The next day we accompanied Boris to the train station. He went to Sarny even though he did not know if anyone from his family survived. He put his bundle on the freight train and bid us all farewell. He told Tamara he would look for his family but would return to Kiev soon. The train began to clatter and make a medley of sounds. The railway cars curved around the tracks. Boris stood and waved with his hands until he disappeared What a pity, a good man! said Tamara. We were overcome with sadness.
I went to the hospital to eat lunch and told myself that in a little while I would travel in the same direction. Sarah asked me to come to her in the afternoon, but the train with Boris moving westward made me sad, and I did not respond to her at all. I loved the afternoon hours when I lay comfortably on my mattress and was transported to the place where I left my dear ones. Beneath the covers on the mattress, I saw myself walking with Mundek to the town.
* * *
I went to look for the partisans. Mundek walked calmly, his hands in his coat pockets, as though we were walking to the town after the war to welcome the liberation armies. He was alone and had no one to worry about. We went out from the forest. It was a beautiful moonlit night. We saw the village of Zagajnik. I looked with envy at the peasant houses. They were sitting calmly in their warm houses while Jews were lying in wet bunkers and waiting for death. The Gentiles knew this. The question was if they would keep quiet or if they would tell the Germans. I began to shiver. We walked quickly because we knew the way. I put my hand in my pocket and felt the pistol.
Perhaps I'll load a bullet. What do you think, Mundek? Should I load the pistol?
What could happen?
Nothing can happen, calm down.
We walked by the village where I saw police officers dancing after the massacre in the town. We approached the place where a few thousand Jews were murdered, women and children. Mundek, wait. Let's go see the pits. I dug the first pits here together with my father and Chaim.
We strayed from the path and entered the sparse grove. This was the place. We saw two big clearings in the forest, without any vegetation, covered with earth. When we looked carefully, we saw some new small growth beginning there.
It is interesting Mundek. If they opened the pits now, how would the people look?
Look Sankeh, you can see footprints. Perhaps the Gentiles come here to look for money or rags. Come on, let's go.
There was a full moon, and I did want to leave. I knew all the people who were lying here, especially the youth. I saw them in the Gestapo cars, in the black trucks, when they were brought to the pit. Their shouts, Revenge, revenge! echoed in my ears.
We got closer to the town. For some reason it seemed I had not been here for years. Not even a month had passed since Yom Kippur, and as I drew closer to the houses, I felt that perhaps it was all just a dream. Perhaps all the people are sitting in the houses. Nothing had changed. Every house was in its place, every tree in its place. Could it be that an entire town of innocent families with children and women, grandfathers and grandmothers, were put into pits, and nothing moved from its place?
We passed by the first house. Darkness inside, the silence of death. We passed the second house, the third. I knew every stone here. I walked here with Sheindeleh on Yom Kippur evening during the Kol Nidre prayer. Papa emerged from the synagogue pale and weak.
Here, on this side of town, there is nothing to look for, Mundek told me when he saw me looking into all the houses. The ten families who are still alive live in the middle of the town. Come through the field more quickly so we don't meet any police officers.
We crossed a large part of the field. When we were closer to the houses, Mundek said, You see, Sankeh, it happened here, and we were running there.
I was horrified. Here was the pit we started to dig for the Jews who remained in the town. The Germans pounced here; we struck the heads of the Germans here and began to run across the fields. It was foggy. They shot at us, but we managed to get to the forest except for one who fell here. That was Moshe Yosef.
Heniek appeared before my eyes. Here you went on your last road. I pressed the pistol in my pocket. Everyone demanded revenge! Revenge!
We approached the town center. We saw lights in a few houses.
Do you remember who lives in this house on the left?
I know, Mundek. Hershel Schwartz and his son-in-law, who also helped organize the partisan group, live here. I believe he is still in touch with them.
So come in with me and sleep here. You will get some news, and tomorrow you will go to the group.
We were about ten meters from the house. I looked at the whole town, which had been full of life before, with so many young people, boys and girls. On Shabbat they would all be on the street, walking back and forth. This is a typical Ukrainian small town. An unpaved road crossed it in the middle, and houses stood along both sides of it. Everyone had wanted to go to the Land of Israel. Now they were lying in pits with their wives and children. The Germans and the Ukrainians had solved their problem. They no longer need to go to the Land of Israel.
Light came through the slits from the closed shutters of a few houses. How can these families live in this big grave? How can they work and see Germans every day? They surely drink vodka with them, and the Germans promise them, No harm will befall you! And the Jews believe they will still be alive after the war, that they are the chosen few from among their people. Why don't they go to the forest? Why are they waiting for death? They were intoxicated with their good and comfortable life. They were not thinking about how long it would last. Even more interesting is how the Germans managed to lead the Jews astray.
So what have you decided Sankeh? Are you coming in or not? We still might be seen.
He was right. We did not have permission to be in the town. We were illegal and we might bring disaster upon the family. The Germans could accuse them of hiding Jews who had escaped, who should have been put into the pits some time ago. We had no permission to be in the town, and we had no permission to live in the world. That is what the Germans had determined.
No, Mundek, I am not going in. I will wait until you ask if they know where the partisans are now, and if they have contact with them, they can tell me which way I should go in the forest. I will not sleep here in the town. I remember the day when I came to pray on Yom Kippur. I will not dig any more pits.
I remained alone outside. I saw a dog running alone in the street and a cat crouching on the steps of one of the houses. I wanted to remember the family who lived there, but I could not. Still, the Germans are a cultured people. They let the cats and dogs live. I heard voices from the house. They were voices of amazement that Mundek was alive. They were shouting with happiness, and there is no doubt they were pleased there would be another Jew in the house. They would surely receive a legal permit for him. It would cost them a little gold and leather, and then the Germans would give him a note saying he was permitted to stay and work. The bullet had not struck him. Never mind. I will still ask him if he wants to go with me, even though I am sure he will not agree.
I hid behind the leather warehouse so I would not be seen from the road. I envied the Gentiles in the villages, sitting quietly in their warm houses, but I did not envy the Jews in this Jewish town. I saw them as miserable people who believed Satan would let them live. I felt better alone in the forest than with them at home. How could they be so blind
Mundek came out of the house. I saw satisfaction written all over his face.
You have no idea, Sankeh. They are delighted I came. There is work for me. They will do everything so I can live with them.
I saw the daughter with the black braids and pale, pretty, elongated face go out from the house. She handed me bread and a piece of meat and asked me to eat.
So, Mundek, you are staying, and will not go with me to the partisans?
No, Sankeh, as long as they will let them live, I will stay here. If they come to wipe out the last families, I will have time to go to the partisans then.
Will you really have time? I thought.
Their son-in-law came out and told me the partisans were there a week ago and took money and leather. When one of the people did not want to give it to them, they threatened them with murder. If something happens, he will come immediately to the forest. He told me which forest to go to.
I was not afraid of going to the forest. I was afraid I might not find them and would have to wander a long time alone and hungry. The loneliness filled me with great fear. I needed to cross the road, get to the other side of the town, cross the fields, and go another two or three kilometers to get to the forest. I threw a glance at the house where the Jews remained. I wondered if Mundek would be able to get to the partisans in the forest when the murderers were surrounding the few houses. Would he even have time to think of it? It could last only a few minutes, and it could happen while they are sleeping. I ran as fast as a bird. In a few minutes I was in the forest. I stopped and breathed a sigh of relief. I pressed the pistol, loaded with twelve bullets, in my hand the whole time until I almost crushed it. This is what I had wanted, to go armed to the forest.
After I rested, I looked for the signs they told me about. I found all the signs and went very deeply into the forest. It was the same way I had walked with the group in the first days after it was founded. But when I penetrated the forest more deeply, I no longer knew the way. I encountered mossy ground and turned in another direction where the ground was dry. I walked quickly until there were trees. When I became tired, I sat down and listened. I put my ear to the ground to hear something, but I did not hear anything. I had no watch. I knew I had been walking many hours because I was very tired. A few times I decided to lie down to sleep, but when I lay down to rest under a tree, I would get up again and keep on going.
I began to think I had walked all the way in vain because I did not know where I was or which way to go. Perhaps tomorrow I would find myself in the town again. I was enormously depressed. A few times I went on narrow paths where peasants would go with their carts and horses, but this did not help me at all. I did not know where I was. Suddenly I entered a very dense forest and began to move very slowly, like a shadow among the trees. A strange force pushed me forward, just to walk and walk, and not to stay and sleep, because they might murder me in my sleep. I was tired and might fall asleep before daylight. Who knows if a police officer or farmer might find me sleeping. Then he could kill me, take off my clothes, or catch me and hand me over to the Germans alive for a bottle of vodka.
An unknown force pushed me forward, to find some sort of sign of the group of Jews in hiding. I walked like this until dawn. Grey light was visible among the trees. I felt cold and overwhelmed with fatigue. My legs gave way beneath me. I was like someone who was drunk from the sharp air. I felt that in a little while I would fall down. Why was I so cold? No, I cannot walk anymore, I will rest even if they kill me. I looked for a place among the thick trees. I put broken branches under my head and lay down. Now I felt good. I stretched out my legs and lifted them up as much as I could. I leaned them on a tree. It was so good. I did not think about what might happen. I felt better and began to nod off. But the cold, or the fear, or both of them together did not let me sleep for long.
The light grew a little stronger. I began to look around and see where I was. After I went about twenty meters, a smell of burnt wood reached my nose. It could be I was on the tracks of the group, or of Jews in hiding, or just of a shepherd who left some wood burning from yesterday. I walked slowly and carefully from one tree to another, so as not to fall in the hands of police or forest rangers. There was no lack of robbers. Suddenly I saw wood embers left from the night before. I saw a man sitting near the warm place and holding his bare foot over the red coals. Others were lying down curled up in blankets and coats so no faces were visible, not even a shape of a person. I saw packages. The man who sat near the fire did not feel that a few steps away from him someone was standing and looking at him. Who could they be if they were not Jews? I breathed a sigh of relief, and the fear disappeared as though I had suddenly come to a safe place where there were no Germans. I was no longer alone. Loneliness made me feel down and afraid of every leaf on a tree and every shadow of a branch.
I approached with energetic steps so the man would hear someone was coming and would not be startled, but he was very startled and shouted at first : Khto tam? Who's there? I answered not to be afraid because I am a Jew.
I understood immediately you are a Jew, but surely you know a person gets frightened. Any minute robbers could come. Where do you come from?
I came from other forests. I was also in the village of Zofiovka.
You were in the town? So come, sit down. I will boil a little tea for you soon. There is still a slice of bread.
I just want to warm up and sleep a little. I got very tired from walking and wandering around in the forest the whole night long.
I sat down near the fire. He added a few pieces of wood that went up in flames from the embers. I took off my shoes and warmed my feet. I felt at home. He boiled a little water in a pan and gave me something to drink. I did not want to take bread from him. He gave me a blanket, and I fell asleep even though he was disappointed I did not tell him anything, but he forgave me when he saw how exhausted I was. The next day, after I slept a few hours, I saw more Jews in the forest. There were whole families, partial families, and people alone who escaped from the pit, and also people who had been wandering for some time in the forest, those who had not believed the Germans.
