Hard Memory: A WWII Memoir of Nova Ushitsa
By Mikhael Borisov Eisen
Related to: Novaya Ushitsa (Town)
It was in the first days of July of 1941, and parts of the Russian Army were retreating through Novaya Ushitsa on the way to Yaltushkova, and further in the direction to Vinnitsa. They looked miserable and shabby. Leaving together with them, were those [residents] who were smarter and had bad forebodings, or maybe they were led by fate. Though there were not many of them, they were still there. They left on whatever they could; by carts, more seldom by cars, or simply on foot. Nobody knew what was going on at the front. Over the radio, they ran total misinformation. Mostly it was the news about the fights at the border. When Stalin spoke on July 3rd, many people gathered near the loudspeakers hanging on the telephone posts at the market place, but nobody could make anything out of his speech, besides the fact that the situation was hard, and "Our way is right; we will win."
On these days, the Usimys, the family of my future wife, escaped together with hospital workers from the hospital where they worked. During these first days of July, the remote sounds of cannonade were heard, and in the sky, a form hung overhead. It was a plane with two fusiliers. Later we got to know that it was a reconnaissance plane, and flocks of aircraft were flying to the South-East.
The chain of the retreating troops disrupted unexpectedly. The cannonade grew louder, and explosions were heard somewhere close by. The town looked dead. All of the people had hidden.
Our family (there were four of us, together with grandfather Benya, and grandmother Brukha with her sick daughter Khanna) hid in the cellar in our courtyard. At that time I was a very inquisitive, thirteen year old guy, and could hardly sit there, and all the time I was dying to get outside, up there where the fights were on. Finally, at some moment, I managed to do so. Behind the cellar, there was a huge woodshed. I climbed on its roof, and the shells and mines burst on the opposite side of the hollow, where there was a village, Kaskada, along the nearest border of Struzhsky Forest. Stretched for the fight, chains of troops moved in the direction of the forest. I guessed that they were Germans. In the forest, I thought, there was a fight between them and our retreating troops. Continuous rattling of plane engines could be heard from above. Then the cannon fire moved further to the South-East, and the Germans entered the town.
They were not the Germans that we came to know later. These were the front line soldiers. They sat camped in the gardens, at the schoolhouse and other empty buildings. Right next to our house, behind the post office, there was a three-story house where our friends Vitya and Nila Kharma lived. Germans lived in their house too. Everything about the Germans inspired our interest: cigarettes that we had never seen before, since we had only "papirosy" in the Soviet Union; huge horses, and the enormous quantity of chocolates they ate. They did not harm the locals, but mercilessly requisitioned chicken, geese, ducks, pigs, and other cattle of local residents, including our family. Nobody spoke about Jews, but occasionally a passing soldier would point his finger at a young boy, and ask, "Jude"? If only we could have known what would follow ….
In a few days, the front troops left town, and some new unit came in. Different from the boot soldiers covered with dust and dirt and with their sleeves rolled up, the newcomers were dressed up as if for a parade. They had clean uniforms and high caps on. Some of them wore glasses. A new local administration was created. Maluta, a local resident, was appointed starosta. A number of other collaborators, later on called schutzmans, formed the police. In a while, they started wearing black uniforms and visor caps. Starosta and his staff were stationed at the premises of the former District Executive Committee; the police, in the building of militia and the local NKVD branch. The German headquarters were located near the school. It was then that the first Jews fell victim.
On one night, they broke into the house of Aron, a local cattle agent, beat everybody inside, and then dragged the poor man out and hanged him on the telegraph pole, in the very same market where he had spent so many days. He was left hanging there for a long time. Then, Itzek, a local boy of 16 or 17, known in Novaya Ushitsa as a naughty troublemaker, was shot. Here is how it happened. Shortly upon their taking over, the Germans and schutzmans started to show up in the Jewish neighbourhood both at night and in broad daylight, break into houses, rob and beat people. During those ordeals, the local residents would hide in their homes or cellars. Nobody showed up in the street at that time, not taking chances that they would be shot. Itsek, out of curiosity, climbed to the attic of a small wooden house and was watching the Germans and schutzman from there. They noticed him and shot him, and he fell out.
