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Chapter Three

After Sobibor

After plunging through the forest in a half-crazed state, I found myself with about 55 other escapees. I rejoiced to see that my friend Shlomo Elster had made it out of hell too. There were a few other men there who had worked in the tailors' shop. We were fortunate because our leader and the architect of the escape, Sasha Pechersky, was in our group, and he had a compass. We often crawled into ditches that wound their way through the forest and we became disoriented; Sasha would use his compass to point us in the right direction.

Sasha seemed to know something about the area we were in, while all of us were in a state of hysterical shock -- none of us could think straight.Sasha led us for days and nights. He no longer had any bullets left. We would sneak into hamlets to beg for food--any food. The peasants saw that we were many, so they would grudgingly hand over some bread. There were some female escapees with us too. Had they been alone they wouldn't have had a chance with those wily and cunning peasants, but the fact that they were accompanied by many desperate men protected them. The first peasants we approached soon after our escape told us that they had heard that Jews who had escaped from Sobibor had been caught by special German squads, so we took off immediately and moved further away from Sobibor. Every time we approached peasants we heard the same sad tale--more Sobibor escapees had been caught. Our fellow survivors were being slowly and methodically hunted down.

It was evident that Sasha was nervous as a result of the behavior of some of us. His own Russian soldiers could follow orders perfectly, but some of our Polish Jews could not walk single-file without falling back and getting lost. Or they would whisper to each other, sometimes loudly, when Sasha had ordered total and complete silence. Some even shouted to each other: "Shloime, where are you?"

Sasha announced that he was taking nine of "his" people to buy weapons or bullets or food. A hat was passed around, we all tossed money into it, and soon Sasha and "his" soldier comrades were gone. We who were left behind became very frightened. We had a feeling that something was wrong. However, Sasha and the others had said that they would return, so we waited. And waited. And waited. Nobody from that group returned to us.

We became extremely nervous because we thought that those ten men, all seasoned soldiers, had been lured into a trap and wiped out. After the war I found out that Sasha had felt that he had done for us what he had promised: he had led us successfully out of Sobibor. He wanted to strike out swiftly for the Soviet lines and we were a burden to him--we endangered him. And so he never came back. (He reached the Soviet lines and continued the war as a Red Army soldier. He was later decorated for military battles in which he participated).

However, we who had been left behind didn't have any choice--we had to keep going. So we went further and further into the trees. We avoided roads and paths, and kept to the dense undergrowth. Our numbers diminished every day -- people took off on their own. They saw that we were wandering aimlessly, so small groups left. They thought that the fewer the better -- in small groups there would be a lesser chance of being noticed and getting caught. We were down to 12 men; Shloime Elster was still with me. He had worked at my side as a carpenter in Sobibor, and we were still together.

We had only one pistol, but we all had sharp knives hidden in our tattered pants. We went into hamlets at night to buy food and weapons. All of us contributed a little money for these expeditions, and we always went at night. We were more at ease at night because the Germans didn't search at night--they were afraid of Partisans.

So the days and nights passed. Shloime and I became more and more disconsolate and depressed. We were haunted by fear, consumed with hunger, weakened and filthy. We washed as best we could. We were thirsty, so we drank much water. Our thirst drove us to take chances and drink from streams and rivulets. We were bitten all over by lice. At night we would be preoccupied by one thing: to find a hiding place, because the day would soon come. Our nerves became more steady when we stumbled upon thick forests.

Sobibor was not that far away from Chelm and I started to recognize the area we were in. I knew, in a general way, where we were and what the surrounding area was like, and so I disagreed vehemently with the other members of our group--they wanted to go in a certain direction which I was sure would lead them straight back to Sobibor. We couldn't resolve our differences and we were all very angry.