The forest was spread out at a distance of only ten to fifteen kilometers from the town. The Ukrainian murderers could arrive at any moment to shoot those who remained without any opposition. But the Jews were indifferent. They had nowhere to go. I remembered my sisters who had been in the same situation.
I met an elderly man there whose son was in the partisan group and he told me, that they were in the same forest, but he did not know exactly where they were and how far it was from there. It seemed his son came to visit him from time to time to help him, but he cannot take him to the group. These things pained me. Who knows if I am not walking for nothing because my goal was really to bring my sisters and brother-in-law to the group. I went around all day among the people. I saw they were abandoned and neglected, their spirits were down, and they had no way to hold on during the approaching winter. Would they live until the winter? Some of them brought food from Gentile acquaintances, a few received help from the families who still lived in the town, and others received help from the group. I told them about the forest where my relatives were, and about the town I had been in. We spoke of revenge, about whom we would avenge if we would stay alive. I saw that the main hatred was for the Ukrainians. They were the ones who helped the Germans wipe out the Jews. Without them the Germans would not have been able to carry out such a slaughter of tens of thousands of people and throw them into pits in the middle of the day. I agreed with the Jews who survived. I myself saw the murderous faces of the Ukrainian police officers who surrounded the town and hit and shot elderly people who could not walk on their own. When they surrounded the town square, they shot everyone who pointed his foot in another direction. Whoever did not see those murderous and bloodthirsty faces has never seen raw hatred. They said the Poles came to steal from the Jews as soon as they were driven out of their homes, but their hatred for them was less. Indeed all those people who dreamt of revenge were certain they would not be entitled to it. The murderers knew that the remaining Jews were gathered here. Also the Jews understood that people knew about them, but they still gathered together. It was better to live like that. There was more freedom together. How would it be possible to stay alone in the forest when they knew there were more Jews there? Who wanted to think about what might happen? It would be enough to worry when the time comes. The main thing was to sit together and share their suffering, sorrows and hopes.
After I asked everything I could about the partisan group, I understood they were in this forest, not far from here, in the same area. The partisans went out every night on missions to get food or attack a Ukrainian police officer, to acquire a weapon or take revenge on a murderer who handed Jews over to the Germans. It seemed that knowing the partisans were nearby added to their security and wreaked fear on the Gentiles, who did not turn them in to the Germans or the police. (Later it would be clear I was mistaken not to return immediately and bring my sisters here to the forest. This weighed on my conscience for a long time.)
I kept on walking that day, but now I knew where I was going. I began to feel familiar with the forest, going by what they had told me, all its parts and paths that led to places where Jews were. I went out around noontime. I walked along a path in the forest. In the evening I met more Jews. I met two men who had rifles and bullets in their possession. They told me they did not want to join the partisans because the Gentile partisans kill the Jews and take their arms. So they decided to hold on in this way. They obtain food supplies and change their location from time to time. Their only problem was the winter, and that was worrying them. They built themselves an earthen hut without anyone knowing about it. They lost their wives and children and were looking for ways to hold on until after the war.
I understood everyone saw the partisans only during the night, when they returned from their missions, but the partisans did not reveal where they were located because they did not want anyone to follow them. Perhaps they were very close. I understood that if I did not meet up with the group tonight, a lot of time might go by until I would find them. I felt very bitter about my endless and hopeless wandering about in the forest from one group of Jews to another. I went through another night of sleep and waited for them to come, but in vain. On the third night I found a contact. I was exhausted, weak and hungry. One of the people told me there was a youth here who was going around among the Jews. He leaves and comes back. In their opinion, he is in touch with the partisans. I did not know him from the town, but perhaps a few young people had joined the group. I saw his clothes were better than the clothes of other Jews, and also self-confidence was evident in his behavior. He did not know me. I told him in a whisper that Henrik was my brother and I asked him if he knew where the partisans were now.
They are not far from here, he said. I will take you with me tonight, but I do not know if the whole group is there because they go out on missions every night now.
I told him in what place and under what tree I would lie down and wait for him. I had not eaten for two days because I did not take food from the town, and I did not want to take any food from the Jews in the forest. I lay down hungry and waited. Would I see the partisan group later today? Would I see Henrik today? Or was this a dream, after so much suffering and struggling with death? During the few hours of waiting, I kept going over the escape from the pit, the pursuit by the Germans in the forest when my friend fell next to me, the expectations of my sisters in the earthen-hut. Surely they are talking about me. Have I arrived at the place? Who knows what happened to me?
He went first and I was behind him. Now I no longer looked which way or in which direction we were going. None of that was important now. The goal was important. Even though I was tired, exhausted, broken, dirty and hungry, the walking was different now. I was not walking as a Jew getting lost in the forest. I walked now as a free partisan without fear. I was sure this was the happiest path in my life
The youth walked quickly with certain steps, and I made an effort not to lag behind him. We walked for a long time and the night was dark and cold, but I felt heat. I was covered with sweat because of the effort. It was too much for me. We did not talk the whole way. He did not ask me anything and I did not tell him anything. I tried not to ask anything. Nothing interested me except to be there.
Suddenly he said, In a few more minutes we will be at the place. Look straight ahead. You can already see it.
I cannot see, I said.
In a little while you will see.
Stop, who is going there? Do you know the password?
The youth said the password and we approached slowly. Across from us a burly guy emerged, his rifle aimed at us. He looked to make sure he knew who we were. When he was convinced he knew us, he slung his rifle over his shoulder. When he saw me, he hugged me.
Sankeh, you are alive! We thought you were no longer alive. Henrik is not here. He will return later. Oh Sankeh, you are alive. Go straight, and you will see a fire. There are three guys there. They will give you something to eat.
I wept with joy.
Towards evening I went out of the hospital like a drunk, yearning for sleep. The rattling of the freight train that took Boris to the West was ringing in my ears. Why couldn't I do that? Indeed I had not yet been released from the hospital, but why couldn't I board a train like that and go west to Rovna, to Sarny? We fought against the Germans in all those places and now that area had been liberated. What was the situation like there now? Did any Jews remain there? Who of my relatives was there? When Lublin is liberated, I will go there.
I went on the streets of Kiev and could not decide where to go, and so I arrived at Tamara's house. Why Tamara, when I wanted to go to Sarah? Ever since she left me on the street and walked away from me, I felt insulted.
Tamara's mother was very happy I came. Tamara showed indifference. She stood in front of the mirror and combed her long light hair, which curled up a bit at the ends. She took a few books and went out of the house after she apologized to me and said she must go. Her face was more pale than usual, but perhaps I was just imagining it. Her mother understood my embarrassment.
Why are you worried, Sankeh? Sit down and drink some tea.
She took out a bottle with a little vodka in it and poured two small glasses.
This is how we receive a friend in Russia, she said. We drink and eat something sweet. Do not be angry that Tamara went out. She is a little sad that Boris left.
I did not come to Tamara. I was walking around in the street. I had nowhere to go. I cannot go to Sarah, so I came here. If I am bothering you, I can go away.
Sit down. I will not let you go. Oh, how happy I would be if one of our men returned. Three men were here, jolly good fellows. All of them were really heroes.
This is how she spoke when I would come with Boris, and this is how she spoke this time as well while holding the photos of her heroes.
Perhaps they are alive and are being held as German prisoners?
I thought how Jews might look as German prisoners. Could they disguise themselves as Russians? They would not know or recognize them if no one informs on them. Perhaps army people do not inform on one another. They are united there. That is what I thought to myself.
I told her that in war one must hope because there are hundreds and thousands of prisoners. One must not despair and should wait patiently. I saw I was giving her new life by what I said. I gave her myself as an example. Who knows I am alive? I escaped certain death many times. I wandered so much in battle, and now I was walking around Kiev. I do not know if anyone from my family remains, or if other people wonder if I am alive.
So, Mamushka, you might see your husband and your sons one of these days.
She looked at me with her moist eyes wide open. Wrinkles appeared around her eyes, and she looked older than she was. I poured myself a little vodka and began to tell her the story of the adventure I had in the Carpathian Mountains.
The Germans surrounded us in the Carpathian Mountains. They bombarded us with planes. Some German divisions controlled the roads, so we stayed in the mountains without food. The horses were scattered. We carried our weapons with us and the food items stayed on the carts on the roads. We received an order to blow up the heavy artillery and leave with light weaponry in small groups from the mountains, to try not to run into those Germans, to move on different roads until we reached Belorussia where there were a few villages where we could rest after battles. Fate would have it that I would lose our battalion and remain with one fighter, with Andre.
He was a Ukrainian from the Soviet area, a Ukrainian who was one of a kind. He had no hatred in him and none for the Jews. Even when he made fun of the Jews or told jokes about them, he would do it humorously and without anger. I do not remember if I ever saw him annoyed. When he would get tired after walking for many hours through swamps in the rain, or from standing guard on cold frosty nights, he would laugh and ask why the world was created with wars, hunger and suffering, and what does he care about the controversy between Hitler and Stalin. He wanted to work the land, to ride a horse and to dance on Sundays with the girls and have a good time. When we entered a village and all the guys were busy washing underwear, cooking food, cleaning weapons, mending clothes, you could see Andre sitting in the hut where there were many girls, telling jokes, and the girls would laugh their heads off.Eventually he would find one who would stay with him until he left the place. He did not have to do laundry or shine his shoes. She would do all that for him. He would talk, and she would be laughing. He was around twenty years old, but when he did not find a young woman, he could enjoy himself with a woman who was years older than he was, even twenty years. Everything looked good to him. He would find families where the head of the family was in the army or with the partisans. He would take care of the children, and they would immediately become attached to him because of his stories, and so he would immediately become part of the family. When we would sleep on the floor, he already knew which Gentile woman with a husband in the army has a good time and cheats on her husband. He would tell the group where in Belorussia the girls do not wear underpants, where whole families still sleep together on the oven, how you need to behave towards the girls in every one of the villages. He knew how to talk to them in their language.
Andre was of average height, with a wide face and a short nose. He was always smiling. Now he was scratching his head.
Sankeh, we are alone. It is not good. What will we do by ourselves? I don't even know where to go, in which direction our battalion went and what the commander said. It is not good not good
We stood on a high mountain and saw the clouds. Some of them were below us, some of them across from our eyes. The sun had not come up, but we could see the area. The land was wet. Even though we were tired from the whole night, we did not lie down to rest because we were so annoyed. The more there was daylight, the more concerned we were. Only yesterday the mountains here were full of partisans, and now there was silence, as though all of that was a dream. All the divisions left the mountains last night or early in the morning when we went to look for food.
We understood the group's plan. We understood by now they had gone fifty kilometers, and during the day they were resting scattered about in groups in different groves, in small villages, or in corn fields. We made up our minds not to remain there because the Germans had brought a special mountain corps to fight us, which was the reason for the rapid withdrawal of our unit.
