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Thus It Began (cont.)



The Secret Ring

Every day I dreamed of the time when I would leave Molodechno for Poland and from there go to see my sisters Hana and Duba in Israel. Many times it seemed to me a dream I would never achieve, so I continued to work dedicatedly in the printing house. Generally, I treated the people with whom I worked with camaraderie and good will, except for those who showed open anti-Semitism. If truth be told, after the war ended I acquired very few true friends. In my heart I was saying goodbye to the place and didn't allow myself deep friendships. But the one person I felt very close to was Vlodia, a member of our Partisan unit from the days of Volkokviczina. Vlodia was only his codename when he was with our unit; his real name was Danilotsky. Vlodia lived in Molodechno. He was a friendly man who was very honest and truly loved the Jewish people. It was a constant love that was unusual in those days in the Soviet Union. Vlodia, as I said before, became a POW of the Germans during the first few days of the war and was taken with thousands of other POWs to the market in Kurenets. When he arrived there, some Jewish members of our Partisan unit (which would be formed later) helped him escape. Later I met him when we were in the area of Luban and Uzla where Elik Alperovich was killed, but since that time, when the three of us hid in a tree from the Germans, I hadn't encountered him again.

Vlodia belonged to the brigade of Volinitz and he was the commissar. He continued in a similar job after the war, serving in the department of propaganda and education in the region of Molodechno. Vlodia lived very much in the past, and all that happened during the war was still alive inside him. He loved talking about those old days and recalling the missions of the Partisan units. He would tell of the dedication of the Jewish fighters and tell of their large part in all the missions. One day he asked all the surviving members who were still in the area to go to Volkoviczina, the base of many Partisan missions. For me this was a very bitter reminder of the time of the annihilation of the residents of Kurenets and the surrounding area, and in spite of his excitement about this, I could not take part in it. Although I didn't take part in this nostalgic mission, our friendship still remained strong and he still saw me as his confidant.

In the year 1948, there was much talk in the USSR of new treatment by the authorities for different nationals, and it was decided to give the various nationalities some independence. This was manifested by taking away the political jobs of those who came from other areas and giving them to people who were born locally. So Vlodia's job as politruk for education and propaganda was taken from him and given to a Belarussian. Vlodia was very bitter, and I think in many ways he wanted me to express how he felt to Volinitz, the hero of the Soviet Union who was from here and very popular and loved by the public and the authorities. He figured he could help him keep his job. Eventually, though, the plan to take his job away was canceled and he returned to work there.

Since Vlodia often mentioned the names of Jewish people who took part in the fight, others would say to him, “I'm getting tired of your talking about Itzkaleh Einbender and Nyomka Shulman, Bertha Dimmenstein, etc. as if they were the only heroes of the Soviet Union.” But these complaints didn't stop Vlodia. He never changed his mind about the role Jews played in the Resistance, and he constantly mentioned in conversation a need to write stories about it in the paper. He wanted to collect all the names of, and detailed information about, the members of the Resistance, Jews and non-Jews. So Vlodia wrote detailed stories about all the missions of the unit and gave them to the secretary of the Communist Party in Molodechno. The secretary was not very excited about the article and said, “This is very strange. The Soviet people fought heroically and sacrificed themselves, and now people come around and try to stick this heroic Russian bravery onto the Jews.” Until 1953, Vlodia was not able to publish this information, and they didn't even return his original material.

In 1953 they started investigating me, and I am sure it had something to do with Vlodia's story, since in his essay he mentioned my name as one of the members who was still alive in Russia. During the investigation they kept asking me about my missions during my days as a Partisan and why I had decided to work in the German printing house in Vileyka and to serve the enemies of the Soviet Union. During the investigation I kept repeating the story and the explanation as I wrote them here. I emphasized that it was not my idea that I wasn't a member of the Partisans, but I could not convince the investigators until finally Vlodia sent a letter to the investigators explaining how I helped the Partisans by printing pamphlets and by going to the forest, and how I was instructed to go to Vileyka by the Partisans. After the letter they me go, but Vlodia continued to try to get the story published.

In 1956, my wife and children and I went with Vlodia's family to vacation near an amusement park. They had a shooting range in this place where you had to shoot five bottles that stood next to each other. As people watched me shooting, someone yelled, “Let's see what this Jew can do,” in a mocking voice. Five times I aimed, and each time I made a bottle fall. Vlodia became very excited and said, “Yes, yes, we knew how to fight. But who wants to hear about it?” He ended the conversation with a hint of disappointment.

