Someone is Watching Over Me
A Memoir by Florence Mayer Lieblich
Entire version is on this page to print.
In memory of my devoted parents:
My heart is full of pain. I now take the opportunity to mention the names of my sainted parents who fell by the hands of the blood-thirsty Nazi murderers: my father, Rabbi Meir Leib Mayer Ben Moshe, my mother, Gitel Riva Mayer Bas Mordechai. May God avenge their blood.
In memory of my dear husband’s parents, Feiga Sonnenschein Lieblich and Mendel Lieblich. May they rest in peace.
— Florence Mayer Lieblich
In memory of Dr. Philip Lieblich’s family and my family, all of whom perished in the Holocaust. May they never be forgotten!
Rabbi Leib Mayer
Rabbi Hershel Mayer
Rabbi Nuchim Mayer
To my darling, devoted daughter, Gloria Lieblich Kaplan:
This book, with all the happy memories and hell that your parents had to overcome, is written especially for you, my sweetheart. I am very happy and thankful to you for helping me and giving me the opportunity to write my memoirs. It pains me very much that your devoted father could not share all the memories with me. I miss your father very much, but pain and adjustment have been my specialty since my teenage years. I am very sorry that you missed the love of your wonderful grandparents. I love you very much and always will.
The Quiet Before the Storm
Pre- War Years -1923-1939
My name is Florence Mayer Lieblich. I was born on July 29, 1923 in Czortkow, Poland. It is now part of Ukraine. The city is still in existence today, but it is dead without the Jews. I was named after my father’s mother, Fruma Mayer. I am the only family member who survived the Holocaust.
It pains me very much that my darling devoted Gloria is deprived of the love and devotion of her grandparents. She missed a lot. Therefore, I will share and tell her all about my wonderful home, my devoted parents, and the wonderful parents of her father who loved her so very much. I will tell her about my experiences, and the horror I lived through during the Second World War and the Nazi Occupation. We, the Holocaust survivors, had only one wish: to be able to live and to be able to tell the world what had happened to us.
The hatred of Jews was unbelievable. Our neighbors of so many years suddenly changed and became murderers. They joined the Nazis in Ukraine, and together started to destroy us. We were drowning, but nobody helped. They were watching and enjoying our pain. We were completely alone. The only crime that we committed was that we were born Jews.
Before the war, Czortkow was a city of about 30,000 people. Among them were about 10,000 Jews. After the war there were only 80 survivors. The population was mixed: Poles, Ukrainians and Jews. The majority of the Jews were spread throughout the city. Some lived in the villages around Czortkow. Many Jews owned properties and large businesses. We also had very poor people. Organizations were established, and help was given to them.
Some names of the streets in Czortkow were Rynek, Sobieskiego, Mitzkewicha, Paololskov, Nadzechna, Stary Czortkow, Gurna Wygnanya and Wygnanka. My parents owned properties on Wygnanka Street. In order to go to our houses, we had to pass a bridge. After the liberation, I signed over an apartment to Palania and Ruzka, the sisters who saved our lives. I promised that if they would help us to survive, they would get it. They said that some people make promises, but don’t keep them. I did keep my promise. I was thankful for our lives.
We had a special place for shopping, which was called the Bazaar. It was located in the center of the city, on Rynek Street. Our house was on the same street. I remember so clearly that large clock in the center of town. It was visible from miles away. The clock was very punctual, marking every hour of the day. I also remember that we had only one watchmaker who could fix it when it stopped. Around the Bazaar were small stores, selling groceries and other merchandise. On the sides we had stands with all kinds of fresh food. Ukrainian women came from their villages with all kinds of fresh vegetables, milk, eggs, butter and fruits. There were also livestock, chickens and geese. That was where we shopped.
