They came with their guns, whips, dogs, shiny black boots and trucks. It was September of 1942 when the Nazis “liquidated” the Shtetl of Stoczek. Screaming rous, rous (get out), shooting and whipping, the Nazis took all – the young, the old, the babies, the Bubbes and the Zeides, forcing them either to the Jewish cemetery where they were shot or onto trucks for the short ride to Treblinka.
Esther, together with her first husband, Moishe, his brother Chaim and their father David hid in the attic, evading capture. Fleeing to the woods just beyond town, they had yet a new reality – now they were hunted animal – at the mercy of nature and the compassion or brutality of the Poles.
The Nazi knew that after every liquidation, there would be some Jews like Esther, Moishe, Chaim and David, who slipped through their death net. These Jews were not left alone – no – each one was crucial to the Third Reich. Orders were sent throughout Poland to search for these escapees. One order sent on August 28, 1942 (just weeks before Stoczek was “liquidated”) to the elders in village of Janowice, which typifies the message that must have been sent throughout the land:
“Regarding the Regulation issued by the County Authorities on August 14, 1942 and concerning the deportation of the Jews from our areas, I hasten to inform you that the matter is very serious. You are to make absolutely sure that not even one single Jew, Jewess, or Jewish child is left on the territory of your commune. You have to immediately order the hostages to search the entire area, back alleys, bushes, and so on, in order to make certain that no [Jews] are left. Whenever caught, Jews are to be delivered to the nearest station of the Polish Police. I repeat that the penalty for hiding Jews is death. Village elders are also responsible for Jews hidden on the territory of their commune, and – in case of negligence – can face the death penalty. I remind you to make certain that these orders are being followed: you are responsible under the penalty of death – Kosmice Wielkie, August 28, 1942.” (Gabowski, Jan, Hunt for the Jews: Betrayal and Murder in German-Occupied Poland, 76-77).
So, with these orders, the Poles jumped to it. They organized Judenjagd – the Jew Hunt. These were not just a one-off things done once in a while – these were organized hunts by village “elders, forest rangers, wealthy peasants or simply by anyone who could inspire, threaten, or otherwise mobilize the village collective.” (Gabowski, 82) They would scour the woods, enter barns and search people’s attics to find the hidden Jews and claim their rewards.
Historians estimate that 2.5 million Polish Jews were still alive in the summer of August 1942. Of these, some 10 percent – or 250,000 – evaded capture during these “liquidations.” Less than 50,000 of them survived until the end of the war. Why? Because those carrying out the Judenjagd strove to unearth each and every hidden Jew. It seems that “[s]ometime in the spring, or perhaps in the summer of 1942, Jewish life, in the eyes of a large part of Polish society, had lost its value. If not for the fact that all attempts to save Jews were so deadly dangerous and that helping Jews was considered by many a sin, or even worse a crime, many of the Jewish refugees could have survived until the end of the war.“ (Gabowski, 172)
The danger to Jews who went into hiding after each liquidation was known, even as the war raged on. Emanuel Ringelblum, the founder of the Oneg Shabbat archive, who lived in the Warsaw Ghetto wrote:
”To clear the surrounding area of Jews, the Germans would employ two tactics: the method of rewards and the method of threats. Financial rewards and rewards in kind were put on the head of every Jew, in addition to which the clothes and belongings of those captured were also assigned to the captors. In western ‘Little Poland,’ in Borek Falecki, Wieliczka, Bocnia, and Swoszowice, for instance 500 zloty and a kilogram of sugar were being offered for every captured Jew. These tactics resulted in success for the Germans. The local population in great numbers turned Jews over to the Germans, who shot these ‘criminals,’ . . . Besides rewards, the Germans also utilized a system of punishments for hiding the Jews. Posters threatening capital punishment for this ‘crime’ appeared before every ‘liquidation action’ against the Jews in any given locality.” (Gabowski, 8).
Here is my problem – I cannot get the image of the Judenjagd out of my mind. I see Esther, Moishe, Chaim, Sam – all of them hiding in the forest – terrified of every move they make. Then groups of Poles come through the woods with one goal – to find them and either turn them in or simply kill them. We know that Moishe was murdered by a Pole when he went alone through the forest searching for food. We don’t know who did it. After that Esther and Chaim couldn’t have ventured anywhere in the woods without a deep sense of terror and fear. Each day must have been longer and worse than the one before.
Then in August of 1943, Sam joined these hidden ones, making it a trio. What kind of a life was it, waiting for the moment when a neighbor would betray them or a Judenjagd would find them in the Stys’s barn or in their forest pit. Maybe they would have been killed on the spot or maybe they would have been tied up and delivered to the Germans. Besides this daily horror, they faced ever-present hunger, freezing cold, rain and sleet, boiling days of summer, dirt, and lice.
But miraculously, Sam, Esther and Chaim were not found by those on the “Hunts” nor were they betrayed by neighbors. Three of the 50,000 Jews who survived in hiding, made it to see a new day and a new life – Esther and Sam in the United States and Chaim in Canada. I write this blog on an airplane flying away from Boston where I spent the first days of Passover with those who owe their lives to the resilience and unrelenting will to live of Sam and Esther Goldberg. This ever-growing family shared the simple joy of being together, eating Mazta and drinking wine, telling of the Exodus from Egypt and remembering the Exodus of their parents and grandparents from Nazi-controlled Poland. I hope Sam and Esther were watching from their heavenly perch.
Descendants of Sam and Esther Goldberg (and spouses) – photo taken on April 1, 2018.