The Nizkor Project: Remembering the Holocaust (Shoah)

The Memorial Book of Ostrow-Lubelski
Living through two world wars
by Mechi (Mischa) Eckhaus, Melbourne, Australia

I was born in 1915, when almost all of Europe was in the midst of a conflagration so widespread that it even reached our little town of Ostrow-Lubelsk. I think that the first memory of my town and home that I can recall was the Friday evening when we knew that like all the other Jews in the town we too had to flee our home. The Bolsheviks were retreating and the Polish and Balachov soldiers were soon to arrive. On the way, my father went to tell Mendel Krentzer, a shoemaker, to leave also, but he did not want to leave his home.

Our journey, like that of so many Jews at the time, was long and hard, With our first stop in the village of Yedlanki, and our first bed for the night in a barn. In the morning we woke to find that we were surrounded by Polish soldiers who didn't ask too many questions, but drove us into the nearby woods. All the men were made to stand in a row, my father first in line. The soldiers' rifles were drawn, and the rumour was that they were going to kill all the men. As they waited for the order, the women and children wept and cried, making a sound so pitiful that it is forever etched in my memory. The soldiers began to search everyone, taking everything of value that they found. Amongst Shaya Azshis' belongings they did not recognize the "green papers" until an officer told them that they were American dollars. The soldiers confiscated the money. Suddenly another officer appeared, ordering the soldiers to move on... We were saved. (Shaya, who had spent half his life in America and managed to save a few dollars, had returned to Ostrow-Lubelsk before the outbreak of the first World War. Nuw he had lost all his savings, but he survived the war and later became a caretaker in a bath-house).

On the following Sunday, we returned to Ostrow-Lubelsk and my father and I went to call upon Mendel Krentzer. We found the cellar door open and the shoemaker lying dead in a pool of blood. Many Jewish homes had been burnt and in some cases the fires were still burning. We all joined the priest and the other inhabitants who were carrying water and attempting to put out the fires. This same priest had hidden the Jew, Leibish Boger, but the Poles showed the Balachov soldiers where he was hiding. When he was discovered, Leibish jumped through the window and escaped, but the priest was not so lucky. The murderers took their revenge on him and he was tied to a tree and severely beaten. These were my first memories of my town.

Happier memories are those of my family, and we were a large family of eight children: four daughters and four sons. They were called Dvora-Hinde, Malka-Leah, Shaya-Yidl, Getzel, Mechel (myself), Golde, Chavele and Men Del. My father of blessed memory came from Tshemanik, and although his correct surname was Eckhaus, he was always known as Yossel Reuven Mechels, after my maternal grandfather. My mother, Ester-Miriam, had been born and always lived in Ostrow- Lubelsk. She was known as Reuven Mechels' daughter, or the "feltsherke", which was the name given to those who attended the ill and decided whether or not a doctor should be called. My parents kept a shop in which they sold leather, shoes and dry goods. The Poles called the store "to tzarnich", which meant "to the black people" as the storekeeper and all the children had black hair.

We had our business on the Rinek and lived on Partshever street. Whilst my brothers and I studied in cheder and school, my sisters went to school. Our home was a religious one, my father was a well- known Gerer Hassid, and until the age of 14 I had long earlocks, a Jewish hat and a capote.

One episode from my cheder is engraved in my memory. I studied with the hot-tempered rabbi, Moshe Noah Album. One day I talked his son Abraham into going to the river to bathe, and we set off. This event however, happened to coincide with the middle of our studies and the rabbi noticed that we were missing from the long table. He also knew where he would find us, so he went down to the river, took all our clothes and returned home. A miracle occurred, the rebbitzin (the rabbi's wife) saw what the rabbi had done and argued with him, taking our clothes back to the river where we were standlng, naked, very frightened and crying.

