Jews had a special status in the Partisan movement. Most of them survived life in the ghetto or ran away from the German concentration camps, where they performed hard labor. Many actively participated in the underground movement. However, unlike the Belorussian partisans, Jewish fighters could not easily blend in with the local population and could not count on their support. For understandable reasons, they were deprived the support of the local Jewish population, who by 1942 were mostly wiped out by the Nazis and their helpers. Nevertheless, Jews constantly resisted the nationalists and anti-Semites, not just in the local population but among the partisans as well.
Saving Jews from destruction, not just resisting the Nazis occupation, was the main goal of the family groups in the forests. Most often, they existed next door to partisan centers. These groups brought together and supported those who ran away from the Nazis but were unable to fight, mostly women, children and elderly. Partisans and people in family groups constantly lived under blockade conditions. They were often subjected to raids by the Germans, who used large forces of their armies and police to perform these raids. However, it was even more difficult to withstand the pressure from the Belarussian partisans who argued that family camps needed to be liquidated since people who did not directly participate in the fighting, complicating the situation for the others. Many family camps continued to lose significant numbers of their members during the long months of the war and at the end members of the punitive squads still liquidated them. A portion of the camps was able to hold out and survive. Most of the family camps were in direct communication with soviet partisans and used their help. Jews took part in providing financial and technical support to partisans, stood guard, went out on combat missions, helped maintain communication with the underground and fought in battles against Nazis and police.
The idea of creating family camps for Jews belonged to Anatoly (Tuvya) Bielsky. Together with his brothers Alexander and Sigizmund, he organized many escapes for prisoners from a number of ghettos in Western Belarus. The prisoners were directed to the Naliboky virgin forest, which spread for three thousand square kilometers on the right bank of the river Neman. Residents of the nearby Jewish shtetels were wonderful guides through the area, maintained connection with the local Belorussian population and often had their sympathy and support. After some time the camp grew to 250 people, then to 700, and by the summer of 1944 it numbered 1230 people. Women, elderly and children who were doomed in the occupied territories made up more than 70 percent of the camp. Men who were able to fight carried arms and guarded the camp. They also took part in combat missions with the nearby camps termed the rail track war. Others in the camp provided as much help as they could with everyday things to the nearby groups of partisans. Taking into account the need for supplying the livelihood of these camps as well as presence of qualified specialists, in Bielsky's camp people organized various shops. No less than 200 shoemakers, tailors, cabinetmakers, leather-dressers, gunsmiths and other artisans worked in those shops. They opened their own hospital with full health services and a dental office as well as an elementary school for children. Special brigades formed to supply the rest of the camp with food potatoes, grain, meat, vegetables, mushrooms and berries. They built a mill, a bakery, a soap-boiler and a laundry. In addition, they sowed eight hectares of wheat and barley. Other partisan units, based on the Bielsky family camp, formed, troops named after Kalinin and Ordzhonikidze as part of the Kirov's brigade. Jewish partisans successfully took part in the combat missions. In the years 1942 to 1944, they derailed six echelons of the enemy, bombed 19 bridges, burned down a lumber factory and eight national German estates, blew up 800 meters of railroad tracks, and killed 261 police officers and Nazis. They also prevented deportation of more than one thousand residents to the forced labor camps in Germany.
Sholom Zorin organized another large Jewish family camp about 30 kilometers from Minsk. By April of 1943, Zorin fought as a commander of the cavalry platoon of the Budeny detachment of the partisan joined forces named in honor of Stalin. He persuaded the leaders of the detachment to organize a Jewish family camp. Zorin had 18 devoted partisans who began finding those who escaped from ghettos and hid in rural areas or wandered in the nearby forests. By the end of May 1943, 110 Jews, 25 of them armed, were under his guardianship. Soon, due to safety concerns, the family camp was transferred from the forests of the Derzhinsky district of the Minsk region to the Naliboksky virgin forest (Ivenets and Novogrudok districts of the Baranovichi region). The detachment received the ordinal number 106 of Yevenezky Joined Partisan Forces. Commander Sholom Zorin, commissar Chaim Feigelson and chief of staff Anatoly Vertgeim were in charge of the detachment. By July of 1943, members of the Zorin detachment included 45 fighters and 270 women, elderly and children. A year later in July of 1944 they numbered 137 and 270 respectively. They participated in combat missions against the enemy, went out on household operations to supply partisans with food. On July 6, 1944, the detachment fought against Germans who tried to get out of the encirclement after the liberation of Minsk. In that battle, six partisans lost their lives, and three received serious wounds. Among the wounded was the commander Sholom Zorin, in order to save him doctors had to amputate his leg.
