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Postwar Justice

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Deposition of Pesakh Burshteyn

Burshteyn, Pesakh Deposition 1945
Courtesy of the Jewish Historical Institute, Warsaw

In August 1943, German authorities decided to destroy the Białystok ghetto, which they had created roughly two years earlier.1 In the early hours of the morning of August 16, German forces entered the ghetto together with their Ukrainian, Latvian, and Belarusian collaborators. Learning of the final assault on the Jewish inhabitants of the ghetto, the Jewish underground staged several acts of resistance. After almost a week of resistance, German authorities deported more than 25,000 of the remaining Jewish inhabitants of the Białystok ghetto to Treblinka, where the overwhelming majority were murdered on arrival.2

Pesakh Burshteyn was one of the few who survived this assault on the ghetto. We do not have much information about Burshteyn or his family, and it is unclear how he survived. We do know that he survived, because he gave a deposition to the Jewish Historical Commission in Białystok on July 22, 1945. From the brief cover sheet produced at the time, we know that Burshteyn was born in 1910 in Białystok,3 and that the deposition was recorded by a certain "E. Sztajman," about whom we do not have any further information.

The document itself raises important issues relating to genre and authorship. Burshteyn's deposition presents a challenge, since there is a question about how accurately Sztajman recorded Burshteyn's account. The document is certainly a valuable source—but Burshteyn's testimony was recorded by another person two years after the events occurred. Indeed, Sztajman refers to Burshteyn in the third person, although the voice of the document's narrator is not always clear. At which points in the text does reported speech slip into direct speech, presumably uttered by Burshteyn?

In this sense, the featured document is not a traditional Holocaust diary like many of the other sources in this collection. However, it is a firsthand record of the day-by-day events of a period in August 1943. Because of this and the difficulties of documenting these events as they happened, Burshteyn's testimony takes the shape of a series of diary entries recorded once the war ended.

Białystok was home to a large Jewish population before the war. See Rebecca Kobrin, Jewish Białystok and its Diaspora (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008). For the history of Białystok and its Jewish population during WWII, see Sara Bender, The Jews of Białystok during World War II and the Holocaust, trans. Yaffa Murciano (Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2008).

Or 1909, the Yiddish and Polish versions give different years.

 Literally a "life-pass," a card that authorized the holder to work, offering some protection from deportations.

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On Sunday, August 15, 1943, the mood in the Białystok ghetto was completely calm; there were no signs of the upcoming catastrophe. Even the Judenrat, with which P. Burshteyn was in contact, was not informed about anything, and expected nothing bad in the coming days.

At 1:30 in the morning between the 15th and the 16th, Burshteyn and his family were awakened by a great commotion and tumult in the ghetto. All ghetto residents were already in the streets, several Gestapo cars were already parked in front of the [building of the] Judenrat, the Gestapo people had occupied [the building], and the ghetto was already surrounded by a tight chain of the German and Latvian SS. The ghetto population already understood that a new catastrophe was nigh, and panicking Jews sought to procure any kind of Lebensschein.1 At 4 o’clock in the morning, announcements were put up, typed up in Yiddish and German, with the following: "The entire Białystok ghetto population is being evacuated to Lublin, to a labor camp. Clothing and food for several days are allowed to be taken. The entire ghetto population is to assemble by 9 o’clock in the morning at Jurowiecka and Fabryczna, at the gate [of the ghetto]. Whoever is found in other parts of the ghetto after 9 o’clock will be shot. The evacuation is total, hiding is pointless." The announcement was signed by the Judenrat, on behalf of the German authorities.

