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B. Escape from the Forced Labor Camp in Hantsavichy

by Mordekhai Zaytshik

Translated by Amy Samin

The 14th of August 1942 was an ordinary work day, just another dark day of slaving for our enemies in the forced labor camp in Hantsavichy. No one knew how many more such days we could expect to survive, or for how much longer we would be sentenced to work strengthening the hellish death machine that was destroying our people. We tortured ourselves with the knowledge that every time we put our hoes to the ground, we were basically digging the grave of another Jew, and every time we hammered a nail into wood at the order of the Nazis, we were building the coffin of another son of our people.

But what could we do when our filthy captors were plotting to take from us the thing we held most precious, the souls of our women, our elderly, our children, back there in our town? We knew that even the slightest sign of rebellion on our part would result in their deaths. We were forced to continue.

That same Friday, three hundred and fifty people (two hundred and thirty from our town, and one hundred and twenty from the town of Pohost) set off to work, each at his task, divided into groups: one group for unloading and loading freight cars, another for repairing roads, and still more for other types of work.

I and my three assistants set out for the regional command post (which was housed in the former gymnasia). It was my task to install electrical wiring in the offices. My three helpers were Sandetz (a Jewish refugee from Warsaw), Gronet Segalovitch and Yitzhak Novick, the son of the cantor. I sent one of my helpers to the town to bring back replacement parts needed for my work. An hour later, he had not returned. I sent another of my helpers to look for him and bring back the parts – he also did not return. The same thing happened when I sent my third assistant to look for the other two.

I became quite concerned. Something must have happened, or was about to happen. We certainly weren't expecting any salvation or comfort. If something had indeed happened, it must be something terrible. Anything that could happen

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must be a calamity. At that moment, I recalled portions of conversations I had overheard between S.S. officers when they had been drunk and had lost control of their tongues. My worry only increased as I recalled a friendly conversation between myself and one of the thousands of S.S. officers, an older man who had not lost his human character, whose soul suffered and who despised the acts of his own people. In his words I caught a clear hint that our days were numbered and soon the end would come.

While I continued to work and my heart feared the worst, the regional deputy commissar, Inge Kolovitch, behaved in a convivial fashion towards me. He approached me frequently, expressing interest in the progress of the work and often engaging me in friendly, almost warmhearted, conversation. I was overcome with apprehension: this overly-friendly behavior made me fear that something awful was in store. Or perhaps I was anxious unnecessarily? Irregardless, that day he seemed completely different than usual with me.

As the day turned towards evening I returned from my work to the camp. Some inexplicable feeling urged me to hurry. On my way I did not encounter a single living soul; neither did I meet anyone in the streets.

I cannot describe the sight that met my eyes when I entered our living place. In the first moments I was completely astonished, and my senses were spinning. All of my roommates, twenty-five men, stood fully dressed with small satchels in their hands or strapped to their backs, their faces pale as death, frightened and agitated, some sobbing quietly. They all stood facing the door, the only exit from the room. Someone briefly explained to me that word had come of the horrible massacre that the Nazis had perpetrated in our town. All of the residents – women, old people, and children – had been taken out and slaughtered. We were all bereaved, orphaned. We had no parents, no brothers or sisters, no sons or daughters.

All of the ties that had bound us in our slavery had been cut. We no longer had any reason to submit to the yoke of the hellish creatures. We were ready, as one man, to break out and run away. We knew what we could expect; we had no illusions that most of us would be able to escape and remain alive. But what value did this life have - a contemptible life of slavery, bereavement and loneliness, whose limited days were in the hands of beasts?

