It was a strange dream. It happened on July 31, 1943. In the dream, there was a door – the front door of the family home in Stok. Esther Vishnoew fled from there some four years earlier, at the age of 19, when the Nazis invaded and burned down this Polish Shtetl. In the dream, the number 4 is written on the door. Esther approaches the door and with a crayon re-writes the 4. Upon waking and finding herself in the dirt hole deep in the forest she currently called home, Esther believed that “something” was going to happen in four days. Chayim Kviatek, her junior bunker-mate, also a Stoker, was incensed. “If something is going to happen,” he said, “it is not going to be good.”
The third day after the dream – August 3rd – they saw “a big ball of fire in the direction of Treblinka – about 10 kilometers away,” Ether said. This frightened them even more. They hid in the woods, living life day by day, hour by hour. Poles were scouring the woods looking to deliver Jews to the Nazis for their reward – a kilo of sugar for every Jew caught. What they could not know is that the “big ball of fire” was in fact the explosion of the gas station at the death camp Treblinka that started a prisoner uprising.
The very next day was the 4th day. In the light of the morning, a Gentile woman asked Esther, “Do you want to see some Jews from Treblinka?” She jumped up and said “yes.” “I had not seen any Jews for six months, but I thought six years had gone by,” said Esther. “In addition, I knew a lot about what went on in Treblinka from the farmers who had been to the death camp. So for me it was like seeing something from another world and I agreed to this, although I knew that to see such Jews could be a pasteke (great danger).”
It was then that she met two well-dressed young men, looking exhausted and anxious. They explained that they escaped from Treblinka where just the day before the prisoners blew up the camp, killed some guards and ran out through a hole in the barbed wire fence. One of the two men was Velvel Schneidman, a Stoker, who Esther was so happy to see alive. The other came from “the small town, Bagatelle, near Vosseve,” Esther described, “who later became a virtual Stoker, and that is my husband, Shmuel Goldberg.” On that first meeting, the brown haired man Esther encountered was short, broad and handsome. His most prominent feature was his eyes – translucent blue – as you if she could see into his soul.
“It is not safe here – out in the open,” Esther explained. “Go into the woods and meet me back here at noon, when the Polish people have their dinner.” The escapees reemerged from the forest at noon to meet Esther with trepidation. Nazis, Ukrainians and Poles were hunting down the escaped Jews like animals, packing guns and machetes. Esther, who went by Krishka, her “shiksa name,” met them dressed as a Polish woman, with the signature white kerchief on her head. Esther, a short, strong woman, with a pronounced crooked lower lip, was intent on saving them. At that first meeting, Sam recalls how the year of hiding in the woods had transformed this beautiful young woman. “She looked terrible,” Sam said. “Nebach, she suffered. You should see how she looked. The vermin crawled from her. She looked very bad, Oy, how she looked, it was geferlach.” Notwithstanding this horrible appearance, Esther exuded an inner strength that led Sam to feel that there was no better person to help save him.
“Where can we hide out?” Sam asked. Esther took Sam and Velvel to a Christian woman, Helena Alleshkava, Esther and Chayim’s “angel” who left them food many days and allowed them to sleep in her barn on bitter winter nights. Seeing the fear in Helena’s eyes, Esther explained that these men escaped from Treblinka and needed to hide. “If someone does something, not for money, just to help, G-d helps them,” Esther pleaded. “All day, I pray that nothing bad will happen to you because if you will be ok, then I will be ok.” “Go to hell,” Helena said, “you must have learned to talk from the Gypsies.”
Nonetheless, Helena “took [us] in and [we] slept by her,” Sam said. “Not in her house, chas v’shalom, but in her barn, in the stall.” All four of them – Sam, Velvel, Esther and Chayim – hid in the barn for three days. Esther’s plea to hide them “not for money, just to help,” did not stop Sam from paying Helena for the great risk she took. “I paid her all the money I had – $20 pieces – about 4000 zlotes,” Sam said. “Money was worth nothing in Poland. If someone informed that she was holding us up, they would have killed her too. But she held us in a clever way. We didn’t go out in the day, nowhere. Only at night, 12, 1 at night.” The money, Sam continued, was “from the shirts. It was sewn into the shirts [at Treblinka]. When I worked with the shirts I took it out.”
After three days it became too dangerous to stay in Helena’s barn and the group of four, just like the miraculous number on the door, ventured back out into the dense woods to build new bunkers and try to stay alive. They knew “from the air” that the Soviets were driving out the Germans. They just did not know whether they would survive to see the Red Army liberate their patch of Polish woods.
What they had seen was the mass murder of their people. Esther was in the hospital when the German Einsatzgruppen killed the Jews of Slonim, including her parents and siblings (1941). She was in Stok when the Nazis took all the Jews to Treblinka (1942). Then after fleeing from Stok, she hid for a year in the woods 10 kilometers outside of Treblinka. Sam, survived the Soviet army and the German Blitzkrieg, escaped from a German prisoner of war camp, and was caught by the Germans and taken to Treblinka where he “lived” for 13 months. Historians put the number of people murdered at Treblinka at approximately 850,000.
It took another year of hiding in the Polish forest, living off their wits and the kindness of others, before the Soviet army arrived to save them.
Photo: The explosion at Treblinka, August 3, 1943 – the uprising – from 10 kilometers away. I found this photo in the Yad Vashem archive and I purchased a copy and am authorized to publish it, with credit to Yad Vashem (duly given). When I saw it, I realized that this could have been the exact view that Esther and Chayim had that day.
- 1993 Interview with Esther Goldberg
- Writings of Esther and Sam Goldberg in the Stok Yizkor Book (translated from Yiddish by Shlomo Goldberg)
- Interviews with Sam Goldberg (translated from Yiddish by Shlomo Goldberg)
- Snyder, Timothy. Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. New York, NY. Basic Books. 2010.