In the summer and fall of 1942, Nazis began liquidating ghettos in Western Belarus. Jews from Mir, Kletsk, Lyachovichi, Nesvizh, Kosovo and many other places were exterminated. The ghetto in Stolbtsy continued to function for a while longer. A few Jews left there, received an assurance of their safety because Germans needed them as labor force. A labor camp was located in New Sverzhen, three kilometers from Stolbtsy: Arbeitslager der Lufthanskommando Breslau, Krakow, Moskau. (Work camp of the Air Command) Three hundred and eight Jews from nearby shtetls worked there making rails for the railroad. A fence with barbed wire surrounded the camp and twenty gendarme and police officers guarded it. Many understood that the end was near and that it was time to leave. Many of the Jews fought in the Zhukov partisan detachment under the command of Lev Gilchik in Molotov's brigade, operating in the Krasno-Slobodsky district of Polese. A few of the Jews who escaped from New Sverzhen, petitioned commanders of the brigade to include prisoners from the labor camp in the detachment but they were only allowed to bring in young men able to fight. However, Lev Gil'chik promised his support in case women and children came along with the men. Gershl Posessorsky together with four partisans from Zhukov's squadron (3 Jews and 1 Belarussian) set off for New Sverzhen. On their way, they disarmed two police officers, taking their rifles and ammunition. They got to the place on January 29, 1943 and passed on instructions to the underground workers who simultaneously served in the police. With the help of these underground police officers, they came to the lumber factory, where Jewish prisoners worked and together they went to the territory of the labor camp. At night, a few hundreds of the prisoners ran in various directions. The guards began to fire but more than 140 Jews got away. In three days they marched about 100 kilometers and on February 4, 1943, they came to Zhukov's squadron.
The brigade named after Molotov formed as a Jewish family camp and men who were able to fight made up a separate brigade, a third company of the squadron. By that time, members of punitive squads began the blockade of the partisan territory. Making use of the winter weather, especially the frozen swamps and rivers, they surrounded Molotov's brigade. Partisans were breaking out of the ring with great battles, many nearby villages burned down. At the same time, hunger and typhus began to spread. People began to look for scapegoats for this unlucky streak. They began to blame Jews from New Sverzhen', since the latter brought with them unarmed men and women arguing that family camps were threatening the well-being of the entire brigade. Anti-Semitic charges, accusations and insults were voiced. Jews were called scroungers, cowards, and parasites. In order to avoid banishment from the squadron that would mean inevitable death, 10 people from the third company set off for Kopyl district in search of weapons. At the same time, groups of 6 to 8 Jews began to disappear from the family camps. They were sent on special tasks from which they did not return. A tragic accident happened with Gershl' Posessorsky. Commander of the squadron Ananchenko summoned Gershl to his quarters and asked him to surrender German automatic pistol. When Gershl refused to obey Ananchenko shot him. It happened on March 27, 1943. Shaken by this cold-blooded murder and by the silence of the commanders, members of the third company left the brigade and went into a different region.
