The atrocities began immediately after the Germans arrived in town, when 34 innocent Jewish residents were brutally murdered. Randomly, the German SS looked for excuses to kill Jews. The SS asked one Gentile to show them where Jews lived. He pointed to Itzhak Goldfliess's house. The SS walked into the home of my friend and killed his parents, wife, and two children, a little boy and girl. Itzhak happened to be away from home at the time and survived the slaughter. He managed to live through the entire war, surviving even Kamionka, and afterward made his way to America. He remarried, had a daughter and later on, grandchildren.
On the first Sabbath of the occupation, the Germans gathered all the Jews and ordered us to dig a wide, deep trench near the town hall. Next, they ordered us to bring bucket loads of excrement and sewage water from the public bathrooms to fill the trenches. We were then told to go home and dress in our Sabbath finery and ordered to show up again at noon to hear a speech by a local Gestapo officer who was going to outline what was expected of us and how we were to behave toward the German authorities and among ourselves. The Germans were fond of laws and regulations for policing Jewish lives.
Unlike most of Chorostkow's Jews, my mother suggested that our family not respond as ordered. Instead, she told us to go into the attic, and there we watched everyone else return punctually at noon, trying to appease the new rulers. To everyone's amazement, the Jews were told to stand in the excrement-filled trenches. Many Ukrainian townsfolk gathered to watch this humiliating spectacle and rejoiced wholeheartedly. On the other hand, the deputy mayor of the town, Vasilenko, himself a Ukrainian, protested this barbarism and resigned his post. However, most of the Ukrainians and Poles willingly helped the Germans persecute and ultimately exterminate the Jewish community.
The Jews were forced to remain in the sewage pits all day long. The Germans beat them with sticks and stepped back to allow the Ukrainians an opportunity to lash out with pitchforks, shovels, and clubs. Whenever someone tried to scramble out of the pit, he was immediately beaten back and knocked down by the assembly of German SS officers and Ukrainian civilians.
This was our introduction to the German reign of terror in Chorostkow. Each day brought new tortures, atrocities, and killings. Within a month or so, the Germans ordered us to organize a Judenrat (Jewish council) that would run our affairs according to German orders. The Judenrat would also create strife by pitting Jew against Jew and thus weaken the community.
At first, the Nazis ordered us to hand over all gold and jewels to the Judenrat. The head of every household gathered together the family jewelry, keeping aside as much as he dared, and delivered it to the Judenrat's office. They then organized it, keeping a careful accounting before delivering it to the German masters. Later on, the Jew of Chorostkow had to hand over silver, jewelry, and religious ritual objects, furs, and art. Every day the Germans came up with additional demands: linens, shirts, carpets. The Judenrat administered all commands. They had no choice but to fulfill German orders since the alternative would have been fatal.
About three weeks after the German arrival, all Jews over the age of 10 were ordered to wear white arm bands with a blue Star of David. We cut up sheets and white tablecloths for the arm bands and usually used blue writing ink to draw the stars. This shocking sign reinforced that we were going to be singled out at all times, never allowed to forget how much we were hated. Ukrainians, who detested Jews, suddenly began to act superior whenever they encountered a Jew with an arm band in the street. And when German soldiers were passed, anything from a tug of the beard to a kick in the kidneys was possible.
The contrast then was tremendous when Jan Gorniak, a Polish farmer with whom my family had done business over the years and whose mother, Tatyana, had gone to school with my mother, arrived at our doorstep at six o'clock with a sack of a hundred kilos of flour.
"I don't know what will be," Jan said to us. "I don't know if the Germans will let me into the ghetto again. Take this flour. It will help you in the days to come."
We thanked Jan profusely since we too did not know what the future would bring and how much more restricted our access of food would become under German rule.
In addition to collecting valuables, the Judenrat had to fill quotas for workers at various hard labor tasks, such as snow removal, field work, and sanitation duty. The main objective of the Germans was to humiliate the people while they worked and to make them open targets for vicious beatings. A popular way to demean our young women was to force them to clean public toilets and animal stables.
I myself spent many days doing this kind of hard labor, mostly on the farm, but since I was young and strong, I was able to endure. Not everyone could. Every day, several would fail to keep up with the pace, and they were beaten and often shot.
Soon the Germans ordered the Judenrat to compile a list of two hundred able bodied young men to undertake "special tasks," a euphemism for almost unbearable physical labor with little food under inhumane conditions. No one wanted to enlist for such work, and everyone tried to bribe his way out of it. Bribing often meant the difference between life and death.
The men who were not so fortunate and worked in the special tasks division built and were eventually housed in a labor camp fifty kilometers outside of town. It was called Stupka and was only one of hundreds of labor camps the Germans set up in the early stages of the war. They were used to incarcerate and work to death Jews, Russians, and other political prisoners.
Compared to the horrible death factories like Auschwitz, Majdanek, Treblinka and Belzec, the smaller labor camps – like Kamionka and Stupka – may have caused more prolonged suffering; proportionally, more people died in the small labor camps. In a labor camp, life was a constant nightmare of grueling work and brutality. It was only a matter of time before one could no longer go on. Some sixteen thousand people lived and worked in Kamionka, the labor camp to which I was eventually sent, during the German occupation. Of these, only thirty six survived the war.