Escapes from transports

belzec station960

Belzec Station - Winter 1940 (Chris Webb - Private Archive)

Account by Mila Frydrych- Szternzys

Mila Frydrych- Szternzys was deported from Zolkiewka on October 18, 1942, along with members of her family. Her parents Szmul Frydrych who was born in 1899, and her mother Pesa Frydrych, who was born in 1898, her sister Ruchia who was born during 1928, who all perished at Belzec death camp, and her brother Abram, who was born in 1935, who also jumped from the train, but whose fate is unknown. Milia also jumped from the train taking them to Belzec and was sheltered by Marcin Szewc, in a village near Zolkiewka, where she survived the war. Her account follows:

The mass resettlement's of Jews began in 1942, and on 18 October 1942, the Germans ordered all Jews to go to Izbica. We walked for about five hours from Zolkiewka to Izbica. We all gathered in front of the cinema and we were divided by groups according to the towns we came from: Zamosc, Zolkiewka, Turobin, Krasnystaw, Piaski. I remember it was very cold and raining that day. Later the Germans ordered us to get on the train.

They ordered: The inhabitants The inhabitants of Zolkiewka must go to the train! The whole group ran to the train and then the Germans changed the order and sent another group, and so we were tormented until the evening. In the meantime they shot at us. I remember killed victims , rain, blood, crying and screaming. That was when the Rabbi Feldhendler and his wife and daughter were killed.

My family and I went to the train. They were cattle cars for animals and on the floor was chlorine. The air was stifling and we were huddled in this cattle car, some people were dying, some already dead and we stood on their bodies and this chlorine stung our eyes. We had no food and water and I stood close to the wall. Through the hole in the wall of the cattle car I could gather one spoon of rainwater and to drink a little of it. I was able to write a letter to Mr Krol - our neighbour from Zolkiewka - and I threw it out of the train.

After three hours the train started in the direction of Belzec - we knew exactly where we were going. The men pulled out the grate in the window. People started to jump out of the train. My brother had already jumped out, and my mother told me: 'Jump out! My child, you have so many girlfriends, they will help you!' I jumped out after the second railway station - Zawada, and I was lucky because I landed in a ditch.

Others were less lucky - they jumped out exactly under the next train, or were sometimes killed by the German bullets- the Germans shot at us. I got a bullet in my thigh, but I did not feel it. I had sprained both legs and I could not walk. Luckily I found a man with a big heart who was called Marcin Szewc. He drove by with a horse and wagon and he found me. When he asked me what happened, I lied, saying I was a Pole and the Germans wanted to deport me to Germany for slave labour, but I had escaped them. Mr Szewc took my hands and put me on his wagon and took me to his home.

Account by Janett Margoiles

Janett Margolies from 1941, until November 8, 1942, was in the Tarnopol ghetto. Janett Margolies survived the war, and published her memoirs, titled 'Between Cruelty and Death' in 'Alliance for Murder. The Nazi -Ukrainian Nationalist Partnership in Genocide.' Her account follows:

On 8 November 1942, when I was busy carrying my belongings to another house, I noticed that there suddenly was a panic and shooting. Understanding that this was an 'Aktion' I ran into another house with other neighbours to hide in the cellar, which had a special hiding place. After a short time the Germans forced their way in and together with the Jewish police chased us out of the cellar, taking from us our rings, watches and money. 'It isn't needed anymore.' I was severely beaten up and later found myself near Kazimierzowska Street.

There were already many people there. More victims were continuously brought in. Dead bodies were lying on the streets. Shooting was heard all the time. The staff of the Gestapo, headed by Muller stood in the wheat mill on the Baron -Hirsch Street. In a small area in the mill, one thousand people were squeezed together, one close to the other. Suddenly we were told to sit down, which naturally was impossible. But when a few received blows to their heads with rifle butts, and the blood started to flow, all dropped to the floor, one on top of the other. This position was intolerable. The Wachmann continued the beating. The dead and the living were mixed together. People were sitting on dead bodies, and walking over them. The Wachmann kept changing continuously because they could not stand the stale air. 

