A tangled web

Criminal elements also posed a serious hazard for Jews hiding in the forests, but even they generally targeted Jewish refugees for their possessions, and not because of their race or religion. These same criminal elements often preyed on Poles. As the following Jewish account from the vicinity of Brańsk illustrates, the conduct of criminal elements was by no means sanctioned by the local community.

When I was working in the village of Lendowo, the people talked about Janka, that she was the village whore. She was greedy and for money she would do anything. For many years Janka had a boy friend Karik [Kazik?], who was the leader from a group of bandits who robbed and killed Jews who were hiding from the Germans. … When there were no more Jews, he organized the bandits to rob Polish farmers who were riding back with money from markets. He robbed them with a gun pretending to be Russian Partisans. Farmers recognized him …

In a certain night he went to the barn of the man from Skludy [Skłody Borowe] and hung him and then he married his widow … One evening Karik’s brother, Stasiec [Stasiek], came distressed to Pickutowska where Feigale was staying and he told her what he saw. He was riding back from the market in the dark, when he noticed a light was shining from the grave where the Jews were buried last week. He stopped and in the dark he quietly walked up to this place and he saw his brother Karik with Janka holding a lantern. They dug out the dead and were pulling out their teeth because they had gold fillings in them. Stasick Dombrowski [Stasiek Dąbrowski] was devastated to see how low his own brother had fallen. Stasick didn’t like to upset his parents by telling them about his brother’s deplorable behavior and his greed. He rather came to Pickutowska who was religious and highly respected to tell her what weighed heavy on his mind.58

The association of Jews with Soviet partisans also brought the situation to a head, as the latter were notorious for assaulting both Poles and Jews.

Wanka [Vanka Smirnov] described for us the group, some were real robbers and killers. The two worst bandits were “Grishka”, who carried the heavy machine gun, and “Nicholai”. Those two robbed, raped and killed all around the area of Treblinka and the rest just followed. Although some of these men were killers, others were not bad considering the circumstances. … Wanka thought that it would be best if we went to the Jews in Bransker [Brańsk] forest because some of the men from this group were real killers. When farmers would not open doors for them, refuse to give them food or inform the Germans of their whereabouts, they would kill whole families and set fire to the farm. …

They [i.e., some of the Soviet partisans] told us what happened after we left the group in Hodiszewer [Hodyszewo] forest, that same night was a lot of drinking and killings. Nicholai the kolhaznik [kolkhoz labourer] saw how Grishka took from Haika her jewelry, a necklace, watch and wedding ring and then shot her and others. They then went to a polish [sic] farmer and killed the whole family. The killers were again Grishka and Nicolai the bandit and after the killings the group went to a forest near Dominowo. Polish people followed their footsteps and informed the Germans of their whereabouts. The Germans surrounded the forest and killed were the worst bandits from the group, Grishka with his machine gun, Nicholai the bandit, Nichodem and more, the rest ran away in different directions.59

A teenaged Jewish boy from the Warsaw ghetto, who joined up with some Soviet partisans after escaping from a train headed for Treblinka, recalled:

One night we came upon a group of Jewish women hiding in a barn. The Russians ordered the Polish peasant to lay out plenty of hot, mashed potatoes, melted lard, sausages and vodka. The Jewish women, crouching with cold and fear, were invited to share in the feast. There were about eight of them who had escaped from nearby small-town ghettos; some came from Bransk [Brańsk], others from Bielsk Podlaski. A few wore their best fur coats. They were silent and distrustful, but they soon warmed up after glasses of vodka which the Soviets insisted they down with them.

“Let’s have some fun,” the soldiers repeated. “Death to the Germans.”

Later, everyone buried himself in the fluffy hay in the large barn.

Food and drink filled my body and I fell asleep.

But during the night I half woke. I thought that I heard frantic whispers, accelerated breathing coming from several directions, deep moans and laughter. I even thought that I heard some Jewish voices praying and invoking God’s mercy. But I was not sure.

