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[Page 333]

And the Bravery

The Partisans of Tuvia Belski

by Dr. Shmuel Amarant

Translated from Hebrew by Aviva Kamil

 

Map of the Bielski Otriad in Nalibocka Forest
During the Last Phase of its Existence
(Fall 1943 - Summer 1944)

Map of the Bielski Otriad in Nalibocka Forest - nov333.gif [38 KB]
Unidentified structures are livinq quarters; all other structures
are identified by the particular function each served.

This map is based on information provided by Chaja Bielski

Map donated by Jack Kagan

The Belski partisans in the forests of west Byelorussia provided a refuge to people who escaped from the ghettos and working camps, to small family groups, which escaped to the country side and wandered without cover and protection from constant danger, to the Jewish partisans who suffered from anti-Semitism in the Russian partizanka [partisan movement] or were expelled by the Russians because of anti-Semitism, which was usually disguised under all sorts of pretexts and often they were made to leave without weapons or an alternate hiding place. [The Polish partisans would murder any Jew on sight, let alone accept him in their partisan units. Horrific stories of the misdeeds of the Polish partisans have been told. Some people maintain that in our district the Poles killed more Jewish partisans than the Germans.]

The unit's core developed in stages within the Belski family; slowly it grew with every new arrival of escapees from the camps and ghettos. Every wave of people fleeing to the forests brought with them their own way of life and influenced the life of the growing group of partisans. The history of that family camp, the largest in the Jewish partisan movement [anywhere], reflects the evolvement of family camps within the Jewish partisan movement, the process of unification on one hand and the trend towards division and disintegration on the other; the dependence of those camps on the conditions of the general partisan movement, their aspirations and achievements.

The Belski family escaped from their village of Stankiewiczi, near Novogudok, at the beginning of 1942. They wandered in the forests of Buszkowicz(?). Little groups of relatives and friends from the Ghetto of Novogrudok began to join them during the spring and summer of 1942. The people armed themselves and started to take revenge on murderous peasants and German collaborators. They contacted a group of Russian partisans under the command of Viktor Panchenko and together they carried out daring raids in the Novogrudok district.

From the beginning there were different opinions as to how the group should operate, many of its members [mainly women] tended to favor isolation, they wanted to take advantage of their good relations with the farmers around them and hide in the depth of the forests until the day of liberation. The fact that the family group turned into a huge unit was due to the personal influence of Tuvia Belski who was chosen as the leader of the partisans.

T. Belski was from the beginning bent on absorbing all Jewish escapees. The struggle to decide how the partisans should act lasted a long time, especially in times of danger. When the shortage of supplies was severe, there was a desire by some, particularly those who carried arms, to divide the camp and separate it into closed units, thus taking advantage of having weapons and having connections with the local population, and to leave the rest of the people, who had no weapons or fighting skills. ”Why do we have to take care of these ”malbushim”? – that is how they called the unarmed people – “we will get rid of them and take care of ourselves” maintained the ones who sought separation.

T. Belski held a different opinion; he exhibited a statesman like responsibility, and an understanding of the hour's needs. He accepted any Jew who came to join him, with or without a weapon, with or without fighting skills. He said again and again” I wish that thousands of Jews would join us, we will absorb them all”. Disintegration of partisan units was very common at the beginning of the partizanka [1942] when there was no central authority and every group of partisans was an independent unit. If not for Tuvia Belski his partisans too would have been divided into tiny groups, each looking for hiding places in the depths of the forests. Belski maintained his line of action and his personal intervention saved the unity of the partisans and the lives of hundreds of its members. In the primitive conditions of the forest, at the beginning of the partizanka, when selfish tendencies were common, Tuvia Belski's stand deserves high commendation and praise.

In the winter of 1942-43, because of the increased danger and difficulty in supplying the camp, the unit was forced to divide into five groups, which settled in different locations in the district of Novogrudok. Some tried, together with their families and relatives, to separate themselves and abandon the unarmed people. Belski assembled his partisans and ordered that no Jew would be left alone in the forest. The Jews of Novogrudok and surrounds were the first to join the unit. Belski's messengers started to smuggle groups of Jews from the ghetto of Novogrudok, using prepared lists of names. Later the Jews of Iviah abandoned the Ghetto and joined the partisans, when they learned that they were going to be removed from the town. The remnants of the Dworec population, the bulk of whom was slaughtered in December 1942, also joined the Belski's partisans. Their camp was a refuge to small groups of Jews from Novogrudok and Dworec, which tried initially to survive independently, but, having encountered the murderous behavior of the Russian partisans, they were forced to look for protection of the Belski partisans. The commanders of the Russian partisans also started to press little family groups and forced them to join Belski's unit.

In the spring of 1943 the Jews of Lida started to arrive. Initially they tried to join the Russian partisan group ”Iskara” on the banks of the Neman, but met with an anti-Semitic attitude, were disarmed and sent off to the Belski's partisans. These Jews formed the connecting link between the forest and the Lida Ghetto and hundreds of people from Lida began to arrive at the bases of the Belski partisans, in the forests of the Novogrudok district, Stara Huta and other locations. Groups of Jewish partisans from the Russian units also joined the Belski camp. They came, for example, from the “Arlianski” partisans, from the Lipiczanska wilderness, the “First of May” partisan unit, and others. The arrivals resented the anti-Semitic atmosphere that prevailed in the Russian units and left them of their own will, carrying their arms with them. They wanted to fight together with the Belski partisans, among Jews. The unit thrived and on the eve of the ” Big Hunt” [“Oblawa”] of July 1943 it reached more then 700 souls.

At the time of the “Big Hunt”, in July-August 1943, the divisive opinions were heard again. The units, which moved at that time to the forests of Naliboki, were forced to split into many small groups, which wandered in the area, trying to survive in those troubled days. Often the armed groups drove off the unarmed partisans and even threatened them with their weapons. There was no lack of display of extreme selfishness, which bordered on cruelty.

After the “Big Hunt”, in September 1943, in the forests of Volsov(?), the commander of the “Kirov” brigade, captain Snichin(?), [Belski's partisans were under his command] decided to separate the fighting men from the non-fighting [family members].

From then on the armed people formed the fighting brigade called ”Ordzonikidze” under the Soviet command [captain Lishanko(?)]. Tuvia Belski was appointed commander of the family unit and they camped in the old forests of Naliboki. All the groups that wandered in that area were ordered by the district partisan staff under the command of Platon (General Chernyshev) [who arrived from the U. S. S. R] to concentrate in the family camp. The reluctant were threatened with severe penalties.

At the end of summer 1943 a process of concentration started, the small groups united in large family groups. Small groups of the former Belski units and escapees also joined the new unit.

The Lida Ghetto was eliminated on the 18th of September 1943, a fighting group of partisans from Lida joined the Belski partisans in the forests of Volsov(?). At the same time a base for a large family unit was organized in the forests of Naliboki. Its core was a group of 40 people under the command of Israel Kesler. He never abandoned it. The base was established in the heart of the wilderness, about 7 km from Naliboki, within a dense forest of birches and pine trees. Many small groups started to join them, those who were with the fighting partisans and those who were just wandering and looking for a refuge in a large Jewish partisan group.