Czortkow had six synagogues. One large one was called the Rabbi Friedman Synagogue. Gloria, that was the synagogue where your grandfather, Rabbi Meir Leib Mayer, was the cantor during the High Holy Days, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Another large synagogue in the middle of the city, the Stretener Synagogue, was Rabbi Shapiro’s synagogue. We also had a bet midrash, a cheder for boys. It was over two hundred years old. Officev’s Synagogue was the one that your father’s parents attended for the High Holy Days. Wizhnotzev Synagogue was the one where my parents were discovered, and then driven to the outskirts of the city where they were killed.
We also had a Polish High School (Gymnasium), and a Jewish High School which was organized a few years before the war. We had all the privileges that the Polish High School had. With good marks we were able to be accepted for higher education. I attended the high school, but only for a short time. The war broke out and the schools were closed. There were also a Seminary, (a teacher’s university), a business school called Handlufka, and a Hebrew School, Beth Yankov, a religious school for girls. I attended Beth Yankov while I was attending public school.
My darling Gloria, I have informed you a little bit about my city, the city where your grandmothers were born, your parents were born, and also you, my precious one. I am trembling because these memories are so vivid to me. Even though it has been such a long time, I feel that I am in Czortkow and living through this all again. I bless God for the happy times that I will never forget. The good times are implanted in you, and you don’t want to forget them. In those times we were a unit. Everybody was alive. Now my darling, I will share with you all the wonderful memories of my childhood, and happiness before the war.
Our house was located in the center of the city, Street Rynek 56. It was a large brick house with two entrances, one on each side. One side faced the center of the city. The other side was Clyden Street. The side that faced the city had three rooms, a terrace and a store. The other side, also had three rooms, a terrace and a store. We occupied both sides of the first floor. Between the two sides of the house was a small passage where we would play, jumping rope and skipping squares. We had very happy times. I can still hear the screaming and the laughing of all my friends who I played with. None of these friends are alive today. They lost their lives by the first Aktion, which was a round up of Jews for transport to Bergen-Belson Concentration Camp on August 26th and 27th, 1942.
My father, Rabbi Meir Leib Mayer was born in Sanok, Poland. He was a very highly educated man. He had his rabbinical smihos from the Rabbi of Bzezan. He spoke fluent Hebrew, German, and Polish. He was also very educated in the Talmud and the Torah. He had four brothers. All of them had rabbinical smihos, but they all were cantors as was my father. My uncles lived all over Europe, except for one who lived in Japan. He emigrated to Israel in 1948. One uncle lived in Hungary. His name was Rabbi Hershel Mayer and he was a cantor in a Budapest congregation. Another uncle lived in Romania. His name was Rabbi Nahum Mayer and he was a cantor at a congregation in Chernowce. I knew these two uncles very well. They visited us on their vacations. Chaim, another brother, lived in Berlin, Germany. When the Nazis came to power, all the Jews who had been born in Poland were stripped of their citizenship and deported to the Polish borders. The Russians transported them to Siberia and none of them survived, including my uncle.
My father’s dream was that some day his compositions would be recognized. He had two large notebooks with songs that he wrote in daily. I remember him with his instrument in his hand, listening to each note. This instrument was like a silver tuning fork. His dreams did not come true. His work was destroyed and his life was taken too.
My mother, Gitel Riva Hitzinger Mayer, was a very beautiful and kind person. She was educated and spoke fluent Hebrew, Polish, and German. She was very likable. Whoever came in contact with her, admired and respected her. I remember that my parents were always available to me when I had a problem. I never hesitated to ask for help. My mother was busy with her business: a large retail store which sold stockings, sweaters, bathing suits, sleepwear, etc. My father was busy with his music and preparing cantorial songs for the holidays. He also continued studying Talmud and Torah in the synagogue. But they were never too busy to listen to me and help me as much as they could. I was more important to them than anything else. They dropped everything and listened. They never yelled, but very quietly explained to me what I did wrong. I was happy and content. They helped me and assured me how much they loved me. Those are very precious memories from my childhood.
