We held hands as we walked so that we wouldn't get lost in the darkness. It was the middle of the night by the time we reached the river. We didn't have any cups or anything else we could drink from, so we all fell to the ground and drank directly from the river.
From there, we walked through the fields and headed towards the first farm we encountered. There was no light in the house. When we knocked, the farmer asked, "Who is there?" I answered, "Itzka from Kurenitz, the son of Netka from Shvashzapole". He knew me before the war. He approached the window and gave me half a loaf of bread and some onions. We went on, to another farm, and there they also gave us half a loaf. We took some vegetables from the garden, as well as a big gourd that was next to one of the fences, and with all these supplies we returned to the women and children that were waiting at the edge of the river. It was getting very late. We didn't have a watch, but we knew it was after midnight. We entered the woods, but couldn't find our original spot. For three hours we roamed around.
All of a sudden Israel said, "My dears, I have no energy to continue. I'll stay here." He was much more tired than the rest of us because he didn't eat the bread, so we stopped and lay down on the ground, bundling up with each other. When we woke up, it was already light. A plane flew over the woods, and the sound was unbearable. We realized that today was Rosh Hashanah. Israel put on the talit, stood next to a tree and prayed. He announced that we must pray for all of our townspeople. When he said this, we all started to cry, and we couldn't console ourselves. This was the first big cry after fifteen horrible months. We cried for all that had occurred to us.
When the sun set, we continued our journey. We walked towards the village Tzavolitkes. When we were about three hundred meters from the village, we met with more of the town's surviving Jews. To my surprise, my sister Rivka with her husband and children, my brother Hilka with his wife, and the daughter of my other brother were among them. I never imagined that anyone of my family survived. They, in turn, had never imagined that I had survived. They lived on Mydell Street, at the spot where the murderers started the killing spree. Once again, we stood there crying, and then continued our journey. Now we had twenty-seven people among our ranks.
We entered the village. It was clear to us that as Jews, we belonged to the night. The night, from now on, would be our day. The gentiles didn't dare leave their homes at night. They feared the dark. In this village, we got some bread and onions. That night, we rested in an area between the villages Varoniyatz and Tsavolitzkes, in the middle of the forest. The night was cold, the forest was very dry, and we were dying of thirst. We squeezed plants and sucked their juices.
All of sudden, Rugbin remembered that in one of the farms there was a villager that owed him some money for a sewing machine he had bought. We searched for the house of this gentile, and he gave us bread and a pail of milk. We went to him before nighttime. He refused to let us in, telling us to wait outside, and after a short time he brought out the food. He suggested that we never come again, in the daytime, only at night, and he was very astute in his suggestion. We brought the bread and milk to the children, and lay down on the ground to sleep.
It was very cold and we couldn't sleep well. We heard the howling of a pack of wolves. They came closer and closer. We were not really scared, but we wanted to get rid of them, so we took some dry branches and lit them with a match we got from the villager. It was a small bonfire, but sufficient to make the wolves disappear. It also warmed us, and made it easier for us to fall asleep. At dawn we awoke, and put out the fire, erased all signs of human population, and traveled to another area.
There we ran into a villager from Veronietz who was searching for his horse,
which had run away at night. At first we were very scared. Could he be a
German agent? But as we continued talking to him, we realized he was an honest
and righteous gentile. He told us that we must not stay there. He urged us to
go to the Pushtcha, an area deep in the woods, where we would find Jews from
the village Nyka who had escaped, and had been hiding there for two months. He
started crying and said, "What do they want from you? What do they want
from you?" He took bread out of his bag and gave it to the children. He
showed us the road to the Pushtcha, and told us that we would also find some
Partisans there. "Go there," he said, "and God will be with
you." When I think today about this meeting, it warms and encourages me.
But on that day, we were cold and suspicious of him, and when he left us, we
were scared that he would send the Germans to catch us.
We stood fearfully at the edge for a moment, and wondered, "How could we live here, how could we come and go and find our way?" But even that night we had to stay in the Pushtcha with the children and wives. We walked to the villages Bodka and Talets to obtain some food. Those were the closest villages. When we returned we made a bonfire. We felt much safer, now. We assumed that the Germans would not come there to look for us, even if they knew that Jews were hiding there. They would assure themselves that we would die anyway from starvation and disease. Still, we didn't want to rely totally on our assumptions, so we decided to go as deep as we could, and to watch our step. For now, our main goal was to meet up with the Partisans.
