by Yaakov Grabov
Translated by Jerrold Landau
(From a testimony presented to Magistrate Motta Hollander, under the auspices of Yad Vashem)
I was born on October 18, 1921 in Ratno. I was 18 at the outbreak of the Second World War.
In my childhood, I studied in a cheder and later at the Tarbut School. I completed grade 10 at age 16 and began to help my father in the lumber business. Two years later I joined the Hashomer Hatzair movement and went to Rovno. The Second World War broke out while I was there.
When the wartime actions abated, I returned to my parents' home in Ratno. A few days later, I was sent by the Russians to work in Ludmir, Volhynia. I worked in the erection of army bunks and received a salary. Despite this, after three months, I decided to leave my workplace and return home. The Russians found me in Ratno and put me on trial for the crime of escaping from work. I was sentenced to three months of hard labor, and that same day I was transferred to a camp in Zaporoza, where the punishment of people sentenced to 15 or 20 years of imprisonment was carried out.
After being in Zaporoza for two months, I was transferred to Berdiansk in Ukraine. Berdiansk is located on the Azov Sea (today its name is Osipenko). This was also a hard labor camp. I worked in digging a canal from the factory to the sea. I was sent home after one month. This was in the spring of 1940. In Ratno, I received work
in pouring concrete. I worked at this job until the outbreak of the war between Germany and the Soviet Union in June 1941.
The Ukrainians Pillage Jewish Property
Complete chaos pervaded in Ratno at the outbreak of the war. The local Ukrainians as well as those from the nearby region began to pillage Jewish property. They broke into the private houses and Jewish stores, and pillaged everything that came to their hands. Binyamin Freiman killed with a blow from an ax a Ukrainian who broke into his home for robbery. Another Ukrainian who was a witness to the death of his friend shot Freiman dead.
The Germans entered Ratno after two weeks. Already on the day of their arrival, they commanded the Jews to gather together in one place on the main street. The men, women, and children stood there all night. The women and children were sent home toward morning. The men remained in the place, and then the Germans began the murder aktions.
One of the Germans chose six Jews who were taken outside the city, where they were commanded to dig pits. Later, thirty men were selected from the crowd and sent to the place of the pits. Shots were heard after a few minutes. All thirty men were shot and killed. My good friend Leib Steingarten, whose father was one of the six pit diggers, was among the murdered.
Around the time of their entry to Ratno, the Germans sent 60 Jewish men to work in Kowel. I was included in that group. We were sent to the ghetto. In Kowel, we worked on repairing the railway tracks. I escaped from Kowel after two months.
The Escape from the Kowel Ghetto to Ratno
There were two ghettos in Kowel: the large ghetto and the small ghetto. After one of the aktions that took place here, the men of my group were called together to count and organize the belongings that were left by the local Jews who were murdered. During the enumeration, I suddenly felt a blow upon my head from the hands of a German. I immediately heard the scream of one of my friends: Escape! I hid in one of the cellars and decided to flee back to Ratno. I begged other Jews of my town to join me, but none of them wanted to move from there. Avigdor Feintuch was the only one who joined me. I escaped from the ghetto with him.
We spent the first night in an abandoned house outside the city. In the morning, I saw a horse hitched to a wagon on the road. A woman was sitting on the wagon driver's stand. I knew the Ukrainian language very well, and my face did not give away my Jewishness. I asked the woman to take us to Ratno. She explained that she was traveling to a village 30 kilometers from Ratno, and she agreed to take us as far as the village. I seated Feintuch on the other side of the wagon due to his Jewish appearance. When we arrived at the bend in the road leading to the woman's village, we suddenly saw a group of Germans approaching us.
Feintuch was nearsighted. I shouted to him, Let us escape, the Germans are coming! However, it was already too late. I indeed escaped and hid
between the bushes. Feintuch was caught and was asked on the spot, Where is the other one? Feintuch answered, There was no other person! Shots were heard and Feintuch lay dead on the ground. (His brother and sister are alive today in Israel.)
I lay down in the bushes throughout the day, and at night I set out in the direction of Ratno. After walking for the entire night, I arrived home at dawn. I found my parents and two sisters in the house. This was the autumn of 1942.
The Hiding Place in the Village of Jakosza
Since I was the youngest son in my family, my mother had a special bond with me. When she saw the murderous aktions that were perpetrated by the Germans, she pleaded with me to leave town, for everyone knew me there.
I listened to her and went to the village of Jakosza, a distance of 5 kilometers from Ratno, on the banks of the Prypiat River. Only two Jewish families lived in that village. My friend Mendel Krein, who was partially deaf, lived there with his mother and sister. I would hide along with Mendel in the forests throughout the day, and at night we would return to his house to sleep in the attic on a straw mattress.
One day, I woke up sleeplessly from a nightmare that I had that night. I told Mendel, I am going home!... It was not yet dawn when I left the house. I arrived at the riverbank at a place that could be crossed by swimming, for its entire span was one and a half meters. From the other side, one could walk on foot to Ratno. The riverbanks were filled with quicksand. It was easy to sink in it and even to drown. A German foot had never trodden there, and if I were to have arms, I would have been able to fight even against a hundred Germans there. I approached the place where it was said there was a boat available to transport people to the other side of the river. However, no boat was found there. I therefore decided to go on foot, even though I knew that the path was boggy. The 3.5-kilometer path along the shore was longer and more difficult.
Suddenly I saw a boat approaching. Suddenly, I heard clear shouting directed to me from the other side of the river. The shouts emanated from the direction of Ratno. I froze on the spot out of great fear. In the meantime, the boat approached the shore, and a Ukrainian, an acquaintance of mine, said in Hebrew, Yaszek, they are murdering everybody, do not return to Ratno! I returned to the home of Mendel Krein. We both set out for the forest. These were the Pulsia Forests, which spread out endlessly from there. We hid in the forests for two weeks. At night, we stole food from the framers of the area. We finally decided to approach the village of Samorowycze, where rumor had it that there were still Jews there.
