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SOBIBOR REAL STORY-1

ESCAPE FROM THE MOUTH

Chapter One

To Sobibor

I was born in 1906, in Chelm, Poland. My family was a traditionally Orthodox one, and I had one brother and two sisters. My father was a grain merchant on a very small scale; he bought a sack here, a sack there, and resold the contents to eke out a very meager living. My brother died from hunger during World War I. Notwithstanding our poverty, my father always invited some poor unfortunate to share our Sabbath meal with us. These poor derelicts often stank and were filthy, but my father never deviated from this Sabbath observance. Whatever poor fare we had we shared -- the Sabbath was the Sabbath, a special day.

My father wanted me to join him in his grain "business" (if it could be called that), but I saw that there was no future at all in it. I had been sent to a traditional religious school, a cheder, but I had no secular education because we could not afford the small tuition. I taught myself to read and write Polish in the attic. When my cheder training ended I secretly went off and apprenticed myself to a carpenter. That was unheard of in our family and our milieu--there was some kind of a stigma attached to working with one's hands. I remember that when I told my aunt that I had almost finished my apprenticeship as a carpenter, she started to cry.

My sisters had a friend, a pretty girl, Yocheved, and we took a fancy to each other from an early age. She used to visit our home often, and a strong love grew between us. Yocheved, from the age of 12, used to drag a pushcart filled with sewing notions (needles, threads, fabric trimmings, etc.) from one hamlet marketplace to another, selling to the local peasants. She came from a religious, impoverished family and her mother, a prematurely worn-out woman who always wore a sheitl (wig worn by Orthodox Jewish woman), sometimes used to accompany her on her selling expeditions. Their "profits" allowed them to subsist on a diet of onions, radishes, black bread, and on rare occasions, a piece of herring. They were often waylaid by gangs of Poles and Ukrainians who robbed them of their meager profits and stole their stock. The two women were helpless against such bandits.

I started to accompany Yocheved on her selling expeditions while we were still engaged. At least I could protect her from the "brave" bandits who liked to pick on defenseless Jewish women. We married in 1932 and a few weeks after we were married I borrowed small amounts of money from my father and her two brothers and rented a small store with showcases for merchandise. I bought stock and went into the sewing notions and fabric business. My small store prospered, and I was soon able to hire an elderly woman to help out with the housework and the baby. We had been blessed with the birth of a very special son, Yossele, in 1934.

At the beginning of 1939 my wife and I were sitting in our store when we heard that a general mobilization had been proclaimed. All reservists and young single men were to report for military duty. Very soon after that, menacing, dark bombers appeared in the blue sky over Chelm. My wife and I left the store and ran to the fields to hide. We wanted to hide in the tall wheat, but the wheat had just been harvested and we were exposed. We were terrified. German planes kept firing down at us with their machine guns, and they seemed to shriek like wild animals as they dived with their bombs and bullets. We decided to run home, and we made our way through the streets filled with panic-stricken people who were shrieking hysterically. When we arrived home, we found the old woman we had hired under the bed, holding our infant girl, Pesha, in her arms. She was so petrified that she was speechless.

When the bombing ceased we went out, as did many others, on the street. Groups of people were standing around, exchanging news and rumors. The news was bad: there had been many casualties in Chelm from the bombing. The Polish Army was taking a beating, and it was rumored that the Germans were nearing Chelm. Chelm was soon inundated with haggard, barefoot fleeing Polish soldiers who had discarded their uniforms. They had been abandoned by their superiors and they were hungry and demoralized.

It became quiet in Chelm. All authority had collapsed. There was no civilian or military government. That night Polish and Ukrainian bandits went on a killing spree--killing Jews, of course. Without a functioning police force they had a free hand, and they were quick to realize that. 50-60 Jews were killed that night and many others were severely beaten. Robbery and rape were widespread. The Ukrainians and Poles generally didn't get along well with each other, but when it came to attacking defenseless Jews they had found a common cause.

You can believe me when I say that we welcomed the dawn. We heard that the Russians were coming in. We were happy--authority would be re-established. The bandits would no longer have a free hand. On Sept. 14, 1939 we saw the first Russian tanks and trucks and we ran out to greet them. Women and children hugged and kissed the soldiers.

