In 1940 Josef Perl was a 10 year old boy living in Veliky Bochkov, a town in what was then Czecholslovakia. His memoir “Faces in the Smoke: The story of Josef Perl” describes the growing restrictions on the Jewish community from the time the Germans took control of the area in 1938. Then one day in the spring things changed dramatically, the entire community was ordered out of their homes and ordered to assemble in the synagogue for a ‘census’:
Although we had been told not to be afraid, we left our homes apprehensively, and nervously made our way into the synagogue. The old, the sick, toddlers, even the newborn, no-one was exempt. When we reached the synagogue it was full to bursting and many people had to stay outside. Even the building that housed the ‘Mikveh’ was packed with people. Soon the children began to cry. They were growing tired and could feel the tension mounting. Meanwhile, there was no sign of anyone taking a census. In fact, no list was ever made of our group. As it turned out, this was unusual for the Germans, who were normally so meticulous at record-keeping.
Suddenly, at 4am, there was a great commotion. The doors crashed open and Hungarian soldiers with an officer of the German SS in charge, came rushing into the synagogue with dogs and carrying batons and guns. All hell let loose. There was shouting and screaming as everyone was ordered out.
Raus! Raus!” (Out! Out!) Schnell! Schnell!” (Quick! Quick!)
Everyone was pushed and shoved, kicked and beaten in he direction of the railway station. Some people tried to snatch up their blankets but dropped them on the way. Others stumbled over them. In the frenzied confusion, mothers lost hold of their children. If they were lucky, they managed to find them again, but sometimes the pressure of the people behind would push them over as they bent down, causing a great pile of struggling people trying to get to their feet, accompanied by kicks and blows from clubs and rifle butts beating down on them. All of this was accompanied by the shrieks of parents calling out for the children who were lost and the terrified cries of children calling for their parents. Stumbling along as best they could were the old and infirm who, often, were the first to go under.
At the station a train of cattle wagons was waiting for us. These wagons were several feet off the ground and, as there were no steps or ramps to help you, you had to climb in as best you could. Everyone wanted to get in, hoping to escape the violence they had been enduring since leaving the synagogue. But clambering into the wagons was far from easy. The first men who jumped in helped to pull up those behind them. Women’s dresses were torn, men’s trousers ripped, and their leg injured where they caught themselves on splintered wood and torn metal. Soon the sides of the wagons were
streaked with blood.
Once in, I peered out through a gap in the planks, trying vainly to comprehend the horrors I was witnessing. The children, who had been lost along the way and were crying and searching for their mothers, arrived at the station last. Incensed at the sight of them, I saw one soldier grab a toddler by one arm and, swinging him around his head, tossed him into the nearest wagon. Who knows if he was ever reunited with his mother? In the road, I could see a few belongings abandoned, as were the dead and dying.
After what seemed like an eternity, silence descended. Even the children and babies stopped crying as we waited in fear to see what was going to happen next.
The entire community was deported to a makeshift camp in the forests of Poland.