We will go! said Andre, and we began to slide down the mountain. There was silence. Not a living soul was visible. We moved ourselves on our backsides and laughed. We were worried we might tear our pants. I imagined how the pants were ripping our descent continued endlessly. We were already at the middle of the mountain. We saw a small path and footprints. We began to walk in the footprints. We walked rapidly. I felt itching all over my body. I put my hand in and pulled out a pile of lice. I did not tell Andre, but I knew where this came from. I had been with the partisans for a year and a half and kept myself clean the whole time in all conditions, and now I felt a terrible itching.
Look, Sankeh! Andre called. Here on the left side. I turned my head and saw a beautiful horizon. Fields full of color and green groves. Everything was square, as though it had all been measured, green-yellow, white.
Look here, said Andre and turned my head.
I was overwhelmed by weakness. I saw a road that looked like it was not far when we looked from the mountain. Tanks and many cars were moving there, going back and forth. We looked at one another.
They are looking for us, I said.
So what were you thinking? Who else would they be looking for?
We had rifles in our possession. Each one of us had fifty bullets. I also had two hand grenades. Andre was lazy. He hated fighting and never took grenades with him. The shouts of the commander had not been effective. He hid his grenades on the cart that brought the food supplies and ammunition. Now he asked me to give him a grenade.
The tanks moved and we walked. We decided to walk as long as we could see footprints, whatever will be will be, because we were not allowed to stay here. The footprints led to the road, and from here we concluded that our people crossed the road early in the morning. Now it was impossible. We were already all the way down. It was hot. The sun was blazing. I was sweating and the lice were stinging my body without mercy. We did not speak to one another. We decided about every step with hints, silently. We were thirty meters from the road. We both understood that during the day we could not move on and that we must wait until it became dark. We had no place to stay during the day. On the other side of the road were groves, tall corn fields and apparently water. In the place where the mountain ended there was only naked ground. We lost track of our people, but we kept on going. We hoped we would find someplace where we could hide by the road.
Suddenly there was a terrible noise. Two planes were coming. They flew down lower and bgan to drop tiny bombs. We lay down and counted the bombs blowing up on the mountain. We counted until ten and the planes disappeared. It was silent, but only for ten minutes. Before we decided to get up, the planes returned and again began to drop the bombs. For two hours everything was quiet. The planes did not appear again. We got up from our place and stood erect. We wanted to drink. The sun was burning. We looked again across the road. To our left there was increased movement of tanks, cars, and Germans on bicycles. We heard shouts. They were concentrated there and getting ready to climb up the mountains after the bombardment from the planes. We therefore turned right, and the further we went from the road, the more the silence increased. We walked in silence. We understood that if we go further from the place, we would manage to avoid the Germans because today they decided to conduct an attack on the mountains.
We reached an intersection. We followed the path the Germans took and saw that the road on the right was a side road because all the traffic was moving on roads from the left side. We walked to the right and moved away from them. Now we decided to cross the road. There we would have fields with water, stalks of wheat, and forest groves. Here there were only mountains and roads with Germans. Just when we decided to run across the road, a motorcycle went by so quickly that we only heard the noise. We decided to approach by crawling towards the road and lie down close to the asphalt margins. When it would be silent one of us would run across, and after a few minutes, the other one. I crawled towards the road's edges. Zzzz The motorcycle went by like a wind on its way back. This went on for a few minutes. It seems they were guarding the road too. We did not talk to each other, but we understood that if it goes by another time, one or both of us would have to run across. After a few minutes it appeared and went by in a flash. We both crossed the road bent over but with all our strength. We each held our rifles in the right hand, their barrels pointed forward.
All of that lasted about a second or two, but it seemed like it lasted an hour. We were already lying on the other side of the road. We wanted the German to come back, but he did not appear. We were worried he might have seen us. Perhaps we were too hasty. When we decided to crawl to the fields, he went by again, quick as a devil. We looked at each other, as if we were telling each other that we had been allowed to live. If we had gotten up one short minute sooner we would have lost. We kept on crawling and went further from the road. We entered a wheat field. We tore off the sheaves, took out the seeds, and ate. When we were lying among the grain I looked at the coat I found yesterday on the mountain. Clouds of lice were crawling all over it. I touched the collar. I put my hand under the collar and took out a pile of lice. I saw Andre put his rifle aside and stretch out as though to sleep. I did not bother him and went away from him. I spread out the coat and left it between the stalks and went back to my place. Now I understood where this trouble came from. I found the coat on the mountain, and I felt that a good coat had come my way. The coat was crawling with lice. But so many, from where had so many come I was a little relieved, even though I felt itching all over my body. Indeed I had managed to wipe out the main source where they came from. Furthermore, the sun was warm and it was easier without the coat. What would happen at night? I did not want to think about that. I saw Andre snoring, his face down, his nose against the ground and his legs stretched out. The stalks stood up between them. I decided to take revenge on the murderers who were slowly and constantly torturing me. I undressed until I was almost naked and began to exterminate the lice who were moving around on my nightshirt. I crushed them and threw them off. I turned over the nightshirt and rubbed it with dirt and sand. Then I did the same thing with my underpants. When I got dressed again I felt as though I had just emerged from a good public bathhouse.
I understood we were near the road and it was dangerous to stay. I tried with all my might not to fall asleep. I sat and chewed the seeds while Andre snored. I began to consider the situation. It was noon. We were close to the road, and our tracks might lead the Germans straight to us. And perhaps it was good for us to stay near the road during the day, and later, when it would be dark, we could go into the nearby village to get food. I would also gladly change all my clothes to get rid of the remaining lice and to continue on our way. We had to walk north, and we could do that at night with the help of the stars since we did not have a map and it was difficult to know the roads to Belorussia. It was also possible the Germans were in all the villages because they knew we were wandering around here.
Andre, get up! I tried to wake him.
I felt I was committing a sin because he had fallen into a deep sleep. That was no wonder, but I wanted us to decide together if we would stay here the whole day. In the beginning I patted him, but it did not help. I rolled and pinched him until he opened his eyes. He did not know where he was and thought he had to go out to guard duty. Later he told me that he saw his home in his dream and I disturbed him in the middle of the dream.
Andre, you have been sleeping for half an hour already. We cannot stay here. We are near the road. The Germans might come, the workers may come to the field, and then we will be lost.
Andre, you cannot sleep now, remember where we are
He rubbed his eyes and looked at me.
Do not be afraid, Sankeh, no one will come.
He began to chew on the seeds. I saw he was hungry.
Sankeh, what will we do in the evening?
We'll worry about that later, but now? What will we do now?
Andre lifted his head up.
Look Sankeh, there is a corn field a few hundred meters away. We will crawl there, but make sure the stalks remain upright.
This would be impossible but we had no choice. We had to go away. We had crawled a few meters when I looked back and saw nothing looked familiar. As we entered the corn field we penetrated it more deeply. Here we felt safer, even though it was not as comfortable as it was in the wheat field. We cleaned the rifles a bit, one by one. We did not see anything, but we listened carefully. There was silence all around us. From time to time a bird flew by. The day went by very slowly. We were afraid to talk because someone might hear our voices. We were quiet and listened carefully. I did not fall asleep the whole day, even though Andre slept a few times. I did not rely on him because he was relying on me and fell asleep whenever he had a chance.
When the sun began to go down we were happy the day had gone by peacefully. We managed to get out of the mountains and cross the road, which meant we overcame the first danger successfully. Now we were worried about getting food and making a plan to walk to Belarus. We did not know the way, and we knew nothing about this area. When it was dark, we got up and surveyed the area. We smiled at one another. We were lucky.
Let's go eat, Andre said.
You see, Andre, we must go north there. We will go to the nearest village and get food. We will ask about the way and perhaps we will meet our people.
By looking at the lights we saw villages that were big, small, and tiny, but first we had to find the way, to get out of the fields without using the road. The danger was greater there, even at night. We walked in fields of wheat, corn, and cabbage. Everything was growing, but for whom? We walked north. We walked quickly. When we found a path to a village, we took a chance if it was quiet around us. We loaded our rifles and went into the first village. We wanted to know if there were no Germans in the area, but we did not see a living soul on the way. The houses were nice, decorated with big gardens and fruit trees. Andre looked at them.
Look, Sankeh! What a good life they have here. What do you think? Are these Belarusian villages? I want to eat, Sankeh
Andre, we will not eat in any house. They might turn us in.
We went by a few houses and our glance fell on a spacious two-story house. I stayed outside. Andre went up the stairs. The house had painted wooden stairs and a pretty railing decorated with flowers that rose up to the roof. I saw another railing on the house and a window, like in a store. Indeed, it was a grocery store. I said to myself that perhaps there are Germans or police officers here. Andre came back after a few minutes with a basket full of food in his hand. I was delighted when I saw him. I suspected he might start up with the women. He was pale and made a sign to me to walk quickly. Something had happened. After we were out of the village he told me there were four Germans there. They were resting before going out on duty. We left the village, walking quickly, but we did not run so as not to arouse any suspicion. After we had gone a few kilometers, we went down to the field. There were piles of cut weeds there. We sat among them. Andre took out the food he had managed to put into the basket in those few minutes: bread, all kinds of meat, cheese and butter. We ate slowly and with appetite. Later we began to plan. We decided to enter one of the villages and to ask for a map from the principal of a school. We would do that tomorrow, at night, after we had rested. Today we wanted to sleep a little. Later we would keep on walking, and early in the morning we would look for a place where we could lie down for the whole day. We meant to continue at night with the help of a horse and to rest during the noon hours so we could get to the place as quickly as possible.
When we woke up after a few hours, it was dark and cold all around us. We brushed the weeds off our clothes, got up and stretched. We studied the area and began to walk. In the first village we knocked on the door of a small hut. There was no answer for a long time, but when we said Police, the peasant opened the door. We calmed him down and told him we would not do him any harm if he helped us.
What can I help you fellows with? I am a poor man burdened with small children. I do not have anything.
We do not want anything from you. We only want to ask you something. If you do not tell us the truth, your fate will be bitter because our friends are not far from here. Tell us, are there Germans in the village?
No, Germans do not come here. There is only one police officer here.
What is the name of the village? Bring us a pencil and paper, and a map of the area that children study in school. What is the distance from the next village, and what is its name? How can we walk there while bypassing the city?
We did not have too much faith in him, but we got some information from him and went away. That same night we passed by three villages and walked the right way. By the time it was light, we had managed to go more than thirty kilometers. The sun rose and we went on walking. We wanted to get to a grove we saw from a distance. The sun was high in the sky when we entered it. We were tired but pleased we had managed to go such a long way during the night, to pass by villages and get to the grove where we could rest and eat from what we had with us. But here something we did not expect happened to us. When we went into the heart of the forest, we took off the rifles, put them by a tree, and suddenly saw something move among the bushes not far from us. We froze in our places. We grabbed the rifles, loaded them, and kept on listening. We heard people speaking Russian. They could only be our people. We waited a few minutes and approached the place where the voices came from. I shouted: Who are you? They grabbed their arms and answered, One of us. We felt each other out. We put down the rifles and approached. We did not recognize one another, but we saw four partisans armed with automatic rifles. We told one another which battalion we belonged to.
