ONLINE NEWSLETTER
(No. 1/2006- January 2006)
Editor: Fran Bock

We are pleased to share the harrowing and moving story of Albert Lapidus, whose father Israel Lapidus was a partisan commander in Belarus during WWII. As a boy, Albert survived the Minsk ghetto and lived the partisan's forest life.  An earlier version of his memoir was published in the Russian language periodical Vestnik, and is reprinted here with permission. The Lapidus family emigrated in 1992 from Minsk to Baltimore, where they now reside. Albert’s daughter Irina Bindler translated the memoir into English.

The memoir comes to us from frequent contributor Vitaly Charny, whose brother-in-law Vadim Bindler is Irina’s husband. Vadim is famous in his own right as a Soviet and world acrobatic champion and the first man to complete a triple somersault.  He is currently a gymnastic coach in Baltimore

 

© This article is copyrighted by Albert Lapidus and Vestnik.

Reprinting or copying of this article is not allowed
without prior permission from the copyrightholders
.

 

Albert Lapidus: My War Childhood

A Prisoner of the Ghetto and

Partisan of World War II Remembers

by Albert Lapidus

(Translated from the Russian by Irina Bindler)

My childhood was singed by War. From the many thousands of prisoners of the Ghetto, just a few dozen were able to survive. I was among them. There are fewer and fewer witnesses of those terrible years, and it impels me to take up the pen.

Part I:  Ghetto

Family

My memories of pre-War life are connected with my grandmother, Mina. If my parents told me that we were going to Grandma’s that evening, I stayed happily excited the whole day. I loved my grandma very much and felt sorry for her because of her illness. She suffered badly from arthritis and could walk only with crutches.

My grandmother wasn’t so religious that she observed all traditions, but she enjoyed when all her family got together on Passover, Hanukkah, and other holidays. At age of seven, I was the oldest grandson. All of her grandchildren stood near her bed and everyone got a candy. It was a ritual. 

            My grandma was very proud of her sons. Nobody was allowed to criticize them; she was the only one who could do so. However, she was very happy when her neighbors admitted that her sons were the best. My grandmother was our family’s favorite person.

            She was very sociable and hospitable. All our relatives and friends --- even my father’s friends who came to our town for business --- liked to go to visit her. They enjoyed talking to her, admired her worldly wisdom and soft humor. Her guests always felt very comfortable at her modest, warm place.  Before the War, Grandma had even invited one lonely stranger to live in her house. Her name was Helena. She came from a small village and didn’t know anybody in our town. My grandma felt sorry for her and let her stay at her place. Helena found a job in a hospital as a nurse. She worked hard at night shifts, then got home early in the morning and slept the whole day.  Sometimes Grandma’s daughters-in-law wondered why she kept an absolute stranger in her home. “She doesn’t bother me. Why wouldn’t I do something nice for her?” Grandma used to say. Even though she was so ill, my grandmother never complained. She used to say, “We should be thankful for everything.”

* * *

My grandfather Abram was an exceptionally quiet person. Life hadn’t been fair to him. In the First World War, he was poisoned by gas and taken prisoner. He came back home disabled, blind in one eye. He couldn’t work any more, although he used to be a good joiner. All day he would sit in the kitchen near the Russian stove, smoking and coughing. If one of his children or grandchildren got sick, he became depressed and very quiet.

            My grandparents had five children: four boys and a girl named Masha, who was the youngest. The three oldest --- Semen, my father Israel, and Benjamin --- lived on their own; Iosif and Masha lived with my grandparents.  Iosif had four children, and although my grandparents’ apartment was very small, his wife Sonya preferred to live there with her mother-in-law.

 

Israel Lapidus in 1943

War Begins

Every family had their own sorrow and happiness, their own small and big problems. But suddenly, the most terrible tragedy happened to all of them... the War. From the beginning, Minsk was heavily bombed. People panicked and tried to leave the city by trains, trucks, and some by just running away. City government officials, the mayor, and the police were the first to run away. Since most parents had their children in summer camps, they rushed to get them. But it was too late. Children were already evacuated.  Distraught with grief, parents had to come back home without children.

            All of our family got together at Grandma’s place. What should we do?  Our grandma couldn’t walk, and to leave her alone was out of the question.  So we decided to stay in town. Many other families with sick and helpless elderly made the same decision. But the middle of Minsk was completely destroyed, and my grandma lived close to the center of the city, near Freedom Square. At any minute, her house could be bombed. We had to move over to my Uncle Ilya’s place. His house was right on the outskirts of town on Moprovskya Street. Only my other grandfather, Evsey, was still in the house because my uncle and the rest of his family were evacuated. Being so stubborn, Evsey refused to leave and wanted to stay and take care of the house. 

            My father and his brother Semen carried Grandma to that house with their hands. The next day when we went back home to get some clothes, our house had already been bombed. 

* * *

My father was getting ready to go to War. He considered it to be his duty. It was very hard for him to leave his son, pregnant wife, old and sick parents. When he left, they all tried to restrain themselves, but I couldn’t; I was crying bitterly. Terrified by fire, bombing and death, I was shocked to be apart from my father. 

            I was very close with my parents. They never really punished me if I did something wrong. They just might stop talking to me for a couple hours and that was unbearable enough. I wasn’t spoiled at all. I never had many toys and gifts, but I was always very happy and grateful when I got some.  And suddenly, all that stopped. My serene childhood was left behind.  Hunger... fear of being killed... grief from loss of dear friends and relatives... that was what I could expect now.

 

Albert Lapidus in 1944

* * *

Nazis entered Minsk on the sixth day of War. How much everything changed! Very often, those who used to be good friends and nice neighbors became malicious anti-Semites. And on the other hand, some strangers showed their kindness and thoughtfulness. Like my grandmother’s old boarder, Helena. During the War, my Aunt Masha met her. She was so happy to ask about everybody, and she promised to come to visit Grandma. A few days later, Helena came and brought some food --- potatoes, onions, bread, meat. “My God, what’s going to happen to all of you?!” she cried.

            I knew couples who used to live in love and harmony before the War, and then betrayed their Jewish spouses to save their own lives. According to Nazi orders, husbands and wives in mixed marriages were forbidden to stay together, and had to live on different sides of barbed wire. Some non-Jewish husbands or wives even pretended to be Jewish and voluntarily became prisoners of the Ghetto. I personally knew such a family. Our friend Efim Aginski and his Russian wife Nadia lived together in the Ghetto. Later they were able to escape and fight against Nazis.

            Before we moved to the Ghetto, my mother had a close friend named Dasha. She visited us very often and was like a member of our family. One day during the War we met her on the street. “Aunt Dasha, Aunt Dasha,” I gladly called her. She gave us a hateful look and passed by.

            It was hard to accept this reality. From loud speakers installed on Nazi’s cars we heard, “Juden kaput, Juden kaput!” Once when I went into the street, our neighbor’s son, who was about 13 years old, grabbed me, drove me into a fence, and maliciously spoke through his teeth, “Soon all of you Jews will be dead.” I was frightened awfully, and told my mom. She asked me to stop going into the street. 

            But the street attracted my attention. Not far from us, on Starovilinskaya Street, the Nazis regularly drove columns --- long lines --- of prisoners down the street. I thought that I might see my father among them...

            ...Columns are moving very slowly, raising dust from the street. I am standing, choking down my tears, hoping to see his dear face.  Dirty, unshaven, exhausted; they are all very much alike. At one moment it seems to me that I recognize my father. “Daddy! Daddy!” But to approach the column is forbidden and the escorts shoot without warning. No, this is not my daddy. He would definitely recognize me. Worried and confused, I come back home. Tomorrow there will be another column of prisoners and another hope to see my father...

            I was close to a nervous breakdown, crying all night long and calling Daddy. My mom forbade me to go into the street. Even adults tried not to go there. It was very dangerous. Any Nazi could come and shoot you only because you were a Jew. Every day we found out about people who had been shot or hanged. The Nazis established their own orders and rules. Then on July 16, 1941, the Nazis issued an order which prohibited Jewish people to go on the sidewalks and say hello to non-Jewish neighbors. Under the fear of death, we were forced to sew yellow stars on the back and front of our clothes. Everybody realized that was just the beginning.

* * *

A few days later on July 20, the German commandant ordered all Jews to move to the Ghetto. There were 80,000 Jews in Minsk before the beginning of the War, which was about one-third of the city’s total population. The Ghetto included Apanskya Street, Flaxa Street, Killectornaya Street, Nemiga, Ratomskaya, Zaslavskaya Street, and many other streets built up with one-level wooden apartments. We were allowed 15 square feet of dwelling space for adults --- children were not considered --- and not more than 25 pounds of belongings.

