Someone is Watching Over Me
A Memoir by Florence Mayer Lieblich
The War Years: 1939-1945
World War II started in 1939. Hitler and Stalin made a pact and divided Poland in two. Stalin occupied Ukraine and the Germans occupied the other part. On September 17, 1939 the Red Army entered our city, Czortkow. The Jewish population breathed freely for a while. We were safe from the Nazi tyranny. Life continued normally. We had to be very careful about with whom we associated. It was not easy to live under a dictatorship, but the Jews were not harmed. The Jews were able to get very good jobs and the professionals were able to continue. There was no anti-Semitism, but everybody was watched. If they were suspicious, you could be transported to Siberia, but other than having to be very careful, we led a normal, quiet life. Our peace ended very quickly. On July 6, 1941 the Germans invaded our city. From that day, hell started.
When the Germans were on the outskirts of our city, the Ukrainians started to burn all the Jewish houses and villages. They covered most of the entrances that they could see, so nobody could escape. My friend Lila’s house was already in flames, but one entrance was not covered. Her mother pushed her out and told her, “Hide between the high corn bushes, so the murderers will not see you. Try to save yourself. For us it is already too late.” Her hands and legs were already burned when she went between the bushes. She was very quiet as she hid. She heard children’s voices, adults crying and begging for help. Lila heard the response of the murderers, “Burn Jews, we don’t need you, we don’t want you.” It became very still. You only heard the burning wood, and the air started to smell with burnt flesh. Whole villages and all the people were burned to ashes. The hatred that the Ukrainian people felt towards us was nothing new. They implanted this hatred in their children from the day they were born, “You kill Jews.” Once the Nazis came, we were even afraid of the youngest Ukrainian child. When he saw a Jew, he threw stones, started to fight and robbed him. He would call for the Gestapo, “This is a Jew, kill him!” That was our situation. We were surrounded by hatred, killers, and no way out. Lila arrived at our house and lived with us. She survived and moved to Israel. She is not alive today.
My father and I were looking out the window and saw a motorcycle with Germans arriving. They stopped on the corner of a small street. Suddenly, we saw a religious man coming out from the street. In one hand he held a glass of salt, and in the other he carried the Torah. He was greeting the Germans. The two Gestapos secured their motorcycle, stepped down, threw the man down on the street, spitting on him and kicking him with their boots. They threw the Torah down, spit on it and stepped on it until it crumbled. They yelled, “Filthy Jew!” and they killed him. They returned smiling to their motorcycles. They had accomplished their mission- already killing Jews. When they left, some people picked up the Torah, trying to straighten it out and clean it. They took the man away. We knew this man very well. He was a good friend of my father. I turned to my father and said, “Daddy, destruction awaits us. Very long, bitter days are ahead for us Jews.” We walked away, we did not look anymore. Now, whenever I am in temple for the holidays, and see how the Torah is celebrated with songs and happiness, I only can see the Torah on the street, spit and stepped upon, and crumbled. I cannot forget this. It hurts too much, and nothing could have been done to prevent that degradation.
The Gestapo Kelner was assigned to destroy the Jews of Czortkow. From the day he arrived in our city, the killing started. They snatched people from the street, dragged them into the Black Forest, and killed them. We have many graves with our people. We, the Jews were scattered all over the city. It was not easy for the Nazis to find us. They never knew where the Jewish houses were, but they had a lot of help from the Ukrainian murderers. They led the Germans to our homes. Kelner, the head Gestapo murderer, gave an order to print large signs with the Star of David. Every Jew had to go to the city hall, buy it, and hang the sign in a very visible place, on windows and doors, so the Nazi murderers would have it easy. There was also an order given that everybody had to wear an armband with the Star of David, so we would be very recognizable to kill.
