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Hiidden in a Bunker in Borysław – The Survival of Yitzhak David Steg

The Author

Yitzhak David Steg was born in Borysław in December 20, 1930. His family had deep roots in the town. His great grandfather, Rabbi Yitzhak David Steg (1840-1922), a grain merchant and one the three sons of Fischel Steg (1790-1860) of Zurawno, had come to settle in Borysław. He had two sons, Pinchas and Bendet (1874-1956).

Yitzhak, his mother Rivke, her father Bendet, and her daughter, the author's sister, Aliza and a cousin Joshua survived the German occupation in Borysław and settled in Haifa in Israel after the war. In Israel. Yitzhak continued his studies in chemical engineering that he had begun in Wrocław. He graduated in 1954 and retired in 1990 after a distinguished career.

Yitzhak Steg's Story

In the last week of June, 1941, Borysław and Drohobycz were occupied by the German Army. As a result of Ribbentrop-Molotov Treaty that had divided the southeastern part of Poland between Germany and the Soviet Union, these towns had been absorbed into the Soviet Union as the western part the Ukraine in 1939.

The persecution of the Jews in Borysław started almost immediately after the German army entered the town, which was in flames Because the retreating Soviet Army had ignited oil wells and two refineries

The First Aktion

The first of the pogroms ĺAktionsĺ against the Jewish population of Borysław and Drohobyz was perpetrated by Ukrainian groups on the pretext of capturing Jewish leftists and Communists. But the truth was that hundreds of innocent victims were killed in this pogrom. In all the streets of the town, one could hear the laments of the families carrying their murdered loved ones on small hand wagons. Shortly after the first Aktion, new laws were enacted.

The Second Aktion

Jews were prohibited from leaving the town. Every Jew over thirteen was ordered to wear a blue Star of David on a white stripe on his right arm, so that he could be easily identified from a distance as a Jew. The Germans organized a Judenrat, consisting of Jewish notables. The second Aktion began the transportations to work camps, from which nobody ever returned.

Borysław was rich in oil wells and had supplied ninety-five percent of the oil consumption for Poland's population of thirty-three million. The petroleum reserves were exploited for the German war effort in Russia. The Beskiden Ölgesellschaft (Beskiden Oil Company) was opened and Jews were forced to work for it, digging ditches for oil pipes and installations. One of them was my father, Hermann (Hersh).

The Third Aktion

The biggest pogrom was the third Aktion, which took place in August, 1942. Over 5,000 people, one third of the Jewish population of Borysław, were transported in animal wagons to the death camp Belżec, fifty miles north of Lwów, where the Jews of Żurawno, Lwów, Stryj and other places in the vicinity were also executed. At that time, Borysław and Drohobycz had about 90,000 inhabitants, 30,000 of them Jews. Among them were forty-three members of my family.

Borysław was bisected by the Tyśmienica River and four main streets: Kosciuszki, Mickiewicz, Łukasiewicza and Zielinskiego began at the wide, four-prong-ended bridge over the dirty, oil-contaminated river. The two houses belonging to our family were located at number eight and number twenty-four Łukasiewicz Street. My sister Aliza and i were born and lived on Łukasiewicz Street.

My grandparents and uncles lived at number eight Łukasiewicz. After the third Aktion, a Jewish ghetto was opened. In its first phase, the ghetto was on Łukasiewicza street. This gave my family the opportunity to dig a bunker, a process that continued for one and a half years.

The Judenrat was allowed to open a food distribution store in which bread, flour, and sugar were sold for special coupons. Jewish rations were reduced to pathetic quantities, such as two kilograms of bread per person per week. This store was closed before the fourth Aktion that took place in October, 1942. Because of the lack of food, contamination of food, and inhuman sanitary conditions, there was an epidemic of typhoid fever; thousands of Jews died of this horrible disease.

The Fourth Aktion

When the fourth Aktion broke out in October, 1942, 1 was almost twelve years old. I worked, without pay of course, in a workshop run by the Judenrat that produced military field spades for the German army. On the first day of this Aktion, I was ill in bed suffering from dysentery. Because I was sick, I went down to the bunker with the rest of my frightened family and neighbors. We hid there for four horrible days, during which most of my co-workers were sent to their deaths. As an added disaster, my father Herman was deported directly from work to the death camp on Janowska street in Lwów. He never returned. He was murdered there at the age of forty-two.

