A tangled web

Every night, when I went hunting for food, I asked the peasants if they knew anything of partisans in the area. I once came into a house and there were some armed Jews there who had come for food. These armed Jews didn’t want to tell me where they were hiding out. They didn’t want to have anything to do with me. … I begged these armed Jews to allow me to join them; I asked for their mercy, but it was all to no avail.

The peasants of the next hamlet I went to, Aleezoof [Alojzów] … gave me milk to drink and a large loaf of bread. …

I moved on to a hamlet I had visited before, Aleezoof. … The inhabitants of the first house I approached told me they had no food to spare. I went to a house that was 3 houses removed from that one and a woman there gave me a piece of bread and a big glass of milk. … I asked her if she knew of partisans in the vicinity. She replied that she’d heard of a partisan band either in that hamlet or the next one—she wasn’t sure, she didn’t know exactly where they were.

My spirits were high when I left that woman. I was close now! Revenge was near! … as I left the hamlet and made my way to a nearby forest, far away, a group of people, a mass of men. … suddenly a figure shot up in front of me and barked out: “Halt or I shoot!” …

The partisans were occupying a whole house there. Some men came for me and shoved me into a small room which was heavily guarded. I was continuously interrogated and had to repeat everything … my later accounts were checked against my earlier ones for inconsistencies. All the while guns were pointed at me. After a while I learned that I had stumbled into a group of “official” Soviet partisans, under the leadership of Dadia Pyetcha [Diadia Pietia].

After several days a doctor came to see me. He was Jewish and spoke Yiddish. … When he “examined” me, he conversed in Yiddish with me. He was checking on the authenticity of my story. … People were very suspicious of each other at that time and these partisans were particularly wary of infiltrators.65

As Kalmen Wewryk’s account demonstrates, it would be erroneous to think that fugitive Jews resorted to robbing Poles, mostly impoverished farmers, at gunpoint only when they had no other means of getting provisions. Stanisław (Shlomo) Szmajzner’s group of escapees from Sobibór entered into their first farmhouse by force brandishing a gun and pretending to be partisans.66 A few days after their escape from Sobibór, Esther Terner (later Raab), Samuel (Shmul) Lerer and Avrum (Abram) Kohn chanced on a farmhouse near the forest, and approached it to ask for food, the first time they had done something like this. They did so with trepidation and did not let their guard down even for a minute. As they discovered, these were not prosperous farms (like those in Western Europe), and the inhabitants lived in a state of constant fear. Yet despite their initial succcess, the Jewish fugitives soon changed their ways. They simply did not trust the “primitive” peasants and did not want to take any unnecessary risks, so they resorted to terror tactics.

The two men waited at the side of hut, while Esther knocked on the door. It was soon opened by an old farmer. “Can you help us, please?” Esther pleaded desperately.

“How many are you?” the farmer asked.

“Three. Two men and myself.”

“Did anyone see you coming here?”

“No,” Esther said. “We just came out of the woods nearby.”

The farmer looked around to see if anyone was watching. “Okay. Come inside,” he said quickly. “There’s no one here, but my son and I.”

Esther walked in and looked around the small, one-room hut. A cow stood at one end of the kitchen, and behind some curtains in the corner were the beds where the man and his son slept. The farmer led them to the table and invited the three to sit down.

“You must be from Sobibor [Sobibór],” he guessed. When Esther nodded, he added, “It’s incredible what you people did there. You did well. Very well.”

Esther, Samuel, and Avrum exchanged glances. They were surprised to discover that their host approved of their actions.

“Can we have some water?” Esther asked.

“Certainly.” The farmer hurriedly brought a bucket full of water to the table. Esther gulped down several cups one after the other, trying to quench her overwhelming thirst.

“I’d love to serve you a regular meal,” the farmer said, “bur I can’t right now. Today is Sunday, and my son and I always go to church. If we don’t show up, there will be many questions. Let me give you some bread and milk, and my son will take you to the barn outside. When we come back, we’ll bring you in here again. I’ll try my best to help you then.”

The three could hardly believe their good fortune. Not only had they happened upon a farmer who was trul decent and kind, nut he was even offering to serve them an entire meal!

The farmer gave them two loaves of bread and a bottle of milk. His son led them outside to the barn, and they sat down on a pile of straw. They quickly divided the food that the gracious farmer had provided and wolfed it down hungrily. As they munched on the bread, they heard the farmer and his son leave the farm with a horse and wagon.

