Of the five thousand Jews in the two camps, only about 300 escaped, and of these, only 36 survived the war. The rest were killed by the Germans and Ukrainians. Everyone in Kamionka who chose to escape was able. We were all given sufficient warning, and everyone was told where the hole in the fence was. Of course, many were too sick, weak, or old to get past the fence or would have been unable to sustain themselves once outside. The world beyond the fence may have meant freedom, but it did not mean safety.
The Germans and their informers were still everywhere, and the Ukrainians were still involved in killing Jews. Life on the outside was one of constant fleeing and hiding, always with the imminent threat of capture. Many inmates were just plain afraid. Some who decided to stay in camp began to pray, and as I went under the fence, I could hear their prayers in Hebrew calling out to their Maker.
Because of what had recently occurred at a camp about 25 kilometers away where the Jews joined partisan groups that preceded the advancing Russian army, the Germans were determined not to give their enemies any more soldiers. The Germans were afraid of the partisans because of their fighting power and, more importantly, their wrath. The Germans also wanted to destroy all evidence of their evil by exterminating the witnesses.
Being only two hundred yards away, I was able to hear everything that happened in camp. Right away, the Germans began to shoot. They ordered everyone out of the lice-infested barracks, and people were shot as they stepped outside. I wanted to stand to see what was happening. I also wanted to flee. I knew that if I moved, they would see the corn moving, and that would have meant the end for me. Some of those who were hiding in the fields stood up and were immediately shot. I heard them moaning all around me.
So I lay there, in the high corn, as quietly as I could and moved as little as possible. All day long I prayed to God to save me and protect Arie, who had also run away. I suspected that, like me, he was lying low somewhere nearby, waiting for the Aktion to be over. I heard the Germans bark orders in their gruff voices, telling people to stand here, to stand there. I even recognized some of them. Then I heard shots. Koltz was indeed not killed that day but was taken away to Tarnopol, only to be killed a few weeks later at another Aktion.
Group after group of Jews interned at the Kamionka labor camp, thousands altogether, were killed that summer day. Throughout the gunfire and despite the screaming, I could hear a violin playing and a woman's beautiful voice singing German lieder in the background. Among the few women imprisoned at Kamionka was an exceptionally good violinist and singer. Rebel liked her playing and singing, and he gave her extra food whenever she performed for him. Throughout the Aktion she was ordered to play the violin and sing songs requested by the hauptsturmfuhrer. This "master race" had perfected the art of sadism. They tortured her by having her provide background music for her people's slaughter. And then, right before they were all through with their murders, Rebel had her killed.
The Germans and Ukrainians then piled all the dead bodies into a large ditch constructed in the camp and set the bodies on fire. I could feel the heat of the blaze. I could smell the flesh being consumed. Tears ran uncontrollably down my face. My poor Mamale. My poor Tatale. Am Yisrael reduced to this. Burnt corpses without graves. I didn't even try to stop the tears, and in spite of them, or because of them, I began to whisper aloud to myself the Mourner's Kaddish.
After the fires died out, I heard the Germans order their men to bathe and eat and rest early. They would have another full day tomorrow, but for now their day's work was over.
On July 10, 1943, the 7th of Tammuz, Kamionka was completely liquidated.
I waited for the Germans to finish their slaughter. And then I waited some more. Once the sun had completely set and the stars filled the sky, once I could no longer hear German orders being barked and boots pounding the dirt, I decided to leave the corn field. I felt compelled to run far from this place, which reeked of blood, bullets, and charred flesh. I also feared that German soldiers might come into the fields surrounding the camp with their large, vicious dogs in search of those who had run away before the Aktion. Or maybe they would start randomly shooting rounds of ammunition between the high stalks of corn to scare us out of hiding.
At about 10 o'clock at night, I stood up slowly, stiff from sitting in one position for over twenty-four hours. I was fine, thank God, but with all the killing around me, I had an irrational need to make sure I was intact. A sense of disbelief surrounded me: had I really escaped the slaughter? Were the hundreds of men I shared barracks with, the thousands I saw every day in and around the camp compound, all dead?
