Ludwika Fiszer Testimony 1944 – Covering the final period of the camp and the Liquidation of the Poniatowa Forced Labour Camp – Erntefest Aktion in November 1943
Wallerang and Gley at Poniatowa
I worked in a facility for making floor tiles. The plant became the favourite of the SS –sub lieutenant Wallerang, who allowed two of the inmates to bring breakfast and lunch in a pot.. I was, in a way, exempt from standing in line. After much commotion we would march to the camp under the watchful eyes of the station commander, the highest ranking policeman of the Ukrainian camp.In order to get by the guard we needed passes which had to be shown with raised hands in order that the gendarme or Ukrainian policeman could see it. For some time now, people have been shot for not complying with this policy. The men had to remove their hats and we all passed the guard with fearful tremor in our hearts. Workers of the Arbeitseinsatz who passed the guards, were rushing to the field. The head-count started at 6:15am. The whole neighbourhood was present. The Tobbens-workers went to the plant. Machine guns and tanks surrounded our square. We did not understand why they brought tanks. We were joking about the fact that in order to kill us, one machine gun would suffice. They did not need tanks.
The month of October 1943 fell upon us like a bad omen. In the beginning of the month the schedule of the patrols was changed from 8:00 to 6:00am. Even then due to some good signs, we deluded ourselves that we would spend the entire winter in Poniatowa. Many people in the neighbourhood lived in attics, and the SS arranged to move people into apartments when the weather got colder. They distributed blankets, underwear, and clogs for our feet. They even placed heaters in the new bunks. Suddenly, like thunder on a clear day, the Tobbens-workers were informed that the next day, 9 October 1943 a headcount would take place at 2:00pm, in the plant.
It had been a long time since a head-count was conducted during the daytime. The atmosphere in the workshop was completely calm. Apart from the visits of various committees who were interested only in the quality of the work and not the workers, the plant was operating with almost no supervision. Once a day, Bau or Murman, the managers would make short rounds – otherwise everything was quiet. That same day, Bau promised, “There will only be a head-count” – not everyone believed what they were told and not everyone showed up for work that day. Since the head-count was set for 2:00 o’clock, the first shift at the plant was delayed. Usually the first shift was from 6:30am till 2:30pm, and the second set out for work at 1:30pm, in order to arrive at 2:00pm at the camp, in time to eat lunch.
When the second shift arrived they counted all the people together. The Camp Supervisor Gley conducted the count. A number of people were missing from the list. Gley was getting ready to search for the missing people in the neighbourhood. A few days earlier Gley was overheard saying that the “summer camp” had to be destroyed. At the same time a head-count of the Arbeiteinsatz was conducted in the neighbourhood. It lasted from 2:00 – 4:00pm.
In the fifth district the head-count of the Arbeitseinsatz was cancelled. The Tobbens-workers disregarded the roll call and did not turn out for work that day. SS soldiers joined the ranks during the roll call. All living quarters had to be empty between 2:00 – 4:00 o’clock in the afternoon. Only the sick or mothers with children up to four were usually exempt from joining the lines, but not that day. They too had to vacate the premises in order to be counted. It seemed as if everything was flowing smoothly and after the head-count people returned to their lodgings. As though a dark cloud was suspended from the sky, the entire camp was enwrapped in mourning.
At 4:30 Gley called the quarter and inquired if the roll call had ended. The SS soldier Brilush answered affirmatively. Then an order was received to re-amass the whole camp, and he commanded everyone to return immediately. The thunderous voices of the Werkschutz (workshop Guards) was heard, “everyone outside” and the gunfire on the multitude of people had already started. Many women were already injured. People, fearful and without having time to put on coats, leaving their rooms unlocked, running under the barrage of gunfire to the square where the roll call was about to start again. The Ukrainian guards are standing ready with their guns, waiting for the order to shoot.
Speedily, everyone is organised in rows of five. The heart is racing, eyes are wide with fear. There are no questions. Deathly silence; Brilush asks the group leaders to report their numbers of people. Each in turn complies. He suspiciously repeats his question and says terrible things, such as “if the group leaders would not admit the presence of outsiders in their groups, they would be shot on the spot”. It turned out that a few dozen miserable souls who missed the workshop count joined the present group. Among them were at least ten people with legitimate medical exemptions.
