The Darkness of the Forest – Part II

The day before Shavuot, 1942, the SS surrounded the Shtetl of Stoczek.  They ordered the Judenrat to deliver 135 men to the center of town.  These 135 men were captured and put on trucks to Treblinka — 15 kilometers away.  (One of these captured men was Shmuel Goldberg, whom Esther did not know at the time. See blog post 3/31/16.).  No one knew what would become of these men.  All Esther knew about Treblinka was that it was a small, sleepy village with a railroad station.  Moishe ran and hid, evading capture.  Chayim on the other hand, was disadvantaged, as he had cut his hand on a glass bottle in the factory and had a large bandage on his hand.  He was caught.  But just as he was going to be placed on a truck, the German, who now owned their factory, came and insisted that Chayim be released, asserting that Chayim was an essential worker in his factory.  Chayim was released.

“From that day on,” Esther explained, “there was a terror in the shtetl.  In the first place the women and children suffered because of the men who were taken captives, but the others felt somewhat like they were standing under a tree that had been cut and was about to fall, and was waving in the breeze, and as it rocked, a great misfortune was about to befall everything.”  From this day in June 1942 until just after Yom Kippur in September, the Jews of Stoczek “ran around with no purpose.”  Life was chaotic and the no one knew what the next day would bring.

The “next day” came just after Yom Kippur, when the Nazis returned – with empty boxcars.  Esther describes how “the Germans, together with their Ukrainian helpers, surrounded the entire Shtetl and took all the remaining Jews, altogether about 400 people, including men, women and children, without exception.  Anyone that tried to protest or run away, was shot to death right on the spot.  These 400 Jews were assembled in the market area and they were guarded by specially trained dogs and SS men – “who were worse than the dogs.”  The Nazis went house to house, screaming – rouse, rouse – and chasing everyone out of their homes to the center of town.  Then, it was into the boxcars and off to Treblinka, to the newly minted gas chambers.  The gassing had commenced just over a month  before, on July 23.

Esther, Moishe, their baby, Chaim, and their father, David, hid in the attic of the Kwiatek home.  Esther wrote a note on the front door saying “this house is owned by Germans” and she “closed it up with a good lock.”  Moishe’s mother, Faiga Leah, and sister, Chana, refused to hide.  They wanted to run away.  According to testimony that Chayim gave in Montreal, Canada, they ran to a Polish woman they thought was a friend and asked her to hide them.  The “friend” sent them to Treblinka.

Esther and the others hid in the attic for three days.  But their fear and uncertainty grew and their food ran out. So, on the fourth night, in the darkest part of the night, they climbed out of the window.  Going out the front door was not an option because Esther had securely locked it from the outside.  They ran to the forest to look for food and to hide.  There they found other Stoczek Jews, just as hungry and scared as they.  First, they dug a trench in order to hide, placing branches over the top to hide the pit.  Then a few of them went to nearby farmers to beg for food.  Some farmers gave them a few morsels and others sold them food, while others chased them away with threats that they would turn them over to the Germans.   It was the end of summer, so fruit trees were plentiful.  This helped to sustain them.

They knew that their group was far too large to be safe.  They agreed to split up into small groups and hide in different places, not knowing where the others were, so they could not tell the Germans if they were tortured.  Most of those in the initial collection of Stoczek forest refugees were captured, not by the Germans, but by their Polish neighbors who turned them in for a reward – 1 Kilo of sugar per Jew.  Esther could not believe that their Polish neighbors, who they had known for so many years would do this.  It made the pain of it all, even greater.

Esther, Moishe, their baby, Chayim, David, and a Kwiatek cousin, named Mindle stuck together.  The danger was ever present. The Poles scoured the forest, hunting Jews.  The group hid in barns during the day and only came out at night.  As fall turned to winter, the days got cold and the nights, colder.  With only the clothes on their back for protection, staying in the forest was daunting.  They ventured to a nearby town to seek help and shelter from the cold.  The Poles summarily threw them out of town.  Back to the forest they went – they had nowhere else to go.  According to Esther, it was at this time that David Kwiatek, Moishe and Chayim’s father, left the group and went off on his own.  I do not know why he left, but Chayim’s testimony states that his father went to hide with a friend in Wielga.  Chayim believed that this “friend” had his father killed.

