(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)
On July 4, 1941, a thirteen-year-old Jewish boy named Ephraim Sternschuss began his diary in the Nazi-occupied Zloczow, Poland, with these lines:
Mother knows nothing about Father’s murder. I won’t be the one to tell. But I have to express what I’m feeling … I’ll write down all the details so when I’m old I’ll remember my youth and this World War, even though I’m not sure I’ll live through it.
I’m writing while lying on my back. I can’t move my legs. Mother says I’m in shock. Maybe I am. Maybe I’m so anxious because I can’t tell her about Father, who was drafted yesterday into forced labor and Mother still believes he’s alive.
The eastern Polish town of Zloczow had been annexed by the Soviet Union after the partition of Poland with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1939. Zloczow‘s Jews, who at 14,000 people constituted about half of the population, lived in relative safety until the summer of 1941, when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union.
They arrived in Zloczow on July 2. With the help of enthusiastic local Polish and Ukrainian collaborators, the SS rounded up 3,500 Jews, among them Adolph Sternschuss, Ephraim’s father. The victims were told they would be sent to forced labor — excavating mass graves of Soviet victims, digging anti-tank ditches, and such.
They were, in fact, digging their own graves.
Ephraim described his father’s departure thusly:
Father was taken at 10:00 a.m. An evening earlier Mrs. Reichard came by and told us that at a local Ukrainian meeting, it was decided to carry out an anti-Jewish pogrom the very next day. Unfortunately, Father didn’t believe her because she was such a gossip. Father was sitting in the kitchen when two Ukrainians came in, Warwara from our street and Bojko a tailor …
They told Father to get ready for work. Father changed into an old suit, emptied his pockets of everything except a penknife, a handkerchief and a Soviet ID. They said to give Father bread because “he would return only at two in the afternoon and he’d get hungry until then.” (My god, what hypocrisy!) Mother made two sandwiches with sausage. They also told him to bring a shovel and he kissed Mother and me and went away.
Adolph did not return at two o’clock, and at four that afternoon, Ephraim and his mother, Anna, heard the sound of distant gunfire coming from the Khotyn Fortress. A neighbor came by and told Ephraim there had been a mass shooting (the perpetrators were members of Einsatzgruppe C) and “all the men were killed.”
Khotyn Fortress. (cc) image from Andriy Baranskyy.
Ephraim assumed his father must be dead. He started his diary because he couldn’t bear to speak the dreadful fact aloud, but had to confide in somebody, if only an old school notebook.
What he didn’t know was that Adolph Sternschuss had, in fact, miraculously survived the shooting. The happy news was delivered to Ephraim’s family on July 5: Adolph was alive and hiding with friends of the family.
Around four o’clock the mother of Mrs. Kitai, Mother’s friend, came in and said that Father was alive and staying with them. Hurray! I went wild, jumping, laughing, everything. Mother gave her clean underwear for Father and asked her to tell him to stay there, not to come home, until the situation improved. Mother went out to tell Mrs. Reichard the news, and about an hour later the door opened and Father came in.
I’ll never forget the sight. His black suit was gray with dirt and dust, on his head he wore some wrinkled hat … He held the package of underwear Mother sent him and a small army shovel. When he entered I jumped out of bed and screamed “Mummy!” and ran to him. I kissed him although he was terribly stinking, like a corpse — and he started crying. It was the first time I saw Father cry.
Together with Mrs. Beer we pulled a sofa into the other room and hid the door behind a mirrored chest. We helped Father remove his clothes and then we saw what the Ukrainians were capable of. His whole back was beaten to a black pulp and swollen and he had a hideous bruise on his head.
We washed him and then he ate something and then we put him to bed and he fell asleep. He didn’t say a word.
Over the next few days, Adolph described his ordeal and his incredible survival to his only child, who wrote it all down in detail in his diary. Adolph’s story, as told to Ephraim, is worth quoting almost in full:
At noon I brought him a meal and he told me what he had gone through. I didn’t recognize his monotonous tone, but there, in the darkness of the basement, I sensed that he was reliving his ordeal. Well, in the beginning he worked near the Fortress, burying cadavers of horses.
Then he was transferred to the Fortress itself. At the entrance he was ordered to show his papers, but he lied, claiming he had none. “A man is only an addition to his identity card,” he said as if he were the father I knew.
They worked in two places: the inner court of the prison and the garden. They had to dig up mass graves of corpses killed by the NKVD — Ukrainians and Poles (and some Jews like Dr. Grosskopf and his son-in-law). The bodies were laid out in rows to be identified.
