The Young Soapmaker
In 1941 all Jewish institutions in Poland such as schools, synagogues and most businesses were closed. All activities formerly conducted by Jews were now illegal. So now much of the daily business normally done by people was illegal. Now these activities involved the danger of being caught by the authorities. Those willing and able to take these risks had the opportunity to make large profits because there was no government regulation. This was the year I turned sixteen. It was a prime time in my life. A good fit for my personality and the opportunities these times offered. My father who was orthodox and a strict disciplinarian was changed by the war. He was preoccupied and unable to sustain the control of his family that he formally had. I took advantage of this. With boundless energy my life that year was a roller coaster fantasy of adventure, excitement and tragedy.
In partnership with some of my friends, we started buying Russian money and selling it at a profit in the next town. After awhile people started telling us what they needed. My friend Meyer urged me on: “let’s do something to make money” he said. The major need was food and the easiest food to transport was beans. So it was, that we were in contact with the supplier which was a polish cooperative farm distributor in our town. We paid the German police to drive the trucks that transported us from Hubreshov to Lublin. We hid the beans in drums designed for gasoline storage and on our return back we transported yeast from Lublin to Hubreshov. In time there was enough money accumulated to buy for my family and luxury items such as fine leather boots for myself.
During one of our routine trips our truck was struck by a train while passing the railroad tracks. I woke up dazed and found myself washing blood from my face by the river. I was thrown many feet from the truck. This apparently saved my life.
Walking back towards the truck I found my friend Meyer. His skull was cracked, his brains were spilling out of his head. He never came out of the coma and died about five days later. Our Polish driver had his arm cut off above the elbow and I never found out whether he lived or died. Meyer’s violent death was a severe tragedy for his mother who loudly lamented the loss of her son and hysterically begrudged that I lived and he died. I walked around with a bandaged head beyond the necessary time so as not to incite her more than she already was.
In time I began to make plans with another neighbor, Mottle Noodle. The two of us decided to make a to Lublin with merchandise. We arrived in Lublin in the evening and decided to wait for the morning to do our business but instead we were arrested by the German Gestapo that evening along with all the Jews in the vicinity. We were taken to an Army barracks in a place called Lupova Seven. We spent the night sitting on a muddy floor
In the morning the Gestapo officers did a selection in which some were taken to Madonek and some were let go. I fabricated a story telling the officer that I came to Lublin to buy caustic soda for our soap factory and that I had official papers from the German government which were taken from me by the arresting officer. The Gestapo officer asked me if I would recognize the arresting policeman if I saw him. I said I would. In no time eighteen Gestapo were in a lineup for my inspection. I convinced them that I was unable to recognize any of them. They let my friend and I go but told me to go to the Yudenrat in Lublin for permission to go home. This I ignored because I was anxious to be home as soon as possible. The truck that we came with stocked with our merchandiae was gone. It was either taken by the authorities or stolen. In the meantime the Yudenrat from Lublin contacted the Yudenrat in Hubreshev to inform them that we never showed up. When we got home the Yudenrat in Hubreshev taxed us heavily for the illegal transaction. That plus the loss of our merchandise equalled complete financial loss for us. I screamed with frustration and never went back to these activities.
From 1940 until July 1942 things were as normal as they could be under the German occupation. Memories of a pre war life seemed very distant. My immediate world began to feel as though it was always this way. I had my home, i had a family, we all worked, we had plenty of food. We lived from day to day because it was frightening to look ahead. There was too much we didn’t know and too much that was unexplained. The Gestapo was overseeing the Jews and for awhile it seemed that the Germans had forgotten about us because they were occupied with preparing for war with Russia. The Germans attacked Russia in June 1941. It wasn’t until July 1942 that the decree to eliminate Jews came — “The Yudenrhein”. We were not aware of this. We got the news through the Yudenrat that all Jews will have to go into labor camps occupied in Russia rather than occupied Poland. We were still not prepared for the worst because until now there were no mass murders or killings of Jews except for isolated incidents.
