A tangled web

… we had never dreamed that their home was a hideout for burglars and murderers. …

One evening. Stashek and his friend Vladek, who was an older man of about forty with a terrible limp, came to the house, and Yozhik, Monyek and Semmen went out with them to commit the robbery. …

The five arrived back late that night, laden with sacks on their backs … “We have geese in the sacks,” said Yozhik to the women. … As it turned out, everything had gone well. They reached the farm but decided not to enter the house. Two of the guarded the house and the others entered the pigpen to kill the pig. But the pig got away from them and ran outside. … So they went into the poultry enclosure where the geese were, slaughtered them and put them into the sacks. At this point, the farmer had awakened—perhaps from the honking of the geese—and came outside to see what was going on. Monyek and Vladek, who had been guarding the house, caught him, went into the house with him, ordered his wife and daughter out of bed and made them all lie down on the floor. The farmer was not rich. There weren’t many objects of value in his house that had been worth taking. Nevertheless, Vladek and Stashek took everything they could carry—clothing, the farmer’s boots, the top of a sewing machine. Stashek suggested that we divide up what they had taken, but Yozhik replied that we could do without the clothes; we would be satisfied with the geese.

The late-night feast that was served was wonderful. The organ meats of the geese were delicious. During the meal, Stashek remarked, “It doesn’t matter that tonight wasn’t a total success. What is important is that we are a good team and that together we cab do great things. We’ll plan the next job, to steal a pig, soon, and this time he won’t get away from me.” Before a week had passed, Stashek and Vladek appeared again, ready for action. “Boys, we’re going out on a job,” said Stashek. “And this time, I picked a good farm. There are a few pigs there. One minus is that the farm is inside the village, but the village is close to the forest, and we have an easy walk.” He seemed excited and added, “This time we’ll need the boy.” …

We reached the forest and walked along the outskirts. Stashek stopped, explained that we were close to the village and that this would be our meeting place after the job, whether we had succeeded or failed. He divided up the tasks among us: he, Vladek and Yozhik would go into the pigpen and slaughter the pig; Monyek, Semmen ans I would keep guard on the house. We moved on and passed a few farms that stood at some distance from each other. Although it was still early in the evening, the village was completely silent and we didn’t see the gleam of a light in any of the houses. We stopped by the house which that had been targeted, and Stashek went on ahead to calm the dog—he had a way with them—and after a few minutes he returned and sent Monyek to guard at the back of the house, placed Semmen at the door, and I was to stand at the window. Stashek, Yozhik and Vladek, armed with two rifles, entered the pigpen and we stood guard, holding only sacks in our hands. …

Suddenly I heard steps. I turned and saw someone walking toward the door, where Semmen was standing, his back up against the wall. Semmen jumped on the man with a quick movement, put the sack he had been holding over the man’s head and struggled with him, grasping with both hands. … The man had freed himself, taken out a knife and stabbed Semmen in the back, luckily a superficial wound, and began shouting, “Robbers! Robbers!”

From inside the house, someone had gone up to the attic and was shouting, “Help! Robbers!” At that moment, we heard the chimes of the church. Stashek shot twice in the direction of the attic and the calls for help ceased. He told us to get away, abd we ran in the direction of the forest; behind us was the sound of bells, the shouts of people and the squealing of the pigs that had escaped the pen. …

Twice we had gone out on an important mission and twice we had failed. Getting our hands on a pig was imperative, as it would supply us with meat and oil for the rest of the winter. … All of a sudden Yozhik said, “It’s not too late. I know of a rich farm, isolated, far away from the village, and there are pigs there. We could go there now. We’ve learned from our mistakes. I’m sure that we’ll be able to get hold of a pig; we can’t go home without one.”

Stashek agreed without a moment’s hesitation. We walked for a few more kilometers until we reached the farm. It really did appear to be prosperous. There was a family home, two stories high, its tin roof galvanized, which was a rarity in the area. The yard was very large and contained a granary, shelter for the poultry, and barns. This Vladek and Semmen guarded the house, armed with rifles, and Monyek was with them, unarmed. I had no special job so I went back and forth between them. In the pigpen, there were five medium-sized pigs. This time, Stashek and Yozhik were able to kill a pig quickly and I was sent to bring sacks. I went into the granary, where sacks of grain were piled. I emptied the contents of one of the sacks, and I brought it to the pen, but after everything had been cut up and packed, Stashek and Yozhik decided to kill another pig. I took everything that was packed and ready to a spot some distance from the house, and I was left to stand guard while the four others returned to slaughter another pig. Unlike the first robbery, during which I had been trembling with fear, for some reason I was now calm and relaxed; even though I was guarding alone, I was not afraid. … When I heard the sudden squeal of a pig and then a return to silence, I knew that the second pig had been killed. A short time later, I saw the others coming toward me.

