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[Page 445]

The Shtetl Slobodka

By Boris Berkman

The Son of Mira-Leah and Shmuel-Hillel

Translated by Guy Elitzur

In honor of his grandmothers' family, the Lif family of Slobodka

The village (“Shtetl”) of Slobodka is located on a hill between Braslav and Drujsk. Forests and lakes encompass it and in its center – stands the big construction of the Christian church, with its vault, which could be seen from a long distance. Not many inhabitants lived there; approximately two hundreds families out of which close to forty were Jewish families. For how many generations the Jews lived in Slobodka? I do not know. There is no written source from which one can draw this information and unfortunately, the elders of the shtetl, are not a live anymore. I just know that my mother and also her parents were born in this village.

A Jewish community life didn't really exist in this village. All the Jewish public matters were around the single synagogue of the village. My father - Shmuel-Hillel Berkman, was the manager of synagogue affairs (“Gabai”) and handled the entire matter of public affairs. As for the religion affairs, the Jews enjoyed the great help of Rabbi Shabtai Romshyniat, the Rabbi of the nearby village Drujsk. The Jews found their living in tailoring, fur's trade, shoemaking and minor trade. The children of Israel learned in the Polish school and after Scholl's time, they continue learning in the “Heder” (The Jewish elementary school) located at one of Synagogue's rooms. The teacher-tutor in the “Heder” was always a young boy that learned in one of the nearest Yeshiva or a young Yeshiva student from a certain village. The tutor was a “Day eater” sustained by the people of the village, a common practice that was acceptable for many generations in the villages with small Jewish communities.

Only a few of the inhabitants of Slobodka went out to learn in other places. My elder sister and I learnt in the “Yavne” school in Braslav. From all the Zionist youth movement, Slobodka had a small branch of “Betar” (Brith Yosef Trumpeldor). The neighborhood relations between the Jews and the non-Jews in Slobodka were excellent thanks to the head of the local council, who knew to tie good friendship relations with the Jews. The life in that place was serenely passing during many years.

A big army camp existed in Slobodka; a known place where a prime brigade of the Polish Border keepers sat. When the Polish-German war broke in 1939, the army left Slobodka and the area stayed with no ruler. The gentiles of Slobodka and the surroundings used the anarchy and started to despoil the Jewish property.

We were six souls in the family. Our parents: Shmuel-Hillel and Mira-Leah, the sisters: Rashke, Zisle and the brothers: Boris (me) and Leybke.

Following the Russian-German agreement and the distribution of Poland, the soviet arrived to Slobodka. Upon their arrival, the anarchy has stopped and slowly life came back to its peaceful track. The Jews return to deal with craft and trading without interruptions. The Russian army entered the existing army camp and kept the normal course of living in the village and in the entire surroundings. Everyone got used to the new situation and hoped it will keep that way for a long period. But the situation had been changed when the Russian-German war has started on June 22, 1941.

The Survival Story of Boris Berkman

Boris Berkman during the war

A few days after the beginning of the war, the Russian (Soviet) army left Slobodka and its surroundings and moved east. The local authorities joined the army and Slobodka was left again without any ruling body. The local Christians, and with them the Polish citizens, appointed themselves to be the rulers. Full of joy and happiness, they walked in the streets of the village and declared that they are waiting for the German releasers that will release them from the Soviet and the Jewish burden.

Among the Polish workers that announced out load about the end of the Jews, one boy protruded in particular. He was the boy of one of Slobodka's Polish families named Richter. At the arrival day of the German, we, the Jews, sat shut off in our homes. No one got out. Worried and full of fear we sat and thought of what is going to happen. And indeed, we didn't have to wait long. A few days after their arrival, the German enforced edicts on the Jews. Every hour, every day, they added more edicts. “Here, Jews, don't go”, “There, don't stand”; Once in a while, they required a ransom. Sometimes they required gold, once, cash and in other case, clothes or furs and other things. The Jews needed to comply with the edicts in a period of a few hours, and if not-they threaten – “we would kill some Jews”.

During one of the days, the German appointed a Jewish committee and in its head was Antin, a Jew that used to own a store in the village. According to the German orders, Antin was to be connected to the Judenrat in Braslav and would get the miscellaneous German edicts from them. We, the inhabitants of the village, worked in different coercion groups and especially in loading and unloading near the train. Molke Gaskin and Isaiah Kanfer worked with me.