Next morning one of the women approached me. She had deep shadows under her eyes.

Nu,” she said, “what’s a nice Jewish boy doing with a bunch of animals—you are Jewish, no?”

“What do you mean, ‘animals’?” I retorted. “Listen, lady,”—I tried to take on the recalcitrance of a Gentile boy addressing a second-class citizen—“better watch what you are saying; these are my friends.”

“Friends? A choliere [cholera] should strike them,” she swore in Yiddish. “You and your friends, takie, so now what’s gonna happen when half these women get pregnant when they’re on the run? Goteniu, Goteniu! [Dear God, my God!] Ha.”

She shook her head, her sad eyes looking at me with tragic contempt. … I walked away quickly.

The Soviets left soon after that, first entering the forest in their customary tiralliere: each man walking several feet apart. Some two hours later, Petya and Alex, a pudgy partisan, stopped in the deep snow to relieve themselves. As Alex pulled his trousers down, he revealed his bloodstained long underwear.

“Look, brother, got laid with a Jewess. Some great fucking, those Jewish women! Son of a bitch! You got laid all right?” he asked, showing off his underthings.

Da, got fucked all right,” smiled Petya.

“Look at me,” gloated Alex, “son of a bitch! I got to fuck three of them. Two virgins. A real doubleheader. Yippee!”

I looked away. I felt guilty and ashamed yet stirred with excitement and desire.60

When the Soviet partisans learned that the teenaged boy was a Jew, they ejected him from their group.

Gangs of common criminals and oulaws victimized the population indiscriminately. Michael (Mordka) Goldfarb, who escaped from Sobibór, joined up with just such a gang in the vicinity of Włodawa and began to rob with them in the vicinity.

Our group consisted of fourteen people, ten of whom were escapees from Sobibor [Sobibór] and four Georgians who had escaped from the prison in Radom. After wandering in the forest we reached the village of Hola. We thought in this area there should be partisans and, indeed, after a short time we met a group of sixteen armed men under the leadership of a Pole, Miszka Piatek [spelled Piątek in Polish and pronounced Piontek; referred to as a Russian in some sources as evidenced by his Russian-sounding first name—M.P.].

They took us into their group and we remained together for about two weeks. However, we didn’t feel comfortable as they were common thieves and we sought a way to be rid of them. … One night Miszka told us that we had to procure food and vodka. Five of us went out on the mission: three men from Sobibor—Yehuda [Leon] Lerner, Boris, and I—one Georgian and one of the men from the local group. We reached the village of Kolacze [Kołacze] and there we confiscated the food and liquor. … We returned to the forest, and at the first guard post of our camp we saw no one. We were surprised, especially when we saw that the second guard position was empty as well. We reached the camp. The fire was still burning and the people looked as if they were sleeping. We drew closer and saw that everyone had been killed. Six Jews and three Georgians were killed. Another Jew, Mendel the tailor, was wounded and asked that we kill him. We got away from the place quickly. We were afraid that Miszka was nearby and would shoot us. The local fellow who was with us disappeared immediately, and the Georgian also left us. We remained three wanderers. In the village of Kamien [Kamień], a farmer told us that nearby there was a group of Jewish partisans. … These were the people from the Jewish partisan unit of Yechiel Grynszpan. We fought there until the arrival of the Soviet army.61

After escaping from the ghetto in Włodawa, Jakob Friedmann (then Rotenberg) ran into that same gang of criminals. Piątek was known as an arms’ dealer and invited Friedmann to join his “partisan” group. Friedmann recalls:

I agreed to join him; I had no alternative. There were five Poles, and I was the only Jew. Piontek [Piątek] gave me a Polish military gun which had had the barrel and stock sawn off …

I lived in the woods for a while with this group of Poles who were robbers rather than partisans. We began to rob people. About two weeks later when I saw a horse-drawn carriage approaching, I said, ‘Let’s go and hold them up.’ I knew that people travelling must have some money or valuables with them.62

Fearful for his own life, Friedmann eventually left these ruffians and joined up with a Jewish unit affiliated with the Communist People’s Guard. Friedmann learned that bandits such as Piątek did not discriminate among their victims. The partisans Freidman joined took action to eliminate this gang.

