Translated from Hebrew to English by Iris (Montag) Grisaru
On December 1st, 1941 we were incarcerated in Rubezhevichi Ghetto and in every house resided five to six families, which made living conditions unbearable. The Germans organized a local police force made up of peasants from nearby, who worked us hard and even abused us. Residents of the Ghetto hoped that with every day that passes, our salvation will surely come. We sat and cried over our bitter fate, over our family's fate and in general for all the Jewish people.
On the holiday of Shavuos, in 1942, a new chapter began in our life. Our joyful holiday turned into fear and mourning. In the morning my wife, my children and I, together with 600 Jews from Rubezhevichi, Derevna, Nalibok and Wolma, were removed from the Ghetto and instructed to be at Ivenitz Road, the town center. We had no idea what is going on but it was obvious to us that there was going to be a selection process. The days of the ghetto came to an end. It was clear to us that some of us will be transported to death camps and others to hard labor camps where we will surely starve to death. I have to say good bye to my hometown Rubezhevichi. Oh God! I want to look at you and at our houses just one last time, the town where we lived for generations. However it is forbidden to move or look backwards, as with each wrong step or move from the row, the murderers hostesses and their loyal helpers, the Belorussian police, will shoot you.
Victims have already started to fall we are walking with our heads bent in fear and mourning. Each one of us is carrying some personal belongings or a backpack. We are walking and walking after two days of walking, day and night, without food or water, tired and exhausted, we arrived during the night to the small town of Dvoretz. We could hardly move our bones. We unpacked our personal belongings following the long journey. We were locked up in a big warehouse, like cattle, until the next day. During the entire night I couldn't sleep. I could not stop thinking about our situation, as all these events were not easy and were very concerning.
The small town of Dvoretz was located in the Novogrodek district- so much exhaustion from the memories and tragedies that passed through this town. Your soil has covered many of our youth. Your soil absorbed a lot of blood of innocent children, brothers, sisters and parents. Entire families were wiped out without a trace. On your soil the German murderers managed to build a hard labor camp, well fenced with barbed wire and well-guarded so we will not be able to escape from there.
For many months, remaining Jews who survived were transported there to be sacrificed. Jews were brought from labor camps and different nearby Ghettos. In this camp they were tortured, starved and placed in terrible overcrowded conditions. They melted like candles worms were eating them while still alive and finally they were executed in different ways.
On the roads and in the fields our holy dead are laying. Their last wailing and groaning are still echoing in my ears. I will never forget it!
Early the next morning, we were already standing in snow in the heart of the labor camp in the town of Dvoretz. We were divided into working groups. A few families were crowded together in Christian's homes, 30 people in a small old house which left little room for mobility. Bunk beds were laid around the walls of the house. Not far from the house also stood a barn house. The skilled workers among us; carpenters, tailors, shoemakers and blacksmiths worked in their field of practice for the Germans. The rest of us were sent to work outside in the field; carving stones and loading them onto carts to be transported to railcars. The conditions were unbearable especially for women. The work was extremely hard and exhausting. Many people became sick and suffered from malnutrition. We received a small piece of bread and some stale soup once a day and if you dared asked for more you would receive a bullet in your head. Those who brought clothes exchanged them with Christian peasants for an additional piece of bread. Those who did not have much perished from starvation and disease.
From day to day the situation became worse and worse and people died like flies. Days and nights became longer and fear hovered above our heads. The murderers would frequently visit our camp, introduce themselves and state their intention to kill us. That was just the introduction to the dreadful days to come.
The camp manager was a local engineer, from German origin, who cooperated with the Germans. Many people believed he is a good man because he talked a lot about helping us and understanding our misery and he said: Moses took the Jews out of Egypt- and I will take you out of this camp. Even a few days before the massacre- the mass murder, he encouraged us all to prepare money, food and clothes because soon we were expected to move to a better camp.
