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Hersch Altman b. 1931.

Hersch was born in 1931, the only son of a deeply religious, middle class family, with three older sisters. They lived in the town of Brzezany in Eastern Galicia, in what was then Poland and is now Ukraine. His parents were shopkeepers. From an early age, Hersch became aware of the pervasive anti-Semitism among many in Brzezany, enduring brutal beatings as a young boy while returning home from Cheder (religious school). Despite all, his parents, Chaim and Raizel, chose not to emigrate to Palestine or elsewhere, as many of their neighbors had done.

The town fell under Soviet control at the outbreak of hostilities in 1939, while Nazi Germany occupied Western Poland. The Soviet Communist regime was harsh to the Jews of Brzezany, and Hersch’s family suffered not only the expropriation of their family store but their home and possessions as well. The local populace simmered with anti-Semitic tension, both overt and subtle; as the Jewish community was accused of collaboration with the occupiers (though they were more victims than complicit in governing the territory), and the historic libel of Matzah baked with Christian blood made the rounds of the local papers during the spring Passover holiday. The Altmans endured this unsettling time as best they could, despite Nazi bombing raids on the town – still under Russian control -specifically targeting the Jewish community. The family took refuge in the home of their Gentile milkman, Janek, and his wife, who cared for them as their own. It was an all-too brief respite from a gathering storm.

The German invasion of the Soviet Union began in June 1941, and Brzezany was soon under Nazi control. The Altmans returned to their bombed-out, barely livable house, but were under frequent threats by the new occupiers, whose anti-Semitic vitriol and actions were even worse than the Russians. Home invasions by soldiers foraging for food, liquor, and cigarettes were frequent; at one such incident, Hersch and his family were lined up to be shot, only to be spared through the audacity of his father defying the will of the German officer. Forced labor, food scarcity, beatings became routine in Brzezany; the synagogues and Cheder were destroyed. The shofar fell silent on the High Holidays.

Hersch’ father, along with the lesser-abled Jews of the town, were rounded up on the morning of Yom Kippur by the Germans and marched off to the local prison. Hersch hid in the brush nearby, watching this dehumanization, the arbitrary cruelty inflicted by the oppressors on these weakened souls. He waited for his father to emerge from his captivity, waited and hoped, but “I never saw my father again. Never again did I hear his gentle voice asking me questions about the weekly Torah portion, nor felt the warmth of his embrace, proud that I had learned my religious lessons so perfectly.”

The family home was soon demolished, along with all the Jewish residences in the neighborhood, and the Altmans rented a two-room apartment from a Gentile divorcee. A year of hardship, mourning for their father, resourcefulness and despair … until Yom Kippur 1942, when a large action against the Jews was launched. Hersch’s mother decided to send him and his sister Shancia (15 – Hersch was 10 at this time) to seek shelter with a Christian friend, while she and his other sisters remained in the apartment. Splitting up the family was a desperate bid at survival, but a futile one. Hersch and Shancia were caught by German soldiers while trying to evade the round-up; Hersch managed to slip away, eventually re-uniting with his mother and two other sisters hiding in the attic of a friend serving as a Judenrat to the Gestapo. Shancia (15) was caught, herded into a cattle car with scores of other young Jews, never to be heard from again. All told, the Altmans lost four other family members in the raids that day.

After the raids, the remaining Jews of Brzezany were forced to live in a cramped ghetto. Raizel and the family arranged to hide out in the barn of a local peasant, for a price. There they endured the harsh winter of 1942-3. One morning, while Hersch and his mother had ventured into town to attend the funeral of his aunt, the Gestapo arrived at the farmhouse. Whether they were turned in by the peasant remains in doubt; it doesn’t matter. Rochel and Feigel, two teenage girls huddled in the cold, were shot outside the house, their blood reddening the white snow.

Soon enough, the regular raids against the remaining Jewish populace culminated in a final action, where the town joined so many others in the region as Judenrein – free of Jews. Hersch and his mother survived the raids hiding in a makeshift bunker in his Aunt Scheindl’s house, along with thirty two other souls for three long days. Eventually, they ventured a night escape to another nearby village. But as they made their way through the dense forest with his cousin, Moishe, Hersch spotted Ukrainian police and the small party scattered, hiding to evade the flashlights. Eventually, Moishe and Hersch made it to the farmer’s house; Raizel and the others were apprehended in the forest, and summarily killed.

Hersch was now the lone survivor of his family of six. He was twelve years old.

Subsuming as best he could his numbing grief, Hersch later wrote about this time:

Despite the horrors we had seen from Hitler, the daily threat on our lives and the revenge I wanted for my lost family, my friends and for every murdered Jew, something in me wanted to continue living. Maybe it was simply because I didn’t want the family name to die out. Whatever the explanation, something inside of me was prepared to fight for my continued survival.

Hersch left Moishe and the farmer behind, returned to Brzezany, and through the kindness of some gentile acquaintances was reunited with his Aunt Sheindl and Uncle David. After a time, it became unsafe to remain in the barn they were hiding in, and the three were forced to flee to a camp in the nearby forest, led by Izak Meller, a friend of the Altman family. They met other Jews hiding in the forest, eventually numbering some twenty-five “Little Partisans”, built five huts among them out of twigs and leaves, fighting the weather as well as hiding from the local farmers. Hersch became a Bar Mitzvah in that encampment, reciting the familiar prayers to the assembled refugees. That day, for the first time, he said Kaddish for the family and life he had lost.

After a German raid on their abandoned encampment, the group decided to separate. Hersch joined his cousin Rochel, David, Scheindl, and the intrepid leader Izak in hiding – yet another farmhouse, yet another reprieve thanks to the kindness of Gentiles. Hersch was then placed in the care of a young Polish family, the Szczepanskis, as rumors of Nazi defeats became more real than hope. The family cared for him, fed and hid him in their attic; Izak had ensured his remaining family were secreted nearby.

In the spring of 1944, the Russians liberated the area. Izak and Rochel were married, and the five returned to Brzezany. David resourcefully opened up a small store, which prospered, while Izak became a local grain and produce trader. Brzezany remained a hostile, unwelcome place for the few remaining Jews, and in early 1946 they left, eventually arriving in a displaced persons camp in Italy, hoping to make Aliyah to Palestine, but eventually emigrating to New York in 1949.

Hersch put the past behind him as best he could, focused on his studies, and became a dentist after graduating from Tufts Dental school. He met Laura, settled in Randolph, and raised three children of his own. Hersch became active in sharing his story with students and the broader Greater Boston and Arizona communities, to which we are eternally grateful.

A note about the video recording: This testimony has been collected by Northeastern’s Holocaust and Genocide Awareness Committee. You can view more testimonials here, including many years of recordings of Hersh Altman:

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