I am a Witness

by Mina Rosner



In the space of three years, every member of my immediate family was wiped out by the forces of Adolf Hitler and his collaborators. My aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters, even my parents, were dragged from their homes and hiding places, bludgeoned, shot, or gassed, then dumped into unmarked graves. No headstones mark the spots where they rest. All that remains of their lives are some crumbling photos and the memories that survived along with me.

More than a generation has passed since the end of the Second World War. Today young people must rely on books and films if they hope to understand that period. To many, the war is only an historical event that came and went. The media are even fond of publicizing debates between historians and those who deny that the holocaust ever took place. For me, however, the events of that terrible time are indelibly burned in my memory and consciousness.

Recently I returned to my home village of Buczacz with my youngest son. The mayor welcomed me and escorted me on a tour of the town. As we walked up the slope to where my parents had lived, the curious town residents peered out of their windows. The younger ones must have been perplexed by it all, but I think the older ones knew well what I was feeling. The home my parents lived in is gone, so is the store that Michael, my husband, and I ran for so short a time.

One of our stops on the return visit was Fedor Hill, the town's main Christian cemetery, where so many of my people had been taken and shot. Even today, it's not uncommon for grave-diggers to uncover unidentified human remains whenever they prepare a new burial spot. It is a constant reminder of the atrocities of the war.

In sharp contrast to the neatly arranged rows of graves on Fedor Hill are the abandoned tombstones in the derelict Jewish cemetery across town. It was difficult for me to control my emotions as I walked alongside the graves of my friends and relatives after an absence of so many years. Some parts of the cemetery are now converted to a garbage dump, while others are completely covered over by trees and weeds. I noticed evidence of human remains everywhere. Human bones were strewn about above ground. Some graves were actually open. This is where my parents met their fate, but there are no markers signifying the spot. A marker erected in memory of the victims of the war was destroyed long ago by anti-Semites.

We found the tombstone of my grandmother, Golde Schwebel, who died in 1926. Two graves over we had buried Uncle Karl, and right next to him was the unmarked grave of my son, Isaac. I stood there for a long time. Nearly fifty years after burying our first son here, I was in the same place again, with my youngest son. Hitler did not succeed in killing me, but his handiwork still causes pain for me and millions of others.

As we walked on I saw a group of elderly women tending a field, and I couldn't help wondering, was it one of those women who handed my family over to the Nazis? This thought had been in the back of my mind since I had returned to Buczacz. The people who watched us on the streets, the ones who looked at us through their window shutters - what did they do during the Nazi occupation? Were some of the collaborators who helped to kill my family still walking the streets of Buczacz? Every town and village had collaborators. I felt sure some of them were still there.

There were some special places I wanted to visit. One was the monument in honour of the Warsaw Ghetto heroes. Michael and I had visited the huge granite structure before we came to Canada, and now I wanted to go there one last time with my son.

It was overcast and raining lightly when we arrived at Anielewicz and Zamenhof Streets in Warsaw, the site of the monument. This is where the first fusillade was fired on April 19, 1943, signalling the start of forty-two days of heroic resistance against the Nazis by the ghetto fighters. Hitler had imported tons of black granite from Sweden to erect a victory monument amidst the rubble of Warsaw. But the Nazis never got the chance to celebrate such a victory. Instead, the granite was used to build the imposing monument which paid tribute to the men and women who took up arms against their oppressors.

As I placed a bouquet of flowers at the foot of the monument, an elderly man passed by and spoke to us in Yiddish. His name was Rubin Moscovitch, one of the few surviving Jews in Warsaw. Originally from Lodz, he told us he had lived in Warsaw when the Nazis invaded. His entire family had been wiped out, but he survived by hiding in the woods. He told us the story of the ghetto, and pointed out the spot where resistance leader Mordechai Anielewicz committed suicide in his bunker headquarters rather than surrender to the Nazis. He warned of the dangerous political situation that was now developing in Poland and Eastern Europe, where scapegoats were being sought for the difficult conditions people were having to endure. Poland, he said, was beginning to see a new phenomenon - anti-Semitism without Jews.

As I looked as his pale and gaunt figure, with the towering granite structure serving as a backdrop, I thought about the variety of heroes the war had produced. There were the visionary men and women who foresaw the danger of fascism and fought against it relentlessly, not just during the war but before and afterwards as well. There were the brave individuals in every region who emerged as the leaders of the resistance, struggling to make life as difficult as possible for the Nazis at every turn. There were the ordinary people who had no desire other than to live normal lives, and who picked up arms to defend their families. And there were those who had no guns, but whose hatred of Naziism and spirit of defiance were no less real. They struck a blow against fascism by surviving. They continue that struggle now by speaking out against oppression.

Another name for those heroes is "witness," people who speak the truth. As I looked at Rubin Moscovitch's face I saw such a witness. Perhaps he looked back at mine and saw another.

