Boris put on a Russian hat with the brim turned up and a Stalinist jacket buttoned up to his neck. He looked like a Communist wheeler-dealer, a factory political commissar.
I wore my Russian military coat, with the bullet hole from when I was wounded. I put on a Cuban hat I bought in the Jewish bazaar. Boris knew Kiev well, and we arrived quickly at the partisan headquarters on Korolenko Street.
When I entered the first hall, I said to Boris, How fortunate these partisans who are privileged to come here are. From seventeen people in the unit, only three remained, and they were wounded. I saw many partisans there, from our division as well, but they did not approach me. I was full of self-importance and did not ask for their friendship. Most of them wore partisan medals and other badges of honor. They were proud of them. They asked me, So Sankeh, you did not receive any medal, not even a medal of the partisans. But you fought.
Everyone received the partisan medal, but only those who excelled in battle received the badge of honor. Boris went into the secretary to arrange his affairs before leaving the hospital. I read the signs on the doors, and without thinking, I entered a room. To kill time until Boris came, I read all the notices on the walls, notices for different partisan divisions about distribution of money and clothes, and about released partisans enlisting in the Red Army. Afterwards I read another announcement about granting partisan medals, where, and on which days to receive them. I paid no attention to that announcement. It did not interest me. Later I saw lists of different partisan divisions from their officers about awarding medals of honor and excellence, such as the Red Star, the Lenin medal, the War of the Motherland. The medals were given according to the officer's evaluation, who gave information about what act of courage the fighter performed and how many enemy soldiers fell in the battle. This fact raised morale and increased the ambition to obtain a higher medal.
I got tired of with this and started to look for Boris. He was standing in line to receive money. I went back again to read the lists and notices on all the walls. I saw a list of Fedorov's division and others. Suddenly I noticed the list for Kovpak's division... General Kovpak's fighting partisans who were awarded medals of honor. I saw the first battalion, the second, and then the third. I was curious about who received one in the third battalion, my battalion. I continued reading: the first company, the second, the third, and here is the fourth -- my company. It began to be interesting. There were only a few names from the whole company, but the first name I saw was Rozenson Sanka Davidovitch -- Krasnaya Zvezda (the Red Star). To be honest, I calmed down when I saw I received what was coming to me. They did not deprive me. Nevertheless, I was surprised because I did not believe my officers would grant me the honor. After all, I am a Jew. When I read the evaluation and the act of bravery for which received it, I remembered that my officer was an Armenian at that time.
Boris, come have a drink. Today we must drink, and properly! What happened, Sankeh? Is something troubling your soul?
No, Boris, something else. Come and see.
Boris leaned over my shoulder with such strength that I almost fell down. We went out in a happy mood. Then I remembered I did not notice where I was supposed to receive the medal. I ran back, filled in a form, and saw that in another six days I would receive the highest Soviet medal of honor of the Communist Party.
What do you think about that, Boris! We are heroes with medals of honor! We have money! We are free, but alone, and the slaughtered families will not rise up from their graves.
Sankeh, you are starting up again. Now let's go to eat and see the Jewish family. I will prove to you that there are still Jews.
Boris led me, and I followed him. I looked around at the streets and saw officers, soldiers, partisans with medals of honor, but I saw that the medal of honor awarded to me was one of the most important, and I was proud to be a hero of the Soviet Union and avenge the revenge of our people. I felt happy as a result. I did not ask where we were going. We walked on a broad street that went on without end. The sun warmed us .It was the end of April, and we could feel spring in the air. Very few people were on the streets. Even the streetcars were empty. There were notices on the walls in German and Ukrainian left over from the days of occupation. No one paid attention to them. Suddenly we stopped at the corner of Lenin and the Khreshchatyk. Boris told me to wait. He quickly entered a store, and I saw the name Gastronome on the door. He returned immediately with a bottle of vodka.
You see, Sankeh, this is the Gastronome where I said you can get everything, even oranges and mandarins. Laborers do not come here, only officers and senior officials who can afford it. We will come again, and you will find out that you can leave one thousand rubles here in ten minutes.
We turned into a side alley in a quiet quarter with old homes. If we find them at home, everything will be good. It is a little early, but in the worst case, we can wait until one o'clock when Tamara comes from work. She will probably bring Saratchka with her, Boris said and turned to go into the courtyard.
This was the first home I entered after three years of war, forests, villages, and fields. I had already forgotten what normal people look like in a home. Is this reality or a dream? There is probably a mother there, children, a table and chairs. Children sit around the table, and a mother serves food. I was confused. How would I behave there? How would I speak with people without using partisan Russian slang to which we were accustomed?
Boris went up the few stairs and stopped by the door. I stopped further away. I looked around. Why was everything so quiet? There are no people, no children in the street or in the courtyard. From time to time, you could see a woman or man on the street with serious faces, worried, poorly dressed, and this is after the victory over the German conquerors, the German murderers. It seemed every family had suffered a loss that could not be forgotten. The wounds that remained in the people's hearts would not heal quickly.
When I went up the stairs, I heard a voice boom from the house, Yes, yes, please. The door opens slowly. The woman sees Boris, and on her face is both confusion and happiness. Boris introduces me as a friend and a partisan.
Very pleased to meet you, dear boys. Sit for a moment, and I will straighten up a bit.
She spoke very good Russian even though they lived in Ukraine. The intelligentsia spoke Russian. Her Russian reminded me of the Russian partisans from the Moscow area. It was very pleasant to hear this Russian. I sat with Boris by the table and we looked at one another a little embarrassed. The home reminded me of pictures I had seen of Russian families, especially pictures where the whole family appears together, where the mother and father are sitting and the children standing, all wearing good clothes. The table was round and covered with a white cloth embroidered by hand with delicate colors. There were four chairs with high backs, a velvet sofa, and a glass-paned cupboard. I looked for some sign of Judaism, candlesticks or something like that, but I found nothing but textbooks and a novel by Romain Rolland.
Boris put the bottle of vodka on the table. It is customary in Russia to bring a bottle of vodka when you come to visit. I asked Boris, When were you here the first time, and how did that happen?
Oh, Sankeh, that is a long story.
You have good intuition, I said, You can quickly sense where a Jew is, a partial Jew, a half Jew, or a Jewess...
Oh, Sankeh, the tragedy of this family is big. You see the home. The father and two sons went to the army and did not return. There is not even any sign of their deaths. The mother and daughter remained. You see the woman, how refined, educated, and beautiful she is. See, too, how pretty the daughter is. The daughter works a half day, and they live from this. Every day is a holiday with them. When you bring a kilo of salt -- a holiday, a kilo of sugar -- a holiday, and when I come and bring something -- it is a holiday again.
Still it interests me. How did you arrive here?
I will explain. There is a Jewish family here in Kiev from the west, from Rovno. All the family, a father and four children, stayed alive with the partisans. The children went to the hospital once to visit the wounded and meet Jewish partisans. They found me there, and when I was lying in bed, they brought me the best things, from the Gastronome, chocolate and even oranges. When I began to go out, they took me to their home, especially on Sundays when they do not work. We spent time together. The father would go to the Jewish bazaar to sell something. There he met the mother and daughter who bought a pair of shoes from him that he had brought from Rovno. When the woman learned he was a Jew from the west, she wanted to visit them and I met the mother there. As the family told me, it took a while until she got used to them. In the beginning the woman did not understand their way of life, from where they took all these expensive objects, from where they take money to shop at the Gastronome, while she lives only from her rations. The father, a very intelligent man, patiently explained the difference between the regime in the western countries where there is private initiative and democracy, and the regime in the communist countries. He told her that they are a family of five. Some of them work while the father and elder daughter trade in all kinds of things; whatever is possible.
In the Soviet Union, they may have sugar and no salt in one city, while in another city it is the opposite. So what should we do? You only need to think about how to bring a little sugar to one place, and on the way back to bring a little salt, and the problem of making a living is solved. You can expect many years of imprisonment for transporting food on the train, but if the government does not do it, someone needs to do it. So the man risks his life and cheats the Soviet regime with a kilo of sugar, while the Soviet regime maintains thousands of spies and police agents to guard against bringing a kilo of sugar and bringing back a kilo of salt. If they would do this by themselves, all the policemen, agents, investigators, and jail guards would be productive people. But who asks questions? In the Great Land there is a certain kind of order. So what should a Jew from the west do? He has energy, a head on his shoulders, and he solves the problem. He supplies the population of two towns and earns himself a living because he has private initiative. He does not wait for others to take care of him.