Kesler organized the base and took care of the supply for the future camp. He collected potatoes, which remained in the abandoned villages that were burned and destroyed by the Germans at the time of the “Hunt”, prepared storage to preserve the products in the coming winter.

The Command of the district under General Platon-Chernyshev ordered that the camp from then on will become an independent unit under the Commander of the Lida District. Belski was appointed the commander of the unit.

One branch of the unit was an armed platoon under the command of Asael Belski. Their task was to protect and supply the camp. We will describe in few words Asael. He was seen often everywhere in the camp, riding on his horse and inspecting every corner. He was daring and devoted to his duties. His simplicity and honesty were reflected in his blue eyes and striking looks. His face was handsome, smiling and open. He was friendly, loved by his companions and people under his command. After the return of the Soviets, Asael was conscripted into the Red Army and died soon on the Prussian front.

The elimination of the Ghettos and working camps in Byelorussia was completed. The last of the escapees from the Ghettos and concentration camps found shelter in Belski's unit. Small groups of Jews from the forests of Krinicy(?) near Stolpcy and of Jews from Mir who were hiding in the forests of Zlushin, near their town, joined the Belski unit.

Jews from the labor camp of Koldichewo arrived – 100 people. On the way they met partisans from a Cherkaz unit who cruelly taunted and robbed them.

In October 1943, 150 people arrived from the labor camp of Novogudok, which was located in the buildings of the district court. They managed to escape through an underground tunnel, which they had dug.

The Jews from Novogudok were the initial group of the Belski unit. The camp grew month by month, and in the winter of 1944 there were 1230 people in the unit. The Naliboki base of the camp had developed in the months from September 1943 until the liberation in July 1944 into an excellently organized camp. The stability of its existence in the last 10 months made it look like a settlement, the atmosphere of a Jewish town was evident, a community in which the population was the last remains of dozens of towns and villages which were razed to the ground. I will describe the life in that settlement.

A look through Belski's camp

The camp was located in the heart of the Nelibok wilderness, around it were hundreds of square km. of old forests and marshes. The whole area was “Partisan Country”, a territory under the Soviet rule surrounded by the Nazi enemy. All that large area was under the control of the partisan commands, which were growing, ruling and directing all that was happening in that area. On the edge of the forests, on the banks of the Neman were strong partisan groups like: ”Iskara”, ”Mitkobatshes (?)” who supervised the movement and carefully examined all comings and goings. Platoons of partisans from different units periodically left the wilderness, raided the villages and fringes of towns [where German soldiers camped] and confiscated food and clothing for the people in the forest, right under the nose of the enemy.

Only in times of the “Hunt”, when the Germans employed full divisions and dared to penetrate the wilderness with cannons, tanks and planes, only then the partisan units retreated into the dense forests looking for hiding places until the end of the ”Hunt”. And then the ” Partisan Country” returned to normality.

In the autumn of 1943, after the “Hunt”, the Soviet control of the Naliboki wilderness grew stronger. Hundreds joined the partisan groups: Byelorussian and Ukrainian policemen who realized that they backed the wrong side and were in a hurry to join the “partisanka” to atone for their collaboration with the bitter enemy, residents of villages and towns who did not want to be sent as forced laborers to Germany. Jews – escapees from the Ghettos and the working camps -, all those people looked for a haven in the ancient forests. The roads to Belski's camp were winding and rough; all comers were forced to walk dozens of km., were bogged down in the swamps, which could be crossed only on tracks covered by planks. The Germans destroyed all the Byelorussian villages, even the smallest of settlements {chutor} at the time of the “Hunt” when part of the population was sent to Germany as forced labor and the rest were ruthlessly eliminated on the spot. Often the person approaching Belski's camp stumbled upon ruins of towns and settlements [Naliboki, chutors and villages], destroyed peasants' huts appeared in front of him, charred chimneys', partly burnt fences, corpses of decomposed farm animals strewn around, stench in the air, frightened cats meowing amidst the destruction. For many months, the people from the Belski camp went into those settlements, to the ruins of Naliboki and Derevna, which were close by [7-10 km.], to collect anything that could be of use. In September 1943 the camp people still went out every day in carts, dug the fields, collected potatoes in sacks, loaded them and brought them to the camouflaged stores, to be kept for the winter months. We brought from Naliboki and Derevna parts of buildings, which could be used, such as: complete windows, heaters, boilers, barrels and kitchen utensils, which were strewn among the ruins.

In the beginning, people lived in huts built out of pine tree branches. Little groups or single people built provisional shelters (“succah”, plural “succot”) They spread soft branches on the ground, covered them with blankets and peasants' fur coats. From a distance the “succot” looked like kennels. In the autumn nights people who slept in them were drenched to the bone and were forced to get out, shivering in their wet clothes, and dry themselves in front of bonfires.

Snow started to fall and often when we went out of the ”succah” in the morning the whiteness and sparkle of it surprised us. The commanders started the project of building larger huts. The work followed the design by Ribinski (Building Manager), and he was appointed to supervise the project. It was the duty of every person to take part in the work. To begin with the foundations were dug, rectangles to the depth of 80-100 cm. Next tree trunks from the forest were planted in the foundations. The trunks were held tightly together with barbed wire, the spaces between the logs were filled with moss. The roofs of the huts were made of rough timber planks, topped with soil and camouflaged with branches of trees.

At the entrance to the hut there was a door followed inside by a couple of steps. It was dark in the hut and it took a while to get used to the thin light filtering through the open door and a tiny window in the opposite wall. You could see wooden benches covered with straw along both sides of the wall. Forty people slept in each hut side by side. In the middle of the hut stood a small iron stove. It was looted from one of the abandoned villages.

The huts were erected in two long rows, both sides of the “main street”. Every hut had a number and even a nickname, depending on the origin of its dwellers or their trade. For example, hut number 11 was called “intelligentsia”, there lived the camp doctor Dr. H., a woman dentist from Pinsk, the lawyer Volkovyski from Baranowicze and a few other professional people. The “main street” was the main traffic route; it was always alive with people and all sorts of goings on. Partisans, women and men, strolled in the street in their typical “uniforms” partly peasant's garb, partly military, a strange combination of peasant's furs. The boots were made out of a light yellow leather, which was a product of the camp. Army hats, Russian and German or peasant's fur hats and weapons gathered from different sources. Friends met on the” main street”, as did groups of guests who frequented the camp.

The hierarchy of the partisan society

The onlooker who watched the traffic at twilight time, could distinguish easily the rank and social importance of the person. That ranking was established in the camp, and was understood by everyone. Even there, in the heart of the forest, the order was the same, social status played its part. And it drew them closer or kept them apart, bred arrogance and envy, gossip and bitterness. The commanders and their relatives were the elite, they galloped on their horses wearing leather coats, breeches and a parabelum pistol in their belt, that clothing represented a high social status – many were happy to demonstrate the advantage they had in that social hierarchy and to show that they belonged to the elite of the partisans. The scouts – who also belonged to the elite – riding on their horses, their wives – young partisans – also did the same, riding their horses, wearing breeches and a pistol in their belt. They behaved like salon ladies showing off their jewellery. Their image reflected an arrogant self-assurance and personal success. Those people had a kitchen just for themselves, good food, which made them feel even more special.

