A successful messenger working in a town needed to know how to get through the ghetto fence and to disappear from the ranks of a guarded group of people. A rushed move could lead to death - it was necessary to be brave and to be able to make a quick decision in any situation. It was necessary to communicate with various people, it was paramount to avoid attracting attention by a false move or cause suspicion due an error in conversations. Even that was not enough. The most important thing was not to look like a Jew and to act accordingly. The ghetto organization selected and trained a group of messengers who answered those requirements.
Riva Uriash was a blue-eyed blond. When she in elegant clothes with painted lips and eye-brows went out for a walk in the town nobody would have suspected she was a Jew (only moments ago she had shed her ghetto dress with yellow patches and came to the town seeking revenge). Mother wit often helped her. A German soldier followed her with his eyes - this slim, good-looking woman obviously attracted his attention. He followed her then stopped,"May I join you, madam?" Uriash smiled: she could walk streets with less fear when accompanied by a German soldier... She even used him to obtain rare medicine necessary for her friends from the ghetto...
Thin, short, with light hare and blue eyes Monia Holzberg could easily be mistaken for a Lithuanian pupil. The organization charged him with searching for komsomol members who failed to evacuate and with whom he used to work in the school underground cell. His old friends - komsomol members - Mechis Zumeris and Vitautas Kaminskas were surprised and full of admiration: their Jewish friend was alive and dared to leave ghetto to perform a task. They passed news to the ghetto organization and also issues of Lithuanian newspaper "Tiesa"("Truth") which were thrown out of airplanes. Kaminskas was especially courageous and determined. He bravely attached yellow patches to his clothes and got into the ghetto where he met Haim Yelin and promised everyone to help the underground workers in any way he could.
Brave lad Itzik Miklishansky escaped from the ghetto and spent a long time in villages Tabarishkes and Podiarishkes of Kovno district. Dressed as a village boy he worked for various farmers. They knew he was a Jew but his appearance and the way he worked were no different from other village boys and helped his new friends to hide him. Farmers liked him. His name was changed to sound Lithuanian - "Itzutis". Miklishansky hid with them for a long time. But he learned about a ghetto partisan group. He forgot his own safety and decide to join people's avengers. Itzik returned to the ghetto and joined the organization. On his comrades' orders he set up back up groups with his friends in the village. Partisans used them later when they moved from the ghetto to the forests of southern Lithuania. He also became well-known for his work as a messenger and a weapon supplier.
Alta Boruchovich-Teper frequently met her friend, worker Maria Klossaite. Klossaite passes on geographic maps and information on the situation in the town and terror by the invaders. She said that eighty families from Shiaulu street were sent to a concentration camp in reprisal for some Soviet soldiers found hiding in that street. Klossaite was also persecuted but she continued coming to the ghetto fence and pass information to her friends.
Numerous attempts were made to establish links with party organizations in Lithuania. Haim Yelin and Dmitry Galperin left ghetto and for a while lived in the town with false Lithuanian papers. They established contacts with anti-fascists - doctor Ye.Kutorghene, printer Antanas Rutkauskas, with Irena Vladimirova, I.Jukniavichus and others. All those people were ready to help the struggle. Doctor Kutorghene was especially kind to Haim Yelin. Yelin involved her in the work of the underground antifascist movement: she set up safe houses in the town, distributed antifascist literature, later helped partisans to find sources of weapon supplies.
In his article "Meeting with Doctor K." Haim Yelin wrote about his conversation with Kutorghene. She expressed her desire to cooperate with underground fighters:
"...You gave me courage, you gave a new lease of life, encouraged me. I feel I am stronger when I am with you and do not want you to go even though we both risk our lives and lives of our family members... Every morning I can see out of my window Jews being taken to do forced labour. (*There is a memorial plaque in her honour on the facade of 93,Kiastutis street where Ye. Kutorghene used to live.) Every day I write down in my diary what happened to the Jews... Every week searches take place in my flat. I hide my notes. I write down everything... Death, fear, executions day and night and yet, in spite of it you all go into the town, live, bear up. How do you manage it?!"
This is how Haim Yelin answered this question:
"How do we manage it? Later from a historical perspective the meaning of our optimism will become clear to everyone..."
The above mentioned Dr.Kutorghene's diary became one of the documents of the invasion period. After the liberation those notes were widely used to disclose the crimes of Kovno fascists.
The very first days of the ghetto antifascist organization heralded a beginning of hard search, successes and failures. Yet friends were found outside ghetto too; bases were set up in the city without which the work of the organization could not achieve sufficient success. There were only individuals at the beginning. Better opportunity presented itself when a contact was established with Kovno antifascist underground movement.
In March 1943, during a trip to the town, one of ghetto messengers Jacov Davidov became close with tailor Vazlavos Tamoshaitis who lived at 192,Savanoriu avenue (*now Red Army avenue). The feeling of mutual trust made Tamoshaitis tell Davidov about the existence of Kovno antifascist organization, so called "Union of Struggle against fascism in Lithuania", from early 1943. The organization began a wide programme of sabotage in factories and plants, set up partisan groups, carried out a broad explanatory work among population. On his part Davidov told Tamoshaitis of the existence of an underground organization in the ghetto which shared aims with Kovno one. After the two messengers had informed their leaders a decision was reached for the leadership to meet in order to set out a plan for cooperation.
Haim Yelin left the ghetto for the town to participate in the banned May Day celebrations. The meeting took place in the flat of Mikas Kiaupa in Archivo street. It looked like other flats from the outside but inside there was an atmosphere of celebration; this was done in spite of German soldiers in their green coats walking the streets, when one could hear constant sound of soldier's boots coming from the outside. The gathered sat round a radio and listened to a broadcast coming from Moscow. A sense of joy was shared by everyone when Supreme Commander-in- Chief's order was read out. Leader's words were directed to all Soviet people including those who temporarily lived under fascist aggressors' rule. This speech inspired Soviet people who lived in the occupied territory to join the struggle for liberation.
