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Comments and Remembrances on the
Ancestral Home of Melnitze of Pre-World War I
in the Country (of the time) Russia

M.H. Baller

 

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Morris H. Baller

 

Through the years I heard my parents talk of the old days of Melnitze. I wish I had bigger ears, a better memory and more inquisitive family interest in knowing my roots. Here are some few memories I have of the stories told me by my parents

The town had a central area with a well (a brinem). People would go there for drinking/cooking water or hire a man to haul it to their homes. The houses mostly had earthen floors, a central brick stove which served to bake bread, etc., to heat the house in the winter and to sleep thereon when it was very cold. (Room arrangement unknown.)

The roofs were straw thatched and housed cranes in the summer. One cold wintry day, one house caught on fire. The wind carried the flames from one roof to the other. DISASTER. The town (or area) committee helped rebuild. No details available to me.

Most Jews had a business or trade. My mother's family had a KLAYD, a store or was it just a stall? Part of house? No? details available to me. Anyhow, the native Russians would come to buy their tobacco, sugar, etc. The haggling that went on!

The natives would steal what they could get away with and the merchant always either short-weighed or short-changed them, so it was a miserable “good” deal. In winter, an open stall was a living hell, trying to make a few Kopecks to live. The natives were Russians of sort. They spoke a dialect of Russian.

My grandfather, Aaron, was a well educated man. (Aaron Wolf was Feivel's father, Grandma Esther's uncle, and our “great-grand” uncle). He was called the Shreiber, the writer. He taught school kids their Hebrew and wrote documents, legal and other, for the people (Jews and natives) who needed that service. My father followed in his mold.

Poverty was the “way of life” for most. Example: On Sunday the man of the house started to worry about where the next meal was coming from, and especiall for the coming Friday night Sabbath meal – bread and water were staples, meat (maybe 2 or 3 ounces for 6 or 7 in the family) shredded up and maybe a potato, etc. Some life! No wonder they ran to America where you could shovel gold up from the streets! That's another story.

My uncle Gershon and Aunt Esther lived with my widowed grandmother Zelda. Poor but poor but poor! She (Zelda) owed Gershon his dowry. But from where was she to get it? So with baby Moe they went to golden America and to Torrington, Connecticut where he got a shochet/rabbi job in the small synagogue. My parents followed in 1907.

Another comment on the natives of Melnitze – where or how they dwelled, I don't know. However, they were apparently quite poor but not prone to be Jew haters. I think it was easy to incite them. They wove their own linen clothes from flax grown there. The earth was very rich and fertile and mud in spring was – well see what Napoleon and Hitler found out! The natives came to church, barefoot to the edge of town, and then they put on their boots. They bartered produce with the Jews and also their linen cloth.

One thing in common – all despised (and feared) the Czar.


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In the Footsteps of the Ukrainian Murderers

by Lea Rog

Translated from Russian into Hebrew by Joshua Lior

 

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Lea Rog in 1990

 

I was born in 1927 in Melnitze, Vohlin, Ukraine, to Shlomo Rog and Shusha (Susa) nee Springer. My father who was a blacksmith worked very hard to support his family. He was a very religious Jew and my mother was a pious lady with a kind heart. She knew how to pray and read the prayer book. My eldest sister Yenta was married and in 1937 immigrated with her husband to Argentina.

When the Second World War erupted in 1.9.1939 and the Germans conquered the western part of Poland, our area – the west of Ukraine – was now Russian territory and as a result our town Melnitze was also part of Russian territory and very near the German border with Russia.

22.6.1941, Nazi Germany attacked Russia and the German Army invaded Ukrainian territory and our town was conquered by them on 29.6.1941.

My brother Hirsch was inducted at the beginning of the war into the Red Army and withdrew with it. He fought at the front against the German Army and fell as a hero in battle.

My two elder sisters, Toybeh and Odelle, managed to escape from the Nazi terror together with the Red Army which withdrew eastwards taking with them the Soviet Government Clerks who were evacuated far from the front lines into Russia.

At the time of the German occupation of our town we stayed in our home (my parents, myself and my little sister Bela). On the first the first day of the Nazi occupation the Administration started its threats on the Jewish population. The Germans and their local Ukrainian helpers murdered, tortured, suppressed and humiliated the Jews, and because of the betrayal by the headmaster of the Polish school, Vichek Henrik, the Germans and their helpers captured forty Jewish boys and girls who belonged to the Communist Youth Group and took them out of town and after a few days we heard they had been taken to the area beside the Municipal slaughter house and murdered there.

The Germans issued special orders for the Jewish population to stay out in their own homes, to wear a patch on their clothing, a yellow patch in front above the heart and behind on the back. The Jews were forbidden to walk on the pavements on their way to and from work. They had to walk in the middle of the street like the cattle and goats.

Another order given was that men and women between the ages of fourteen to sixty had to go to work every day. The work was grueling and became hell with the brutality and the beatings. Many were sent to work under the orders by inhumane criminals, the local Ukrainians, who were worse than the Germans.

An order was received that all men over the age of sixteen were to report to the “Commander” and all those who did not were to die. I actually saw for myself how the Jewish men were gathered by force, their documents taken from them and taken out of town, and afterwards it became evident they had been killed in cold blood.

I was with my mother and little sister in our home in Melnitze until the end of August 1942 and when we heard talk about the murder, “the Final Annihilation”, all of the town Jews, I managed to escape along with my little sister Bela and my aunt's family (my mother's sister) to one of the nearby

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villages and there we found shelter with a local Ukrainian who was a family friend. On 31st August in the late evening, I returned to Melnitze to look for my mother but I never found her.

