A writer can never escape from his words. Especially on a day like today. The following is based on a true story. It is the start of the survival of my Zeida Z”l.
Rohatyn, Galicia, 1942.
And then there was a sudden moment of silence. The intolerable tension they felt was slowly coming to an end. In these last moments of their lives grave desperation brought their hearts an unbearable mixture of feelings. A sheer sense of apathy, paralyzing fear, anger and a distant remembrance of the good that life once had to offer. Thoughts of escape no longer bothered their minds, nor did their hearts feel its blood pumping with a sense of hope.
Mother Nature let out her horrifying silent cries and shrieks of sorrow for the life that was about to become death; she wondered how this could happen. Her disappointment of mankind tore her heart into shredded pieces. And then, sound came back. It was the sound of life being taken.
Ever so slowly the chilling winds blew. Leaves brushed against one another in agony. Those not strong enough to hold on to their source of life fell like tears into the pit that lay beneath the tree. The surface of the pit was full of dead bodies. The next group was on their way to be executed. Several meters away were their executors; Nazi soldiers. Some of them smoked up the last bit of their cigarettes, some reloaded their ammo, and some just stood there waiting for the commanding officer’s orders.
The bodies of terrified children shook. ‘Close your eyes and press against Mama’s dress’, ‘Don’t cry little Yaakov, Papa is with you’. Parents held their children close to them. Spouses looked into each other’s eyes. Some were about to burst out crying. And some, just stood in silence, accepting what was about to happen.
Elisha looked the commanding officer straight in the eye. The Nazi officer looked at his watch. It was noon. The pit had been dug deeper and the last group of Jews was standing by it. It was time to kill them. Five Nazi soldiers stepped forward and were about to coldly shoot at the group of tens of Jews.
‘Commandant! I found another Jew.’ A Nazi solider paced quickly towards the small hilltop where the pit had been dug. He held a rifle pointed at the Jew’s head as he ordered him to run forward and join the party. The row of Nazi soldiers lowered their rifles. They turned their heads around. The commanding officer sighed as he looked at his watch. They were running late, he thought. He was disturbed by the inefficient way in which his men had scanned through the Jewish homes. This wouldn’t have happened had his men been more thorough. And now, as a result, they are late. He was hungry too.
‘Come on, come on!’ The commanding officer impatiently signaled that his man hurry up and have the Jew join the bunch faster. He was very frustrated they hadn’t found everyone by now. As the Nazi soldier approached the hill top where the pit had been dug, the commanding officer turned around to the table and picked up a neatly piled stack of papers.
‘Your name, Jew?’ Clasping the papers in his hand he looked at the two as they approached and couldn’t help but feel a certain sense of irony. Here they were, ordered to exterminate the Jewish race that was a far more inferior race than his Arian people. And yet one of his men, a skinny man in uniform with the only sign of superiority over this Jew who had the build of a boxer, broad shoulders and large fists, was a rifle he had pointed at the Jew’s head.
‘Hartbacher. David Hartbacher.’ He spoke the words firmly. His eyes ignored the gaze of the Nazi commander. He looked straight ahead at the Jews facing the pit. ‘Hold on a moment.’ The Nazi signaled for David to pause before he joined the others.
‘I see here that you have already been marked.’ David now turned to face the commanding officer. The Nazi noticed they were about the same height.
‘Yes. I was caught earlier today but escaped and headed back into town.’ The Nazi put down the papers and stepped closer to David. His black boot was an inch away from David’s brown suede shoe.
‘You went back into town?’ The Nazi asked in a perplexed manner.
‘I forgot my watch.’ David let out a smirk. The Nazi couldn’t help but smirk back. He then looked down. David’s wrists had no watch strapped on.
‘A pocket watch I suppose?’ The Nazi asked amusingly.
‘No, a wrist watch.’ David responded with the same smirk on his thin lips. His blue eyes looked straight at the Nazi.
‘So where is it?’
‘When I got back, I noticed the battery broke. Guess it isn’t my lucky day ha?’ The soldier behind David wasn’t quite sure what to do. He watched as the two men, his commanding officer and the Jew stared one at the other for another moment until the Jew walked away from him and joined the others by the pit.
Elisha gulped hard. He hoped his brother wouldn’t have been caught. He felt his brother’s arm squeeze into the group, standing by his side. David tried best he could to give his Leah, his wife and their new born baby in her arms, a comforting smile. He then turned to his brother and spoke the final words they would ever say to one another again.
‘It’s ok. For what it’s worth, I hid it.’ he told Elisha, thinking he may have been caught, but at least there was a chance that something of them and their past would live on.
‘Men, fire!’ The commanding officer gave the order and immediately walked around towards the field desk to update his progress. From behind, at gunshot, the bunch of Jews fell back mercilessly into the pit that they had dug with their very hands. At a distance, Ukrainians stood and watched curiously. A farmer standing closer to the shooting expressed his wonder of the firearms to his son. His son held out his hands pretending he too had a firm arm and shot.
‘That’s it. We are done for the day.’ The commanding officer signed his name under a table of numbers and names that had all been crossed out. He and his men could now have a late lunch and get ready for their next destination. He missed Berlin.
‘Men, you are free until the evening brief.’
The Nazi soldiers descended from the hilltop to the synagogue; it was big enough to store their equipment and there was room for them all. The commanding officer stayed on the hilltop. With his feet resting comfortably on the field desk, he ate an apple while enjoying some of Schiller’s Don Carlos.
David waited for an hour. He could wait no longer. He heard the order given by the commanding officer for his men to head back. He kissed his beloved wife’s forehead, caressed his baby girl’s soft head and squeezed his brother’s hand for the last time. The bullets didn’t hit him. He survived. As hard as it was, he knew he had to focus on further survival. With one last glimpse at his late beloved, David slowly climbed out of the pit. The commanding officer lifted his eyes from Schiller. His eyes met those of David for the second time. He could not quite comprehend what he felt.
‘Hey Jew, why are you still alive?’ asked a Ukrainian farmer approaching the hilltop, to try to find any hidden treasures from the pit.
David didn’t think twice. He ran towards the Ukrainian, gave him a mighty punch aimed at his temple which immediately stunned him, and he then began choking the farmer. The Nazi put down his Don Carlos and watched as this Jew, with his mighty forearms, strangled the Ukrainian. The man looked to be several years older than he, he thought. The way in which this Jew got out of the pit and leaped towards the Ukrainian made the Nazi feel a mixture of fear and respect.
It was done. David let go once the Ukrainian was most definitely dead. He got up and looked at the Nazi without a single emotion escaping his eye.
‘You will have to live with your sorrows.’ was all the Nazi said to him.
David fled, leaving behind his beloved and a priceless possession that he could not retrieve. He escaped into the woods with only his sorrows.