Donated by Eilat Levitan
Translated from the Yiddish by Miriam Koral
Edited by Ludmila Kopel
I was in Vileyka until the last possible moment. That is, until the Germans came close to Vileyka, surrounding it from two sides, from Molodechna and Smorgon.
Tuesday, the 24th of June, 1941, on the third day of the outbreak of the War, I ran away from Vileyka for the first time. German agents spread rumors in the town that German parachutists were landing near Vileyka, from the Smorgon side.
The turmoil was terrible. Everyone who didn't leave with the waiting troop trains and didn't want to remain in Vileyka ran through Kholopier Street in the direction of Iliye.
I managed to catch a truck and after long hours of fright and false alarms, we arrived late in the evening in Iliye.
In general, we didn't at that time believe that the Germans could break through so quickly. Everyone thought that they would be stopped at any moment. Seeing the panic on the roads, the frightened appearance of the military personnel and especially the terrible faces of the NKVD members, it was clear to me that we were in a very difficult and horrible situation.
Just then I came across a frightening scene that I will never forget.
Not too far from Sosenka, we arrived on the heels of a long column of prisoners of the Vileyka prison who were being driven, surrounded by dogs and heavily armed guards, NKVD men. All prisoners walked with their hands bound. Among them were: Naum Kolir with his young son-in-law, Celia's husband. Their fate I discovered later. They were driven to the east, with the intention of taking them to a train station from which they could be transported to Siberia. Before reaching Sosenka, a panic ensued. All the prisoners were driven into a woods and shot. Two years later I took part in annihilating the German Police garrison in Sosenka that guarded the bridge over the Viliya. And it was then, in interrogating a couple of captive policemen, I asked if any of the prisoners had managed to escape. According to what they knew, none of the prisoners rescued themselves. In the woods I saw the crude burial site of the tragic victims.
Arriving in Ilye, we met up with a large military column whose orders were to go to Vilna and halt the German offensive. My mood lifted and I immediately returned on foot to Vileyka, arriving before dawn. The town was as quiet as a cemetery. I found my father and mother at home, readying themselves to leave for a village near Molodechna. The same day I reported to the voyenkomat (military commissariat) and was sent, with others, to guard the building of Abkom [District Party Committee] (gev. Staroste(?)). We were there until we got the message that the Germans had occupied Smorgan and Molodechna and a portion were coming in the direction of Vileyka. The retreating army brought 10 trucks and on the fifth day after the outbreak of the War (Thursday 26-6-41) we left Vileyka in the direction of Dolginov-Polotsk. Minnsk was already occupied by Germans. The following day (27-6-41) we reached Polotsk. The city was burning; however there was no panic.
In the Vileyka Oblast (region) there were several districts that were not yet occupied by Germans, like Glubok, etc... It was still believed that the offensive would be halted. The Vileyka Abkom [regional committee](in exile) decided to temporarily relocate to Glubok and from there to carry out the work of the party. They put us on a train in the direction of Glubok. We got as far as Krulevshchizna. There the German airplanes welcomed us so that we barely made it back alive to Polotsk. A large part of our fellow travellers perished.
From Polotsk we went on foot in an easterly direction. Two days later we arrived in Vitebsk, 10 kilometers back from the Germans. Vitebsk was bombed unremittingly. I stole into a train, traveled to Smolensk and from there directly to Moscow.
In the Central Committee of Komsomol, partisan groups were being organized for the front, though no one knew exactly where it was at the time. We were armed with old guns, given a little food, and without any instruction put us on a train and sent to Gomel. Thirty kilometers before Gomel we turned around because in the interim the city was already occupied by the Germans. The anxiety of travelling back and forth was nightmarish. Only through miracles did we remain alive.
From the vicinity of Gomel we were taken directly to Moldavia, where I began to work as a turner.