Of lower status were members of the two fighting platoons, they were the defense force, took part in battles and were responsible for obtaining the supplies. Their status symbol was the rifle, always on their shoulder, from which they never parted. Their clothing was of lesser quality, gathered from wherever they could put their hands on. They also felt important and behaved that way. They looked with disregard upon the ”Malbushim” &150; the unarmed people. They were tall, strong fellows, most of them sons of the low class families from the towns and villages &150; small timber merchants, peddlers, coachmen and tradesmen, their education minimal, but because of that they were close to the forest and adapted quickly to the conditions.

Among the “malbushim” too, there were different levels and status: tradesmen in the food industry, especially the essential ones like bakery, sausages making etc. enjoyed a better position to those whose trades were not as useful in the camp. At the bottom were the real “Malbushim”, they were employed in a number of service tasks that changed from time to time: kitchen work, tree cutting and transporting, guarding the horses and cows and so on. They were the lowest class, the ”amcho” of the camp. They were recognized immediately among the people on the “main street”. The onlooker would know them by their untidy appearance, torn and patched clothes, thin and pale faces, and slow and heavy movements.

All those differences were obvious in negotiations, conversations, establishing relations and in mutual understanding.

Keeping warm

German planes were often flying over on reconnaissance, looking for partisans, but the huts in the dense forest were camouflaged with tree branches and were hard to detect from the distance.

At night in the rainy season, the floor of the huts became a sticky swamp and the cold dampness caused rheumatic pain in many of the dwellers. Many complained about pains in their leg and arm joints, especially at night. Frequently problems arose when people had to relieve themselves in the cold night. They walked like drunks, stumbled against the benches, where other partisans slept, and it was a nightmare to many. But eventually we became immune to it.

It was forbidden to light stoves or a bonfire during the day for fear of the German planes discovering the camp. During the day, unoccupied people prepared wood for the fire. In the winter they went out in groups to the forest close to their huts to select dried birch trees (suchostoj). They cut them down, sawed them into short pieces and brought them to the huts where they split them. In the evenings they lit the iron stove (kufah), which stood in the center of the hut. It became red hot and the hut dwellers huddled around it enjoying the warmth. Sometimes water was boiled on the stove for laundering an only shirt or for a wash. Some of the people, who sat close to the stove, held pine bark soaked with resin to rekindle the dying fire. Some held splits of pine tree which were used as candles in the long evenings, their dim light leaped onto the faces of groups of men and women who sat around, pale, weather beaten faces, their thinness accentuating the stubble of their beards. They sat and entertained themselves by singing lively songs or by telling adventurous partisan or prewar stories, in a special partisan style. Nightmarish memories of the holocaust were never mentioned on those occasions. An intimate family atmosphere enveloped the sitters around the stove. Sometimes the commander was visiting the huts, going from hut to hut, taking part in their conversations.

In the winter months small groups started to build for themselves huts in higher and drier places. The first builders were I and my wife and two young, intelligent couples. We all decided to build ourselves a more comfortable place. After receiving permission from the commander we started to build our hut a little further from the “main street” on a higher spot. We went especially to the destroyed town of Naliboki and brought from there a big window with the windowpanes intact, a door and an iron stove. We made three separate benches, a table in the center and chairs out of stumps. The window let through a pleasant bright light. The air was dry and fresh – a crowded clump of birches, like a green wall, was seen through the window. It felt like “home”, it looked to us like a splendid villa. We were proud of it. The camp's people arrived to feed their eyes on that miracle of “architecture” and praised its comfort. In Naliboki we also found a small tin vessel, in which we could bath. In the forest it was a valued treasure. We dug a well near the hut and had water, dirty, but still it enabled us to wash every day. What a good life!!!! In the same vessel we laundered our clothes and boiled potatoes…it was a wonder utensil for universal use.

Many followed us, a small neighborhood of small family huts appeared on the slopes of the hill above the “main street” – the “villas” of the camp.

In our neighborhood lived the camp ”Komissar” Shemyatoviec with his young wife and father in law. He belonged to one of the Russian fighting partisan groups in the area, but when the chief of staff demanded that he should be separated from his family and they should be transferred to the family camp, he preferred to come with them and join our partisans. He was a true Russian, a middle aged man, 50 years or more, with a big Kozak moustache, an angry expression on his face, broad shouldered and with heavy, bear like movements. His influence in the camp was not felt much. Shemyatoviec met his wife in a group of Jews who wandered in the forest near his partisan camp. He gave her and her father shelter and protection in his partisan hut. It was not a union made in heaven. She was 18 years old, dark, tall, pale faced with a Jewish prettiness, and there was never a smile on her face. Her father was the same age as his son in law, bearded and religious. We often saw him through his hut's window, wrapped in “talit” and “tefilin”, praying. In the evenings he went to the tannery, which was used as a place to pray in. Was that religious Jew happy with his Russian son in law, with whom he was forced to stay day and night? Was he suffering because his daughter was forced to be a wife to that man? – No one could tell. There were many couples like that in the forest. The time and the hard forest life brought together many strange unions that would not be conceived in normal times. One of the couples who lived in our hut was like that: He was a middle aged crude butcher, she was a widow who lost her husband and sons and went with the butcher because of his physical strength and his work in the sausage factory. All that made her life comfortable. Joining together as couples was premeditated. It is surprising, that in a short time after such traumatic family experiences which those people went through, they were in a hurry to start new family relationships and make themselves forget the past.

We have made a detour to the “villa” neighborhood, now we will come back to the “main street”. In the central street we have arrived to the hut of Tuvia Belski, the camp commander. Family huts of his relatives and friends were close by: his brother Asael Belski, the Boldo family, Dzienciolski and others. The elite of the camp met often there, and spent time together. Next to the commander's hut was the surgery, where Dr. H received daily the waiting sick. The dentist, a Jewish woman from Pinsk who turned up in our partisan camp, was also working there. To relieve the partisan's toothache, she was forced to use ordinary pincers, because of the lack of instruments. There were nurses to assist them. Further on at the end of the street, was the camp's common kitchen. Potato soup was cooked daily in a huge blackened boiler. A deep ditch was dug under the boiler, flames burst out of the smoking fire under it. A few boys, who worked in the kitchen, were splitting tree stumps and throwing them into the fire when it was necessary. The soup was usually thin and poor; it was a miracle if you managed to find some bones in it, which were sent from the sausage factory.

Sometimes, in times of “plenty”, you could get some potatoes boiled in their jackets. The commanders and their relatives and friends had food prepared in a separate kitchen, which was across the street. There was a great difference between the quality and the nutritional value of the food from the two kitchens. That fact stirred up a lot of jealousy and anger, especially among the armed people, who demanded better food. In front of the common kitchen were long queues of people with eating utensils in their hands. The people standing in the queue were pushing each other in order to get the first serves which were thicker. Many quarrels started because of it. The daily portions of bread were distributed at the same time.