Slowly, cautiously, I made my way through the corn field and, after about fifteen minutes of terror, came upon the farmhouse of the Sapun family. They were Ukrainians, and I was not at all sure of the reception I would receive as an escaped Jew from Kamionka. Despite hunger and thirst, I sneaked into the barn where hay and corn were stored and stretched out to rest for a while. After the frantic twenty-four hours I had just endured, I fell asleep immediately. It was not a deep sleep, though, and on Sunday morning when the woman of the house came into the barn, I woke. I decided to present myself and ask her for food.
I stood up slowly in the hay, and when she saw me, she became frightened. I told her she had nothing to fear, that I intended her no harm. Like many local people, she was not certain whether or not runaway Jews would take revenge any way they could on the Gentile population. After all we had suffered, I think they half expected us to wreak violence on their property and lives. Of course, we didn't. I was still focused on survival, not revenge, and besides, I wasn't violent by nature.
I asked her to tell me everything she knew about what had happened to the Jews of Kamionka. She had heard that everyone had been shot and then burned. The bodies were doused with gasoline, and rubber tires were thrown on top to help keep the fire going. The fire had burned for hours, the smell and ashes drifting over the entire area. Some local farmers had been recruited to cover the mounds of burnt corpses with earth. Then she told me I could not remain on her property. When one of the doctors from Kamionka had run away, she explained, a Ukrainian neighbor agreed to hide him. Somehow the Germans had learned about the offer, and when they came into the house, they killed not only the doctor but the farmer and his family.
She said, "I'm too afraid to keep you."
She ran out of the barn and into her house, only to return a couple of minutes later with bread and some milk in a bottle. "Here," she said to me, "take these and please go. I'm so afraid I'll be killed."
I took the drink and food and thanked her. I understood her fear and never judged anyone harshly who was unwilling to jeopardize a family by hiding Jews. Those who did take the risk were saints; those who did not were merely human.
On the second and third nights as I started on my trek through the dark, I approached a Ukrainian farmhouse. Knocking softly on the kitchen door, I waited for the woman of the house.
"Will you sell me a piece of bread?" I would ask when she arrived, holding the few zlotys I had received in one of the packages from home and kept with me throughout my time in Kamionka.
On both occasions, the women refused my money; in fact, they never even acknowledged the offer. The women simply gave me bread and milk. These peasants wanted to help a starving man, but they were afraid to get more deeply involved. So they spoke little. They didn't ask if I was a Jew. They didn't ask me where I had come from or where I was going. It was clear to anyone who bothered to notice that I was a Jew from a labor camp. I was so thin and dirty at that point, where else would I be from? By not asking any questions, though, they could pretend not to know. Then they abruptly closed their doors when I turned and walked away to find refuge in the fields.
On Tuesday, July 13, after three days of walking through fields and forests, much of the time in the rain, I arrived at the Gorniak farm. It was already late in the evening and I walked through the backyard, passing a large vegetable garden beside the house. Since it was summer, the garden was filled with tomatoes and cucumbers, beets and potatoes, delicious vegetables I had not seen or eaten in a very long time. When I walked a little closer, I could see Jan Gorniak, bless his memory, standing in the front yard. I knew Jan well, not only because he was a good friend of my older brother, Avrum Chaim, but because we had done business together before the war. My father often hired the Gorniaks to transport wheat from our store to the train. In addition, his mother, Tatyana, had gone to school with my mother. The families had known each other for quite some time.
I approached the house cautiously. Jan saw me. He held up his hand as if to say, "Don't talk." He pointed to the barn and indicated that I should go up into the hayloft. I was a little suspicious, considering all I had witnessede. Not surprisingly, I trusted no one.
"Hurry, into the hayloft," he said.
I obeyed. From the urgency and care in his voice, I knew I was in safe hands. Above the horses and cows, I scampered up a narrow ladder and in the dark buried myself in the fresh, sweet-smelling hay. It had been sixteen months since I had slept on anything soft. I didn't care about my hunger or about how long they would let me stay. I was dry and about fall into a deep sleep. "Aah, this is wonderful," I moaned to myself when suddenly a hand grabbed my arm. Oh God, I thought. A trap. I should not have trusted Jan. I will be turned over to the Germans and then shot. I was about to begin saying the Shma Yisrael when I opened my eyes.