On that occasion, the Ukrainians beat the Jews, accusing them of committing these murders. Naturally, the Germans and the S.S. troops joined in, beating the Jews mercilessly. Father was followed by a short, white-haired butcher who hit him with a stout stick he had pulled out of the fence, and by a tall, blond S.S. soldier who used a coiled rope.
At noon two officers came up to Father and asked his profession. He answered, “Lawyer.” Probably they could tell from his accent that he had studied in Vienna,* but they asked him anyway. When he confirmed it, one of the Germans asked, “You aren’t Jewish, are you?” and Father said he was, and the German, furious, said, “Then I can’t do anything for you,” and the two of them stormed off.
Shortly after, the shooting began …
Around three o’clock they shot Father, but as he happened to already be in the ditch, all four bullets hit the pile of dirt, and Father fell down and pretended to be dead. An hour later it started raining and that’s what saved him: the Ukrainians and Germans were forced to stop shooting and shelter themselves under the roof.
At 9 p.m. sharp Kuba Schnapp and Freimann pulled Father out of the ditch and all three made their escape. Father practically had to be dragged away because both of them, and two corpses, were lying on his left leg. “After playing Indians,” said Father and it seemed to be that he smiled, they slipped through a hole in the fence and parted ways.
Father wanted to enter Winczura’s house but was refused. He then moved on to Barabasz and there, in the attic, were about thirty people. The next day he was forced to leave because of the terrible conditions. He moved over to a client of his, Mrs. Lewant, and stayed in the attic with the Kitai family. From there he returned home.
“One thing is etched in my memory forever,” he said. “I never imagined that Jews could die like that. They were like Romans. Proud, erect, silent. Thus they were killed.”
Seventy years later, one “old, toothless” witness, one of the fifteen remaining Jews still living in the area, recalled the massacre: “The earth shifted for days. They couldn’t bury them fast enough.”
Unfortunately, Adolph didn’t live long after he crawled out from under those corpses in the mass grave. He was not young, and his health was ruined by his horrific experience. Just a few days before Christmas, he died in his bed after a series of heart attacks.
On December 29 that year, Ephraim wrote mournfully,
Only those who have lost their fathers will understand me — and regrettably there are so many now. Dr. Hreczanik was right when he said to Mother, “your husband was killed at the Fortress.”
This first mass killing in Zloczow was followed by others. In late August 1942, the Germans rounded up 2,700 Jews and deported them to the Belzec Extermination Camp. In early November, a further 2,500 people were taken away.
A month later, a ghetto was established for between 7,500 and 9,000 people from Zloczow as well as the remnants of several nearby Jewish communities. Rather than go into the ghetto, Ephraim and his mother went into hiding, concealed outside the village of Jelechowice by sympathetic Ukrainian Catholic farmers: Grzegorz “Hryc” Tyz, his wife Maria “Misia” Koreniuk, and Helena Skrzeszewska.
The Sternschusses made the right choice: in April 1943 the Zloczow Ghetto was liquidated and all the survivors were shot and buried in mass graves.
Ephraim and Anna Sternschuss remained hidden on the rural farm for the rest of the war. When it was safe they just stayed inside the house; when there was danger they hid “downstairs” under the floor, “in a grave-like pit, narrow and long.” He kept writing in his diary:
We walk about the house without any inhibition, trusting Rex to faithfully do his duty. He barks differently at anyone so we can know in advance whether he’s a friend or a foe. In any case, whenever we hear him, Mother and I enter our room, shut the door and Misia, if the visitor is a stranger, sings “Chiming of Bells in the Dusk.” Then we sit quietly, almost without breathing, waiting for the visit to end. Nobody must know about our existence here.
The Sternschuss family’s hosts refused to accept any payment for their stay, but Ephraim and his mother did have to chip in to cover the cost of their food. Over time, others joined them: Ephraim’s aunt and uncle, Lipa and Linka Tennenbaum; the Tennenbaums’ daughters, Eda and Selma; the five members of the Parille family; and Edzia Weinstock and her daughter Eva.
Thus, the farm became a sanctuary for eleven Jews, plus the three hosts — all living on a small farm with a three-room farmhouse, a shed, an outhouse, and an uncertain grant of borrowed time. Ephraim occupied himself writing in his diary, drawing, and reading. Misia Koreniuk, one of his hosts, was a teacher, and she freely shared her “huge chest of books and magazines” with him. Ephraim even began teaching himself algebra and geometry.