After the celebration a smaller meeting took place. Only then members were told that a new comrade known as Vladas (this was Haim Yelin) was a Jew. They were surprised to hear that Soviet patriots joined the fight against enemy even in the harshest conditions of the ghetto. The gathered exchanged their information. After confirming the fact that the aims of their organizations were the same the participants proposed cooperation. Representatives of both organizations would meet to discuss current issues not less than once a week.
Vazlav Tamoshaitis was appointed a messenger for the city organization and Dmitry Gal'perin for the ghetto.Meetings took place by the river Neris not far from the ghetto fence. Tamoshaitis got there by boat. Gal'perin climbed through the wire fence. Messengers exchanged information about acts of sabotage. Political literature - leaflets, banned periodicals "Kova" ("Struggle"), newspaper "Tiesa" ("Truth"), "Taribu Lietuva" ("Soviet Lithuania") arriving "by air" - were taken to the ghetto... Stamps and seals, linoleum strips for leaflet printing and also a small printing press which was stolen by member Moishe Museslis from Germans were given to the city organization.
Primary task for both organizations was to set up a partisan group near Kovno in the forests of Betigal district. In an arranged place they built several dug-outs and stocked up on weapons. It was decided that the core of the group would be made up of Soviet military prisoners of war who had escaped from camps: their further presence in the town was not possible. Several Lithuanians wanted by the gestapo left with the same group. Ghetto organization was active in supplying the group with necessary equipment. So bandoliers, belts, boots, greatcoats, underwear were stolen from German storehouses. The created partisan group was named "Piargale" ("Victory"). First group carried out all ground work to prepare for a big group of partisans from the city and the ghetto. The second gruopwas getting ready to leave for the forest. Meanwhile a confrontation took place between group "Piargale" and police troops whose numbers were overwhelming. Group's commander "George" and his deputy died in the battle (*it has now come to light that the commander was a former Soviet Army officer, son of sunny Georgia, Georgy Dvaladze).
The first unsuccessful attempt of setting up a partisan group near Kovno did not undermine determination of the underground leadership. Construction of a new base in the forests of Chiakishkskoi region strarted. But shortly after it became clear that small forests near Kovno could not be used as a safe cover for partisans. The new base was also discovered and a search for activists from the city and ghetto underground groups began. Some comrades managed to escape, but Mikas Kiaupa, Vazlovas Tamoshaitis, Ona Vaivadiene and others fell into gestapo hands and died. Tamoshaitis' wife was taken to gestapo for interrogation. She was tortured - her fingers were broken, teeth were drilled - they demanded the names of Jews who worked with her. No amount of torture could make this courageous woman betray her friends.
A number of ghetto Jews from the organization who in a hasty move gave their real names during contacts with the city group were also searched for. They however managed to disappear in good time: the organization hid them in one of their bunkers.
2. BREAKOUT THROUGH THE GATE
Summer of 1943 was a trying period for the ghetto organization. A failure in the city had disastrously affected its work: valuable contact with the outside world was lost. Once again people had to rely only on their own strength, to be more secretive and discreet about their work. But the importance of the work did not diminish. Underground fighters put all their efforts into finding contact with partisans from Lithuanian forests.
Scouting groups were sent in various directions with that aim in mind. People performing those tasks were facing constant danger. But in spite of that there was a sufficient number of people who wanted to work in those groups. They wanted to find a way for other group members to join partisan groups.
On August 5 a group of five very brave people left the ghetto. Two from that group were sector leaders. Israel Milshtein, young,strong metal worker, one of the first and active ghetto underground fighters, was chosen to head the group. He listened to the order to depart with great enthusiasm; he looked forward to leaving the ghetto and start acting for the organization. His mother knew about his work; she said farewell to her only son who was leaving for an extremely dangerous operation. The partisan's mother joined the work of the resistance movement: secret meetings took place in her tiny room.
Israel Milshtein headed the departure of the following ghetto residents:section leader Zalel Iofe, excellent messenger of the organization Jasha Davydov, brave cheerful lad Moshe Slaviansky whose keenness of wit caused a lot of damage to Germans, and calm but courageous member of the organization Meer Teitl'. These fighters had to look for partisans in the forests of eastern Lithuania. The group was armed with revolvers and hand grenades, had maps and compasses and fully prepared for a lengthy trip.
A special decree was issued informing people of the departure by first independent group of fighters. They were in high spirits and fighting mood.
Time passed with no news coming from the departed group. Later the organization learned of the tragic death of the heroic five in Eastern Lithuania. (* group leader Milshtein was posthumously awarded order of the Red Banner)
Three weeks later another group left in southerly direction with the same aim. Aron Vilenchuk headed the new group. Partisans carried out reconnaissance in the forests around Eznas.
At the beginning of September three reconnoitres, Motl Lipkovich, Motl Stern and Zalmen Borodavka, left the ghetto. The group left in the direction of Ukmiarge. The young reconnoitrers came upon some policemen and died between Ionava and Ukmiarge. At the same time individual members of the organization went reconnoitring. Hona Padison penetrated areas over Ionava. Girsh Gutman went scouting in the district of Garliava-Maurchiay.But all those brave attempts to establish contact with partisans failed to bring results. Courageous fighters die or disappear without a trace. Gestapo was active in the city. Underground fighters from the city organization languished in the gestapo basement. Germans put all their efforts into finding links to the organization.