"Who's this?" a voice asked. It was so dark I could see only the outline of a face, but the voice! The voice I knew so well was music to my ears.
"Arie," I cried. "It's me, it's me."
"Shmerele," answered the beloved voice of my brother.
Without discussing where we would go after escaping into the fields surrounding Kamionka, both Arie and I had decided not only to return to the Chorostkow area but to the Gorniaks. I grabbed him in my arms, and he held me; we cried with joy and relief.
"If God spared us," I said to Arie, "and we lived through the atrocities at Kamionka, and now, without discussing our intentions, we both made it here to the Gorniak's and are now together again, I hope to God that we will make it through this war." We dried our tears and settled into the luxurious hay.
Tatyana Gorniak, bless her memory, came up the stairs to the hayloft. Tears were pouring down her soft face. She sat before us and spoke.
"Thank God you children are here," she said, taking our hands in hers. "Last night your mother came to me in a dream and asked me to save you. I promised her I would. Thank God you came here. I will do all I can to fulfill her wish and my promise."
Only then did Arie understand why Jan had asked that morning, "Where is your brother?" when he arrived in the yard. Arie had answered that he didn't know where I was but that we had both run away from the Aktion at the camp. That is why Jan was standing outside his house that evening: he was waiting for me. Tatyana cried some more; Arie and I choked back tears. Who could understand the workings of the world, why we had come together at this merciful house, and how our mother, God rest her soul, had visited Tatyana with a request, knowing her sons were on their way.
When I arrived at the Gorniak doorstep, I expected that if I were lucky, this good family might hide me for a day or two. Or, I thought, they might give me bread but tell me to keep moving. Or, considering the risk to their own lives and their children, they might refuse to help at all and just order me off the property. In the Netherlands, Belgium, and France when Jews were found hiding in Gentile homes, the Jews were killed and the Gentiles beaten, but in Poland, sheltering Jews was dealt with much more severely. The Jews were killed as well as the Gentile family, and the house and farm were then burned to the ground. The law requiring this awful punishment was put into effect in Poland because while the Germans considered Western European citizens human, they deemed Poles less than humans, not just above Jews who were considered subhuman.
Josefa, Jan's wife, and the younger brother, Michael, came to greet Arie and me. The entire family hugged and kissed us. After two and a half years of being called animals and treated sadistically by Germans and Ukrainians, the affection of these Gentiles was incredibly moving. With these simple acts they invited Arie and me back into the brotherhood of man, into the human race. When they embraced us, I knew we were among a family of angels.
Then Arie told us about what had happened to him as he made his way through the fields and villages. Two days earlier, on Sunday, he was passing through the village of Welawcze. He had left the fields for a while and was walking down the main street of the village when he saw a group of Ukrainian policemen standing around talking. He knew that he walked by, they would immediately notice him. Gaunt, dirty, and unkempt, his appearance betrayed his identity as a Jew or someone right out of a concentration camp. If they caught him, they would no doubt kill him themselves or happily turn him over to the Gestapo. He might then be killed or sent to Auschwitz or one of the other large death factories still in operation.
He stopped in his tracks, not knowing what to do. He was reluctant to turn back, for he was only about two hundred feet away, and he suspected that one or two of them might already have noticed him. Turning around and walking quickly in the other direction might arouse suspicion.
While trying to decide what to do, Arie noticed a Ukrainian priest coming down the street. He went over to the priest and, as was the custom in those days, took the priest's hand and kissed it. Then he looked straight into his eyes and asked, "Can you tell me where I might find the road to Trembowla?"
The priest looked at Arie, knowing right away that this dishelveled young man was a Jew, and they linked arms. The two men walked together, arm in arm, through the town, past the policemen. When they reached the outskirts, the priest unlinked his arm and said to Arie, "Go with God."
There were Ukrainians and Poles who risked their lives to save Jews, and there were others, like the Ukrainian neighbor who betrayed my wife's cousin although they had known each other their whole lives. Thank God the Gorniaks were righteous, God-fearing people who, like the priest, made the moral choice to try to save two Jewish brothers from certain death.
