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Poland was completely unprepared for this horrible war. Its military structure fell apart in the first few days. Transportation was paralyzed and its productive administrative life ceased. The deterioration was plainly visible. After only a few days, refugees from the West arrived. Among them was a complete office staff from the ministry in Warsaw. Our town was on the fringe and no one thought yet about the Red Army's approach from the east.
Poland was always afraid of its eastern neighbor and prepared lines of fortification. Part of it was an underground defense along the eastern border. It was well equipped with up-to-date innovations. The fences were electrified along several hundred kilometers and a large area could be flooded in an emergency.
This defense line was never used. It was rumored that when the German attacks began, the chief engineer ran away. He took all the plans and keys with him. Later, the Russians destroyed all the underground fortifications. They took, beforehand, all the food, clothing and other equipment intended for hundreds of thousands of soldiers for many years.
On the second day of the war, two trains, filled with reservists, went westward. Among them were several of our Jews who never returned to their families. Their fate was the fate of tens of thousands of Jews who fell on the front, were taken prisoners or were killed in concentration camps.
The danger of a long war was seen in the frantic preparations of food for a long time. After a few days, the stores were emptied. The train movement was unreliable and additional food supplies no longer arrived.
The movement of the Red Army westward and its intention to penetrate Eastern Poland was only whispered about in secret. There was no reliable source for news. On 17 September 1939, several police and army officers left town. They were joined by tens of Polish families who were quite involved in public life. It was clear that changes were coming. Soon the news came that the Soviet army crossed the border and invaded Poland. A civilian police force was immediately organized. Since the Poles were depressed because of the quick defeat, most of its members were Jews. At 11:00 A.M., the first Soviet tanks entered town. The reception was enthusiastic. We received them with red flags and they greeted us with songs and blessings.
In the first days, many trucks filled with soldiers passed through town. The soldiers stopped on the streets, gave speeches, sang and talked to everyone around them. They promised we would lack nothing.
Several young men had been imprisoned by the Polish authorities for their Communist activities. They suddenly rose to big positions. There were also Communist sympathizers or Bund members. They organized the municipal life and became Commissars. Their activities were not helpful to the Jewish population in town. Most of it consisted of storeowners and members of the middle class.
These businessmen were fearful. They were afraid that they would be the first to be sacrificed to the new regime. Soon, an order was given to open the stores and to sell, freely, all the products in them. The stores reopened and soon the soldiers of the Red Army swarmed them and bought everything available. Soon, the supply ran out and the stores were shut again.
Work was done feverishly to repair the railroad tracks. They had been separated from Russia for many years. After 10 days heavy Russian locomotives began to arrive with convoys of freight cars, full of soldiers and war equipment.
The Russians were sympathetic to the population. They took part in our sorrow since we had been slaves to capitalism for a long time. They promised that from now on we would live beautiful productive lives, happy and creative. Soon the Soviet regime was well established. Rokitno officially became the district capital. All the district offices of the present commissariats were quickly established. Many administrators arrived. They needed houses and we were cramped for space.
The Soviet civil servants attracted all the activist residents and they were assisted by suspicious looking and unwanted elements. Even in the first days, several Polish social activists and some Jews were arrested and exiled. The first Jews to be arrested were the pharmacist Noah Soltzman and the teacher Mordechai Gendelman. They stayed in prison in Sarny for several months and were released after undergoing special treatment. The prisoners returned to town mute and it was impossible to get a word out of them.
Mr. Gendelman, the teacher, was active for many years for JNF and he was a distinguished Bible teacher at the Tarbut school. He turned completely and suddenly became a sworn Communist. He announced publicly in school that he felt contempt towards all Jewish cultural values. He had previously taught these values to his pupils. He said they were only reactionary values.
The children had been educated to love Zionist and cultural values and the history of the Jewish people. Their world collapsed when they heard that their beloved teacher was trampling any Jewish sparks. They received his words with aching hearts and could not accept this change to the end. Tarbut school became a government school and Yiddish was taught instead of Hebrew.
Public life was organized. The Jewish population adapted to the new regime.
The workers organized cooperatives hoping that their economic situation would
improve. Many were disappointed after a short period of cooperative effort.
The shopkeepers began to seek jobs. Some found positions in cooperative
groceries and others as office clerks. The different plants in town and around
it were nationalized. The owners and the managers left because they feared
exile to Siberia.
All the residents were issued identity papers. Those who had been well to-do in the past had notes in their documents signifying that they were second-class citizens. They expected to be sent to distant Russia any day.
All connections between our town Jews and their relatives in other countries, including Eretz Israel, were broken. They were afraid that they would be accused of Zionist or espionage activities. This fear robbed most people of energy and initiative. They isolated themselves, spoke little and suspected everyone.
The Soviets were quite successful in one field -- education. They built a wide educational system. They even founded high schools in the large villages. Next to the veteran teachers, they placed young teachers. They were high school graduates and had taken special training. Teachers were given good working conditions. The schools were well equipped with books and maps and even laboratories.