During that year, my wife went to the market with Mikhla the daughter of Shaptai Gordon (nee Alperovich?), the sister of Riva. She had heard from her something very exciting that filled us with hope, something about the dream that we couldn't talk about, the dream to immigrate to Israel. Mikhla told her that she had received a letter from my cousin Leah nee Gurevich Shogol saying that she was able to go to Poland, and there she found out that the Polish authorities allowed everyone who lived in Poland before the war to return there so that families could stay together. In the letter she hinted that there was a possibility of emigrating from Poland to Israel. One night we met at the house of Mikhla and Leibl, the son of Alte Zimmerman from Kurenets, and we found out that many of the Jewish families ofKurenets who had survived were also trying to leave Russia through Poland. They decided that I should go to Moscow to the Polish consulate and ask for permission for four families to go to Poland: Moshe Alperovich's, Mikhla and Leibl Zimmerman's, Riva and Shimon Zimmerman's, and mine.

Here I must tell you that my cousin Leah Shogol (the daughter of my first cousin Nathan) did much to help. Since there were family ties, she asked to unite the families. In the Polish consulate in Moscow, I didn't encounter any difficulties. They seemed to want the citizens of the former Polish state to return, but then I had to go to the Department of the Interior. It took a long time for the four families to receive permission.

Here I would like to talk about David Katz. In 1945, the head of the printing house, Leiblin, asked me to find a job for a Jew by the name of David Katz, who had no profession. He was a native of the town of Kerve near Molodechno, and during the war he lived in the forest. On the day he returned to his town after the victory, the residents of Kerve attacked him and tied him to a tree and started beating him. They treated him with brutality and accused him of being an American spy. When the police came by, instead of imprisoning the thugs, they imprisoned David Katz for being an American spy. When Leiblin, who was involved in the Communist Party, found out about it, he talked to the authorities on behalf of David and explained that he was a very simple man who could speak only Yiddish and that it was totally irrational to think he could be an American spy. So now I gave him a job mixing the chemicals. Katzan, whomI mentioned before, was a true anti-Semite; he tortured David on a regular basis and was ready to kill him. One day I found that the pail used to mix the burning lead was filled with water, and if it had been put in the boiler it would have exploded and killed the person in charge of it, who was David Katz. After a short investigation I found it was Katzan who had filled it with water. I immediately called him and said that it was totally unacceptable. “I can tell you this because during the days of the war when I was fighting the German tanks, you collaborated with them and you fixed their tanks.”

A few times David was able to escape the beatings, but one time at the Molodechno train station a few men jumped him and beat him up. He went to the hospital for several days, and when he left he was blind in one eye. He could no longer work at mixing the lead, and we found him a job cutting paper. But soon David and the rest of us realized we had no life in the Soviet Union. He immigrated to Poland and then to Israel long before I was able to reach the area.



Parting

The year was 1957, forty years after the Bolshevik Revolution. The Soviet newspaper policy was to write about the anonymous heroes of the nation, and Vlodia felt he could accomplish his old dream of publishing the stories of our old Partisan unit. He asked for the exact names of the Jews in our unit. I told him to use the names they were known by among Jews,such as Itzhak Einbender, Binyamin Shulman, Eli Alperovich, and so on. If we used those names, we didn't need to mention that they were Jewish; people would just know.

Vlodia contacted the central archive in Minsk, where you could find information on the different Partisan units, and then he expressed his wish to write the story. To my surprise, they were very receptive to this idea and gave their full assistance. So a few days later, a few workers from the Minsk archives arrived in Molodechno and met with Vlodia. They said that they should visit all the places tied to those events. We left Molodechno in two cars, together with the three people from the Minsk archives. First we went to Kurenets, to the house that once belonged to Nathan Gurevich, who was already in Israel at that point. The house was situated on Smorgon Street, which was renamed Partisan Street. This house was one of the only ones left in the market, and now it was Partisan Street. Two Russian teachers lived there. At first when we went there, the two teachers were worried that we had been sent by the authorities to confiscate the apartment that now belonged to them. When we explained our true mission to them, they relaxed. We told them that during the war a Resistance unit that fought the Nazis had come there. They said they had encountered things in the apartment that surprised them. They found the double walls in the attic, and in certain areas the floor was collapsing. I explained to them that this was the house of my uncle, that the area that was collapsing was the cowshed, and that under the ground there was a hiding place where I printed pamphlets against the Nazis, first for the unit in Kurenets, and later for the unit that started in Volkoviczina. As I was telling the story, I remembered that many years earlier I had hidden a knife that I found in our cowshed, wrapped in cloth. Although sixteen years had passed, I wanted to find it. So we started digging in the cowshed and I found it. The knife was all rusted. After telling them some more details, we continued on our way.

