“I’m alive thanks to sensitive, big-hearted people” – Holocaust survivor
Viktor Gekht is one of the survivors of the Holocaust and he is still haunted by terrifying memories.
RT: You managed to survive several mass executions in your hometown in which thousands of Jews died. How did it all begin and how did you manage to survive them?
Viktor Gekht: I remember that day. The town was under fire for a short while and then the Germans entered unhindered. The place where I was born and raised was occupied. The most unpleasant sight that I got to see then was when the Ukrainian nationalists welcomed the Germans with an orchestra. Many people nowadays think it couldn’t have been that way, but it was. On the outskirts, they built a Triumphal Arch out of poles and covered it with flowers. Two days before that though, anarchy ruled the town. There were robberies and mass looting. Mainly they looted shops and apartments of the military who had left town… and many Jewish families were robbed as well, of course.
The first time it happened, we were already living in a ghetto, but it was not that restricted at the time – people could go in and out. My mother worked as a teacher. My other relatives were doctors and tailors. We survived the first mass shootings by hiding in the hay loft in an area where Ukrainians or Poles lived. I can’t remember exactly – I was quite little, not even 10 years old. So, they let us hide in the hay loft, but we heard as people outside were shot. Still, my family managed to escape.
When it happened for the second time, people were already not allowed to leave the ghetto. We had two–storey buildings there. Between the first and second floor there was something like a dark room, a closet. So, we sealed the door and whitewashed it to look like a wall. We got in through a special passage in the toilet. Imagine – a small dark room and 30 people in it, shoulder to shoulder. So, when the Germans came to kill, you could hear them stomp up and down the stairs. And you are in that room; it feels like out there they can hear you breathe. The Germans shot the sick and the old right there and then. After that they gathered the rest of the people they caught and led them away to be shot.
There was a case when… it’s actually horrible to talk about it, and hard to imagine… A small child started to cry. His mother put a pillow over his head to stifle the cries.
When everything was over and she lifted the pillow, her child was dead. Everyone stood there and cried silently. And no one moved so that the floor tiles didn’t squeak. When I met with my fellow countrymen in the year 2000 – they came from Israel, the US, Canada – we visited the places where we used to live. I told them about that case with the child, and one of them said that he was there in that hideout too, at that exact time.
RT: How was the process of registration of Jews carried out in your town?
VG: They announced the obligatory registration of everyone from 14 to 50 years old. After the first registration, they selected the intellectuals, activists, cultural professionals and those who could show resistance, and killed them all. This is how their method worked: first they killed the most active ones, then they either sent men to labor camps or killed them. After that, it was easier to deal with women, children and the elderly. I use the word “method” here to describe what they did, but it’s really awful… it’s the method of killing. It’s horrible.
Living in the present day, it’s hard to imagine what it was like back then. Basically, they came to us and said that we had to leave the house the following morning. For the first couple of days we lived at my mother’s friends’ place – they were teachers as well. And then we were forced to move to the ghetto.
I’m only here today thanks to kind, sensitive and big–hearted people.
RT: What happened to your family, your parents? Did any of your relatives survive?
VG: My father died one week before the liberation by the Red Army. As those brave, kind people – the protectors – were sheltering us, the Red Army was advancing. The sounds of battle could be heard in the distance. It was February, and we began to feel a bit more relaxed. We hid in a barn. There was a cow there. That’s where we hid. I remember it was getting dark. We went outside, when all of a sudden the retreating troops attacked the farm. I’m not sure if they were wearing German uniforms, but they spoke Ukrainian. There was a lot of noise. My father took a small girl, who was three or four years old maybe – and ran away from the farm, towards the forest. My grandma and I were inside. We climbed up to the loft and hid there. Suddenly there was noise and shooting. My aunt with the child and my father were about 50 meters away, when we heard the shots and their screams.
Grandma and I were in the loft – we couldn’t help them in any way. It’s hard to describe what it feels like when you hear someone so close to you, like your father, being killed. They were buried at night. Only two of us – my grandma and I – survived. The saddest thing is that my aunt, my niece and my father died just a week before the liberation… they were killed on the 18th, and the city was liberated by the Red Army on the 24th. Hardly anyone survived out of our whole big family.
RT: I know that you joined the army at an unusually young age. You were literally raised by the army, weren’t you?
VG: My grandma and I headed East, to Chertkov, a town in Western Ukraine. It was the end of February or maybe the beginning of March… I think it was early March, because there was little snow. We were semi–naked, and almost barefoot. Then one day my grandma got really exhausted and out of breath – she was an elderly person, and she’d been through the war – so when she got exhausted, she made me sit down and she told me to carry on alone. “At least you’ll stay alive,” she told me. At first I argued, but then I continued on my way. I came to the town of Skalat, where there were Soviet troops. We got friendly. When they met me, they showed me a semi–ruined house where I could have a rest. I think they gave me something to eat, too. I lay down and fell asleep. The next day, my grandma arrived, too. She was half dead, when she got there.
A military hospital of the Third Guards tank army was set up in that town. I was given some room there, and one particular Lieutenant showed an interest in my fate. He suggested that I could stay there if I wanted to, but permission would have to be obtained from officials. So they got that permission and checked the fact that I was an orphan. My grandma really hoped that I would survive. But I was so unhappy in my life when we were separated.
So I stayed at the hospital. I was given new clothes; and my own filthy ones were burnt. I’ll tell you how I was dressed then: I was actually wearing one adult boot on one foot, and one completely worn out shoe on the other. I asked them to give me food, and my first meal was really exciting. I was given a soldier’s portion of bread with some sugar on it. I asked for more, but they told me that was enough for now.
At first I visited my grandma and brought her food. Grandma was feeling a little better – this was some two months later. But war is war: the army was advancing, and the hospital was following it. A tank army is always on the road. So the hospital moved to the west, and I went along. That’s how it happened. That’s life. My grandma stayed behind in Skalat.
I helped take care of the wounded. Our particular hospital specialized in treating patients with minor wounds and injuries. But at first, soldiers who got burned in their tanks didn’t stay in our hospital for long. As soon as they felt a little better they would go back to the home front in troop trains. Helping these people with severe burns was the hardest thing for me. I was caring for them, feeding them, helping them drink water and go to the bathroom. Then they’d get sent away. As a teenager, I was doing all the same jobs that an adult would be doing in my place. At that time, any helping hand was very important. Some of the nurses were just girls as well.
So with this hospital, with this Third tank army and with the First Ukrainian front I moved from Western Ukraine to the center of Poland.
And one more thing… How a person feels, when he or she faces the threat of being killed at any time during 32 long months, and what it feels like after being freed, when you can finally go out without constantly watching your back… It’s hard to describe. You’ve experienced so much, and finally you can go out and walk around, without fear. You know that you won’t be killed any second now. It seems like you’ve been waiting for this moment for years. Impossible really to describe this feeling. When I saw the first Red Army man, I wanted to cry, to hug him, I don’t know… That’s what it feels like.