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[Page 316]

From the Ruins of Rubezheviche
to the Storming of Berlin

By Benjamin Rachelson

Translated by Ron Miller

My parents, two sisters, a brother and I found ourselves in Dvoretzer Camp. There, a gentile introduced himself to me and suggested that I should do him a favor. In the morning I would leave my unit and go to this gentile for my work. He gave me 4 Kg of potatoes each day. With this I saved my family from death by hunger.

On Dec 27, 1942 at 11AM this gentile brought me food and some sustenance and said, “Eat quickly and run because the camp is surrounded with Germans. Gentiles were sent for to dig your graves.”

I ran through the fields and reached my unit and told them what I had heard but nobody believed me. Meanwhile Police arrived and ordered all to return to the camp where they will take us to a second better camp. Only myself and two other Rubezhevicher Jews hid out in the field. From a distance we saw how they were leading the Jews out in autos from the camp. Twenty minutes later we witnessed a shooting by machine gun and we understood that this is the end of the removed Jews..

When darkness came we escaped from the camp and on the way met up with other Jews. Together we were twenty men. We went through the entire night and in a village when we introduced ourselves as Partisans, they fed us. When the next day came we hid out in a forest. It was very cold. We finally awaited darkness and set out to go to return to Dvoretz. Hopefully we would find some members of our family there. In a village Ozsheron, five kilometers from Dvoretz, I met my friend and other Jews who hid out in a bunker. They longed to escape from the camp. There was also my wife Chaya-Riva.

The Rubezhevichers and I agreed to go to Town Hall and hide out for the night. Finally we arrived in Rubezheviche and we remained a few days. Until “Partisans” came and took away all worthwhile things such as coats, hats, watches. Chaya-Riva and I did not want to stay in town and we left to go to known gentiles in a farmhouse

[Page 316]

January 5, 1943 we met with Partisans from Atriad and from Kutzoff. We gave them names of Rubezheviche gentiles who worked with the Germans – as Rohoza, Romaike and Britshika. These Partisans took many things and shared them with poorer gentiles from town and Jews who hid out in the forest.

By the end of summer we arrived at Bialskis Family Camp and were there until we were freed in July of 1944.

After the liberation, I was drafted into the Red Army and was assigned as chauffeur in a division of heavy artillery in the Posner area. The war was terrible but the Red Army kept on going. The entire German civilian population had left. Near Frankfurt the Germans made their last stand on the way to Berlin. After going over the Oder River we met with Germans. We were perplexed with them. Scared, discouraged and hungry. Many ill, children and aged drags themselves on wagaon and by foot. We were forced to hide to the left because to the right was flooded with scared runaway Germans.

On April 25, 1945 we were 14 Kilometers from Berlin and we prepared for the last onslaught.

Our General assembled the entire Division and gave a short speech which ended with these words, “Who is looking for your families and hated the Hitlerism? You alone, only you in your hands are the arms, the right and opportunity to kill, burn and destroy the enemy from humanity.” With these words he lifted the moral for the exhausted soldiers.

That evening we did not shut an eye waiting in anxiety for the order to attack. April 26th, 1945 at 4 am we assembled and blindfolded the enemy and started the bombing of Berlin … 4 hours until 8 am … no stopping of the bombing and then we were allowed to storm the city, Every street was destroyed. Germans were shooting from houses and were fighting from every barricade. Close to the Reichstag, the opposition was stronger. The civilian population were in cellars and white flags were hanging from windows. Many hid out in tunnels of the underground transit where there was heavy fighting.

On May 1st, 1945 Berlin surrended. We were 1.5 kilometers from the Reichstag. Tremendous joy broke out among us, we embraced, sang and drank.

On May 9th Germany surrendered on all fronts. In Berlin was a famine, and no drinking water.

On May 11, 1945 we turned our area over to the French and we left to go to Madgdeberg on the Elb. The river was full of German vessels, small boats and barges loaded with German goods. We could have crossed the river by walking boat to boat.

May 21, I returned to Berlin as chauffeur for Admiral Affaniskev, who was the Russian Representative at the dividing of the German Fleet among the four allies. There, I met my cousin Michel Zabilowitz and our pleasure was obvious.

