by Shalom Sneidman
Translated by Eilat Levitan and Ona Kondrotas
Summer of 1941
When the war started I was serving in the Soviet army. Together with the rest of the soldiers in my brigade, I fell as a POW near the town of Orsha (Mogilev, Belarus). All the POWs were taken by the Germans to the camp. I was able to change my uniform to plainclothes and escape imprisonment, intending to somehow get to Smorgon, even if I would have to walk the entire way . In the first village I entered, I encountered a German solider.
Are you a Jew? he asked.Upon hearing this, the German intended to stop and return me to the camp I came from. All of a sudden, from afar, he saw another POW escapee, and so he started walking toward him to arrest him, too. I used this moment while he was busy with the other to escape. The first thing I did was to exchange my soldier boots for wooden clogs so that I might be mistaken for a villager. Thus I arrived in Minsk.
Are you a soldier?
So who are you?
I am a prisoner.
When I arrived, I saw a POW camp surrounded by barbed wire. When I looked at the inmates, I recognized some of them as people who had served in the same division as I. I went all around the camp to avoid it and reached Minsk. This occurred on the same days that all the Minsk Jews were put in a ghetto. I knew that I could not rely on my costume and wooden clogs to disguise me and so, quickly, I left the town. On the road between Minsk and Smorgon, I met a farmer returning from Smorgon. I asked him if the situation was still calm in Smorgon and its neighborhood. He answered me in a very angry voice, saying, Smorgon is burned to the ground. All of this happened to you because you Jews breached your union with God. This is the punishment from the Heavens.
I used only isolated trails and out-of-the-way roads in my travels, avoiding any main roads so that I would not encounter Germans. I entered the town of Horodok (near Volozhin), where I met other people from Smorgon. A Jew by the name Berl Greiss, from Smorgon, confirmed the reports of the farmer, saying the town had been burned to the ground. He, together with other locals, had found a temporary haven here. In Horodok, I also found my brother and sister. There, I worked as a carpenter for some farmers until May 1942. That month, we were caught by the Germans and sent to work in Krasne, where the Nazis ran a concentration camp. All the Jewish residents were locked in the ghetto, and the strong among them worked in the labor camp.
In 1942, some brave Jews started escaping from the camp and joining the partisans. Good contacts between the ghetto, the war camp prisoners, and the resistance were established. A resistance movement now started within the camp. Propaganda calling people to escape from the ghettos and go to the forest circulated. The main issue was obtaining weapons, because only with weapons could one survive outside of the ghetto. Anyone who had any money bought weapons from the farmers or from Germans who were not of Nazi beliefs but had come here to profit. They would sell to the Jews for a large amount of money the personal weapons that they had received as soldiers, or other weapons that they stole from the barracks, but some Jews among us did not have any money, and had to steal weapons instead of buying them.
My workplace, a warehouse, often housed weapons brought there for repair. One time, I broke in between midnight to 1AM, broke through the door, and was thus able to obtain guns for my sister and I, as well as some grenades and other ammunition. Since we also worked in the forest, cutting wood, we hid the weapons in a manger. The original Jews who had escaped prepared an escape for the rest of us. We learned that anyone who had a gun or grenade, or, better yet, a rifle, would be happily received by the partisans. When I escaped to the partisans in the forest, my sister stayed in the ghetto.
Before I left, I said to her, I'll go to the partisans and see if its an appropriate place for you, and if so, I'll come back secretly to the ghetto and take you out.
Pesach Binder, from Smorgon, escaped and joined the partisans before me, leaving his wife in the ghetto. When we decided that the partisan camp was sufficiently safe and women could be incorporated into our life there, we decided to return to the ghetto and bring the women. Just before we were ready to do so, Binder became sick. In the partisan camp, a Russian doctor diagnosed him with typhus. As no typhus medicine was available, the partisans decided to execute the sick so that an epidemic would not take root. There was another man from Volozhin who was also sick with typhus, and both were executed by the partisans.
There was a group of eleven Jews in the camp who came shortly before us. They were now isolated in a separate location, for the partisans feared they would get typhus. I was put with them, and although we lived separately, we received food from the brigade. The Jewish members of the brigade were fearful that all of us would be executed and were very downcast, fearing that they could not save us. We were very lucky, for a Jewish doctor who came to the camp and checked us found that we did not have typhus. We returned to the brigade and arranged a new unit made up of all the people who had recently arrived from the separate group.
