On that night, no one slept. It was a night of mourning. We cried and we tore our clothes. We pulled the hair out of our heads. We sat on the ground and mourned our martyrs. People who were left single with no families said, "We must escape immediately. Now, it is very clear what the Germans are planning, and anyone who refuses to escape will stay here to be hung." Nevertheless, some of us said, "winter is coming. Where will we escape to with little children?" Others tried to console themselves by saying that the Germans were building a big theater and that they would need us for at least six months so we should stay here until spring and then try to escape.
It was a night of tears and desperation until the morning came. We went to work, but we were like human shadows. A few survivors from the slaughter in Kurenets came to Vileyka. They Stealthily hid in the Zsinstand camp. It was more complicated to reach our camp inasmuch as it was watched carefully.
One day, around noon, I entered the barn to take some water to boil. All of a
sudden, I heard a strange noise from the roof. At first, I was sure it was a
cat. However, when I kept hearing the sound, I guessed that it wasn't a cat,
but a person. I called, "Who's there?" I thought that someone was
trying to commit suicide so I went out of the barn to let other people know.
Gitel Kapelovitch, the wife of David the tailor, stopped me and said,
"Don't run anywhere." She started whispering to me that her sister,
Dvushka, the wife of Eliyahu Chaim Alperovich, was brought here a few days ago
by Ingeleh Byruk, a gentile from Kurenets who saved many Jews. He hid her in
his carriage under a pile of hay for a few days, and now she was concealed here
and no one knew of it. Dvushka came down from her hiding place crying and
begging me not to tell anyone. Maybe later she said she would convince Shuts to
let her stay. Dvushka was beautiful, with all the prettiness of a Jewess. She
sounded so naïve when she said this. I said, "Dvushkaleh, don't stay
here. Run to the forest. Find people who will help you and you will survive.
For the love of God, don't stay here." My heart was crying inside. As if
to mock, she was blossoming in her beauty. After a while, Shuts took her to
work as a cleaning woman. A short time later when she left to work outside the
camp, some of the Kurenets inhabitants recognized her and immediately informed
the Germans that she had escaped the slaughter and that she was with us
illegally. One evening, two killers from the SS entered the camp. They found
her and took her, the next day she was released. We were very happy to see her
among us. We said, "Dvushkaleh, you must run out of here
immediately." "Where will I run," she begged with tearful eyes,
"My face will be a testament that I am a Jew anywhere. I must stay near my
sister. I am already lost." The next day, the two killers returned. She
cried and begged for mercy. She was held in prison for two weeks, where she was
tortured by every killer. Later, together with Itka Chadash, she was shot by
the killer, Gravah, behind the jail.
Standing second from the left; Dvushka nee Kopilovitz, the wife of Eliyahu Chaim Alperovich
(standing next to her) with his parents , sister and niece.
Many times I returned to his home and each time I returned to the camp very depressed because he would delay giving me the weapon. Every time he would raise the amount of money, he wanted for it. Finally, he took me up to his attic and gave me the "supplies". With excitement, I started kissing his hands. He was not satisfied with just kisses and asked me to give him some leather for boots, the only break he gave me was that I could give him the leather on a later occasion. He put the gun in a rag and tied it around my leg in case someone would check me. My heart was beating with happiness and excitement and in great spirits, I returned to the camp.
Of my secret, I only told my friend Yosef Zuckerman, and his eyes lit with happiness. However, both of us had no knowledge of weapons. I knew that Hertzel Alperovich used to serve in the army, so I was sure that he would know something about weapons. How shocked I was when Hertzel told me that you could not even try the gun because it locked the barrel with bullets.
