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Thus It Began (cont.)



The Code Name is Volodia

One day I was told that a Christian person had come to our house and asked for me. She later returned and met with me. It was a young village girl who looked much like a Christian, but she was really a Jewish girl by the name of Bertha Dimmenstein from the village of Khalafi, a little village near Vileyka. I didn't know her earlier and had no idea she was Jewish. She showed me our first pamphlet and said that she knew there was a secret printing press in Kurenets. I was very worried and I pretended to know nothing about it. I continued being worried when she told me she belonged to a group of young villagers who organized themselves to fight the Nazis. She said that these young villagers wanted to meet us, since they knew we were also an Underground unit. She also told me that she had a text that was ready to be printed by our unit. She said to me that if I could print the text it would be proof that they could rely on us, and they would get in touch for later missions. She said she would come back the next day and take the pamphlets and they would distribute them on their own.

The text she gave me was very similar to what we had written. It asked the locals to organize against the Nazi invaders and unite with the Resistance. I was very confused and didn't know if I should trust her. I asked my friends to come to a meeting. Among them were Eliyau Alperovich, Itzkaleh Einbender, Zalman Gurevich, Noach Dinestein, and Nyomka Shulman, at whose house the meeting took place. We met in a dark room in his home. Once again, the question arose as to whether someone was tricking us. Some thought yes, some thought no. I thought that we should wait a while, but Nyomka Shulman finally won. He said that there was no reason to wait, that we had to print the pamphlet. So, that night I already sat in our hideout and joined letter to letter, and after a short time the pamphlet was ready. I only printed twenty copies. I thought that to prove our loyalty and reliability this would be sufficient. All the time I was very fearful that Bertha would arrive with someone from the authorities, and a great weight was lifted from my heart when I realized she had come alone. I explained to her that I could only print twenty pamphlets. Bertha took them and promised to return shortly. Many years later, when I met Josef Norman in Israel, he told me how Bertha had found out about me. Bertha, who knew Josef from Vileyka and knew that he was working in the printing house, thought that Josef might know something about those secret pamphlets. So when she met him, he told her about me. He knew that she was very reliable and didn't hesitate to give her all the information. And this was how she found me.

Shortly thereafter, Bertha returned and told me that their unit was ready to join with us for missions. She also told me that eventually they were planning on going to the forest and starting to fight the Nazis. She also asked me if we had any weapons. I told her that we had only two rifles. I didn't tell her about the guns. She suggested that one of our people should come to them. The meeting would take place in the village of Volkoviczina. At the entrance to the village, she said, there was a small building, a Christian prayer house. She said that one of our people should be there during a certain night, and there he would call out a certain code word that would let him into the house. The code word was Volodia.

Once again, we met. The energetic Nyomka insisted that he should be the first messenger. Nyomka went during a late night hour and met with one of their people. The fellow suggested that at this point we should keep our group small and not add any members. Most of our energy should be put into collecting weapons and food to be ready to go to the forest. During that meeting the man told Nyomka that he must never come to Volkoviczina without first being contacted by them. We would receive instructions from them, and Bertha would be the main contact. Most important, from now on the code word would be Volodia. Nyomka slept there, and the next day, early in the morning, he returned to town and told us all the details. At about that time I was told by Josef Norman that he could not give me any more letters, since they realized that something was not right at the printing press and they thought that something dangerous was going on.

At this point, the Germans only killed single Jews in Kurenets, here and there in small numbers, and life continued like that until Simchat Torah in 1941, when they killed 54 Jews of Kurenets.



The Fifty-Four

Now, in years of peace and quiet, we refer back to those days asthe Day's of Torment. The synagogues were filled with people praying. Most people seemed a bit numb. They didn't scream or cry. To people on the outside, it appeared as if people had put up some kind of barrier, but in the synagogue it seems that this barrier was broken. The tears and the cries were heartbreaking, and the line of people who said Kaddish for the dead was very long. The people in our group who were secular in nature also went to the synagogue.

The management of Zukovsky's old carpentry mill called for Kopel Spektor because there was something wrong with the main machine there. Maybe now it is time to talk about Kopel.

Something was kept very secret. During the Soviet days Kopel, who was an engineer and an inventor, worked on a machine to automatically load coal to keep the fires going in train engines. It was almost ready to be patented when the war started. In the train station in Molodechno, Kopel had a laboratory where he had all the papers that had to do with his invention. During the war between the Germans and the Soviets, he went to his laboratory and burned his papers and inventions so they would not fall into the hands of the Nazis.

Back to that Simhat Torah…. As usual we went that day to Vileyka. The women walked in front and I walked at the back along with the men. We passed by the village of Zimordra, and all of a sudden, two policemen from Kurenets and the Nazi collaborators, Pietka Dovsky and Pietka Gintov, who studied with me at the Polish school, appeared and ordered me to return to Kurenets. I felt that there was some danger facing me, so I asked, “Pietka, why do you stop me? We used to be friends.”

