Translation YIU/2102U

Yahad – In Unum Interviews with Rohatyn Holocaust Witnesses


Witness #: YIU/2102U, male, born 1922
Yahad trip #: 45UK, recorded 14Jun2016
Record time: 01:54:32
Languages: Ukrainian, English
I = Interviewer, W = witness

[00:15] І: When were you born?
[00:16] W: 1922.
[00:22] І: Where were you born?
[00:51] W: In Perenivka, a village in the Rohatyn region of Ivano-Frankivsk oblast.
[01:09] І: Is Perenivka located far from Rohatyn?
[01:12] W: It is about 2 km away. I went to first grade here in Rohatyn.
[01:33] І: What was your parents’ occupation before the war?
[01:36] W: My parents were farmers, they had horses, cows, land. I helped them out, I studied and worked. My school, the so-called “Native School,” was located in what is nowadays the premises of the local college. That’s where I began my studies in 1930.
[02:21] І: Was this territory part of Poland in 1930?
[02:23] W: Yes, until 1939, when the Germans started the war and occupied Poland. At that time western Ukraine was part of Poland. After Poland’s partition western Ukraine was occupied by Soviet Union while the rest of Poland was occupied by the Germans. Most of the Jews that lived in Poland at the time fled to here, to western Ukraine. That’s why there were nearly 6,000 of them living in Rohatyn.
[04:03] І: Were there any Jewish children attending your school at that time?
[04:11] W: That “Native School” was funded by the Ukrainian community, so no Polish or Jewish children were attending it, only Ukrainian children. There was also a gymnasium affiliated with that school. When the Soviet government was established in 1939, everything was changed. The gymnasium and the “Native School” were turned into a pedagogical institute and a public school, respectively. Students from all sorts of backgrounds studied there, Poles and Ukrainians alike. When they first came here, Soviet soldiers were incredibly poor folks, clad in wool-padded jackets and leather kersey boots. They were in awe from the well-stocked Polish stores and would take out everything they could and load it up on eastward trains. Within two years all we were left with was vodka and matches. There was plenty of vodka stocked in Lviv so they would distribute it around the periphery, leading to a spike in alcoholism. Folks would often joke about how the westward trains were moving quickly because all they had on board was matches, while the eastward trains were traveling slowly, laden with goods. But in any case, when the Soviet rule was established Jews had significantly more advantages. There were lawyers and government and other institutions for their protection. The word “yevrey” [Jew] was not in usage in western Ukraine, we didn’t understand it, having been using the word “zhyd” instead. When the Soviets came they criminalized the word “zhyd” – a person could get a year of forced labour for uttering it in public.
[09:19] І: Were you acquainted with any Jews from the period before the Soviet occupation?
[09:42] W: Yes. In town we had a synagogue and a religious school for young Jewish men. These boys were dressed in black and had curls at the sides of their heads. They were studying to become rabbis. During the war, that synagogue was destroyed and later refashioned as a bakery. Nowadays there is nothing there. In the direction of Perenivka village, toward Chervona Gora, there was a Jewish cemetery with marble tombstones. The Germans have destroyed it all and levelled it to the ground. There are some buildings on that land now. When the land was first being developed for the cemetery, a large congregation of rabbis arrived to consecrate the land, just like Christians would.
[10:48] І: Do you remember any names of the Jews that lived in your community?
[10:53] W: Our immediate neighbours were a Jewish family. We didn’t make anything out of the fact that they were Jews and we were Ukrainians. We lived together, they owned a store, tilled their land, had horses, cows. Their religious laws would not allow them to work on Saturdays, so I would go over to light their fires, and they would treat me to a pastry as a token of gratitude.
[12:46] І: What material was the Rohatyn synagogue made of?
[12:50] W: It was made of cement, and the roof was sheet metal. I saw it inside as well.
[12:54] І: And how was it inside?