Now we were six fighters together. We never would have believed such good fortune was possible. Immediately we determined who would be the commander. We ate together and told them what had happened to from when we were in the mountains up to this point. It turned out they had been in the same village, with the same peasant, and had come the same way to the grove. We planned to go fifty kilometers every night with a horse and cart, to get maps and do everything together. However, the Germans wanted otherwise and something else happened that day. We slept a little and every hour a different person stood watch. Our mood was good. Andre told jokes and we already saw ourselves going the whole night until we would arrive at Belorussia. But the fighter who was chosen as the commander scanned the grove. He saw the surrounding fields and some quite big villages nearby.
Listen guys, I believe the situation is not so bright. The area of the entire grove is perhaps one square kilometer. We were probably seen when we entered here, and who knows if we are not already surrounded. We must get out of this grove, and it will be good if we find a place in a field and lie down there.
A little while later we began to walk with lots of space between each of us. When the first one of us went by a path that crossed the forest to very small parcels of land, we were fired upon by a machine gun. What the commander had predicted had happened. We were surrounded.
The Germans held the four borders of the grove and set up machine guns to finish us off. The shots convinced us we must get out of there at any price. We no longer walked according to plan, but each one of us ran in a different direction. When I crossed the path, bullets were whistling by me, but I went through and started to crawl in the fields. I did not know if everyone had gotten out alive. From the field I saw that the grove was surrounded by German gendarmes.
When the shots stopped I raised my head and looked for a place where I could hide. The sun warmed me. The scent of the fields was refreshing. We could have enjoyed ourselves, but they did not leave us alone. The Germans knew that a group of partisans who had escaped was moving around there. It was clear now that they would guard the roads and bother us.
Now I did not know if I was alone, or if they were not far from me. Where was Andre? I crawled out and found a pit in the field. I went inside and hid there for a while. My rifle was full of sand. We did not shoot at them because we had an absolute order not to engage the enemy in battle, lest we be discovered.
When the sun went down, I got up. Not far from me Andre stood up and we were together again. Human destiny. We did not find the four fighters until we returned to the battalion. We were walking together again.
Sankeh, those dogs won't leave us alone.
Andre was very broken and disappointed. Sankeh, we will not make it, he said. They will exterminate us like dogs.
Andre, I said to him, that might happen. We must be careful. If we go by ourselves and not in big groups, we will make it. We must not give up.
I told him what happened when I fled from the pits, how I wandered to the forest, without a piece of bread. But all of that was in vain. I saw he wanted to do something but didn't know what to do. That was the first time I heard him say terrible things.
Sankeh, you are a Jew. It is not good for me to walk with you.
Andre, that is not important now. The Germans want to kill all the partisans. They do not care whether they are Jews, Russians or Ukrainians. You are beginning to talk nonsense.
Sankeh, if I walked by myself, I would throw away the rifle and pretend to be a nationalist, and they would welcome me with food and everything else.
Especially the girls, I said to myself. I had no wish to separate from him. I took him to a small village where he could go to eat. I let him wander about there for a little while in the houses, even though there was some risk involved. I was sure that by doing this he would forget what had happened today and would then again be the same good old Andre. We passed by the village from a few kilometers away, but we did not talk together and walked in silence. Suddenly Andre asked me if I wanted to eat. He took food in the village, but until now, he had not offered me any.
Sankeh, do you want to eat? he asked me.
Sometimes he would talk to me in Russian and that pleased me. This time he talked to me in Ukrainian. I hated that language, which brought back terrible experiences.
Yes, Andre, we will eat here, I answered him in Russian.
We got off the road. There were thick pine trees there, most of which had been sawed down. It seemed that a forest had grown here in the past but that it had been cut down. The ground was dry, without weeds, but only piles and piles of old pine needles that had fallen from the trees. We sat down on a mound near the opening of quite a deep pit. The night was dark. There was no moon in the sky.
He did not eat. I sat by myself and chewed the bread and meat. Later we ate the big apples we picked when we passed by one of the gardens.
Sankeh, I came up with an idea.
What's the idea, Andre?
I thought we could walk together, but without rifles
I did not understand what he meant immediately, but when I understood he wanted to throw the weapons away, I was hysterical.
Andre, are you out of your mind? Think about what you are saying. We are fighters from Kovpak's unit. Have you ever heard of a partisan throwing away his weapon?
But, Sankeh, without the rifles we can walk freely in the villages and ask for food. No one will know we are partisans.
Andre, without the rifles they will not even give us a piece of bread. They will arrest us because we have no papers. Remember I am a Jew. Without a weapon, they will kill me. With the weapon I am a partisan who can defend myself. There is an order not to throw a weapon away even if you have to die. And when we come back to the battalion, how can we come without the weapons? I wanted to convince him in every way, but he stood firm.
Sankeh, if you want to go with me, we will go without weapons. This is how it will be. When we enter the village, I will enter the house. I already know what I will say. I will bring you food, and we will continue on our way. The Gentiles will help me and we will arrive at the battalion quickly. Then we will say that the nationalists caught us and locked us in a cow shed. If we had not fled at night they would have shot us
That is correct, that might happen, but I cannot throw away the rifle.
I remembered how I had aspired to having a rifle so I could defend myself with a weapon, and now after a year and a half of war in Kovpak's division I needed to return without a weapon, and furthermore, I am a Jew. What if they refused to take me back
Andre, if we throw off the rifles, we will not have weapons. We might regret it. Remember that every minute without a weapon is like a breath without air.
Sankeh, you are foolish! Which is better, to stay alive and get to the end of the journey, or to be killed with the rifle? Walk with me and I will take care of you. I can get along better in the villages without a rifle than with a rifle. I will walk with you and we will not separate. I will bring you to the battalion to Belorussia and they will believe everything I tell them.
I should have gotten up to take my rifle and leave, but I did not have enough courage to do that. I looked at how Andre dismantled his rifle into pieces, which he began to throw into pits in the ground.
May they not have any use from this, the dogs.
I was overwhelmed with nervousness and fear.
Andre, stop! What are you doing? This is dangerous! It was even more tragic when Andre took my rifle and began to take it apart, while he was consoling me:
Do not be afraid Sankeh. We will get there and have twenty rifles. If only you will be able to fight that much, you will have enough rifles.
He hypnotized me and did what he wanted. He scattered the small pieces in the different pits, and the rifle itself he threw into a deep pit. Then he threw in sand, dirt, and everything he found there. Later we were deeply sad, as though we had buried a good friend and there was no one to comfort us. So many months, day and night, I ate in the company of the rifle. I slept with it, walked so many kilometers with it, and used it to fight so much. Now it was no longer here. I felt I had lost my honor and was no longer worth anything. From now on, I was dependent on Andre.
When we got up from our place and went on our way, I felt the two hand grenades on my belt. I covered them up and did not say anything. And then something we would not have believed possible happened again.
We calmed down after everything that had happened between us. I resigned myself to my fate of going without a weapon, but I decided to keep my grenades because that could help us flee. Andre felt I was sad, and so he spoke the whole way:
Do not worry, Sankeh, it will be OK, we will get to the place. Do not fear the commanders. If you want to fight, they will give you a weapon. If you give them your head, they will give you everything.
I understood what he meant. But I was a Jew and I was not fighting for them. I really needed a weapon. Was it possible for him to understand my soul? How could he understand what a weapon means for a Jew? Did he think we were the same? He could be a Russian or a Ukrainian, he could speak Russian when he wanted to, or Ukrainian when it would help him. He could be a Communist or a Ukrainian nationalist, but I -.
We went for about ten kilometers, and we made plans for the next day. We saw the first village, and as with every village, the first house, a small forlorn hut with a roof of straw. The night was dark, but the village was well lit. We approached and saw the hut. I looked at the straight road that crossed the village. There was silence. No dogs were visible.
Andre, I said, how will you go into the hut without a rifle?
Don't worry. It will be OK.
But when we approached and Andre hinted I should stay where I was, we heard shouts.
Halt! Who goes there?
We did not answer and retraced our steps. We heard isolated shots. Andre ran and I was behind him, but after a few minutes I did not see him anymore. I did not understand where he had disappeared. I did not want to think he ran to the village to turn himself in to the police. I did not want to believe that he was about to betray me like that. I sat for some time in the darkness until it was absolutely quiet. I understood I had to take my fate in my own hands. Now I understood the crime I committed when I allowed him to do what he wanted with the rifle, but there was no way to undo what had been done. I had two grenades. I could threaten anyone who would not give me food or I could use them in the field. I planned to go through the field and bypass the village. Seeing lights, I discerned another village. I could bypass the village where I was now and get over there. I hoped it was quiet there. I would take food and continue on my way to the north.
Something I did not believe was possible happened again. Before I went down to the fields I looked towards the village. The lights were strong there. I could see what was happening clearly. I even saw the man on guard duty at the edge of the village. Later I saw a group of four or five men walking from house to house. Apparently, they were taking out food items. Later I saw a peasant who left one of the yards in a wagon. I also saw they were loading bundles on onto the wagon. I did not really see this, but from their movements, this is what I imagined was happening. Who could be working like this except for Kovpak's people? I was overcome with enthusiasm. I began to run with all my strength towards the village, which was lit with electric street lamps. Members of our battalion surrounded me. Among them I met two Belorussians, old friends of mine. I also saw Berman.
Hey, Berman, how are you? What's going on?
Berman was a fighter in our fourth battalion, a Jew, a good fighter. All the Jews there were good fighters, but Berman was the best of all. He would often take revenge on the anti-Semitic gentiles. When he discovered that someone among them hated the Jews, Berman started to plan how to get rid of him in battle or some another way. Nevertheless, now, when Berman is standing next to me and seeing me without a rifle, wearing dirty, torn and worn out clothes, he must have remembered something. I saw he wanted to console me.
Do not worry, Sankeh, he said, you are going with us.
I remembered well how I first met him. When we were in the forests of Belorussia a year earlier, a partisan told me he saw a strange creature in the forest, and he was sure that was a Jew. I asked him what this creature looks like and he said: Sankeh, he hardly looks like a living person. He is torn and worn out with rags hanging on his body, and you cannot tell if those are clothes or patches. He has long black hair because he has not washed himself for many months.
They brought me to him. He looked at us with terrifying eyes. I understood this could only be a Jew. They brought him to wash up and gave him clothes and food. They attached him to our group. He learned to shoot from us. He hardly spoke and did not say anything, but it was clear he had been through a lot. He was not afraid of anything. He went for the greatest risks, on the hardest missions, and he was silent.
He did not ask me anything now about what I had been through, but he told me:
You are going with us, everything will be OK. We will get a rifle for you if we meet Germans on the way.
To the group he said, He is one of us, and we are taking him with us. I did not tell them anything about what Andre and I went through. They were also not interested in anything I might have to say.