We visited the mother of Motyokevich, a member of the Volkoviczina fighters, in the village of Ivonzovitz. As I told you before, the Nazis executed her husband because they weren't able to find her son, who had been sent by the Underground to work for the Nazis as a police officer, and at that post he had managed to kill some Nazi policemen. We also visited the place where Elik Alperovich was killed, and there I told them about Mrs. Haikovitz who waited for us and notified us that the Germans were in town, thus saving our lives. Once again, Vlodia wrote the story and gave it to the publisher of the newspaper in Molodechno, and once again he was told that there was too much about Jews in the story. He then gave the story to another newspaper, Znanaya Nyunisti (Flag of the Youth) and they ran a full-page story; in its center was a picture of the wooden home of Nathan Gurevich and also pictures of a few members of the Partisan group, among them my picture. The material was edited by Irena Magzis and by Alexander Harkevich, who was a Russian.

They edited it as they wished. They mentioned the names of all the Jews who took part in the fighting except for Zalman Gurevich and Josef Norman, who had left the Soviet Union. They made it clear that Jews were a major part of this unit. After the piece was published, Irena Magzis was investigated and fired. Shortly thereafter, they printed the same article in the daily of Molodechno, Salinskaya Gazetta, but in this article they didn't include my picture. At that point I had already asked to leave the Soviet Union for Poland, so it made me unworthy, although the head of the newspaper said it wouldn't be right to include a picture of someone who worked for the paper. This was in 1959. As soon as people found out I was going to leave the USSR, Vlodia came to me and said, “You shouldn't do it. Now that you have become known in these articles in the paper, it could affect your future greatly.”

Volinitz also came to convince me to stay. I couldn't tell them that my true aim was to go to Israel; rather, I explained that I was born a Polish citizen and that I wished to return to my nation. However, they were both disappointed and parted from me greatly upset. This was November of 1959. During the last evening of my work with the printing press, they had a celebration where they showed much love and respect for me. That evening I also said my good-byes to Kostya and Agassia. They cried quietly while we separated, remembering the strong connection to my family. Kostya told me that he was ready to follow me to the ends of the earth. While we were sitting in our apartment, a big group of young people who worked in the printing house suddenly came in to say their good-byes. They brought a garushka and vodka bottles and started celebrating. They said that they had left in the middle of work to send me off. I begged them to go back to work, and I promised to stay and let them in when they were done. At around midnight they began to come, singing and dancing and drinking as only Russians can, and they stayed until the morning hours. And this is how we left the Soviet Union.

We stayed more than a year in Poland, and in 1960 we arrived in Israel.



Afterword

Many years passed and I was an active citizen of Israel, but Kurenets still kept coming back to me in my dreams. I kept meeting natives of Kurenets, among them natives who settled the village of Kfa-harif. In one of my many visits to this village, I came to the house of Abba Nerutsky, and during conversations about the old days of the Second World War, Nerutsky told me of his experiences. His stories were so amazing that no imagination of a writer could even come close.

I would like to mention something here about the killing of the fifty-four. I wrote about our meeting when he was about fifteen years old when we escaped from Kurenets, in June of 1941. He told me how his family wanted to make sure that he would survive and urged him to go to Russia across the old border. After he separated from his father and the rest of his family he went, alone with a small bag on his back, away from the town, and when he reached the edge of Dolhinov Street, the street that would take you east, a Jewish resident of the town saw him from his window and came out. He called to him in a mocking voice, “You are also escaping from town? If I, an adult, will live, we will find a way to work it out with the Germans. I don't panic and escape, so what reason do you have, a young and healthy person, to spread fear and rumors of disasters? Go, you wild guy, go home. Don't unnecessarily plant seeds of fear among the population.” Abba ignored this respected elderly Jew's advice and left the town. And for that he could now sit with me and tell of all that he experienced during those years of the Holocaust. But so many years earlier, who knew what would be the right thing to do? So I must point out here that confusion was natural in those horrible days.