Many small Jewish family camps made up mostly of elderly, women and children existed in Belarus. In 1942, there was a small family camp situated in an island of forest growth on the edge of a meadow drowned with water. It was in the Baranovichi region near a backcountry house far from any populated areas. Half a kilometer away a partisan squadron under the command of Andrey Pugachev set up camp. In the spring of 1942, the steward of the estate of Carolina, Tsibulsky ,convinced the German commandant to transfer under his personal care five families from Dolginovo ghetto under the pretense they had special skills [needed] for the German national economy (tailors, shoemakers, agricultural workers, and blacksmiths). All together, there were over 30 people. The Germans ordered Tsibulsky to make sure that Jews did not escape. The estate of Carolina stood on the former border between the USSR and Poland near the Viliya river. The Germans were afraid to set foot in the vast areas of forest that started beyond the river. Tsibulsky did not confine the prisoners to one area, allowing them to move freely on the territory of the estate and did not lock them up for the night. Very soon, Jews left into the forest and there met partisans of the brigade Narodnie Mstiteli (Avenger's of the people). The Commissar of the brigade, Ivan Teemchuk, helped them organize a family camp, where about a hundred of people incapable of active service came together, having escaped from various small shtetls.
In May of 1942, fifteen Jewish families (about 70 people) decided to secretly leave the ghetto in the shtetl of Khotenchitsy in Viley district of the Minsk region and hide in the forest. The ghetto formed back in July of 1941 was purposefully not guarded. The center of the shtetl was situated on a hill with three streets descending downward. The ghetto began at the end of one of these streets and was visible from every direction. Twelve Jews (a barber, a locksmith and members of their families) refused to go into the forest. They cited the difficulties of camp life and their necessity as repair people no matter who is in power. Jews who escaped from the ghetto stayed in hiding until July 1944 and all survived, whereas their neighbors who did not have the courage to run away, were murdered. The story of the survival of Jews from Khotenchitsy is unique for another reason. Stepan Leshkevich, deacon in the local church, initiated the idea of aiding prisoners of the ghetto. At the beginning of the war, Nazis appointed him the burgomaster at the Khotenchitsy, since he was a former officer of the Old Russian army (before 1917) and had facility in the German language. At night, in April of 1942, members of the punitive squad came to the shtetl. Leshkevich talked them into temporarily postponing their operation under the pretense that Jews were busy working on the German agricultural lands where they comprised the main labor force. According to burgomaster, early liquidation of the ghetto would get in the way of the crop sowing campaign. In the morning, he told the Jews about the danger and suggested that they hide somewhere, which is exactly what they did.
In the summer of 1944, with the arrival of the Red Army, Stepan was arrested and tried for assisting occupiers in the shtetl of Il'ya. Although, the Jews of Khotenchitsy energetically spoke out in his defense, the former burgomaster was sentenced to the most severe punishment. The Jews who soon witnessed another hearing reacted to this decision of the court with graveness. This time Michael Filistovich from the near by shtetl of Vyazyn' was on trial. He himself betrayed Lazar and Genya Sosensky, who miraculously survived the first raid, to the Nazis. In 1944, in the same shtetl of Il'ya, Filistovich was sentenced to 10 years in labor camps. Thus, the government did not view actions of Filistovich as betrayal, punishable by death. After serving for seven years, Michael Filistovich was released under the amnesty. After that, he moved to Lithuania, where he lived until early 1990s.
Some Jewish families who found themselves in the forest after running away from the ghetto showed unbelievable will in their fight for survival. Torn away from populated areas for an extended time, without any outside help, they found ways to provide food and living conditions for themselves and their families, revealing their wit and enterprising abilities in the process. They took care of the myth that Jews are unfit for physical labor. Israel Proshitsky owned a tar extraction plant in Polessye near the village of Tsygan. He had six children, the youngest three years old. Before the war, they spent time in the village during the summer and in the winter moved 20 kilometers to Lyachovichi, where the children studied at the Jewish school. In October of 1941, Nazis killed most of the Jews of the shtetl as well as nearby villages. Jews from Tsygan' hid into the forest at the right time; however, when the winter came and temperatures dropped, they were forced to move into the Lykhovichi ghetto.