It wasn’t all a nightmare. There was, for example, an amusing incident in February 1943 where they got the farm animals drunk on moonshine vodka:
It was a pity to have to throw it away, so Hryc scattered a bit in the yard for the chickens and the rest he put in the trough for the cow Krasula. The chickens pecked — and immediately lay down on the earth, absolutely foggy minded. But Krasula started going berserk, running around and climbing trees. It was terribly funny but also a bit dangerous. Hryc managed to overcome her with much difficulty and tied her up in the stable.
Through his hosts Ephraim kept up with the progress of the war and tracked the Allied advance in his diary, eagerly awaiting liberation. Yet it was hard to stay optimistic and he occasionally had thoughts of suicide. As he wrote in October 1943, he struggled to keep from succumbing to apathy and despair:
It’s all nonsense. […] Nobody knows us. We don’t have anybody in the whole wide world. Nobody. Only Mother and I. Therefore there’s no other option: one mustn’t give in to crises. We have to stay united. Today my heart is heavy. I’m writing almost in darkness but I must write. Too much crap weighs on my heart and I must pour all of it, at least in this diary.
Why is it called life? The best years of my youth have gone by and will not return. Never. Even if it all ends today, it won’t do any good … This is my life. And if I add the well known fact that everybody is born with a death verdict — what’s there to live for?
On November 6, 1943, a baby girl was born on the farm — the offspring of one of the members of the Parille family. Before the war, the mother had tried for years to get pregnant, going through “all possible treatments and nothing helped. And here, of all places, did she give birth.”
Ephraim wrote that their host, Hryc, started sobbing in despair when he found out:
So we aren’t only fourteen but fifteen with the baby! Not too bad … That’s to say very bad. Lipa is right saying that the baby can betray us all. We learned not to speak but to whisper, but a baby?! What’s to be done?
Within a few days the baby died. Perhaps it was just as well.
The situation became even more precarious in late January 1944, after a unit of retreating Germans showed up at the farm and the commander requisitioned a room in the farmhouse for himself and his Russian girlfriend.
Thus the farmhouse was divided: the German in one room, the three Ukrainian farmers in the next room, eight Jews in the 3×4 meter room down the hall, and three more hidden in the shed!
The German officer never found out about the hidden Jews, and as Ephraim noted, the man’s presence turned out to have a silver lining, because it protected everyone from the threat of looting, arson and murder at the hands of anti-Semitic Ukrainian partisans, who had become very active in the area.
Also, Helena Skrzeszewska was able to cajole the military kitchen into giving her their leftover soup, which she fed to the Jews. Ephraim noted wryly, “We live at the expense of Hitler.”
He was actually upset when the German officer left the farm two weeks later, writing,
Our citadel is no more. Again fearful nights will begin without the landlords who’ll go to the village for their sleep. We’ll remain on our own against the gangs, full of fear of the Ukrainian killers, of being set on fire … Again night watches every two hours, with a pistol and six bullets.
Sure enough, in early March, while Ephraim’s hosts were away from the farm, the Ukrainian partisans tried to set the place on fire. Ephraim was on watch that night:
I don’t know if I panicked. But now, while writing that, I think I wasn’t absolutely clear about what I was doing. Anyhow, after raising [the others in hiding], I opened the door and like an idiot went out into the lighted yard. Two sprints brought me to the well. I crouched behind its side and emptied my pistol of all its bullets, shooting into the darkness of the forest like a movie cowboy. The first time in my life.
In the meantime Lipa, Mother, Linka and Edzia came out with buckets. […] I don’t think it took us a long time to control the situation. The fools didn’t shoot at us from the forest despite the fact that we were in the light. I assume — and I’m not the only one thinking like that — that they were frightened of us being armed.
In the morning, when our landlords came back from the neighbors, they were surprised to learn that the house was still standing. […] Hryc went to the forest and found blood stains in the snow.
Later the month the Germans returned and searched the farm for signs of partisan activity, and actually encountered Ephraim’s aunt and mother inside the house:
Mother and Auntie locked us in and ran to the entrance door. They hardly made it when the door was busted open in spite of the big lock hanging outside. The Germans were astonished running into them. Despite Lipa’s warnings to Mother not to reveal her knowledge of German, she explained to them that they were locking themselves in the house in fear of the partisans.
“The partisans are all Juden,” said one of the Germans, and then asked where did Mother acquire such a German [language]. She told him she lived in Salzburg and came here to get married. “It’s all Love’s fault,” said the German, asked her to forgive him, went out and in a moment returned with a bomboniere.