It was late and we still had fifteen kilometers to walk—with the heavy burden of two slaughtered pigs and a sack full of geese, we couldn’t hope to get home by morning. …

We spent the next day eating until we were completely satiated. We were all happy and in good spirits. The night, which had begun as a complete failure, had ended in complete success. Stashek could not stop praising Yozhik, saying again and again that we were his best friends, and he spoke of our operations to come. … Now they decided to find me a purely Polish name … it was unanimous that I be renamed “Bolek.” …

… who could have imagined that we would join a band of thieves? Robbery had always seemed to me such an act of cruelty and thieves were monsters, but I had participated in a burglary with no feeling of wrongdoing. In fact, everything had seemed simple and had even given me pleasure. …

And then, late one evening, after we had gone to bed, we heard people outside … Folka, Bronek, with his cut fingers, and Stashek had arrived by surprise … I knew who Bronek was immediately when I saw his right hand, which was missing a finger. He was in his twenties, short, with a constant smile. Pan Folka appeared to be over forty, of medium height, chubby with a small potbelly. He was dressed in a short leather coat and fine quality boots, and, in addition to a rifle, he carried a pistol under his coat. He looked serious and boastful and he gave the impression of complete authority—Bronek and Stashek looked like messenger boys next to him.

… Yozhik quickly became friendly with Folka, and the two sat together in a corner of the room and decided to go out on several robbery jobs in the coming days. …

A few days later after the meeting with Folka and Bronek, the enlarged gang, under the direction of Folka, began to go out on jobs at least once, and sometimes twice a week. The robberies were committed in a wide area … At first I was embarrassed just sitting at home and waiting for my friends to return late at night, relating their experiences and what they had taken in the robbery. Although I wasn’t too enthusiastic about stealing, any my health was still bad—my leg hadn’t healed, I found it hard to walk, and the scabies were al over my body—I wanted to be an equal partner with my friends in everything they did, good or bad, and not be a child who had everything done for him. So I begged Yozhik to convince Folka to let me join the band, and, in the end, he agreed.

From the first job I took part in with Folka, I could clearly see the difference in the quality of command. You could feel that an experienced man with leadership ability was directing the operation. From the moment we set out, no one felt the need to say anything. Folka led us calmly and with self-confidence. When we reached the house, he quietly gave directions to each of us; his orders were clear and unequivocal, and everything was done quickly. Folka had checked on all the details and, after surrounding the house with guards, he and Yozhik knocked at the door and ordered the people inside to open it. This wasn’t done immediately, and Folka gave a signal to Bronek and Stashek, who broke a window with the barrel of a rifle and jumped in, opening the door from the inside and hitting anyone who got in their way. The members of the family were gathered into one corner, and Bronek and Yozhik went through the rooms, checked whether anyone was hiding, returned and reported to Folka that the house was secured.

I looked at the family—a husband, wife, and four children of various ages, and one old man, huddling in the corner and trembling with fear, and a scene passed through my mind: the first days of the war. We were standing in the corner of the room—my mother, my sister, my little brother Yankele and I—huddling together; a German in a brown uniform had his pistol aimed at us, guarding us, and I was trembling with fear …

The job proceeded. The door of the cellar, which was in the floor of the room, was removed and the members of the family were forced down, one by one. Bronek took a gold ring off of the wife’s finger and she burst into tears, but wordlessly went down into the cellar. Folka took the farmer aside, spoke to him quietly and abruptly slapped him twice. The farmer led Folka to the next room and the two of them returned with a package of animal skins, and Folka forced him down into the cellar, as well. Everything was done in a few minutes, with perfect organization, like well-oiled machinery. Stashek bridled the horse and hitched it to the wagon, bringing it to the door of the house, and we wandered through the house, taking everything of value, clothes, boots, processed skins, pork steaks, a sack of flour, a few chickens that we managed to catch—and we loaded everything on the farmer’s wagon and left as quietly as we had come. The farmer and his family were left in the cellar. We put heavy furniture over the door in the floor. Who knew when the neighbors would discover what had happened and would discover what had happened and would free them from the cellar?