On July 1, 1946, I left the army and returned home. On every rail station we were met with music and gifts. But when we crossed the Border, the celebration ended. On the Railroad Station were seated many war wounded beggers. We did not have anything to give them. Other soldiers in the cars were livid. “First they needed us” they said “Now, anyone can do with us as they wish”

I went to Rubezheviche. I found a few Jewish families the majority of whom, were on their way to Palestine. The Gentiles warmly welcomed us. Chava Riva and I were invited to another Christian home. For a few months I worked in “Selfa” but I felt strange and superflous and decided to take up wandering again.

December 27, 1946, we and eight other Jewish families left for Poland and from there via Bratislova, to Austria where I stayed one and a half years. I worked as a driver for the JDC (JOINT). October 16, 1948 we arrived in Palestine and was quickly drafted into the Israeli Army had an offer to work and live with my wife and two sons – the oldest born in Rubezheviche and a daughter.

 


[Page 350]

We Set up an Uprising

By Yechiel Segalowitz

Translated from Yiddish to Hebrew by Judith (Segalowitz) Montag

Translated from Hebrew to English by Iris (Montag) Grisaru

Winter 1941, outside it is terribly freezing cold. Strong winds are blowing. Snow piles building up and spreading all over. The cold is penetrating our bones. There were no more trees for heating the homes. The walls of the Rubezhevichi House of Study are saturated with moaning and crying. 150 people from nearby towns, found refuge in this House of Study, full of despair and hungry for bread, and we- have no means of helping them.

Avraham Koren and I take on the mission of helping those miserable people. We went from house to house to ask for donations of wood for heating the House of Study. Not everyone can provide, as they too hardly have…lots of convincing is needed to make them understand that there are people in worse condition then ours, that are hungry for bread and are freezing to death.

In the yard of the House of Study, stood the empty and abandoned house of Noah Zebilevitch. No one lived there. The house was very old and run down. We had an idea; we will use the wood of that house. We sawed off the old wooden boards, but we left the structure of the house in tact so it would not collapse. The next day the wind blew so hard that it knocked the roof off the house. We took advantage of that situation and carried the remains of the roof to those miserable people sitting in the House of Study. We also gave to other homes so they can have enough for heating.

The chief of police heard about what we did and came to us and asked: “who gave you permission to take the house apart?” Fear gripped us. We called for the Judenrät [Older respected Jews that were liaison between us and the Germans as well as their helpers] to help convince the police that we used the wood for our fireplaces and he calmed down.

However, very quickly our supply of wood ran out and we needed more trees. It was unbearable to watch those desperate people freeze to death. I offered to break apart the wooden stand in the house of Study and anything that can be used for heating. When we started breaking apart the floor, a few Jews started to shout that it is against Halacha [Our Jewish religious laws]. Obviously, we did not listen to them. We could not let small children and sick people die of cold and hunger.

A few days later - a second tale…4 men and 2 women that survived the massacre of Koidonov, arrived at our Ghetto. The police found out about it and asked the Judenrate to turn them in. One Rabbi, that came from a nearby town, who served as a Judenrat, ruled that according to Halacha, we have to turn those people in, because the Germans may take revenge on the rest of the Jews in the Ghetto. He gave the story of Sheva Ben-Bachri as evidence. Although I was much younger than him and not a Rabbi, I raised my voice loud and strong against the Judenrat Rabbi and said: “Sheva Ben-Bachri rebelled against the throne. The six Jews that arrived here are not to be blamed for this situation. We need to find a way to please the police.” We collected a lot of money from different people and bribed the officer. That is how we resolved that tale peacefully… we made sure that during the night they slept in the Bath House and during the day at the House of Study. Twice a week Faygel Plotnik and Avraham Koren made sure they had food. They survived until the day of our massacre. Two of them managed to escape and were with me later in the forest.

The eve of Shavous 1941, a few days after the transfer to the Dvoretz labour camp, the residents of the Ghetto knew what was coming. Another selection process, who is going to the labour camp and who is going to be exterminated? The termination of the Ghetto is becoming a reality. The S.S. people gathered all the healthy young men and transferred them by foot to the Dvoretz labour camp. The small children were separated from their parents and placed in carts. Anyone who resisted - was shot! 18 were murdered that day.

