Translation by Rachel Zetland
Donated by Jay Snider
Old Rafalovka was different from New Rafalovka. The many waters of the Styr River glistened to the West. At some points it was 100 meters wide and more. The Styr shaped the old town in the same way the train station modeled New Rafalovka.
Steamships, boats and rafts traversed the Styr. It was the main commercial water route between Pinsk and Lutsk and the towns along the river between these two cities. Merchandise and people were transported up and down the river. When you heard a sudden long siren you knew a passenger ship had arrived.
Here on the riverbank there was a big flourmill fueled by a waterfall. Expanses of green meadows stretched out on both sides of the river. Dark blue blotches of thick pinewoods filled the horizon.
The Styr provided a source of livelihood for fishermen, most of them Christians. The Jews, too, took advantage of the river, buying the fish taken from the river and sending them far away. The river drew the youth, who swam in its waters, strolled along its banks and took boat rides in the summer.
About 80 Jewish families lived in the town. There were two synagogues: one of the Stepan Hassids on the bank of the river, and one of the Lyubeshov Hassids. I would pray at the synagogue of the Stepan Hassids. Old Rafalovka was very old, and this was evident in the old synagogues. The early foundations were exposed when the synagogues were renovated.
We had no Hebrew school here and private teachers earned a living by filling this need.
We had no regular fairs. There were market days only during the special holidays of the goyim, when people would gather from the entire area, from places as far away as Vladimirets. I mostly remember Neta and Abrasha Weiner, who would come in wagons, and David Rosenfeld, who would sell shoes and leather products.
This way of life continued more or less uninterrupted until the Soviets arrived in 1939. The town shed its traditional clothes, but it still did not take on a new look. The Jewish life we had led up to then was being undermined, and our souls filled with anxiety about what tomorrow would bring.
It happened on a bright summer day. We were startled from our beds by the terrible noise of droves of airplanes flying eastward above our town. It was four o'clock and dawn was breaking. Panicked, we went to the front yard fence and saw the planes. And, indeed, our fears were not for naught. The radio announced that same morning that German planes had attacked Russia and bombed the large cities of Kiev, Minsk and others. They also announced that German units had crossed the Bug River between the night of the 21st and the 22nd of June, thus declaring war on Russia.
Soon after, we witnessed the panicked retreat of the defeated Soviet army. The remnants of the army that passed through town suggested we flee with them but only a few took them up on their offer. This was probably because of the letters coming from Russia at the time describing the difficult situation of the refugees. I remember my son, Nathan, of blessed memory, wanted to flee to Russia during the retreat, but we objected. We said we should stay together and not separate and we were also worried about the ordeals faced by the refugees in Russia.
Revenge on Jews
A peculiar situation developed. The Germans had already invaded the large cities in the area, but the small towns like Rafalovka and Vladimirtz remained with no rule. The Ukrainians, who had always hated the Jews, saw this as a perfect time to declare self-rule. This regime's first objective was to take revenge and inflict punishment on the Jews. The Ukrainians attacked Soviet companies cut off from their brigades and lost on the remote trails of Volhynia County, and stole their weapons. The Germans had already conquered our area but Russian farming companies continued to work in the forests. Many Jews worked in these units as woodsmen and were viciously attacked by gangs of Ukrainians. The town's Jews managed, at great risk to their lives, to smuggle some of the wounded through the forests to the hospital in Rafalovka.
It was Friday. That day I went to the city teacher, Mikolski, whose wife was also a long-time teacher in the town. I told them of the concern and anxiety that had seized the Jewish population with these new developments. Only a few minutes went by when we suddenly heard a salvo coming from the town. I left the teacher's house and began running towards our apartment and family. I found them huddled in a corner, paralyzed with fear. The salvo and the explosions continued and we heard someone banging on our door. The door was soon beaten down and a bunch of armed peasants walked in. They went into all the rooms and began searching. Some of them were acquaintances of mine who I had helped more than once. These men appeared uneasy about what they were doing, but one of them had no qualms at all. He came up to me and grabbed my hand. When he saw my wedding ring he started pulling at it forcefully and was about to break my finger. I started to scream from the pain. My wife handed them her wedding ring, pleading with them to take everything and spare our lives. And, indeed, they took whatever they pleased, threatening us and reminding us that our good years were over and that now we would be made to pay for all those years.
The rest of our acquaintances, whom I had helped when they were sick or in need, took pity on us. The destruction and our helplessness no doubt made them feel contrite and they ordered the rioters to leave the house. They told us to shut the doors and not let anyone in the house. They crept away like thieves, but did not let go of their loot.
We thanked God for this mercy they showed us. We closed the doors and the shutters and peeked out through the cracks. We heard the cries of women and children, gunshots, and the savage screams of the plunderers. We saw many peasant wagons full of Jewish property - bed linen and the like - leaving town. And in the streets, broken household utensils and feathers flying all around.
After the peasants quenched their first thirst for blood and left the town, it got quiet. I slowly opened the door and carefully went out to the street to see what they had done. I first went into the home of our neighbor, Mr. Rosenfeld. What I saw was a terrible sight. All the furniture was smashed and mixed in with the other household items. It was all in a pile - a heap of broken pieces. The Rosenfelds, pale and quietly weeping, were sitting among the wreckage. They were in shock, speechless, unable to utter a word.
Many Rafalowkians were sure that after Friday's pillage the robbers would say 'enough' and things would quiet down. But this hope was in vain. One day I was sitting with Yona Rosenfeld at the Rabbi's from Lomaz, near Brisk [Brest, R.Z.]. The rabbi was the son-in-law of the Rafalovka rabbi, Pasmanik, who had run from the Germans when Poland was occupied, and stayed with us. We found consolation for our misfortune there. We listened to his moral discourse and encouragement. His words were wise and thoughtful. He talked about the history of our People from its very beginnings, showing us that what we were going through was just another link in the chain of suffering.
In the middle of our conversation we heard a horrifying cry of distress. Going outside we saw a large group of frightened Jews running. They hurriedly said that a large gang of thugs was crossing the Styr and heading towards the town. Yona Rosenfeld and I barely managed to get to our homes and alert our families. We were swept along by the running crowd. In the general confusion I lost my family except for my son, Nathan, of blessed memory, who stayed with me and Yona and his small daughter, Feigale.
When we looked back we saw that many goyim, armed with all sorts of weapons, were standing on the mountain of the town. We ran and came upon a large group of horses led by goyim we knew who were returning from the meadow. I asked the herdsman to help us. He obliged. We first mixed in with the herd and then the goy told us to run for the forest. The thugs would not shoot at us for fear of hitting the horses. They were also not certain we were Jews. Once we were far from the herd the herdsman told the thugs that we were local Christians who had gone to gather our flocks from the pasture. That's why they did not run after us. Meanwhile we reached the forest. It was the end of the day and it quickly got dark. In the distance we saw a lit shed. The barking dogs alerted the owner. He came out towards us and welcomed us. He suggested we go into the cowshed and hide there during the night. We were afraid to go into his house. We sat huddled in a corner of the shed. Feigale, Yona's young daughter, captured the horror of the moment, saying: I wish I really were a feigale (bird), I wish I could fly away from these bad people.
Our hearts broke to hear her utter this wish, the hearts of parents who can not protect their children.
We heard the dogs barking, and, looking through the cracks in the cowshed, we saw smoke and flames rising up from Rafalovka, our town. Our hearts perished in our chests. We asked ourselves 'What has befallen our families?,' not knowing how to answer this terrifying question.
When it got light we decided to try our luck and return to town. We were told the thugs had left after rampaging till they were satiated. We walked the town, our hearts trembling. We found our families intact. We were extremely upset and swore to stay together in the future and never to leave each other again. We experienced days of terror and sleepless nights. We were always on guard, ready for trouble. We sent the children away to stay with goy friends but my wife Zelda and I decided to stay and not leave the house. Rafalovka suffered the horrors of riots and bloodshed for three weeks. We were abandoned and humiliated. They would spit in our faces. They would even take us to do forced labor on their farms. The Ukrainians told of cases of abuse, of a Jew who was harnessed to a plough and ordered to pull it like a horse. They had various schemes to do away with us before the Germans reached the town.