It was clear to me that the engineer needed us. For him it was a gold mine. It was a good source of money making. We gave him everything, all that we had; money, gold, watches, rings and earrings in order to bribe him and buy our lives. Judenrates were the liaisons between us and the engineer. Ours was a guy by the name of Yudel Novik. A smart guy, educated, born in Dvoretz, lived a good and happy life. He innocently believed that our freedom will come and did not believe the engineer was deceiving us. He searched for different ways to raise money, including from other communities, in order to bribe the engineer who brought us all our troubles. Meanwhile, the brutal days went on. I received some rumors about massacres and executions in the surrounding areas. Individuals that managed to escape from neighboring towns, were caught and brought to our camp. They told horrifying stories of what is being done to Jews and of the last moments of their entire community. Those stories made a strong impact on me. Many thoughts crossed my mind and I started looking for ways to survive. I need to find a place to hide. My desire to live was so strong that I was prepared to do anything.
At one time, when I finished a tough work day, I was walking worried and preoccupied with thoughts. Suddenly, my foot hit something made out of metal that was sticking out of the ground. I dug and dug and found a small rusted hatchet. I did not hesitate and pulled it out of the ground. God must have sent it to me so I could build a hideout. I cleaned the hatchet, sharpened it and started to build the hideout immediately.
I recruited all the tenants of the home we stayed in. We worked during the night as we had to be very secretive. What I did was as follows: The house was divided by internal walls. We ripped out the separating wall of one of the rooms and restored it again half a meter apart from the original location, which made the room smaller but created a half a meter gap between the two walls. When we reassembled the wall we smeared mud and dirt on it in order to make it look old and unchanged. After that we dug a deep hole in the floor, and secretly disposed of the dirt in an old broken well which we covered with debris in order to hide the dirt. All this was done to increase the size of the hideout. The entrance to the hideout was through the attic floor. The entrance was very narrow. Only one person at a time could fit through the entrance. We built a door and on top of it stuck hay so from the outside you could not tell it was a door. From the inside hung a rope to enable us to reach the bottom of the hideout. From the outside it was unnoticeable or distinguishable. The construction of the hideout took a few weeks. When the day of the massacre arrived- the hideout was ready.
It was early Monday morning when the first group went to work in the field. The second group was to go to work at noon. At exactly 8 AM, cars entered the labor camp and parked along the barbed wire fence. Out of the cars emerged soldiers with weapons. They surrounded the entire camp. A few minutes later the S.S. and the engineer came in and gathered all the judenrates in the camp. We were instructed to arrive at the center of the camp as we were to be relocated to another labor camp. Everyone left their homes knowing what was about to happen we saw the Christian peasants standing with digging shovels under their coats.
Confused, everyone started running like drugged mice hoping to find a place to hide. Those that believed the murderers, as well as those that were despaired from their own lives, arrived at the gathering location and stood in line. Among them we saw Leibe Segalowitz. Somebody told him that they were taking him to his grave. He replied I know, what is my life worth? I have no one in this world, death is better than life.
Within minutes our hideout was filled with 160 people, even though it was built for 30. We stood one on top of the other. It was impossible to move and we were cramped like sardines. We had to do our needs on each other, there was no choice. Down at the corner of the hideout I drilled a few tiny holes through which I could see what is going on outside.
I saw and heard a conversation between the murderers and the Judenrat. Suddenly Benjamin Ruditska approached them. He asked the Judenrat to move away from the murderers, because he wanted to blow them up. In one hand he held a piece of meat he was eating, so he could enjoy a few more minutes of his life, while his other hand was in his pocket holding a grenade. He wanted to blow himself up along with the engineer and the S.S. police. He shouted let my soul die with the Philistines. The Judenrat begged him not to do it. My son, a little bit of patience, there is still hope, there may be a miracle, I did not finish my conversation with them, I will try to persuade them to help us.
After a while the Judenrat returned shocked from his conversation with the group of murderers. His eyes showed pain as he confessed to the Jews in a hoarse voice Dear Jews, there is no hope, Hear O Israel (Shma Israel). He was the first to be loaded on the truck that drove him to the mass grave.