[12:57] W: I don’t remember all that well because they wouldn’t let visitors in specifically for sightseeing. But I do recall various paintings on the interior. But in any case, we all knew that the war was coming. The Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) was strong and well aware of all the war-related developments. In April and May of 1941 preparation was underway. We knew that war was coming, we just didn’t know the day. When war finally started on June 22nd in 1941 it all became clear. We were told to help out the dissenters from the Soviet government who were hiding out in the forests. Two weeks after that the Germans came.
[15:05] І: How did you know the war started? Was there an announcement on the radio?
[15:11] W: I am not sure that even the local war office knew the war started at 4 o’clock on the 22nd of June. I was graduating from the 7th grade when the Germans started dropping bombs on Rohatyn. I was already considered to be of conscription age, so I, along with my peers, was summoned to a military parade on the 22nd held at the House of Culture. The orchestra was playing as we were told to line up in rows of four and to march to the stadium where military exercises were going to be held. We were marching and singing folk songs which wasn’t exactly allowed, but we still carried on. There was a podium with all the local military dignitaries making speeches about the forthcoming war and our guaranteed victory over the Germans. Then someone came by bicycle from the war office and quietly said something to one of the military dignitaries. After that all of them descended from the podium and left the scene without telling us anything. In town, Soviet troops were retreating and stores were being looted. It was Sunday, and the parishioners’ coming out of churches coincided with tanks and planes getting on the move. We knew that war has started.
[20:07] І: Were you conscripted?
[20:11] W: No, I’ll tell you how it was. The war started, planes were flying, bombs were dropped, but no on-the-ground military presence was established in town yet. One day, my friend and I climbed up on the hill to check if we could see the frontlines from up there. We saw Soviet troops advancing from Khodoriv, over the river, by the stadium. An hour later we saw German troops on motorcycles, advancing towards Rohatyn. We could hear shots being fired in Rohatyn but couldn’t tell whether this was German or Soviet shooting. Suddenly, we saw that the church was ablaze. I said to my friend: “Let’s run back to the village, because if we get caught by either side they might think we’re spies.” Back in the village we could hear people saying “Germans are here, Germans are in Rohatyn. The town hall and the “Native School” are decorated with the blue-and yellow Ukrainian flag. Ukraine is now established here.” We headed to Rohatyn. There, we saw cars and Germans with rolled up sleeves, drinking beer and laughing. We saw some utility workers trying to demolish the local Lenin monument, surrounded by the jubilant people and Germans who were taking photos.
[25:17:] І: Do you recall any particular moments regarding the Jewish community before the Soviet government was established?
[25:23] W: The day after, all Organization of Ukrainian Nationalist (OUN) members were told to assemble. About fifty of us came. At that time Germans have already moved on, so we proclaimed an independent Ukrainian state. We were given weapons and blue-and-yellow arm bands. We guarded the post office, the railroad, the warehouse, and other strategic sites. But none of this lasted very long. After a month or so, the interim government in Lviv was disbanded and arrested. Locally, we have amassed quite a lot of weaponry which we hid outside town. We had five Russian-made Maximum machine guns, and other guns enough to arm a hundred men. Later, in 1944, when our partisans were hiding in the forest, we gave them those weapons. But in any case, our OUN activities were suspended and I went back to school, to study German. I passed the German-language exams, but then it all ended. The Germans organized the ghetto.
[29:18] І: How did you become the member of OUN? Were forced to join, or was it on a volunteer basis?
[29:23] W: It was all on a volunteer basis. In 1940 an OUN member came over from a neighboring village and set up a branch here. There were eight of us here in the junior group, eight boys. Afterwards I moved on to the senior group, all while attending a trade school here in the city. I worked at a store and every day saw what was going on in the city. I saw how the ghetto was organized. They took all the Jews, well, can I say “zhyd”? We didn’t know otherwise, that’s how we were taught to say.
[30:23] That’s alright. You can say it anyway.