One morning, a few trucks entered the village accompanied by the Germans and their assistants. They stopped at the center of the village and announced that they needed young Jewish boys, to commit a certain job, which they didn't disclose its nature. The committee decided who would go and we got up on the tracks and waited for a motion. There was a great fear. We suspected that it is not about work. We wondered if these hours weren't our last hours. After few hours, we started moving, while the eyes of ours parents escorted us with great sorrow, until the very end of the village.

They drove us to the shtetl of Druja and put us in its big synagogue. There we found Jews from Drujsk sitting timorous and full of fear. They were brought here a few hours before us. The synagogue looked like it was after a pogrom; sheets of the Torah and pages from holly books were all over the floor. From the Slobodka boys who were brought with me, I remember Molke Gaskin, Shneior Biyalik, Kanfer, Palke, Zeligman and few of the Dagovitch family. We didn't see any Jews from Druja and we didn't know what had happened to them.

The night came. We lied down and anticipated what our destiny will bring us. With the crack of dawn, they woke us, ordered us in lines and we started walking. We arrived to the Davina River. Here they stopped us. There was a raft bridge over the river. The German ordered us, yelling, to remove the bridge immediately even tough none of us had any idea how to do it. We started working. The German's yelling “Yude” “Yude” following with denunciations which continued all the time. The work was complicated and difficult. At certain moments Molke Gaskin slightly failed with the tasks and the German attacked him with no mercy. The work continued for two days with no break and the bridge was removed. At the end of the work, the German ordered us to return home, some to Drujsk and others to Slobodka, all by foot. The distance was 25 Kilometers. Exhausted we started going back and arrived to Slobodka after many hours of walking.

In the village, they all sat tensed waiting for any news of what had happened to us. We returned to our parents' houses. The life continued as usual: Coercion work, meager bread and little water. We survived from selling our property which we succeeded in hiding from the eyes of the pillagers. This way it continues until the middle of the winter of 1942.

In one of the winter's days, The German announced that the Jews of Slobodka have to leave their houses and their village, and together with Jews from Drujsk, they needed to move to the city of Vidze. Beside the Jews' houses, winter-carriages were placed, driven by their owners- peasants from the surroundings communities. Near the carriages, local gentiles gathered around immediately and expressed their happiness that, here, as they hoped and wanted the entire property of the Jews will be theirs. During the years, they said shameless, they waited for this moment.

Weeping and sorrowful, we loaded just a little of our belongings and started the ride. The road to Vidze passed through Braslav, and in Braslav, we knew that the Jews are closed in Ghetto and they, also, do not know what to expect in every moment that arrives. During the ride, the peasants told us that “behind Braslav, there are pits ready for the Jews”. We heard that in silence. We continued the ride without further talking and only when we came near Braslav, my father, of blessed memory, broke the silence and said “kids, whoever has the ability to escape, should standup and run, find a place to hide and hopefully you will be saved. Mama and I do not have the ability to do so any more”. The sorrow was deep. We didn't want to be separated. We got into the town, and here, somehow, I took the courage into both hands. I jumped out off the carriage and slipped before the escorts would notice.

I was alone. During the first days in Braslav I stayed at the house of Moshe Milutyn's parent. Then I lived together with some of Jaisi' Jews. Once in a while, I had to move to another apartment. The Jews of the Braslav ghetto were prohibited to let in Jews from outside the place. I remember one time when I stayed at Moshe Milutyn parents' house, who took care of me like one of the family, I heard knockings at midnight, and Moshe's mother called: “What's wrong with you? Wouldn't you let us sleep at nights?” I was hidden in the basement and they opened the door. They were Jews, from the Judenrat, they came to look for outsiders Jews who are sheltered there.

I lived in Braslav's Ghetto until that bitter day, Sivan 18, 1942, the day when the German and their helpers from the local police started to drive away the Jews from their houses and run them up to the Provo-Slavic church. They led us like lambs to the slaughter. From here, the Jews were taken group by group to the killing pits.

Amongst the group of Jews I was in, we secretly agreed to attempt to escape. We knew we had nothing to lose. We kept on walking and when we were closed to the pits, about 50 meters from them, I started running away from the group. I ran towards the railroad and on my arrival, I collapsed. I must have fainted. I don't know how long I lied there in a state of being unconscious; Maybe a whole day, maybe more.