On 1st and 2nd September 1942, all the town Jews were gathered in one street and the “Ghetto” was formed, and around the ghetto Ukrainian Police were on guard. Even though it was dangerous I was lucky to escape from the ghetto and get to the village where my sister was.

“The Final Annihilation” of the 1,200 Melnitze Jews who had survived after last murders, old men, women and children from the town and surrounding villages, took place on 3.9.1942 (Kaf Aleph Ellul Taf Shin Bet) by the German Nazi and their Ukrainian helpers.

I had been in hiding in the village where I had escaped to, I saw with my very own eyes how the Jews were removed from the villages on their last journey to death. Amongst them I recognized my uncle, my father's brother, Avram Rog, his wife, his two daughters, son-in-law and grandson, all from the Kashivky village. They were taken by who were shouting “Do not talk!” and “ Keep in line!” as they were walking.

They went by the dirt track. Women, old people and children, hoping for a miracle, but no miracle transpired, the murderers made them stand on the embankment of the Death Pit. They were to undress and get into the pits in groups of three to six people. The murders aimed their weapons on these hopeless victims and shot them in cold blood.

The cries of the women, the groans of despair of the old people and the cries of the children were heard all around and the sound of gun shots one after the other finally silenced them.

The murderers with their weapons in their hands encircled the dead and gloated at the suffering of their victims, none of them feeling guilty, no quick heart beats, no conscience and in no way sorry or regretful.

After the murder of the town Jews, the Ukrainians entered the Jewish homes, damaged their property and everything that had been left there, many of them also went and lived in those homes.

 

With the Partisans in the Forests

The day after the murders we went to look for our mother, but we never managed to find her. Together with my sister we went to the village of Chersk to look for our mother's cousin but we did not find him either. On our way we met Rafael (I do not remember his surname) who was a member of the Communist Party of Western Ukraine. He suggested we go towards the forest where we would find the Jews who had managed to escape being murdered in Tranvka. We found the place where the Jews were hiding in the forest and together we found a safer place to stay in the forest. We stayed there throughout the winter of 1943-43.

We lived of whatever we could find to eat. In the autumn we stole potatoes from the fields and in the winter we made holes in the snow and found potato peelings which we cooked. Sometimes the men who were with us went to the villages and farms and took cows from the farmers who had stolen them from the Jews. They would slaughter the cows so we would have meat and fat to eat. Sometimes we would go to the villages to ask for bread from the farmers. Once when I had gone with my sister to get bread, we returned to find nobody there. IN all possibility the Ukrainian Police and the Germans had found the hiding place and murdered them. We went to another village and waited until a group of Partisans arrived and they took us to the “Family Camp” under the command of Krook. Most were Jews in the camps and we stayed there until Liberation by the Red Army in February 1944.

I stayed temporarily in Rafalovka until the final liberation of Wolyn by the Red Army from the German occupiers. All the Jews who had left the Partisan camps in the spring of 1944 and lived in town were told that a Government Committee had arrived to examine the Nazi crimes in the Rovneh district.

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One day we all gathered together and took hoes and picks and went to the forest. We dug into the earth and quickly found blackened human bodies which lay face down completely naked. Many of the men, women and children lay hugging each other, probably whole families. The bodies had not disintegrated yet. After a few bodies had been taken out of the holes for photographs, a number of the survivors from Rafolovka identified family members amongst the dead; the picture was horrific.

In 1943 on the German Soviet front things changed beside Stalingrad; the Red Army won the battle and pushed the Nazi conquerors westwards. Some of the Ukrainian murderers who had helps the Nazis in the local Police Force escaped to the forests and joined the “Benderovzes” Gang who found for an “Independent Ukraine” against the Soviet and German armies as one enemy. They murdered every Jew who crossed their path or had found a hiding place from the threat of death at the farms of friendly people who believed in righteousness, the Righteous Gentiles of the Nations.

 

After the Liberation

In February 1944, when Western Ukraine was liberated by the Red Army, some of the Ukrainian murders withdrew with the German army. Many arrived after the war into American occupied territory in Germany and from there immigrated to America. Some joined the Red Army as “Volunteers” to fight against Germany to atone for their crimes. Some of them surrendered to the Soviet Authorities and were tried and found guilty of their crimes and sent to prisons in Siberia. Thee were also those who hid in the forests and fought the Soviet power and were finally caught or killed.

A few of the Ukrainian murders went to live far away in Eastern Russia and there they managed to change their identity and live for a long time with false names and papers.

During the following years the Soviet Authorities and Defense Department were lucky to track down the murders, catch them and bring them back to stand trial.

In 1974, thirty two years after the Melnitze Jews were murdered, the Ukrainian murderer, Ivan A. Klimovitch, born in Melnitze and living somewhere in Russia under a false name, decided since so much time had passed to return to Melnitze to the gold he had stolen from the Jews and bring it back. He did not expect anyone from Melnitze to recognize him. It was unlucky for him that one of his own relations recognized him and handed him over to the KGB as a murderer who had worked for the Nazis. He surrendered and during his trial also gave the names of three of his accomplices to the murders that he was still in contact with: P.S. Pravoshchik from Volka Redoshinsky, S.S. Zagurski, born in Melnitze and A.S. Gogolyok from Maydan in the Kovel area. After the investigations of all four they stood trial for participating in the murders of the 1,200 Melnitze Jews, 15,000 Kovel Jews and Poles and Ukrainians. There were sixty witnesses, some of them were from the Ukrainian Police who had already been accused before the murder and were in Siberian prison camps. I was asked to testify as someone who had suffered from the evil atrocities of the Nazis and Ukrainians. The criminal file was brought in front of the Wolyn District Court in Kovel. The group of judges went to Holob which was between Kovel and Melnitze and the trial was conducted in the Folk Club with a very large audience.

