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[Page 467]


In the Forest[1]

Yudl Berkner

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

In obedience to the German gendarmerie in Byten, I went to work as a harness-maker at the Yoholyn estate, 17 kilometers [10.5 miles] from the shtetl [town]. I took my two sons with me; my wife and three little daughters remained in Byten. They lived outside of the ghetto in their own house as privilegirte [privileged].

The attitude of the Christian population in Yoholyn toward me was more or less a good one.

Shabbos [Sabbath] at night, on the 25th of July, 1942, a peasant from the above-mentioned estate told me that the Jews of the shtetl had been slaughtered in the early morning.

In the morning, early on Sunday, I sent a message to Byten to learn if anyone on my family had survived.

My wife and three children had perished. My brother, Motl, his wife, Hinda, and their three small children saved themselves from the slaughter. The messenger brought this information.

A week later, risking my life, I smuggled myself into Byten. My house was occupied by a Christian family. On their children, I recognized the clothing of my children.

I went to Yoholyn on the same day. My brother, Motl (“a privileged one”) accompanied me until we were outside the shtetl, across the bridge over the Shchara [river].

In about two weeks, Christian partisans entered Yoholyn. They burned all of the buildings and the facilities of the estate.

I went to work at another estate in a neighboring village, Dobromysl (Dobromishle]. A short time later, partisans also burned the farm.

The peasants of Dobromysl did not let us in their houses because they feared the Germans. We wandered through the village and had nowhere to spend the night.

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We slept in the field or we sneaked into a woodshed at night and at dawn we ran back to the fields.

I thought about suicide. However, I had pity for my two children in the sea of enemies, rejected by everyone and persecuted by everyone. What would happen to them? They were both young children, one was 14 years old and the other one was seven.

Jews still remained in Byten. Rumors emerged that there would be no more slaughters and the small number of surviving Jews would be permitted to live.

I decided to send away my youngest son, the seven-year old Chaimle, to my brother, Motle in Byten. A peasant carried out the assignment he was well paid.

In the end, a peasant named Yakov took pity on us and let my second son and I spend the night with him in his house.

While having a “home,” my heart ached because I had separated in such a manner from one of my two surviving children. A peasant brought Chaim back home from Byten and I was calmed…

We lived in constant fear of death. The Germans searched the village often and then we ran into a nearby woods. When the Germans left the village, we came back to the estate, to decent Yakov. This was repeated almost every day. Such wandering between field and woods exhausted us.

We also were not secure in Yakov's house. Policemen or the S.S. could come into the village in the middle of the night and there would be no rescue. We waited impatiently for a miracle that would ransom us for such a wretched life.

And an unexpected salvation suddenly came for us.

A large well-armed band of partisans, several hundred in number, went through the village on a clear day. This was the Szczors [Shchors] brigade that had left the Wolcze Nory forest. They were moving in the direction of the Pinsk marshes.

To my great surprise, I saw among the partisans several Byten Jews who had succeeded in saving themselves from the slaughter and managed to get to Wolcze Nory.

Our joy was great. We saw Jews from our own shtetl.

Here was Mikhl Minkowicz (Shaya Minkowicz's son), who saved himself during the first slaughter; Itshke Pinski (Leibe the broker's son) also saved himself through a similar chance; Lyuba Juzelewska (Eirshl Kalbowski's daughter), a survivor from the slaughter in Zlatowa; Shaya Ulanski (Moshe-Ayzyk's son); Yoshke Roczanski (Meirim's son); Avrahaml

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the silent one (Eizl Pitkowski' son); Leibl Finkelsztajn the feldsher [barber-surgeon] and others from Byten.

The commander of the Jewish division (number 51) of the Szczors brigade, a Jew from Homel with the family name Fyodorovich, yielded to the request of the Byten partisans and agreed to have me and my two children join his group. We left the village of Dobromysl and went with the brigade. I remember that this was exactly on Shabbos Shuvah [the Sabbath between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur September 19th] 1942.

The Germans entered immediately after the Szczors brigade left Dobromysl. They took Yakov the peasant and his wife and child who had permitted me to spend the night with him, out of the village to the bridge over the Szczora River. They were all shot there and their bodies were thrown into the water.

At the same time, when the Germans ended their first large search in the Wolcze Nory forest, they hurriedly transferred their military divisions to the Pinsk marshes in order to destroy the large assemblage of partisan strength there.

We marched still further to the Pinsk swamps. The searchers followed us step by step and they overtook us in the Yamichno forest area, south east of the village Mogolitsa (Mohilec).