About ten of us, a minyan, decided to apply to the Christians notables, men of virtue, and ask them to have mercy on us. My friend Yona Rosenfeld and I went to the head of the Christian Church and to some other Ukrainians whom we knew to have great influence in their community. We bitterly poured out our troubles to them, even though we knew it was the Ukrainian intellectual elite that was directing the rioters. But we had no choice. We thought that perhaps, if we 'give the keys to the thief himself,' their conscience would be stirred. We asked them to prevail upon the Ukrainian people to stop the destruction and bloodshed. They listened and agreed. They promised to work to calm the spirits and restore order. We were pleased with their promise even though we knew that the real masters, the Germans, were about to come and that all we had accomplished would be erased.
The Germans were in no hurry. They sat at Rafalovka the Station, which was at a distance from our town, and left Rafalovka the Town to the murderous sprees of others. We also went to the German authorities and poured out our troubles there because we knew that the local peasant population was plotting evil schemes against us.
During those days it was not easy to cover the 12 kilometers that separated Rafalovka the Town from Rafalovka the Station. Death lay in wait for us, but we took the road anyway. We had another objective in mind: to meet with the Jewish families living in the Station and see how they were faring. Our delegation comprised nine people: Yona Rosenfled, Isaac Shirman, Hershel Shirman, Isaac Kreiser, Benjamin Reznik, Mendel Kushnir, Nechemiya Schwartzblat, Eliezer Goldberg, and myself, the author of these lines.
Although exhausted from our hardships of the past few weeks, we hurried on our way.
We walked the beautiful route we knew so well from the days of peace, but now we paid no attention to the beauty of the landscape. We were preoccupied with our world, a shattered world lacking any glory or splendor. Suddenly we heard the sound of vehicles driving on the same road we were taking, going in the same direction. We rushed so as not to find ourselves with the peasants, but could we really walk that fast? Quickly enough the goyim caught up with us. As they passed us by they pulled out their pistols and yelled Heil Hitler. They asked us where we were heading and we replied that the German commander, located at the Station, asked us to attend to some matter. When they heard the name of the German commander they hid their pistols, turned their horses around and left. Afterwards we found out that this was a band of Poles from the surrounding colonies that had plotted to rob the Jews of the Station. They decided to call off this plan when they learned that there was a German commander at the place.
After a difficult journey we reached Rafalovka the Station. The Station was dead silent. We remembered the place, the hustle and bustle of Jewish activity. It was a place of great commotion, where industrious men and commerce mingled. We found the streets deserted, windowpanes shattered and blocked with rags, windows covered with boards. There was no sign of the Jewish stores or Jewish firms. They had suffered havoc and destruction.
Indeed, the same fate had befallen the Jews of both towns. Here we were told about the riots they experienced, about the son of Sanya Meniuk who was injured by the rioters. The local doctor refused to tend to him and he died after terrible torment. Hershel and Sanya Berezniak were surprised to hear that we had decided to beg for mercy from the Germans and they forbade us to do so. So we decided to put together a delegation from those who came with us and the local Jews, to deliver our petition to the heads of the Ukrainian population, the doctors of the area, Popov, Mikolski, and Mikoleichik. We beseeched them to influence the Ukrainian population to stop the robbery and murders. Even though we knew we were addressing notorious anti-Semites and bloodthirsty Ukrainians, we had no other way Our visit to them did not last very long. They refused to even listen to our arguments and requests. Their reply was short as well: You Jews deserve everything that is being done to you. This is your payment. We left them, in anguish
Next we heard the news from the greater region. Things repeated themselves everywhere - robbery and murder. We also learned what happened in the small town of Serniki Pervyye. The goyim had tortured the Jews in a special way and threw little children into wells, burned and raped. However, it was in this very town that young Jews rose to avenge the blood that had been shed. A small group of youth organized and fought back, with cold steel - axes, pitchforks and iron rods. They also had some firearms, a rifle and a pistol they had hidden. These boys routed the thugs from the town.
We were emotionally devastated and financially ruined, our eyes wasting away and our faces gone pale.
At that very moment I unexpectedly received an instruction from the Germans to put my pharmacy in order and reopen it. This was the pharmacy and clinic I had run during peaceful times. Thus, I was the only Jew who worked for the Germans as a pharmacist.
The synagogues opened at that time and the Jews started gathering to pray and share their bitterness.
Startling news and decrees
Our hope that the German Government would forget about us was in vain. One day we received an order to report to the authorities in Rafalovka the Station in order to choose a Jewish committee to be responsible to the Germans. No one wanted to be the emissary of the Germans and everyone refused to serve in such a position. This continued until we got a message with three names the Germans themselves had chosen: Yaakov Weissman, Yaakov Bas and Yona Rosenfeld. When we came before the governing institutions, my name was removed from the list. They accepted my claim that, being busy with the pharmacy, I could not take on this role as well. Yaakov Rabin was chosen to take my place.
On the eve of Yom Kippur, after we were informed that the Germans were nearing the town, a great fright took hold of the people in the synagogue. An order came saying the every Jew over 9 years of age had to immediately begin wearing two yellow patches -one on the chest and the other on the back. Not following this order meant a fine of 1,000 rubles and forced labor. We had no time to ponder. The women all worked together to find yellow cloth. The Ukrainians were already standing guard in the streets, making sure that anyone who went out wore the badge of shame. Of all days, this assault was planned for this day in particular, the day of Yom Kippur, in order to humiliate us all the more.
The decrees now followed in quick succession, each worse than the one before. Forced labor in the forests and for the Ukrainians. The news from the front that the Yekim are going from strength to strength just added to the gloom and convinced us our fate was sealed.
A goy, one of my close acquaintances, brought me a piece of news that astonished me.
All the Jews of Rovno had been executed. I could not believe this was true, that the Jews of Rovno, more than 30,000 people, had been exterminated. I shared this piece of information with no one, not even my family. I contacted my Christian acquaintances and asked them to go to Rovno and bring me more details. But the news I was given was even more horrifying - such mass murder occurred not only in Rovno, but in the surrounding towns as well. It was no longer a secret, everybody knew about it. Thus far it had been the Ukrainians who caused our suffering. From now on we suffered at the hands of the Germans directly. First, a 5 gold ruble tax was levied on each person. This was an unbearably heavy tax and we had great difficulty raising it. We held a meeting at Rabbi Pasmanik's, and there the congregation notables and members of the Jewish Council decided to issue a public notice every Jew will have to own up and disclose his holdings.
The entire Jewish population was invited to the Stepan Hassids synagogue on the bank of the river. Here, the leaders of the congregation stressed the gravity of the situation. Many people asked that the town not be put through such an ordeal, but there was no choice. Silence fell, and the black candles were light. The Holy Ark was opened. Dressed in a white kitl and wrapped in a tallith, the Rabbi's voice trembled with tears. All those gathered wept openly with him. We began composing the list, writing down everyone's property.
Then the Germans demanded that we provide them with cloth, fur, wool gloves, and leather for shoes and other supplies. The second contributzia was again 5 gold rubles, plus 7 grams of silver. A unit of German soldiers lead by an officer came to the Jewish Council in Rafalovka the Station and ordered Zelig Lesnik to give them a kilo of cocoa immediately. When he asked them to wait while he got the item the officer pulled out his gun, hit him in the face and broke most of his teeth. The other Council members were also beaten until they bled.
We were exhausted, depressed, and totally impoverished, we looked liked shadows. Then came a new decree the decree of the ghetto.