In a very short time, after the Stars of David were on every Jewish house, an order came from the Gestapo Kelner that a ghetto had to be established. Also a Judenrat and Jewish police had to be organized. A few houses were assigned to the ghetto. Our house was among the assigned ones. The people started to move from their homes, and moved in with other families. It was very cramped. Some of our family moved in with us. The next order came from the Gestapo. None of the Jews were allowed to go out of the ghetto. If a Jew was seen buying from a Gentile, they would kill them on the spot. This happened. We had to eat. I myself removed my armband with the Star, and went to get only a loaf of bread. We were starving. If a Ukrainian or a Gestapo saw me, I would be killed. I had no choice. I had to take chances. I could not let my parents go out. Our Judenrat and the Jewish police were not helping. They were with the Gestapo, helping to make our lives hell. The Jewish police thought that if they helped the Nazis, they would survive, but it didn’t happen that way. I used to hide from the police, but I was caught and sent to the Gestapo for very hard labor. I had to do filthy work like cleaning the toilets and houses, bringing in wood and making the fire. The Gestapo would stand over us with their whips, and if they didn’t like what we were doing we would get the whip over our backs.
The winter was very cold. The German soldiers were freezing on the Russian front. An order came from the Gestapo to the Judenrat, that all the Jewish furs had to be delivered to them, and they would be sent to the front, to warm the soldiers. My family decided that none of our furs would go to warm those killers. We would burn all our furs, and we had a lot: coats, jackets and hats. We were a large family. Everybody sat down and started to cut the furs with plain scissors. It was very hard to cut, fur needs special scissors. We were bleeding, but all the furs were cut and we burned them. Fur burns very slowly. We had the satisfaction of knowing that none of our furs would be sent to those murderers. The majority of the Jews were very scared and delivered their furs, but at least something good was done by us against that tyranny. We took a chance because the smell of the burning fur was all over the ghetto. We were very proud of ourselves. That was the only thing that we could do to satisfy ourselves a little bit.
I remember a very painful day in my father’s life. Our front entrance was left open by mistake. Suddenly two Gestapos walked into our apartment. My father was sitting and composing, deep in his thoughts. They stood behind my father’s chair and asked, “Is that yours?” Pointing to his book, my father answered, “Yes.” They tore the pages out of the book and started to tear it up, page by page. My father was begging, “Please, I’m begging you, don’t destroy my work.” They threw my father to the floor, started to kick him with their boots and spit on him. They left smiling. I felt like running after them, scratching their faces, and telling them that their destruction would come soon. I picked my father up, he was bruised, and I collected the torn pages. I still can see the pain in my father’s eyes. I asked my father, “Why didn’t they kill us?” My father said, “You will survive.” That was the reason. My father was very sure that I would survive.
I was working in the Gestapo with three other ladies. One day a young Gestapo walked in. We were very frightened. We thought it was our last day of life. He looked at us and started to talk. “If I see a fly, I hesitate to kill it, but you Jews are like rats, and rats you kill. All of you will be killed.” He walked out. At least for that moment we were still alive. There was silence between us. I broke the silence and I started to say, “We will surprise him.” The two ladies answered, “We will not, but you will have a chance.” They didn’t survive. They were killed in the first Aktion, Bergen-Belsen.
A few weeks before the first Aktion, at 1:00 A.M., the Gestapo Rosonoff, second in command, walked into the room. He carried a plate of food in his hand. He put the plate on a small table, turned to me and said, “Fraulein, sit down and eat the food.” I replied, “Thank you, but can I share the food with my friends? They are starving too.” His look became very vicious, his voice angry and loud, and he was yelling at me in German. “They are Jews! To me, you are not a Jew. The Jews kidnapped you.” I replied that I am a Jew. He became furious. He grabbed his gun out of his holster and pointed it straight at me. The girls were trembling. I was sure he was going to kill me and very calmly I said in German, “Why don’t you kill me? Your intentions are to kill us Jews.” He looked at me, put his gun back into his holster and yelled, “You are not Jewish. Run, save yourself!” Then he left. I’m still wondering why he didn’t kill me.