The Ukrainians surrounded the unlucky group immediately. Except for the ten people with medical permits, all the outsiders were herded towards the grove of trees near the entrance to the quarters. In the meantime, the sound of the bell was heard in the camp. It was four o’clock and work was finished for the day. 1500 workers started gathering as usual and returning to their living quarters. Upon their entering the camp, the division was halted. By chance, I was among the first to arrive and served as an unwilling witness to the events that followed: Women cried and fainted. One begged aloud “Commandant Sir, I swear to God, I work every day. Only today……………The talking stopped. Waiting and howling, everyone followed the order to undress and lay down.
Dozens of guns were fired. The blood froze in our veins. I began to shake from fear. My ten-year old little girl, who by chance, I took with me that day, comforts me. My husband holds his hand over my mouth in order to silence me. He covers my eyes. We must be quiet. I saw the workshop overseer Gedanken beg to save his wife by asking for her release. In response, he was also ordered to strip and lie beside her. After this terrible carnage, the Ukrainians returned to their homes. The SS soldiers, Brilush, Gley and the company commander drove to the camp, probably to their’ hotel’. Our division was sent to the quarters. We passed the body of a woman lying fully clothed on the road. She was probably hurrying to the roll call at the basket-weaving workshop. She did not make it in time: her bread, apples and her knapsack were strewn about her. Each one of us had left someone close to us at home. Everyone hurried to see if the family was still all right. People were screaming, crying and shouting. A young woman was scurrying about screaming “Father I killed you. I didn’t let you go to the roll call at the workshop – how can I continue living carrying the burden of your death?”
After this last roll call, the shootings and murders continued as a result of any little misdeed. They started arresting the wealthiest people. There were the Opolion, Noifeld, Proisal, Niedzwiadz, Szach and other families. They were released for an exorbitant price. The shooting and arrests continued every day. People were shot in their hovels even though they had medical certificates releasing them from work. I also got into trouble during this tragic time.
I worked in a tile factory in the 5th district. It was a workshop where the men made floor tiles. One day in the latter half of October, I fell ill with a bad cold. I had a runny nose and a terrible dizzying headache. It was a beautiful sunny day. I went out of the workshop in order to sit and warm myself in the sun. Without my noticing Gley rode his horse towards me. He stopped about 5 meters from where I was sitting on the tiles. My head was bent, leaning on my hands. I suddenly heard his voice saying in German, “What is with you? Are you sleeping on the job?” I jumped up from my seat and answered quickly. “ I am not sleeping. I have a terrible headache”. Luckily a Kapo walked by and diverted his attention. He screamed at me, “Get back to work immediately!” This is how I was saved from certain death that day. About 20 people were shot for sitting and sleeping on the job, or for lack of permits and for other small misdemeanours. On the 24 October we came as usual to the square. The head count was dragging on. Fish reported his toll to the camp supervisor Gley, who in turn passed it on to camp commander Hering.
The SS- Untersturmfuhrer Wallerang arrived. Lingering, like a performer waiting for the audience to applaud, he came slowly towards us. Those who were busy with urgent work, like for instance sewing, carpentry, shoe-making or taking care of the drainage, continued towards their workplace. Those of us, however, who did less important work were suddenly surrounded by the Ukrainians. We were given shovels and were directed to the woods to do different work. Overwhelmed with shock and emotion we started our work. Block 6 was spread out opposite Block 5. On this lot, near the woods, there was a beautiful double storied house with luxurious plush furniture and carpets. This served as accommodation and offices for the SS. Some of those working there were Jews. It was referred to as “the hotel”
In the woods near the “hotel” we were ordered to make a clearing and to dig a ditch. The field was covered with shrubbery and roots. The designated area to be cleared was about a half a kilometre long. The area, marked by wire cable and stakes, was one meter wide and two meters deep. We worked with shovels and pick-axes. The SS officer Wallerang didn’t let up on us for one minute. “Swing those shovels, heave those axes”, he ordered while he was beating and whipping us with all his strength. He yanked women’s hair, battered he trampled and beat us with all his strength. His friend Gircik also whipped and set his dog on us while shouting, “Tempo, Tempo” It was a freezing wintry, sunless day; in spite of the weather we were forced to remove our coats, gloves and kerchiefs. Once I dared to raise my head and glance at the other workers. My eyes wandered to a red-haired woman. She hesitated a minute to straighten a painful back.Gircik approached and whipped her on the neck. I never saw her again. I never dared strengthen my back since my light hair and complexion stood out among the dark-haired women working there. The pain was excruciating. We worked from 7am till noon when the midday bell struck to mark a twenty-minute break. The SS left for lunch, but not before they brought the Ukrainians to guard us. During the break we lined up in rows of five in order to have our numbers checked. We were compelled to sit while the group leaders handed us our knapsacks. That day we hadn’t eaten breakfast.
