I Wish It Were Fiction
Holocaust Memories 1939 - 1945
"There is nowhere to go and all roads lead to death"
From the Holocaust diary of Aaron Starkman
(1918 – 2002)
For our six-million brothers and sisters
For my family
Remembering the Holocaust years is a very painful process: it tears you apart. It is difficult and at the same time, unforgivable to forget, especially as the ugly head of anti-Semitism rises again with the ramblings of Zundel, Keegstra and others. As a witness to the Holocaust I feel a sense of responsibility to tell the stories, as painful as it might be.
Forgiveness is a virtue, but I am not able to forgive.
I cannot forgive the calculated plan to destroy a people. I cannot and never will forgive the theft of my youthful innocence; of showing me the darker side of mankind — the darkest side.
I cannot and never will forgive the theft of a normal childhood and adulthood. I cannot and never will forgive being uprooted from the nurturing of my family, community and traditional life. I cannot and never will forgive the annihilation of my parents, brothers, aunts, uncles, cousins, my whole family.
I have become an orphan.
While the Germans worked out the annihilation plan they had many collaborators:
Ukrainians, Poles and others, all willing and anxious to help. As misguided as they might have been, I cannot forgive the cruelties and indignities they perpetrated on us, the Jews.
As I look back on the Holocaust years I can see the step by step plan to break our spirits and our bodies. I promised my mother that I would try to survive, as they believed that if I would live, they would all live through me. But from the first day after the capitulation of the Polish army, and the German occupation of Poland the reign of terror began and never subsided until liberation and the end of the war.
We were uprooted from our homes, moved around, deprived of our livelihood, subjected to beatings, humiliation and constant killings. Without warning, there was terror in our hearts each and everyday of the war.
God should’ve seen this, I said. Where is God? I asked myself this question many times and later on that day I heard a strange repetition of this same question. For some reason, I still don’t understand, why they took me away from there with a group of about a dozen or more men and marched us off to the place where the Bais Hamedrash was and the Great Shul. The Bais Hamedrash and the Shul on the Walova were very close. This was a very familiar place to me. My father sometimes attended the Bais Hamedrash.
So we were taken, 15 or 20 men, from Pentz’s Garden to the Bais Hamedrash. They marched us into the Bais Hamedrash, made us open up the Aron Hakodesh, and take out the Torahs. Then, on the street, right in front of the Bais Hamedrash, they told us to take off the mantels, take off the tie, and unroll them onto the pavement.
At that moment they made us do something so humiliating that it just overtook my mind, something I cannot forget to this day. The pavement in front of the shul was made up of cobblestones. Now that we had been forced to unroll them, they told us to march on the Torahs and then they forced some of us to urinate on the open, unrolled Torahs. There was this German, perhaps an officer, standing near me while this was happening, and he said aloud mockingly, “Voh ist eirer Got. Er is nichts und macht nichts” (“Where is your God. He does nothing.”) At that time I was almost fluent in German and I understood everything he had said. I heard the words so clearly. And I remember that I said to myself bitterly: “Yes, where is God? This is the holiest thing that we have. This is what we praise; this is what we learn from ...”
Foreword by Daniel Levine
I still remember the very first time I read his story – the type written pages hastily secured in what was one of three binders, prepared and inconspicuously stored away in a small basement closet, one each for my mother and her two sisters. It doesn't become any easier for me to read time and time again.
Never forgive, never forget is his message.
It was not until soon before his passing in 2002 that I first read his story. I cried – I was filled with hatred towards those who so easily and without any restraint took everything away from my grandfather.
It seemed impossible.
It was a Friday night and my family had just finished shabbos dinner. How can the gentle, caring, smiling man in my parent's living room be the same man in the stories I was reading? How can someone who lived through page after page of the most unimaginable horrors have greeted me with such a joyful smile as we shared a grapefruit – as was tradition – before dinner? How can a man who lives with so much love have lived through so much hate?
I didn't understand then and I still don't understand now.
