“And no language of poetry exists that can articulate our tragedy on the written page”
Uri Zvi Greenberg
On the night of September 25, 1939, we waited for Father, who was late in coming home. None of us knew where he had been taken or for what purpose or when he would return. Night fell. My mother was gripped in fear and she took me into her arms. I was the youngest of the siblings. My oldest sister, Ita, aged twelve, tried to instill calm, embracing her two younger sisters, Sara and Zipporah. With tears in their eyes, they huddled together in the center of the bed near my mother. We awaited the unknown.
Heavy gunfire shattered the quiet of the night. Shots were heard at increasingly shorter intervals. Suddenly, the door opened and Father entered, exhausted and perspiring, a look of desperation on his face. “The accursed Germans are slaughtering us mercilessly, cruelly and without cause,” I heard him whisper to my mother. Father went into the kitchen, seeking to satisfy his hunger. Afterwards, he joined us in bed. We lay in tense anticipation of the next day. The volleys of gunfire that echoed in the air were constant, not ceasing for a minute. Not one of us fell asleep during that night.
s arms, drifting between sleep and wakefulness. Every attempt to close our eyes and sleep was interrupted by the sound of bullets and the roar of cars and tanks. It seemed as if everything was aimed at our house. With every burst of fire, my mother would embrace wails of fear.
Father tried unsuccessfully to soothe them. The night dragged on. Every minute that passed seemed like eternity. Machine guns spat out fire in every direction and the noise was unbearable. Father occasionally opened the window a crack to let some fresh air into the room, taking deep breaths of air into his lungs, like a hospital patient desperate for oxygen. A temporary lull prevailed for a moment, within the house and outside. It seemed as if we had fallen asleep when heavy blows struck our door, breaking the silence. Rifle butts banged heavily on the door and I burst out crying. My mother and sisters also cried. Father stood and covered us with his body. The door flew open and five armed Germans stormed into the room. With hate-filled looks, they dragged us from the bed calling “Out! Out!” We were pushed outside with their bayoneted rifles. The roars “Jew, get out! Jew, get out!” grew louder. Father wanted to take some items from the house, but was forbidden to do so. Prodded by the Nazi’s bayonet, he was forced to leave empty-handed. Thus began our day – Tuesday, 13 Tishrei 5700; September 26, 1939.
They ordered us to march to the main street. We went up Warszawa Street with everyone, and from there joined the mass processions along Elaikes Avenue toward the park around the District House. The sight that greeted our eyes was shocking. Hundreds of Jews marched along the street, one family after another, all surrounded by armed German soldiers. Our family also joined the march to an unknown destination and an unknown fate.
The Germans pushed us into the line of marchers. Mother carried me in her arms, breathing heavily. Father was behind her, holding Sara’s and Zipporah’s hands. Ita walked to our right, her arm around Zipporah. Entire families continued to join the marchers along the way and the line grew longer. It now already included old and young, the ailing and the handicapped, pregnant women and children, babies and middle-aged men, rich and poor. Everyone marched. This strange procession was accompanied by the curses and shouts of the Germans. They beat the marchers without let-up.
The Jews were banished from their homes in the early morning hours. Most did not have time to get dressed or prepare anything to take along. Some were still in pajamas and robes; some were barefoot. The line of people grew longer and longer. Hundreds turned into thousands. Wails and shouts from babies and mothers were heard from all sides.
Armed and threatening Germans marched along the sides of the road. They were careful to let no Jew escape. Whoever tried to leave the line was shot and killed. We passed several people whom we knew, lying dead. Their bodies were dragged to the side, their blood still flowing down the street. Nobody dared disobey the Germans. The crying mingled with the fear and became a din that the soldiers tried to silence, but to no avail.
Terrified, I buried my head in my mother’s chest and tried to close my eyes. My mother’s breathing became increasingly ragged from one minute to the next. It was hard for her to walk while carrying me. Her exhaustion was taking its toll. The march of terror reached the park at the foot of the ancient castle, not far from the Wishkov Bridge.
Upon reaching the park, we were ordered to relinquish all our valuables, including rings and jewelry. A thorough and embarrassing search was carried out on each and every Jew. All were forced to undress and anyone found hiding something of value was flogged in front of everyone and shot to death. The Germans did not overlook a single one of the thousands gathered there. For some reason, I clearly remember, as a boy, that there was a soccer field in this park. In any case, it was now crowded with humiliated Jews.
The Nazis’ goal quickly became clear. They wanted Pultusk to be Judenrein, free of Jews. The entire Jewish population of the town was ultimately shoved into the park. The tumult was awful: the cries of babies mingled with the shouts of Jews being beaten and the groans of the sick and the elderly.