We did not fear death, nor were we driven by a thirst for life when we determined to escape from the labor camp. Our motivation was our fierce will to rebel with all of our puny ability, against the rule of bloodshed and evil; to at least break free from the nest of vipers even if it put an end to our miserable lives. Yet, deep in our hearts burned a tiny spark of hope; “Maybe, just maybe, we would survive and be able to avenge the blood of our beloved families.” That faint hope urged us to hurry, to run away and escape. But even in that horrible hour we kept our heads. We knew we must control ourselves and plan our actions wisely. We realized that an uncontrolled haste would ruin everything and only result in our disastrous destruction. In the light of day, even if we reached the forest and succeeded in making our way deep inside, our pursuers would find us and kill most of us; the rest they would take back to the camp and kill in various cruel ways. We knew that only under the cover of darkness could we conceal ourselves deep in the forest. We needed all of our emotional strength to control ourselves and not run away immediately, but to wait until the end of the day when darkness would cover the forest and provide us with concealment.

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I changed out of my work clothes into other clothes, and equipped myself with the last piece of bread which I had been saving, and with a knife. We stood in a tense state of readiness. There were among us those who complained that the decision about the timing of the escape left only a very narrow window of opportunity, the instant of twilight when light turns to darkness. They feared that, because of unnecessary caution, we might miss our chance; that if we tarried until the police arrived to begin the first nightly guard shift, all would be lost.

There was not one man in the entire camp who, out of fear for his own life, tried to escape before the set time. And not a single one of the three hundred and fifty said, “I will worry only about myself, and the others can take care of themselves.” The great tragedy that had befallen us brought us together, and the individual felt responsible for the whole. Everyone knew that to attempt to escape early would bring a sentence of death on the entire camp.

And so everything was until the moment arrived, when suddenly everyone began to behave as one who is trying to escape a sinking ship, with men pushing one another aside to try and reach the lifeboats, grabbing one another, getting entangled with each other, and in the end overturning their lifeboat. Each man was overcome with the urge to be the first to leave; or more properly, to not be the last to escape, thus being the one most likely to be captured by the cruel pursuers. The exit was blocked by the press of bodies. The pressure on the opening was eased after a moment, because some of us, seeing the situation, remained calm and simply jumped out of the window. In a short time we were all outside, and our escape began. We ran frantically, as if rather than using our legs to run we were carried by the wind. We jumped over the fences. We fell, got up, ran and fell again, and again got up and ran. Barriers were as nothing to us, and we overcame every obstacle.

Only about twenty men remained in place and stood without moving, pale and trembling. They stared at us, but did not dare to join us. One of them was a man from our town, Yaacov Kravitz (one of the people responsible for the work in the camp); he was tall, handsome and smart. He called after us in a loud voice: “Murderers! Thieves! What are you doing?! You are bringing down disaster upon us all!”

No one listened to him, no one heard him. We were running as if borne on invisible wings. Were not the pure souls of our loved ones urging and carrying us onward? Were not the eyes of mother, father, brother and sister winking at us, from deep within the forest, calling to us, “Hurry! Come to us quickly! Flee from the den of vicious beasts.”

We ran one alongside the other, no man leaving his friend. Fathers ran close beside their sons, close enough to touch and to hear his breath – and if God forbid he should fall, that he should die before his eyes.

The heat was almost suffocating, and the running only made it worse. We passed the area of the gardens and reached the canals brimming with water. I was in the first row of runners; I jumped into one of the canals and dunked myself in the cooling water and felt relief from the heat. A few of the other front runners saw my actions and jumped in also.

Who was that breathing so quickly and shallowly? Yehuda Rubenstein. He was wearing

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a short winter coat, heavy and thick. In whispered gasps he complained that he had no more strength to run, that soon he would break down and fall. I called to him to take off his coat while still running and leave it behind. He heard me. I could hear the sound his coat made when it fell into the water of one of the canals. Others saw what he had done, and did the same.

We were escaping, getting farther away from the city. From behind us came the echoes of the first shots. The air was split with the sound of the siren. The predators knew that their prey was escaping from under their destructive claws. It was no wonder they were summoning others, who hurried to respond. Three hundred broken-down, depressed, defeated, hungry and thirsty people of an inferior race had dared to rise up against their subjugators, people of the superior race!