My mother had three sisters and two brothers. One sister left for Palestine in 1936, and therefore she was the only survivor. Her name was Leah Tortyn. About forty people from my mother’s side all perished: some in Bergen-Belson, and some in a mass grave outside of Czortkow with my parents.
I had only one brother. He was ten years older than me. His name was Rabbi Mordechai Mayer. He graduated from Lieblina Yeshiva, which was a world famous Talmudic academy, founded by Rabbi Meyer Shapiro in 1924. My brother was a very educated person. In Europe they used to call educated young men like him, “Talmud Chuchim.” That means very bright. He left for the United States in 1936. He was an excellent speaker. Each week on the Jewish Radio Station, he made appeals to help Share Zadek Hospital in Jerusalem. He also wrote many books, both in Jewish and English. I have two of his books in English: Israel’s Wisdom Modern Life, published in 1949 in New York, and Seeing Through Believing, published in 1973 in New York. My brother’s synagogue was the first Romanian-American congregation, Shari Shimoan, Gates of Heaven. It is located at 89 Rivington Street in New York. Rabbi Mordechai Mayer, my beloved brother, died in January 1981.
My darling Gloria, I am so happy to have been given a chance to share with you the wonderful memories of my childhood. I am very thankful to my parents for the marvelous gift of memories that they left me. In the darkest and most depressing days of my life, it feels wonderful to be able to reminisce about happier times. It always helps me. It gives me hope to go on.
Shabbat, Pesach and the High Holy Days, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, were very exciting times for all of us. All the preparations for the holidays were wonderful, and most wonderful of all, was the fact that all my mother’s brothers, sisters and cousins would spend the holidays with us. Everybody would enjoy the laughter, the singing and the music in our house. We had a very content and happy home. My father also played the mandolin. Before each holiday he changed clothing to go to the synagogue. He wore a long, silk carpoty. On top, he wore a long overcoat. In the winter, the overcoat was lined with fur. We had very cold winters. For a hat he wore a strumel, which was a round hat with a fur border.
In 1935 my cousin, Shajko Blonder, who was a painter with a studio in Paris, France, came to visit his family. He came to see his father, brother, and the rest of the family. His mother was a first cousin to my mother, but we were so close that it was like one family. The family reunion was at our home. Before he left, he asked my parents if they would give him permission to paint my portrait. My parents were very happy and agreed. I remember what I wore for that painting: my blue silk dress which had a pattern of very delicate squares. It had short sleeves with ruffles around them, and the dress also had ruffles. I wore black patent shoes with a small button on the side and short socks with a lace trim. When my mother and I arrived at my cousin’s apartment, everything was prepared. There was a large stand with a cloth, located in a corner by the window to have enough light. On a small table were all kinds of paints and all sizes of brushes. In the middle of the room was a stool. I sat down, my cousin adjusted the light, fixed my hair, and adjusted me in a profile position before starting. He told me, “Don’t try to move. Sit quietly.” I just asked, “Can I breathe?” I was sitting like a statue and he was admiring me. It took my cousin four days, from 9:00 A.M.-12:00 P.M., to complete the painting. He was very happy with the painting. It really looked nice. My mother wanted to pay him any price, whatever he wanted. He explained, “This painting is very important to me. It takes a long time for a painter to be happy with his work. This painting is really very good. Therefore, I am sending this portrait to my studio in Paris where I will hang it up.” He told my mother that if she wanted to see it, she could come visit him. He left for France, and a few days later we received mail from him. He wrote that the painting was very visible and he had plenty of offers, but it was not for sale. After the war I tried to find out about him. He did not survive. I do not know what happened to his studio or to my portrait.
I remember a few years before the war, Rabbi Friedman arrived in Czortkow to celebrate the holidays. Czortkowar Chassidim came from all over Poland to spend the holidays with the Rabbi. That time, Rabbi Meyer Shapiro from Lublin also arrived with around one hundred of his students. Among them was my brother. Those times were very memorable and enjoyable, especially for my father. My father invited the Rabbi and all the students to our house for Kiddush on Saturday. My mother and all the family started to prepare. They cooked fish, challah and prepared a cholent that was warmed without using the stove on Saturday. We had a special box. Friday, before Shabbat, the food was put in and it was warmed. It was chicken and vegetables.