After four years of escape, service in the Red Army, disease, and other troubles, Abba Nerutsky returned to Kurenets as a young man of nineteen. As soon as he heard that Kurenets was free, all he wished was to return there. Although he was told that there was no reason to return to Kurenets, that he wouldn't find anyone alive, he still knew he must go there. As long as he didn't fulfill this wish, he would not be able to rest. So for twenty days he traveled in different freight trains until he arrived in Molodechno. During those days and nights he rode through desolate towns where everything was destroyed. From Molodechno he took another freight train to Vileyka and jumped off the train when it stopped for a minute. Then he took the old, familiar road between the two towns, the one with the cedar trees. “When I arrived at the place where the town was once located, I saw a desolate and destroyed field filled with broken homes, and I could only see the famous cloister that belonged to them, coming up from the ground. When I arrived at the place that was once the central market, I found that it was empty of homes and people. This was the early morning hour and I was all alone. I sat on a mound of destruction and started crying, not knowing what I should do with myself. While I was sitting there crying quietly, a Christian man came to me and in a voice that had much empathy he started talking. I found out that this was our Bakatz. At this point I didn't know of his generous deeds for the Jewish community of our town. He told me about what occurred here during the war years. He tried to console me by saying that there were other remnants who had survived and gathered here after returning from the forest.”

Abba Nerutsky told me that he later encountered members of his distant family. He met Itzhak Zimmerman and his wife Rachel and their two children. He became like their son, and they moved to the house where he was able to recover and find a job. Now Abba told me a story about the killing of the fifty-four. I always felt I belonged to those fifty-four. It was only through the intervention of Mataroz that I was able to survive. Despite the fact that I was able to survive close encounters with death many times, this incident of the fifty-four was the most prominent in my memory. Abba Nerutsky told me that he and other survivors, among them Meir Mackler, took the bones of the fifty-four from the killing field fifteen years later and brought them for Jewish burial. This took place after he became a resident of Vileyka, where he married and worked in the warehouse. He told me about the first year after they returned from the forest, how they met for Yom Kippur in the house of Ruven Dimmenstein and prayed deeply and cried desperately. When he moved to Molodechno and later Vileyka, he kept coming to Kurenets to visit the graveyard. One day when he came to visit, a villager who knew that he was a Jew originally from Kurenets told him that she came from the village of Kalinn and that when she went to the forest near Mikolinova to gather mushrooms, she arrived at the area where they had originally killed the fifty-four. The woman said, “I went to gather mushrooms, but then I arrived at the place where the graves of your brothers were located. A huge fear came over me. I saw in the ground, near the graves, many bones of people.” When Abba Nerutsky investigated the story, he found out that the residents of the area kept coming to search the graves, thinking that there might be some valuables that had been buried with the people. Immediately, together with Meir Meckler, he searched the graves and found out that the woman was telling the truth. So they gathered the bones and returned them to their graves without saying anything to the authorities.

Every year on the ninth of the Jewish month of Av, they would gather with the survivors and go to the cemetery in Kurenets, where they would mourn the dead. One year on the ninth of Av, they found that the graves were open again and the bones were strewn about, so once again they gathered the bones and returned them to the graves. In the year 1957, during the ninth of Av, many came to Kurenets. The Fiddler family came from Vilna, and one Jew came all the way from Arkhangelsk. During that day they had a meeting to discuss what to do. They decided to take the remnants of the fifty-four from the killing field and bring them for Jewish burial in the old Jewish cemetery of Kurenets. Since many of the Jews were planning to leave the Soviet Union and go to Poland, they knew that this was the last chance to fulfill this commandment and that it should not be left undone. They decided to do it secretly and not notify the authorities, who would not allow such an undertaking.