The armed Jews, among them Isar Backman and Moshe Funt, who stayed in the barn, decided that they will not let the murderers slaughter them like cattle. We will fight, we will break through the fence and we will escape from the camp. With shouts of Hora they began to run towards the barbed wire fence. At that moment a machine gun opened fire at them. The escapees died at the fence. Only two that managed to survive began to flee towards our hideout. The Germans chased them and shot Tane from the town of Naroulja right on the entrance to our hideout.
We sat stiff. We saw how they loaded the Jews on trucks. They drove back and forth to collect those left behind. The situation in our hideout was tense. We were in terrible panic and fear. Meanwhile voices from inside the hideout could be heard fire, fire people started screaming it's better to die of a bullet then to be burned alive. Someone by the name of Bilkin decided to leave our hideout and we never saw him again.
The Germans finished killing the Jews who surrendered willingly and now they were looking for those hiding. They went from home to home, looked in every bunker and every hole, threw grenades and killed everyone.
At 10 AM I noticed the murderers were approaching our house. We were all scared and silenced each other. From the Sh! Sh! Sh! we made a big commotion. Only a miracle from the sky saved us, as they did not hear us. Inside the house hid two of my children who were not able to make it to the hideout on time; Yechiel and Avramche. Yechiel managed to squeeze himself into a small opening under the fireplace that also served as a chicken coop in the winter. Inside the opening was a tube with a narrow entrance that became wider on the inside. He held a chicken on top of the tube to conceal himself. A German bent down to look inside but did not see Yechiel. Avramche hid inside a tiny dark storage room. He covered himself with an empty flour sack and hid between two full flour sacks. They both managed to survive. Avramche decided to leave his hiding spot and we never saw him again. Yechiel managed to return to our hideout. I have no words to describe my happiness when I saw him back alive.
A few hours later the murderers were back. They climbed to the attic. They found Tane the Jew lying dead from the previous shooting at the entrance to our hideout. We heard them talking and one of them said: Here lays a dead Jew. The other replied: He is only pretending to be dead, shoot him in the head.
A few minutes later we heard them knocking in the attic, looking and searching and calling in the Belarusian language mice get out, but they did not find us. The day grew longer and we were standing scared, terrified, soaked and exhausted from lack of food, water and air to breath. Many shouted Lyote open the door we are suffocating, however I did not want to risk being discovered. I tried to calm them down a little more patience, try to hang on as much as you can. We may be able to survive. I promised that when the situation will be reasonable I will open the door. Till this day I cannot forget that frightening day, especially during the last few hours, when I peeked through the holes and saw the murderers killing Jews that were caught trying to escape from their hiding places. I squeezed my fists in anger as I was not able to help them.
The night arrived. Deadly silence settled in the camp. I opened the door to let air through. Some left the hideout to walk around the house. Everything was broken and destroyed. We thought what should we do next we decided to collect every bit of money or valuables we had and try to bribe the German servants to give us food and shelter. Several women volunteered and among them Sheindel Plotnik-Segalowitz. Finally it was decided that Mrs. Karlitz will go. She took the money and valuables and left- she never came back. She was murdered by one of the murderers. We heard her scream oy and then she was shot. And so our plan was never executed.
The first night went by. We are in the hideout again. The second day to the massacre- the killing started again. Everybody is shaking from fear. A few couldn't stand this situation anymore. They collapsed and never stood up again. We could not help.
During the first few hours of the day I sat on the ladder. In one hand I was holding the rope to the door and in the other a rifle. I decided to shoot anybody who will open the door. At noon time, we heard more shootings and grenades exploding.
Through the cracks we saw a few Germans approaching us. Horror and fear swept us. Somehow I was able to quite down the people. The Germans were saying to each other that they have a feeling that Jews are hiding here. They started removing boards from the floor and throwing magnets to detect hiding Jews. Finally they brought the previous landlord and asked her: were any changes made in this house? It seemed like she was saying the wall is new but it is made from the same wood. It seemed to us that the end has arrived and that she turned us in. Minutes of tension and anxiety went by. What will become of us Then the Germans asked her again are you sure that no change has been made here? She shouted back What do you think- I will give my head for Jews? Those words simply saved us – the murderers finally left the place. We will never know what went through her head.
