ARRIVAL AT A LABOR CAMP
from: "Darkness and Hope," pp.
58-62, by Sam Halpern, Shengold Publishers, Inc., New York, 1996
....One of the
policemen told me that we were headed to Chortkow, a town about twenty
five kilometers away, although he wouldn't say why. Nor would he tell us
our exact destination.
All along the way, men
tried to escape. Each one was caught and brutally beaten by the Ukrainian
police. We had been rounded up at nine o'clock in the morning, and by the
time we reached Chortkow it was evening. We had spent the entire day
walking in the bitter snow without food or rest. Everyone was thoroughly
We were taken to a
jailhouse. There we had to pass through a receiving line of SS soldiers
and Ukrainian police, each with a rifle or stick, each waiting for a turn
to hit a Jew on the head. There were about eighty of them, and it took a
long time for a Jew to make his way through the line, being clobbered by
everyone. If you were by chance hit on the neck or chest and not on your
head, you had to go back and give the soldier another chance to "get it
Like everyone else, I
tried to shield my face and head and lessen the force of the blows by
jerking my head away a little, but this had to be done carefully;
otherwise I would have had to return to the beginning of the line, and the
second time I would surely have been hit even harder and more frequently.
My technique seemed to make no difference, and by the time I got into the
jail cell, I was bruised, cut, and bleeding. I wondered if the Germans
intended to kill us or were just having fun.
After the ordeal, I was
herded into a small jail cell packed with about sixty men. There was no
room to sit down, let alone lie down. We had to stand, crushed one against
the other, bleeding and in pain, frightened and hungry. All told, there
were some five hundred men from the entire vicinity in the jailhouse, with
every cell packed as tightly as ours.
We stood packed
together like that all night, and in the morning we were sure we would be
let out a little and given some food, but we were wrong. Nothing changed.
The entire second day and night we stood, jammed together, hungry beyond
belief. On the third day, we began to talk about how the Germans meant to
kill us. One way or another, from starvation or lack of oxygen, we thought
we would die locked up like this.
Many of the men began
to recite Shma Yisrael, a prayer Jews are commanded to say, when possible,
before death. Just then the Germans opened the door to the cell and took
us out. Everyone stretched his limbs and gulped the fresh air. Although we
were still starving and parched with thirst, the freedom from being
pressed up against other bodies on all sides felt wonderful. Then one
German began to toss pieces of bread at us, like one would throw scraps to
a dog from the dinner table. Men hurled themselves at the bread, like
animals, and stuffed it into their mouths before anyone else could steal
it. A tub was filled with water, and we all drank from it, like cattle at
a trough. But no sooner than we began lapping the water, a German came
over and started beating us, yelling: "Let's go, let's go." They permitted
us just one sip of water after three days of extreme thirst, and then
administered more beatings. I will never forget the sight of this tub and
men bending over to drink.
We were made to run
from the jailhouse to a railroad station about a kilometer away. All along
the way the German soldiers were free with their clubs and boots. At any
moment one could be felled by a blow to the neck or a kick in the side, so
despite our weakened state, we ran as fast as we could. When we got to the
train station, we saw cattle cars on the tracks. There were no steps or
ramps leading to the doors, so the SS officers beat the people at the
front yelling, "Crouch down, crouch down," to get them down on all fours
and form human steps for the rest of the crowd behind them to climb.
Once the human
staircases were made, the Germans yelled and clubbed the rest of us to
hurry into the cars. They were beating us so hard and their voices sounded
so vicious that we had no choice but to obey. Painfully, we were forced to
step on our brethren and climb into the train. The groans and cries from
the men on the ground were nearly drowned out by the screaming of the SS
and the cracking whips.
It took quite a while
to fill the cattle cars. We were packed in tight, much as we had been in
the jail cell, and all the while we were being beaten and clubbed by the
Germans. About 120 men were squeezed into each car, the only improvement
over the jail being that there was enough room for two men at a time to
sit down and take a rest.
When the Germans were
satisfied that enough of us had been packed into each car, they threw in
some bread and swung the doors shut. I heard them lock us in from the
outside. In my town at that time, we had not heard of the death camps of
Auschwitz or Majdanek, nor did we know of the "Final Solution." We knew
the Germans intended to use Jews as work horses, but we were unaware of
plans for extermination.
The few who managed to
get hold of a piece of bread ate it quickly; the rest of us turned away
and tried not to think of the emptiness in our stomachs. We had already
gone three full days without any food and only a small sip of water.
We sat idly in that
sealed cattle car for hours. Despite the cold March winds outside, it
quickly grew hot inside, and again the lack of oxygen threatened everyone.
Whoever was lucky enough to be standing by the walls could try and draw
fresh air from between the cracks of the cattle car. Then we took turns so
that more of us would have a chance to breathe a little better.
Finally, the train
started to roll. We traveled for three days in these terrible conditions
until the doors opened again. We had been brought to the labor camp
Kamionka located near the city of Tarnopol, about fifty kilometers away
from Chorostkow. Normally, it would have taken only about three hours to
travel from Chortkow to Kamionka, but the Germans had shuttled the train
back and forth between many small stations and made long stops on the
tracks to torture us further. They wanted to break our spirits with three
awful days where there was no place other than the floor beneath our feet
to heed the call of nature, no food, no information, no sense of
destination. They wanted to make us believe we were really not part of the
human race, as Hitler (and the hundreds of Amaleks in history before him)
had been shouting for years. They hoped to convince us that we were truly
a sub-species, that we were vermin.
What was behind this
madness? Why were we suffering? Where was G-d? Where were the British and
the Americans? But even as we stood in our waste, we knew we were human
beings, "b'nai adam," and that we were Jews. When all the other vicious
empires in the world had their fill of our blood, when they had
disappeared from the earth, leaving behind only piles of stones and
stories in history books, we, who had been around since the beginning and
whose land at that time was a pile of stones - and whose books much of the
world coveted and embraced as truth - we still had more than books and
stones to show for ourselves. We were still living and procreating,
generation after generation.
Although I did not yet
comprehend the evil of the "Final Solution" or suspect that a full third
of our people would ultimately be slaughtered, still I knew that the
Jewish people, stiff-necked and faithful, were not easily pushed off the
world stage. We were major players, despite our small numbers, and we
would survive this latest onslaught, much as we had survived every
previous exile and persecution.
After three wrenching
days, the doors to the cattle cars were finally opened, and we were
greeted with a flood of light, fresh air, and ear-piercing screams
ordering us out.
"Los schnell! Los
schnell!" the Germans screamed. "Do it fast, do it fast," all the while
beating us with sticks and rifle butts. Again, there were no ramps or
stairs and we had to jump about four or five feet from the rail car to the
ground. Then we struggled to get up as quickly as possible before being
kicked by the German soldiers standing nearby. We were starving,
dehydrated, and weak. Still, once the cars were cleared of their human
cargo, we were made to run two kilometers to the labor camp. Some men were
weeping from fright, others from relief. Surprisingly, we kept up the
brisk pace forced upon us and had little time to notice the landscape.
When we reached the camp, though, a hush settled over the group. We looked
and carefully listened. The entire area was eerily silent. The cloud of
death hung over the camp that stood before us, and the fields, which in
the summer were filled with corn and wheat, were gray and brown and