I served as principal of the Ukrainian high school. My main function was to gather all the school children and all the young people in a special evening course. In addition, I had to teach the population the principles of the Soviet constitution, to call frequent meetings and to do propaganda for Communism. It was a great responsibility.
We did not encounter any limits when it came to keeping religious values. The two synagogues were not closed. Services continued without any interruption.
However, the number of worshippers decreased. First, most of the Jews worked on Shabbat and could not come to pray. Second, clerks and laborers who did not want any suspicion cast on them stopped attending.
There was no point in having a gathering of Jews only since there were no
longer any parties, debates on Zionism or Hebrew culture as before. The Jews
deteriorated from the point of view of their national character. Still, there
was no ban on baking matzos, on public worshipping or on performing religious
The hardened, dictatorial regime believed in the motto: He who is not with us, is against us! The entire population was afraid. This was a population who had known freedom of movement, freedom of speech and freedom of activity. The youth no longer had hopes of fulfilling the promise of aliyah. A few individuals managed, secretly, to leave town for Vilna. There, members of Hashomer Hatzair and Hechalutz were actively smuggling young people to Eretz Israel. The rest pretended to break off any connections to the past and to join the new regime. In their hearts, the yearning and hope never disappeared. This was really the beginning of the destruction of the Rokitno Jewish community.
In spite of the severe prohibition, we received news of events in Eretz Israel. In the evenings, we listened to the radio for world news. The Russian broadcasts contained only propaganda. There were few newspapers -- Pravda and Izvestia only. Trips out of town were forbidden without a specific permit. There were no mass meetings. Everyone was too busy. Besides daily work, there were study days filled with propaganda speeches and meetings. It was not a good idea to be absent from these study days.
During the Soviet occupation, there were also purges. Many refugees, who had escaped from Germany, were transferred to work in the coal mines (donbas). Among them were some of the administrators of the town. A few returned six months later. However, the war between Russia and Germany broke out and they moved East with the army.
We must pack some belongings, escape deep into Russia and save ourselves, said a Polish refugee in 1939.
Another Jew said: It is not as terrible as he describes it. He, too, is a refugee. There are still many Jews in Poland and they are all alive. I just received a letter from my wife and children and they are alive. Many Jews were killed in our village, but they cannot kill everyone. The first wave will pass and the others will remain alive. I am not going to Russia to die of hunger or in forced labor in Siberia.
These arguments were heard everywhere. Only an hour earlier, a train full of refugees passed through. They looked tired and filthy. They asked for bread, water and cigarettes. Our heartache grew daily. A horde of refugees came through. They were on freight trains, wagons, bicycles and even on foot. They carried some belongings. They did not stop. They only asked for a piece of bread and water and continued on their way.
It was difficult for me leave my family alone. My father was sick and could not travel. My mother, too, was ailing. On the evening of July 4, 1941, I packed two backpacks - one for me and one for my sister. The next day, early in the morning, we planned to go to the train station in the hopes of getting on a train going east. Mother and father wept with us. My father, in spite of the great sorrow he felt, encouraged me to save myself. They would remain under the watch of G-d.
Suddenly, my sister freed herself from my sobbing mother and said: I am not going. I cannot leave my sick parents. You can go in peace with our blessings, but I am staying.
I was helpless. Finally I overcame my fears, wiped my tears, put on my
backpack, quietly took a final look at the rooms, the darkened walls, kissed
the mezuzah and I left. My sister, broken-hearted, accompanied me part of the
way. At 5:00 A.M. I sat on a stone in the station and I waited. There were
other Jews alone or with families.
By 4:00 P.M. we still had not succeeded in boarding a train. All the trains were full of soldiers and equipment. The soldiers aimed their rifles at anyone who approached the train. In the meantime, the platform was filled with refugees, soldiers and government employees.
I became despondent from all the waiting. I wanted to return home and to try again at night. Suddenly, we heard a siren. Everyone ran away from the platform and hid in various places. A few seconds later, a loud sound was heard: a bomb had detonated near the station building. It destroyed all the buildings nearby. The street near the station was in ruins and 14 bodies were found there. These were those who had tried to hide behind the stonewall. No one could identify the dead. These were refugees who died in our town.
Finally, I managed to board a train and I sat quietly. An Uzbek officer appeared and insisted we disembark. Our pleas were to no avail. He aimed his rifle at us and threatened to shoot anyone who did not get off. We waited again.
I then decided to go back home to my family and to be with them through the terrifying times. I would die with them if it were so ordained.
They passed through the streets noiselessly and without looting. Some called from the trucks Wait for us. We will return soon. This is only a strategic withdrawal. We will return in the name of Communism and Stalin.
The quiet remained for a short time. All the Jews locked themselves in their houses sadly and fearfully. A few hours later, the street filled with Poles and peasants from nearby villages. They broke into storage places and government stores and looted. We saw them through the slits in the shutters. They were sweaty, dragging sacks, furniture and dishes. There was great disorder.