Israel and his oldest 15-year-old son Aaron were allowed to stay because occupiers needed tar production. In the beginning of the Spring of 1942, Israel made a decision to go into the woods with his family. The territory of the woods spread for hundreds of kilometers all the way to Pinsk, alternating in places by swamps. Few people lived in this area due to the poor quality of the soil. In addition, there were many deadly places where a thin layer of dirt hid treacherous bogs that could easily engulf a rider and his horse. In the Summer, mosquitoes and midges made life miserable and there were poisonous snakes and wolves. Nechama, Israel Proshitsky's wife knew what kind of difficulties would await her family in the woods and she turned to a Rabbi for advice. He answered, Whatever will happen to the people of Israel, will happen to you. However, her husband had made up his mind. He paid off the police officer guarding the ghetto and took his family into the woods. They built a hut in the deep fir tree growth and created something resembling a Russian stove. To hide from the rain they made the roof of the hut out of the tree bark. They brought some crackers, flour, clothes, tools and even old millstones there. The previous fall, Israel had sown rye near the tar extraction plant and in the spring, he sowed wheat and potatoes. He bought two rifles, bullets and two grenades from some peasants in the village. Meantime, the killings in Lyachovichi began again. Six Jews from the ghetto ran to Tsygan' asking to be connected with Proshitsky; however, fugitives were turned in to the police.
Israel fought in the Old Russian army during World War I. Using that experience, he taught his sons, Aaron, Yankel, Chaim and Boruch to use a gun, to hide in the forest, and to spy on the enemy. Nechama tried to help the Jews who stayed in Lyachovichi but the ghetto was seeing its last days. Germans increased the security and Nechama with two young men barely got out themselves. Supplies in the hut were running out but soon came time to harvest wheat. At night, men went to the tar extraction plant and threshed harvested ears of wheat in bags. Then they ground the dried grain on the millstone and from the flour baked bread. Also at night, they dug out potatoes, picked and dried mushrooms and berries. By the wintertime, they made their hut warmer, putting sod around the walls and on the roof. They also stocked up on dry wood. However, a new danger aroused. In the village, a rumor spread that the Proshitskys were hiding gold. Some wanted to get rich fast with the help of police. Prudent Proshitsky constructed a new base in the remote Babinichy forest, on an island in the swamp overgrown with pine trees. To get there, they laid wooden planks and then picked them up after themselves. However, in the spring and in the fall everything around the island went under water and Jews hid there. Nevertheless, Proshitsky had someone on guard because during the tide people could get to the island by boat. This hiding place remained a secret until the very end of the war. Once again, he got a horse, began to plow and sow on the deserted areas of tillage in the forest, and gathered harvest. Late in the fall of 1943, a distant cannonade became audible. The Soviet Army advanced to Pinsk from the south. However, they had to wait for liberation the whole winter and half of the summer. By that time, Aaron and other young men had left the ghetto and joined partisans.
After the end of the war, a new odyssey began for Proshitsky's family, which lasted another five years. They moved to Poland and from there under the pretense of returning Greek Jews from a concentration camp they went to the Czech Republic. Then through Austria, they went to the American occupied area of Germany. The older children decided to make their way to Palestine but Englishmen captured the boat and Jewish passengers had to get off at Cyprus. Only after the declaration of the Israeli independence in 1948, did the whole family gather on the land about which they dreamed in the swamps of Polese. The following table shows a rough estimate of the number of Jewish family camps that existed in the Belarussian republic during the war.
Jewish family camps and brigades in Belarussian republic between 1941 and 1944
|The name of the area, region (oblast), city, district (rayon)||Number of Jews|
|Vitebsk, Glubokoe, Sharkovshina||400-600|
|Myadel', Vileika, Kobilniki, Kurenez||500-700|
|Lida, Radun', Zabolote||200-300|
|Novogrudok, Iv'e, Mir, Dvorez||1000-1200|
|Minsk, Minsky region||700-800|
|Nesvizh, Kopil', Stolbzi, Sverzhen'||150-200|
|Slonim, Beliza, Derechin||300-600|
|Baranovichi, Biten', Molchad||350-400|
Jewish family units and camps existed not just in Belarus but also in southern Polessye: Sernik, Dubroviza, Visozk 350 Jews; in Volin: Manevichi, Povorotsk, Troyanov (150-250 people), Rovno, Rokitno, Berezno (150-200 people), Korets (50 people); in Russia: Bryansk (300 people); in Poland: Belostok (400 people).
