Germany attacked Russia on June 22, 1941, even though the two countries signed a pact of nonaggression in August 1939. The attack was code named Operation Barbarossa; it was the largest invasion in the history of warfare. Many Russian generals did not trust Germany and tried to convince Stalin to prepare for an attack. Stalin did not believe the generals and in his paranoia, ended up “eliminating” most of these generals. So when Germany attacked, Russia’s armed forces were not prepared. They retreated in disarray, while the loudspeakers continued to blare patriotic, heroic music and reported victories of the Red Army against the invaders.
The situation in German-occupied Poland was known, because some people managed to escape and tell about the Germans’ cruel treatment of the Jews in Warsaw and other towns and villages, and also about ghettos, indiscriminate persecution, and killings. Some of the young Jews in Drohobycz decided to follow the retreating Red Army. Among them were my father’s two sisters, Syma and Mirka, each with an infant child, my father’s brother Abraham, and my mother’s brother Josef, who was only 21 years old. The husbands of Syma, Mirka, and another of my father’s sisters, Ryfka, were conscripted to the Red Army. Both the husbands of Syma and Ryfka were killed fighting the Germans. Ryfka and her two little boys were deported to the Belzec extermination camp in August 1942 and killed there with other members of my family. The others survived in Russia. Some Jews, considered “enemies of the state,” were deported to Siberia; most of them also survived.
Before leaving Drohobycz, the Russians executed about a thousand Ukrainian and some Polish political prisoners and left their bodies in the center of town. The Germans entered Drohobycz on June 30. The Ukrainians started a rumor that the Jews had killed all the prisoners and convinced the Germans to let them take revenge on the Jews. On July 1, hordes of peasants from the nearby villages entered Jewish homes, robbing, beating, and killing the Jews. They killed about 80 Jews and wounded about 200. My maternal grandfather, Osjasz Gruber, was one of the wounded. My parents could not get any medical help for him, and he died about 10 days later.
The robbers took everything they could carry, including several photo albums. They shook out the photos into the muddy yard. After the war, father went to see what was left from my grandparents’ house; there was nothing of any value there.
A Ukrainian neighbor, Mr. Kocko, came out to talk to my father. He was surprised and happy to see him alive and handed him a stack of about 50 photos that he had gathered after the pogrom of early July 1941. These photos are now in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. They are mostly of my sister Irena and me; some show my parents picnicking on the banks of the Tysmienica River with their siblings and friends. Happy, young, and full of life.
In the beginning of 1941, Father was sent from his work to Lwow to attend some courses at the university. My mother’s sister Ryfcia accompanied him to help with the housekeeping. After the Germans attacked Russia, Father asked the management to let him go back to Drohobycz to join the family. The answer he got was, “The fighting is near the Bug River, but life here goes on as usual. Our brave soldiers will not let the Germans come here. Workers work, students study, you and the other students stay put.”
A few days later the German army reached Lwow. Like in Drohobycz, the Russians executed a few thousand Ukrainian and Polish prisoners; among the killed were also some downed German pilots. And here too, the Jews were made scapegoats and accused of killing them. Germans gave the Ukrainians impunity to attack, torture, and kill the Jews. They announced that they will gather the Jews and put them to work. Ryfcia, who was about 25 years old and single, convinced my father that he should hide and she should go to work. She covered him with a down comforter, and when the Ukrainians came she told them she was the only one in the apartment and left with them. About 5,000 Jews were brutally beaten, humiliated, and killed during the three days of June 30, July 1, and July 2. My aunt Ryfcia was one of the victims.
Father waited a few days, but she never came back. He walked about 60 kilometers (40 miles) from Lwow to Drohobycz. I can only imagine Mother’s reaction to his arrival; the joy of seeing him alive and the terrible anguish of not seeing her sister. We all loved her and spent a lot of time with her. She played with us and helped Mother a lot. Perhaps at that time they hoped she was still alive.
These few days of early July 1941 were the beginning of the most traumatic three years in the lives of my family and the Jews of Galicja.
I am the oldest of my generation in my family; I feel responsible for keeping the memories of my family alive. But I don’t remember aunt Rifka’s married name, nor her children’s given names, although I think that her older son was named Henius (a term of endearment for Henryk). He was my age and we played together before he was taken to Belzec. It pains me that nobody will ever know that they existed or mention their names during Yom ha-Shoah observance.
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