By midday, the two men had still not returned. The three didn’t know how far the nearest church was, and they realized that the trip to the church and back could last almost an entire day. Still, as the hours passed, they couldn’t help having some doubts.

“Who knows if they really went to church?” Samuel said. “They may have gone to summon the Gestapo.”

“You’re probably right,” Avrum agreed. “They’ll be here before long and arrest us.”

Although Esther realized that they might indeed be in danger, she was too tired to move. It was such a relief to lie on the dry straw after spending several days on the wet forest ground.

“What will happen, will happen,” she announced. “All the muscles in my body are aching, and I must rest. Besides, there is a slight possibility that the farmer was being truthful, and if so, I want to wait for that meal that he promised to serve. Do whatever you like, but I’m not moving anywhere. I’m staying right here.”

“Perhaps you’re right,” Samuel said skeptically. “I’m not so sure, but I think I’ll stay, too.”

It was late afternoon when they finally spotted the farmer’s wagon in the distance. As it came closer, the three let out a sigh of relief when they saw that it was not accompanied by any other vehicles. There were no Gestapo or Nazi soldiers following the farmer back to his house.

When they reached the farm, the two men went into their little hut. Only after it was completely dark outside did the farmer’s son finally come out to fetch them. “Come on,” he said amiably. “We’ve prepared some food for you.”

When Esther, Samuel, and Avrum walked in, their mouths watered at the sight of the food that lay on the table. There was bread, milk, and a thick borscht that had cabbage and other vegetables in it.

“Sit down. Eat,” the farmer said with a smile.

They did not need a second invitation. After the months in Sobibor and the last few days in the forest, it seemed almost incredible to be sitting down at a table and eating a meal like regular human beings. …

“Thank you. You are very kind,” Esther said. “Before we go, though, I must take care of my injury.” [Her face had been wounded by a German bullet during her escape from Sobibór—M.P.]

The farmer gave Esther a bucket of water. …

“You must put something on that gash,” the farmer said to Esther … “You can’t just leave it untreated. I don’t have any medication, but I can give you some lard from a pig that was recently slaughtered.”

“Lard? From a pig?” asked Esther, trying to hide her disgust. It was obviously used as a primitive form of treatment, but Esther was repulsed at the idea of putting some on her face.

“We use it to treat lacerations,” the farmer explained. “It always works wonders.”

Esther realized that she had to do something to help the cut heal. She couldn’t risk letting it become infected. So stifling any words of protest, she let the farmer apply some to her would. Surprisingly, it did work remarkably well and the area never became infected.

When they were ready to leave, the farmer packed up some cheese, a couple of onions, a bottle of milk, and several loaves of bread. He gave it to the three grateful runaways and ordered his son to take them into the woods. …

The farmer’s son took them some distance into the forest and wished them good luck before turning back. The three walked on for a little while, but soon they had to stop and find a hiding place to spend the day. They resumed their trek on Monday night and then again on Tuesday.

By Wednesday night they had depleted their food supply, and they decided to knock on another farmer’s door and ask for food. They waited until they found a secluded farmhouse that was not surrounded by other huts. They agreed to present themselves as partisans, hoping that the farmer would be too afraid to argue with them.

Esther had a large flashlight in her pocket that she had taken with her from Sobibor. A short chain was attached to the flashlight, and it had to be pulled repeatedly for the bulb to light up. Much like a lawnmower, it made a grinding noise as it started up.

With the two men beside her, Esther knocked loudly at the door. Although her heart was racing in fear, she tried to put a ruthless, self-assured expression on her face. She kept her hand in her pocket, and when the farmer opened the door, she moved the flashlight around to make the bulge obvious. She pulled on the chain several times, frightening the man with its loud sound.

“Please, don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!” the farmer begged.

“We need some food,” Esther said gruffly.

“Yes, yes. Just a moment.”

As he handed them some bread and vegetables, Esther asked for directions, again giving the name of a village …

Esther and the two men continued on their journey, trying to move as quickly as they could. …

Because Esther wanted to be absolutely certain that she had come to the right place, she decided to knock on the tenant’s door.