A visit to Vladimirtz
On May 1, 1942, we received the order to establish the ghetto. Within two weeks the Jews from the town and the neighboring villages were to gather in the ghetto in order to separate them from the rest of the non-Jewish population. The peasants suggested I remain in the pharmacy and continue to serve them. One of my acquaintances, Protokol the miller, agreed to go with me to Sarny to the district governor to ask him for a permit allowing me to stay in the town. We traveled by horse and buggy, since Jews were not allowed to travel by train. He wrapped a cloak around me to hide the yellow patch, so no one would recognize I was a Jew. It was a dangerous journey. But the goy was very resourceful and cunning and he managed to avoid running into Germans on the way. Entering Sarny, I was astounded. It was no longer the lively pleasant city I had known before the war. It looked like a graveyard now. I met with Tachwikov, the doctor from Sarny with whom I worked during the time of the Soviets. He had been appointed by the Germans to be the regional doctor. He suggested I not go and see the Jew-hating German officer and promised to do so in my place. When we met afterwards, he already had the signed permit written in German. It said that the Jew Yaakov Bas, the pharmacist, was authorized to stay in the town of Rafalovka and to run the pharmacy, but that his family must stay in the ghetto. The goy who accompanied me to Sarny was overjoyed, because there were no Christians in the town who could run a pharmacy. But my heart was heavy. How could I separate from my family?
I asked the goy to take me back to Vladimirets. I wanted to see my friends and relatives. My sudden arrival in Vladimirets was a big surprise.
I asked the goy to pull the wagon into the yard of my brother-in-law, Bentsion Jack. He waited patiently for me until I visited all of my relatives. I showed them the permit from Sarny and asked them what they thought about the whole matter. The Cherniaks were also present, as well as wise Yaakov Eisenberg, who was both my friend and relative. I asked him whether there was any point in one Jew remaining outside the ghetto in order to work in a pharmacy? How could I leave my family? While everyone agreed that in these days it made no sense to leave one's family, Yaakov Cherniak, who is always serious and considered, said:
My dear friends, do you realize what you are saying? No, I do not agree with you that Yaakov should also to go to the ghetto, when he is allowed to remain outside. When they're closing Jews in ghettos and one of us has the opportunity to be outside, do you realize what this means and how valuable it is? He is not going to better his situation and he will not have an easy time in this forest of Ukrainians who we know all too well. He will be free, unwatched by the guards, and we all need this. Who knows what the coming days will bring? We cannot know the value of one Jew outside the ghetto.
I heard these words and was confused, not knowing what to do. Everyone slowly changed their minds and agreed with Yaakov.
It was difficult to say goodbye to my dear ones, whom I was not fortunate to see after this. It was like we bade farewell forever. We held each other's hands and cried many tears. It was as though we all felt what lay ahead of us, but no one uttered it clearly. I bade a final farewell to Vladimirets, where I had spent many years.
I was the only one to stay behind
I stayed alone in the big house. My family and all the Jews were gathered in the ghetto. I was overcome by a deep depression the first day, but I thought about whether my being there could have some importance. I decided to conquer my listlessness and start working. At night, depression got the best of me - the only Jew, every sound frightened me, walking in the street scared me. The sound of the Ukrainians sitting on their benches outside their houses, singing and rejoicing in our destruction, drove me mad.
I went to one of the goyim, the shoemaker Kabilenski, and he suggested that I sleep and rest at his house every night. Although I was not allowed to close the pharmacy, I did so anyway. When I returned in the morning, I found a long line of people waiting for medication, as though nothing had changed. From time to time I would get written messages from my family and that calmed me somewhat. Good friends served as liaisons between us. The situation in the ghetto was deteriorating and the food shortage worsened. Goyim were not allowed to be in contact with the Jews in the ghetto, but I was allowed to come and go as I pleased. I took advantage of this and started accumulating food. On the eve of Shavuot a goy took everything I had collected and transferred it to the ghetto.
At first, the goy was afraid to get involved in such a venture but I offered him a sum of money if he would do it and that seemed to convince him. I also told him I would go with him. To inspire his confidence I pretended I had a permit. We took roundabout roads despite the so-called permit.
I met with my family. Thirty people, 6 families in all, lived in one
apartment. My wife distributed the food I had brought equitably among all
those in need. My time was limited but I tried to stay as long as I could. We
then realized that there was great value to my being in the town. I met with the
members of the Council and we discussed possibilities of working outside the
ghetto. With this idea in mind I visited Malinovski, a teacher turned forest-
work supervisor. He promised to schedule Jews for work. Going out of the ghetto, to 'liberty', for even a short while was precious. Many people would jump at this oppertunity.
The Germans and the Ukrainians would find a pretext to harm us in the ghetto as well. Moshe Bindes was arrested one day and brutally tortured. When he was released his back was black from the beatings. They stopped their oppression for some time only after being bribed. Another day, they demanded we supply them with a large quantity of pepper, coffee, and the like. Many times they made a precise list of the inhabitants of the ghetto. These lists were sent to the offices of the district government in Sarny.
And then an order came saying that all the ghetto residents must report to the marketplace in order to compare the actual number of residents with the number on the Germans' lists. Everyone had to be present, even the sick, no exceptions. It passed without trouble. During this census they called out names of people who were at work, who were not in the ghetto at that time, including my name and the name of my son.
Many of the ghetto residents were sent to do forced labor in the forests and on farms. Sixty Jews, many of them women, were sent to work near the bridge that was being built on the Styr River. The Russians had bombed the bridge during their retreat and it was now being rebuilt. The Jewish police guarded those who went out to work. The authorities held them responsible and they had to ensure that all Jews returned to the ghetto. Leaving the ghetto in this manner enabled people to bring some food back into the ghetto, which was suffering from starvation. The daily ration in the ghetto was but 100 grams of bread per person. Many people were bloated by hunger. Those who went out to work got food through the Polish colonists who were also persecuted by the oppressors.
In some cases a Pole met a Jewish acquaintance and asked to speak with him. When the Germans found out, the Pole was brutally beaten. The Poles also gave us news about what was happening at the front. We already knew that a second front was being organized and that there was hope the enemy would be defeated. We would talk about such news at the house of Yehiel Weingarten in the ghetto where people gathered to pray. This was a dim ray of light in our somber skies.
A German company came to the Chartoriysk station, 6 kilometers from New Rafalovka, on one day in the month of Av, in the year tashav.
They took the Jews out of their homes and gathered them in one place. They also took the 60 Jews from Rafalovka who were working near the bridge and brought them to the gathering point. Some Jews, like Malkiel Shirman and his sister, who knew what awaited them, tried to escape by throwing themselves into the river while they were being transferred, in hopes of swimming across. But the Ukrainians, those murderers, shot them. All the rest were locked up in one house. The prisoners knew what was about to happen, for they had seen the large pits the Germans ordered dug near the forest. They cried and pleaded with the Ukrainians in vain. In addition to crying, some demonstrated bravery and dignity. It has been told that old Mordehai Rotenberg rose suddenly and took out a pile of dollars and called out:
You wretched murderers, you thirst for our money, not only our blood. Here, look now!
And as he said this he tore the bills to shreds.
Esther Rosenfeld, Yona Rosenfeld's daughter, also showed exemplary resistance. She cursed the murderers vigorously and warned them that their bitter dark end would come. We heard all this from peasants who were employed by the Germans near the open graves and who witnessed the slaughter.
I tried to smuggle my daughter out
We were stunned by the news about the Jews of Chartoriysk. I could no longer stay on my own. One Saturday afternoon I decided to go to the ghetto to visit my family. They had already heard about what had happened and were mourning their loved ones who perished with the Chartoriysk Jews. I stayed overnight in the ghetto.
The next day, on Sunday, it was as though nothing had happened. The Germans demanded another group of 60 Jews to go and work on the bridge. This time no one wanted to go. The Jewish Council sent a memo to Sarny about the dreadful situation. The answer came saying that the murder of the 60 workers was due to a misunderstanding and those responsible for it would be punished. We were told that we must send 60 more workers. My son Nathan was among those sent to the Blood Bridge. I could not go back to work in the pharmacy that day. I stayed in the ghetto waiting for my son to return. When he and the other workers returned that night we began to believe that Sarny's response about the misunderstanding might be an honest one. But we knew our situation was volatile.
