Updated: Jan 20, 2022
Leonid Spivak and his family of ten lived in the city of Mogilev-Podolskiy, Ukraine. In June of 1941, his town underwent bombardment by German bombers which marked the beginning of the Great Patriotic War. Many residents tried to flee the city, including Leonid’s family. His grandfather Schmiel convinced the owner of a horse carriage to transport his family to his relatives who lived away from the city. They loaded their belongings and left on the journey. As they were leaving the city, the Germans dominated the air and they were bombed. They arrived at their relative’s town one day ahead of the Germans but were not allowed to stay. A few days later the German authorities ordered all nonresidents to leave the place promptly and return to their place of residence. Jews were ordered to put a six-pointed yellow Star of David on their clothes. Violation of any of these regulations was punishable by shooting. Fascists occupied Mogilev-Podolskiy and on their way back they were very scared. When they got back, they found out that their home had been looted and damaged and their belongings were destroyed with axes. While their city was under Romanian occupation, the Romanians wanted to gain favor with the Germans, who had a punitive unit in the city called Sonderkommando 10a. The city had a commandants’ office, Romanian and Ukrainian police, and a Jewish police force. A transit camp was established in Mogilev-Podolskiy, and a large number of Jews who were expelled from Moldavia, Bukovina, Romania, and Germany began arriving in the city (more than fifty thousand people total). With them, they brought many diseases and many people died from them. Despite all of the deaths, the work did not stop: blown-up bridges were being restored, roads were repaired, debris and destroyed houses were cleared, and ghettos were built. One day, all of the Jews were ordered to bring their belongings and gather at the “Red Square” for resettlement in the ghetto (where they stayed for two and a half years). Police met the people who were arriving and whipped children, old people, and women alike. Despite cries for mercy, police beat them even more. “It was hell. And it was only the beginning.”
Living in the ghetto was very difficult. The ghetto's location was in an area where poor Jewish people had lived that had no running water, toilets, or sewage system. There was no electricity, and human waste was not disposed of properly. They had to get their drinking water from columns in the street. The children carried water, a task that was especially hard during the winter, when spilled water froze. During summer, large numbers of green flies spread disease, and the mortality rate was high. There was no medicine, so people used home remedies. A high stone wall surrounded the ghetto. The ghetto area was patrolled both inside and outside and anyone who violated the rules of conduct was brutally punished. Nearly everything was subject to punishment in the form of beatings or even death. For example, not removing a hat in the presence of a police officer, slacking off, coming too close to the wall, not complying with the regulations, or the whim of a policeman who simply did not like you could lead to public shootings and hangings. Lack of food, violence, an animal-like existence, despair, and oppression led many people to commit suicide. Inside the ghetto, prisoners had only one place where they could exchange personal belongings or sell something. People who resold food deprived prisoners who had to exchange the last of their belongings in order to survive. When prisoners started dying of a typhus-like illness, at first the occupiers did nothing to stop the spread of the illness and death, but they soon realized that they were losing a no-cost workforce. They then announced a quarantine and sealed the ghetto. However, peasants from the surrounding villages, who were profiting from the tragic situation, were not able to sell food to the Jews and many died of hunger. Many people lost faith and their ability to resist death and a cart arrived in the ghetto daily to remove corpses. The bodies of the dead were covered with pieces of old, ragged tarpaulin, and their stiff hands and feet hung down and dragged through the dirty snow. The epidemic grew, and the number of deaths soared. Terminally ill people as well as those who had the very slight fever symptoms were taken to places from which no one ever returned. More than four thousand Jews died during the epidemic in the Mogilev-Podolskiy ghetto and one of the major problems was the acute shortage of food. Leonid’s mother took any job that would provide even a bit of food. His father was sent to work in a printing house, where he was fed and took Leonid with him.
Many in the ghetto developed the ability to exist under very difficult conditions. People snitched on each other and you could be taken to the police station—basically for anything. One day a talented youngster sang a satirical folk song about the chief of the police. Someone snitched on him and he was subsequently hanged. Raids in the ghetto rounded up Jews and sent them to the death camps. One of the camps, located in Pechora, was called “Death Loop.” No one ever returned from the camp, and they all knew it. One day his father found out about the time of the next raid and his grandfather, Schmiel, decided that they had to take a chance and leave the ghetto. He hoped to hide at the home of his Ukrainian friend, Mr. Boyko, who had fought alongside him during the war of 1905. In the evening, under cover of darkness, they left the ghetto and met Mr. Boyko, who put them in his basement. Mr. Boyko’s daughter worked in the commandant’s office and had threatened to turn her parents and Leonid’s family over to the police. They left and hid all day in the ruins, and at night they returned to the ghetto. Before the liberation of the city from the Nazis, a German soldier came to their house. He asked them for a drink of water. He told Leonid’s mom that the ghetto would be liquidated and that they would all be shot. Leonid’s family had to leave immediately. They gathered at a hole in the wall they had discovered earlier even though written rules stated that anyone who approached the wall would be shot. As they slipped out, they encountered the Gestapo. Automatic weapons were hung from their necks. Although Leonid’s Mother whispered softly, they could all hear her well. She said: “It’s over. Here we face our death.”. Thankfully, the soldiers passed them like ghosts, as if they did not exist. The adults decided to go to their house outside the ghetto, where they hid while waiting for the Nazis to retreat from the city.. A few days before the liberation, the Red Army’s demolition teams blew up the bridges, and the Germans retreated quickly. The Jewish men seized power in Mogilev-Podolskiy and held the city until the arrival of units of the 6th Guards Tank Army of the Second Ukrainian Front. They were freed on March 19, 1944, after nine hundred seventy days spent in the camp and then in the ghetto, a total of two years and eight months.
All information from the book Never Heard Never Forget and interviews with survivors.