The trial began on 14.5.1974 and took six days. I was there all the time and heard the attestations of all sixty witnesses who all stated that the accused murdered the Jews from Melnitze and Kovel. The blood froze in my veins when I heard things from these witnesses I did not know about, especially about the blood bath on 3.9.1942 of the Melnitze Jews called “The Tragedy of Melnitze”. The witnesses told of how the murderers stood with smiles on their faces watching those poor souls suffer and how they kept watch so that none of the Jews would run away and escape death. The witnesses told of how ninety seven

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armed Ukrainian Police with dogs took part in the murders. There were only five Germans with them who forced the Jews to stand in line and make them run to the western part of Melnitze beside the Polish cemetery where they were murdered.

When Zagursky was asked if he would shoot a Jewish child who had managed to escape, he answered, “Yes, I would shoot”, and Parboshchik answered cynically, “If you have to do it you do it.”

One of the witnesses, formally the head of the murdering gang “Cossack” whose name was mud in the area told how he and his sentenced friends ran the Jews out of the Ghetto, which was near the two synagogues in the center of town, to the holdes they had prepared for this time. “The Jews went to their death crying and appealing for pity for the children and the babies.” When the prosecutor asked the witness what is name was when head of the gangs, he answered “Chmmel” and all the Ukrainians made a huge din; they had heard about his deeds and wanted to lynch him and tear him to pieces. The K.G.B. guarded him so he would not be hurt during his time in court and until he was sent to the prison camp in Kamtchatka.

One of the witnesses had seen Parboshchik when he was out walking. He'd seen a Jew hiding in the gardens – Sarah Knovel – aimed his gun and shot and killed her. The murderer said he had received orders to kill all the Jews. These human animals served the Germans well in payment for food and clothing stolen from the Jewish victims.

There was also the tragedy of the Kovel Jews where the accused murdered 15,000 people. They gathered them in the ghetto and took them from there by trucks up to the hills. Nobody could be saved from this massacre.

When the judge asked the witness Zagurski, who was also a policemen, why he did not turn the other way and did not save even one truckload of Jews, he answered that all the Jews need to be destroyed. After the trial he committed suicide.

A witness who had been head of the committee for investigating Nazi crimes in Kovel said he had found thousands of bodies up in the hills, the earth red from the spilt blood.

The murderer who stood trial also killed Poles from The Gay farm. There they made the helpless people go into the barn and burnt them alive, and those who still lived were stabbed with pitchforks until dead. They also killed Poles from Melnitze, four from the family of the local Post Office manager Hodzinski, four from the family of the local doctor Skobrin, the Polish Catholic priest and his helper.

In the village of Kashivky they killed twenty partisans including the commander of the patrol P. Kasprok and took out his eyes, cut off his nose and ears and them buried him, killed the mother and daughter from the Priszniok family because they had helped a Russian soldier.

All four murderers were sentenced to death by shooting and confiscation of all their possessions. All the spectators in Holob clapped their hands for joy.

They changed the death sentence to that of fifteen years imprisonment for Klimovitch and Gigliok in Siberian camps; the official reason was there was no proof that the bullets they had fired killed any humans. Maybe they gave them the benefit of the doubt because at the time of the murders they were only eighteen years old.

They printed the story of the trials in the “Soviet Volyn” about the four Ukrainian murderers who took direct part in the murder of the Melnitza Jews.

In my testimony at the trial, I said there was no forgiveness for murderers. They sold their honor and conscience for German Marks when they joined forces with the conquerors, when at the time all the Soviet population was fighting the Nazis, these criminals killed Soviet activists, a quiet people and robbed the villagers of the area.

Because of this pandering to the Germans I lost my parents, my grandmother and all my family; the blood of those innocent people cries out for the most severe punishment for those who murdered them.

The witnesses Gorodiook, S. Lichovsky, and T. Yavapek and others gave similar evidence to mine

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and also asked for the severest punishment for these murderers.

In the valley of the dead at the collective grave of Jews who were murdered in Melnitza there was no gravestone at all. The local Ukrainian residents used the place as a rubbish dump. After the trial in 1974, I wrote letters to all the Government Departments about cleaning the area and putting up a gravestone, and after great efforts the area was cleaned and in 1977, the grave was surrounded by a wooden fence.

In 1989 I started to ask the Government to le me put up a gravestone and to help me with this request. In 1990 a company called “Memorial” put up a gravestone piad for by the Government and written on the stone in Ukrainian, “In this place the Germans murdered 1,200 Soviet citizens on 3.9.1942”. Twice a year I visit the grave of the Melnitza Jews, on 9th May – Victory Day over the Germans – and on 3rd September. I tidy the area and clean the gravestone. Apart from myself no other Jew visits the place.

Lutzk – Ukraine – August 1991 – 1993.

 

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Left to right: Lea Rog, Shmuel Reiter, Tojbes son Wolodja,
Lea's grandson Tjomka – August 1993

 

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Left to right: Tojba Rog, Lea Rog by the memorial In Melnitza – August 1993

 

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A Child Without a Childhood

by Zelda (Zoya) Baller-Lior, Tel Aviv

For my grandchildren: Adi, Rotem, Shimrit, Hada and Shai

 

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Zelda (Zoya) Baller-Lior In 1948

 

At the time of the Holocaust I was the same age as my grandchild Rotem is today. I do not know my date of birth, having forgotten it during the horrific time of the Holocaust when I was left alone with no parents or family.