Chapter 2

The last two years of the first World War, and also the first years of Polish independence, were very hard years for the Jewish population. The housing conditions were poor, there was not always enough food to eat, and people were frequently ill. Our situation would have been much worse were it not for the assistance we received from the American Jews. I can remember the Kettles of soup placed in the streets with everybody crowding around them to obtain a little of the soup and dry food which was being distributed. Life became more normal after a time and shopkeepers once again opened their shops and sold whatever goods that had been saved from the war's tribulations.

Before World War I, Ostrow-Lubelsk had been one of the major leather-producing and beer-manufacturing towns and my maternal grandfather, Reuven Mechels Winograd, a native of Ostrow-Lubelsk, was both a successful merchant and a respected householder of the town. After the war, my grandfather once again began to buy up leather and carry it to the Polish cities, just as he had done before 1914. The towns' shoemakers, tailors, furriers, harness-makers, hat makers and other craftsmen resumed work, finding it a bitter struggle simply to exist and feed their large families. Not everyone could manage even such a meagre existence as this, and many were compelled to leave their town and seek their livelihood in Parczew, Lublin, Warsaw, Lodz. Some left for other European countries such as France or Belgium, others went overseas to Brazil, Norlh America or Argentina. It is self evident that because of all this emigration the population of Ostrow-Lubelsk was diminished.

In addition to the burden of eking out a living, the young people of Ostrow-Lubelsk assumed another, perhaps greater task. This was to improve the world in general, and that of Jews in particular, notably that of their fellow Jews in Ostrow-Lubelsk. Consequently, various parties, organizations and groups began to appear in the public arena: Zionists of all trends; Bundists, who considered themselves to be the strongest protectors of the working class; and Communists, inspired by the October Revolution in Russia. Religious parties became active, cultural societies embraced most of the town's Jewish youth and a professional society was formed for workers to meet and discuss the problems of the work-place, which included such topics as the need for social achievements and improved wages.

Understandably, the police kept their eye on the workers' organizations and often carried out searches of the various meeting places and culture clubs. None of these activities dissuaded the youth from their ideals or their battles for a better future.

Chapter 3

A year of two after my bar-mitzvah I decided to become independent. Even though I considered myself a child of a "better home", where the problems of living were not so great, I found the differences between rich and poor and the constant injustices that surrounded me to be so great that I no longer wished to be dependent upon my family. I apprenticed myself to Yankel the carpenter, knowing that work would change my view of life. I felt the need to belong to a collective, to be a member of some society. Consequently, I joined Betar, the youth organization of the Zionist-Revisionists which was led at that time by Wartzman and Leibl Shafran. My membership of this organization did not, however, last very long as, influenced by Moshe Liebhaber and Esterke Abarbanel, I joined the then illegal Communist organization. It was easy at that time to become convinced that one had to begin fighting for improvement as working conditions, especially for the Jewish youth, were very difficult. We had to work from dawn to sunset without any definite hours. We were also required to participate in housework; cleaning, washing and minding the younger children, often spendmg more time on this than on learning a trade. These factors generated conflicts and strikes against the employers. The members of my "cell" made efforts to penetrate inlo the professional societies as well as the library and the Cultural oryanizations in order to influence others in the style of the "Communist spirit".

Some of the men in the town, called "the strong men", were moved by opposition and even hatred of the leftists. More than once they attacked them, which resulted in many injuries for both political groups, which required Dr. Last's care.

In my eighteenth year, on a Thursday evening, I was arrested. I was sitting at home reading "forbidden" literature--proclamations, pamphlets and a book from the district committee in Parczew--when a umformed policeman appeared at my door. He searched my room thoroughly and I was taken to the police station in December 1932. I was badly tortured during the examination; they poured water into my nose whilst gagging my mouth, until I lost consciousness. After a week of sadistic examinations I was sent to Lublin for yet another examination. It was six months later, in May, 1933, that the Lublin District Court sentenced me to four years imprisonment. The sentence was ratified by the Appeals Court, but as the Polish government declared an amnesty in December, 1935, I had to spend only three years in prison.