… On the way back, we stopped and Folka asked us what we wanted as our take from the haul. He knew, of course, that we had no need for the family’s possessions, and we were satisfied with presents for Yanka and Yula, and with some of the pork. We parted as friends and went home.

Our band carried out one robbery after another among the area farmers. On market days, we used to set up an ambush along the road, close to the forest; when a wagon passed by, coming home from the market, we would jump out, make the people get out and take the wagon with everything in it.

One robbery that horrified me in particular was carried out against one of the richest of the farmers two days before his daughter’s wedding. The house was very far and we reached it late at night, but the family in the house had not yet gone to bed. There was light in the house and we could hear the voices of people through the window. The door wasn’t locked and we entered the house easily. The house was warm, with odors of freshly baked goods that had just come out of the oven. The whole family was awake, and as we burst in, their ruddy faces paled. As usual, Folka took swift control of everything. After some perfunctory blows, the family was herded into the cellar. Bronek and Stashek were in good humor. Bronek grabbed the bride, pulled her against him and tried to kiss her. The girl resisted and was slapped. The groom tried to defend her, but was also struck and then thrown into the cellar. Pan Folka stood like a proud father watching the antics of his children. Bronek dragged the bride over to a bed that stood in the corner of the room. The girl struggled and shouted, “Take everything, just leave me alone!” But Bronek hit her again, and raped her. Then Stashek raped her, as well.

Sometimes I found justification for the robberies we carried out—why should only the Jews suffer? Let these non-Jews get a taste of our suffering. I saw our deeds as a kind of retribution for the “Polacks” who had helped to destroy the Jews [emphasis added], but I couldn’t stomach the cruelty of Bronek and his friend, Stashek, and the suffering of the girl. … I began taking things out of the house, running to and fro insanely.

We emptied the house of everything that had been prepared for the wedding. We loaded crates of excellent vodka onto the wagon, along with sides of smoked meat, baked goods and sweets of all kinds, and we left in a wagon that was filled to capacity. For a long while, I kept hearing the creams and sobs of the bride and reliving the scene of Bronek with his pants pulled down.

We came home laden down with treats, but our heats were burdened with terrible feelings. We didn’t exchange a word on the way home. We had shamed ourselves. We had seen our partners in the robbery at their cruellest, and we had cooperated in their horrible deeds. With what speed we had passed from one side to the other, from the robbed to the robbers! But we could think of no way to end this partnership before the summer, when we could go back to living in the forests. And, on the other hand, we were living comfortably in our present situation; we had gotten through the hard winter peacefully, in a warm house, eating our fill. And Folka, Bronek and Stashek had treated us as equals—we never heard them use the word “Jew.”

The next evening Folka, Bronek and Stashek came to visit, and a party began which went on all night. …

One day, Bronek came to visit and asked Yozhik to come with him to a party he had been invited to. … Yozhik returned that night and said that when they had arrived, they had been received warmly and given drinks, but there was something suspicious in the way the guests were behaving—he noticed that they were waiting for other guests. “And my heart told me,” he related, “that something was going to happen. I warned Bronek and we left. The others tried to block our way, but he threatened them with Bronek’s rifle and with the knife I had, and we managed to get away.”

Some time later, we found out that the Polish Armia Krajowa –right-wing partisans who were operating against the Germans … had had a unit operating in our area that had issued a death sentence for Bronek, and a few days later, they trapped him. They had given him a short field trial and hanged him on a tree along the main road … and posted a sign on his body announcing that he was being punished for “treason to the homeland.” When we heard that Bronek had been killed, we fled into the forest. We were afraid that his murderers had managed to force him into giving information about us before he was hanged.

Two days passed—and then Stashek burst into the house and told us with tears in his eyes that Pan Folka had been killed. … he said that he had gone to meet Folka at the home of one of his mistresses, but when he had reached her village, he had been told that at dawn, policemen from the neighboring towns had arrived and had surrounded the house, calling on him to come out and give himself up. Folka opened fire on the police. There was a long battle, and at some point Folka jumped from the back window of the house and tried to get away, but the house was completely surrounded. As he ran, he was was shot, wounded and fell to the ground. He continued to fight, wounded, until he had used up his bullets—but he reserved the last bullet for himself. He shot himself in the head, and died. Four policemen had been killed. It was later said that one of his mistresses had informed on him in retribution for having left her.