The village of Samorowycze was located 20 kilometers from the town. When we arrived, there were still Jews living in their homes, for the Germans had not yet reached there. We met many Jews who had escaped from Ratno and were hiding in the village. We decided to remain there. My friend Mendel Krein decided to return to his village to transfer his belongings to our new place of residence.
He went in the company of a young lad, Gershon. On the return trip, they were attacked by Ukrainian strangers who were not from this region. They murdered Mendel
by cutting off his head. They cut off a finger from the hand of 14-year-old Gershon. Then they stole all of the property. Gershon returned to Samorowycze and told us what had happened. I cut off the stump of his finger that was connected by a hairbreadth strand, and bandaged up his hand. I set out to the place where Mendel was murdered with Gershon and a few other friends. We brought his body to Samorowycze and buried him there.
I wandered through cities and towns. At night, I would steal food from the farmers, and during the day I would hide in the depths of the forest. One day, I met an acquaintance from Ratno, Eiden Janowicz, who used to own a restaurant in Ratno. I wandered with him through the forests, searching for some partisan group that we could join. Finally, Janowicz decided to return to Ratno. He attempted to persuade me to do so as well, for the Germans had left 30 Jews in Ratno after the last slaughter. They were working for them, and would certainly be left alive, for the Germans needed them.
Come with me to Ratno, he attempted to convince me, And we will join those Jews. I gave him a firm answer, I will never go to the Germans as long as I am still alive!...Janowicz returned to Ratno, and was murdered on the day he returned. A few days later, the last 30 Jews in Ratno were murdered. The only one who had survived and succeeded in escaping was Eli Zask, who today lives in Netanya, Israel. I was again left alone. From the village, in which only one hut was still standing, I returned to the forest to search for my brother. It was late autumn, and the cold afflicted me greatly, for I had no warm clothing. One day, I happened to wander to the village of Bordiatyn. There, I met my brother and his wife in the forest that borders the village. It became clear that they had been hiding there for two weeks, and that they intended to remain in that place. I told my brother, Let us leave this place, for we can travel within a five kilometer radius and continue our search for family members. My sister-in-law Dvora (nee Papir) said, We will not go, we will remain here... I then went myself to the midst of the forest.
One day, I saw a bonfire. I approached and did not believe my eyes. My father was sitting on a tree stump. I saw a man before me, wearing poor clothing and with a beard... It took a few minutes until my father recognized me. When he saw me, he began to complain, Why did I not go with Mother and the children to the grave? For what purpose am I being tortured here... My father gave into Mother's urging and escaped to the synagogue through a back door when the Germans broke into our house prior to the aktion. From there he escaped to the forest. He had Ukrainian acquaintances throughout the area, and he hid in their homes for two weeks. Then he wandered in the forest for weeks. He was dirty and afflicted with lice. I took him to my brother. We dressed him in other clothes, and cast away the clothing he was wearing.
No Jews were left in Bordiatyn except for our family: my father, my brother and my sister-in-law, and me. My brother had 50 dollars. We used that money to house our father with a Ukrainian acquaintance. The farmer lived in the village of Gurniki and had
his own house. Thick forests surrounded the area. The farmer housed my father in his attic. My father spent two months with that farmer in Gurniki. I visited him every week. I would come to him from the forest in which I was hiding. Once I succeeded in stealing a fur from one of the farmers, and another time, a jar of honey. I brought everything to my father.
One time when I went up, as usual, to the attic from the yard, I did not find anyone there. I went down and entered the house to ask what had happened to my father, and where he was. Then the farmer told me that his neighbors had discovered that my father was hiding in the attic. Father escaped to the village of Melnyk.
Melnyk was a large village, the same size of Gurniki. Many Jews hid there, but that time, the farmers besieged the Jews who were hiding and expelled them all to the village of Chocieszow, where there was a German and Ukrainian police station. They were all murdered there. I returned to my brother in November 1942, and told him that Father is no longer alive.
Continued Wandering and the Successful Escape from the Ukrainians
We wandered together in the forest, sleeping under bales of hay, and stealing food at night. The bales would be gathered in during the winter, when they would freeze. We slept under the bales for the entire month, and when the cold began to afflict us, we had no choice but to go to the farmer with whom my father had previously stayed. The farmer permitted us to sleep at his place. We went up into the attic before nightfall. At 10:00 p.m., the farmer came to us, breathing heavily, and said, Escape quickly... Ukrainians who are searching for Jews are with me...!
We escaped. Snow mixed with rain was falling. It was dark, and difficult to see the path. The Ukrainians heard us and began to chase after us. They chased after us in the dark but could not catch us. We reached a small river that was impossible to cross by foot, since its water was deep. At the last moment, my brother-in-law saw a plank spanning both banks of the river. We ascended the plank, and crossed to the other bank of the river. We took the plank with us.
We rested on a small island for the rest of the night and the next day. It was muddy all around, and no traces of people could be found. In the evening, we decided to leave the place. My brother-in-law and his wife decided to approach the nearby village of Rechitsa, and I intended to find refuge somewhere else.
The Murder of 25 Jews and 20 Gypsies in the Village of Miszitz
The village of Miszitz was located on a side route. At that time, there were still 25 Jews and 20 gypsies there. The Jews all worked, and there was complete calm in the town. Rachel Wiener and her brother, whose origins were from a different village, Siderowycze, were there. Despite the apparent calm in the town, it was evident to us that danger was lurking. We decided to go to the village of Bordiatyn, two kilometers away from Miszitz. Wiener turned to me and said, Wake me in the morning, and we will go together. However, when I woke her up at 4:00 a.m., she said to me, Go yourself! I went myself. A few hours later, the son
of a Ukrainian acquaintance approached me and screamed, Flee! They are shooting Jews in Miszitz!... I escaped very quickly.