In mid-July, the Nazis started to bring to Novaya Ushitsa Jews from the neighbouring and more remote villages of the district, where Jews lived in abundance before the war, actively engaged in agriculture and crafts. There was even a Jewish kolkhaz in Novaya Ushitsa named after The Third International. This "aktion" was the first step towards organizing a ghetto. All the new arrivals were put up at the houses of the local Jewish residents as ordered by the local Jewish community starosta Dinetz, appointed by the Nazis. The starosta would create a lot of inconvenience for the people, trying to show off for the authorities. At that time, he could not know that his family and himself would share the fate of all the other Jews. Many Jewish families living in the same neighbourhoods with Ukrainians were kicked out of their houses. Ukrainian families living on the Jewish block, few as they were, also had to relocate from the ghetto. A lot of barbed wire and poles were brought in, and a construction of a two meter high fence around the ghetto began. There was only one gate left to enter the ghetto, and even that one was guarded around the clock.
Periodically, searches were carried out in the ghetto, accompanied by robbery, beatings, and murder. During those searches, with the help of starosta Dinetz, the Nazis would single out groups of young, healthy men and women qand send them to the nearby labour camps to do construction and other work. All of them perished there. There were a few lucky ones though. Isaak Itkin and Manya Grinberg were among them. They still live in Novaya Ushitsa.
All the other able-bodied population was assigned to work in Novaya Ushitsa. People were employed in their direct occupations – and Novaya Ushitsa was a town of craftsmen. Those whose skills were not needed were used for hard work; they repaired roads, chopped trees in the forests, and worked in the stone and sand quarries. My grandfather Bention Aizen, his brother on his father's side Shmil Aizen (of the same age as my father), and my father Boris Aizen, born in 1903, were assigned to the former District Consumer Society as leather-dressers.
All of those assigned to work were required to leave the ghetto through the gate before 7:00am and return by six o'clock in the evening. The slightest violation would be punished by having the violator shot to death. Nobody reported sick at that time. I would leave the ghetto together with my father and help him in his work which was very laborious.
Thus fall and winter passed in hard labour. Sometimes we would stay at work overnight. From the point of view of the German authorities, it was a big crime. But my father, my grandfather, and my uncle made clothes for the officers and their assistants in the local headquarters. Not only did they look the other way when we stayed in the shop, but they would indirectly urge us to do so and hurry up. They knew that the ghetto would be liquidated one day and the Jews would all be killed, so they were in a hurry to put on as much leather and fur as they could.
One day the headquarters' officers came to us and demanded that five fingered sheepskin gloves be made for them; not the one fingered gloves that we made before. They needed those new gloves for horse riding, to steer the horses better. My father who was "the boss", not my grandfather, tried to reason that they had never made those gloves before, and had no idea about how to make them, but the officers responded with threats and curses, and said that if a sample of those gloves were not made by the following morning, all of us would be hanged on the hooks in the ceiling. At that they pointed to the hooks with a characteristic gesture. And we had to oblige. We took the sheepskin, trimmed the hairs to the height of 1 to 1.5 cm., and found an old pair of gloves that served as a pattern. Thus the gloves were made by the morning as required, and both the "clients", and ourselves liked them. From that time on, we started making such gloves along with sheepskin coats.
The winter stuck in my memory with one more event. Though round-ups happened very often, if not on a daily basis, (allegedly because of the partisans, of whom we had no knowledge and where we were, there were none or else many from the ghetto would have joined them), mostly their purpose was to rob, beat and murder. This time the round up was the most cruel. Drunk officers and soldiers grabbed several men. Our barber Abram was among them. On the way, they were tortured. They took them into the forest, not far from the place where all of the Jews were shot down later on, made them dig a pit in the frozen ground, and ferociously killed them.