In that charged atmosphere a number of ghetto prisoners doing forced labour sent out a word that a certain person appeared in the city asking questions about "writer Haim Yelin" with whom he wished to meet. The leadership of the organization interpreted the appearance of this man as a consequence of failures in the city. Hence the original decision was to make no contact. But the mysterious man in his quest for contact with Haim Yelin had an unexpected meeting with ghetto organization member Jankel Levi. The partisan recognized him, they both were imprisoned in a concentration camp for political prisoners in bourgeois Lithuania. Even though the two had not met since, the organization decided to organize the meeting.
On September 14 Dmitry Gal'perin met the mysterious person in a small loft room on Kiastutis street. Haim Yelin and Moishe Muselis, ready to help with their weapons in case of a provocation, hid in a nearby secret room. The stranger gave his name as Juozas Tubialis, messenger for Vilno underground organization. According to him it was not his first visit to Kovno but he was unsuccessful in his attempts to establish a contact with the city organization. Finally, he was ordered to find a contact with former Soviet activists who by then were incarcerated in Kovno ghetto, primarily with Haim Yelin.
Both men were restrained in their conversation but little by little some mutual agreement was established. At the end of the conversation Tubialis who could afford to be more open gave a hug to Galperin and said the following:
"I have a feeling I am on the right track. I may be able to deserve your complete trust when I present some firm proof!"
The next morning Tubialis was again in Kovno. From Vilno he brought a letter addressed to comrade Levi and signed with letter G. Through a number of signs and hints comrades recognized the author of the letter - Gesia Gleser, famous trusted underground worker of bourgeois Lithuania - "Albina". Tiabulis was able to add that the letter was written by an underground worker who was sent to work there. "Albina" demanded that an important member should come to Vilno to receive instructions and orders.
The Committee of the ghetto organization sent Yelin to do this important task.
This trip to Vilno presented Haim Yelin with a dangerous task: to avoid being recognized as a Jew by numerous German guards. In Vilno Yelin was put in touch with Albina. The next day they both left for a partisan base in Rudnizky forest. In partisan groups "For Motherland" and "Struggle" Haim Yelin attended theoretical and practical courses, participated in military operations: destruction of a German garrison in Varena, blowing up of a bridge across river Miarkis. Having received instructions for further work Haim Yelin returned to Kovno two weeks later.
The leadership of the organization were looking forward to his return. On his arrival the work was renewed with fresh enthusiasm: all efforts were directed at achieving one aim - to take as many fighters as possible to the partisans.
Shortly after Yelin's return Albina arrived in the city to work as an instructor of the Southern committee of the Lithuanian Communist Party. She established contacts with the ghetto organization and expressed a wish to find out more about their underground work.
Haim Yelin met Albina in the city.Their next meeting had to take place in the ghetto. Albina successfully got through the ghetto gates after she had put a yellow star of David on her front and back and carried traditional Jewish luggage,a sack, and a tin of poor woman's food. During her long work as an underground activist she learned how to disguise herself. With the help of this skill she penetrated the ghetto, masterfully avoided being checked at the gates and brought her personal weapon - her "trusted companion" as she called her revolver.
In the ghetto Albina met only members of the ghetto committee but even in this circle of friends she was remembered by some for her previous work. In bourgeois Lithuania Albina spent many years behind a prison wall and in a concentration camp. But even iron bars could not stop her revolutionary work. The following incident showed well her mother wit: while imprisoned in Ukmiarg she managed to hang a red flag over the prison wall to celebrate May 1. The flag was so cleverly hung up that the prison administration unable to take it off themselves were forced to call for help from fire fighters. Both in prison and at large Albina spent a lot of time educating young people in whom she had a special interest. Pavel Korchaghin was her favourite character, she always talked about him as a model for the young. Her favourite song was "Eaglet" - lyrical and at the same time arousing fighting spirit. Albina sang the song in all situations; sang it herself and taught the others.
No committee meeting of the ghetto organization used to be so invigorating before Albina joined them. They at last achieved what they wanted from day one, what cost them so many lives of their friends - they at last had the opportunity to fight invaders under direct party leadership.
In a solemn occasion the party messenger shook hands of committee members thanking them for setting the organization and their work. This took place in a safe one-room flat at 10 Vidurine street. In a sign of the party approval of the underground work Albina presented them with a revolver.A motion was passed unanimously to present the revolver to Haim Yelin.
As far as the future plan of action was concerned the organization committee was ordered to do party and mass work in the ghetto.
The primary task for the ghetto organization was always taking partisans to the forests. This issue was discussed for a long time. A decision was reached which was supported by Albina - to set up a partisan base in the forests of southern Lithuania, more precisely in August forest, 160 kilometres from Kovno.
With Albina's help the organization succeeded in making a contact with Leiba Solomin ("Petrovich"), CC CP of Lithuania messenger, who was sent with that purpose to enemy's side. (* comrade Solomin was a secretary of Kovno district party committee. He started very active partisan work in Ionava, Karmelava, Vandjiogal and other districts). This contact was highly appreciated by the underground workers who sent their representative, member of the organization committee Mary Lan to meet him at his Ionava base. Mary Lan fought her way through to get there and joined comrade Solomin's group of activists. However, the contact with Mary Lan was soon lost for a considerable length of time.
At the meetings when Albina was present, questions of komsomol activity, propaganda work, weapon acquisition,cooperation with the city organization were discussed. On Albina's request Moishe Levi, one of ghetto Jewish police inspectors was invited for a talk. Levi already then was using the ghetto administration to help the organization. Due to Albina's influence Moishe Levi increased his help to the organization.
After a week in the ghetto Albina went back to the city where doctor Kutorghene gave her cover. During her work in Kovno (until February 1944) Albina kept a close contact with the ghetto organization: regularly met its leadership, mainly with Haim Yelin, listened to their reports and gave orders for further work. She used contacts and bases of the organization, organized transportation of weapons made in the ghetto to partisans. Via Albina ghetto partisans made a fresh contact with the underground party committee. (*Later Albina left for party work in Vilno. When she was traced by the gestapo Albina started shooting, she kept the last bullet for herself.)