It happened in August, a short time before the first Aktion. I came back to the ghetto after hard labor at the Gestapo. Rosonoff was there with his vicious German Shepherd dog which was trained to jump and crush every Jew. The dog jumped on me and threw me down on the street and started to bite me. The dog bit my hands, crushing my hands and fingers. To this day, I am left with deformed hands and fingers and scars. After he finished crushing my hands he left. I was bleeding heavily, but at least he didn’t touch my face. I am lucky he didn’t kill me. I guess the dog didn’t enjoy the skin of my hands. They probably didn’t taste appetizing after the hard day of work. It just so happened that I was the only one visible, because if our people saw him coming, they ran away. I didn’t know he was there. I just walked into the ghetto. When he saw me from far away, he saw his victim and started running towards me. I didn’t even have a chance to run. My uncle was on the corner and fainted, because he was sure I was going to be finished. I was the only one left alive in my city who had been attacked by this dog. When they asked me how I survived, I said, “Miracles.” It was very painful. I couldn’t go back to work. I said to my mother “At least he didn’t touch my face.” She said “At least he didn’t finish you off.”
About three weeks before the first Aktion, I entered the ghetto with another woman. On the corner, I saw some Ukrainian police dragging some people out of the ghetto. A policeman saw me entering the ghetto and yelled “What are you waiting for? Go in.” He started to drag the woman who was with me, and I said, “Please, she is my friend. Please let her go.” He did. Suddenly I heard the voice of Mathilda Halpern, my very close friend. She was being dragged by another policeman and was yelling and crying, “Please help me! Save me!” I went to the policeman and said, “She really is my closest friend, please, let her go.” He looked at me and started to yell, “Get in! I will take you too.” He left with her. She looked at me and she saw I tried. He killed her on the sidewalk, just outside the ghetto. He said to me, “Go in.” Every once in a while, they would just decide to kill a few Jews. There was nothing we could do. We had no protection. The policeman could have taken me too, but didn’t. He pushed me into the ghetto. I believe, very strongly, that somebody above me was watching over me. I believe, until today, that when I am in trouble, I am always protected. Now I believe that it is my parents protecting me.
The killing continued by the Germans and the Ukrainians. The Jews were taken to the outskirts of town. They had to dig their own graves before they were shot and fell into them. There are a lot of mass graves there. We all knew that something very horrible was awaiting us, so we had to start to prepare a hiding place. Our houses were attached to each other with brick walls in between. To get to each other’s houses for help, we had to have a connection. We decided to make openings to all the houses. We removed some bricks from the walls located in the attics, so that in case of an emergency, we would be connected from the inside. Now, we had to have a hiding place. We decided to build a wall in the attic, large enough for all the people from the houses on our block. It was a long block with a lot of people. It was impossible for all of them to have hiding places. Bricks were accumulated and the work started. It had to dry up. We left a small opening, and a few bricks were left outside to cover the entrance after we were inside. We had to slide in. We prepared some mattresses, pillows, containers of water, pails for the bathroom, dried fruit and bread. We did this in the few weeks before the Aktion. Everything was ready. The wall was dry, not recognizable.
The first Aktion started August 26, 1942. A few days before, we knew that something was brewing, that something terrible was going to happen. A man we knew who was in the Judenrat, was a good man, and he warned us. We decided that we would all go into the hiding place. All the families and children from the houses would go. I also went to some of our friends and told them to pack whatever they had, take food and containers of water and to come with us. The entrance was closed, and we were praying and reminiscing about the “good old days.” My parents were very thankful to God that my brother was saved from that horror. They always believed that I would survive. They were so sure. When I would ask them how they were so sure they would say, “You will survive, believe in us.” The truth is, I started to believe it myself. At least I had some hope. One of my mother’s brother’s, Nathan, didn’t want to stay in the hiding place. He walked out and said that he was sure that he wouldn’t be taken by the Nazis because he had a special card from them. I also had a card, but I didn’t believe those murderers. I couldn’t convince him. He was taken away by railroad to Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp.