We were in shock. Folka had been killed! It had only been a week since Bronek had been killed! Stashek was miserable. Folka and Bronek had been his only friends on earth. He was on bad terms with everyone in his village—everyone hated him—and now he didn’t have anywhere to go. He went from village to village, took part in every brawl and got himself into every dangerous situation he could. … in the end, the Ukrainians caught him and threw him alive into a burning house. He was burned to death and no one cared. After Folka and Bronek had dies, Stashek had become superfluous and we, who had wanted to be rid of them all and to sever our relationship with the thieves, were freed from them all within a month. Our feeling toward them were mixed. On the one hand, they had always been fair with us … and we had even felt friendly toward them; but on the other hand, their merciless cruelty had greatly troubled us—they treated human life as if it were worthless.64

Kalmen Wewryk provides a fascinating description of his travails as he roamed the countryside in the vicinity of his home town of Chełm after his escape from the Sobibór death camp. His account gives us considerable insight into the mentality of the peasants, their generosity, their reaction to violent robberies, and the turmoil, suspicion, and fear that permeated everyday life.

My running brought me to a Polish hamlet. A Polish-speaking man with a gun accosted me. I started to cry. He turned out to be a decent man, however. He took pity on me, and told me where to hide. I followed his directions, went into a forest and made a hide-out. … I was there for about 2 weeks …

I was, however, tormented by my intense desire to find and join the partisans, and this desire pushed me to leave that forest. … So, hiding in ditches, I left that forest refuge … I saw a farmer in a wagon driving down a dirt road, so I approached him. … I asked this farmer, “Do you know where I can find partisans?” … He said, “Go ahead over there. The hamlet is called Teryesheen [Teresin]. An old woman living in the first house will help you. Some Jews are hiding in the hamlet. …

When I found the house I noticed an old woman sitting by the fire. She asked me who I was. I told her, “I’m a Jew. I’ve been told you can help me find the partisans. I want to join them.” The house was a very primitive one and the interior reeked of poverty. The old woman asked me all about my background, my experiences. … A 16 or 17 year old girl came over to me and started to talk to me. She seemed to be a typical peasant girl, but I figured out after a while that she was Jewish. I spoke to her in Yiddish, but she answered only in Polish. She evidently refused to believe my story and, as she told me later, she thought I was a provocateur, an agent sent to ferret her out. I still had my family photos in my pocket … She now believed me. She gave me some potatoes to eat and told me that I must not be seen in that house. She led me to another area of the hamlet and hid me in an abandoned stable. She said that she would, that very night, contact her father Moishe and tell him about me.

Late that night Moishe and his brother came to the stable. They told me that they were part of a family of 5 Jews in hiding. … Everybody in the hamlet knew that this family was hiding, but nobody knew where and they didn’t want to know where. Moishe told me how they were loved in that hamlet—there were decent people there. Moishe gave me a roll of bread to eat and told me directly that I couldn’t hide with them. They had problems enough of their own without a “Sobiboru” [the nickname given by the peasants to Wewryk, an escapee from Sobibór] attracting more attention to them. … Moishe wished me good luck and slipped out. … I learned that they remained alive by stealing at night, “visiting” neighboring hamlets. …

I reached a nearby hamlet and approached a house to beg for food. This was a hamlet inhabited by Baptists … So every day I went to a different peasant and begged for food. They gave me small amounts of food and begged me not tell the neighbors. Every single one of them was living in terror … Their terror was contagious—I was afraid to stay in that hamlet so I returned to Teryesheen and hid in another ruined Jewish house. At night, when I went to beg for food, I ran into somebody from Moishe’s family. … He said that the peasants were only out to scare me and chase me away … They were afraid that Germans would come and burn the whole hamlet to the ground. …

As I plodded along I heard wood being cut far off in the forest. … I saw a young boy, dressed like a typical peasant lad. He looked to be around 13 or 14 years old. He became very, very frightened when I drew near. … I started to speak to him in Polish, and as I spoke I saw him becoming more and more uneasy. Then, on impulse, I switched to Yiddish; the color returned to his face and he smiled. …

The boy returned a short while later and led me to a deep hidden bunker made of wood. … There were 2 small children with her in the bunker. The boy I had found, Mendele, carried a rifle as did his 16 year old brother who was away at the time. There was ham and pork in that bunker; it was full of food. The mother told me to take whatever food I wanted; she was obviously afraid of me. She asked me very nervously how I had managed to find her son. She wanted to know if somebody had told me about this family in the woods. …