Fascists were continuously attacked at the front. After each new defeat fascists aired their anger on residents of the occupied territory: they increased their terror, took able-bodied people to Germany for forced labour, arrested people and executed them. After their defeat in Stalingrad Germans planned to mark their two day mourning with new rivers of blood. In Kovno hundreds of people were captured and shot, a sizeable "action" against half-Jews (children of mixed marriages) was carried out, as well as against non-Jews married to Jews. 60 families were taken in black cars by brutal fascists to the 9th fort... When Lithuania found itself nearer the front line the regime in the ghetto and the city became even harsher.
Vilno ghetto was already eliminated. From October 1, 1943 Kovno ghetto was formally considered to be eliminated as well. The ghetto was turned into a concentration camp and in all official documents referred to as "Kovno concentration camp" thus passing from the control of the gestapo into the control of the SS. This change in its status lead to the changes in the lives of Jews. The ghetto territory was considerably down sized, the regime became stricter, they began taking people to labour camps situated in Kovno suburbs of Aleksotas and Shanchiai, in small towns of Kedainiai, Kaishiadoris and other places. Women and men were separated and put into different quarters. Those who were incarcerated in the labour camps were dressed in stripy clothes and put into barracks. Oberstumbanfuerer SS Goeke - "concentration camps" expert- was put in charge of the ghetto. He received his orders directly from the concentration camp headquarters in Oranienbaum. Before his arrival in Kovno, Goeke headed concentration camps and ghettos in Netherlands, Belgium, Poland... After settling in Kovno Goeke took the command of all Jewish camps in Lithuania - concentration camps "Kailis" and "GKP" which survived Vilno ghetto elimination, Shiauliai ghetto and others. Goeke's residence and that of his headquarters were set in a specially fenced off and guarded area of Kovno ghetto. His assistants - sturmfuerer Rink, unterscharfuere Pilgrem, Fiviger and others were always in the ghetto, studying the situation.
Due to the existing situation the underground fighters decided that groups prepared by the organization for departure to the forest should do it as soon as possible. Even though there was no possibility to arm them properly and they would have to make their way without guides.
Four days after Albina's departure, a group of twenty four men headed by communist Leiser Zodikov left for southern Lithuania on a previously planned journey. With the help of trusted people from the ghetto administration they managed to obtain three carriages and false documents according to which it was a group of Jewish workers being taken for out-of-town work. And so the group left the ghetto. Twenty kilometres from Kovno the group began their march. But the partisans found themselves in a German trap. The group dispersed. Several days later many of the pursued had to return to the ghetto. But some managed to continue their journey; doctor and communist Shloime Perelshtein and his friends moved on. They looked for a possibility to get to a partisan base but died.
A few days later a terrible event occurred in the ghetto: on October 26 Germans captured over three thousand people. They were sent to concentration camps in Estonia. The organization succeeded in hiding its members and sympathizers. It was expected that after the first group more groups would be sent to concentration camps. The organization was faced with a task of sending large groups to the forests. In the next few days three to four groups left the ghetto daily. To achieve that various ways of leaving the ghetto were used: the ghetto gates, "raisferschlus" in the fence, bribing of the guards, escaping from work places. Each group had several preplanned routes. About one hundred fighters had left the ghetto by October 31. More partisans were waiting for the order to leave.
On their way to the forest the partisans met police groups. This meeting lead to losses of human lives. Kadish Goldfarb died when crossing the guarded bridge at the river Esia. Commander of the first group Meer Salinger, Berl Levin and others died in a fight with Germans on the road from Kovno to Mariampole (* now Kapsukas). German guards pursued Jews, organized round-ups, systematically patrolled roads. Only a small group of partisans managed to break through. Group commander Nechemia Endlin and his friend Shmuel Martkovsky reached their place of destination near lake Brujhana after overcoming all difficulties.
Over forty partisans fell into fascists' hands. But the Germans failed to succeed in their various attempts to extract any information from them about the organization and their departures for the forest. We must mention the names of our friends tortured to death by the Germans: Moishe Rojansky, komsomol member Itzik Kirkel, former director of publishing house "Spartak" Bonia Meskup, metal worker Haim Viruzky, Velvel Shuster, Girsh Gen, Leo Seeman, Ruvim Zweig, Iosel Hodos and others.
Messengers brought information about traps on the roads and the tragic deaths of the departed to the ghetto. The organization had to suspend temporarily further departures in that direction. However,the leadership did not lose its spirits; their conviction that they would overcome all difficulties did not diminish. The special order to all organization members read,
"We have no right to feel down, to be afraid of difficulties and losses. We must find new ways and we will achieve this. Our strong bolshevik willpower and resoluteness to fight our enemy openly will lead us to success."
The organization began setting up bases near Kovno simultaneously with its marches to August forests.
They planned for some of their fighters to gather in bases after getting through the ghetto fence in order to form groups for joining partisans.In those bases they planned to have weapons and other means of armed struggle for partisans. Main bases were to be set up near Murava, Zapishkis, Garliava.
Soon after Albina's arrival from a partisan base in Rudnizky forest (30 km south of Vilno) paratrooper Konstantin Radionov arrived in Kovno to head a partisan group. At the partisan base Haim Yelin arranged to meet Radionov in Kovno suburb of Murava where Radionov began to organize an underground group to fight the invaders. Activists of this underground organization Romas Kulvinskas ("Romka"), Foma Terent'iev and others made a contact with the ghetto resistance movement, and Radionov with a few of his friends returned to Rudnizky forest to set up partisan group "Death to Invaders".