Later, I found out that the Ukrainians had murdered all of the Jews and gypsies who were in the village that day. This was late autumn of 1942. Rachel Wiener was the only survivor. Her two brothers were murdered.
The Murder of the Jews in the Village of Likow
Winter was approaching, and I continued to wander about in the forests. I would steal food from the farmers at night and sleep in the barns of the farmers on the warm fodder. The farmers who owned the barns for the most part did not know about this. Thus passed the entire winter of 1942/43. I wore light clothes the entire winter, and the cold afflicted me greatly. Each night, I would sleep in the barn of a different farmer, covered in the fodder, sometimes even standing up. That way I could keep warmer. Almost every night I would dream about my mother who was convincing me that I would not freeze from the cold. I spent a few nights with one of the farmers who knew of my presence. One day, a woman who came from the village of Likow came to that barn. She refused to leave, for she did not have any other hiding place. The village of Likow was approximately 30 kilometers distant from Ratno. The Ukrainian farmers who lived there were known throughout the region as the cruelest murderers of Jews. They murdered the Jews of their villages and the Jews of the entire region. The next day, those Ukrainians murdered 12 Jewish children who were hiding in that village. Two daughters of Leib Grabov, a member of the Ratno Judenrat, were among those murdered children. A woman named Rachel Perlmutter, who hid with her husband in that village, took care of those children. By chance, Rachel Perlmutter was away from the place during the time of the murder of the children. She apparently went to search for bread. Thanks to that, she was saved. Her husband was also saved from that slaughter.
The winter of 1942/43 was particularly harsh, and the cold forest was difficult to bear. I went to one of the farmers whose farm bordered the forest, and asked him to permit me to enter his barn. The farmer refused. I went to the cottage of the forest guard, which was empty at that time. I went up to the attic. Everything was ruined and broken. There were no windows or doors. There was not even any fodder there. I had four gigantic loaves of bread with me, which I hid in the attic. As I was resting in the attic, I heard the footsteps of people approaching me. They spoke Yiddish amongst themselves. They were Reicha Kladnir of Ratno, Yankel Kladnir, and one other Jew whose name I do not know, who came from the village of Zamszeny in Volhynia. Yankel Kladnir was the only one who survived from the 30 Jews who were shot to death in the first aktion of Ratno in 1941, which took place immediately after the Germans entered the city. Immediately after the shooting, Yankel laid himself in the pit, acting dead. Later, covered
with corpses, Yankel waited until the Germans left the place. Then he left the pit and escaped to the forest. Thus did he pass through the war.
I hid for two days in the cottage of the forester. Groups of Ukrainian workers on their way to work passed by the cottage. One of them wanted to enter, but his friends warned him, Do not enter, for demons live on top! Thus did the workers pass by me. I was unable to remain there any longer, for death by freezing was awaiting me.
At night I walked two kilometers and arrived at the yard of a farmer who was an acquaintance. I recognized him and realized that this was a poor, unfortunate family, because four of their children died of typhus within one week. I knocked on the door and they let me in. I gave the farmer a few German marks that I had in my hand, and requested of him, Allow me to stay in your attic for several days... The farmer refused. He gave me a half a loaf of bread and a piece of bacon and said, Come here in two weeks, and then I can take you in. I went away. I did not realize that my brother and his wife were hiding in that attic at that time.
I again wandered around aimlessly and searched for an opportunity to warm myself up with one farmer, but the farmer did not even let me enter and camp out in an empty house at the edge of the pond. I reached the pond that was next to the village where all of the Jews and gypsies had been murdered. I spent eight days in that abandoned house. My food was carrots and beets, and my bed was straw.
Eight days later, I returned to the farmer who was hiding my brother and his wife in Bordiatyn. The attic was empty and the farmer allowed me to enter. It was -35 degrees. The sound of cracking ice could be heard from the ponds and banks. I was happy to find a hiding place. I hid in that attic for two weeks. The farmer brought me a pot of soup with potatoes twice a day. I did not pay him for the food and he did not request payment. Since the cold was unbearable, I once went downstairs to his house to warm up by the oven. When I went from there, I left behind a mass of lice. His wife turned to me and said, You have too many lice!... I did not come down to the farmer's house again. I knew how to differentiate between the different types of lice on my body. There were hungry lice that stuck to the body strongly, and satiated lice that quickly fell off from the body when they found a warm place.
I was forced to leave the farmer's house after two weeks. I went to a different village and went to the barn through a hole in the pigpen. During the day I would lie in the fodder, and at night I would sneak into the pigpen, where the sheep and cows live. I slept under the feeding trough in the pen, for that was the warmest spot. One day, an adult Ukrainian woman noticed me in the pen. When she saw me she shouted, Yankel, are you still alive? It is better for you to go to Ratno, for they are not murdering there anymore I answered her, It is better for me to hang myself than to return there... I will leave here and hope that I do not freeze from the cold. Nevertheless, I did not leave there that
day or on the coming days. The woman gave me bread and warm milk. She came in the evening and brought me my food along with the food for the cows. I hid there for one month.
Then I went to a different farmer in Mezritsh. I knew that he was a fine person, but nevertheless, he did not allow me to enter. He gave me bread and claimed that the police come by often. I left and went to a different farmer in Moszko. Without asking for permission, I sneaked into the attic, and lay in the fodder for a week. The farmer did not notice me even though he came each day to fetch fodder for the cows. Only after a week did he notice me in a corner of the barn. When he saw me, he began to shout, Do you want them to kill us all here? You know that various people come to me from Lelikow, where the worst murderers live. Get out of here! I answered him, You know that my brother and brother-in-law remain alive. Know that if you turn me over to the murderers, they will burn everything! The farmer brought me bread and sausage, and calmly requested that I leave. Having no other choice, I returned to the farmer in Bordiatyn who knew my brother well. The farmer took me into the attic. I spent another month there. He did not ask for any payment from me. He provided me with food for free. I do not recall the name of the farmer...