“Satan is your friend,” Pietka answered, “Not me. Come with us.” So I was brought to town and put in the store of Itzka Leah, the place the police now used to keep prisoners. When I got there I met other Jews from the town, among them Kazdan, Chaim Zukovsky, Zev Rabunski, and others, more than twenty people. Once in a while they would bring new prisoners. We looked outside the windows and saw that they had assembled the families of the prisoners. One person who was with us said he was arrested for the red flag found in his home. During Soviet days, everyone had a red flag, and he forgot about it. Now he was taken to the prison along with his flag. Some of the prisoners started screaming that for this flag, everyone would be killed. They wanted to take the flag, rip it up, throw it on the ground, and cover it with their shoes. While the prisoners were talking about it, the police came in and took out ten people. We watched through the shutters as these people were given the hose and marched away. Once again people wondered what was going on. Some said they were being taken out for a job. Chaim Zukovsky, who was badly beaten and depressed, said they were not being taken to work, but were being taken to dig their own graves. All of a sudden the door opened and into the room came a German Oberlieutenant who called me by name. He took me outside and told me that I should point to my relatives who were standing outside. “This is my mother and those are my sisters.” I pointed to my mother, Rohaleh, Rashkaleh, and Doba. “Take them and go home,” the officer told me, and I was ready to do it but all of a sudden he hesitated, as if he had changed his mind. “Jew, you still need to receive some beatings.”

I lay on the ground in the presence of my mother and sisters, and he beat me many times. Finally he stopped and ordered me to leave. I could hardly get up, and left with my mother Rohaleh. I had no idea why I was taken out of the prison room and separated from the fifty-four Jews, residents of our town, who were murdered that day. After they got the hose, they were made to dig their own graves, as Chaim Zukovsky foretold while we were in there. When we got home, my sister Doba said she had seen me being taken from the people who went to Vileyka and she realized my life was in danger, so she left the group of girls and ran to Kurenets. As soon as she got home she told my mother what had happened. They knew it was a very dangerous situation and they had to do something immediately.

Without hesitation they immediately went to Mataroz, the Polish teacher, to ask for his help. In town, people already knew that the Germans were planning to do something against the communists. They decided that my father and my sister Henia, who were known as communists, should flee and take the cows to the meadow, so when they came for them they wouldn't find them at home. Rohaleh and Doba spoke to Mataroz, who liked me very much from when I was a student and who was now the mayor of the town appointed by the Germans, and they told him about my imprisonment. As soon as they left Mataroz, they were taken by the police, as were my mother and Rashkaleh, and it was Mataroz who decided to save us all from our deaths. Two days later I went to Mataroz to thank him for what he had done. At that point we were all heartbroken over what had happened in town. He asked me to sit down and I told him I could not sit down because my back had awful wounds from the beatings I had received. When I thanked him, he said I shouldn't thank him and that I should pray to God and stay a human being as I had been in the past, and stay decent despite the tortures that occurred every day.

I felt strongly that to show our thanks we should give him some material from the old store we used to own. Material could be used for suits for him and his son. He was very much against it and got mad at me. I was very embarrassed and didn't know what to do, so I suggested something else. I asked him to take our cow, since our lives seemed to be pretty much over, with or without a cow. He answered that he agreed to take the cow, since we had so much trouble even trying to take it to the meadow, but he had one condition. He would accept it if we would take half of the milk from the cow each time he milked it. I said to him that this could cause him great troubles as the mayor of a town, sending milk to a Jewish family. At the end we reached an agreement and gave him the cow. Secretly, in all sorts of ways, he was able to transfer milk to us. Now I know how he saved me from certain death: after Doba and Rohaleh visited him, he went to the German officer who was conducting the murder of the fifty-four people for being communists. He told the officer about how I helped him during the Soviet days by giving sugar and food to the teacher Skarntani, who was anti-communist, and that I had helped him when he was very sick and put myself in danger. This proved I was anti-communist, so I could not be blamed for communism. The officer accepted his opinion, and this was how I was rescued.

The Jews were shocked at the killing of the fifty-four who were supposedly communists. Everyone was talking about how the fifty-four men, women, and children were taken to the forest of Lovitz, and there they were ordered to dig their graves before they were killed. The Christians, especially the villagers who were present, told many stories about the killing, especially the brave stand of Yankeleh Orchik's (son) Alperovich. When Yankeleh stood at his open grave, he said to the officer who was ordering the killings, “If you kill me because I am a Jew, there is nothing I can do since I am a Jew and this is my faith. But if you kill me because I am a communist, you should know that since the Soviets sent my father to Siberia, I am an anti-communist. Can you really believe that my father who is being tortured in Siberia is a communist?” The officer decided to release him as well as his younger brother. The Christians who were watching admitted that Orchik Alperovich was sent to Siberia.

