Other Jews would console each other announcing "the Germans only hate the wealthy Jews. Since there weren't any rich Jews amongst us in Kurenitz after the period of Soviet rule, which had made everyone of us equally poor". So, they reasoned, "we had no reason to worry". Kurenitz buzzed with these kinds of conversations as the German army entered the town.
The same day, on Tuesday afternoon, we saw the troops of the Red Army rapidly fleeing from the advancing German army. Wounded Russian soldiers, lost and confused ran around, trying to find shelter. German planes flew very low, almost touching the roofs of the houses. The Germans planted seeds of death in the midst of the running troops. They also killed peaceful shepherds and their herds.
All of our reasoning and calculations ceased with the sounds of the slaughter. The Jews searched frantically for a place to hide themselves. Many went east with the retreating army, but only a few managed to cross the border. Most of them were stuck in the little shtetls east of Kurenitz, such as Dockshitz and Dolhinov. The ones who stayed in town prayed for pity from heaven.
We started gathering a few families together like lost, lonely sheep. We felt the danger was all around us, so we clung to each other. We believed that if we all huddled together we would be safer.
I remember a Saturday morning a week after the war had started. It was a beautiful, clear June day, beaming with natural splendor. All the cedar trees at the end of Mydell Street were covered in bright green aura, as if they were mocking our dark fears. Then the first Germans arrived in Kurenitz. They were known as the 'Spearheads' and it was their mission to scout out the area before the actual army was brought in. (In reality, there had been Germans in Kurenitz on the fourth day of the war, but they were paratroopers disguised as members of the Red Army.) The scouts came from the fields near the Savina Forest. They crossed Mydell Street and continued toward Poken. A few of them saw my father and asked him mockingly, Nou, harasha tasiviatsa? (Do you live comfortably?).
My family and I lived on Dolhinov Street, near the center of Kurenitz. When we learned of the Germans' arrival, we left our apartment and moved to Sweshtchefola at the end of Mydell Street. We had always thought of Sweshtchefola as the end of the earth, the area was on the outskirts of the village and was largely Christian, but now we felt more hidden there, and safer.
I remember that Saturday well indeed. Our family gathered in Uncle Yesha's yard that afternoon. The yard was big, and open to the surrounding roads and the fields, including the road to Balashi.
Suddenly, as we stood there, discussing what to do, I saw an armed car coming from the direction of Mydell Street. At first we were hopeful, and thought it was a Soviet car, but as the car approached, we saw the white and yellow flag and the black swastika of the German army.
"The Philistines," I said, and everyone froze.
'This is the end,' we thought, but a miracle occurred. The soldiers said 'hello' respectfully and greeted us politely. The unexpected attitude of the German troops improved our spirits and bolstered our hopes for the future. Uncle Yesha was very excited and a passage from Tehilim (Psalm) came to his mouth.
"The ones that sow with tears, harvest with happiness, " he recited. The family began discussing the situation. Uncle Yesha was convinced that we were still safe and that the future would be bright. He believed that we would be awarded despite the fear that was haunting us. Our imagination, he claimed, allowed us to get carried away.
The German tank drove to Mydell Street and across the market, and a short time later, we saw it returning and going to Balashi in the direction of Kribitz
The town was left without any rulers, a situation that left us at the mercy of thieves and pillagers. The villagers from the surrounding farms attacked the town. They came with sacks, saws, and axes and began robbing and looting. This was our introduction to the impending disaster that would soon sweep us away. The biggest mobs came from the villages of Starazi, Karutoca, and Zuriych. Desperation was everywhere, but still we worried that much worse was coming. Lieba Gotzes' and Sharel Berman put up a fight, but they were cruelly beaten by the robbers.
In some cases, the gentiles tried to protect us. We must remember Mishka Tkatzonik, who walked out of his house with an axe in his hand and wouldn't let anyone rob the Jewish homes in his neighborhood: the home of Mikhail Alperovich from Badonova, the homes of the daughters of Chaim Michael and my home. He continued to treat the Jews with equal kindness and honor throughout the war.
Later, a temporary police squadron was organized to keep the peace". The most despicable and cruel of the town's citizens became participants in this squadron. They retained their duties under the leadership of Doctor Shestokovitz throughout the duration of the German oppression. However, at the moment of its creation, the police squadron consisted jointly of gentiles and Jews. A watch patrol was organized to protect the towns' Jews.