There were all kinds of Poles and Jews from different cities and towns in the prison; Yankel Duman from Ostrow-Lubelsk was there. In particular, I became very friendly with Feivel Fruchtengarten from Opole and we maintained our friendship even when he was living in Argentina. In my prison cell I also met the future General Vitold Frantciszek Jozwiak, Janek Youngman and Leibel Zilberstein, all hardened Communists with whom we carried out a hunger strike against the terrible conditions.

My arrest signalled the first time that a Jewish man in Ostrow- Lubelsk had been charged with Communism, an event that caused a tumult in the town. Even after my liberation I felt that the policc were keeping a watchful eye on me and I considered that the town was now too small for me. I decided to go to Warsaw, but after staying a year without managing to find any work, I once again returned to my hometown. Once again I continued organizing and educating the youth of the town in spite of the ceaseless police persecutions.

In 1937 I had to leave Ostrow once again, but I returned to the town in 1939, at the outbreak of World War 2. The intervening years were spent travelling between Warsaw and Ostrow-Lubelsk, looking for work in the former and avoiding the police in the latter.

Chapter 4

Early in the morning of Friday, September 1, 1939, the Germans attacked Poland. After only weak resistance from the Polish army the Germans and the Soviets divided the conquered country so that the Bug River became the border between the Third Reich and the Soviet Union. Suddenly, my family and I found ourselves in German-occupied Ostrow, and it was especially dangerous for me as I was known for my socialist views. The young people of our town decided to move to the other side of the river, to the Soviets.

One day in that September, I said goodbye to my family; to my mother, father, brothers and sisters. We were all nervous. but nobody realized the real extent of our mutual anxiety, that some of us would be parting forever. I was accompanied by my future wife, Bronia Wasserman from Lublin. Our parents walked with us a little of the way, all of us werc weeping, and I remember how hard in was to say goodbye. I had originally met Bronya in Warsaw in 1937, and we renewed our acquaintance in 1939 when Bronya, also a political activist, had fled Warsaw for Ostrow-Lubelsk.

The roads and highways were choked with refugees and some soldiers, a few on small wagons. but most travelling on foot. After several days of wandering we came to the city of Kowel, a large railroad centre with a population of some thirty-three thousand persons consisting of Poles, Ukrainians and some eighteen thousand Jews. In Kowel we were allowed to stay at the home of a former Polish political prisoner where we found many men and women comrades and workers for the socialist movement, as well as political prisoners. We were in dire need since we had left Ostrow-Lubelsk without anything; we had no winter clothing, and no money with which to buy any. The only solution to our problems appeared to be that I should return home.

In December I started back to Ostrow-Lubclsk, travelling by railroad to Brest Litowsk. After crossing the Station I met a countryman, deaf Shaya (Avraham Rimmer's son), who related his experiences in Russia. As he had not been able to find any work in his trade of harness-maker, he had decided to return to Ostrow-Lubelsk. I met Yankel Shachnes Wasserstrumm, also from Ostrow-Lubelski, who had had to leave his wife and two beautiful daughters, whom I had known very well in the West Ukraine. We all hired a man who brought us at night to the river, and very frightened, we crossed the almost frozen water. It was only after considerable pain and suffering that I managed to make the journey on foot back to Ostrow-Lubelsk.

The town looked very different from that which I had left. It was desolate, the shops were empty, and broken doors, windows and pieces of glass were strewn about the streets. Two days before my arrival home, the local Poles, armed with pitchforks and axes, had attacked the Jewish shops, destroying them and looting whatever they could. In order to remain alive, all the Jews had fled the city, and my parents told me that they had never seen such ferocity. I knew then that I had made a big mistake, that I should have listened to my Bronya who had tried to dissuade me from making this trip.

During the few days that I remained in Ostrow-Lubelsk I did not go out during the day for fear that some Pole might inform the police that the former socialist was in town. My parents hurried to arrange things so that I could leave Ostrow-Lubelsk as soon as possible.