They also told about Tevel Alperovich, the son of Pinhas the butcher. Tevel, who was a very strong and good-looking man, was able to escape from the killers but he encountered Volodka, the son of Mishka from the alley. With a hoe in his hand, he hit him on the head and wounded him. Then he called the Germans to kill him. The reason why the Christians would gather in such places to watch the killings was so they could collect belongings such as clothes, shoes, etc. Some of the Christians would sing while the Jews were being taken to their deaths. They made a sang, “Zhydi, zhydi, tzerti. Kali vas femerti, ” which means “Jews, the son of Satan, die already! When? When?” During their singing they would sometimes throw rocks at the Jews and curse them. Many of the Jews in town wanted to believe the Germans: that this murder was meant only for communists. They were hoping that now all the murders would be done with, but our group, as well as many others in Kurenets, knew that this would not be the end, that it was only the first in systematic killings, and our desire to fight increased tenfold.



For My Benefactor, Mataroz

Once again, I visited Mataroz. Mataroz, in his true nature, was liberal. As far as the Jews, he tried to help; this was not unknown by the Belarussian population, and they greatly disliked him. One of his opponents was the son of the surgical practitioner, Surikvas. There was a certain rumor that the son secretly put a picture of Pilsudski in Mataroz's office and told the German police that Mataroz was secretly organizing Polish Resistance. The Germans imprisoned him, but he somehow immediately returned to become mayor. [Reminder: the Germans killed him with his family.]

I came to Mataroz after he asked me to come to him. He immediately told me that murder was facing me everywhere I went and that he would try to help me. Further, he said, “You must know that between wishes and ability there is a big distance. I truly wish that all my students will survive, but what can I really do? As far as you are concerned, I suggest you come to the school as a laborer doing cleaning and cutting wood for the fire, as well as operating the furnaces.” At that point he was no longer head of the school, but since he was mayor he was able to do it. He was also in cahoots with one of the teachers. He still said to me that I must be very careful to be there only when the school was empty of students. I later found out that the person he was in touch with was the wife of Skrentani, who was a teacher in the school. Skretntani himself worked for Mataroz in the municipal building, as head of the food distribution department.

I was told to be in school during afternoon hours until the time of curfew, when I was supposed to be home. Mataroz said that since danger faced me in every direction, it would be easier to escape from the school in times of extreme danger than from places where Jews were plentiful. Further, he said he would try to get me a special permit as a worker of the municipality, so I could work outdoors even during curfew hours. Once again he emphasized that in case of an action where they would kill the Jews, I would have to hide in the school. There would be a greater chance of survival there, since it was unlikely that they would look for Jews in the school. There was a huge basement with many secret corners that I could hide in. He also gave me a letter to take to the police which asked for permission to work at night, since I needed to clean the school after the students left. When I entered I only found Baliznuk, who was known as the most evil torturer. “How do you think this will help you? With such a Jewish face, to get a permission from the police!” He started laughing. “Before I would ever get a look at the permission you might receive, I would shoot you with a bullet and the permission would not bring you back to life.” Still, he gave me the permission.

In the school worked a Polish woman who explained my duties to me. She was generally kind to me but she was very fearful that my presence in the school would hurt her. She begged me to be very careful and to make sure that no one would suspect that she was hiding a Jew at the school. Every time she had a hint of danger, she would quickly tell me to go hide in the basement.

The first day after finishing my work I didn't stay at school. I went home with my permit. It was a late night hour; I quietly passed the market and saw not one living soul: no Germans, no policemen. When I told my friends about it, someone said that even the Germans were afraid to walk around at night, and we felt some pleasure in knowing that. I don't know if it was smart, but I always carried my gun with the three bullets, though I didn't know if they were viable. I was thinking that if someone bothered me at night, I would draw the gun and this would hopefully be enough. One night I remembered that I had hidden a knife in the gardens near the school. I went there and found it and took it to our cowshed, and there I wrapped it in a rag and hid it.

Nights passed and no one bothered me. The only person who seemed to follow me with her eyes was my mother, who stood by the window and looked out from behind the shutters to see if I was coming. Only when I arrived could she sleep. She begged me to stay in the school and not come at night. One night, when I returned home, all of a sudden I heard a shout of, “Stoi! stoi!” which means “Stand! Stand!” I was very afraid that someone was shooting my direction. I went through the gardens behind the houses until I reached the middle synagogue. I went to the central floor, where the women sat, and slept. In the morning I came home and found my mother very fearful. As it turned out, she didn't sleep a wink that night. She also heard the shouts and thought that maybe I was killed. The next day we found out that it was a drunken policeman who had yelled at a pig to quiet down. When the pig didn't listen, he shot it. From that night on, I stayed in the school's basement and only when morning came did I return home. In the basement I found a small tool that could be used for counterfeiting money. I thought that I might be able to use it to counterfeit ID cards, but in the meantime I left it there. Zalman Gurevich was able to connect with Kostya from the village of Litvinki. He was the son of Januk. Anyway, he sold Zalman a gun with a few bullets.