As if to show me that she was not a vulnerable woman, she told me that she had a husband nearby, named Isack. When she said that it rang a bell. He went around with a 10 or 12 man band to rob food, clothing, etc., from the area peasants. I had heard of him because many of the peasants spoke of “Nasha Isack” (our Isack). He used to rob the peasants white. He had a horrible reputation among them. They used to tell me: “Sobiboru, let Isack ask us for food—we’ll give him! But why does he come with his gang and rob us like that? He’s a bloody thief!” Others had told me: “Our Isack, our friend from the pre-war years—how could he come and rob us at gunpoint like that?” Isack came from that area and he was well-known to all. Whatever his gang could steal they stole. His wife, as if to justify her husband and her sons, told me that from time to time they went on punitive expeditions to area peasants who had betrayed Jews. Her older son had returned to the bunker by now, so I told him and his brother that I wanted to join them. They told me straight off that they didn’t want me. … The woman told me to take as much food as I wanted. They had enough to spare, she said. I took some food from her but I didn’t want to overload myself. ... So I said goodbye to all of them, thanked them for the food and left. …

I found a hut in the woods. … When the food was finished I went out at night to return to the bunker. I found it easily, but it was completely deserted. … The bunker had obviously been abandoned. …

So I resumed wandering, searching for food. …

After five or six days I ran into Isack’s sons in the woods. They were well armed. I told them that I had gone to look for them in their bunker and had found it abandoned and deserted. I begged them to let me come to them from time to time, I promised that I would not abuse their hospitality … However, they absolutely refused to tell me where their new bunker was. They told me that they had abandoned the old bunker the night after I had come to it. They hadn’t trusted me. This is how it was then—everybody looked out for his or her own skin. … This is what the war did to ordinary people—turned them into egotistical and suspicious animals. I begged the two boys for a gun but they laughed at me. Finally, one said that, for gold, he would give me a gun. I still had a few pieces of my wife’s jewelry, so I gave them the jewelry and they sold me a rifle. When they got up to leave I wanted to accompany them but they refused to allow it.

I returned to the straw hut, spent several days there, and started to make the rounds of the hamlets where I had previously been given bread. Now that I had the rifle I even went to a hamlet where I had been refused bread. I smeared my face with black dust, as a disguise. And yet some peasants recognized me immediately. They called me “Sobiboru.” I would point the rifle through the window but it didn’t seem to bring me success. Some of the peasants laughed at me, even though the rifle was pointed straight at them. One said: “Ah, Sobiboru, we know you! What are you pointing a gun at us for? You wouldn’t shoot us—you know that.” I returned, hungry, to my hiding place.

The next night I returned, without the rifle, to that same hamlet. That peasant who had spoken to me the previous night, said: “Sobiboru, you’re lucky! If you would have returned with that damn rifle, I’d kill you!” Here’s a chunk of bread. Eat in peace. We are Baptists here and we have sympathy for a fellow human being in distress. If you come with a gun we won’t give you a thing and we’ll defend ourselves. But if you beg us for bread we’ll give you. Even with your smeared face we knew it was you! And we know you’re not a murderer. But bandit robbers we don’t like. We know how to handle them.” He even gave me a big glass of milk. I was very bedraggled and weak, so he had pity on me. I thanked him profusely and left.

About a week later I had a particularly settling experience. I was holed up in the straw hut, fast asleep, when I felt myself being prodded awake by a rifle butt. I looked up and saw Isack’s two sons glaring down at me. The 16 year old said to me: “OK, Sobiboru, where’s the rifle?” I told him that I had bought it from them fair and square, and I had paid for it with my wife’s precious jewelry. … The two boys laughed at my pleading. I then told them that I had left the rifle with a peasant for safekeeping. They didn’t believe me, and the 16 year-old said: “Mendele, search the place.” It took Mendele less than 5 minutes to find the rifle while his brother kept me covered with his own rifle. They laughed when they found the gun and dashed out of the straw hut. I was once again defenseless. And the way I had been treated like that by fellow Jews pained me greatly. … Besides, I had heard that, to be accepted by partisans, one had to have one’s own rifle. So that rifle represented my passport to the partisans … And now I had lost that passport. This incident left me deeply depressed. …

I saw a Kolonia house [loosely grouped houses] near a forest and went over to an elderly peasant standing near it. When I told him that I had come from the death camp Sobibor he became very frightened … He was a poor man but he brought some bread and water … He told me that his son-in-law was a shoemaker so I showed him my ripped shoes. The old peasant took my shoes and said he would take them to his son-in-law, who lived nearby. He left and returned some hours later with my shoes repaired. I kissed him from gratitude. … [Wewryk stayed with the peasant in the attic of his cottage but looked for food to supplement his diet.]

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