People who stayed in Murava built dug-outs in the forest between Murava and Vaistarishkes to keep weapons and give shelter to those who needed it. Though the ghetto organization was mainly concerned with sending the people to the forests of southern Lithuania the members also actively participated in setting up bases near Murava. Many underground fighters including Haim Yelin worked hard there.
Murava became the main base for weapon gathering operations in the forests around Kaishiadoris. One of such operations took place from 14 to 15 of November when the house of Kaishiadoris forester, German agent terrorising local population, was attacked. Ghetto organization members Elia Olkin, Leiser Klebansky, Bernstein and others took part in this operation. In one night they had covered 30 kilometres. Having overcome forests and marshes people's avengers surrounded the forester's house and cut telephone wires. This fascists' lackey and his stooges got their just deserts, while the partisans got hold of a lot of weapons and ammunition. The fighters returned to Murava before dawn bringing with them rifles, bullets, pistols, radios. They hid it all in their dug-out.
Later more weapons and other things required by the partisans were delivered from the ghetto.
The organisation attempted to set up a base near Zapishkis, 16 kilometres from Kovno. A group of ghetto fighters, among them Jankel Levi, Itzik Boruchovich, Jankel Ratner, Jankel Holzman and others whose task it was to build new dug-outs left for Zapishkis forest. But when the first dug-out was almost finished they were found out by Germans. The partisans managed to make their escape in time. However, Germans became more vigilant in the area surrounding Zapishkis and the organization was forced to give up the idea of setting up a base there.
At this time the leadership of the organization learned of a partisan group operating in Eznas area. Members of the ghetto organization - Moishe Pushkarnik and Jankel Birger, who were born there and knew the area well, left to do reconnaissance at the end of October.Their work lasted a month. With the help of some Jews hiding in that forest they managed to locate the partisans. From time to time partisan groups from Rudnizky forest under Juozas Mikuliavichus' leadership came here. The groups though did not stay there for any length of time. Pushkarnik and Birger succeeded in establishing a contact with partisans but they soon had to leave the area as they were pursued by police. On their return to the ghetto the scouts made a detailed report about their work and the gathered information. But because by then a direct line was established via Albina to the partisan leadership in Rudnizky forest, the organization decided against continuing their work in Eznas.
4. TOWARDS THE GROUP "DEATH TO INVADERS"
The organization had new hopes after it had established direct link to the secretary of Southern Underground Committee of the Lithuanian Communist Party and the head of the partisan movement in Vilno, Trakai, Alitus and other districts, comrade Heinrich Zimanas (underground alias "Jurgis") who was an experienced party activist and fighter for the Soviet rule in Lithuania. Comrade Ziman gave orders to send partisans from Kovno ghetto to Rudnizky forest and namely to the new group "Death to Invaders".
After a failure in August forest, people in the ghetto became even more convinced they needed an experienced guide to overcome difficulties of a long trip. Three partisans were sent from group "Death to Invaders" in the middle of November with varied tasks. On their return journey they were to bring with them a group of fighters from Kovno ghetto.
Having overcome many obstacles members of Kovno ghetto organization prepared for departure with the partisans gathered at a designated place in Murava. On November 23 the first group headed by communist Elia Olkin and Moishe Upnizky left Kovno for Rudnizky forest. Among their belongings there was a radio.
Their journey to the base was hard and long. The enemy was guarding all roads. In every small settlement there was a German garrison. The partisans lost a number of their friends. Commanding officer was killed, wounded Upnizky was returned to the ghetto. Only a small group of partisans reached the base.
The first march to Rudnizky forest taught partisans some good lessons. It became obvious that only a few individuals would be able to break through the blockade around Kovno and then march for another 150-160 kilometres on foot. For group passage one needed a different route. It was suggested to make the first and most dangerous part of the journey by a vehicle. It would have also allowed a bigger group of up to 30-35 men to be sent simultaneously which would be greeted by the younger generation who wished to join partisans.
With a great deal of effort a reliable lorry driver was found who had agreed to take the Jews (who also happened to be partisans!)
The sending off was planned for December 12. The fighters gathered at a designated place and at the agreed hour. Guides were waiting at their designated place in the town. But the driver failed to get out of the garage of the German office which owned the vehicle. The fighters ready for departure had to change their combat gear for normal clothes of the ghetto residents, to hide their weapons and to avoid other residents. The next day the whole story was repeated. Only on December 14 the lorry appeared at the ghetto gates. The driver waited for a column of German vehicles to enter the ghetto,joined them and then drove to a side street in the ghetto.
The selected fighters gathered in safe flats. Messengers rounded all the fighters for the departure. The partisans quickly took up their places in the lorry. Thanks to the help of some members of the ghetto administration documents were obtained which suggested that the group were sent to work out of town. In case of a check up at the gates two fighters, Zundl Shtrom and Leiser Zodikov were dressed in German uniform. At approximately 7 pm the lorry successfully passed through the ghetto gates and the journey began. 8 kilometres out of Kovno the group expected to meet some guides but there was no one there. They waited for over an hour. There were many German vehicles on the road. The situation was getting serious. Suddenly Haim Yelin who was accompanying the group noticed some Germans with a prisoner. It was dark. Yelin ordered the driver to direct headlights at that group, jumped off the lorry and approached the group. As it turned out they were the guides who in disguise managed to fool German patrol-men and to stay on the road for a long time. Three of the guides got into the lorry and it took the group to a place called Onushkis (110 kilometres from Kovno). The lorry returned to the city by morning time. The most dangerous part of the journey, railway line Vilno-Grodno guarded by fascists, the partisans made on foot and then successfully covered remaining 40 kilometres to the base of the group "Death to Invaders".