            It is amazing how memory has kept all the details of our movement to the Ghetto. People realized the tragedy of the situation. They knew they were not only leaving their homes and their pasts, but life itself. Our family joined the stream of other Jewish families. My mom was holding my hand very tight; she was afraid to lose me. My two grandfathers helped Grandma with her wheelchair. There were non-Jews on the streets --- Russians, Belarussians, Poles. They watched us, prisoners of the Ghetto; some with curiosity and others with anger. But we could also see eyes full of tears and compassion.

            The last day of moving Jews over to the Ghetto was July 31, 1941.  The Ghetto had been surrounded by barbed wire. Any attempt to make your way outside to the so-called “Russian Area” was followed by shooting without warning. It was very hard to get used to the idea that we were prisoners.

            Our family of eight people was placed in a small room on Old-Mosnitskaya Street. Almost all other Jewish families had the same housing conditions. Those people. whose apartments were already located in the territory that became the Ghetto were very lucky to have some food left over at home. Our family was starving terribly. Sometimes friends or neighbors gave us a few spoons of flour and Mom cooked them with water. 

            The best treat was a piece of bread. One day, Masha’s friend gave us half a loaf of bread. We divided part of it equally into eight pieces and ate it right away, the rest we put in the kitchen cabinet. All day, my thoughts were about this bread. Many times during the day I approached the cabinet... slowly opened the door... but being afraid that I might not be able to resist pinching a piece, hurried away. 

            When it was impossible to stand hunger, my mom sent me to bed very early. “You won’t starve so badly, my boy, while you are sleeping.” She was on her last month of pregnancy and it was extremely hard for her. She fainted very often. When her girlfriend Mira, a nice and kind woman, visited us, she always brought some food and tried to give it to Mom very tactfully, because she was afraid to hurt her with pity.

            In the end of September, religious and non-religious Jews celebrated Yom Kippur, and Mira invited Mama. “Everything you see and hear will impress you,” she said. As always, Mom took me with her. When we entered the room, an old tall man greeted us. He was very handsome, with gray hair and gray beard that contrasted with his black biblical eyes. Even now, after so many years, I still can remember his face. The man put on Tales and began to sing. Not many people in that room could understand Hebrew words, but such beautiful music expressed everything we had experienced lately. It touched our hearts and we all cried.

            I also remember the Yom Kippur of 1941 because one week later, my mom gave birth to my little brother. He was born in a small, one-level wooden house on Obuvnaya Street that was used as a hospital. They went home the same day. To stay longer was very dangerous; Nazis could come any minute and shoot newborns and their mothers. Jewish women had been forbidden to have children --- people who were destined to for destruction were not supposed to have posterity.

            ...Mom is sitting on the bed holding her adorable, helpless little baby.  Her flesh and blood. “What is going to happen to him?” She drowned in tears. “What is going to happen to him...?” 

            We named him Vadim. One day my mom took him outside and met Father’s friend, Nathan Vaingaus. He looked at my brother and said, “Looks exactly like his father. I am sure Israel is alive.”  He said a few more nice, encouraging words and hurried away. Later, we found out that Nathan Vaingaus was one of the leaders of the Jewish Underground resistance group in the Ghetto.

* * *

All the history of my long-suffering people shows that basically, Jews were very solid in grief and sorrow. But I can’t say that all Jews in the Ghetto lived like one big family. It wouldn’t be true.  There were many bad people who were capable of betrayal. The Nazis created a Jewish police from those who wanted to save their own lives at the cost of others’. People hated and despised them, but also were afraid of them. Those who survived the Ghetto don’t like to remember that shameful fact.

            The Nazis also created a Jewish committee called “Judenrat” to help them complete their orders, every one of which ended with “...shooting for non-fulfillment.” The president of the committee was Ilya Mushkin. One of the main duties of Judenrat was to create teams of workers. Nazis were interested in skilled men who would work for them for free. Jewish people worked at plants and factories, at railway stations and in different repair shops. Each man in the Ghetto had to work. Every morning columns of workers, guarded by Nazis and their dogs, went out of the gates of the Ghetto. Not everybody came back. Many of them were killed as soon as they got out of town.

            Nazis constantly made raids in the Ghetto. On one day they would grab and shoot only men, other days only women. They didn’t want to waste ammunition to kill children, so they fractured their little skulls by hitting them against a brick wall, or broke their spines. The best entertainment for them was to toss up a baby and catch him on a bayonet.

            Nazis were killing us not only with bullets but also by hunger. Those who worked got three tablespoons of soup and some bread once a day. They didn’t eat it, but brought it home to share. In order to survive, we had to exchange our clothes for food with non-Jewish people on the other side of barbed wire. It was very dangerous. If the patrol saw you approaching, they would shoot you without warning. That is why it had to be done quickly and carefully. There was no time to check what we got; we had to trust our trading partners. Most of them were people from nearby villages who came to Minsk to take part in exchange process. 

            One of these exchanges was so disgraceful I will never forget it. My mother had gathered everything we had left --- Father’s last pair of shoes and his only suit --- and tossed it over to the other side of barbed wire. Our trading partner offered us 15 pounds of flour for them. It was unbelievable treasure for us. We thought we were so lucky. But when we opened the bag, inside we found chloride with just a little flour on top. Mom could hardly separate the flour, so she baked us chloric latkes. We were stunned by the guile of the miller (that’s what we called him). What evil can hide deep inside some people’s souls! The War certainly uncovers the very bottom of a human’s soul.

* * *

Before the War, people lived by themselves in their own shells. It was completely different in the Ghetto --- everybody had the same fate and barbed wire was one for all. I remember neighbors got together to discuss something, hoping to hear better news. Everybody liked the stories of the barber, Lazar.  He was considered the most informed one. And although we knew that many of his stories were not true, we wanted to believe him. The most fantastical rumors raised hopes in us. There was some talk that the Soviet government and Germans had made an agreement for the exchange of Jews and German prisoners of war. Or another rumor was that American Jews collected gold in order to redeem all Jewish people from Hitler, and then help them get to America. All these illusions dissipated after the first Pogrom.

The First Pogrom

It is human nature to memorize the most amazing things because they look like a miracle. For as long as I could remember, my grandmother Mina couldn’t walk more than two steps without crutches. Then when she became a prisoner of the Ghetto, she was so shocked that she gave up crutches and began to walk. But she didn’t walk for very long.

* * *

The first Pogrom happened on November 7, 1941. The day before, we waited in presentiment --- anxious and alert because it was rumored that the Nazis were preparing punitive action on the anniversary of the Great October Revolution. We had already heard about Pogroms from those who used to live in Jewish villages near Minsk and were able to escape. Still, everyone was hoping to survive.

            At dawn we heard a noise. Somebody looked out of the window.  There were a lot of Nazis on our street. In panic, we were dashing around the room. In a minute, they loudly knocked at the door. 

            ...That’s it, this is the end, no chance to survive, nowhere to hide...

            Suddenly my Uncle Semen shouted out, “To the attic!” The day before when we had looked for a place we could possibly hide, nobody mentioned the attic because it was such an insecure cover. But the knock at the door gave us no time to think. Mom grabbed the baby, but Grandma said, “During the First World War, Germans didn’t kill infants. Let him stay here. Save Albert.” So helping each other, we began to climb to the attic. Grandparents couldn’t do it; it was beyond their abilities; they had to stay downstairs.  When Grandfather opened the door, a soldier hit him and knocked him down.  My grandparents were ordered to leave the house and formed in a column.  One of the soldiers began to climb to the attic. He was very close. We already saw his head through the darkness. And suddenly, a miracle happened: the lid to the attic jumped back and hit him. He cursed and went back down.

            Before sending away the long line of people, the Nazis decided to make a quick double check of the houses. They stopped in our house again.  In that moment, my little brother began to cry. The soldier took him and gave him to somebody in line. They were all killed in a nearby Minsk village called Tuchinka. Their bodies were thrown down in one already-dug grave and covered with sand.

            We stayed in that attic more than five hours. After the Pogrom was over, we came down. It was quiet, dead quiet. I couldn’t believe that I would never see my little brother, my grandma and grandfathers again. Looking at every little thing that used to belong to them broke our hearts. “We didn’t even say good-bye,” said Aunt Masha. After these words, we all burst into tears. Uncle Semen was sitting on the floor hanging his head down. His face became gray and pointed. In his forties, he looked like an old man.

* * *

To stay there any longer was very dangerous. We had to go to my Uncle Iosif’s on Flaxa Street. Before Iosif had gone to war, he had taken his family to his father-in-law’s house there. His oldest son Fima was four years old; Leva was two and the twins Sara and Borya were four months. Iosif was supposed to look for a military unit near Borisov, but he had come back home a few days after Minsk was occupied. His military unit had been swept away by German tanks; almost no one survived. Nazis were everywhere, and had moved with a swift thrust to the east.

            Iosif’s place was extremely small, and we could hardly find space on the floor to sleep. We stayed there, not knowing that my father was not far from Minsk and soon we were going to reunite.