I decided to try and smuggle my daughter Rifkale out of the ghetto. I wanted her with me at the pharmacy. She was still a small child. I intended to talk to the Council about getting a permit to move all my family from the ghetto back home. The other members of the family did not seem to object to this. The apartment they were living in had a bunker and they believed that their safety was better assured in the ghetto than in my pharmacy. The bunker was a kind of hidden cell that could hold up to 10 people. There were 30 people in the apartment. The entrance to the hiding place was through the alcove under the oven. I went to great trouble to try to move my family to Rafalovka but my efforts were in vain. I therefore decided to do this secretly - to smuggle my daughter out of the ghetto.
I had a last sleepless night in the ghetto. My daughter Rifkale did not sleep either. She was very frightened by the ghetto. She believed she would be safer with her father.
We left early. Mother packed a bundle of gowns, a dress and a white headscarf for Rifkale. We reached the exit point but the Jewish policeman would not agree to let Rifkale out without a permit. My wife and son cried and pleaded with him but he could not be convinced. Rifkale stood aside and wept, but all of this was for naught. I could not stay there, I had to go and open the pharmacy. I promised her I would not give up and I would come back the next Sunday to fetch her. I bade farewell to my loved ones and ran quickly to Rafalovka. I sat on the railing of the house and told my son who was with me what I saw in the ghetto during these two days and how I had tried to get Rifkale out of there. I was startled by my son's sudden cry: Rifkale is coming. Look, over there on the mountain. And indeed, as I turned to look at the mountain, I saw Rifkale coming towards us. We got up quickly and ran to her. She was pale and breathing heavily. We embraced each other, the three of us, crying. We brought her home and then she told us what had happened.
When I left the ghetto my son Nathan walked a bit with me as he worked at the Jewish Council and was allowed to go outside the ghetto on various errands. We talked for a while and then he went back. When he got back to the ghetto he found Rifkale still sitting at one of the corners of the fence, waiting. He wanted to take her home but she refused.
No. I will not go to the ghetto. Everything there frightens me. I want to be with father.
She told Nathan that she thought the guard at the gate had fallen asleep and she asked him to help her get over the fence. And this is what happened. She went over the fence quickly and Nathan left after her and accompanied her a short distance before returning to the ghetto. Rifkale ran 12 kilometers, through fields and woods, propelled by a mysterious force until she reached Rafalovka. When those working outside returned to the ghetto, I turned again to men of influence and asked them to allow my wife and son to join us. But they refused us once again. I was sure that my wife and son would take advantage of the first opportunity and at times of danger would come to me. At that time there were more and more workers going out of the ghetto for weeklong periods. Among these were the 60 workers I mentioned above. These stayed at Rafalovka during the week and some of them lodged at my home.
The calamity is near
One day, it was on a Sunday, August 23, 1942, which was a day of rest. I was standing in the pharmacy preparing a medicine for the Polish teacher, Kontzvich's wife. I suddenly saw a carriage pulled by two beautiful horses stopping in front of Bindes' house where the Council was located. Two German soldiers climbed down from the carriage. My heart started pounding loudly.
I was standing and looking in that direction. After a short while they turned and walked towards the pharmacy. I was paralyzed with fear. I couldn't utter a sound and couldn't answer their questions. It was as though my mind went blank. My hands wouldn't obey me and I couldn't see a thing. They left and after a brief moment I went out to find out why they had come. I asked one of the influential Ukrainians but got no answer. At that time the peasants were saying they heard a rumor that 80 peasants were asked to come with shovels and dig pits. Some of the goyim said clearly We are going to dig pits for the Yids.
We knew it was dangerous times and that we had to be alert. All those who worked outside the ghetto gathered to discuss what we should do. We decided we should all be alert while we worked and keep a vigilant eye on our surroundings.
I didn't sleep the night between Sunday and Monday and neither did my children. Nor did our neighbors, the forced laborers staying with us, including Fanya, Yona Rosenfeld's daughter. Do those in the ghetto know what's going on? This question nagged at me for I had promised my family to alert them if and when they were in danger. How could I keep my promise now? I made up schemes and looked for solutions for how I would get to the ghetto, but I could come up with nothing. And dawn had already come.
Then, a peasant walked into my home and when he saw us there he exclaimed, upset: What are you doing standing here? Don't you know they are already digging the death pits near the village? Run wherever your heart takes you and save yourselves. Every moment is precious!
I realized the danger was near. We immediately chose two Jews Lazer Wawa and Pesach Bindes to sneak to the ghetto and tell the people what was happening. My son, David, did not want to go out to work that day. That day I sent a sack of flour to my family through the miller, the Christian who had helped me get the permit to work in the pharmacy. The police commander going to the ghetto took the sack for me. Our intention was to appear unaware of what was happening. We wanted it to look as though we believed everything was as usual. I included a letter alluding to the coming danger and talked of the need to be on guard in order to escape and join us. I gave the letter to the miller and asked him to do everything in his power to help us. At 10 a.m. the wagon left for the ghetto. I waited for his answer and in the meantime began to work on a plan I had thought up during the night.
In 1934 when I built my home in Rafalovka I constructed a special, underground section. This hidden room was 13 meters long and had a hidden entrance. During these strenuous days I prepared the place and gathered food and water provisions.
I waited for an answer from the ghetto but received no word. I rushed over to the post office where one of my friends worked and I called the Station. I talked with Weissman and I asked him what was happening. He replied: Save your souls. He did not manage to say more because a Ukrainian policeman walked in and the connection was broken. But these three words were enough for me. I returned home and ordered everyone to go into the hiding place. I stayed in the house to be on the lookout. I would look outside and wait for the wagon to come back from the ghetto.
And then I saw the wagon coming back and the police officer getting off and going into his office. I managed to leave the house and walk over to the miller who accompanied the wagon. He told me that German guards had surrounded the ghetto and they had not been allowed in.
You will know then what to do, the miller said.
I went back home and Mottel Katzen, one of the forest workers, came running in a panic. He was sent by the rest of the workers to get some news. I spoke with brevity:
Go to the forest and tell everyone to save themselves. Calamity is upon us!
I myself closed the pharmacy and pasted a notice in Russian to the door saying: Gone to Sarny to fetch medications and supplies; the pharmacy will be closed for a few days.
I left the kitchen door open so as not to raise suspicion that we were hiding there. I took the tallith and the tefillin and I went into the hiding place. We heard rifle fire and understood it was aimed at Jews. We soon heard banging and understood the front door was being battered down and that people were coming in. We heard them walking above us. Afterwards we heard a wagon rolling closer to the house. People came in and took all the food we had prepared for the ghetto. In the evening, people came again and we heard their footsteps above. We were horrified to hear the footsteps coming down the stairs and getting closer to our hiding place. They tried to light a sliver of wood to light their way, but by a miracle it died out. We clung to each other with fear. We held our breath so as not to reveal ourselves. And again, the sound of footsteps and banging hammers, further boarding up the windows and door. Now we also could hear the conversations coming from above, from the railing of the house where the police stood a guard to make sure the pharmacy was not robbed. We sat tense all night until day broke. The chatter of the guards above ceased.
Fanya took out a piece of maza from her pocket. She said this was the afikomen her father had given her. He said it had the strength to watch over her so no harm would come to her. She sliced it and gave a piece to each and each one of us, a talisman against all catastrophes that may befall us.
Like the shadows of ghosts
Before evening, after sitting for 33 hours in the bunker, we decided to leave our hiding place. We knew we mustn't stay here. I went first. I broke one of the windows and went out to our garden and everyone followed me. We lay hidden in the garden beds under the vegetation until late at night. We then broke up into small groups. Yaakov Brik, my children and I were in one group. We hurried away from the town. We reached the yard of a goy friend, but he didn't let us into his house. He brought us food for the road. We reached another goy's house. I stopped walking. The house belonged to a teacher. My children and hers attended her school. I stood next to the wall of the house and approached the window. I knocked gently and called out quietly: Kovalska, save us.