Seldom, like on the 1st of May, pieces of sausage were given

Those social differences influenced the way people ate. The partisans, who went on “farm” operations, left for themselves [whether it was permitted or not] products, which they cooked in their huts. The common kitchen was confined gradually to serving only the lower “classes” of the camp, the “malboshim”, who had to make do with the thin portions given to them. At a short distance from the huge kitchen a bakery was built with a big oven, typical of that area, it was equipped with all the tools that could be found in the villages around, near the oven stood a primitive flour mill, where two horses circled around pulling heavy mill stones which milled flour. During the winter the bakery was nice and warm. On the holiday of the 7th of November revolution, after the parade in the open air, in the square decorated with flags, the commanders met at the bakery, and enjoyed drinking brandy out of a barrel which was brought for the holiday from somewhere.

Further on there was the bathhouse. The partisans were proud of that essential establishment; guests visiting the camp were lead to it and admired its excellent arrangements. Decisions were made on “bathing duty”. Dwellers of the huts bathed in a certain order from the early hours of the morning. There was also a room for disinfecting clothes. That arrangement was vital and very helpful, because the third Egyptian curse was very troubling to all. And in spite of the on going struggle with it, it came again with greater force to trouble the dwellers of the crowded huts.

An honorable place among the projects took the sausage-making factory, which was in a hut near by. On one of the forays a meat-mincer was found and a separate structure for smoking the sausages was built. Partisans from the neighboring units brought cattle in exchange of sausages.

In the same area was also a soap factory. Soap was made from discarded cow's milk and ashes and resembled a dark brown dough. There was not much of it, but it enabled the people to have a good wash and, now and then, launder their clothes.

Outside the “main street” there was a fenced in area for the herd of cows owned by the camp. They grazed there and their number reached at times up to 60 head. From the cow paddock the horses of the camp could be seen in the distance grazing in the forest, fenced in by empty peasants' carts, a few boys tending to the horses.

In the winter in the chilly nights, packs of wolves roamed around filling the air with their incessant howling, like crowds of women yelling desperately. Often, when the wolves drew closer, and their shining eyes could be seen in the dark, the guard was forced to shoot in the air to frighten them off.

Further out there was a muddy swamp with dense bushes and reeds. The incessant croaking of frogs always filled the air. We will go on and progress further along the main street because we have not as yet visited the nerve center of the camp. In the big square, on one side was the center of command and on the other were workshops. In the command room you could find the commander T. Belski, his brother Asael, the commander of the fighting platoons, sitting there were: Malbin who was the chief of staff, Gordon, second in command, Pesach Fridberg from Novogudok, the storeman and Volkovyski, a lawyer from Baranovichi who was the head of the” special unit”. In the commander's room, the operations were planned, fighting units departed from there as well as units on missions to gather food from the farms. Every day management was concentrated in that room. There was the court, which dealt with cases of discipline in the unit; sentences were handed down with the help of Volkovyski, the lawyer. The camp prison was in a special hut.

Workshops

The workshops were located in a wide and roomy hut. The sounds of work were heard from afar, the pounding of the sledgehammers and the digging machines, the hammering, the sawing of wood and the wild laughter and animated conversations, spiced with the partisan's slang.

The workshops were an organized project, which deserved praise. Dozens of craftsmen, divided according to their craft, were sitting in that all enveloping hut, with a raised ceiling, and an appearance of a factory . Big windows let in a lot of light, more then enough for the various workshops in every corner of the hut. Big stoves warmed the place. It looked as if you found yourself in a workshop of ages ago, in which hundreds of workers made a communal effort to put together things from the beginning to the end of a production cycle. The individual workshops were separated by timber partitions and in each of them worked several craftsmen. Not all crafts were concentrated in the central building. A few production facilities were scattered all over the camp. Because of security or hygiene requirements they had to be located at some distance from the camp.

All production lines were interconnected with each other. All the materials supplied by nature were utilized to the maximum. In the forest in “Robinzonda”, in the heart of the wilderness much creative imagination was invested and lots of fruitful inventiveness.

The carpenters made huge barrels for the tanners to soak the skins of the slaughtered animals; they made shelves for the storeroom, lasts for the cobblers and wooden soles for the sandals.

The tanners, a few of them were from the Koldichevo camp, erected a tannery in a remote place. They supplied leather to the shoemakers, and a few weeks after the production started one could see in the camp partisans wearing boots locally made. Raw, they stood out in their light-yellow color.

The saddlers made harnesses and saddles for the horses and belts for the partisans. The shoemakers were always loaded with work, because the people, who arrived at the camp, came with barely a cover on their body and with torn shoes after their long ordeals. There were always long queues of people wanting shoes. Some clients from other partisan groups came too, and they paid the shoemakers with some other essential products. Often that was reason enough to favor one client from another. Gifts and products were brought from the “farm operations”. Some girls received their boots quickly, because their friends who came back from their expedition, bestowed on the shoemaker a suitable gift. At the shoemaker's workshop were about a dozen craftsmen, stooping, sewing new shoes and patching old ones, making sandals with wooden or rubber soles [from tyres].

Opposite them worked the tailors, they were also kept very busy by the demands of hundreds of partisans, whose clothing was worn out and often needed patching. The tailors also received orders from other partisan units. Often the partisans received arms and cattle for their tailoring services.

Nightshirts made from coarse peasant cloth were also made in the clothing workshop. The partisans brought that material from the villages of the area. Most of the partisans were forced to wear that nightshirt for a long time without changing. No wonder that the shirt, in spite of the disinfecting room in the bathhouse, hurt and tortured the body. In the spring months of 1944 Soviet planes started to drop weapons into the wilderness. The parachutes were made of an excellent fine silk. It was used for making shirts and nightshirts. Great was the partisan's pleasure when he was awarded a shirt made out of fine silk of a light beige color!

Milliners and watchmakers were in great demand too

You could get a hair cut and a shave, given by the three barbers who worked near the workshops. Their instruments were blunt and ruthlessly scratched the skin, but the partisans had no other choice but to use their service. They were distracted by yarning whilst being shaved, which made them forget their pain. Partisans, when not fighting on missions , were using the chance to come to the barbershop to have a chat, to gossip about businesses in the camp, to listen to news from the front and to joke. The conversations were in the typical partisan style, Yiddish spiced with Russian expressions, mostly crude jokes. The girls tried to compete and outdo the men with their unbridled expressions.

At a little distance from the workshops was the smithy, there the blacksmiths shoed not only the camp's horses but the horses of a number of other partisan units in the area. One could hear the beating of the blacksmiths' hammers from afar. In a separate building worked the mechanics who repaired arms. They were putting together new weapons, using old parts, cleaning and repairing old arms. The stock of the fighting units increased, more rifles and machine guns became available. The mechanics also served other partisans in the area and were rewarded by more arms, which the clients left in the camp.

In the spring the economic situation of the camp improved. New lines of production were initiated, the allocating of chores and tasks became more efficient, and almost everyone in the camp was employed and productive.

Hundreds of people were involved in hectic activities and made an effort to forget their loneliness, the loss of their loved ones and all the traumatic experiences that they went through only a short time ago. Being productive helped the partisans to adapt to the forest's conditions and was a blessing to hundreds of partisans.