One Saturday morning, early, the Germans brought a carload of Jews from Poznan to Ostrow-Lubelsk. They broke our hearts with the stories of their sufferings on the journey to Ostrow-Lubelsk. As the trains did not reach our town, these Jews had been made to walk the remaining ten kilometers on foot. The road was very rough and all those men, women and children who for some reason couldn't walk were shot by the Germans. Those who had the privilege of reaching our town were worn-out from the beatings, hardly caring what happened to them. When the Gestapo arrived, a few Poles pointed out the wealthier Jews and helped to "organize" a contribution of money, jewellery and other valuables.

They came to take my father as a hostage, but since he wasn't home, they took me instead. Sitting on the bench in the corridor of the detention centre, I heard the cries of the persons whom the Gestapo were interrogating inside. Suddenly, my father entered the building. He went straight up to the Germans and told them who he was, and that he wanted to take my place. The Germans were so astonished that they agreed to his request. My father saved me from being murdered. In a daze, I left the building not knowing what would happen to my father.

Chapter 5

Feeling that I could no longer remain in Ostrow-Lubelsk, I made arrangements to escape that night. My sister Chavele begged me to take her wilh me, but my parents, who had been reunited after the Gestapo incidcnt, did not agree. I left my parents, four sisters and two brothers in Ostrow-Lubelsk. My other brother, Getzel, had already gone to Kowel with his wife. My mother wept bitter tears, sensing that she was seeing me for the last time, and that was the way it was. An Ostrow-Lubelsk Jew who survived Maidenak told me that he had seen my two brothers in the camp, both had had fever. Whilst working in the crematorium, he, with his own hands, burnt my brother Shaya-Yidel in the oven. He knew nothing, however, of the fate of my parents, sisters, or my other brother Mendel.

At the beginning of 1940, I managed, after many troubles, to return to Kowel. Bronya and I were very excited, when, towards the last days of October 1939, my sister-in-law arrived with her husband Getzel. Luckily, they succeeded in obtaining a so-alled "dwelling" place with a Polish railroad worker, but this did not last long. They soon had to move to an old wooden barrack not far from Koleyava street, which was very rudimentary, lacking the most elementary installations of the normal apartment.

Unfortunately, the Kowel Jews did not display much understanding or sympathy for the refugees. Later, when the German army came to Kowel, few of the Jews there fled, and so we all ended up sharing the same bitter fate.

My future wife, Bronya, and I lived in the house of former political prisoners, together with other socialist workers. We had no employment, and, with the help of acquaintances, looked for work. One day, as part of a group of twelve, we were sent to the Zakosiel in Polesie. There we found an abandoned house and a neglected farm that had belonged to Poles who had been arrested, leaving the servants to flee. However, there was no work for us there, and we found ourselves in a wasteland with no one who could help us. After some time, even though we did have food to eat, we decided to leave this place. It was Febtuary 1940 and the cold and the frost was eating into our bones.

We returned to Kowel and went to live in the wooden barrack with my sister-in-law. This was uncomfortable for all of us, but there was no alternative. After considerable effort, Bronya managed to find work at the railway station. Finally, I found work and our little family managed to survive the hard winter, but we all did so hoping that the spring and summer would bring not only warmth, but also a better life.

Chapter 6

One day in the month of June, 1940 we heard rumours in Kowel, especially from the refugees. It appealed that all those who had registered to go back to Poland in the belief that they were to rejoin their families, were being rounded up and taken from their homes. They were led to a railway station and loaded on to boxcars and were carried deep into Russia instead of occupied Poland. It is easy to imagine the confusion and fear that these rumours aroused in everyone. My brother and two sisters-in-law had been arrested by the Soviet police. I had returned to Kowel from Lemberg in time to say goodbye and provide them with some food and clothing whilst they were held at the railway station. Who then could imagine that it was those who were being deported, those that had been fooled by the fake registrations, who were the ones that actually had a better chance of remaining alive than we who remained in the Western Ukraine ?