When I heard the shots and the sound of the alarm, my heart rejoiced, celebrating the start of our victory over our enemies. “We dared, and we did it!” I smirked in the direction of the far-off killers.

Meanwhile, we had reached the forest. We threw ourselves on the cool ground, exhausted, to rest for a bit and catch our breath for just a moment. We recovered quickly, for we knew that the time to truly rest had not yet arrived. We stood up to take stock. We wanted to know who and what was with us. We discovered there were no more than twenty-three people from our group: twelve from Pohost and eleven from our town. Those were: Simcha Shneidman, Yitzhak Slutsky (from the village of Hryczynowicze), Yehuda Ziklig and his younger brother Yaacov, Nissel Rabinovitch, Eliezer-Aharon Kolpanitsky, and myself.

We continued to run away from the camp. While we ran we ripped the yellow tags from our clothing: we were free men, the camp was behind us. We slowed down; we were deep in the forest and darkness was falling. Three guides and leaders were chosen from amongst us: Rabinov, Feldman (both from Pohost), and the one who writes these lines.

Not one of us thought of saving our yellow tags for the coming days, as a memento. There was not one of us who even imagined he would stay alive for another day, and certainly not until the end of the war – for it seemed to us the war would never be over.

 

Our Wanderings and Hardships

Deep in our hearts we gave thanks to God for ending the day and bringing the night; and for having the light give way to darkness. I think none of us were ever as happy to see the coming of darkness as we were that night. The darkness would help us to evade our pursuers. We arranged ourselves in single file and progressed swiftly and silently by the light of the stars. We turned southwest, in the direction of the town of Pohost. We crossed the train tracks close by the station at Liusina. Throughout the night we made good progress, covering about twenty-four kilometers, thereby putting a good distance between us and Hantsavichy. We knew well that danger could come to us not only from Hantsavichy, for we were subject to a siege in every direction, and could easily encounter a company of the evil of the earth, who could descend upon us from any direction and destroy us. That thought never left us. In spite of that, we were happy in our achievement: we had distanced ourselves from our pursuers,

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who chased us with the wrath of snakes and the foaming mouths of ravening dogs, who proposed to devour us and take revenge on us for what we had done to them. We had spit in their faces in a way which would not be easy for them to wipe clean. The camp supervisors would be called to account for every person who remained uncaptured.

The coming of the morning light brought the Sabbath day. We looked into the faces of our friends and saw that in the space of a day, we had changed: we were gloomy, lifeless and withered, our eyes grown dim. The crushing news that had shocked us the day before, the stress of preparations for our escape, the wild flight, and the long march at night had all left their marks on us.

Broken and exhausted, we sat on the ground with our heads bowed. After we had recovered from the horrible message we had received the day before, which had overwhelmed our senses and made us lose our reason for awhile, and after the terrible fever of our emotions, which had given us the courage to rebel against our captors and the strength to run beyond the normal human ability, had dissipated, we were overcome by fear. After the storm in our souls, which had not allowed us even the briefest moment to consider what had happened, had calmed, we were able to stop and reflect on the events of the past twenty-four hours.

Now we knew what it was to be a bereaved widower and orphan, which had fallen upon us in one day. The thought squeezed my heart like an iron vise, for I was a lonely solitary man in this evil and hostile world, with no father, no mother, no brother or sister, no relative with whom to share life's burdens. The memory of those who, twenty-four hours before, had gone to their deaths filled my heart and tortured my soul. I wanted to know and to be able to imagine how they stood, aware and with eyes wide open, face to face with death. My imagination provided horrific scenes which were capable of destroying my sanity, breaking my heart, and paralyzing my brain. The pain in my heart tortured me: why hadn't I been with them, why didn't I go with them to that grave? What were our lives now, what hope had we for revenge? How could we, a small group of poor, exhausted, and broken down people, find the strength to avenge the innocent blood of our beloved ones?