A two-hour fight with the Germans took place near Yamichno. Several of our partisans fell in the battle. Because of the dominance of the enemy in men and ammunition, we moved deeper into the forest to the swampy grounds.

Night had fallen. We were sure they would not chase after us in the darkness of the night. After several days of hanging around in the marshes in which we sank to our chests, we arrived at the so-called “10th lock” and here we waited for the Germans. Their military hordes barred the road to the heart of the Pinsk swamps from us.

There was no other road that would have enabled us to go around the German divisions. Going back also none.

A stubborn, miserable fight took place at the “10th lock.” The partisans having no other choice fought desperately.

The general staff sent out the 51st Jewish group, which numbered approximately 60 men (Jews from Slonim, Kosowa, Jewish refugees from Poland and the Byteners), at the first shots.

The entire brigade threw itself into the ardor of battle and repelled the German attack. The struggle lasted three hours. The Germans were forced to withdraw.

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Ten men fell from the Jewish group and over 20 were wounded. We buried the dead comrades. The Jewish partisan doctor Blimovich and L. Finkelshtein, the feldsher, gave the wounded first aid. The wounded were placed on quickly made litters.

Fyodorovich, the commander of the 51st group, was seriously wounded in the stomach during the battle. His condition was hopeless. Given that we could not take him with us and remaining in the same spot was dangerous, Fyodorovich, not wanting to fall into German hands and not wanting to create danger for the entire group, asked that we shoot him.

The general staff directed a partisan from the Jewish group, who carried out the dying Fyodorovich's request.

All of the partisans witnessed the tragic moment.

The Jewish and the Christian partisans broke out crying at the moment of the shooting.

Before being shot, Fyodorovich asked the commander that he take care of the Jewish woman, his friend.

Fyodorovich was an officer in the Russian Army. He had hidden in the forests for a long time and together with the commander, whom he had encountered, he organized the fighting brigade, “Szczors.”

We took the weapons from the murdered Germans, pulled off their clothing, which we put on. We looked like a gendarme division in their uniforms.

Among the heavily wounded was the commissar of the Szczor brigade and a Jewish girl (a refugee from Poland), who was severely wounded in both feet.

The same day after the battle we went deeper into the swamps, carrying the wounded comrades with us. Eight men were allocated to one litter.

We took the commissar and the girl with us because there was a hope that they would survive. The lightly wounded went with the brigade.

Our victory was a great one. However, the spirits ofh all of us was dejected. Along with the several dozen killed Germans on the field, near the 10th lock, our comrades also remained lying and with them, the heroic, tragic Jewish fatality, Commander Fyodorovich.

The brigade marched still further to the eastern side.

After several days of trudging around in the swamps with the wounded, we stopped in the forest and decided to erect a camp. The purpose

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was: to rest ourselves and to heal the wounded, for whom we had erected huts of twigs.

We would bring bread, potatoes, cabbage and meat from the surrounding villages.

The camp was surrounded with guard posts on all sides.

We remained there for 10 days.

The general staff decided to go further, all in the eastern direction.

The lightly wounded felt better and they could continue further. The heavily wounded (the Russian commissar and the Jewish girl) would have to be carried in litters.

Suddenly, sitting calmly in the camp, we heard the shooting of rifles and machine guns nearby. The enemy attacked us.

With our small numbers of men and limited ammunition, it made no sense to resist the well-armed German hordes.

We left the camp and escaped deeper into the swamps. The lightly wounded ran along with us.

We carried the two seriously wounded (Russian commissar and Jewish girl) on our shoulders a few 100 meters from the camp and lay them down in a thick underbrush that hid them.

The general staff gave the commissar a loaded revolver so that if the Germans found them, the commissar would shoot the girl first and then himself so that they would not fall into hands of the murderers who would torture them.

Several days and nights we crept around the endless swampy Pinsk forests. We were hungry and thirsty. We slowly managed to get to the village that was on an island in the swamps.

We stopped in the forest, near the village of Karmazy. We received food, rested and waited for further decrees from the brigade leadership.

The commander, who was appointed in place of Fyodorovich, who had been tragically killed, was hostile toward us because we were Jews.

The “head” as we called him read out an order that the wounded Jewish partisans would remain with the Szczors brigade and would leave this spot with him.

All of the remaining Jews had to leave the brigade and go wherever they wished. They left our rifles and two machine guns with us. They permitted us to take bread and potatoes from the peasants; no meat.