Boris continued and said the refined and educated woman who lived like most citizens these twenty-five years had trouble understanding this. She viewed it negatively, but slowly she grew accustomed to them and visited there frequently. She talked about what had happened to her. After the men left the house, she went through tragic times under the Nazi conquest. Boris would tell her about their life in Poland. She would listen and ask if there was sugar there and other types of food.
One evening the father arrived and brought vodka and preserved American meat with him. She no longer asked where they got it all. They all ate supper, and of course, they drank too. They listened to songs of the partisans, and the head of the family also played a few Jewish songs. There was an atmosphere of gaiety. The room was small and they all sat there on the beds. After Boris drank a little and his head was spinning, he began to speak. He did not remember afterwards what he spoke about, but the others told him later that he shouted all the names of his family. Where is my sister, my dear sister with the beautiful eyes? The woman sat next to him with tears wetting her face. He felt her warm hand pressed against his. Later she led him through the streets, and said to him, Boris, I asked you so many times to come visit me and you did not want to. I was hurt by your refusal, but now I am taking charge of you, my boy. Now you are coming to me. I have no one. I am by myself, alone. My daughter Tamara has a girlfriend named Sarah. They are finding their lives. Who am I, and who do I have?
Boris pointed with his hand at the sofa. You see, Sankeh, here I was lying on the sofa, and a small kerosene lamp was lit in the room. All the pictures on the wall were going around in my head. We drank a little drink whose taste was almost coffee. Perhaps she received it from the western people. Here I was lying down drunk and my hair was wild, and she, the woman, sat next to me with pictures in her hand.
When she showed me pictures of her husband, she told me he was now forty-three. He devoted his whole life to the Soviet Union and the Communist party. He always served as an example to others. He was the most devoted Communist. His job was very big, better and more trusted than the others. He visited factories, directed propaganda, and preached about work on behalf of the Soviet regime.
He loved all people without distinction: Russians, Ukrainians, Poles, Germans, and Jews. He wanted to liberate the world from capitalism. He never wanted to hear about family who live in capitalistic countries until the Red Army would liberate them. And when his brother was exiled to Siberia together with a friend for the sin of Trotskyism through no fault of his own, he said that Stalin, father of the peoples, knows what he is doing. He did not allow anyone to say a word against it, and he was also ready to exile his wife and children if they would utter a word of criticism against the regime. Even when there was no bread, he said we must work on behalf of the Soviet regime. Sankeh, she will show you her two sons, tall and good looking, one black-haired and the other blonde, one a pilot and the other a tank crewman. She sat and cried, and it broke my heart.
The woman sat until late at night and told Boris how the Germans murdered the Jews, especially on the day when all the Jews of Kiev reported for duty but did not know they were going to die. She fled with her daughter from Kiev. Ukrainian neighbors informed the police that a Jewish woman whose husband and sons are officers in the Red Army lives here. When the police brought them to Babi Yar together with many women like them, they managed to escape from Kiev. They wandered past kolkhoz collectives and survived as Russian women. She is very exhausted, said Boris. After thirty years of communism, her neighbors turned her in to the Germans, and she is forced to live as a Russian woman. She saw hatred for Jews everywhere, all over. Everyone looked at Jews as snakes that have to be destroyed.
Suddenly the door opened, Boris continued. There was little light in the room, but I saw a tall upright girl with blonde hair, standing next to a woman, somewhat astounded. She introduced her to me as her daughter and left the room with her. Apparently, they were talking about me. The girl opened the door again, studied me, and closed it again. When I got up the next morning, the daughter was no longer there. She went out to work and we stayed by ourselves until noon. I returned to the hospital and fell exhausted onto my bed. Everything that had happened was getting all jumbled up together in my head.
Why does the woman not come in? Perhaps she is embarrassed in front of you, Boris. Tell the truth, maybe you did not behave well?
What are you saying? She is a nice educated woman.
Boris went into the kitchen and did not return so quickly. Suddenly they both came in. She had a plate of pancakes and he was chewing on a pancake, a little embarrassed.
We are all making a feast, she said. She put the plate of pancakes on the table and went out to bring glasses. She poured big glasses of tea and lifted her glass with smiling eyes.
So, boys, children, my eagles, she said, to your health and to peace.
Boris added, To the motherland and to Stalin, and he sang the Internationale. He concluded, With the Internationale, the last Gentile will die!
She did not understand, but she smiled because we laughed. She did not understand Yiddish.
Are you also from the west? she asked me.
Yes, I am from the west.
Were you also in the same partisan unit with Borinko?
No, I was in Kovpak's division.
Is it true what they say, that the Jews do not fight?
In every battle I saw, the political commissar went with a submachine gun behind the company urging the guys into battle by force. More than once, many of them hid under the trees so they would not be seen, but the Jews went ahead without fear. He did not have to urge them on.
Why, then, do they say that the Jews do not fight?
If the Jews do not fight, why are we in the hospital? And not just us. In all the hospitals in Kiev where I visited, there are many Jews who are severely wounded. Considering their rate in the population, it might be that they even fought more than other nations in the Soviet Union, and also more than the Russians.
Boris again filled the glasses. The atmosphere was lively and friendly. After three years, I was in a Jewish home in the Soviet Union for the first time, in the Great Land, in the city of Kiev. We sat in a home environment, free people. We talked about our adventures again, and we drowned our sorrows in a glass. Our desert, dry but friendly pancakes, sweetened our pain.
Your name is Sankeh?
Yes, at home they called me Saneh in Yiddish, but the partisans call me Sankeh. The Commissar said that it was best if we used Russian names.
Where is your family? Has someone stayed alive?
My mother died when I was fourteen years old. We were seven children. My eldest sister was already married then. My big brother was in the Polish army. Another brother went to Palestine.
What will he do in Palestine?
Palestine is our country. The Jews work the land there. They are building everything that makes a nation normal in its country.
But actually Palestine belongs to the Arabs. They have been living there hundreds of years.
Oh, that is not important at all. The Arabs are not in control there but the British conqueror. In the past, we Jews had our kingdom there, our homeland. Historic remnants give absolute testimony that Jews lived and ruled there. They fought there as heroes. And now, when all nations are living freely, we Jews also want to live freely in our country.
But, Sankeh, surely we live freely in the Soviet countries. Socialism liberates everyone. In the socialist countries all peoples live freely.
Correct, everyone lives freely, except for the Jews. They do not hit Jews in Ukraine because they are afraid of the police, but as soon as the regime changes, the Jews will be the scapegoat, and regimes can change any day.
I felt the woman looking at me with envy because I am talking about such a wonderful idea. It looked to her like something imaginary. Nevertheless, she was jealous of me because I believed in an imaginary thing. Did you have a sister?
I had four sisters. The Germans and Ukrainians murdered two, one is in faraway Siberia, and one stayed in Poland. I do not know if she is alive.
And how did you come to the Russian partisans?
Oh, that is a long story. My brother Henrik was a hero. He fell in battle against the Germans. Thanks to him, I went to the partisans. He was among the first to see the real tragedy that the Germans would not leave any Jew alive. So he organized partisans to fight and avenge. He was honest, brave, and ready to sacrifice his life for his family at any moment. He fought on behalf of humanity against the cruel murderers, the German Nazis and the Ukrainians. He fell as a man of integrity. He blew himself up with the last hand grenade.
We sat in the attic. Papa's face was pale. I saw in the dark how his eyes had changed. They lost their shine and will to live. They had become pale, like the eyes of a creature who is afraid of everything, of a car's noise, of the rustling of the wind, and they do not look into the distance, but at the children. He whispered, My children, if only you at least will stay alive. He told me more than once, Mama was a righteous woman. She died at home in her bed before the German murderers came. He sat crumpled over, his hands in his sleeves. My sister Chava was lying down, her hand under her head and her eyes closed, as though she wanted to sleep through all the troubles, as though after this night we would be saved tomorrow. My brother Chaim (Henrik) did not rest. He tore off a board so we could see and hear what was going on outside. A few thousand children, women and men were crouching down not far from us. And the two big pits were waiting to swallow them up. Suddenly darkness ruled, truly the darkness of Egypt, totally black. We did not see one another. If only the world would turn over together with the Germans, Papa begged God.