They were well organized. They had maps and a compass, and they knew how to go. When they managed to get a horse and cart, they moved. When it was necessary to fight, they fought, and they did not run away as we would do when shooting broke out between us and the Germans. I did not feel comfortable, but I helped with different jobs, like getting food items. There was a sense of brotherhood among us, and we did not separate until Belorussia. Once we were lying in a field. It was on a Sunday. Suddenly a group of gentiles appeared walking back from church. There were women and children among them and a few men. They walked through the field and they noticed us. We had no choice at all. We were forced to sit them down and guard them until night fell. That was a beautiful picture. In the field were sitting dozens of men, children and women wearing dresses, scarves and blouses in an abundance of colors: red, yellow, green and white. When more people approached we attached them to those who were already there, and our people sat around them with rifles in their hands. We explained the matter to them. They were not afraid. They only wanted to go home. We, too, were frightened. We were afraid that if people were looking for them and the matter became known, the Germans might arrive. We were happy when darkness fell and we let them go. Then we were out of there ourselves.
The hour was late, but Tamara's mother sat and listened so attentively I could not stop, and indeed I really needed someone to listen to me.
Have you grown tired now, Mamushka? I asked her.
Oh, no, Sankeh, I would listen like this to your stories endlessly, until I might be lucky enough to hear that one of my dear ones could tell me something about himself.
I wanted to return to the hospital, but she wanted to know what happened when I returned without the weapons.
All along the way there was no possibility of acquiring a weapon. When there were exchanges of fire between us, either the police fled or we retreated. I was in an unpleasant situation even though there were many who did not have a weapon.
This was a problem for all the battalions. What should be done with the fighters who returned without weapons. In the village where our battalion camped, there was an atmosphere of gaiety. The people were meeting each other again, they were hugging and rejoicing and everyone talked about their experiences. They drank, ate and danced day after day and night after night. This was the land of the partisans. Here no one was afraid of the Germans. I walked around feeling sad. Here I had fought together with everyone, and I could not rejoice because of a foolish act of one minute, because of Andre's foolish ideas. After I had been there a few days, I needed to go to headquarters to inform them I was there because we were organizing the units. This was very unpleasant. At first they told me I could no longer be in the division. I defended myself saying I had already been fighting with the unit almost two years, and that I had acquired many weapons. I had remained alone and I ran away so I could keep on fighting. I did not say a word about Andre.
And so, you are going back to your group, but you must find a weapon on your own.
After the first battle with the Germans I brought six rifles. I saw Andre, but we did not exchange a word.
What do you think, Sankeh, that Andre ran away from you and left you alone on purpose? Tamara's mother asked.
I do not want to believe this. If he wanted to go alone, he could have told me and left me with the weapon.
Sankeh how fortunate you are to be able to tell me all this now. How could you have stood all that when, on top of everything else, you are also a Jew?
As a Jew? I was waiting for that word. A Jew is always a Jew. When Andre and I were in the same situation, he told me, 'You are a Jew.' You know, we have a country, it is our country. If the war had not broken out, I would be there now. My brother went there. They do not say there: 'The Jews do not fight.' All the Jews there work and fight.
How do you know all this, Sankeh?
I belonged to a Zionist organization where they taught us to fight and work, and they prepared the Jews to go to Palestine. Have you heard of Trumpeldor and Jabotinsky?
I will tell you more about our heroes. They are no longer alive.
The door opened and Tamara entered. She smiled when she looked at us. She put her books down and ran to the kitchen.
I lay down on the sheet that was changed for me. In a little while I would be sleeping like a king. Oh, the vodka! How old could she be? More than thirty? Almost forty. She already had two sons, officers in the army, and a big girl. How old is Tamara? Has she already turned twenty? No, she must be seventeen or eighteen. She does not want to hear about Jews, about that problem. She has her own world. In her view everyone is equal. Even after everything that happened here, it is easy for her to live like this. But Sarah listens to what I say about that problem.
I looked closely at the people who came that day, but I did not see any familiar faces. Immediately after breakfast I got onto my mattress and sank into my own thoughts.
Am I really here? Am I sitting by the fire? Is my friend standing guard with a rifle? They went out on a mission to bring weapons or food. My face was burning because I was sitting close to the fire. Why don't I say anything? The fire was growing. Some people wood, dry wood. The flames were rising so high you did not feel the smoke. I saw a frying pan near me with fried meat in it, and also as much bread as I could eat. The three partisans who were busy at this camp sat down now next to me and looked straight into my eyes. Do they want me to tell them something, or do they want to see how I will eat after so many days of fear and hunger? Perhaps I am just imagining I am with the group. Why am I sitting here with such confidence? I knew it was safe here. That's why I kept on going to get here. Nevertheless, not far from here they are turning Jews over to the Germans in exchange for a bottle of vodka. Not far from here my sisters are lying in a cold damp earthen hut. Dirt is falling from the walls and their thoughts are hovering over the question of whether or not I arrived safely or if I had died on the way. How long will they let them live there?
Sankeh, we were sure you were not alive. Even your brother Henrik thought you were not alive. How did you get away? Where did you hide? Did many Jews escape? they asked me.
I ate the meat and bread. The meat was fatty and infused warmth into my hungry stomach.
I looked around. I saw everything was orderly. There was a place to cook and drink water. There was wood for the fire, and two rifles were leaning against a tree. I imagined they were living on an island where they did not see what was going on around them. How could it be that fifteen people would say, We can live and fight on our own. Other Jews who escaped from the ghettos and the pits must wait for death.
I looked around. I saw everything was orderly. There was a place to cook and drink water. There was wood for the fire, and two rifles were leaning against a tree. I imagined they were living on an island where they did not see what was going on around them. How could it be that fifteen people would say, We can live and fight on our own. Other Jews, who escaped from the ghettos and the pits, must wait for death.
Later that night I heard the well known call: Stop! Who goes there? I heard the heavy steps of a few people approaching and walking. It should have been the happiest moment of my life. Now I would meet my brother Henrik. I had arrived at the partisans group. But this did not happen. The hut where my dear ones were abandoned made me feel indifferent.
But when I saw ten healthy looking guys, all armed, putting down bundles and weapons, I was astounded. Are these really Jews? Everyone was well dressed. Could Jews look like this? Why couldn't all Jews look like this?
Sankeh, are you alive? I did not think you were alive, Henrik said when he saw me.
He hugged me and held me close. I told him Papa was no longer alive and described the circumstances of his end. I told him that no one from our family went into a pit. Everyone fought as much as he could. Some of them escaped. Some of them hid. In the current circumstances even this was heroic. I also told him why I had come.
Henrik, I said, We still must go there tonight and bring them here, or help them to get along somewhere else because they cannot stay there for long. Any minute Germans might come. The Gentiles know Jews are there.
Listen, Sankeh, go to sleep and rest. Did you get food?
Yes, they gave me food.
Tomorrow I will talk about this and take care of it, and we will decide when to go. We are now an organized partisan group. I cannot decide on my own.
I was quiet, but this pained me. I saw Henrik was also suffering. I saw he was tired. I went to lie down and did not bother him. He told me that there was a weapon for me, a short rifle, sawed off, that I had bought in the past from a Gentile. I told him I also had a gift for him, a small pistol I bought in exchange for my watch. I was happy about that, and both of us were happy with our gifts. What could be better at a time like this?
In the middle of the night I woke up with strong pains in my belly. I needed to relieve myself. I could not sleep because I had to keep going into the heart of the forest. The night was very dark. My belly was empty and I still had the runs. I was very scared I had contracted some disease, and in that case, what would they do with me, and what would happen to my sisters
In the morning, everyone knew about my illness. They decided I should lie down and drink tea until I felt better. Apparently I should not have eaten fatty meat after such a long time of only eating dry bread.
They told me what they had done up to now, and how many weapons they had acquired. They had two automatic rifles and a machine gun taken from a Russian tank. A Ukrainian took it after the Russians withdrew, and now they had received it, but I do not know how. They also had some small weapons. Up to now there had not been any serious battle except for a few raids on police officers and forest rangers to get weapons for attacks on anti-Semitic Gentiles who turned Jews over to the Germans. They acquired a few weapons and took revenge.
During the day they would eat, rest, and make plans about what to do at night. Food was not lacking, nor clothing, shoes, or other objects. We wondered what would happen in the winter when snow would fall. The Germans would be able to follow the footprints. On the other hand, it would be possible to go on a mission when snow was falling, which would cover the footprints. There was also talk of making the group larger or establishing two groups. They wanted to bring more Jews to help them to get organized.
They were often busy cleaning their weapons even though they had to be ready at any minute because the Germans might come at any time. I understood they were cleaning and polishing the weapons not because they were dirty or being used a lot. They did this out of love and it gave them pleasure. They did not do this all at the same time but alternately, two by two. They rubbed every part of the weapon with oil and polished it. Every one of them boasted his weapon was cleaner and more beautiful than the others.
Henrik cleaned the machine gun. He spread out a blanket and laid all its parts on it. He cleaned it with a rag, rubbed it with oil, and put it back together again. He did this so calmly, as though he had been fighting with it for many years. It was worth it to have escaped from the pit, and to have gone through everything I went through to get here, just to see this.
I had no strength. I could not move. I had diarrhea non-stop. I only drank a small amount of boiled water. I could not put anything in my mouth. When Henrik came to see how I was, I told him not to wait until I got better, but to organize the group to go out to the forest where they could carry out all kinds of work to bring weapons and food now. The area was rich and all the residents had weapons. But the first thing they needed to do after they entered the forest was to take Chava, Hene, and Shmuel with them. I also wanted them to go to Lisovsky and see how the girl was, to bring them supplies, clothes, and as many other items as possible.
Henrik calmed me down: Sankeh, I am thinking about them. I am doing everything to convince the commander that we should go there and do everything you said. But this will take time.
My illness went on. I could not move at all, and in addition, I was torturing myself. I felt every hour they did not leave to go there might be fateful. Who could know what they were suffering while they waited and hoped we would come to save them.
Who else but me could feel all this
The next day Henrik told me they were discussing my plan and wanted to help me. Nevertheless, there were still those who were opposed because they had not yet gone that far from the base on any missions. They also believed that if Jews were living there, they should not bother the Gentiles in the area who were letting them live. And there was another problem. What would they do with the people when they would come here?
If you were healthy, Henrik said, we could take two rifles, go there, and get everything organized ourselves. But now we have to wait until you get better. Perhaps we will all go there.
I saw Henrik was very disappointed because he had helped organize the group from the beginning. Its goal had not been to stay alive but to take revenge and save Jews. And now, when our two sisters and brother-in-law could be rescued, why shouldn't we take them to the group? He was not against having others bring their relatives, which would make the group bigger. He was so disappointed he thought about leaving the group to establish a new one.
My situation was very difficult. My stomach did not digest any food. I could not stand on my feet. I imagined I was unnecessary. Why would they need sick people when healthy people were rolling about in the forest begging to fight? And they did not even want to accept them. At the same time, I was still demanding they go to bring my sisters. I felt it was still possible to save them, and any minute might be too late.
I had grown accustomed to the forest, to the people, and how they lived. After some people got up in the morning, they cleaned the weapons, cleaned the forest, dug a pit for a latrine, and dug a pit for water. Others were busy cooking the noon meal. Not far from us, the commanders sat in the forest and made plans for the night. In those hours, partisans sprout wings and begin to hover around the villages. Communications people went and communications people came. They relayed what was going on in nearby villages. I had gotten used to the trees. I was already familiar with every tree and all its branches. Another week went by, and I still could not walk or eat. Everyone was nice to me and comforted me. They encouraged me to have patience, telling me it would all be OK. I would get better and take participate in the missions, and I would still be able to fight.