The First Encounter with Russian Partisans
Winter was ending, and the spring of 1943 was approaching. I often heard from the farmers that there were partisans in the forests. When I went out of the barn after a month, I encountered two Jews in the forest from the village of Siderowysze. We went into the depths of the forest together to search for partisans.
After a few days, we met five men in the forest with weapons in their hands. We approached them. They were Russian partisans. They realized that we were Jews who were hiding in the forest. They read to us a booklet that they had received from Moscow in which it was written that the situation of the Russians on the front was good, and they were advancing. We requested that they take us into their group. They refused because we did not have any weapons.
We continued to wander in the forests. A few days later we encountered a group of Jews from Kamien Koszyrski who were hiding in the forest. Kamien Koszyrski is a city in the district of Pulsia, 25 kilometers from Ratno. Approximately 50 people were hiding there. This was a wild place. The forests were thick and impassable. No human foot had trodden there.
We joined this group. The conditions were very severe. The people were dirty and frozen, and they did not have anything to eat. Someone died from typhus every day. Various groups of partisans passed through who would rape the women, but would refuse to take anyone into the ranks of the partisans. Having no choice, we remained with this group for only two weeks.
We Join the Ranks of Russian Partisans
At the end of two weeks, I realized that there were partisans camped in the village of Mawyr. We set out to that village.
The brothers Shalom and Anshel Zricki of Siderowysze joined me. We quickly found the group of Russian partisans, but they refused to take us. We did not have weapons, and they did not need us.
At the last minute, one of the partisans turned to us and asked if any of us knew the way to Brisk on the Bug River, through the passage in the forest that leads to the town of Maloryta. (That town had a railway station, and is located between the city of Brisk on the Bug River and Ratno. Many Jews lived there at the outbreak of the war. Maloryta was nicknamed The Jewish village.) I answered that I knew the area very well, and was able to guide the group to Brisk. I was immediately accepted into the group of partisans. My two friends, the Zricki brothers, were not accepted. (They survived the war and live in the United States.)
The group of partisans to which I was accepted consisted of 25 Russian men. We set out immediately to go in the direction that I showed them. Along the way, I was given a heavy sack that must have weighed 15-20 kilograms. I did not know what was in the sack. We walked through the forest without resting for two days. We arrived at the place where the railway tracks between Brisk and Maloryta were located. There, I heard the explosion of weapons for the first time, and saw the crushed railway tracks. The sack that I was carrying carried gunpowder that my friend and I placed under the railway tracks.
We continued to advance through the forest. We would turn to farmers' houses at night and take the best food and clothes for ourselves. Along the way to Brisk, we constantly blew up any railway tracks that we came across. We also met other groups of partisans in the forests.
We advanced toward Brisk on the Bug River. We first ran into Germans near the village of Kowriniec. The Germans surrounded the town at the time we were approaching it through the forest.
We began to escape. As we were escaping, I saw a sack under a tree. I picked it up and continued to run. We arrived in the village in which our commander Nikolai Komianov was stationed. When we arrived, our commander lined us up in order to check if any of us was missing. One of the partisans pointed to me and said that I had lost a sack with a mine. Then I showed Komianov two sacks, mine and the one I had found. Komianov approached the partisan, removed his weapons and gave them to me.
It was the spring of 1943. Along with the group, we entered into our camp that was located in Maniewicze near Kowel. We received mines that we were to use to bombard the railway lines. There I was placed before my commander, and there I was officially accepted into the ranks of the partisans.
There were 200 people in the camp at Maniewicze. The forests there were very deep. There was a bathhouse, a well and a kitchen there, and there was a medical service. The partisans also had their own flock of cattle. The commander of these partisans was General Feodorov.
The Killing of a Ukrainian for Collaborating with the Germans
One day, at the table in the Maniewicze Camp, one of those present asked me, Yaakov, are you also here? It seemed that he was a Ukrainian, one of my close acquaintances. His name was Johan Onishechuk, and he was a Communist. His mother and brother were killed by German collaborators. In that partisan group, there were many Ukrainians who fought with Germans. Onishechuk came from the village of Jakosza, and his nickname was Sokolov. This Sokolov was a very talented lad, and I went out with him for my first partisan roles.
My first activity was to blow up railway lines and to lay traps for Ukrainians who collaborated with the Germans and Benderovchiks. Once I went with Sokolov to the village of Jakosza in order to carry out an attack. I ran into a Ukrainian who was the brother-in-law of Danialovich, the police chief of Ratno and German collaborator. Knowing the character of this Ukrainian, Sokolov and I searched him and stood him next to a wall. I shot and killed him with my own hands. This was toward evening, and it was still light outside. This was the first time in my life that I killed a person. Later, I could not sleep for several weeks.
At that time, Russian airplanes landed near Pinsk and brought us weapons. They landed on frozen ponds, for the area was full of bogs.
We were twelve partisans, including Sokolov. From the village of Jakosza we arrived at the courtyard of a farmer whose farm was near the village of Zyczycz. A farmer named Waweram lived in a cottage in the yard. At one time, he had hidden Sumak Papir in exchange for 1,000 dollars, and later cast Sumak into the outside and killed him. When he noticed me, he called several other farmers from the village and all together they chased me for several days.
We surrounded Waweram's cottage. It was toward evening. Later we set the buildings on fire. Since there was a great deal of hay in the area, the fire spread within a few moments. When all of the buildings were engulfed in flames, we began to shoot at the cottage, so that nobody could be saved therein. Waweram's entire family was burnt alive. From there we returned to our camp for rest, which lasted several days. Then I realized that there were also Jews among the partisans.