We homeless were regarded with suspicion. When I tried to volunteer for the army, they would turn me away because I was from the western areas. Even those who were members of the regular army were locked out and sent over under heavy guard to the Urals for work. Among them was my brother Motl, who thanks to this reason remained alive. Another Vileyka fellow, Ephraim Kopelovich, who served in the army with my brother and was a very loyal komsomolets, managed to remain in the army. He died like a hero in the battles with the Nazis. May these few words be a memorial to his unknown tomb!
Two months later, in September 1941, I was called to Moscow where special battalions were being organized to defend the city. After one week of training we were sent back to our old places as there were no weapons. I travelled to the Saratov Oblast where I met with several Vileyka people, like Rudenski, Baruch and Lazar Norman, Zelik Kopelovich and his family, and several Russian families. In the Saratov region I worked until March 1942 as a smith, locksmith, and so forth. I got to starve as much as the other inhabitants until I was mobilized to the army in which I remained for a month. Near Rotishtsheva I met Abraham Tsesakov, Yoseph's son.
|A group of partisan commanders
Second from right David Kopelovich.
Second from left Tuvya Finkelstein (Zhenia Miranovitsh).
Fourth from left Lyuba Miranovitch
Photo caption: A group of partisan commanders. Second from right David Kopelovich. Second from left Tuvya Finkelstein (Zhenia Miranovitsh). Fourth from left Lyuba Miranovitch.
I was called back from there to Moscow, where I took a four-week course on diversionary tactics and intelligence collection. The participants in the course, specifically chosen from Belorussia, were put into groups of seven to ten men and intended to be dropped over the other side of the front using parachutes.
The instruction was under the supervision of the Party's Central Committee in a secret place. The aim was for us to become the organizers of the partisan movement in Belorussia.
More than a month was allocated for us to reach our designated regions in which we needed to meet and carry out our underground activities. We lived through a lot in those weeks. In these areas of Vitebsk and Gomel there were tough partisan divisions which the Germans knew well and felt strongly. However the bases with supplies were far from the front. Conversely, in the south-westerly areas the partisan movement was very weak. The groups were without contact with each other and were quite demoralized.
Our mission was to reach the vicinity of Minsk region and from the Zaslavl Forest to connect with the existing partisan groups, consolidate them, convey a political content, put them under the central party leadership and to try to organize a broad partisan underground movement in Minsk and surroundings.
On my way to Minsk I had the opportunity to stop in several of the well-organized partisan units. In one of them, Diadya Vasya, I for the first time met Vileyka Jews and a few Russian. The dental doctor Shimshelevich, Noah Dinerstein, and Berta Dimentstein from Kholopi. The joy of the doctor whom I gave a live greeting from his three daughters who were in Russia and about whom he knew nothing at all, was great. Dr. Shimshelevitsh and his daughters survived the War and returned to Vileyka. He died not long ago.
Dr. Shimshelevich was an outstanding person. He used to give the partisans medical help, never missing the opportunity to take part in his brigade's battles. Therefore he earned great respect and several awards. He was, by the way, a relative of the second president of Israel, Isaac Ben-Tsvi.
Noah Dinerstein was one of the heroic partisans. Regretfully, I don't remember the circumstances of his death, because we were in different regions. But from what I heard, he fell as a hero. Bertha Dinentstein was a very courageous and heroic Jewish girl. She categorically refused to work in an infirmary and worked for her battalion commander, Volinets (from the village of Ivantsevitch) in order to take part in the battle groups. Therefore she paid with her life. Together with them there were several Dolhinov youths, and a young man from Kureniets, Yenkele Alperovich, a heroic fighter, very active in military intelligence and avenger of the fallen. Today he lives in the neighborhood of Vileyka a director of a factory.