Towards evening, several young people came to my brother's house to discuss the situation and the future. We decided to contact some Poles and to organize ourselves. A guard roster would stop the looting and restore peace. A group of 20 young Poles, hooligans and anti-Semites, was formed. They promised to keep order.
We did not trust them and we agreed that men would go out in the evenings to do guard duty. We went in groups holding sticks. The young Poles tried to talk us into going to sleep and leaving them in charge. We did not believe them and we continued our guarding. At midnight, when most of the older men had gone home, we heard shouting: Help me! The shouting came from far away, from the new town.
Do not hesitate. Let's go immediately," yelled Avraham Golod. He led the group. We hurried towards the train tracks and the new town. He ran ahead and we followed. Suddenly, a group of young Poles burst out of one of the houses near the train station. They were shouting, Attack the Jew! They threw stones at us in the darkness. We bent down to search for stones, to retaliate. We suddenly heard shouting and we ran ahead.
The attackers disappeared in the darkness of night. Unfortunately, we saw a victim lying on the road. We approached to identify him. It was Avraham Golod, lying lifeless with blood streaming down his face. He was hit with three stones -- two in the head and one in the nose. We carried him back to his house, washed off the blood and called for the doctor. He did not regain consciousness. The doctor thought that he had a brain hemorrhage caused by the stone that hit his nose. He died early the next morning. The whole town attended the funeral. Some people said he was fortunate to have so many people honor his death and accompany him. Who will do it for us?
This is the story of Avraham Golod. He was the symbol of daring and courage. He was a man of action -- the first martyr in our town.
We waited anxiously for what was to come. The news from the front was bad. The Polish army was retreating constantly. One need not be a prophet to predict the coming battles. A Polish army unit, organized in Rokitno, went to the front. It was stuck near Sarny and some of its members returned. The Jews tried not to think about the future. They occupied themselves with looking after their fellow Jews, refugees from western and central Poland. Among them were refugees from Czechoslovakia and Vienna. We became very close.
The 17th of September 1939 arrived. We awoke to the growing noise of airplane engines. Everything we expected was happening. We dressed quickly, grabbed the baggage we had prepared and we began to run towards the forest. We had not gone very far when the mayor, Bratzky, stopped us and told us that the Red Army had entered Poland. He calmed us, telling us that these were Soviet airplanes. He asked us to keep order and quiet. He was ready to hand over the town without any bloodshed.
We returned and sat on the balcony, in spite of the warnings of our parents. They feared riots during the changeover of regimes. In truth, there was much movement on the streets. The Polish chauvinists from O.Z.N. Party, among them many laborers from the glass factory, ran to the barracks to obtain arms. Families of Polish officers hurried towards the train station hoping to escape westward, away from the Red Army. This was their despised enemy and they feared them more than they feared the Germans.
The last train left the station. The remnants of the Polish army went to Strashov where they hoped to stop the Red Army. It was tense and quiet in town.
Towards noon, rumors spread that, on the school road, the first tanks appeared. Curiosity overcame fear. We ran to the first Soviet soldiers who were at the town entrance. There we found a crowd of curious onlookers. They stared at the new army and tried to find out something. The soldiers behaved cordially. They distributed cigarettes and candies and tried to endear themselves to the population. They lifted the small children on the trucks and tanks and drove them to town, to city hall. The mayor and his clerks stood waiting for the Soviet commander to hand over the town. The Soviet authorities appreciated the help of the mayor in preventing riots. They kept him as a clerk on the municipal committee.
An endless stream of tanks and cars began to go through. They passed through Rokitno on the way west. We were not accustomed to such sights. The Polish army that had camped in town did not possess any vehicles. Every soldier and officer of the Red Army who stopped in town was surrounded by a crowd of questioners. Our Jewish brothers asked many questions about prices of provisions, clothes, shoes; work and study opportunities; explanations of various terms unknown in Poland. Every fighter in the Red Army saw himself as a propagandist and always had answers prepared in advance.
The Soviet soldiers laughed, told jokes and made propaganda speeches about communal settlements, Dnieprostroy, Stachanov's system, Moscow subway, factories and happy people who lived under the sun of the people.
The soldiers were thrilled to see awe and wonder on the faces of the listeners.
An order to reopen the stores came and a buying spree followed. Even the soldiers and commanders of the Red Army were involved in buying.
We were especially excited to hear the beautiful songs sung during parades.
Brother Vintovka," Yesli Zavotra Vaina - we did not actually understand the words. However, the music was enthralling. The soldiers were also capable dancers. They played harmonicas or balalaikas and danced.
Within a few days the whole eastern part of Poland -- or the western part of the Ukraine (so called by the Soviets) was conquered. The government began to establish itself. Veteran Communists, among them Jews from Rokitno who had been in Polish prisons for many years, were appointed to important municipal positions. The fancy clubhouse of the Polish officers was now available for the youth of Rokitno as a place to have fun.