In 2009, along with my brother, I took my grandfather's diary and travelled to Poland to retrace his tortured journey. It didn't become any easier for me to visit Majdanek after Sachsenhausen, nor easier to visit Aushwitz after Majdenk. One does not become desensitized to the horrors of a death camp – not even 65 years after the last murders took place.
I never spoke with my grandfather about his life during the Holocaust but I feel grateful that he had the courage to relive his memories and write this memorial so that his children and his grandchildren could help further his message – never to forget, never to forgive – onto future generations. I remain infinitely inspired and forever informed by his bravery.
As I try to help fulfill the wishes of my grandfather, I have done my best in transferring his translated, type-written, binder-bound pages into digital form and print. All the pages that follow are in exact form as the original story that was translated from Yiddish to English. The story that follows is exactly the same story that I first read in my room one Friday night when I was thirteen years old.
Had it not been for the help of many of my family members I would not have been able to complete this project, thank-you. Most importantly, it is in honour of my grandfather Aaron, my grandmother Pola, my aunts Susan and Marlene, and mother Eda that this project was completed.
With this, I hope I have simply made true my grandfather’s wish of making his story more accessible to his family and ensuring that these tragic events should never be forgotten and never repeated.
This is the story of my grandfather Aaron, a true hero, who survived the tragedy of the Holocaust and who had the courage to write about his experiences.
I have created a website containing this text and additional information: www.IWishItWereFiction.com
The writer of this memoir, Aaron Starkman, was barely 20 years old, when he was driven in into the Nazi Hitler hell. He decided to keep a diary, where he made notes of everything that was happening. He did not know whether he would survive. When he was liberated, he gathered all the notes and deposited them with the Warsaw Jewish Historical Institute. Unfortunately, few of the survivors kept notes about the horrible events that took place.
When the history of the Holocaust will be written, and when future history of the Holocaust will be written, and when future historians will gather their materials from the archives, there is no doubt that they will utilize Aaron Starkman’s diary with its description of the events that took place and the murders that the Hitlerite hordes committed. These facts will also serve as an example of the fate that befell most Jewish communities in Poland and Eastern Europe.
Foreward by Aaron Starkman
Over 15 years have passed, since I gave a manuscript to the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw. In this manuscript I described my daily experiences, beginning in September, 1939. The horrible days and nights that I have spent haunt me to this day. The months and years of German occupation of Poland in general and of my hometown Opatow (Apt) in particular, will remain in my memory forever.
In order to refresh my memory, I wrote to the Historical Institute in Poland and asked them to send me a copy of my diary. I owe many thanks to the Historical Institute for fulfilling my request.
As I was re-reading my own memoirs, I almost relived all my days and nights. I remembered many more details, that I had not noted in my original (diary). To this day, I cannot understand why I personally decided to keep a diary, even though I was uncertain whether I would survive.
The outbreak of the war.
Our hometown Apt did not escape the fate of the other cities and towns in Poland. Opatow (Apt) was occupied by the Germans in the first few days of the war. During the first period of the occupation, from September 1939 till the end of 1940, life remained more or less normal, taking into account the fact that we were in a war. We Jews could still move about relatively freely. Stores were open and functioning, workers still held onto their jobs. But we were quite aware of the fact that the Germans are now the masters.
After Poland was occupied, the Germans divided Poland into two separate parts. One part of the country, from Lodz to Upper Silesia, as well as Danzig (Gdansk) and its district and Poznan with its district were completely annexed and declared part of the Greater German Reich. The districts of Warsaw, Lublin, Kielce, Radom as well as Western Galicia were declared as the Polish protectorate of Germany. The Germans then decreed, that the Polish protectorate were to have their own currency (zlotys), as well as its own police force. The Polish police were given a distinct Polish uniform (blue – in Polish granat). The polish police were called the Granatowa Police. The Polish police in the blue uniforms were subjected to the orders of the occupation authorities. They meticulously carried out all the orders of the occupant.
In addition, the Germans had their own military force and a militia. They also recruited criminal elements as assistants. They freed all the criminals from the jails and used them as a punishment cadre. When the Germans decided to torture or murder some people, they used the criminals for that purpose. These were called the “punishment expedition”.