The winter of 1941-42 was a very difficult winter. The hope that the so-called communist Jews would be the last to be killed proved wrong. One day the Germans came from Vileyka and kidnapped some Jews and demanded that they take their clothes off. Half naked, they were put in cars and driven through town. The Jews in town were told that they must pay large sums of money in order to avoid their killing. The large sums were paid. On another day, the killers Egov and Shernagovitz played a bloody game. They killed thirteen Jews, among them the rabbi of the town, Rav Moshe Aharon Feldman. He was a gentle soul, pure and honest. His death was very torturous. They broke his arms and legs and his entire body until he passed away. His body was put out in the main market for days, until finally the killers allowed the Jews to take him for burial. Our group continued to meet, fully knowing that our fate was written and our situation would become worse and worse. As I said earlier, many tried to join us. Among them was Shimon Alperovich, who eventually was added to our ranks. When I speak of that, I remember the image of Arczik Shulman [the translator's great-grandfather], the father of Nyomka, who was a tanner by profession. He knew very well what we were talking about in the dark room in his home, but he never, ever tried to say anything against it. We felt very much that in his quietness there was full agreement with what we were doing. One day, Lazar Shlomo said to him, “Arczik, don't think for a minute that I don't know that your son came behind my home one night to scare me. You must know that those children, and among them your son Nyomka, are playing with fire.” In those days it was enough for one tiny ember to spark a great fire that could engulf the entire community of Jewish Kurenets. He was referring to the time we demanded that he return the gun that we had bought. Although Nyomka's father, Arczik, told us about the meeting, he was not complaining. He told it to us only for informational purposes.

Mataroz also arranged for Nyomka to work for the municipality. Nyomka became responsible for the warehouses where the food was stored. During the wartime, the town had no money and payments were done with an exchange of food



A Tale of a Mouse and a Tartar

As soon as Bertha found out that Nyomka was responsible for the food warehouses, she decided that this could be used for our missions, so once in a while someone would come from Bertha's group to Nyomka and would take food supplies secretly to Volkoviczina. This took place shortly after Mataroz was imprisoned one day and later released. Bertha told me there were rumors he would be imprisoned again. They found out that someone was spreading rumors against him. Anyhow, sometime around January of 1942, or maybe February, on a Sunday that was very cold, I collected papers and put them in a container near the furnace. I didn't pay attention, but while I was transferring the papers to the furnace a big mouse somehow went in, and when I threw the papers in, he started burning and the smell became horrible. Although I opened the furnace, it didn't help, so when the students came back on Monday the smell was horrible. Mataroz called me to his office immediately.

“What happened?” he asked me when we were alone. I told him about the mouse, and while we were conversing he told me he had heard a rumor that Nyomka was taking certain provisions from the warehouses and transferring them to underground elements. He was worried about the idea of Nyomka putting himself in such danger and not maintaining our secrecy well enough. While speaking, he suddenly asked me, “And what about you? It is clear that in such situations you will not be able to continue working in the school. Are you also thinking of joining some underground group?” I was not worried about Mataroz and I was very honest with him. I said I belonged to such a group and I urged him to join us. He immediately answered, “My dear, our ways are very different, and what is appropriate for you is not appropriate for me. Our ways are very different.” I answered, “Our ways may be different, but our enemy is the same enemy!” He looked at me with a sad expression and said, “Go, child, and may God take you on the right route. But remember to be careful and not to burn any mice. To Nyomka Shulman, tell him to be very careful too.” [About six months later, in the summer of 1942, the Germans killed Mataroz and his family.]

At that point I would stay in the school at night and during the day I would write pamphlets for Bertha. As soon as my mother would see me putting my boots on, she knew I was going to a place other than the school and ask me, “Where are you going, Nachum? You must tell me.” I tried very hard not to tell her and explained to her why it was important that she not know. “As I told you before, about the time I found the old Soviet IDs in the apartment of Aunt Rashka [which was used as the headquarters of the Soviets from 1939 to 1941], I used one of the IDs with one of my pictures and used the name Hantieb (a Tartar name), and I kept working on saying my name and information with a Tartar accent.” My mother, who knew of my doings and very much agreed with me that I should help the Resistance asked, “What do you need with these fake IDs? They will not help you; they will only cause you trouble.” “Look, Mother, there is much value in these fake names. If I am killed and they find this ID, they will think I am a Tartar in the service of the Soviets and they will not come to Kurenets to ask questions. But in case I am only wounded and they torture me, they might come to you, and it's better if you don't have any information.” My mother accepted my explanation and didn't ask anymore.

The other people with Bertha were Ivan Sirotzin, Basilik, Yorka Balashov, Matyo Kevitz, Nikolai Sirotzin, Sovatz, and Zina Bitzon, all non-Jews. At this point, all we did was print pamphlets and talk about going to the forest. By then, we had already printed twenty different pamphlets. We waited impatiently for the winter to pass, and the dream to go to the forest was postponed.

As time passed, the number of Partisans in Volkoviczina grew. At the head of the group was Volodia [codename], who escaped from the POW camp in Kurenets, and who now worked for one of the villagers.         In the month of February 1942, we were invited to meet the Partisan troop. One night Itzkaleh Einbender, Nyomka Shulman, Zalman Gurevich, and I were invited to come to Volkoviczina. We arrived at a small forest at the edge of the village, and there we met with Volodia, the head of the troop, after saying the code word “Volodia.” He urged us to collect weapons and to ready ourselves to go to the forest at the end of the winter. He also told us to prepare clothes and food, but to keep everything very secret. When he found out that I was the one responsible for the pamphlets, he said that they were planning to write a periodic newsletter; for that, the supplies I had would not be enough, so he urged me to go to work at a printing press in Vileyka, where I might be able to confiscate some more letters. He also urged us to give them all the rifles and weapons we had so they could keep them for us until we moved to the forest. We sat with him for half an hour and then returned to Kurenets. We went in a roundabout way so they couldn't find us, through the fields that took us to the forest of Tzavina, and then we separated and each one went to his home, back to the daily tortures of our lives.