When I woke up, I was completely exhausted. I waited for the nightfall and started preparing myself to draw away from the place. Arduously, I arrived to the lake of Nuveieta during daylight. I set in a hiding place to consider the situation: When should I turn? The area of Slobodka was well-known to me and I thought it will better I'll go there, but how? On the way there, one must cross two bridges that should be well guarded.

I had to cross the bridge. I reached it and lie on the ground for a watch. The guards were on the bridge. I assumed that with the daylight, they would leave the bridge. And indeed, when the day lighted, the German left the bridge. I took the risk and passed to the other side of the bridge. I walked on side-roads and with much caution so I wouldn't be revealed. On the road, the peasants went to work in the fields. I reached a certain distance from the village of Glinboka Here the lads of the village had noticed me and started screaming: “Z'id, Z'id”, one of the peasants with a fork on his hand, started running towards me. When he was near me, I recognized him, Kishel they called him. He sent one of the boys to bring the police from the village. Luckily, I succeeded, before they came, to escape the place as well as the gentile (so called)-“friend”, that more than once visited out home before the war.

At night, I was walking and at daylight I was hiding in shelters I found on the way. After few nights of walking, I arrived to the village of Berkovyszyzna and to Mylkavitz, the peasant who was one of our family' friends. My father had given him a significant part of our property for safekeeping during the first days of the war. I told him what had happened to the Jews and to our family and asked him for a place to hide. For my delightfulness, he agreed immediately. At the same day, Mylkavitz and his Boys, which were about the same age as I was, prepared me a place to hide in the barn.

I stayed here for an extended time. During one of the days, the boys of Mylkavitz told me that their father had already discussed with the priest in Slobodka the fact that he provided me with a shelter in his house. The priest told him that it is a great righteousness to save a hunted Jew, even if a strong element of danger is embedded in it. That man was known for his good treatment of the Jews. I sat there calmly and securely until the day when Mylkavitz's neighbor saw me when I got out from the barn. Unfortunately, I had to leave to place at once.

With the help of the peasant's boy, who knew a friend, a gun was purchased for me, which afterwards increase my confidence. After the war, I kept in touch with the Mylkavitz family through letters for many years.

I started wandering again. The period was during the winter of 1943. Every night I camped in another place. The cold was strong and cruel and I was without any warm clothes. After a long walk I started feeling that my legs were freezing, I couldn't walk anymore. I was near the village of Gabienxs. Having no other option, I decided to knock on the doors of the homes, hoping to find a peasant that will let me in. I knocked on the door of one of the houses. An elder peasant woman opened the door and asked me for my identity. I explained to her my precarious condition and asked her to go and tell the Germans that they have a sick Jew in their home and they should ask that they would come to kill me.

“Heaven forbid!” said the gentile woman “I will not notify anyone. Stay with us and I will take care of your legs”. I was very glad to hear her say it and stayed with them. The peasant, with the help of all sorts of ointments and especially with the gall of pigs, took care of my legs. Only after a few days did she tell me that when the peasants asked her “why are you asking for gall of pig every time? “She answered that it's for her granddaughter's frozen hands.

She was a very religious woman. She did what she did out of deep pious feelings and from her rooted kindheartedness. They prepared for me a pit in the barn, in which I sat until the German started their searching at the peasants' houses. After a while, I got wind of the fact that the pit in the bran was discovered in their house – the Shvitzky house. I was terribly sorry about it. People like them, with human emotions, were few in those days.

In spite of the hostile reception I had received in the past near the village of Glinboka, I decided nevertheless, to reach the village and to come to the Morshke family who lived there. This family was known for the kindheartedness of her members. After few days of walking I reached them. As I expected, they welcomed me with sympathy and agreed that I'll stay as long as I wanted. They were poor peasants that barely earned their living and feeding me was, no doubt, a heavy mission for them. I decided to help them.

Once in a while, I went to the village of Berkovyszczyna, to peasant Mylkavitz to ask for a help and I always got it. In one of my “night touring” certain event occurred that scared me to death:

In a certain distance from me, a happy and singing group of lads came out and in a certain moment a shot was heard. It seemed to me that they knew I am a Jew and that I am trapped in their hands. Without hesitation, I pulled out the gun and started shooting. Screams were heard: “Partisans, Partisans “and they were dispersed. Quickly, I draw away from there, and return to my hiding place without anyone seeing me.