They were drawn to it mainly out of curiosity. They were mostly Jewish youngsters. Some non-Jews came, but they did not really fit in and felt uncomfortable. The libraries from the town and from nearby villages were centered there. Among them was the rich Tarbut library. Books could not be circulated until censoring was completed. There was no hurry to do it. We found out later that many books were used as heating fuel in the homes of the soldiers.
The Zionist parties and the youth movements self-destructed. Here and there, secret meetings still took place. There were some young people who endangered their lives and tried to reach Vilna on their way to Eretz Israel. A few succeeded while others were caught and sent to concentration camps in the far North.
A local militia was formed to replace the Polish police. There were many Jews in it. In general, the Jews were prominent in all new government institutions. When the High Holidays came, the synagogues were full (among them the synagogue in the Tarbut school). Everyone prayed as always. The Jews prayed devoutly and thanked G-d for saving them in an unexpected way. Still, the tension was felt. The Jews knew that more was to come.
On the first day of Succoth, early in the morning, a soldier came to our house and asked my father to present himself to the military commander in town. Several hours later, when my father had not returned, we went to investigate what was happening. We saw four of our citizens: Shimon Klorfein, Mordechai Gendelman the teacher, Noah Soltzman and my father sitting on a truck. They were surrounded by armed soldiers. Another truck packed with soldiers, their guns cocked, followed them. It was a shocking sight.
We found out that after an inquest they were taken to Sarny. There they were held and interrogated for a month. A former P.K.P. man, a refugee thrown out of Eretz Israel, had accused them of Zionist and anti-Soviet activities. He decided to take revenge on the Zionists and found a convenient location when the Soviets entered Rokitno.
After the arrests and anticipating searches, we decided to get rid of any suspicious materials. We mainly threw out Hebrew books and newspapers.
Our furnace burned day and night. Black ashes covered the area. The search did not happen. After a month of investigations and interrogations, the detainees were released. It is important to emphasize the honesty of the Communists from Rokitno. When questioned by the investigators from the NKVD, they said that the detainees together with other residents had helped them and their families during the Polish regime. They provided them with lawyers and other assistance.
The first to be released was Mordechai Gendelman. It was at great personal cost and most humiliating. He was forced to sign a document promising to publicly announce that his work up to now was meant to delude innocent people and to show them the wrong way. The three others signed a promise to stop all Zionist activities and to be loyal to the Soviet regime.
These arrests and the first public trial of a Jew- a restaurant owner accused of speculation-- showed us the other side of the coin.
Autumn ended. The difficult winter of 1939 began to show its signs. Rokitno was designated by the Soviets as the district capital. All the institutions attached to this role were set up. Their titles were composed of initials and abbreviations. The Jews began to be accustomed, more or less, to the new reality. Schools were opened. Tarbut school became a Yiddish school. Transportation to other towns improved. The line-ups at the cooperative stores grew. In short, the Soviet regime became a fact.
The change was felt as soon as the Soviets came to town. The authorities began to swallow our merchandise. Our situation was very bad and we were subject to Paragraph 11. It meant exile to distant Russia. However, thanks to Jewish soldiers in the Soviet army who helped us, we were able to escape without being noticed. Somehow we reached Rokitno.
We immediately noticed the big changes in town. There was a pall of mourning everywhere. The streets where Jews used to thrive were now silent. The stores, almost the only source of income for the Jews, were bolted shut. Commerce was no longer permitted. The Jewish tradesmen, who used to hum Jewish melodies at work, were silent. They joined the artels, i.e., cooperatives. The atmosphere was now different.
The Hebrew language was banned and the children were educated in a foreign language. Jewish children had been educated with the cultural values of our people, the Bible, the commentaries and the greats of modern Hebrew literature. It was difficult for them to become accustomed to the foreign atmosphere. Their souls were injured and they were very confused. The spiritual life of the Jews had nearly stopped. Public life was silenced. Public gatherings, especially in synagogues, decreased. They were not officially prohibited. However, instinctively, the Jews felt it was better not to appear in public and to stay home on Shabbat for now. Devout Jews continued to pray in secret, although the authorities could not legally touch matters of faith.
Trains crammed with refugees passed daily. They were Poles from areas conquered by Germany. They were not able to stay since the Soviets exiled them to distant Russia. The Jews, especially the wealthier ones, were depressed and worried. The constant fear gnawed at them. However, there is no calamity that human beings cannot overcome. Somehow, they become used to their new life. Almost all of them found jobs and were productive.
They tried to uphold their Jewishness. They mourned the loss of the Jewish life. However, they did not imagine that this was the end, that in a short time, they would perish. On June 22, 1941, Hitler canceled the non-aggression pact and declared war on Russia. On July 5, the train station in Rokitno was bombed and the German army was approaching. Again we continued our wandering and went to Russia.
My brother Michael came to take leave from me at the soldier's club near the glass factory. He hugged me and with tears in his eyes said: May G-d help you. What can man do at this difficult time? Who knows what happened to my son, Betzalel. He has been in the Soviet army for the past year and we have not heard from him. He embraced me again and walked away sobbing.