Nyomka continued to transfer products to the Volkoviczina group, and Bertha would visit us and tell us news she had heard on the radio about the situation at the front. One Sunday, we once again went to Volkoviczina and returned at a very late hour. We used the fields near Smorgon Street and not Vileyka Street. Vileyka Street used to be the street that people took long walks on. It had old cedar trees, and it would take you to Jewish Vileyka. But now there was no more Jewish Vileyka, and Vileyka Street was also out of our reach as Jews, since now the German police were situated there, so we returned home in a roundabout way, and arrived in the village of Tzavina: Itzkaleh, Nyomka, Zalman, Yorka Balshov (a non-Jewish Partisan from the Volkoviczina troop) and I. Yorka came from the Vostok (the east, Soviet territory). He was a serious young man and very dedicated to his job. When we neared the village of Tzavina, we heard sounds of singing and dancing. A party was taking place in one of the homes. Itzkaleh looked through a window and realized that that among the celebrators was Pietka Gintov, a policeman who was one of the evil and ugly killers. Itzkaleh came back and said that this was a good time to pay Pietka what he deserved. He was ready to go in and do the deed. Yorka was very much against it, since Itzkaleh would be easily recognized and this would endanger all the Jewish residents of the town. He volunteered to do it, since no one knew him and the town would not pay for it. So he went into the house with a drawn gun, and since he didn't know what Pietka Gintov looked like, he asked, “Who here is a policeman?” Someone was able to darken the place immediately. Itzkaleh immediately ran, trying to identify Pietka in the darkness, but Pietka was able to escape, as did the celebrating people who thought that a big Partisan troop had come there. Itzkaleh was at first very mad that he was not allowed to do it the way he wished, but Yorka said he shouldn't take it so deeply, because even if we didn't succeed now, we would succeed later, and even if we didn't succeed, we had learned something from it. We could see that the policemen were scared to death of the Partisans, and this was something we should not forget.



Letters and an Author

It seems as if the Nazis would choose Jewish holidays on purpose for their evil deeds. The holy day of Purim was approaching, and the cold was horrible that year, but despite the fact that we had no more wood to burn in our furnaces, the idea that the German army was suffering this cold on the Russian front pleased us greatly, especially since we found out that there were certain battles where they were defeated. But then came Purim, and our pleasure in knowing about the German defeats was eclipsed by our huge tragedy. During that day, the Germans killed the last of the surviving Jews of Vileyka, and many of the Jews were brought in for forced labor, among them Jews from Kurenets. The information was brought to us by Zina Bitzon, a woman who belonged to the Partisan group in Volkoviczina. She said they would bring workers from Kurenets to Vileyka, and she suggested that this would be a good time for me to be accepted into the printing house in Vileyka. Soon everyone found out about Vileyka, and the Judenrat told us that the German authorities demanded certain professional people, among them carpenters, shoemakers, tailors, furriers, metalworkers, and others.

Our family was very worried about the fate of my sisters Henia and Rochaleh, who worked and lived in Vileyka. We knew that Rochaleh worked for the Germans in the post office, and Henia worked for the group of painters by cleaning their rooms and cooking for them. We hoped they had escaped the killing, but soon we found out that they were both murdered. My sister Henia, who was so close to me, who said she was ready to wash floors and do everything so I would be able to study and improve my life, was dead. How my heart cried for my sisters Henia and Rochaleh, my beloved sisters, who in their lives and in their deaths did not separate.

My mother, who was heartbroken, begged Doba and me to go to Vileyka and find a job. I didn't tell my mother or my sister of my plans to work at the printing press. Many of the Jews of Kurenets came to Vileyka to be taken to work. Some of them had no profession but hoped they would be lucky and get accepted there, thinking that might save their lives.

We arrived in Vileyka in the afternoon and we were put in front of the Gvitz Commissar Schmidt. With him was his assistant Handl, who said to us, via the interpreter from Kurenets, Schatz (an Austrian Jew who came to Kurenets and who was now the head of the Judenrat in Vileyka), “Shoemakers, go to this site, carpenters to this site, tailors to this site…” Handl never once mentioned anything about printers. I was very confused and didn't know what to do. My sister Doba kept nudging me quietly and said, “Why are you standing here and waiting? Go and mingle with the professionals.” Finally Handl called me and asked what my profession was. I was very confused and said, “Schriftsteller” which in German meant, “Author.” At that moment I thought that this was the right name for someone who puts letters together in a printing house. The word “ Schriftsteller” made Handl very mad. He started screaming at me with disgust, mocking me. “Du bist ein Schriftsteller? Ah. Ein Schriftsteller bist du?” I was sure that my fate was sealed, but I immediately started correcting myself, explaining that I fixed letters in a printing place. Handl quieted for a minute and was pensive, then all of a sudden said, “Tomorrow to the printing press.” That's how it was. The next day I was accepted as a worker at the printing press.