A year after the liberation by the Red Army, completely destroyed by what the Germans had done to my life, I was in an institution for Jewish children who had survived the Holocaust In Helinovak beside Lodz in Poland. On 6.7.1945 I gave an attestation of my life during the Holocaust, of how I survived and got from the Partisan camps in the forest, to the researchers from the “Jewish Historical Archives” in Warsaw. I had forgotten about this until recently when my husband Joshua found my attestation in the archives of Yad Vashem.[1]

At the time of my escape from the Ghetto I was a little girl with no childhood, no parents, no brothers, sisters or any other relations and left alone to a cruel destiny in a world full of murder and death. All the Jews who were lucky enough to escape and survive had to fight to live for months and years amongst unfriendly people in fear of their lives.

In my attestation I gave in Poland I did not remember then what had happened to me only a few years before because I had not recovered from the shock and my great loss, and did not give any details of things I should have told about.

Now I am writing this for my grandchildren, the account of how I survived, fifty years after the annihilation of my family and the Jews of our town Melnitza, of things locked in my mind all these years and I slowly put the whole puzzle together.

In the haze I remember my happy childhood in my dear parents' home, who had struggled to give their children a good education even when it was difficult to make a living. My parents gave us children the last morsel of food so we would not go hungry.

When the war broke out on 22.6.1941 between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, we Jews were under the protection of a quiet and safe Soviet government. We were full of hope that the Red Army would overcome the Germans and finish them off in a short time. Our belief in the “might” of the Red Army quickly changed. A few days after the start of the war, the German Army entered our town and the authorities immediately started their killings.

The next day, fifty Jewish youngsters were taken by the Germans on the pretext they belonged to the Communist Youth Movement. The youngsters were betrayed by a Polish anti-Semite who was the headmaster of the Government School under Polish rule. Amongst the prisoners was my brother Moshe and my sister Mally. Afterwards we heard that the Germans had taken the youngsters out of town and killed them.

After a few weeks[2], the Germans and Ukrainians caught three hundred Jewish men from the town, amongst them my father Shlomo Baller, and took them out of town and killed them beside the slaughter house in the pits they had prepared beforehand.

Left alone with my mother were my eldest sister Raizel, myself and my little brother Arale. The burden of supporting the family fell on the shoulders of my mother Chaya.

I do not remember much from the German occupation of our town because I was a small child

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and did not understand or know about the abuse and murders of the town Jews. The older people carried the burden of the pain and grief and did not tell the children what was happening in the town.

I remember one summer day in 1942 when the Germans and Ukrainians ejected the Jews from their homes and concentrated them in a few houses around the synagogue and the Bet Midrash. Since our house was near the synagogue we did not have to move and were spared the sorrow and pain of leaving the home where we were born and brought up in, a thing most of the Jews had to do. This was the beginning of the town ghetto. The Jews were given only a few minutes to leave their homes and all the contents, being beaten and with gun shots in the air were made to run with their meager possessions that they managed to take with them into the ghetto.

Our home had three rooms full of people. A few families squashed into the house and every family stayed in a corner of the rooms and this became their living quarters. The air in the house was dense and stuffy, and it was so crowded you could hardly move from place to place. Before the ghetto was established my mother managed to gather a small amount of potatoes without knowing that in a short time they would not be needed. We would not be alive.

A short time went by when news arrived about the annihilation of the Jews in surrounding towns. Jews who arrived at the ghetto from surrounding villages and local non-Jews told of how they saw the Germans taking the non-Jews to dig pits not far from the town on the way to Holob. We felt something terrible was about to happen and that would be the end of our lives, that the Germans had decided to kills us soon. Fear gripped us and it was reflected in the eyes of everyone. We heard that in Kovel and Lutzk the Germans had killed all the Jews.

 

How I Managed to Escape Death in Melnitza

On the day the Germans were to murder us[3], all the Jews gathered in the synagogue. I remember the terrible scene: the men covered in tallits, the old men wore white clothing for death, the doors of the ark were open. The Rabbi and all of the congregation lifted their arms upwards and crying and shouting recited the confession prayer before death. We children stood beside our mother who hugged us to her and cried bitterly.

We decided to hide, to save ourselves and when the murderers came to take us to our death they would not find us. I thought I would hid in the oven where bread was baked. The oven was built of bricks and stood at the entrance to our home. It had a large opening that you could enter. I planned to enter the oven and cover the opening with wood that was used to heat the oven. This was the fantasy of a little girl without protection who wanted to save herself from death. My mother and my elder sister Raizel decided we would hide in our basement storeroom under our shop that used to be a haberdashery. During the Soviet rule the part of the house that contained the shop was taken from us to be used as a government shop and they turned it into a storeroom in which we stored empty crates. Afterwards the German authorities locked the shop and boarded up the entrance with wooden planks hammered together with nails. To get to the basement under the storeroom we decided to go up to the attic and cross over to the shop attic, open a space in the shop ceiling and jump down inside the shop and them down into the basement. We were sure that they would not look for us in the basement under the shop.