The Yudenrat was comprised of Jewish police picked from volunteers. The Yudenrat was formed about two years earlier to maintain order in the Jewish quarter. They were not really active until they were used to enforce the transport. They consisted of about twelve policeman. Everyone assumed that as a Jewish policeman you had some personal protection. Not everyone could be a policeman. You had to meet physical and age criteria. I was told that people paid money to gain entrance into the Yudenrat as a policeman. I was not of age. Though the idea appealed to me briefly I was in agreement with my father who didn’t like Jews having to enforce German restrictions on other Jews.
It was through the Yudenrat that we got the news that we were to assemble at the market place. My family as well as most of the townspeople decided to wait and see. I stayed with my family. Memories of the march prevailed. Those who went to the market place were mostly out of towners and all we knew was that they were taken away in a transport. We all expected to go at some point, but we didn’t want to think about it. We knew that Hitler would not want any Jews to survive and we were never actually informed of the Yudenrhein but we would soon experience the concept. For now, the way to survive was not to think about it, to put things off as long as possible – to delay. In that sense it helped us to know that we had some personal protection because we owned and operated the soap factory, just as the Jewish police felt they had personal protection because their services were needed by the Germans. It was however, approximately two weeks later, on a Monday morning that we were again told to go to the market place. This time Polish and Jewish police came to the homes to enforce this. Things were closing in but we were still pretty confident that we would be released after we presented our stamped “Kent card” – a personal identification from the soap factory. We were pretty sure we would come back. As on the first transport all the Jews were told to have a bag of belongings packed so that we can be ready to go. Once again, all the Jews in town were ordered to be ready to go. Our bags were packed since the time of the first transport and we were expecting the police since the night before but they came on the following morning.
It was a warmbalmy summer day in June on that Monday morning that two policemen came to our home. One was Polish and one was Jewish. I felt that the police had no more of an idea of the larger political picture and the new Yudenrhein policy than any of us did. However, by the time they arrived there was chaos in our household because my uncle’s wife and his two youngest children, both girls, decided that they would not go. They went into hiding and even the family could not find them. Our household at that point consisted of thirteen people. This consisted of eight in my family and five from my uncle’s family. This excluded the other four members of my uncle’s family which consisted of Moishe who was misisng in Russia and my uncle’s wife and two daughters who had just gone into .hiding. Missing from my family was my brother Beryl who was not yet confirmed dead.
When it became evident that we had to leave our home there was a sense of resignation. I think that we were not so much involved with leaving our home, our worldly possessions, the lives we knew because at that time we were thinking about living and we cared only about living. My family was pretty sure we would come back. As long as we remained in town, we felt we had a chance.
We were all herded to the railway station which was about twenty four miles from home. About two thousand people were already there. There was a lot of confusion. The German Mayor and some of his aides were doing the selection of who should go and who should remain in town. The selection groups were done according to the work people did. Those who it was felt supplied a needed service or product were allowed to stay. Our product was important and valued in this town.
When it came to our turn, the Mayor who knew us well greeted us in a friendly even jovial manner and said “Here come the soapmakers” and with that he released my uncle, my father and my two sisters who were directed to continue walking towards the town so that the lines flowed continually. The Mayor had no idea how many soap factory workers were involved so when he asked the question, “how many soap makers do we have here?” everyone at the station raised their hand. This enraged him and he ordered everyone into the transport. No amount of pleading would move him from this position. We were now separated from part of the family as they were headed towards town so my mother and the rest of us were surrounded by police waiting for the train to arrive. We were shocked.
About three hundred people were released. The rest of us, people of all ages, were waiting around for four, five and six hours. People sat and stood around in the grassy field just off the station. Some were quiet, huddled, frozen in fear. Some cried quietly, some cried loudly exclaiming, lamenting to God and to man, some prayed fervently.