The grief that came overmy family when we found out that Henia and Rochaleh were killed was unbearable. My father took it as a sign from heaven, and he cried bitterly before God when he recited the Kaddish for them. I remember that one day our Christian friend Kostya from Diaditz came to us to take part in our mourning. He once again clarified that he would always help us, and his house would be open to us; even if it would endanger him, we would be able to hide there. We gave him some of our belongings, clothes, and supplies to keep. We knew that he was an honest man who was telling us the truth and that we could always rely on him. I found out about Kostya's visit when I came one Sunday for a vacation. We would work for six days, and on Sundays we would get time off to go to Kurenets. We were taken both ways by policemen. The reason why they wanted us to go to Kurenets was so we could clean ourselves and change clothes. The Germans wanted to maintain certain hygienic conditions.

My first day of work at the printing press was a difficult day. When I entered and said that Handl had sent me there, I was greeted by the manager of the printing house, a Christian by the name of Byelosov. Other than my friend Josef Norman, there were two other non-Jews who worked there. One was Nikolai Lazar, and the second was Matvei Matvievich, who was once a Soviet POW who somehow was able to get a job there. There were also two Christian girls, Manya and Sonia, who helped with the printing but who mainly kept the place clean. So as soon as I came there, Byelosov looked at my boots and said, “You have nice boots. It would be a good idea if you gave me your boots since the Germans will murder you and take your boots anyway.” I answered, “I don't care who will take my boots after I die, but in my lifetime I will not give them to anyone.”

Matvei was a very gentle and spiritual person. You could see it from his expression. He thought I was a remnant of the Jews of Vileyka, who at that point had all been killed, and he whispered to me, “After what happened here, why are you sitting here and working for them? Why aren't you escaping to the forest?” When I heard what he said I became worried. Despite his face, which appeared very gentle, those were difficult days and it was hard to know where trouble might come from. Who knows? Maybe he would spy on me and trick me, I thought. So I looked at him quietly, like a person who didn't understand the hint when he said “the forest.” Secretly, I told Josef Norman about the plans and why I was sent there. Josef once again emphasized that it was very dangerous, that they might notice that letters were missing. As I continued working there, I discovered that Byelosov was not a bad person; he was just a chatterbox and didn't mean ill. When he asked me for my boots it was just chatter, and it contained no evil.

Most of the work involved printing announcements, letters, and accounts of office supplies for the Germans. Most times the letters were in both Russian and German. The German letters were smaller than the Russian ones, but since we wanted the printing to be pleasant and not uneven, we added something to the letters and I became the specialist in this. I also became more fluent in German during this time. Truthfully, the other workers in the printing shop did not know any German. Often I was sent to the Gvitz Commissar to see him and his assistant Handl, or to Kiborik, who was the education officer, and I became the go-between. They gave me materials to print and they received the finished materials from me.

Each day when I was done with my work, I would go to the ghetto in Vileyka and stay there until the next morning. It wasn't the usual ghetto, but this was the place where they kept the Jewish workers. It was located behind the public park and the municipal hospital, close to the Jewish slaughterhouse from years before. The place was not really guarded. There was no fence, and Schatz was responsible for the guarding. Schatz used to be the head of the Judenrat in Kurenets and now was situated here in Vileyka. Also there was my sister Doba, and also Kopel Spektor with his brother Eliyau and his two sisters, Esther and Dinka. Kopel was very, very close to his family, and now never separated from them, and this is how we explained to ourselves his not being so close to us at this point. Once in a while Handl, the assistant to the Gvitz Commissar, would come around and torture whomever he encountered. Every once in a while I, too, suffered a beating with the stick that he always held in his hand. One time he hit my hand so hard that I thought it had become paralyzed. I feared I would never be able to move it. The people in the ghetto were tortured not only by German head officers like Handl, but also by every German. They were all permitted to treat us as they wished. Zalminka Alperovich, the son of Masseh Alperovich, brother of Rivka Gilat who is now in Israel, used to work for a German who would torture him and beat him mercilessly, so much so that we were worried about his survival. One time he returned to the ghetto all beaten up and wounded, in horrible shape. But the next morning the German came to the ghetto and demanded that Zalminka, and no one else, be sent to him. Many tried to explain the horrible situation of the young boy, but the German just became enraged and said, “I will make him well,” and he drew out his weapon. So with no choice, Zalminka got out of bed and went to work. Who could ever dream during those days that this Zalminka, who was so tortured, would one day escape from the ghetto and arrive at the forest, and from there go to the Red Army, where he would get his revenge on the German killers, something I will tell you about later. Most people in the ghetto of Vileyka suffered greatly. Other than the people from Kurenets, there were remnants from other neighboring towns. Many of them were very depressed. I remember our Motik Alperovich, who was with us. Even when his heart was very bitter, Motik used three words to describe the situation, “Seiz nit gut” (The situation is not good). He was a member of our Partisan group and there was hope at least that we might leave for the forest.