Our mother went up to the attic of our house and crossed over to the shop attic. With an ordinary knife she quietly cut an opening in the ceiling where we could jump down into the shop. She got a pail of water and some food to take with us to our hiding place in the basement. In the street around our house and all over the ghetto there was a large number of Ukrainian Police and German soldiers. They caught the Jews, inhabitants of the ghetto, made them stand in line and under escort took them to where they were murdered. A Ukrainian policeman stood with a gun outside our shop, and we were afraid to jump from the attic into the shop and then into the basement in case he would hear the noise and find us. We waited for a chance to jump. When the sound of gunfire became loud I jumped with my sister Raizel into the shop. My cousin Mottel Royzin also jumped and a few other people whose names I do not remember.

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We went down into the basement and found a number of Jews already there from the building beside our home. Amongst them was Moshe Leib Noyman, Yocheved's husband. It was likely they had entered from the next basement through a hole they had opened to our basement.

We did not find our mother or little brother in the basement. I suppose they did not have time to get down to the basement and were caught by the Germans and were taken along with the other townspeople to where they were murdered. Before we left our mother told us we were young children and had to do everything possible to save ourselves.

The basement served as a cold storage room to keep food fresh. We lay on the floor like fossils without breathing and full of fear. Through cracks in the basement wall we saw Germans and Ukrainians chasing after Jews with sickles and never ending gunfire. The cries from the mothers and children were heard all around. The gunfire continued until evening and afterwards absolute silence.

At night we heard the goyim from the town and surroundings entering the homes in the ghetto and stealing the meager belongings of the Jews who had already been murdered. We lay in the basement for a few days. I do not remember how many, and when the hunger and thirst got the better of us we decided to find a way to get out of the basement. In a corner of the basement we found a barrel used a long time ago for pickling cucumbers. There were no cucumbers but the bitter juice was left. We drank this but it made us even thirstier.

Moshe Leib Nayman and another man, amongst those hiding in the basement, decided to take a chance and go out. They had hardly got away when we heard gunshots, shouting and groans. We understood they had been caught and shot by the murderers still in the area. One of the Jews with us started to cough. A Ukrainian policeman heard and called the other policemen and said Jews were hiding there and they must find them. The police could not find our hiding place. They started to knock on the doors and shoot. We knew we had to escape from our hiding place, otherwise the police and the Germans would find and kill us. We opened the hole of the basement and entered the shop which was full of crates. We started to climb up on the crates to the opening in the attic of the shop. We fell a few times but with our remaining strength we got to the opening in the ceiling and from there to the attic. We then went over to the attic of our home and down into the house.

Everything was a shambles in the house, crockery and bedding strewn all over the place and everything else stolen. We were lucky the doors were open and we left. I had a bleeding head wound. I probably got it when I jumped down from the attic. We started to run, and from every side of the road we were shot at. We ran and shouted, “Hear O Israel”. We passed beside the synagogue and went down into trenches full of water and crossed over towards the fields without looking back. While running I was beside my sister, and when we got further away from the town we found that we were the only two left from all the people who had escaped. We were sure we had succeeded in getting away because of our Grandmother Gittel who was a righteous woman watching over us.

Looking for a Safe Place

The whole night we walked without knowing where. Before morning we arrived at a river and drank water from our hands. In the distance we saw a cottage and went to ask the owner for something to eat. The goy threw us out, threatening to hand us over to the Germans. In the morning we saw shepherds going out with their herds to graze so we decided to hide during the day so they would not find us. That was at the beginning of September, the grains were cut and the bundles arranged in the field in high stacks. We crawled into the bundles and hid inside till the evening. Outside it was cold and we wore light clothing, so the cold and hunger tormented us. When it was dark we left our hiding place and started to walk without knowing to where. Every home we came to and asked for food we were thrown out with curses and threats of turning us over to the Germans. We arrived at the farm of a Czech goy who took pit on us and gave us some food and a blanket so we could cover ourselves up from the cold. The Czech farmer advised us to go towards the

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forests and said other Jews were hiding there. In a few days we had covered a great distance from Melnitza; we had travelled without knowing to where and what was expected at each stop and were told by the goyim we met at each place that we had reached the town of Trayanovka.

One day we met a person who said he was a Soviet soldier who had escaped from German captivity. He told us we needed to go to the village in Beretch, a settlement of Polish farmers beside the “Black Forest” and according to him the Partisans were there. We listened to him and went the way he had directed us to go. During the day we hid in haystacks and at night we travelled. We did not have any warm clothing or shoes.

One night we arrived at a large field and what looked like a large forest on the other side. There was a large haystack we hid in. Maybe we would see people coming out of the forest. When darkness fell we did see people coming out of the forest and we started shouting for them to come over to us but they were afraid. Eventually one did come over. These were Jews who had escaped from the Manevitch ghetto under threat of death from the Germans and Ukrainians. They were old people who knew the terrain well in the forests besides the towns of Manevitch, Trjanovka and Pavroosk. Their young sons were Partisans against the Germans and Ukrainians.

We spent a period of time with these Jews; they did not accept us willingly but we went with them. At night we would go out to the fields to dig for potatoes which we would cook on bonfires deep in the forest. This was the only food we had but at least we did not go hungry.

When we heard that the Germans and Ukrainians were nearing the forest where we were hiding, looking for Jews, we moved to a new hiding place deeper in the forest. One day when we were alone, my sister and myself, we made a small fire to warm ourselves when suddenly two armed men appeared. They started to question us about the hiding place of the Jews in the forest. We refused to tell them anything even though they threatened us. One thing that impressed them the most was we would not betray the Jews. They told us they were Russian Partisans and gave us some food they had. It turned out afterwards that this was the Partisan Commander Max and his bodyguard. Max was one of the most important Polish Commanders in the Partisans in Vholyn and afterwards a Colonel in the Polish army. They told us it was not possible to take us with them but promised us that in a few days Partisans would come and take us with them to their camp.