The first relatively wild period.
Opatow (Apt) became part of the Polish protectorate. By some twist of fate, the Jews in our city were subjected to a less severe treatment than the Jews in other cities of the protectorate. As soon as the Germans occupied Apt, they immediately introduced the German order. They established the police force and also the special punishment expedition. They also appointed a “Judenrat”. The well-known community activist, Mordechai Weitzblum was appointed as chairman.
The reason for the comparatively better treatments of the Jews in Apt was due to a number of circumstances. Firstly, the Judenrat was very active. It offered the fullest cooperation to the German authorities. The authorities were informed, that there are many skilled workers among the Jews, such as tailors, shoemakers, capmakers, metal workers and especially broom-makers – several hundred men altogether. The authorities of Apt informed the governor of Radom about the proposal of the Judenrat. The governor of Radom had jurisdiction of several districts around Radom. He notified the Apter authorities that he took their information under consideration.
A short time later several civilians arrived from Germany, they interrogated the Jewish craftsmen and paid special attention to the broom makers. They consequently entered several orders for brooms, at attractive prices. Hundreds of Jews won employment in the broom industry. They remained at their work until the very last minute before they were deported.
Many shoemakers were also employed by the Germans. They produced quality boots and shoes for the S.S. and for the police. Skilled tailors were given employment. They produced custom-made uniforms for the high officers of the army and for other government functionaries.
Another reason for the comparatively mild treatment in the first period of occupation was the fact that the Judenrat collected hefty contributions for the German military and civilian officers.
The situation of the Jews deteriorates.
The situation took a turn for the worse in the middle of 1940. It got worse from day to day. New requests were made by the Germans to the Judenrat.
First, decree forbade Jews to engage in commerce or work in some specified positions. Then came an order prohibiting Jews to live on (or in) streets or even be seen on those streets. This followed by an order that Jews must carry white armbands on their arms. Jews were forbidden to ride in autos, and also forbidden to travel from one town to the other.
The authorities appointed German commissioners, whose task was to take away from the Jews all their material possessions. Stores were being liquidated. Jews were forced to work hard labor. Since Apt has many caves, full of heavy stones, Jews were forced to work there at splitting those stones and bringing them to the surface. They were also employed at road building. We were being treated worse than animals.
The president of the Judenrat, Mordechai Weitzblum notified us that he was ordered by the Germans to supply 200 young men for work in some places near the Russian border. In addition to that, Mordechai Weitzblum sent a notice to everyone whom the Judenrat picked, to volunteer for work for a period of four weeks. Not a single one of the men who were notified volunteered. The president of the Judenrat refused to notify the Germans of the reasons why there were no volunteers.
Forcible detention of 80 men.
One day, at 5 o’clock in the morning, the whole town was suddenly encircled by the S.S. police. With the assistance of the Polish police, they succeeded to detain the 80 men. I was one of those 80.
Everyone was interrogated and asked why they did not volunteer. My answer was, “I did not want to leave my very weak and sick parents.” The 80 men that were captured were locked up in the town synagogue. We were guarded by the S.S. police.
The president of the Judenrat, Mordechai Weitzblum, was busy walking in and out of the synagogue. He pleaded with the Germans to free several men, whom he needed, but with no success. But he did manage to provide every one of us with a food parcel. We were sitting in the synagogue, guarded by the S.S. The cries of our mothers, wives and children could be heard from the outside. A while later, we were all taken outside, where big truckers were ready. We were taken to the railway station in nearby Ostrowiec. We were very closely watched by the guards. All 80 of us were squeezed into one freight car. The doors were then hermetically sealed.
We traveled for 3 days and nights, without food or water or sanitary facilities. The train stopped once at a certain station. We were all half-dead. Our wagon was pelted with stones. Many times we were shot at. Two of our people were wounded. After a while, we heard the whistle of the engine and we began to travel again, until we reached Lublin.
