful day. Willy, the indestructible,
with his raspy voice and charming smile, was a fighter. In December
1942, Willy was caught, stripped naked and sent to the gas chambers.
With bleeding fingernails, he pried open the planks of the cattle
car and jumped off the train.
After the liquidation
of the ghetto, Willy survived the raids, the hunger and the cold
of the forest. He was drafted into the Russian Army, and on May
9, 1945, one day before the signing of the Armistice, Willy Bloch
died in the Battle for Berlin.
For Willy, Esterka, Rachel,
Mottel and all the other victims, I do recite Kaddish now.