 

Under the Protection of the Soviet Partisans

During one of the visits by the Jewish Partisans, some Russian Partisans also came with them who were soldiers in the Red Army who had stayed to fight on the German front under orders from Army Headquarters in Moscow. Among them was a Russian called “Kinor”. I begged him to take us with them to the Partisan groups. Kinor pitied us and said he was will to take me with them but not my sister since it was a small unarmed group and could not tie themselves to other non-fighting people. My sister told me to go with them and at least I would be saved and find a safe hiding place. It would be easy for her to find a hiding place on her own and I would not a burden to her. We decided it would be better for both of us and I had to part from my sister and go with the Partisans. They gave me warm clothing and before nightfall I went with them to their camp a few kilometers from where I had parted from my sister. We arrived at the “Kochov” forests where the Partisans had their camp and a few kilometers from there was the “Family Camp” for Jews who could not fight: old people, women, and children.

From that day when I parted from my sister, all links were cut off between us. I tried to find her and asked people if they had seen her. Possibly she was killed by Germans or Ukrainians who would hunt down Jews in the forests. I was transferred from the Partisan camp to the “Family Camp”.

The Partisan camp was commanded by Max who was a good man and would always ask me how I was when he saw me. I worked in the family camp and did everything asked of me. I helped with the cooking and washing and afterwards as a shepherd for cattle and sheep. The Commander of the family

[English Page 58]

camp was Avraham Fuchtik, originally from Manevitch, a good man and kind towards me.

Sometimes the Germans and Ukrainians who knew all the tracks and forests would hunt down the Partisans and the “family camp”. We would have to escape quickly from one place to another in the forest behind the marshes until the hunt was over and we could rebuild our camp. Our situation during the hunt in winter was difficult. We would have to escape without clothing or essentials, in the snow, with the bare necessities where we found a hiding place. We slept on the snow and ice without covering or heating.

Our family camp was always a few kilometers away from Max's Partisan camp. In our camp there were one hundred Jews, mostly from Manevitch. There were whole families, parts of families, singles, old people and twenty orphaned children like myself with no parents or relations. Our situation was very bad in the autumn of 1942 and in the winter of 1943 it was even worse. There was no food and we had to go and steal potatoes and vegetables even though we were terrified of being caught by the Germans and Ukrainians. The farmers stored the potatoes for the winter in holes in the ground they had dug in the fields. We had to dig them out with our bare hands. At night we slept in tabernacles we had made with tree branches on the cold ground. During the winter with our bare hands we built “Zemliankes” under the ground, the walls made from logs and the ceilings also made from logs we covered with layers of earth. We did not have any bedding so we slept on the wood. We had no lighting so we lit small fires inside the underground hut on the ground so we could get some heat as well as light. We had no eating utensils and had to make do with mugs and wooden spoons. We ate bread and potatoes, sometimes meat and millet gruel which was cooked in an iron pot over the fire. Cleanliness was poor because we had nowhere to wash, no soap or clothing to change.

The Germans would hunt down the Partisans and Jews, blasting the forests with artillery and sometimes the planes would bomb the forest and afterwards they would enter the forests shooting everywhere. Acting on information from the Partisans we would leave our hiding place and escape to another place. During one of the raids the Germans attacked us and we were surrounded by them. The Partisans wanted to leave the Jews from the family camp to fall into German hands but the Partisan Commander “Diadia Petia” (Uncle Petia), whose real name was Polak A. Brinski, gave the Partisans orders to take us with them

The Germans captured the Partisan camp and the “family camp”, burnt everything and blew up our bunkers. We had to start from scratch in our new camp.

In the spring of 1943 the area which the Partisans controlled, called the “Partisan area”, grew in size. The Germans under attack by the Partisans withdrew and left the area to the Partisans and went eastwards towards the front line with the Red Army. They were stationed along the rail tracks and main roadways. Their army was too weak to attack the Partisans. The Partisans would attack the villages that were under German and Ukrainian control and confiscate the herds of sheep and cattle, horses and carts, flour and wheat, potatoes and other food. In other villages which had been under German control and taken over by the Partisans there was also a four mill which was operated by Jewish grinders from our family camp. They ground the wheat to flour for the local farmers and for all the Partisan units in the whole area. Until we captured the mill we had ground the wheat to flour with stones which we turned by hand, one stone above the other, and it was hard work needing time and strength. A baking oven was built in the family camp and the Jewish women baked bread for the Partisans and for ourselves. The children, including myself, looked after the sheep and cattle. During this time we had food, bread, meat and milk produce. The Jewish Partisans and the Russians on their return from fighting against the Germans and Ukrainians would bring us clothing taken as loot. The Partisans built us a washroom; though a bit primitive, we could still wash ourselves.

The women from the “family camp” looked after the orphaned children and cared for our health and welfare, especially by Zisel Bratt whose daughters were off fighting.

In the summer of 1943 a gang of armed

[English Page 59]

Ukrainians called “Bendrovzes” and “Bolbovzes” appeared. They were antisemestic nationalistic Ukrainians who had declared war against the Soviets and Partisans. They declared they were fighting for an “independent Ukraine” free from all foreign authority. Members of these gangs were local people and knew the forests and all the roads and tracks. Our situation grew worse daily. Any Jew found in the forest or hiding in the farms was killed by them.

Amongst the Partisans were a number of anti-Semites and many times things happened to the Jews and especially to the Jews in the fighting units. A number of Jews were killed with no reason or transgression by their friends and commanders. I remember a Jewish boy who was killed by a Russian Partisan from Moscow.