With the Morshke family I stayed until the news about the heavy losses to the German in the front, and the beginning of their withdrawal, had started to come to the area. The retreating German troops started to come to the village and their number increased.

The sounds of the cannons were well heard. It seems that their defeat is close. With their increasing number, the danger to my life rose. I decided to leave the house of Morshke, who has done much for my survival. Under peasant's clothes with a rope to my waists, I started going with an intention to reach the village of Lune nearby the lake and to go up on the nearest island to the beach, which I knew well.

I was lucky here as well, it was like the hand of fate, a good man appeared near the beach, a peasant from the village of Lune. He agreed to take me up to the island. He provided me also with a little water and bread. I am sorry I can't remember the name of this peasant, and indeed, thanks to him and others like him, I survived.

I stayed on the island for several of days. Suddenly, a silence came down around. The front drew away from here. One morning, the peasant came in his boat and called me out load: “young Brekman! Where are you? The war is over”. His words have shocked me. For years, I have been running around like a lonely wolf hunted by the ones who wanted me dead. Are his words true? Did I survive? It was hard to believe.

Carefully and with great fear from evil eye, the peasant brought me to his house. I was weak. I needed a few resting days and the family of the peasant agreed to have me in their home. After my recovery, I thanked the family from the bottom of my heart and left their house. I went to Slobodka, maybe I would find someone from our family.

The town was full of gentiles. The gentiles lived in all of the Jew's houses. From all of Slobodka's Jews, only Shneior Biyalik and the Gans brothers: Shlomo, David and Shalom (the Gans brothers immigrated to Israel afterwards) have remained. [Also survived from Slobodka: Lif Israel, who passed away in Petah-Tikva, Israel in 1991 and his daughter – Malka Elicer (maiden name –Lif), may she live long, who lives in Petah-Tikva Israel (added by the translator)]. I didn't stay much longer in Slobodka; I went to Druja to meet my uncle and my cousin who survived. My cousin, Zushke Berkman, immigrated to Israel and lives in Kyriat-Mutzkin.

I made some efforts to learn of what had happen to my parents, sisters and brother whom I left at the winter-carriage in Braslav on their way to Vidze, after I ran away from it. From the few who survived the Ghetto of Vidze, I learnt only general things which do not include any clue about our family. “Jews from Slobodka and Drujsk indeed came to Vidze and got into the local Ghetto. The German didn't eliminate the Ghetto of Vidze, but took away the Jews by groups to working camps that were scattered around the occupied territory. In the Ghetto of Vidze, Jews from Vidze, Drujsk, Slobodka and other villages from the surroundings were left. Only a few succeeded to escape and go into the forest where the Partisans had been operating. My family was lost together with other Jews in the camps without me knowing where and when. Only one clear new came to me: My father Shmuel Brekman, of blessed memory, was transferred to a camp near Dvinsk, in Latvia, where he found his death together with many Jews.

I was left alone from my entire immediate family. In Druja, I was recruited to the Red Army in which I served until the summer of 1946. In the city of Orsha., I was released from the Army. I went to Riga, Latvia and stayed there. Here I married Galia Ginsburg from Witbesk and here our Boy Shmuel was born. In 1957, we all immigrate to Israel.

The Lif family (early 1920s')
The translators' great grandfather - Israel Lif, 2nd row,
1st from the right and one of his older brother,
Scholem (Shalom) Lif (who immigrated to the US
before the war, 2nd row, 2nd from the left.
The son of Scholem Lif, Zanvel Lif, gave the
picture to the translator. It is dated few years
before the translator's grandmother was born

 

The translators' great-great grandfather,
Menachem-Mendel Lif, with two of
his children (or grandchildren)


The story of the Lif family of Slobodka by the translator

The story of my family is based on the few details that I could find: Menachem-Mendel Lif from Slobodka married Zelda Koftolowicki (I don't know from where) and they had 7 children; Chayke, Lipke, Chashke, Scholem, Leib (Louise), Zalman (Saul) and Israel, my great grandfather. Three out of the four sons (expect for my great grandfather) immigrated to America some years before WWII, married and lived there for the rest of their life.

My great grandfather, Israel Lif, married Frida Bejgel (from a shtetl called: Swiencian (now in Lithuania)) and had 6 children – Abraham-Yitzchak (who died after the war in Bergen-Belzen), Zelda-Mera, Shalom, Rachel, Mendel and my grandmother-Malka) Chayke Lif married with Leib (Arie) Bick from Obsi and had two children: Gershon and Zelda). Lipke Lif was married and had four children. Chashke Lif married to David Hendels from Lodz and had four children: Yechezkel, Mendel, Feybush and Sarah.