Attempts of Belarussian partisans to lead Jews out of the occupied territories through the front line in the proximity of the Soviet home front deserve special mention. Favorable conditions for these trips away from the occupied territories first appeared in the winter of 1941-1942 during the offensive movement of the Soviet third and fourth shock troops. As a result of these movements, a gap appeared about 40 km in width at the front line between the cities of Velizh and Usvyaty at the turn of the German armies Sever (North) and Tsenter (Center). Forces of the First Belarussian Partisan Brigade controlled this gap known as The Gate of Surazh. Diversion groups, weapons, bullets, and medicine went through this gate into the home line of the enemy and partisan brigades along with local population running away from the punitive squads came through into the Soviet home line for reorganization and evacuation respectively. Thus, in August of 1942, partisans from the squadron Mstitel (Avenger), brigade Narodnie Mstiteli (National Avengers) formed a new squadron Pobeda (Victory) to pass through the Gate of Surazh. Kiselev took command of the squadron and Kolesnikov joined as the chief of staff. The squadron included 218 people, mostly Jewish mothers with children, elderly, and Belarussian peasants, whose houses Nazis burned down for hiding Jews. During that time, Germans began a blockade of the forests where partisans operated. Refugees had to hide in the swamps, moving only at night (15-20 km) and walking around any populated areas. They drank water from the swamps, ate grass, berries and mushrooms. Their clothes turned into rags. When their shoes tore completely, they wrapped cloth around their legs and continued on walking. After passing the river Berezena, a group of young partisans that was mobilized by partisans to go into the Red Army joined the squadron. Yaakov Segalchik and Avraham Klorin, who approved the fact that a few hundreds Jews who survived in the ghettos of Kurenets, Dolginovo, and Postavy first found refuge in the forests around the lake Naroch, also confirm this. Later during September-December of 1942 and January-February of 1943, this squadron came across the front line in the region of Surazh's Gate.
At the same time, we still lack complete understanding of the motives by which partisans helped Jews leave the occupied territories. Most likely, they did it for the Jews, as a part of peaceful Soviet population subjected to repressions by Nazis. Refugees were defenseless (women, elderly and children) and the Germans had destroyed most of the Jewish men by that time. All together, in Belarus during the occupation, 1255 brigades actively fought against the enemy. These brigades included 370,00 partisans and 70,000 members in the urban underground. Partisan membership included multiple nationalities: 71.2% Belarussian, 19.2% Russian, 3.9% Ukrainian and 5.7% other (mostly Jews). In addition, the partisan ranks included about four thousands foreign antifascists. Beginning in 1943, partisans controlled 18,000 square kilometers in Minsk, Polessye and Pinsk regions, and 3200 square kilometers in Polotsk-Lepel zone. In total, they controlled around 60 % of rural territories in Belarus. Partisans remained standing against 600,000 German soldiers and about 100,000 members of German police who undertook numerous punitive operations against them. The Nazis adopted scorched earth tactics. They tried to provide for their home line, mobilize the resources of Belarus for the needs of Germany and to frighten peaceful local population as part of these tactics. Germans blockaded areas where partisans operated with the help of large army troops as well as SS and SD units strengthened by aviation, tank and artillery squadrons. In 1941, most notable punitive operations included Bolota Pripyati (Pripyat Swamps) and Bamberg. In 1942, Strely (Arrows), Pantera (Panther), Bolotnaya likhoradka (Malaria), Rys' (Bobcat), Grif (Vulture), Serebristaya Lisa (Silver Fox), Kletka obez'yany (the cage of the monkey), Bely Medved (White bear). In 1943, Zimny les (Winter forest), Prazdnik urozhaya (Celebration of the harvest), Zimnee volshebstvo (Winter magic), Rusalka (mermaid), Maiskii zhuk (may bug), Molniya (Lightning), Barbara, Ochota na utok (Hunting for ducks). In 1944, Vichor (Forelock, tuft), Marabu (Marabou), Baklan (Cormorant), Liven (Pouring rain), Prazdnik vesni (Celebration of the Spring) and others.