[30:27] Because we didn’t know that other word for Jews, “yevrey.” In any case, the ghetto was located over by the new post office, by the river stream. All Jews were assembled there. They had they own police, marked with their Jewish (“yevreyska zirka”) star on their arm bands. They would keep order in the ghetto and, most importantly, had the ability to leave it on occasion. This was crucial because there were severe food shortages in the ghetto – whenever they could leave, Jewish policemen were able to exchange their gold, dollars, and clothes for food. Folks in town were poor, wore rags, but they did have food which they would exchange under the shadow of night. It was still possible to do things like that under the radar because there were very few Germans in town at the time. But none of that lasted for long, because on March 10th 1942 the first violent cleansing was carried out.
[34:48] І: Before that first event, did you witness any acts of violence against the Jews?
[34:52] W: Of course. First of all, the ghetto police would beat their own if they noticed them trying to escape. However, nobody here on the ground seemed to know about the anti-Jewish operation being planned. The night before, Gestapo arrived from Lviv. In the morning one of their groups surrounded the ghetto while the other entered it within and herded the dwellers to the square (where the monument to Roksolana is now). The Jews who were caught in their beds, for example the sick or the elderly, were shot on the spot. Children were grabbed by the foot and smashed against walls. It was sadism. Afterwards they herded the people to Babyntsi, to the brickyard. There, in a large pit, they were all being shot. I saw them as I was on my way to school. They were being moved by the railway, toward Babyntsi cemetery. It was rumored that some victims who were shot in the arm or the leg were crawling out and escaping. They couldn’t run very far though, because the locals were too afraid to assist them by providing temporary housing, for example.
[39:46] І: Did you witness that first violent event at the brickyard?
[39:51] : No, I wasn’t there, but I heard about it from other people.
[40:02] І: Did you see how Jews were being assembled in the square where the Roksolana monument stands now?
[40:23] W: Yes, there were many people watching there. I was just leaving school. There were a great many Jews there, but they were not standing, they were all lying down. It was only March, but they were lying down.
[41:24] І: Were they being beaten when they were lying down?
[41:27] W: We didn’t look closely because we were very afraid. I don’t think they were beaten because there was no need. They seemed to understand the situation, they displayed some level of acceptance of their fate, the acceptance of God’s will. They probably thought this was punishment for putting Jesus on the cross, a blood curse that would befall their children. They believed in it, and essentially so did the others. Nobody would accept them, there was nowhere where they could potentially survive. To survive was impossible.
[42:45 І: Do you remember what was the color of the German uniforms?
[42:50] W: It was green. Their hats bore an emblem, a skull. They had mostly automated weapons.
[43:23] І: Did they have dogs with them?
[43:28] W: I didn’t see any, but it’s possible. I didn’t stay there for long, I ran away shortly after.
[44:09] І: Do you recall if the ghetto was fenced off in some way?
[44:14] W: No, I do not recall that it was fenced off. This enabled people from the village to bring food, clothes, shoes to those in the ghetto and to trade it for money or gold or other valuables.
[45:47] І: Did you ever go to the ghetto to engage in a similar trade?
[45:21] W: No, I didn’t, but my mother would bring food to someone there and would come back with some things, some clothes.
[46:37] І: Were Jews in the ghetto engaged in any forced labour?
[46:42] W: Yes. Two thousand of the most able-bodied were taken to the labour camps. Eventually they were all exterminated, but nobody knew where and under what circumstances. Out of the remaining four thousand, two were shot during the first operation, and two during the second.
[48:07] І: Did you hear the shots being fired during the first operation?
[48:09] W: Yes, I could hear the shots as I was walking to school in the morning. At school they said his was Jews being killed.
[49:09] І: Were those singular shots or bursts?
[49:14] W: Those were singular shots.
[49:50] І: Did your teacher speak about this event?
[49:56] W: No, nobody from the staff made any statements about it, although we knew this was going on. Being young and curious, we ventured into town to look around. People would tell stories of how these atrocities would get carried out: there would be a wide plank placed by the pit, Jews would walk on it, then shots would follow, and they would fall into the pit. Allegedly that’s how it was carried out during the first and the second operation.