We heard that this Michal Piontek [Michał Piątek], who had made a lot of money from the Jews, was giving refuge to the Russian officers who had run away, providing them with food and vodka, and then he shot them all and stole any goods they had on them.

When I found this out I went with a small group of ten or twelve men to where Piontek was living. We surrounded the house and while he and his family were asleep we used bullets with phosphor tips, a kind of ammunition which would set fire to whatever it hit. We had machine guns all around the house and began firing. We heard screams but nobody could get out. No one survived.63

The Polish underground felt compelled to take measures to attempt to curtail the banditry that was spreading throughout the countryside. Dov Freiberg (also known as Ber, Berl, Berek and Bolek Fraiberg) encountered acts of kindness from poor farmers, and sometimes hostility, while wandering in the Chełm area with fellow escapees from the Sobibór death camp. (Holocaust literature stresses the hostility, and pays scant attention to the extensive assistance provided by many Poles.) The sporadic violence he witnessed was generally the work of gangs of criminals lurking in the forests. Freiberg and Semen Rosenfeld (Semyon Rozenfeld) met up with two brothers from Chełm, Yozhik and Monyek Serchuk, who had built a bunker for themselves in the forest. Reluctant to part with the gold coins taken from Sobibór, the fugitives resorted to stealing from local farmers and eventually joined a gang of violent Polish criminals who robbed the peasants mercilessly. In desperation, and quite understandably, some of the victims turned to the Polish underground and German authorities for protection and the leaders of this gang of robbers met their well-deserved demise.

Some of the people in the group had prepared supplies. I had a little bag of gold coins in one pocket and a few bullets in the other. …

The four fellows bearing arms approached one of the houses. The farmer refused to open the door, but after they threatened to blow up his house, he obeyed. He gave them two big loaves of bread, some butter and some onions …

The next evening, our lads returned to the farmer’s house and again got more food by threatening him. …

When we got to the house, we found a large-boned, middle-aged woman. When she saw us, she paled. She looked at us in shock … “You are the ones who escaped from Sobibor [Sobibór] … Good God, the Germans are searching for you everywhere. Get away from here, quickly!” … After a few minutes, three men appeared, two adults and a younger man, with pitchforks and an ax in their hands, and from a distance they cursed us and threatened to kill us if we didn’t leave at once. We started to back off. … The villagers ran after us a bit, then stopped after they made sure that we were going. Semmen cursed those Poles and told us how he had gone with two of his friends a few days ago, with weapons, to ask for food, and how the farmer and his wife had given them bread and butter and even wished them luck. “If I had a gun, I would have killed all of the people who just chased us away [but did not harm us—M.P.],” he said. …

We went down toward the valley and we neared the edge of the forest, where we saw a farmer plowing his field … Suddenly I saw a sack lying under a tree. The three of us walked over to it, opened it and found a big loaf of bread … It weighed about three kilos. There was also a big chunk of cheese, and next to the sack, there was a jug of milk. …We grabbed the sack and ran off as fast as we could. …

At twilight we got up and walked to the house. As we approached, we heard the farmer working in the granary. … The old man looked at us, and without asking who we were and where we had come from, said: “Don’t worry. You won’t leave my house hungry.” He called to his wife and said, “Mother, prepare a lot of food for supper. We have three guests and they are hungry.”