Already, on the first day of the Germans' arrival, two people had died. They were my relatives and shared the same name of Shimon Zimmerman. One of them was the son of my Uncle Yesha. Uncle Yesha, who had so recently hoped that the future would bring a harvest of happiness The other was the son of my brother, Yermiyau. The two cousins were killed while on their way to return the weapons they had carried during their shifts as members of the temporary police. As they walked towards the makeshift police station that had been recently established, the Germans caught them and took them to the nearby village of Horidovich, which lay two kilometers from Kurenitz. There they murdered the two young men. None of the townspeople knew where they had disappeared to. The Jews didn't dare leave their homes; German troops were moving east and it was extremely dangerous to cross the streets. It was only a few weeks later that two villagers from Horidovich came to town and reported that they had found two bodies and had guessed their identities from their clothes. The parents of the boys went to retrieve the bodies with one of the gentiles. It was a very dangerous mission, but eventually, they were able give the cousins a Jewish burial.
On the day that the two boys were murdered, the top German officer in our area
ordered all male Jewish residents between the ages of sixteen to sixty, to
present themselves at the market at exactly one in the afternoon. Anyone
refusing would be killed wherever they were found.
A few moments later, the head of the Gestapo came out and gave us a 'beautiful speech'. He listed all the wonderful things that had befallen us being under the wings of the Third Reich. Now, he reasoned, we had one duty!-- to obey their orders and work for the German army. Also, he demanded that we put special signs on our clothing to show that we are Jews. In addition, he ordered us to elect a Jewish committee that would serve as the official connection with our new rulers.
This was the first month. Later, the German army moved east and the front moved far away from us. Jews were forced to work for the Germans with no pay. People somehow got used to the situation and now what they wished for most was for the Germans to lose the war soon, and for the difficult period to pass with relative peace.
The Germans began transferring Soviet POWs through town. The Soviet POWs would be rounded up together in the meat markets at end of Dolhinov Street as soon as they arrived. The Jews would cook food for them and give them water. They used the barrels belonging to the fire department, filled them with water, and the Jews would be harnessed and carry the barrels like horses on their backs. But we got used to that too.
One day, a few Jews from the town of Sventzian came to town and told us a horrible tale. They said that by some miracle they had survived, but that the rest of the Jews in their town had been killed. People asked each other how could an entire community be slaughtered for no reason. We couldn't accept the idea of such a monstrous occurrence. And when we finally found out that the story was true, some of us continued to reason that there was hope for our town. They said:
"Sventzian, after all, was part of Lithuania in the days of Soviet rule, and during that time many residents of Sventzian had developed a stereotype image of the Jews as Communist supporters". Others said, "In addition, the Lithuanians are known as having a very cruel nature". "And so," they said, "it's hardly surprising that the Sventzians had decided to 'avenge' themselves against their Jewish neighbors. But here, we believed, that could never happen.
A civil town committee was elected headed by Polish people who had been chased out by the Communist Authority during the Soviet days.
The lowest class of the mob that now joined the police force frequently caused troubles for us. They demanded that the Jews make them clothing. They wanted boots and hats, and often even those demands that we promptly met wouldn't appease them. Once in a while, they would come to our homes and take whatever they desired.
Weeks passed and it was time for Rosh Hashanah. Many of the previously non-religious Jews experienced a renewal of their ancient faith. They fasted and read the Torah and prayed. I remember my sisters, Sheina and Myna, who had previously been non-practicing Jews, now became orthodox. They would fast twice a week, and read the Torah, now they found emotional aid in the Jewish religion. They said that if we returned to God fully, our punishment would subside. Myna would stand for many hours next to her baby's carriage with a kerchief on her head, and say passages from the Torah, with tears flowing and a spirit of true conviction. There were many others in town just like her. Hardly anyone went outdoors, except for those who had to be part of the forced labor troop. Some Jews were sent to Vilejka, others to Poken. The people that didn't join the forced labor troop tried to hide in their homes. If anyone wanted to go to a neighbor's home, he would go through the yards and gardens in secret. To go into the street was to take your life in your hands.
The head of the police was a gentile named Aazevich from the village Kolbaszina. He was a one-eyed villager who'd had the nature of a murderer from the day of his birth. His assistants were Sherangovich, a Polish killer from a small village next to Kasziniavitch, and Belzniyookthe bastard son of a cleaning lady at the slaughter house. All three were the worst humans to be found in the area.
Motoros, the head of the town committee, was a Polish gentile that was very good to the Jews. He gave us permission on Rosh Hashanah to go to the synagogue. Prior to the Russian invasion he was the principal of the school.