There was also an incident when I almost perished along with the Jews. When the operation was over, us boys went scavenging through the ghetto in search of any valuables that may have been left behind. We saw eight Germans walk out a group of 30 or so Jews – they were discovered hiding in makeshift clay bunkers. Our path back home was obstructed, so we had no choice but to carefully follow this group from a safe distance of 10 meters. As I could understand some German, I could hear the Jews curse Hitler as they walked. Once we reached the road that leads to the treatment plant, the Jews, realizing this is where they are going to be murdered, started escaping. It was sunset, fresh snow has fallen, the ground everywhere was white. As the commotion started we also decided to make a run for it, away from trouble. One of the escapees was running past me, was shot, and fell to the ground right next to me. We ran behind the first house on the way and stopped there. The Germans shot them all. Once it all quieted down, we ran home. In the morning, nothing remained of previous evening’s events, except for red stains on the snow. I remember, when we walked behind that Jewish group, the Germans would turn around, clearly seeing us. They seemed to avoid shooting us. But anything could have happened.
[57:47] W: I must also add that Germans weren’t just shooting Jews, they also killed plenty of our own folk. As you may know, upon German occupation, the provisional Ukrainian government had been liquidated, and all nationalists arrested. At the end of November 24, Ukrainian male prisoners arrived from Ternopil. At that time, I was inside the store, working. I saw crowds of people being directed toward the church. Soon after, they came for me as well. There were many of us by the church. Then a truck came with those 24 prisoners inside. The interpreter read out the sentence: due to their affiliation with Stepan Bandera’s illegal party, the prisoners were to be executed. They were led out of the truck four at a time, lined up against the wall, and shot, their corpses removed shortly thereafter. There is a memorial dedicated to these 24 victims at that very place. My friend and I accidentally stumbled upon the place where the corpses were dumped one night as we walked to our village Perenivka. We were just passing by the cemetery and we saw four Germans with automatic guns and two dogs. They flashed their lights at us. Thankfully, the did not stop us.
[1:03:08] І: When did this incident happen?
[1:03:15] W: 1942.
[1:04:45] І: Who provided a proper burial provided for those victims?
[1:04:48] W: I don’t know.
[1:04:56] І: Are they all buried in a communal grave?
[1:05:00] W: Yes. The tombstone was erected during the Soviet rule.
[1:05:38] І: When the sentence was read out, did Ukrainian prisoners say anything before they were executed?
[1:05:45] W: No. Ukrainians did not participate in this act, apart from being witnesses to the execution of innocent people.
[1:07:00] І: Let us return to the subject of Jewish executions. Did you visit Babyntsi to see the place where they were killed?
[1:07:13] W: No, I did not. I couldn’t have gazed upon that horrible place. Years later though I travelled by that place on the way to work. One day I saw workers excavating clay by the brickyard – they discovered a great mass of bones. Upon the discovery, that location was fenced off. I must say, however, that the Soviet government did not undertake any investigative or commemorative works there. They just covered it up, that’s it. It’s only after Ukraine gained independence that monuments started appearing here and there. Once, a Jewish delegation arrived from abroad – I think they funded this monument here.
[1:09:42] І: Was the second operation against Jews held at the same place?
[1:09:46] W: Both events took place in the brickyard pit: the first one was closer to Babyntsi, while the second one was by the utility plant. The brickyard was large and extended over vast swathes of land. Even so, they had to extend the pit.
[1:10:43] І: Was there a third operation?
[1:10:45] W: No, there were no Jews remaining.
[1:11:12] І: Did you witness any aspects of the second operation?
[1:11:21] W: No, I didn’t witness it but I have heard many accounts of it from others. Like in the first operation, the victims were told to walk on the plank and were shot over the pit. Except in this second instance they were stripped naked beforehand. The second operation took place in June. After the fact, they brought a truck full of lime and poured it all over the heap of fresh corpses. The weather was very warm, and a mere kilometer away from that place the smell was very strong. Being young and curious, we braved the stench and went over there. All around the place it was as if everything was boiling, decomposing, coming apart. They put some more lime on it and flattened the whole place to the ground.
[1:14:06] І: Do you know what happened to the belongings of executed Jews, particularly to their clothes? Were they re-sold somewhere else?