We were forced to sit this way for two days without water or food. In the meantime, the Judenrat members and the police pulled out their friends, replacing them with other victims. The figure had to be exact. At the end of the second day we were led outside into the street, divided into groups of ten, and led to the railroad station.

I said goodbye to the known streets, to the visible cemetery, trying to walk fast, in order not to get hit over the head. We were surrounded tightly by the Jewish and Ukrainian police, with the Gestapo and the SS, led by Storm Trooper Muller himself. The Christian people were standing on the sidewalks, looking eargerly toward the marching crowd. Their looks were indifferent, often even smiling.

On the way, a policeman came close to me, whispering quietly into my ear to join the younger ladies in the wagon. When we arrived at the railroad station, the men were separated and we were pushed toward the railroad cars. I did observe where the young were concentrated, joining them in the wagon, which was closed and sealed.

We were eighty women. The small windows were high up, with bars and thorny wire. Once inside, we found out that somebody had smuggled in a file to cut bars. I started to organise a crew. Standing on top of the others, we started to work. The train continued to run. When the job was finished, and the bars cut, each candidate, legs through the window, then hold on with their hands, later with only one hand, and with a strong,  swing, jump into the direction of the running train.

I stood watching the jumping. Most of them were killed on the spot. Some were killed by trains coming from the opposite direction. Others were shot by Gestapo Wachmann. Those who succeeded were later caught by special railroad wachmanner. Of all the Tarnopol train jumpers I think that I was the only left alive.

I took quite a while to decide to jump, or not to jump. I realised fully, how hopeless the situation looked..... I decided to jump. Already hanging outside the wagon. I got tangled up in the thorny wire. Being scared, I cried out loudly, feeling that I was falling down. A shot was heard over my head. It was a Wachmann. Luckily he missed. At the same moment I noticed a locomotive running straight toward me. With my last strength I rolled over downwards into a depression. All this lasted just a few seconds. I was saved, but badly injured, bleeding from my head and hands. I tore out a little frozen grass, putting it on my wounds. I succeeded in stopping the bleeding. Later I wiped it off my face, bringing myself to order.

Account by Ruta Wermuth

Ruta Wermuth was born during 1928, in Kolomea. In her Memoirs 'I Met People,' published in Poznan in 2002, Ruta recalled how she was deported along with members of her family from Kolomea, during September 1942. Her account follows:

In September 1942, the entire population of the Kolomea ghetto were ordered to gather in the yard of the Judenrat allegedly to be registered. Some 5,000 people presented themselves, in the manner commonly used by the Germans by way of 'selection,' approximately 300 were chosen and sent to the right - which meant life. All others, surrounded by Ukrainian militia and SS men with specially trained dogs, were herded in the direction of the railway station. 

The column moved slowly towards the railway station. Apart from the sound of the scraping of thousands of feet, it was amazingly quiet. From time to time a child would cry, to be quickly silenced by its mother. There were only a few children and elderly men and women. Always among the weakest of the ghetto inmates, many of the youngest and eldest had perished earlier. The ghetto had been closed in early spring, and terror, hunger and disease had prowled there ceaselessly.

It was a long journey to the railway station, situated on the outskirts of the town. We waited in vain for a miracle to happen. We came to the station buildings, but we were driven on further to the ramp, where a very long train with many cattle wagons was waiting. The doors of the wagons were already open, ready for loading. There was an odour of chlorine, which had been abundantly sprinkled within the wagons. Obedient to this point, at the sight of the train the column wavered, then with a final cry of despair, broke and dispersed. Did I scream too? If so, it was subconsciously, joining in the anguish of all around me.

