Zareby Koscliene

The Liquidation of Zaromb
By Gershon Liberman


Zaromb-Kotchelny is well known to the Polish-Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, especially those who escaped into the Soviet Union by getting across the Russian-German border in Poland in 1939.

Zaromb was the first shtetl on the Russian side of the border, Malkin the first on the German side.  The many thousands who came across referred to themselves as "Bezshentzes"  (             ) - the word "Refugee" was anathema to
them.  If only we live long enough to get to Zaromb," was the on the lips of the many thousands who wandered through the fields and forests of occupied Poland to get across into the Soviet Union.  Zaromb was the springboard for the "Bezshentzes" and their wanderings back and forth and the name "Zaromb" will show up again and again for historians doing research on the Jewish plight in the years 1939-40.

When we went to the various border crossing points around Zaromb we could see the little fires of the Zaromb oil lamps in the dark night, lit for those who managed successfully to get away from the German brutality.  They gave
courage and hope to the refugees.

The first meeting with the Red army and the Jewish young men of Zaromb was ecstatic.  The Zaromber brought rolls and milk for the children and gave first aid to those who had been shot at by the Germans but still managed to steal across the border.

In the crowded marketplace, Zaromber recognized relatives and acquaintances and took them to their homes.  The luckiest ones were refugees from Warsaw whom Zaromber knew, because they were to seasonal work in Warsaw. Acquaintances got priority over others who were just as desperate.

I remember one tall, elegant woman from Warsaw pushing her way through the crowd, asking in Polish if anyone had seen her 2 daughters, 15 and 17 years old, from whom she had been separated during the shooting while crossing the border.  "I've been waiting for them for 3 days now," she cried.  No one says a word.  No one has an answer for the distraught mother.

Representatives of the Revolutionary Committee of Zaromb and Soviet commanders give orders, "Pregnant women, mothers with small children, go there…"

The shtetl is awake.  It is the day before Pesach.  Nobody sleeps.  Doors are open to the "Bezshentzes".  Women
sit on their stoops holding children and talking about the plight of the Jews, G-d's scorn, war.  Somehow, the Jews are always caught in the middle of the troubles.  They try to console each other, that there is, after all, a G-d and then they curse Hitler.

From early in the morning, Jews stream toward Itchenik, the Zaromb train station, as ordered by the Jewish militia. They are young men with red armbands and carrying Polish rifles.  The train has already carried many groups to Bialostok, Brisk, Kovel, Lemberg, Pinsk, and other cities in the East.  They were met there with music and fanfare and from there many were sent deeper into Russia.

The forests around Zaromb are full of Jews.  They have spread out there with all the belongings they were able to carry with them.  Many have been there several nights already, waiting their turn to board a train.  There is sore sort of order - children find and break twigs so their mothers can do some cooking in the improvised "kitchens".  The smell of smoke and various foods and spices wafts up among the trees.

Deeper in the forest, couples stroll, planning their futures again.

The locomotives with the big 5-pointed Russian star, chug back and forth, day and night.  Over the star is a portrait of Stalin and 2 large red flags flutter on either side.  That is Russia's way of saying, "Welcome."

The cars are decorated with red banners and greenery.  Under the windows are posters with slogans glorifying Soviet power and Soviet hospitality and greetings to the "Bezshentzes" for their good fortune in coming to the Soviet land.
The crowds push to get into the railroad cars.  Some are complaining that they have been waiting 2-3 weeks already. "How much longer?"  they ask, feeling free to talk to the Russian soldiers; they seem to have forgotten that war has broken out.

This is how hundreds of thousands of Jews got through the Zaromb chapter of their journey.  In far away Siberia, Mogingotorsk, Ural and in all the far corners of the enormous land of the USSR, Polish Jews recalled Zaromb with a blessing on their lips.

By the end of November, 1939, the Russian border was closed.  In November-December, thousands of Jews were gathered in the neutral no-man's land.  Most were beaten and robbed by the Malkin Gestapo or by hooligans who came and and attacked them, unprotected and hungry as they were.  Diseases began spreading among the Jews; some were dying, especially children.  The youth of Zaromb felt impelled to help.  They joined Russian soldiers in bringing the very ill to the hospital and the dead were given proper Jewish burials.  They brought both material and moral aid to what extent they could.  Despite the severe risk, they helped some get across the barbed wire, especially women with small children, and brought then to Zaromb.

Some Zaromb youths took a red flat from Stalin's portrait and organized a "storming" of the border.  After an intense meeting against the German despots and the recalcitrant Russian government, they organized the Jews in the no-man's land into rows - the women and children in the vanguard...  And, singing the "International" and waving the red flag with Stalin's portrait above it, they marched right to the border and up to the Soviet border guards.