During the numerous punitive operations and blockades, many Jewish family camps in Minsk, Vitebsk, and Baranovichi and Vileyka regions were broken down or destroyed. According to the German military records, in October of 1941 one hundred Jews were liquidated in Koidanovo and 1300 Jews in Smilovichi. In September of 1942, in the Baranovichi region, among 233 bandits killed by Nazis were 80 armed Jews. In December of 1942, SS units and police killed 1676 partisans, 1510 questionable personalities, 658 Jews and 30 gypsies in the Slonim district, during the operation of Hamburg. Those who survived, with huge losses, went into other regions either on their own or with the help of partisans. Punitive squads burned down 627 villages in Belarus along with their residents. However, during these operations of vozmezdiya (retribution) Nazis did not reach their goal. By the end of 1943, partisans controlled 108,000 square kilometers of rural areas (60%) in Belarusian republic. Twenty large partisan zones situated in that territory: zone of Lepel-Ushachy (3,200 square km), zone of Borisov-Begoml (6,000 square km), Klichev (over 3,000 square km), Ivenets-Naliboki (over 2,500 square km), south of Minsk oblast (4,300 square km), north of Polessye region (1900 square km). These zones of resistance came together by the combined efforts of Belarusian, Russian, Ukrainian, Latvian and Lithuanian (square Olevsk-Ovruch-Mozyr-Turov) partisans. Large partisan regions existed in between the Dnepr, Pripyat and Disna rivers as well as on the junction of Russian Federation, Belarussian Republic, and Latvia.
Many family camps existed under the care and protection of partisans. Some Jews hid in Belarussian villages located in partisan zones. Forty Jews made their way to the detachments named in honor of Kutuzov. Residents of villages Porech'e and Svyatoe in the Rogachev district took them into their homes. Misha Pekar was taken in by Matrena Michalchik, Senya Glaichengauz by Anna and Michael Khurs, Sima Stavitsky by Aleksey and Agripina Shashok. Benyamin Malakhovsky from the Iv'e ghetto was taken in by Susana Milko. The Akimenkovo family in the shtetl Svisloch near Bobruisk saved Isaac Avsievich. Mikhail and Leontina Kizhlo from Shemelki village in the Braslavsky region saved Barkan family David, Lubov, as well as their children (Jacob, Rafail, Hannah) and grandmother Sheina. In Mogilev region, Domna Glutakov (village Mokhovoe) saved the Klebanov family and Nikolai and Anastasia Melnikov (Krasnopolye district) saved Evgeniya Greenberg. In the Gomel region, Anna Derevyashkin (Alekseev) and Lidiya Michalkin (Pitsunik) saved Hannah Khoroshin; Alexander Revyakov (Zhlobin) saved Boris Glakovsky; and Tina Makovsky saved Olga Sorokin.
All attempts to liquidate antifascist resistance in Belarus during the war turned out futile. In July of 1944, the Soviet Army during a large operation termed Bagration completely liberated Belarussian territories and a year later World War II ended. Belarusian citizens returned home from evacuation, from regions by the Soviet home line and from the army. A huge effort began to restore destroyed Belarus. However, Belarus only returned to its pre-war population numbers 50 years later. In addition, the truth about the Jewish family camps and detachments, which played a significant role in saving lives of those few who survived life in the ghetto, as well as the self-sacrificing fight of the Jews against the Nazis during the occupation, remained hidden for almost half a century.
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