Under the Yellow & Red Stars
The Rokitno Massacre
The Nazis, supported by Ukrainian nationalists, launched a blitzkrieg and within days the train station in Rokitno was bombed. The Red Army retreated and in a flight of panic the Soviet officials in the town caught the last trains going east out of Rokitno. Many ordinary townspeople who could afford horses and carts packed up their belongings and headed out as well. Others fled east on foot. The trains were overcrowded with civilians, soldiers, animals and luggage. It was chaos.
Soon after the bombing began Natan came to our house with a horse cart loaded with bread and flour. He tried to convince my father that our whole family should follow him and many others eastward into the Soviet Union.
“The people who are coming want to kill you, Father,” he said with passion. “They will kill every Jewish man, woman and child!”
My father looked at my little brother, Moishe. “They won’t kill us.” he replied evenly. “They will only keep us in one place, away from the war.”
My brother couldn’t believe that my father was being so naïve. “Can’t you see that they are murderers?!”
“They will not kill us.” My father repeated, simply but steadfastly.
“You have heard the stories from the West? You have heard about the Nazis getting rid of the Jews?”
“I don’t believe the stories,” my father replied. “They are an exaggeration. I don’t believe that it would be better to flee. This is our home.”
Natan was resolute. “This is not home, Father. No one wants us here. Some of the people in the village are already talking about killing us, talking about hateful acts. Come, pack your things! Come with me to Russia before it’s too late.”
My father’s eyes turned very sad. “You go, Natan. You are young and you can do what you think is best. Your mother and I and the boys will stay here. It is safest for us here.”
Based on their experiences during World War I when German soldiers had treated Jews kindly, many older people like our father thought that the Germans wouldn’t hurt Jews now. In retrospect, such denial was completely misguided. We had heard eyewitness accounts from refugees who were fleeing not only Nazi atrocities but also acts of unspeakable cruelty committed by non-Jews from their own communities.
Natan decided without hesitation to head east with our cousins, despite our father’s disapproval and the constant air raids. It was the last time I saw Natan until many years after the war.
The rapid withdrawal of the Soviet troops created a legal and political void because German troops and authorities only arrived in Rokitno at the end of July. They were already stationed in nearby Sarny, however, and from there, they put a Ukrainian collaborator named Ratzlav temporarily in charge of a newly-formed band of Ukrainian police in Rokitno. Violence ensued as a wave of antisemitism now rose up in our “little paradise.” Polish and Ukrainian collaborators and thieves broke into Jewish homes and robbed them of everything of any value. The violence escalated and Jewish men organized a nightly self-defence patrol armed with axes, shovels and pitchforks. During the first patrol one of these men, Avraham Golod, was stoned to death.
When the Nazis entered the town in August 1941, the Poles and Ukrainians greeted them with ceremonial bread and salt. The Germans introduced their own laws and put Sokolovski, a half-Polish and half-German man from Silesia, in charge of the police force. Denes became commander of the Ukrainische Hilfspolizei, the Ukrainian Auxiliary Police. The head of the town’s organized unit of Ukrainian collaborators was a man named Zagorovski.
Desperate and horrifying times started right away as one terrible order followed another. The Nazis established a Jewish ghetto on Stalin Street — my street — and Jews were not allowed to leave the ghetto without special permission. A Judenrat, or Jewish Council, was set up to be the spokesmen for the Jewish community and its members were forced to implement the Nazis’ vicious and binding orders. The ghetto wasn’t sealed with a fence as was the case in other towns, but the Germans and Ukrainians patrolled the perimeter, making it almost impossible to get out. Those who dared to ignore the prohibition, do business with non-Jews or buy or barter their belongings for food were sentenced to immediate execution by shooting.
In compliance with a new order that was issued soon after the ghetto was established, the Nazis, aided by the Ukrainische Hilsfpolizei and Judenrat officials, implemented a twice-daily head count to keep everyone in the ghetto under control and in constant fear. The head count occurred in the market square in the new part of town. The commandant did a roster call and then everyone headed back into the ghetto. Only very young children, the elderly and ill people were exempt from these daily head counts.
Every new order made things worse in the ghetto. Under the threat of death, Jews had to turn in all their gold, silver and furs, as well as their cows and other livestock. More than thirty kilograms of gold were handed over to the Germans as a result of this edict. At the same time, Jews had to report to the police station every day to be assigned to forced labour. Men worked repairing the railroad tracks and roads and in the woodcutting shop. Women worked in the fields. Children ages ten to fourteen were forced to work at the glass factory, and even though I was only nine, I worked there too. All of this was slave labour — we weren’t paid any wages. At best, we were given one hundred grams of bread per day.