The Jews were not paid for the jobs they performed. How they lived, only G-d could know. Many of them suffered from starvation, and swelled. In the main, food could only be got only in exchange for belongings that were still in their possession. Everything was traded, from nails, dishes, tools, clothing and more. There were no stores, you know. The exchanges took place mainly during the daytime, near the fence when fewer guards were there. Those who left the ghetto to work, also took some things with them, and if there was no guard, or if the guardians were known to them, they could exchange things. I cannot remember if there was any question about money. Almost all the Jews had "their own people" among the Ukrainians, whether they were simply good neighbours, or their customers, or colleagues. Many of them helped "their own people" in the ghetto. It's probably worth noting that everybody who was more or less wealthy saved some of their precious things in secret places, or buried them in the ground, just in case. There were rumours in the ghetto that all Jews would be transferred to another place, either to Palestine or somewhere else, and they would be able to take with them only the most necessary things. Thus everyone wanted to save their property.
What was going on at the front, we did not know. In the first days of Occupation, the Germans ordered all radio sets to be turned in. In almost every house before the war, there was a radio, and black carbon "plates" hung. The last news we heard on the radio was Stalin's speech on July 3, 1941. As for real radio sets, there were not so many of them. Only very wealthy people could afford them, mainly the intelligentsia. Sometimes, a small newspaper in the Ukraine would be available. It was published either in Novaya Ushitsa or in the region, but it carried mostly stories about the victories of the Germans, and also the fact that they had already occupied Moscow.
Then, everything was a problem. There were no matches, salt, or other necessary things. In the first days of July of 1941, when it was already clear that the Germans would start to rob stores, many of the people laid in these necessary things: matches, soap, candles, salt, etcetera. I remember I was with my friend in the store after it had already been looted, and I was surprised by the number of crushed vodka and wine bottles. It turned out that the workers of the store were ordered to liquidate all alcoholic drinks. So the supply of all these goods came to an end by the summer of 1942, and it was necessary to look for a way out of this situation. Many began to make lighters out of handy materials; cartridge-cases, fuses from shells and other items. I also decided to make such a lighter. I got a fuse filled with some white stuff, and wanted to get it out of there, but as I could not do it, I gripped it in a vise, and with the help of a nail, tried to make a hole in this white filling. At the first hit with a hammer, the explosion happened. Small fragments injured all of my left hand. I was wearing a sailor's vest with long sleeves at the time, and the left sleeve was full of holes. This put an end to my attempts to make a lighter.
In these surroundings, the 19th of August came around. On this day, as usual, we went to bed very early because there was no electricity in the ghetto. Kerosene for the lamps and candles had already come to an end, and the only light we could afford, if it was necessary at night, was an icon-lamp made out of a jar with a wick, and filled with sunflower oil.
At night I woke up because of some noise, and when I opened my eyes, I saw the silhouettes of my siblings in the dark. Women were crying. At that time, we lived in the house of my grandfather. From the talking, I understood that the ghetto was surrounded by the Germans and schutzmans who stood near the fence close to each other, and that, for sure, it was the end of us.
After I dressed, my mother started to lament over me, and asked that I should try to escape under the wire behind the house, where hammer-smith Yankel Ak lived with his family. At least one member of the family might be saved. All the others also hurried me up. I went down the stairs into the yard, passed the house of the Dostmanovs, crossed the street, and got to the neighbour's yard where the Shtimans (he was a teacher of mathematics in a Jewish school) lived; then I crossed the Post street and reached the wire fence between the houses of the Aka's and Tsyganerov's. The wire in this place ran along dense nettle weeds. I heard the Germans' voices, and got through the wire, wriggling through the nettle weeds. Then I ran along the path through the kitchen gardens in the direction of the office building, which was a machine and tractor station before the war. The guard heard my noise, so several bullets flew forth after me, but the Germans could not see me since it was still dark, and I was running along the path, on both sides of which tall stems of corn grew. Having left behind the kitchen gardens, and the one behind the Golubev's house, I crossed the street and headed to the park. There I got over the fence and through the window of the shop where my siblings worked, and hid.
Many times after the war, I asked myself: where had my mother sent me that time? What did she count on, besides the desire to save me called up by her maternal instinct? What would have happened to me if the circumstances had gone the other way? Where would I have gone? What would I have done?