5. TO PARTISANS BY VEHICLES
This successful attempt to get to the bases by a vehicle convinced the leadership that they should act in the same manner in the future. All activists began their quest for finding new vehicles and organizing further trips. Military instructors Haim-Dovid Ratner, Peisach Shater, Saul Finkel explained routes to the designated fighters, gave them last advice, checked and then gave arms, maps drafted by Moishe Aronson and Itzhack Minovsky, compasses made by Tevie Pilovnik. Doctor Rosa Golach and pharmacist Hasia Neviajskaia prepared and gave the partisans individual packets and medication and bandages for partisans' first aid box.
The majority of the group had worn out clothes and shoes on with wooden soles. Before their departure they received good leather boots, clothes and underwear. This became possible thanks to the work done by the equipment sector which was headed by two people: experienced Alta Teper and energetic and dependable Meer Grinberg. The latter put all his energy into the task of obtaining goods necessary for the future partisans. He also performed other tasks when it was required of him.
Leather and cloth were acquired by various means: from German storehouses, workshops, factories. On delivery necessary clothes was made from this. Every member of the organization tried hard to do all he/she could. Motl Goldschmidt, an excellent brush maker, found really good material which he used for making brushes, then sold ready made brushes and gave the money to the organization. Seamstress Hana Grinberg did the same with her slippers.
German greatcoats and other articles of clothing were delivered to ghetto workshops for repairs. Sara Friedman, Zilia Visgedriiskaia and others made jackets, trousers, gloves for the partisans. Sheina Levi organized making camouflage coats.
Ghetto workshops were a main source for obtaining footwear, clothes, bandoliers,holsters and other leather goods for the partisans. In daytime members of the organization brought out various materials while hiding it under their clothes. People were thoroughly checked every time they left a workshop. During those checks representatives of the Jewish administration were present. Among them there were organization sympathizers. On hearing a special password they helped the underground fighters to get through the check point...
Sending groups to partisans required money to buy weapons, to pay for the transport. Money was gathered from membership dues from underground fighters, people from "the periphery",by selling personal belongings of those who left to join partisans. Judel Visgardiisky, Hana Bravo, Gena Messia were especially active in gathering funds.
The preferred method of leaving the ghetto in large groups was through the ghetto gates. It was done by passing the leaving groups for workers. Those members of the organization who worked in the ghetto police informed the rest of who was guarding the gates. Among those guards there were such men who lost their vigilance when a large group of people returned to the ghetto. Members of the organization used the opportunity: they caused even more havoc at the gates and at the same time gave false papers for signing which allowed new groups to leave the ghetto. Friends from the ghetto police - Haim-Dovid Ratner, Itzik Shater - smuggled weapons in bags intended for personal belongings.
After each group departure the organization had to arrange "removal" of names of the departed from the files of various ghetto administrative offices. It was vital to avoid the persons being put on the escapee list and to stop the police from victimizing their relatives and friends.
Committee members D.Galperin and Shimen Ratner were personally responsible for preparation and sending off. Comrades David Martkovsky, Meer Yelin, Moishe Muselis, Wolf Shavlan and others carried out special tasks connected with sending partisan groups.
Haim Yelin and Jankel Levi were responsible for the contacts with the city party organization during periods of transportation. They had to overcome serious difficulties. City underground fighters Trofimov and Paulavichus and ghetto messengers Mendl Moshkovich and Itzik Miklishansky were responsible for organizing transport for the groups.
The organization managed to send all in all eight armed groups to Rudnizky forest by various means. All these groups succeeded in reaching partisan bases without losses. The idea to use transport proved to be a winner.
Long moustache grown by those getting ready to leave for the forest in order to change their appearance and short jackets became a symbol of a partisan in the ghetto. It stopped being a secret for most ghetto residents that an opportunity existed which allowed them to join partisans. The hearts were filled with joy, hard days were made to appear easier thanks to the first signs of hope. In the ghetto a song was written addressed to the freedom fighters.( The author of the song was young girl Jashunskaia, who later joined partisan group "Forward").
Disappearance of hundreds of people from the ghetto could not have passed unnoticed. Friends and relatives, fellow workers, administration officers became aware. When the groups were leaving the ghetto outsiders were present at the gates. In spite of the fact that people saying goodbye were very careful about it and were supportive of the work done by the avengers, understandably the organization increased its strict conspiracy to safeguard the organization from traitors and provocateurs.
Kitel raged in the ghetto. He had already finished his bloody activity in Vilno - Vilno ghetto had been exterminated - and the gestapo sent him to Kovno to make use of his "expertise in Jewish matters". Kitel did not hide his conviction that every ghetto had its own underground group. Thus, he issued an order to his assistants to search for such a group in Kovno ghetto. With this aim he tried to recruit help from ghetto Jews.
A certain Fain who shamelessly sold food at the black market was arrested during one of his "business deals" in the city. After a few days in gestapo he reappeared in the ghetto. The organization treated such people with suspicion. They began following Fain. The special sector of the organization was soon in the possession of facts confirming that the questionable luck of being returned to the ghetto was achieved by becoming a fascist agent. During his visits to the ghetto Kitel called Fain several times. Judel Zupovich who served in the ghetto Jewish police and had contacts with the organization heard Kitel ask Fain about people who kept gold, weapons and other banned things in the ghetto. Serious accusations were confirmed by the following incident: once, unnoticed in the darkness, he crept into a lorry taking a group to the forest. While the lorry was moving he jumped off it - people in the lorry recognized him. The special court of the organization passed a guilty verdict and sentenced him to death. After the sentence was carried out (in a bunker where he was brought on false pretences) they found a piece of paper with Kitel's telephone number in the traitor's pocket.
Kitel searched tirelessly for Fain in the ghetto. Kitel demanded from the then chief of ghetto Jewish police Moishe Levin, who served the organization, to tell him into which well his (i.e. Kitel's) Fain was thrown... After this phrase many in the ghetto were expecting serious acts of repression. But the repressions came much later and in unusual form.