The guards were disoriented and frightened.  They alarmed their headquarters with a report of "ten thousand marching on us."  Headquarters apparently did not wish to assume the responsibility of shooting at this mass of unfortunate Jews. The Red Army began shooting but only in the air.  They tried to push the marchers back, yelling "Get back, we will shoot."  Having nothing to lose, the mass stormed forward, getting through all the border posts.  They got to the wood by the Zaromb train station.  A few had been hit and killed by stray bullets and were left behind.  The rest were, for the time being, safe on the Russian side.

Many young men from Zaromb (including myself) acted as guides to lead this mass of refugees through the familiar paths to Zaromb.

In a second incident, in December, there were again about 10,000 Jews in the "no-man's land."  The deprivation and suffering of these "Bezshentses" is impossible to describe.  Children and old people were dying in hoards from hunger and cold. We could hear the constant moanings and cries in Zaromb.  Several attempts to "storm" the border were repelled as the border guard had been reinforced after the first "storming."

Germans on motorcycles made numerous "inspections" in the "no-man's land" which they called the "Judenpas" (the Jewish land strip) calling the Jews to come back across the German border.  The Pole Tshupanienko made the Russians aware of these incursions and they demanded that the Germans clear out of the neutral area immediately.  Zaromb was like a boiling cauldron.  Zaromber ran to Bialostok and Voyedvudzsbtve to the Red Army and to the Communist part. They even contacted Moscow.  Finally, there was a telegram from Stalin - "Prepushtchits" (let them through).

The border was opened for 15 minutes.  People ran.  Some were carrying weaker ones on their shoulders.  The officers could not control the situation. Young people from Zaromb went into the no-man's land strip and yanked children out of the tightly pressed mob, bringing then back through the wire fence.  They took bundles and threw them over into the Russian side.  The people of Zaromb did everything in their power to ensure that as many Jews as possible got through on in those 15 minutes.  Zaromb became etched in the minds of all the Polish refugees for its brotherly concerns and it's help to fellow Jews.

In 1940, when some "Bezshentses" began running back, into German-occupied Poland, Zaromb was once more the central point for crossing the border.  Contacts with Poland, letters regards, news and "Provodnikes" (men who led those Jews back, to the border) all went through Zaromb.  The nerve center of Polish Jewry, on both sides of the Breg River, was Zaromb.

It was a horrible, tragic situation.  Jews were running from German occupied Poland toward Russia asking only for a dry crust of bread as long as they did not have to witness the murderous cruelty of the Germans.  And from Russian held Poland, they ran back saying they wanted to die "in their own rubbish-heap with their own families."  It created a confusion which cost us dearly.

Zaromber welcomed all the Jews that came (even at great risk to themselves. The words of simple Zaromber Jews resound like Prophecies "Jews, remember, running back to Poland means placing yourself in the jaws of the beast.  Run from those German Hamens.  Save your children!"

I remember Hershel Pivke, the "King," veteran of the 1905 revolution, shouting, "Jews, Jews, it's too bad about your fortunes, your houses, your possessions, your money -- oh! your money.  How much pain and trouble those material things have brought you...throw it all away and run!  Run from the cursed diaspora anti-Semitism.  Become people equal to all other people!"

There certainly must have been Jews who remembered the words of the Zaromber Jews as they entered the gas chambers.

Under Soviet control, the life in Zaromb chanced markedly, got a new face.  All the youth were in one melting pot,"  formed into a single "club" with one point of view -- no more discussions.

The leaders of the "Jewish governing body" at that time were Khayim-Mayer Fayntsak, Lazer Levin, Levtche Fredman, Ilya Pravde, and Rokhel Diske.  Vislitski the shoemaker was the representative of the Poles.

The pressure to earn a living was enormous.  In the border town of Zaromb, trade was the main source of income.
There was no work, for the mass of people which had swollen Zaromb's population.  The Soviets started to enlarge the mills, the roads and the hospitals, giving some employment.  Cooperatives of locksmiths, shoemakers, balers, carpenters, and tailors were set up.  The Soviets also built several cultural centers: a huge club (from the burned-up old synagogue), a movie theater, a dance-hall, a reading room, a theater group (the theater was directed by Yankeo Gzshibovitch), a sport club where soccer matches were often held, and a folks-court presided over by Zshvadek the shoemaker, Saphieha the woodcutter, and Hinda Alshok.

The old bathhouse was rebuilt into a modern "sap".  The elegant pool was left.  Electric lines were brought into Zaromb.  Soon there were a number of Jewish government employees.  Gradually the Jews got used to working on Saturdays.  In the synagogue and the prayer-houses, worship continued as usual but no youngsters could ever be seen there.