The dawn came, and it was light enough. I could not sit in one place, and I looked out through the windows. I saw some of the station workers, but was afraid to go out to ask what had happened in the ghetto. Finally, I lost patience and got out through the window. Sneaking along the fence of a fruit garden, I went down the street to the house of the Golovetskys, from where I headed in the direction of our house. Near the wire fence in front of the post office, I noticed people who were looking in the direction of the ghetto. I sneaked up to them, and also looked there. It was around eight or nine o'clock in the morning. In the Post Office street, along the road, a column of people with bags and packages were howling and crying. The Germans were beating them with butts and shouting. They dragged people out of the nearest houses – old ones and children. One Ukrainian woman standing near the fence noticed me and started to cry, "Jew, run out of here. Don't you see what they are doing with them? They are killing them."
I went back to the workshop, and stayed there all night. On the next day, my father came and told me that all of the Jews were turned out of their houses into the street, and ordered to take only jewels and the most necessary things. They would take them to the station and send them somewhere, from which they could continue farther to Palestine. While some [Germans] were searching for people in hiding, others picked names from a list of those who would stay to work in Novaya Ushitsa with their families. When they finished the sorting out, they ordered the column to move in the direction of the Trikhov forest, that was on the way to Dunayvetsy station, one and a half kilometers from the village of Filyanovka, at the North-West border of Novaya Ushitsy. There, near the pit, they picked ten to fifteen people out of the column, ordered them to undress naked, and go up where pits had been been dug out earlier (as we learned later, by peasants from the village of Ivashkovtsy, brought there by the Gestapo). Over there, these butchers in human appearance, shot down their victims with machine-guns and finished with rifles and pistols.
My father told me what happened in the ghetto – he saw it himself – and witnesses who had managed to escape told about what happened on the way to the forest and in the forest. Those who attempted to flee were many, but the killers' bullets overtook them. Those like my father, grandfather, and Uncle Shmil who were needed by the Nazis as craftsmen, tailors, shoemakers and others, were accommodated with their families in a small block of some fifteen houses. They packed two families all together in one room, and those who had managed to escape on the 20th of August were also packed in there. This was a very small site, approximately 150 by 100 meters, which was surrounded by barbwire fence; and this was a new ghetto. We were accommodated on the second floor of a long administrative building.
Life went on. Of course, you can understand the state of those left alive. Almost everyone had someone killed among siblings, friends and neighbours. They felt pain, and lived as if in a nightmare. The Nazis and their helpers grew even more cruel. They did not consider us as human beings any more, but we had to live somehow. Again, we kept going to work in the morning, and coming home at night.
On the afternoon of October 14th , the rumors were spread (…the rumors… how often they proved themselves true), that on the coming night, the killings would happen again. My mother, my poor mother, pleaded with me like the previous time, to leave the ghetto since the gates were still open, and to go to my father, let him know about the rumors, and, if it would be possible, to stay all night. Mother, Mother… Why did you not then take Tsilechka and go with me? I guess she knew it was impossible. If they would go with me, then the family of Uncle Shmil had to join them with two children, and grandmother Brukha with daughter Khanna, and the family of my father's brother Khaim with two children. They all were left alive after the first action. They would be too many, too visible. I think she did not want to risk all of them. That was the last day I saw them. Never since that time did I see any of them again.
I went to my father and told him about everything. He said, "Stay with me, we have to work all night." I do not remember what my father, grandfather and uncle were talking about then. For sure they were talking about the rumors, and were wondering what they could do, but there was not much they could do about it. The night passed in anxiety. In the morning, a worker told us that the ghetto was again surrounded, and that people were ordered to form a column. It looked as if they intended to do something with the Jews who were left. A little bit later, my school friend Yasha Shmukler managed to get to us, and Yasha Aizen, the six year old son of my father's younger brother, Khaim. Khaim had been drafted into the Army several days before the Germans came. (After the war, we learned from our Ushitsians who had been with him in the Army that he was killed in the first fight, not far from Novaya Ushitsa, in the district of Mogilev-Podolsk.)
