Oral History

Charlene Schiff describes escaping from the Horochow ghetto

Both of Charlene's parents were local Jewish community leaders, and the family was active in community life. Charlene's father was a professor of philosophy at the State University of Lvov. World War II began with the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939. Charlene's town was in the part of eastern Poland occupied by the Soviet Union under the German-Soviet Pact of August 1939. Under the Soviet occupation, the family remained in its home and Charlene's father continued to teach. The Germans invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, and arrested Charlene's father after they occupied the town. She never saw him again. Charlene, her mother, and sister were forced into a ghetto the Germans established in Horochow. In 1942, Charlene and her mother fled from the ghetto after hearing rumors that the Germans were about to destroy it. Her sister attempted to hide separately, but was never heard from again. Charlene and her mother hid in underbrush at the river's edge, and avoided discovery by submerging themselves in the water for part of the time. They hid for several days. One day, Charlene awoke to find that her mother had disappeared. Charlene survived by herself in the forests near Horochow, and was liberated by Soviet troops. She eventually immigrated to the United States.


My mother came home from work and she says, "It's time to go." And so, she made me dress in my best clothes, and, again, I still had that coat with a few sewn-in coins, and I put on my high-top shoes, and she got dressed in whatever she felt was still not threadbare, and she made two little bundles, one for myself and one for her. We ate our meager supper, and when it got dark, really dark--it was a dark night, it was very quiet--we stepped out of our room, we didn't tell anyone. At that point, no one shared information with anyone else. It seems like everyone was an entity unto oneself. We walked out, we didn't say goodbye to anyone. And pretty soon we were in the river. It was very quiet, and there were a lot of bulrushes and there's a lot of underbrush, and I held on tightly to my mother's hand, and all of a sudden shots rang out and we ducked, and when it stopped we proceeded a little further. But then, the gun...the gunshots were sporadic, but we could not move because it was still, and when we moved we made noise. And so, we just stayed there, and it turned out we stayed the entire night, because the sporadic gunshots were making it impossible for us to move. The next morning, there were no sporadic gunshots, it was regular now, and it seemed to come from every which side. We heard a lot of noise, a lot of commotion, we saw fire, we heard screams, we heard babies crying, and it seems that it was none too soon that we got out. At that point, a lot of other people from the ghetto tried to do the very same thing we did, and they ran towards the river. At that time, the guards started screaming, the Ukrainian guards, and this is a phrase in Ukrainian, "Wylaz Zyde Ya Tebe Bachu" and that means, "Crawl out, Jew, I can see you." That phrase rings in my ears constantly, and a lot of people came out. My mother held me down and we stayed put. And that went on for several days, and my mother made me eat the soggy bread that was in the bundle. It tasted awful, and she kept saying I have to be strong, and I can't give up now, and she kept giving me directions of how to get to the farmer's house on the other side of the river where that was, that was supposed to have been our hiding place. And I, I felt I knew and I, I told her, I mean, "Stop repeating it. I know how to get there," because we used to go there before the war and my mother used to buy some of the dairy products like milk and cheese and butter from that farmer, so I knew his name, I knew his family, and I knew where he lived. Only we didn't go through the river, went all around. That was in a little village called Skobelka. And we stayed pinned down and at that point the gunshots were working full time. There were screams from the ghetto, and fire, and it never let down even at night, night and day. I don't know how many days we stayed in the river, but it was several days, and I kept dozing off. And one time I woke up, or I thought I woke up, and I looked around, and my mother wasn't there. I really became panic-stricken, and I didn't know what to do, and I just stayed there until the very end of that day. And by that time, everything quieted down. There was no more sound except my own sobbing. I, I was crying. It was so still. And somehow, at that moment, I felt I let my mother down. I fell asleep, and she probably couldn't wake me up, and she had to leave. And so when it got real dark I made my way to the other side of the river, and by that time it was dawn. I was wet and petrified and utterly confused. I made my way to the farmer's house and the farmer saw me and he led me into the barn and I asked him, "Is my mother here?" He said, "No." I said, "Well, she's supposed to be here." He says, "Yes." I said, "Well, I'll wait, you know, until she comes." And he said, "No, you will not wait here. I'll feed you, you'll stay until it gets dark, and you better leave." And I looked at him. I said, "You made an agreement with my mother," and I asked--I mean I, I, I addressed him by his name, which I don't want to give now because I think I have a lot of questions and I would like to resolve them someday before I die, when I go back there, and I asked him, "You made an agreement." And he says, "I changed my mind," and he shrugged his shoulders and he said I have to go when it gets dark. If I don't go he'll report me to the authorities. It was very ironic, 'cause he was wearing a farmer's, like a coverall, and in the corner I saw my father's gold pocket watch with the chain, which I'm sure was part of the money that my mother tried to buy the hiding place for us.


  • US Holocaust Memorial Museum Collection
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