[1:14:17] W: If I understand correctly, clothes and other belongings were collected by the authorities and re-sold. People bought these clothes, unaware of where they came from. People were glad to get their hands on nice clothes because most of the poor village folk wore simple hemp clothing and went barefoot for most of the year
[1:15:58] І: Do you know what happened to residential property left vacant after its Jewish inhabitants were murdered?
[1:16:08] W: All that property was turned over to the municipality which, in turn, redistributed it among the migrants from eastern Ukraine. At that time there was an influx of bureaucrats, teachers, and other professionals coming over, in need of housing. Our local people were almost never taking up those properties – they were hesitant to do so knowing what went on there earlier.
[1:17:53] І: Were any Jewish people from nearby villages and towns transported to Rohatyn?
[1:18:03] W: Yes, all Jews that inhabited the villages were called to Rohatyn when the Germans arrived. I must say, however, that very often Jews were treated with dislike and distrust by the villagers, which is why there were usually no more than 8-10 Jewish families in each village. Jews commonly owned and operated shops, and villagers, often illiterate, perceived them as price gougers. The villagers saw Jewish families prosper, develop their property, and thus dislike and jealousy were born.
[1:20:17] І: You mentioned earlier than you had Jewish neighbours. Were there any children in that household? Did you have a nice relationship with them?
[1:20:28] W: Yes. They were shopkeepers. During their holidays, when they were not allowed to work, my father and I would manage their shop. They trusted us with their property and money, and we were happy to help for simple tokens of appreciation, like a pack of cigarettes. We have a very good relationship and saw no difference between us. When they left, their nice, big house was converted into a community center. It has been since demolished.
[1:22:44] І: Do you remember your neighbor’s family name?
[1:22:48] W: Yes, they were called Schneekraut. Schneekraut translates as “snow” and “cabbage.” The old father was Yankel, Shia was his son, and Maria the daughter-in-law. [1:24:27] W: There were two children in that household. One of them was Maria’s daughter’s. It was out of wedlock. She had an affair from one of the men in the village. When these events were about to unfold, he managed to take his child out of there. There was also another child in that family, a little girl named Silya. She was allegedly hiding out in someone’s house in Zalaniv. They made a small fortune in commerce and built a house in Rohatyn, and Silya is in Rohatyn. I don’t know, perhaps if you were to meet with her she would tell you more. I doubt she remembers much, she doesn’t even remember me. I remember her, aged four, as she would run around the yard. She had some help in getting that house back for herself. This is where she lives now, she married one of ours, an invalid. Everyone knew she was a Jew. But she converted and attends church.
[1:27:12] I: Were your Jewish neighbours forcibly taken to Rohatyn, or did they move there on their own?
[1:27:00] W: In autumn of 1941 they moved to Rohatyn. Someone threw a grenade in their window. I had a good idea who was behind this. I helped retrieve the grenade afterwards. The grenade, thankfully, was without a fuse, but I advised the neighbours to leave before things get worse, before the Germans would come here and shoot them all. I removed that grenade, and later discovered who was the culprit behind this. The neighbours packed up and left. But we kept in touch afterwards. My mother visited them. We had a good relationship as neighbours, never caused any trouble to each other. When they had their holidays that prohibited work, I would go to their house to light the fire. They would reward me with a bun.
[1:29:54] W: There were two NKVD officers in our village who, after the Soviets retreated, were left behind as their undercover agents. These men would pretend that they were nationalists – they decorated their attire with yellow-and-blue bands. They were the only civilians in the village who had access to weapons. They assaulted and raped the woman [Maria] and the young girl [Maria’s daughter]. They must have been the ones to throw that grenade. Once our nationalists discovered that they were Soviet spies, they destroyed them.
[1:31:48] І: Was the ghetto completed at the Germans’ arrival, or a bit later?
[1:31:53] W: No, it was about a month later. At first, nobody had any suspicions of the events to follow. The people were very hopeful that Germans would help build a Ukrainian state. Alas, when Germans started mass arrests of Ukrainian nationalist leaders, their true aims of conquest and domination became clear. Ukrainians understood that instead of the “red” Soviet occupants they now have “brown” German occupants.