My Father’s Journey

Father’s first combat took place near Smolensk, but the bloodiest battle he took part in happened near Vyazma, not far from Moscow. A lot of divisions of the Soviet army were surrounded by a German armada. The forces were unequal. Any attempt to break out by large groups had no success. An enormous amount of people were killed. So General Headquarters issued an order to break out in small groups. Nazis threw down leaflets from airplanes, calling for troopers to kill their commanders and Jews, and voluntarily yield themselves prisoners in order to save their lives. My father was lucky to survive that horror. He decided to make his way back to Belarus to look for his family. More than 350 miles he walked across occupied territory. Several times he was captured by Nazis, but managed to escape. It is hard to imagine what he had to go through.

            Once, after walking all night long, he fell asleep under a tree. He was awakened by a strong kick in his head. When he opened his eyes, he saw two Nazi soldiers standing above him. By afternoon, the Nazis had captured a lot of people, formed them in a column, and under escort of four armed soldiers, walked them down a country road. It was a very long day. Just one thought was on Father’s mind: to run, to run now before they reached a camp, because then there would be no chance to escape. While the soldiers stopped in a small meadow to get some rest, the prisoners managed to arrange a quick plan. They decided that while walking through the wood, they would imitate a fight between each other. When the guard’s attention was distracted, they ran away. But many of them were not able to run far enough and were shot by Nazi soldiers. My father was among those fortunate to escape.

            So that he would not die from hunger, he had to make quick stops in small villages. Some locals were kind enough to give him a piece of bread or a bowl of soup, but they were afraid to let him stay overnight. Others unchained dogs on him.

            Walking four days with no food, he finally reached a big village.  Strength was leaving him. He headed to the corner house asking for some food, but a sudden “Halt!” stopped him. It was the second time he was captured. Soldiers searched him and sent him to a barn with other prisoners.  The roof was covered with straw. My father noticed that one corner looked thinner than others. When everyone fell asleep, he made a hole in the roof, climbed through it and ran away.

            His journey to us continued to be extremely dangerous and difficult.  At one point he was lying frozen and unconscious in the woods when a priest’s wife found him and took him in. Father spent a few days in their place. Although they knew he was a Jew, they were very kind to him. They got him warm clothes, gave him some food and prayed for him.

* * *

In the middle of November my father came to Minsk. On one of the streets, he saw a group of workers with yellow stars on their clothes. He approached one woman and asked her to tell him what was going on in town, but she couldn’t keep precautions and became very emotional when telling him about the Ghetto and the first Pogrom. Someone from the police was passing by and saw my father.

            “Why do you speak with Jew? Who are you, what is your religion?” he asked my father.

            “I am a Pole.”

            It is amazing that policeman happened to be a Pole. He began to talk Polish, but my father couldn’t keep up the conversation.

            “You are not a Pole if you cannot speak your language.”

            “Nobody taught me Polish.”

            “Tell me Polish prayer.”

            “How would I know prayer if it was forbidden to pray by the Soviets.”

            “I am taking you to prison.”

And then something happened, some kind of inexplicable miracle. The policeman took my father to the gates of prison and suddenly asked again, “Where are you going?”

            “I am looking for my family.”

            “And where does your family live?”

Knowing that our house had been bombed, Father named that address.

            “All right, go. I don’t want to take sin upon myself.”

            Making sure that the policeman did not follow him, my father walked around the Ghetto, and later, in the dark, made his way in. But where to go?  He remembered that his brother Iosif’s relatives used to live on Flaxa Street.  “Maybe they know something about my family,” he thought.

            ...There is a knock at our door. Here he is --- my father. Emaciated.  Unshaved. Gray-haired. It is impossible to describe our happiness when we saw him. We couldn’t imagine that five months after the War began, we could meet him here, in the Ghetto, surrounded by barbed wire...

            “You came here to die with us, to go to one grave together,” Mom says through tears. 

            “No, I won’t let you die. We won’t stay here. We will run away; we will definitely run away...”

            I was listening to my daddy with hope and delight because in contrast to us, he was a man who overcame fear. We were still mourning over our killed ones. But even Father from time to time said, “I am late. Just one week late.”

The Second Pogrom

During the first Pogrom 13,000 people were killed. Reichminister Gimmler himself came to inspect the Ghetto and left dissatisfied with the slow destruction of the Jews. So the second Pogrom happened on November 20, and took away 7,000 lives.

            We had moved to my father’s friend’s house illegally, and lived there on Ratomskya Street when the second Pogrom began. Lev Gureviches’ apartment had no place to hide, so we decided to run and conceal ourselves in the ruins of a brick house. But it was not a safe place either. We rushed over to the closest street where the Pogrom had already stopped. We went in an empty corner house; its residents had just been driven into the column of death. The fireplace was still warm. Children’s toys were laying on the floor.  What a short distance between life and death.

            After the second Pogrom, the streets were patrolled by Nazi soldiers.  A few hours later, the officer who made rounds of the houses was furious to see us there. He posted a sentry to watch us. It was very cold outside and in order to stay warm, the guard was walking back and forth. My father noted how long it took the guard to go along the house.

            “There is one chance in ten,” he said. “When the guard walks back from us, we will use a few seconds to hide around the corner and then run away.” We were lucky, our escape turned out well, and we found somewhere else to live in the Ghetto.

* * *

Soon, the Pogrom-emptied houses were occupied with more Jews deported from Germany and Austria. Deportation lasted until October, 1942.  The territory of the Ghetto was not big enough to hold 30,000 deported Jews.  That is why many trains were forwarded directly to the crematorium, which Nazis had built up near a village called Little Trostinetz.

Love Still Exists

The Ghetto had become a real conveyor of death. People were going through a lot of grief, sorrow, and constant expectation of dying. But the instinct of self-preservation helped them to become dull to reality. And what is more, the young people started to fall in love. Sadly, the duration of their love depended not on the strength of their feelings, but on whether they survived the Pogroms or not.

            I remember the love story of one young couple, Sima Katznelson and Zyama Ozerskai. Sima was exceptionally beautiful; Zyama had such a charming and contagious smile that everyone looking at him began to smile, too. Unfortunately, their love didn’t last long.

            At that time, the Nazi’s top officer, Rube, was given a new assignment as an assistant to the commandant of the Ghetto. Rube was known for his extreme cruelty. Every night a big black car entered the Ghetto to take away residents of one of the houses. Nobody knew whose house would be next.  Rube continued to create new methods of intimidation and torture. He gave orders for his men to select thirteen of the most beautiful women and bring them to the Jewish cemetery. Sima was among them. They all were stripped naked, raped, and then shot. Zyama was very depressed. Life without his beloved one lost any meaning for him. He was shot during the next raid.

* * *

Around the same time, Nazis killed my Uncle Iosif. His family’s life turned out to be very tragic. It is hard to imagine what his wife Sonya was going through, watching her children starving to death and being powerless to help. The two oldest boys, Fima and Leva, were very quiet. They never complained, but their eyes --- which looked especially big on emaciated faces --- were very sad. Twins Sara and Borya cried only in the beginning, then got very weak and had no strength to cry. They just whined pitifully and moaned.  Watching her babies dying from hunger and having nothing to feed them broke Sonya’s heart. Relatives tried to convince Sonya to give up the babies to the Jewish orphanage.

            “...They will get some food there. At home, they’ll starve to death.”

            “How can I do it? How can I give up my babies...?” 

            Sonya was drowning in tears. She suffered fear for her babies, and felt guilt that she had nothing to feed them. Her heart was a clot of pain and despair. Not only the residents of the house, but even the walls cried witnessing Sonya’s unbelievable torment. Finally she decided to give up her babies. But the Jewish orphanage accepted only orphans who had nobody, not even relatives. That is why there was only one sad way: to leave babies on the porch and quickly go away.

            Preparations were very hard. Then early one morning, Sonya and her sister Fira put the babies on the porch. A little later, an elderly woman opened the door, got the twins, gave a sad look around --- she felt that someone was watching her --- and went back in the house. Not blame, but compassion was written in her eyes.

            “...If a Jewish mother takes this step, it must be her last hope...”

            Every day relatives went to look at Sara and Borya through the window. They tried to hearten Sonya, although her babies got weaker and weaker. Ten days later, other babies were sitting on their bed. Relatives kept it from Sonya; they pretended to visit the babies. But the lie didn’t last long.  One week later, Sonya was killed during a raid. Fima and Leva became orphans.

            Orphanhood is very hard --- even in peacetime --- but in the Ghetto it was just terrible. Relatives and neighbors tried to get some food for the boys.  One could bring a potato, others a piece of bread or soup. People didn’t let them starve to death. 

            All day long, snuggling up to each other, they were looking through the window, waiting for their mom. They still hoped she would come. When somebody opened the door, they would run to see who came... and then with heads hung, return to the window. Lying in bed at night, they cried bitterly.  They were very attached to each other, apparently afraid of being separated forever, so Fima and Leva were always together.