An hour later, we heard a siren. German airplanes appeared and bombed the train station. Soldiers were standing there in long lines. Many died and many were injured. The bombing went on for about 25 minutes. It caused death and destruction.
A terrible panic erupted. The Soviet government clerks packed their belongings and fled. Some Jews followed them. Unfortunately, many refused to run away since they thought their life would be better under the Germans than under the Soviets. I remember one event that proved to me the seriousness of the situation. I was standing near the house of the tailor Yosef-Haim Baum. There I met a refugee from Rozishetz. He told us to run away immediately. The Germans spent only fifteen minutes in Rozishetz and managed to kill many Jews. The Jews heard the warning, but they did not understand its depth. They comforted themselves by saying: This terrible event will not reach us.
At 2:00 P.M., all those drafted, Jews and non- Jews, were ready to go to the train station to join the Soviet soldiers going to the front. Suddenly, the Jewish officer appeared in the club and told us that he was ordered to release us. He told us to return the guns and go home. The Ukrainians were thrilled to hear the news. We, the Jews, understood only too well the meaning of this release. We asked the officer to try to let us go to the front. It would be better than to stay under the terror of the Germans. He informed us that he could not change the orders, but that we could take our families to Russia. The Soviet government was allowing the Jews to join the soldiers' train. We had to hurry and leave before it was too late.
I returned to Snovidovich, my birthplace, to see my family. I invited my brother, Haim, to hear this news. He wished to leave, but his wife Sonia refused. She claimed that she could not leave her home to become a refugee. Her neighbors were not leaving. They had good reasons to do so.
As we were speaking, the manager of the government bank in Rokitno came and spoke to my niece, Rivochka (Rivka). She was a bookkeeper at the bank. He invited her to join his family who was leaving for Russia. She would save herself by going. She did not listen to him since her mother refused to leave.
I begged my sister-in-law to reconsider and I returned to Rokitno. I waited two days for them, but I had no reply. Two days later, the German army entered deep into Russia. The roads were closed and there was no way out. My brother's reply came too late and we remained under the Germans.
It was difficult to organize any activities, even in secret. We did everything to preserve cultural values and spirit. The Soviets housed the Hashomer Hatzair and Tarbut school libraries in a warehouse. At night, we put our lives in danger to save some books. Unfortunately, we could only save a small portion. These books were our only cultural nourishment since there were no other libraries in town. We were used to reading Hebrew literature and we could not be without it.
I hid the unit flag and several socialist books in our yard. These books did not follow the Soviet worldview. The books remained in a deep pit and eventually disappeared.
We were certain that we would not be physically harmed under the Soviets. However, we knew this regime would force a total separation from Eretz Israel and our hopes of reaching its shores. This realization spurred the pioneering youth. They searched for ways to reach Eretz Israel. We heard that there was a large pioneering youth center in Vilna (it was still free at this time). The center concentrated on finding routes to Eretz Israel.
We followed the example of this center. Several Hashomer Hatzair members- Shoshana and Shmaryahu Korobochka, Sonia and Misha Berezovsky, Beibe Kutz, the Eizenstein brothers and I- succeeded in reaching Vilna. There were about 1000 Hashomer Hatzair members there.
Our departure was kept secret. No one wanted the authorities or the general public to find out anything. There were some denouncers who were ready to stop us. I told my parents of my plans. They were happy that I was on my way to Eretz Israel. However, they also feared that I would not be able to overcome the difficulties entailed in this daring deed. They also feared that if the authorities found out the reason for my departure, they themselves would suffer the consequences. Still, they showed great courage and wisdom because they were certain that this was the only way. They gave me their blessings and hoped that I would soon see my brother and sister in Eretz Israel.
We boarded the Lida train in the middle of the night. Its first stop was Sarny. This was during Hanukah and school was on vacation. Our departure did not make anyone suspicious. I met one of my school teachers in Sarny. He urged me to return home.
When we reached Lida, we found an underground office dealing in transportation of people to Vilna. We were separated into small groups with a guide to help us cross the border. It was extremely cold and the snow was knee-deep. We arrived in Ishishock, a village in Lithuania. We crossed the border on New Year's Eve 1940. From Ishishock we went to Vilna. There was a large camp of Hashomer Hatzair on Tartaky Street. We managed to find a place to sleep and to rest up from our difficult voyage. Conditions in the camp were very harsh. We spent a full winter working hard in the daytime and studying at night. In the meantime, the Soviets conquered Vilna. They announced that those who had travel certificates would be permitted to go. I obtained a certificate through youth aliyah and I reached Eretz Israel in March 1941.
They were very angry with my brother, Shlomo. They suspected him of collaborating with the Poles. He was sentenced to 8 years in prison and he was taken to Stolin. From there, he was exiled to Siberia. Eight months after he was sent to prison in the distant North, his wife and 3 children were exiled to Kazakhstan. His children were Hannah, Taibele and Shmulik. Shlomo did not know that his family was exiled. Two months before the Germans came, he wrote a letter to his wife. He was certain that she was still in Tupik. He asked for tobacco and sugar in his letter. We sent him her address and they continued to correspond.