I heard sounds in the house and then the door opened with haste and we were ushered in. The children gave us their beds. They were moved by our situation and full of pity, for they covered their faces with their hands so as not to see us in our grave state. They took us to the cowshed because it was too dangerous to stay in the house. The shed was full of hay and we dug in deep and made ourselves a hiding place.
We didn't close our eyes the entire night. I lay close to my two dear children as my thoughts carried me to the ghetto. What had happened to my wife and son? I could be of no help in this situation. When day broke I saw old Kovalski through the cracks in the cowshed walking around in the yard, giving food to the chickens and preparing the feed for the cows. The door of the shed suddenly opened and the old woman hurried in with a basket full of food - vegetables, bread and milk. She spoke to us, gesturing with her hands. This emphasized the danger of the situation.
We stood before her, our eyes streaming with tears. She walked up to my children, caressed their heads and whispered words of encouragement. I seized the opportunity and asked her if she knew what was happening in the ghetto. She was not aware of anything, but promised to tell us everything she learned once her son came back from the city. It was difficult lying in the hay and daylight exhausted us. We waited for night to come. We felt more secure under the veil of darkness. We could come out of hiding for a bit, stretch and take a breath of fresh air.
The owner of the house came in at night and told us that the ghetto still exists but that guards and soldiers were surrounding it. A few residents of the ghetto tried to run away but the guards shot them. He suggested we look for a safer hiding place. I promised him we would leave the place when it got dark.
At midnight, while everyone was sound asleep, we left the shed with Yaakov Brik. We headed for Varach, where I had many friends and acquaintances.
We reached the village. The dogs were up. They sensed us approaching and barked loudly. Nevertheless, we managed to enter the village. I went up to the house of one of my acquaintances and knocked lightly on the window. There was no answer. In those days peasants believed superstitions about dead Jews rising from their graves at night. Who knows, maybe they thought we were shadows of ghosts from the next world. But we had no time to ponder the question. We had to hurry and do something before day dawned. So we went into their yard and into the granary without permission and lay down to rest. When the peasant woman came to the granary in the morning she was startled and started to make the sign of the cross. She remembered very well how I had saved her life when she was sick. She brought us food and said her husband asked that we leave at night because it was dangerous for them as well as for us. She said that one of the neighbors saw us coming in. Indeed, this man was a close acquaintance of mine and he also came to the granary and brought us food. But a public secret is not a secret. We knew we couldn't stay here so we decided to leave that night and return to Rafalovka.
The dreadful news
That night we left the granary and went to the house of another acquaintance. He brought us out some bread and showed good will and a desire to help us. When he heard we intended to go back to Rafalovka he persuaded us not to. He suggested we go to the forest where we would be able to hide. We left him to go to the miller's house where we found shelter. Protoliuk the miller allowed us to hide in his cowshed. He promised to move us to the granary the next night where he would bring us food and keep in touch with us. The granary was safer as it was at the end of the town. The cowshed was too dangerous. Many peasants and acquaintances passed by. We stayed in the shed for three days. On the third night the owner came and brought us the horrifying news that the residents of the Rafalovka ghetto had been murdered. It was Saturday, the 16th of Elul, tashav. There was a clear order prohibiting Jews from being in the Sarny district. It was dangerous to hide Jews. This frightened the goy and he said he would find us a hiding place in the forest in a place where, according to him, many Jewish survivors hid. We had no choice. We waited again for nightfall but that night I was debilitated by the dreadful news. I felt helpless and my will to live left me. I could not move a limb. The children saw me in this state, lay next to me crying softly and whispered: Father, what are we waiting for? It's late, what happened to you, papa? I felt suddenly moved by a new force - I had to do something, not for myself, but for my dear children for now I was the only one they could count on. I glanced at my watch and felt a will to live and resist awakening in me. Come children, I said, let's go. That night we reached the Styr River with the intention of crossing it to get away from the Sarny district as the miller suggested. But when we reached the river we saw the lights of the fishing boats going out to fish. Sentries guarded the ferry. It was impossible to cross here. We started to look for a better place some distance away. We wanted to swim across but couldn't find a safe place. Meanwhile the skies turned gray, day was breaking. We hurried further away and ran to the nearby village of Babka!. But here a few peasants were already up and when they saw us they threatened us and warned us not to dare stay in their village. They were frightened to see Jews wandering through their village, and to scare us they said policemen were in the village. The very sound of the word 'police' was enough to send chills down our spines and stir hidden strength in us - we fled the village in no time. We started running for our lives. We crossed fences and gardens. Barking dogs hounded us and we ran not knowing where we were going until we reached a pine forest. We went deep into the forest and found a tree with a thick trunk.
We sat down to rest. Here, where we could speak undisturbed, Rifkale's tears started pouring and she began crying.
How can I live without you, dear mother and brother, how can I live without you? We all sat and cried for a long while. I was again seized by grim despair.
I did not see a way to salvation. I regretted not having taken some poison to
end my life so I would not have to face such a test.
The smell of the forest was strong and had a great effect on us.
We woke up from our sleep. And again I knew I had to keep on struggling with the dangers around us. I also had to fight myself, lest I succumb to the weakness that threatened to get the best of me. The pleasant autumn sun warmed us. We got up and continued to walk. We walked deeper and deeper into the forest. We wandered across swamps not knowing where we were going. I took a thick stick from one of the trees and this stick was my companion in the days to come. After much walking we reached the edge of the forest and saw fields and blue smoke rising in the distance. We understood we had reached a settlement. The fields were full of freshly cut, sweet smelling foliage. We tried approaching a house but were frightened by the fury of a pack of dogs that began barking and lunging at us. We saw a woman hushing the dogs and looking at us. We started walking towards her. When she recognized us she burst out crying and could not control herself. She hugged the children, kissed them and took us into her house. She started tending to the children. She washed them and gave them something to eat .She cut Rifkale's hair. It was dirty and full of lice. She comforted us and cheered us up lest we lose our will to live. She said that the Germans would end up by paying for all the blood they spilled but that we must be strong and live through these horrible times. Night was approaching. The owner of the house said it was best we not stay at his house. He suggested we sleep in the meadow in the fresh haystacks. He accompanied us and showed us the road to the adjacent village where he believed there were other Jews.
Animosity and mercy
We slept in the haystacks until we were woken by the sound of dogs barking and roosters crowing. We rose early and walked towards the village the peasant had indicated. We did not walk on the main roads. Rather, we took roundabout ways with no path, through many swamps, in order to avoid surprises. Many goyim were on the roads, capturing Jews and turning them over to the Germans for a fee.
Leeches clung to our bare feet and sucked the little blood we still had running in our veins. We suffered many hardships on this trip until we reached Sopachiv. Here I also met another friend of mine. The farmer was very excited to see me. I was always hospitable and polite to my customers. I was always ready to do everything in my power to help them. Now I reaped the fruits of this generosity. Moved to tears, they brought us into their home, dried our clothes, gave us bags of food and told us that in the puszcza131 of Sopachiv there are some Jews. The peasant himself walked us out and showed us the way to the place.
We were brought to a large meadow full of deep swamps. There was a thick grove at the end of the meadow. We had a hard time crossing the swamps. We sunk in them more than once and only barely managed to get out alive. But we couldn't make it to the grove and had to come back. We went into one of the gardens and sat in the thick vegetation. A young peasant appeared suddenly. When he saw us he started encouraging and comforting us.
We asked him to let us hide at his farm for a while. He led us to his house and his mother gave us hot potatoes and pickles. When we sat at the table many of the village youth gathered round. They stood and stared at us with curiosity.
This disturbed us. We didn't want to stay in the house and we asked the young peasant to let us stay in the shed. And again we dug ourselves into the hay. While we were lying in the hay and contemplating the reptiles, and listening anxiously to every sound, we heard footsteps approach the shed. The door opened and a few of the youth came in and started to yell:
Cursed Jews, get out immediately!