            One fatal day, the Nazis made a raid on the streets and in the houses.  The boys hid in the hall closet. When soldiers threw men out of the house (the raid was only upon men this time), one of them accidentally touched the closet. The door opened, and a soldier saw the frightened boys and shot them.  It is said that one who is killed ransoms another from death. Who knows, maybe my little cousins died to give me a chance to live.

Hiding

People began to create hiding places called “malinas” in their houses, or more often under the ground. To build a malina was extremely difficult and risky, so people did it at night. If Nazis or Jewish police saw freshly-dug soil outside of the house, they would shoot all the residents. The most important thing for safety was to find out the right entrance to a malina. In our home base, the Russian stove was used as an entrance. We had dug out a trench under the house and put along benches.

            Nazis knew about the existence of malinas, but often could not find the hidden entrances. So they burst into the houses and shot through walls, ceilings, floors. It was a deplorable fact that often somebody from the Jewish police helped them to find malinas. 

            I remember a terrible tragedy that happened in a malina located under a floor. There was a young woman with an infant among the people who hid there. When Nazis came in the house, the baby started to cry.  Every little sound from under the floor meant death for all of the malina’s inhabitants.  The woman took a pillow and covered the baby. When the Nazis left and everyone got up, the baby was dead.

Children of the Ghetto

In the Ghetto, children were doomed to death. Some of us died in gas chambers, others shot or buried alive. If all Jewish children who were killed by Nazis could be revived and, together, utter a cry of despair, the universe would probably shudder.

* * *

After the second Pogrom, our family adopted a 12-year-old-boy --- a distant relative --- named Lenya, who literally had returned from the dead. A column of people had been driven out of his town to a place where a grave had been prepared. The Nazis ordered people to sit on the ground and wait for their turn. They killed prisoners by groups of 20-25 people at a time.  Lenya was in one of the groups with his mother and little sister. When machine gun fire was heard, his mother instinctively shielded Lenya with her body. Everyone fell into the grave. Lenya heard his sister mumbling, “My head hurts. My head hurts.” Then he remembered nothing. When he regained consciousness, he didn’t know whether he was dead or alive. 

            “...My leg is moving; it means I am alive. But why is it so hard to breathe...?” 

            Dead people laid heavy on him. But the Nazis didn’t cover the grave and left. In the dark, Lenya could hardly get out. Once he did, he directed his steps to the Ghetto to us, to his distant but only living relatives. He looked terrible: pale, shaking, clothes soaked in blood. He cried and tossed at night, and was sad and thoughtful all day. Soon after, he was captured during a raid and killed in a gas chamber with a group of other children.

* * *

The most fearless people in the Ghetto were children. They passed through barbed wire into the Russian area showing adroitness and courage.  Many of them lost their lives for one potato or one beet, but nothing could stop them. They looked for food everywhere, even rummaged in garbage and always brought what they could find back to the Ghetto. Older children were notable for their exceptional bravery and courage. I remember fearless Gregory Caplan, who was captured by Nazis when he was going to meet with members of the Underground, and Willy Rubeczyn, an untiring messenger in the Ghetto who later became a courageous scout in a partisan detachment.

            It was great luck if somebody was able to move their child through the wire and, under a fictitious name, get him into a Russian children’s home.  Very often Nazis and police arranged checks, cautiously peering at little faces trying to recognize Jewish features. Among other orphans in Russian children’s homes, Jewish children had to be very careful not to betray themselves.  This is a remembrance of one Jewish girl called Lilie Gragais: 

            “...I was three years old. Children were saying that Jewish people have black blood. I was afraid to cut my finger or to hurt my knee. What if they saw my blood and found out that I am a Jew...?”

            They still starved terribly in the children’s homes, but at least it was a chance to survive; in the Ghetto there was none.

* * *

Thinking about saving my life, my mom gave herself up to daydreams about meeting with our very good Russian friends, the Zhykovskay family.  She thought, “What if they were not evacuated and might see us through the barbed wire? I would trust them with Albert. They would save him.” Our good friendship had already been tested by time and circumstances. When in 1937 Dimitry Zhykovskay was arrested under Stalin, nobody but my parents were brave enough to support and encourage his wife, Varya. The Zhykovskays had never forgotten it. You remember and appreciate good things as much as you never forget betrayal and offense from people you knew --- those who were afraid not only to talk to you, but even to look at you.

            But the War watered down the sharpness of the horrible memories of Stalin’s repression; the personal offenses stepped aside. People in the Ghetto had only one goal: how to escape from this Hell and survive.

The Underground

By September 1941, the Ghetto had an effective underground group, which later grew into a big secret organization. The organizers of this group were Yakov Kipkaeshto, Nathan Vaingaus (who had assured us that Father was alive shortly after my brother’s birth), and Gregory Smolyar. After Yakov’s death, Michael Gebelev became one of the leaders.

            Knowing nothing about the existence of the Underground, my father decided to go back to fight together with the partisans. I felt safe when he was with us; it seemed like nothing bad could happen. His self-control reassured better than words. He said, “When I find the partisans, I’ll come for you or send somebody to get you. I will not leave you here.”

            Early in the morning, four people --- my father, Abram Gantman, Lev Gurevich, and David Kantor started on their way. There was stinging frost, and the temperature dropped to -22 degrees F. By the end of the day, they reached Kolodinskay Forest. They were very tired and could hardly stay on their feet. They built up a fire and sat alert around it all night long. To fall asleep was very dangerous because they could freeze. At dawn, they continued their way looking for the partisans. Ice-cold wind got under their clothes, and surged to their marrow. The first day was unsuccessful. On the second, they found empty dug-outs. It didn’t make much sense to continue their search, and they decided to go back to the Ghetto.

            Soon my father managed to get in touch with the Underground and started to work there. His duty was to create efficient groups from prisoners and later take them out of the Ghetto to the woods. In the beginning of 1942, the Underground numbered twelve groups with ten people in each. Group leaders were members of the Underground Committee. For secrecy and safety, people from one group were not supposed to know people from the others.

            For the first time in Minsk, an underground press was set up. Its creators were Michael Arotzker, Nina Liz, Zyama Okyn, Alexander Tynic, and Michail Chupchyn. They typed and distributed leaflets and reports with news from the front.

            The Underground Committee called up prisoners of the Ghetto to get armed. Some prisoners that were weapons specialists had been hired by the Nazis to work in their munitions factories. They risked their lives to steal pistols, rifles, machine guns, and other arms. A few workers were caught and hanged in front of others. People managed to find mediators in the Russian area who helped them exchange clothes, watches, or jewelry for revolvers, pistols, grenades. Little by little, the Ghetto was arming itself.

* * *

My father was assigned by the Underground Committee to be the leader of one group.  Very often members of this group got together in our place. During their meetings, I had to walk near our house and watch carefully. If I saw anything suspicious, I was supposed to let them know right away. I was very proud of their confidence in me, and sometimes displayed unnecessary vigilance by giving false alarm.

* * *

The beginning of 1942 was very difficult for people in the Ghetto. It was common to see an emaciated person who was slowly dragging his feet, carrying a corpse on a sleigh to the cemetery. People were dying so often that there was not time to dig separate graves. Dead bodies were stacked all in one grave. An epidemic of typhus started in the Ghetto. The hospital couldn’t accommodate all the sick people, and the Nazis had warned Judenrat that if an epidemic took hold, they would annihilate the Ghetto. And they would have definitely kept their word, because they were afraid that the disease could spread out to their army. But doctors risked their lives by stating the wrong diagnoses on the papers --- instead of typhus, they claimed pneumonia, dystrophy, or something else. Some doctors and nurses got contaminated from patients. But neither Judenrat nor the Jewish police reported the epidemic to the Nazis. They realized that if the Nazis destroyed the Ghetto, they would also be killed.

            And again, a miracle happened. Without the right medications and under conditions of crowdedness, lousiness, hunger and exhaustion, the epidemic of typhus stopped. The total annihilation of the Ghetto was prevented, or at least delayed.

The Third and Fourth Pogroms

The Nazis performed the systematic destruction of Jews punctually, according to their schedule. The third Pogrom took place on March 2, 1942.  They had a plan to kill 5,000 Jews. At 10 in the morning as the columns of workers left the Ghetto, the massacre began. The first victims were children from the orphanage. They were driven to Ratomskay Street and shot. Dead bodies were falling in to a huge pit. Some children were thrown in there alive.  Heart-rending children’s cries were heard on the other streets. Before the execution, German Governor Ferdinand Kube himself had been there, throwing candies to the children. All of it was filmed for newsreel. 

            The Nazis caught everyone who didn’t have a chance to hide in a malina. Realizing that they couldn’t get as many victims as they’d planned, Kube made an order to shoot columns of workers returning to the Ghetto.  This shocking violence lasted a whole day. There were puddles of blood on the ground because the frozen soil couldn’t absorb them.