None of that encouraged me. I knew I belonged to the partisans, but I also knew about this forest. I felt I would go out of my mind if I didn't go to save them. After two weeks Henrik came to me. It would be early in the evening.
Sankeh, he said, We are going tonight to the Zagajnik forest.
I asked him who was going.
Seven guys will go with me and the machine gun.
I did not answer at all. When he left me, I tried to walk. I got ready with them. I got dressed as though I was going out. I took my weapon and bullets and was ready. I waited for the hour of departure. When I saw they were beginning to get ready, I felt the happy moment had arrived.
This was the first time I went out with a group of partisans. Everyone was armed. Who could understand my feelings? I was going out with an armed partisan group to rescue my sisters. I remembered the moments when the German led me to dig the pit.
We walked quietly. Our steps could hardly be heard. We walked in a straight line, one after another, with the space of a few steps between each of us. The bespectacled Grisha marched first. It seemed he didn't see a thing, but he walked as though he was familiar with every tree. He was serious and severe. Andre walked behind him, Henrik was behind him with the machine gun on his shoulder, and three other guys armed with rifles were behind him. I walked last. We went out of the forest and waited. Silence surrounded us. We kept going on our way on narrow paths. Now we increased our walking speed, but still we walked quietly. We crossed the road that led to the town. We walked on the road where they had led the town's Jews to the pits, but we did not have time to talk or think about that. We had to come and leave quickly for our campaign to succeed. The secret of partisan success was speed and quiet. After we crossed the road to the town and entered the forest, we rested for a few minutes. We sat down in one row. We held our weapons on our knees. There was silence. No one uttered a word.
We approached with sure and rapid steps. I felt as though an electric current went through me. The long awaited moment had come. They would not need to go anymore to ask for a piece of bread, to be frightened that dogs might pounce on them.
We arrived at the edge of the village. I saw Kaminsky's house. We all stopped. We began to consult one another about what to do. We decided to go first to the Jews in the forest. But how could we approach them without scaring them? We decided six people would stay outside the forest, and three would go in quietly and carefully without frightening them. When would we be able to see them alive?
With my last ounce of strength I entered the dark forest. I was weak and covered with sweat. Henrik left his machine gun with one of our comrades and took a rifle with him. I knew the forest well, and we arrived quickly at the earthen hut.
Henrik, we are too late! I called.
The place looked like it was after a pogrom. I froze in my tracks. What I had foreseen had happened. The huts were empty, broken, covered with dirt. Various clothing, coats, and blankets were strewn around. That was proof that it had all happened fairly recently, perhaps that very day or the day before.
I did not leave the place so quickly. We crawled to every earthen hut and studied every object we found. We could not take our time because our comrades were waiting for us, and the night was passing quickly. We did not speak with each other. We left the place with our heads lowered, as though we were leaving a cemetery. Here they had lied down, slept, and eaten stale bread. During the day they gazed at the trees, listened to the noises of the wind, and hoped against all hope for something. They knew the end must come, but in their subconscious minds when they were lying under their covers at night, a spark of hope would sneak in, perhaps someone would come to rescue them from their loneliness, from the hands of the murderers who might come at any time.
But we did not come. The murderers came.
When the group saw us, they immediately understood. They only asked us what we thought should be done now. Should we go back immediately, or was there something more to do? We asked them to wait until we talked with Kaminsky. We would do that quickly.
They sat at the edge of the forest and followed us with their looks when we walked to Kaminsky's house.
The Gentile was startled when we entered his place. He told us what had happened. There was a Pole who maintained contacts with the police and cooperated with the Germans. He passed on the information that Jews were living in the forest and received payment in return. Two days ago people from the Ukrainian police arrived and fired into the forest. The Jews scattered. Our sisters and brother-in-law managed to escape. Two Jews were killed.
Yes, Mr. Henrik, Kaminsky said to my brother. They ran away, and the next day they came to me in the evening. I could not keep them. Here in the village, the neighbors know what is going on in everyone's house. We could not risk our lives. You understand, Mr. Henrik?
Where are they now?
I told them to go to other forests until things calm down. I think they are in a forest near Lisovsky, where the girl is.
Where does the Gentile live who informed the Germans?
Henrik received all the information about the Gentile and his house. He promised Kaminsky no harm would befall him. He asked him to help our sisters as much as he could so they would not be hungry, and he told him we would leave the village. Kaminsky did not know there were more partisans in the village. Henrik told me we were leaving the place now and would soon visit Lisovsky. We would ask there where our sisters were. I could see from Henrik's eyes and mout that he was planning a mission for the group for this night. Henrik parted from Kaminsky and asked him again to help our sisters. We did not want to eat in his place, and we left him.
When we approached the group, Henrik consulted the man who walked first. Later they said we would remain here for a few more hours. Everyone was lying down and resting. During those same hours, when the village was asleep, guard positions were set up in different places. I was placed at the edge of the village with another young man.
Four comrades walked to that Gentile who informed on the Jews. All of that lasted just a few minutes. A few shots were heard. In the meantime, others took out a peasant with a horse and wagon. We put food items we found in his house on the wagon. Now we all traveled back to the forest. Obviously we went out in a different direction. We sent the Gentile to his house and began to walk to the base. We were all dragging packages, both heavy and light. We walked quietly and did not leave any traces behind us, because that is the secret of the partisans.
On our way back I could study the situation. I realized the people of the group had turned into real partisan fighters. The speed with which they decided to commit an act of revenge testified to the fact this was not the first time. In any case, they were taking revenge. The Gentiles were beginning to feel the hand of revenge.
* * *
I had recovered and began to eat. I started to go out to guard duty and on other missions as well. My only worry was when we would go to look for our sisters.
We began to get ready for the winter. In a little while, there would be heavy rains, and after that frost and snow. According to logic, a fighting unit would not be able to prepare for the winter like a farmer in a village. Because we carried out acts of revenge against antisemites and misguided murderers, and we also organized attacks on police and forest rangers to acquire weapons, it was known in the area that partisans were here. Any minute, Germans might come with police officers to organize an attack against us. Therefore, we had to move to another place.
There was an argument about the question of how to prepare for the winter. There were those who said we needed to prepare food supplies for the entire winter and bury them in underground storehouses so the Germans would not discover it. When we had enough supplies, we could go out whenever we decided, according to the weather. In any case, if we were hungry, we would have to go out, and then they could surround us and destroy us.
Others said we were a fighting partisan group and should not prepare food items. We must perform our work at night, and then during the day we could rest any place where it seemed safe to do so. Our job was to fight, to avenge, and food items would never be lacking.
It was decided to operate in accordance with the opinion of the first group, and therefore the entire group was busy preparing supplies, storehouses, and earthen huts for sleeping. Some of the people worked all day long building the storehouses. They dug deep square pits, installed walls made of branches, and disguised them from the outside so they would not be discovered. We ourselves had signs by which we could recognize where the storehouses were. At night we would go out to a distant village a rich village obviously to acquire supplies.
I also went out for the first time on a mission. We entered a village at a late hour. There was a guard there who shouted, Stop! Who goes there? Perhaps it was a policeman, but he ran away.
Everything was done quickly. Some of the people opened the dairy farm, others brought horses and carts. Two stood watch. We dragged crates of butter that had been prepared for the Germans. In minutes the crates of butter were loaded onto two carts, and the horses began to gallop. In a minute we were out of the village. After we traveled for an hour on different roads, we sent the Gentiles to their homes with their horses, and now the work began. By the time the dawn broke, everything was in place. During the day, other people organized all the storehouses.
The next day live pigs and calves were brought. We prepared meat for the entire winter. We finished building the earthen hut where we planned to live and eat. It seemed we were building our lives here legally. We calculated how much meat and butter we had already prepared and how many days the winter would last. According to that, we divided a portion of meat and butter for every day, and when one of the people asked for an extra portion, he would be reminded how much longer the winter would last. There were people who made fun of this, but they kept quiet because they did not want to disturb our unity.
It was chaos. There were different opinions about the group's future, and how to manage things after all the weapon acquisitions. Indeed there was a weapon for every one of us, but waging a battle with these weapons seemed imaginary. Using the weapons, we could get supplies and frighten people, but we could not wage a battle with armed German policemen or even Ukrainian policemen. They had a lot of ammunition. Even when we had a rifle that was good enough to use, we did not have more than ten bullets for it. And if we had sufficient bullets for a weapon in our possession, the weapon was not good enough to use. This was one of the reasons why everyone agreed to avoid clashes with large enemy forces. Carrying out acts of revenge and getting another rifle or other weapon was enough for us.
Suddenly something happened no one had foreseen. No one even dreamed of it.
Yossel Glass was certainly the youngest in the group. He used to wander about in the forest. He was born there and knew the area and its roads. He was fearless and never made a mistake. Therefore, every day, he would walk around in the area and in the town. Thanks to him we knew what was happening in the forest, in the villages, and in the town. Everything was interesting to him, even things that were imaginary and not true.
One day he came back and told us that a few miles from our camp he had met up with Russians in civilian clothes. They asked him who he was, and Yossel told them he was a Jew, a partisan. They told him Russian planes parachuted them down at night, and one of the people landed on a tree and was wounded. Yossel saw a young woman among them who was speaking with Moscow.
At first no one wanted to believe what he was telling us. When we started to believe he met Russians, we were sure they were really Ukrainians who wanted to deceive us and trap us alive. We all grabbed our weapons. We took up positions so we could fight to the end.
They wanted to come to us, and we had to give an answer. After we talked it over quite a bit, we decided to send Yossel back. He was supposed to tell them one of the Russians should come to us because we did not know who they were. We were very tense. No one knew what would happen. Some of the people remembered the noise of planes that had been heard at night even though there had been no bombing. Could it be that those were German planes? Wasn't it possible that Russians had landed saboteurs here so they would carry out some acts of sabotage, blow up some railroads, and bring us weapons
You are talking nonsense, someone said. The front is so far. Why would they land saboteurs here? We must be cautious and not fall into their hands alive.
We talked a lot. Everyone expressed his opinion.
And so, Henrik will lie here with his machine gun, a few fellows will lie on the side with rifles, and two will advance to the guard position and stop the man from approaching.
In the meantime, we did not see Yossel. Who knows what happened to him there. We must be ready. When one of them approaches, we will send someone to talk with him.
And now Yossel is walking first and behind him is a man on a stretcher. They are walking tiredly, barely dragging their feet.
From that moment everything moved quickly.
These are our partisans, said Yossel, if you please!
Our commander Vochin approached them, but they immediately mingled among our people. They asked questions, talked, and told us things. One of them who presented himself as the commander was really nice. He won us over.
My name is Alyosha, commander of the saboteurs from Moscow. This is Lialia, our radio operator, who is also from Moscow. She will transmit to Moscow immediately, telling them we found you in the forest and you need weapons to fight the Hitlerists.
It is difficult to describe what everyone felt in their hearts at that moment after we believed they were Russian saboteurs. We checked their weapons, cut-off automatic rifles with big magazines.