It was not until three or four in the afternoon that the train arrived with Lithuanian soldiers dressed in black uniforms. “It didn’t look good I thought”. I stayed close to my family. I started to face reality. I could see the police were unaffected by us, by the enormity of what was happening to us. They wanted to get it over with. It was warm and sunny on that June afternoon. It didn’t seem real. It was a joke. Was it fear? Was it the unreality? It’s really very hard to remember. I did not think about escaping until we got into the train.
Once the train arrived things happened quickly. We were herded into the cattle cars. The soldiers were gesturing with their hands to make us move quickly. I’m sure they shouted orders at the same time but I don’t remember sounds of that moment. I remember only silence. People were very silent. People followed as directed. It seemed they felt they had no choice. They thought they were going to a labor camp. That’s what we were told. That’s what we wanted to believe. I was just seventeen and life was still a game to me. I loved life. Life was exciting. Life was a great adventure. I was playful. I had a lot of energy and eager expectations. I thought about how I incited my father’s wrath because I was caught without a skullcap or for mischievious pranks intended to torment the schoolmaster. As the war unfolded and events developed these memories began to converge with the most fiendish events of man’s history from games to nightmares to reality.
How did this happen that childish pranks became woven together in my life with these obscenities. Things got scary. It was important that all my family members stay together. So it was that we walked, pushed and were rammed into the cattle cars. The car was an empty box. It quickly became crowded. It looked like a New York subway train on a rush hour except that there were no seats, no hand poles, no ceiling hand straps. People stood or sat on the floor along the walls wherever they found the space. With the last of the crowd there was a lot of shoving and then a final clank as the doors slammed. We found a corner, my family and I. We sat on the floors. With me was my mother, two sisters, my younger brother, a male cousin and people from the neighborhood.
In no time we heard alarming noises, hysterical screams and yelling and before I could understand what was happening I saw a woman fall to the floor with a bayonnet in her breast and streams of blood gushing from her body. Two Lithuanian soldiers were standing over her with complete indifference. The soldiers had been walking around collecting all valuables and personal jewelry. Most people silently handed over their gold bracelets, their necklaces and their rings. We were told that this woman was trying to hold on to her jewely.
“It doesn’t look good,” I thought. “We’re definitely not going to a labor camp.” I was sure of that by now. The soldiers left the car. The body was somehow disposed of. We were locked in for at least an hour before the train started to move. Somehow an idea began to take form in my mind. Before I realized how this was happening, five or six young men and myself were planning to escape. We ran to the window. With a small pocket knife and scraps of metal, rock or any hard substance that we could find, we frantically scraped around the rim of the window, digging into the edges, into the crevices and cracks trying to dislodge the window. Women around us started to scream. “Don’t do it, don’t do it,” they cried, “We’ll all be killed!” “We’ll be killed anyhow,” I shouted back as I vigorously clawed at the window. It seemed only my mother was saying “If you can get out, save yourself, Go!”
The train started to move and about a mile or a mile and a half after it pulled out, the window, which was about fifteen inches high and twenty inches wide, was pushed through and flew out in one piece. I was the second person to get out. To get through the opening I was raised by the legs and pushed out head first while the train was moving. There followed a rain of gunfire as I landed in a patch of soft ground in a grooved shoulder off the train tracks. I learned later that armed soldiers surrounded each car, on the roof, between cars, and on all sides. Miraculously, I had only superficial cuts and bruises. By the time I recovered and cleaned up as best I could it was early evening. I met a middle aged Polish farmer who directed me back to town. To this day no one ever heard about the young men who jumped the train with me. I learned later that the train with my mother and other family members was destined for Sorbibor. There were almost no survivors from the Sorbibor gas chambers. During the hour or hour and a half that it took to trek back to town, I marvelled over the fact that it was only that morning that we left our home to join the transport. I marvelled over the fact that this was only one day in my life.
Statue in Sorbibor.
Copyright © 1999, The Young Soapmaker.