            We hid in a malina located under our house on Ratomskay Street, right near the pit. In the few days that followed the Pogrom, dead bodies were still being thrown into the pit, which became a common grave for thousands of Jews. All of this was happening in front of my eyes, and even now I see it in my nightmares. I wake up wet from tears, experiencing a nearly physical pain.  In Minsk, a monument was erected on the place of that pit. Every year on May 9, Jewish people get together there for a mourning meeting. The last time I was there in 1992.

            The Nazis didn’t limit themselves to one bloody massacre in March; another came later, on the 31st. Sometimes it seemed like it was beyond human power to struggle for life in such Hell. But hidden reserves of strength that we had never suspected in peacetime became awake at very dangerous moments. My father used to say, “We should try not to think about things we cannot change.” Being a person of strong will, he learned to control not only his words and acts, but also his thoughts. This quality was very important for work in the secret organization.

Leaving the Ghetto Behind

The Underground Committee was gradually establishing communication with some partisan detachments. Messengers were sent to the Ghetto to help groups of prisoners escape. However, there were a number of failures and some messengers got captured by the Gestapo. The most serious shock for the Underground was the arrest of its leader, Michael Gebelev.

            In order to prevent prisoners from escaping, the Nazis created a rule: if someone from the columns of workers disappeared on his way to or from work, all members of this family and his neighbors would be killed on the same day. But the Underground found a way around that situation. Doctors in the hospital prepared nameless death certificates and brought them to the department of Judenrat that registered all prisoners. The manager of this department was Boris Dolskay, a secret Underground member. Before the War, Boris was a well-known actor and producer in the Yankee Kupala Theater. Now in the Ghetto, people considered him a betrayer since he was working for Judenrat --- when in fact, he was doing everything he could to help save them. He entered names of people who were going to escape onto the blank death certificates. Those named were struck off the workers’ registration list. It was important to have the Underground working at Judenrat.

* * *

The Nazis became very innovative when it came to showing us their power. On Sundays, under threat of death, the whole population of the Ghetto had to gather on Ubilaynay Square. At the middle of the square, Nazis placed a table, and their Commandant Gottenbach climbed upon it. He tried to intimidate prisoners into staying in the Ghetto, telling them not to escape because they would die from hunger and frost, or be killed by partisans who hated Jews. Gottenbach promised to stop massive Pogroms. He demanded that prisoners betray members of the Underground and turn in people who were going to escape. Then, the Nazis pushed a singer named Gorelick to the middle of the stage and forced him to sing Russian and Jewish songs. An orchestra had been selected from Austrian Jews. Gorelick had a beautiful tenor voice. His singing touched our hearts. Prisoners were crying. Nazis roared with laughter. In June 1942 they hanged Gorelick. Sunday gatherings went on without the musical part.

* * *

The group that was headed by my father completed preparations for escaping the Ghetto, and we left. It is hard to describe our feelings when we found ourselves on the other side of barbed wire; we started to rip away the hated yellow stars, a long-awaited moment in a prisoner’s life. People smiled to each other through tears. I remember their words: “Better to be killed in battle than go to the pit.” But the woods we had to reach to be safe was not so close. “Mama, I will bear everything. I want to live so much,” I repeated constantly. Soon, we were lucky to reach Kolodinskay Forest, which was 43 km from Minsk. We felt safe there. The forgotten sensation of freedom arose in our hearts. We were sitting around the fire thinking of those who we’d left in the Ghetto. How were they? What was going on over there now?

* * *

What was going on? After the March Pogroms, it was relatively quiet, not counting regular round-ups and arrests. But in the end of July, the Nazis made a terrible massacre. On the report to Berlin, they called it “Huge Action.” That bloody action lasted four days; from July 28 through July 31, 1942.

            Because we were not in the Ghetto during that Pogrom, I am recounting the memories of a young prisoner named Phelix Lipskay, who was an eyewitness to those bloody killings:

            “...People were taken away on tracks in mobile gas chambers. Nazis and police entered each house, shot through attics, threw grenades in basements.  Shots and groans of dying people were heard on the streets.  Our group of 18-20 women and children hid in a small, tight malina --- a  hiding place that was expected to accommodate only 5-6 people. We had no water, no food. We realized that patient silence was our only salvation. It was very hot. We were stifled with heat, burnt from thirst, and our hearts were wrung with fear of death. Adults tried their best to ease our sufferings.  On the third day, one woman gave us some warm liquid with a nasty smell and taste, and persuaded us to drink it. It was urine. By the fourth day, the columns of workers returned to the Ghetto. Survivors were getting out from malinas. Streets were covered with corpses. It was raining. Red water streamed down Tankovay Street...”

            During that Pogrom 13,000 people were killed. The village called Little Trostinetz became their common grave.

* * *

The other 2,000 prisoners were annihilated on October 21, 1943. The Ghetto that had lasted 820 tragic --- yet at the same time heroic --- days and nights had been terminated.

            In February 1992, an exhibition called “The Tragedy of Belarussian Jews in 1941-1944” was opened in the museum of World War II in Minsk. Among the others, there is a picture of my father, Israel Lapidus: Hero of the Underground and Commander of A Partisan Detachment.

Part II: Partisans

We Are Free

Our group of 24 people escaped from the Ghetto on April 10, 1942. It seemed to us, that if we survived we would celebrate this date as our second “birthday.”

* * *

We had reached Kolodinskay Woods, 43 kilometers from Minsk. The ground was covered with deep snow. 

            ...It is quiet, unusually quiet. We are together around the fire and my father is delivering a speech. He seems calm outwardly, but his voice shows his excitement. All of us are happily excited; we are not prisoners anymore, but partisans looking forward to fighting Nazis... 

            Our armament included four rifles, two revolvers, one pistol and a few hand grenades. Someone asked, “How should we start?” 

            “By getting food,” was the answer.

            We were very hungry. My father sent two men to a village to get some food. They took two pieces of soap to exchange for food; during the War soap was of great value. They came back at night, bringing a big bag of potatoes, two chickens and a pot. We built a fire and cooked our first partisan’s dinner. How tasty it was for us!

            We slept on the snow on bunches of twigs. It rained all night long and we got soaked to the skin. Exhausted from escaping, our people could hardly stand on their feet, but it was decided that we would take three hour shifts at the guard post. My father volunteered to keep watch first, then chose his wife for the next shift. True, she didn’t know how to handle a rifle. But while Mom was on guard duty, my father did not sleep; he stayed awake to encourage her. She seemed to see Nazis behind every tree. Even the owl’s cry horrified her. That is how I remember our first day in the partisan detachment.

* * *

Gradually we began to make our camp more comfortable. From the nearest village we got spades, two axes and a hand-saw. We built huts and a kitchen table. At our first meeting, my father, Israel Lapidus, was elected commander of our partisan detachment. His main assistants were Sagalchuk and Volf Locik. Sagalchuk was a gloomy and reserved person. Locik liked to talk a lot and got very annoyed if somebody interrupted him. He always scared me when he was sleeping because he kept his eyes open, an unessential detail that I’m surprised I can remember. 

* * *

Spring

In the beginning of the War, some Soviet military units had retreated from a battle through our woods. So when the snow melted, our partisan group found their abandoned rifles and revolvers. But the thaw brought me much suffering. I had escaped from the Ghetto wearing boots made from felt called “valenki.” When the snow melted and the weather got warmer, I was still needed them because I couldn’t walk with bare feet on the pine cones.  We changed locations often, so we had to walk a lot --- and my feet looked awful! They became red with a bluish tint and the skin was coming off from the heat. Everyone felt sorry for me, so when they visited the villages they tried to get me shoes. My suffering stopped when a young peasant came to our partisan detachment and wove me some shoes out of reeds. It was a blessing!

            Our bitterest enemies were mosquitoes.  We called them “fascists.”  Masses of mosquitoes devoured us alive. Our hands, legs, faces were stung badly and scratched to blood. Sometimes faces looked like bloody masks.  My mom suffered the most. Their bites became festering wounds on her legs.  A doctor from the nearest village gave her a little vial of alcohol and told her to smear the wounds. It helped her to get rid of the infection. Then we found a few Soviet parachutes in a big meadow; our pilots had probably used them to bale out from crashing airplanes. We made tents from the chutes, and also created smoke screens as a protection against the mosquitoes. That helped for a short time.

* * *

Getting food was a great problem for us. In the beginning, we traded for it in villages. But it wouldn’t be true to say that all peasants were happy to share their bread, potatoes, and other food with partisans. A native might say with anger, “We cannot live like this --- in daytime we get robbed by Nazis and police, and in the evening you partisans come.”  Or one of them could tell us, “You better go to my neighbor, Stepan. He’s got much more than I do.”  This was in the spring of 1942, when Nazis had not yet begun burning whole villages and killing the inhabitants. Later, when Nazis began mass terror against natives, people realized that partisans were their defenders and tried to help us as much as they could. And although we had to look for food in villages, we never took the last from them.