We pleaded with them in vain. They took us out and said they would turn us in to the authorities. With tears in our eyes we beseeched them to spare us, to take all our clothes and belongings but not our lives. And indeed, they undressed us and left us in our underwear. Then they let us go back into the shed. We lay there practically naked until morning. We went back into the house to warm up a bit. The peasant woman must have known what had happened, and did not question us. We left the house and went to the edge of the village. People we knew saw us and took pity on us. They gave us old clothes and a kind of shoe called laptshes. We roamed around the village for a few days until we ran into other Jews and joined their group.
A trench in the forest
Autumn was at its peak and heavy rain fell. It even started snowing. Frost covered the ground at night. Here we ran into the barber Joseph Zilberman who had run away from Rafalovka ghetto with his wife and children. This was his second survival. First he ran away from Poland and lived in Rafalovka as a refugee, and now he had escaped from the ghetto. He suggested we find a suitable place in the forest and build a bunker so we wouldn't be forced to seek shelter in peasants' yards. We remembered that Saniashka, the woodsman, lives nearby. He was known as an honest and enlightened man. His home was in the middle of the forest, away from the village. We reached his home. He welcomed us warmly. He went with us to the forest and brought us to a trail that lead to Sopachiv's hute. He advised us to go to that area and prepare the trench there. He gave us a lot of supplies for the road. We headed in that direction. We reached the Polish settlement [Sopachiv]. Here I found many friends, including the feldsher Ivan Karavawietz who was a gentleman. He told us that many Jews from Rafalovka were hiding in the forest and that people from the colony were helping them. He offered us to rest at his house for a while before we set out on our way. Once again we were sleeping in a cowshed. The place was remote. Bad roads that go through swamps lead to the area. This meant it was relatively out of reach of the German garrison. The next day Karavawietz led us to the forest. And indeed we found many Jews from Rafalovka there. We also saw Yaakov, the son of Zalman Dik from Vladimirets. They welcomed us with kindness and fed us the stock food of the forest, fire-baked potatoes. Another group of Jews arrived, Yaakov Weissman with his two children and his son in law Yaakov Susil, son of Isaac Susil from Vladimirets. They had managed to run away from the ghetto at the very last minute.
We located a suitable place to build the trench. We dug a hole one
meter deep and three meters wide. After we finished building our new 'oasis', Fanya Rosenfeld arrived and joined our group. She took charge of the 'household' and made sure it was clean as a devoted mother would. But it was not easy to get rid of the lice that crawled on our bodies and all around us.
The Poles would encourage and comfort and cheer us up. This was very helpful. But herdsmen came upon our tracks and we could not stay there. We started wandering in the forest. Fanya left us, took her things and went to the village of Mulchitsy. Good people greeted her there.
Heavy snow began falling and covering the roads and the forest trees. We reached a place in the thick of the forest where there were many wooden beams - readymade building blocks. There was also a well nearby. Weissman, who was an expert on forest matters, thought this was a good place to build a trench. The Polish colonists gave us work tools, saws, axes and shovels, and we started building. We worked for three weeks until we had dug a ditch three meters deep where we built a big stove like we saw in the other trenches. We successfully camouflaged the trench with earth and branches.
Fanya would take care of us and bring us food from time to time. She invited me to visit her at Mulchitsy where I had many friends. And, indeed, I took her up on her offer. But when I arrived in the village and sat in one of the houses, a young peasant woman came running in and announced that the police had come to the village. I was quickly moved to our traditional hiding place - the haystack. But the place was apparently not safe enough.
I suddenly heard a cart approaching and the landlord calling me to come out. I anxiously came out. The landlord and his son stood near the cowshed and told me to climb up on the cart and come with them. They intended to trick the policemen and get me out of the village. They covered me with the hay that filled the cart. I couldn't see a thing, I could just hear the rustle of the wheels. I traveled for a while until I felt the hay being removed and my eyes could again take in the world. I saw that we were in the middle of a thick forest I didn't recognize. The farmer's son told me: Stay here until nighttime and when the bastards leave the village I'll come fetch you. I'll whistle to signal that it's me. Find a place to sit down and make sure to keep well hidden.
I was alone in the forest. I was very worried about my children who were back in the big dugout. I sat alone like this for a long while. Day came to an end but darkness did not yet descend. The forest filled with nocturnal sounds. Suddenly I heard a whistle. Indeed, it was the whistle we had agreed upon. I spotted the young farmer standing nearby. I followed him and he took me back to Mulchitsy. Many people from Mulchitsy were Baptists who considered themselves religiously and spiritually close to the Jews. Their religion was based on reading the Bible [the Old Testament]. I was transported from the village across the Styr River on a boat so I could join my children in the forest. I reached the wide path after a long search and much wandering. I was terrified I would bump into policemen or just ordinary murderers. I lost my way again and again, walking aimlessly. I came upon a field of haystacks. I dug in and lay down. It started snowing and I was afraid I would catch cold and get sick. I had only light clothes. It was warmer in the hay but there was still not enough to protect my body from the cold.
I had galoshes on, but the soles were worn nearly bare. They were wrapped in thick cloth and tied with ropes. I lay in the hay, shivering, from fear or cold, I didn't know which.
This is how I spent the night. When morning dawned I saw that I was near the Polish colony. From here I knew my way to the forest and the dugouts. When I reached the forest I found my children very worried. After I told them what had happened to me they said they would not let me go alone again.
We had already heard about the partisans roaming the forests. They reached us as well and suggested that we organize into fighting units and get a hold of weapons in order to fight the German enemy. This raised our confidence because a fighter is quite different from a persecuted wretch. And indeed, such groups did organize here and there. One group, led by Yodel from Sopachiv, had 10 fighters with cold weapons such as axes, knives, and even one rifle, albeit quite outdated. One night they came to the village of Dolgovolya and knocked on the door of one of the notorious peasants. They aimed the rifle into the window but it jammed and didn't fire. People inside the farmhouse got scared when they saw the rifle, but so did the fighters, fearing their mishap would be discovered. They left the place in haste. During this awakening 6 of us Jews decided to go to the village of Varach near Rafalovka and to Rafalovka itself in order to get food and clothes. The peasants in the area where we were hiding were already impoverished by our frequent visits and we needed to scout out new terrain.
We reached the village, and even made it into Rafalovka, but the route was hazardous and dangerous and when I returned my children decided again not to let me go without them. I knew myself that going to Varach was a foolish decision, and that only a thread separated us from getting caught in the act.
In the village of Mulchitsy
On the morning of of December 31, 1942, echoes of machineguns and rifles suddenly filled the forest. Everybody left the pits and started running away. The echoes in the forest confused us and many didn't know where the shots were coming from because every shot set off an echo, sounding like a shot itself. Everyone took some food in their pockets, a few potatoes, and ran wherever his feet took him. After the shooting subsided two fellows went to the colony to see what had happened. They came back and said they saw at a distance many Germans and Ukrainians and even Cossacks who served the Germans leaving the colony. After awhile we heard that the goy from Dolgovolya was their guide. They surprised the Jews in one of the ditches and caught 6 of them. The prisoners were tied in ropes to carts and dragged all the way to Vladimirets where they were all killed.
In that manhunt the Germans penetrated the forest and burned all the built shelters but they did not pursue us into the deep forest because they were afraid of the partisans.
Again we couldn't stay here. We had to leave the place and that's how we got to Mulchitsy. Before entering the village we saw a peasant girl wrapped in a scarf coming towards us. When she got close we recognized her. It was our Fanya.
The people of Mulchitsy were Evangalists who decided that their holy cause was to help Jews. So they put us up in different houses and gave us supplies, as much as they could put their hands on. Fanya was a great help in this. She took my daughter Rifkale to stay with her. She put up other children in various places in the village.