When the war between the Soviets and the Germans broke out, the Soviets released Polish citizens. Among them was my brother. He immediately went to search for his wife and children. He traveled for three months and he finally reached a place 50 kilometers from Kazakhstan.
Shlomo did not know that his wife was there. The Soviets brought her there to work in a maternity hospital. As he was walking near the shacks in the refugee camp, he heard a child sobbing. The child told his mother in Ukrainian, My father will come soon. I will tell him you spanked me. He thought he recognized the voice, but continued on his way.
At the crossroads stood the school. He recognized his daughter Taibele playing in the yard. His heart almost stopped. He quickly recovered and with a voice full of happiness and sobbing, called out, Taibele, Taibele, my daughter! The girl approached him, but she did not recognize him. His beard was fully-grown and he looked different. The girl was in shock. She asked, What do you want, stranger? His voice choked as he replied, Taibele, I am your father! The girl laughed and said, I have many fathers like you in the village. Go away! She pushed him away. Taibele was only 3 years old when her father was exiled. Three years had passed and she did not know that the man standing in front of her, dressed in a uniform, was her father.
The strange encounter with the stranger caused her to think. With a beating heart she ran into class and told Hannah, her older sister, Hannah, a soldier called me Taibele and said he was my father! Go and see who is this man.
Hannah immediately recognized her father. Shlomo took his daughters in his arms and sobbed with happiness. He stayed there and worked in the communal settlement. His wife continued her work.
When I was in Rokitno in 1945, I received a letter from him from Zhitomir. He was in a hospital. When I came there to see him, a soldier said simply, Your brother died yesterday. I did not believe this terrible rumor and I went to the command center. The secretary told me my brother was alive and had been transferred elsewhere. In spite of my pleading, I was not allowed to see him and I returned to Rokitno.
Eight days later, I received a letter from him. He told me that he had recuperated and was returning to Rokitno. Time had ravaged Shlomo's body. I placed him in the hospital and when he felt better, we left Rokitno. We went to Germany where we parted company. I went to Italy on my way to Eretz Israel and he reached Graz. There he became ill again and was in the hospital. Before he died, at the last moments of his life, he told his wife, I am going and I will not return. You are alive. You suffered so much from the Gentiles. Do not go anywhere else. Go to Eretz Israel. Go to Eliahu. She did not fulfill his wishes. She moved to Canada where she quickly died.
The war had already lasted for over a week. Bad news kept coming. The Red Army- unbeaten and fighting on the enemy's land- was retreating. Everything we did not want to believe was actually happening. Rokitno was full of refugees and many of the residents were themselves preparing to become refugees. Many rumors circulated: the roads in Russia were full of bodies of dead soldiers; there was no food; the former border was closed; etc Many who had planned to escape decided to stay home, come what may. No one believed that this decision to stay could bring death. We expected to do forced labor, to be enclosed in ghettos, to suffer difficulties. We did not expect physical destruction. The general belief was that men and young people were in danger. Plans were made to leave temporarily because of the bombing, changes of regime and rioting.
One day there was a rumor that the NKVD in Rokitno was distributing permits to enter Soviet Russia. At dawn, there was a long line of interested parties. They were mainly Jews who waited anxiously for the piece of paper that would save them. Indeed, it was true. Permits were distributed and the Jews began to search for a method of transportation- horses and wagons. Train travel was only a dream.
The central committee of the Communist Party was successful in obtaining a train car for the members of the town's comsomol. On the day of departure, everyone felt that fate was not kind to Rokitno. This time, the horrors of war would not bypass us. On Friday afternoon, the city felt, for the first time, the brunt of the fascist bombings. A military train, standing in the station, was bombed. The results were frightening. The number of injured and dead was high. Many cars and the station itself became ruins. The streets were full of broken glass from the blown windows. The residents were deeply affected. Depression and fear of the bleak future filled our hearts. The noise abated and everyone was deep in thought. Those who planned to leave Rokitno and had postponed their departure decided now was the time to go. Preparations continued all night. Food for the travelers and the horses was packed. Suitcases and backpacks were filled. They contained all the essentials for the road. On Saturday morning, July 5, 1941 after an emotional parting, we went on the road towards the unknown.
Four young men joined us. In all, we were seven people on a packed wagon. Of course, this was not an actual trip. We were happy that the horses freed us from the burden of carrying our packages. The convoy of wagons stretched along the old town to the village of Rokitno. The looks of neighbors, friends and acquaintances followed us. We left town quietly, sadly, accompanied by secret jealousy mixed with pity. The quick glances expressed the emotions. No one thought of the terrible holocaust coming to our town. This was the fate of those who remained. We were certain that the German army would be stopped near the fortified border between Poland and Russia. We hoped we would find shelter in one of the nearby Ukrainian villages. We would wait there until the Red Army, we were sure, would regroup and defeat the Germans. We would then return home to our dear ones.
