Testimony of Etya Tsalevich, former prisoner of the German extermination camp in the city of Proskurov (Khmelnitskiy), Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic Collected by Yad Vashem, Document Number 033734. November 1974 Translated for the Felshtin Society by Efim Melamed.
Last year Vadim Altksan of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum sent us a copy of the incredible testimony of Felshtin-born Etya Tsalevich, who survived being shot in a German death camp. The document was in Russian, but thanks to the efforts of several Felshtin Society members, we are able to present it in English for the first time. We appreciate the support of Mel and Gail Werbach, Phyllis and Michael Nevins, Peter and Rochelle Hoffman, and Barbara Fischkin for making this translation possible.
I was born in 1925 in a shtetl Felshtin of Kamenets- Podolsk region. Now Felshtin is called Gvardeysk and is located in Khmelnitskiy region.
Khmelnitskiy is the city which was earlier called Proskurov and was renamed after the war. My father, Mordechai Tsalevich, lived by visiting houses and repairing a door, window-frame, or roof. He earned little. He loved music and played his old violin. Sometimes he earned more when he was invited to play at weddings and various festive occasions. We were poorly dressed, and there was nothing of value in the house.
Before her marriage mother Sheila had the family name Vintraub. She never worked and was mainly occupied with her household and caring for the children. They were four in the family: Sheindl, born in 1919, Misha, born in 1923, me, Etya, born in 1925, and Yura, born in 1928.
Felshtin is a large village 25 kilometers from Proskurov, with neither factories nor any kind of manufacturing. Ukrainians were occupied with agriculture and Jews with handicraft. Among them were tailors, shoemakers, joiners, carpenters, and stove-makers. Some took care of horses; others were also farmers. In Felshtin there were a lot of Jews, but I can’t say for sure how many, maybe 200-300 families or even more. Our relatives in Felshtin included the family of my father’s deceased brother, his widow, and three children. After collectivization in Felshtin, there were four large collective farms.
Our father died in 1928. Mother remained with the four little ones. The elder sister, Sheindl, was nine, I was three, brother Misha was five, and Yura only eight months old. We lived a very hard life. In 1930 mother fell gravely ill, and our family broke up. Brothers were taken to the children’s home in the town of Uman. Sister Sheindl went to live with the family of mother’s brother, Vintraub, who lived in the shtetl Chemerovtsy. Only I remained with my mother. I began to work at seven, either nursing or making things about the house to earn pennies.
At eight I went to school but did not study regularly because either I had to take care of my mother when she became worse, or I had nothing to wear for school. Had people not helped us with food, we would have died from hunger.
Mother died in 1938. I was 13 and found myself in the collective farm boarding school in Felshtin. I lived there, worked at the collective farm, and studied. I finished seven-year school. I was the only Jewess in the boarding school. They did not treat me badly, although they always reminded me that I was a Jewess. I lived there until the beginning of the war.
I don’t remember exactly when, but very soon after the war began in early July, the Germans came to Felshtin. The collective farm heads scattered, as did those of the boarding school. Children fled. I went home, but I was afraid of living there alone, so I lived with my relatives, acquaintances, and then stayed with a familiar old Jewish woman who lived alone and invited me to her place.
German troops passed our village and then they were followed by a police detachment of western Ukrainians who “put the place in order.” Jewish pogroms began. Some families were killed. I’d like to tell you what I saw with my own eyes.
Once I was with the family of Abram Bukievker. We were having dinner. Four policemen came in. They began unmercifully beating the father of the family and his two sons, one 19 and the other my age, 16. They tied their hands, took them into the street, and shot them just around the corner. When they had been taken away, the mother began crying in a terrible voice. A policeman fired at her several times. He shot her arm and shoulder. She fell down and never saw her husband and sons being shot. The same happened to other Jewish families — plundering and slaughter.
After the police detachment left the village, local Felshtin Ukrainian police were organized. They were in no way better than the western ones. A young policeman, Bronislav Zhukovskiy, especially distinguished himself. His family had been dispossessed like the kulaks during the collectivization and sent to Siberia. Somehow he managed to return and, as a real butcher, take vengeance on the Jews.
