From the Testimony of Yitzhak Khomut (Isaac Emmet)
The bitter day came four days prior to Yom Kippur [the Day of Atonement – the highest Jewish holiday]. It was decreed that after Yom Kippur all Jews without exception have to be in the ghetto. And the usual style – whoever would be found outside the ghetto would be shot…..We were at home, sad that we have to leave everything and move to the ghetto; the worst was that we knew that death was awaiting us. While we were sitting there depressed, a woman came in and introduced herself as Mrs. Lomtska, the wife of the school principal. She had a letter from the local authorities that we had to hand our home over to her. It was a new home and we had invested all our money and a lot of effort in it. She saw us packing our belongings and crying and expressed her sorrow. At a certain moment our elder daughter Hanale came into the yard. She was about 11 years old at the time. She was a talented, beautiful and smart child. The principal’s wife was very impressed with her and said that it was heart-breaking that such a pretty child would go to the ghetto. After a while she said that if we wouldn’t object, she would take Hanale to her home – our home – and make sure that she survived. Finally she said that she was childless and was willing to adopt her.
Time was running out and we didn’t have time to hesitate. The child was very dear to us, and it was difficult to part from her. But we had no other option. So we decided to move to the ghetto without Hanele. She stayed with the principal. In the depth of my heart I thought that if we would die in the ghetto, at least our daughter would remain….
Friday and Saturday passed. The Jews were running about frightened, the town was agitated and all the roads were under strict military and police surveillance. People who had hesitated between fleeing and staying in the ghetto knew they had missed the opportunity to leave. I was still hoping to find a way out and take off with my family. I even planned to take dear Hanele along….
On Saturday I decided to leave Tuczyn with my family and to go through the fields to the house of an Ukrainian acquaintance by the name of Pavel Gerasimichik. We had commercial connections before the war, and he told me that at time of danger we could always come to him and he would give us shelter. Naturally at that time we didn’t know that a non-Jew who would allow a Jew to stay in his home would be in deadly danger….
I found a Ukrainian youngster who lived in the area and had a boat. I paid him to take us across the river. We were very happy, because we had passed the greatest obstacle. The way from the river to Pavel’s home was not long, and I expected to reach it shortly. Suddenly Ukrainian youngsters who had been taking care of the cows arrived. They made a racket and threatened to call the police. I knew that if they called the police it would be very bad, and so I negotiated with them, offering them money. There were about ten of them, I gave them money, but every one of them wanted to be paid separately….I gave them money again and again; they took the money and yelled: ‘Jews are escaping from the ghetto’. My heart ached and I was ashamed. I thought that had times been different, I would have beaten them up and not paid attention to their yelling. But our lives were in their hands. These villains detained us there for two hours. The girls knew our life was in danger. They always knew they could put their trust in their all-powerful father. And here we were helpless in the face of rabble-rousing kids…. An SS officer arrived on a motorcycle. He saw our situation. The girls were crying, and he got interested….It seems that even SS officers sometimes have human feelings. He saw the poor girls and took pity on us. He told the policemen to let us go and that we should go home, to the ghetto….
Jews were walking around the streets. Every hour new rumors spread, only to be denied afterwards. They said that trenches were being dug on the way to the railway station. It was clear that they were intended as mass graves for the Jews of Tuczyn….We were immersed in our sad thoughts when all of a sudden Pavel arrived. He was embarrassed, as if the deeds of his neighbors shamed him. He had heard about the ghetto and it was clear that we were doomed. It wasn’t easy to express sympathy with the fate of the Jews and he was mulling over what he could do to help us at this critical moment. We told him that we wanted to leave the ghetto, even for a few days, to see how matters would develop. Pavel saw our distress and said that if we needed shelter for a short time, we could come to his place….
[after their arrival at Pavel’s home] Pavel was deeply frightened when he saw the ghetto go up in flames, but he did everything in his power to calm down my wife and daughter. He moved them to the barn and hid them in the straw. When it became too hot for them, he put them on top of the hay in the barn. That was where I found them when I arrived in the village. He had supplied them with food and drink. I realized that Pavel was a good man. He knew that his help to us put his entire family at risk. I had never seen such a delicate and sensitive person. Pavel wasn’t very happy with my arrival. He feared that his neighbors had seen me come, but I told him that I had arrived unnoticed. He also remembered that I had asked for a short-term shelter. He agreed that we would stay until we found a way out. We thought that liberation would come soon, and stayed in his home. It never entered our mind that we would stay for such a long time….
