Continued from last week’s Jewish Star
Tell me about the death march.
Our camp was close to the front where the Americans were fighting the Germans. So they took us out and walked us far away. At night we slept in the hay, in farms. In the day we would march again. People would fall off the sides and the back. Germany had highways but no shoulders, only ditches on the sides. When people fell and died we had to kick them into the ditches. Every day they counted us to see how much less we were.
One night as I dug myself into the hay, I thought the next day it might be me kicked into a ditch on the side of the road. As I dug myself deeper, I came across a leg, a shoulder, a nose, and I heard “ssshhhhhh…” Others had the same idea as me. In the morning, the soldiers fixed their bayonets onto their rifles and stabbed into the hay. People near the top screamed as they were impaled. [Rybsztajn was sliced at the bridge of his nose, and still bears the scar.] They ordered us out, to stand with our hands up. The blood is dripping down my face, I am drinking my own blood icicles. I have no strength to keep my hands up, how am I going to run away?
After a while the soldier turned away for a minute, and I ran into the marching people, switched my coat and hat with others in the group. The soldier was yelling, “where did that boy go?” As I moved up to the middle of the column, then the front, I found my uncle, Leib Aryeh, and his son, Karl. I grabbed my uncle’s other arm. At night we stood in the mud as they counted us — they wanted to see how much they were accomplishing killing us off — and I saw my uncle fall and die.
How were you liberated?
We were taken to yet another camp. There was no work to do there, and only two barracks, which were supposed to be for sick people. But soon it was full of corpses. This was a wide open place surrounded by forest. Every day with dogs we were made to run through the open space and the forest, with no end. And no food. People would pull the leaves off the trees, roll them up and eat them. There was nothing else. I expired.
Inside this camp, each day two piles of dead people were stacked up on either side of the gate. The dead were lined up in a row, and then stacked up on top of each other like logs, to be burned each day. I am expired, and am piled onto the top of the stack. But on this day the Germans capitulated, they hung up white flags and left the gates open while they ran away, so the last piles of the dead were still there, not burned.
Two twin brothers named Nalewka, who went to yeshiva with me, walked past the stacks. They took a final look to the right and then to the left, to make sure the Germans were really gone, and said Kaddish for all the dead. One twin saw me and said to the other, “You know this is Yankele;” the other brother did not recognize me, I was just a skeleton. They touched me and said, “he’s still alive!” They still had a little strength left, and they took me under the arms and dragged me out of the camp and down the road. Then they became too exhausted, they were skeletons too. They laid me at the side of the road and wrapped me in a blanket they had taken. I was told later that I was not conscious, almost dead. But G-d wanted me alive.
Americans in a Jeep found me on the side of the road covered in the blanket. They thought I was a bomb on the side of the road. They saw that I was still alive and the captain told the driver to rush to the American field hospital where they treated their own wounded. They took good care of me for nine weeks and slowly I got back to myself. They told me to sign myself out, gave me clothes and a file with no name on it, just the number of my tattoo. It had my medical records in it, and two letters.
I said, “what do I do now that I am released?” They took me to the door and said, “See that village? Go there, there are more people like you.” I couldn’t read English at that time, so they read to me. The first letter said: Treat this youngster very carefully, don’t give him too much food, go gradually with him. The second one said: If this boy survives, he should come to the U.S. at this address in Philadelphia. It was the captain’s address, he had returned to the fighting.
So I walked to the village and knocked on the door of the first house I came to. It was full of dogs, and a lady yells at me to go away and slams the door in my face. She was afraid of me, there were no men in the town and she was afraid I would kill her. I knock again, and again she yells at me, “Get lost! Go further.” But I don’t give up, I knock again and say “Please tell me where are the people like me.” She says to go seven houses down. I knock at the seventh house and who opens the door but the twin brothers! “Yankele!” they shout.
They apologized for leaving me by the road, thought I was dead. We hug and kiss and celebrate, and I tell them of the American captain who saved me and was so good to me. “Wait a minute,” the brothers said, “the captain was not the only one who helped you. If not for us pulling you out of the camp, you wouldn’t be here.”
This village was a tiny one, with only houses. We walked to the next village, which had stores. We wanted to rent three bicycles so we could have a little fun. In the bicycle shop the woman asked what we want, and we say we want to rent three bikes. She told us to just take the bikes and go, she was afraid of us. She wouldn’t take our money, we even showed it to her. We rode back to the house in the first village, but as we rode one brother hit a stone, fell off his bike and died instantly. We buried him in a shallow grave dug with our bare hands in a field next to the road. This was my liberation.
How many in your family survived?
My parents perished. There were six siblings, born in this order: my sisters Fela and Mila, Jakub (myself), my sister Cyla, my brother Karolik, and my sister Estushka. Three survived: Fela, who lived to the age of 97, she died only a few months ago. Cyla, my younger sister, who died at the age of 90. And me.
How did your Shavuos tradition start?
My wife and I found a shul in downtown Brussels after the war. I went early, because I was taught when you go to shul, you arrive first; when you leave shul, you leave last. But there was no minyan. I was very disappointed. We came back to this shul on Shavuos, the second day is Yizkor. I asked who was in charge, and if I could daven and say Kaddish, because we lost everyone. They immediately granted me the honor. I not only said Kaddish but I davened the Shacharis service for Shavuos, the Hallel, the Mussaf, and Mincha. And now I continue to do that here in Woodmere.
While in Brussels the newspapers reported that survivors could go back and liquidate their property. My sister went and I were going too, but a man about my father’s age came out of the train I was waiting for, and told me not to go back, that I was of army age and that they’d send me to the fighting, and goodbye Charlie. G-d saved my life again, with that man.
How did you find work?
There was a school called ORT that taught trades to survivors. Like how to be a shoemaker, a carpenter, a tailor. There was a program for fashion design, and I thought, “That’s for me — I’ll never be a carpenter, I’ll go for fashion design.” I remembered my beautifully dressed, aristocratic-looking father. After training, a Flemish man asked if I wanted to be a teacher in Antwerp. “You speak well, so why not?” I traveled to Antwerp daily by train. I requested a raise after my first year, I felt I deserved it, but they refused — we helped you, now you want a raise?
After I left there I made trench coats. The company that employed me didn’t have a factory, they hired people who had factories and gave them fabrics. I was a patternmaker, my job was to lay out the clothes and chalk in the shapes and figure out how many meters it would take to make a dozen coats — for example 10 meters of fabric would make six coats. It was my first job after the war.
• • •
Why am I so devoted to G-d, despite so much hell, so much torture? Why did so many millions die from hunger, from beatings? I don’t know why. I am telling this story for the sake of the world, to heal the world, to live and let live with respect. So the world should be a better place. People should not forget what happened.