The sealed cars were opened from both sides. S.S. men were there to meet us. No sooner did we step down from the wagon, when the S.S. men began to beat us with their whips. Their wild shrieks could be heard for a mile. “Heraus Juden” (“Jews out!”) they yelled and kept on whipping us.
We were all half-dead, suffering from hunger and thirst. We were also almost blind, as a result of being confined for 3 days and nights in a dark, sealed wagon. It was difficult to move one’s legs. We could hardly move. Every few steps I and others fell down. The sun shone for everybody, but not for us.
When we reached a certain spot, we were ordered to stop. There we saw thousands of others, who were being brought in several other cars, on the same train. They were kidnapped in other towns and villages.
All of us were told to proceed on a nearby wide road. The road led to Majdanek. I tried to turn to the left or right, in hope that I will succeed to escape, but could not succeed. Many S.S. bandits guarded us. We were watched at every step. Finally we arrived at a gate with an overhead inscription “Arbeits Lager” (Work Camp).
No sooner did we march outside, when we were met by wild shrieks and merciless beatings. We were ordered to run faster. The place was surrounded with barbed wire. We were driven between the barbed wire and constantly beaten because we did not run fast enough. Many of us fell one upon another.
These tortures lasted for some time. Most of us were wounded and bloody. After this “gym exercise”, we were ordered to remain standing in rows of six. We were forced to stand like that for a full day and night. No one was permitted to sit down.
Majdanek was a huge camp. Thousands were interned here, they slaved at hard labor. They had to carry bricks to the top floors of buildings, that were being prepared as crematoria.
Very early in the morning, thousands of inmates were driven outside for “gym practices”, which consisted of a diabolic game. One Jew had to beat another, until all the rows had completed this horrible job.
The next day, five o’clock in the morning, we were all taken outside. There were literally thousands of us, We were taken again to the train station. A huge train, with tens of freight cars was waiting. We were packed in, 120 in each car, that was sealed from the outside. Nobody knew where they are taking us. Different guesses were made. Some thought that we are being taken to Germany. Others had other opinions. We traveled for several hours. Late at night we arrived at a certain station, and the train stopped there. The S.S. bandits literally ejected us from the cattle cars.
It was dark outside, the only bit of light was the shine of the moon. We immediately heard wild shrieks, warning us, that whoever will attempt to escape will be shot without warning.
Suddenly we heard gun shots, and two people fell to the ground. They were shot. Once again we heard the warnings, that whoever will attempt to escape will be shot. We were driven like cattle. We did not march. We ran. Many fell exhausted, one on top of the other. Everyone threw away the bundle that he or she were carrying. Once again we heard gun shots. Many among us were hit by the bullets. This was the end of their road.
We arrived at a large square. Some of us had disposed of their jackets. Many lost their shoes. Others lost their caps.
The Germans told us; “You can lie down on the ground and get some sleep”. The moon, that accompanied us on the long march, was again with us here, but here we could see her beautiful shine. It was like daylight.
Suddenly we noticed a large group of people, stretched out on the ground, a little distance from us. As we moved closer we realized that they too are our own Jewish brothers and sisters. They told us, that they were forced to lie here some three or four months on the wet ground. Most of them looked like monkeys. Dirty, unshaven, barefoot and naked.
Their first request was a piece of bread. Those of us who still had some bread, immediately gave it to them. The people we have met told us that there were many gypsies in the nearby concentration camp, who were working together with them at hard labor. The commandant of the camp was a German by the name of AMAN. They also told us that we are in the city of Belzhets, not far from the Russian border.
We stretched out on the wet ground, one near the other. Suddenly we heard some terrible screams. These were the screams by the guards.
We succeeded to fall asleep. When we arose it was already early in the morning. The bells were ringing, calling us all to arise. It was bitter cold. We all stood barefoot on the ground, most of us almost naked. Those whom we met the night before were running to get the meager ration of daily bread and something which looked like coffee. We, the new arrivals, had not yet received our work assignments, nor any food rations.