Fanya found a common language with the people of the religious sect in Mulchitsy. Since she was educated and knew the Bible well, she acted now as a teacher and would read verses to the peasants, explaining different things to them. This status of teacher and guide blurred matters to the point that she even participated in different relgious rituals. They saw her as a kind of holy emissary and were very protective of her.
We didn't stay long at Mulchitsy and returned to the woods. The peasants now directed us to a dense forest in which there was a deserted shack where a few Jews from Mulchitsy were now living. We walked in the mud and snow for a long time until we reached the river, which we had to cross. On the other side we saw the shack, smoke rising from the chimney. Standing on the shore contemplating how to cross the river, we heard a voice calling from the opposite shore.
Jews, what are you waiting for? Roll your pants up and cross! My son David prevented me from getting wet. He put me on his shoulders and carried me across the water. Here were Yaakov Murik from Molchit and Yoel dar Mulchitsyer with his child. They gave us a warm welcome because the place was isolated and they hadn't seen anyone other than soldiers in Russian clothes known as partisans. The latter came from time to time to rest in the shack and tell about their actions against the Germans and the local collaborators. They said the Germans had been harsh with the Ukrainians in some areas, demanding they turn in the partisans. As a result villages were burned and their inhabitants murdered. Many of the peasants ran into the forests in fear and joined the partisans.
And indeed, from the moment the partisans showed up, the peasants treated us better and our situation improved greatly.
One day I went with my son David to the village of Mulchitsy to visit Rifkale. She had moved in with a farmer who had better conditions in his home. They needed her help to take care of a baby. Some work was also arranged for David on one of the farms, that of the peasant who had moved me during the night to the forest in a haywagon. I could count on the people of Mulchitsy to give my children decent refuge.
I would now visit Mulchitsy frequently. I was drawn not only by the need to eat but also by the desire to see my children. Once when I walked into one of the houses I was received warmly and was told that their daughter had fallen ill and they didn't know what to do for her. I decided to do something to help her. I had no medicines with me but I went out and began looking around in the various houses. I found a thermometer and various pills and cupping glasses. Equipped with all this I began tending to the sick girl, doing what I thought was the right thing to do. From now on I was just about practicing medicine. I would cure leprosy and any other plagues with primitive means. The peasants were satsified with the help I gave them and they compensated me in kind. The food in our sacks abunded.
Sometimes I would write a prescription and send it to Rafalovka with a messenger. I would do this mainly with the help of the woodsman who had business in the county. He would bring me many medicines. The partisans used him for reconnaissance and intelligence gathering. He also was our liaison with other Jews he would run into in different places.
Once when he came to Rafalovka to the Polish pharmacist, the latter asked him whether he had run into Yaakov Bas, the Jewish pharmacist from Rafalovka, because he had a letter from his wife and son who had come by on the day the ghetto was destroyed. He was ready to hand the letter to a trustworthy messenger who would deliver it to Yaakov Bas. The woodsman did not take the letter, wary that it might be found out that he had connections with Jews, but he promised to inquire and let him know the next time he came through town. In the meantime the situation changed. A swarm of nationalistic Ukrainians poured into the area and it became impossible to get to Rafalovka.
I later found out that my wife and son tried to run away from the ghetto on the day it was liquidated. They were caught and brought back. At that moment they went into the house of the Polish pharmacist Sankivitz and quickly wrote down these few lines. I found this letter by accident when I came back to Rafalovka after liberation. It was kept in one of the books in the Polish pharmacy.
To the Fighters
We heard that large goups of Ukrainians fighting against the Red partisans were in the forest and were hounding Jews, kidnapping and killing them. The situation deteriorated greatly and was unbearable. The Bolbobtzes. would come to the villages at night and look for Jews. We heard that their headquarters were in Rafalovka.
At the same time a group of young Jewish men organized and asked to join the partisans but they only accepted fighters with weapons. This group, led by Pesach Binder, decided to go to Rafalovka and break into the houses where goyim with weapons lived. They wanted to rob them and at the same time avenge the collaborators. These fellows got into some of the houses in Rafalovka and quietly, with the aid of cold weapons, managed to kill some of the persecutors of the Jews.
When they came back with a few weapons they had acquired in this daring operation, they were told that a large Russian force had penetrated the front lines and reached the village of Mulchitsy.
When we came to the village we found a lot of Russian solders. There was a considerable number of Jews among them and they had a lot of weapons and amnunition. They were warm to us but didn't let us join their ranks because they were afraid we would be a burden. We couldn't manage to get weapons and therefore slowly they became cool towards us.
You are taking advantage of our authority. You are roaming around the villages begging and doing nothing. You know only how to hide. Such things we heard from the Red partisans.
Not far from the village of Mulchitsy a partisan battalion was forming. The Russian commander who had been imprisoned by the Germans was now gathering Ukrainians and Jews, including Joseph Murik, Yodel Rodie, Leah Pinchuck, Leah Goldman, Sarah Dublin. I too, together with Weissman, tried to get into the battalion. When we walked in we talked to the Jews in the battalion. We also found many of the notorious creatures from Rafalovka who had been known as anti-Semites and thugs during the Soviet retreat. We were now supposed to fight with them? I couldn't accept this. We found out that the atmosphere in the unit was anti-Semitic. First they would call the Jews to join them, and when they arrived they would send them back to look for weapons.
We were able to get this information waiting in line. The commander arrived and told us to report to him. We didn't even manage to say what we wanted and he looked at us with scorn and said:
You are partisans? You are contemptible and not partisans. Why did you give all your gold to the Germans. Get out of here immediately. I don't want to see your faces. He shouted at us and his eyes filled with murderous rage.
We started to plead and explain our situation under the Germans but he immediately grabbed the automatic and pointed it at us.
Get out immediately. I don't want to see you around anymore!
We heard the bullets whiz over our heads as we left. We returned home, desperate, and didn't know what to do. Our situation got worse again and heavy clouds hung over the faint ray of hope that had shone down on us.
This is another event that happened on a winter day when we were sitting in a shack of generous peasants. Two partisans came and asked the peasants to bake them some bread. When they saw us they asked us who we were, and when we said we were Jews, one of them began to shout, Spies! He grabbed the gun, pointed it at us and told us to walk in front of him.
We started to plead and explain that we were the few who had survived the Germans and he shouted, It's a pity you survived, you despicable spies!
The owner of the house intervened and started to plead our case and while he was talking with them we sneaked out of the house to the nearby woods.
Biting cold days came and when we went to the village again we found closed homes. Nobody wanted to give us shelter.
We found a dilapidated storeroom of one of the peasants and spent the night there. Morning came and we suddenly saw a rider on horseback approaching the house with an automatic rifle. He went up to the storeroom, looked it over and sensed that people were there. He shouted for us to come out immediately or else he would shoot.
We came out of the storeroom and he ordered us to walk in front of him. While we were walking he looked us over and asked us who we were. We told him we were Jews. When he heard the answer he called out, excited:
If you are Jews, why are you hiding. Why didn't you say so immediately? We were relieved and began to pour out our troubles to him. He consoled us and said that big partisan brigades with hundreds of Jews were nearing the area. That was General Fyodorov. Our spirits were revived. However, new problems afflicted me.
When I came to visit my children, I found Rifkale was very ill. She had a high fever and her body was covered with red spots. I sat near her bed days and nights. She had typhus. I didn't let David come visit her lest he catch what she had. Fanya also worked to help as much as she could. She found a suitable apartment with one of the peasants. We moved her to that house with a cart harnessed to two oxen.
During Rifkale's sickness things generally became better. Russian partisans took over vast areas but it was still difficult for those without weapons to join their ranks. The commander ordered some of our boys to go out on a special mission to test them. They had to go to Rafalovka and set fire to the haystacks the Germans had prepared for military use. The boys willingly took on the mission although they knew the area, heavily guarded by the Germans, was dangerous. The fellows were Shmuel Appelboim, Zalman Shirman, Joseph Zilberstein and Zvi the baker. They set out with a few hand grenades and cold weapons. They moved at night until they neared Rafalovka. They first came to the woods where all the townspeople had been murdered, over 2000 people. They were moved even more to accomplish their mission after communing with the memory of these saints.
