Asher Rubinstein

1945, courtesy of Rabbi Chaim Benish
1945, courtesy of Rabbi Chaim Benish

Asher Rubinstein

Avigdor, the son of Joel and Frimat Rubinstein, was married to Raizel (Charmatz) Rubinstein. 4 of their 9 children: Yotel, Gala, Rachel, and Ratzel died in the Holocaust; the surviving five children were Golda, Ettel, Mordechai Gempel, Yehoshua Heshel, and Asher Yermiya.

Golda married Yechiel Weisbrod and moved to Ostrowiec after their wedding. They had five children who were all killed in the Holocaust. Yechiel was also killed during the war.

Below is an excerpt from the book Akevot Baremetz written by Rabbi Chaim Benish, Golda’s son from her second marriage.  The excerpt follows the story of Yechiel and Asher as they decide to run away from the ghetto before the next transport.

Akevot Baremetz

Chapter 29: The Escape

[Pg. 176]

My uncle, Reb Asher Yirmiya, continues his story: As you recall, on Sunday, Tisha B'Av (ninth of Av fast) of the Hebrew year 5704 (1944) was postponed. We were told we were to be evacuated into Germany. The Germans could not be trusted. The Russian front was also nearing Ostrowiec and the battle sounds echoed in our ears at nights, like the Messiah's Shofar (ram's horn). The wind carried the roar of Russian cannons like a prophecy of solace. Many of us chose to escape, myself and my brother-in-law- Yechiel Weisbrod, my older sister's husband- included.

Ettel (Asher’s sister), may she be blessed with a long life, continues and adds: I very clearly remember Yechiel and Asher Yirmiya coming to say goodbye prior to their escape. Asher Yirmiya quoted my father, may he rest in peace, as reassurance of their initiative. Father, Reb Avigdor, may God avenge his soul, acted similarly when the war broke out, and escaped Lodz for Ostrowiec, leaving half the children behind in Lodz. He justified this by saying that Jacob, our forefather, did so as well, as it says in the scriptures: "The camp which is left shall escape." Meaning, you shouldn’t put all your eggs in one basket. We said our goodbyes to them, with tears and prayers that God make their journey successful and hoped we would see each other again soon.

Reb Asher Yirmiya continues: We prepared enough food for several days, and under the cover of darkness, we escaped the camp with a few friends. As we marched silently, the rain stopped, and our moods improved. For the first time in years, we tasted the sweetness of freedom. A light breeze blew away the fatigue and tension; we breathed in the scent of wet earth and birch leaves with all our might.

"We managed to escape ourselves, but what about the rest of the camp?" Yechiel suddenly asked worriedly.

I answered: “We can already sense freedom and so we feel safe, but we also are still in need of God's mercy. “

The goal was to reach the forest, hide there and wait for the Russian army. We could not hide in the fields, as it was crop harvesting time. We reached the forest and found other groups who had fled. They informed us that the Russians had reached Sandomierz (or Tzoyzmir as us Jews called it), on the Wisla's (the Vistula) banks, about 40 KM southeast of us, and that we should get there and be "captured" by the Russians.

Reb Asher Yirmiya stops here and takes a deep breath, then continues. It was a Friday (Shabbat Nachamu, the Sabbath after Tisha B'av, Parshat Va'Etchanan). The food we had prepared and taken on Sunday had run out, and we lived off berries and mushrooms. As evening approached, I said we should find some bread for Shabbat, then we could say Kiddush over it as well. We went to a nearby village, knocked on doors and asked for bread… when leaving the village, we ran into a German patrol. "Put your hands up!" they called out. We raised our arms and they searched us to make sure we were not carrying weapons, and were not Partisans.

We were interrogated by the German soldiers, and they concluded we were from Ostrowiec, as there were no Jews left in the nearby towns, save for the ones in the Ostrowiec labor camp. Also, we were not the first to be caught. After deliberation they decided to send us back to the SS in Ostrowiec. (The Jews didn't "belong" to the army, but to the SS).