A little while later Commandant Aman arrived. He began addressing us with soothing words. He promised that we will soon get bread and coffee, but before that we still have to march some 81 kilometers, until we will reach the village of Naral.
We build trenches at the Russian border.
When we reached Naral, they drove us into an old, large almost ruined flour mill. A local shoemaker lived there. He was Jewish. He told us that most of the Jews in the village were shot by the Germans. His life was spared, because the Germans considered him to be a “useful” Jew, whom they could use.
The wealthy former owner of the mill committed suicide in his house. His wife and two children were shot by the Germans.
Tired, exhausted and half-dead, we lied down on the floor. We were thoroughly drenched by the rain. The Germans left us alone for two days. Early in the morning on the third day, they began driving us. All we were given to eat was some stale bread and what they called coffee. We have hardly finished eating, when the S.S. guard began yelling: Hurry-up, get in line. We began to run, fearing further beatings. They led us through fields, until we reached an area, where we saw many red poles. This appeared to be the border.
We came very close to the border. A German officer immediately issued an order, that no one is allowed to look to the right, along the border line. Whoever will look there, will be shot on the spot.
We formed into a line, everyone was given a shovel and told how to dig. Right after that, an automobile arrived and the infamous German murderer Dolf emerged. He was dressed in civilian clothes, and wore a white overcoat. In his hand was a leather cane.
When he came closer to our lines he asked if everyone is Jewish. Yes, we all answered. The murderer Dolf marched along the entire line with his cane in his hands, and began beating indiscriminately, in the most brutal way, until very many began bleeding. He then returned to his auto and left. We stood there, bloodied, with the shovels in our hands and were forced to continue digging. The Germans instructed us how to do our work.
In the beginning, we did not quite know what the purpose of our work was. We were told that this was a secret. We saw that we were simply digging trenches. Finally we understood that the Germans are preparing for a war against Soviet Russia.
Thus the work went on from day to day. No one was allowed to raise his head when he worked. The S.S. men guarded us very closely. They surrounded us with machine guns and kept on warning us, that if they will notice anyone raising his head, he will be punished and given 50 strokes with the cane. And the punishment will have to be administered by us.
When we came back to the camp after work, we were driven again to additional duties. We were ordered to wash all the floors and clean all the toilets. Everything had to be done by hand. We were carrying stones from one spot to another.
Finally, after this exhausting day, we were given a bit of soup to eat. The soup consisted of some leaves mixed with water. After dark, completely exhausted, we just fell down on the floor and fell asleep.
The camp was guarded on the outside by the S.S. men. The entire camp was surrounded by barbed wire. During the night we were constantly being awoken by the wild shrieks of the S.S. men. Very early in the morning, when it was still dark, we were again awoken by the S.S. who ordered us to get up and get outside. We were not given enough time to drink our coffee, before being driven to work.
The work was hard and exhausting, and lasted from 5 in the morning until five in the evening. Lunch was given to us at our work places. In the evening we were given 20 grams of bread. The hunger was overwhelming. The stronger ones among us fought with the weaker ones for an extra piece of bread. And the days and nights dragged on, without any hope. Many decided to escape and try to illegally cross the border.
Escape across the Russian border.
One cloudy morning, after we came to work, several of us decided to run for it and cross the border. It was not too difficult. All one had to do was be strong and determined and be ready to risk his life.
Thus quite a few crossed over the border. This led to an increase in the number of guards, who were specifically assigned to prevent anyone escaping. The Germans also decided to severely punish those who escaped and those who attempted to escape.
The punishment was handed out to those of us who remained. As a first step, the Germans picked out 30 men and shot them. In addition they kept the rest of us for 2 days and nights in the trenches, without any food. Nobody could move, or leave the place of work for even a minute. Anyone who did not get to work speedily was shot on the spot. Our situation became desperate.
Despite all the cruel punishment, there were still some among us who took the risk again and ran across the border. In response, the S.S. instituted a still harsher regime of punishment. Every day, 10 men from among us were shot. Security along the border line was increased, with many more men guarding the border. But despite the unheard of cruelty, there were still quite a number who risked their life and ran.