There were two small windows in the hiding place. My cousin and I looked out the windows and were able to observe the preparations. We saw that the Judenrat were covering two large tables with white table cloths. On the cloths, they put two bottles of wine and glasses. Two chairs were put at the middle of table. The president of the Judenrat, Dr. Abner, was a very mean, destructive man. He was delivering people to the Gestapo. He was sure that only he and his family would survive, but he was killed with his whole family. Preparations were made for the killing of the Jews. Kelner and Rosonoff of the Gestapo were sitting at the middle of the table, drinking, laughing and having fun and preparing themselves for their big occasion- our destruction. On the street corners, the Germans and Ukrainians were standing with their guns, and the Jewish police were standing with their heavy sticks. They were ready to fulfill the order which would be given by those murderers. I could see everything. After they finished their drinking, they stood up. They congregated the Germans, Ukrainians and Jewish police around the table. We heard the loud voice of Kelner, the murderer: “Two thousand Jews have to be delivered. The quota has to be filled. If not, we will fill it with the Jewish police. Go from house to house. Gather the people in the center of town. Kill old Jews, sick people and small infants.”
The killing started. The Jewish police, German police and Ukrainians started to deliver our people. We saw people being dragged. We heard yelling, crying, begging and shooting. What was happening to the Jews was indescribable. The Jewish police were a big part of that crime. Suddenly, I saw a lady I knew very well. She owned a very nice bakery where we used to buy our bread. She was dragged by the German Gestapo, clutching her baby to herself very tightly. The German tore the baby from her arms, held the baby by its feet, so its head was down, dragged the baby to a water pump and hit the baby’s head against the iron pump. The baby’s head split open. The mother started to scream and yell, “You murderer! Why did you kill my innocent baby? She didn’t do you any wrong.” He turned to the mother, killed her, and threw the baby down beside her. He walked away smiling and singing.
After what we saw, my cousin fainted. I became still like a statue. I couldn’t move. When my cousin woke up, she tapped me on the shoulder and said, “It’s all over. Let’s not look any more.” I asked her, “Did it really happen?” She said, “Yes.” We walked away and sat in an opposite corner. We did not talk to our families about what we saw. They knew what was going on outside. They heard the crying and the shooting. I just couldn’t understand the cruelty of what was done to that infant. Their hatred of us was so deeply implanted.
The entrance to our house was not easy to break. It was very strong. We suddenly heard knocking at the door. They had a very hard time breaking down the door, but they did. We heard strong German voices. “Where are the Jews? Look all over.” They were standing right near the wall. It became so quiet, for that minute it felt that we had all died. Even the children were so quiet. The Germans looked all over, but couldn’t find us. After a while we heard a strong voice. “There are no Jews here.” They left. When we heard their boots moving away from our wall, we started to breathe again. We didn’t leave the hiding place, we didn’t know if the Aktion was over. It was very quiet outside.
Suddenly, we heard voices outside. We saw our people. That meant that the killing had stopped for a while. We decided that one of us should go out and find out if it was safe to go back to our apartments. I was selected. Somehow, I was never afraid. I always took chances. My beloved parents always used to tell me, “Whatever the situation, you have to face it. You never give up. You have to be strong to overcome bad times and enjoy good times.” This was implanted in my mind, and has always helped me. When I walked out from our house, there was a terrible scene in the center of the city. There were dead bodies all over the streets, mothers holding their children in their arms, old people dead, whole families were dead, side by side. It looked like there had been a heavy bombardment. Unexpectedly, in a corner, I saw a family who I knew very well. There was my best friend from school, Fayga Preshel, with her parents, brothers, sisters, uncle and cousins, all dead. I covered them with their own bloody clothing. Before the Aktion I had begged them to come to our hiding place, but they had refused. They had said, “What will happen, will happen.” It did. You had to see it to believe it. I couldn’t stop trembling.
