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Chaike Grossman: Beyond Space, Beyond Time

THE HOLOCAUST, 1941-1943

Page 147

The period of Soviet rule came to an end when Eastern Poland was invaded by the Nazi Armies. The first bombs fell on Bialystok on 27 June 1941. Thousands of Jews, who realized what was in store for them, fled to the east. Many of them were killed on the roads by bombs dropped by German aircraft, others were shot by German soldiers, and a few managed to return to Bialystok. Amongst those who fled and did not return were Physics teacher Tauman and Maths teacher and former Gymnasium graduate (Fourth Graduation Year) Novodworski. It was rumoured that they both died on the roads.

The Polish inhabitants of the region had been waiting for an opportunity to attack the Jews, and during that month, six hundred Jews from Bialystok were killed by the Poles. In his memoirs, Dr. Shimon Dattner listed the names of those Gymnasium teachers who remained in Bialystok: A. Aharonowitz, M. Chazanowitz, Moshe Zabludowski, Dr. F. Horowitz, Chaim Sheffer, Miss R. Solomon, Magister N. Kaplan, G. Shkolnikow, D. Patziner, A. Bomchil, Magister Yaacov Shnapper, Dr. Shimon Dattner, Y. Rotberg, Magister Pnina Berstein, Shmuel Rakowski, S. Yakobowski, and Magister Hadassah Sprung, (Chaim Welger and his family left Bialystok and returned to Galicia. Dattner heard later that Welger's wife and daughter perished in the Lvov ghetto).

On 27 June, the Germans herded two thousand Jews into the Great Synagogue and burnt it to the ground. Dr. Dattner recorded that on Thursday 3 July, the Germans led two hundred Jews from the intelligentsia to the forest and shot them to death. One of those killed was Hebrew teacher Y. Rotberg. In the ghetto, they referred to those who died as "Die Donnershticke". Ten days later, on Saturday 12 July, the S.S. shot four thousand Jews in the Paytroshi forest. Moshe Zabludowski was one of those killed. People in the ghetto called them "Die Shabbasdicke". It was at that time that Pesach Kaplan wrote the song "Rivkele Die Shabbasdicke". The Bialystok ghetto was set up at the end of July 1941, and in August of that year it was forbidden to enter or leave it.

In a number of small streets, surrounded by barbed wire fences, were imprisoned all the city's Jews and thousands of Jews from the provinces. The transports commenced on 18 September 1941. In the first transport, four thousand Jews were deported to Prozani. In November 1942, the Germans killed Jews throughout the region, but did not yet destroy the Jews in the Bialystok ghetto. More than seventeen thousand Jews were employed in factories in the ghetto, manufacturing clothing, hats, and shoes for the German Army. The Judenrat concluded that this employment would save the lives of the workers, and the Head of the Judenrat, Engineer Alexander Barash, said: "We will purchase our lives by working". Only one of the Gymnasium's founders avoided the fate of the Jews of Poland. Dr. Moshe Zieman emigrated to Eretz Yisrael in 1939 (his son by his first marriage, who had settled in Germany, was killed by the Nazis. His first wife and his daughter, who remained in Poland, perished in the ghetto). Dr. Moshe Katznelson was appointed as Head of the Health Department in the ghetto, and later, in his capacity as a doctor, was sent to Teresienstadt with a group of children, and from there to Auschwitz.

Mendel Kaplan was appointed to be a member of the Judenrat. In the ghetto, Eliezer Kahana continued to deal with the administrative affairs of the Jewish Hospital. Members of the youth movements and the "Bund" set up a Joint Committee, organized groups of partizans, and smuggled Jews into the forests. Rumours of what was happening in the concentration camps caused alarm, and many preferred not to believe them, but in January 1943, a Jew who had escaped from Treblinka reached the ghetto and delivered an eye-witness report.

The Joint Committee organized an underground in the ghetto, and partizans who were hiding in the forest supplied it with arms and instruction. One of the underground leaders, Ephraim (Paul) Olcha (Oren), had been a Gymnasium student, one of five brothers who had studied there. He and his brothers had played in Shkolnikow's brass band. In the ghetto, Paul married the daughter of Berl Subotnik, the Gymnasium's secretary. Gymnasium student (Thirteenth Graduation Year) Chaike Grossman (later Member of the Israeli Parliament and of Kibbutz Evron) acted as a courier between the ghettos. Thanks to her "non-Jewish" appearance, she was able to leave the ghetto and travel freely. In an apartment which had belonged to Chaim Welger before the German invasion, a sort of teachers' "Kolkhoz" existed. Dattner listed the names of the "Kolkhoz" residents: Gymnasium teachers Franca Horowitz, Hadassah Shprung, Yaacov Shnapper, Shimon Dattner, and other teachers and their families. "From all these", wrote Dattner, "only Hadassah Shprung and I survived".

In February 1943, members of the underground tried to oppose an "aktion" (a round-up of Jews for transport to the death camps) with force, and killed a few Germans. Following this, two thousand Jews were killed in the ghetto, and twelve thousand were sent to Treblinka. The "aktion" continued for seven days, from 5th to the 12th of the month. Amongst those who were killed was Chaim Sheffer, Maths teacher Bomchil, and the Judaic Science teacher D. Patziner. On 5 February, Dr. Franca Horowitz committed suicide; she had been ill, could not stop coughing, and refused to hide in a bunker and endanger the lives of others. On 15 August, news spread that the Germans were about to send the remaining forty-five thousand Jews who still survived in the ghetto to the death camps. Mendel Kaplan died of a heart attack at his desk in the Judenrat office when he was informed of this. Members of the underground distributed pamphlets calling on the Jews to resist the deportation, but few responded to their call. The last struggle of the underground in the Bialystok ghetto commenced on 16 August 1943, and lasted for several days. Almost all of its members were killed by the Germans. The date of Ephraim (Paul) Olcha's death is known; the 20 August. He was twenty-two years of age.

The Jews were sent to the death camps at Treblinka, Poyniatek, and Maidanek. Bialystok was "Judenrein" (free of Jews). When the last transports had left the ghetto, the Ukrainians entered it, searched for and found those few Jews who had survived in hiding-places, and handed them over to the Germans. Amongst those who perished was Historian Avraham Shmuel Hershberg, author of "The Bialystok Notebook". Eliezer Kahana, one of the Gymnasium's founders, was killed together with the staff of the Jewish Hospital. Teacher Pnina Berstein, her husband, and baby son, perished in one of the camps. Dr. Moshe Katznelson died in Auschwitz. David Braver perished in the Grodno ghetto. Gymnasium student Avraham Kaplinski, who was a member of the underground, was handed over to the Germans by Poles in 1944, a few weeks before the Germans retreated from Poland.

Following, are the testimonies of two people who were in the ghetto: Hebrew Gymnasium teacher Hadassah Shprung, who was the secretary of the Judenrat, and Gymnasium graduate Chaike Grossman, a member of the underground.

The Story of the Hebrew Gymnasium in Bialystok find out more!

(c) Ya`acov Samid, 2003 Contact Ya`acov Samid