We all fell asleep. I remembered when I was a small child and learned in the cheder: we would tell one another when a big wind was outside that demons were running around. But our slumber did not last long. Henrik woke me. Saneh, get up!
What happened? I asked.
We must flee. I hear the German trucks.
The noise of the wind mixed with the strong rattling of the truck engines. We all pressed up against one another. Chills passed through our bodies and we shook from cold and fear. We looked at the road leading to the ghetto. The noise grew louder. The wind blew. With all our strength we pressed up against one another and did not let a word out of our mouths. We were silent and shaking. Our bones hardened within us. Now the terrible thing is happening, Chaim said. Let's get away from here. They will come and take us. Today they will wipe out the Jews.
In the meantime the dawn broke. From deep darkness, suddenly the Jewish houses appeared in the dim light. And then we saw with our eyes: a black truck covered with black canvas was moving on the road going out from the village. Unmoving, stuck in our places, even our breathing was not heard. The truck turned near us and we heard the screams of the people who had been pushed and crammed into it. We only saw two Ukrainian policemen sitting at the end of the truck, shooting from time to time to frighten the Jews. The road where the truck turned led to the two big pits that had been prepared yesterday. Then a group of people on foot was visible. The Jews were led to the pits on foot.
They did not want to waste any gasoline, Chaim said. Why are we here? Let's escape to the forest. Later will be too late. They will come to us too, even if we are outside the ghetto.
Nevertheless we did not move. Now those on foot arrived, a group of a few hundred men. The first ones -- we knew them -- they were the Judenrat of the ghetto and the Jewish police. After them, other Jews who believed the Germans were taking them to work, and they went first, to show everyone that no one should show any resistance. But when they got the first slaps from the Ukrainian policemen, they understood they were being led to their death. There was panic and a few tried to escape, but they were shot on the spot. Among the shouts we heard, Revenge, take revenge on the murderers! Good God, help! Revenge! Revenge! Revenge! and they too turned on the path to the pits.
And now the black trucks were moving, one after another, an entire convoy of trucks. One truck was open. The sun had already come up. We saw only young people in it, boys and girls in their prime. I knew them, they were my friends. Good God, I thought to myself, Why don't they jump on the two policemen? They are going to die anyway. God in heaven, what is happening here? Two policemen are leading fifty young Jews to their death, and nothing is happening but shouts of 'Revenge!'
They were brought to the pits. They went down in silence from the trucks. They were commanded to approach a certain place in the line and to undress: men, women and children, all of them with no exception, went down in a line to the pits. They were lying down there one on top of another, in the best tradition of German order, and two Germans holding sub-machine guns shot a few shots. Some of them died on the spot, some were wounded, some were alive. But it was a pity to waste unnecessary bullets. They cost money, and they are needed for the war. The sun was shining full strength by now, the skies were clear, the air was fragrant.
Chaim dragged us by force from the attic. And now we are already lying in a grove, and we hear shots. Papa looked at me as though he was ashamed and felt guilty that he brought me into the world. My son, he said, I have already finished my life. And he mentioned Mama again. I want you to save yourself, to stay alive. Save yourselves, children, and leave me to die.
;In a few days we went back to the town, we lived and we worked for the Germans again, but we were preparing weapons and getting ready to go to the partisans.
Sankeh, how long have you already been in Kiev?
This is the fifth day.
You need to become a normal person already.
No, Boris, I only feel good in the world of the German murderers, of the Gestapo, the Ukrainians, the pits, the massacres. Now I am beginning to understand what happened there. What I cannot understand and will never understand is how two policemen could bring fifty young Jews to the pit. I am overcome with shame.
Tell me, Sankeh, asked Boris, Did you see the pits after they were covered?
Yes, Boris, I saw them a few times. I used to go often to the area to buy weapons from the Poles. I remember I went with my friend, a partisan, to the village to buy weapons. We went by the pits a few weeks after the massacre. They were covered with sand. The sand was fresh, still white. It seemed to us that the sand moved like small waves of the sea. 'You see,' said my friend, 'Here under the sand lies the whole town. Five thousand Jews, children, women, and men. Whole families were crushed.' We stood a few minutes and stared at the two stains in the middle of the forest and continued on our way in silence. When night fell, we went into the village. We knocked on the door of a poor peasant's house and bought from him an 'obrez', which is a sawed off shotgun, and a pistol from him. I brought the rifle to the partisans, and today it is in the Kiev Partisan Museum. We paid for it with gold and watches, with everything we had. When I took out the rifle from the peasant's house and was sure it was mine, I kissed it, like kissing the first girl. Yes, Boris, we did not understand that when a people wants to exist, it must accumulate weapons. Instead of learning to shoot we were busy with culture.
The woman sat the whole time and listened. From time to time she asked something.
Tell me, children, how many people died in the war?
Both of us were deep in thought. Then I said: How many Jews remained after the war? The front is still in Ukraine. Poland has not been liberated yet. You know, Boris, I will not stay in Kiev for a long time. I will follow the front westward. I must see if something remains from Poland.
But you must recover from your wounds.
I have recovered enough to stay alive.
In the meantime the door opened and the two girls came in laughing. They spoke Russian quickly. It seemed they were finishing a conversation they began outside, as befits young girls. I recognized them from their first visit in the hospital to the partisans.
Tamara was upright, thin, with long light hair, a thin face, which was almost white. She had a serious look. Sarah was her oppositeround, short, dark short hair, a thick nose and a round laughing face. The mother introduced them to us. Boris got up and interrupted the mother's words.
Girls, I brought my friend, a partisan who just returned a few days ago from the front. He was wounded. We were at partisan headquarters today, and he will be awarded a medal of honor, the Red Star. Boris knew this would make an impression on the young Russian girls.
Tamara went with her mother into the kitchen and Sarah sat next to us. I felt like I was drunk and did not know what was going on, where I am, and why I deserved all this. Where are all those who are no longer here? A few days ago, I did not believe I would see normal people again, a home, a Jewish girl. This is not reality, but a dream.
Are you from the west? Sarah asked.
How do you know?
We recognize it immediately, she said. Our guys are different. You are so serious.
You know, it has been four years since I sat under a roof, at a table covered with a white cloth, and with a dark-haired Jewish girl who has beautiful laughing eyes.
Stop, you are starting to talk like Boris. Where were you wounded.
A bullet went through my chest into my lung and out the other side.
And you are alive?
No, I am not alive. A dead person is sitting here...
Tamara stood behind and listened.
Silly, she said, You think if they are wounded they have to die? Why are there so many wounded in the hospitals?
They began to set the table. They sliced small slices of bread, and served potatoes and soup.
Boris winked at me not to eat because they did not have enough. The mother said everyone should eat from the food there. I said that we must go to eat lunch in the hospital.
No, no, Boris. Sarah looked at us sadly because we wanted to go. We are not hungry, she said, There is enough for everyone. And then she grabbed Boris and me and sat us down. We are Russian people. You do not yet know Russians!
Boris had been visiting them for some time. He knew by now when to make excuses, but this time he did not manage to do it. And here we are sitting at a table, and we are chewing potatoes and bread. Sitting together at the table was more interesting than the food. They were refined girls, well brought up. I felt uncomfortable. It seemed to me that I was acting like a wild partisan the whole time. This was the first time after many years that I ate with people at a table. I had to be careful with my words. The partisans had a special manner of speaking and more than once one of those words in Russian slipped out of my mouth, but I corrected myself and said, Excuse me, this is partisan language.
It is alright, alright, they said, we understand.
Boris picked up the bottle of vodka. Only a little bit remained. He poured some for everyone. Tamara did not want any, but Sarah drank with us.
Long live the Soviet Regime. To peace, she said.
Boris laughed. We are Jews. Long live the land of Israel!
Where will you go when you get out of the hospital? Stay in Kiev, work here, Sankeh.
I must go to see if someone from my family remains.
Where did you leave them?
Some of them were murdered by the Germans, and some of them stayed there, and I do not know what happened to them.
And how did you happen to stay alive?
I fled from the pit.
How did you manage to escape? Didn't they shoot after you? Here in Kiev it was impossible to escape from the pit.