When I worked next to Matvei, I saw that among the many letters he kept in his drawer were many Red Army buttons with Soviet emblems of the hammer and sickle. I am sure that he meant for me to see them, but still I pretended that I was not paying attention. One day, Josef Norman found in the printing house the original announcement that ordered all the Jewish men in Vileyka to come for a roll call, which ended with all of them being taken to the bridge and killed. When we looked at the paper we saw it was signed with the Polish name Sapieska. During the Polish times, Sapieska was the head of the Vileyka archives, and as soon as the Germans entered he became the mayor. Josef showed me the paper and I thought that it might be historically important, so I took it and hid it somewhere. I think that this paper, among others, helped at the time when the Soviets came after the war, during Sapieska's trial, which got him sentenced to ten years in prison.

One time the Gvitz Commissar came and said that we should take some printing materials off the trucks. When I came to take them down, he said to me, “These are my materials, and I am telling you that if there is anything missing or imperfect, you will pay with your head.” I don't know why Schmidt made me responsible for these materials, which were brought from Oshmany, where they had a printing house that was now closed. We did as we were told and took all the printing materials down from the trucks and into the printing house. Among other things, we found a box filled with letters and I immediately realized I could take from this box without making them suspicious. One day, Itzkaleh Einbender came to the printing house unwatched, and told me that the Partisans from the Volkoviczina group were asking about the letters, since it would soon be time to go to the forest. I said that I would probably be able to bring something soon.



Under the Nose of the Germans

We found out that in the yard of the Gvitz Commissar there were many letters for Russian print from an old printing house that had been used by the local daily paper in Vileyka, Salinskiya Gazetta, during the Soviet times. Since I would often go to the Gvitz Commissar to transfer materials, I decided to make good use of my visits there. The guard knew me well and didn't bother me. Bertha met me near the yard of the Gvitz Commissar and we both entered as if we didn't know one another. Bertha, who appeared non-Jewish and acted in a way that was filled with self-confidence, exuded trust and the guard didn't even check her. Bertha put a note in my hand and continued walking. When I had a chance to look at the note, I realized it was the text for a flyer, with an instruction that it should be printed very quickly. I couldn't figure out what Bertha was planning. Did she mean that I had to leave for Kurenets now and make this with the letters that I had kept there? Or did she want me to print this pamphlet right here in Vileyka? I considered the possibility of printing it in Vileyka, but I couldn't find a way at first. Slowly, I came up with a plan. I discussed this with Josef Norman and we realized that going to Kurenets was impossible, so I decided to go to the manager, Byelosov, and I said to him that I was very worried since I found out that soon there was going to be an action where they would kill the Jews in Vileyka. I begged him to let me sleep in the printing house. Byelosov, who was a devout Christian, had a job as the choirmaster and a deacon (?) and many times he used the printing press for the church. The Germans had no knowledge of what he was doing. Byelosov thought about it for a second and then said, “Well, if you want to sleep here maybe you can print some things for me. I immediately agreed and I decided to use this opportunity. I would do the Byelosov job and our pamphlet on the same form. When I was finished, I would separate them.

Josef Norman also asked to stay in the printing house; since he was also a Jew, it would seem natural he would want to join me. The young girls, Manya and Sonia, used the printing house as a permanent place to sleep, and as soon as they fell asleep on some tables, we started working, right under the Germans' noses. First we prepared the form for Byelosov, and then our pamphlet, which was very short. Byelosov told me before he left that once I finished printing I must separate all the letters so that no one would catch him. So as soon as I was done with the printing, I immediately separated the letters and started cutting the papers, separating the ones that belonged to us from the ones that belonged to the church. I hid our pamphlets in the print house and waited impatiently for someone to come and get the materials. It wasn't a large amount of material. I somehow was able to inform Bertha that she must not meet me at the Gvitz Commissar but must come to the yard behind the print house and wait there. So that is what happened. She came when it got dark and I gave her the package.

The relationship among the workers in the printing house was good. There was a sort of good socializing among them. Lazar and the two young women often joined Byelosov in singing. A very special person was the POW whom I talked about. Once in a while he would still ask me why I didn't join the Partisans and say, “What are you doing here? I am a Russian and it's not as dangerous for me to be here. But you are a Jew. You have no future here.” I could see that he was truly worried about me. Obviously he had no idea about my connection with the Resistance, so he was pleading with me, thinking he would save me if he taught me certain things about the forest. He also taught me how to make fake stamps for IDs and how to put letters in a round shape. He was a very gentle person. He had some kind of infection on his hands and he was very careful not to use the public soap. He would very carefully cut a little piece of the public soap for himself. Soap was a very precious commodity, and one day Byelosov realized that pieces of the soap were cut, and he started yelling, “Who is stealing our soap?” Matvei didn't hide the truth. He admitted that he took some of the soap and showed Byelosov his infected hands. He explained that he did it because he feared that his infection could spread to others. Byelosov would not accept his explanation. He was very mad and went to the German who was responsible for us and told him about Matvei stealing the soap. The German hit Matvei very cruelly. Eventually he was kicked out of the printing house and sent to Germany.