On our second day in the Pushtcha, we did just that. We looked at them with tremendous gratitude, as though they were angels from heaven. They greeted us warmly, and joined us. They were dressed very poorly and carried old weapons from WWI. They didn't have much ammunition, only a few bullets. They gave some bread to our children, and were curious to hear of our situation. It seemed to us that they meant well, but they could hardly help us. They had a radio and they told us about what was happening in the world. We sat with them for two hours. They told us about the battle of Stalingrad, they explained to us how to survive in the woods, and they told us in no uncertain terms, that we must never stay in one place for too long, we must change our location a few times a day. They also suggested that we speak quietly because there was echo in the woods, and that we had to whisper and learn signals. They also taught us how to whistle like a common forest bird, and said that if we lost each other, we should use that whistle.
We started our long journey in the Pushtcha. We went all around, lengthwise and widthwise, so that we were never in one place for more than a few hours. Throughout our journey, we met many surviving Jews, and they told us details about the slaughter in Kurenitz. From there on started our daily struggle to survive in the Pushtcha, a struggle full of trials and tribulations, a struggle that our horrible fate forced us to face, a struggle that had no comparison or precedent in anything we'd ever heard of, read of or even imagined in our worst nightmares.
Generally, the Belarusian villagers in the surrounding areas were sympathetic to us. We received handouts, both from the ones that were behind us ideologically, and the ones that weren't. Some gave out of pity, others gave fearing that we would burn their homes. As time passed, we realized that asking for pity was not as effective as scaring the villagers. We took long pieces of wood and made them look like rifles and, in the dark of night, we went to the villages and threatened them with our "weapons." We also used rough voices and harsh language so that they would think we were Partisans. Our journeys to the villages were ridden with danger. Even the villagers, that we asked handouts from, might have murdered us. Any gentile that would bring a Jew to town, either dead or alive, would receive a bag full of salt as a reward. Salt was a very precious commodity at that time.
Sometimes, on our way back from the villages, we weren't able to find our resting places. One family, returning from the village, couldn't find us for two days. Finally we ran into them and brought them back with us.
There were many men that acted as policemen for the Germans who lived in the villages around the forest. Among them were included some true murderers. In one "charming pair" were the two sons of Karibi from the village Hob. One was twenty-five and the other, twenty-three; both bloodsucking leeches. There were horror tales told all around the villages about the cruel deeds they'd done on the day of the slaughter in Kurenitz. They grabbed little babies, and threw them into the fire. They tortured and slaughtered many people. I want to tell you about how we were almost caught by these two killers:
One Saturday night in October of 1942, Shoal, son of Abraham Yitzhak Gordon, his wife, my wife and I, approached one of the farms. As usual, we stood near the window, but not facing it. We knocked on the window, but there was no answer. We knocked again, and still there was no answer. We were just about to leave, when we heard from afar someone walking. At first I thought it might be the homeowner, but I could just make out two young men walking in the night. Our eyes had become accustomed to the dark, like those of forest animals. They approached us and said in an almost polite tone, "Kurenitzki Zashidki. What are you looking for here in the middle of the night?" Shoal Gordon, who was encouraged by their friendly tone, answered, "We came to ask for bread for our families and children." They responded, "Come in, please, enter the house, we'll give you bread and other food for the soul". I recognized from the tone of their voices that these were the Karibi sons, the killers. I leapt out of the yard. I knew that a moment of hesitation would mean our death. As I escaped, I whistled like a Partisan to scare them. One of them was already holding my wife by her coat, but when she heard me whistle, she jumped too, and all he had left was her old coat, that ripped to shreds when she jumped away. Shoal also realized the danger, and ran out of the yard with his wife. The German collaborators were very afraid of the Partisans, and that explained why they didn't try very hard to chase and catch us.
When we returned to Hob a week later, we were told by some sympathetic gentiles that, after we left, the Karibi sons looked for us in the homes of almost every villager and threatened everyone in the village, telling them that they would kill them like dogs if they aided or fed the Jews. We stopped going to Hob until one day, with the help of the Partisans, we burned the Karibis' home, and the entire family, fearing the Partisans, left the area.