Esther rapped loudly several times until a man opened it. Like before, she put her hand in her pocket and starting up the flashlight. “I’m with a big partisan group,” she said harshly. “We won’t hurt you. We just have something to settle with your landlord. Where is the owner? Is he at the farm across the street?”

“N-No,” the man stuttered. “His old mother lives there. Sh-She’s senile. He comes here every two weeks to visit and bring her provisions.”

“Is that so?” Esther asked suspiciously. “Are you telling the truth?”

“Yes, yes. I am not lying. Please believe me.” He looked at her fearfully. “Wait one moment,” he said, trying to placate her. “Let me bring you some bread.”

“When he returned with the promised food, Esther eagerly grabbed it out of his hands. The man closed the door, and she rejoined Samuel and Avrum. …

After dark, Esther and the men agreed to leave the farm and scavenge for food.

They left the barn and walked down the dirt road to one of the neighboring farmhouses. When they knocked at the door, it was opened by a small, elderly woman.

“Please, do not hurt me,” she pleaded fearfully. “Here, let me give you some bread and a bottle of milk.”

Esther took the food and thanked the woman. The three made their way back to the barn and again climbed up to the loft. Their mouths watered in expectation as they sat down and prepared to eat their humble meal.67

Shlomo Alster, who joined up with Soviet partisans after escaping from Sobibór, recalled that there was no shortage of food while he was with the partisans. The armed partisans would descend on villages and take from the farmers whatever food and possessions they required, and took in great quantities.68 Itzhak Lichtman, who joined up with some Jewish fugitives and partisans after escape from Sobibór, clearly identified the sequence of events, and cause of retaliation by Ukrainian and Polish “bandits,” in the vicinity of the Parczew forests:

Life in the underground was not easy. We succeeded in buying some rifles, but we used them to frighten peasants and force them to give us food. We were always assailed by Ukrainian and Polish bandits.69

Not just a few, but hundreds of farmers were robbed, often repeatedly, in any given area of the countryside. Jewish gangs could be equally ruthless in pursuit of supplies. Shiye Golderg described the escapades of a young Jew from Majdan Tatarski, in the Lublin district, who met his end at the hands of some desperate local peasants:

This Srulik was very adventurous. He thought that, with his pistol, he would conquer the world. I couldn’t go along with him. He was reckless, else he didn’t know that by taking things from the farmers at gunpoint caused them to hate the Jews … The farmers, if left alone, would give you a crust of bread or at least a drink of water. They might drive you away, but not hurt you … Srulik committed so many evil acts against the farmers that they finally waylaid and killed him.70

A Polish account from the village of Janowice, just east of Lublin, reports that in the summer of 1942, a married couple en route to Janów by horse cart were stopped by a band of Jews who shot the husband, raped the wife (she was left unconscious in the forest), and stole their horse.71 Is it little wonder that partisans and forest dwellers developed a reputation as robbers and that the local population lived in fear of their nocturnal visits?

Rather than to ask for food, which Jewish memoirs show to have been a viable option,72 a group of Jewish escapees from Treblinka variously pretended to be, somewhat transparently, both “Polish partisans” and Germans in order to rob Polish peasants. They immediately threatened a farmer at gunpoint, and waylaid individual farmers who were transporting goods. According to Saul (Shlomo) Kuperhand,

A farmer chopping wood nearby soon spotted us. Stefan said that we should kill the farmer so he would not send the Germans after us. But Hochko told him that killing an innocent man would accomplish nothing. In fact, Hochko went right up to the man and demanded his identification papers, which he then pocketed.

“We are a group of 200 escaped prisoners,” Hochko told the frightened farmer. “If we have any trouble from the Germans we will kill you and your entire family. We know who you are. We will burn your farm to the ground.” …

We had been without food or drink for nearly two days, since escaping from Treblinka. Only Shmulik and Hochko had the ability to confront people without arousing suspicion, so the two of them, with our one rifle, approached an isolated farmhouse.

Hochko knocked on the door and began speaking to the farmer in perfect Polish, which was his native tongue. He said that he and his men were members of the Polish underground and that the farmer should not fear his [German] uniform or the rifle. … The farmer responded by giving Hochko and Shmulik food for themselves and the “soldiers” in the nearby woods. …

Shmulik’s leveled rifle encouraged the farmer to be generous … It occurred to us that our gangster friends would probably have murdered the farmer and his family and then taken everything they had. Perhaps their way made more sense in the hellish world we lived in?