At once, I heard a soft voice behind me calling my name: “Miss Mayer”. I turned around and saw a young lady shaking. She said to me, “You don’t know me, I know your whole family. I have very bad news for your mother. I was in the transport with your uncle Nathan. They dragged us, pushed us, beat us with their guns and heavy boots. People couldn’t walk. The Germans were killing them, spitting on them and yelling, ‘Schnell! Walk quickly!’ Many fell and couldn’t get up. They were stepped on and killed. People were yelling and crying. Even the Jewish police were hitting them with their heavy sticks. In the commotion, I ran out of the line and ran into a small house where I hid in the back. When I saw that they were far away, I came running to the city. I lost all my family. That transport was going to Bergen-Belsen.” My Uncle Nathan was with them. Later, when I started to tell my mother, she knew already. It was one of her premonitions.
Soon afterward, I saw a good friend of mine, Dr. Philip Lieblich, bending over the bodies and covering them. I walked over and asked if I could help. The answer was that they were all dead. The Nazis had done a very good job. Philip was very pale. I didn’t have to ask him what had happened to his family, but he told me anyway. They killed his uncle and took the rest of the family away. Philip had been hiding in a small corner. The Nazis had killed so many, that they didn’t bother to look for more, but his whole family was killed. In a very soft voice he said to me, “I hope your parents and family survived.” I answered, “Yes, for now.” We walked together to my house. My parents and the other people went back to their houses.
I heard Phil saying to my father, “Those murderers want to destroy us. I will do everything in my power to fight to survive.” My father answered, “Don’t ever give up.” He replied, “I won’t.” He left. He had to go back to his apartment and then back to the hospital.
We had to leave the house where we were secure and protected because after the ghetto had shrunk by so many people, we had to move into very small houses. We moved into the ladies part of the Wizhnotzev Synagogue. That is the synagogue where my parents and friends were eventually discovered and dragged to the mass grave. The rabbi from Ushatin and his family moved in with us there. They were the sister-in-law and brother-in-law of my brother. We were occupying the larger ladies praying room. We were twelve people in all.
Before we left our house, Kasha walked in. She was our cleaning woman. Kasha, her sons and her husband were Ukrainian police. She turned to mother and said, “Get out from my house. It is mine now. Don’t you ever ask me to help you. I will not. Get out you filthy Jews. We will kill you all.” My mother turned to Kasha and in a very soft voice said, “Kasha, true, you will kill me and thousands of us, but do you see my daughter? She will live.” My mother then turned to me and said, “Don’t you ever forget her.” “I won’t,” I answered. I never forgot.
With heavy hearts, we left our home forever: the house where I was born and spent a happy childhood. The beautiful memories were left to me from our home. I knew in my heart that my mother was right. It would never be my home again. Only memories of the beautiful house and happy times remain. We walked away and turned toward that small street. We Jews were assigned to perish together. The houses on this street were made out of mud. They looked like small houses in the villages. There were a few brick houses which the Judenrat management lived in. The people from those houses were killed already. Also the Jewish police got the better apartments. We started to build a small hiding place, to try to avoid those killers for a while. It was in the attic of the synagogue. It was a very small place. We sat very close to each other. The killing didn’t stop. Each day we were in the hiding place.
The situation became unbearable. We were boxed in with no way out. We were not allowed to leave the ghetto. On the corner, at the entrance, the Ukrainian police were watching. If somebody tried to escape they were killed on the spot. We had no food or water. We were starving and the killing continued steadily. Some people were trying to help themselves. They approached their Gentile friends and asked them to hide them. There were very few who wanted to help us. Young Jewish men who looked Christian, bought Gentile papers, and moved onto the Gentile side. They became Christians and lived as Christians. Not many were lucky enough to survive. If somebody recognized them, the Gestapo was notified, and they were killed. Men were very easy to spot. For us girls, it was a little easier, but the Germans also found a way to catch us. When a German wasn’t sure if a girl was Jewish or Christian, he tapped the girl on the shoulder. If the girl yelled, “Oy, Mamanu”, he killed her. When the yell was “Jesus Christ”, he apologized. Jesus Christ was so implanted in our minds, that after fifty years, I still express myself with a scream, “Jesus Christ.” That expression was so important that you couldn’t forget it. It meant life or death.