On the 20th day of Sivan 1941, all the Jews that were left in Ghetto Rubezhevichi were murdered - and Rubezhevichi turned into judenrien [Clean of Jews].

While the “axe was placed on our necks”, there were still some Jews who believed that for the right amount of money they will be released. And that reminds me of something…

A few weeks before the extermination of the Ghetto, Reuven Port's mother- Henia died. We needed wood to build a coffin. One of the rich Jews, who owned a few houses, had lots of wood. However, he did not want to give any away. We had no money to buy from him. Reuven Port and I took some wood from him without his permission. That same Jew… starved to death at the Dvoretz labour camp as all his wood and homes and everything he owned was taken from him by the Christians.

 

At Dvoretz Camp

A long line of Jews, walking…walking…and walking, surrounded by S.S. soldiers and the Belarusian Police. Our feet sink in the deep mud. No food or drink. No ability to rest for one minute. Those that collapse and sit down, immediately get shot. We try to hold one another, help those that can hardly make it… the others that tried to escape the convoy - got shot and their bodies left on the side of the road.

We arrived at the town of Neiman. There we had to cross a bridge. It turned out that the Russian Partisans burned it down. We had to cross through the cold and deep water while the Germans crossed with boats and guarded us. We could hardly breathe. Who ever fell and was not able to make it, got shot.

We arrived at the town of Novilna. There we were loaded onto a small coach of a cargo train. It is so crowded with little air to breathe. We are standing with no way to move.

Half dead, swollen legs from walking, hungry, dirty, full of lice and worms, we arrive at Dvoretz camp. Immediately we were divided into work groups, with Polish-German guards on every group, the metastases of the Nazis. We were dispersed into small old homes, which were crowded with several other families together. We received only 120gr [Four ounces] of bread per day and a little bit of soup made of water and flour. Those who still had a little bit of money and goods, managed to sneak, during work hours, to nearby villages to buy food from the Christian peasants. Very quickly, people died of disease, hunger and cold. We tried to help them but it was nearly impossible.

One time, a Polish-German that guarded us, began to beat a Jew that was a carpenter from the city of Torez. He took his hammer and crushed the head of the guard, severely injuring him. The engineer- the commander of the camp, Adam Asipovitch, a Polish-German, shot the carpenter despite his claims to be a friend of the Jews and despite the constant bribe he received from the Jews…that was the first victim in the Dvoretz camp - we then understood what is waiting for us ahead.

Meanwhile, we began to hear rumours that Jewish Partisans are nearby. They have ammunition and are fighting the Germans daringly. We felt like we were going to be sacrificed without resistance- we needed to get organized for self-defence and resistance. We gathered a few young healthy men to try and make contact with the Partisans. The Judenrat heard of our plan and called us to appear before the chairman, the Rabbi from Dvoretz, a 75 year old man, who convinced us not to do it.

He claimed: we have 2500 Jews here, 900 of them are hostages. If anyone runs away from the camp, the hostages will be killed. We explained to him that we will be killed anyway. It is just a matter of time. The Rabbi cried and begged like a child and asked “look children, don't bring our bitter fate closer”.

Then stood Yudel Novik the Judenrat and said: “they are right, in a state like this we cannot sit with our hands crossed”. And so it was decided that when the Germans arrive to terminate the camp- we will protect and resist! … Maybe we will be lucky enough to survive. Eventually, the old Rabbi also agreed. He even gave an order, for the rich Jews, who still have some money and goods left, to bring it to him. They will make contact with Christian acquaintances to buy ammunition.

At the beginning of December we get good news from the front. Moscow was freed. The Germans were defeated at the front line and retreated from Russia. However, our situation did not change or improve. All the Ghettos and camps nearby were eliminated. Only our camp continued to exist… but till when? In the meantime, the Partisans nearby were getting stronger.

The engineer showed signs of fear and weakness. He slept in a sheltered bunker. He gave instructions that from 8pm to 5am, even the Christians outside the Ghetto, could not leave their homes or turn on lights. There was a rumour that a Jewish women who worked at the engineer's home, snuck into camp and told of Jews who began to plan ways of defending themselves and not permit anyone to lead them to their death.

