Memoir by Herman Amsterdam – Hiding in Woods (1942)

Herman Amsterdam’s report – 14 years old, located in the Central Jewish Archives of the Historical Commission No. 881 / II in Warsaw

[source: Dzieje Gminy Żydowskiej w Radomyślu Wielkim pp. 196-203]

Herman Amsterdam, January 18, 1998 — Photo credit: USC Shoah Archive

We decided to escape to the forest. It was in Yom Kippur in 1942. We did not take with us bed linen or provisions, and only about PLN 3,000 cash. It was Yom Kippur – we were fasting in the woods. The next day we found a scrap of saved paper in the grass in which my aunt told us to hide in her woods. We went there and connected with grandparents, uncles and aunts. We were 10 people altogether. We did not have shelter here; we lived under the open sky. The number of people with us in the forest increased from day to day and grew to 50 people. We bought weapons and ammunition from local peasants. The Jews bought provisions in the countryside, and my father bought even two rams which were slaughtered in the forest so that there was enough meat.

We had not been given a long time to live in peace. A gamekeeper – a Pole – reported to the German authorities that there were Jews hiding in the forest. The police unexpectedly (for the first time) raided us, capturing our 30 companions whom they cruelly beat and then shot. In retaliation for this vile denunciation, a few peasant boys (rural, professional thieves who partially hid in the forest) came to us and shot this gamekeeper. The boys knew our hiding places; they got to know each other and often brought in supplies and vodka. My aunt cooked and we ate with them. It was not until autumn that they left us and in the winter they did not come back.

For the winter, the Jews set up bunkers in which they lived. We dug our bunker over a deep canyon. From the top it was covered with beams, on which we dug clay masked with grass and branches. We had to walk for 3 km for water. Father made us sheepskin boots. At night, he would go out with other comrades to buy food, and when the money ran out, he would steal potatoes, beets, cabbage etc. from peasant farms. In spring, the boys returned to us and built a hiding place for themselves. My aunt, uncle and a few Jews lived with them in the same hideout. One of them fell in love with my aunt and became his wife.

One day the boys came at night, drunk. They quarreled among themselves, and when they lay down, one of them shot my aunt and her husband while they were dreaming. After this fact, the perpetrator and his companions escaped from the forest. My father tried to avenge his sister. Immediately after her death, he chased her murderer and even fired after him, but he did not hit him. Later, as I will say, my father fell at the hands of this bandit who shot his father when he had food for Jews overnight.

In May 1943, 60 Jews were again in the forest. They came constantly. They escaped, from the ghetto and from the camps, and came to us in the forest. My father built a new, long tunnel in the ground according to his own idea. It was a narrow tunnel with winding corridors. The entrance was masked with thin trunks, turf and needles from the pine woods. My father did it because he heard rumors about a new roundup.

Sure enough, a few days later the German police surrounded the forest in which we hid and conducted a raid. They passed our bunker with dogs, we heard their voices, but they did not find us. When the German army left, we moved our lair about 1 km further away. Life was calmer there. Again, the father and his companions went to the villages to steal and even once brought a pig.

In July of the same year, the Germans carried out another roundup but they found no one. The following day an unfortunate accident occurred after this roundup. My uncle was manipulating a hand grenade which broke and tore him to pieces, and hurt my father as well. Fortunately we had bandages in the forest that my father was given.

For the next three months we lived in a hut (not in a hideout). In autumn, we moved to our hideout. And there was another roundup. This time, the Germans killed 5 people, which they detected in other hideouts, but they did not discover ours. Again, we moved to another forest called “Black.” Soon after that, we were attacked by a thug with peasants, undoubtedly in order to rob us. Fortunately, we noticed them quite early, so that one of our comrades had time to shoot them with a rifle. It was enough for this whole cowardly band to escape.

A few days later my uncle went to the village for provisions. He was unsuccessful, for at the moment when my uncle entered the host’s house, leaving a guard with a rifle outside, someone with a rifle slammed into the guard and took off his rifle. And when my uncle heard the shout in the yard and ran out of the cottage, he was wounded with a shot from the rifle. However, he managed to run back into the forest. To dress my uncle’s wound, my father and his sister went to the village for bandages. This expedition ended tragically for my father. In front of the house of a certain host, the same bandit who once killed my aunt in the forest shot him. My father was seriously wounded, and an hour later the bandit killed my father with another shot that we were even able to hear.

Later we learned that this bandit was soon killed by an ax by another peasant. I do not know the details of this incident, only that we learned that it took place on Christmas Eve 1943 and that the peasant killed this bandit during a dream with an ax. We spent the winter of 1943-1944 in the forest in relatively calmly. There were no German raids or raids from bandits. We had about 30 people left at this time. In the late autumn of 1944, we heard a distant bang of shots. We knew what it meant and the new cheer went into our hearts. More and more peasants from nearby villages came to the forest, so that over time our number reached 1,000 people. They fled the Germans, fearing persecution or deportation to work in Germany. We even found a Soviet prisoner among us who had escaped from German captivity. It turned out that he was a doctor and he treated my cousin when she fell ill with typhus.

In the late autumn of 1944 our Soviet aircraft circled over the forest. After some time, it began to burn in the air and fell near the forest. I was near the plane, because I was carrying potatoes in a sack when I saw the uniformed Germans approaching. The Germans started to chase me, but I managed to get to the forest faster and I hid here.

The Poles, seeing that the front was approaching, left the forest and again a handful of Jews with two Soviet soldiers remained. The front was located just 1 kilometer from the forest. A dozen or so Jews came to us and we were 62 people in total. One day the first snow was falling when my uncle and I sat in front of our bunker (whose entrance was always masked). Then we heard terror a few steps away from us – German soldiers. There was no time to hide in the bunker and we just crouched under the bushes. We could not go back to the bunker for a few hours because more and more Germans were coming to search the forest. As we were told later, on this day several thousand soldiers (German policemen) surrounded the forests and searched them. This time they managed to fish out 15 Jews whom they took with them and undoubtedly killed.

On November 27, 1944, the 47 people Jewish inhabitants left in the forest set out to the other side of the front. The elders were armed with rifles, revolvers and grenades. When we arrived at the front line, the Germans began to shoot at us with intensity. Our patrol, which was the rear guard, responded with rifle shots while we were ran towards the Soviet troops, shouting: “Comrades, do not shoot, we’re partisans.” However, apparently they did not understand us, because they still shot at us and even killed a girl, Tyle Hirsch. The Germans killed several people, including my grandfather, cousin and Howl Fennec. In addition, there were 10 wounded, 7 of whom died in a Soviet hospital. The rest were taken to prison, where we were kept for three weeks and released after the investigation.

This all took place in city of Sędziszów. My father’s brother and sister and my little sister and I saved my family. We are currently in the Jewish Children’s Home in Przemyśl.

Herman Amsterdam