One day, the Partisans were told to leave the area for a different camp, much farther east, in the former USSR. When they left, they took a few young Kurenitzers in order to train them as Partisans. Our living situation was much more difficult after they left, but luckily for us, two weeks later a new unit came to our woods. They numbered four hundred, and we were extremely impressed by them. They had new weapons, and they arrived riding horses. The name of the troop was Revenge, and amongst them were Jews from Minsk, Dolhinov and Kurenitz. The Jews of Kurenitz included Yankel, the son of Orchik and Maryl Alperovich. The year before, Yankel was taken to be killed with the fifty-four and saved himself and his brother when he demanded an answer from the Germans: Was he receiving a death sentence for being a Communist or a Jew? Also, when the war ended, he got many commendations and medals for his bravery. Others from Kurenitz were Nyomka Berman, the son of the barber, and Velvel (Zev), the son of Abraham Fiddler from Smorgon Street.
The troop had just returned from a mission to save the Jews of Mydell, who the Germans held captive in a ghetto. They were successful in their mission, and they brought some of the Jews they had rescued to the forest. During the mission, however, the leader of the troop, who was known to be very heroic, and always walked in front of the troop in dangerous times, was killed in action. One of the families that was saved from the Mydell ghetto and brought to the woods was Yosef Blinder with his wife and children.
Realizing that the snowy season was approaching, we feared that our footsteps
would be noticed in the snow, and would lead the Germans to our camps. The
Partisan headquarters decided to collect all the Jews from the forest and
transfer them to Russian territory in the east, where the Russians still held
some control. The Germans didn't dare enter those forests.
We left on a Saturday. We were divided into units of ten people, each with a head leader. I was chosen as a head of a unit. They took everyone to the edge of the wood, where we waited for darkness. There were three Partisans guiding us. Amongst us were little children and people that could hardly walk from exhaustion, so the healthy people were supposed to take care of them. The three Partisans were wonderful. They helped us enormously. They wore leather jackets, blue pants and boots, and they were armed with the best weapons. They carried the children, and helped in any other way they could. When we reached five kilometers away from the train tracks, the Partisans entered the village Paskovishtsizana and confiscated three horses with buggies. They put the young children and the sick people on the buggies, which is how we reached the train tracks. Here we waited while the Partisans returned the horses and buggies to the village. Now it was time to cross the train tracks. Later, we crossed the main road between Kurenitz and Dolhinov. The road, which we called Yakterina's Boulevard, was famous and was bordered by old cedar trees on both sides. We were told to cross it near Kastsiniavits. This was the way the Partisans came and went, and it seemed like a safe way.
The train tracks were at that time guarded in many spots by the villagers. We traveled until we were one hundred meters from the track, near Niyaka. There was complete silence. We all crawled on the ground, which was wet, but not frozen. We lay down and waited for orders. The Partisans whispered for us to cross immediately, in one big group. We crouched and quickly crossed the tracks. Our mission was to cover forty kilometers through the night, until we found a place to rest the next day. The area where we were nearing was very dangerous. We were close to Kanahahinina, where there was a large group of Germans in the train station. In addition, many Germans and police were stationed in Kastsinievitz. The mission was almost impossible.
Three men were sent to check the area, amongst them Zalman, the son of Maisie Alperovich, and two others that I don't remember. We lay down, awaiting their return. We waited and waited, but they didn't appear. The night was getting shorter and shorter. We didn't know what to do. We were waiting in a very dangerous spot. We realized that there was no reason to wait anymore. Later, we found out that they had returned and had taken fifty people, thinking that the rest would follow. But, there was a miscommunication, and we never knew that they had left.
We knew we had to find a forest to hide in during the day. We did have the three Partisans, but still, we felt we were in incredible danger. We found a tiny forest, surrounded by open fields and isolated farms. Very close to it was the main road from Kasanivits and Kanihahinina. All day long, we saw cars full of armed Germans, crossing the road. We lay close to the ground, as if we were part of it, all day long until darkness came. When it was completely dark, we organized ourselves into units, and continued our journey. We had to cross thirty-five kilometers to get out of the danger zone and into a forest where the Partisans had control. Now we could see how difficult our mission was. The older people were exhausted, the children were tired and thirsty, all day we lay in one spot without drinking, and we had to walk five kilometers to reach the village Davidki. There began to be more and more space between the different units. We were carrying a lot of baggage, the children started crying, and the metal food containers in our baggage were making noise which, in the quiet of the night, could be heard from a great distance. The noise was getting louder and louder.
But maybe that was our lucky break.