My heart broke. My spirit was lifted again thanks to Kopeleh Specter who was
an absolute genius and in his hands, the gun became lethal. He fixed the gun
according to the exact rules. Now all I needed were bullets. Therefore, again I
started running around looking for the correct bullets amongst my Christian
acquaintances. Finally, I got three bullets.
sister of the author
When I returned to the work area, the group of killers entered. Amongst them were Koobah and the commissar for our area, Schmidt. They were followed by guards. Everyone was armed as if ready for a battle. At once, I turned the fox around to the inside and the smooth skin to the outside. I put it on a piece of wood and with a knife, I started working the skin. Our nervousness became fear when we heard the sounds of their creaking boots. All the workplaces were very busy. You could hear the sounds of hammers, saws, iron, etc. I was the last one to be visited. Koobah looked at me and at what I was doing with a look of great disrespect. He listens to my explanation of what I was doing. My heart died inside until we finally reached the blessed moment and they left. Now I could sigh with relief.
The results for our camp were only our great fear, but Koobah gave an order to eliminate the camp of Zsinstand. A few months later, on Saturday in November early in the morning before we even left for work, two young girls came to us running. One was the sister of Shalom the tailor from Kribitz, the other was Hashka, the daughter of Israel David from Kosita Street. Their hair was all messy and their eyes were turned around and strange with fear. They were talking in very confused order and crying hysterically. They told us what had happened in their camp. The night, when it turned dark, the killers had taken all of the children out of the camp on trucks. They were taken to the forest near the Jewish cemetery and all the children were murdered. Again, everyone in our camp started crying.
I had a particular part in this tragedy. My only sister, the baby of our family, Chanaleh. We could hardly walk to work. The carpentry was on the second floor, they could see through the window the black smoke from the direction of the Jewish cemetery. Again, people talked about escaping. The people who were single announced, We are going to escape, we are getting out of here immediately. Today we are going to run. We are not going to perish because of the families here who believe the Nazis. Look at the smoke, they yelled, Look and see. This is your own blood burning here. What are you waiting for? Very soon, they will bring their clothes for us to sort. Who is going to sort your own clothes? Who? Some of the family people said that they were right, but still among us were true professionals who believed that they were needed at least until Passover.
The Germans were building a theater and our work was necessary they said. These people would not let us run. They threatened us that they would stop us by force saying that if we escaped, everyone that stayed would be annihilated. Secretly some people managed to escape on that Saturday since that day the watch was not very careful, the guards were busy preparing for Sunday celebration. So on that day, about twenty escaped, amongst them Chetskel (Charles Gelman) Zimmerman, Tuvia Kopelovich, Moshe Lazer Torov, Chalvina Torov, Shimon Zimmerman, and Riva Gordon Zimmerman. Everyone thought that the German revenge would come soon. Women started calling to their husbands, What are you sitting for? Run and escape with them. We must save whoever we can. We dressed the children with the few clothes that we had and stood ready as if we were standing in the train station with our little bundles. All of a sudden, Shuts came and said, It's fine, the governor said that nothing bad would happen to us since we were useful Jews." Shuts continued saying that he thought we would manage to save ourselves through this war. We didn't really trust those promises. We knew that those were lies, but we were very fearful to escape on a winter day with little children. Therefore, for now we decided to stay.
On Monday, all the women were sent to take the clothes, the shoes, and other
belongings from the Zsinstand camp. They came back from their work destroyed
emotionally. We felt as if the gates of pity and the gates of revenge were
forever locked for the Jews. We were broken people and had no means to do
anything to control our fate.
One day, I with seven other men was called by Shots, it was a very early morning hour. I did not have any time to say goodbye to my wife and son. I could find no way of escaping. We were surrounded by Belarussian police, who were armed with machine guns, dressed in black clothes with gray straps tied to their sleeves. They ordered us to take shovels for digging. We were sure that our end was coming that they were taking us to dig our own graves. As usual, they made us work in pairs going in the direction of the Jewish cemetery. We immediately realized that that is where they were taking us, and Yitzkale, who was my partner, could hardly walk. I whispered to him, Itzka, if they ordered us to dig our own graves, we must escape. When they shoot us, at least we will be running. We shouldn't just accept our death quietly. We all told each other to do this whispering to each other. Gershon from Rakov, my business partner, said, With my shovel, I will kill at least one of them. I will cut him into two from up to down. And then I will die. Clearly, he would have been able to do this even without a shovel, just with his hand since he was so strong.