On the day of Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Moshe Feldman stood before the congregation. How can one describe the prayer that day? The pain and the tears flowed Most of the people that came to the synagogue lived close by. I remembered that this was a sunny day and that my neighborMikhail Alperovich and I couldn't walk through the fields as we usually did at those times. Instead, we decided to go through the streets, though not on the sidewalk (Jews were not allowed to walk on the sidewalk). The streets were empty and seemed to us as dangerous to cross as a dark, never ending forest., Rabbi Moshe Feldman cried even after the prayer, as we left the synagogue he blessed each one of us and said, Shana tovah my dear shana tovah. You must hope until the last minute. Even if a sharp sword is held to your throat, you must not despair. God will not let go of his people.
On that day Motoros, the head of the town committee,sent us a message warning us that we must not go to synagogue on the second day of the holiday because the police were planning to interrupt the prayers and cause havoc. So, on the second day we all stayed in our homes, praying separately. This is how the holidays passed.
On Shminit Hazerets, seventy members of the Gestapo came to town. We were very scared no one knew the reason for the visit. They went to police headquarters, stayed for a few hours and then they returned to Vilejka. During the night, the local police went to different homes, and arrested Jews that were suspected of being Communists.
The next day, on Simchat Torah, the Gestapo came to town again. They took the prisoners out to the market and had them joined by their families: wives, children and parents. They handed them shovels and transferred them through Kosita Street to the forest across from the Jewish cemetery. There they were told to dig two holes. Then they were ordered to strip. Then they killed them. First they shot the men, and then the women, a total of fifty-four in all. We mourned these men and women who were pure, and innocent and yet, had been killed, but we continued with our sad life knowing there was no authority we could protest to.
I will never forget the night of that massacre. It was a dark night. We sat in our house sad and scared. Suddenly there were knocks on the door. I went to the door carefully, in fear, and whispered "Who is there?" I heard the voice of a child saying, "Open the door for me. Don't be scared- its me the little child of Yankel, the shoemaker. Let me just get warm."
We opened the door and let him in. He looked pale and skinny and he was shivering from the cold. He told us that he had been taken with his father and mother to be slaughtered, but he had escaped and hid in bushes until darkness had descended.
"The Germans," said the child, "are big liars. They said that they were taking us to work. But I knew that a little child like me couldn't work with such big shovel. I knew that they were going to kill us. I prayed that maybe God would watch for me and that I'd survive." We all sat there crying.
Months later, the child and his sister were murdered in the Vilejka camp.
The homes of the murdered families were robbed by the Germans and their helpers. Their houses were left without doors and windows, screaming for a reason why, for answer, or an explanation. But the heartless world was deaf to their screams.
Reason told us that we were lost. We had no escape, so people started trusting and believing irrational beliefs: dreams and miracles, deeds and signs that would console them. Some people started believing in numerology. When the number of the murdered reached sixty-six, I heard Mendel Zalman say that in psalm, passage number sixty-six reads, hosienou adonai ki bau mayim ad nefesh God save us because water came up to our soul" in conclusion he said: "and now G-d will save us"
We had no connection to the outside world: no newspaper or radio. We weren't
allowed to talk to the Christians. There was a strict law forbidding Christians
from getting in touch with any Jews. Once in a while, a Christian would come to
us and whisper something, but we never knew if what they told us had any
substance. The Saturday after the fifty-four were killed, the Christians that
worked for the telephone company came and told us that they saw with their owns
eyes how the Germans took the Jews of Molodechno, men, women, and babies, and
murdered them all.
Some time passed and we didn't hear of any killings in the area. This was interpreted as a good omen, and people started hoping against hope. Some said that Hitler had forbidden any more killings, and people that worked diligently for the Germans believed that they would pass the wartime peacefully.
Many Jews believed they would be spared until February 1, 1942 came. On that day the Gestapo came to Vilejka and moved into the courthouse that was next to the prison. They immediately ordered some Jews to report for work. Ten people were sent to do labor. They only worked for one day, and in reward they were cruelly beaten. Many returned with no teeth. Immediately after this incident, the Germans started annihilating the Jews in the Vilejka district. Almost daily, refugees from other towns who escaped death came to our town. We waited for our turn.
On March 15, a few Gestapo men came to Kurenitz. They played a bloody game. They killed thirteen people, and left. I remember that bloody day in the month of Shvat. It was a Sunday and the weather was unusually cold. Suddenly we saw Merill, the wife of Ortsik Alperovich, running in panic. On her head she wore a kerchief like the villagers do and she looked as if she were being chased by a monster. We yelled to her from our door, "What happened Merill?"
"Don't ask," she said as she ran, "The murderers have come to town!"
We panicked. What should we do? Where should we run and hide? My wife said we should hide behind the house. We went to the doorstep of our neighbors.