I knew Zhukovskiy very well, as his family had lived not far from us. This time I feared him like death, and when he appeared I hid myself wherever I could. Other policemen were not much better. All the Jews lived in a constant fear of death. Everyone had already experienced slaughter and plundering; many were killed. So we used to live every night in waiting for death and were not glad when day came. It was very dreadful. It is still difficult to explain how it was. I will never forget this fear for the rest of my life. But it became still worse. Our life was really dreadful — not life — I don’t even know what to call it. We were alive, and at the same time it seemed to us that we were dead. I was sent to the camp.
In February 1942 it was announced that all young Jews from 15-40 or 45 — I don’t remember for sure — should gather on the road in front of the police station for forwarding to work. Early in the morning a large crowd of about 200-300 gathered, and we all were convoyed along Proskurov road. We came to the village Matkovtsy 4 kilometers from Proskurov. The place had already been prepared. It was a large area enclosed with barbed wire around the big collective farm stables. In we were placed together with the Jews from other places. We were about 2,000-2,500 in total.
We were building a war road. We had neither machines nor even carts with horses. Everything was made by people themselves with wheelbarrows, spades, hoes. We worked from early morning until late at night. They fed us very poorly, there was never enough bread, and the wish-wash from rotten or frozen vegetables wouldn’t even feed livestock. With such food, the toil for many of us was backbreaking. And those too tired and tortured to work any more or too slow were killed on the spot before everyone. Every day several people were either killed at work or on the road.
When spring came, there was plenty of mud in and around the stable. Everybody became infested with lice and began to fall ill. We were provided no help. Anyone who couldn’t go to work in the morning, was killed. I will never forget our Manya Gurvits from Felshtin. She was a wise and beautiful girl.
Everybody loved her. Her brother, Senya, 11, was with her in the camp. He didn’t want to remain alone and volunteered to go to the camp with her. However insistently she asked him, he didn’t want to leave the camp. First the policemen turned him out, but then gave up, because he tried to work hard along with Manya. Manya Gurvits fell seriously ill. She lay near the wall of the stable running a high temperature. A watchman came and shot her. When Senya tried to stand up for her, he was shot, too.
In our camp there was the Bersthtein family, a husband and wife. Their son, David, remained in Felshtin. He often visited his parents in the camp and always brought with him either a piece of bread or something else. Once he came when his parents together with many other Jews were ordered to go to work in the forest where holes had already been dug. David went with his parents. When they approached the holes and it became clear that they would be shot, David’s mother cried for him to run away. First he didn’t want to, but she ordered him to do that.
He began running followed by shots, but the forest helped him remain alive. After that he was afraid of returning home to Felshtin. He roamed around for a long time and then found himself in the Proskurov ghetto. When pogrom began there, he ran away. He stayed for some nights in the forest and, as it was winter, had some toes frostbitten. Then he hid in the garrets and cellars in Felshtin and did survive. Now David Bershtein is working as an engineer at the Lvov tannery and is moving to Israel.
When it became very cold in the autumn of 1942, our camp was moved to Proskurov and placed in the biggest school #6. There were a lot of people in the camp, more than 2,000. The school was jammed with people. They slept tightly packed and couldn’t even turn at night. It was very dirty and lice tortured them, but they were helpless to change their conditions.
The most difficult thing was to go to work and return. Though the work was very hard, at least we grew warm. The distance to work and back was several kilometers, and our boots and clothes were shabby. We walked in mud mixed with snow. We caught cold, although we were not supposed to become ill. In the morning when we started for work, everybody in the camp coughed severely.
Since autumn, great parties of people were taken from the camp supposedly for a special kind of work, but they never returned. A day or two later their places were occupied by Jews from other parts. The most famished were selected for that particular “work,” and we all understood that they were then killed. We could also tell by the shots that we always heard after the next party was sent to their execution.
At the beginning of December 1942, we learned that they began to shoot the Jews in the Proskurov ghetto. Holes for that purpose had been dug in the village of Leznev, three kilometers from Proskurov on the territory of the drying works (for drying vegetables and fruit). Holes had been dug by soldiers, prisoners of war, who had to blow up the frozen ground. We heard those blows, but we didn’t know what they meant. In those holes the Jews from Proskurov ghetto were shot, and then the policemen began to shoot us, too.