The farmer finished preparing food for his single cow and told us to stay in the granary until he called us. “You understand,” he said, “we have to be very careful these days.” After about an hour, the farmer came out of the house, strode back and forth, looking and listening, and then came over to us and invited us into the hut. It was very old and small, only one room, which was a living room, bedroom and kitchen. The roof was made of straw. We could see signs of poverty by the light of the oil lamp, which was standing on the table and lit the room …We sat down unceremoniously at the table and the woman brought us bowls of hot soup—a milk-based soup with potatoes, pieces of dough and onion. … The bowls were big and they were full, but we ate everything quickly and the woman refilled our bowls … We stayed seated and told our hosts about Sobibor, about the revolt, and about what had happened to us since we left the camp. The farmer listened closely, sat for a few moments absorbed in thought, then finally said: “The war will be over soon. The Germans are being defeated and in retreat. We have to hold out until then. I will hide you. We’ll build a bunker inside the granary and you can be there during the day. I’ll bring you bread. Whatever we eat, you will eat!” …

Suddenly there was a knock at the door. The three of us hid. One of the neighbors had come to announce that on the following day, the Germans would come to the village to take das Kontigent—the tax allocation that the Germans had imposed on the farmers. Afterward the farmer looked embarrassed and apologized, but said that he could not hide us if the Germans were coming. …

We got up to leave, but the old man asked us to stay a while longer, because they had no bread in the house at the moment and he wanted to send his wife out to borrow bread. He also sent his son out on an errand. The woman came back with two big loaves of bread, and his son brought bottles of milk. … When we were about to part, I took out some gold coins that I wanted to give the old farmer, but he refused to take them. …

The time we spent with the old farmer encouraged us, and the following days were lucky as well. We were able to get food, usually at a high price …

One day, we passed a solitary house, which appeared to be empty. When we approached it, an old couple came toward us and invited us to come in and eat. Our hosts, who seemed to be poor, didn’t look like farmers. … It turned out that they were Polish refugees from Poznan [Poznań]. We stayed with them until late at night. The man taught us how to find our way at night. …

[Later they ran into another group of Jewish who had escaped from Sobibór.] At the beginning, they were a large group, but then they split up. Most of them had gone eastward, planning to cross the Bug River, and these men had gone in the direction of Chelm [Chełm], led by Shaya the gardener, who had known the area, where he hoped they could find a hiding place in one of the villages whose farmers they knew in exchange for the abundance of money they had. On the way, they had been joined by two Dutch Jews, and by two brothers, Yozhik and Monyek Serchuk, who had been in the forest for more than a year. … Their whole family had hidden in the village with a farmer, but another farmer had informed on them and the Germans had come and taken them away. Only Yozhik and Monyek were left. Their parents had had a shop selling chicken in Chelm. …

Yozhik and Monyek had built a bunker for themselves in the woods where they could live through the winter. … When the first group from Sobibor arrived, the two brothers had given them the bunker … At night, Yozhik would buy food from the farmers for the whole group. The people from Sobibor had money, and Chaim, the jeweller, had taken a large amount of gold. Yozhik would usually go alone, but occasionally Monyek would go with him; very infrequently, they would take someone from the group to help them carry sacks of food from the villages. …

Yozhik had good connections in all of the villages. He knew every farmer and he knew who was trustworthy. He also had contacts with Jews who were hiding with farmers, including his uncle, aunt and their child, and another uncle who had been alone since the Germans had killed his family. …

Finally, we stopped not far from a large, isolated farm, a short distance from the town. Yozhik said: “I knew this farmer well before the war. He’s a good man. His name is Karpiuk. You wait here I'll check out the area and quiet the dog. I'll hide you in the granary, and in the morning I'll speak to the farmer – maybe we can find a place to hide with him.”

