Who could imagine that typhus would be such a blessing?
Esther Vishnui was 21 when she contracted typhus. She was in a hospital in Slonim when 10,000 Jews were shot into a pit just outside the town by the German Einsatzgruppen. She survived because the doctor made her stay at the hospital. But this gets ahead of the story.
Esther is not originally from Slonim. She was born in the Polish town of Stok (Stozchek). The Nazis occupied and burnt the houses of Stok just a few days after the war began in September of 1939. The family was shocked and devastated. They, like so many others, moved to the Soviet-controlled side of Poland (reminder – Germany and the Soviet Union made a peace pact splitting Poland in half). They settled in Bialystok, a town approximately 10 kilometers from Stok. It was safe, but overcrowded. Esther describes the conditions:
“Bialystok was more than overpopulated, because Jews came here from all sides to save themselves from the German Sadists, and there was no room, not just to find a place to live but the street was so crowded that one could not even pass.”
In Bialystok, Esther worked – first making hats with a landsman, Yoel Landau, “who had acquired a lot of wool and used to later sell the hats.” They did not have real knitting needles. She recalls that her “father took a ‘rittle’ from a broom” and made some kind of knitting needle. Later Esther found work with a wealthy Polish family, who paid her and gave her food to eat.
“I had the best time of my life” Esther exclaimed. “I was young and I went to the movies and the Yiddish theater, which played in Bialystok at that time, and partied (farnrengt) in such a way that in Stok one could not imagine. I still had a little Polish money.”
Eventually, because of overcrowding, the Soviet government sent people to other towns. Esther’s parent and younger siblings were sent to Grodno, while Esther and her brothers were sent to the nearby town of Slonim. In Slonim, they settled in to a small apartment, trying to make a bit money here and there. They had enough to eat – “no luxuries, but enough.” Living in Slonim for two years, they were eventually reunited with their parents and younger siblings.
Then, Esther recounts, “came the horrifying day of June 22, 1941 – the day that the German overran Russia.”
After the Germans invaded, things went from bad to worse. Shortly after the invasion, “special task forces called Einsatzgruppen began to shoot political enemies and Jews” (Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin at xi).
The Einsatzgruppen were Nazi forces that traveled behind the army to “clean up.” There were four Einsatzgruppen forces. Testifying at the Nuremberg trials, the Chief of Einsatzgruppen D testified that the Einsatzgrupppen:
“[W]ould enter a village or city and order the prominent Jewish citizens to call together all Jews for the purpose of resettlement. They were requested to hand over their valuables to the leader of the unit, and shortly before the execution to surrender their outer clothing. The men, women and children were led to a place of execution which in most cases was located next to a more deeply excavated anti-tank ditch. Then they were shot, kneeling or standing, and the corpses thrown into the ditch.” (Lucy Dawidowicz, War Against the Jews at 170)
It was Einsatzgruppen B that murdered Esther’s family. The killing force followed the German Army who was on a march to conquer territory stretching from Warsaw to Moscow. In Bialystok, “some 7,000 Jews were killed by the Einsatzgruppen in July.” (Id. at 270) It only took another month for the killing to reach Slonim and Esther’s family.
It was during the Jewish month of Av, a historical time of destruction for the Jewish people that the Einsatzgruppen came to Slonim. Esther remembers the day precisely – August 20, 1941. The Einsatzgruppen, marched into town with their uniforms and swastikas and:
“Gathered together (herded) about 10,000 Jews from Slonim and its suburbs, including the mitglider of the Judenrat and the Jewish Police and they said that they [ ] would be sent to work. Taking young and old people was a daily dershinung (event). But this time they took the captives to a place from which they would never return: they took them on the road to Baranovich, where they told to dig deep ditches, and they shot them and some of them were buried half-alive.”
So where was Esther and how did she escape this fate?
This is where the blessing of the typhus comes in. While all this killing was going on, Esther was still in the hospital. She contracted typhus in May, a month before the German invasion and three months before the Einsatzgruppen’s murder spree in Slonim. Esther had recovered and “was almost ready to go home,” she explains, “but the doctor kept me in the hospital, apparently because as long as I was in the hospital I was assured of something to eat. I helped with the work in the hospital and my father asked (gebetten) me to stay in the hospital, rather than suffer from hunger at home. I would often meet my family and I knew that they had nothing to eat, but I could not help them. Later, things happened that were worse than mere famine.”
So, it was the blessing of typhus and an upstanding doctor that saved Esther from the Einsatzgruppen. Though she escaped this fate, the Einsatzgruppen were extremely effective. By the end of 1941, they killed approximately one million Jews in the Soviet-controlled lands. (Bloodlands at 189).
Free of Typhus, her parents and siblings murdered, Esther did not know where to turn. She went home to Stok. Stay tuned.
- Dawidowicz, Lucy S. The War Against the Jews: 1933-1945. New York, NY. Bantam Books. 1975.
- Snyder, Timothy. Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. New York, NY. Basic Books. 2010.
- Interview with Esther Vishnui Goldberg. April 12, 1993.
Picture – Esther Vishnui Goldberg with her daughter Fay, after the war in Displaced Persons Camp.