Shortly after, we learned that the Russian doctor who checked us was really a spy serving the Germans and planned to kill us. The head of the brigade was a Soviet man by the name of Ivanov. In this brigade there were hundreds of Jews, but in spite of it, or perhaps because of it, the brigade was riddled with Anti-Semitism.
Two weeks later, before the Jewish holiday Purim, we sent a carriage to bring my sister from the ghetto, but were too late. Jewish Krasne had been annihilated, and all its residents had been killed the previous day. Everyone had been killed except for the wife and child of Binder, who were miraculously saved from the execution and arrived at the camp. [editor's note: contrary to this account, others who came from Horodok and Krasne hid and later escaped to the forest. There were close to a dozen, amongst them were members of the Gringaus family.
In May of 1943, Germans narrowed in on our camp, and many of our comrades were killed in the ensuing scuffle. During that year, the Red Army parachuted some forces near our camp, and among them were Jews who had been in my paratrooper unit. The Red Army met and liberated us in the early summer months of 1944. On October second of 1944 I returned to Smorgon. The entire town had been burned to the ground by bombs and shelling. From Smorgon, I traveled to Lodz in Poland, and then to Italy. From there, I finally immigrated to the land of Israel.
By Tova Donski
Translated by Eilat Levitan and Ona Kondrotas
Daily, the Germans would come with some Belarussian collaborators who were residents of Smorgon. They would arrive at the ghetto and take people to work. Both men and women were forced to work. We worked from an early morning hour until the evening. In the Karka area, there were a few Jews that were millers. Having flour, they divided it among all the needy people. Some people had money and they were able to buy food from the villagers. People who by this point had lost all their money gave their clothes and other valuables to the villagers in exchange for bread, potatoes, and other food supplies.
In August 1942, during the third transport, I was taken together with many other young men and women. They told us we would be taken to work on a job that would last six weeks. They transferred us in trains normally used for livestock on a journey that lasted four days. On the road we were given only stale bread to eat. The train cars were locked and the windows were clouded so that we would not be able to see where we were and where we were being taken. It was very crowded. All of us were young men and women able to do any physical labor.
They brought us to Zasmir, a small town near Kovno. We were put in a labor camp: the women lived in the synagogue, and the men lived in the synagogue yard. The manager of this camp was a Jew from Podbrodze by the name of Ring. Every morning he woke us to drink breakfast coffee. The coffee was prepared by the residents of the camp. We worked from early morning until dusk fell, building a new road.
One time, when we were taken to roll call, the head of the work camp, whom we nicknamed the Hoarse One due to his raspy voice, asked us, "if there is any man or woman that does not like this work, or cannot perform, you should come out and tell me, and you will be returned to the place you were taken from." Twenty six people came forth, and said the work was too difficult for them. Immediately, they were put on a truck and a few more people were added to their count as helpers. They were taken outside of the camp where they were all shot and then the helpers buried them, at the order of the Nazis. When the helpers returned to the camp, they told us of what had occurred. It was a miracle I survived, because I had intended to inform the Nazi officers that this work was too hard for me, as well.
At our camp there were around a thousand workers. At one point, typhus spread in the camp. We had a doctor by the name of Anulik with his wife Miriam, who was a nurse. They were brought to the camp from Vilna. The doctor and the nurse did not let the Germans know that a typhus epidemic was spreading through the camp, because they I knew that most likely everyone would be killed if the Nazis found out. When people were too sick to work, they would say that the harsh weather prevented them from arriving to work. In reality, twelve people died of typhus. When people became delirious from the high fever, they often began to curse at Germans and Hitler. We were very fearful that the Germans would be notified of this by the guards of the camp and find the true nature of the disease.
Eventually, I received the information that my entire family was taken to Ponar and killed. Ponar was a suburb of Vilna. I spent eleven months in the work camp. When the camp closed, we were transferred to the Kovno ghetto. We stayed there for a month and were then taken to Koshadar, and here we worked digging peat bogs for fuel. Most workers became sick with rheumatism in this damp and dark environment. We also worked in the forest, cutting trees and making boards of wood from them. Men and women worked together. With us worked also gentiles, amongst them twenty-four Ukranians and Uzbeks, and six Communist Germans. They started a rebellion, killing the two Ukrainian policemen guarding them, as well as the Dutch engineer leading them. The German sergeant who was guarding them they hit on his head and his brains spilled out onto the barbed wire. They collected the weapons of the guards and escaped to join the resistance in the forest.