Before the Rabbi arrived, we emptied the apartment of some furniture. Couches, chairs and tables were left. It was set to be a buffet. Only the Rabbi was to be seated and served. There was wine, challah, drinks, cold tea, and fruit. Plates were on the table. Saturday arrived and our house was filled with excitement. My father and brother walked to the synagogue. It was a long walk. Around 12:30 we could hear songs from far away. The Rabbi was in the middle. Right beside him was my father. Behind them was my brother and all his friends. They walked in two lines, singing all the long stretch until they arrived at our house. I will never forget that scene. People were lined up to greet the Rabbi. All our neighbors were on their terraces waiting for his arrival. It was a very exciting time for the Chassidim of Czortkow. My mother greeted the Rabbi at the entrance to our house. I still can hear her gentle voice saying, “Rabbi Shapiro, it’s my privilege to meet my son’s teacher. Thank you very much for the honor that you have given me by coming for kiddush.” He smiled and in a very soft voice said, “I’m very happy to meet the mother of a very special, bright student.” My mother didn’t have the chance to introduce me. He turned around and said to me, “So, you are the little kid sister that your brother always speaks about.” He turned back to my mother, and in that very soft voice said, “You have very nice children. God bless you. You should have a lot of nachas from them.” The Rabbi walked up the stairs, came into the apartment, made kiddush over the wine, cut the challah and said a prayer. When the food was served, the rabbi sat at the head of the table and was served. After the meal, the singing and dancing started. There was dancing on both sides of the house and the terraces. I will never forget that wonderful and happy day in my parent’s life. Their house was filled with joy and happiness. That was one of the last happy times in their lives.
The year 1936 was a very sad and painful time for my parents. My brother left for the United States. All the family and friends came to say good-bye to him. My father was singing, “Don’t ever forget your mother.” My mother was crying. It was the first time in my life that I can remember a very sad, painful day. After everybody left, my father gave my brother a small, brown package. I heard my father’s strong voice: “Son, I am giving you my diploma, this smihos, and also a letter from my rabbi. Hang my diploma right beside yours. Whenever you look at it, you will know that we love you very much. I’m hoping to see you again some day.” He hugged him, and for the first time I saw my father crying.
The next day we traveled with my brother to the railroad, and went with him until Tannopal, a few hours away from Czortkow. At the station, my mother hugged him, cried and said, “Son, I don’t think I will ever see you again. Remember, I love you very much.” We left. My mother always had premonitions, and so do I. Those premonitions saved my life many times. I still can see the pain and sorrow in my parents’ eyes.
In 1938, German Jews arrived in Czortkow, running from the Nazi tyranny. They needed help. My mother and her very good friend, Mrs. Schaeffer, worked together to collect large donations. Help was given to the people. Apartments were arranged and some jobs were given.
My last happy and joyful time was just a few months before World War II. Our Beth-Yankow Hebrew school was private, supported only by the members of the school. Therefore, every time after vacation, a large, very professional show was arranged. We had a special setting for each scene. Photographers came. Special notices and tickets were printed and placed all over the city. The tickets were sold by the Ladies Auxiliary. We didn’t pay for printing because one of our members was a printer. The show was put on in a large hall in Czortkow called “The Sokol.” All the Polish meetings and New Year’s parties were held there. The permit was not easy for Jews to get. You had to have connections with people who worked in City Hall. My mother was very well acquainted with the mayor’s wife, who was a customer of our business. My mother asked her for a favor, and we received the permit for a certain day. We started to prepare the show. We had two shows. The main show was about Purim. Queen Esther was begging the king to save her people from Haman’s destruction. The hall was filled to capacity. All the tickets had been sold. There was only standing room available near the entrance, and even that was sold. I played Queen Esther and I will never forget it. I was so convincing, begging the king to save the lives of my people. The room was very quiet. You could only hear quiet crying. The situation was such, that we already knew what was waiting for us. We did not have a Queen Esther to save us from our destruction.