Thinking sad thoughts and trying to figure out our chances, we passed Ostoki and Snovidovich. We reached the old Polish-Russian border gate. The few soldiers who manned the gate could not control the crowd that wished to cross. Our documents were inspected and we were allowed to continue to Olevsk. How surprised we were to discover that most of its inhabitants had run away and abandoned their houses.
The picture was repeated in many other towns and villages. Only then did we understand the size of the tragedy. All the hopes we had nursed in our hearts in the last few days turned to disappointment. Our hearts were heavy. We thought of returning and taking all those left behind in Rokitno, to save them. However, the road was blocked. We could only move forward. Even this was difficult because there were retreating units of the Red Army on the road.
Olevsk was behind us. Towards evening, we reached a communal settlement to spend the night. We unharnessed and fed the horses. We also ate. The people from the settlement looked after us with great devotion. They brought us bread and milk and offered us straw pallets in one of the public buildings. We were very tired and, in spite of our worries, we fell into deep sleep.
The next few days passed like a kaleidoscope. We traveled hundreds of kilometers in the next week until we reached Nizhin, across the Dnepr. There, we finally boarded a freight train. Many times we found ourselves in difficult situations. Enemy planes hovered over us, threw bombs and shot at us. At times we had to disembark and lie cramped together for hours waiting for the bombing to end. We tried to use nighttime to move ahead. We had enough food with us. The local authorities and citizens helped us everywhere we went. We made 40-50 kilometers a day, sometimes even more. We were driven by our wish to live. We felt as if all of Russia was traveling with us. We met many people and heard many stories. The picture was very gloomy.
There was no purpose in continuing to Kiev. It was being bombed and was itself preparing for evacuation. Our aim was to cross the Dnepr as soon as possible and to continue by train because the horses were losing their strength.
We managed to cross the Dnepr at night in a convoy of thousands of wagons. We were unfortunate enough to be greeted on the other side by a German airplane that caused havoc. We reached Nizhin. It was a big station at the crossroads. Tens of trains and hundreds of cars were concentrated there. They were filled with soldiers, arms and military equipment. The soldiers were singing, commands were given, political speeches were heard calling for a battle for country and for Stalin.
We handed the horses to the firefighters and we settled ourselves in a freight car on a train going east. It was going away from the front, away from the German bombs and parachutists. It was also far away from home, from family, friends and from Jewish life in our town.
Our peaceful life was over, more or less. Our never-ending wanderings began. They continued for many years, until many of us made aliyah.
Mushka was a good housekeeper and looked after the education and well being of their two children. They received a Zionist education in the Tarbut school. It was an ordinary, simple family that led a quiet life.
In 1939, after the 17 th of September, the Soviet occupation was established in the Ukraine and western Byelorussia (previously belonging to Poland). The authorities announced the formation of two committees: one, in Lvov, the capital of western Ukraine, and the other in Baranovich, the capital of western Byelorussia. Their purpose was to approve, by the representatives of the people of the area, their annexation as republics of the Soviet Union. The representative of the Rokitno district to the Lvov committee, chosen by the Party, was Mushka Shuster. Great publicity was involved in her election. There were articles in the local newspaper about the biography of Mushka Shuster. She was described as a loyal daughter of the working people and the Ukrainian nation. She was deemed worthy of this great honor, to be a delegate to the committee and to represent the Ukrainian people. Her picture was displayed in store windows. She herself was not thrilled with the election. She was forced to represent the district. It was not done out of her free will. Why was Mushka chosen? Perhaps it was due to her simplicity or her innocence? It remains a mystery.
Mushka took part in the historic committee in Lvov. It was chaired by Marshal Timoshenko and included many important personalities from the central Communist Party and Ukrainian leaders. The 600 delegates voted to annex western Ukraine to the Soviet Union. Mushka was soon forgotten. She continued to live with her family in the small house in the yard of Yechiel Trossman. Their condition did not improve.
When the German Nazis occupied Rokitno in 1941, Mushka remained with her family. In the confusion of war, no one even tried to save Mushka, the representative of the Ukrainian people. She was executed by the Gestapo in Rovno when the Germans entered Rokitno. Yehoshua and their son were killed in the Rokitno holocaust. Their daughter was saved and now lives in the United States.
I knew him well since he used to come to my pharmacy to but first-aid products for his laborers. He was known as a radical nationalist and always made intense propaganda among those who knew him. Once, one of his laborers became intoxicated and began to riot at the outskirts of Rokitno. When the police came to arrest him, he struggled with the officers and told them, Why did you, the liachs (slur word against Poles), come to rule over our land? One day we will murder all of you. He was sentenced to three years in prison for this mutiny against the authorities.
Once, in the summer of 1938, I was sitting with Borovitz in the pharmacy and we spoke about politics. I asked him, Mr. Borovitz, where is it stated that Ukraine was ever, in history, an independent state? He replied with cunning, History is like a violin. He who knows how to play will play as he wishes and as he sees fit. The Soviets wanted to hold on to the wheat fields of Ukraine. They proved that Ukraine and Russia are one indivisible entity. Now the liachs are saying the same thing.