Toward evening, an order was given and the line of marchers was pushed out of the park with blows and shouts. It looked like a herd of animals being driven forward. We were to march toward the Wishkov Bridge, the wooden bridge that connected the two banks of the Narew River. Mother still carried me in her arms. My father and sisters dragged on from behind, and five Germans urged us along, beating us and stabbing at us with their bayonets. Amidst all the haste, the uproar and the fear, Mother tripped and fell on her face, with me in her arms. Father paused to help her get up, but was hit viciously by a Nazi who yelled at him like a madman. I couldn’t understand what was being shouted in German. In the end, the Nazi aimed his weapon at Mother and shot her while she was still holding me. Her screams were bloodcurdling. My sisters and I set up a deafening wail. In a split second decision, Father pulled me from Mother’s arms, though I sobbed bitterly and held my arms out toward her, vehemently refusing to part from her.
Mother was shot to death by a Nazi monster, without reason and with absolutely no hesitation. There are moments in one’s life that can never be forgotten. They are engraved on the walls of your heart and become an inseparable part of your being. I went through many periods of suffering, depression and battles of survival in my life, but this one moment is buried deep in my heart and will never be erased from my memory. It is written in my mother’s blood, on my arms still outstretched toward her, as in those terrible moments. Her heart-wrenching cries as she bled at the foot of the wooden bridge still reverberate in my ears. Not only did I hear her cries, I also saw her screaming voice.
It is written of the Revelation at Mount Sinai: “And the entire people saw the thunder” (Exodus 20:15). In the course of my life, I never understood how it was possible to see sounds; I was not present at the Revelation at Mount Sinai. But this time – I saw the sound, the sounds of my mother’s screams. This is what remained with me of her. Not a photograph, nor a souvenir, only the sound of a heart-rending cry. And this I hear and see even now, many years after her murder. These are the sights and sounds that have accompanied me for my whole life, and it is they which have determined my character and my path in life.
We were forced to continue on our way, while being pushed and beaten by our “escorts.” We traversed the bridge crying and broken-hearted, leaving Mother behind wallowing in her blood. Father plucked me from Mother’s arms, lifted me up, and we continued to tramp along the bridge, together with my sisters. This was a journey of unadulterated suffering. Not satisfied with murdering Mother, the Germans continued to beat and snipe at us, while laughing derisively. Father covered me with his strong arms and pushed my sisters forward, as far away as possible from the whips and bayonets.
The Germans knocked off the hats of the Jews who passed in front of them, and threw them in the Narew River. Their shouts of glee were drowned out by the cries and wails of the marchers. A German officer standing on a jeep driving on the bridge called out to the Jews on a megaphone to hurry up and cross over. Those who couldn’t maintain the necessary pace were shot and dumped into the stormy waters of the river. The first leg of the march of terror and the humiliation on the bridge had come to an end. We reached the other side of the river, and here were confronted by beastly shouted commands and beatings.
“Run to the Russians, your allies!” called out one of the Nazis, and another roared: “Jump into the water, filthy Jews!” There was no time to look back. Night fell on the area and thousands of terrified Jews, who had been chased out of their homes, made their way into the unknown, beaten and degraded. Starved, broken and exhausted, we reached a crossroads. Where should we go? The night’s chill began to make itself felt. My whole body was trembling in fear, and now from cold too. My body craved food and water. It had been many hours since any food had entered our mouths. Along the way, we encountered families as unfortunate as we were, going nowhere.
Little by little, thousands of Jews gathered on the other side of the river. From everywhere came the calls of children looking for their parents and parents seeking their children. Women sought their husbands and vice versa. All were searching for acquaintances and relatives. People stumbled around amidst the confusion, clamor and sobbing, without knowing where they were going. And we, too, marched over there, to the pandemonium on the other side of the bridge.
It is impossible to put the sights we saw during those hours into words. As stated, dozens of Jews were thrown from the bridge into the river. Many were beaten and tortured for no reason. Others were shot to death in cold blood. Our senses urged us to flee as far away as possible from the fear and the horror. Many escaped to surrounding villages, to Avrita, Delogoshadla, Wishkov and other hiding places, in the hopes of eluding the Angel of Death. Our family, however, had already suffered the Angel of Death’s visit; we were horrified at having witnessed Mother’s murder right in front of our eyes. Father decided that I, his only son, a small child, had to be saved at any cost. Thinking aloud, he decided that my sisters were sufficiently “mature and independent” to survive this period together with him. He deliberated about what could be done so that I, little Sholom, would remain alive. An idea occurred to him. He would hide me with his Polish friend, with whom he had business ties. The friend lived in one of the villages en route to Wishkov. Father decided to hide me there until the danger passed. He asked Ita to remain with my sisters in a hidden spot on the side of the road until he would return. He promised to come back as soon as he had delivered me to the Polish friend.
We endured several moments of terrible fear. My sisters cried bitter tears of utter anguish, wrapped their arms around me and refused to give me up to Father. Father had to forcibly remove me from their warm embrace. I choked on my sobs and my arms remained outstretched toward them for a long moment. For the second time on that same terrible day, I was torn from someone who loved me, from the human warmth and feminine love of the family.
Father was determined to save my life. The further we went, the more the sounds of my sisters’ cries faded. Father disappeared into the darkness, with me in his arms. Along the way, we saw hundreds of families going eastward. Father left the main road where the masses were walking and started his hike through the plowed fields, toward his Polish friend’s village.