Since we had been called for special work, more than 2000 people; I presumed that the kitchen would send us coffee for the break. Throats dry from thirst, each person grabbed his knapsack. I managed to eat half a small apple. The bread was beyond my capacity to devour, my throat was so dry from thirst, but then we were already ordered back to work. Usually our superiors took a 2-hour lunch break but this day they hurried back after half an hour so as to continue torturing us again. My hands were covered with blood-filled blisters. I worked with the remainder of my strength. We continued at this tempo till 4 o’clock anxiously awaiting the bell that terminates the day. Four o’clock finally arrived but there is no bell. We were not excused from work. Every 15 minutes that passed seemed like an eternity. Wallerang drove the tired, feverish, thirsty labourers to continue.
Gircik, on the other hand always accompanied by his black dog, whistled and ordered the work to stop. We jumped out of the ditches and started to dress. Suddenly we heard Wallerang’s thunderous voice, “Who allowed you to stop working?” and before Gircik had a chance to explain that he was acting on Hering’s orders, we grabbed our shovels and resumed digging. Those who did not manage to recompose themselves in time were the recipients of Wallerang’s vicious boot. To our relief, Hering arrived at five o’clock to explain to Wallerang that work could be stopped because it was getting dark.
We jumped out of the ditch, lining up in rows of five and took our tools back to the shed. The tools were our property. An order was given on the 5 October to return them once the workday ended. Non-compliance carried a death penalty. We surely obeyed believing that once the axes were returned, our masters would leave us in peace – they probably were afraid that we would use these tools to attack them. About 2500 people went without lunch that day because of the disorganisation concerning the food vouchers- they lay down to sleep on empty stomachs.
On 3 November 1943 we came to a head count. A long time elapsed before the exact count was reported. In the meantime, an extra division of Ukrainians arrived. No one was sent to work. We were at a loss to understand what was happening. I noticed suddenly that there was a selection of people for deportation. Fear struck my heart, for I was without my husband and daughter. I frantically searched for a way out. Without further hesitation I told my group leader that my face hurt terribly, probably as a complication of my severe cold I developed a sinus condition. Before the group leader could reply I was already on my way to the doctor, accompanied by an SS soldier. I covered my head with a kerchief. The Ukrainians surrounded the selected group and led them to an empty wooden building. Gley, the camp commander himself searched their belongings. Those who were not ready to be deported did not manage to hide their money, which now fell into Gley’s hands. After the robbery, Gley announced that he had received instructions from Lublin to cancel the deportation. For now everyone was released.
Thursday 4 November 1943: A raging windstorm ripped the leaves from the trees and blanketed the streets with a beautiful coloured carpet. The bell chimed at 5 o’clock. After the second bell I was already downstairs with my husband, on the way to the road. What turmoil in the street. I did not know what was happening. I wanted to advance but the supervisor from the workshop was shouting. “The Appell is at 6:00, everyone outside”.
I raced back to the hut in order to dress my daughter and pack her breakfast. I collected all the bread in the room, a pat of butter and a few apples. I placed a towel, soap, comb and a razor in my husband’s knapsack. He shaved and put on an extra sweater it was cold. Before I could finish, the Werkshutz supervisor’s shouts were heard again. “Everyone- Outside”.
We had to leave the room at once. There was commotion in our neighbour’s room. Everyone is dressing haphazardly so that they could get out of the house quickly. We are rushing for the road – no-one bothers with the formation of fives. We are hurriedly marching to the camp. After a few meters we suddenly notice Ukrainians training their guns on us from both sides of the road. Before I could understand what was going on , I heard an SS saying, “Why don’t you run a little?” We had to run a half a kilometre. Once we were allowed to slow the pace we could glimpse at the SS soldiers – they were wearing grey coats with green collars. Some said these were Wehrmacht soldiers of the regular German Army. We could not imagine the reason for the use of so many soldiers and guns.