[Page 472]

The brigade left for the east in a different direction.

The general staff of the brigade permitted us to take the following healthy people from Byten: Finkelshtein the feldsher, Lyuba (Eirshl Kalbowski's daughter), Yoska Roczanski, Shaya Ulanski, and Mikhl Minkowicz.

We remained a group of 32 men, with several women and my two children.

We were without experience, without a leader, surrounded on all sides by Germans. A hostile Christian world surrounded us, which as soon as it learned that we had been expelled from the brigade for the only crime that we were Jews and that we were now unprotected would at every opportunity help to exterminate us. Our situation was desperate.

The 32 men[1*] spent the first night of our expulsion together in the forest. Early in the morning, 10 men, all armed with rifles, separated from us and left in another direction. They did not want to be with the whole group and did not let us go with them. They said it was better that we not all be together; they did not have to worry about the women and children.

The 10 “strong” Jews allowed the Byten woman, Surale Obramovski, to go with them.

After finishing the division of people, they vanished in the depth of the forest swamps. Twenty-one men remained. The night after the 10 left, we remained in the same place for the night.

Early in the morning seven men again talked among themselves and prepared to go away separately. They were also “strong.” They also did not want to be with the women and children.

In the possession of our 21 men were two machine guns and several rifles. The seven men wanted to take the rifles and one machine gun for themselves. Our arguments and persuasion that our group should not divide and the “strong” should stay with the “weak” did not help.

Among other things, we proposed to them that if they did separate, they should at least take a few of our weak ones with them. They also did not agree to this.

The quarrels grew so sharp that both sides threatened the other with shooting. Finally an agreement was made that the seven “strong ones” would take me and my two children with them and as a reward they received one machine gun and a number of rifles.

The misfortune that could have happened because of the quarrel, that Jews, saved from slaughter, chased and expelled by everyone, would shoot one another, was avoided. In this way, the seven men separated from the 21 and I and my two children left with

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the “strong ones” a little deeper in the forest, approximately a half kilometer from the 11. Itshke Pinski from Byten remained with the 11.

It appears that the measure of my troubles still was not full.

Early in the morning, the seven men suddenly rose from where they were and continued on their way, not permitting my children and me to go along with them. They simply drove us from them by force. A difficult, bitter, desperate situation.

I decided to return to the 11 men with whom Itshke Pinkski had remained.

The leader of the 11 men was a young, fair man with the family name Waksman. I was controlled by only one wish: to quickly be with them. It would be more cheerful and safer. It was frightening to be alone, hungry and thirsty with two children in the swamps and forests, not knowing where to turn.

We trudged in the marshes. I went first, the children after me. They barely dragged their feet after me. We neared the group's location to join them. Their guard post stopped us. Osak, a young man from Slonim; he did not let us go further. He said that since I no longer belonged to them, I was a stranger and he did not permit me to go into the area of their camp. He had a solution for us, that I turn around and chase after the other [group] because they could leave their location at any time.

Osak threatened to shoot if I tried to take one step forward toward their camp. For lack of a choice I went to look for the seven men.

I searched for the seven men for the entire day and I did not find them.

I had no other recourse than to go back to Waksman's group, from which Osak had previously driven me away.

Would I find them? Had they remained in the same place? Or did they also leave?

To my great joy, approaching their camp, I saw Waksman. I asked him if he would permit my two children and me to be with them.

Waksman said to me: “Come to us and you will be with us. I will not leave an individual Jew wandering in the forest. What happens to us will happen to you.”

It appeared that Osak had acted on his own when he drove me away, not informing even Waksman. Waksman was a refugee from a shtetl in Poland.

There was a farm near the village of Karmazy. We would sneak into the stall during the cold nights (without the knowledge of the peasant) and sleep in the hay. We would leave unnoticed at dawn.

Once nearing the farm at night, we noticed in the courtyard a large group of armed men dressed in police-style uniforms made of black cloth.

They summoned us. There was no way back; we were so close to where they stood.

“Such an unfortunate encounter!” we said to each other. But these were White Russian policemen who were in the service of the Germans.

Who are you? They asked us.

We are Jews. We answered.

They said, “And we are Russian partisans.” And they laughed. We did not believe them, in their “inviting” us to go to the courtyard and place a guard, a post that woud keep a watch over us. Yet, one of our group succeeded in escaping and the guard did not notice him sneaking out of the courtyard.

He ran to the forest to the seven men, whom he knew where to find, in order to make a sudden attack on the policemen and to free us.