The Killing of Three Benderovchiks and the Anti-Semitic Reaction of a Russian Partisan
After a few days, we were ordered to go through the forests to Kowel and to plant mines under the railway tracks along the way. One day, we met three Benderovchiks who were hiding in the depths of the forest. We caught them. Our commander issued the command Kill all three of them! Then he asked, Who wants to shoot? I offered myself, and I immediately opened fire. When their bodies were already lying on the ground, one of the partisans cast his glare at me and uttered in anger, Jew boy, a son of a bitch such as you!...
I did not answer him immediately, but after some time, at an appropriate chance, I reacted appropriately to his anti-Semitic outburst. I then tried to distance myself as far as possible from this anti-Semite.
We returned to our camp at Maniewicze after carrying out al of our assignments, and remained in the camp for an entire week. After a week, a command came from Moscow to choose 25 men from our group who will cross the Bug with other partisan groups and penetrate the forests of Lublin. I was among the 25, as was the anti-Semite of our group. I turned to our commander and told him that I cannot work in this group, and told him the reason. The commander removed the anti-Semitic partisan from the group. I thanked him for this.
We set out in the direction of the Bug River, carrying with us our automatic weapons, grenades, and all other necessary equipment. Our principal task was intelligence operations and blowing up railway lines.
(Here it is worthwhile to mention that after one of the operations, General Feodorov told me, You will receive the highest Russian decoration of excellence!...)
Crossing the Bug River. Conquering a Village Near Chelm Lubelski and its Reconquest by the Germans
The spring of 1943 was in full force. We marched day and night in the direction of the Bug River. There were 200 people in our group. Our group was composed of various partisan groups who united, and included many Jews from Poland and Russia. Along the way we ran into other partisan groups, mainly Russian. We crossed the Bug together. We advanced very quickly, without looking backward and without stopping. We also had with us many horses that served us in a most exemplary manner.
We reached the banks of the Bug at evening. The ice had not yet melted, and big chunks floated in the river. We crossed the river at night, transferring the weapons and all of our belongings on the other side. Many horses drowned as we crossed the river, but we had no other means.
That night, we arrived at the forests in the region of Chelm Lubelski. We conquered one of the villages, and did not meet even one German. We spent the entire next day in the village, and toward evening, we saw German airplanes. I slept, and during my sleep I felt the walls moving and shaking, with the mortar crumbling. I woke up and mounted a horse. We immediately heard a command to set out in the direction of Bilgoraj. We succeeded in leaving the village without any losses. We had intended to rest in that village for several days.
The Burning of German Automobiles, The Killing of Several Germans, and Approaching the Forests of Bilgoraj
We again marched forward. We walked on foot or rode on horses all night, through fields and forests, until we came to the main road leading to Lublin. There we stopped. On the road,
heavy German trucks passed endlessly. We stormed the convoy of vehicles. We burned approximately 25 vehicles, and killed a similar number of Germans. Someone from our group saw two Germans escaping to the barn. He pursued them and killed them on the spot. After we crossed the road, we again escaped into the forest. The forest was small and meager. I left the horse along the way, for it was weak and could not continue along the route. The Germans figured out where we were and began to shoot at us from airplanes. To our good fortune, only one of us was injured lightly in the foot. We hid in that forest all day, and set out in the direction of Bilgoraj in the evening.
-- -- -- We returned to our gathering place in the forest from the banks of the Weiprz River. We received an order to travel to a different gathering place in Zamosc. At that time, Zamosc was a liberated city, and a Russian command operated there. We were a total of 300 people coming from the forest. Some of them volunteered for the regular Russian Army in order to continue the fight against the Germans and the rest of them, about 200 people including myself, received a command to return to the city of Luck, which was also liberated at that time.
We returned to Luck by train. There we found out that we had to travel to Kobrin. Since Ratno is situated on the way to Kobrin, I asked the commander if he would permit me to travel to a closer place and to go to my home. Another Russian partisan, Nikolai Komienov, asked the same thing. He wanted to go to the village of Wydranica, five kilometers from Ratno. We received a permit of passage and set out together in army vehicles and other available vehicles. We were wearing American shirts, and I also had my personal arms: a revolver, grenades, and an automatic gun.
In Ratno I met several Jews who survived the war. I recall that one of them was Avraham Berg who today lives in America, as well as Pearl (nee Vernik today Karsh) who was married to Shapira and spent the war in the forests. I also met several other Jews who came from Ratno, but I do not recall their names.
I remained in Ratno for one day. The city was gray and gloomy. I discovered that our house was completely demolished. Only one tree remained, that was planted by my brother Rafael before he left the city. I found out there that my brother David was killed in the forests by shots from the Germans. From Ratno I went to Brisk, and then, according to the command, to Kobrin.
(In the continuation of the testimony, Yaakov Grabov describes his activities in various partisan units in the forests of Bilgoraj, Janow Lubelski, Zaklikow, Rozwadow, Torodowoka, Zwierzyniec and various other places until the partisan units joined the army units. We are glossing over his activities in these places due to a shortage of space, and concluded with a section that describes his return to Ratno.)
by Sh. Perlmutter
Translated by Jerrold Landau
August 27, 1945
I am in Ratno, my native city!