Bronya and I decided to get married officially in 1940, and the ceremony was both private and short, taking place in the presence of a few close friends. We adopted Soviet citizenship, left the barracks and settled in a small room which contained a table, a closet, a bed and two chairs. We shared a kitchen. Later, the owner of the barracks sued us for the rent that our deported family had failed to pay and we were compelled by law to repay this debt. At this time we both had jobs, and I was employed as a carpenter.

Our parents were located on the other side of the Bug river and we communicated through mail, although the links were weak and irregular. We received letters from far-off Sibena, from my brother and sister-in-law. These letters carried messages of doubt, sadness and bitterness, as their needs were many. They were cold, hungry and forced to perform hard labour. We dried fruits, accumulated fats, bought sugar, rice and other groceries and every two weeks we sent them a food package. We shared what we had with them, and received moving letters of thanks.

In October 1940 Bronya became pregnant and was transferred to an easier job in the bookkeeping department at the railway station. There she came to know many Polish workers, goud people, as well as Basha, another Jewish woman with whom she became firm friends.

At this time the political and military situation was very bad, and although we read constantly of Germany's military successes in Western Europe, we still believed in a miracle. But, then we were young and even enthusiastic. At the end of March, 1941, I was called for a few months of military exercises. Since Bronya was already in her last months of pregnancy she could have had me released from military service, but our principles would not allow this. It was our duty to fight against Hitler's Cermany.

My parting from Bronya was very sad and I was too ashamed to weep openly, but Bronya encouraged me to do so. After our parting I was taken to the reserve base beyond Kolomei where an airfield was being built.

Chapter 7

Sunday, June 22, 1941, heavy bombardments woke us from our sleep. The fall of the dead and the wounded began immediately, and a few hours later we learned from an official Soviet radio communique that the two countries, Russia and Germany, were in a state of war. Our military unit received an order to evacuate, but as we had no means of transportation we took to the road on foot. When we reached the bridge over the Donetz River we found that it had been blown up by the air attack. We had to cross the river and many soldiers drowned because they did not know how to swim.

In reality, the evacuation march was a frightened flight of several days and nights of painful marching until we reached Kiev, the Ukrainian capitol. Here, we received orders to continue on to Rostov where new military units were to be formed. On this journey I here were many cases of desertion, and any deserters that were recaptured were shot. Consequently, the developments at the front were considered to be in the Germans' favour as they were advancing whilst we continued to retreat. My unit was part of the 3rd Ukrainian Front, and I came with them all the way to Stalingrad.

The heroic epic of Stalingrad has, by now, already been written, sung and analyzed from all possible perspectives. However, as one who tools part in that battle, it is still hard, even today, for me to grasp the scope and meaning of those heroic-tragic days. I lived through the time when battles were waged for every inch of land. I was wounded in one such battle and spent several weeks in hospital, where I was awarded a medal for participating in the battle of Stalingrad.

On departing from the hospital, I was reassigned to a reserve unit which was soon to be sent to the front. I knew that if I returned to the Red Army my hopes of returning to Poland and of being reunited with my wife and family would be almost nil. At this stage I did not know if even one of them was still alive, nor did I think, even for a minute, that I might be a father. I learned, however, that a Polish army, headed by General Berling, was being formed in Soviet Russia, which included a contingent of Polish patriots headed by the writer Wanda Wasizlewska. Joining this Polish army gave me some hope of returning to my old home and those closest and dearest to me. With such fervent hopes I sent a spirited application to the proper authorities, but inslead of receiving an affirmation of my request, in May, 1944 I was taken from the reserve base along with criminals, deserters and political prisoners, and sent to a working camp in Siberia.

As soon as I received permission, I wrote a letter to Marshal Stalin requesting to serve in the Polish army, which was now fighting on Polish soil against the Germans. I was greatly suprised and excited when I received an answer from Stalin's office freeing me from the camp and sending me to Lublin, where I would be able to enlist in the Polish army. My joy and happiness were indescribable and I was determined to stop off at Kowel on the way to Lublin to discover what had happened to my wife and family.

