Sunday, August 25, 2013

Sonia Bajcz Diamond: Living in Shklyn and the Senkevychivka Ghetto (Part 3: 1936-1942)

This is the third in a series that summarize an interview of my grandmother, Sonia Bajcz/Beitch Diamond (then Sara Bajcz), from about 20 years ago.  This talks about the years leading up to WWII, living with her grandfather in the village of Shklyn.  Previous posts in this series are here and here.

When I was finishing seventh grade, we heard rumors of what was happening behind the borders.  We had been supposed to build a new house, and we already had all of the materials.  But with the rumors we were hearing, my father decided that it was not the right time to build.  So he called a Ukrainian man he knew from the nearby village of Bludoff, and the man came with a big long wagon, and he picked up (in several loads) our brick, cement, lumber, and other building materials.  Around then, my bubby (my mother's mother) had passed away in Shklyn.  My zaidy said to my mother that since you're not building a house now, and your current house's rent is very high, why don't you come to live with us.

My mother did not want to go back to the village.  But my father said we should just go for a short while until the situation calmed down.  So my parents went to Shklyn.  However, my sister and I remained in Horochov with my father's mother who had said that she wanted to stay in the city--she was born in the city, was raised in the city, and she did not want to go to a village.

My mother figured that my sister and I would finish the school year living with my bubby, and then at the end of the school year, we'd join our parents in Shklyn.  But that winter, my bubby had a very bad stroke; she couldn't walk or move her hands or talk.  So then the whole burden fell on my shoulders.  I had to grow up overnight.  I had the responsibility to take care of my bubby and sister.  I cooked, baked, cleaned, and went to school.  We didn't have a spigot in the house to get water, so I had to go to the pump.  Especially in the winter, it was ice.  I carried the water on my shoulders on two buckets.  I went to buy and prepare the food.  At night, I made starter for bread, and I woke up at 2AM on Friday morning to bake.

The way my bubby Ronia lived and did for people, this was a hard way for her.  I was the one who took care of her, because of the way she took care of me.  Even then, when she saw me, her eyes lit up.  It was such a shame that she had to suffer like that.

So we soon moved to Shklyn to where my zaidy Moshe Dovid lived, and we took our bubby with us.  And she died there.  My father had to bring her to the city to bury her.  The snow was waist-high.  I think it was February.  Probably 1937, as we left the city in 1936.

Besides my zaidy Moshe Dovid, my aunt Baila lived with us as well.  He had all kinds of fruit trees and a vegetable garden.  We kids, my mother and my aunt would help to plant and garden.

From Shklyn, I'd walk 6 kilometers each way to school and back.  Some days I'd stay overnight with my aunt (Sara Fine Wollich) in Senkevychivka (where the school was located).

First the Russians came in.  They took away our house.  You were not allowed to have anything of your own; everything was supposed to collective.  Of course we kids still went to school.  It was very hard to make a living.  There were only 2 years the first time--1939-1941.  It was a big burden, especially for my father.  He couldn't do the things he did before the war--buying and selling.  He would have to continue this buying and selling secretly, so he didn't make as much money.  We lived as we could--we made the best of it, especially as we were living with our zaidy where we had fruits and vegetables from his big garden.

Before the Nazis came in, the Ukrainians took over from the Russians.  Right away, they picked the 4 nicest men--one was my first cousin's husband--and we never saw them again.  We heard that they were tortured, and we don't even know where their bodies are.

Once the Germans came in, within a week or two, they made a ghetto in Senkevychivka.  We were surrounded by Ukrainian guards.  It was too small an area to put up fencing, so the guards were more than happy to shoot to kill.  There was no more school, no more freedom.

Right away they organized a Judenraut (the Jewish Council) who would get orders from the head of the Germans, a man named Ampel. The head of the Judenraut was the father of a schoolmate of mine--Feldenkreitz.  They would send a message to each house where you had to go to work.  If the Judenraut didn't fulfill their orders, they would be punished.  They tried in all kinds of ways to make it easier for the community, but they couldn't do too much.  There were maybe 7 people on the Judenraut including my uncle Yosef Wollich.  He couldn't even help his family because an order was an order.  