Twice a day, early in the morning and once in the evening, Tatyana or some other member of the family would bring a covered pail of food into the barn. She made it look a little sloppy so none of the neighbors would suspect that the mess was for humans. She wanted them to think the pail contained table scraps for pigs.
Michael Gorniak, who was fourteen at the time, also slept with us in the hayloft. We were forever insisting that he return to the house.
"Go," I would say to him almost daily. "You have a nice bed in the house. It's warm there, not too hot or cold like here. It's too unpleasant for a boy your age. Go."
We tried to convince him that we had endured much worse at Kamionka and that compared with the camp, the hayloft was heaven, but he would not be dissuaded. He always responded to our entreaties by saying, "If you can sleep here, I can sleep here."
Hungry for news from the front, one of the family members would make the eight kilometer trip into the city every day to buy newspapers. Sometimes there were no Polish papers available, only German ones. Most people considered buying the German papers too dangerous since everyone knew that the average Pole understood no German, unlike many Jews. So if a Pole bought a German paper, he was practically announcing that he was hiding Jews. Jan didn't care, however. He wanted us to keep up with the news so badly that when he had no choice, he would buy the German papers. Arie and I would pore over them for hours, analyzing, often by what was not said, how the war was going.
Another time, a command was issued from the German government that all farmers had to give one sack of grain to the army for every acre of land they owned. The problem was that Jan did not have enough grain. When we discussed the decree, he said he didn't know what to do.
"If you don't give the proper amount of greain, they're going to come looking for it. Then they'll find us," I said. "Go to your neighbors, borrow some, and tell them you'll return it later at harvest time."
Jan agreed and borrowed grain from his neighbors, but we found out, in time thank God, that the Germans were coming to inspect the barn anyway. That morning Arie and I ran off to Father Lubovich's barn. He was the Ukrainian priest, the father of my school friend, Piotr, with whom I had once done a great deal of business. The priest did not see us, but we knew exactly where he stored his many sacks of grain, and among them Arie and I sat for hours. We knew we could trust the priest since Tatyana had confessed to him that she was hiding the Halpern boys.
"Don't tell anyone else," he counseled her. "And if you're ever in trouble or they are, if you don't have enough food for them, send them to my house."
We knew the priest was a righteous man, a good friend, a God-fearing Christian. Thank God for these people. They saved our lives and those of a handful of Poland's three million Jews. After dark, when we knew the Germans must have completed the inspection, we crept out of the storehouse and quietly made our way back to Gorniak's barn.
Some Polish and Ukrainian families saved Jewish lives for money. It was a business transaction: so much money for so much time, so much money for so much water and food. But this was not the case with us and the Gorniaks. They saved our lives out of friendship rather than monetary compensation. The Gorniaks were wonderful, brave people.
In January 1944, about two months before our liberation, a group of Ukrainian ultra-nationlists came to the Gorniak farm, and for no reason other than that the family was Polish, they murdered Piotr Gorniak, Tatyana's husband, and her deaf-mute brother. The Ukrainians were simply bloodthirsty. In the beginning of the German occupation, Ukrainians had been recruited by the occupying army as important aides in transporting and eventually annihilating Jews. Now that there were no more Jews in the region, these same men decided to focus their attention on the Poles, whom they hated as well. They chose the Gorniak farm to vent their venom. That night they descended like a plague, and a wonderful family lost two men to the Ukrainian thugs.
As usual, we were in the hayloft and heard the Ukrainians enter the yard. We were very frightened, thinking that somehow they had found out about us and come to kill us, but they entered the house rather than the barn. Then we heard screaming and Piotr Gorniak, Jan's father, begging for his life and that of his brother-in-law. Then shots rang out.
I cannot find words to describe how terrible I felt. Even today I feel the pain of that moment, the helplessness and rage. It was like hearing my own family being killed. I wanted to run out of the barn and strangle the Ukrainians with my own hands. I wanted to grab a rifle and shoot them. But could do nothing. If we were all going to remain alive, I had to stay still. It was the worst feeling in the world to sit there quietly, hearing butchers slaughter good, innocent people.
