Note: This is the next chapter in Paula’ journey. I have continued to research her story and the Holocaust in general since this was originally posted over two years ago which has allowed me to add more information and to improve the clarity of the narrative. If you have read this before, I hope you will choose to read it in its updated form. If you are new to it, I hope it both broadens and deepens your understanding of the personal tragedies experienced by survivors.
As I noted last week, most of the story comes from Paula’s Shoah testimony. One of the difficulties inherent in working from that is deciphering the names of people and places since they are either Yiddish or Polish. I have done my best to present the correct names and locations but recognize the potential for error. I don’t believe those potential errors materially change the truth of the story.
As a reminder, Paula’s immediate family, the Silberfarbs, included her mother (Lea), her father (Samuel), her older brother (Bernard or Bernie), and younger sister (Sofia). Her paternal grandfather was Gershon. One other piece of information for context: Serniki was a town of about 5,000 people, about 1,000 were Jewish.
After the two desperate men who escaped death shared their horrifying experience, the atmosphere in Serniki changed. Townspeople learned that Pinsk, the closest and biggest city, 19 miles to the northwest, was overrun by the Nazis on July 4, 1941. It was just a matter of time until they continued their march across Poland. As invasion by the powerful German army loomed, the Russians retreated, leaving a power vacuum in Serniki.
Some Gentiles took advantage of the absence of leadership and appointed themselves police, meting out justice as they saw fit. Anti-Semitism reared its ugly head. Where previously the communities peacefully coexisted, now Jewish homes were robbed, violence against Jews was perpetrated without consequence. Many Jews hid their valuables, believing that they were vulnerable not only when the Germans invaded, but at the hands of their Gentile neighbors.
The Silberfarbs took their prized possessions to a farmer on the outskirts of town who did business with Samuel. The whole family went because Samuel and Lea planned to leave Serniki permanently, continuing on after securing their things. While they were with the farmer, they received word that Gershon (Samuel’s father) had been murdered. Devastated, Samuel felt they had no choice but to go back to Serniki to bury him.
Upon their return they learned a man named Danilo Polohowicz was the murderer. They heard Danilo shot Gershon as he stood in his backyard garden in broad daylight. There were witnesses and fearing no consequence, Danilo boasted about it in town. He was right to fear no punishment; he wasn’t arrested or prosecuted for the crime.
Samuel went to his father’s house to oversee the funeral arrangements and, in keeping with Jewish tradition, stayed with the body until the interment. Lea and the children went back to their house, but instead of staying in the main house, they spent the night in the apartment next door. Lea thought, given the atmosphere in town, that the house would be a likely target of robbers. Lea was right. The four Silberfarbs, Lea and her three children, huddled under the bed in the apartment, listening to the sounds of burglars ransacking their house. The next morning, they cautiously returned to their home to survey the damage and found it in disarray, with floorboards lifted.
That day a German soldier on horseback came through the streets shouting, “Every Jew to the market!” Lea knew what that meant. She had no intention of taking her children to the market. Samuel still wasn’t home – as far as she knew he remained at his father’s house. Lea decided to try to escape with the children. She didn’t know where Samuel was or how to get information to him, but she didn’t think she could do anything to help him, so she focused her attention on saving her children.
They ran out their backyard through fields, across roads, towards the Stubla River, avoiding areas they suspected had police activity. As they approached the river, Bernie abruptly stopped. Lea had persuaded him to come, despite his reluctance to leave without his father. Now Bernie was unwilling to go any further – he said he wouldn’t leave without Daddy. Lea couldn’t convince him. Bernie turned back to town. Lea felt she had no choice but to continue. She took the girls to the farmer who hid their belongings. When they got to his house, he covered them all with hay and told them to wait while he went to town to investigate.
It felt like an eternity until the farmer came back and reported that the Germans kept the men to do work – to dig ditches. The streets of Sernicki flooded easily and in preparation for trucks and troops, they commanded the Jewish men of the town to dig drainage ditches. The women and children were sent home. The farmer told the Silberfarbs it was safe to return. Instead they went to a cousin’s house. This cousin’s house was situated closer to the Stubla and offered a better route of escape than their own home. By this time, it was dark out. They were relieved to see a light was on in their cousin’s house– if the house was dark, Lea was prepared to hide under the bridge by the river. They were doubly relieved to find that Bernie was also there. He had gone to the market, but since he was under 14 years of age, too young to be put to work, he was sent home. He, too, decided to go to the cousin’s house. Bernie reported that he hadn’t seen his father.
