Hershke's Band in the Skalat Forest

by Israel Pickholtz

On Wednesday 22 August 2000, 21 Av 5760, I met with Leah and David Schwarz at their home in Herzeliyya. We met for two and a half hours and during most of that time Leah's sister Nusha Zomer participated.

I knew for some time that Leah's maiden name is Pikholz, but only recently did I learn that David was part of the group of forest dwellers known as "Hershke's Band." This group moved from one hiding place to another in the forests around Skalat, stealing what they could from the anti-Semitic Ukrainian peasants in the villages.

The story of this group - which numbered over thirty Jews - is told in "Death of a Shtetl" by Avraham Weisbrod, an English translation is will be available online. (http://www.jewishgen.org/Yizkor/Skalat1/ska054.html#page65)
It is probably elsewhere as well.

What I did not know was that Leah, her two sisters, her two brothers and (nearly until the end) her parents were all part of this same group of survivors.

Leah (age 81) and Nusha (age 73) are the children of Israel Aharon and Rosa (Horovitz) Pikholz of Grimaylow, which is near Skalat. There is another sister who lives in Buenos Aires and two brothers in Israel. The eldest brother was in the Polish Army and no one knows what happened to him. David (age 86) is also from Grimaylow and has one surviving brother in the US.

I had had one telephone conversation with Leah about a year ago, but it was not productive and I never followed up. I had found her from a Page of testimony she had submitted to Yad VaShem in the 1950's and found them still at the same address.

Leah apologized frequently for seeming incoherent and for speaking without respect for chronology, as well as David's memory and hearing difficulties, but I found them both to be quite lucid. Now that their children are grown, they have returned to Yiddish and Leah apologized (quite unnecessarily) for forgetting the right Hebrew word from time to time.

I am not competent to tell this story and I shall merely summarize in brief anecdotal fashion, some of what they told me. It is important to note that for many years they did not tell the stories themselves. The ruling Labor Zionist establishment told them - as they told all survivors - that publicizing these events would only bring themselves embarrassment and would "make their children defective." Even today, they have said very little to their own children and grandchildren. Years ago, Leah made some attempts to record the events in writing, but did not save any of it.

When Grimaylow was to be declared Judenfrei, the Jews were taken to the Ghetto in Skalat. They were still in touch with the older brother Shemuel (who went by the surname Rosenstrauch, his maternal grandmother's name) who was in the Polish Army near Lublin. Shemuel wrote to them in code telling them to dig bunkers under their home and to prepare hiding places in the forest. They did both under the cover of night, often after a day's work in the lager (the work camp). Digging under the house was complicated by the necessity to remove the evidence of digging by morning.

It is a recurring theme in all Leah says that since Shemuel showed them all how to survive, he must have survived himself and, absent evidence of his death, she sincerely believes that he will walk in the door some day, even now at age eighty-four.

The tunnel under the house was reached through a closet and although theirs as not the only one in the ghetto, it was one of the better ones. As a result, whenever there was a hint of trouble, many others came and could not be turned away. To David's mind, this spelled trouble, and he was sure the Nazis and the Judenrat would know to look there. On one occasion, David and Leah and their baby son Michel Leib chose to hide in the unused attic in a barn rather than hide in their own bunker. This precaution proved unnecessary, for Leah's mother cut open pillows and scattered the feathers around the house and told the Police "see, others came before you and found no one."

David had particularly harsh words for the Jewish Police who helped the Nazis more than necessary. On one occasion, a Jewish kapo and a Nazi soldier passed a children's hiding place and the kapo saw pee dripping down, so gave away the hiding place to the German.

Before they fled to the forest, there was one occasion that David saw that Leah and Michel Leib had been discovered and he turned himself in rather than be separated from them. At one point, the child was simply torn apart before their eyes. David and Leah were part of a group sent by train to Belzec, but shortly after leaving Skalat they succeeded in jumping from the train. The Germans were drinking in celebration, thus the first jumpers - those who were not killed in the jump - escaped back to Skalat. Leah had received instruction on how to jump without falling under the train's wheels, but still sustained a shoulder injury in the fall.

On one occasion in the synagogue, where the Jews were taken before being killed or deported, David was beaten so badly that his blood splattered on the high ceiling.

On another occasion, after they were already in the forest, Leah and her mother were captured when going for food. They were held separately while the Nazis and the Judenrat tried
to force them to disclose the hiding places in the forest.

It was relatively late in the war that Leah's parents were killed - both on the same day - when they were discovered in the forest. They were not able to run like the younger Jews, who heard their death screams from not far away. Later they went back to bury them. I asked Leah if she knew the date her parents died. She said that different people had different ideas of the dates and they actually kept both Passover and Yom Kippur twice, to satisfy both opinions.

The three human traits that seem to be the critical ones in the survival of Hershke's band are awareness, preparedness and determination. They were aware of what was happening around them and what was in store for them and did not buy into the desperate false illusions that characterized so many other Jews. They prepared bunkers and hiding places in the ghetto and in the forest and learned the skills they thought necessary for survival. And they carried out their plans despite setbacks. They also had some assistance from a very few local peasants. But with all that, David said more than once that there survival was nothing if not a miracle.

There came a time that they were joined by a few Jewish partisans who had four guns. Leah says "then we weren't gibborim (heroes) any more. We felt safer and it was easier to steal food and survive, but once you have guns, you aren't a gibbor." (hero)

When the Russians came and the Jews were free to come out of hiding, the Jews of Grimaylow went back to see what was left of their town and their homes. Of course, all was destroyed. Leah's sister Yetka wanted to go with her boy- friend Yehudah Laufer, another of their band, to see his hometown of Podwoloczysk and from there to his family in Argentina. Leah and the others wouldn't hear of their unmarried sister's going off with a young man and there in the devastation of their home raised what was surely the last huppa in Grimaylow.

David wouldn't hear of staying in Galicia a moment longer and they followed the Russian troops as the front passed through Rumania. After the Struma was sunk, the quota of immigration certificates that had been allocated to the passengers was reused (several times!) and that is how David and Leah reached Eretz Israel in 1944. They had three more children and have seven grandchildren and one great-grandson.

Nusha stayed in Poland with the two brothers who were drafted into the Soviet army. All three made aliyah in 1957, from Poland.

Their father had only one sister and she was killed, as were her husband and two daughters. It turns out that the father had gone to the United States in the early 1900's, but returned to Grimaylow to be with his parents.

The Pikholz family we call "Grimaylow" has a tree of seven generations, with fifty-six descendants and twenty-four spouses. Leah and Nusha do not know of any connections to the Skalat Pikholz families. Nor do they know of any connection to the couple Leib Pikholz and Rachel Gitel Qualer, who had three children in Grimaylow in the period 1876-9.

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