I found Kowel to be a city in ruins, with the effects of war to be seen at every step. I learned for the first time of the horrors that the city's Jews had suffered. Anxiously, I came closer to Kolcyova street where I had lived with my pregnant Bronya. Suprisingly, our former home was still standing, so I waited outside until sunrise for someone to emerge from the house. Finally, a Ukrainian woman stepped aut of the house. She instantly recognized me and fainted. Later, she told me that a few weeks previously she had gone to Rozyczeze to buy a goat and there she had met Bronya, the sole survivor of the ghetto at Kowel. She said that she had informed Bronya that I had been killed and she also went on to tell me that my Bronya was accompanied by a three and half-year old boy. My son!

It is easy to understand how deeply this news affected me. Here I was in the uniform of a Red Army soldier and with papers which ordered me to go to Lublin to enlist in the Polish army. How could I not ride to Rozyczeze to see my own family? I didn't waste too much time thinking about this and found mysclf on a train to Rozyczeze. When I arrived, coincidence was again on my side as I found a boy at the station who could take me to where Bronya was living. After all the years of separation, longing, dreams, hopes and disappointments, I felt privileged to have this most hoped-for moment of meeting, with all its embracing, crying and laughing, emotion and excitement. And the best of all of was that the child, my own flesh and blood, had survived the Hitlerite hell with his mother.

It was December 1944, and Bronya was very ill from all her sufferings during the period when we were separated. She was confincd to hospital, so I remained with her for some two months. My son, Richard, was sick in another hospital, in another town, and the sound of his crying when I had lo leave him to attend to Bronya still rings in my ears. When Bronya could leave the hospital we all moved to Lodz, where for the first time I was to hear of the virtual destruction of the Jews of Europe. In my travels, I was now surrounded by evidence of the destruction and loss of Jewish life as it was commonplace to find that all the Jews in the Polish towns had been murdered.

As of May 19, 1942, documents show that Ostrow-Lubelsk was a major depot for the transportation of the Jews. Around three thousand and sixty-two Jews had been deported from Ostrow-Lubelsk, leaving behind only those that were strong and able to work. Women, children and elderly persons were the first to be loaded into the transports. To this day I do not know how they all died, whether in the camps, or simply shot and buried in the sand pits not far from town. Ostrow-Lubelsk, my former home, had the shameful fate of becoming the final station for Jews who had been deported from Poznan, Slovakia, Lobartow and Lublin.

From Lodz we later moved to Walbrzych, where we lived until 1945, but our wanderer's road did not end there. We travelled by foot and frequently under the most appalling conditions. We were surroundcd by sorrow and sickness. I can recall one dreadful night when about 150 of us made camp for the night in the pouring rain. Everybody was complalning, everybody that is, except my brave six year old son who pointed out to all of us that by comparison, "It's no so bad".

Later, we went to Austria and settled temporarily in a D.P. camp, Enns, for nearly a year. By 1947 we had made our way to Germany and werc already in the D.P. camp in Rosenheim, Germany. It was only in 1951 that we could finally leave that cursed German soil, and Bronya and I, and our ten year-old son, emigrated to Australia which to this day, we have made our home.

[ Index ]

Home ·  Site Map ·  What's New? ·  Search Nizkor

© The Nizkor Project, 1991-2012

This site is intended for educational purposes to teach about the Holocaust and to combat hatred. Any statements or excerpts found on this site are for educational purposes only.

As part of these educational purposes, Nizkor may include on this website materials, such as excerpts from the writings of racists and antisemites. Far from approving these writings, Nizkor condemns them and provides them so that its readers can learn the nature and extent of hate and antisemitic discourse. Nizkor urges the readers of these pages to condemn racist and hate speech in all of its forms and manifestations.