When we arrived in the Zaslavl area, in the month of July 1942, we found a small number of partisan groups. The majority were runaway Russian soldiers, prisoners, who thought more about rescuing themselves. Among them were very few reliable people. The matter of consolidating them was very difficult. When the War ended, our brigade in that area numbered more than 2,000. We began building the movement with 10 people. My mission, at the beginning of the organizing, consisted of leading a group of five diversioners, who would blow up bridges, trains, factories, food warehouses and so forth. The work was not easy. However, we didn't ever not carry it out. I'm proud, writing these words, that I never lost one person in my group in carrying out these diversionary acts.
On a dark rainy night a group of five of us men left to plant a mine under the railway line near Zaslavl, an unknown area for us. While leading my group, we came very close to the train-signal light at the Zaslavl station, where I wanted to place the mine so that it would blow up the rail line and the signal light.
While I was near the spot where I needed to place the mine to this day I don't know how it happened my machine gun accidentally started to fire. My companions were certain that the German guards had seen us and had started to fire. In that moment when I looked around none of my companions were to be seen. When they heard the first shot they immediately returned to the forest. The German guards didn't wait to be asked and began to fire with such a hail of bullets that I didn't have a chance to turn back. It lasted longer than an hour until I slid to the woods and found my people. When I told them what had happened they became very unhappy with me. Nonetheless they agreed to wait a day to carry out the mission. We found a stall to sleep in and the next evening returned to the train.
We had only gone as far as a few hundred meters when a black cat ran across our path. Everyone decided to go back, because this is a bad sign. My entreaties didn't help. The decision was categorical. I took it as a personal failure. Especially with the first mission, that I, a Jew, should have such a disgrace. This would be a mark against me forever.
I decided to call a volunteer to assist me and have the rest return to the base. A volunteer immediately stepped forward. He was none other than a Jewish lad from Minsk, Nisinyevich, who in 1944 perished heroically.
We both waited, spending the night in a stall. The next night we arrived at the designated place. I placed the mine. It blew up the signal light and simultaneously put down two trains that happened to be going in different directions. This held up all movement on both lines for two full days.
The upshot was first; the Jew in us won respect. Second, two locomotives were destroyed, 24 wagons loaded with tanks and trucks. Around 85 Germans were killed or seriously injured.
I was assigned to a sabotage group of five people. Our mission was to blow up trains, bridges, factories, automobiles, and so forth. Most of the operations were carried out in the Minsk region.
Our small group noted in the first year of its activities: 28 downed trains, destruction of more than 50 bridges (among them the Sosenk Bridge over the Vilya), around 200 trucks, two tanks, an alcohol factory, more than ten mansions with surrounding grounds which Germans occupied and ran farming, a dozen mills, tractors and a large number of warehouses where the Germans stored food.
In 1943 I became the commander of the military intelligence division, and until 1944 was involved with obtaining secret information about the movements of the Germans in the area.
I managed through my secret agents to discover the fate of my parents who declined to relocate to Russia and moved in with my maternal grandfather, Moshe Kaganovich in Slobodka (near Molodechna). When I arrived in Belorussia, neither my parents nor any of my relatives remained in Slobodka. My mother, female relatives children were murdered in May 1942 in Slobodka. The healthy men, among them my father, were taken to labor camps. Until April 1943 we couldn't determine where they were taken. My work, as intelligence commander, was to recruit in every possible place where the Germans were active, agents to work for us. During this time I found out that my father was located in the Krasna (Kraniensk??) labor camp. We got him out in very tragic circumstances in April 1943. Three days after his joining us, the camp was destroyed by the Germans. The satanic German plan became known to us a few days earlier.
My father remained with me in Otriyad (Frunze Brigade) until the last day of the War. Ignoring the weakened condition of his health, he took very active part in all of our battles and was awarded two medals.
The last months before liberation I was made the commissar of the Otriyad. Aside from my special missions, I didn't let any opportunity pass to take part in the operations of our Otriyad. Like, for example, destroying the German and police garrisons in Hatsentsit, Iliye, Narevka, Sosenka, in the Vileyka region, and many other operations.
For my accomplishments in the partisan movement I received three awards:
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