He wandered around the forest the entire night and did not find their camp.

The policemen enjoyed themselves at the farm until late into the night, sang, danced, played the harmonica and we lay in the courtyard in deadly fear… Right at dawn they took down the guard posts, left the farm and went further on.

We were free. We ran to the forest. We had survived the night of dark hours in deadly fear. The supposed policemen actually were Russian-Soviet partisans who, for reasons of caution, held us under arrest during the time of their temporary stay at the farm.

Several weeks had passed since the moment that the Szczors general staff had driven us away from them (a short time after the battle at the 10th lock) and we, a small, miserable Jewish group, had trudged around in the swamps, in the environs of Karmazy. We did not meet a regular partisan band that would perhaps

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take us under their protection. Better said, take us in its ranks. If that had happened, our desperate situation would have changed radically for the better.

We were severed from the large partisan collective that operated in the Pinsk marshes. We did not have any connection with them.

We were exposed to circumstances that could end tragically for us. We placed ourselves at the mercy of the village population to obtain food products; and their tolerance of us was also a question of time…

If the peasants learned that we were a “wild” group that did not have the support of Christian partisans, they would find a way to liquidate us…

A bitter situation. We lived with the moment. We lived with risk; we wanted to live…

Once, in the morning, three armed men unexpectedly approached us. We became deadly pale from such an encounter. We had not erected any guard posts. In general, there was no discipline among us. The three men were surprised by our reckless carelessness, of our not placing a guard. “You could be killed; you could be found not having risen from the earth. The enemy and their collaborators lie in wait in every corner. Do not be afraid” they calmed us “We are partisans from the Vasilov detachment and coming from a reconnaissance exercise we detected your tracks.” The detachment did not have the right to take us with them. They would inform the general staff of the encounter. The three men went on their way and we remained where we were in the same situation.

Several days later, two partisans came to us from the Vasilov detachment and brought permission for us to go to their camp. They told us the way that led there. They provided various forest signs so that we would not get lost.

We left our uncertain place of refuge in an elevated mood and went in the direction of the Vasilov members. We arrived at a bridge over a river where their guard posts stood. A partisan led us deeper into the forest, to the camp. We immediately were given food and we lay down to sleep. We were incorporated into the ranks of the above-mentioned detachment.

At the beginning of 1943 the detachment made feverish preparations for a battle assignment. We took part in an attack on the shtetl Vizna (Slutsk region). After reciprocal shooting, the Germans ran from the shtetl.

We took a great deal of trophies, such as: horses, cattle, pigs, wagons, bread,

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tobacco, cigarettes, textile products and we found a large package of talisim [prayer shawls] from the Vizna Jews who had perished.

As a remembrance, I took one talis for myself.

I remember how a Jew in our group said to me: “Why do you need the talis; do you think you will use it again? We will yet perish like everyone else.”

Three weeks later, after our attack on Vizna, the Germans organized a vast punishment expedition against the partisans in our forests. The search lasted until March of that year.

In the course of the search, the Germans made ruins of dozens of villages in the area and they murdered thousands from the Christian population. Many of our partisans also fell.

On the 5th of April 1943 the general staff of the Vasilov detachment issued an order that the women and children, without exception, must leave the camp. The men of the families must remain in the camp as fighters.

The ordered was motivated by: “The presence of children disturbs the fighting ability of the detachment.”

The women and children were led away to Stara Khutors accompanied by partisans and left there.

I met several Jews from the shtetl Lachva in Stara Khutors: Kalman Krovtshik with a young boy (now in the land of Israel), the similar Hershl Svarts with his young son (now in America) and Berl Chinitsh with his child (in Ramla, the land of Israel).

Their children served as shepherds with the peasants. My children were with them.

Thus the summer passed. Winter arrived.

Once when I visited my children they cried. It was cold for them. They would freeze during the winter nights in the hut made of branches that they had in the field.

A peasant from Stara Khutors permitted the children to sleep in his house. This was the only house that fortuitously remained from the destruction that the Germans created in the large village.

The children did various work for the peasants and received only food for this.

The relationship of the detachment to the Jews was a better one.

There were approximately 50 Jews in the Vasilov detachment.

 


Footnote

  1. Told by Yudl Berkner, the son of Kalman the harness-maker, presented for publication by D. Abramovitz. Return


Translator's footnote

  1. The numbers indicated throughout this passage do not always correspond to the reported numbers of people in the various groups. Return

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