The second part of the show was about the people in Babylon sitting by the ocean, crying and saying, “If ever I forget thee, Jerusalem, my right arm should be cut off.” I was sitting, and around me was a dark green silk material that looked like an ocean. It was very sad. People were sitting and crying. After the show the applause was tremendous. I will never forget it. We made a lot of money. It was one of the last joyful and happy times in my life, just before the war.
Dear Gloria, now I will tell you about your father’s family. They were living in Czortkow. Your grandfather’s name was Mendel Lieblich. He was born in Podhojce, Poland. Your grandmother’s maiden name was Feiga Sonnenschein. She had three brothers and three sisters. One of the brothers left for Palestine before the war, so he survived. The rest of your father’s family was lost in the first Aktion, when they were taken to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. I never met your father’s family. He was the only survivor from the whole family.
Your father’s home was a one-family, beautiful house. It had a beautiful garden with all the vegetables they needed. They never had to buy anything. There were large apple and cherry trees. In the corner of the garden was a ping-pong table and radio. When I used to go to Beth-Yankov, I passed the house and I would always hear laughter, music, and voices from their friends. There was a long line of family houses. Now there is nothing left. Everything was destroyed. From far away, you could see a large empty plot. Ukrainians were demolishing small houses, using the materials to warm their houses, and looking for goods between the walls.
My darling Gloria, now you have a little knowledge about my childhood, my parents, my family, and your father’s family. You now know a little about my life before the war. Thank God for those wonderful, happy years. They prepared me for the horrible times that awaited me. They gave me strength to fight for my survival starting with World War II in 1939. Now, a horrible chapter in my life begins.
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.
The Silver Lining
Liberation and Post War Years
The day of our liberation arrived. The Red Army liberated us on March 23, 1944. A new chapter was starting in our lives. A life of freedom arrived, the beginning of building a future for us and a new generation. Until then our only thoughts were how to fight to survive. Here we were- alone, depressed, and missing our loved ones. It felt like after a very long sickness, we suddenly awoke and life was returned to us.
I remember the day of liberation. Palania yelled “You are free. Come on out.” I turned to my Phil and said, “I remember the last time I said good-bye to my mother. She told me to remember her premonition. She was correct. We both survived.” My Phil’s response was, “I never gave up the thought of surviving.” We both walked out after hiding for nine months. Our voices were very low, only a whisper from whispering for nine months. We were trying our voices, they sounded squeaky. We looked around, it was very still. There was nobody around. No laughter, no children screaming, everybody was gone. We were very alone and very angry. The Ukrainians were hiding, they were afraid of us. They knew that the payment for their cruelty and the destruction that they did to our people was waiting for them. Only the Red Army could pay them back. All villagers were transferred to the Siberia. They left everything they had taken from us. The empty villages were filled with the Russian people. The Russians did this to them, because the Ukrainians had been killing them, just like they were killing us.
There were only 80 Jews left from 10,000. My first agenda was to go to the outskirts of Czortkow, to the mass graves where my dear parents and family found their peace. Some of the survivors joined us. Together we walked up to the graves. When we arrived, I was looking around. There were large, medium and small graves. I was wondering in which of those graves my beloved parents were resting peacefully. In my heart, I felt that my beloved parents knew we survived. I came to say a prayer for all the innocent souls that were resting there. We started Kaddish in Hebrew: “Magnified and sanctified be the name of God throughout the world which He has created according to His will. May He establish His kingdom during the days of your life and during the life of the house of Israel, speedily and soon. Amen.”