We struck the Germans and the Ukrainian policemen with the hoes they gave us to dig the pit, and we managed to flee to the forest. That was already the second time I dug a pit for myself, and at that time I already belonged to a group of partisans. I wandered a few weeks in the woods until I found the group. I believe that was the happiest moment of my life.
Tell me, Sankeh, if you were already in the partisan group, how did the Germans catch you again?
They did not catch me. I went by myself from the forest to the small ghetto to my father and sister. I wanted to be together with them on the holiday, that is, on Yom Kippur. If you do not know what Yom Kippur is, I will tell you later. First let's eat the potatoes.
The potatoes stuck in my throat. My head was spinning. I saw the day when my father was murdered, when he tried to run from the ghetto. He did not want them to take him to the pit. It was easier for him to die like that. That is the way he fought against the German and Ukrainian murderers. Even that was courage at the time. Only very few had the strength to do that. Others accepted fate and went like sheep to the slaughter.
Sarah noticed I did not eat, that something had happened to me.
Sankeh, you are not feeling well? What happened to you? Lie down.
I very much wanted to lie down, but it was hard for me to sleep on a soft sofa. I was used to lying down on the hard ground from my time with the partisans.
I woke up from Tamara's boisterous laughter. Boris was telling them about his acts of bravery, how he shot Germans, and he also told different jokes about partisans. He used a sub-machine gun and took part in many battles. He had what to be proud of, but on the outside he did not appear to suffer from the tragedy that was still so fresh.
He wanted to have fun and he found ways to do that.
When I went out the first time to the streets of Kiev to walk around and spend time, I did not feel right. It was difficult for me to go around like a normal man after so many years of partisan life, to be among civilians, women, from another world, people from the Great Land with different thoughts and points of view. They too are persecuted and insulted as Jews, but nevertheless they say, We are Soviet people, we are Russian people, we triumphed over the Germans. And we think how many Jews remained after the catastrophe and what will the Jews who stayed alive do, and what if another catastrophe comes and wipes out the last remnant of surviving Jews? Why do all the Gentiles look at us with hatred? What harm have we done to them by staying alive? Why did we fight for our lives and the liberation of their country? I wanted the Jews of Kiev to feel this and see reality as it is, but apparently they believe that this was a passing wave and tomorrow it will be better. Perhaps they felt like we do, but they have no other way out. They were born in a socialist regime and they believe in it, while we were raised with a Jewish nationalist spirit. These are two different worlds.
Later on, when we passed by the city, we stopped at an intersection of a few streets. It was 6 in the evening. It was quiet all around us.
Why are you so contemplative? You already slept enough Sankeh!
No, my wound is bothering me. I was not at the hospital the whole day. They did not do anything for me. Marusia the nurse will scold me tomorrow. She will send me away. She will say if I am running around, it is a sign I am healthy. You know, Boris, what I just remembered now? We came back once from a battle with the Germans, and the political commissar said to me: 'Sankeh, I do not remember now what a sidewalk looks like, people, a road, streetcars, Jewish girls.' The sleighs slid quickly across the white fields and swamps of White Russia. Then I did not believe this time would come. I want to forget my pain and spend time with you today.
We will go to a restaurant, because we should eat supper. We are hungry.
Sarah looked at us with her black eyes. She kept her hands in the pockets of a school coat that was too small for her.
I want you to tell me about the holiday you mentioned, when they murdered your family.
The smell of spring was already in the air. Only a few windows were lit. It was pitch black on the streets and very few people were out. You did not see people walking around like in the western countries. It could be because there were no stores and nothing to look at in the city. Or perhaps it was a habit from the days of occupation when citizens preferred to stay at home. Sarah brought us to the streetcar. We went on it and got off at a wide and beautiful street, but monotonous and sad.
You know, Saratchka, in the western lands, in such a big city, when it is free and there are no more Germans, the streets are full of people walking around, the stores are full of good things and the restaurants are full of people. People are alive there, but here there is the silence of death. I felt my criticism was causing her pain. But there are no girls like these, I thought to myself, There are only the murderers who wiped them out.
Boris brought us to Shevchenko Boulevard, to the same restaurant we went to yesterday. He already knew the chef and the manager, and he received anything he wanted. Boris sat down with the mother and Tamara, and Sarah found a place for the two of us.
We sipped a little vodka. The officers there stared at us, especially at the young women. We looked like partisans in our sort of military clothes. After the war, all the men in the Great Land wore military clothes, and it was impossible to know who was a soldier and who a civilian. Some of them wore clothes that were maybe military or maybe civilian, such as pants and military boots and a civilian coat, or the opposite. Those people were thought to be partisans or released soldiers.
We ate meat with potatoes.
Tell me, Saratchka, are you alone, or do you have a family?
I am by myself, but I have a family. My family has not yet returned from Asia, I stayed alive by myself and that is a long story.
Perhaps you are too shy to talk about it?
No I am not shy, but what interests me is that holiday that you started to talk about today. What did you call it?
I know what you mean. The holiday called Yom Kippur.
Why are you looking at me like that Sankeh?
It seems to me you look like a girl I knew in the town, but I am sure she is not alive.
Did you love her?
Perhaps, yes. I was still young and did not understand one can love at any time, even when you are facing death. But I was young and very attached to my father, and because of that we were torn from each other.
How do you know she suffered?
I received letters from her at the Zofiovka ghetto from the Horokhov ghetto. It was a tragedy that we could not see each other, and we made due with exchanging letters between us. Her name was Brurya.
I talked to Sarah at length about Yom Kippur, the day when God grants atonement to Jews for all their sins, the day when the Jews sit all day in the synagogue and pray, pleading with God, fasting so God will forgive them for their sins.
Perhaps this reminded her of stories from her grandfather or grandmother, but she did not say a word. She did not want to interrupt me. She just looked in my eyes and listened, and I went on.
The Germans studied all the Jewish customs. They learned every detail to make their work extermination work easier, a quiet murder and massacre without any resistance. Everything was planned, psychologically ready. They broke the Jews spiritually and physically. They tricked them into thinking they were taking them to work. When they understood they were being led to their deaths, they were no longer able to show any resistance. Three Germans with the help of a few hundred Ukrainians could take over a town of five thousand Jews, tricking them they were taking them to work, to bringing them up to the pit, forcing them to remove their clothes by themselves, enter the pit and lie down one on top of another. All of this with a German sense of order. Then there was a barrage of shots. Again another group came, lay down on top of those who had been shot, and in this way the pit was filled up. Other Jews were ordered to close the pit up, to sort the clothes, to remove money and other valuables from the pockets. After they finished their work, they were taken from the place. They dug a pit for themselves, lay down in it, and after a short barrage of shots, everything was quiet.
There is no noise, no problems, no shouts. And then came the masses, Ukrainians, Poles, adults and children, men and women, children with sacks, baskets, with horses and carts. Did they rob? Did they loot? No, they took everything quietly. Would something like that be called robbery? Who saw it? You wander around in the home of a Jewish family like a king. Silence is all around. Here is the kitchen. All the dishes are clean. In one of the pots there is still a little milk. Eggs and onions are on the table. It seems that in a little while a mother will come to prepare food for the children when they come home from school. There is still half a loaf of bread, the clean dishes are arranged in the cupboard. There is a can of kerosene. The gentile women, the wives of the peasants, work quietly and deliberately. They are packing up everything so that nothing will break, and their children are helping them. The men open up the cupboards. Clothes, men's clothing and women's dresses. Papa's Shabbos suit and Mama's black silk dress. They take everything out and check it, as though they are about to buy it in a store and want to figure out whether it is worth the price.
The cat is sitting on the small window in the kitchen and watching with her grey eyes. She sees everything and whines quietly. They drag the beds, the cupboards. Everything looks good to them. The Yids were rich. They had everything. God came to our aid. He sent Hitler and we got rid of them. And we, Stashka the Pole, Ivanchuk the Ukrainian, were happy. We have furniture, clothes for the whole family for ten years. Yes. They come again and take out the windows, the doors. Those can be useful when you want to build a new house. They take Jewish doors, Jewish windows. The Gentile's murderous eyes, sparkling again in the Jewish house, take a last glance. Perhaps something else remains. The eyes rest on a family portrait on the floor. Hundreds of pictures are on the floor, of the father as a soldier in the Polish army. What a handsome soldier. He does not look at all like a Jew. There is the mother as a young girl in a white blouse and skirt, with a nice hairdo. There are children wearing hats and girls with smooth hair, with a small forelock, with beautiful Jewish eyes, in patent leather shoes and big pleasant white collars. They are sitting with serious faces during the photo session. But the eyes of the Gentile bump into a completely different picture, a big picture. Here he is standing dressed in a handsome black suit, wearing a brimmed hat, and she is wearing a long white dress and holds a bouquet of flowers in her hands. They are both happy. The Gentile throws a glance at the photo and goes away. He remembers his wedding ceremony. And who will say that Jews lived here for hundreds of years, they lived and died, studied, worked, ran businesses, manufactured things, dealt in politics, dreamt, organized, waited, and missed their last chance.