When I was sitting in the hiding place, I had very long conversations with my father. I remember one of our last ones. I started, “I learned a lot about our history. We Jews were always hated, beaten and killed, but never gave up. We Jews are very stubborn people. During the Spanish Inquisition, the Jews were observing Judaism in their basements. From the outside, the Spanish thought that they had converted. I also believe very strongly that the German tyranny will come to an end. I’m sure some people will survive.” My father interrupted and said, “Our enemies have been trying to destroy us for a very long time. We Jews are spread all over the world and they never will. Yes, my child, I agree with you. Hitler’s tyranny will come to an end. Some will survive, I will not, but you will be among them.” He kissed my head and said, “You will see.” We had to stop talking because we heard the voices of those who were looking for us. This time they didn’t get us.
After the first Aktion, my mother’s family was still alive except for the one uncle who refused to hide. We realized, facing the cruel situation, that it would be impossible for all of us to survive that destruction. Therefore, each of us got a list of family member’s possessions that were left in some Christian people’s homes, and possessions that were in the homes of people who had robbed us. If one of us should survive, we should go to those people and collect everything back. I was the only survivor and this list remained with me until the day we were liberated.
We expected that Judenrein would be declared very soon. Juderein meant no more Jews in Czortkow. The day arrived. Czortkow was declared Juderein in 1943. My Phil came down from the hospital and joined us. They started to look all over the small houses, grabbing people. Some were killed in their houses. The rest were dragged to the outskirts of Czortkow. The people had to dig their own graves. They were shot, and fell into the graves. The graves were covered. Many people were still alive in those graves.
I remember after the liberation, speaking with my friend and her mother, who both survived. My friend lost her two sisters. They told me that they had had a visit from a young girl. She told them that the sisters saved her life. She was in the line with them to be killed. When the shooting started, the two sisters fell into the grave. The young girl fainted and fell on top of them. The Germans thought that she was dead and covered the grave. She regained consciousness. It was dark. She realized that she was buried alive and heard crying. That meant that other people on the bottoms of the graves were still alive. They were suffering before their death. She started to dig with her hands. The soil was very soft and she was able to crawl out from the grave. Naked and bloody, she ran into a Ukrainian house. The woman in the house was terrified. She asked for water, clothing and bread. They were very scared of her. They gave her everything and she left barefoot. She ran into the woods, met other people, and remained with them until the liberation. She left with the aliya for Palestine. When I was in Israel, my friend told me that the girl was a guest in their home very often. I just hope that my parents didn’t have to suffer, and peacefully went to their deaths.
Juderein meant that if a German or Ukrainian saw a Jew they killed them on the spot. That was the law. We were boxed in. We were starving. We didn’t have water. We were sitting in the hiding place steadily, waiting to be picked up and killed. We had no way out. After a few days in the hiding place, my father called Phil and me outside the hiding place and said that it was time for us to leave before it was too late. He asked us if we wanted to be married. We said “Yes.” He married us. I saw my mother embrace my Phil, hug him, and in a whisper say, “Go with God, He will protect you both. Never give up fighting for your freedom. In my heart I feel that both of you will survive.” I saw my father shaking Phil’s hand, embracing him and saying good-bye. I heard my Phil assuring my father that he would do everything possible to save us. So he did. Thanks to his tremendous strength and faith we were able together to overcome all the terrible obstacles that we had before us. He was a very strong man. Quiet, but strong.