Rage boiled in my blood. Oy, how I wanted to sink my teeth into the neck of…the whole world! To devour - and be devoured!

How jealous I was of the two young men from our town who suddenly began to cry. They sat on the ground with their heads bowed, tears streaming silently down their faces. They made no sound: no sobs, no sighs, no utterance at all. But their tears fell, silently watering the ground.

To my right sat a man about forty years old, from Pohost. I sensed his strange and restless movements. One moment he would raise his hands to the sides and up into the air, as if searching for something to hold on to. The next moment his hands fell to the ground, his fingers digging into the earth, again, as if searching for support. I looked at him from the side and saw his pale, trembling lips, his Adam's apple rising and falling, rising and falling. He tried with all his strength to hold back his tears and his sobs, fighting an internal struggle with his stormy soul. I feared that if he lost the battle with himself, and his howls were unleashed, our own would soon rise in response and the forest and surrounding area would be reverberate with the sound. The guide Ravinov foresaw the danger and called out, “Get ready to move out!” and added, “We don't know

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this place very well. We need to move deeper into the forest where it is more overgrown; there we will be able to rest and sleep a little. It will also increase our chances of finding a company of partisans – for my part, I have no strength to go on. For the last twenty-four hours, from yesterday morning until now, we did not eat a bite. Whoever has a slice of bread should take it out, and whoever has breadcrumbs; put them on the cloth I will spread out on the grass. We will divide them up equally amongst us. We are partners in our destiny; therefore we will be partners in all that we have. Now hurry, because the hour grows late.”

We did as Ravinov told us. We chewed the stale, bitter bread, but it was difficult to swallow. There was a heavy lump in our throats, blocking them. After we had eaten what little we had, we got up and continued walking.

I cannot describe all of the hardships that befell us in our wanderings, all of the misfortune and troubles that found us, so I will be brief.

For a number of days, the first days of our wanderings, food barely touched our lips aside from a few blackberries and mushrooms that we found. We tried as best we could to walk only in the densest parts of the forest, and at night, so we wouldn't run into other people. More than once we lost our way, making mistakes and finding ourselves going around in circles.

Our planned escape – three hundred and twenty people – from the labor camp which was carried out under the tight security of the Nazi army, the S.S., and many policemen made an impression on the entire area and was a hard blow to the arrogance of the Germans who controlled everything. The German command could not forgive the officers responsible for the shame and disgrace brought to the entire military regime by their negligence. The command gave an order to use all available means to pursue us and to either return us alive or slaughter us. Large companies of soldiers and policemen went out to pick up our trail. The local populace was also enlisted for this task. They were promised various prizes - money, tobacco, salt, soap – for every escapee they caught and turned over to the Germans. Many of the farmers fulfilled this task gladly and with great devotion.

After a few days we learned to our sorrow that some of our people in other groups lost their lives through lack of caution. When they were overcome by hunger, they turned to a shepherd or farmer they had encountered and asked them for food. He pretended to be kind and merciful, promising to bring them food to sustain them and showing them a place where they should wait for his return. After about an hour he returned, leading a group of soldiers and policemen, who surrounded the place and opened fire on the escapees. They killed many of them and took the few who had survived prisoner and returned them to the camp, where a very cruel death which could only have been designed by the devil himself awaited them: they forced them to hang one another, brother to brother, father to son, friend to friend.

A few groups encountered companies of soldiers, policemen, or farmers a day or two after their escape. One big group that was captured included many people from our town, including our friends: Yehuda Rubenstein, Boaz Rubenstein, Yerachmiel Dvorin and Shmuel Zaretsky,

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the five Gelenson brothers, Yitzhok Kribitzky and his son Yankele, Mordechai Baruchin and his son Berele – all were captured and returned alive to the Hantsavichy camp.