Our joy was short-lived. After 10 days we heard that the Russians were going to withdraw from Chelm as a result of the Soviet-German agreement. We saw the Russians stowing their gear on trucks, packing their equipment, and preparing their vehicles for the departure from Chelm. Articles appeared in the newspapers saying that whoever wanted to depart with the Russians was welcome to do so. Trucks would be supplied for these people and they could bring their belongings with them. Several hundred young people accepted this offer of evacuation, but this was only a small fraction of the Jews who could have done so. People faced a dilemma then. How could you abandon your home? Your friends? Your work? Your relatives? We had heard that life under the Russians could be very hard. And, besides, the image of the Germans that had been left over from World War I was that of a civilized, advanced people. My younger sister left with the Russians. I, however, like so many others, remained behind in Chelm with my wife, my son, and our infant daughter. Whatever would be, would be! At least I would be on my home ground, in my beloved Chelm.

Some days went by. After two weeks of occupation the Russians had disappeared. Once again there was no civilian or military authority. The Polish and Ukrainian bandits recommenced their attacks. Fear gripped us, especially a fear of the long, dark autumn nights. When the dawn rose, on Oct. 7, 1939, we went out on the street and heard that the Germans were due very shortly. Believe it or not, many Jews were happy to hear that. The night time beatings and murders by the Ukrainian and Polish bandits would stop. That very day, Oct. 7, 1939, we saw the Germans march in. We saw long columns of motorized vehicles and files of marching, singing men. And already some of them were spitting at us and cursing: "Verfluchte Juden, Schweinische Juden." We saw that we had made a mistake by not retreating with the Russians, but it was too late. The mistake had been made. That very day, when the Germans came in, they started beating Jews and looting Jewish stores. I locked my small store and went home. I told my wife that bad times had come on us.

The next day, on Oct. 8, my father came to my store to visit me. As we were standing around and talking about the bad times that had come upon us, several SS men came into the store and started shouting: "Verfluchter Jude!" One of them gave my father two hard blows to the head. They proceeded to ransack my stock, taking for themselves only the best goods. Then one of them came over to me and gave me a tremendous blow to the stomach. I doubled up from the pain, and for a minute or so I couldn't breathe. The German shrieked delightedly at me: "Ja, ich habe dir bezahlt." He meant that the vicious blow was his form of payment to me for my goods that he was taking. He also said, with smug satisfaction: "Ja, ich habe dich gut versohlt." (Yes, I beat you up well). On many of the German vehicles they had printed a slogan: "Wir Fahren nach Polen um Juden zu versohlen." (We're going to Poland to beat up the Jews.) So his statement that he had beaten me well was a logical extension of that popular German slogan. Laughing heartily the SS men left my store. My father and I just looked at each other helplessly. What could we say?

Bad news swept through Chelm -- news of beatings, robberies, shootings and murders, news that Jews were being seized all over the town for "forced labor." Every day this litany of bad news was repeated. We wondered what would become of us. There were many helpless women amongst us; their men had been taken away and never returned. SS men went into these women's homes and did whatever pleased them there. SS men roamed the streets with dogs and whips, rapaciously looking for victims. And every day they issued new "laws" and "rules" and "regulations". The Polish police force still functioned, but the policemen were now under German orders and they zealously carried these orders out. They helped seize and beat Jews who were wanted for "labor."

Polish police came to my house every day, looking for me. "We want Kalmen Wewryk," they shouted. I hid in a false beam which I had constructed as a hiding place. There was a tiny opening in a wall of this beam through which I could see the street below. On hearing the heavy tread of the police as they ran up the stairs, I would leap into my hiding place and close the entry hole behind me by tugging on a rope. My hiding place was very skillfully camouflaged--nobody could say that a man was hiding there. I was sought because the authorities had given them my name. Rich men could be exempted from "forced labor" by paying, and their places would be filled by poor men who would be seized as replacements. The days before the war broke out I had traveled to Warsaw where I bought new merchandise, so I was not liquid. I had no cash. I could not pay the authorities, so I was a prime target for this "forced labor." Every day Jews were shipped off for "forced labor" and few of them returned. We really regretted the fact that we had not retreated with the Russians, but it was too late. We were now caught up in a daily nightmare. Some days I remained in my hiding place all day because the police came to my house several times a day, looking for me. How I waited for the "all clear" signal from my wife so that I could emerge from my dark hole and take a drink of water' Once I had no time to hide in my false beam. I made it up to the roof and hid behind a massive chimney.

It was quiet for a while and then we heard that an official Judenrat had been formed. Only God knew what new troubles this would bring on our heads! The police were very frustrated with my "case." Because they couldn't find me, they dragged my wife and our two children off to jail. They were kept in a cell deep in the cellar of the jail. They were given no food. The policemen told her that if I didn't report to them she would remain in jail indefinitely with the children. The baby was crying ceaselessly and the boy, only 6 years of ...


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