Review of Testimony and
Memoirs of Chaya and Yisrael Finkielsztejn:
Mrs. Chaya Finkielsztejn welcomed me very warmly when I
approached her with a proposal from Yad Vashem for her testimony. She told me that she had
written memoirs, and for many years she had been waiting for the opportunity to publish
them and add her contribution to the story of the mass destruction of the Jews. She gave
me the memoirs and also agreed to give testimony. Unfortunately, she spoke so rapidly and
indistinctly that it was difficult to understand. She spoke about the situation of the
Jews in the town of Radzilow in the period from the First World War until the destruction
in 1941; she spoke a lot about the cruelty and anti-Semitism of the Polish population and
accused the Poles of burning alive 2000 Jews. It was difficult to get from the couple a
clear description of the destruction of their town, since they became terribly worked up.
When she spoke, her husband helped and recalled various details, but when it came to him
giving independent testimony, he drew back and said that he remembers nothing. Thus, the
wife remained the chief witness, who, during the period of the great danger, was very
active in the struggle to save the family.
The memoirs of Chaya Finkielsztejn begin with a description
of the Second World War. The turmoil between the Polish population was then so great that
everyone began to flee, some from east to west, and some from west to east. The Jews from
Radzilow, and among them the Finkielsztejn family, also fled, but in a few days they
returned home. The Russians had entered Radzilow.
As active Zionists, the Finkielsztejn's were subject to
vexation on the part of the Soviet authority and also on the part of the local communists
who wanted to take revenge on the "bourgeoisie." They not only took the
Finkielsztejn's mill, but also their 3-room house. In those bad times, Chaya
Finkielsztejn did not lose her bearings. True to her world-view, she provided a Zionist
education for her children and arranged for a teacher who taught them privately and
secretly. The communal worker observed how the hatred of the Poles grew against the Jewish
activists of the new regime. She felt in advance that revenge would at some time be taken
against all Jews.
And when the Germans entered, Jewish life and their
possessions became worthless. The local Christians exploited the situation without pity.
Chaya understood the impulses of the young people. During
the time of the Soviets, the Jewish communists took revenge on the Zionists and [blurred
word missing], and when the Germans entered the town, the Poles took revenge against the
communists and also against all the Jews. Polish neighbors entered Jewish homes and took
whatever their hearts desired.
"Since in any case every Jewish
possession would be taken, it is better that the neighbors should use it"... Chaya Finkielsztejn
defends her husband and her children. She succeeds in rescuing her minor daughter from the
hands of a gentile, son of a neighbor who is the head of a band of hooligans and attacks
the Jewish homes.
To no avail she seeks help from the Polish representative
of the civil administration which the Germans had created. With a spark of humor she tells
how the son of the "Feldsher" [old-time country barber-doctor] provided his
father with clients: the son beats up the Jews and the father gives them medical help.
The detailed descriptions of the horrible murders in the
small town illustrate how wretched the Jews had become, how hated and subject to suffering
and death. How much courage and heroism this little woman exhibited in the struggle for
the lives of her husband and children. The picture of the burning alive of the Jews of
Radzilow is horrible. I had become iron-strong and cold as ice - she remarks from time to
Miraculously, the Finkielsztejn family was rescued from the
destruction. But even then their suffering was still unimaginable: wandering, regularly
looking death in the eye, fear, suffering from not having a roof over one's head,
suffering from thirst and hunger, and the overall suffering of having to play a comedy, of
Jews who want to go over to Christian beliefs. This detail in the family story is unique:
a village of farmers interested in having a Jewish family go over to Christian beliefs as
the price for being rescued. The tragic comedy which they had to play did not in the end
assure their lives. In November 1942 when the Germans liquidated the ghetto in
the village official commanded that the Finkielsztejn family should also be placed there.
Their former friends immediately agreed and lay in wait for the few possessions which the
family still owned. However, Chaya Finkielsztejn did not want to give up and thanks to a
few farmers who still had a bit of a conscience, they were able to flee and hide out in a
second village, until the liquidation of the Jews of Szczuczyn ended. From then on the
members of the Finkielsztejn family started their underground life in darkness and filth.
In these horrible, inhuman conditions they found comfort in reading underground Polish
appeals and in enlightening their "hosts" - the illiterates - that the war will
end with Germany's defeat. Their children, who had become accustomed to their
pursuits, suffered from the long days and nights and played "words," but the
difficult hiding-out did not last a long time. They had to flee from one farmer to
another, each one was fearful and almost everyone wanted to exploit them. It is hard to
understand how a weak woman could hold out for so many months.
Chaya Finkielsztejn tells of tens of facts about cruel
crimes which the Polish farmers committed against Jews, but also how individual good
people treated them well and sympathized with their tragic situation.
Reading the memoirs, it seems that Chaya Finkielsztejn
repeats herself, but that is not so. She describes one week after another, month in and
month out what they lived through, and the situations are similar, since they went from
stable to stable, from one pit to another and everywhere they underwent new suffering.
Their situation became even worse when the civilian population left the village, since the
front came closer and the Jewish family was left alone with the Germans. Words cannot
describe their life in the pits, when seeking a bit of water was a life-threatening
undertaking. Their youngest son undertook this. Chaya Finkielsztejn describes their
inhuman suffering in the damp pit.
When the situation became unbearable, a Christian would
appear who would save them from certain death in the damp pit. Chaya Finkielsztejn
portrays very well the fanaticism of the farmers and describes elegantly a young village
girl with a warm heart.
Finally, the Finkielsztejn family survives to see the
defeat of Nazi Germany, but their suffering and horror did not yet end. Underground Polish
bands undertook to murder the few Jews who had been saved. After so much suffering, Mrs.
Finkielsztejn still found strength in her worn-out body to provide for the future of her
children, sent them to school, taught them, supervised every step of their way, heedless
of the fact that she herself was ill and broken.
And when salvation finally came, and the family found
itself on route to Eretz Yisroel, how much effort, how much suffering remained.
Chaya Finkielsztejn merits the highest respect. In each
situation she behaves like a mensch in the full meaning of the word. She ends her memoirs
by describing the last smile of her youngest son who fell in the War of Liberation. She
gave a precious sacrifice to the rebuilding of a new life for the survivors of the
Ida Glickshtein Yarkoni