So these Yashis told us that the ghetto was surrounded by Germans and schutzmans, and nobody was allowed to leave it. When he learned this, my father's uncle Shmil said that he would not leave his family, and what would happen to them would happen to him, and that he was going back to the ghetto. But thanks to the efforts of my grandfather, father, and ourselves, he did not leave, and stayed with us. Our workshop was located in the same building with a deserted bakery and was connected with it by a door. The person who informed us about the danger, advised us to move there and hide, so we did. All next night and day we stayed in this bakery. Someone came over and told my father that all the Jews were taken in a column to the forest and that nearby, they were chasing after the ones who had managed to escape. My father, grandfather and uncle (who was nearly unconscious all that time) decided that we had to wait till night and move to Kopaygord.
[Long before this, there had been rumors in the ghetto that, not far, in the Transnistria, on the territory occupied by the Rumanians, there had been no mass killings. More so, Kopaygorod was where Yasha Shmukler's grandparents, and our families and friends resided, so they could shelter us.]
Somewhere near ten or eleven o'clock at night, we left the bakery and went through a fence into the city park, which was near the office of the Consumer Society. There, my grandfather said he would not go to Kopaygorod, because it was hard for him to walk, and that he, together with his little grandson Yashka, would go to the village of Ivashkovtsy, where they had friends who would hide them. It was impossible to change his mind, and in addition, we were not sure what to expect, so we parted in different directions. We learned in March of 1944, after Novaya Ushitsa was liberated by the Soviet Army and we had returned from Kopaygorod, that grandfather and Yashka had found shelter at their friend's, but one of the neighbours reported on them. They were taken to Novaya Ushitsa and shot down there. Not only them, but also many others were caught and killed. Also we learned that my mother and sister were not shot in the first turn. They managed to hide and were found on the second day, held in a basement by the politsai, and when there were a lot of them, they were taken to Trikhov and shot down.
So, we parted with my grandfather and the four of us moved to the east. When we descended the dell to the river Kalyuska, it was pouring. The rain did not stop for several hours; we were wet through and through, and lost our way. These circumstances – pain for our perished siblings, our feelings – all of this made us decide to go back and report to the authorities. We thought that if our relatives had been killed, our lives were meaningless. Especially my uncle Shmil insisted on this. Looking ahead, I can say that, having survived and having been drafted into the Army after the liberation in 1944, he was sent to the front with my father, and there he did everything to lose his life; got under bullets and perished in the first days.
Having returned to the town, we approached the wired fence of the ghetto which was guarded by schutzmans. At the fence, Yasha Shmukler said that he would go to his parents' friend who lived near Novy Plan – that was the name of the district in the Kaskada village, closely located to Novaya Ushitsa. (After the liberation, we learned that he was also caught and shot down.) The three of us, my father, uncle and I got through the wired fence and having walked 100 to 150 steps, ran to the schutzman, whom we asked to take us to the police and let them do whatever they wanted with us. (This was Alexander Paritskiy, a local resident. After the liberation, we learned that he was shot down by the Germans for his connection with partisans, and because he had helped Jews. In his memory, a tree was was planted in the Alley of the Saints of the World in Jerusalem.) He started to shout at us that we were not human beings if we wanted to be killed. He said that even insects tried to save themselves and fly away at any danger. My uncle remained adamant, and I started to pull my father's sleeve saying that it was our fate to stay alive. Finally, all of us talked my uncle into going back to the hole in the fence, got through it and headed to Novy Plan to my father's friend Ilya Zhereboy (Gilko). He gave us a shelter in the attic, in the hayloft. We stayed there the whole day. Late at night, Gilko brought us some food, as we had nothing to eat, and we left.
The sky was clear, the moon was shining, and we walked all the way to Maryanovka, a village at the border with Transnistria, a few kilometers from Kopaygorod. Near this village we stayed in the forest all day on the rain-soaked ground. We were afraid to go to Kopaygorod in the daytime, not knowing what the situation was there. Though it was not far from Novaya Ushitsa to Kopaygorod (about 40 km.), we did not know what was going on out of the ghetto limits. It was forbidden under the death penalty to go from one place to another. You could be shot on the spot. We decided to wait until night came.