Our footsteps were silent until we reached the guard post. The permits were redundant now.
However, the men still had to remove their caps. After passing the guards my husband and I went our separate ways. He was one of the Tobbens-workers. Beyond the guard-post, I saw Hering and Wallerang standing by the car talking to strangers, SS soldiers. This meant that the square where the Appell was usually held was empty. I felt my feet tremble.
After parting from my husband, my daughter and I continued marching forward, I saw on the way that Gley had selected a group of women to be sent to Block number 6. There were about 100 people under the watchful eyes of the SS. At first, we thought another deportation was being selected. I wanted to join them but my child made me too noticeable. I had to give up the idea. Since people were wandering around aimlessly, I turned to the wooden barracks to search for my husband – I did not find him.
In the meantime, the SS were shoving people into the barrack. This was a place which previously housed 8000 people. Now, since additional barracks were being constructed, people were relocated to the newer barracks, men and women separately. Only the centre of the barrack was occupied, the periphery was going to be a new metal workshop. More than 13,000 people were ushered into the barrack. There was screaming and wailing. Mothers lost their children, wives lost their husbands. Everybody was searching for someone. Parentless children cried endlessly. Not all the mothers took their children with them.
The Ukrainians searched the houses and whoever was found – children, the sick, dressed or partly dressed were rounded up and taken to the barrack. The SS blockaded the rest of the barrack and forbade us to go near the windows. One soldier shot at the ceiling and ordered fifty men to be removed at certain intervals. I was sitting on a bench near the exit and saw all my acquaintances leaving the building. I nodded to say goodbye. From the corner of my eye I noticed a group of men talking quietly to Lant, the camp commander. I went over to find out what was going on. A Viennese man answered me, “Don’t you know that you are a half hour away from death?”
His answer did not penetrate my consciousness. After several thousand men had left, I finally found my husband. He told me that the camp was being liquidated. The men would probably be taken by foot to an unknown destination, and the women would be deported by train. I was so stunned by what he said that I completely forgot to repeat to my husband the words of the man from Vienna. I completely forgot about it. My husband broke down. He cried like a little child and could not be calmed. The 50 member groups left quickly. The women silently weeping, departed from their husbands. My husband’s turn finally arrived. He was crying and I stood motionless and watched him, thinking to myself, this is the second time my soul is being ripped apart. My husband, without knowing that in a few minutes he will be shot,left the building promising to search for me in all the camps. Those were his last words. All the people from the workshop shift were removed, and immediately afterwards the men were taken away.
Now the women’s turn arrived. Before leaving, they powdered their faces and rouged their cheeks in order to look healthy for what they thought was another selection for work. Bauman, the shift commander, and the SS soldiers arranged groups of 50 women and started to send them out of the building. All this activity was conducted in almost total silence. The SS made a thorough search of all the bunks, suitcases, the slabs where we slept. The sheets were torn with their bayonets – all this in order to find hidden people or money. After their check the barrack looked like after a pogrom. I prepared to leave in one of the first groups. I was desperate to know what had happened to my husband. My acquaintances held me back. She said that is no good to be among the first in the selection line. Holding my daughter’s hand tightly – I left the barrack. Just as we were leaving, we heard shots. We looked around but still did not understand anything.
By the new barracks, near the road we were stopped and ordered to remove our shoes. I shouted “Women I believe we are going to our graves!” Barefoot, we went to the second barrack. There the SS ordered us to hand over our valuables – gold, watches, money and jewellery. “Those who did not comply would be shot”, they said. I raise my head and I see around me women stripped naked, with arms raised over their heads, walking aimlessly in a circle. What is the meaning of this – I ask myself. I am young and shapely, but with my little girl I wont last in a selection. We had to hurry and get undressed. I saw a young woman jump up the stairs and call to her mother –in –law, “Farewell Mother, see you in the next world.”
In one of the rooms, three women were standing and arranging clothes. An idea flashed in my mind maybe I could join them and arrange the clothes with them, but what would I do about my daughter? I had a few thousand zloty with me. I said to my acquaintance that I will be buried with my money, and wrapped them in a handkerchief and hid them. My bracelet and ring had to be given up but I still managed to hide another ring with a pin in my hair. We stripped quickly and marched with raised hands to the ditches dug with our own hands. Two- meter deep graves already filled with naked bodies. My neighbour from the camp with her 14 –year old sweet, fair- haired daughter, an innocent smile on her lips, it seemed as if they were just searching for a place to rest.