We were taken by military car back to Gestapo headquarters in Ostrowiec. In the basement there was a small jail, and we were thrown into it, filthy and terrified. They could not take us back to the labor camp, as it was abandoned and perhaps already destroyed, after its inhabitants were transferred to Auschwitz on Thursday (14th of Av, 1943, see chapter 34), and we were captured on Friday, a day later.

We were thirteen young men. My brother-in-law Yechiel was not among them. He had managed to escape when the German forces besieged us.

I couldn't sleep that night. Drizzles of light came in through the cracks on the door, the day was beginning, when I heard footsteps coming closer. An SS officer arrived and started removing the prisoners from the jail. He took them out in groups of three, cuffing every three together at the hands, then marching them to the nearby hill, where they were ordered to dig a hole, then shot dead.

And so, it went on. Three by three. Since there were thirteen of us, I was left in the cell, alone, after the last three were taken.

I was far from the killing site but close enough to hear the echoes of the fired shots and final cries. I stood there helpless, surrounded by silence of death, as tears of pain and fear covered my face.

When the executioner returned from the execution site, the commanding officer asked him:

Would it be too difficult to kill another one? He gestured toward me.

Are you kidding? The murderer replied. What’s so difficult about shooting a Jew dead? I could even tear him apart to shreds, like a dog, and that wouldn't be difficult either!

So, take him! The commander said.

And the German, that murderer, grabbed me by my shirt's collar and gestured toward the hill, as he got up on his bike and road beside me, and that's how we went…

As I follow him, all 16 years of my adolescent life pass before my eyes. In my thoughts I say goodbye to all the people I care about and to all my ambitions. Suddenly I think, I will not study at the Sfas Emes Yeshiva in Jerusalem- the greatest ambition of any Hassidic Polish boy. On second thought I think: Maybe it'll be better to study at the Yeshiva of the heavens, alongside all the holy martyrs who died al kiddush Hashem throughout the generations. This is how I walk along, reality and imagination passing through my mind, until I feel as though it is my body alone that is walking, and thoughts separate from my mind, and float away…

And suddenly I hear loud cries in German…and I wonder, is the body hearing these, or is it just my mind?

The shouts grow louder: "Hey, you there! Where are you taking him?"

I turn my head and see that the voices are coming from the Gestapo building, and they are called out to the German riding next to me on the bicycle.

"We need another cleaner. You've already killed them all off today, leave one, take him back…"

The German stops, gets off the bicycle, grabs my shirt collar again, and turns me in the direction we had come from, gets back on the bicycle and rides next to me…

And I march back, I do not know whether I should be happy, or… I thought I was going to meet my parents again…thought I was going to study in the Yeshiva shel Maala, the Yeshiva of the heavens. Then this German brings me back to the cruel, harsh reality of the vale of tears called Ostrowiec, to dealing on a daily basis with the angel of death. Is this good or… is this what's called against your will you live (Mishna-Pirkei Avot)? Maybe I was left on this earth to complete some sort of task? I do not know… and I still think about it, to this day.

The Gestapo Building

That day I was called to the Gestapo commander. My heart pounded in my chest like a thousand hammers. He examined me from head to toes, and ordered me to sit in front of him:

-What is your name? He asked in an authoritative tone.

-Moses, I answered. Moses Rubenstein.

-What was your trade until today?

-I worked in Yeger and in Zakladi.

-Listen here, Moses. We need a maintenance manager here to run the building- to be in charge of cleaning, watch the dogs, etc. Do you think you are qualified for this?

-Ya-vol, Heir commandant: Yes, commander, I replied.

-So, I am accepting you to work right now. In the attic, there is a small room where you will live. You will receive food from the in-house kitchen, understood?

-Yes, commander, I replied.

-Well, Moses, our meeting has ended, he said.

I got up, saluted him and walked out backwards, facing him.

It is very difficult for me to describe how I felt. Joy overwhelmed me. I was saved from death and given shelter in the lion's den. From a persecuted man whose life dangled in front of him, I became legitimate. I did not know the value of this legitimacy yet, as I was still in shock. I feared Satan was yet to set his trap on me, but for now I knew I had to thank the Almighty Creator, He who gracefully sustains life with kindlinessSupporter of the fallenReleaser of the imprisoned.