Before her own execution, Rachel, my mother Rivka's sister, who lived in a town outside of Boryslaw, had sent her son Yehoshua  to our family knowing that we were preparing a bunker. My cousin Yehoshua had been born in 1939. The rest of his family, his parents, sister, grandparents, uncles, and cousins had been taken to Bronica, a village near Drohobycz. There they had been forced to dig their own graves and were killed and buried in them. My grandparents, aunts, and cousins were also executed there.

After the fourth Aktion we did not move to the camp on the next morning. Instead we descended into the bunker we had prepared beneath my grandparents' house and began our underground life. The bunker had fourteen planked beds for the accommodation of our family and others who had also been engaged in the building of the bunker. Food was stored in fifteen drums. Water and gas had been installed by making illegal underground connections. There we lived for eighteen months until the liberation of the town by the Soviet Army in August, 1944.

My cousin Yehoshua, who was a two-year-old child at the time, sometimes wept and screamed. His presence put the whole group hiding in the bunker in jeopardy of capture by the German or Ukrainian Police, and even by the Ukrainians who moved into our house after we entered the bunker. These Ukrainians kept trying to find hidden Jewish valuables on the property. Their efforts gave us some dramatic moments.

After one morning's events in the middle of a cold winter in 1943, the other bunker inhabitants decided to throw Yehoshua out of the bunker. They wanted to put him into a neighbors' house that had been demolished, reasoning that it was better to save the lives of fourteen people than risk them for one life. Because Yehoshua was too young to speak or understand where he was living, there would have been no danger that the Germans could have learned the location of the bunker from him. However, my mother rejected this macabre proposal saying that they would have to strangle her first before they could abandon Yehoshua. Although it was not unknown in those tragic times for family members to poison their sick parents, strangle other people to save their own lives, or kill others in order to get themselves, Yehoshua's life was saved.

The Fifth Aktion

After the fourth Aktion, the Nazis began to liquidate the ghetto. This was completed after the fifth Aktion in November, 1942. Another compulsory work camp was opened in the outskirts of Borysław-Mrażnica. Several hundred of the remaining young people, who worked for the Beskiden Ölgesellschaft, were ordered to live in this camp, guarded by the Ukrainian and German soldiers.

There were also Jewish oil industry specialists who lived in this camp. They were provided with an Eisenbrief (literally an iron letter) by the German authorities that made them temporarily untouchable.

The Sixth Aktion

On the first day of the sixth Aktion, my sister Aliza was outside selling cakes that had been baked by my mother and arranged on a tray. This was one of the sources of money that enabled us to buy food. Because her absence during the Aktion made us very nervous, we kept looking outside our house hoping to see that she had not been caught. Suddenly, I saw my terrified sister running towards our house, leaving behind a group of twenty-five to thirty Jews being escorted by two German policemen.

Our house stood at a distance of some 150 yards from the group of captured Jews, who stood for a while in order to be joined by others who had also been caught by the Nazis and who were later executed in the outskirts of the town. We were home at that time, behind heavily fortified doors, ready to enter the bunker whose construction was completed through a hole hidden in the floor. Consumed with worry, I stayed, standing behind the curtained windows. looking for Alisa.

Suddenly I saw her running towards our house, a policeman aiming his rifle and firing one shot in her direction. The other bunker inhabitants, who had come into the house through holes in the garret, tried unsuccessfully to prevent me from opening a small, concealed window in the toilet and hold out my hand to help her enter the house. They shouted with some justification, "We don't want to pay with fourteen lives for just one life." The policeman, probably thinking that the group of captured Jews would escape him if he were to be occupied in shooting in another direction, decided not to stop shooting.

About 450 to 480 Jews survived the Nazi occupation of Borysław. This was one of the highest percentage rates of survival of Jews in Poland. There were reasons for this. Because the local German authorities in letters to their German bosses praised the abilities of the Jewish specialists in oil production, who worked as forced labourers. Many of these workers were able to survive to the last days of the occupation. Another reason was the geographical placement of Borysław in the foothills of the heavily forested Carpathian mountains, where a large number of salvation bunkers were built.  

This story was submitted by Yitzhak David Steg.

© Valerie Schatzker 2016


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Yitzhak David Steg