Sometimes the camp sent its own experts to fulfill important tasks in other units, like printers that published papers for the partisans in Russian and Byelorussian. Those workshops saved hundreds of people from the enemy's jaws and generally raised the moral in the “land of the partisans”. They contributed to fortifying the battle against the Nazi conqueror. The non-military workshops fulfilled partisan missions that cannot be ignored and their efforts were part of the struggle of the partisan movement as a whole.

Health problems in Belski's camp in the forests of Naliboki

Belski's camp contained hundreds of people who in the prewar days would require continuous medical treatment, some would have been hospitalized or would be buried in the cemetery. But in a partisan forest, apparently, this did not follow. One would think that the harsh life and physical abuse in the ghettoes, the wandering without a roof over their heads, with no place to lie down and no protection from the elements, the unhygienic food and lack of nutritious meals would have destroyed the strongest of men. But what wonder, in Belski's camp almost no one died. As far as I can remember the typhus plague killed only one person, a young partisan died and was buried in the camp. If not for the Germans and their allies there was almost no need for a cemetery in the forest. The angel of death took a holiday and let the few escapees from the ghettoes and the concentration camps to bear their partisan's lot and hope for the end of the war. Old people, women and children wandered for weeks in the swampy forests, escaping from the ghettoes and camps or during the “hunts”. The sun was assaulting them during the day and dampness tormented them at night, when they permitted themselves a short nap on the soggy ground while their stomachs shrunk because of hunger, and yet, in spite of all that, no one among them lagged behind because of fatigue. Feverish people were forced out of their sick bed and had to flee during the ”hunt”; they were dragging themselves as best they knew how and usually the sickness was forgotten and somehow they survived.

When we escaped from the Lida ghetto, a deep, pussy wound developed on my wife's left leg. The leg had swollen and it looked like it was blood poisoning. Excruciating pain prevented her from walking, but how could we stop, when the ground was burning under our feet? Who could dream of medical help whilst fleeing? It looked like the chasers were all around us! My wife continued walking, hopping on one foot, and did so for dozens of km., while every muscle in her body was crying because of the pain. As we made our way at night through slush and muddy clay, she was forced to walk with both legs deep in mud and filthy cold water. As it happened the mud cured the wound. The swelling diminished and the wound started to heal.

Pregnant women or those who just gave birth left their hospital beds to find refuge in the depth of the forest. They all walked without showing any signs of fatigue that anyone would notice, while fleeing the horrific enemy.

I remember one woman, a young, lonely widow whose husband perished in Lida. Grieving and looking for consolation she had a short love affair with a partisan. As a result, she, like many other women partisans, turned to Dr. H, the camp doctor. [we still lived then in our temporary ”succot”, and were digging, in groups, the foundations for our new huts]. Dr. H took the woman out of a group of diggers, went with her to one of the [then] uncompleted huts, he asked my wife for help. My wife was holding the patient; the operation was done quickly, the woman, lay on the bench, did not heave a sigh. After a short while the woman came out, pale and shaky on her legs and joined the group of diggers as if nothing had happened.

The bespectacled medical doctor Dr. H, always smiling, very thin, his clothes in tatters; with his case, which contained his instruments and medicines, was fulfilling his task faithfully, he was known as an expert in those discreet operations. Women partisans arrived from the most distant units for that operation and usually left after a few hours, relieved of their burden. Dr. H's wife, a qualified nurse, helped him with those “humanitarian” operations; for his services the doctor received different products: pork fat, flour, etc which were an unimaginable treasure in the forest. From the partisans who went out on “farm operations”, the doctor asked for products and from people with means—gold coins. Gossip circulated in the camp that the bag, full of gold coins around the doctor's neck, was swelling.

The Belski's camp partisans who could not pay had the operation for free. He was polite and forever ready for his task. One could meet him in the morning hours, in his surgery, a hut, on the “main street”, near the commander Belski's hut. There he received his patients who waited in a queue, helping him were a few qualified nurses like his wife and Chana Rivak from Novogudok. The groups of partisans who were hunting in the area for supplies were ordered to look for medicines. Farmers who acted as contact men (“sviznoi”), obtained medicines, which were ordered in the towns, and delivered them to the partisans. But there was always a shortage, even of the basic of medicines, in the forest.

In the afternoon the doctor made “home visits” hurrying from hut to hut to treat bed-ridden patients, then every day he went to the isolated “hospital” [one and a half km. from the camp] in a wagon pulled by a “skeleton” of a horse.

The doctor resided in hut number 11 [which was called the “intelligentsia hut” and housed 40 people]. I was his nearest neighbor, he did not sustain his personal hygiene nor the hygiene of his children. He did not take advantage of the washing facilities, which were available, even in the forest, he was shabbily dressed, and I almost never saw him wash. When we brought our thin meals to our hut from the general kitchen, we often found some filth that was revolting, but the doctor, in all seriousness of an expert convinced us that there might be some vital ingredients in those revolting pieces, to strengthen our bodies. ” There is no need to get over anxious!” he would say. He spiced his talk with a few scientific terms, and eventually we were forced to swallow the food. The typhus plague was recurring every year in the partisans' units, it spread in the Belski's camp after the partisans of the Zukov brigade left the food for us.

The commanders of the Zukov brigade, which was leaving the forests of Naliboki to move to a distant place, permitted the Belski's camp people to collect whatever was left after the departing brigade. In exchange we had to take care of their wounded, their sick and a number of women who they could do without. Kitchen utensils were brought from the Zukov camp, parts of weaponry, food products, horses, cows, clothing like: peasants furs, trousers and boots.

A short time after the typhus plague erupted, we connected it to the gifts from the Zukov brigade. There were a few cases of typhus in that brigade and with the clothing came lice that brought that contagious disease. It was playing havoc in our camp. Every day, many times a day, the wagon was busy taking feverish people to the “hospital”. Rivak Shlomo, who was a teacher in Novogudouk, was responsible for transferring the sick to Dr. H's hut, the pace was hectic, the hospital huts were crammed, the overcrowding started to worry the commanders. In the hospital worked a qualified nurse from Minsk, devoted to her profession, the wife of the director and theatre actor from Minsk, Shtesnovitz (?), who was one of the partisans.

There was a shortage of the simplest of drugs in the hospital. We cured the sick with a diet and boiled water, their only drink. As usual we drunk filthy water from the shallow wells we dug near the huts to a depth of a few tens of cm.

The multitude of the dangerously sick people did not have any other medicine, but in spite of the extent of the disease most of the sick were cured. And Rivak's wagon started to take the convalescing people back to the camp. They were weak, skeletal, a dreadful sight. They were given a cup of milk a day and satisfying meals at lunch and dinner. Those meals came from the commander's special kitchen

The quarrels, the personal frictions and the tension were more acute than usual in the crowded huts, but there behavior would be considered normal under the circumstances. There was only one mentally ill person in the camp. A 17 years old boy, Yankl, was insane. German soldiers, in the ghetto, hit his head hard with their rifle butts; and his behavior was the result of that. Lonely, neglected boy, in torn clothes, his coat's sleeve torn to the shoulder, was wandering about the camp without aim; craziness was reflected in his eyes. ”Yankele-why don't you mend your sleeve?” we would ask. He would answer sharply “ I want to shake you out of my sleeve, how can I do it if it is sewn?”. During the heavy bombardments when everything was collapsing around, Yankele would stroll in the camp, no one could convince him to hide. ”Yankele go to sleep!” they called after him,” How much can I sleep? Where do you get such a long sleep?” he answered, and went on wandering.