Zaromb was one of the first places to get any news from German-occupied Poland.  The yellow stars the Jews of Warsaw were forced to wear sewn to their clothing, Nalevky 13…, ghettos, labor camps, concentration camps, robbings and shootings.  From Zaromb, the news was spread to all the refugee enclaves to the east and from there to all of Russia.

Then came the sudden murderous attacks by the German army on the Soviet Union.  The first Jewish victim of the attack was Zaromb.  On June 22, 1941, at 2:00 A.M., as the shtetl was just falling asleep (after an evening of dancing at the club), a rain of cannon fire and machine gun fire encircled the town in flames.  By 3:00-4:OO in the morning, German tanks rolled into Zaromb.  The local Red Army commander and the officers in the headquarters were unable to put up adequate resistance and, not wanting to fall into the hands of the aggressors, shot at the Germans from behind walls and through windows and used their last bullets to kill themselves.

The Red Army soldiers ran to the deep anti--tank ditches.  The Germans threw gas into the trenches, killing the Russian soldiers.  It was impossible to escape from Zaromb.  In that first night, during the first hour, more than 60 Jews were killed by bullets or by the flames.

By morning, the Zaromber Jews realized that the two years of freedom they had under Soviet rule belonged to the past. The Germans plundered the burned houses, and robbed the Jews who had huddled together in the remaining 2-1/2 small streets - Farbarske Street this side of Khayim "steppers" house, Yosl the painter's street (going toward the bridge) and Moyshele the locksmith's street.  The Germans demanded gold, money, objects of value and those preachers of racial superiority even demanded that pretty young Jewish girls be handed over to them.

A group of wild German soldiers forced their way into Yospe Dzshize's house and raped his beautiful daughter.  She was from Ostrov.  The Germans had groups of Jews to do unnecessary work just to torture them.  Three weeks after they came in, the German forced the Jews to remove the dead Soviet soldiers from the trenches with their bare hands and beat them during this gruesome task of removing the rotting bodies.

This went on for over 2 months -- every day there were new evil edicts for the exhausted, panicked Jews who remained in Zaromb.

Then came the tragic day, December 2, 1941.  The Germans let it be known that the Wehrmacht of Tzschitchev "wished" all Zaromb Jews to move to Tzshitchev where a ghetto was set up.  The reason they gave was the shortage of dwellings in Zaromb.  They said a Jundenrat would be established in the ghetto where all the Jews would be able to live quietly and even happily.  Though no specific date was given, the Jews of Zaromb understood that the long chapter of Jewish life in Zaromb was at its end…Jews rushed to Tzshitchev to be among the first to get the better living quarters the Germans said were available there.

There was a deadly stillness hovering over the Jews of Zaromb.  Many had a terrible premonition about the politeness of the German decree.  There were no dogs, no soldiers with bayonets to chase the Jews as they heard was the usual way in other towns.  This worried the Zarombers.

Jews "voluntarily" left the shtetl of their birth.  They left with so many memories of their own and memories of all the "Bezshentses".  Some went by rented wagons, some on foot with huge sacks on their shoulders.  The hush was interrupted only by cries of very little children, many of whomwere being carried in the sacks on their parents' backs, only their little heads visible.  The older children held on to the edges of their mothers' skirts or their fathers' coats, walking in silence as if they felt that crying or screaming would not help.

So, sadly in silence, Jews were wandering again: veins and muscles taut, backs bent under loads of household belongings, including Passover dishes and pots.  Nobody was chasing them, they were chasing themselves.  A new home - Tzshitchev.  They drink their own sweat; a strong, cold wind slaps their faces as they sway under their heavy burdens.

The old Jews thought, "It is still good; the Germans are not chasing us."  "It is not Ostrov or Pultusk or Vishkeven." They were accompanied by a little fear of what life would be like in their new "home".

In Sember, a large village between Zaromb and Tzshitchev, the Jews were encircled by Germans holding machine guns.  With bestial screams, they chased the exhausted, frightened Jews - the men, women, young and old, into the school house.  They were forced to throw their belongings down before being shoved inside.  Those who did not move quickly were shot on the spot.

Malke, Khayim Stepper's wife, ran to save her daughter who was riding in another wagon.  But the girl was already in a group surrounded by the Germans.  The Germans, thinking she was a Christian woman, yelled at her to get back or she'd go with the Jews.  She decided to share the fate of her daughter.  They were killed together.

Those few Jews who were still alive after the Tzshitchev massacre were also brought to Sember.  The Germans had promised that the Jews of the 2 shtetlekh would live together...they were keeping their word.  They would be together forever in one mass grave.

Mayshe the hatmaker's daughter had been hidden during her confinement but the Germans managed to find her and her infant and brought them to join her father.