In the Gentile's hut there is noise and confusion. The house is full of things, clothes, shoes, underwear. They measure the shoes, they measure the children, the women's dresses. They arrange the furniture. Something does not fit, not the furniture and not the clothes. The head does not go with the suit, the dress does not go over the body. Oh, the Yids, no good comes from them. All of this is done quietly, so the neighbor will not hear, but the neighbor is doing the same, and when they went on Sunday to church, no one recognized anyone else. Vitek did not recognize Stashek, and Stashek did not recognize Matchek. They did not look at one another. The priest gave a nice sermon on Christianity. He said that Jesus commanded the Christians to help one another. A Christian needs to have a good heart, and God is punishing the Jews because they are bad and they killed Jesus the Christian. The Jewish fathers with the mothers and their children are lying naked, crushed by bullets, bleeding, hugging one another. A mother holds the youngest child in her arms and clasps him to her heart. A father is lying with the big child who was about to have a Bar Mitzvah. They are lying crammed in and they are no longer breathing. The sun goes on rising, the world goes on living, and the land of Poland and Ukraine is made fertile with the blood and bodies of Jews.
Sarah sat as still as a stone and looked and me with her black eyes.
Tell me, Sankeh, did the same thing also happen on Soviet land?
You are still an innocent girl, or you did not see anything in the war. I went through thousands of villages and towns on Soviet land and I was bitterly disappointed. The people behaved much worse than in the west. In the west one among thousands can be found who helped with something or hid someone, but nothing like that happened in your land. In the west I found Jews who hid with Gentiles, while on the Communist side I found quiet anti-Semitism, hatred of the Jews. Here everyone pointed out where a Jew lived. After so many years of Communist education, whose meaning is love for all the nations, equality, freedom, it became clear that everything was different. But I am sure that if one Jew still remains, there is one and only one path for him, and that is to go far away from here, to a place where the sun is bright and warming, a place where all the Jews will gather from all over the world to build their home. We are two worlds, but we are Jews and our destiny is one. I have strayed from the subject, and I will continue to tell you about that fateful Yom Kippur when they wiped out my family, because on that day they murdered my dear father.
1942. I already was a member of a partisan group. After the city was wiped out half a year ago, only a few hundred Jews remained in the small ghetto. There were Jews who escaped from other cities, returned from the forest, and found a roof over their head here. The Germans did not bother anyone. On the contrary, they wanted all the Jews who had fled to the forest to enter the ghetto. In this way our house filled up with strangers: men, women, and children. After they had been left alone for a few weeks, the Jews felt they would not be murdered, and they lived normally. In addition, many of them worked for the Germans, and they were allowed to stay in their homes. These Jews believed they were the chosen few who would surely remain alive. The Germans came to drink and spend time with the Jews, so they forgot what happened yesterday to their brothers and sisters, and they did not want to think about what might be their fate tomorrow.
The partisan group was settled in the forest a few kilometers from the town. The forests there were very big and thick and spread out over a great distance, but the five Jews who fled to the forests could not stay there because they had to go at night to the village to get or buy food, and the Poles and Ukrainians might hand them over to the Germans there or strip them and murder them. The partisan group was already armed. My brother Henrik was one of the officers who organized the group and acquired the first weapons. He was a soldier in the Polish army and he knew how to use weapons. He was daring and courageous, and we all felt he would save us and avenge the innocent. A few days before Yom Kippur, I was in the forest with the group. From the whole town, twelve Jews had made up their minds not to walk to their death but to fight against the murderers. There was a Ukrainian with us, a Communist who had escaped from the village because the Germans wanted to murder him. He was the commander of the group.
It was twilight. Darkness was already falling. We sat in the forest, twelve young men, all of us serious. Some of us were holding weapons. I looked at them. I saw my brother Henrik with a rifle in his hand. He sat with both his teeth and his fists clenched. His eyes shone like those of a lion who wants to break out of the cage to fight. He wanted to take revenge and to save the Jews from the ghetto. I saw Grisha, a native of a small town in Ukraine, moderate, serious, full of confidence, and fearless. I saw Vatzin, a teacher who brought the first rifle. He cleaned it ceaselessly, glorifying himself with it as with a treasure. I saw all the others. For some reason we felt that beyond the fact that we were hoping to save ourselves, we are making history. We began to feel what a piece of metal could mean. It was a feeling I will never forget. At that moment when I held a piece of metal in my hand, I was no longer outside the law. I knew it would no longer be possible for anyone to decide whether or not we would continue to live. We could be just as much a master race as the cultured Germans. We are equal to the cultured murderers and the wild beasts of Ukraine and Poland. It is no longer possible to slaughter me in order to get my boots. A new man is facing the murderer with a rifle in his hand, ready for battle.
Alexei, the Ukrainian Communist, arrived. We sat near him and listened. Comrades, he said, I am delighted to see a group of Jews who are not going to a pit but have made up their minds to fight against the fascist occupier. Well, comrades, we must be careful about getting weapons and staying in touch with the little ghetto to get things and money. This will provide the means to buy arms until we start to fight against the police and the Germans. By then we will have enough weapons. We are all going into battle against the Fascists, against the occupiers, regardless of whether we are Russians, Ukrainians, Jews or Poles. Hand in hand, we shall fight against the occupiers. Death to the occupiers! He returned to his village to hide there, and we stayed in the forest.
At night we lit a bonfire. Alongside it was a pile of wood we gathered in the forest to add to the fire. The fire was red at the bottom and a lighter color at the top. There was no smoke because the wood was dry, and it crackled and burned. Ten young people sat around the fire and two stood guard. From time to time, someone took out a potato, peeled it and ate it with gusto. People's faces were flushed from the heat. We began to talk. Why does the Communist not stay with us? Why is he hiding from the Germans in his village? Why does he delay us from going on our mission? After all, they will soon wipe out the Jews who remain in the ghetto. Why not bring more Jews into the forest? There were only a few days left. We had a strong desire to save people and be part of the operations. We wanted to take revenge, but we had few opportunities. And those of us who were about to be partisans were worried because we all left families in the ghetto and we knew what they could expect in the coming days.
I stood guard from ten to twelve. For the first time in my life, I was holding a gun. I felt it and pressed it all over. This was really a genuine rifle, and as they had taught me, it was not a big deal to shoot. Open the safety catch, pull it out, and then push it back in place together with the bullet, close it and the gun is cocked and ready to shoot. If someone comes now and does not know the partisan group password, I will order him to lie down. If he does not obey, I will shoot him. I held the gun close to me, because it makes an impact when shot. That's what the commander told me, the teacher Vatzin, and after all, it was his gun.
I stood for a long time in the darkness under a tree. Instead of looking at the road where the Germans or police might come, I watched the fire and calculated how far I would have to move if someone came. When the flames were small I was sad, but when wood was added and large flames burst out, I felt better. I found something else to keep me busy -- watching the clock every minute. Time moved so slowly I thought my watch had stopped. After everyone had fallen asleep, I tried to get closer to the fire a few times, but after I had gone a good part of the way, I quickly hurried back to the tree. I knew if they saw me leaving my post, they would say I am a coward and would not let me stay with them. I stuck to the tree. Slowly I got used to the place and began to look at the darkness, at the road I was supposed to watch. After a few minutes the darkness was not so thick. I saw the road. I opened the rifle's safety catch and put a bullet in. I aimed the gun towards the road according to orders and was ready to ask for the password. Gradually the fear vanished, and I began to feel safe.