In the meantime, the engineer declared we are moving to a better camp, to a place called “the black earth” - we knew that it was a death camp. In order for us to earn his trust, he allowed the Christian peasants to approach the camp gate and permitted the Jews to buy from them.

One night, Reuven Port and I were detained for questioning on the suspicion of organizing a group for the purpose of resisting and defending, and that we have contacted the Partisans for that purpose. With a rubber whip that had a metal ball at the end, we were ruthlessly beaten non-stop…they whipped us endlessly…I though I was already in the next world. Half dead, we were eventually released. I was taken home bleeding, with infected wounds, without any medical treatment. I was fluctuating between life and death. To this day I can not understand- how I remained alive.

 

Termination of the Camp

On the 28th of December, 1942, I was on my way to pray. Wrapped in a Talit, I was standing near the pole and Hazan Haim Finstod, Fromka's husband, said in a heart tearing voice- Schlichot [Forgiveness] (their two year old daughter was murdered with 600 other children in Ivanich). Meantime, they had another child born here. I am praying and tears are running down my cheeks. As I am standing I see through the window, Germans sitting inside a car with a machine gun in their hands- ready for “action”.

We hear a shout “Jews the camp is under siege”. I took the Tefillin off my head, but immediately returned it and finished praying, death is right before my eyes anyhow…

I returned home, to where my father built a hideout. My brother Avramche tells me: “Yechiel, take the people with the guns, we will try to break through the fence”. Suddenly, the Germans started shooting at people who tried to reach the fence and killed them. We went back to where we came from very disappointed…meantime the engineer was trying to convince the Judenrat that nothing was going to happen to us. They are here just to transport us to another camp. It will be good there. They should try to persuade the people to calm down.

Suddenly, Benjamin Ruditska and a few other people from Rubezhevichi started running towards the gate with grenades in their hands. They stood close to the transporting trucks and shouted towards the Jews that were getting on: “do not board, you are being taken for execution”. The S.S. that stood there shot them as well.

Eventually, the people did not believe the story of a new better camp… but they were so tired already, mentally broken and exhausted from hunger, cold and disease, that all they wanted was to die as quickly as possible and be salvaged from their suffering. They boarded the trucks and we never saw them again…I will not forget Israel Avenchik walking with his wife and crying: “Yechielke, this is the end of our road”… I also tried to delay Leibel Reichelson and said to him” “what are you rushing? Wait, maybe we can hide?” However, he sighed heavily and answered “we are not leaving here alive anyhow”…

Avramche and I return home, but no one was there. They must have entered the hideout. We could not risk entering the hideout in day light, for we may be discovered. We decided to hide anywhere until it turns dark. Maybe we could even escape and leave the camp? In the meantime, we watched how the Germans were going from home to home looking for Jews. They were approaching our house. In the yard of our house there was an old well, we ran to it, suddenly we heard a voice say “have mercy, go from here, there is no more room”. Later the murderers threw a grenade into the well. The bodies of the dead immersed with the sand and nothing was left of them.

We ran into the house. In a small dark room, stood some flour bags. My brother placed an empty bag over himself and lay between the full flour bags. I ran to an empty space under the fireplace. In the winter it served as a chicken coop. There was a rooster there, I pulled him out, barely squeezed myself into that hole and covered the entrance with the rooster. That is how they did not see me. The murderers went to the backyard and called “rats come out”!

After they went away I heard my brother ask “Yechiel, are you alive”? We were thrilled to see each other. I went to my father's hideout. Avramche decided he is going to find another hiding place and left…we never saw him again. I managed to make it to the attic and enter the hideout. A small narrow place, between two walls, which my father built for 45 people but 150 people gathered in there. I hardly squeezed inside as it was so crowded. We stood on each others heads.

Father stood on a ladder with a riffle in his hand. The night drew closer. At this stage they stopped looking for Jews as it was getting dark. That provided an opportunity to come out and breathe some air. Lazer Gurion and I came out and stretched our bodies, laid on the boards and fell asleep immediately. When daylight came we entered the hideout again. The Germans returned. Those damned Germans did not give up. They went from home to home to look for Jews. They threw grenades into bunkers of those hiding. Those they found they dragged to the truck or executed in the market square. Again they return and walk around the house, checking every corner, going up to the attic and finally going away.

