Mendel Letters 62 — Those Left Behind (Holocaust Remembrance)
January 29, 2022
We never discussed the Holocaust or what happened to family left behind in Poland. We knew your grandfather, aunt, and cousins were dead, probably killed by the Nazis, but we didn’t know any details. My generation grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust, but lived in an imposed silence. It was always there, but it was never mentioned. Zayde’s fraternal society had a monument to their friends and family at the Brustyner burial plot in Mount Judah cemetery in Queens, but I didn’t know about it until Bubba’s funeral in 1968.
Online searches and even efforts by relatives and Burshtyner landsmen to find documentation often proved futile, partly because national borders were redrawn after World War 2 and the region where Burshtyn was located shifted from Poland to Ukraine.
In 1962, a collection of essays was published in Israel that was written in Yiddish, The Community of Rohatyn and Environs. In 2001, the book was translated into English and posted online. A chapter by Rachel and Moshe Nashofer of Haifa told the story of how the community of Rohatyn, in the Polish province of Galicia, was destroyed during World War II by Nazi Germany. Burshtyn was 10 miles south of Rohatyn.
According to the Nashofers, when World War II broke out in September 1939, the Soviet Union and the Red Army occupied eastern Poland. A nervous peace held in the area until June 22, 1941 when Nazi Germany attacked Soviet forces stationed in Poland. By July 2, the Germans had entered Rohatyn. The Germans organized a Ukrainian militia that was used to torture the region’s Jews. On July 6, 1941, they forced the Jews to lie prostrate in a field beat them with iron poles. A week later, the Gestapo assembled all of the Jews in the synagogue, forced them to lie on the floor, and made them pray for victory by Hitler and Germany. About the same time Jews were cut off from food supplies.
On August 1, 1941, local Jews were forced into a Rohatyn Jewish quarter and were ordered to wear the Star of David, to work for the Nazis, and pay a large penalty. In December, winter coats were confiscated. Executions started in March 1942. In March, thousands of Jews were shot, many were buried alive. Other corpses were just left to rot in the street. After the deaths, the Nazis sent new Jews from the surrounding area to the Rohatyn ghetto. Jews from Burstyn, including our family members, arrived at the Rohatyn ghetto in October 1942 where many died from hunger and typhus. In December 1942, On December 8, 1942, sick people from the Jewish hospital in the Rohatyn ghetto were transported naked to the Belzits concentration camp where they died in the gas chamber.
On June 6,,1943, what remained of the Rohatyn ghetto was set on fire. Any Jews who remained in the ghetto were chased into the fields were open pits awaited them and they were shot by Ukrainian guards. When the pits were filled, new arrivals were forced to dig their own graves.
There is some evidence that Jews from the Rohatyn ghetto were placed on a transport train to take them to a death camp for extermination but the Nazis, retreating from a military debacle at Stalingrad in the Soviet Union, dumped them off of the train and shot them on the side of the tracks.
There is also evidence that Jews herded into the Rohatyn ghetto organized resistance. They built three bunkers as defense fortifications as they fought the German and Ukrainian forces, but the bunkers were discovered and blown up.
This week, January 27th was the annual International Holocaust Remembrance Day. It is the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp by the Soviet Army. 1.1 million people, mostly Jews, were murdered there. I don’t think our relatives even made it to the camps.
Hard copies of these typed letters were discovered in an old camp trunk in the basement storage facility of one of the few buildings that remain standing in this Brooklyn neighborhood. The building is quite decrepit and is scheduled for demolition. The letters were found in November 2048 by a teenager who believes they were written by his great-grandfather. The letters are addressed to Mendel, the letter writer’s father, who appears to have been dead for at least six years when his son, whose name we are unsure of, started to write him. The son appears very agitated in some of the letters. With permission from the family, we are publishing them on the date they were written, only 28 years later.
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