Then we said the memorial prayer of the departed in Hebrew: “Oh merciful God who dwelt on high, and yet are full of compassion. Keep in Thine divine presence among the holy and pure, whose life shone as the brightness of the firmament, the souls of our dear and beloved who have gone to their eternal home with thee. Oh, may their souls be bound up in the bond of life, and their memories inspire us to serve Thee and our fellowmen in truth, kindness and peace. Amen.”
After we finished our prayers, I looked around over the graves and I knew that it was the last time I would visit my parents in their resting place. I also remembered my mother’s wish that I leave that bloody city. She was right. Each stone that we passed was soaked with our blood. We promised ourselves that the minute it was possible, we would leave. We walked down to the center of the city. I wanted to see my home where I was born and spent such a loving, happy childhood. When we arrived the shock was unbearable. The whole line of houses, with our house in the middle, were looking like empty skeletons. All the windows were removed, all the entrances to the doors were removed. The stairs were broken. The terraces were hanging broken. It looked like there had been a heavy bombing. We wished it would have been destroyed by bombing. The pain was even worse because the Ukrainians had destroyed everything, and took our lives and possessions, too. My heart was filled with sadness and grief as we walked away. I was very depressed.
Phil had a very nice family house with a tremendous, beautiful garden before the war. They were a string of one family houses. From blocks away, we could see that none of those houses remained. It was a large, empty plot. We came closer and in a very sad voice Phil said, “None of those people who owned those houses are alive. I am the only survivor.” We looked at each other and we walked away.
After the destruction of my house on Rynek Street, the murderers moved into my other house which was over the bridge. Those houses were left untouched. I signed over an apartment in one of those houses to Palania and Ruzka after the liberation. I had made that promise to them if they would save our lives. Today the family still lives in that apartment. When I asked Ruzka for my mother’s ring back, she said that she would rather give up the apartment than the ring. She never owned anything like it. I still gave them the apartment.
We had to rent a small station wagon to go and get back our two Singer machines, men’s clothing, lady’s clothing, children’s clothing, hardware, silverware, china, plain dishes, bedding, crystal and other things. The most important thing to me was to get back my parent’s wedding gift from my grandmother- two painted bed spreads and one tablecloth. That is the only precious gift that I have from my parents. I have it here in the United States with me.
When we came to the house, there were two Russian policemen right behind us. They asked us what we were doing there. We told them everything. Very softly they said, “Don’t worry, we will help you. We came to arrest the woman who is living here and her sons. They were working with the German police, killing and robbing the Jews and Russians.” I was trembling, and knocked at the door. Kasha was the woman’s name. She opened the door, looked at me, and started to tremble. In a very weak voice she started to say, “You are alive.” I answered very calmly, “I walked out from the grave to take back everything that you robbed from us and our family. I have the list.” She started to bring everything out into the middle of the room, beginning with the two Singer machines. She also gave me a roll of silk material that I didn’t know about. It wasn’t on my list. I asked her, “Do you have any more to give back to me?” She answered, “As God is my witness.” I raised my voice and yelled, “Was God also your witness when you yelled to my mother, “Get out of my house, it is mine now. Don’t ask me to help you. I don’t ever want to see you again. We will kill you.” I also remember my mother’s soft voice answering you: “Yes Kasha, you will kill me, and thousands of Jews, but you see my daughter, she will live.” I said to Kasha, “I am enjoying every minute of your suffering, looking at your bloody, murderer’s face. This is just the beginning of your punishment. Those policemen came to arrest you and your murdering husband and sons. Too bad that they won’t kill you and you won’t suffer in the graves, still alive, like my people did. Get out of my house. I never want to see you again.” The Russians transferred them and many other Ukrainians to Siberia. They left everything that they stole from us. I couldn’t move into the house. My mother’s family used to live there and I just couldn’t do it. The next day I rented an apartment to a Russian lawyer.