As we hid we heard and saw Egoff. He wore a Kosak's' hat and a long black fur coat, and in his hand, he held a whip. He was a famous killer whose name alone, could inspire fear. He called to Fredkin, the husband of Zelda, and asked him something. Fredkin showed him our house and Mikhail Alperovich's house. A few minutes later, he entered our home.My wife Mina returned home. He greeted her politely and asked if Jews lived there, and where there were other Jewish homes. She pointed to Fredkin and Mikhail's house. Then he went to Michael's house and asked questions, but even then, he was not satisfied. He went to Christian homes and asked questions.
We knew something was going to happen, and decided to go to our hiding place. We were once told by a Christian woman who cleaned the Polish school, that there was a huge basement under the school, and she suggested it as a good hiding place when trouble arose. She also told me that Nahum Alperovich and Nyomka Shulman had stayed there many times.
I took my children and hurried to the Christian woman's home. This was on Sunday and the street was full of Christians that came to pray. After we stayed there for a short time, we had to leave. One of the policemen that knew us came by and although he was not outwardly hostile, the woman was very worried. The policeman told us to not concern ourselves needlessly, that the Gestapo came to Kurenitz but they were just mugging the Jews not killing them. But from his expression I thought it better not to go back home. We left the house and decided to walk along the train tracks toward one of the neighboring villages. A Christian woman who saw us went to town to report that Jews were running away. The police came after us. On that day the SS killed only people that tried to run away. They were most likely going to catch us had not coincident saved us. A Christian villager from Lipnivitz went to doctor Shostokoviz and in his sled he brought some harvest in exchange for his visit. When he reached Kurenitz he found out that while he was riding, the harvest sack fell from his sled and so he hurried to find the lost sack. On his return he took us in his sled and all the time hurried his horse. The German chased us and after many troubles we reached Ratzka, a little village near by safely. We stayed there for a short time and then returned.
On that Sunday the Germans killed 13 Jews, amongst them the town rabbi, the dear Moshe Feldman. He suffered many tortures till his death. They threw him in the central market and broke his arms and legs and there he was left to die. It was a few days before they let us bring him to Jewish burial.
Shatz, the head of the Judenrat arranged that the ghetto that would be inhabited by professional Jews would be under the German governor of the region, Shmidt. About a hundred people were registered as professionals and after a few days, they were transferred to Vilejka and a month later joined with their families.
On 3/27 the policemen of Kurenitz played a bloody game and killed 32 people amongst them: Yitza Chatzties'(Charles Gelmans' father) with two daughters, Minzikovitz and his family. We risked our lives and we took the holy martyrs to Jewish burial in Jewish cemetery. It was a very cold winter and Artzik Gutzes(Dinerstein), Chaim Sozkover, Sara-eshkas' husband, and I took the bodies and brought them to the cemetery. For two days we had to burn the frozen ground till we could dig graves and we buried them separately men and women.
Other then the killings by the Gestapo there were separate killings of single Jews by the local policemen. One policeman that was particularly cruel was the one that lived near Kasinevitz. He was a detective during the Polish days and was in hiding during the soviet days. He was the one that killed the two boys; one was the grandson of Leib Motosov, the other was the son of Natan son of Meir-Shalom Shulman. Both were sixteen and were sent to work for the Germans. He also killed the 32 Jews and later he killed my sisters.
In the months of Shvat and Adar all the shtetls in our district were annihilated. Vilejka, Ilya, Krasna, Volozin, Redshkovich, Rakov, Evia, Eivnitz and more.
Any plans that we had about hiding in the forest were postponed since the winter was such a tough one. Even the partisans were not in the forests yet. After every "actzia" (action of systematic killing) the Gestapo would lie to the Jews and say that this is the very last massacre. After every killing the killers were ready with the reasoning and stories. They would say that this time the Jews were killed for using a radio that was connecting the townspeople with the partisans, the next killing the Germans came with another story like finding a gun.
At the month of Shvat and Adar there were killings everyday. So all hope was lost. Many thought that death was better than living in such fear.
There were some Christians that pretended to be Jew lovers and told us that
they'd keep our belongings to help us during bad situations. I remember that
one day when I went to the well for water I met one of my friends, a Christian
villager. When he saw my water container, all shiny and new, he liked it and
said "Itzka what do you need this kettle for? Instead of letting the
kettle fall in hands of stranger why don't you give to me? I answered,
"Don't wait so impatiently for my death. I'm still hoping to
survive." The Christian stood there embarrassed. He was after all a
friend, so he apologized. "I don't think of you badly. God bless you and
you'll stay alive. I was just saying rather than let a stranger take your
kettle its better that a friend takes it''. Some Christians would come and tell
us they heard from an official source that the slaughter would be on that date
or another and suggested that the Jews hide in another town.