* * *

Summer

In the summer of 1942, Captain Nikitin arrived in our area. He was sent to the German rear by Soviet headquarters; his main task was to combine small partisan groups into one big detachment. When Captain Nikitin met my father, it turned out that they had known each other before. Nikitin’s group was reinforced with soldiers who managed to escape prisons, and also with the “pripisniki,” Red Army soldiers unable to break out of Nazi encirclements. Pripisniki wandered about the villages in search of food and a place to stay, finding shelter in the houses of native women whose husbands had left to fight in the War.  Many pripisniki later joined the partisans. Our small group also became part of Nikitin’s detachment, but not for long. 

            The number of partisans had increased rapidly. People were accepted without being checked, and it was likely that the Gestapo had managed to place a few informers among us. Somehow, every important military operation in our detachment was known ahead of time by the Nazis. During one hard fight, the Nazis outnumbered us and we had to retreat with losses, but the only way to do it was through a terrible swamp. When we began to move, the Nazi snipers were already cited in the trees around the swamp. I remember one partisan getting shot in his cheeks and tongue. He couldn’t close his mouth and walked with his tongue out, twisted with a bandage. He howled from pain. The partisans leaned on their rifles so that they would not drown in the quagmire. I could not pass across the swamp on my own. My father carried me on his back. When he fell and started to drown, two partisans named Iosif Yankelevich and Gregory Feldman caught me and helped Father out. In that moment, a bullet blew up the swamp right in front of my nose.

            After that battle, we had a meeting at which Captain Nikitin announced his decision to break through the enemy’s defenses in the rear. My father, however, thought that it was not a realistic plan, and suggested that everyone decide whether they wanted to go with Nikitin or stay in our partisan detachment. Almost all of us stayed with my father. 

            Captain Nikitin and his group broke through the front line and reached the Russians, where instead of being rewarded, he was arrested as a German spy. But I remember him setting personal examples of bravery and valor for the other partisans in our detachment. I can clearly picture him during one hard fight with the Nazis, wearing a leather jacket with a Mauser pistol in his hand and a blue scarf around his neck --- a gift from his sweetheart. Nikitin was rehabilitated from prison in the 1950’s, and died shortly afterward.

* * *

My father’s group established connections with the Ghetto’s Underground. Messengers from our detachment went to Minsk to rescue prisoners from the Ghetto. We greeted every saved person as one of our own, asking endless questions about the people left on the other side of the barbed wire.

            A partisan’s life entailed great difficulties, but the realization that we were not going to have any more Pogroms at night and would not be thrown into a pit to be shot gave us the strength to bear all adversities. After all we had been through, our immune systems were strong and mobilized, keeping us free from most serious illnesses. Still, one of our partisans --- Iosif Yankelevich, who had earlier saved my father and me in the swamp --- caught typhoid fever. He became very sick, his condition aggravated by lack of medication and intense summer heat. Right at that time, a Nazi punitive group arrived at village nearest our camp. Someone had probably informed them about us, so we had to run. While crossing back over the swamp, Iosif was carried by four partisans, with another team of four always ready to take over.  These people could have just been quarreling over the biggest piece of meat or the best space in the tent, but in a dangerous situation, all squabbles were completely forgotten.

* * *

My father conducted his first battle as commander on the highway of Puchovichi-Staraya Dorogi. Sixty partisans ambushed and attacked a column of ten Nazi cars and trucks. The battle later turned into hand-to-hand combat.  At one point the Nazis were winning, but then my Uncle Semen jumped on a truck and shouted, “Fight them for Little Trostinetz and Tuchinka!” --- these were the places that had became common graves for tens of thousands of Jewish prisoners of the Ghetto, including my own little brother and grandparents. Inspired, the partisans struggled on with bravery until 74 Nazi soldiers were dead and eight surrendered. Captured weapons noticeably filled up our arsenal. During the days that followed this battle, the partisans discussed the details. They stayed in a good mood. Especially funny for them was my heroic act --- I had approached one of the captive Nazi soldiers, pushed him and screamed out, “Hitler kaput!”

            The rumors spread among neighboring villages about the Jew-partisans that had destroyed a big column of Nazis. Strange as it may seem, this fact did not make some partisans from other detachments happy. Some liked to make fun of Jews and their supposed reluctance to fight, but all of our group’s non-Jewish members --- Russians, Belarussians, Ukrainians --- saw Jews as very brave and skilled warriors who never tried to hide behind the backs of others, never hesitating to risk their lives. There was not one anti-Semite in our detachment, which was due in part to the authority of our commander. The partisans all loved and respected my father. That love and respect was well deserved.

Some Battles, Some Who Fought Them

The ability to be a good commander shows not only in offensive battle, but also in forced retreat that must be done with a minimum of people killed or wounded. Once, the Nazis began huge military operations against the partisans. Some detachments decided to hide their people on an island surrounded with an impassable swamp, believing that the Nazis would never go there. The locals called this island “Lupine.” But the Nazis did know about it, and although they did not attempt to move through the swamp, their mortars blew up that island far and wide. Groups of people that hid there suffered serious losses.

            Intuition helped my father to choose a different tactic. He realized that the Nazis were likely to look for partisans in wild and inaccessible places.  Reconnaissance had informed us about the location of their main forces, and my father instead decided to place our group very close to them. Our way was across the swamp. We moved with great caution and stopped only one kilometer from the Nazi camp.

            ...Through binoculars, we can see not only their weapons and equipment, but also the Germans themselves. We are very scared. They are lighting bonfires in the dark. We can hear them talking and playing a harmonica. Then, in spite of our proximity, my father orders us to light a bonfire and dry our clothes. “Commander, we will all die when they see it!” says someone whose overstrung nerves give out. But my father reasons that the Nazis will not pay attention to our fire --- it is so close, they will believe it to be one of their own...

            So our partisans got warm and dry. And our group went on to perform several successful maneuvers during this punitive Nazi operation. We lost no one.

* * *

My father tried to take care of his people. He carefully thought through every military act. But a war cannot be without losses, and many of them happened to our detachment. Two deaths were particularly shocking and memorable for me.

            Our group’s “doctor” was Volodya Halibozkay, a senior student at Minsk Medical School. He was shy and intellectual with a soft, pleasant smile. Volodya took part in all of our military acts as a soldier, but in addition to his rifle, he always carried his first-aid bag. Once during a battle, one of our partisans got wounded in the leg. Right in front of my eyes, Volodya very quickly got his scalpel, carefully removed the bullet and put a bandage over the wound so the injured man was able to move on his own again. When the battle was over, Volodya confessed, “If I had been mistaken by just one millimeter, I would have cut his nerve and his leg would have been paralyzed.” He had a God-given talent as a surgeon. But Volodya was later killed during another fight, bending over another wounded soldier. All of our partisans mourned him deeply; they loved Volodya very much.

            I cannot forget another absurd death. Andrey Stolbov was from Siberia.  Tall, strong and handsome, he had served in the army at Belarus when the War began.  He’d been taken prisoner, then escaped and finally met up with our group in the woods. He was reliable, mature, solid, and my father assigned him to be a platoon commander. After one successful operation, our group was returning to camp. When Klimovich, another partisan, jumped off the wagon, his rifle butt hit the ground and a round went off. Andrey, who was standing close by, was killed instantly. Klimovich realized that his negligence was the reason for his friend’s death. He felt extremely guilty and was close to suicide. Andrey was survived by his young wife, Musya Epstein, whom he had married a just very short time before this happened.

* * *

Our partisan detachment grew because of the villagers and prisoners who escaped from the Ghetto. The story that I would like to tell, happened in the end of March 1943, when German officer named Villi Schultz rescued 25 people from the Ghetto. His noble action was solely dictated by his desire to save a beautiful Jewish girl whom he had fallen in love. Schultz worked as a manager in German’s pilot sub-unit. He was responsible for economic supply and also for job distribution among prisoners. German’s pilot sub-unit was located in the building where local Soviet Government Headquarters used to be. This huge building had it’s own boiler room. Every morning, German and Russian prisoners of the Ghetto had the exhausting job of pushing wagons filled with peat into boiler room, always separated into two columns----one for German Jews and one for Russian Jews. They were not allowed to talk to each other. They even lived in different parts of the Ghetto, separated by barbed wire. Only for dead Jews Nazis did not make these distinctions; they threw German and Russian bodies into the same pit. 

            One day, Villi Schultz noticed a new worker, a beautiful girl named Ilze Schtein who arrived in a column of German Jews. He said “Hi” and shook her hand and very politely began talking to her. It was so unusual that in spite of restrictions, a Russian Jew named Liza Gutkovich approached Ilze and asked her if she had known Schultz before the War. “No, but he probably likes me,” answered Ilze. 