The next day, German soldiers surrounded the camp. They did a headcount and found that none of the Jews had escaped, and ordered us to return to our barracks. In Koshadar, there were Jewish families who were brought from the Kovno ghetto. With them they had about twenty-four children. One time, the Germans collected all the Jewish children and put them on a train, taking them all to be murdered.
This was the last straw. Finally, the Jews realized that their end would soon come, and forty-eight of them now escaped and were able to reach the resistance. This showed the Germans that there was not sufficient guarding in this camp, and they transferred us to Alikshut. In Alikshut, we worked at filling train tracks with sand, and whoever was not fast enough was beaten mercilessly. The people responsible for our job here were the SS. We worked at this camp for a month, and from there we were transferred to the war camp by the name of Kozlovaroda, where we once again worked in a peat bog for three months. From here, we returned to the Kovno ghetto.
When the ghetto was annihilated, we were put in a locked livestock train car and we traveled between five and six days. The Nazis brought us to Statthof near Danzig. This took place in the spring of 1944. Our camp was located in the forest, and we had to walk by foot from the train tracks all the way to the forest. When we reached the camp, we saw that in the yard lay a pile of shoes. We now saw that this was a death camp and was surrounded by electric barbed wire.
We were made to walk to the barracks for showering. The Nazis ordered us to undress and leave all our belongings and any jewelry we might have in a pile outside, and divided us into groups of twenty. The groups were taken away from each other. The Nazis checked us, and the weak among us were sent to be killed, either by shooting or burning. The ones who were still able to work were sent to live and work for the time being. When my turn arrived, they checked me and sentenced me to work and physical labor. Thus, I was to survive. They shaved my head and gave me a uniform - a prisoner's dress. Three hundred women were taken to the barracks and were all to sleep in one room. It was horribly crowded. You couldn't even find a place to stand and there was no air to breathe. Every day, the Nazis organized a headcount and would check us, and occasionally they would organize selections of those who would remain alive and those who would be killed. We were divided into two rows: one on the right and one on the left. The people who were given a 'life sentences' were sent back to the barracks. The women who were fast and entered the barracks first did not receive beatings, but the slower ones were hit mercilessly.
The commander of that camp was a Polish man by the name of Max. The women in charge of the barracks were Ukrainian. Once a day we received cabbage soup. Some would try to cheat and stand in line twice. If caught, they would be beaten for their greed. I was in Statthof for six weeks, and was then transferred with about a hundred other people to a war camp in Germany.
During the winter of 1944-45, we lived in very low tents where one had to crawl on one's knees to enter. It seems like the forced hard labor we did was busy work that did not really serve anyone. We shoveled snow from one place to the next, for instance. This was a very cold winter and we were all in summer clothes. This camp contained 800 women. The Jews in this camp were from Lithuania and Belarus. We slept on hay; there were no mattresses. We didn't receive any blankets; they let us cover ourselves with tablecloths. We wore clogs for shoes. When women got sick, they did not let anyone know they were sick, for they were fearful of being executed.
In this place there was one doctor - she was really only a medic. We found out that in the camp that was located next to us, they killed all the prisoners and we were very fearful that this would be our fate as well, soon. At one point, the Nazis transferred us to Lubic in Galizia, in the environ of Tran. Shortly after, they changed their minds, wanting to return us to Germany, but had no time.
For a week, we hid, together with our enemies, in the forest while planes would shell the area. Little children who lived in a nearby village came to us one day and announced that the Russians were nearing. Soon we found that they told the truth. The Russians came, but we could not believe our eyes. We were so fearful, depressed, and disillusioned that we thought they were only Germans who wore Russian uniforms as a disguise. It was impossible for us to accept the fact that liberation had come.
Finally, a Jewish soviet soldier arrived and began speaking to us in Yiddish. Only then did we comprehend that we had made it, we had survived! We had come from slavery to salvation, from death to a freedom and a future. The Soviets collected us and brought us to a camp that was free of Germans. There, we found a cauldron filled with cooked food. Some people jumped on this food and filled their stomachs with it. Since they were starved for months or even years, many died of the sudden shock of plentiful food in their bodies.
The Soviet soldiers took us to a market and told us to take what we wished. All of us chose bread. In our eyes, this was the most delicious delicacy possible.
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