(daughter of Neta, sister of the author)
Perished with her baby in Vileyka on March, 1942
(daughter of Neta Zimmerman, sister of the author)
Perished with her baby in Vileyka on March, 1942
They left at nighttime. The Christian villager took them in the direction of Kribitz through the village Nieka. Unluckily for them that was on the same night that the killer Sherangovich took the Jews of Nieka to Vilejka to be killed. While he was transferring them, he ran into my two sisters and demanded they join the group. When the group came near Kurenitz the villager with the carriage left the group and went on a side trail that led to Litvinki so my sisters managed to escape. When Sherangovich reached Vilejka and checked the group he realized that my two sisters, their babies and the villager were missing. Immediately he sent police to start the search. First they found the villager and threatened that if he didn't tell where the women were, he and his family members would be hanged. The villager was brutally tortured but did not say. The rest of the villagers from Litvinki looked for my sisters all day, wanting to save their village from punishment, and just before dawn they found my sisters. One was hiding at the Doba Zife house and the other at the house of Sarah Shifra Torov. They took my sisters with their babies half-naked. Doba and her four children were taken too. They made them run in the deep snow holding their babies underarm. The whole way they hit and tortured them. When they reached Vilejka, they put them in a cold prison cell with no food. The bigger torture started the next day. The babies were torn to pieces in front of my sisters' eyes. Then they took their teeth out and broke their arms and legs till their pure souls went to heaven.
I was told of this by one of the policemen that witnessed the horror.
Three days prior to Passover 1942, we gathered in Mikhail Alperovich's house to bake matzos. It was absolutely impossible for us to celebrate the holiday according to the usual tradition. We baked the matzos in secret. Someone was watching the house from the outside. Inside, we cleaned the oven for Passover and from eight kilograms of flour that I had, we baked "poor bread" to remember the Jews in Egypt. While we were getting ready to celebrate, the wife of Chaim, son of Elchanan and Chana Alperovich, came to our house and told us a horror story about the slaughter of the Jews in Dolhinov, that she had miraculously managed to escape. The next day, we saw a truck full of the furniture and belongings of the Dolhinov Jews. Our celebration for the freeing of the Jews from slavery in Egypt was very very somber that year.
At about the same time, three families from Kurenitz decided to escape the town
for the deep forest. Amongst them were Zishka, son of Shimon Alperovich, his
wife, Bashka Chana, and their son Yechiel, Faybush, son of Chaim Shulman, with
his wife and two children, Menucha Payken and Burl Chadash. They all managed
to get fake documents saying that they were travelling to the forest to work
for the Germans. They were able to reach the woods safely and found a place to
settle. But a villager that lived near the forest brought the Germans to their
hiding place and they were killed right there. Just around Passover the
Germans brought their bodies to town to show us that any escapees would be
found and killed. The horrible fate of the escapees caused others who were
planning to escape to the forest to re-think their plans. Right after
Passover, Zev Kupershtooch, who worked at the wheat mill, was taken straight
from work to Vilejka and there he was tortured and killed.
We had a friend, a poor Christian widow by the name of Anna. She was from the village Lipnovich. Prior to the war, she would come to me for advice and help with her legal documents. She was still loyal to us, and very deeply wanted to help us. Often, she would secretly enter our house, even though the deed was punishable by death. When she came over, she would tell us about what was happening in the outside world. One day, right after Passover, she entered our yard and brought a big container full of sour cream. She tried to comfort us.
"My dear," said Anna, "the Germans will be annihilated. Their heads will break. Do you know what happened last night? In the little village Retzka, the Partisans came to the mill that belonged to Kundra. They took everything he had in the mill. They didn't just come as ordinary people. They wore Red Army uniforms. When they left, they burned the mill and left a letter. The letter said, 'We, the partisans, took everything for our army.'" Then she continued, "Well, Itzka, they are not merchants, they're not going to sell the flour. If they took such a large amount of flour, it's a sign that they have a huge army. People say that the forests are filled with them. You will see, my dear, the Germans will have their heads broken. They will suffer a great defeat. My dear, you must escape to the forest." We knew that she was highly exaggerating, but she did it out of good will, wishing to comfort us and make us happy. We were very excited about her news.
The summer of 1942 came. The Germans announced that their army was going deeper and deeper into the Russian territory. As usual, they announced the news from the war front on huge posters that they hung all over the town's walls. They told us that the whole Red Army was destroyed, but we had other signs to tell us what was going on. In our hearts we followed our own signs, and not the German posters. Each night we saw hundreds of Soviet airplanes going toward Germany. They blew up German bases all around us. Every night we heard explosions. Terrorist attacks by the Partisans were usually aimed at railroads. We interpreted this event as a sign that there was some hope for us.
