Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, Israel.
Name: Mendel Reichberg
Date of Birth: October 7, 1922
Present address: Brooklyn, N.Y. USA
Interviewer: I. Zelinkovsky
Date of testimony: April 15, 1998
Testimony's language of origin: English.
The following is recorded testimony by a holocaust survivor - Rabbi Mendel Reichberg. In this testimony the witness described events which took place in Bochnia during the early part of the Second World war. We also get here details about the preservation of the Jewish cemetery and erection of memorial monuments by Jewish survivors immediately after the war. Rabbi Reichberg is the president of the "American Society for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries and Historic Objects in Poland".
|Please tell me where were you when the Second World War started?
I was born in Bochnia on October 7, 1922. We lived at 1 Szewska St. and I was almost 16 when the Second World War started. At the beginning we tried to escape from Bochnia and we went farther down to the city of Tarnow. We tried to escape from the Germans but eventually we came back. It was before "Rosh Hashanah" and these Nazis tried to prevent the Jews from praying together at "Rosh Hashanah" and "Yom Kippur".
What do you remember from the Nazi's occupation?
I remember that in 1939 there was a Nazi police station located in the marketplace on Rynek St. It used to be a Jewish house, which the Nazis took over and turned into a police station. Someone killed one of the Nazis. The killers put on birds and wore traditional Jewish suits, the type of suits we wear on "Shabeth" (Sabbath, Saturday). The people involved were not Jews but tried to implicate the Jews in this murder.
|The killers ran away, and the Nazis found them hiding in a basement.
Eventually they hung two guys in the middle of the marketplace. On that day
the Nazis intended to gather the population of Bochnia and to kill every
tenth person as a group punishment. However one of the local priests convinced
them not to do it. Instead the Nazis took all the prisoners from the local
Jail, about fifty people, and they took also six local Jews. These people
were taken to a forest where they were executed. It was the middle of December
and I with a group of young Jews, 15 to 16 years of age, was taken to the
forest to dig the common grave for these people. It was wintertime and the
soil was frozen so it was extremely hard to dig. This is one of the things
I remember from the initial period of the Nazi's occupation. The Nazis tried
to make our lives as hard as they could. They prevented us from praying in
the synagogues and so on.
Tell me about your life in ghetto Bochnia.
In 1940 they already planned the ghetto but you know about it and I am not going to discuss it in detail. In 1940/41 the ghetto was established. My family was residing outside the ghetto's boundary so we had to relocate into the ghetto. Everybody had to move into the ghetto. We were living several people in the same room and several families in the same house. The ghetto was made out of only a few streets and there were 3,500 people residing in it. When I was residing in the ghetto I used to go to the village of Klaj to cut down trees for lumber. Every morning at 6 o'clock I went on a train to Klaj and in the evening I came back to Bochnia. We were a group of about a hundred people. In the morning the Jewish committee gave us half a pound of bread and that was our payment for the day. We worked there until 1942. In this place they had ammunition storage and my brother used to work with the ammunition. During the first action in 1942 they brought us in right to the kasserna1. We were sitting there for a couple of hours. They put us separate from other people whom they brought from different places. They kept us separate since we were a group of young people and they did not want us to get mixed up in the crowd. We were there until nighttime and then they told us to go home. In the kasserna they kept the people who went to the Belzec Death Camp. There were people from Krakow, from different cities and little towns. These people they kept in the kasserna. This was on Monday and on Tuesday morning everybody from the ghetto had to go down by himself to the kasserna. Everybody had to be there. During the day of Tuesday they ran around to look for the people who did not go to the kasserna and they killed them. I was the one with two other people (one of them named Gertner survived too) who collected the victims. We went around with a wagon and we put all our friends who were killed by the Germans on that wagon. They (the Nazis) found them in the apartments and in basements and any other place and they killed them. We got them all together and took them to the cemetery. There we buried them in a common grave. I figure I will give you a picture of the monument we made on this grave. That monument we made after the war, about 25 years ago.
|What happened after the first aktion?
After the first aktion we started working in highway construction and later in installing telephone lines. The construction company was called Wolferst and Gaible. We used to go by trucks from the ghetto until Moszcze near Tarnow. That was the place where they produced energy. They took us in the morning and at night they brought us back to the ghetto. After that there were other aktions but I do not remember a lot of details about them.