During the day they hired a horse and buggy, and Abba, who was responsible for the warehouses of Vileyka, brought some new sacks made of burlap and some digging tools, and they quietly went about doing their holy mission. They divided themselves into two groups. One group dug open the original graves and gathered the remnants into the sacks. The second group went to the old cemetery and dug two graves, one for men, the other for women. “We did it,” said Abba, “with broken hearts and our bare hands. We did it deliberately that day, so we could touch our dear ones without anyfilter. Many tears were spilled during those hours, and as much as we could, we separated the bodies of men from women according to the clothes that they wore and other signs, such as long hair and braids. We did it very carefully. Among us there were some women: Chanka Minkov, or Chanka Nehamasheina's (as she was better known) and her daughter Masha, Tzirka Shklir, Zelda (nee Botwinnik) Alperovich (the second wife of Orchik) from Rakov, and Nachamka Zimmerman. They were among the people who gathered the bones. Among the people was Yankeleh Orchik's (Alperovich), who was one who was taken with the fifty-four; I told you the story of how he was able to escape and in the forest help many to survive. Nachamka Zimmerman was able to identify, among the bodies, Pesia Yente Zukovzky, the mother of Chaim Zukovzky and Dvoshel Zukovzky, the gentle soul, the talented Kurenets teacher who founded the youth movement Hashomer Ha'zair in Kurenets. Nachamka was able to recognize the clothes of Pesia Yente, who was hiding at her house together with her son Chaim when the Nazis came to take them, and recognized the clothes she was wearing when she was taken away. People said the clothes survived all those years because of something special in the land in the area that kept them in good shape.”

After they gathered all the bones, they took them to the Jewish cemetery and covered the new graves with earth. They recited prayers of mourning and left the area, hoping that the authorities would never find out about what they had done. But the authorities did find out and started investigating them, emphasizing that this could cause disease since they had used their bare hands to transfer the bones. Abba said that if they were so worried about the public health situation, why were they not concerned about the many times the graves were opened by the villagers, who didn't use any special care when they exposed the dead bodies during their treasure hunts. “On the other hand, we, who did it out of special commitment to our dear ones, you now find a reason to complain and to punish us?” Abba said it to them in a very bitter way. He said that among the investigators there were some sensitive people who understood him and this whole affair ended with no complications. Since most of the people left the area to go to Poland on their way to Israel, they had no time to put gravestones in the cemetery.

Since I didn't take part in these events, and I feel much guilt and see it as a failure on my part, I would like to end my story with this chronicle. I would like to add that in my chronicles I want to bring up not only brave deeds, but also our failures and our inability to fight during those horrible days. We shouldn't be ashamed to express it, because without reporting it, something of the dark atmosphere of those days would be denied, and we would not get a true image of the time.

Top: In the little town of Kurenets in Belarus, the town that is located on the road between Molodechno and Lake Narutz, at Partisan Street #1 there stands a home not different from other homes. Now the family of the teacher Moskvitzeva lives here. They arrived here a short time ago. When they first came, they found strange things in the cowshed that was adjacent to the home. They found a deep area that had been dug out under the floor, and they also found a double wall in the attic. They were very surprised and wondered what the reason for it was. Now this is what happened here some years before:

In the dug-out area under the cowshed, a small oil lamp burned. There, Nachum Alperovich was situated. He had stains of printing dyes and he was sweating. His hands moved quickly, nervously looking for letters. Slowly the letters became words, and here is the first pamphlet: “Farmer! Keep your bread. Don't give one seed to the fascists. Help the Partisans.”

The first victim of the unit was Ilia (Eliyau) Alperovich from Kurenets, and this is what happened: The Partisan atriad rested after a mission. Ilia Alperovich was the guard. When he realized the Germans had surrounded the unit, he fired a warning shot. There was a bitter battle and the atriad retreated. The shots stopped for no clear reason. Afterward we found out that Eliyau was caught and wounded, and he purposely told the Germans that there was a very large force of Partisans, about 250 people, with the most modern weapons. That was why the Germans stopped shooting and retreated, leaving about forty of their people killed.

When we returned to the base we buried young Ilia with military honors. Only a few of the unit's members were lucky and survived to see the day of liberation. Heroic deaths among the members of this unit were Zina Bitzyon, Vladimir and Nadzadeh Sobol, Bertha Dimmenstein, Victor Sokholov, Yitzhak Einbender, Yora Bilshov, Binyamin Shulman, Nikolai and Alexander Sherutzin, Noach Dinnestein, and other heroes, sons and daughters of the Soviet nation. Among the survivors were Piotr Mikhailovich Donilotskin, the secretary of propaganda of the party in the town of Molodechno; Nikolai Motyokevich, an engineer and an architect; Nachum Alperovich, a chief typesetter of the district; Ivan Sherutzin, a member in the Kollhoz named for Yakov Kolles in the Vileyka district; and Mikhail Basilik, the leaderof the firefighters in Molodechno.


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