Three years ago yesterday, on August 26, the despicable slaughter of the Jews took place here. My mother and grandfather were included. I was sitting at the entrance to the Goriasfulkum (city hall during the Soviet era) of Ratno. It was early, and the officials had not yet arrived at work. The Gorozbik (transport trucks with an open crate) in which I had arrived stopped by the Marsyk House, and I got off. Another traveler who was sitting inside the vehicle also got off. From his dress, he looked like a government or party official. He asked me what I was doing there, and offered to help me. I told him that I was a Ratno native who was now living in Moscow, and I had come here to collect material on the cruel actions of the Nazis. He asked me to accompany him. Now I am sitting in the entrance, waiting for him. He entered one of the rooms and asked me to wait. As I am waiting, I have taken out my diary, and I am writing (in the new notebook):
At 5:45 I was already
at the Kowel Goriasfulkum, and I set out on my journey at 6:00. I sat for the entire time on the open crate that served as a seat. The cold wind was pounding me in the face. I was watching the familiar landscapes of the journey. The road was full of pits until the village of Buchi, and I was afraid that I might be thrown outside. We were alone on the car, and only one army vehicle passed before us. We stopped for several minutes in the village of Zamshany, and the driver gave a package to a youth who was waiting next to the town hall. We continued through Wydranica, and passed through the sand hills and pine groves. Nothing had changed...
Am I really here?
I am sitting in the shade of the old pine tree next to the Yentl bridge. The road is quiet, and there is no movement. My heart is overcome with the strong memories that are sweeping through me.
The man who had offered to help me was the second secretary of the party. He invited me into his office and offered me tea. He spoke to me about the development of Ratno and even asked if I intended to return there. I thanked him and asked him if he could help me with a return connection to Kowel. What luck! He himself was returning there and was prepared to take me on the condition that I would be there at 16:30. I thanked him again and set out by foot in the direction of the home of Michalko Chawowich.
I passed by the ruins of Droog's house, and the houses of Vernik and Klein, the Onisko Infirmary, the public school that served as the prison for the final Ratno survivors before they were taken out to be murdered, and the ruins of the house of the Steinbergs into which all of the Jews of the city were concentrated when the Germans entered. The first 30 martyrs of Ratno were selected from among them, including Leibel Steingarten and my cousin Yosef Perlmutter -- -- -- The Yentl Bridge was there. I used to play on that bridge with my friends and swim beneath it. My mother, my grandfather, and all of my townsfolk crossed it on their final journey to Prochod. I escaped over that bridge when I fled from the Germans. Here was the house of small Andreiko Pinkowich, in which I found refuge... Here are the bathhouses of Syuma and Kolya Lenertowich. Here is the house and barn of
Golobowjow, where I hid for many days...
And here are the straw roofs of the houses of Polkowa. Nothing changed there. Everything was standing. Everything, everything -- only the Jews are not there. Soon I would surprise my good Michalko. This time I would come to visit my friend in broad daylight, not like when I would come to find a hiding place and get bread in the middle of the night...
Michalko and his family did not wait for my visit, even though I hinted to it in one of my letters. We wept from joy. He greeted me like a member of the family. I gave them the presents that Klara had bought for them, including a pipe for Michalko himself. He looked happy. His wife covered the large wooden table with homemade cheeses and cream, and I ate with them. Michalko spoke about those nights when I would come to him with my young brother Motele, and how his heart was broken when he saw us. He always, always opened the door for us. He even reminded me of the scene that his wife put on for us when she accused Michalko of endangering the entire family. (At that time, he had with him two Soviet prisoners aside from us) -- how he slapped her over the face and quieted her...
How brave and generous a man was Michalko?! He did not forget even to mention the good deed that I did for him when he fell into difficulties immediately after the war, and when his neighbors, of his own people, accused him before the government and requested his death. I cleared his name with the help of Elia Ehrenberg.
Now they were all going out to their work in the yard and the field. Michalko himself also begged my pardon for a brief period and entered the shed. I remained alone... and I am recording. Soon I will also go to Amalian Lenertowich.
Michalko knew a great deal about the final days of Ratno Jewry. Many of those who escaped found temporary refuge with him. He told me a great deal about the family of the pharmacist Mogilenski. According to him, he especially liked him. I record the following words from his mouth:
When the Germans arrived to murder all of the Jews in Ratno in the summer of 1942,[Page 190-alt]
Berka Mogilenski and his wife Gittel escaped to me and hid with me for 17 days. I must note that these were particularly difficult times. The Germans and the Ukrainian police searched in every place and turned over each stone -- while the Mogilenskis were sleeping in my barn. Somehow, this became known to my neighbor Onisko and his wife. Another person came in and said to me that he wants to ask Mogilenski's advice regarding a medication that his wife is receiving. I told him that Mogilenski was indeed with me, but I sent him away. At night I told this to Mogilenski, and he decided to complain, to go to Onisko, claiming that Onisko is his friend and some of his belongings are hidden with him. Indeed, the next day he went to him and remained with him for three days. His wife was with me during that time. When he returned to me, I placed him and his wife on my horse, and took them through the bogs and the forest to the home of one of his friends in the village of Samorowycze. After a few days, Onisko reported on me and my family, and the policeman Jochim from the village of Komarowo conducted a search of our barn and stalls. Mogilenski's son Janos and his daughter-in-law Genia were also in Samorowycze. They had succeeded in escaping Ratno during the day of slaughter. After a few weeks, policemen arrived in the village from the town of Diwyn in order to murder the Jews of the village. His daughter and daughter-in-law escaped, but Berka was shot as he was escaping and fell next to the pond. His wife Gittel ran after him and drowned in the pond. His son Janos and his daughter-in-law were also captured in the winter of 1942 and brought to Ratno. When I found out about this, I bribed the policeman who brought them, and he gave them over to my hands. At that time, several professional Jews worked in the 'Ortel' factory. Janos stayed with me and then moved to Frunyushkin He had no desire to live. They gave themselves over to the Germans and were shot at the 'Cheplik' house.
I met Janos and his wife during the time that I was in Ratno. The following is written in my entries from that period: When I met Janos when he was with Frunyushkin the veterinarian, he was working in his barn. First he was with Michalko Chawowich. He asked me, What should I do? This was not the Janos that I knew, but rather another person, broken and without faith. I told him that he must prepare arms and escape. He smiled at me and said, We are the living dead.
