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Home » The Shoah » Eyewitnesses » Chaya Lieberman

Chaya Lieberman

The Chassidim stand, somberly, across from the large tombstone in the clearing of the great forest near Stolin.

Their Rebbe is buried there, together with the rest of the martyrs of the town.

While they stand there, davening for mercy in the merit of the holy ones who lay there, a woman sits far away in Israel, at her home in Gadera.

Her body is at home, but her heart is there in Stolin; one day, a large chunk of her heart was buried there forever.

As far as she knows, Chaya Lieberman is the only one who can tell those standing there in the forest, the Chassidim, about their saintly Rebbe. Only she heard his final words and lived. And only she knew his final resting place.

Even the most imaginative among us will never be able to adequately conjure up the sights and sounds of that terrible day. But the wailing, the heartrending screams, and the silence are all etched in her mind forever.

They stood there, thousands of people, men, women and children, next to the grave that they had dug for themselves under the eyes of the Germans.

Copious tears were shed, turning the ground into sodden muddy terrain, and the voice of the Admor (Rabbi), Reb Moshe Perlov of Stolin, broke through the crying. The wailing stopped, though the tears did not, and they looked up at their young leader.

“We must suffer for the wicked; this is our lot,” and his voice was swallowed up by terrible crying. “Repeat the viduy (confession of sins, recited before death) after me….”

Together, in unison, they said viduy. Even the trees stood to attention. And then, in a final demonstration of love and faith, they said the Shema.

That’s when the shooting began………….

She woke up a few hours later, still alive in the horror of that black pit.

“I woke up,” she says, “and there I was. I must have lost consciousness just from the fear and horror. I lay among the bodies, not knowing what to do. I was covered in blood—the blood of my brethren. Slowly, I wormed my way between the bodies, and slowly, slowly crawled out of the pit.

“In the distance I could see German soldiers patrolling the area. The large grave was uncovered and visible. I looked around and realized that to survive; I had to make it uphill and over the crest ahead – out of sight.

“I got up and I ran. I heard bullets in the background. They had seen me. I did not look back, but kept on running. Over the other side of the hill, some way away, there was a washing line with laundry blowing in the breeze; next to it was a granary. It was a warehouse belonging to one of the non-Jewish peasants from the village. As I neared it, I hoped he was not in the vicinity. I saw nothing and heard nothing, so I ducked inside. Once inside, I made my way up to the garret and covered myself with hay.

“I lay there for three days, when I heard voices nearby, Jewish voices. Among them was the town doctor, who had managed to escape. Still I kept quiet. On the third day of hiding they were caught.”

She did not dare to look. She heard the orders, the shots and then the silence. There in the silence, there was plenty of time to think, a twelve-year-old girl in hiding, without parents or siblings.

They were dead and she was alive.

There in the granary, she thought of her family.

One year earlier, life had appeared so promising. She’d been born in Perebrodi, just south of Stolin. She was one of 12 children born to her father, Reb Meir Ginzburg, and her mother, Sheina Feigel. They were simple folk; they farmed the land yet had a deep love for Torah. Their home had been filled with a combination of Torah and avodah (service of G-d).

Her father had built a shul in their home—a place where Jews from the neighboring villages would congregate. There were two families from one village, one from another and another three from further afield.

She recalled the tishim (gathering of Chassidim around a Rebbe) that had been held in their little kloiz (small shul) by the holy Rebbe, Rabbi Moshe of Karlin Stolin, when he had visited them. Her father always used to save some shirayim (leftovers from the Rebbe that Chassidim partake in) for her.

She had loved helping her father at work. He would press olives and make oil, which he would then sell to their non-Jewish neighbors. Oh, how she loved the sheep-shearing season, when they would take the blackened wool and clean it and spin it, turning it into bright balls of thread.

Then the refugees had begun flocking to their home. Why were the people fleeing Warsaw? What about the wealthy, who had vacationed in the summer homes near Stolin? Why had they become so poor?

She’d had so many questions at the time.

Then, life as she knew it came to an end.

Rich and poor, educated and ignorant were all driven out of the village and into the ghetto in Stolin. Life became squalid and difficult.

Then that fateful Erev Rosh Hashana came, and they were taken in groups of 500 to the clearing in the forest.

Now that life was gone.

Chaya lay immobile in the hay until she realized that her body would not survive just lying in the cocoon she had created. She got up, stole some of the clothes still hanging on the line, and got dressed, not forgetting to make a small rip in the corner of her shirt.

“I did not cry—I worked as though on autopilot—but I remembered that I was a mourner, all alone in a frightening world. Once dressed, I knew I had to escape.”

The river was not far. On the other side of the river lay miles and miles of forest. In the forest there would be food and safety.

Barefoot, she made her way down to the quay, where a ferry awaited. It was shuttling people to and fro.

“There were lot of villagers milling around. I kept walking, looking straight ahead, trying to appear confident. Silently, I prayed to G-d to help me.”

She will never forget the girl ahead of her. She was wearing floral pants, and had tied her money in a scarf around her waist.