The local Christians were looking at us smiling and the Belarussian police were laughing saying, Say hello in heaven to the rest of the Jews. They brought us near the Jewish cemetery where they had killed our sisters and brothers, the citizens of Kurenets. Two of the police walked away to look for something and they ordered us to sit on the ground. The three other police stood around and said, Anyone who tries to escape will be immediately killed. Our teeth were shaking although the day was not cold and there was little rain and fog on the ground. They ordered us to get up and start to dig. One of us said, Why are you torturing us? If you wanted to kill us, do it right away. A policeman from Vileyka, someone, who used to be a shoemaker and learned his job with one of the Jewish shoemakers, started cursing us very dirtily. He ended is "speech" saying " first you must put in the ground the bodies of the Jews from the annihilated Zsinstand camp. Now, there is a danger of disease spreading to Vileyka", then he continued, "Your turn to die would come later."
The horrible sight is very difficult to describe. I don't think anyone has the strength to describe the details. Still today, I see it with all its horror constantly. There was a broken bathhouse in the area. In the chimney, which was all broken, there was a skeleton of a man that must have tried to hide there and was shot right there? All around the field were torn parts of bodies eaten by dogs and wolves. There was a cloud of black crows that covered the area. It looked like the plague of locusts had arrived. We had to fight them to get to the area. The smell was unbearable. The police let us tie something around our noses and mouths. There was no way we could work but the police said that they would kill us if we did not work. We will bring other workers and they will bury you too, they said. They started hitting us with their rifles so we returned to the job. Deep in our hearts we knew that our horrible job was a "mitzvah" since we were bringing to Jewish burial our dear ones. With our last might, we started collecting whatever was left of the bodies and put them in the hole that we dug. Here and there, we could identify from the clothes that were left some of the bodies. I could recognize Velvel Markman from Smorgon Street. He was saved from the slaughter in Kurenets and later reached the Zsinstand Camp. He begged to get a job there. I recognized him because he was a big man and I knew his coat and his color. I knew that my darling sister, Chanaleh, would be there. I thought that maybe I would find her body and I would bring her to a Jewish burial. I looked among the clothes. I also recognized another Jew from Smorgon. His name was Simon Danishevsky. At one point, he had worked with me as a painter. I recognized him by his short fur coat and his rubber boots that were full of paint. I buried him and continued looking.
All of a sudden Chanaleh, my Chanaleh her body was without a head
or arms. I recognized her from her blue coat. The coat was torn and full of
blood. I also recognized her belt. I couldn't control myself anymore. I fell to
the ground and held to what was left of her body. I started tearing my clothes
and ripping my hair out and cried with horror. My friends tried to separate me
from the body. The police knew what was going on and understood that I was
going insane so they took me away from the burial area and put me lying on the
ground. My friends continued without me. I was so destroyed that when we
returned I could not walk. They had to support me. This is how we returned to
the camp. The news that we brought that day was like salt on our open
We kept sending with him things that we wanted to safe keep. For us this was a miracle. This rare occurrence to find such a Christian man. He would sneak into our camp endangering his life each time. Danger could come from anywhere for him. We started preparing to go to the forest in full force. We prepared double souls for our boots we made them from the blankets. We started sewing warm clothes and underwear and we made duffel bags with sewing kits and anything else that could help us for life in the forest. We were preparing as if we were going on a long journey. Through that time, we were constantly worried that someone would leave prior to the set day and then the rest of us would be annihilated. People were particularly worried that I would go prior to the set day. Even my little three-year-old son would beg me, Take me to the forest. I also want to survive. He would say that every time I would wear my jacket to go to the Christian homes to talk to one of them about our plans. My heart was crying inside when I heard him beg. Each time I had to convince him that I was leaving but that I would also return.
