As promised in the February 1 Blog Post in which mass extermination of Soviet Prisoners of War was described, here is Sam’s POW story. It is amazing!
August 23, 1939 – the Germans and the Soviets signed a Non-Aggression Pact. Poland was sliced in half – the Soviet Union took the northern part, Germany, the southern part. Both agreed not to attack the other.
September 1, 1939 – Germany attacks Poland from north, west and south and occupy the areas agreed upon in the Pact.
September 17, 1939 – Soviets invade eastern Poland and occupy the areas agreed upon in the Pact.
Poof – no more Poland.
The Goldberg family’s farm was in Bagatelles, on the German-side of the line. It did not take long before the Nazis arrived and told them to leave – NOW. Sam, a young innocent man of 19, said – “let us take our cows.” The Germans said “NO.” Sam pleaded with them to be able to take at least one cow. The German relented and allowed one cow to go along with them as they left in their horse-drawn wagon. Like so many others, they moved to the Soviet-controlled zone – to Yashenitz where Sam’s aunt lived. There they were safe. Sam’s father, Zelig, managed to do some “business.” Sam bought and sold on the black market. They made do.
But now they were Soviet citizens and when the army officer came to draft the young men into the Soviet army, they had no choice. Just before Passover, in April of 1940, Sam was drafted into the Soviet army. He served in a battalion that was 75% Jewish. He was a “sapion” – building and repairing bridges. By the time the Germans ripped up the Non-Aggression Pact and attacked the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, Sam was an expert; he had been building bridges for over a year.
It was a very long year. Sam, so close to his parents, had never lived away from them. He missed them so badly. Conditions in the Russian army camp were bad and the food was worse. “A yellow kasha” Sam described. “Fershtunkina (putrid) yellow kasha. It was like lying around for 20 years, it stank from a distance and we had to eat it because they had no better.”
When the Germans attacked that day in June, it was swift and brutal. While the German planes flew low, shooting at the Soviet soldiers, the infantry arrived to multiply the force effect. The Soviet soldiers had no hope of counter attacking.
Sam’s battalion was in Chechenovses, not too far from his family farm. When the attack came, he was helping to build a yet unfinished bridge with two or three hundred other soldiers. Sam hid under the bridge praying that it would not be bombed. His gamble paid off. He hid there until the guns died down. When he emerged he saw so many dead soldiers that “the dead literally covered the survivors.” The survivors became prisoners of war.
The Germans built a makeshift POW camp in the woods near Zembrov, holding more than 3000 POWs. They were Poles, Russians, but mostly Jews. The first order was to dig graves for the thousands of dead soldiers. Then, without food for two days, the exhausted, filthy Soviet soldiers, stood in row after row in a state of shock. Remember these Soviets soldiers believed that Germany was their buddy – they had a deal!
But here they stood, facing a new reality. The German officer yelled: “All Komosavoltziz step out!” The Soviet Officers stepped forward and were shot on the spot – “ta ta ta ta ta.” Then the officer yelled: “All Politrupin step out!” The political officers stepped out of line and were shot – “ta ta ta ta ta.” Then the officer yelled: “All Jews step out!”
Sam stood in line, exhausted, starving, and as he described, his “life was ugly,” he “did not want to live anymore.” He was ready to step out knowing full well that the shot would come. He hoped it would be quick.
But then a large Russian from Kavkas, forcibly held his arm and said: “No, don’t go. Whatever happens to me will happen to you.” Sam looked at his friend with his tired clear blue eyes and said, I am too hungry, I want to die. The Russian had a sugar cube in his pocket and gave it to Sam who put on his tongue and let the sweetness run down his throat and revive his soul. Sam did not step out.
Those left alive after this “liquidation,” were not a happy group. The Germans held them for days without food or water. Then when something to ingest finally arrived, it was “jelov,” Sam explained, it was “some kind of broth that was so disgusting, ordinarily we would not have touched the outside of a vessel containing such a thing. But now we drank it with a hearty appetite – and we were refreshed by it.” While the prisoners laid around in a weakened and starving state, the German soldiers mockingly ate meat and drank wine.
One night in the darkness at 2 AM, the Russian from Kavkas grabbed Sam again and quietly they walked through the throngs of sleeping men to the barbed wire fence at the edge of the camp. The Russian had wire cutters! He cut a hole in the fence and together, with two other Jewish prisoners, they ran out into the woods. Sam knew these woods; this was his territory. He led the way.
They ran until they reached an orchard. Shaking a tree, some of the precious fruit fell to the ground. They devoured it. Then the owner of the orchard saw them, and came over. His eyes flickered with warmth and recognition when he saw Sam. He asked “are you the son of Zelig of Bagatelles?” Sam said “yes.” This man was a Jew and recognized Zelig in Sam’s youthful face. Zelig had a very good name and had helped many people, one of whom apparently was this orchard owner. He “right away” brought them milk and bread, admonishing them not to eat too quickly or too much, since they had not eaten in days.
The relief of having food in his stomach could not be measured. Sam looked around and saw a scarecrow in the garden. In the spur of the moment, he switched clothes with the scarecrow, thus creating perhaps the first scarecrow dressed as a Soviet-soldier.
It did not take long for the Germans to realize that prisoners had escaped through the hole in the fence. As the light of the new day emerged, Sam and his companions saw three machine gun carrying Germans running towards the orchard. Terrified, they did not know which way to run or what to do. The Russian and the other two Jews ran out into the garden to get away. Sam realized he was about to be killed and asked the orchard owner to tell his father what happened and ask him to take his body out of there. He did not follow the three others. Instead he hid by a tree, pressing his body so close to the trunk that his flesh memorized every knot and bump.
The German soldiers threw grenades and shot at the three other escapees. They were killed instantly. At the sight of these killings, the orchard owner’s daughter standing near Sam, began to wail. She screamed so loud and so desperately, that the German soldiers came running over to help her. They got a bucket of water and poured it on her face to snap her out of it. Sam hid behind the tree in his scarecrow outfit. The Germans paid him no heed. Their only concern was rescuing the damsel in distress. After doing their good deed for the day and successfully finding and shooting the escaped soldiers (or at least most of them), they headed back to the POW camp to report their success.
Sam stood in silence hardly breathing as he watched the Nazi soldiers walk away. He could not believe the miracle that just happened.
Sam thanked the orchard owner and decided to go to Yashenitz where his parents were living. Yashenitz was on the Soviet side of the thin black line on the map that separated the two zones of control in Poland. But now that protective line was erased. The Soviet area was no more. The Nazis had arrived. He needed to get back to his parents.
As he began his journey, he saw the Poles running towards a mill that had been set afire by the Germans. This was a wonderful diversion – he joined the running mass of people, drawing no attention to himself. He detoured just before reaching the mill and safely headed toward Yashenitz and his parents. He only hoped he would find them still alive.