The daily life in our hut was like in a madhouse. And there was no room to escape to real madness, people then preferred to escape to health, to strengthen their bodies, to use their vitality, whatever they had, to continue the struggle. With hyper activity, sometimes-aimless activity, they tried to distract their mind from the terror of their life. Sleep in the camp was mostly restless. People got out of bed a lot to urinate, especially during the rainy season, when the earth in the hut was wet. The atmosphere in the hut at night was always restive, often people tripped over each other in the dark. People did not have nightmares. It could be that this is a wrong generalization, but that was the case with most of my relatives, they dreamt a lot about food. One of our neighbors, Sonya, a lively girl who lived in our hut with her mother, used to relate in the morning her culinary dreams. “I dreamt at night about a plate full of gefilte fish and you, Mum, grabbed it from under my nose. Why did you do it Mum?” asked the girl. The listeners implored the girl to continue her description of that gefilte fish plate and the rest of the delicacies she dreamt about.

When the Red Army liberated us and we left the camp, the “hospital” was vacated too. The wounded were put on wagons, which followed the partisans who walked, to the hospital in Novogudok.

The children in the camp

There were in the camp a few dozen children, they used to assemble at central places in the camp and watch the happenings. They were near the commander's room when units departed for operations, and when the partisans returned from their missions. They followed guests from other partisan units, who visited our camp. They were at every corner, wandered between the huts, and never took an eye off the happenings. Wearing odd bits of clothing, in all strange combinations, they looked like lost creatures from a different world. They came to the heart of the wilderness (great forest) on their parents' shoulders. They were carried like that for days, when fleeing the Germans, from the ghetto, or during the” hunt” when drifting in the boggy swamps. I remember a small girl in our group of Lida Jews, which slowly meandered toward the Naliboki camp in the forest. October's cold rains, the misty nights, which we spent on the damp ground, weakened the girl, she was feverish her parents could hardly carry her; she was slowly deteriorating in front of our eyes. One evening, at twilight, her father managed to catch with his hat a wild pigeon that stood near by. He killed it and cooked it for his daughter. She felt better and in time returned back to good health. With time all the children grew stronger, they got used to the forest and could withstand the hardship of life there. I think that no child died in Belski's camp. During typhus plagues, the children suffered too, but recovered quickly in spite the horrible conditions. There was one boy, about 15 years of age, Y. Epstein, tall, skinny and fragile. He came to the forest with his older sister without their parents. He was visiting me often, craving for knowledge, alert and asking many questions. He was a terrific listener. He caught typhus and we were fearful that his sickly body would not withstand the disease.

After a few weeks he returned from the ”hospital”, a skeleton, but soon he started to develop, and symptoms of tuberculosis that he had before, disappeared as well. He grew taller and became a handsome, broad shouldered fellow only to be killed by the retreating German soldiers in June 1944. We buried him with 8 other victims, before we left the camp in the wilderness. I do remember one incident when a boy died, but it only confirms the fact that the forest strengthened the children and gave them the powers to withstand hardship.

A young couple P. from Mir settled in one of the huts. They had a few weeks old baby, who gave a lot of trouble at night. It is a wonder how those parents managed to reach the depth of the forest! One autumn morning the mother screamed that the baby was not breathing. The camp's doctor decided that he was suffocated by his mother body while sleeping; the result of crowdedness. The parents cried for many days and were inconsolable for a long time.

Other children grew without parent's supervision. They peeped into every corner of the camp and it looked as if they were studying the residents and knew all their comings and goings. They adopted the coarse partisan's language and loved to spice their talk with loud curses, like the best of the partisans, who kept the Russian heritage going. They knew all that happened in the huts and gossiped like the adults.

Older boys were recruited for farm work; some guarded the herd of cows and horses and helped the people responsible for the cowshed and stables. They took the cows to graze, and helped in the kitchen. Some of them found occupation in the workshops and became apprentices. A few children learned carpentry and shoe making. Coming out of the forest they could boast that they would be able to make a living because they learned a trade in the ”partisanka”.

A few boys aged between 13 and 14, maintained a contact between the Lida ghetto and the forest. A few times they smuggled Jews from the ghetto to the forest and did not fear the most dangerous operations.

The children assembled in the morning, after the first milking of the cows, with tins (“manashka”) in their hands, near the cowshed in order to get their daily portion of milk. The leftovers were given sometimes to women, to old people and the frail. The children tried to compensate the severe deficit of nourishment in their diet, by collecting, in the winter, in the frozen swamps, under the snow, red berries (brusnika) that grew on tiny bushes. Groups of children were scattered around the camp looking for the red berries that peeped through the snow on a sunny day. Their happy voices rang in the forest. In the summer the children filled their tins with black berries or raspberries and brought that gift of the forest to their parents. Some times when the hunger troubled them, the adults too, joined the children and collected mushrooms and sorrel (shchavel). They cut with a knife the birch tree bark and collected the oozing juices into their utensils. They cooked the swamp berries in the juice. The result was a thin, sweet and sour compote with a sharp smell of medicine that was reviving souls. Those juices, so the doctor said, immunized our bodies and the nutrients in them added something to the portions of thin potato soup that most of the people ate twice a day, noon and evening. For an observer, watching those people move among the forest's growth with their children, it would have seemed like families on a holiday. But the camp people paid no attention to the charm of the forest, which they lived in for many months. Many of us were led to the slaughter in the forests, and watched the selections, which were conducted in front of the dug graves. Often one heard a partisan say: “If I will manage to get out of these forests, I will never look at them again. Every forest brings back to me the horrific memories, the crying of the slaughtered and the smells of forests mixed with the sharp smell of the victims' blood”.

Confronting the neglect among the camp's children, the leadership decided to create for them a learning environment, like a school. Tens of children congregated every day and spent time together in a special hut, under the supervision of the woman partisan, Tsesya. They went with her for excursions, they did gymnastics, played team games; they were taught songs and sung along. The preparations for festivities were one of the important operations of that group. For Purim, the children made masks for parents and other adults. In the afternoon all assembled to watch the performance on a specially prepared stage on a higher ground, in the big hut of the workshops. It was a winters day, wind and whirlpool of snow; we watched the children sing and recite in Yiddish or in Russian. The children were dressed up for the holiday in white shirts and red ties. They were doing gymnastics; they danced, with the beauty of innocence on their faces and bodies. With tears in their eyes the audience followed the performance. Old, hidden memories came back, memories that were blunted by the harsh reality of the partisans. The wounds of the bereaved parents started to bleed again. By being hectically active they tried to forget their sorrow. But with the performance, all their lost love ones reappeared. Suddenly, after a dance of a pretty group, the Politruk A. Shlachtovic stood up and started to shout in Yiddish: “Where are my children? Revenge! Revenge!” His freckled red face became even redder under his red mop of hair. He drew out his pistol and shot a few shots in the air. And again he cried: revenge, revenge! Repeating many times his crying and groaning, he left the hut shaky on his legs like a drunk. The audience sat glued to their seats, they lowered their heads and a stifled weeping was heard.