First they asked for so much in diamonds, and money.  They would take hostages, and if you didn't give them what they asked, that hostage got killed.  So everybody was trying to give whatever ransom the Germans asked for.  Right away, we had to wear yellow stars on our clothing--one on our front and one on our backs, so they'd know who was a Jew.  We had identification stamped with "Jew."  You couldn't go anywhere, and there was a curfew--at 4 or 5PM.
Some of those in the ghetto with my grandmother; Standing L to R: Sara Fine Wollich, Moshe Wollich, Chaike Wollich Chechman; Seated L to R: Yosef Wollich, Mendel Chechman (the young man killed above by the Russians), Devora ChechmanNo one in this picture survived the war.

The ghetto had 6 families in each small room along with a small kitchen.  Our room had my parents, my zaidy, my aunt, me, my sister, my other aunt, her daughter and son, and her granddaughter.  There were beds everywhere.  The neighbor behind the wall used the same kitchen as us.  There were lots of arguments over whose turn it was to use the kitchen.

Soon there were bread rations.  The loaves were about a foot long.  So you made slices and had to figure out how to make it last for a whole week.  In the beginning, they allowed the villagers to come in and sell vegetables, fruit, and sometimes a chicken.  Inside the ghetto we had a shochet who would slaughter a chicken in secret--although this was very much a luxury.  We also would take beans, a little bit of flour, mix with water, and make a sauce with the beans instead of meat.  We had to be creative to figure out how to survive.  When you had a chicken, that chicken became a giant.  From the skin of the legs, you made stuffing.  You'd also stuff the skin from the neck and from the breast.  So we would eat that chicken for a few weeks.  It was hard to keep because there were no refrigerators.  So we would dig a hole in the floor and put it in the cold ground.

Later on, they didn't allow the villagers to come in to sell food, because you could only buy items that you could find in the ghetto.  Sometimes we had to use furniture to heat the rooms.

I sneaked out from the ghetto one time.  My father couldn't go because he couldn't disguise himself, since his beard and payos made him look too Jewish.  My mother was very weak with two swollen feet.  And my sister was younger and not strong.  So I went.  I guess G-d was watching me to make the guard blind.  I disguised myself with a big shawl, and I didn't put my stars on.  I went to a few Ukrainian women and brought some of the things from the house that we still had left.  She gave me some potatoes and beans.  On the way back, Ampel, the head of the Germans, had a mistress who was a married Polish woman.  She was on her way to the village along with Ampel; she knew me since when we would bring the bundles of wheat from the field, she would see me.  She recognized me even as I was covered with my shawl, and she said, "Here goes a Jew."  Ampel stopped the horse and buggy and asked me what I was doing there and where my stars were.  I pretended and looked, and pretended to be shocked that they were missing.  He said, "I could kill you right now.  And you also snuck out of the ghetto, and you knew that you weren't supposed to go out--and where are these potatoes and beans from?"  I told him that I knew I wasn't supposed to sneak out, but I was just collecting this because my mother had done sewing for someone in the city.  He said I deserved to be killed with not just one but several bullets.  I froze.  I prayed to be saved, to be able to come back alive to my parents.  All of a sudden, he said, "You go quick to the ghetto!  Report to the Judenraut what you just did."  I couldn't believe it; am I that lucky?  And before I went to my parents I told the Judenraut what happened.  They touched me to be sure I wasn't a ghost.  They told me that I would survive Hitler.  When I came to the house with the bits of food, my parents said, "Are we so lucky that we have our child back alive?"

They took young kids like me and even my younger sister, and they sent us to work at a place  outside the city to special camps where you had to stay and sleep.  The living conditions were horrible, but we thought this was a way to survive.  We couldn't complain to our parents because they suffered to see how we kids suffered there--under the whip, under the gun.  This was a place where they brought all the collected grain.  We had to make bundles of grain and then make stacks with the grain and put them in a warehouse.  In the winter, we had to go with big shovels and mix all the grain so it wouldn't get burnt from the frost.  They would watch us with a gun and a whip.  If you stopped, they let you have it.  Everyone was trying to do the work as much as they could.  After a whole day of doing this, you came back with broken backs and smelling like grain.  And then we had to clean the buildings, feed the animals, milking the cows, and whatever else they wanted.  And whatever they could find in the city for us to do, they would.  They sent us to patch railroad lines (which was heavy work) and the roads.  Many fell right there and couldn't go on, and they would be whipped.  Some stepped in to help and do double work for themselves and that other person to stop a friend from being whipped.

Then they took young girls, and they asked us to clean the jeeps inside and outside including the tires.  Then 12-15 Nazis loaded in with guns and whips, and they were laughing and giggling, and we had to drag them in the jeep.

