'Jews shouted "Shema Yisrael" and were shot here'

Chelm city descendants embark on journey to site of first death march where thousands were massacred by Nazis.

Tags: Death Chelm March
Shimon Cohen ,

In Poland
In Poland
Bentzi Levkovich

A special campaign is currently taking place in which about a hundred of the Jewish descendants are participating from Chelm and Hrubieszów.

In the journey, participants reconstruct stations on the first death march in which about 4,000 of the men of the cities of Chelm and Rubyshub were marched over a hundred kilometers, spread over four days and were slaughtered one after another until only a few hundred were left.

Benzie Levkovich, Chairman of the Chelm Veterans Organization and one of the organizers of the trip, tells Arutz Sheva about the moving days for the participants after a full year of preparation with relevant parties in Poland and Israel.

In the first two days of the visit, the delegation arrived at the site of the Sobibor extermination camp, where almost the entire community of Chelm was destroyed, and yesterday evening the trip between stations of the first death march, a journey Levkovich says began three months after the war broke out:

"They told the men of the town of Chelm that they had to report in the town square, from the age of 15 to 65. Immediately after they got there, people who usually worked or were students, the streets on the way to the main square were closed by German soldiers with them inside and they couldn't leave. Immediately they shouted for them to get into rows of four, each row of a hundred people. Five such groups, that is, two thousand people. There were cries of 'no moving' and 'no talking. Whoever speaks will be shot.'

"They took hats from the people, collected their certificates and burned them. In another hat they collected the jewelry and rings and other valuables. The German commander came up and said 'now we take the scum to work'," continues Levkovich in the story.

Arranged in fours, the men of Chelm began the death journey by walking at a pace that was more like running. "These were everyday people and not paratroopers," recalls Levkovich. "This is how they went 35 miles on a muddy day mixed with snow and rain up to Hrubieszów."

On the way the Germans shot and killed anyone who could not continue running. This was apart from a number of stops along the way, during each of which they gathered groups of several dozen marchers, claiming they tried to flee and shooting them to death. About half of the marchers perished en route to Hrubieszów.

When Chelm's Jews arrived in Hrubieszów, they were housed in a barn so that the Jews of Hrubieszów did not know about them when they were also ordered to come to the square and join in the march.

"They brought everyone to the nearby river. There, near the bridge, they were told to run towards the Russian soldiers and shout 'Long live Stalin' so the Russians wouldn't kill you. Still, the Russians saw masses of people running toward them and stopped them. The Jews said they only wanted to live but the Russian soldiers said 'We have to check with headquarters in Bialystok.' They sent runners and after three-quarters-of-a-day, an order came from Bialystok not to let them in because there were Germans among them. In this way the Russian soldiers sent them back to the German side."

They were the days of the Molotov-Ribbentrop agreement and the boundary was unclear. Because the German soldiers did not remain there, when the group of Jews who survived the march were transferred, they were shot as "the locals were also not sympathetic, to put it mildly, towards them."

"Some went into the frozen river to cross to the Russian side. They came back and from a group of 4,500 people remained less than two hundred people. This was the first death campaign on which, in January 1940, correspondent Ze'ev Jabotinsky wrote. He wrote a description of this death march. Tzvi Pachter, a key witness in the Eichmann trial, testified about this journey, and yet it has disappeared from the pages of history. Our goal is to return it to the pages of history. The journey is a formative incident in the Holocaust."

On the journey that the Israeli group took until last night, Levkowitz says: "We started the reconstruction campaign in the square to which the two thousand Jews gathered from Chelm, where we unveiled a memorial plaque in memory of that event. The Chief Rabbi of Poland was there. We illustrated the story that happened there not only in the graphic description but even in the shouts of the Germans recreated by a German-speaking volunteer."

On the details and testimonies of the difficult events, Levowitz notes that "there is very reliable evidence. One of the testimonies is that of Joshua Hertz, a man from Chelm who was a medical student in Italy and came on a vacation that went on until the death journey. He was young and one of the few survivors."

"At the sign unveiling we read Yizkor. We also blew a shofar in the town square where the central synagogue of Chelm is two houses away and it was very symbolic. Then we passed out flags and walked in a march of fours as they walked, the entire square towards the buses. Then we went to each station.

"At the first stop, where a hundred and fifty people were killed in the woods, the local priest and chief rabbi of Poland waited for us to pray. There were also Polish students who gave testimonials and told the story. There was one of us who said the six words that must have been said there: 'Hear O Israel, the L-rd our G-d, the L-rd is One.' It is very moving to stand in a frozen Polish place on a wintry day and hear it."

Levkovich makes it clear that the association he heads intends to hold the event once a year to inculcate the events in Israeli consciousness and even in the education system. "This is a formative event in the Holocaust, and just as there is a March of Life that commemorates the death march in Auschwitz at the end of the war, it's inconceivable that they don't remember the first death march, the first signal that people didn't get on the organized program for the destruction of Jews."