It was as if the cruel reality burst through the dark wooden walls of the workshops. The beloved children carried their velvet heads high, innocent eyes looked at us; the echo of childish gaiety turned into a terrible cry and lamentation; and every thing went down in horrific and endless flames.

The people lifted themselves off their seats, drying their eyes and as if shy sneaked out of the roomy hut, which was enveloped in winter twilight shadows.

In the heart of the last of the escapees, the remnants of the settlements, nightmarish images appeared again, the dark chasm of the cruel reality with all its terrifying experiences, opened wide in front of them. A deep feeling of loneliness, as for no reason at all, fell on everything. It was carried to the chill and dampness of the fog, to the howling of the wind through the dense, dark forest, which stood like a wall around the camp. It penetrated the dark huts with the shadows of the people coming back from the concert. That evening, most of the huts sunk into a deep, depressing silence.

Waiting for the liberation

Time passed, the snow thawed, the birches started to put on green leaves, the air was perfumed with aromas of the forest and above the top of the trees a soft spring sun was shining. The expectation of a change grew daily. Every evening many people congregated in the square near the commander's hut eager for encouraging news. Scouts or guests from the partisan units who had a wireless, brought us news from the front and messages from the chief of staff of the Red Army. Connection by air with Moscow was improving all the time. More frequently, Soviet planes landed on the airport in the wilderness. Often guests from the front visited us. The partisans of our unit, under the command of I. Belski, guarded for a number of weeks the airport in the wilderness near Poldoruzshka.

The scope of the partisan attacks on communication lines grew to a great extent. During the nights, thousands of partisans raided the railways over a huge area and sabotaged them, bombing trains and cutting the enemy's movement for long periods. Echoes of explosions were heard at night from all directions; the partisans called those operations-“concerts”.

The towns and villages were filled with Ukrainian collaborators (Kuban' Cossacks?) who were brought, with the retreating German Army, from Russia. They were stationed in the Byelorussian villages. There were many clashes with them, and supply of provisions for the camp was hard to obtain.

Sometimes we received Soviet newspapers, which were parachuted from planes, with other supplies. We read them eagerly, trying to draw our own conclusions.

Occasionally, some German papers fell into the hands of the partisans out on operations; we read them too, compared them and were trying to read between the lines.

The Partisan's Chief of staff issued papers in Russian and Byelorussian. These were distributed in the area among the local population and the partisans. They were printed in the forest on tiny pages of a dark yellow color with crammed printed letters.[*]

So, we had some good information and we could assemble the partisans together for political lectures and comments. In the evenings the partisans turned into brilliant war commentators. Arguments were going forever, about the significance of this event or other. And especially, what we had to expect when the front would reach us and the German Army penetrated the wilderness.

The German front collapsed and the Red Army advanced. Names of liberated places became more and more familiar, the Red Army already penetrated Polesie and Vohlyn, and liberated Pinsk and Rovno. Ferocious battles were going on during April near Ternopol. The 1st of May festivities in 1944 were accompanied by encouraging messages from the front, which was advancing towards us, bringing liberation. The celebration of the 1st of May that year was a very festive occasion. In the afternoon the camp's people congregated in the square in front of the commander's hut, red flags were out, the huts were decorated. It was a brilliant day, the spring sky was high and peaceful, about 1200 people stood in the wide square, on three sides were the fighting units, the scouts and the mounted units, their horses nicely decorated, and the armed platoons headed by their commanders. On the fourth side stood, in military order, the unarmed people.

In the center of the square stood the commanders, headed by T. Belski. He read to us the message of the Red Army chief of staff. It said that the war effort succeeded and after fierce battles over many weeks Tarnopol was conquered and the enemy had retreated in panic. Applause and shouting interrupted his words. After that the commander gave a short speech: “Shortly we will take the war to the Nazi beast's den in Germany and there we will exterminate him. The partisans took their part in the struggle against the cruel enemy. The front is coming close fast, we can expect days of hard tests, and we must be ready for them. Victory is looking us in the face”.

What a joy it was, to hear those words! Every one was excited. The rule of evil was collapsing, the day we hoped for, the day of payback and revenge was approaching. That hope strengthened most of the people; it gave meaning to their sufferings, meaning to the worst of their moments. But there was a hidden anxiety that everyone had but no one talked about “What will face us when we will return to our places? We, the last of our people, the remnants! How will we continue?”

In the meantime we were pulled by waves of general enthusiasm. We danced till late that night and sang under the moonlight.

In June 1944 the Soviets broke the front near Vitbesk and advanced fast towards Minsk. The German Army retreated in panic from wide areas of East Byelorussia.

Many German divisions were surrounded near Minsk. At night, from a distance one could hear the sounds of muffled thunder and constant hum, which came with the wind. They sounded to us as a charming melody. We sat long at night, on the grass in front of our huts, waiting for the signs of the storm, which will bring our redemption. Excitement and tension in the camp grew stronger every day, with the echoes from the front, which grew lauder.

Scattered groups of German soldiers, who tried to escape from the Soviet encirclement, started to appear in the area. Instructions came to be on guard. The great hour we waited for was coming. The armed platoons of Belski's partisans operated against the German soldiers who wandered in the forest. The partisans lay in ambush on roads and tracks that crossed the wilderness and eliminated many German units. Our armed units also clashed a few times with German groups. No prisoners were taken; they were all killed on the spot. Two of our members were wounded in battle, one of them had to be taken to hospital.

Tasks changed, the partisans were hunting the Germans and the Germans tried to sneak out. The mood of the partisans was elated. Our armed units enjoyed the activity. Every evening they returned all flushed and excited with new stories about their encounters in the forest. They tasted the taste of revenge. The Germans were like hunted animals, hungry and shaky on their legs, their desperate resistance weakened. How poor and miserable looked the remnants of the army which wanted to conquer the world!

Four German prisoners were brought in front of the camp's commanders. Three were young and the fourth who was older, was crying. Two of them said that they were Communists and blame the others of being Nazis. Only one kept his “identity”, cursed the Jews and threatened them too. They were executed in the camp in front of all. Bursts of anger and revenge took hold of the people; it was so overwhelming that I prefer not to describe them.

The partisan's chief of staff was calling repeatedly to be ready. It was not known how events would develop; the front could shift to our side and it was possible that the Germans would penetrate the forests and employ all their power in battle. We had to be on guard.

In our camp we prepared for evacuation at any moment, night or day. There were trial evacuations to train the people for a fast planned departure. (within a few minutes).

Detailed instructions were given, new locations in the forest for each unit, were decided upon, tasks were allotted. We lived in an atmosphere of constant tension. Rumors chased rumors, one contradicting the other. We swung between desperation and encouragement. Alternately, we saw in our imagination the Red Army saving us, or the Germans attacking us. Since the big ”hunt” in July 1943, we gained experience and were ready to repeat it when necessary and find cover in the wide swamps of the forest.