I was in the camp and they were making me clean bricks, and I got a huge cut.  I had to keep working.  We just had to keep working no matter the weather or our help.  They gave us inhuman types of work.  Even stronger men couldn't do our work.

The only way to go home was if someone replaced you.  My (future) husband's brother was working there, and my husband replaced him.  Eventually my sister replaced me.  I felt bad that she had to replace me, but she didn't stay too long.

Soon they sent me outside the city, where they'd taken over a big mansion that had belonged to Russian people.  It was on a huge farm.  Before the war, a whole crew of men had worked this farm; now us kids had to work it without any compensation.  We slept on boards with a little bit of straw on it.  When you would lie down, no one could turn or move.  There was one tall and strong girl, and she would mix flour to make bread; we'd have to cook our food with the little they gave us.  (This girl's brother survived.  His name was Kalman Shmirgold, and he used to live in Baltimore.)  I had another friend with me as well.  Her name was Sonia Walter.  She later married a Resnick and then a Teitelbaum; she has 2 sons.

Soon there were rumors that the other ghettos in the area had been destroyed with all the people killed.  So we decided we were going to run away.  We didn't know where to run.  Somebody must have heard us.  When we came back from the fields the next day, they hardly gave us any food, our belongings were gone (we didn't have much--maybe another change of clothes).  We didn't understand why they weren't letting us into the mansion.  They were talking even harsher than normal to us, like we'd done something wrong.  They dragged us into the barn to the place where they kept hay and straw for the animals.  They locked the door, and they put dogs in front of the door.  In the back was bushes with thorns and barbed wire.  We knew at that time that it was our time, where we'd not be able to survive.  It was my (future) husband, his sister Devora, his brothers Shlomo and David, and their parents (Avraham Tzvi and Tzivia Diment), along with another family (Mrs. Siegel and her little girl) and another lady who was single and in her late 40s.

We came out of a tiny window in the attic of that barn.  My husband took out the window.  Everything that happened was a miracle.  He said that we couldn't stay here, so he jumped down quietly, and I went after him.  Then we had problems with her sister because she was scared.  But we brought down every one of them.  We went through the barbed wire and those bushes, and the dogs didn't bark.  It was a miracle.  We said that everyone should go in a different direction so that if someone got taught, no one could tell where the other ones went.  I went with the 40-year-old woman.  She just couldn't handle this--she didn't know what do.  So I led her.  We went from village to village.  We told people that our village burned down and we were looking for work.  But from a distance I saw people I knew from before the war, so we couldn't go to them.  But we heard that the ghetto still existed, so in broad daylight, we went back to the ghetto.

Of the others in the barn, my husband and his brother stayed for 2 nights with a Polish family (the ones who had previously owned the mansion) before they had to leave.  They eventually found a place in a barn (where I stayed later as well).

When we got back to the ghetto, the Judenraut sent us for some things to do in the city.  There was a camp called Berezy, where they'd sent other people and didn't need any more then.  They were already getting ready to destroy the whole ghetto.  The talk in the ghetto was not good.  Many of the people had run away from other cities' ghettos just before they were destroyed.  Horochov and Lutsk ghettos had already been destroyed.  One guy came in who had been in my class in Horochov, and he told us what had happened there.  They'd put them all to work and then shortly after killed them.  Soon after, the Germans made an announcement that anyone who survived should come back to the ghetto.  Many people did--they were tired of running and hiding.  And they were killed as well.

In the nearby Berezin camp, there was a mother and two daughters.  They were supposed to clean all the clothing that was taken away from people.  They dressed up in all the beautiful clothing that had been confiscated.  They could have run away, but they didn't because they had the clothing.  They were both killed.  One of the daughters had been in my class under the Russians.

Next: Destruction of Senkevychivka Ghetto and its aftermath.


  1. Lara,

    Thank you for sharing this heartbreaking and moving piece of your family history with us.

    I want to let you know that your blog post is listed in today's Fab Finds post at

    Have a great weekend!

    1. Thanks, Jana! I'm still working on the rest of her story--it'll come over the next few weeks.

  2. Lara, this first-person story is so moving and so detailed. Thank you for sharing it. My grandfather lost two sisters in the Holocaust. The letters from Hungary just stopped coming, he said, and he never heard from this part of the family again--nor did he ever speak of these sisters, too painful is all I can imagine.

    1. Marian--I can understand that perspective! But I'm glad that we have this. The story gets even more incredible as it goes on.