The winter of 1943-44 was my second in the forest. Another enemy apart from the Germans, Ukrainians and the gangs was the unbearable cold and snow. Our movements were limited in the snow and we always left footprints while escaping from the enemy. During those bitterly cold days the Germans would increase their forays into the forest looking for the Jews and Partisans.

In November 1943, the Germans gathered a few divisions in Manevitch and in Kamin-Kashirsk and they decided to attack the Kochov forest from different directions at the same time. The Partisans heard about this and decided they could not fight against the Germans and they would take their forces out of the forest by ways not yet blocked by the enemy. Lines of Partisans started to leave in the snow in the northeast direction towards the Stir River. The Partisan commanders decided that the people from the “family camp” would stay in the forest. Fear reigned in the family camp amongst the Jews, that they would fall into the hands of the Germans and Ukrainians. Against the orders of the Partisan commanders they began to move, without warm clothing in that terrible cold, together with the Partisan army. The Commander decided at all cost to stop the people interrupting the withdrawal of the fighting units; they decided to leave a group of armed Partisans to protect the family camp. Fifteen Jewish fighters volunteered for this job and they stayed together with the civilians. The German divisions went past the forest but they were afraid to deviate from the main track in the forest, and they returned to their base in the town without being able to find the Partisans. Luckily, the family camp was never found by the Germans and no Jew was hurt. After a few days the Partisan units returned to their former camp.

In January 1944 the Red Army conquered the town of Sarni that is thirty kilometers from the forest where our camps were. The Red Army joined forces with our Partisans in the Kochov forest. The High Command of the Red Army decided that a few Partisan units would join up with the Brigade under the command of Max and they left the camp and went behind the German lines towards southwest. We civilians from the family camp stayed at the base in the Kochov forest.

 

After Liberation by the Red Army

The town of Refalovka was liberated at the end of March 1944 and after a few days all the civilians from the “Family camp” transferred to the town. I was there a few weeks, then the period of wandering started for me. First I went to Rovno where I was put into an institute for children, an orphanage organized by the Russian Authorities. There were Jewish children together with Russian and Ukrainian children. The goyim would taunt us, shouting “Kill the Jews and save Russia”. A great number of Jews who had survived, gathered together and they organized the “Bricha” – the transfer of Jews to outside Russia, to Rumania and Poland with the purpose of getting to Palestine. We made connections with the organizers of the “Bricha” and together with other Jews I went to Poland and arrived in Lodz. I entered an institution for Jewish youth in the village of Helnovek near Lodz. There were children there who had lost their parents and who had survived the concentration camps and the Partisans. Children were also brought in who had found a hiding place with Polish families, children taken out of monasteries where they had been educated as Christian Polish children. The institute was far from town in a field surrounded by a high fence, a three storied building. The Principal was a woman called Ruth who was also

[English Page 60]

the chief cook. The institute board organized classes in which we studied, apart from regular subjected, Jewish subjects and about Israel. People from the Zionist movement would visit us and tell us about going to Palestine.

In Lodz, we were organized into groups and in illegal ways under the protection of “The Bricha” went over the border from Poland into Czechoslovakia and from there into Germany to the area occupied by the American forces. We were put into a Jewish refugee camp under the auspices of UNRRA in the town of Felderphing beside Munich.

In Felderphing I was in the “Shomer HaZair” kibbutz named after Zvi Brandeis who was one of the heads of the Jewish underground at the time of the Holocaust in Poland. In the kibbutz we were trained and taught prior to going to Palestine on the “Aliyah Bet” in illegal ways.

We travelled to France from Germany and on 3/2/1947 sailed from a small harbor on a ship called “The Unknown Illegal Immigrant”. On board we were seven hundred and ninety six pioneers, twenty percent were children and youth. The ship's goal was to sail south of Jaffa and we would disembark there. On 15.2.1947, the ship was discovered by a British reconnaissance plane and the British caught the ship and made us sail to Haifa.

Cuffing the clashes with the British, six illegal immigrants were injured, one by gunshots fired above as he jumped into the water. When the ship arrived in Haifa we were transferred to the British Prison Ship “Empire Royal” and taken to the campus in Cyprus. In Cyprus, we were in Camp 64. I was also in the “HaShomer HaZair” Kibbutz. On Erev Yom Kippur 1947, I arrived in Israel under the auspices of “Youth Aliyah” and was put into the agricultural school in Ayanot besides Nes Ziona.

 

mel060.jpg
Zelda Lior's Cousins
From left to right: Rose Levin, Samuel H. Cohen, Sarah “Ricci” Perlstein, and Dr. Morris N. Cohen

[English Page 61]

In Memory of
Gerson Cohen and Esther Nee Baller

The following letter about her parents was written by Rose Levin
to her granddaughters, Emily and Judy Sorokin
[4]

January 24, 1967

Dear Emily and Judy,

You never knew your great grandmother and grandfather Cohen, so I thought that you might like to know a little about them. Emily, you were about a year old when they died – and you went to visit them but you were too little to remember, of course. Judy, you weren't born yet.

My father, Gershon Cohen, was born in Russia in 1870, in the Ukraine, in a small village called Vishinka. (The people in that particular village must have had small noses because my father and his brothers never failed to comment to me that I had “A Vishinka Nose”. They had Vishinka Noses too.)