At the end of December 1942 came my turn to be shot. On a Saturday day a party of about 100 people was taken out of the camp and driven to Leznev. We knew for sure that our death was imminent. In Leznev we were put in a large cold shed that was near the dug holes. It was already evening. They didn’t shoot on Sundays; policemen-executioners had a rest and, perhaps, prayed to God. Thus, we could live until Monday.
Early Monday morning trucks with new people arrived. They were the others of the Jews from the Proskurov ghetto, whole families and children. They were still well-dressed, with suitcases, bags, and bundles of things. They had been told that they were being transferred to another place, but were brought over to the holes.
The policemen began to shoot these newcomers first, probably because they were nearer to the door of the shed, even though we had arrived almost a whole day and night before. They were ordered to leave the shed and strip naked just at the wall. A heap was made out of their things, and it became larger and larger. Then the policemen ordered the adults to line up and separated the children from them, except for infants in arms.
The policemen passed along the rows and made everybody take off rings, examined their mouths, knocked out golden teeth. Many of the people took out their artificial dentures and gave them up. If some of them couldn’t take a ring off, the policemen chopped their fingers off. Policemen were very covetous of gold, and they couldn’t allow any Jew or Jewess to fall into a hole with a golden ring on a finger or a golden tooth in the mouth.
Both adults and juveniles were shot in the same hole, each separately, in the back of the head. Those little ones including babies were forcibly taken from their mothers and simply thrown into another hole. When there were 10-20 kids there, a policeman himself fired a machine gun. Then a new party was thrown in. A lot of children were not even shot; they froze to death without being wounded.
When we were taken from the shed, I peeped into the hole with children who stirred and cried there. Can I forget this even if I live a thousand years? And today I don’t understand how people can turn into beasts. Even beasts won’t do what Ukrainian and Lithuanian policemen guarding the camp and Germans did to the Jews. While they were dealing with the Jews from Proskurov ghetto, it seemed that the whole steppe was groaning, sometimes even drowning out the shots. It was unbearable to hear cries and screams of women, children weeping, and curses of men. We even forgot for a minute that we were to follow them. While the policemen murdered those people, some of our girls committed suicide in the garret of the shed.
Seeing all that murder, some of our brave girls refused to strip naked before the butchers, fall into the pit and get a bullet into the back of the head. They decided not to entertain the executioners and to commit suicide. They hanged themselves in the garret. I, too, decided to hang myself, but when I went upstairs to the garret and saw those hanged girls, I couldn’t bear it any longer, fainted and lost consciousness. When I regained it, I couldn’t hang myself — I had no strength.
When they finished murdering the Jews of the ghetto, they took us in hand. I was led to a hole. A ladder was lowered into it, and everybody was to go down it and lie head-to-head in rows. When one row was filled up, others went and lay down. On the lower rung a policeman stood and shot everyone at the back of the head. When I was standing at the ladder, I heard a policeman ask another to take his place because his “finger had stiffened and didn’t work.” Then he turned to leave the hole but saw me and said again, “Well, this is my neighbor, I must finish her off myself.”
He was Bronislav Zhukovskiy. I didn’t lie down where I was supposed to, but began to cry and to plead not to be shot. Zhukovskiy shouted, “Lie down, your life has come to the end!”. I closed my eyes and threw myself on the corpses. A shot was heard, but I didn’t feel any pain. I felt that I was alive and tried not to stir. I heard others going down the ladder, cries, screams, weeping, shots.
But then a new man fell on me, I heard a shot and then I felt a sharp pain. I thought that the bullet passed through that man and wounded me. Maybe I was wounded with the first bullet, but I was unconscious and didn’t feel pain at once. I realized that I was only wounded, that I was still alive. The hole was filled up. I had nothing to breathe. I tried not to stir, but perhaps I didn’t realize what I was doing, because I began to free myself from the corpses above me before I would choke.
They saw me because they fired a machine gun at me, and I felt pain in the back. As I understood later, they shot from above with explosive bullets and didn’t hit me, but I was wounded with splinters. Some pieces of flesh were torn from my back.