In the dead of winter – January, 1943 – the trees and bushes were bare of fruit and they had nothing to eat.  The forest provided little protection from the elements and the pit they dug was dark and dirty, smelling of moldy earth and urine.  The group of four, plus a baby, decided to try to get help from Poles in another town.  They began to walk through the forest.  Chayim, a teenager, sat down on a stump and said he would go no further.  He wanted to stay in the forest.  The rest walked a bit further, hoping he would get scared and change his mind once he was all alone.  When he did not follow, Moishe asked Esther to go back and talk with him because he might listen to her.  Esther retraced her steps and found Chayim sitting alone.  She sat with him and gently convinced him to rejoin the group.

They walked back to where Esther had left Moishe, Mindle, and the baby.  They were not there!   They searched the whole section of the forest, but could not find them.  They dared not call out their names, for fear of being heard.  They must have been caught by Poles.  Esther could not believe it – her husband and child gone.  She would never find out what happened to them.  She was tormented by these thoughts every day.  Esther and Chayim sat on the forest floor and cried, their grief overwhelming them.

After the tears slowed, Esther resolved to go to the one person she felt would not turn her away – Helena Oleskowa.  One of the two sisters whose farms was just outside of Stoczek to whom she and Moishe sold soda.  When she saw Helena, she began to cry and cry, telling her all that happened.  Helena did not want Esther and Chayim to get caught, but she knew that they could not stay long – they would all be killed if they were found on her property.  She let them into the barn that night, but they could not stay long.

Chaim decided he would leave and find other people to hide with.  “Go ahead, but I am staying here in this barn” Esther said.  Chayim left, but was back within hours.  He had found another group of Jews hiding, but they would not let him hide without paying them.  Chayim had no money, so he returned to Esther in the barn.  Later, Esther learned that this whole group that insisted on money from Chayim, got caught in the woods and were killed.

It was all Esther could do to hold it together.  She thought she would “crack up.”  She went from one village to the next.  Some places threw her out right away, others let her stay overnight.  She moved around from barn to barn until the weather turned.  Food that winter was a huge problem – there was really nothing to eat.  Vegetation did not grow in the forest in the winter and the fruit trees were bare.  Helena left a bit of food in the barn – some potatoes and bread.  Esther begged and scrounged.  Sometimes the two sisters left her food in the dog bowl outside, so no one would know they were feeding her.  Other times, she saw food left for dogs on other farms and stole it.

By late spring and summer, the forest pits once again became the primary “home.”  More food could be found – mostly mushrooms and blueberries.  This new strange existence became “normal.”  There was a gayave – a watchman for the woods who would sometimes send them a piece of meat and other food with a small Gentile child.  Most of the time, she hid all day and only came out at night.

But one day that summer, Esther ventured out of the pit in daylight to look for food.  She went to the next forest over to pick some blueberries.  She looked Polish and spoke it fluently so she felt she could get away with this.  Chayim did not come because he looked too Jewish.  Esther found a blueberry field and got a bucket from a Polish girl.  There were two sides to the blueberry field.  On one side was a bunch of women who clearly knew each other and the other side, just some people picking.  So she went to the side where the people did not seem to know each other.  Hopefully no one would ask her any questions.  She started picking and then a forest policeman with a dog came over and asked to see her license to pick.  She said she did not have one, but that she would get one for next time.  He asked for her name, but she said, “why do you have to know my name?”  He said that he did not have to know, he was just curious.  So she did not tell him her name.  He looked at her pail and saw it nearly full of blueberries and he demanded that she give him all her berries.  She was scared to death, but she did as ordered and moved quickly to a new patch.  She picked a few more berries after that and left.  She returned to their hiding spot and told a worried Chaim what happened.  After that she did not go to the blueberry field any more — too dangerous.  She picked mushrooms instead.

Helena helped when she could and when it felt safe.  She had to do everything secretly.  She could not tell her family that she was helping Jews.  Especially her son – he was a Jew Catcher (see blog post 2/15/16).  One time that summer, Helena told Esther to take as many potatoes as she wanted from their garden.  So she took some and built a stove out of two stones, placing a pot on top.  Making a fire underneath, she cooked potatoes and put them in a sack and then cooked mushrooms and ate them together.  She had a little salt too.  They had white potatoes and red potatoes with mushrooms – this was a feast. It was so delicious; she savored each bite.  She felt good because she did not have to go to Helena to beg for food.

Now it was the end of July and she and Chayim were “surviving” – living in a pit and eating what they found in the forest and on the kindness of the righteous Poles.  It was July 31 when Esther dreamed that fateful dream with the “4” on the door. It was indeed 4 days later that she met and saved Shmuel Goldberg – the Treblinka escapee.

 

Sources:

  • Interview with Esther Goldberg.  April 12, 1993.
  • Testimony given by Chayim Kwiatek.
  • Interview with Fay (Goldberg) Gitnik, April 25, 2016.
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