When we reached the window of one of the houses, we heard whispers. The residents would not light their home fearing the Partisans. I pretended to be a Partisan, and asked in a rough tone where the main road was. From inside I heard the voice of an old woman. She claimed that she was all alone and too tired to greet us. We told her that all she needed to do was tell us which way to go. She reached the window and showed us here and there, and was all confused, so we saw that there was no help from her. We decided to try and find our own way. We found a little path, and took our people through the path. I knew that a path must somewhere join a main road so, after we walked for a short time, we found a main road. Still, we didn't know which way to go. Zalman Gurevitz and I found another farmhouse. Everyone waited in the bushes by the road. Lucky for us, there were no dogs to bark since the Partisans killed all the dogs. We reached a farm that looked like a wealthy farm. Since it had a big barn and storage areas, we knew it was a Polish home but despite this fact, I came to the window and knocked on it, asking in Russian, "How do I get to Kasetsinievits?" An old man came to the window. The young people were hiding, fearful that the Partisans might take them. He explained how to get there. We returned to our people, and started our journey.
Clearly we didn't go to Kasetsinievits. We went in the other direction. The
night was very long, and we walked about twenty kilometers. We were very
thirsty. We hadn't drank in twenty-four hours. Near one of the villages we
found a drainage system. We lay on the ground and put some water in the palms
of our hands and rank it. We didn't go into the village. I recognized it. It
was Zukavitsa, three kilometers from Niaka. From there on I knew the road. We
approached the tracks. The villagers, as usual, were watching the tracks, but
three hundred meters from there was a German patrol. Once in a while the
German patrol came with flashlights and checked over the villager guards, who
didn't have any weapons. We stopped near the tracks. Mikhail Vexler, Zalman
Gurevitz and I checked the tracks and realized that there were no Germans. We
gave a sign to the rest of the group and they all quickly passed across the
tracks. It was around eleven at night. Now we could breath a little easier.
We passed Nayeka, which seemed to be in total slumber, and then we reached the
edge of the Pushtcha. We slept there. the next day we reached the area that we
had left just a few days before.
The first snow came when I, my wife and a few other Jews from our group went to one of the villages to get food. It was very wet snow, pouring constantly, without pity or consideration. Our shoes were destroyed. We were left barefoot. When we saw that the snow was not stopping, we left the village and, with great difficulty, reached the Pushtcha. We were still about ten kilometers away from our hiding place, where the rest of the group was, but it was impossible to continue. We didn't know what to do. We started looking in our pockets to see whether someone had a match and a miracle occurred! Dania, the son of Chaim Avremil Alperovich, had one match. So how were we going to light a bonfire with one match? The fear that the match would go out was huge. We knew we must prepare the wood to that the match would not fail. We started looking in the dark for dry brush, anything that the snow had not yet reached. We took any dry twig that we could find and broke pieces that were try, and prepared the bonfire. Who can describe the moment prior to lighting the match? It was a fateful moment. The match came alive and lit the wood. The fire took a long time, but finally it spread, one minute red one minute blue, from one twig to the other until, finally, we had a bonfire. We sat there for a long time warming ourselves and we rested. When we returned to our hideout, we found that our bonfires were almost all out and that the children were frozen. We spread out all over to find twigs and bushes for a new fire.
We knew that the arrangements that we had for the last few months were not going to work, and we decided to make "zimlanka" (a deep in the ground hideout). We didn't have tools like shovels, and there were many children without parents and women without husbands that couldn't contribute to the job. We divided ourselves into groups, and started digging. Some families were unable to dig into the ground, so they made a hut out of foliage. Inside their huts they had constant fires. I remember that Yosef Blinder had a hut and one night the roof caught fire while the family was asleep, and they barely made it out. Yosef was gone, getting food in one of the villages at the time and when he came back, he found a burned hut and his family without a place to live. This new arrangement eventually caused the loss of a lot of lives since now we lived in a more permanent hideout, and there were paths that led to it which the Germans found.
Life in the forest started affecting us. The cold, the anger, the filthy conditions all started killing our people. Israel Alperovich, who kept to the Jewish rules till his last breath, only ate baked potatoes. On days when he couldn't get potatoes he just fasted and, finally, he died from starvation. The wife of Mendel Kramer died. The sons of Israel Shaefer, Yoelke and Michael, who were left without parents died. The daughter of Yerachmiel the shoemaker died, as well as some Jews from other towns. We didn't have funerals for the dead. We didn't sew appropriate clothing to bury them in. Only Israel, who had the talit that he kept like a treasure, was buried with his talit. We dug the ground with our bare hands, and there we put the bodies of people that we were so closely attached to now. The ones that survived, tried to improve the situation. Someone brought scissors and razors, which was like a treasure for the citizens of the woods. The owner of the "treasures" was moved from place to places, and treated with great respect. We used potatoes to soap our faces, and with great pain we shaved.