Inside the schoolhouse, an old officer delivered a speech.  The theme was already familiar to the Jews.  Jews
were world capitalists and communists, he said, who declared war on the peace seeking German people.  That is why the Jews must suffer.  They must pay for what they had done.  "You are unfortunately guilty for your own destruction" the old, cold, sly murderer told them with cool German politeness.  After each sentence of the speech, the Jews were forced at gun point to applaud and shouted "Bravo!"

Saynay the shokhet said goodbye to the assembled Jews.  He tried to console them by telling them the day of reckoning would come.  "There will be a Jewish nation which will rise in Eretz-lsrael," he told them "and then they will certainly take their revenge!"  The speech evoked wild laughter from the Germans.  Saynay intoned the veduy; the crowd joined him weeping; the children realized what was happening.  Older children started shouting and screaming, "they are bandits, killers, demons," but then they join their fathers in the translation of the prayer into Yiddish as they did every Yom Kippur.

The Germans led the weeping Jews out of the schoolhouse in groups to the pre-dug pits (which had been used as
air-raid shelters) near the school. The Jews were told to remove clothing and shoes. The Germans handed shovels to the able-bodied Jews and ordered them to fill the pits.  As soon as the Jews began digging, a hail of bullets rained into their bent over bodies.

Mayer Raykhman (from Kempiest) whose young wife was in that first group, threw himself on a German officer who was standing by a cannon and grabbed him by the neck with his teeth.  He was cut down with knives.  But even as he died, his body kept convulsing with his desire for revenge!

Saynay the shoket cried out, "Murderers, we slaughter cows more mercifully!" He raised his fist at the Germans and to the Jews he said, "Remember, Jews, we are the grandchildren of the Maccabees and of Bar Kokhba!"  And, raising his hands to heaven, he spoke to God,  "And you, God in heaven, if you have decided that this is the time for your people to perish, send the Angel of Death -- we will gladly give him our souls for your sake!  After all, you are supposed to be our merciful father!"

"Reboynu-shel-olom, how can you watch all this and remain silent?"  The large, tall shokhet of Zaromb fell like a huge tree as a German soldier machine-gunned him and several other Jews standing near him.

The second group of Jews brought from the schoolhouse were told that after they filled the pit with earth, they would be free.  But the same tragic game was played out again and again and again...

The old people and small children - those unable to do the "work" were thrown live into the pit -- just picked up by bands and feet and thrown.  Infants were held up by their feet and their heads banged together, then thrown on the heaped bodies in the pit.

The old officer then ordered (for humanitarian reasons) that the half-living be peppered with machine gun bullets so they should not feel bad...having to lie alongside the dead.

He then called the Poles who were standing around to fill in the hole, which they themselves had dug in 1939.  They were paid with some of the least valuable items from the Jewish belongings.  The earth over the mass grave shook and heaved like waves of the sea from those not yet dead, who had not yet made peace with giving up their lives for a price, not like the heroes of Sayna and Mayer Raykhman!

In this horrible way, nearly two thousand Zaromber Jews gave up their souls!  Jews from Zaromb who had fled to
other towns and cities during the previous months perished in the various concentration camps and death camp gas chambers.

Two Zaromber who somehow avoided the slaughter of the Zaromber in Sember, Brontche Kasher's son and Rayze Veydenboym, were killed later on.  A few dozen families who had run away before the massacre to Sterden and Kosove were killed with the Jews of those towns a year later.  Shmuel-Leyb Roskolenker and Menukha (my mother) were killed with the Sterdin Jews in the Khulender forest on October 20, 1942, along with 30 other Jews.

Other Zaromber who were killed in nearby shtetlekh and villages under various circumstances were: Khaya Migdal, Motchepu, Mordecai-Mendl Migdal, Zelik Kelevitch, Khaytshe Rodzansky, Tobe Mentshe, Yoshke Graffe, R.L. Gure, Leybl "Bandek's" family and Leyble Vagntroyb.

There are some single graves, those of Khaya Migdal, Motye Migdal, Mordecai-Mendl Migdal, Zelik Kelevitch, Khaytshe Rodzansky, Tobe Mentshe, Yoshke Graffe, R.L. Gure, Leyble Goldberg and his family, Beyle Bergman,
Y. Deryukh and Leybl Vaijntroyb in various villages.  Sheyne-hibe Burshteyn, who was reported to the Germans by an old Christian Pole, was shot with her small child and buried in Rashenitza.

Only a few adults and children who were kept hidden by decent Christians survived.

This is how the holy souls of the Jewish shtetl of Zaromb breathed their last breaths.  September 2, 1941 will long remain engraved in the hearts of all the Zaromber who survived and in those left of the tens of thousands of refugees from Poland who went through Zaromb hoping for a better chance.

Eternal rest and honor to the martyrs of Zaromb!

Eternal shame and revenge on the German murderers!