Once, in the early hours of the morning, we were awaken by shots from the central square. We could hear clearly German voices, loud orders, screams and curses. Bullets whistled above our heads! We ran out of the hut and hid in the undergrowth, the bullets' whistled continuously. We ran down to the swamp and lay down between the dense reeds. Terror took hold of us without knowing what happened. After a while there was silence. And then we found out that a group of 100 German soldiers was marching through the forest and surprised our people. Our armed partisans were away and guarding of the camp was forgotten, we were open to attack. That was how the Germans could get into a few huts on their way, surprising people in their sleep. They wounded seriously the deputy commander Gordon, who slept on his bench. They threw a hand grenade into one of the common huts and shot a few people on their way. But they had to retreat quickly. The partisans in the area heard the shots and came around. The Germans had left the camp but got into battle with the partisans who chased and eliminated them. That sudden raid by the Germans on our camp cost us nine lives, among them was Gordon who was wounded in the stomach and died after a few hours of terrible suffering, Epstein, a 16 year old boy, Patzovski, Ostshinski and others, were among the last victims in the wilderness.

After an hour a scout unit of the Red Army passed by the camp. All the camp people went towards them, they encircled the dusty and sweaty figures, hugged them, shook their hands, kissed them: “Welcome, comrades redeemers”.

The soldiers continued their mission and we returned to the camp -liberated!

Nothing was left for us to do in that camp but to bury our dead. On the hill behind the “main street” we dug a common grave, the commander delivered a short eulogy, and a salvo of gunshots ended the sad ceremony.

With heavy steps, our heads down, we went to spend our last night in the huts. It was a restless night. I sat in front of the door, unable to shut an eye. In the darkness I recognized the tall figure of the man, who walked slowly, it was the theatre director and actor of the state theatre, Shternovitz (?), a Russian, who was transferred to us after his partisan unit dispensed with its entire group of non-fighting men. “Going home comrade?” he asked me “very soon we will be back at our places and will start a new”! “You, comrade, are going home” I answered him “it might be a destroyed home, but a home that you will be able to rebuild. We have got nowhere to return to. Nothing remained of our homes! We will go to our home towns, but only to say goodbye.” We talked a lot that night!

In the early hours of the next morning, we vacated the camp. An order was given to destroy the huts, so that White partisans won't be able to use them. We smashed the windows, destroyed the doors and benches, filled in the wells, and buried the tools; for a short time the sound of wrecking and breaking was heard in the camp.

Afterwards an order was given at the Commander's square, to take only the things we could carry on our backs. Only two wagons for the wounded, followed the marching people. There was a long way ahead of us, fraught with unexpected dangers, and we had to be on alert! The commander, riding on his horse, scanned the marching people. One of the members of our partisan unit, P. did not follow the instruction and pushed a cart loaded with personal items. He was shot on the spot in front of his wife and small child who sat in the cart. The woman screamed a desperate scream, which shattered all of us. It was a very tragic end. The camp that was established to save Jewish life from the hands of the Nazis ended its existence with the murder of a Jew and the destruction of a Jewish family. The suffering woman cried for days and her screams accompanied us all the way. We marched traumatized through the forest, the corpses of German soldiers in their uniforms and of animals were scattered among the tall trees.

We passed the Kremin Lake, its blue water seen between the tree trunks, and continued to walk into dense forests.

The summer heat was oppressive, we walked tired and sweating, bluish mist started to envelope the forest undergrowth, which became denser. A smell of smoke reached us, the forests were burning. The battles that were fought there caused fires and they spread very quickly. Huge areas went up in flames, clouds of bluish-gray smoke filled the air, it was choking us and made our eyes water. We could see the silhouettes of burning trees; the fire licked the bushes, climbed up the trees and spread into the horizon. We marched in a landscape of flames, in the depth of the forest, a small distance from the sea of fire.

We reached the Neman canal, the fire stopped there. We camped under the sky. We marched like that for a few days. Leaving the wilderness we came to a busy road and marched through the village Shchorsy, the residents came out of their huts, looking with surprise in their eyes: So many Jews! So many Jews!

At the beginning we marched in a military fashion with the armed units in front of us and behind us. Later, people dispersed, walking in groups slowly in the heat of the day.

We advanced with heavy hearts, as we came closer to areas that were once Jewish. The extent of our catastrophe became clearer. It looked as if flames, which left a wasteland, surrounded our life, and we entered that wasteland.

On the horizon we could see the houses of Novogrudouk. We slept outside the town, in a farmhouse with a big yard and threshing floors around. We stretched ourselves on the chaff, exhausted from the long march. Afterwards we toured the town. The people from Novogudok, who were members of Belski's unit, brought us to the places where the ghettos were.

We stood in the places which were extermination sites, near graves of thousands of ghetto victims. The people of Novogrudok brought up memories, they walked, mourning in their own town, and so did we.

That was how all of us would return to our destroyed homes! That was the welcome that every Jew could expect on his return to the ruins of his community. We walked around the houses; in what was once a ghetto. Christians were living there, strange apathetic eyes were staring at us through the windows. Those were our inheritors; the Jewish settlement was completely erased! Hundreds of German prisoners were concentrated in a fenced yard. Through the fence we stared at those figures; a short time ago they brought with them murder and extermination; now they had dimmed eyes, and they were lying on the ground weak and impotent!

So the day passed. In the evening, after the walk around the town, the partisans assembled on the mountain slope of the ancient castle for a liberation celebration. Thousands of partisans from all the wilderness crowded the wide square, the flag of victory went up, and the ruins of the castle were lit with a searchlight. The speakers, partisans' commanders and officers of the Red Army stood on a stage, at the foot of the castle wall. The partisans raised the flag of the liberator, the Red Army. The Army delegates praised the partisan's struggle that hit the Nazi conqueror in its back, helping in their defeat.

The partisans last assembly was on the day after, at the farmyard that we stayed in. We stood in a rectangle, the commander gave a short speech and every one received a Partisan Certificate!

We parted with warm handshakes and went to the center of the town. We had to go back to our prewar location; the saga of the forest came to its end!

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* The story of the partisan's newspaper in the forests deserves mentioning. Eliyahu Damesk from Lida, who reached the partisans in 1943, had the idea of building a printing plant in the wilderness, to inform the partisans and the general population of the district. Damesk returned to the Lida ghetto and with the help of the partisans from the Russian unit “Iskara”, which camped on the banks of the Neman, he brought the entire printing house of Shapira (also a member of the Belski's partisans).They brought it in cases in a farmer's wagon, a trusted man of the partisans, to the “Iskara” camp. The operation lasted 18 days. Damesk moved to the Lipiczanski wilderness following the instructions of General Platon, the chief of the partisans in that area. There, near the “Lenin Brigade” they built the printing house. The first partisan's paper in the area was published there, its name was “Krasnoe Znamia” (the red flag). It was issued three times a week. Afterwards, the printing house was moved to the forests of Slonim and to the team of printers were added some parachutists who came from the front.

The newspaper deeply influenced the local population and encouraged it, especially on the eve of recruitment to German labor camps, to abandon their villages and join the partisans in the forests. Return


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