We looked at one another. Was this real or a dream
Suddenly we saw Lialia had begun to operate. Next to her sat Alyosha who told her what to transmit. She wrote all of it on a machine, the likes of which none of us had ever seen. One of our people approached the commander Alyosha and asked him if they would read those things in Moscow.
Yes, he said, In a little while there will be a response.
And we will receive weapons?
Do not worry. There will be weapons, just so you will be able to fight.
Now our problem was solved. We were in contact with Moscow. From now on we were officially partisans. From now on they would look after us, and we had real military commanders.
But where are the thousands of young people from the village whom we begged to go out into the forest? Now there was no one to organize them. They were left lying in the pits. Perhaps now we can go to look for our sisters and bring them here. The group was growing. They could be useful here.
I talked to Henrik about this. Now there would not be any problems.
Henrik became friendly with the Russians. They saw him as a fighter. After a few days this was recognized. The Russians chose four fighters: my brother Henrik, Andre the Ukrainian, and two more Jews, excellent fighters. They attached them to their group and taught them acts of sabotage, like blowing up railroad tracks, placing mines under buildings, and so forth.
Our group conducted its activities as usual. It got ready for the winter. It was even decided that if we had to leave the place, they would remain with the storehouses.
In the meantime, the wounds of the diversionist healed. His friends began to leave the base and carry out acts of sabotage. They went out by a different path than we did. They were armed with automatic weapons. Their ammunition was limitless, such as hand grenades and mines. They were also able to communicate with one another when they were separated. We envied them because we could not go and carry out missions as they did. So the joy we felt in going out together with them to get food items came to an end. We waited impatiently for the new weapons from Moscow so we could carry out bigger missions, like attacking Germans, blowing up police stations, railroads, and cars. We were sure we could become one group, and, in this way, we could fight.
In the meantime, unexpected things kept on happening. This changed things for people who had planned to get through the winter and wanted to take revenge together with the saboteurs.
Henrik began to go out on missions every night and even during the day. He did not tell me what these missions were. A day later we would hear about that railways and other military targets had been bombed not far from us in the news from Moscow. We understood this was their work. I hardly saw Henrik at all. He was very busy with studies, exercises, and external operations. When I saw him for a few minutes, I nagged him about bringing my sisters.
Remember, Chaim, I said, We will be too late. The winter is approaching. It will be raining soon. We must go and bring them now. We have no right to save ourselves and abandon them. I want you to ask Alyosha to help you with this. He likes you, you go out together on missions, and you can find them. We have to know what happened to them and to the girl.
He calmed me down.
Do not be afraid, Sankeh, I am preparing them for this. We have important missions now. In another few days we will go out to that area. I will find them then, and everything will work out.
I tried to picture the moment when Chava, Hene, and Shmuel would see Henrik and his friends armed with automatic rifles. Who could imagine such a thing? He might find them fainting from hunger, from the cold, worn out, ragged, and naked. He would clothe them, they would eat until they were satisfied, and they would be with us. What lovely dreams!
So one day went by and then another. Another railway was bombed, a few more Germans were killed. Alyosha knew he could not live freely for very long in the forest in one place, especially with all of us together. I understood this on the evening Henrik bid me farewell. He went out with five more people on an important mission and promised me happily that they would go to look for our sisters after this mission.
I remember the moment I saw him leave. He was so handsome and gallant. He was always clean and shaven. He washed up under every condition. He did not dress like the other partisans. Everything fit him perfectly, good-looking riding pants, polished boots, with a short and attractive jacket. His automatic weapon shined from frequent cleaning. His belt with hand grenades and bullets was always in place, as though he was marching in a parade. You could see his pride in his upright gait with his head held high. He was calm before he went out. His lips were pursed and his fair eyes sparkled with hatred and revenge. I always see this in my mind's eye.
He felt he was in the right place when he was fighting, demolishing, destroying, and taking revenge on all the acts of murder.
Furthermore, he was happy he could fight together with Russian fighters, Communists, patriots, who wanted to liberate the world. He believed this naively because he was an honest person of integrity. Who can imagine Henrik's feelings? He was intoxicated with this belief in the depths of his heart and delayed the search for our sisters day after day.
We were sitting by the fire after a hard day's work. Tomorrow we would finish building the last storehouse. We felt we had accomplished something. We had prepared enough supplies.
Darkness fell in the forest. Henrik had left a few minutes earlier. He shook my hand while I was sitting near the fire. Thinking of my sisters and Shmuel, I was deeply sad and contemplative. I would wait one more day, and if we did not go then, I would not keep quiet any longer.
Now we finished eating meat and potatoes. We did not lack for food. We were all busy. Someone washed his shirts, someone else mended his pants, another person shook out the blankets, and someone else prepared wood for the night. I collected wood for the campfire and watched the flames rising up. We heard the crackling of the dry wood. The sparks leapt up, fell down, and disappeared. Who knows if they could light a fire to keep warm.
I filled the bucket with water and hung it on a stick so the water would boil. Why? For no reason at all. Just to do something. Alyosha finished his conversation with Lialia. The young girl went back to her bed. Alyosha sat down beside the fire. I looked at him, and he looked at the flames. His face turned red. Such a delicate face. He looked like a teacher, not like a fighter.
That was the first time I sat together with the commander Alyosha. We were alone by the fire. If they had told me in the forest I would soon be in the company of senior Russian saboteurs who would come here by plane from Moscow to the forests and to Wołyń to fight the Germans, I would not have believed a story like that. Those who walked to the pits were in despair. They were convinced the world had come to nothing because the Germans would conquer the world and destroy humanity. Even though they could have tried to flee, they did not. When I sat across from Alyosha, I saw there was a big world fighting the German murderers. What a bitter error they made. So many young people, healthy boys and girls, I said to myself, and I felt my heart would explode.
The water boiled. I poured coffee into it. I do not remember where we got coffee. It was similar to army coffee, mixed with sugar. I thought that now Henrik was marching with his group. They would blow things up. What would they blow up? The Lutsk-Kivertzy railroad track or a police station? Perhaps they are guarding there. Henrik wants to show them what he is capable of doing. He tells himself he does this so they will know who he is.
But tomorrow I must go look for Chava, says Henrik to himself. Sankeh is angry and he is right. Papa is dead. Who knows where they buried him? And what if Chava is not crying anymore. She is rolling around in the forests hungry and naked. Who knows if she envies Papa. Hene and Shmuel probably already saw the child if Mrs. Lisovsky let them in. She wants to keep the girl. They do not have children, and she is waiting for the money from America. I wonder how Mundek is enjoying himself
So, Sankeh, shall we drink?
Oh, Comrade Officer, I forgot to take the coffee off. Do you want coffee?
Certainly. Let's both drink.
He knew I was Henrik's brother and also knew that Henrik planned to go and bring our sisters and brother-in-law here. I poured the coffee in tin cups.
Thank you, says the commander.
Another comrade approached.
Is there coffee?
Yes, Vova, you can have some.
We sat, almost lying down, and sipped from the cups with great enjoyment. Recently the weather had changed.
The winter is approaching rapidly. The cold may bring snow, said Vova.
It is more difficult to work in the winter, but we will get along, said Alyosha.
What will my sisters do in the snow? I thought, as I sipped the coffee.
You are very worried, Sankeh. Do not worry. It will be OK. You can rely on Henrik. He will return and everything will be alright, said Vova.
These five guys already carried out such important missions. Do not forget that only two of them, Sasha and Ivan, are people who were trained for this purpose. Henrik, Daniel and Andre learned very little and are not sufficiently prepared for this work. But people who do not have any fear can do anything. I hope they will carry out more big missions so the Fascists feel the brunt of partisan strength, whispered Alyosha, as if he were talking to himself.
I am not really worried about Henrik. He is accomplishing his goal, especially now when he is working together with Russian saboteurs. He is not concerned about his life. He wants to fight against the Germans to take revenge. He does this with all his heart. I am worried about those who are lying until now in the forests with no hope and struggling against death that threatens them constantly. I wanted to bring my sisters and brother-in-law, but I did not manage to do it. How long can they hold out against the cold, hunger and fear? I was with them a few weeks in the forest and
I do not understand you, Alyosha interrupted me. Why do you not fight, why do you let the Germans butcher you without any opposition? When you see a German, you are filled with fear. You see his boots, his size, his upright hat, his proud and upright gait. He is master of the world. But beneath all that hides a person who is only of flesh and blood and can be wiped out with a small bullet. Try to shoot him, and see how he runs. His life is dearer to him than to you. He feels big and strong when he wreaks terror on you, and you run away. You will see how those fascist dogs will run. We know that they wanted to wipe out the Jews first, but later they want to wipe out and enslave all the others, the Russians, the Ukrainians, and the Poles. We moved our industries further away and in a little while our armor and cannons will fight at the front and the partisans will disrupt the transportation. It may take a little while, but that is how things will turn out and they will withdraw as Napoleon did in his day. Do not forget, children, the Russian cold.
Who else knew as well as he did that Alyosha was right. We, Vova and I, were two Jewish boys who were educated with the Zionist spirit, and not just any Zionist spirit we belonged to the Zionist youth organization Betar.
Alyosha lay down to sleep and I remained with Vova for a long time by the fire. Alyosha's words required some soul-searching. We could not explain all that to Alyosha because there was no way he would understand us, so we talked about that together.
Tell me, Vova, could you tell Alyosha that while we were learning to shoot almost all the Jews called us Fascists? Could you explain to Alyosha that if we had listened to Jabotinsky we would not be sitting here now? Could you tell him that while the Germans were conquering Poland, there were no Jewish leaders who organized themselves in a resistance movement?
Listen, Sankeh, there is something else that Alyosha will not understand or believe, said Vova. Who said that only the Germans are murdering the Jews? The Germans alone would never manage to murder hundreds of thousands of people so murderously, were it not for the Ukrainians, the Poles and also his Russians. When people were dragged to work, the Germans did not do it but the Ukrainian police. They beat people furiously and carried out the most sadistic acts of murder. When they murdered the first people in the forest, there were between twenty and thirty Germans and with them were hundreds of policemen, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, and Poles. The next time there were three Germans
But Vova, the Germans are in control and they give the orders.
It is true they give the order, but all those Gentiles are already waiting for years for the regime that will give an order like that. If they had shown opposition to the German regime and had not given assistance in the extermination of the Jews, things would be different. Thousands would have been saved. They carry out all the sadistic acts even when the Germans do not see it.
How many are we here Vova? Fifteen people? We are refugees from Poland, including two Gentiles.
When are you going out to guard Sankeh?
I am going at six in the morning. Tonight I will sleep.
I am going out at two in the morning. Good night.
All night long I saw Chaim in my dreams and my sisters. I had nightmares. The night brought the winter with it.
