Part I: How Dark the Heavens — July 16-17, 1941
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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 hisprize-winning book “How Dark the Heavens”. This material may not bereprinted 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. Willthe steps stop at our door? They came closer and closer . . . they passed ourdoor and stopped at the next one; the door was unlocked . . . shouting . . .later shots. The guards came back; more people were taken out . . . We satterror-ridden, helpless, locked in the cell . . . .
New people were brought intothe prison every day. Since Jews were kept in basement cells only, the shootingsmust be to make space for new arrivals.
In the killings so far, our cell had beenskipped. At first I assumed it was because we were listed as carpenters, and theGermans needed craftsmen. But some artisans were killed, while the peoplewounded 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 andharder for us to bear.
While these early morning routines were taking place, weusually perched on the two benches in our cell, tensely waiting. Our cell waslong and narrow–at one end the door to the dreaded hallway, at the other abarred 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 thesounds, sharing the suffering of the victims outside. Something stronger thanreason prompted us to sit as far from the hallway, and as close to the window, aspossible–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 thefarthest 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 withnothing in between. There was enough room on the benches for everyone, butinstinctively we pushed our bodies as close to the window as possible, leavinghalf the benches empty. Every inch that we distanced ourselves from the hallwaywas important.
Noise, tumult in the hallway . . . Locks were unlocked, peopledriven out . . . . Steps sounded as guards came closer to our cell . . . andthen 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, getout!”
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 theminsanely, chasing them out of the cell. The door was locked again, and we couldhear 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. Thesame 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 ofthe cell. The next time they come, I told myself, it will be me . . . .
Butwithin seconds another Latvian, apparently in charge, burst into the cell andstarted talking to Magaram; they seemed to know each other. The official hurriedout and within minutes brought back the five men.
“Another two were removedearlier,” Magaram said, but the Latvian answered matter-of-factly: “Toolate.”
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 badlybeaten, 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 andsaid 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 ofhumanity in the afternoon.
End of Part I
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