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How Dark the Heavens by Sidney Iwens
July 16-17, 1941
This material, copyright 1990 by Sidney Iwens, is excerpted from his prize-winning book “How Dark the Heavens”. This material may not be reprinted or reproduced in any form without the expressed written permission of Sidney Iwens.
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Wednesday, July l6, l94l: The twenty-fifth day
More killing today. Same pattern. It was sheer agony to listen intently to the sounds of approaching guards. Will the steps stop at our door? They came closer and closer . . . they passed our door and stopped at the next one; the door was unlocked . . . shouting . . .later shots. The guards came back; more people were taken out . . . We sat terror-ridden, helpless, locked in the cell . . . .
New people were brought into the prison every day. Since Jews were kept in basement cells only, the shootings must be to make space for new arrivals.
In the killings so far, our cell had been skipped. At first I assumed it was because we were listed as carpenters, and the Germans needed craftsmen. But some artisans were killed, while the people wounded at the border and kept in a separate cell were still alive.
Thursday, July l7, l94l: The twenty-sixth day
A repeat performance. We sat and waited. The shouting of the guards and the screams of the victims was worse today and harder for us to bear.
While these early morning routines were taking place, we usually perched on the two benches in our cell, tensely waiting. Our cell was long and narrow–at one end the door to the dreaded hallway, at the other a barred and boarded-up window. Next to the window was a small table and along theside walls two benches. That was where we sat, listening with dread to the sounds, sharing the suffering of the victims outside. Something stronger than reason prompted us to sit as far from the hallway, and as close to the window, as possible–to separate ourselves from the death right there behind the door.
Today, Hershale Lukman and his uncle Manishewitz sat right next to the window. There was a tacit understanding that he, the youngest, was entitled to the farthest spot. Because the table at the window was so small, only the firstfew–two on a side–had it between them. Most of us sat facing each other with nothing in between. There was enough room on the benches for everyone, but instinctively we pushed our bodies as close to the window as possible, leaving half the benches empty. Every inch that we distanced ourselves from the hallway was important.
Noise, tumult in the hallway . . . Locks were unlocked, people driven out . . . . Steps sounded as guards came closer to our cell . . . and then a key turned in our lock . . . . This was it . . . .
The door opened, andtwo Latvian guards, red-faced, inflamed by liquor and the excitement of the kill,appeared in the doorway, armed with heavy clubs. “Two people, get out!”
They shouted but no one moved. One second . . . two seconds . . . We were paralyzed. One guard turned on the two people closest to the door and hit them on the head. “Out!” he yelled, but they did not budge.
Finally the guards started striking the two victims with abandon, battering them insanely, chasing them out of the cell. The door was locked again, and we could hear them still being beaten outside. One of the prisoners was Israel Namjot, the other from Daugavpils.
A few minutes later, the door was unlocked again. The same two guards ordered: “Five men out!” Again no one moved. Again,indicating those closest to the door, they struck each one brutally: “You .. . you . . . you . . . you . . . you . . . ” The five were forced out of the cell. The next time they come, I told myself, it will be me . . . .
But within seconds another Latvian, apparently in charge, burst into the cell andstarted talking to Magaram; they seemed to know each other. The official hurried out and within minutes brought back the five men.
“Another two were removed earlier,” Magaram said, but the Latvian answered matter-of-factly: “Too late.”
After the official left, Magaram told us, “We won’t be shot– I was promised. They need us as carpenters.
The five returned men were all badly beaten, one with a large gash on his forehead. The guards were using clubsroughly four or five feet long. But in the afternoon another guard came in and said in a friendly manner that we’d get bread that evening. I had noticed that,when there was a killing in the morning, some of the guards showed a bit of humanity in the afternoon.
End of Part I
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