Bigger problems were the ticks and lice. Our skin was full of bites. Eventually, typhus spread. The disease took the life of Yechiel, the son of Yekutiel Meir, the son of Faybush the Shochet, and many others. We used to joke about the typhus calling it the Crazy Typhus. Even if they got past the disease and fever, people were half crazy, and many lost their hearing. About the many that recovered without doctors and medicine, we used to say that the climate of the Pushtcha was a healing one. We had very little means of fighting the lice. Sometimes we would go to the villages and secretly use their bathhouse and steal wood to warm the water, but the smoke from the fire sometimes got in our eyes and we walked in pain for days. This practice caused the death of quite a few. People would fall asleep from the heat in the water, and sometimes they woke up the next day, falling into the hands of the Germans. The bathhouse was only a small room about two hundred meters from the farms. There was an oven with no chimney and on top of it were many rocks. There were two big barrels of water, one with cold water and the other warm. The practice was to put the water on top of the warm rocks, which gave us steam.
At one time, a father with three sons, survivors from Svier, went to the
village Stranika to use their bathhouse. After they took a bath, they fell
asleep. When they woke up, it was already daylight. They left to return to
the woods, not realizing that there were thousands of Germans in the village.
This was on November 2nd, 1943, and they were preparing for the
first blockade. When the family left they were all caught and shot. The three
sons died immediately, and the father was wounded in his head, but survived
and reached the Pushtcha in the next evening.
So we started dressing a little better with patches, but everything had no holes. Also, our cleansing situation improved dramatically. We made a bathhouse so we would no longer need to go secretly to the villages to bathe. Our bathhouse was made from an oven with rocks on top. We even managed to get some soap. We started producing soap too. Natcha chanas from Kurenitz established a soap factory that was very primitive but he managed to produce real soap. So now we were much cleaner and we looked almost like human beings. All the Jews eventually left the Pushtza and moved to the Zazarious wood near the community called Oozla. The reason was that, in that area Zoomitel there were big partisan troops and brigades. So this was our situation at the end of 1943 and the beginning of 1944. Large areas were in that point in the hands of the partisans. In the woods, they even made a small secret airport. Planes landed and took the wounded from amongst the partisans to behind the line.
Winter passed and Passover came. This Passover we baked matzos from our flour
and we even made everything according to the rules and we had a seder.
Immediately after Passover, there were rumors that the Germans were planning a
big blockade in the woods so we started preparing and built many hideaways. On
the one hand, we were seeing the end of the war, but on the other hand we were
very worried that the Germans would kill us as the war was ending. We knew
that in some areas the Germans started using dogs and they were able to find
every hideout so our hearts were full of fear. The Germans started the
blockade in forests that were about 180 km east of us. In this forest, there
were many survivors from our town that were hiding there and we lost 15 souls
out of them. What saved us was that the rapidly approaching Red Army had
prevented the Germans from entering our forest. On June 29, 1944 the first Red
Army scouts came to the edge of the woods. We waited for that day for 3 years,
but few of us were able to see it.
I will never forget the day we returned. When we approached the town, it looked like a war-zone. All around there was a barbed-wire fence and the town was full of tunnels and holes. There was no true battle there, but the tunnels were where the "Superior Race" had hid from the partisans. We entered Mydell Street and walked by the first house Fiyashka's house. We walked crying, and with each step our hearts beat faster. These were moments where we didn't want to believe what occurred really occurred and that everything around us was taken from the land of the living. That we will never again meet anyone. Did everything really die? Could it be? Here in Mydell Street are we not going to see Leib Yakov, the glass-maker, with his smiley face and his shiny eyes? A little bit farther would my mother, father, brothers Yermiyau and Hillel, and my sisters Shaine and Myna come running as usual to greet us? And now we reached the huge cedar tree, our childhood playhouse. Will I not see the darling little Jewish kids of Sheveeshtzefole playing under his shade? I only had a few seconds of those memories, just a few seconds.
Very soon, we reached the two huge holes at the end of Mydell street, the
valley of the killing
A burial for our beloved brothers and sisters. And
here we stood on top of them on the day of victory all depressed and broken.
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