Descendants of Chelm death march retrace steps

Deportations of Jews from Polish town to Hrubieszów began on December 1, 1939.

100 descendants of the Chelm death march survivors visited several sites in Poland while retracing their families horrific journey to  Hrubieszów. (photo credit: BENTZI LEVKOVICH/CHELM VETERANS ORGANIZATION)
100 descendants of the Chelm death march survivors visited several sites in Poland while retracing their families horrific journey to Hrubieszów.
Death march. A term many associate with the end of the Holocaust. Less well known is that the first death march took place years earlier in December 1939, three months after the Nazis had invaded Poland.
On December 1, 1939, the Jews of Chelm were marched 53 km. to Hrubieszów, a town that today sits close to the Ukrainian border.
This week, a hundred descendants of those who survived the ordeal traced their ancestors’ footsteps.
The trip, which took place from November 29 to December 3, was organized by the Chelm Veterans Organization. According to the group’s chairman Benzie Levkovich, the commemoration was organized because this part of Holocaust history has “simply ‘disappeared’ between history pages.”
In an interview with The Jerusalem Post last week, Levkovich explained that, “there are studies and information about the death marches at the end of the war in 1945, but very few know that only three months after the war broke out” – on September 10, 1939 – the first death march took place.
“About 4,500 Jewish men were gathered, and within three to four days, most were killed,” he said, either by the Nazis or the conditions.
“We took the same route as those who were murdered,” Levkovich said. “They were people in regular clothes who were wearing ordinary civilian shoes, and had to walk fast and even run in a muddy road where the depth of the mud sometimes reached 20 to 30 cm... it was impossible to move through it; to continue walking through it they had to remove their shoes, which meant they would have to walk the rest of the way with socks or barefoot.
“Those who couldn’t keep up were beaten and shot,” he said.
When the Nazis would rest, they would split the group into smaller groups 150 or 250 and warned that if anyone tried to flee, they would be shot. Once they arrived in Hrubieszów, the Jews of Chelm were hidden in a barn so they could not alert the local Jews that they were about to share a similar fate.
Levkovich explained that they were all marched to a nearby river on what was then the Russian border and told to run to the Russian soldiers on the other side shouting “long live Stalin.”
They were refused entry by the Russians; three days later, they were transferred back to German-occupied Poland where they were shot.
Some tried to escape back to the Russian side by crossing into the freezing river. Of the 4,500 Jews who were initially sent on the death march, only a few hundred survived.
At one of the mass graves on the route where the memorial march stopped, “we said kaddish and said the six words [of the Shema] together. The last thing they said before they were killed, was ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.’”
For Harry Sharon, who recently found out that his father Noah Szumacher survived the march, taking part in the trip was “very personal.”
Sharon told the Post that he was born in Melbourne, and both his parents were Holocaust survivors.
“My dad died in 1957, and I didn’t know much. I didn’t know he was on the death march or that he had had a wife and two children,” he said. “I wanted to find out for myself… I thought he may have been on this death march.” This was confirmed a few weeks ago, “when I went to the National Library in Jerusalem and found that he had written about what happened to him for The Forward, which was then a Yiddish newspaper.
“He wrote a letter some time between 1942 and 1943 describing it,” Sharon said, adding that today he is still looking to find the actual letter.
“What I can’t comprehend is that if they wanted to kill the Jews, why did they make them march? It was sadistic,” Sharon added.
He said that the group, who mainly traveled by bus, also visited Sobibor where “I questioned if my family was killed there, or if they were killed in the [Chelm] Ghetto.
“At the Chelm cemetery, we had an emotional ceremony where we said kaddish, and I found the original tombstone of my great-grandmother,” he continued. “I also found the address of my grandparents and where my father stayed just before the war.”
What hit Sharon hard was the total absence of Jews in these places today.
“Almost half the population in Chelm and Hrubieszów [before the war] were Jewish, and now there’s no one,” he added.
Asked how we can encourage the younger generation to remember and commemorate the events of the Holocaust, Levkovich said education is key.
“Proper education should be implemented in both Israel and the Diaspora, and among the younger generation,” he said. “We think it is appropriate to introduce the first death march into textbooks in Israel, and that the events on Holocaust [Remembrance] Day must mention the atrocities, such as the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the concentration camps and the decision of the Wannsee Conference [which] led to the mass murder of Jews.”
He said that they are also hoping to find at least 10,000 of the 15,000 Jews of Chelm who perished in the Holocaust.
“So far we have found 3,000 names, and I want to do this project as a joint activity between school students in Chelm and in Israel,” he added.
Levkovich stressed that he hopes “Eli Wiesel’s words ‘never again’ will be a major signpost” for future generations.