WILNO (Nov. 27)
Our little group left Krzemienice in three peasant carts which brought us a distance of seven kilometers to the Ukrainian village of Horynka, where we decided to continue to the Rumanian frontier. Our decision was prompted by the fact that, although the trip to Rumania was more difficult, the nearer Soviet border had been hermetically sealed.
From Horynka we proceeded in our carts under the most horrible conditions for four days and nights, passing virtually sleepless through many villages and towns. On our way to Tarnopol, we witnessed the final evacuation of the Polish Government from Krzemienice and other towns towards the Rumanian frontier.
In this way we covered some 180 kilometers, spending our nights in sheds and the woods. Only 30 kilometers stood between us and Zaleszczyki, on the Rumanian border, when we arrived in the village of Ulaszkowce, a short distance from the township of Czortkow, famed as the site of an old dynasty of “wonder rabbis.” We arrived on the night of Sept. 16, hoping the next day to reach the Rumanian border, undeterred by a warning that Zaleszczyki harbored 100,000 refugees from all over Poland and even ignoring the fact that only a few of us had Rumanian visas.
The next morning, as we were preparing to hire carts with which to continue the journey, we were surprised by a most unexpected development. An official of the bailiff’s office visited us and announced that the Soviet forces had crossed the frontier and had already entered the village which we were preparing to leave.
Thus, an entirely new situation had arisen. Our fatherland was now in the hands of two powers and entirely cut off from the outside world. The moment was in-appropriate for placing the responsibility for the tragedy which had engulfed million of our countrymen, but deep within me my heart was bleeding over the collapse of our homeland.
With the passing of the first overwhelming impression, we decided to present ourselves before the new authorities, hoping thus to avoid internment. We found that the military officials by whom we were questioned had not the least intention of molesting us, declaring that we were free to move anywhere after a superficial examination of our documents.
On the highroad near the village we were constantly overtaken by military unit and had occasion to admire the modern equipment of a mechanized army. The village itself was already taking on a Soviet appearance, with display of the Red flag and Soviet troops and tanks filling the streets. The fears of Jews and non-Jews alike were allayed, since they were freed of the danger of bombing and German invasion.
Continuing our journey, we reached the township of Kopyczynce, where we met some 25 Warsaw Jewish journalists who had arrived by another route. We learned from them that three of their number had been arrested by the Soviet authorities and sent to an unknown destination.
As elsewhere, the Polish authorities were surprised by the entry of the Soviet troops and were unaware of their intentions to such a degree that civil and military officials greeted the invaders as “allied friends come to help against the German enemy.”
The Poles showered flowers upon the Soviet forces, but were shortly thereafter disillusioned when Polish army officers were disarmed and interned. Nevertheless, the slogan “fight Hitler” was most popular with Soviet officers and soldiers, all of whom were heard repeatedly stating that they were “going to fight Germany.”
The local Soviet authorities treated us in friendly fashion, even placing a military lorry at our disposal, since the trains were not yet running. We knew the fate of besieged Warsaw had been sealed in the final Russo-German treaty, handing the capital to the Nazis. We decided to proceed to Wilno, having to cover a distance of 800 kilometers, the first stage being Tarnapol, 80 kilometers distant.
There we found an immense number of refugees, probably 100,000, from German occupied territory, although the city’s normal population was only 40,000. The over-crowding was indescribable. Prices of food and lodging soared. All shops were closed and had been replaced by primitive barter in impromptu street markets with goods displayed on tables. Among these traders were many prominent merchants and professionals from Warsaw, Lodz and Cracow, trying to obtain enough money for bread.
We crossed, by cart, the towns of Brody, Dubno, Rovno, Sarny and Luniniec and continued by train the zigzag route to Brest-Litovsk, Bialystok, Wokowysk, Lida and Baranicze, since no other route was possible.
Everywhere we saw the Soviet efforts to establish the new order. Everywhere were orders for surrender of arms, registration, curfew regulations, etc., but never the less the streets were filled with crowds happy to have been saved from the Nazis, greeting the Soviet forces enthusiastically as saviors. Notables formerly known as anti-Soviet publicly addressed the crowds in thanksgiving over the averted Nazi danger
Despite the war damage, currency difficulties and scarcity of food and other necessities, preparations for rebuilding life were to be observed. Schools were reopened, with no such racial restrictions as the numerous clauses which had been in effect under the Polish regime. Cultural activities were pulsating, trade unions were organizing and producers’ and consumers’ cooperatives were established. The refugee problem gave evidence of gradual disappearance since all those desiring to do so had the right to work, regardless of birthplace.
However, a problem of readjustment had arisen for the formerly wealthy classes, which had to adapt themselves to the new political and social conditions. Most of these were aware of the difficult times ahead for them. Frequently a wealthy owner of a large enterprise would announce himself to the Soviet authorities and hand over his keys to the new management.
Most of them were instructed to continue the management of the enterprises but there were also many cases of detention of industrialists and merchants. Some of those detained were released after their employes intervened, especially when necessary to conduct their enterprises, but there were cases where the intervention had the most unfavorable effects.
The Sovietization of the area had started everywhere, accompanied by numerous arrests, particularly among the wealthy, politicians and social workers. Among the Jews arrested were chiefly the liberal intelligentsia, Socialist and labor leaders and some Zionists, most of the arrests following denunciations by local Communists.
Despite this the majority of the population was happy, especially when they considered the fate of their brethren in the German-occupied areas. This explains the constant influx of refugees from the Nazi territory. At least five of every ten men seen in the streets of Rovno were refugees. The same was true in other towns. But the climax came in Bialystok, where the population had been quintupled. All stations we passed were crowded with refugees.
I talked to hundreds of refugees and heard the most shocking tales of barbarities inflicted under the Hitler yoke. I heard of cases where Jews were buried alive, as in the township of Dlugosiedlo, where the merchant, Sabatai Sendler, had been thus killed. I learned of the death of the Przemysl rabbi, Zvi Hirsch Berger, who pleaded with the Nazis to kill him instead of the hundreds of Jews marked for executive but was forced to witness the executions and was then slain.
I heard of Jews and Christians locked in synagogues and churches for days without water under the constant threat that they would be burned alive; of women and children driven out of food lines; of towns annihilated and Jewish communities driven out on 15 minutes’ notice.
I witnessed scores of thousands of outcasts, plundered, naked and hungry, wending and crowding all routes from the German areas in a tragedy which overshadowed that of medieval Spain. I saw the faces of desperate parents seeking lost children; weeping mothers leaving the corpses of their children. I saw frantic people seeking the bodies of relatives amid the ruins.
Under the impact of this overwhelming tragedy I prepared for the last stage of the journey to Wilno, our own troubles and exhaustion forgotten in the desire to escape these ghastly spectacles.
Already informed of the Russo-Lithuanian negotiations to give Wilno to Lithuania, we proceeded to Wilno, impatient to find there the possibility of new contacts with the outside world, continue my work and be again in a free, neutral country. I met numerous friends and acquaintances in Wilno, from whom I hard the news that Soviet Russia was giving Wilno to Lithuania. For a second time since the outbreak of the war the frontier had come to me.