I don't know too much about my father's boyhood. I do know that his family was poor and that he was one of seven children, five boys and two girls. The boys all emigrated to the United States, but the daughters remained in Russia with their families for the rest of their lives. Your Mommy was named after one of these sisters – Shana Riva (Jewish name) translated into English Janet Ruth. My father always called you mother by her Jewish name, Shana. The word Shana, in Jewish, means pretty. Your aunt Lois was named for the other sister, Chana Laya, translated and reversed into Lois Anne. It's an old Jewish custom, and commonly followed as well today, to name children for deceased members of one's family as a sort of remembrance of one's loved ones.

I also know that my father was a Yeshivah Bucher or student of the Torah and the Talmud and spent most of his time studying. As he grew up, he became a very learned man. He was also a physically strong man. His younger brothers told us that he had been a powerful swimmer and had once save the life of a young lady who was drowning. Everyone expected him to marry this young lady, especially her parents, but my father didn't care for her, so he refused. They also say that my father was so strong that he once lifted a horse who had stumbled and had fallen on top of his rider. Pictures of him show that he was a very handsome man, especially in his army uniform.

When he was 21 years old, like all other young men in Russia, he was expected to serve in the Czar's Army. Since Jews had no love for the Czar because he treated the Jews so cruelly, the men were reluctant to fight for him, many of them fleeing the country to avoid service. My father did serve during the Sino-Russian Way and endured many hardships; although he played the Cornet in the Army Band that marched with the troops; but at least he didn't have to do any shooting.

When he returned from the War, a matchmaker introduced him to my mother, Esther Bessie Baller. In those days, that's how young people me and got married – through a matchmaker. My mother and father liked each other when they met and they were married and went to live in my mother's home in the town of Melnitza. At that time, my father was 28 and my mother was 19. They lived in this earthen-floored house that belonged to my mother's parents, Zelda and Moshe Ber Baller and their other daughter and their two sons. They remained here about a year and my oldest brother Morris, Moe, was born there. Six months after that my father decided to go to America and later sent for his wife and child. My father's brother had gone to America previously and said it was wonderful in this country and he sent for my father in 1901.

He went to a small town in Connecticut, known as Torrington, where I was later born. He founded the first Jewish synagogue there – and taught Hebrew as there was a small Jewish community without a house of worship. About a year later he sent for my mother and her baby, who was then 1.5 years old. They joined him and lived in Torrington for about 12 years.

Don't you think my mother was brave to cross the Ocean to an unknown land. She was only about 21 years old – alone- and a baby to care for with strange accommodations on the ships that were insanitary

[English Page 62]

and wretchedly uncomfortable. In those days, and on those awful ships the passage across would take as long as two weeks. Many babies died on route due to the miserable conditions.

In 1913 my family moved to Hartford Connecticut where we have all lived since. My father died when he was 89 years old and my mother three months later when she was 80. They had been a very happy pair.

Girls, I hope you enjoy reading this and learning a little about your grandparents. They were very nice folks and I'm sure that if they were alive today, they would be very proud of both of you.

Love and kisses,
Grandma

 

Gershon Cohen

Religious functionary. Born in Vishinke, Poland-Russia in 1870, son of Shmuel and Reina Cohen, he served in the Russian Army six years and saw active duty in the Japanese-Russian War. After the war, he studied shechita and became a shohet. He married Ester Baller of Melnitza, Russia, where their son Moshe (now Dr. Morris N. Cohen) was born in 1898. The following year Gershon Cohen came to the U.S. and lived in Hartford until his family arrived in 1899. He then moved to Torrington where he was a shohet, mohel, and acting rabbi until 1910 when he moved back to Hartford. An early Zionist, he joined the B'nei Zion Society on Winthrop Street and became part of the Ahuza Aleph group which bought land in Raannana, Palestine.

He taught Hebrew at the old Talmud Torah on Pleasant Street and later on the South End Talmud Torah. For several years he was the Baal tefillah (cantor) in Rockville and Ellington for the High Holidays.

He served as the Baal Tefillah for the Hebrew Home for the Ages on Washington Street until it was moved to Tower Avenue where he spent the last year of his life as a resident.

He died on March 18, 1957. Survivors: widow, Esther Baller Cohen; sons, Dr. Morris N., State Representative, Dr. Sidney B., and Samuel H.,; daughters, Mrs. William H. Levin and Mrs. Abraham Perlstein; brothers, Louis Cohen (Danbury) and Abraham Cohen (N.Y.C.).

His widow, Esther Baller Cohen, died June 13, 1957.

These additional notes about Grandpa Gershon were also written by his son Dr. Morris N. Cohen in 1962.

  1. During his service in the Russian Army, Gershon Cohen was shipped to Vladivostok; his transport stopped at Jaffa on the way to and from Asia.
  2. After moving back to Hartford in 1910, Gershon went into the retail business.
  3. As a member of Achuza Aleph, Gershon bought two pieces of land in Raanana, Palestine. The land was later sold by his heirs.
  4. One of Gershon's students later became a professor at Yeshiva University in New York.

[English Page 63]

mel063.jpg
Left to right: Moe, Esther, Gershon, Emma

This photograph was taken just before their 'landmark' trip to Israel in 1951. The four left New York harbor aboard the S.S. La Guardia, about 50 years after Esther and baby arrived in New York to join Gershon in the United States.


  1. The Archives of the “Institute of Jewish History” in Warsaw, Poland. File Number 209. Archives of Yad VaShem, Jerusalem, File Number 106/229 Return
  2. On 16.7.1941. attestation of Yerachmiel Zweik. Return
  3. On Kaf Aleph Ellul, Taf Shin Bet – 3.9.1942 Return
  4. From Cohen Family album by Mollie Louise Cohen, pages 14-16 Return

 

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