The case of Fain was a warning - every traitor would be punished!
While groups were sent to the forest secrecy in the organization became relaxed. Leading figures were present at instruction sessions for those who were leaving, at weapons and clothes hand-outs, during passing through the gates. People for those groups were drawn from various units. Not only members of the organization joined partisan groups. The movement was reinforced by new people. Ghetto youth enthusiastically searched out possibilities to join partisans. The "periphery" of the organization had also widened. The organizational foundation thus somewhat changed.
Under those circumstances a reorganization took place - membership was reviewed, cells were restaffed and new secrecy rules were introduced. "Practical instructions to members' activities" were issued. New people were involved in the work of the leadership after the departure of the old members. So the committee membership changed several times before it became more or less stable for any considerable period of time: Haim Yelin -secretary and member responsible for communication and special issues; Dmitry Galperin - member responsible for agitation and propaganda work ( he also was Yelin's deputy performing Yelin's work when the latter was out of the ghetto liaising with the city organization); Shimon Ratner - member responsible for military training and evacuation; Liusia Zimmerman was responsible for the membership and the organizational work; Meer Goldberg - responsible for financial and social issues; David Martkovsky was responsible for the work of the assistance sector.
6. 9th FORT
Starting from the beginning of November 1943 long tongues of flame could be seen from the ghetto every evening. North-westerly wind brought smell of burnt meat and bones...
Soon it became known that in the 9th fort they were burning bodies of people killed during the occupation.
After Stalingrad Germans had a fear of retribution. They felt: the time was coming when they would have to answer for their bloody crimes. Wishing to sweep away any traces of their evil deeds fascists made a decision to open up mass graves and burn the remains. Kovno 9th fort had to be also "cleaned".
But the mystery of the 9th fort had long stopped being a mystery. Numerous living witnesses of German crimes were in and out of the ghetto.
Farmers' houses were situated in a few hundred yards from the place of mass killings. Local residents saw with their own eyes how the doomed people were ordered to undress down to their underwear, made to approach pits into which they were thrown alive and then shot. Heart-rending scenes took place there. The cries of the poor souls could be heard everywhere. The executioners hit people with the butts of their rifles, stabbed little children with their bayonets and then threw them into the pits. Farmer Vinzas Baniavichus told how one day a German covered in blood came running into his yard. His face was wounded, there were bites on his neck - results of an attack by one of the condemned Jews...
Only one man managed to escape alive during the times mass killings took place in the 9th fort. It was 11-year-old Itzik Bloch. He came running to the ghetto and told how he and his parents with many other Jews were taken from the ghetto to the 9th fort. There they were divided into small groups. They were made to get fully undressed in the snow, in the frost. They were taken to the pits. His mother started pushing him away," Run, run!"; he obeyed his mother and started running. He was shot at but a bullet only slightly injured him. He fell into some bushes. When it became dark and the sounds of bullets and terrible cries died out the boy ran away from the terrifying place. In only his underwear, all covered in blood he managed to get through barbed wire into the ghetto.
Aron Gafanovich and Ruvim Gorgel who avoided being sent to the ghetto and happened to be in the vicinity of the 9th fort had a chance to watch one of the mass actions.
Later, however, even more reliable witnesses came up who both lit up flames of bonfires in the 9th fort and shed light on what had happened there for the rest of the world.
To carry out the obliteration of mass graves 72 people, mainly Jews from the ghetto and prisoners of war, were brought to the 9th fort.
The opening of the pits and burning of the remains proceeded in the following manner: the top soil was removed by excavators. A group of prisoners cleaned bodies of stuck soil. The next group removed bodies from the pits. There the bodies were inspected. A specially designated person (*doctor Neimionov) pulled out gold teeth. Pockets were also inspected. The next turn was for the carriers - they took the bodies to the bonfires. When the pit was emptied the Germans checked it and ordered to fill it up.
The bonfires for body burning were arranged in the following manner: logs were put in a 4 x4 metres square. Underneath a channel was dug up which was filled with inflammable liquid. A layer of bodies was put onto a layer of logs, then another layer of bodies and another layer of logs. 300 (*according to more correct information - 250) bodies, a "norm" for each bonfire,were put together. To light up the fire several charges were put into the channel and then exploded. A bonfire would burn for 24 hours. The fire was seen several kilometres from the place and its smoke stretched out a long way.
In order to cover up their crimes in the 9th fort gestapo sent there a number of people who made the journey to the August forest but were captured by the police. Brought up in the spirit of struggle the members of the ghetto organization together with prisoners of war soon started forming a resistance group in the terrible conditions of the 9th fort.Comrades Moishe Simelevich and Alter Faitlson joined its leadership. Under Aron Vilenchuk and Tev'e Pilovnik's leadership a komsomol group began its actions. People put to burn bodies were eager to get out to tell the rest of the world about the atrocity. Their aim was an obvious one - to organize a mass break-out and to try and join a partisan group.
At the beginning it seemed to be impossible. Every morning people were put in irons in pairs before they left for work. The chains were removed only late in the evening in the basement cells of the old fortress, behind iron bars. There was no work in the fog. Quite by chance they found an old filled up well in one of the cells. A ray of hope appeared. In the night they began digging a tunnel in the well leading to the fortress exit. But after a short time they came against a stone wall. It was impossible to get through that obstacle. (*in fact, the prisoners could only clean out the well, but failed to get through its walls)
The prisoners started looking for other ways of escaping. After a long search it was established that at the end of the corridor there was an iron staircase leading to a dark passage. At the end of the passage there was an iron door after which there was a long tunnel full of logs.The tunnel to the northern outer wall of the fort.
However, further problems arose out of that: 1)the need to create a possibility to leave cells which were locked from the outside; 2)getting through the iron door; 3) removal of logs from the tunnel; 4)making a wooden ladder to overcome six-metre walls of the fort.