            And so it happened that a 46-year-old Nazi officer and an 18-year-old Jewish girl from Frankfort-on-Mine fell deeply in love. Schultz helped Ilze as much as he could, and tried to make her life easier. He assigned her to be a team leader and made Liza her assistant. When the most terrible Pogrom began in July 1942, Villi Schultz did not send any of his workers back to the Ghetto. Instead, he hid them for three days in the basement of the government building.

            Schultz asked Liza, “How can I save Ilze? I love her. If she stays in the Ghetto, she will die.”

            “The only chance is to go to the partisans,” Liza blurted out. But she was afraid of her words. Schultz did not answer and left the room. The next day when he saw her again, he told Liza that he had made up his mind. 

            “You, Ilze, and I are leaving to find the partisans. You are going to be our interpreter. But I don’t know where to go or how to arrange it.” All three of them were so excited that for a moment they could not talk. Then Liza promised to meet with somebody who knew what to do.

            She talked to Matvey Maizel, the member of the Underground who discussed everything with his leaders. Once the word of Schultz’s proposed escape was passed to the Underground, they decided that he could be used to help a very large group of Jews get out of the Ghetto. The terms were that he had to get a truck and write a pass for 25 people, pretending that they were workers going to Rudensk. Schultz was shocked. He thought it would just be the three of them. But he had no choice, and agreed. So on March 30, 1943 a three-ton truck covered with tarpaulin entered the Ghetto. Twelve men and 13 women quickly got in the back, with Schultz and the driver sitting in front.  When they passed by Rudensk, the driver realized what was going on and got very scared. But the truck went on and near the village named Rusakovichi met partisans of the 2nd Minsk brigade. The escapees on board were directed to several different detachments. Matvey Maizel, his wife Ronya and five others escapees became members of our detachment. Schultz and Ilze were sent to Moscow for questioning. Schultz was later jailed in German prisoner-of-war camp where he got engaged in anti-fascist activities, and he never saw his Ilze Schtein again.

* * *

One young married couple in our detachment named Anna and Abram Chalyavskay captured everyone’s attention. Anna was 18 years old; Abram was 22. She was a real beauty with big green eyes, a straight little nose, chestnut hair and charming smile. Abram was absolutely unattractive, very plain. When people saw them together, they wondered what Anna saw in him.

            …They happened to be next to each other in the column of prisoners of the Ghetto sentenced to be shot. Walking one narrow street, Abram had pushed Anna in the gateway of a big house and followed her. They passed through yard and rushed out to another street. In the dark, they managed to get through the barbed wire into the Russian area, where they hid in ruins of a big house. In the morning they left town, and roved in the woods for more than a week. Outwardly, Abram did not look Jewish and it helped him to get food in villages. Anna usually waited for him in the woods. Once, one old fellow got very compassionate to Abram. He fed him, gave him some food and advised where to look for partisans. 

             When they joined our detachment, my father assigned Abram Chalyavskay to command our demolition group. Every member of his group was notable for courage, endurance and tenacity. Although they had different characters, personalities and background, they all were very friendly and responsive. The demolition people had a special status in our group.  Partisans admired them. Cooks always tried to feed them better than the others. I literally didn’t leave them alone and absorbed every detail of their stories.

            Two of Abram’s men --- Volodya Rozanov and Naum Borushanskay --- were unlikely but inseparable friends. Volodya was a gypsy horse thief, and Naum was a mathematician that had graduated from University. Once, Abram and his group were returning from their usual demolition assignment. They decided to stop in a barn and make up for lost sleep. Volodya climbed into the attic, but all the rest stayed inside, where they fell asleep. A group of policemen was informed about the partisans, and they began shooting down the barn. The attic caught fire, and Volodya was badly burned. Shooting back, the partisans crawled from the barn. Naum carried his burned friend out, but Volodya was in very bad condition. It was unbearable to see his suffering, and the dying man begged Naum to shoot him. But then somebody mentioned that goose fat was good for burns, and right away a few partisans went to the village to find a goose. We greased his burns and a real miracle happened: in spite of being burned over much of his body, Volodya got better.

* * *

Throughout the war, our demolition group derailed 23 Nazi troop trains with military equipment. For such a feat, people deserve --- and usually get --- the title of “Hero of the Soviet Union.” But it wasn’t like that for Jewish heroes. There was no reason for Jews to expect such rewards, since in 1942 the Main Chief of Partisan’s Central Headquarters, First Secretary of Belarus,  Ponomarenko, P.K., had sent a message to all partisan commanders strictly forbidding them to accept Jews who had escaped from the Ghetto because they might be Nazi spies. It was a most blasphemous statement. Honest people among the partisan commanders ignored that order, of course.

* * *

In the winter of 1942, our detachment settled down in the village of Svyatoe. The inhabitants of that village were kind, compassionate, artless people. Before the War, civilization hadn’t touched this out-of-the-way place.  Peasants who lived there were people with good hearts and toil-worn hands who didn’t know about electricity and radio. But they also did not know about anti-Semites. They treated everyone --- Russians, Belarussians, Jews, Poles --- equally well.

            When the ground thawed out in the spring, we built up our partisan camp in the woods a few kilometers from their village. We burrowed dugouts, put plank beds and a furnace in there. New people were assigned to the posts of those who had been killed.  Fedosiy Xotza, Michael Ermolaev, and Alexander Murashko took over positions of authority in our detachment.  The number of partisan detachments and their overall strength were considerably increased, and soon they started uniting into brigades. Our detachment and detachment named after Suvorov took charge of crushing the Nazi garrison in the village of Drazhna. It was one of their biggest and strongest garrisons. The village guarded well enough that our scouts could not enter. When finally two partisans disguised as peasants entered the village to get information about the location of Nazi sub-units and weapons, it was decided we would attack at dawn. Both detachments spent all night walking toward our meeting place. When ours reached a small forest near the village that was our arranged destination, we realized that the other detachment had not yet arrived. Their guide had lost his way in the dark. The surprise factor was lost. The battle was long and bloody. More than 100 Nazis were killed, but it wasn’t an easy victory. Both groups suffered serious losses.

* * *

When my father and others were going out on a military operation, I was left in the camp with the “economic” platoon; those that cooked, did laundry, took care of horses, and did maintenance work. Uninformed people would question the value of this camp-bound platoon, asking what kind of warriors they were and how many Nazis they had killed. Of course, women and elderly men did not take direct part in military actions, but when we were in danger of Nazi attack, hostile bullets did not choose whom to kill.  Everyone in our detachment tried to do their best at performing their duties, no matter what they were. They all liked and respected their commander, and felt ashamed to disobey his orders.

            But when my father was out on a military operation, my nerves were so strained that I couldn’t eat. I was deeply worried about everything, the War had taken away my childhood’s carelessness. How happy I was when the Commander came back to me again.

* * *

Usually after the battles, the partisans sat around and cleaned guns. It was the best time for chatting, because no one was rushing anywhere and everyone had something to tell. I listened so intently that even the most reticent partisans became very animated storytellers.  I had a tenacious memory, and whenever we got new reinforcements from the village, I was proud to inform them about our military history.

            Crushing Nazi garrisons not only brought us weapons, ammunition, and food, but also other things. I remember after one successful battle in the village of Levkiey, our partisans captured many young thoroughbred horses; before the War there had been a stud farm there. We also got a lot of fresh cranberries. But to my mind, I got the best trophy --- a Browning pistol in the holster. And although there were just a couple of rounds in the magazine, the idea of possessing a firearm made me very proud!

* * *

The brigade commander and his staff once became so arrogant about their successful military actions that they lost all sense of taking wise measures. They decided to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution with a parade that took place near the village of Gorelitza. Everything was done in the best of Soviet traditions. Detachments marched past under their flying banners. The girls Anna Chalyavskaya, Fira Charnaya, and Antonina Sverskaya had worked very hard to embroider the banner of our detachment. This parade was a huge mistake. The Nazis were furious that we made such a big show so close to them, and decided to get rid of the partisans. They blockaded a vast area and began moving deep into our territory, tightening their ring around us. The number of Nazi military units greatly exceeded ours. Some commanders thought it would be easier if their detachments separated from the brigade. Many groups battled to break out of the Nazi encirclement and suffered serious losses.

            Trying to find the safest way out, my father came up with a smart ruse.  Our detachment moved to the tail end of a Nazi convoy that was leaving the blockade zone. They became our “safe advance guard” and we left without any losses. But I got very sick with chicken pox. 

            ...It is freezing. We are traveling all the time. I am lying on the sled, covered with a coat. The horse trots. I am in pain, shaking from fever. I see stars on the frozen sky, feel the touch of my mom’s hand. I hear her soft voice from so far away, “You’ll be okay my son, you’ll be okay...”

            It was very hard and a long journey.