I remembered the pits. The young people were led into the pit with two rifles pointed at them, the same rifles. I saw with my own eyes. I looked at the rifle up and down and patted it all around. Why doesn't every Jew have a rifle like this? If every Jew would kill one German before his death, how would things look now? I remembered the organization I belonged to called Betar. We learned to shoot there. Perhaps thanks to them I held the rifle so well in my hand. We were dozens of teenagers, then, with rifles in our hands. A representative from the Land of Israel taught us how to hold a rifle. I shot; I learned to hit the target. When we walked on the streets with guns, our opponents mocked us calling: Militaristic Fascists! Why do all other nations espouse militarism without being Fascists? The Jews are foolish, and that is why they are walking to the pits surrounded by with the Soviet concept of Progress.
Suddenly I called: Stoyat, parol! (Stand, password!) The man came from the side where the bonfire burned. He knew the password. I recognized a member's voice. That was a weight off my mind; no one was coming from the other side. I did not have to shoot. Oh, the time went by quickly, I said. My brother Henrik sat by the fire and asked, So, how did your first guard duty go? Were you afraid? He did not wait for my answer. You will get used to it. If only all the Jewish youth were here and our family. They say only a few days are left. I have a certain plan. I cannot sleep. I am thinking about our sister and father, about the need to do something, to get them out of the ghetto. So tomorrow, Sankeh, Yom Kippur eve, go back to the ghetto. Apparently the Germans will wipe out the ghetto in a few days. They know the Jews congregate again in the ghetto on the holidays. They will wait another week, even a few weeks. The Jews are in their hands. So go to sleep. Tomorrow I will tell you what you to do there.
Henrik curled up in his coat, stood the rifle up beside him, placed the backpack under his head, and in this way slept half asleep. He gave me a blanket. I lay down near the fire but could not fall asleep. This was the first time I slept under the open sky. I thought about my father. What would happen to my father? Would he go with us to the forest? He has strength, but will he have courage, which has already vanished from those younger than he is, and strength of spirit to fight for his life? The struggle is difficult and bitter. The entire might of the German army is fights to destroy this weak and helpless man. The Gestapo and police wander around the roads searching every peasant hut, every field and forest. Moreover, the people... they want your boots, your watch, his coat, and you must come to them to ask for a slice of bread. My dear father, why did you not escape with the Russians? We were sure you were weak, but now you are strong. You must go to the forest.
What are you doing at home now, sister Chava? I wondered. They are thinking about us and we are thinking about them. They are sure we will save them. This thought gives them courage to live. How will we save them?
Sankeh, are you sleeping?
No, Henrik, I replied.
So, listen to what I decided. Tomorrow morning you will go to the ghetto. (My luck, I thought to myself.) You will go early in the morning, so you won't run into police officers. I have a Gentile acquaintance in the village of Zagajnik. This was three kilometers from Zofiovka, where the last of the Jews who were working for the Germans lived. Even though we were refugees from Poland, we knew the peasants in the villages, because they used to buy skins for boots from us, and they would bring us foodstuff in return. The peasant agreed that if we give him our possessions, and he will hide some of the family with him until the end of the war in exchange. Now is our last opportunity to transfer everything to him. His name is Kaminsky. Go to him and ask him to harness his horse to a cart. Bring him all the valuables, and he will build something at his place to hide Papa and Chava. Maybe he will also hide our brother-in-law Shmuel and our sister Hene with her little girl Golda. He must prepare the hiding place and you can still remain at home. When you see the situation becomes critical, you should all go to Kaminsky, and then you should come back to our group. You will be with us, you will have a rifle, and we will take revenge.
Sankeh, do you remember what you told me?
What did I tell you?
Boris stood by the table and looked at both of us. He held Sarah's hand and caressed her blushing cheek.
Now I already see this coming true. Here in Russia it only costs three rubles and the matter is settled.
I looked at her laughing eyes and blushing face. Maybe I will take her with me to Poland. She will show me a new world.
What do you think, Sankeh? In which world are you?
I am sorry I met Boris five days ago in the hospital and I am wandering in different homes. Otherwise I would be lying in the hospital on a mattress, reliving all my experiences. No one bothered me except for Masuria, who made me eat.
Am I bothering you, Sankeh? Don't you feel any better when I listen to you?
I do not know if these things interest you, but I live them. In the long hours on guard duty I would think, what will I do and to whom will I tell everything that happened to me if I stay alive? The one and only Jew, the Gentiles would tell me, because no Jews remained in the world. Can you know and feel what is going on now in my heart? Only five days ago I returned from the partisans and I found Jews. On the one hand I am happy, but I still have not absorbed what happened to me. How did I come out from that Hell? I have no interest in my wound and the hospital, but in what happened. I do not want to forget this so quickly, especially the day when I left the group to go to my family in the ghetto. I am sure that if they were with us in the forest they would have remained alive. This thought gnaws at my heart. As long as I live I will blame all those who prevented me from taking my family to the forest.
I do not know if I slept that night, but when I left the group, dawn had already broken. After I walked a few steps, I turned around to see if Henrik was sleeping. I still wanted to exchange a few words with him. The fire no longer burned. Only black coals and unburned pieces of wood were on the ground. Roasted potatoes were rolling around in the ashes. The group had fallen into deep slumber. They all held their rifles close to their bodies. Good God, why did the night end? I thought. It was so good to be free. I walked quickly. Now I was an unarmed Jew again, now anyone can do whatever he wants with me.
Now I must be like a fox, pursued by hunters or strong predatory beasts who want to tear him apart in the forest. Now I must be light-footed, see quickly over long distances with my eyes, think quickly and decide what to do if I meet a murderer; and there are different murderers. More precisely, almost everyone is a murderer. Germans might appear, the police might appear, Ukrainians, or just a peasant who would like my boots, my coat, or my watch. I did not walk on the road where the carriages go but among the trees. I was careful not to go far from the road. I passed by the ghetto from the side, without thinking that I must go home to see my father and sister Chava. I went towards the village of Zagajnik. When I was close to the village, I saw the time had gone by quickly. Not even one full hour had passed. I had gone twelve kilometers and did not feel any fatigue. That is the strength of fear, the strength of a meeting with death, the strength of will to save the family at the last moment.
Shepherds led the cows to the field. Housewives mixed food for the pigs. You could hear the roosters calling. Smoke rose up from the chimneys, from all the chimneys at once as if on command. I stood among the trees so I could not be seen. What would I do without the trees? We are afraid of everyone, but not the trees. Perhaps the trees hate us too, but they are quiet. Among the trees we feel good; they understand us.
Kaminsky's house was in the center of the village, which looked prosperous. The houses were pleasant, clean, like those of estate holders, decorated gardens, built from wood. Every house had a front porch. On one side of the road the houses stand in a row. Across from them on the other side of the road is the forest. I only needed to go out from the forest and cross the road to be at the peasant's house. What will happen if he sends me away from his house, or explains to me in a pleasant manner that he cannot fulfill my request? Why didn't Henrik come with me? He is older and more talented than I am. He knows how to talk with the Gentiles. The sun came up. Whatever will be, will be. I must go into the peasant's place. I messed up my hair. I put on a hat like one of the locals, and slowed my pace so I would not arouse suspicion. I got to the garden fence, a high fence of wooden rods pointed on top and painted brown. The latch was closed from within. I put my hand between the rods, pulled out the hook, and let it go. The latch opened, but at that moment two dogs jumped on me. They did not bite me, but they jumped all around and on me. Their barks were so loud I thought the entire village would gather at the place. At that moment I wanted to flee, but I could not move. I stood there, panicky and helpless, but with the same speed that they pounced on me, they left me. Kaminsky stood on the porch and whistled to them. I was pale and frightened and did not know how to begin.
What do you want, lad. You look familiar to me. You are a Jew boy, aren't you?
My head was spinning around, the rifle on guard duty. I am a Jew boy. I found my courage. Good morning, Mr. Kaminsky. I am Henrik's brother and would like to ask you something. We have possessions, many possessions. We have a sewing machine, leather, and other valuable objects.
Come in. Strangers may see us here outside. You know, of course, in these times one must be careful.
He brought me into the house and locked the door behind him. The house was pleasantly warm. The two brown dogs sat by the door. They tried to jump on me, but Kaminsky calmed them down. They only stuck out their long tongues, licked themselves and whined quietly, but they looked at me the whole time as though they pitied me for being a Jew, as though they feel what awaits me.