The hideout was unbearably crowded and crammed. No food or water, doing our needs on each other…one woman from Dvoretz and her little son started screaming “let me out, I can't stand this anymore, I want to die!” We could hardly calm her down. My wife Sheindel felt very bad. We could not sit due to the crowded conditions. I barely made my way to her. On the way I felt that I am stepping on something. I managed to touch it and felt two bottles, one with honey and the second with alcohol. One of the people must have brought it with them. It was already the second day with no food in our mouths. I ask my wife “do you want to taste something good?” She looks at me surprised and asked “are you talking in your sleep?” I gave her a little bit of the honey and alcohol. Those bottles went from one to the other. We were able to revitalize our soul and that improved our mood. People calmed down and it became quite…

That is how we went through another night. My father and I were standing on the ladder. Through the cracks we saw a red light beam. I went up to the attic to see what is going on outside. In the main street, Menachem Simkes' house was on fire. In the basement of that house we hid ammunition that we barely managed to obtain. A few young men that managed to stay alive after trying to break through the fence, hid in there. When the S.S found our, those young men started throwing hand grenades at them. The Germans began to shoot and all the ammunition exploded along with the young men. Only two young men managed to survive and escape, Yossef Tzon (who lives in Paris today) and another fellow from Dvoretz that was later killed as a Partisan.

Gradually the fire died down. It became very dark. Only a projector was illuminating the camp from time to time. It was quite all around… no person alive to be seen. My brother Yerachmiel, Mordechai Kashchevich and I peek out from the hideout and look towards the fence and gate. No one was there, no guards. Only from afar a guard was walking around not even looking in our direction. We leave and crawl toward the fence, lift it and make an opening in the fence, preparing a comfortable pathway. We return to the hideout and excitedly announced that we can be saved. From all the excitement and delight a big commotion began. People started pushing and falling until the ladder broke. We rescued each other with our hands until we were all out. We crawled towards the fence and from all the shoving people fell and were stabbed. However, God helped us- we all passed safely and left the camp. We split up into small groups and we all left in different directions.

We went toward Rubezhevichi, 150km from the Dvoretz camp. After running a few kilometers we stopped to make plans. Suddenly, I noticed that the widow and her son are not with us. More than once she shared her last piece of bread with us. I return back to the camp, find her and her son standing in the attic desperately crying. I help her. I take her son in my arms and we run out of the camp. Later that woman froze to death from the cold). When we returned, I did not see my family and all the others. I ran confused looking for them. Finally, I found them hiding in the woods. Itzhak Berkowitz (now in Israel) was with them as well. Everyone was looking for us; they began to believe we will never return…what excitement there was when we met again.

We decided to return to the town to Rubezhevichi since we found out that a few weeks ago, Russian partisans and Jews destroyed the police station and fought off the Germans and their metastases. The Germans were frightened and left the area. The Christians that cooperated with the Germans left the town and hid nearby.

Itzhak Berkowitz showed us the way. First we went to the village of Azshiran. There we met Benjamin Reichelson and Mordechai Kashchevich (later Mordechai was murdered by his Russian partisan friends). We were 36 souls in all. We split up to smaller groups again. It took us seven days to get there. During the day we would hide and during the night we would walk. We tottered from place to place, as Christian acquaintances gave us food and shelter once in a while. More than once, death stood before us. Finally we arrived at the town of Rubezhevichi. We found a destroyed town, and settled in one of the run down houses that we tried to repair to make it liveable. We thought we can start new lives, but reality quickly hit us in the face. The Partisans lost many battles and the Germans were defeating them. Again we found out that the Germans are returning to the area. We ran away from the town into the forest. On the way we reached at a remote forest and hid there. At night we would sneak into the yards of Christian peasants and steal food until we could not longer stay in the area because the Germans were constantly looking for Jews. We went into the thick forest - Nalibok, there we joined other groups of people, the Partisans. It was hard to survive there in the cold without any food, but somehow we stayed alive…until the Russian army seized the area. We returned to the destroyed and butchered Rubezhevichi. We could not stay there and remember our dear ones that were no longer with us.

We did not want to stay in a place that was saturated with Jewish blood. Everything became foreign to us. We decided to go home… to the country of Israel.

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