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Freda, the daughter of Boruch and Rochel Gabe, lived in the small town of Kovel (population 33,000), Poland. She had a younger sister, Reva. Jews constituted more than half of the population of the town. Most earned their living from light industry: the production of beer and leather, or construction. Some were active in wholesale and retail businesses.
Jews were active in local politics, and won 10 seats in the municipal elections of 1939. Two Jewish periodicals were published in Kovel. The community also supported a high school, elementary school and kindergarten. A drama circle provided a center for literary activities.
Kovel was occupied by the Soviet Union in September 1939. Soon after, public Jewish life was discontinued. Private commerce almost ceased to exist, causing great economic hardship. Jewish schools, however, were still allowed to function.
Kovel was occupied by the Germans on June 27, 1941. Freda was then a seventeen year-old schoolgirl. A few weeks later, the Germans collected some 200 Torah scrolls from all the synagogues and burned them. By the end of 1941, thousands of Jews had been murdered in a nearby forest by Einsatzgruppen, special mobile German killing units. On May 25, 1942, nearly 24,000 Jews from Kovel and the surrounding villages were forced to live in a closed-off ghetto. The Germans immediately murdered the elderly, the sick, and the children. The ghetto had been set up in two sections. On July 22, 1942, one section was emptied and its inhabitants murdered. Over the next few months, the Jews remaining in the other section of the ghetto were taken into the forest and shot.