Pleasant odors of potatoes and beet borscht drifted in from the kitchen. I heard the rustling of frying. He closed the kitchen door. We sat in the living room. There was a table and chairs there, a pleasant cupboard. The floor was painted red. Pictures of Saint Mary were on the walls. Kaminsky was a tall Pole, upright and serious. He gave the impression of an educated and intelligent peasant. It was hard to figure out what he was thinking. Did he really mean what he was saying? His clothing was clean and elegant: he wore boots and riding pants, a Polish army shirt, but without epaulettes or signs of rank.
Your brother is a talented man. What a pity he is a Jew. I know he is fighting against the Swabians (Germans). We already know they are killing all the Jews. Not even one Jew will remain alive in a place where the Germans rule. They are advancing and conquering all of Russia. There is no more Communism. There is also no more Poland.
I listened calmly to my verdict, as though he was not referring to me. I did not utter a word. He left me alone and went to his wife. After ten minutes he returned.
Listen, Henrik. (He called me by my brother's name.) We will eat and go to bring the possessions. Your brother is an honest guy. We will hide you, and you will stay alive after the war if the neighbors do not discover it and inform the Germans.
We sat in the corridor on a low bench and ate sour cream with black bread, beet borscht with sour cream, and warm potatoes. He ate slowly and leisurely. I ate but did not enjoy myself because I knew Henrik had nothing like this now. And what about my father and sister? What are they eating?
We traveled on side roads. The horse galloped quickly on the conquered unpaved roads. We entered the forest. It was silent. We only heard the chirping of the birds that flew from one branch to another, and the horse's steps, and breathed in the scent of the pines.
Why don't they let us live? Where have we sinned? What will the world look like without Jews? Good God, will you really help us? If the Gentile hides the family, Henrik and I can be with the partisans. We can fight with our minds at ease if we know Papa and our sisters are taken care of at the Gentile's. Good God, will we really be privileged to stay alive? I prayed in my heart and sunk into my thoughts.
Listen, my lad, do you really suppose I don't know your brother is with the partisans
Oh, I said to myself, Perhaps because he knows this, he is afraid of him, and that is why he will guard and hide the family. If only that is so. We always knew Henrik would save us.
We got closer to the town.
There were still a few hundred Jews in the town, but not a living soul was visible on the street, not even a policeman or a German. It was quiet. This is a town in Western Ukraine called Schlitz. It looks like a big village. There is no market, no road, no sidewalk, only houses on both sides of the road. The Jews who remained after the first massacre in the nearby town, Zofiovka, lived here now.
The horse and carriage stopped at a small distance from the house. Kaminsky waited outside. I passed by a few houses. Everything was silent. For some reason I did not like this. The Germans wanted the Jews to be grouped together, and later, ... If only I would be proven wrong.
I quickly approached our house. I knocked on the door. It was open. Abandoned. No need to knock. There was a bad morning odor in the closed house with no fresh air. In the first room, many people slept on the floor in their clothes and shoes. Who was sleeping in the small bed? Despite the darkness, I identified our cousin Moshe Schwartzer, a refugee from Warsaw who worked with us on the sewing machines. We produced house slippers and wallets for the Germans in Lutsk. The products of Mundak, who is Moshe, were very nice, and senior officers from all the cities would come to order and later receive all the products. Mundak loved to have a good time. He was sure the Germans would let him live thanks to his good work.
Because Henrik and I were busy with the partisans, he was doing the work alone. The Germans would bring skins, and we would make a living from the leftovers. There were pretty young girls in the small ghetto, and Moshe would court each one of them for a short time. Refugees arrived from other towns. Among them were women whose husbands had been taken away from them. Moshe found a new woman every day. He would court her and look after her like a real father, but not for long.
Who is Mundak sleeping in the bed with now? She was a very pretty woman but totally new. This is the first time I ever saw her. Mundak did not want to go to the forest. He said one needs to enjoy life, and the Germans will not murder professionals. The best sign is that they are letting them live, and especially him, because he does such fine work. Furthermore, who can sleep on the ground in the forest and starve from hunger and cold? It is better to enjoy life as long as you can.
The two of them were not embarrassed in front of me, and I did not let on that I had seen anything special. I went into the other room. That was a big clean room with four beds. My father slept in one of them, but now he was not home. Chava was still in bed. The other two beds were empty, covered with blankets. Henrik was already in the forest, and our relative Heniek from Warsaw, who had been with us for a long time now, happened to be lately with my sister Hene, and so I found only my sister Chava at home. She was not only a sister but also a mother. She managed the household since Mama passed away. I was fourteen years old when my mother died, and since then I helped with the work to support the family, and Chava was the mother.
Oh, Sankeh, it is good you came. Why didn't Chaim come? Today is Yom Kippur eve. Papa went to pray. I prepared everything. If only Henrik was also here, Papa would be so happy.
Listen, Chava. Henrik must stay in the forest now and cannot come to the ghetto any more. He is staying with the partisans now. You must get dressed quickly. I came with Kaminsky. Henrik spoke with me about transferring all our valuable possessions to him. In exchange, he will prepare a place for you and Papa where you can hide.
What will happen if the Germans bring work and they see there are no machines?
This was a serious question.
We will leave one machine. We will find something to say.
We will not wait for Papa?
No, Chava, every moment is precious. The Gentile will go and we will regret it. Other people would be happy to be in our place.
I know that Henrik's head is working. He does not rest. He is our comfort.
Chava, hurry. There is no time for talk. We do not know what might happen at any moment.
Life in the ghetto annoyed me. They seemed indifferent and with a calm expectation of death. Chava noticed this.
In a minute, a minute, Sankeh. Do not be angry.
I removed the heads from the machines. Chava packed the dresses, the suits, and the skins. In a few minutes, everything was ready. Kaminsky helped me arrange it in the carriage. Chava cried. I also choked up with tears, but I held myself back. I read Chava's thoughts on her face. How many times had I already packed my possessions during the war? The feeling that this is the last road choked my throat, and it was hard for me to control myself. Remains of our property were being handed over to a foreign peasant. Henrik and I were going to the partisans. Only she and Papa would go to the peasant. What would happen there? Would he really hide them? Or would he turn them in to the Germans, or perhaps murder them by himself so the property would stay in his possession? What would be the fate of our sister Hene, my brother-in-law Shmuel, and their eight-year-old daughter Golda who has the name of my mother? What will be with my brother, our brother-in-law from Warsaw, Heniek? My brother-in-law and sister were exiled to Siberia, and he is with us. He has been going around embittered and disappointed for a year now. Why didn't he escape with the Russians when they retreated?
So I imagined Chava's thoughts to myself every time I saw her bending over with two teardrops shining like pearls rolling down from her eyes.
You know, Sankeh, let the Gentile go home with the possessions and we will stay here. On Yom Kippur certainly nothing will happen, and if something happens later, we will know all of us need to meet at Kaminsky's place in the village of Zagajnik.
Yes Chava, I also think so. We will stay here longer and go to pray together with Papa.
I held her close to my heart and felt her tears on my face. I parted from Kaminsky. He told me he would prepare a place to hide Papa and Chava. We agreed that if by chance we heard some trouble was brewing, we would run to him.
Kaminsky left us with the remains of our property. When I entered the house again, Mundak was already dressed. The refugees who slept in the first room gathered the blankets. One of them began to sweep the room. Chava dealt with the pots. I sat down near the sewing machine. There was some unfinished work there for the Germans. I looked at her and said to myself that thanks to the work, the Jews would save their lives. Chava, tell me what is going on in the ghetto. I have not been here for two days.
She brought me something to eat, a plate of soup and potatoes, and a slice of bread. Later she brought a chair close to me, sat down, and began to talk to me:
It is quiet here, she said, We do not feel something bad is about to happen. We felt somewhat relieved. We go out to the nearby villages, return, and bring foodstuff. But they say that yesterday a car went by in the town. The head of the staff and the 'Political Commissar' were in it. They say they looked over the place with the pits from the first massacre and left immediately. We do not know if they came to look over the place of the first massacre or to decide on a new place for more pits. People were a little worried about this. I suspect they came to wipe out what remains of the Jews.
Does anyone know Chaim is with the partisans?
No, no one takes an interest in that.
I do not understand what is going on here. Why don't all the Jews escape to the forests?
They hope they will let us live, and furthermore, what would we do in the forests? Do not forget there are women with children. A man who is free can do things he would not be able to do if women and children were with him. No one wants to go to the forest, to die there from hunger or be slaughtered by a Gentile. Eat, Sankeh, the soup is very tasty. Who knows how much longer we will be together ...