In mid-September 1941, we were forced to make uniforms for the Ukrainian policemen. Their uniforms were made out of black gabardine and if there wasn’t enough material provided we had to cut up our own holiday clothing. That was the first time that I saw the Ukrainian trident, the symbol of Ukrainian nationalism, worn by Ukrainians who supported the Nazis because they thought the Nazis would help them gain national independence. There were also many Ukrainians who were committed supporters of Nazism, and not only to further their cause of independence. Ukrainian antisemitism has a more than three-hundred-year-long history that dates back to the seventeenth-century Chmielnicki massacres in which tens of thousands of Jews were murdered in Poland and Ukraine. The twentieth century offered them new opportunities for antisemitic persecution.
My brother Samuel worked for the German officers at the Organization Todt, the German civil and military labour organization. He had to shine the soldiers’ boots, split firewood, help their Polish chef cook and serve meals to the officers. Every now and then he’d sneak some food to eat himself and sometimes he was allowed to take home some food scraps and leftovers that had gone bad. Our mother made them into meals by adding oats and wild goosefoot. Samuel later recalled being beaten and humiliated by the Polish chef on a regular basis. One day, when Samuel was polishing the boots of a German officer named Lemel, the officer told him, “If we start killing the Jews, boy, come here and we won’t kill you.” Samuel realized what was in store for the Jewish community and reported the remark to the Judenrat, which ignored it.
A month later, in October, 1941, all Jews age ten and older were ordered to wear special patches on their clothing — two yellow circles, each one ten centimetres in diameter with a Star of David in the middle. One was to be worn on the chest, the other one on the back. Jews were not allowed to appear in public without these patches. There were still more prohibitions — for example, Jews were no longer allowed to walk on public sidewalks. In November, SS Captain Ditsch arrived with thirty SS men to take over command of Rokitno and assist in the collection of more “taxes” from the Jews.
Every day spent in the ghetto was filled with nightmares. Food was running out and it was getting harder and harder to get food from the non-Jewish people in the town. People began to die of malnutrition and sickness. We children sometimes managed to sneak out and exchange some clothes for a handful of flour or a piece of bread, but, as I’ve said, this was a very dangerous mission for all those involved. Risking my life, I managed to sneak out of the ghetto every now and then to trade some of our belongings for bread and eggs. This was dangerous not only for me, but also for the people I bartered with. We lived with constant fear and hunger and the anticipation of death.
These horrors came to a deadly resolution on August 26, 1942. On that day the whole Jewish population of Rokitno was ordered into the market square. No one was exempt now, including infants, the gravely ill and the elderly. Those who couldn’t walk were carried to the square on stretchers. Some people carried others on their backs. German soldiers and German and Ukrainian police surrounded the square. They began by separating children, women, men and the elderly. The situation developed into fear and disorder. Soon, deafening screams and moans filled the square. People panicked. Children were clinging to their mothers. Everyone was trying to defend the old and the sick.
All of a sudden, a sharp scream pierced the air: “Jews, they’re going to kill us all now.” It was Mindl Eisenberg, a big, tall, brave woman nicknamed “The Cossack” who saw the police squadron arrive from behind the train station and alerted the crowd. Anguished, people began to run for their lives. Men ran to find their wives and children. Everyone was trying to escape. Only bullets could stop them. The guards fired at the crowd and dozens of people were killed instantly, covering the square with blood. In this hell, my seventeen-year-old brother, Samuel, found me, grabbed me by the arm and we started running….
That was the last time we saw our mother, our father and our five-year-old brother, Moishe. We found out later that our father had been captured with other survivors of the shooting in the market square and taken to the Sarny area, approximately forty kilometres from Rokitno. Just outside of Sarny, in the ravines by the brick factory, he was shot along with some 18,000 other Jews who met horrifying deaths in that awful place. Witness accounts of the massacre say that the ground, covered with hundreds of bodies, was moving for days because people had been buried alive.
We never found out exactly what happened to our mother and our youngest brother.
My brother and I ran away from the market square to the house of the German officer who had promised to save Samuel. We broke into the house through the back window, but unhappily encountered the Polish chef. Without hesitation, my brother took my hand and we ran out the door into the backyard and then through the yard toward the woods. We crawled underneath the rail cars that had, I know now, been prepared for transporting Jews to the Sarny area and escaped into the forest. We ran as fast as we could and kept on running.