The fate of our group was a better one, because in one night we were successful in putting a good distance between ourselves and the area where the Nazis were searching around Hantsavichy. Not only that, we were extremely cautious during our wanderings. We preferred to starve rather than ask farmers for food. We tried as much as possible to walk on untrodden paths, to make our way where no one else had set foot. We were extremely careful to walk silently, without speaking out loud. Thus we were able to make our way safely until we reached the partisan camps.

On the third day after our escape as evening fell, something happened to me that even now, as I remember it, makes the hairs raise up on the back of my neck. Even today I cannot forgive myself that, through my own stupidity, I brought such suffering upon myself. I suddenly found myself separated from the group. And for what? For nothing. This is what happened: that day near the village of Khutinitz we encountered a second group of our friends, led by Greenboim from Pohost, a wise man who, in the camp, was one of the people responsible for the work. We began traveling together, a group of about forty men. We were all hungry, and to our joy we discovered many bushes of ripe, juicy raspberries in the forest. We pounced on the fruit and, with shaking hands, took the edge off our hunger, and put some of the fruit into our satchels. The group finished picking the berries and began to move on. I had discovered a bush so laden with fruit that I couldn't bring myself to stop picking, and continued for a moment longer. Then I saw the back of the last person walking away. I immediately ran after him to try and catch up, but I could not find any of our people. I thought to myself: “Perhaps I didn't pay attention in which direction they turned.” With my heart pounding, I turned to the left, in vain! They had disappeared! I didn't dare call out to them, for we were accustomed to keeping quiet. I continued to run in all directions and tried to follow the footprints of my friends – with no success.

A terrifying despair gripped me. “I'm lost!” I told myself. My fate was sealed in one moment, all for a few raspberries. On legs trembling from the exertion of running about, I searched for and found a small log and placed it under a dense bush, to provide myself with a hiding place. I sat on the log and stared at the ground. I don't need to elaborate on all that was going through my mind. I saw myself, alone in an unfamiliar forest without any idea where I should go, with no food, with no way to defend myself against the world, vulnerable to ambush from every side, alone against huge armies, policemen, and an infinite number of people who wanted to take my soul.

Man, like other creatures, apparently has a strong will to live, strong enough even to cheer the one who is facing the end. After resting for a few minutes, which felt like years, I got up to continue my wanderings. I roamed through the forest, still carrying a spark of hope in my heart that I would reach a safe place through my own, solitary strength.

For three straight days and nights I wandered alone in the forest. I will not recount here all of the

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miracles that happened to me in those days. A few times I encountered shepherds; as is well-known, they were allowed to kill me, but they didn't. Then there was the story of the farmer woman, who saw my boots (which were still in fairly good condition) and coveted them. She demanded I give them to her, and provided a pretty reasonable claim: “Of what use are they to you? In all likelihood, you'll be killed today or tomorrow. Better you should give them to me in exchange for a few eggs.”

Who knows? If I'd had a weapon in my hands, perhaps in the bitterness that consumed my soul I would have killed her and her daughter, who supported her claim. An old shepherd surprised me when I came face to face with him. He showed me a path to take on which I would not encounter any Germans or their collaborators. I followed his directions and after some hardships in my wanderings I came to the Babruyka River. I crossed the river in the clothes I was wearing – and at midnight I fell into the hands of a guard made up of my friends, who were out making their nightly patrol.

I hope that everyone who reads these words will imagine and understand how great my happiness was to have found my friends, and how great their happiness that I had been found. They carried me upon their shoulders, for my wanderings had exhausted my strength, and they brought me to the stopping place of the group, which now numbered some eighty men as groups met up and joined together. Most of my friends were sound asleep, but I found a few by the campfire who were still awake. They gathered around me, and we hugged and kissed one another. They had already given up on me, believing me to be dead and eulogized.

When these memories come back to me, I find it hard to understand how, in the unbearable situation in which we found ourselves, there was a place for happiness! Could it have been that even in the midst of dark despair there were buried seeds of hope?

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