I ate. The soup was very tasty.
Papa entered with a tallis bag under his arm.
Children, he said, If only we will be privileged to celebrate the next Yom Kippur. If only then we shall be free and see the downfall of the Germans. Sankeh, it is good you came for Yom Kippur. Where is Chaim? Why didn't he come?
He must stay with the group in the forest.
I looked at Papa. He had changed. He was pale, gaunt, his cheeks were sunken, his clothes were hanging on him, his eyes were bulging, and his beard was shorter. I kept myself from crying. I saw the Jewish tragedy in Papa's face. What sin had this man ever committed in his life? His only enjoyment in life was going to pray three times a day. His only prayer in life was: Good God, do not let me be dependent on the gifts of others. His mind was working twenty-four hours a day thinking about how to support his family honorably, how to get through the weeks and keep all his children satisfied.
Papa, do you not see what I did? Why don't you ask?
My child, I see, I see everything. But I would like to talk to you, and you must listen well to my words. According to all the signs, it is clear the end is near. The Germans will not let us live much longer. We are no better off than the Jews of the other villages and communities.
There could be a miracle and God might help so the Germans suffer a heavy defeat and flee.
But we must not rely on a miracle, my child. You are young and you must save yourselves. Go to the forests to the partisans and take revenge. I have no more strength to run away. I will stay here. What happens will be God's will. What will be the fate of all the Jews will also be my fate.
Listen to what I say, Papa. Perhaps we will manage to have you and Chava hide in the village of Zagajnik with Kaminsky. Early this morning I went to him and brought him here. We gave him everything we had. He promised to hide you and Chava. We agreed that if something happens and we need to escape quickly from the ghetto, and perhaps we might not all be able to run together, everyone should know we will meet in the village of Zagajnik at Kaminsky's place.
Children, if we cannot stay here at home any longer, I do not believe any Gentile will help us. Perhaps if we had remained in Poland where we were born and where we have so many Polish acquaintances, we might have remained alive, but I do not believe it. It is not good, children. If only they let us pray on this Yom Kippur.
Papa washed his hands and sat down to eat. I did not take my eyes off him. I was not worried for myself. I will run. I will fight. I must make something happen. But what will happen to my father, to my sister, to the girl?
The door opened and Mundak entered quietly, a little embarrassed. He sat down next to Papa.
Uncle David, I believe you are creating all this fear of yours by yourselves. We can work and earn money. Every day they bring work, and they say nothing will happen. Indeed they need us. We work for them. Why did you do such a ridiculous thing and take out all the machines? I have to finish two bags for the political commissar today.
I looked at him and saw he was forcing himself to believe what he was saying, because that was convenient for him. Papa was also relieved and ate more calmly.
From your mouth to the ears of the Holy One blessed be He, he said.
He knew Mundak, but he was weak and wanted an encouraging word. I could no longer control myself.
Mundak, if you are sure they will not kill any more people, you can stay here with all the leather manufacturers and their beautiful daughters. I am going to the forest. Papa and Chava will go to Kaminsky.
And so, I know for sure they will not kill anymore, and certainly not in the near future. I know this from a trusted source.
And so Mundak declared it, and Papa was relieved again. Perhaps he knew something. He does in fact work for them, and he comes to the houses of the manufacturers who surely will not be killed. They asked me at home to work a little, but I felt the air stifling me. The odor of death was in the air. At the same time, it occurred to me that the people who move around, work, eat and sleep, and argue about whether or not they will be killed are none other than the living dead. They have been sentenced to death and pretend they do not know. They want to enjoy every minute of their lives. This is the meaning of the living dead. Papa broke my heart. I left the house.
I walked slowly along the street. The sun warmed everything up pleasantly. The road was dry. There were tracks from the carriages in the winter swamps. The town was silent. Everyone slept, closed up in their homes. I walked by the synagogue where they prayed in the past. I looked through the broken window. On the floor were field cots with mattresses and benches. Pots, pots, they were peeling potatoes. No sign of life could be seen on the people's faces.
And what are all those people expecting? -- That perhaps the Germans will forget them? I arrived at the edge of the town. Somewhere, at a distance of a few kilometers, the forest was visible. In a half hour, I could be there. What are the partisans doing now? I turn left. I walk by a few houses. That is the house of the rich tanner. I went through the gate to a big yard. In their house lived my eldest sister Hene. I had not seen here for a while. The room was small and very narrow. Alongside the walls were two field cots, one across from the other. Between the two beds was a small table covered with a tablecloth. Only two people could sit at the table. The others sat on the beds.
When I entered, no one paid attention, even though they knew I was involved with partisan activity and came now from the forest. I looked at my brother-in-law Shmuel, who had been a salon communist in Poland before the war, and believed socialism would solve the Jewish problem. He had mocked the idealists who were busy with Zionism and the pioneering spirit. That is child's play, he would say. We cannot come to a land that has been populated with Arabs for hundreds of years. The Jewish problem will be solved by Socialism and Communism. Every evening he studied a few Russian words and was happy.
Now he sat pale and helpless, and nervously ground his lower teeth against the upper teeth. The eight-year-old girl climbed up on his lap, but he pushed her away, that sweet and beautiful girl he loved so much. He could no longer hold her on his lap now because he felt so helpless. A father can no longer love his daughter because he cannot defend and protect her life. Any moment she can be taken from her parents, and can even be killed in front of her father's eyes. How can a father play with his child at such a time? Across from him sat Heniek. He was thin and tall, pale and sad. I heard his words when I opened the door:
All the time you claimed there is no truth to the stories that Germans want to kill Jews. It could not be that cultured and European Germans would be capable of killing innocent people. Even when a Jew came running from Rovna, with his clothes torn and bleeding, saying he escaped from the open pit, you said it was a lie. You said they take Jews to work and whoever wants to work will stay alive. Heniek is the brother of my brother-in-law Koba, who is now in Siberia. He wandered from Warsaw and got held up with us. Now he blamed himself for not escaping with the Russians and placed the blame on Shmuel who dissuaded him from it. Now, during the last fateful days, when we could feel the murderer standing outside the door, everyone was blaming everyone else. Heniek was speaking in a hoarse voice, quiet and whiny. Shmuel listened to his words and was quiet. He felt guilty. He lost. Now they looked at me.
You see, Heniek, Shmuel said, The one who managed better than anyone was Sankeh's brother, who traveled to Palestine at the very last minute before the war.
My sister Hene entered, our eldest sister whom we loved and respected so much. She entered from the kitchen where she prepared breakfast.
I remembered the house where my sister lived before the war. She lived in a Polish area, where they did not know the poor Jewish life that existed in the center of the town. Their life was clean, calm, and satisfied, a fact that sometimes aroused jealously in the hearts of other Jews. The socialists distanced themselves from the other Jews and wanted to assimilate among the Gentiles, but the Gentiles vomited them out from amongst them and mocked them. Socialism did not manage to liberate them from their Jewishness. Now they sat disappointed in all their ideas. What a bitter disappointment from the whole world, from socialism, from the rotten democracy. Who would have thought that in the twentieth century, German engineers with a higher European education would make blueprints for digging pits and would take out tens of thousands from among the population, entire families from their dwellings where they had lived for centuries, hundreds of years, and would put them all down in the pits.
Heniek said that if something like that could happen, there is no point in running to the forest. Shmuel said, If only we could have traveled to the land of Israel... Bad and bitter it is when disappointment appears beside the pit, when there is no way back.
With what ease these people could have been in the land of Israel, I said to myself. And just see what is going on here; they sit and argue but do not think about how to get to the forest. They have not changed. My heart was broken from all my pity for these people, for my dear ones. How can they be taken to the forest by force? Indeed, Henrik is already planning something. The air was stifling. They bit their lips.
You know, Sankeh, we need to think about how to transfer the girl to the Gentile. Perhaps she will stay alive.
Now I told them about Kaminsky.
Good, we will talk to him so he takes the girl together with Papa and Chava.
I drank a cup of tea at my sister Hene's place, but we did not look one another in the eye. We did not want to discover our own thoughts on the other's face. Nevertheless, we all saw what was going to happen. We all understood the situation well. The Jews here had mocked this. They worked, accumulated money, and drank vodka with the Germans.
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