Before World War II, the part of Ukraine where we lived belonged to Poland, so we were Polish citizens. To leave Russia was impossible, but it became possible for us. Russia agreed with the United States, that they would allow the Polish citizens to emigrate to Poland if they wished. They would not be compensated for the properties that they owned. I had to leave everything. The Russians also helped us with railroad transportation. We registered and waited for the notification and approval to leave.
The day that we were impatiently awaiting, finally arrived with the birth of our beautiful, precious little daughter: A sign of our future. The first born child in Czortkow after those dark and miserable times. A sign of life. She was born July 4, 1944. Our happiness was indescribable. New hopes, new dreams, a new life to build for our precious bundle of joy! Our very close friends, Dr. and Mrs. Goldberg prepared a beautiful kiddish for the naming of our darling daughter. Happiness was with us. The atmosphere relaxed. We felt that for all of us, it was the beginning of a new life: to build a future for our children.
The exodus for that new life started. We were leaving the bloody city of Czortkow that destroyed and robbed us of our parents and family. We received the permission to leave and we started to prepare for our voyage. We left Czortkow at the end of 1945. We shared a railroad cabin with our very good friends and arrived in Byton, Poland. There we shared a very large apartment with our friends. Some of our friends started to settle down, but not us. Poland remained a country with hatred for us Jews. The killing continued. They never stopped. There was no future in Poland to build for our precious child. We only stayed a few weeks in Byton.
Before leaving Byton, we heard that the Haganah representatives in Czechoslovakia were organizing aliya to Palestine. The road was dangerous. They walked at night to cross the border, being very careful not to be caught by the police. They went to a special destination where small boats were awaiting them to take them to the shores of Palestine. Not many were lucky, they had to swim to the border. The sabras led them to the kibbutzim, not far from the borders. The English police were watching the borders. When they saw a boat entering the borders they were stopped and transferred to another camp in Cyprus. The suffering of our people continued. The English didn’t kill them, but prolonged their suffering.
After our liberation, our dream was to emigrate to Palestine. We hoped that the day would arrive when we would regain our homeland, Eretz Israel. We realized that for now it was impossible. We decided to try to get to Germany, and from Germany try to get to the United States. I had a brother there and I was sure he would help us. We left everything to our friends. We begged them to come with us, but they wouldn’t. We took very few things for us, mostly for our little Gloria.
My Phil bought tickets to Czechoslovakia. At the railroad station in Czechoslovakia, we met a very nice couple who were leaving for Paris. They liked our precious bundle of joy very much and she liked them. They gave her chocolate and very good food. Our darling daughter was a very lucky star for us. This couple asked us to share their cabin on the train with them, and we could get off in Stuttgart, Germany. They were wonderful people. We were very happy and thankful. We had a good meal for the first time since we left Poland. It was a hard voyage for our child.
We arrived in Stuttgart and left our friends who continued their trip to Paris. At the station in Stuttgart, we were met by a group of people who greeted us: “Shalom, good to see you. Come with us. We will drive you into the city and you will get a very nice apartment. You arrived at a very good time. General Eisenhower visited the concentration camps and saw the hell that the German murderers did to us. He ordered blocks of houses with apartments for us. The Germans are on the streets with their belongings. You will have the satisfaction of watching them. We are concentration camp survivors.” They rolled up their sleeves and showed us their numbers.
While passing through the streets, it was very enjoyable and pleasurable to see the destruction of the city and the Germans running after the American soldiers and begging for bread. We arrived at our assigned apartments and saw the Germans standing outside with their belongings, crying. They were pushed out of their homes. One young lady, a survivor from Auschwitz who lost all of her family, walked over to them and started to yell, “How does it feel to be thrown out of your home? You murderers. You did this to us and sent us to concentration camps and burned us alive. All Germans belong in Auschwitz and deserve to be burned alive!” She spit in their faces and walked away.
After a short time of living in Germany, an announcement was made to Holocaust survivors, that if we wanted to emigrate to the United States, we had to register right away. We were very happy and thankful to God that such a wonderful country like the United States wanted us. We registered. In a few days, we were called to the American Consulate and we received our visas. We left from the port of Bremen and arrived in the United States on the ship named the Marine Perch on May 10 or 11, 1946.