“I knew she was Jewish the moment I set eyes on her. Her black hair and charcoal eyes gave her away. They were filled with fear. She approached the ferrymen, untied her cloth, and held out her money.

“They took it. Then they quizzed her. They wanted to know if she was Jewish. They asked her to cross herself, and the poor girl became confused. She did not know how. She picked up her left hand instead of her right…

“It took only a few moments, and she was dead. They tossed her body into the river. I had been standing only about a meter away, and yet I could do nothing to help her.

“It was my turn now. I was blonde.

“Where are you from then? Let’s see you cross yourself,’ they asked. I was ‘lucky’ I had traveled with my father to Storela when he had gone to shecht (slaughter) geese, and I had seen non-Jews cross themselves. I crossed myself.

“They were satisfied, but they still had some unanswered questions.

“Why are you barefoot? And why do you want to cross the river?’

“I have just found out that my mother is ill,” I lied, ‘I have to go and see her. I ran out of the house without a moment to spare. I’m sorry I have no money, but if you’ll let me earn my way, I’ll be happy to help out…”

They believed her, took pity on the non-Jewish child with a sick mother, and agreed to have her join the next trip.

She stood there, the façade of indifference on her face, while inside her heart she felt sick for the girl, her Jewish sister, killed only moments before.

Chaya crossed the river to the unknown.

As soon as the ferry came close to the shore she jumped out and into the water. She knew the area well.

“I swam for hours, past all the villages on the waterfront, until I reached part of the forest that bordered the river. There was no one in sight. I clambered out. My clothes were soaking wet and unbelievably heavy. I had survived. I had not drowned – which would have been a better option than being shot by a German bullet.

“During regular times, the forest had been a dream place for family excursions. Now, during the madness, the forest made an excellent hideout. The Germans knew this all too well. It was a haven for partisan activities and a death trap for the Nazis.

“Here, I was less afraid.

“During the day, I would wander around looking for food—berries and nuts—and at night, I would climb the trees and sleep in the safety of the tall branches.

“Within two weeks my body became a breeding ground for lice and mites. I was covered with open sores. I knew that scratching would make the sores worse, nevertheless I scratched. The pain became unbearable.

“During those early days I was sure that I was the only Jew alive. I remembered Mother’s final instructions to us children. We were standing [in the pit] all together, shaking, and holding hands. Mother had said, ‘If any of you should survive, never, and I mean NEVER, marry a non-Jew even if you are the only Jew alive.’

“Now I wondered, would I be the only Jew to survive?

“After a while I noticed, from my perch in the tree, that there often seemed to be movement up ahead. I decided to go and explore. Maybe I would find other Jews.”

Stealthily, she made her way through the brush. What she saw made her stop short.

“Facing me was a woman I recognized. It was Kalim’s daughter. Kalim had been one of my father’s best clients. In better times, he’d buy woolen garments and flaxseed oil. Kalim was different. He was humane. He believed in, and lived by, the seven Noachide Laws.

“For a second we were dumbstruck. Kalim’s daughter was as surprised to see me as I was to see here. Quickly, she took me to meet her father who lived in a wooden cabin in the thick of the forest.

“’Chayale!’ Kalim exclaimed when he saw me. ‘You look terrible! Come inside and let’s clean you up.’

“He took me into his home and made sure that I was properly taken care of. I was deloused, my wounds were cleaned and dressed, and I was given fresh clothing.

“They looked after me as though I was family.”

Chaya remembers how sick she was at the time. “That initial care and treatment put me back on my feet.”

Soon, Kalim’s home became her own.

There were many Jews in the forest. Some roamed free and others joined the partisans.

Occasionally, she would receive visitors. They would come to see the girl who had survived and offer her hope and encouragement.

“Kalim was sort of a religious leader, cult-style. He has a group of admirers who would come and join him in the evenings. They would light a fire and sit around and sing songs. It was then, on those evenings, that I would allow myself the luxury of tears.

“Occasionally, Kalim would ask me to join him and his followers. Each time I declined: ‘I was born a Jew and I will die a Jew. These practices are not for me.’

“Kalim would let the matter drop. Sometimes he would read to me from the bible. He would say, ‘Don’t cry. G-d says that the Land of Israel belongs to the Jewish people. Someday, your people will go home…’”

Soon the German warnings reached Chaya’s ears. Anyone harboring a Jew would be killed, along with their entire family. Chaya told Kalim that she was leaving. She could not bear the thought of endangering his life. But they barred her way and begged her to stay.

“We are not afraid.”

So Chaya stayed a little longer, and helped watch the livestock that Kalim owned.

“During mealtimes I thought of my parents, and stayed away from the pork they served. The image of my parents and their possible disapproval stayed with me forever, preventing me from sinning. Instead, I lived on potatoes and milk products that were stored in the basement.

“In the next-door cabin lived a woman named Deborah. She rarely spoke. With pursed lips she sat and knitted for hours. She was suspicious of me, and I of here. Intuition told me that she was Jewish, obviously in hiding. She thought that I was a “shiksa”. Even so, she tried to test me. One day, as I sat next to her and watched her knit, she said to me “Amcha.” (Your nation). I answered her in Yiddish; she jumped. We fell on each other’s necks. We had found sisters.