At first the problems appeared to be difficult to solve, but this did not undermine people's determination and they started the work.
Metal workers Pinhes Krakinovsky, Alter Faitlzon, Israel Ghitlin were often left in the casemate for work. Even in their shackles they could have some freedom of movement. The prisoners found keys to the cells and created an opportunity for one of them to get through a cell into the corridor.
With some drills they made a hole in the iron doors; in a dark and full of rubbish tunnel it was possible to do it without Germans' knowledge. In the evening after returning from "work" until "retreat" (at 8 pm) it was possible to drill more holes. In order to muffle the sound of drilling the prisoners always staged some sort of entertainment in their cells: singing, dancing, joking. The Germans did not interfere. On the contrary, they were pleased that the team was in high spirits, worked hard and increased daily "norms"... (*in fact, the hole in the iron door was drilled by Krakinovsky in daytime, who faked some illness: two prisoners had a right to be unwell and stay behind. The elder of the group decided who was going to be "unwell" - this was one of the break-out organizers Podolsky-Hailovsky).
And so the hole in the door was ready. Now it was the turn to clear the tunnel from the logs. They told Germans that in order to increase their turnover they needed dry logs - this is how they got the permission to take logs out of the tunnel. Shakhov who was working in the fort workshop made wooden parts (steps)for the cord ladder. Having put those parts together they made a ladder of the required length.
On Saturday, December 25 1943 at about 10 pm they began preparing for a mass break-out. The prisoners left their cells in strict order and complete silence. To muffle the sound of steps the iron stairs were covered with blankets and other cloth. Two of the leaders were in charge of people getting through the hole in the iron door. They held knives in their hands which were found on the dead bodies (*incorrect). As it was expected the guards were having a drinking party that night.The inevitable noise created by the escapees was drown in the wild cries of the drinking guards (*in fact, it was dead calm that night!). 15 metres separated the iron door from the entrance to the underground tunnel where there used to be logs. This distance had to be covered with great care: there was some snow on the ground and the guard on the watchtower could notice the shadows.
Four people dressed in white clothes held a large white blanket made from several sheets. Under that cover groups of eight prisoners (*sixteen) made this most dangerous part of their journey. When they left the tunnel the fugitives found themselves at the edge of a deep ditch and having gathered all their strength they made their way down. The inner side of the ditch they had climbed with the help of the home-made cord ladder. The last part of the obstacle in their way they had cut through with wire-cutters. The prisoners were at large...
The fugitives dispersed. One group went to the ghetto, among them 14 people from the ghetto organization and Soviet Army captain I.Vasilenko. With the help from the organization the fugitives were soon sent to a partisan base.
Only by the morning the fort administration realized that prisoners had escaped. All Kovno police, SS, gestapo and some army units were put into a search party. All territory around the 9th fort and Kovno suburb of Villiampole where the ghetto was situated were thoroughly searched. The Germans threatened the ghetto with extermination unless they handed back the escapees from the 9th fort. Only after a group of fugitives had been recaptured in different parts of the city and its suburbs gestapo people believed that none of the fugitives had managed to return to the guarded ghetto.
The organization hid those fugitives of the 9th fort who managed to get back into the ghetto in its bunkers. Medical help was given to those who needed it.Alta Teper put a bandage on metal-worker Pinhes Krakinovsky: because of the inhumane effort put into drilling holes he lost skin on his fingers...(* this seriousness of his condition has been exaggerated).
There was a terrible smell coming from the former "body-burners"' clothes. There was a danger of gestapo dogs finding the hide-out by that smell; "fort uniforms" were immediately burnt and the fugitives got new clothes after a wash.
There was urgency about preparing fugitives from the 9th fort for departure to the partisans. On January 6, 1944 together with their friends from the organization the fugitives set out for the forest by lorry. When they were passing through Onushkis, 100 kilometres from Kovno, local police tried to stop them. Thanks to Yelin's experience and sense of direction (he accompanied the vehicle) they succeeded in getting through a police cordon and hide in the night darkness before the police could take any action. The group successfully arrived at the partisan base.
* * *
Among documents taken by the group to the forest was a copy of the act describing German atrocities in the 9th fort. This act was compiled by the fugitives during their stay in the ghetto. The second copy was kept in the ghetto archives. Below is the text of the act: (*the text is given from the original without any changes)
A c t
Kovno. December 26, 1943
We, the undersigned, prisoners from the 9th fort, Kovno having escaped the imprisonment on the night of December 26 of this year, including Vesel'nizky I.L.(Vasilenko I.L.), Diskant A. (Vilensky), Faitelson A., Gelbtrunk M., Pilovnik A., Gempel B., Eidelson S., Maneisky A., wrote the following act:
( After the liberation of Kovno the State Commission examining facts of the German crimes established that in 1941-1944 over 70 thousand people were killed in the 9th fort. (*It is believed now that around 80,000 people died there.)
The fugitives from the 9th fort brought documents and some evidence with them: gold crowns which were extracted from the mouths of dead people, two drawings made by Soviet Jewish prisoner of war, Anatoly Gran. (*In a number of documents and memoirs about the 9th fort the surname of this person was mistakenly given as Garnik.) One of the drawings depicted two prisoners carrying a stretcher with bodies to the bonfire under guard. The second one was a sketch of a cartoon drawn by Gran on the door of his cell before the escape - it depicted a German being given a V-sign... (*The collection of crowns and both drawings can be found in the Lithuanian Museum of the Revolution in Vilnius.)
Minutes of the komsomol meetings taken place in the 9th fort were also brought to the ghetto. One of the points talked about a proposal to give comrade Aba Discant komsomol membership for his fighting spirit, serious attitude and comradeship shown in the severest circumstances.
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