It started getting dark outside. Suddenly, a car arrived and parked next to the barn in the yard. The engine continued running. Through the cracks we saw the beam of light. We were under the impression the murderers wanted to inject gas into the house to suffocate us. We even believed we smell gas I could not resist and I whispered My dear brothers, the Germans want to kill us with poisonous gas. The Rabbi of Derevna stood next to me. He lifted his head up high and with his eyes shut he said every single letter of the word VIDUY. I said Shma Israel.
More minutes went by. We realized we are still alive. I peeked outside and saw that the car disappeared. Silence prevailed we looked dreamy, reassured and encouraged more than ever. It was silent outside. One side of the camp was on fire. The Germans were busy extinguishing the fire. At that moment we decided it was the right time to escape. First we had to leave the attic, crawl to the barbed wire fence and then split up into small groups and exit the camp. On the way out of the hideout the ladder broke and it was hard to pull out the people that were way down. I lay down and pulled out each and every one of them. It lasted forever. Finally by night we were all out of the camp. We quickly left the place. While my family and I were walking, Yechiel my son suddenly noticed that the poor widow and her son are missing. He was determined to go back and find out what happened to them. He promised her before the massacre that he will help her and her son leave the place and will not abandon them he stood behind his promise. For the next two hours we were worried sick and anxious. It felt like it took forever as the duration of Diaspora- finally when we saw them arriving we cried from happiness. We hugged and kissed him for his bravery, courage and optimism
Translated from Hebrew to English by Iris (Montag) Grisaru
On Friday afternoon, September 1st, I was sent with my unit to the first front line. All day we were bombed and shot at. Faithfully and obediently I carried out the orders of my officer and did not think about myself at all.
By the end of that insensitive battle day, our major was killed. A replacement was immediately appointed. He ordered us to retreat to the second front line. We fought ruthlessly for 18 days and continued to retreat. I carried a heavy backpack and belt with bullets and hand grenades. I sat down to rest a bit, when suddenly I heard a loud explosion. A shell exploded near me. I felt extreme heat, but luckily, I was not hurt and nothing happened to me. Later, I noticed that my backpack was full of piercing from shell fragments. My rifle stock was broken and I thought anxiously, that if it hit the hand grenades, I would have exploded along with them.
In Sochaczew, 50 km from Warsaw, my unit and I fell to a German ambush. We were searched and our ammunition was taken away from us. They made us walk by foot for days until we reached the town of Kampania (Kepno) - not too far from Pomran. There, we were locked up in a prison - under meticulous guard by German soldiers.
For five weeks we worked paving a highway that started in Germany and crossed through the Polish belt towards Russia. My job was to pour tar on the road. Day by day I feared for my fate, as I was a Jew.
From there we were transferred, by train, to a prisoner camp in Lampdorf. That same day we were taken to a shower room where we received shots for different diseases. After that, we were divided into groups of 20 or 40 people - those intended for farming and agriculture.
A German with a murderer's face came and commanded that all of the Jews come out. . My heart was pounding in fear. I lost my ability to think. With me was another Jew from the city of Hardishtat by the name of Menker. The rest of the soldiers were Polish and Russian from my area in Belarus. They took my hand and said to stay with them and pose as a Christian. Those that left the group were separated from the rest.
For several months I was forced to do field work. After that - I worked in the village for a farmer. Every morning I was led to work and in the evening back to camp.
Over time, more and more, Polish and Polish-Russian prisoners arrived at that camp. They provided us with news of the outside. They told us that the Jewish prisoners are lucky as they are released with the help of the Judenrätes and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee for a lot of money while the Polish prisoners continue to roll in prison camps. I found that story hard to believe. I continued to keep my Jewish identity a secret, even though I desperately wanted to return to my family. I continued my work in the field and village as usual.