We walked for many kilometers before resting again. Hochko … assembled everyone and addressed us.

“… The safest way for us to get food is by intercepting farmers taking wagons of food to the market. We will wait for an individual farmer, so we don’t have to worry about several farmers putting up a fight.”

We all listened and then approved the plan. About four o’clock the next morning we spotted a lone farmer coming down the road in a wagon. Hochko and Shmulik stood in the middle of the road and Hochko called out to him in his excellent German: “Halt! Show me your papers!”

Seeing the uniform and hearing the German orders, the intimidated farmer pulled his wagon to a complete halt. He cooperated with the interrogation, telling Hochko where he was going, where he had come from, and what he was carrying in the wagon. The farmer denied carrying contraband food for sale on the black market, but when he unloaded his wagon on the side of the road for investigation, there was bread, milk, cheese, smoked ham, salami, bacon, and even water.

Hochko ordered the farmer to appear at German police headquarters at nine o’clock the next morning to pay a fine of 200 Reichmarks. He would then have his documents returned to him. If he failed to appear promptly, the police would come to him. And this, Hochko assured him, would prove to be a most unpleasant experience. …

As we walked, Shloimele challenged Hochko for the rifle that Hochko had been holding. Shloimele assured us that he would get plenty of food for the five of us who remained together, but Hochko categorically refused to give him the gun. Shloimele was a street-smart thug … Hochko knew that Shloimele’s efforts would bring results, but he was concerned about his methods. … Shloimele sneered at this suggestion [i.e., asking for food], saying that he knew the Polish people much better and that force was the only way to get anything from them. …

Shloimele left us around noon and made his way to a farmhouse. Boldly he looked through the windows and then went right in. He headed straight for the hearth, knowing that farmers often smoked meat by hanging it several feet up their chimneys. Sure enough, he found armfuls of meat. He filled a sack with bread and ham. He saw a pot of soup on the stove ready for the family’s lunch and poured it into a pail. He even took knives, forks, and dishes. Heavily laden, Shloimele made his way back to us in the forest. He certainly earned his bragging rights.

We did not get a chance to enjoy this banquet at our leisure, however, because we suddenly heard a fusillade of German automatic weapon fire spraying the woods and coming toward us. The furious farmer must have gone right to the Nazi authorities.73

On another occasion, the Jewish band held a farmer hostage.74 Given such events, and as word got around, is it surprising that some Polish peasants came to see fugitive Jews as adversaries rather than merely victims? Thus started a pattern that followed the following sequence: brazen robberies followed by retaliation (and not vice versa). Yet Kuperhand also goes on to describe the extensive assistance he received from Polish farmers after leaving the group he initially foraged with.75

A similar situation prevailed in the Wilno and Nowogródek regions. Jews survived in the forest by robbing peasants. Armed violence provoked a like response from peasants and their protectors. The following account refers to a group of Jewish forest dwellers who acquired weapons and staged forays in the countryside. They were eventually “absorbed” by Soviet partisans, who could find few recruits in largely Polish and Lithuanian areas.

[In mid-July 1943:] Leiba [Kobrowski] insisted they should all move from their current location to the forest near Marcinkance [Marcinkańce], where a sizeable group of Jews from Druskieniki, Marcinkance and Pozecze [Porzecze] had gathered … They would be safer there, since the forest was much denser and access was more difficult. …

Izak [Kobrowski] came to the conclusion that they had to have weapons: their money was running out and the only way to survive was to take food by force. A decision had to be made—were they to buy weapons or use the rest of that money to buy food and hope that the war would soon be over? … A young Polish peasant, Longin, a friend of Izak sold them two rifles, one sub-machine gun, grenades and some ammunition. Izak had to teach the men how to use and clean a weapon. …

The ‘food operations’ now dominated their life. The men would pick a faraway village, as far as 40 or 50 kilometres from their camp in the forest. After arriving at their destination they would observe the activity in the village and around the target house before going in, preferably on a dark night. They surrounded the house with four men, though two of them were unarmed, and Izak, with the sub-machine gun, was the one who demanded food. They usually took flour and dried peas; potatoes were too heavy. They sometimes took a calf or a pig which they slaughtered and cut into chunks on the spot. The roundtrip took about four to five days. …

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