I must have lost consciousness from all that terrible pain and horror. I came to my senses when everything was over. It was quiet, no more shots or cries. It was the dead of night. I almost didn’t feel pain, but began to freeze. I separated the corpses already stiff with cold. Immediately I was frostbitten. I couldn’t get out from the hole. It was only half filled, and the policemen took the ladder away when they left. I began to put the corpses at the wall, they fell, and I repeated everything again when at last I could leave the hole. But I was not safe yet.
Guards stood near a large heap of clothes. Maybe they were positioned near the holes with the exposed corpses to prevent people from approaching. They saw me at once, and I heard them crying, “Look, zhidovka climbed out of the hole.” (1)
I began to run, not knowing why and where. Where could I run completely naked and wounded from two armed policemen? Bullets began whining near me, and one hit me in the leg, but fortunately didn’t penetrate the bone. I fell down, the policemen approached me. but as I was covered with blood. They decided that I was dead, though one of them still struck my head with a butt, and I fainted. I recovered and found myself in the pit again. The guards threw me into the pit a second time.
I don’t know how long I stayed unconscious, either several hours or dozens of minutes before I came to my senses again and understood that I was still alive and could move. I decided to climb out of the pit. After all, I couldn’t remain there and freeze. During all the time I was in the pit, I was speaking with my mother. It seemed to me that she was nearby, that she put death aside, warmed me, gave me strength. And now when I remember what had happened with me, I think it was mother who came to me and saved me from death.
Again I began to move the corpses to the wall, made a kind of stairs from them, and got out of the pit. This time I didn’t stand up, but quietly crawled, put a boot on one foot and a rubber on the other, somehow tied my head with worn trousers, and began crawling. I crawled a long time. Only when the pits and guards were far away did I stand up and leave. It was mother, perhaps, who begged for my strength of God.
I don’t know why the guards didn’t notice me. I might have been crawling very quietly, or they might have gone somewhere to warm themselves.
It was before dawn. I came into the village of Leznevka. I came to two women standing near the well. They were looking at me as if I had appeared from other world. But judging by my appearance and blood-stained clothes, they understood where I had come from. “Zhidovka may have crept out of the pit; we should inform the police,” said one of them. But the other was a good woman and she replied, “Don’t get mixed up and take the blame upon yourself. If she has been saved, such is her fate. Let her go.” And they left.
I was thinking about where to go. In that village where every resident knew about the execution and the pits. It was difficult to hide, but I did not have the strength to go further, and dawn was coming.
I entered one of the first huts on the outskirts of the village not far from the road. When I came into the passage, I saw a bicycle hanging on a nail on the wall. I got scared because policemen rode them in summer. But still I couldn’t go and fell down. Hearing the noise, a woman came out. She called a young boy and they pulled me into the hut.
As they told me later, they understood at once who I was and decided to help me. The woman took off the rags from me, washed the off the blood, dressed my wounds the best she could, clothed me, and gave me hot tea. Then they took me to the garret and put me at the warm flue, covering me with what they could. I stayed there for some days.
I was very lucky to find such nice people. They were collective farmers, mother and her son who was almost of my age, Darya and Vladimir Shershun. Another of Darya’s sons, Alexei Shershun, who lived separately, and her brother, Dmitry Lyubin, knew that I was hiding there. All of them pitied me and brought me what they could. I was hardly like a Jewess, and in youth looked like a Ukrainian girl. I spoke as good Ukrainian as the Ukrainians of our village. My hosts called me Galya,
(2) and then gave me a cross so that other people would not think that I was a Jewess. They even made me learn the “Lord’s Prayer” by heart and told me to pray in difficult situations when there were policemen or strange people, and to do it aloud, so nobody would think I was a Jewess.
So for six months I lived at the Shershuns, not going out into the street, not being conspicuous, not being questioned. When Vladimir Shershun received papers to work in Germany and decided to hide, I was advised to leave because they would search for Vladimir and might find me.
On the Road
Darya Shershun directed me to the town of Gaysin where she had a sister. “Go and don’t be afraid. Tell everybody that you have an aunt in Leznevo and are going to your relatives in Gaysin. Only don’t forget that you are Galya, don’t take this cross off, and pray when you need people to hear the words of the prayer.” I was off. On the road I stopped at little villages, dropped in the huts. Nobody thought I was hiding. I tried to get people to notice my cross. I helped peasant women with their work, in vegetable gardens or about the house. I washed their linen. In return, they fed me and gave some bread with onions and cucumbers for the journey.