Many others amongst us continued putting their trust and hope in tales of miracles and dreams. I remember that Fayga Rivka, the wife of Mendel Kanterovich, had a dream that became the main subject of many discussions in town. In her dream, Fayga Rivka saw the most despised killer Sherangovich come to town and all of a sudden the Gestapo members jumped him and killed him right on the spot. Many believed that this was an omen that the Day of Judgment would come to the killer Sherangovich from Karsinievitz. Sure enough, sometime in May or June, a group of Germans entered the town. They caught Sherangovich and killed him. Everyone saw this as a sign from God.
Yeshaya Shmukler also had a dream. In his dream he saw all of his relatives who had departed this world. They came to him and said, Your wife is ready to deliver a boy. You should call the boy `Yehoshua' because aid is coming soon. Yeshaya's wife did deliver a boy, and on a suggestion of Mendel Zalman Roshkas', the boy was named Yehoshua.
One day, we got an order that all men and women must take part in the labor force. We were all told to clear the forest around the train tracks, 150 meters from each side, so that the Partisans would have a harder time reaching the tracks without being seen by the German guards. Each morning, at seven exactly, we had to show up for work. The place we had to meet was by the apartment that was used as the headquarters for the Judenrat. From there we were taken to work. This job lasted for three weeks, and ended on September 9, 1942, three days prior to Rosh Hashanah.
Almost all the Jews from towns in the area were annihilated at this point. It
seemed as if only our town survived. Daily, the killers would give us stale
compliments. They would say, "The Jews of Kurenitz are useful Jews, and
nothing bad will happen to you." We heard it everyday until the day the
Holocaust reached our beloved home town.
So we took our children in our arms, and started running through our garden into the direction of Poken. Our aim was first to get to the Segovitz Forest. While we were still in the garden, our Christian neighbor (the one that, you might remember, had a big tree in his yard, and right next to his wall there was a bench that people used for rest while walking on Dolhinov Street) stepped in front of us, preventing us from continuing. He forced us to return. He never said anything. Until today, his aim is still a mystery. Was he trying to hurt us or save us? Whatever his intention was, the result was in our favor.
The town was tightly surrounded by German guards in a ring formation. If we had continued running, we would surely have fallen in the hands of the Germans. Anyway, we had to return home. Light came, and we didn't know what to do. I walked to the house of Mikhail, our neighbor. In his home he had a little factory for oil, and on the wall there was a big sign saying that this was a factory, so a few families gathered there. We all thought this sign might confuse the Germans and that they would assume that no Jews lived there. There was the Rugbin family from Vilejka, and the family of Yosef the son of Motel Leib Kopershtook. Sometime earlier, Zev Kopershtook had been murdered. So now Yosef would go to sleep at his parents' home in the central market, but his wife and children would sleep at Mikhail's house. On this particular morning, Yosef didn't return and his wife, Rachel, was very worried. While we were standing at the entrance to Mikhail's house, we saw from the market-side, Mishka Takchonik's sister, a Christian woman, approaching. When she came near us, she yelled at us, "Why are you standing there like that, stupid Jews? Didn't you hear what is happening in town? Quickly, hide! Half of the town's Jews are already murdered, and you are standing here as if nothing has happened."
We started running, looking for a haven. In moments like this one, the quest for life increases greatly. We started saying our good-byes to each other; we kissed one another and asked for forgiveness. Each one of us assumed that this was his last day on Earth. It was already 9:30 in the morning, when we entered our homes. We sat there waiting. We assumed that any minute the murderers would come and take us. All of a sudden an idea occurred to us. We told our child to go outside, and to hang our key on the outside door, and then lock the door. Our boy did it, and we helped him get back in through the window, closing the shutters after him.
We had a hiding place under the floor, right under the bed. We lifted the loose planks of wood and entered the hole. We all got into our hideout and lay there for an hour or two. Then we heard sounds of voices and steps from the outside. We heard people speaking German and Polish. Someone said, "The door is locked here. There's nothing to look for." The sound of the steps seemed to be going away. Quietly, I left the hideout, and approached the window to look. I saw a car loaded with planks of firewood. It was driven by the Gestapo. I returned to the hideout, and shortly we all fell into a deep sleep. We woke up at four in the afternoon. There was total silence surrounding us. Once in a while, we heard loud steps. When my wife woke up she said, "Maybe it was all a bad dream."