Although the events I recount in this book took place half a century ago, I feel compelled to speak about them now because of some recent occurrences. Increasingly, acts of intolerance and prejudice are brought to my attention. These have stirred an urgent desire in me to try to make people understand the consequences of hate. I have no desire to see the events I experienced in the past be repeated to destroy the lives of my children and grandchildren.

If we aren't prepared to learn the lessons of history - to combat racism, fascism and all forms of discrimination - there is no guarantee that another holocaust will not occur. For Naziism was not the product of a handful of madmen who came to power accidentally. It was a conscious and deliberate policy instituted by those who sought to manipulate and control. As long as we live in a world where the exploitation of others is allowed to happen, people will be persecuted because of religious beliefs, skin colour, or race. Examples of this kind of persecution exist today, and I am saddened by them.

The Nazi holocaust touched me directly. I know that such inhuman atrocities can happen. Somehow I lived through that time. But it must never happen again. If my story encourages people to speak out against injustice wherever it occurs, I will be content. This is my small contribution to life - and liberty.



Chapter 1

I was 25 years old at the beginning of 1939, about to embark on a marriage and lifelong partnership in secure surroundings. Michael and I had met the previous summer at the instigation of a matchmaker, as was customary in our region. And it was soon evident to everyone that this match was right. We went for long walks in the cool summer evenings and spoke about our dreams for the future. Michael was tall and handsome, always elegantly dressed, and a real gentleman. He had led a hard life, losing his father at the age of nine and having to work continuously to help support his family. This prevented him from pursuing higher education, but he was a man of culture and knowledge. Following the First World War and until 1934, he had lived in Vienna, soaking in the vibrant cultural and intellectual life while eking out a living. We used to laugh as he told me about one of his very first "jobs" as a youth - he was paid by the management of Viennese opera houses to stamp his feet and shout "Bravo" at the conclusion of performances. We quickly became engaged and set the wedding date for January 8, 1939.

The wedding ceremony was meticulously planned. It was held at a hotel in Stanislavov, midway between my hometown of Buczacz and my fiancée's home in Kolomyja. Everything was arranged so that the guests could all be home by evening, and this went for the bride and groom as well. It wasn't for lack of desire or romance, but we couldn't afford a honeymoon in those days. As a wedding gift, my father - who was an established merchant and businessman in Buczacz - gave us the small retail store he had built up on Rynek, our town's main street. The townspeople depended on the store for candies and confectionery, carbonated drinks, snacks and other small items. There was no time for us to waste celebrating our marriage. The situation demanded that we return immediately and get to work. We were luckier than most, being the recipients of a generous gift which my father had worked hard to establish. There was more hard work ahead of us, but we were optimistic about the future.

The Pohorille family was very well known in Buczacz. My father, Abraham Pohorille, owned a wholesale distribution company and also produced carbonated soft drinks for sale throughout the city. He imported chocolate, candies, cheeses, sardines, herring and other foods from around the region and supplied the local retail outlets. He also sent supplies to the Polish and Ukrainian co-operatives and the private stores across the province. I can remember the shipments of fresh fish and conserves arriving from Gdansk, in the north of Poland; there were the delicious chocolate and lemon wafers that came from Lvov; and every child in Buczacz knew that our family was the source of the wide variety of candies available in town.

The soft drink factory was really my father's pride and joy. He had started it before the First World War, but it had to be re-built after the hostilities ended. Water would be hauled from the town well to my father's building and then carbonated. It was stored in big copper cylinders and shipped to different stores in the area. Most storekeepers sold the drinks by the glass, and my father made sure they had ice to go along with the refreshments. Every winter, he would hire men with wagons who would crack the ice on the Strypa River and haul the blocks into a warehouse. Straw was packed in-between each layer of ice, and this kept the blocks cool enough to last the whole summer.

Our family had a retail store as well, right in the centre of town across from the Ratush, the main monument in Buczacz. This is where I, my two brothers and three sisters would spend many hours helping out behind the counter. School was just half a day in the elementary grades, and we were all expected to work when we got home. But it hardly seemed like work when we were surrounded by candies, drinks and all manner of treats.

The store was a real gathering place for students and young people in Buczacz. Pupils from the nearby Gymnasium would constantly congregate there, to the consternation of their teachers. We had 10 or 12 chairs where people could sit down and have a sandwich or drink, and this is where more discussion would be held than in any of the classrooms. One of the teachers, Professor Rook, often came by to collar the students and herd them back into school. When someone shouted that Professor Rook was coming, it was the signal for all the students to dive for cover behind the counter.

Ours was a close-knit family, and my father's business was the thread that held us all together. Even after my brothers and sisters married, they were persuaded to remain in town and continue working in the enterprise. Jobs were found for their spouses as well. My father was a workaholic, and he imbued everyone with the same spirit. His soft and delicate features belied a strict attitude when it came to work. He and my mother would be on their feet from morning until late at night tending to the business, and we had the utmost respect for them.

My parents actually discouraged us from continuing our education past high school, as that would have meant leaving Buczacz and attending university in Lvov. After I finished seven years of elementary school for girls, I went to the Gymnasium for two years and received my certificate. There was an opportunity for me to train as a teacher in Tarnopol, but the needs of the family business kept me at home.