When they liquidated the ghetto in 1943 I was taken to the Plaszow concentration camp. Most of the people from Bochnia were taken to Szebnie but I was taken to Plaszow. In Plaszow I was working in producing shoes and other kinds of work. I stayed in Plaszow until January of 1945. After that I was taken to Auschwitz. I was in Auschwitz only a couple of days when I was forced to take part in the death march. Later I was liberated when Germany lost the war.
How many years have you been involved with the cemetery Project?
I will say about twenty-two years
Did the Polish government partially pay for the maintenance of the Jewish cemetery in Bochnia?
The Polish government did not pay for the maintenance of the Jewish cemetery in Bochnia. Every expense was paid by me, and it cost me a lot of money. I repaired there 150 tombstones that were broken or damaged and lately I paid for 50 new tombstones to be mounted on graves that did not have any tombstones to mark them.
How did you get involved in the cemetery project?
In the month of May right after the war I came back. I was there with 9 other friends. It was dangerous to be there in Bochnia so I stayed there only for one night and I went to Krakow where my sister lived. When I was in Bochnia I first went to the cemetery to see what was going on there. I cannot tell you why I became involved in the cemetery project but now it became my hobby. Every two to three weeks I am going to Poland to do these things. As a matter of fact, in November 1997 the Polish president Kwasniewski gave me a medal for my work in restoring Jewish cemeteries in Poland. I am not only doing it in Bochnia but all over Poland in many cities. I did a lot and I am doing it still. I build fences around cemeteries and I build new ohalim2 on the tzadikim3 graves.
(3) Tzadik or Tzadikim (plural) - A righteous man (in Hebrew) typically related to a religious leader, a well-known rabbi.
|Do other people contribute to this project?
Other people did contribute but I covered most of the expenses personally. I started in Dabrowa Tarnowska. I made there a gate and ohel for a Tzadik. I did it in Roczyce and then I did it in Lancut and then in Tuszyn near Rzeszow. The fence around the Jewish cemetery in Bochnia was done by the brothers Hirsh from Wisnicza in 1945. I only fixed the broken matzevots4 (tombstones) and put the new ones as I had told you before. Right now I am doing the work in the city of Szeniawa. In Dinov I did two cemeteries, the old and the new cemetery. Later I am going to do it in Przemysl and in Lublin. Right now I am building the ohel in Nowy Sacz. I made two ohalim for tzadikim in Nowy Sacz and two in Dinow. In Roczyce I built a ohel for a tzadik. There are five graves there, one grave of the tzadik two graves of his sons and three graves of his grand-sons. I did one in Lancut. I rebuilt the ohel in Lazansk (Lezajsk) which is very famous and many people are coming there to pray.
Now tell me about the person who takes care of the cemetery
This person lives near the cemetery and he is in charge of it. He uses a small piece of land outside the cemetery fence and he takes care on the cemetery itself. Whatever we need he takes care of. It costs a lot of money to keep up a cemetery.
Did the Polish government hire him for this job?
No, he is taking care of the cemetery and I am covering the maintenance expenses.
Does the Polish government take care of any Jewish cemetery?
They do not take care of these cemeteries but they tried to help me in my operation so I will not have any trouble. It is all local government you know. I deal a lot with local government.
The fence around the cemetery in Bochnia was built by the brothers Hirsh who came from Wisnicza. Their mother is resting there. They built the fence in 1945 with some other people from Bochnia. These two brothers also built the monument on the common grave in Bochnia.
|What about the other people that were killed in Bochnia?
There is a place behind Bochnia called Bochkov. There is another common grave there. During the war I did not know about it, only after the war I heard about it. The person who takes care of the Bochnia cemetery also takes care of the common grave in Bochkov. The monument in Bochkov was built by the brothers Hirsh together with other Jewish survivors from Bochnia.
Is there any organization in the USA that works on the restoration of Jewish cemeteries in Poland?
I am the only one that undertook this responsibility. This is why I got the medal from the Polish president.
Could you tell me the condition of the Jewish cemetery in Bochnia at present?
All the matzevos are fixed and the ones without the tombstones I installed new ones. In addition to that there are many old monuments. I will say that the total is about 700 monuments all together. In this cemetery there is a military section in which more than 20 Jewish soldiers, who were killed in World War One, are buried. This is the only location in Poland where such a Jewish military plot was preserved.
Would you say that the cemetery in Bochnia is the best-maintained Jewish cemetery in Poland?
That is right. The person who takes care of this cemetery cares for it as if it was his baby and I am paying for the expenses to keep it maintained. We do not have there flowers but it is regularly cleaned and all the repair work is being done.