After the shooting, Tatyana came up to the hayloft. She had been crying, and we didn't know what to say to her. I half expected her to say something like, "See, I'm saving Jewish lives, I'm trying to do the right thing, and they're killing us." Instead, she looked lovingly at Arie and me and said: "Thanks to you, my son Michael is alive." She paused. "If he had been in the house, they would have killed him as well. Thank God you are here, and he sleeps with you."
Had Jan not been away from the house that night on some farm business, he too would have been killed.
A few days later, distaster struck again. The Germans had posted notices all over the district offering a reward of five kilos of sugar for anyone who revealed where Jews were hiding. On January 4, Tatyana came into the barn wringing her hands and crying, "Oh, oh, terrible things have happened. Eight people have been killed, betrayed by Anna Bartestka for sugar."
All eight people were members of my family who had been hiding nearby: Aunt Sheindel and her two children, Herzele and Pepa; my cousin Moshele Wolfson and his two children; and my cousin Naftali Krautshtick and his daughter. They had been living in a field of potatoes. There, farmers had dug enormous ditches used as storage bins. These fields were far from the village and considered relatively safe. My cousins would spend a day in the fields and at night sleep in the storage bins.
Once or twice a week, one of the local farmers dropped off bread and milk. My family had survived until two months before liberation with the help of Ukrainian and Polish farmers. Mrs. Balutchka, one of the farmers who delivered food every week, had been a school friend of my cousin's and was committed to saving her, her children, and the other members of the family who had gone into hiding with her. All eight were executed by the Gestapo.
We were shocked by this horrible tragedy, the loss of eight lives for about ten pounds of sugar, and tried to be even more careful, knowing that there could be many others in the area looking for a way to claim the German reward.
Sixteen young Jewish boys were also being hidden in the nearby village of Wigdorowka. They had also managed to survive through the worst of the war years until they, too, were discovered by the Gestapo in early March 1944, just weeks before the Russians took possession of the region again.
... We had just finished reading the main news item [in the newspaper] about how much territory had fallen into Russian hands and how the front along the border had been pushed westward. We were smiling and slapping each other on the backs when all of a sudden we heard Marisha, Jan's three-year-old daughter, call into the barn.
"Tato, policeman. Tato, policeman."
She was only three years old but knew that a policeman on the family property was not good news.
Jan threw the barn doors closed, which gave us a couple of minutes to scramble up to the hayloft. Once Arie and I were safely hidden, Jan opened the doors. There stood a local Ukrainian policeman. Jan looked as if he were grooming a horse and in a casual, friendly voice called to the policeman, "How are you?"
The policeman stepped into the barn, "Fine, fine, and you, how are you, Gorniak?"
"Wonderful," Jan said. "My horse is in good health this season, and the cows are giving excellent milk. What can more can I ask for?" He patted his horse on the nose and then said, "Come inside. Let's have a drink," and he led the policeman out of the barn. As they walked toward the house, Jan yelled to his wife, "Go prepare a nice lunch for the officer."
"Of course I'll take you," he said. "But before we go, you have to eat and drink in my house."
They went into the house, and Gorniak opened a bottle of vodka and after an hour of eating and drinking heavily, he took the policeman ten kilometers to another village. In this way, Jan not only made sure the officer would not be back soon to snoop around the farm, he made the officer feel that Jan was a friend.
That afternoon we owed our lives to little Marisha. Her cleverness had saved us. Sweetly, innocently, she had called out to her father as if to tell him that a friendly visitor had just arrived. But with that one word, "policeman," she had given us the time to hide, which was why we are alive today.
Unfortunately, Marisha is no longer alive. Thank God, however, she had two lovely children, whom I visit whenever I am in Poland. I am privileged to be able to help them. The Gorniaks saved my life. They treated me like a member of their own family. Until today, all their children and grandchildren call Arie and me "Uncle" and Gladys and Eva "Auntie."
Arie and I decided to return to Chorostkow to see if we could find any family and friends who had survived the German occupation. Our town was only a few kilometers away. For the first time in more than two years, we were free to walk the roads and say hello to a passing farmer or watch the sun move across the sky, or merely amble along without being beaten by vicious guards. Full of expectations, we walked the road we knew so well. Finally, after years of horror, death and destruction, we were free men heading home.