When I awoke in the morning … the farmer soon entered. He was surprised to see Yozhik and Monyek, but immediately embraced and kissed them, speaking to them warmly. …

In the meantime, Yozhik had begun to attempt to convince the farmer to let us stay under his roof until winter had passed. He suggested that we hide in the cellar under the house, but the farmer didn’t agree to that. When Yozhik suggested that we build a bunker under the granary, the farmer refused that, as well. He then proposed that we build a bunker outside the limits of his farm. Finally, it was decided that we would build a bunker in the corner of the yard, near the pigpen. …

The digging of the bunker presented difficulties from the outset. It was hard to dig in the frozen ground, and after we had overcome that obstacle, we reached an upper layer of groundwater, which put an end to our attempts. Karpiuk called us together and reiterated that he would like to help us, but he couldn’t keep us in his home, as he would be endangering his whole family. He suggested we find a place to hide, and from time to time we could come to his house to get food and anything else we might need. … Karpiuk brought us some food, and we took leave of him and his family on good terms and went out into the night. …

We kept walking we could distinguish a small house. … [Yozhik announced;] “Two women and a small child are living in the house. They are very poor and they have nothing to eat. I promised them that, if I stayed with them, they would eat like queens, and that from now on, they would lack for nothing. They are willing to do anything.” …

As night was falling, we heard a knock on the door. … It was her brother, who had come to visit. … a tall young man in his twenties, wearing a faded leather coat and high boots, and his shoulder he carried a rifle with a short barrel and butt, which could be hidden under a coat. Yula hurried to introduce her brother, Stashek, and we shook hands …After a few glasses of vodka had been drunk … the atmosphere became lighter and conversation flowed until, at a certain moment, the guest asked us if we would be ready to join him in a small burglary that he and his friend Vladek were planning to carry out. Yozhik answered without hesitation that we would be ready to participate in any burglary—and glasses were raised to celebrate the new partnership. … Stashek said that we would soon meet his friends, Pan Folka and Bronek, who were “great guys.” The guest then told us that he had his eye on a small farm belonging to two old people and their daughter. “There isn’t too much to take, but they have a pig that’s not bad, and geese, and that’s what we need right now. Their hut is some distance from the village, and the work will be easy, but we need a few men to carry it out—two or three can catch the pig, kill it and cur it up into pieces, and two will keep a lookout for unwanted visitors. And then, they will help us carry the pig, as it’s quite a long way.”

“We will be there,” said Yozhik …It was agreed that on one of the following evenings, Stashek would come, accompanied by his friend Vladek, and the whole group would go together to carry out the small robbery. … After Yula’s brother left, we continued to sit and drink with the two women. … Yanka and Yula were surprised that we had never heard of Pan Folka. “He’s famous. He’s the greatest burglar in the whole area. Even before the war, the authorities offered a large prize for anyone who could lead to his capture. He’s always the commander,” said Yanka enthusiastically. …

“I'll tell you about Bronek,” said Yula. “That bastard was once a respected man, but he has hot blood, and when the blood rises to his head, he gets involved in brawls. Once, during the wedding in the village, a quarrel broke out. Bronek, was involved, as usual. One of the young men insulted Bronek, and Bronek doesn’t like being insulted. He grabbed the young man and cut off his finger with a knife, in front of everyone. The young man who was cut belonged to a rich and powerful family, and Bronek had to leave the area for a long time. After more than half a year, when it seemed as though the incident of the finger had been forgotten, there was another wedding in the village. Bronek arrived …The young man whose finger had been cut off and his family were at the wedding, too. … But during the dancing the family of the young man whose finger had been cut off got up an attacked Bronek … they cut off three fingers of his hand. That night Bronek swore to have his revenge in the family. He waited a long time, until his wounds healed, and then bought a gun and practiced shooting … When he was ready, he set a trap in the forest, near the path leading from the village to Chelm. In the evening, by the light of a full moon, when he saw the family returning from the fair in Chelm, he killed them all—the father, the mother, two sons and the wife of one of them, and two horses. From that day, Bronek has been wanted by the police throughout the area, living in hiding … He became friendly with Folka and now, he is a thief, as well.”

We weren’t told very much about Vladek, the third in the group or burglars. Yula just said that the guy had been born unlucky and had never succeeded in anything he tried. When he tried to steal chickens, he was caught, beaten, and sent to prison. When he managed to rob a farmer and leave his house with the haul, he had been shot by the farmer and his leg wounded. …

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