[1:34:17] І: Were there any announcements posted around Rohatyn warning the locals not to assist the Jews, not to provide them with food, etc.?
[1:34:28] W: No.
[1:34:40] І: Was there local police in Rohatyn?
[1:34:42] W: Yes, Rohatyn had so-called Ukrainian police. Half of its force consisted of nationalists whose aim was to get their hands on as many weapons for their own purposes as possible. All this was over quite shortly thereafter. One day, some high-ranking German officer arrived. A few hundreds assembled to hear what he had to say. Speaking in German via interpreter who was our local German teacher, he said: “Discipline [in the local police] has to be German, the government has to be German, no Ukrainian flags, no weapons on civilian hands.” Discovery of illegal arms warranted a death sentence by firing squad. Concealing food or not fulfilling the production quota for grains or other food was also punishable by death. New identity documents were issued – they had to be presented in order to receive various products and rations.
[1:39:36] І: Was the new village mayor selected during the German occupation? [1:39:41] W: Yes. The so-called “Vogt” was appointed by the Germans. After their occupation ended, he was exiled to Siberia but returned shortly thereafter. The “Vogt” was required to select a few villagers to be sent to Germany to do forced labor. Whenever he could, he tried to select the most delinquent elements, the least valued community members. However, they almost all returned. During the Soviet rule also, the NKVD appointed their own person to serve as the village mayor. There were no elections.
[1:41:39] W: There is another memorable anecdote I would like to share. One day as the Germans were retreating before the Soviet forces, my friend and I were shepherding cattle. It was rumored that the Soviet troops are already in the neighboring village. Curious, we climbed up on a cherry tree to look out. Just then, two young SS soldiers came up to us. We were terrified, but they greeted us nicely. When questioned whether they were indeed SS, they, however, answered in the negative. They tried to give us their automated guns but we refused, claiming we don’t know how to shoot. Laughing, they walked half a kilometer away, dumped their guns in a field, and went away. When they had disappeared from sight, we picked up those guns. A while later, some other troops passed by, confiscated our automated guns and gave us regular rifles instead.
[1:46:12] І: Did you join the UPA (Ukrainian Insurgent Army) shortly thereafter?
[1:46:16] W: Yes, I fought with UPA for two years in the role of district security service head. I participated in recruitment efforts, weapons and medical supplies collections. Three times I was under intense fire, thinking I wasn’t going to get out alive. However, we were well-armed, which was key to my surviving.
[1:48:03] І: How did your involvement with UPA end?
[1:48: 09] W: As the war ended, our battle against the Soviets only intensified. If you go into the forest there are many tombstones littered all over the place, tombstones marked with the Soviet star. That’s our partisans’ handiwork. We had some human reinforcements in form of deserting eastern Ukrainian soldiers. They knew about the Soviet man-made famine [Holodomor] and about other Soviet atrocities, so they would re-direct their efforts to fight against the NKVD, the KGB, and all communists. The boys fought bravely but most of them perished. Lots chose to commit suicide rather than be imprisoned and tortured by NKVD or be sent to Siberia. It was true heroism. During the summer months the insurgents would stay in the forest, but in wintertime they would hide out in bunkers. However, there were spies abound who would betray the locations of these bunkers to Soviet authorities. Oftentimes, Soviets would recruit random passers-by and would threaten violence against close family if the person refused to cooperate and to spy for them. And so, people would essentially have no choice but to become Soviet informants, for their families’ sake. A typical informant would report half-lies half-truths, but that would usually prove sufficient for the Soviets to piece together all they needed to know. And so, one by one, the forest boys would get caught. Many were sent to Siberia, some returned, but most perished.
[1:51:27] І: Many thanks for sharing your story. Do we have your permission to share your insights for educational purposes?
[1:54:16] W: Certainly.
[1:54:20] І: Thank you.

Ukrainian-language transcription: Marta Panas-Bespalova
English-language translation: Iryna Lozynska

Text © 2016 Yahad – In Unum.
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