I walked out from the hiding place and looked around to see if it was safe to go outside. I was watching and I saw my Phil safely cross the street. I was relieved and happy that he was safe. I came back and rejoined my parents in the hiding place. I remained there two weeks with them. I did not want to leave them. I hoped that I would convince them to join us. They refused. Their answer was, “We have no strength to fight any more.” They considered themselves lucky. They had one son in America, and I would survive too. They were so sure and convinced that I would survive. My mother had premonitions and said that the premonitions never disappointed her. I started to believe it myself. Meanwhile, we were sitting in the hiding place, starving and thirsty. The Nazis were looking for us, but we still remained alive. Suddenly I heard my father’s voice. It was like an order was being given to me: “Say good-bye to your mother.” My mother came out from the hiding place, embraced me, and in a very soft voice said, “My kinde, (they never called me by my name, always my kinde) it is time to join your husband before it is too late. You are young and have the strength to fight for your survival. Fight, and never give up. I feel in my heart, that you both will overcome every obstacle in your way and you will survive. Remember, those were your mother’s last words. After your freedom, leave this bloody city. Don’t ever forget what those murderers did to our people and deprived you of your parents and family. I have a sister in Palestine, you have a brother in the United States.” She kissed me, and that was the last time I saw my mother alive. I can still see the tears in her beautiful blue eyes. “Go see your father” she said, as she went into the hiding place. My mother was a very beautiful lady.
I came down and saw that my father had a prayer book open. He said to me, “These are the blessings of your voyage. Repeat after me.” I started in Hebrew: “May it be the will of the Lord to lead us to the destination. Live in joy and peace. Protect us from all enemies. From evil, bigots and robbers. From catastrophe and all the dangers of the journey. Bless our Lord. Grant us grace and mercy. Bless our Lord who listens to our prayers. Amen.” My father closed the book and started, “All my life I was a Zionist. I prayed and always hoped that I would live to see my homeland, Eretz Israel. But never will I see my homeland, but you and many survivors will. To regain our pride and dignity as Jews, the only way is our Eretz Israel. The day will come. Miracles will happen and we will regain our homeland, Eretz Israel. Yom Israel chai. Long live my people.” That was my father’s last sentence. He hugged me and said, “Leave now and God will protect you.” I left to join my husband in the hiding place. That was the last time I saw my father alive. I was very lucky that I was with my family until the end. Some didn’t have that luck.
I left my parents’ hiding place and my heart was very heavy. I knew that I would never see them again. I left them hungry and thirsty and I could not convince them to come with me. I was very depressed but I could hear my father’s strong voice: “Don’t give up. You will survive.” It was very convincing and I believed it. I promised myself that I would never disappoint my parents. When I walked out from the hiding place, there were Ukrainian police with guns waiting to catch the remaining Jews. As I approached the Gentile side the policeman looked at me and smiled. He couldn’t decide if I was Christian or Jewish. I did not give him a chance. I walked into the Stretenev Synagogue. I looked around the synagogue. It was very empty. The torahs were destroyed and the benches had disappeared. The Ukrainians were warming their houses with the wood. I thought that only two years ago I was enjoying Simchas Torah. It felt so empty, like it never was. I turned to the bimah where the torahs were, and I said a prayer: “Oh God, protect me and let me arrive safely to join my husband.”
A new chapter began in our lives. Very hard and painful times in our lives now awaited us. Now we had to have the strength to fight for our survival. I knew that it would be very hard, maybe even impossible. My father’s voice was singing in my ears: “Don’t ever, ever lose faith.” I became very strong and walked across the street and came to the house where our hiding place was. I looked around to see if it was safe to knock on the door. It was. Palania, the lady who saved our lives, opened the door and I quickly walked in. Now I will describe the hiding place where we spent nine months, not stepping out, until the liberation day arrived.