The fellows surreptitiously reached the place where they were to carry out their mission but the Germans opened fire at them and they had to retreat. They couldn't come back to the commander empty handed, so they decided to set fire to the big tar workshop where all kinds of materials were produced that were sent to Germany. They quietly approached the place, tied up the guard and set fire to the entire plant.
When they returned to headquarters, the commander shook their hands and wished them success in their next missions, and accepted them into the partisans. These fellows formed a special platoon headed by 18-year-old Isaac Perth.
One of the Jewish warriors who had been very active in the partisans for many years was the young Jew Yaakov-Bear Zaltsman from Vladimirets. Yaakov-Bar was born in Vladimiritz in 1920. His parents left the town after some time and settled in the village of Tikovitz, but during the Holocaust the family was transferred like other Jewish families to the ghetto in Vladimiritz.
Yaakov-Bear and his sister Rachel managed to sneak out of the ghetto a day before its liquidation. They reached their village of Tikovitz and found refuge with kind goyim. Yaakov-Bear knew this area very well and was very helpful to the Jews wandering the woods in confusion, the remnants of the towns of Vladimirets, Rafalovka, Dombrovitz and others. He would get them food and clothing.
In May 1943 Yaakov-Bear joined the partisan unit, Death to Fascists, and became very famous for his daring exploits in the struggle against our enemy. At the end of December 1943, Yaakov-Bear was killed during an operation near the village of Osnitsa
Partisans also tormented the Jews
Rifkale got over her illness and I got sick. Large boils covered my body and my temperature was high. I lay in the house of the peasant where Rifkale was being cared for. The peasant woman would open my boils with a needle and put cabbage leaves on them to heal them. They took care of me with devotion, although they were poor themselves. My illness prevented us from accomplishing my plan to join one of the partisan battalions where Jews were treated well.
One Saturday Weissman and I sat in the house of a peasant. We were sitting around a good meal that included some homemade alcohol. Germans suddenly arrived in the village and we were almost caught. After this we swore to stop wandering and begging from the peasants and to make an effort to finally join the partisans. But this was not easy now either. The conditions for Jews entering the partisans changed constantly.
We were told they found a woman's body floating in the Styr River. When Fanya came to see the body we found out it was Feigle Goldman. The partisans had killed her and thrown her into the river. Fanya brought her to be buried near the village of Vishniak. Many of the Jewish fighters in the partisans met a similar fate. Many ran away from the movement and sought refuge with the peasants. Leah Pinchuck and Sarah Dublin ran away and got to us, telling shocking stories about the virulent anti-Semitism among the Red partisans. We transferred them to the partisan group near the hute of Sopachiv where there were any people from Rafalovka and that's where they stayed.
One day, I myself received an invitation to come to the partisan group near the hute. I found Leah Pinchuk still shaken by what had happened to her in the previous brigade. I gave her medical aid and raised her spirits.
The commanders at headquarters impressed me. The commander spoke warmly and said I would be allowed to give medical assistance there. He heard about me from the feldscher Ivan Karabawitz. I could bring my children here as well.
I returned to the village in high spirits and informed my children about this development. But the peasants who housed my children had other plans. They wanted the children to stay with them so they could become members of their sect. It was a delicate situation but I told them that it was an order coming from the partisan headquarters and could not be disobeyed.
Having no other choice they agreed and bade us a warm farewell. I tried to convince Fanya to join us. She congratulated us on our new path but saw no way she could join the partisans and remained in the village. She promised to stay in as close contact as possible with us.
We reached the partisans and I took on the medical work. Rifkale helped me. I would leave from time to time to go to the villages to get medicines. My son was assigned to take care of the commander's horses but this greatly depressed him and he asked to be a fighter and not a groom.
He was 15 years old when one day, while I was not around, he reported to the headquarters and declared he was 2 years older. When I came back from my journey I found him armed like the other fighters. This surprised me and he explained that he reported an older age to headquarters. I couldn't do it any other way, dad. I couldn't hang around doing nothing and taking care of horses when I could be doing some real fighting. I came to terms with this fait accompli. Our group was comprised of over 100 people including the Jewish group led by commander Isaac Perth. This group was ordered to sabotage a portion of the railroad between Manevichi and Chartrisk [probably Chartoriysk R.Z.]. They had to sabotage the German trains and destroy them. This group did wonders and racked up many destroyed trains. The Germans suffered heavy losses on the fronts in those days and rays of hope began to glimmer on our horizon. Roles were reversed. Now it was the Ukrainian gangs turn to hide in the forests, and this greatly endangered the few remaining survivors still wandering there. These gangs attacked peasants, burned and slaughtered them, killing some 150 Poles from among the colonists. I had friendly relations with the headquarter staff of our brigade. They would invite me to eat with them and we often had long discussions about everything we had gone through. I told them what I knew about the partisan brigade commander Patke, about how they killed and tormented Jews. This astonished them and they decided to investigate the matter and bring the guilty to trial. And indeed, our commander Kantsa got involved and the guilty men were found and given the severest punishment. One day we were informed that a crowd of armed Ukrainians led by cross-carrying priests were demonstrating. The principal organizer was the son of the priest Shiprekevitz. The demonstrators were holding banners saying Death to partisans, Poles and Jews.
When our commander heard about this procession approaching the Polish colony, he took all measures to stop them but they managed to get to the hute under cover of darkness and set it on fire and burn it.
We were forced to leave the area in a big convoy. It was a convoy of a few Jews, and many Poles with their wives, children and belongings fleeing the area out of fear of the Ukrainian gangs.
Jews who had run away from their hiding places in the villages joined us en route. We reached the area of the village of Oziritz! where there were large concentrations of partisans with many Jews.
One day commander Kansa ordered us to clean out the nest of murderers in Rafalovka. The town was encircled and we opened deadly fire on it at the signal of a rocket. A group of Jews entered Homoniuk's house to look for the heads of the gangs, and indeed, in the cellar we found old Homoniuk and Nestrov who assisted in the killing of the Jews from the ghetto. We went through the town and searched. In my house we found a large storeroom of food but were forbidden to touch it for fear it was poisoned. The commander asked me if I objected to having my house burned. I said I had already sworn a long time ago never to walk this ground again. I watched my house being consumed by flames and turned into a pile of ashes and embers.
When victory came
Our troubles and story did not end with this operation. We walked through fire and blood, wounded and dead. We saw many acts of vengeance and remembered our great destruction that can never be avenged. Fatally wounded, the Nazi beast wanted to hurt us, only us, in its final death throes. It wouldn't take much more for our surviving remnants to fall prey to the blood lust of this beast. We went through many trials before we reached the pushtchot [virgin forests] of Polesie. We waged an almost lost battle with a typhus epidemic in this forest. It killed many among us and I, as a medical caregiver, faced this enemy, every day, every hour. But we were already within earshot of the Soviet announcer on Radio Moscow and we heard the happy news about the great victories.
The Germans fortified themselves well, fearing the partisans would attack them. Vladimirets of those days was turned into a huge fortress. Bunkers and trenches were fortified by wooden beams out of fear of the partisans, since the German garrison was in these bunkers. Immense barriers were erected across all roads leading to the town, but we were still able to attack them in Vladimiritz, surprise them and wreak destruction in their camp. In this operation we caught the Gestapo chief hiding in one of the cowsheds.
We received a message that we must leave the forests because victory day is nearing. We brought the sick to one of the airfields and they were transferred to Russia. Death still stalked us at every step but we had already been told that the Red Army was approaching. We now walked the free and main roads and the Ukrainain and German gangs were hiding in the forests. The tables were turned.
We met the Russian Army for the first time in the village of Mulchitsy where we had had many difficulties. The Red Army welcomed us with a good meal and many glasses of spirits. But this was only external happiness. Now, with victory, the daily threat to our lives ceased, and we began to feel how defeated we were and how terrible were our losses.
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