Now we continued working with Lazar, whom I still couldn't figure out. I wondered if he had anything to do with Matvei getting sent to Germany. I decided to check out his character. Since he told me that his brother-in-law was a watchmaker, I asked him to give my watch to his brother-in-law to get it fixed. Bertha suggested that if he was not to be trusted and might cause us trouble, we should get rid of him. By getting rid of him she meant killing him. During those days, if someone was killed all of a sudden, no one would check the reasons. So when Lazar didn't bring back the watch and days passed, we didn't know what to do. Lazar promised me that on Sunday when he would be in the village, he would ask his brother-in-law to hurry up, but his brother-in-law was very busy.

When he returned on Monday, the watch was still not with him. I told him to just give me back the watch, whether it was ready or not. But he said the watch had been taken apart. When I told Bertha about it, I realized it could all end very badly, but luckily enough, just then, Lazar brought back the watch and proved he was not a bad man. So I notified Bertha and I was happy that he was not hurt, since someone worse could have been sent there.

On Sunday, I decided to make a short pamphlet while I did a general pamphlet for the Germans. I was sure that on Sunday no German would come to the printing house. I was just about ready to print the pamphlet, when to my great shock, the Gvitz Commissar, Schmidt, and another high-ranking officer, entered the printing house. I was shaking and I felt like I was standing over a huge chasm. So all I could do was to drop it all of a sudden, as if I was careless, and that is what I did. The entire form fell with a loud noise, and the letters spread all over. Schmidt immediately came to me and hit me for being so careless and said to me, “You must work carefully. Do not do any stakhanov here.” [“Don't rush or try to overproduce.”] I started gathering the letters and scrambling them, especially the letters from my pamphlet. All of a sudden there was an order to stop working. Now I was no longer worried that they would recognize the letters. Once again I was hit by the Germans before they left, and they said, “Be more careful. Don't do such a lousy job.” Then they left the printing house.

Those were the days between Purim and Passover, and I spent almost all my time in the printing house in Vileyka. I found out that once again they had killed thirty-two Jews in Kurenets. This took place on the 6th day of the Hebrew month of Nisan, 1942. The killers were not Germans, but collaborators from the local area. One was from Kurenets and the second was from the village of Kastzinevitz. This is the information I got from Yehezkel Zimmerman, the son of Yitzhak Haitze's.Yehezkel Zimmerman is now known as Charles Gelman, and he wrote a book in English about his experiences during the war.

The two Christian hoodlums were policemen for the Germans. They were Shernagovitz and Balzinyuk. They went, as they said, to create a polevanya, meaning a hunt. One of these killers was a student of Yitzhak Zimmerman in the public school in 1941, but these so-called privileges did not help Yitzhak. He was the first to be killed by them. The daughter Ethel tried to escape but didn't go far. They caught her and killed her. The second daughter, Minya, was shot while holding her baby in her hands, a baby just a few months old. She fell in the snow, in a pool of her blood, and died immediately. The baby, Shimshon, fell on the snow but was not hurt. Feyga Zimmerman, the mother, saw the whole thing from the window of their home. She was in shock and practically fainted, but still she was able, after a short time, to go outside and take the baby from the snow. But Feyga Zimmerman was not able to stay in the house. She took the baby to Zalman Mendel Tsipilevich, who was distantly related to her, and there she stayed with the baby until the day of the annihilation of Kurenets, September 9, 1942.

I would like to say more about Yitzhak Zimmerman. He was a very learned Jew with an excellent memory. He was a deep thinker who understood the depths of ideas, and he was very articulate and able to explain everything to his students in a very clear and simple way. People who knew him said he was an amazing mathematician and was also very proficient in Hebrew grammar. All his knowledge was self-taught. He didn't have any formal education. In addition to that, he had the most beautiful and clear voice, and he served as prayer leader for the congregation in front of the Ark in the synagogue.

Yehezkel [Charles Gelman], his son, was at that time in the Vileyka ghetto with the other Kurenetsers and knew nothing of what had happened to his family. But people looked at him strangely and he understood that something had happened, so he left Vileyka for Kurenets and learned about the awful tragedy. He met with his mother and his nephew, and together they went back home to mourn his father and his two sisters. Yehezkel wrote that the piercing cries of his mother could have made the blocks of his house melt. During that time he also met with Artzik Dinestein, who was also known as Artzik Gatze's, and he told him that he, together with other Jews, went out and collected the bodies of the thirty-two martyrs and buried them in the Jewish cemetery. Artzik told him that when they checked the pockets of the people who were killed, they found in Yitzhak Zimmerman's pocket a detailed list of all the fifty-four martyrs who were killed during Simhat Torah that year. The list included the names of the people, their parents' names, their ages, etc. Surely, Yitzhak Zimmerman hoped that there would come a day when the fifty-four martyrs would be brought to a Jewish burial and their headstones would be put on their graves.


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