Shuts was now convinced that hard labor would not save us. He knew very well that most of the people in the camp were planning to escape. Still, I was worried to let him know that I had weapons. However, I knew that he had good connections with a German native that hated the Nazis so I talked to Shuts and he talked to the German man. Eventually, the man sent me through Shuts sixty bullets for my gun and another gun for Yosef Zuckerman. To find a German behaving like this was unheard of. He was always telling us, Escape to the forest. The time of defeat for Hitler and his murderers is coming soon. Escape to the woods. Here, you won't survive. Yonah Riar from Ilya also got a gun, but when we finally escaped, he had no time to get hold of it.
Spring was approaching and the air was getting warmer and our hearts filled with good hopes. We all watched the tree branches to see signs of blooming. After a day of hard labor, hunger and fear, we would all gather at nighttime and all we would talk about was escaping and planning how to get the children and women out. The main thing that working against us was the fact that Vileyka was situated in a geographic area that was very hard to escape. A large portion of the town was surrounded by the river Vilya. From the north, the train tracks were constantly watched by the Germans. Moreover, that was the only way we could the large forests surrounding Kurenets.
During the slaughter in Kurenets, Gravah collected some Jews and brought them to the yard of the jail were he was living. There, he arranged them according to their profession to work in a big wooden barrack. With them were some laborers from the towns of Ilya, Krivitz, Smorgon, Oshmena, Voshenva, and other towns. There were professionals he brought to be used for his project. There were about thirty people, all single with no children. Among them were a few women. We knew of them being there, and they knew of us. They wanted to get in touch with us therefore occasionally they pretended that they did not have tools and they came to our camp to borrow tools. This way we knew of what was going on with them.
I remember at one time on Sunday morning the bell rang for us to go to work. We were all prepared for inspection. We were all sure that Shernogovitch was coming. His terrible name was known to every Jew in Kurenets. He was responsible for dozens of killings. When we saw that he was approaching, we all ran. However, when he came close, we realized it was not Shernogovitch, but it was Meir Alperovich son of Zalman and Reshka daughter of Yuda Alperovich. When he saw us running, he started yelling to us in Yiddish. We surrounded him and started asking, How is it that you are wearing Shernogovitch clothes? How could you be a policeman for the Nazis? Meir told us that yesterday the Germans murdered Shernogovitch, the collaborator, and for some reason, they ordered him to take the clothes off the body and to wear them. He ended his tale saying "maybe we would be lucky and revenge all our killers. Hopefully, I would be lucky enough to also bury Gravah the Horrible."
Gravah was eventually killed by land mines while he was strolling in his
carriage with his wife and child. The mines were put there by the partisans.
Just like our connection with Meir, we met other Jews who wanted to escape.
They also waited for spring. Their situation was much more difficult than ours.
They had less freedom, less food, and more torture. Still, some of them managed
to survive. At one point, they brought to Vileyka huge number of Jews from
Branovitz. They were all men who were survivors from many different slaughters
in the area of Branovitz. They told them that they were taking them to Russia
for productive work but they brought them here and they all lived in one big
barrack near the train station. The barrack was originally built as a barn for
produce by the Russians. They only put a little hay on the ground and that was
how they lived. They gave them very little food and no sanitary help. Many
diseases spread amongst them. People died every day. The Germans would also
kill a lot of them. Their main job was cleaning the tracks, putting supplies on
the train, and taking supplies off the train. We had some communication with
them, but it was very difficult. We could only meet them when we were sent to
the train station to take some coal. There we would have a minute to tell them,
Escape to the forest. We quickly told them the forests and villages
where they could find Jews and partisans. We tried to help them in any way we
could, giving them cloth to bandage their wounds. They also, like us, had
different opinions. Some thought that they should continue working, and others
thought that they should immediately escape. However, every day some of them
would die. At the end, only very few managed to escape to the forest. A few of
Other than these professional people, the Gentiles did not know some professions. On that account some Jewish people who were herbal medicine makers worked for the Germans. From Germany came merchants who established a factory for pharmaceuticals. Among those people were people who were saved from the Kurenets slaughter. Among them were Gershon Ayeshevsky, his wife and children; Cantor and his father-in-law Mendel Canterovitch. Originally, they all escaped to the woods but they could not withstand the difficult conditions there so they returned to Vileyka. We were very bitter when we thought about that. For us, the forest was the ideal, the aim of our desires. Here they came and destroyed the image of our idea. We still kept in touch with them. The letters that The Beard would bring us from the Kurenitzers said one repeated thing, Bring weapons. Bring bullets. Go the forests and save your lives. When we would read the letters, we would shake from excitement. Everyone was looking for bullets. Each time, prior to The Beard's arrival, Hertzel Alperovich would take two pieces of wood with a deep space between them, and there we would hide bullets. Once the bullets were in, we would cover the sides and put dirt on it with mud so that no one could see that it was recently disturbed. Then, we would take it to a place in the yard of the hospital that was next to our camp and put it on the ground. The Beard would go all over the yard, as if he was looking for junk and he would take our wood with the bullets together with other junk to bring to our brothers in the woods. We would call the wooden plaques, the Tablets of Revenge. We did not have much chance to send such merchandise because it was very dangerous and it was hard to get bullets.