One of the SS officers led me to my room up in the attic. It had a bed, table, and small cupboard. After, he walked me through the building. He showed me where the kitchen was, where the utility closet was, and the toolshed.

I was exhausted from the day's events and wished to go up to my room and rest. It had been over a year since I had last slept on a bed or had the privacy of my own room, and now that it was within my reach, I wished to actualize it, to let my weary bones rest. But the SS officer said that the building was "waiting" for me. The place was in complete chaos. Various objects and tools were unorganized everywhere. Everything looked like it was left behind after an escape, abandoned.

A few days later I found out why that was. In the last week of July, as the Russian front reached the Wisla, the Germans started to plan their retreat from the premises. First, they sent all the labor camp prisoners away, including my sisters Golda and Ettel, to Auschwitz (as will be told). At the same time, they started packing their personal belongings and files from the Gestapo building. Some were already loaded onto the cars. But a few days later they felt, or were informed, that the Russians were not planning to advance into Poland at this point. This turned out to be true. (Only six months later, in January 1945, the Russians began to advance into central Poland). And so, they decided to return to the building and reinhabit it once again.

Those cowards knew that if they would retreat from this place, they would be enrolled into the army in order to save their homeland from the Russian invaders, and they preferred to sit it out and spend their time capturing partisans.

I tackled the building with all my might, cleaned it thoroughly throughout its three floors and returned all the furniture and objects to their original places.

That night I ate delicacies and tastes that my body had already forgotten, and I slept in a bed and mattress for the first time. Still, I could not sleep properly. I knew that from here on out I was beginning a new chapter in my life, not an easy experience for a young man of my age.

The next day, my German employers ordered me to take care of the hounds. In the yard there were dog kennels, and I was supposed to clean them, as well as the hounds themselves. I had to bathe and comb them. These were not plain dogs, they were giant bloodthirsty hounds, that could tear a person to shreds. I was terrified.

After some thought I had an idea. During the previous evening the Germans celebrated their return. They had a feast and served various meats and many alcoholic beverages. I was supposed to clear away the leftovers and wash the dishes. I gathered all the leftover meat, an amount that could feed an entire camp, and brought it to the hounds. I brought them meat the following day as well (including my own portion, since I decided to only eat bread, vegetables, and milk products, and not to sicken myself with too much heavy food). And so, the hounds grew fond of me. They would come running happily toward me when I appeared. Within a few days I had earned their trust and could perform this duty as well. The Germans were astounded at how it could be, that the hounds were fond of a Jew.

The hounds became my close friends. They were the only living creatures I felt actually loved me. They didn't have the fake, polite German smile that covered their true face, one of a horrid, scum of the earth beast. I would go to the hounds when I was lonely and spend countless happy hours with them.

After a few days I was told that some tools in the workshop were "waiting" for me to fix them. I headed over. This was a field of expertise completely unknown to me, but I still had to give it a try. Suddenly, a German walked by, looked in and saw me wrestling with clamps. He asked:

-Moses, what was our father's trade?

-Shoemaker- I answered quickly.

-I think your father was a Rabbi or cantor.

He was a kind German. Though he represented the "superior man", he was still a regular person and understood things. He volunteered to instruct me to the best of his ability, or mine. That is how I acquired minimal skill in such an "un-Hassidic" trade.

I started to adapt to life in the shadow of danger and death When faced with no alternative, a man is forced to walk between the raindrops. This faced me with challenges unfathomable to any ordinary man. I had to muster up inhuman strength and heighten my senses in order to avoid the traps and potholes in my way, during the six months I spent among killers whose hands were drenched in blood. Each and every day I would either gain my life or lose it.

Over those few months I felt the angel of death lurking many times. I was working in conditions that seemed hopeless and against all reason.

I cannot explain where I found these hidden powers, of which I was not aware. How I did it. How I knew when to turn right and when to turn left. When to take initiative and when to leave it up to Providence. I have no answers.

Also, my thought always returned to the fate of those taken. As I was sitting here working and enjoying proper nutrition, they were rotting in cattle carts, or perhaps already murdered by the Germans. Who today could fathom the uncompromising reality I was living in?