The next day, Lea went to the market alone to see if she could find Samuel. She spotted her nephew on a work detail but could not locate her husband. While she was near the market a Gentile townsperson gave Lea a message from Samuel, “Say kaddish for me.” [Kaddish is the Jewish prayer for the dead.] Lea couldn’t allow herself to panic or be distracted. She went back to the cousin’s house and thought about what to do next.
That afternoon they heard machine gun fire. Later they heard what happened. Samuel was hiding in the garden of his Aunt Fanny’s house with Lea’s brother, Avrumchik. They discussed escaping. Avrumchik agreed to run to the river first because he wasn’t married and he had no children. If there was no gunfire, Samuel would follow. There was gunfire, but unbeknownst to Samuel, Avrumchik wasn’t injured. Samuel stayed put. German soldiers, combing the town for Jews, found him in the garden and arrested him.
Later that day 120 men, the town’s Jewish leaders, and one woman were executed. They were marched to a ditch near the cemetery, lined up and shot from behind. Among them was Samuel Silberfarb.
The Germans did not liquidate the entire Jewish community of Serniki at that point. They created a ghetto for the remaining Jews. Families doubled up in houses located on just a few streets. The Silberfarbs lived in the ghetto with another family. In Samuel’s absence, Uncle Avrumchik looked after them.
While living in the ghetto, Paula learned to knit and crochet (which turned out to be valuable skills through the war years). Fortunately, they had access to books – Paula sat by the window reading by the moonlight reflecting off the snow. Reading gave her rare moments of peace. Food was scarce – Mother would make a soup with a few potatoes, mostly water. They were barely getting by and, in fact, Lea’s mother passed away while they were in the ghetto.
Lea knew that they would not be permitted to stay in the ghetto indefinitely. It was now April of 1942 and there were rumors of an ‘aktion.’ (An ‘aktion’ was when the Germans would order the gathering of the Jews in the town square and either march them to the rim of a ravine and shoot them or deport them on trains to concentration camps.) The Silberfarbs snuck out of the ghetto and went again to the cousin’s house closer to the river. Across the Stubla there was a small group of wealthier homes (some Jews lived there – Paula thought perhaps they were allowed to stay by paying bribes). Those homes provided an even better opportunity for escape. The Silberfarbs had a relative in one of those homes – they decided to try to get there, though there was a guard at the bridge. Lea studied his routine and advised Bernie, and an aunt and uncle when to sneak across. Lea and the girls planned to go the next day. Later that afternoon there was a call for Jews to re-register. Lea understood what this meant and told her children “We are not going! We will not go back to town.” Uncle Avrumchik did go back to investigate (they never saw him again).
That night Lea couldn’t sleep. She sat in the window looking out. She saw headlights coming across the bridge – she understood that this meant that more of the German army was arriving. Lea woke everyone in the house (more than just the Silberfarbs were there) – they went out the back and fled across the river and into the woods. They dispersed in different directions, though Lea, Paula and Sofia stayed together. The next day they heard the rat-a-tat-tat of machine gun fire coming from town. 850 men, women and children, the remaining Jewish population of Serniki were murdered and buried in a ditch on the outskirts of town.
As Lea and the girls fled, she thought of a man that Samuel used to do business with – they would try to make their way to him. His name was Dmitrov Lacunyetz. When they arrived he cried like a baby when he saw them and heard what happened to Samuel. Bernie, and the aunt and uncle had already arrived at Dmitrov’s farm. Dmitrov brought them all to a forested area on his property to hide. He kept them there for 16 weeks.
Dmitrov supplied them with food once a day. After a while, he sent his son-in-law to deliver the provisions. In order to avoid bringing suspicion upon themselves, they varied the routine. The son-in-law, now that it was getting colder, built them a little hut out of young birch trees. There were 8 of them in hiding. They had two spoons. Two people at a time would eat from the kettle that was brought to them. There would be some arguing over the food – “Don’t eat so much! Leave for the others!” It was usually a soup with millet (a grain used frequently in the region). At one point, Bernie was so hungry he couldn’t take it anymore – he went begging. He had some success and brought back and shared whatever he was given. On his rounds, he was asked “Are you Gypsy or Jew?” He said, “Gypsy,” thinking it was the lesser of two evils.
There was a Partisan brigade (a group of people resisting/fighting the Nazis) in the area. Though the Silberfarbs weren’t part of the brigade, Lea felt they were safer when they were near them. Unfortunately, there was a dispute with a farmer over a cow and the Partisans killed the farmer’s son in the confrontation. The farmer vowed to inform the Germans. The area became unsafe. It was now the end of 1942. The Silberfarbs had to move on.