After consulting with my Jewish friend Menker - we decided to reveal our Jewish origin. When the German Van-Pastan came early in the morning to take us to work, we revealed our Jewish identity...the German was in shock! He began to run wild from anger, stamped his feet a few times and shouted how could this be that we have Jews here that go out to work? It is forbidden for Jews to work outside the camp! - Jewish prisoners were separated in the camp and placed under terrible conditions, crowded with no food or water. A much more harsh and cruel with no rights policy was taken toward the Jewish prisoners than the non-Jewish prisoners.
Immediately, we were separated from the others and locked up in a separate room. In the evening we were returned to the Masdorf camp. We joined 600 more Jews that were supposed to go to Poland in a few days. A larger group of Jewish prisoners from the Russian area stayed in the camp. Their fate was unclear. Menker and I were placed with that group. Fear and anxiety gripped us as we had no idea of what our fate will be.
In our group we had an older Jew who spoke German and he wrote a letter, from all of us to the Labor office in the camp, stating that there are good tradesmen among us who can be of service and we ask to be taken to work outside the camp. We waited for a reply impatiently. A few days later, the German from the office reported that we will be sent in groups to work in the villages, groups that were called commando. He also advised us that when we arrive at our new place of work we should not expose our Jewish identity it will be the best for all of us. A few days later we were registered at the labor office of the camp and as a by the way the German told us in these words: You are all Jews, if you work poorly; your fate will be the same as what happened to your Jewish prisoner friends.
We did not understand what he meant. Later we found out that the 360 Jewish prisoners from our area (around Russia) were transferred to the Ukrainian police called the black coats. From Lublin to Biala- Podlaska those poor miserable people walked by foot, guarded by S.S. who abused them all the way; without any food, without clothes in the cold snow. Those that managed to survive somehow, were ultimately shot to death by the Ukrainian police.
In our new workplace we worked diligently. We lived with the peasants and were almost free. We received everything. The commander praised us and ordered to improve our food supply. We worked there till Rosh Hashana 1940. Then a group of 40 Jews and I were transferred to Kingsberg. We joined more Jewish prisoners of war that stayed in a separate camp. That is when trouble began the Polish prisoners, yesterday's friends in combat, attacked us immediately. They threw us to the ground and forced us to give them food, coats, uniforms, boots, hats- anything we had. Those that refused received intensive beating that was supported by the German guards.
On Simchat Torah, 1940 we were handed over by the Germans to the Ukrainian police. We reached the train station in Yala-podelska and from there we walked 5 km to the town. All the way there, the Ukrainian Police abused us, tortured us, and brutally beat us, until we reached a big gate that said in large letters Judenlager [Jew camp]. We understood immediately that our rights, as prisoners of war, were taken away. That place housed Jewish prisoners from different camps in Germany - for hard labor. Upon our arrival we were beaten again. We were under a harsh torturous regime by the Ukrainian guards that were happy to help the S.S. people. We suffered from cold and hunger. Hygiene conditions were low. Very quickly lice spread and Typhus disease broke out. Many died. I had a very high fever for 5 weeks. Who thought about living? - until this day I cannot understand how I recovered. From 1200 Jews that lived there, only 400 remained. Only a few managed to escape. Most people were sent to death camps, shot on the spot or died from hunger or disease.
I barely moved my legs, but I still requested to be sent to work because on the outside it was easier in some ways to get hold of a little bit of bread to revive my soul. Every day that I was sent to work was like a holiday for me. It kept me strong and gave me hope, to hold on - until salvation arrived.
A few weeks before Passover, a group of Jews and I were transferred to another camp- at Konskowola, a town near Lublin. There, the Germans built a prison camp. We were sent to build roads, railways, shelters and ditches. We understood that it was in preparation for war with Russia..