Gestapo Headquarters ( photo from 2013-63 Sienkiewicza, Ostrowiec)
Gestapo Headquarters ( photo from 2013-63 Sienkiewicza, Ostrowiec)
SS Living Quarters (photo from 2013-2 Czerwińskiego Street- Ostrowiec)
SS Living Quarters (photo from 2013-2 Czerwińskiego Street- Ostrowiec)

Chapter 30: Yechiel's Murder

[Pg. 183]

I was starting to grow accustomed to the independence that was forced upon me. Independence may be an inappropriate definition. I was alone. There was no one to return home to from work save four bare walls. I was alone and had no living soul to talk to, no partner or advisor for my worries.

About three weeks later, I was informed that during the previous night new prisoners were brought to the jail, a few lads who escaped from the camp and were caught in the forest.

I headed toward the jail, thought maybe I could help out with something, and was surprised to meet my brother-in-law, Yechiel Weisbrod, who I had just recently escaped with, and who was captured and brought here with a gentile fugitive.

He was very skinny and his beard had grown wildly over the past weeks. His eyes were filled with terror. I could tell he had gone through a rough time, being hunted down with no food or shelter.

He leaped with joy when he saw me, though he was astonished to see me on duty as part of the SS.

During the weeks we had been separated, he thought I had been killed by the German army that had captured our group, and now he was meeting me here, dressed and organized, holding a keychain used to put me in jail. How did you manage to become a big shot with the Germans? Is this real or all my imagination? He asked in amazement.

We will talk about it later, I replied, and hurried to bring him and his partner a good meal, like he hadn't seen or eaten in a long time. As I was doing this, I stated to calculate my moves, or how I was going to free him from this jail. Perhaps he could be assigned a position on the premises, like me? I was tense as the night went by and couldn't sleep as so many thoughts were going through my head.

The next morning, I heard shouting from the jail. I hurried to my window and was terrified to see the Germans drag out my brother-in-law and the gentile from the jail. My brother-in-law was resisting and refusing to leave and was shouting. He knew where they were trying to take him and was probably calling out for help. The cries could have been directed at me, since yesterday he learned he had a big shot brother-in-law working there, who could possibly help him.

I stood pinned to my spot, frozen with fear and terror. I knew my limitations, I was no big shot, I was only a lowly servant, a sub-human that the Germans were in need of at this specific time. I strained my eyes and saw the Germans leading them as they were cuffed together, to the nearby hill, about 100 meters from where I was standing, and place them at the ledge of the hole. The German shot one of them, I couldn't tell which one, and he fell into the hole, pulling the other with him. Afterwards, the German shot into the hole another 6-7 times. Then he covered the hole himself with sand.

I continued to stand by the window, overwhelmed with sorrow. Had I done what I could to save him? Why didn't I leave the door unlocked after I left him last night? Maybe I had some part in this execution. The memory of that retched day is like a wound that will not heal, and the guilt stays with me and won't let go to this very day…

I had no one to share the pain with. I was lonely in this place. My sisters Golda and Ettel were sent to Auschwitz a month before then, and who knows what happened to them in that lion's den, and if I had anyone left in this world. In the Ghettos no one cried or sat Shivah, not for parents and not for siblings. That day I cried for the first time.

Despite my pain, I was also thinking of the future. Perhaps my sister Golda was alive, and with God's help, when we would all be freed from this hell, she will need my testimony regarding her husband Yechiel's murder, may God avenge his soul. And so, I tried my hardest to remember the date of the murder: Thursday, the fifth of Elul, 5704 (1944), as well as the details of the event I had witnessed.

After liberation, she really did need my testimony to be freed from her Agginut (to be freed from her marriage as her husband was dead) and be able to remarry. At the refugee camp in Landsberg, Germany, my testimony was used by the Rabbi of Crasna, Rav Hillel Lichtenstein, ZT"L. In accordance with this testimony, your mother, peace be upon her, was released from her Agginut. My testimony, as well as the Halachic explanations to this permit, were later printed in his book: "Roni Akara" ("Sing, Barren one"), chapter 13.