Suddenly we heard shooting. An additional detachment of Ukrainian militia ran towards the ramp. Like the Gestapo, they carried long whips. The SS and militia began to attack the crowd, who were already deranged with fear. The nightmare began. Barking dogs, cracking whips, the guttural orders of Germans and the vulgar shouts of Ukrainians: 'Vorwarts, los, los, schnell, schnell.' and 'Go on, you dammed Jewish pigs!' The screaming voices all merging into a single yell. Attempting to avoid the beating, people quickly helped each other to climb the high steps of the cattle wagons for the assumed safety of the wagons' interiors. Wave by wave, driven on, insulted and cursed, the people rapidly filled the wagons.

When it was so full that it seemed impossible that anymore could be crammed in, a drunken Ukrainian militiaman climbed into the wagon and began swinging his whip and shooting in all directions. As a result, people standing near him pushed themselves further into the wagon in order to avoid the lashing whip. Into the space thus created, another group was forced, to the accompaniment of shouting and shooting. This method of filling the wagons had been long established.

The screaming and yelling did not cease until late afternoon, when the train finally moved. To where? There was no doubt - ultimately to death. I was in one of those wagons, along with my parents. We were still together. My parents probably thanked God that I often lost consciousness, because what was taking place inside the wagon exceeded the most vivid conception of purgatory. How long did it last ? Hours ? Eternity?

Whenever I recovered consciousness I was still there - in hell. In a wagon that could hardly contain 50 or 60 people, some 200 had been packed. Cries, stench, and the acrid odour of chlorine. Through the screams and the drumming of the wheels we could hear shooting. In a moment of awareness, I realised that we were standing naked, pressed to the side of the wagon. With their intertwined arms, my parents had created a kind of shelter. It was thanks to this that I was still alive. I noticed that everybody was naked, although I remembered that we had all entered the wagon fully clothed . It was so hot that people had somehow managed to undress themselves. In the midst of the crowd. Those standing in the middle were probably already dead, but were unable to fall down.

Suddenly, I felt a breath of fresh air. There was now more room around us. My mother whispered in my ear: 'Do you hear me dear? If you understand what I say, just nod. Some young people managed to make a hole in the side of the wagon and they are jumping out, one by one. We have decided to do the same. First Papa will jump, then you, and finally me. The train is going through the forest now. Its night. If you make it , try to hide in the forest. Don't be afraid. We will find you afterwards.'

I nodded that I understood. Before I realised what was happening, strong arms took me up and pushed me out of the wagon through a narrow hole. I was suspended for a moment, held by my armpits, choked by the blast of fresh air. I became more aware. Not for long. The arms that held me opened and I fell into a dark abyss.

The cold woke me up. For a long time I couldn't remember where I was and what had happened to me. At last the horrible reality began slowly, very slowly returning to my awareness. I moved, tried to lift my eyelids, but I still couldn't see anything. When I raised my hand to my eyes, I felt something warm and sticky. A trickle of blood was flowing from my cracked head and covering my eyes. With difficulty I sat up.

Light. Only after a moment did I realise that I was hearing the rustling of the trees and the singing of birds. I checked around and found to my amazement that I was in the middle of the forest and that the train tracks were nowhere to be seen in the vicinity. I couldn't remember whether I had crawled away from them on my own. Maybe one of the escapees, seeing that I was knocked out, had dragged me away from the danger zone. My heart suddenly began to beat with hope. Could it have been my parents? Maybe they would come out now from behind a bush, take me in their strong, protective arms, and everything would be the way it used to be.

I was deluding myself. From that moment on, nothing would ever again be like it used to be. I was alone in this forest. Naked and injured, with only myself to rely on. For a long time I didn't move from the spot. The birds had already gone quiet and only from time to time was there a solitary trill. I pulled up a handful of grass and wiped the clotting blood. It was still dripping, but not as much.


Robert Kuwalek, Death Camp in Belzec, Panstwowe Muzeum na Majdanku Lublin, 2016

Photograph: Chris Webb, Private Archive

Holocaust Historical Society April 29, 2020