The house belonged to Jewish people who were not alive anymore. Ukrainian people had moved into empty Jewish houses. It was a very happy time for them. They became owners of all the Jewish properties. All around the house where we were hiding, Ukrainian people were living. The house was very small. It only had a few rooms. Our hiding place was the small back room. The entrance door to the room was removed, and replaced with a large closet that matched the frame. There were a lot of shelves in the closet that were filled with books and other articles. The lower shelf of the closet was left open. That was our entrance. We could slide in. We were eight people in that hiding place. There was a very small window in our hiding room which was covered with a lot of boxes on the outside. It was very careless and neglectful of us to leave the window covered like that, because if the Ukrainians removed those boxes, we would be discovered and all be shot. It was a miracle that we were not discovered. Somebody “up there” protected us. Food was given to us through the opening. We were never hungry. Palonia and Ruzka tried their best. When holidays were observed, we were treated to a nice meal and some sweets.
In the bunker we were constantly afraid and terrified of Ruzka’s fourteen year old son Vladik. He used to threaten us terribly. He was always saying, “I will go to the Gestapo and inform them that my mother is hiding Jews.” We were always trying to please him, teach him, and shower him with a lot of gifts. He was a very bright boy and liked to study, but each time he walked out of the house, we were terrified until he returned home. Our lives depended upon his moods.
One morning, I remember Palania yelled in through the opening, “Fire! Fire! Come help to put out the fire.” Phil and others walked out into the room where the fire was. Many Ukrainian people were helping to put out the fire. The room was so dark that they didn’t notice anybody. If they had, we wouldn’t be alive today. After the fire was put out they quickly slid into the hiding place. Another miracle happened here!
When they gave us the food through the opening, they always told us what was going on outside. They informed us that more Jewish hiding places were discovered and the people were dragged to the outskirts of Czortkow to be killed. I felt in my heart that I would soon get the news that my parents were discovered. It didn’t take long. One day, after a few weeks, while giving us the bread, Palania said that Ukrainian police discovered a group of Jews congregated in some synagogue. They were sitting on the floor waiting to be picked up. They looked like skeletons. They couldn’t walk. When they fell, they were kicked by the Germans with their boots, and yelled to: “March!” They dragged them, beating them, until they arrived at the outskirts of Czortkow. Many graves were dug and waiting for them. After this news was delivered, I was sure that my beloved parents were among the group. I was trembling and crying. I was thinking that my parents couldn’t take the hunger and the thirst that they were suffering. All twelve people walked down to the Wizhnotzev Synagogue and waited to be picked up. Other people joined them and together they were driven to their death. I could see my beloved parents, pale, thin, no strength left, and my mother holding on to my father for support. Together they went on the last voyage of their lives. I could see my father’s lips moving, saying the last prayer in Hebrew: “Listen Oh God of Israel, the only God.” With peace in their hearts, their lives ended. I know that. I could feel it in my heart.
The last few months before the liberation were the hardest and most painful times for us. Some hiding places were discovered by the Nazi murderers. They killed everybody. Palania and Ruzka were frightened. Palania opened the entrance door and said, “Get out! I don’t want to die.” We survived thanks to my dear Phil’s strength, determination, and the powerful will to survive. He never gave up. By the open door, my Phil was saying, “Look out. It’s so very dark. The minute we step out they will kill us. You are very good religious people. You are not capable of such cruelty of sending innocent people out to their deaths. Your consciences will bother you. Please, I’m begging you, give us an extra day. Tomorrow we will leave.” Ruzka saw the ruby and diamond ring that had been my mother’s, and said, “I want it.” I gave it to her. That didn’t help. I promised, if they would save our lives, an apartment would be given to them. It took a while, but Phil convinced them, and they agreed to one more day. We went back to our hiding place and hoped that some miracle would happen the next day. It was still three months before the liberation, but we knew it was around the corner. The next day arrived and we didn’t know what would happen or where we would go, but a miracle happened. Palania and Ruzka told us of the defeat of the Germans on the Russian front. The Germans were running back to Germany. They didn’t tell us to leave. Each day, until the day we were liberated, my Phil went into their apartment and tried to convince them that the day of liberation would come very soon. The atmosphere outside was very panicky for the Ukrainians. They were afraid that they would be punished by the Red Army. They killed many Russians, just like the Jews. Palania and Ruska felt better and weren’t afraid any more. We remained until the day of our liberation.