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זיכרונות סאם הלפרן

 

Sam Halpern

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 exhausted

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 right."

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 lifeless.

 

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