I wouldn't want to leave the impression that we were an uneducated lot. Much of our spare time would be spent reading books, newspapers and magazines in the library. We had a special German tutor, Herr Landau, and Mr. Koffler would teach us to read and write in Yiddish. We also attended a Hebrew school in a basement on Gymnasialna Street. My father subscribed to a number of newspapers and journals that would be passed from hand to hand in our home: "Der Moment" from Krakow, "Chvila" from Lemberg, and others. We were keenly attuned to a tradition of learning and scholarship which my family had established. Our home was filled with the works of Wolf Pohorille, my father's uncle, who had written and translated many books about religion, medicine and mysticism.

Buczacz itself had a vibrant cultural life. The young people never missed an opportunity to see the theatre, comedians, musicians and the cinema. Troupes would come from Vilna and beyond, and while most people were poor, they always seemed to have money for the performances. Theatre was performed at the Sokol, next to our school on Gymnasialna Street. The teenagers and students would crowd into the standing-room area, and though I could afford to pay for a seat, I would always join my friends behind the barrier. There was also the excitement of going to see the latest movies at the one Kino in town.

On the weekends we would organize outings in the countryside. A whole gang of us would don our knapsacks and head out for 20-kilometre hikes, singing songs as we strode down the middle of the road. Other times we would rent boats and row down the river, singing. But the most unforgettable image of my childhood is the Friday night gathering in our home on Zeblickevice Street, just off Rynek, near a winding stream which found its way into the Strypa River. My mother Cyla, a strong-willed but sensitive woman who was a grandmother at the age of 45, would carefully prepare the Sabbath meal with the help of her children. All my brothers and sisters, together with the grandchildren, would gather around the huge table. The business was closed on Saturday, so we would talk and sing songs long into the evening.

Buczacz was very much a Jewish community. The history books show that a Jewish settlement is first mentioned here in the 16th century. As in the rest of Galicia, the Jews survived through the centuries and held onto their ancient customs and traditions. By the 1930s, 10,000 of Buczacz's 18,000 population were Jews. The Jewish community was varied. Although many of the Jews were involved with commerce, people made their living any way they knew how. There were printers, tailors, tinsmiths, shoemakers and store owners. My brother and sister had a large hardware store. My uncle had a smaller shop. The Frankel family bred pigs and exported them. Others worked in the candle factory, or grew sugar for the region.

At the same time, Buczacz gave rise to many men of learning and distinction. The Nobel Prize winning author S.Y. Agnon was born there, as was Emmanuel Ringleblum, the historian and chronicler of the Warsaw Ghetto. A large printing press was established in Buczacz in the early part of the 20th century, and a Yiddish language weekly began to be published. One of the Pohorilles served as a civic official in the late 19th century, and in the same period a Jewish deputy was elected to the Austrian imperial parliament.

The First World War disrupted life in Buczacz and the rhythm of the Jewish community in particular, but it didn't destroy it. I was born in 1913, a year before the war broke out, and my earliest memories come from Germany, where my family fled. Fearing a pogrom, which was a common occurrence whenever political instability made it profitable for the ruling circles to play their game of divide and rule, my father closed his business and took his whole family to Zwickau. My family made its living mending cotton sacks while waiting to see how the battle between the big powers would turn out. There was a bitter irony in the whole situation. During the First World War, my family fled west and found shelter in Germany. In fact, both my father and my husband's father served in the Austro-Hungarian army which was allied with the Germans. It was the same alliance of forces which exterminated my family 35 years later.

The situation following the First World War was precarious for Jews in Poland and the Ukraine. Although the Russian Revolution had put a stop to the czarist pogroms, the Jews in the region to the west were still at risk. Jews became the convenient target; they were blamed for the impoverishment and destitution that followed the war. Pogroms in Poland began on the very same day the Polish independent state was proclaimed, and they continued throughout 1918 and 1919. The pretext for these killings often was that the Jews had opposed Polish troops or were sympathetic to the Soviets. A reign of terror was also organized by Simon Petlura, whose gangs killed an estimated 60,000 Jews in the year 1919. When Polish troops captured Lvov late in 1918, they carried out a bloody massacre, which was followed by reprisals against Jews in many parts of Galicia. Somehow our town was spared the worst effects of the killings, and my parents set about the task of rebuilding their lives. But the whole period was a foretaste of the barbarity that was to follow in the next war.

As my teenage years gave way to adulthood, Hitler began his rise to power in Germany. We followed the events there with curiosity and concern, but they always seemed very far away. If Europe was rushing headlong into war, I didn't realize it or appreciate what that war would mean. Nothing seemed to matter more than the present, and the present offered the prospect of a happy future. I was young enough not to have any vivid memories of the world war, and the only Poland I knew was the country of my happy childhood and youth. This was the Poland I loved as I entered into my marriage and began our family life. And it was the Poland that was forever destroyed by the events of the following years.

Permission to quote the above granted by Cecil Rosner (2/15/00).

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