P. Burshteyn left with his family for the gate [of the ghetto] around 8:30. A great mass of people was already gathered in the square. Around 35,000 people assembled there that day (there were around 40,000 people in the entire ghetto). The mass of people was crowded terribly, it was unseasonably hot, and the mood was one of panic. At one moment, several youngsters ran by P. Burshteyn, and asked in a hushed voice, "Do you have weapons? Come with us!" Burshteyn recognized them as members of the resistance organization, but he had no weapons, and so he stayed in the mass. Shortly before 10 o’clock, shooting broke out from the side of Nowogródzka, Smolna, Ciepła [streets], it was the rebels. A group of SS men immediately started shooting in that direction, throwing grenades and firebombs. A number of buildings caught fire. First the building on Jurowiecka 26, where the Pelts and Pines families lived. Around 11 o’clock, a small armored carrier and a large tank drove through the gate into the ghetto, and parked in the courtyard of Jurowiecka 26, which reached up to Nowogródzka. Four officers were sitting in the small armored carrier, and they were observing the scene and laughing. The tank started shooting in the direction Nowogródzka-Smolna. Large fires began in a few places in that neighborhood.

The guards did not treat the mass of people in the square particularly badly. They were not shot, but were instead ordered to keep peaceful. Groups of SS men went through the houses and courtyards of Jurowiecka and Fabryczna and drove the Jews out to the square. At some point, sixteen Jews were brought from the other part of the ghetto. They were lined up against the wall of Jurowiecka 26 and shot in front of the eyes of the crowd. One of the sixteen managed to escape, and it seemed the Germans began to suspect he was one of the rebels.

After 11 o’clock, two Jewish youths wearing bloodied German uniforms ran past P. Burshteyn. They were the rebels who escaped, and they had taken the uniforms from the textile workshop in the ghetto, where uniforms were made and altered. Both youngsters quickly took off the uniforms, tended to their wounds, and disappeared in the crowd. They informed [people in the crowd] that the situation of the uprising is critical, since there are few weapons and the help they expected from the outside of the ghetto did not come.

The shooting lasted for about two hours. People said that Yitzhak Vlitse, the commander of the ghetto police, betrayed the rebels, and that the SS men seized a hideout with a great many weapons.

P. Burshteyn witnessed the deaths of Bushezinsky’s mother and wife on Ciepła [street]. He also witnessed the shooting of four Germans by the rebels, and the wounding of two, who were [subsequently] evacuated on a wagon. People were saying that around 30 Germans were shot around Ciepła and Nowogródzka [streets]. Around 12 o’clock the shooting stopped. The later fate of the rebels is unknown to P. Burshteyn.

Around 12:30, some 50-60 Latvian SS men marched into the ghetto, went into the crowd, beat people with knouts and stabbed them with bayonets [...]

After a while, an order came to form rows of four and march out of the ghetto. P. Burshteyn was among the first ones out, with his wife and child, and mother and father-in-law. A tight chain of heavily-armed SS men awaited the Jews outside of the ghetto gate. The Jews were led from Jurowiecka through Białostoczek (a suburb of Białystok) to a square in Pietrasze. Along the way, over the distance of 3-4 kilometers, P. Burshteyn saw some 60-70 bodies of shot Jewish women and men from the rows of marchers. Once in Pietrasze, the entire crowd was put under heavy guard. Pietrasze is a large open space, without buildings or any other places to hide. The Jews were beaten savagely [...]

Soon, a selection began. Everyone had to go through a check-point manned by several SS officers. The Jews were divided into two groups. The group (consisting of) the old, the sick and others not desirable according to the Germans were sent to one side, and the younger [Jews] were sent to the other side.

P. Burshteyn and his family went through the selection on the morning of August 17; his mother and father-in-law were torn away from him. He saw how Jewish foremen drove wagons into the crowd of the elderly and took them away, and how piles of bodies of shot Jews were soon returned on wagons, among them his father-in-law. The foremen said that the rest [of the Jews] would be taken to a train [...]

P. Burshteyn, his wife, and his 9-year-old son were pushed away from the rest of the crowd, along with a group of some 600 people. They were told: “You are going to work” [...]

Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
Courtesy of the Jewish Historical Institute, Warsaw
RG Number 15.079M
Date Created
July 22, 1945
Page(s) 4
Author / Creator
Pesakh Burshteyn
E. Sztajman
Białystok, Poland
Document Type Report
How to Cite Museum Materials

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