So why would we need arms?... The Germans arrested Janos and his wife on January 15, 1943 and imprisoned them in the school building. I found out that before they took Janos out to be killed, he sang Hebrew and Russian songs all night. The next day when they took him to Cheplik, he smiled to the passersby. That day, they shot 15 Jews of Ratno.
I am with Oleksei Pinkowich, the son-in-law of Amalian Lenertowich. Michalko brought me there in his wagon. Oleksei and his wife received me warmly, putting themselves into no small amount of danger, when I escaped from the German work camp in Bitnia in the beginning of September 1942. I remained for a day or two with them. In those days, two days were like two years, if not more. I remained at Michalko's side and we traveled slowly. His gray horse dragged the wagon with difficulty. Michalko hurried it on from time to time. When I pointed out to him that the horse appeared weak and was dragging the wagon with two people with difficulty, he told me that were it not for the feelings he had toward it, he would have freed himself from it some time ago. It passed through the entire war with us, so how can I be ungrateful to it? We passed by all the houses of the residents of Polkowa. They had not changed at all since I last saw them. Here was the house of Michalko's brother. In contrast to his brother, he behaved cruelly toward my younger brother and me, and sent us away in broad daylight when he found us hiding in his barn without permission. When I asked him, he answered, Don't remind me of this evil beast, there is no connection between us.
The house of the Polish forester Jankowski stood at the edge of the road. I had taken ill with typhus there. We went to the main street and passed by the house of Zelik the wagon-driver, who had been beaten to death by the policeman Ivan Lukianuk for being found without the yellow patch on his coat. Someone else was living there, as was obvious from the laundry drying on the clothesline in the yard. Michalko turned the wagon toward the Malczes hill, where we used to bathe in the river during the summer, and which was the name of the road. At the house of Olka's son, we turned right to pass the Roskes pasture.
I asked Michalko to stop next to Olka's house. I entered the yard and Michalko waited for me. I overcame the dog that had attempted to attack me and presented myself before the old woman, who did not recognize me. Are you Oleksei?, she said as she crossed herself. Come, sit down and drink something. She immediately began to tell me that her son Sasha had told her about my nighttime visits to him during the time of the Nazi occupation.
You know that my daughter was almost killed because of your brother?She called her daughter from the barn, and told me how my brother Sheikele was shot.
How?, I asked
I was pasturing the cows in Roskes. Suddenly I heard shots, and bullets were flying over my head. I lay on the ground. I noticed a child running toward me. Suddenly, another shot was heard, and the child fell near me. I saw the policemen coming. I fled, for I was afraid. -- -- -- He fell near me, about as far away as from here to the barn. I heard him calling, Mother, Mother. Later it was said that this was the son of the Olczyks.This eyewitness report of the death of my brother Sheikele almost overcame me as she told me the story. I immediately thanked her mother and her, and ran quickly to the wagon that was waiting for me. I left them confused and perplexed. I begged Michalko's pardon and told him that I had just heard a testimony about the death of my brother Sheikele when he was being brought to Cheplik. Michalko was thinking and did not speak. He brought his horse to the Roskes pasture. Across from the areas of the bogs and water, one could see the lone houses of Prochod standing out in the dim image background of the forest. There, on the Roskes, flourished the loves of the youths of Ratno who are no more. Michalko took me to a place near the house of the Pinkowiches and parted from me. He asked to see me again, and we spoke of meeting before I would travel to the house of Brener.
The Pinkowich's house had barely changed. Only the roof was covered with wooden shingles rather than bales of hay, and the shutters were colored gray and black. The garden was destroyed and several bean sprouts were growing over the gate. Old fishing nets were drying or resting on the embankment that surrounded the house. I knocked on the door
and a woman who I did not know opened it. I asked about Oleksei and she answered that he had taken his wife to the doctor. She invited me to enter and asked me to wait for him for a bit. The house of the Pinkowiches was considered to be modern, and stood out with its innovations over the rest of the houses of the Ukrainians in Ratno. From both the exterior and the interior, it resembled more the former houses of the Jews rather than the local Ukrainians. There was a covered, painted porch at the entrance, and there was a wood floor in all the rooms. It was not a large room with an oven, but rather three spacious, nice rooms. There were wooden doors, shutters, and electricity (from the time of the war, there was no electricity, and they used kerosene lamps.) I sat next to the table in the large room. I took out my notebook and began to write my updates. The surrounding village was calm, even though it was close to noon. If the Pinkowiches do not arrive soon, I would go to visit the Cheplik area, where hundreds of my townsfolk were murdered. Then I would go to the old cemetery, where my brother Motele is buried.
Oleksei and his wife finally arrived. They had not anticipated this surprise of finding me in their home. They hugged and kissed me. We heard about you that you are a 'shishka' in Moscow, joked Oleksei, as he invited me to join them for lunch. His wife did not feel well, and went to lie down. The woman who was in their home, apparently their maid, spread a peasant's tablecloth on the table and served cooked fish and potatoes, garnished with cream. Oleksei told me that his wife was pregnant, and apparently there was no doctor in the city. We also spoke about Nazi collaborators who were still living in Ratno and going about freely, whereas his brother-in-law Fedya had been imprisoned. He complained that the Jewish survivors of Ratno were not returning to the city, and thereby they were completing the wiping out of the Jews. I retorted that the number of survivors was small, and they did not have the strength to live in the cemetery of their families. He mentioned to me the names of all of the Jews who survived and who had visited Ratno: Moshe Chaim Fuchs, Chaicha and Hirsch Leib Janowicz, Fruma Bergel, Pearl Shapira, Dvora and Avraham Berg, Eliahu and Itzka
Blubsztejn, Magolczia Szpetel, Reicha and Yankel Kladnir, Yankel Grabov, and the Steingarten family. Oleksei offered to take me to the old cemetery at the other edge of the city. He went out to hitch his horse and I waited for him to return. His wife was sleeping for the entire time.