As soon as we arrived the SS soldier cocked his revolver, perhaps it was stuck, for he was fiddling with it. I looked up at him and he said “Not so fast.” In spite of that we lay down, so as not to have to see the bodies. My little girl asked me to cover her eyes because she was afraid. I hugged her head and covered her eyes as she asked me to. With my right hand I held her tight. That is how we lay there with our heads bent down. Within a moment the shooting started. The shots were aimed at us. I felt heat in my left arm. A bullet had passed through it penetrating my 10-year old daughter’s skull. She never even shivered. Then I hear the thunder of shots again in a nearby place. I’m in a complete shock. I feel a pain in my head but I have no recollection if I passed out or not.
I hear my neighbours dying groan. In a moment there is total silence. I am still conscious; after all I am still alive and waiting for the bullet to end it all. Outwardly, apparently, I do not show any sign of life. After a while the SS bring another woman and child. The women’s last wish is to kiss her child – the murderer did not allow it. She kneels beside me on my right hand side and leans her head on mine. The slaughterer shoots and her blood spurts and oozes down my head and collects at the back of my neck and in my hair. From the back, I surely looked as if I am dead. I hear the noise of shooting for a while then I lose track of time, and then silence rules the air. So I am alive but I am incapable of focusing my mind on what to do next. An hour or so, I hear the SS again. One of them steps on my shoulder and shoots while saying, “Black – haired, fair-haired.” I understand that they came to verify that we were all dead. Certainly there were wounded, since I had heard groans, but after the last volley of shots everything was quiet.
The SS soldiers left but I didn’t have the courage to lift my head. I was feverish from the cold, the corpses which still warmed me during the morning became cold. Wind was blowing through the trees, chanting kaddish for the dead. Ukrainians passed by a few times, cursed the “zyd”, spat on us and left. The hours passed slowly, each seeming like an eternity. With evening the Ukrainians returned and covered us with fir branches. I feared that maybe they want to burn us. Fear-struck I wanted to scream that I am alive, but no sound came from my throat. I heard their steps receding, and only then did I dare lift my head a little. The branches hid me, so I gaze about me. It was twilight time. My first gaze fell on my daughter; her usually oval face was now rounded and ashen with death. I kissed her hair and neck – her hand fell from mine.
I looked at my aching left arm and saw two holes. The arm was soaked with blood. I rested my head again, for I was very tired. In spite of the exhaustion and the dizziness I started formulating plans about what to do next. I did not know the area or exactly where I was. I thought to escape towards the forest but I was naked. We were lying near the road to the town neighbourhood – should I go there to find clothes?
The way there passes by the guard post and the illuminated gate. Never mind the 2 – kilometer distance. Just then I noticed two Ukrainians walking in the direction of town rushing, seemingly scared of the bodies. My plan was inoperative. I remained lying there asking myself how in heaven did the bullet go through me and how was it that I did not show any sign of life? I had no hope of being saved – and not only because I was naked. II continued watching the Ukrainians hut and the ‘hotel’.
The windows were well lit. Suddenly a naked woman or maybe the shadow of one appeared to run straight to the gate, which I had thought impossible to pass. I don’t know if she got through. It was difficult to judge from that distance. My attention from the woman was diverted to horrible screams of women crying for help, coming from the barrack. I thought that it would have been better for them to have been murdered like us. Finally the screaming ceased.
All of a sudden I heard a voice from the grave, “Mother, Mother”, and a few other words. It was too difficult to understand because of the howling wind. I wanted to answer, “Who is alive?” – but I was afraid. It was completely dark by now, probably about seven o’clock or later. My attention was alerted to a blazing fire that broke out near the guard post. The fire was enormous, spreading towards the barracks where our clothes were piled up. Afterwards I found out that a group of youngsters revolted there. The fire frightened me. I thought they had decided to burn the bodies. I was horrified of being burnt alive. Terrified, I stroked my daughter’s neck. I was hesitant to kiss her because the blood and naked bodies stupefied me. I removed the fir branches, leaped over the pile of bodies and dashed towards the woods.
Photograph – Ghetto Fighters House, Israel
© Holocaust Historical Society 2015