Can you tell me where you were born?
My name is Rivka Herbst, née Shapiro. I was born in Kreshiv, on the border of Poland.
What memories can you share with us about your family?
My father, Reb Shmuel Shapiro, z”l, was a Belzer Chassid. I was the oldest of three children; I had two younger brothers, Meir and Avraham. When I was five years old my mother, Leah Shapiro, a”h, passed away. We lived near my maternal grandparents, so after my mother passed away we moved in with them. My grandmother took very good care of us. I was always dressed like a queen.
My father remarried and moved to my stepmother’s town in Frampul and the three of us joined them. For five years we children suffered terribly. I couldn’t go to school — not to a Jewish school and not to a Polish school. My stepmother gave birth to two children and I stayed home to babysit and take care of them. If I ever ventured out to play with the girls my age, I had to take the children with me, carrying the baby under my arm. To this day I have one shoulder lower than the other from constantly carrying a heavy load. I had an aunt, my mother’s sister, living in Frampul, but I was not permitted to visit her. Sarah Schenirer arranged Shabbos groups and once in a while I received permission to go with the other girls to these groups. I learned many Yiddish songs at these gatherings.
In the last year before the war began, my maternal grandfather came to visit us and he brought us presents. He brought three pieces of material for me; one was for a coat and two were for dresses.
I was almost 12 when I began to think of a plan to run away. My paternal grandfather would pass our town and call us out. He gave the three of us money to buy ice cream. I saved up the money to be able to purchase a ticket for a horse and wagon to travel to my grandmother. On the way, the wagon stopped to pick up passengers and, lo and behold, my father got on! I had no choice; I had to get off with my father and return home. My father didn’t say anything, but I informed him that I could no longer remain with him and his wife.
Not long after, my father’s sister came to visit. She was not pleased with what she saw and she made plans to take me to my grandmother’s home. When I arrived there I was shocked to hear that my grandfather had passed away. I refused to go into the house. I had an uncle, Mottish, who was very close to me. In the interim he had married a second cousin by the name of Shprintze Zilberstein and they lived in the same town. They invited me to come and stay with them.
Where were you when the war broke out?
It was the summer of 1939. My Shprintze was due to give birth and she was planning to travel to her hometown of Tarnigut to be with her parents when she had the baby. My uncle asked me to travel along with her, and I did. When the war broke out in September, I was in Tarnigut.
Was there anti-Semitism in the town prior to the onset of the war?
There may have been, but I was too young to know all the details. The German army was on one side and the Polish army was on the other side, so the adults definitely knew what was going on.
How did life change once the Nazis invaded? Can you describe the scene that took place?
The Gestapo arrived in town on Erev Rosh Hashanah. Shprintze’s brother was walking with a friend when he was shot and killed.
The fighting had begun and there was bombing overhead. We said Shema Yisrael, anticipating the worst. All Friday night we lay on the floor. In the morning, we looked out through the shutters and saw a large fire; people were being thrown into the fire. Twenty-seven people were murdered in this manner and I saw it with my own eyes. Jews began running into the nearby forests.
Yom Kippur, when Shprintze was due to give birth, I, a 12-year-old girl, snuck out of the house during those dangerous times to call the midwife.
By Sukkos the Russians had arrived and we felt a little more freedom. We were able to come out of hiding and we brought those who were killed to kever Yisrael. It didn’t last long; shortly afterward, the announcement arrived that the Russians were leaving and the Germans were taking over.
to be continued…
These survivors’ memoirs are being compiled by Project Witness.