In the meanwhile dawn was breaking and they discovered the Germans were S.S. troops. Mother says that if she wasn’t hit by a heart attack she would never have one. Immediately she told them they were being “evacuated” to the West. The Germans, perfect gentlemen that they were, proposed to help them, give them a truck. Auntie thanked them, said there was no need, everything was under control. Indeed.
Half an hour later our landlords returned back from the village. They looked really terrified when they saw Mother and Linka standing at the entrance to the house with two S.S. men. Mother introduced them, bid the Germans farewell and entered the hideout with Auntie.
The hideout happens to be east of the house, not west.
All the Jews spent three days in the underground hideout until the SS officers left. By then the front was very close, as Ephraim wrote on March 13:
In the nights, during shifts, we hear the “music” of artillery. The front keeps coming closer. Two days ago they were at Podhorce, 15 kms away! The windows were shaking to the blasts of cannon. But the Germans, damn it, pushed them back to a point 35 kms from us. There they stand and shoot. What bad fortune! Tarnopol has been liberated and we are not.
On March 26, Ephraim noted that it was the 1,000th day he had spent living under German occupation: “The 1,000 days we’ve spent in the Reich are like 1,000 years. With my whole heart I wish the Fuhrer and his admirers to have 1,000 such days …”
And he had months left to endure before he would see freedom.
On July 3, the second anniversary of the massacre at the Khotyn Fortress, Ephraim was using the outhouse when he saw a car stop and two Germans emerge with two men and a child. The Germans shot all three of them and left their bodies by the road. The victims, he found out later, were Jews who had been caught hiding nearby.
Liberation finally came to Jelechowice on July 16, 1944, as noted by a single sentence in red pencil in Ephraim’s diary: “THE BOLSHEVIKS HAVE ARRIVED!!!” He was sixteen years old, and had survived 1,111 days under the Germans.
On the third day after liberation, he recorded,
Mother, Auntie and I went to town. Zloczow made a terrible impression on us. Only bombed, burnt houses, torn wires on the road. A mass of troops on the way to Lvov. Our house is burnt. The neighbors — who couldn’t really understand how we managed to survive — said that the Germans had set the house on fire because it contained the archives of the Gestapo.
In the house, which was inhabited by the Gestapo unit, we found our dining room furniture in one of the rooms. It looked strange to me. That’s precisely what we need: a big table, or a buffet …
We haven’t met Jews.
Ephraim’s last diary entry was on July 29. He wrote of finally encountering some other survivors:
Maybe twenty people, perhaps thirty … All stood and cried. For sure I don’t have to write that picture down in the diary. I’ll remember it to the end of my life. All the Jews, the ten thousand Jews of Zloczow, were praying together in one small room. I heard the heart-rending sobbing, the wailing, the “Magnified and sanctified be His great name” prayer for the dead, and the “God, full of compassion” one, and I understood once and for all that they, we, address somebody who was absent when needed, and perhaps now wasn’t needed any longer, or maybe simply never existed. It was noontime and
The diary ends in mid-sentence.
Ephraim remained in Poland for over a decade after the war. He attended engineering school for two years, then switched his studies to theater. He moved to Israel in 1957. There he changed his family name from Sternschuss to Sten.
In Israel, Ephraim married, had children, and had a successful career as an author, actor, director and playwright for both stage and radio. But for decades he kept his diary hidden and did not speak of his Holocaust experiences to anyone.
Although he had a normal existence in his adopted country, he never recovered emotionally from the trauma of the war, describing it as “the load crushing my soul.”
He had thought, he said, once he left Poland, that he might finally “become a regular human being. But the world wouldn’t let me.”
In the 1990s, Ephraim returned to Zloczow, which is now part of Ukraine and called Zolochiv. Two of his Ukrainian rescuers had died, but Ephraim had a tearful reunion with Hryc Tyz, who told him, “You are my relatives. I didn’t believe I’d be lucky to yet see somebody from my family.”
His four-day trip inspired him to dig out his diary and translate it into Hebrew so that his children could read it. The diary was published in English in 2006, with annotations by an older Ephraim fifty years after the fact, under the title 1111 Days in My Life Plus Four.
Ephraim Sten died in 2004.
The Khotyn Fortress is a major tourist attraction in Ukraine and is considered one of the nation’s most stunning castles. In a nearby field, a “foul-smelling marsh” where “the grass is high and thick,” is a memorial for the 3,500 Jews (but not Ephraim’s dad) who were murdered there in July 1941.
* Zloczow answered to the sovereignty of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1918.