Once again, I got out of the hideout and approached the window that was facing the yard of our neighbor, Mikhail. I saw that his house had been ransacked, and all his belongings were thrown into the yard. I left that window and went to the window that faced the street. There, I saw a horrible image. Two Gestapo men were holding Rachel, the wife of Yosef Kopershtook, with her two children. She was crying and begging, asking for pity, but they kept hitting her and the children with the butt of their rifles and pushing them toward the market. Then I saw them taking Mina, the daughter of Chaim Michael, her face pale, full of anger and hate. She was fighting the Germans, screaming insults in their faces and refusing to walk. Finally, they shot her on the spot and she fell down in the middle of the street, bleeding. This sight paralyzed me. I felt as if it were impossible for me to move. I felt that any minute, they would come here and take us.
When I was able to move, I returned to the hideout and told my wife what I saw. I knew that time was running out. We must leave. It was September, and the days were already short. The dark evening shadows were enveloping the last day on earth of the Jewish Kurenitz. Dusk was coming, and I told my wife, "Soon it will be dark. We must leave immediately." It was the last day of the Jewish month, and it was very foggy and dark. We got out of the hideout, dressed warmly, took our children, and left for the dark and the mysterious world outside. We had no clear plans and no aim. At that minute, we had one prayer in our heart: let us cross the road to Poken village peacefully. When we approached the village, dogs started barking and immediately there was shooting. They started throwing flares in the air. We lay down flat on the ground among the cabbage and plants that were in the garden. We lay there for a long time, until it quieted down. Then we crawled to the village, which only had one street. We crossed it, and hurried to reach the Sekovitz forest.
When we were three hundred feet past the village, we heard more shooting, but now we were past the danger zone. The night was very dark, and we walked through fields of potatoes. For a few minutes we stopped and looked in the direction of Kurenitz. We could see a big bonfire at the edge of Mydell Street, and we could smell burning bodies. We thought that we were the only survivors: four souls, mother, father and their two children, the last of a holy and renowned community. We stood there crying quietly to the dark, but pretty soon we remembered that this was no time for crying and eulogy. We had to distance ourselves from where we were. We continued on our way until we reached the forest. We started discussing our situation, and we reached one conclusion: we were sentenced to death. The winter was approaching, we didn't have appropriate clothes, and we had no food. We were being chased, and death could come from the cruel winter, with its storms and snow, from hunger and disease, from wild forest animals or, most likely, from the human wolves. Everywhere we might go, death awaited us. This was our rationale and reality, but our urge to survive didn't allow us to analyze our situation. It ordered us to stop thinking, and to start fighting fighting with any means possible. We walked deeper into the woods, about half a kilometer. We were hungry and exhausted. We lay down on the cold ground to rest, and had a short nap.
All of a sudden we heard someone walking near us. My wife whispered to me, Itzhak, are you asleep? Someone is walking here. Could it be the Germans? How could it be that they would chase us at night in the forest?
I whispered to her, We must not move. If we lie down, they won't see us in the dark, but if we move and try to escape they'll see us.
So we lay there quietly listening intently. We heard sounds of steps, and then
a voice of a child, Mama, mama. Immediately we understood that
these were our brothers, and I cried out, "Jews, come here." It was
our neighbors Mikhail Alperovich from Badanova, his wife and two children, and
the husband of Zelda, the daughter of Chaim Michael. We sat together
discussing the situation, suggesting where we should go. They were all very
happy to see me since it was well known that I was, since my teenage days, a
traveler. I used to join my father in his travels around the villages and
forests, and my experience, they realized could be very useful now.
I didn't have a compass, but my senses guided me in finding trails that would take us to the deepest woods. When we got about five kilometers away from the town, the woods became very dense and it was almost impossible to walk. We were scratched and hurt from the tree branches, and we had to carry our young children in our arms. That's where we were at dawn, when rain came down and drenched us. It was our second day without food. When we left home, we only had one piece of bread, and we'd given that to our children. All that day we stayed in that area, and at night we decided to go to the Sakovitz village to ask for food. Mikhail had a Christian friend in Sakovitz by the name of Ivan, who used to work for Mikhail in the days of Polish rule. Earlier, Mikhail had given him many of his possessions to store in his house for safekeeping. Now Mikhail wholeheartedly believed that if he came to Ivan, Ivan would be very happy to see him, and would do whatever he could to feed us with the best that he could offer. But Mikhail didn't know how to get from where we were to Sakovitz, so Rugbin and I joined him to show him the way.