On the second or third day in a village, I met a girl from under Stalingrad (3) She had been taken to work in Germany. She worked at a plant. Then the plant had been bombed by the English or Americans. There had been a lot of victims. She had been wounded, too, became disabled, and was set free. But she couldn’t return to her home behind the front line. As I continued my journey I said I was from Germany and named the town and plant the girl had told me about.
I did this for two reasons. First, I was afraid to be caught and sent to Leznev, where the policemen could recognize me, and I would be unable to prove that I was Darya Shershun’s relative. Second, my leg that had been shot ached incessantly. I limped and said that I had hurt it. But if somebody became interested, he would understand that the wound was from a bullet. Instead, I would tell everybody I was from Germany and had been bombed. I would show my wounds and explain that I couldn’t get home because of the front line. Everybody would pity me and give me food.
So I went as far as the forester’s hut in the village of Kurilovka Vinnitsa region. He had a large vegetable garden. He asked me to stay and work and wait until I could return to my people. They were very kind to me, and I decided not to go to Gaysin, but to stay with them. One night a week or two later two men visited my host, spoke with him about something, took their seats at the table, and called me. One of them put a map on the table and asked if I had been in Stalingrad. I answered negatively. Then they asked me if I had been anywhere besides my village. Again, a negative answer. Then they wanted me to answer what villages were located nearby. I could not answer.
“So, Galya, you are caught lying. You are not from under Stalingrad, and had never lived in the village that you named. And you lie that you are from Germany. You must tell the truth, or it will be bad for you.”
But how could I tell the truth? How could I know who those people were? They might be policemen, though didn’t look like them. I said nothing.
“Well, Galya, come on and let’s go!” “Where?” I asked.
“You will see.”
Everything was lost! The Germans were being thwarted at the fronts, the war might come to an end soon, and I wouldn’t survive. My host said with endearing words, “Galya, you must tell these people real truth.” And I decided to do so, after all, it was the end. I told them all the truth about me, how I had lived in the camp and then climbed out of the pit.
They showed me another map and asked me to name what was near Felshtin. I told them everything, named all the villages. Then they asked me to tell them everything that I knew about Proskurov. I told them. And then they said that they trusted me, “Live and take care,” and left. Soon a man arrived who appeared to be a doctor and dressed the wound on my leg, left medicines and departed.
So I lived in Kurilovka till the Soviet Army came. And then my host told me that those two men had been from the partisan detachment and that he himself was in contact with the partisans. They had questioned me because they suspected me to have been sent by the police. Soon I learned that Proskurov had been liberated, and I parted with my hosts and went home.
Return to Felshtin
I reached Felshtin in the beginning of 1944. Almost nobody remained from the 200-300 Jewish families who had lived there. One could count on one’s fingers those few who returned. Among them was David Bershtein (it is a wonder that he escaped when his parents were shot in the forest), another youth, Yasha Barenboim, who had known much sorrow and troubles, and three more families, who had managed to leave Felshtin before the Germans’ arrival. Also, there were several soldiers from the Soviet Army who survived later returned, having been mobilized before the war. And that’s all. All the rest perished.
I left for the shtetl of Chemerovtsy because I wanted to know the fate of my elder sister, who had been living with the family of my uncle (my mother’s brother), a dentist, Vintraub. There I learned that Vintraub himself, his wife and two children had been killed in Chemerovtsy soon after Germans arrived. My sister, Sheindl Tsalevich, perished with them. And the entire family of my father’s dead brother, our only close relatives in Felshtin, had been killed too.
I would like to tell you about the death of my cousin Tsilya Tsalevich. When policemen knocked at the door of their house, in it were only an old mother and Tsilya with her eight-month old baby. Tsilya thought that they would do nothing to the old woman and the baby, and she went up to the garret. Her mother opened the door. Finding nobody in the house, the policemen took the old mother and the baby in arms. But they brought them nowhere. They met the same Bronislav Zhukovskiy, who snatched the baby out of the old woman’s hands and smashed his skull on the ground and then at once shot the grandmother. Many residents of Felshtin saw that.