When the Germans invaded Russia, a few Jews and I took advantage of the situation and escaped from the camp. For many days and nights, we wandered and drifted in the fields and forests until we reached the uncle of one of the guys. The uncle had good connections with the Christian population. Thanks to him, we got work for a rich peasant and we worked for food alone.
From the local Christians we found out that they are planning to move the Jews to Ghettos. I suggested to my friend that we should escape, because if we are discovered that is going to be our fate. Only one fellow agreed to escape with me. At night, we escaped to the town of Konskowola. My friend knew the area very well.
That is how we managed to find some work in the field of a peasant and we stayed there all summer. I was dressed like a farmer, in clothes made of patches, bare foot, flushed face and tanned from the sun. Everyday German soldiers and police went by and saw me working in the field as one of the local peasants and never imagined that I am a Jew
One evening, the peasant came up to me and said Shimek, you need to escape. Germans have arrived and they are looking for Jews and Partisans. I went to an elderly Christian peasant that knew me very well and asked for shelter. He did not think long and immediately placed me in his barn and instructed me to hide inside the hay under the roof. I went up there and almost suffocated. In order to be able to breathe, I split a small opening in the top of the hay stack so I could breathe a little.
I laid there shivering listening to the Germans ask the peasant jokingly Well, where are you hiding the partisans? and then wildly they started to stab the hay to check if anyone is hiding in there. I laid tight, shivering and holding my breath in fright. They did not find me. The peasant answered them calmly: I did not hide anyone here. After finding nothing they said to the peasant: In that case, invite us for some Vodka. The peasant invited them into his home to drink.
In the meantime, his daughter came running to my hideout shouting Shimek, take pity on us, run! If they find you they will kill us all. I asked her not to shout and calm down, but she was hysterical and continued to scream. I had no choice. I came out of hiding, jumped out of there and ran to the forest. As if became darker, I returned to him. He was frightened and tried to explain to me, that as long as the Germans are around in the village he can no longer hold me at his house.
I decided to return to the prison camp. It was easy to get in but not to get out
The next day we were all transferred to the concentration camp near Lublin. It was hell. Twice I stood in front of a firing squad hunger, cold, and beatings were our daily routine in this camp. The fence around the camp was electrified, and the guard was very tight with no possibility of escape. Three years I was in that camp.
On July 7th, 1944, we were transferred to Weiliczka, to the underground caves of the salt mines. We worked in hard labor jobs for the German industry. After a few months, we were transferred to the Lietzmeritz camp - in the Sudaten region. That camp held Russian and Polish war prisoners. Those anti-Semitic prisoners abused the Jews every chance they got. We suffered more from them than from the Germans. They stole our warm clothes, striped us naked, and wrote a number on the forehead of every Jewish prisoner. For days we would walk around with no clothing. Later, we were transferred to the Dachau camp.
The prisoners worked in hard labor jobs for the German ammunition industry. Our group started with 1200 Jewish war prisoners, but shortly after, we were left with 360 men. The rest were shot to death or died from hunger and disease. I barely made it alive from that place. The tired and exhausted survivors were transferred to the Leonberg camp near
Stuttgart for hard labor, again in a factory for manufacturing Messerschmitt planes - that was the Nazis last desperate effort to develop ammunition due to the Germans retreat from the east and the allies' invasion from the west.
We continued to live in terror and fear with no way of knowing what tomorrow will bring until one day we could hear from the distance the constant echo of the bombing from the planes of the allies, which was getting closer and closer to the factory and its surroundings. Finally, we saw salvation and light, after years of darkness and grief. The first of the American soldiers began to arrive and for the first time we were free after the years of fear and terror we went through.
After being freed from the camp and on my way to Israel, to my great joy, I found - on German land, my surviving parents and family. With happiness mixed with sorrow, I heard about my sister Hanna-Liebe and Avramche being killed by the murderers. And so, shortly after, I was married. I have a wife and two kids - that God shall keep them away from all the trouble and suffering I went through. That God shall keep my parents too, my family and all the people that survived that terrible war. Innocent people, who were persecuted and murdered by the Nazi Germans and their helpers.
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