For a long hour, we walked through the thick woods until we found the village. We walked through the fields so that the villagers wouldn't see us. We knocked on Ivan's door. When he saw us, he looked extremely scared, as if we were ghosts that had come from the grave. He murmured, "Have pity. Quickly run away from here. In God's name, run away and saves yourselves and me. There are many Germans in the village. If they see you in my house they'll kill me and you together." Mikhail and Rugbin were ready to run, but I was not so easy to trick, so I just stood there and said, "We have no reason to save ourselves, and you must give us bread. We have nothing to lose. Better we die from a bullet than from starvation." Knowing the soul of the beast, it was clear to me that begging would not suffice. So I continued, in a threatening voice, "If you won't give us bread, we will burn your home and your possessions. We are people with a death sentence hanging over our heads. We have nothing to lose. You must know that we intend to keep our threats."
Ivan the Christian farmer looked at us in terror. He brought a huge loaf of bread. It could easily have weighed as much as eight kilos. We left to return to our families with the supplies. We trudged on for miles and miles through the forest, we got lost for a short while, but finally, we found the women and children. We also brought water in bottles, and we divided the food and the drink amongst the group. This experience was an important lesson for me. It was like a candle that lit my steps through our journey in the forest. We had to be strong in spirit. We couldn't afford to give up or to be depressed. Even the shadow of defeat could kill us.
We spent that night in the forest. The next morning, which was the eve of Rosh Hashanah, we decided to move forward. My plan was to reach the Pelita, a place were Leib Motosov had a factory prior to WWI. While we were walking, Mikhail decided to separate from us and to go to the village Kalin. There, he said, lived a gentile that he had given the rest of his belongings to, and who had promised to help him whenever he needed aid. So Mikhail and his wife went to this man's home. We were later told that when the man saw them, he murdered them with his own hands.
We continued without them. It was about ten in the morning. The sun slanted through the tree branches, and a deep silence filled the woods. The towering pine trees swayed with the wind from side to side. The sound resonated like the hum of a devotional prayer. The sounds of birds were heard everywhere, echoing in the woods. How we envied the birds that were free to sing and call each other, while we were here, whispering, walking on our tip-toes, lost and fearful, not knowing what danger zone we might reach next.
All of a sudden, I smelled smoke. In panic, we leapt into the bushes, fearing that there were people nearby who might see us. Our eyes were searching, our ears were listening, and our minds wondered what the origin of this smoke could be. Could it be shepherds from the neighboring village that made a bonfire in the woods? Or maybe it was Jews who had escaped? All of a sudden, I saw a group of people, gathered a short distance from the road. It was Israel Alperovich, our town's butcher, his wife Chaya, their son Yosil, and the wife of Zondil their other son. They must have heard us approaching, because they ran into the forest. I wanted to calm them down, but I knew it was dangerous to yell, so I waved my hands and gave them signals saying that they should lie on the ground. They recognized me, and lay down on the ground, sighing with relief.
When we reached them, we asked them why they had chosen a rest place so near the road. Not only were they resting there, but they had started a bonfire that could easily reveal their whereabouts. Israel replied that they were afraid to enter the deep woods. The women asked desperately, "What will happen to us? Who will be with us? Where will we go?" I was very familiar with the surrounding area and I said, "First we must go to the deeper woods, in the middle of the forest, as far as we can from the road. " I was still full of energy, and eager to fight against our bitter fate. My senses were sharpened, and in my heart I had many ideas and thoughts about how to survive. But they looked so defeated. We walked towards the deeper woods for about an hour. When I thought that we were a good distance from the road, we sat down and built a small bonfire. Israel brought out from his bag his talit and tfilin, and said, "Look, Yitzhak. God bless, I succeeded in taking this so that at least I will have a talit at the hour of my death." We sat on the ground and Israel told us how he was saved, and how he succeeded to leave town on the day of the slaughter:
Early in the morning, he had walked to the minyan to pray. He made his way through the empty lots amongst the homes in the alley. While he was walking, he ran into some Jews who told him that the Germans had come into the town and were kidnapping Jews. Immediately, he ran home and led his family to their hiding place under the floor, where they sat the entire day. At night they abandoned their hiding place, and walked to Poken village, to the home of the gentile Kashtzook, who was extremely gracious. He took them under his wing, gave them a loaf of bread, and walked with them all the way to the forest. Israel was a very religious Jew. He didn't touch the bread. All he ate were the potatoes he had baked in the fire.
Around three in the afternoon, a young village girl who looked about seventeen,
came from the woods. When she saw us, she waved as if she were giving us a
signal, and then she ran away. We still don't know how to explain the signal.
A few minutes later there was a barrage of gunshots that seemed to come from
the side of the road. We stomped the fire out, destroyed any signs of our
having been there, and ran into the woods. I ran first, and everyone else was
behind me. We ran for five kilometers, until we found a niche hidden between
two small hills, where we lay until darkness came.
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