Spring was coming and we sat there as if we were sitting on hot coals. Each day seemed to us like a generation. The three brothers from Vileyka knew that their end was coming. The students already knew their jobs, so they decided to escape to the woods. They left with a lot of possessions, clothes, money, and valuables. They had many acquaintances in the villages around and we all were very envious of them. We were very worried that day, thinking that the Germans would punish us for their escape. However, the incident passed with no problems. To their homes their assistants entered. The fear subsided. Now we were very happy that they escaped and we were telling each other how they had weapons and how they were so strong and that they contributed a lot in the fight since they knew the villagers.
Not many days later, we were all shocked. The oldest of the brothers came to our camp dressed as a farmer so no one would recognize him. We found out that he came as a messenger for his brothers to beg the killers to let them come back. He came to beg for forgiveness for him and his two brothers saying, "We did a foolish thing. The police told us that they were going to kill us, but now we know they were joking, we are sorry for what we did and come to ask for forgiveness and to let us be come back". We saw him as totally insane and we would have done right by his brothers and family if we had killed him immediately before he went to the authorities. If we had done so, we may have saved the rest of his family.
Although there was some truth about the difficult life in the woods, to us it was nonsense. We spit in his face and warned him not to do it. Despite the difficulties in the woods, he was better off there. However, he refused to listen. This was used as a big enforcement to the people who were against going to the forest. They said, Look. Those strong brothers with their connections could not withstand the conditions in the forest, so how could the rest of us do it? We answered that the day of death would come here and that we would not stay here waiting. We would escape to the forest. The Germans were very happy with this incident saying that the Jews would not be thinking anymore about going to the forest.
They let the three families return to their jobs. When the three families left,
they took with them Yosef Norman, but he did not return with them. He had found
connections with Jews and partisans in the forest. He survived and now lives in
Israel. Some days later, Shimshelevetch, the veterinarian, was taken out of his
home to be transferred to the Zsinstand camp, but he succeeded in escaping and
survived. After a few weeks, the Germans killed the brothers who returned with
We watched with envy the local Christian citizens walking around freely enjoying the splendor. Here we were imprisoned waiting to be slaughtered.
Some urge, I did not know where it came from, made me not go to work. I stood strong against Shuts and did not go to the train station to put the coal for the hospital as he ordered me. I stayed only in the hospital yard to help with taking down some things. For some reason, I just could not be useful that morning. All I could think about was our "Tablets of Revenge" (the wood planks with the bullets) that were lying at the edge of the yard of the hospital. I was intently waiting for The "Beard" to come and take them. I was looking all around searching for him, and the rest of the workers did not understand my nervousness. Only Shmuel Ashkenazi, the son of Sipka the widow, knew the secret and would answer the people who were questioning my strange mood saying, Leave him alone. He is not healthy today.