When it was dark, we safely got to Kopaygorod. We were surprised to know that there was no wired fence around the place of Jewish residence. By that time, many escapees from different ghettos located close by were there. We found shelter with Yasha Shmukler's grandparents. They knew us as they used to visit their daughter in Novaya Ushitsa, and our families were friends. Until liberation, they remained hopeful that their siblings were alive, but their hopes did not come true. All of their siblings perished.
To support us, my father and Uncle Shmil went to the nearest villages where they tailored sheepskin coats and other leather goods for peasants. At the end of the week, they would return and bring food. All relocations were made secretly, mostly at night time, since we afraid to be seen by the Rumanian gendarmes. Once when they returned, they said that several Jewish families resided and worked in forestry in the village of Matiki, and it would be better for us to move there; so we did. It was in the spring of 1943. The village is left in my memory as one long street. All of us, including those who worked in forestry, lived in one empty house of two rooms separated by a passage. Early in the morning, everyone left for work. Lisa and I stayed home. She was from Moldavia and got stuck there on her way to escape. Lisa did cooking for those who worked in the forest, and I cooked for my father and uncle. Lisa knitted a sweater for me of hard wool (you know we had no clothing, and everything was worn out). Shortages of clothing, linen, soap, and baths, caused lice. From time to time, we lit a stove and put our clothes there (if you could call such rags "clothes") to get rid of insects. We ate potatoes, peas and beans. When we had bacon, it was really festive. Opposite our house, lived old people (or maybe they just looked old to me) named Mikhalovkis, with whom we were friends. They helped us with food and we did some work for them in the kitchen garden
In the fall of 1943, the Rumanian gendarmes suddenly appeared in our village. They accused us of being partisans, ordered us into columns, and drove us to Kopaygorod. There, in front of the Gendarmeria, we stood for two hours, and they questioned us about who we were and what we were doing in the village; and they beat us up in the forest. They knocked out my front tooth. Then they drove us to a shed and held us there for two days, calling us out to interrogate us one by one. On the third day, they let us go.
We lived in Kopaygorod. Then in March, 1944, we came back to a liberated Novay Ushitsa. We walked home through places where only 2 to 3 days ago fighting had taken place. Now we walked straight, not along the paths. The snow still stayed everywhere. We saw broken machines and corpses on our way. So we reached Novay Ushitsa. Our house was destroyed; only the large cellar in the yard was in place. By the way, almost all of the houses were ruined; very few were whole. We stayed at Grisha Grecheshman's place, in the house that was outside the ghetto limits. He, himself, had been saved by one family – (before the war he had worked in Kolkhoz). Soon afterwards, my father and Uncle Shmil were drafted into the Army and sent to the front. I stayed by myself.
A little about myself – I was born on June 11, 1928. I went to school to the first class, not when I was seven years old as was usual, but when I was six; thus I was one year younger than my schoolmates. They were all born in 1927. When Novay Ushitsa was liberated, everybody of that birth year were registered in the Military Office, and many were drafted to an active battalion to fight with Bandera groups that were numerous in the nearest forests. As a young one, I was not drafted, and was left with the militia and rode on horseback with a trophy rifle around the villages. I delivered summonses to those who were called to the militia as witnesses against those who served as politsais, schutzmans and starostas under the occupation. The trials took place in Kamenets-Podolsk (at that time, a region center). I also had to get there to testify, using passing transport, and sometimes by foot. The trials were held in fortress casements. As a rule, the accused were sentenced to twenty-five years of prison. Later on I learned that they were released in ten years. So it happened that the head of the local police, Semenov, was set free. Of course, he caused the deaths of many people.
On the 25th of November, I was drafted into the Army. I was not seventeen at that time. I was burnt by desire to get to the front in order to take revenge for my perished relatives and siblings. Unfortunately, our call-up did not participate in the fights. The Army became my home. I served for thirty years, and demobilized with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.
After the war, Jewish survivors from Ushitsa installed a monument to the Nazi's victims on the spot where they were killed in the forest of Trikhov. Each year, on the 20th of August, people arrive in Novay Ushitsa to honour the memory of their perished relatives, friends and fellow men.