The night came and some of our group approached a hamlet to beg for bread. One of them had a rifle but he had no bullets for it. They got small bread loaves, pirogen, and some potatoes. In our 12 man group, Shloime and I were by far the oldest. The others were all 17 or 18 years old, and they were uncomfortable with us. They obviously felt that we were a burden to them. That night, when they returned with that food, they gave Shloime and me very, very little--much less than an equal share. After we ate our pittance, we had to start preparing our hiding place for the following day. We had to rip up bushes, make a clearing under branches, dig a hole, etc.--all with our knives. We had to make mini-bunkers and mask the entrances, so that anybody 2 meters away would not see the hiding places. As we dug and ripped, I saw the others looking angrily at Shloime and me. We were hungry, so we worked slowly. We needed strength--which we lacked--to rip up bushes, hack off branches, etc. Perhaps the others discriminated against us because Shloime was on the "slow" side -- he was very shy, almost semi-retarded. If we would have had sufficient food we would have had the strength to rip up the bushes, cut the branches, etc. So I decided to speak directly and truthfully to our fellow escapees. I told them that they weren't behaving properly. Everybody should share equally. It wasn't right that they should eat till they were full, give us tiny rations, and then expect us to work like horses digging hide-outs, etc.-- it just wasn't fair. I told them: "When I'm well-fed I can work like a horse--I've been a worker all my life, but with what you give us I simply can't find the strength." And I started to cry as I was pleading with them. I told them that although they were younger than I was, I would leave them. '"We all faced death together every day in Sobibor," I said, "and now that we're free is that a way to behave?" I told them that they were animals, not humans, and I cried. I told them that with such behavior they wouldn't survive.

I spoke to them like that for a few days, not just on one occasion. And I told them that eventually they would be captured because of their greediness which led them to take too many chances. They used to go into hamlets and get whiskey, spirits, and other strong drinks. My instincts told me that, quite apart from their treatment of Shloime and me, if I remained with them I would be finished, sooner or later. However, they were not all bad. I remember one of them, named Kratke, who only ate bread and drank water. He was very devout -- perhaps he had been a rabbi. He wouldn't touch anything with meat and avoided soup because he didn't know the contents.

I cried often now. I told our fellow escapees that they were ignoramuses and fools. My heart told me that sooner or later they would meet a bad end, and this strengthened my resolve to leave them. I had had enough. I invited Shloime to come with me. I told him, "Shloime come with me! We can't remain with these slobs any longer. We no longer have homes to return to, but to stay with such people is impossible. It's suicide. I'm not telling you what to do, Shloime. Maybe we'll get caught...maybe we'll starve to death. But staying with those fools is suicide. If you want to come, Shloime, I'll take you with me. It's up to you." Shloime told me that he didn't want to come with me. One of the young men told me that he would shoot me for talking like I did. He said that I was frightening everybody. I told him, "I no longer have a mother, father, wife or children. My home is gone. So go ahead--shoot me if you want to. I don't give a damn anymore!"

I said goodbye to all of them and I invited Shloime once more to come with me. When they saw that I was really leaving and not just talking, they conferred with each other and handed me a parting gift--a 2 kilogram loaf of bread. That bread filled me with courage. I would start off on a positive note. It was as if somebody had handed me a big diamond. Regardless of what had transpired, I shook hands with them, wished them luck and left.

After 5 minutes I heard a noise behind me. I turned around and there was Shloime plunging through the undergrowth towards me. He had changed his mind! We hugged each other and clung to each other, crying and sobbing all the while. We wandered around in the pitch blackness. We had to take care not to fall into a hole or ditch. We heard the voices of our fellow escapees become more and more faint as we plunged ahead, into a big forest.

I planned to get back to Chelm, where I knew every square meter of land. There I would be on home ground. So we continued to move ahead until we saw a small house at the edge of the forest. It was still night so we went up to the house, knocked on a window, and asked how many kilometers it was to Sobibor. We were afraid of inadvertently circling back to Sobibor. Our aim was to get as far away from that hell as possible. A man came to the window; that was good--he was one and we were two. And we did have extremely sharp knives on us. Shloime and I weren't "delicate" people--we had been manual workers all our lives, so we were still fairly strong, notwithstanding all that we had been through. The man at the window was a Ukrainian, although he spoke Russian to us. He said he would show us where we were--we should come in through the door. He would open it for us. He was so friendly, so warm, so affable. However, one of us noticed that he was hiding an axe behind his back. So instead of going to the door we took off.

Shloime ran faster than I could run--he practically flew! But as he was running he fell into a deep puddle of freezing water. I pulled him out. He was shivering and he kept on shivering--it was a very cold night. I was well-dressed; I had dressed with a triple layer of clothing on the day of the uprising because I felt that warm clothing would be very useful. Some of our fellow escapees had prepared small packages of clothing and furs which they carried with them during the uprising, but those packages seemed to have slowed them down and most of them didn't get away from Sobibor. Perhaps the packages made them inviting targets for the German and Ukrainian soldiers. My topmost layer of clothing was a raincoat, so I took it off and put it on Shloime. His own clothes had become soaked. We rested a while and continued on, going all night in the direction of Sabeen, a village near Chelm where we used to go, in pre-war days, to sell at the market. From there we could easily get to ...

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