Finally, at noon, I found The Beard inside the camp. I did not know how he entered the camp without me seeing him. He brought a letter telling us to be ready to escape this coming Saturday. The letter said that across the train tracks their would be carriages to take the women and children, and a young Christian women would come and help us escape. Our hearts were filled with excitement and we wanted to dance with happiness and to kiss the feet of our savior. Grandfather, may he rest in peace, would say he was the spirit of Elijah. We kept blessing him and thanking him, but we knew that he should not stay for long. I said my goodbye and told him I would see him in his home next time. He got out using a side alley and I returned to the job. My heart was beaming with excitement. I could not wait for evening to come to let the rest of the people who were working in other areas the good news. The Beard was walking around the yard taking all kinds of junk, among them the Tablets of Revenge. It seemed like everything was fine so I returned to the camp through a hole in the fence. With me also Shmuel Ashkenazi. We were ecstatic, but very quickly everything turned upside down.
The tale goes like this There was someone in the camp that knew the secret of the tablets, and he told the secret to his wife. Naturally, she told another woman about the secret. When The Beard took the junk and left the yard, they saw that a Belarussian policeman approached him and took him in the direction of the German police. Here in the camp, people were sure that the beard was arrested. The woman who knew the secret of the tablets could not control herself. Full of fear, she ran to her room, gathered her children, and started screaming that any minute the Germans would come and kill us. Not only this, but she ran to the area where the carpenters were working and told them the awful news. Immediately, everyone panicked. When Shuts heard this, he got his gun and suit and ran. Shmuel Ashkenazi and I were paralyzed. We did not know what to do. At first, I wanted to tell them to calm down, but soon I realized it was like a big wave that was going sweep me with it if I did not save myself. I ran to my wife and yelled, Rosa! Quickly take the child and run to Navashevah. Navashevah was a Christian woman who promised to help us in our time of need. Her family was very helpful to us prior with encouragement and helped us getting weapons. I took the weapon and had no time to take all the bullets, only the bullets that was in the weapon. I put the new boots and the short fur coat on, but the rest of the clothes that I had prepared, I had no time to take. I could not forget my loyal friend Yosef Zuckerman who helped me so much, so I quickly ran to his wife and told her to run with my wife to the Christian woman. Yosef was at that point busy painting not far from the camp. I was afraid to run to him using the regular road, so I jumped over the fence to let him know.
In the paint shop, I found Eliyahu- Moshe the painter, and he told me that
Yosef went to get paint. I told him to immediately escape. I returned to the
camp to see if Yosef was there. There, my wife Rosa told me that Yosef, his
wife and son, had already escaped. They wanted to take her but she waited for
me. I said for her to take the Jewish signs off herself. While talking, I
started taking all the signs off her clothes and ordered her to immediately
run. My little son was begging me to take him with me. I was surprised at my
decision for them to run alone, but I realized that this was the best way since
if we went together on a working day it would cause more suspicion. Soon, I
said to myself, we would meet at Navashevah's house. I walked on the sidewalk
with my hands inside the fur coat holding the gun. I thought that if someone
stopped me I would immediately shoot him. The people of the camp spread all
over. While walking, I met Yitzchak Alperovich, his wife Batshevah, and the two
children. Yitzchak was walking holding a shovel as if he was going to work, but
how foolish it looked going to work with two babies! I walked by them and
without stopping I said, "Are you taking a leisure journey or are you
escaping? Hold each child and run to separate areas. Don't walk together.
I walked by our first living space where I had been so tortured. The place
where my sister, Chanaleh, was taken to her death. From afar, I saw a group of
German soldiers doing some physical exercise. Should I return? No, I decided to
continue thinking that they would be too busy with their exercise to pay
attention to me. I arrived at the house of Navashevah, the Christian woman. I
stood by the gate at her yard but to my surprise, it was locked from the
inside. From the house, I heard the pleading voice of Navashevah. She told me
that there was no way she would let my wife in when the Germans were standing
across from her yard. This could have caused death to her home. She suggested
running to the forest and surely, she said I would find my wife there. While
saying this, she locked her shutters.
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