“Every once in a while, we Jews of the forest would get together. The Pesach seder was one such occasion.

“I provided the flour and Deborah the eggs. We baked matzos and prepared the food. And together we sat.

“It is hard to describe such a seder. A partisan named Berel (Berel survived the War and died in the comfort of his own home in the U.S.) led the proceedings, while the rest fluctuated between feelings of elevation, hope and deep sadness.”

Soon, Chaya joined the partisans. Every so often they would have to move deeper into the thick of the forest, while sniper fire and bombs could be heard in the distance. The Germans never actually ventured into the forest, but shelled from a distance, hoping to flush out partisan resistance.

Chaya became a fighter, but she does not discuss those retched months that turned into years. They are too painful for her.

When the war came to an end, Chaya returned to Russia, where she joined up with other refugees. Most were searching for survivors. She joined a group that was heading for Poland. It was there that she met Aryeh, her brother-in-law, her sister’s husband. He’d been looking for her.

Aryeh’s Russian platoon had been serving in Siberia and had not known of the fate of European Jewry. It was only as he was queuing up to go home that the news trickled in. They had killed the Jews by the millions.

He was on a mission to find out what happened to his family, his wife and child. It was a villager who shared the news. They were all dead, every one of them. That is, except Chaya.

Someone told him that she was still alive.

Their meeting was heart wrenching.

“My sister and my nephew had been standing with the rest of us at the edge of the open pit. They, too, had been murdered in cold blood.”

After talking for a while and exchanging painful memories, He asked her to marry him. “We owe it to the family.”

“I did not want to marry him. It was hard for me to marry my sister’s husband, my brother-in-law,” Chaya tells of her indecision. “But I knew it was the right thing to do.”

“Our son, our firstborn, was born on Europe’s blood-soaked soil, while we were waiting with others to leave for Eretz Yisrael.

“When we finally reached Haifa, workers were distributing oranges,” Chaya remembers, and she smiles. “I asked them for an additional orange for the child. The worker smiled and said, ‘Don’t worry; here there are plenty of oranges.’

We settled in Binyamina, where we received a large tent. After a few days and nights of rocking aboard a cargo ship, all I wanted was to rest. G-d planned otherwise. The first night home brought with it heavy rains. I watched as the water seeped through the canvas, soaking everything inside.

“I held my baby and cried.”

Soon after, they were offered the chance to move to Gadera. Chaya jumped at the chance. Village life was in her blood. She was only too pleased to go back to farming and milking cows.

The family grew, and today as she lights the Shabbos candles she prays and thanks Hashem for her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

It was 30 years after the war that she first heard that one of her brothers was still alive and living in Pinsk.

“He had been serving in the Polish army and remained alive. Like me, he had sifted through the list of survivors and discovered that we’d all been killed.”

Some years ago she went back to the clearing in the forest, to the communal grave. Aryeh, her husband, was no longer at her side. He had passed on.

It was an agonizing trip, as part of her itinerary; she met up with Kalim’s daughter. Both Kalim and his daughter, who have both passed away since, have been recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations.

From there, she went to the shul in Stolin, and from there to the cemetery.

“The whole area has been affected by the Chernobyl disaster. I didn’t dare eat any of the local produce; I brought everything with me from home.

“You know,” she says, “there, in the clearing in the forest, up against the matzeiva (memorial stone) erected by the Stoliner Chassidim, I recalled the people who had died.

“Sharp snapshots of my past flashed before my eyes. I could see the small children and the adults. My heart felt like lead within me, but there’s another heart, wounded and bleeding, lying there together with all those bodies among the rivers of blood.

“Till this day I suffer from heart disease, and I still long for the old fashioned lekach (pastries) and my mother’s cookies that she would lay out on the tables for the Chassidim and the Admor (Rebbe). The Admor would distribute them as shireyim, and everybody would sing and dance. And the floor of the house would shake.

Through her tears, she recalls that final viduy and the trembling hearts, the scalding tears, and the fear.

Chaya stood at the gravesite a little longer and as she did so she could have sworn that the earth beneath her feet was still quivering.

The Iron Curtain came down in 1989; a year later, Rabbi Yaakov Bleich became the Chief Rabbi of Ukraine. He was sent there by the current Stoliner Rebbe; Rabbi Baruch Shochet, to rebuild the Jewish communities and save the youth from spiritual annihilation. There, he met a Jew named David Resnick, who had been a student of Rabbi Moshe (Perlov) Stoliner at the Stoliner yeshiva. David undertook the project of preserving the mass grave. Up until then, locals had been digging up the grave in the most horrific manner, in the hope of finding gold teeth or rings. It took over 1,000 trucks laden with sand to cover the huge area. (Before the war, it had been earmarked to become an airfield.) A matzeiva has been erected in memory of the murdered as well as the saintly Rebbe, Reb Moshe’le. Each year, Chassidim flock to Stolin to stand and daven at the mass grave.

Compiled by and Copyright © 2020 Joshua S. Perlman and Adina Lipsitz
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Updated 20 December, 2020

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