At night when Tsilya came down from the garret, she knew what had happened to her mother and baby. She roamed about, where I don’t know, but after the war I was told that three months before the Red’s capture of Felshtin, Tsilya visited her Ukrainian girlfriend with whom she had deposited all her most precious things. She might have wanted to hide at her friend’s until the Red’s arrived, but it was not in the Ukrainian girl’s interests that Tsilya should remain alive, as she would have to return her things. So she gave her away, and Tsilya was immediately killed. That’s all. I could tell much more of the same – blood, blood of the Jews, old men and women, young people and children, and death, and there was no end.
Move to Israel
Just after the war I got married and settled in Lvov. I lived there for 28 years, and in 1973, together with my husband and daughter, moved to Israel. We now live in the town of Akko, Chativat Golani Street, 15/12. Today when I remember everything that I had to undergo in my life, those tortures and deaths that occurred before my eyes, my execution, the night in the pit with the corpses of my friends and a lot of strange Jews, the pit filled with babies that stirred and shouts and cries that I heard from that pit, those girls hanged in the garret, and all the time when I was hiding after the execution, every night waiting for policemen, it seems to me that it was a long dreadful dream. Only the bullet that is still in me under my shoulder blade (it entered from behind at the end of the neck and thus stayed in me), my leg wound, wound traces on my back, and a huge scar on my head from a butt’s blow — all this tells me that it was not a dream but part of my real life.
The Executioner’s Trial
I would like to tell you about the meeting with my executioner who killed many hundreds and thousands of Jews, Boleslav Zhukovskiy, about whom I have already told you a lot. I met him in 1968. But I’ll tell you everything in succession. I was called from Lvov where I was living to the Kiev prosecutor’s office. When I entered the interrogator’s room, he asked me if I knew the man who was sitting in his room. As soon as I saw that man I became paralyzed. I looked at him and could say nothing. Though 25 years had passed, I recognized him at first sight. How couldn’t I? Even if we hadn’t lived close by and met every day for 16 years, I would remember him for life standing on the last rung of the ladder and shooting at the back of people’s heads. I would remember his eyes when he shouted at me, “Lie down, you, damned zhidovka.”
Zhukovskiy recognized me too and looked at me as if I had come from the other world. He knew for sure that I had been killed and remained in the pit near the village of Leznev.
Of course, I told the interrogator everything, how cruel Zhukovskiy had been with the Jews. I told them even about his finger that hadn’t worked as it had got tired of shooting at the backs of the Jews’ heads. Zhukovskiy was sitting and listening very calmly, as if it was not about him but somebody else. Only once when the interrogator stepped aside from the table towards someone, he hissed, “I wish I had shot you better and had left you to give birth to zhidy.” But when the interrogator asked him if he acknowledged everything that I had said, Zhukovskiy answered: “I know citizen Tsalevich.
Only a few Jewish survivors were witnesses. Ukrainians, residents of Felshtin, treated Zhukovskiy with sympathy, were sorry for him. Even when in court, a young man, not a Jew, told the truth about him, that he saw Zhukovskiy kill Tsilya Tsalevich’s baby and mother, my aunt, some people from the audience began to cry, “Don’t believe him, he was then a ten-year-old boy!”
The trial resulted in a guilty verdict, but Zhukovskiy was sentenced to only five years of imprisonment and five years of deprivation of civil rights. The sentence made allowance for Zhukovskiy’s youth when he committed crimes.
In 1970 they said that in view of 100th anniversary of Lenin’s birthday, there was amnesty in the USSR. Perhaps this executioner of the Jewish people, who is only 51 now, is still waiting for another chance to kill the Jews.
Some time later I was called to court as a witness for the prosecution. The trial was held in Felshtin. In court it was revealed that all the time he had lived in Germany, and in 1968 came to Kiev to visit his relatives. But somebody recognized him in Kiev, and he was arrested. In court Zhukovskiy admitted only that he had been a policeman and repeated over and over again that he had killed no one, that he was slandered.
E. Tsalevich [signature]
S. Livshits [signature] (4)
(1) Zhid (male), zhidovka (female) – contemptuous name of Jews in Russian.
(2) Diminutive form of the name Galina
(3) Now Volgograd
(4) It’s not clear what this signature means. It may be the person who recorded Etya’s story.