Once again I am at the entrance to the Riasfulkum, leaning on the fence. There was still one hour left until the journey, and Michalko had not arrived. Many things were going through my head. -- -- --
Like Oleksei Pinkowich, Michalko had many stories about the last days of Jewish Ratno. It was unfortunate that I could not remain there for more time in order to record his words. He was a witness to the murder of my brother Sheikele, Tzalik Mogilenski and Yehudale Reiskes. He gave over his testimony to me when I had visited Ratno last year. Now he told me about the final journey of the Klein family, who were among the owners of the flour mill. The entire family hid in a hidden cellar and were found several weeks after all the Jews of Ratno were murdered. When they were brought out to Olianka Street across from Cheplik, I was by chance traveling with my wagon behind them, and Motel shouted to me, Oleksei, you should know that Unis Zhuk and Petru Mechnik slandered us. We are going to our deaths because of them. Later I found out that the veterinarian Frunyushkin was the one who was truly guilty for their deaths, for he went to search in the home of the Kleins and revealed their hiding place to the police. I followed the Kleins to Cheplik and was a witness to their murder. They ordered them to strip, and one of the daughters rebelled, refused to strip, slapped the police, and wreaked havoc until they shot her. Oleksei traveled through the Roskes and pointed out the nearby Cheplik valley of murder, the trench in which they were shot. Grass grew everywhere. I descended from the wagon for a moment and stood in silence. Oleksei also descended and stood in silence beside me. Then we traveled the length of Olianka Street, and passed the house of Avraham Gleizer the smith. This was the only house that remained in the row of houses on the right side of the bridge. Even behind the bridge there were no houses until the corner of the market. One the wall of the public bank that remained standing, there was a placard
in white Hebrew letters, Woe to the people whose leaders protect the murderers -- a remnant from the battle of the Jews from the era of the murder of Arlosoroff. The placard remains but the Jews are no more.
We passed through the area that had once been the market square -- it now has white mounds and remnants of trees. From the well, I was able to recognize the place where our house had stood. -- -- -- Oleksei stopped for a moment and pointed out, Here was your house. Tears choked my throat. The only house that remained intact in the market square was that of Itzel Grabov. The sign of the Reipotrosioz (regional cooperative shop) was above his closed shop. Pearl Shapira (Vernik) worked there during the time of our visit last year. I could not understand then how she could continue to remain in the city of ghosts. Her husband Itzika, with whom she had endured all the tribulations of the war, enlisted in the Red Army. I received letters from her for a period of time. Now she has left Ratno and stopped writing. Oleksei drove me to the house of Tyktyner on the highway. From there I went on foot to the old cemetery. Along the way, I passed the Polish cemetery, and stopped for a moment at the graves of Yosel Zikner and Meir Palit, two Jewish prisoners of war who were shot along with 30 Russian prisoners on the day that the Germans entered Ratno. There was no marker on the communal grave -- only grass and thorns. From there I set out to the old Jewish cemetery. I found the grave of my brother Motel. The antitank barrier that I had rolled atop the grave last year had sunk. I spread out over the grave. I hid my head in the grass and sighed. I had the strange desire to open the grave and see Motele, to hug and kiss him... When I stood up I could not move my feet... I walked slowly backward, and forced myself to move -- -- the hour was late. Michalko had not yet arrived. These are the last words that I am writing in Ratno.
by Simcha Lavie (Leker)
Translated by Jerrold Landau
Four letters flashed through my mind today
And I was effortlessly transferred to a different world,
Far far off and very near,
A world that caused all of my 248 limbs to tremble and that evoked aromas and sights
Landscapes and personalities, which I had only seen in a dream of night, and during my childhood
In those days, before the world was ignited with the flames of Satan.
The four letters Reish Tet Nun He (Ratno) stand themselves as living in the eyes of my spirit
Now, I am again standing among the Karlin Hassidim
|And suddenly, the four letters
Of your name, Ratno my town, took on different hues,
They changed their colors, and brought me to other places.
In the afternoon, I was sitting in Chevrat Shas, bent over a book of Mishnayos,
Listening to the lesson and shaking in the manner of all straightforward Jews,
Swallowing every statement and every innovation of the scholar, and answering every question
Like one of these simple folk, who did not delve into the sea of Talmud,
But who nevertheless has chapters of Psalms upon their lips, and they sufficed themselves with such,
And it was good for them with such.
Blessed be you who come, righteous women, It has been ages since I have seen you,
And again you are running to bring ice to a seriously ill person, to bring salvation
To a woman who is having difficulty in childbirth, to ensure that an orphan bride be brought to the wedding canopy
As your day is laden with mitzvos and good deeds as in days of yore.
Good morning, Reb Zelig the teacher, and good morning to all the teachers
Again the colors of your letters, Ratno my town, have changed, and I see
All of them at the edge of Prochod, the heap of annihilation. Now I know:
They are being hauled to slaughter!
Trembling overtakes me, yes - to slaughter, the units of shooters are standing ready.
I raise my eyes upward and to the sides, I am searching for mercy, the good and beneficent G-d,
The wings of the Divine Presence, my righteous and merciful Father who will peer down from the clouds,
Who will gather under His wings His Jews, all who are near and dear to me as well as to Him,
The flock that He tends, the Hassidim and reciters of Psalms, parnassim [administrators] and gabbaim [trustees],
All the clergy, the children and the Holy Flock -- --
I did not see Him. Specifically at such a moment He is not there.
Where are You, Master of the World - all 248 limbs and 365 sinews  are shouting out,
Look, Your Jews, the Jews of Ratno, are hauled like sheep to slaughter,
Look at the prepared pits, look at the units of shooters,
See their faces, examine their conscience and hearts,
Turn Your ear to their prayers and confession, save, have mercy Father of mercy,
Extend Your hand, Oh G-d, please save!
Ratno. The letters exchange colors,
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