My Phil wrote a letter to our friends, the Pockets, in Poland. He said “I think we are going to the United States.” We couldn’t believe it, everything had happened so fast and we were lucky. We had only been in Germany about two weeks and here we were going to America. When our friends received that letter in Byton, an exodus began, but it was not easy for them. Our friends left for Austria and eventually emigrated to Israel.
On the boat I received a telegram from my brother. This was the first time I had heard from him since 1936. We were the first Holocaust survivors from Czortkow to arrive in the United States.
We were tremendously happy that our traveling finally came to an end. We were very lucky to be able to settle in a free country like the United States; to start to build a peaceful life for our precious child, to be raised in freedom, and have all the opportunities for a successful life. Our lives in the United States were very happy and prosperous.
In 1948, our Jewish state was established. My dear father’s prediction came true. It pains me very much that my beloved father was deprived of the joy and happiness of being alive and seeing our homeland, “Eretz Israel.”
I lost my beloved Phil in Israel on October 25, 1985. While attending the American Physicians Fellowship International Seminar, he was suddenly stricken and died in the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. Words cannot adequately describe the grief I experienced. Not only was it a great loss to myself and my family, but it was also a tremendous loss to his patients. Medicine was his life and his patients were always his first priority. Philip was a dedicated and compassionate physician who was loved and respected by everyone.
My darling Gloria:
Now you have some knowledge of your parents’ lives before the war. Those were very happy and beautiful times in our lives. Thanks to the strength that my parents gave me, I was able to face so many horrible and frightening days in my life. I also gave you information about our fight to survive during the Nazi occupation. I am very lucky and proud to have such a devoted and loving daughter. I love you very, very much and I always will.
— Your mother
My dear Michael:
I am very happy and proud that you are a part of our family. Thank you very much for your devotion and kindness to me. You are always ready to help me when I am in need. It is very appreciated. I love you and always will.
— Your mother-in-law
My very darling, precious Elyse and Michelle:
I consider myself very lucky and fortunate to have such wonderful and devoted granddaughters. You, my darlings, brought sunshine and joy and happiness into your Papa’s life. He loved you very, very much. You are also my pride and joy and happiness in my life. I wish both of you that your lives should be filled with happiness and success always!
— Your loving grandmother
In memory of my dear husband Philip:
My darling Gloria, I informed you all about my life, good times and painful times, but the most important thing that you should know, is who made it possible to tell you all about it. I am alive today thanks to your devoted and loving father. Your father saved my life. I would not be alive today were it not for his love, strength and determination.. I loved your father all my life and will love him until the last day of my life when I will join him. I miss him very much.
— Your mother
As a Holocaust survivor, it is my duty to inform my children, my grandchildren, and future Jewish generations about what happened to European Jews. What we went through-the shame, degradation and the fight for our survival. It is also in my memory, never to forget my very good friends and thousands of our people, whose families disappeared in Bergen- Belson, but the majority met their deaths in Galicia in mass graves, including my dear parents and family. All the families disappeared. Their names disappeared like they never existed, but they did. Their lives were shortened by those murderers. Please, don’t ever forget what happened to the European Jews. By remembering the Holocaust, you are protecting your children and grandchildren from it happening again, so they will never be deprived of the love of their parents and grandparents as we were. You are the lucky ones. Now we have a homeland, Eretz Israel. We have our pride, dignity and honor. We European Jews were alone. Our neighbors for so many years, joined the Nazis and Ukrainians and together caused our destruction.
“Yom Israel Chai.” “Long live our State of Israel.” Shalom. Peace.
— Florence Mayer Lieblich
Photographs were taken from the private collection of Florence Lieblich and The Memorial Book of Czortkow, edited by Dr. Yeshayahu Austri-Dunn, published by Irgun Yotzey Czortkow in Israel, 1967.