* * *

Again we were back to our partisan routine. It was my birthday at the end of November. My parents wanted me to feel happy and special that day, so they tried to make a present for me. In the evening, we sat in our dug-out and celebrated my birthday with hot tea and burned rye flat cake, which they had made on hot coals. Now, after so many years, every detail of this episode comes to life, bringing tears to my eyes.

* * *

The ways we memorize things are unpredictable. Sometimes one event can bring up another, completely opposite one without any connection.

            Nicholay Ivanovich Martinuk was the commissar of one detachment; he had become a partisan in 1941. His wife Rachill and 9-year-old son, Misha were still imprisoned in the Ghetto. Nicholay Ivanovich, however, took another “partisan wife” in his detachment. One day, he ordered a messenger to penetrate the Ghetto and take out his son, but not his wife. Later on, the messenger told my mom the tragic story of how Rachill had begged to be taken with her son. How she had promised not to claim her husband; she just wanted to survive and be with her child. 

            “But I could not disobey our Commissar’s order,” the messenger confessed, choking down tears. “I took the sin upon myself. My God, how much did the boy sob, and Rachill could hardly pull him off of her.”

            ...She whispered to him, “Go, my son. You will live. You must live. You are my only one...” 

            Misha never did get along with his father. He was not able to forgive him for his mother’s death. I think if any religious person --- even one who doesn’t observe all the rituals but has God in his heart --- happened to be in the commissar’s place, he would not have shown such cruelty.

The Natives

Inhabitants of the village where we stayed were very religious people.  They did not have radio, so they did not know that “Religion is the opiate of the people,” as Soviet propaganda stated. There was a small church in the village of Porechie. The priest there was a very important person. Everyone went to him for comfort and support. He had a rare gift for easing people’s pain, grief, suffering. The priest became a good friend to my father, and helped our partisans as much as he could. Once when we needed white material for a camouflage cloak, he asked for his parishoners’ help... and the needed amount of hand-woven cloth was collected.

            But the people of the village showed the most care and warm-heartedness to Jewish children who had escaped from the Ghetto. There were a lot of orphans there. Circumstances had forced them to be capable of great endurance and sharpness, unusual for their young age. In order to get food, they gathered in small groups and risked their lives to go through the barbed wire into the Russian area. Then they scattered to different warehouses and markets, stealing some food or just begging for it. They would share their poor catch with those in the Ghetto who could not walk because they were too weak from starvation. 

            Children of the Ghetto knew that they were condemned to death, and the only chance to survive would be to get to the partisans. There were rumors about my father’s detachment and where it was located. So a group of twelve children --- the oldest was 13 years old --- escaped from the Ghetto.  They walked through the woods, carrying the youngest, most exhausted children on shoulders. On the fifth day, one of our partisans saw them and brought them to us. When they threw themselves upon my dad, he burst into tears. “No one will hurt you anymore. We will take care of you,” he said, hugging them. My father went to every house in the village to talk to the owners, trying to place the orphans with families there. They said, “Don’t worry, Commander. We’ll take care of the child like one of our own.” And they kept their promises. The children were skinny, infested with lice, emaciated. But careful peasant women’s hands, warm hearts and mercy were able to do a lot.

            Those children remained grateful to their rescuers through their whole lives. Even many years after the War, they would get together on a rented bus and drive to the villages of Porechie and Svyatoe. Trips like that were very important, emotional and touching. People cried, laughed, and kissed remembering things. 

* * *

A few times after the war, my parents and I visited these places.  Meetings with our past have always been mixed with sadness. During our first visit, we were walking along our partisan camp. Silently, as if we were at a cemetery, we stopped near every ruined dug-out. The news of Commander Lapidus’ return had reached every home in the village. By the time we got there, picnic tables were already prepared at a beautiful place near the river.  The natives greet us like the most desired guests. My dad’s eyes shone with joy and my mom was touched to tears.

            The last time I visited the villages of Porechie and Svyatoe was in 1978. I went by myself. Many people of the villages had already died; others were very old. I was sad to find out that Ilya Shashka, the owner of the house where we were headquartered during the War, had passed away. His wife Matrona, a very nice and kind woman, had suffered a massive stroke and was paralyzed. I went up to her bed and she recognized me with her eyes full of tears. She could hardly talk. Words got stuck in my throat, too, and we both cried.

            I visited every house in the village. They greeted me as a member of the family, asking in detail about everything. I was surprised by their memories and observations.  These old people remembered everyone, defining individual members of our partisan detachment precisely. They vividly spoke of how Leiba Struguch worked with horses all of his life, cursing them with dirty language that he never curbed when he was around people. They wondered how Zinoviy Svirskoy, a very intelligent scientist in our detachment, might have felt in Leiba’s company. They remembered how optimistic Alexandr Osadshiy and Victor Podolyak were --- life seemed simple and clear for them, their problems and difficulties existing only to be resolved easily. They recalled Boris Simanovich, who was utterly opposite --- always unhappy and fighting with everyone. And it was nice to hear how warmly they spoke of one partisan, Matvey Maizel. After the War, Matvey graduated from medical school, and later became the Chief of Surgical Oncology in Belarus. The village people from all over the partisan area went to see him. He never refused a consultation or operation with one of them.  He felt honored to help them. He considered it to be his duty. 

* * *

Our detachment grew because of these villagers. In the spring of 1943, we had nine platoons, one demolition group, and one economic group; a total of 270 people. Many were young native people who joined in response to Nazi repression. The more losses the Nazis suffered at the battle fronts, the more brutally they acted in occupied territory against the partisans and inhabitants. When Nazis came, peasants with children and cattle would hide in the woods and cover their cows’ heads so the mooing wouldn’t be heard.  They stayed in the woods all day and watched their houses being burned.

            One young woman named Stefa Michnevich from the village of Paraselki joined the brigade. She fell in love with Vasiliy Bezuglov, the leader of one of our special brigades, and got pregnant. Just when her baby was due, the Nazis attacked the camp. She started to have that baby in the middle of the battle. But the situation was so bad that no one could help her, so she delivered the baby herself. She wrapped him up into her skirt, put him on a mound and covered him with moss. Falling back through the swamp, she ran down to fight with the partisans. After the battle was over, she came back and found her son. But the partisan’s life was not for an infant, so Bezuglov settled Stefa and his new son in the village.

 

The End Begins

In July 1943, my father was promoted to the Second Secretary of the Underground District Committee. Although it was a big promotion, it upset him to leave his people. Arzebashev, the new commander of our partisan detachment, said, “I understand that there is no substitute for Lapidus. I am just taking his place.”

            My dad’s previous experience with underground work in the Ghetto and on the battlefield was very useful for his new job. Now he had to manage and coordinate the work of many partisan brigades and underground groups in villages all around his district. There was a small printing house there, and Nikolai Andreevich Spiridonov, a 66-year-old printer worked day and night as a compositor. We never knew if he rested. The War communiqué that he composed told people the truth about the situation on the battle front, as well as the partisans’ action at the Nazi’s rear.

            A lot of hard fights and prolonged blockades were still ahead of us.  But as we got closer to the front, the hope to survive and to see our land free of occupants became more real. I have to say that even the best partisans, notable for their bravery and courage, began to act with caution and circumspection in 1944 --- it would be a pity to go through the entire War and be killed right before it was over. Unfortunately, not all of us were lucky.

            I was 10 years old in June 1944, when the Red Army started “Operation Bagration” to liberate Belarus. Soon our partisan brigade met a big military unit of the Red Army. We were so happy for ourselves, but our hearts were hurting for those who did not survive. How warmly and heartily those Red Army soldiers who had gone through the fire and death of the War greeted me, a young partisan! I probably reminded them of their own sons, left far away in occupied territory. I remember how one soldier took a piece of lump sugar from his pocket, blew away crumbs and quavered, “Here, take it son. Let your life be sweet. Bitterness you’ve got already enough.”

* * *

For many months after we left the partisans, we still talked about our life there. Our time spent in the detachment founded and led by my father, Israel Lapidus, was the most difficult and unforgettable time in our lives.  Years have gone by, many years, but still we say, “before the War... after the War...”  Because for us, the War was the main meridian that lay through our hearts. 

 

Israel Lapidus in 1964

 

Albert and his father in 1972

 

            The following years have also been tough. It’s no wonder that my father had four heart attacks, considering the scars left on his heart. He died in 1986. My beloved mother died here in America. My dear, kind, tactful, never-complaining mom gave us a lot of happiness and joy when living among her children and grandchildren, and brought us unbearable pain and sorrow when she passed away.

 

Israel and Polina Lapidus in 1980

 

            To love my parents when they were alive was my greatest happiness.  To revere their memory now has become my sacred duty.

 

Albert Lapidus

 

A meeting of former partisans in May 1974

Copyright © 2006 Belarus SIG, Albert Lapidus and Vestnik

 

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