We decided to leave his home on Sunday and go to Tuczyn. We didn’t believe that begging him to stay would help, because we had seen how nervous his wife was about his bringing us to their home. Pavel was very worried about informers. And mostly, we knew that he was a poor peasant who hardly was able to make ends meet. The food he gave us was at the expense of his family. Suddenly we heard shots from the direction of Tuczyn. We were very frightened… Pavel decided to go to Tuczyn to see what was going on. He came back depressed. On his return he told us that we would have to stay with him, because there was nowhere to go….We told Pavel that he is unable to keep us, because he is giving us his own bread. And he said that at this time he cannot drive us away from his home. Pavel was afraid that one of his neighbors would discover our presence, so he prepared a hideout under the hay in his yard. We had to hide like animals in the hay. It was very crowded. During the day it was very hot, and there was smell from the pot in which we used for our excretions that was next to us the entire time. At night Pavel would empty the container and return it. It was most uncomfortable to have Pavel do this for us. We sat in the hideout for several weeks. We couldn’t wash or change clothes. We had lice, and scratched ourselves. But we had to get used to this life. We crated a little hole in the haystack to have some fresh air and light….
On 4 November 1942 the last massacre took place. This was when my dear daughter Hanele was murdered. After this massacre they announced that whoever hid a Jew would be executed with his family and that his farm would be burned down. After this decree, Pavel panicked and pressured us to leave for the forest. Pavel felt bad when he saw us crying, and he left and covered the hole with a sack. A few days passed. We thought incessantly about finding a way out. We wanted to release our good Pavel of the burden and the fear we caused him and his family. Suddenly we heard the dog bark. We knew the dog would bark only when strangers approached the place, and soon we saw two Ukrainian policemen come near us. They circled the yard and stopped near our haystack. They interrogated Pavel if he had seen Jews here or at his neighbors’ place. Pavel was embarrassed and said that he hadn’t seen Jews for a long time. The policemen said that they had a report about Jews, and he’d better admit. Pavel emphatically denied the charges. The policemen left. A short while later I saw Ukrainian policemen lead Leibl Briman, his wife, the teacher, Genia, their two-year-old son and his wife’s sister. Pavel later found out that they were found in a haystack, just like ours, in a nearby farm.
The situation deteriorated. There were cases of entire Christian families that were killed because they had hidden Jews. We couldn’t stay on….
One evening Pavel brought us food and said that he realizes we have nowhere to go to. He understands our fear of life in the forest and therefore decided to dig a hole for us in the barn so that we could be sheltered there until the danger passed. Of course I joined him in the digging. We dug the entire night near the barn. The entry was from inside the barn. Pavel poured the sand we had dug out into the river so that there would be no sign left. Any change could have provoked suspicions. The same night we moved to the hole. The conditions there were terrible. It was humid and airless. When I told Pavel about the problems he suggested we should hide in the straw in the barn. We arranged ourselves in the straw. We could only lie down, because when we sat up, our heads would stick out of the straw. Despite the many hardships we spent 16 months in the straw….
Pavel’s financial situation was terrible. He had a small farm and young children. He worked the farm on his own. It was no wonder he couldn’t really feed us. Our main food was potatoes that were cooked with their peelings….We sometimes suffered from the heat in summer and had no water to drink. Pavel didn’t bring water because he saw children play nearby, and was afraid they would see him bringing food to the barn. They would tell their parents and this would mean the end for us and for his family. It is interesting to note that despite the difficult conditions, the many dangerous moments, the loss of hope to ever be able to live a normal life, we didn’t want to die. More than once we felt the closeness of death. The Ukrainian police often conducted searches in the neighborhood. Every time they caught a Jew the searches would intensify….
When the Germans were already on the retreat, they dug trenches along the river. They situated their headquarters in Pavel’s home. 15 soldiers were stationed in the barn for twelve days. They were sprawled on the hay under which we were hiding. We were in a state of constant alert. We knew we couldn’t sneeze or cough. My wife and myself were awake all the time. We were hungry and thirsty. Pavel couldn’t come near us. The guards stood over the opening all night. Again, a miracle….
On 15 February 1944 the area was liberated. We stayed another few days in our hideout. We waited until the situation stabilized. The murderers were still raging. We wanted to know if there were any Jews left and how the Soviets were treating the Jews.
Several days later Pavel heard that there were a few Jews in Tuczyn. We prepared to go to our destroyed town.
We had to walk along the walls. Our legs didn’t move. We were careful that the villagers wouldn’t find out about us. The Ukrainian murderers mercilessly killed Jews because they were afraid they would testify against them. It has to be mentioned that some Jews who had survived the Nazi hell were killed by the Ukrainians after liberation. We said farewell to Pavel and his family. I would like to again underscore the noble attitude of Pavel and his wife. Not only didn’t they want payment for the food they gave us, but he also gave us clothes and food for the way. My wife had given Pavel a gold watch when she arrived at his home, and when we left he gave it back to her. Pavel and his wife were happy when they saw us leave their home after the terrible ordeal.
In Tuczyn we found 12 Jews. It is hard to describe the reunion with the remnants of what once was a vibrant community. Every one told their sad story. We cried as we remembered our dear ones who died terrible deaths. Only then did we feel the horrible loneliness. We were all put in one house by the Russian police. Bands of murderers were still raging and we feared an attack….
We don’t forget for one minute the terrible catastrophe that befell us and our innocent loved ones who were tortured and murdered. We pay tribute and owe a debt of gratitude to our good friend Pavel Gerasimchik and his family who risked their lives and saved us from certain death….