In June 1939, Germany attacked Poland to defend itself on the Ukrainian side. (It was well known by the Polish government that Bandera murdered Minister Piritzky. He then made a pact with the Germans and promised them the assistance of the Ukrainians.) The Polish authorities arrested the national Ukrainian leaders, Taras Borovitz among them. They exiled them to a concentration camp in Kortoz-Bereze. When the Soviets conquered Kortoz-Bereze, they released all the prisoners including Taras Borovitz. He returned to Rokitno and the Soviets appointed him manager of the quarry in Rokitno. He was considered an honored citizen and they did not harm him.
Taras Borovitz served in this position for two years. Eventually he realized that the hopes he had placed in the Soviets, that they would award independence to the Ukraine, were in vain.
According to the secret pact between Stalin and Hitler, the Ukrainian section of Poland, with its capital Lvov, would be annexed by Russia. The national Ukrainian leaders, who had been released by the Russians, began underground activities against their Soviet liberators.
The Ukrainian leaders in Volyn, led by Taras Borovitz, were convinced that with the German's defeat of the Russian army they would be able to have an independent state. Its capital would be Kiev. Even their cohorts, the Banderovtzis in Galicia, believed that Hitler would keep his promise.
When the Germans attacked Russia, there were riots in our area. We were close to the front and the Germans bombed Rokitno on the third day of the war.
In these dark days, Taras Borovitz held a meeting in the village of Borovey in the house of the priest, Alexander Simonovich. Those who attended were the priest's brother, Boris (he helped the Germans to murder the Jews of Olevsk), his wife (a teacher), medically trained Kramer from Karpilovka, a teacher from Korostin, Sharat from the village of Netreba, Afansiuk (veterinarian technician from Rokitno), and others. It was decided to elect a committee of Ukrainian nationalists headed by the Bulbovtzes.
The Soviet army was in disarray and the Bulbovtzes used the fact to take arms and to cross to the German side. The removal of arms was done with great craftiness. A huge funeral was organized. Arms and ammunition were put in caskets instead of bodies. This booty was buried in the cemetery.
When the Germans reached the Sluch River, 45 kilometers west of Rokitno, Taras Borovitz (calling himself Bulboy), gathered his laborers, deserters and hoodlums from Karpilovka, Borovey, Mocholnoka, Kisorich and other villages. He armed them and informed the residents of Rokitno that he would soon come with his army.
When the Soviets left Rokitno, a drunken shoemaker, boorish and illiterate, appeared in town. His name was Ratzlav. He organized a police force from among the laborers in the glass factory. Its task was to rob the Jews of Rokitno and vicinity. When Taras announced the date of his arrival in Rokitno, Ratzlav ordered all the residents, except for the Jews, to greet the liberating redeemer with flowers.
All the residents of Rokitno, Body, Messevich and the outlying farms in the area drowned the Bulbovtzes in a sea of flowers. They shouted, Slawa! (freedom) as they entered the park. There they gathered near the broken statue of Pilsudsky. The priest, Alexander Simonovich from Borovey, conducted a prayer service and thanked G-d for saving the residents from the cruel Soviet government. A local government was chosen (Rada). Dr. Anishtchuk was very active in it.
Taras Borovitz stayed in Rokitno with his group for two weeks. He drafted young people into his army. Except for a few robberies, the Bulbovtzes conducted themselves in Rokitno in an orderly manner. They did not murder anyone because Taras was very popular in Rokitno and he had many Jewish friends. Avraham Golod and I came to him and we asked him to look after the Jewish population. He promised us that nothing would happen in Rokitno. He kept his word.
When Taras Borovitz expanded his group, he went to Olevsk with fresh recruits. There he staged many pogroms and killed 10 Jews out of the 550 Jews who lived there. In Olevsk he established his command and published a newspaper in Ukrainian, edited by Bozhovsky the teacher and with the participation of Vasilenko, son-in-law of the priest from Rokitno. Boris Simonovich, the brother of the priest from Borovey, became head of Olevsk. Constant propaganda for an independent Ukraine began in earnest.
When the Germans entered Olevsk, Boris handed them a list of all the Jews in town. The Bulbovtzes helped to take out all the Jews to the village of Ivankovo (5 kilometers from Olevsk). They were all exterminated.
Soon the Germans no longer cared for Bulbovtzes. The Germans realized that the Bulbovtzes were only interested in an independent Ukraine and not in helping them. After allowing them to plunder the belongings of the slain Olevsk Jews, they disarmed them and sent them home. However, Taras Borovitz and some of his relatives managed to escape into the forest and from there to Karpilovka. There, he gathered some tens of robbers to help him achieve his goal.
Taras managed to organize an army group. His people wandered in the area forests and continued to function for an independent Ukraine. They killed and destroyed. Even when Rokitno was liberated by the Soviet army, the Bulbovtzes continued to riot and killed Motel Shapira from Zolovey and Yechiel Trossman.
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