The sun rose and the snowfall was fine and thin, so that it could hardly be seen. The small trees I saw on the other side of the road were covered with snow that began to melt as the sun rose. Also on the ground was a shallow layer of snow. How beautiful was the sight of the two intermingled colors, green and white. But for whom was this beautiful world intended? For everyone, except for us, the Jews. How long had I been standing on guard? Another twenty minutes. I know the time exactly, every precise minute, even when I do not have a watch. I know that in another few minutes they will replace me, and here I see how they are coming to replace me. That is how it is at night and that is how it is during the day, ever since I began to go out to guard. At first it was difficult for me without a watch, but now I know the time without it. It is actually pleasant for me to stand here now. Everything is so beautiful now around here. I looked right and left and forward. It was silent in the small grove, quiet. Only the sounds of the big forest were heard. Only the sound of the digging of the hoes and the tapping of hammers and also the voice of the man who was in charge of the work. They had completed the building of the last storehouse.
I was very hungry. Fresh air increased the appetite. When you grow accustomed to food you think about food. Now it is breakfast food. I will help a bit with the work. In a little while Henrik should come back from the mission. I believe that in another five minutes the man who needs to replace me will appear. I know who it is, Yadele Perlock. I remember him from the town. Very moderate, quiet. It seems to me he was the first to make contact and help organize the partisans. Why are none of them the commanders? He is not with the saboteurs because he is quiet and not pushy. It pains him a little they think of him as a regular fighter and send him to guard.
Good morning! What's up, Sankeh?
It is quiet, calm.
I eat and gulp the food down. Lately my appetite is terrible. I ate all of it. Meat with meat. Also butter with honey. Ever since they brought butter and honey from the dairy, we took them to eat even though they were meant to be used during winter. We thought a lot about food, and indeed, the diligent guarding of the storehouse supplies caused us to think about food.
I ate and looked at those who finished building the last storehouse. It was camouflaged with very well so you could not see anything. They installed a sophisticated device to open it. It was very successful. In addition, it created an atmosphere of calm in the entire camp.
Suddenly, quite unexpectedly, a shot was heard from the direction where Perlock stood guard. We did not relate seriously to the shot. I was sure he was playing with his rifle. Others thought one of the saboteurs was testing a gun. We did not give too much importance to a few bullets, but it was more serious than we thought.
Bullets were fired from three sides. The bullets were whistling and flying among us. This was the first time that we were seriously attacked from a short distance. I do not know what the situation might have been if we did not have the Russian saboteurs with us. We certainly would have fought with no other option with the help of our few bullets. But now the situation was different. We quickly got organized and took up positions. An order was given to let them advance, that is to wait and not to shoot. When steps and voices were heard, we opened fire with all the weapons. It seemed that the automatic weapons of the saboteurs made a great impression. They understood that there were not just a few Jewish partisans here with rusty weapons, but rather a military force. Perhaps one of their people fell. After exchanging fire for half an hour, they vanished. Later, we learned that had fought against Cossacks, that is, against Russians from the Soviet army who moved over to the Germans. We saw the German regime was thinking of us now.
On that day all our dreams of holding out during the winter, preparing supplies, building storehouses and living on rationed portions came to an end. The plan of those who wanted to go on as a small group to be able to stay alive collapsed in half an hour.
When it grew dark, the entire group walked on the road to Belorussia. We marched as fighters. We had waged a battle against Cossacks and driven them away. I walked with a broken heart. I had lost everything. I lost my sisters and Henrik was not with me any longer. The only thing I had left from him was his sawed off rifle. He had received a small pistol from me.
After I finished my evening meal, I went out to the street. I walked to the railroad station. It was a pleasant walk, but I was alone.
I decided that in another few days I would travel westward. Where to? To any place the train would take me.
In the meantime I learned that partisans who were being released from the hospital and wanted to stay in Kiev could stay in a special house that was put aside for them, that is, for partisans whose areas had not yet been liberated and had nowhere to go.
The next day I went to visit there. The place looked like a prison. There were no beds there, just double-decker benches made from boards where they slept. I did not find anyone I knew there either. I made up my mind not to sleep there even for one night. When they would release me from the hospital, I would go to the train station and travel westward to a place that had already been liberated.
I walked around in the house and looked at the partisans who came and went. When I decided to leave, I noticed a fellow looking at me. He was thin, with a long nose, wearing a military Stalinist shirt and a hat with a visor pointing upwards. I wondered who this person, who was staring at me and looked like a partisan, was.
Are you a Jew? he asked.
Are you in the hospital?
From which unit?
Kovpakovitch?! There was a Jew here from Kovpak's unit, but he has already gone.
I know who he is, I said. Where did he go?
I think to Wołyń or Belorussia. He was looking for a place to go. He was wounded in his leg and it had not yet healed. He was still limping a bit. What is your name?
Sankeh, I said.
I'm called Valodya.
I had been in such a cloudy mood that day and was very happy for this meeting. Now I had someone I could talk with.
When are you leaving the hospital, Valodya?
I was already released from the hospital, but I will stay in Kiev for some days.
Where do you sleep? Here in the prison?
Now I had someone I could talk with.
Yes, because it does not cost money, and the food does not cost me anything either. We get vouchers for food in a restaurant. Until I leave. But they will not be giving that for long, only for two or three weeks.
Once again I was walking with a Jewish partisan on the streets of Kiev. We spoke Yiddish. It gave us great pleasure. We were in good moods.
Tell me, Valodya, what unit were you in?
I was in the unit of Uncle Misha, a good fighter and a dear Jew. Thanks to him many Jews were saved.
Do you know anything about your family?
When the Russians conquered our city, they deported my parents to Siberia because we were rich. One of my brothers was with the partisans, and perhaps he is alive. I do not know anything about another brother and sister. I will look for them. If they are alive, we will meet and see how we can bring our parents back.
Valodya was a moderate youth. He did not react when they insulted him and told him A Jew does not fight.
Why don't you say anything to them, Valodya?
I am very disappointed.
Why are you disappointed?
When I was here in the hospital, I heard many insults about Jews. This disappointed me because I was sure in Communist Russia all people had equal rights.
He talked quietly, moderately and naively, and I felt sorry for him.
What was your work at home?
I helped in my father's business.
And did you belong to any kind of organization?
Yes, I was a leftist. Despite the fact that my parents were rich, I helped the Communists.
And how did they relate to you in the partisans?
They took the weapons from the Jews and expelled them, and they killed many of them. Until we entered a unit with a Jewish commander, we suffered.
And are you still a Communist now?
Yes, I am a Communist, but there is no communism in the world. The idea is very nice but it is impossible to achieve. Certainly the Gentiles with Jewish blood on their hands will not achieve it. After twenty-five years of communism they turned their Jewish neighbors over to the German murderers and robbed them of their possessions. After the war, when I was already here in Kiev, I saw the hatred of the Ukrainians for the Jews, Jews who remained, whose number is so small, at any minute they might say to you, 'It is a pity Hitler did not slaughter all the Jews.' I see real burning hatred in their eyes, bloodthirsty hatred, something I never saw in the western capitalistic countries. I visited Babi Yar where tens of thousands of Jews are buried here in this Communist land. Why didn't the Communists save at least some of them, but instead informed on them and help to murder and exterminate them? Communism is good, but in our own land. When we come to the land of Israel, we will see to it that the socialism there will be genuine.
So this means that you have become a Zionist?
Yes, but a Socialist Zionist. First we need a Jewish country. Do you know something about your family Sankeh?
I know about my family up to the time I went to the partisans. What happened to them later I can only assume. Before the war one of my brothers made aliyah to the Land of Israel. We received the first and last letter from him. One sister and brother-in-law with two children remained in Poland. A sister with a brother-in-law and a daughter are in Siberia. One brother fell in the partisans. Two sisters and a brother-in-law were wandering in the forests. I keep imagining what their lives and deaths were like. We gave a girl aged six, my sister's daughter, to a Polish farmer. I believe she is alive. First I will travel to find that village and take the child.
You know, Sankeh, sometimes I remember those days and nights, when we wandered in the forests, hungry, in tatters, worn out, shaking with fear at every falling leaf, and that was only because we were Jews. That was our only sin. I would go out to the fields and see Gentiles working their fields in complete freedom. Even their dogs were running around freely. When I remember all that now, I feel like destroying the whole world. I kept thinking, where is the world? Where is the Communist world? Where are the American Jews and the Jews of Palestine? Something like this is happening in the twentieth century, and the world is silent.
I understood I was the first person to whom he could pour out his heart.
Yes, Valodya, I said to him. Not only have you become a Zionist, but also Jews living in the Communist paradise have been disappointed. I think many of them will travel to the free countries so they can go to the Land of Israel. The war opened the Russian borders and eyes of people who did not see anything except for lines for sugar or a pair of shoes.
I am not ashamed to say that this is not how we imagined it. Unfortunately there were many lies here.
We parted and arranged to meet again the next day. He wanted to talk and tell me things. And this is what everyone who had gone through this experience and been disappointed wanted to do.
The girl most likely did not sleep the first night in the farmers' bed. She looked at the low white ceiling with her intelligent eyes and thought about her mother who was lying in the forest.
Call me Mama, shouted the Gentile woman in the morning when she gave her a piece of bread. After a few weeks in the forest the child was used to sleeping on the ground and to breathing the sharp air with her mother pressed against her. They both warmed each other. The two hearts beat together, and here she was lying by herself in the farmers' bed. The air was suffocating. In the morning she got up as though drunk with red eyes. The child did not remember what happened yesterday when they brought her there.
She sat on the bed. The light was not yet full, but you could see. Her small eyes looked at the oven where a fire was burning and at the cast iron from which the smoke rose up. Where is Mama, Papa, the forest, the trees, all the aunts and uncles, the earthen hut? The Gentile woman was preoccupied with cooking and laundry. The man went out and came in. From time to time the door slammed shut and the child shook. Neither one of them noticed that the child was sitting and looking with her wise eyes while her golden hair was loose and floating on her shoulders. Her face was burning from heat and shaking from fear. She sat with her legs crossed beneath her. She held one leg with both hands. She wanted to urinate and was embarrassed to say so.
The light grew stronger. The child saw the Gentile woman with the scarf on her head and the Gentile man, fat, short, bald and with a mustache. No, this is not Mama and this is not Papa.
The man approached the bed where the child had lain. He bent down to take something out from under the bed. He noticed the girl sitting with open and shining eyes.
Stacha, he called, she is not asleep!
Stacha was thinking all night long about the little kike. Different thoughts were running around in her head, both bad and good. She regretted the matter somewhat. But when she got out of bed in the middle of the night and saw the light hair, the pale face, and the small upturned nose, she felt relieved.
Good Lord, she crossed herself, this is not a little kike. This is a Christian child. The Jews do not have angels like this.
She went back to bed and woke up her snoring husband:
What happened? He was alarmed.
Nothing happened. Stop snoring. I want to tell you I looked at the child now.
He turned over and fell asleep. Her head kept on planning. No, the girl would not go out tomorrow to herd the cows. She will stay at home until she gets used to her new parents and her new name.
And when Antush shouted in the morning for the girl to get up, she was confused and did not know what to do with a child so early in the morning. When she approached the bed, she heard the girl whispering with her small red lips, Mama, Mama, I want Mama! The Gentile woman wanted to tell her she is her mother now, but she did not have the courage. She knew it was too soon to do this. The child still remembered her parents well.
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