After the war had started, the families of Israel, Chayke, Lipke and Chashke were taken from Slobodka to the ghetto of Vilna where they stayed in tents.

In one of the days, the entire families of Chayke, Lipke and Chaske where taken out of the ghetto of Vilna without anyone knows where to and for what. The rumors in the ghetto were that all of them were killed in the forest of Ponary.

Few days afterwards, the men were taken and my grandmother, Malka, had remained only with her mother and her sisters. One day followed another and one by one, the other sisters of my grandmother were taken away (probably to Auschwitz where they found their death).

Shortly after that, the German required a lineup in which they separated my grandmother from her mother. They both cried and refused to be separated, so a SS solider beat them both and throw each one of them to a separate line. That's the last time, my grandmother saw her mother.

From there my grandmother was taken to Estonia for a few months and then by a raft she was moved together with many others to the camp of Stutthof. Few months afterwards, she was moved to Bergen-Belzen when she was finally released in April 15, 1945.

Her father, Israel, and her elder brother Abraham-Yitzchak were taken from Vilna to Estonia and from there to Stutthof as well. From Stutthof, there were moved to Berma camp when they were finally released.

When Israel was released he started looking for the rest of his family moving from camp to camp in Germany. In one of the camp, he found a neighbor who told him that his daughter Malka has survived in the camp of Bergen-Belzen.

He went there with his son and found Malka, falling one to the arms of the other, they were happy to know that someone from the family survived the war.

Abraham-Yitzchak had died in Bergen-Belzen in 1948 after a long disease. He is berried in the cemetery nearby. Israel Lif, of blessed memory, was secondly married and immigrated to Israel in 1947 where he was died in an old age in the year of 1991.

My grandmother Malka, may she live long, married to Yitzchak Elicer (born in Warsaw, Poland) in 1949 in Bergen-Belzen and in 1950 my father, Meir Elicer was born. They immigrate to Israel in 1951 (with the Negba ship) and had two more kids, Shifra and Symcha. The family's name was changed from Elicer to Elitzur.

My grandmother Malka and my grandfather Yitzchak, may they live long, live in Petah-Tikva, Israel.

The photos above were provided by the cousin of my grandmother, Zanvel Lif, the son of Scholem (Shalom) Lif.


Slobodka Necrology

Edelman Motel and Leah
        A son
Amdor Leizer, his wife
        A daughter
        Antin Baruch and Shula
        Marl
Biyalik Boyia
        Children

Bimbet Yona and Chaya-Dina
        Boy
Bick David and Chasia
        Chaim-Bar and more children
Brekman Shmuel-Hillel and Mira-Leah
        Rashke, Zisle and Lieb

Gans Ben-Zion
Gans Sara
         Children
Gamrov Zalman and Chasia
        Yosef
Gandles David and Chasia
        Children
Gaskin Hillel and Sara
        Molke

Dagovitch Haim-Hanoch and a woman
         Sara-Batia and Katriel
Dagovitch Marke and a husband
Dagovitch Nachum and woman
        Shlamke and more children
Dagovitch Sander and Chasia
        Boy
Dagovitch Shmuel and Shiene-Mirel
         Liebke, Sreke and Promke
Dagovitch Shimon-Bar and Chaya-Ribe
Dietch Ida and a husband
        Dietch Israel

Vinkor Chasia
        Mindel
Zeligman Hava-Slova
        Flaka, Yankel and Ribke
Zeligman Riba
        Daughter
Zeligman (mother of Riba)

Chidekel Abraham-Yitzchak and Hinda
Hazan Tiebke, Husband
        A son
Hazan (father of Tiebke)
Hazan Motel, Liba
        Children

Lif Zerach, wife         
        Children
Lif Frida
Abraham-Yitzchak, Zelda, Shalom, Rochale and Mendel
Lif husband and wife
        Children

Samover Abraham-Yosel
        Luba, Chaya, Bluma and Chona
Samover Sister of Abraham-Yosel
Scop Berl and wife

Kanfer Yehuda and Chasia-Leah
         Chaim-Shaike, Rachel-Reizel, Aaron-David

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