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VI. Exiting the Forest and “Self Evaluation”

On 7 July 1944 when the thunder of gunfire signaled that the battles between the German and Red armies had reached the edge of the forest, the hoped-for order for all the partisan units to move northwards with the goal “of liberating, united as one, with the soldiers of the Red Army the capital of Lithuania – Vilna.” The news spread very rapidly throughout the forest. Very few of the partisans closed their eyes that last night in the forest and did not join in the spontaneous expressions of joy – singing, dancing, drinking and firing guns in the air. For the Jewish fighters who were also swept into the general celebration, this night was also a night of “self-evaluation” and the severe dilemma raised by questions like, “where was he to go and who would he find?”

On the night of 8 July, with the beginning of the feverish preparations for leaving the forest for the direction of Vilna, Ruzcka appeared in our unit of the camp. As mentioned above, she served as the liaison and secret courier to us (the Kovno Hashomer Hatzair group). Through her, Abba Kovner communicated to us regards, words of encouragement, information, various instructions and also his missive. This time, Ruzcka came to us on an emergency mission – that is to give us instructions dictated by the decisive hour soon to arrive, that is, the hour of liberation. In anticipation of this, she had some orders and these focused on the topic that at that moment appeared to us in a dream and along with that like the first step in the fulfillment of the vision alluded to often in the his letter concerning Aliyah to Eretz Yisrael. Ruzcka's unexpected arrival was a sign that the vision was on the way to becoming a reality. We were also persuaded by her instructions, both laconic and determined, that required us to be concentrated in large population centers, to maintain unbroken communication amongst ourselves and to wait for further instructions.

This top-secret item continued to warm our hearts when we had the good fortune on our way to Vilna to encounter the first Soviet soldier after three years of hell. He was a member of a tank crew, dusty and covered with soot but smiling and waving his hand at us. Our hearts were overflowing and many of us ran to kiss him. More soldiers came in vehicles

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and on foot and my gaze, for some reason, focused on one of them with a pale face and moist eyes – certainly a Jewish solider! He came from a Lithuanian small town from which he managed to escape in the summer 1941 into the interior of Russia and from that time, he served in the Red Army. Now he was hoping to meet someone from his family and he asked us about the chances. We shook our heads and were silent. Somebody burst into tears. He lowered his personal rucksack and distributed its entire contents to us. “Take, my dear ones, to your health!” We shook hands and he climbed onto his vehicle and he disappeared into the distance. We continued with heavy hearts on our way to Vilna, surrounded by flames and battles. In one of them, three of our group fell. On 13 July 1944, after emotional meetings with soldiers of the Red Army, within the framework of our unit we entered the center of Vilna where street battles were still going on here and there. Of the tens of thousands of Jews who at one time filled the Jerusalem of Lithuania we came across a few dozen thin and pale “living skeletons” who peeked from hiding places – brands plucked from the slaughter. We were given orders to police the area and clear it of the enemy. After a few days, we were ordered to turn in our weapons.

With this, not a moment went by without us being concerned for those who remained in the Ghetto. Our fear for their future especially increased. We later found out that on 8 July 1944, when the order was given to leave the forests and join with the units of approaching Soviet army, on that very day the remnants of the Jews in the Kovno Ghetto were being hastily deported to concentration camps in Germany. When we finally reached liberated Kovno in the beginning of August 1944, bitter disappointment awaited us. I wrote the following excerpt in my diary:

“While around us were still heard the cheering and celebration of the victorious Red Army advancing rapidly to the west, we were escaping from ourselves. Is it possible to eat of the sacrifices of the dead? The storm of battles and tempest of conflict had ended; the thunder of the mortars quieted and now came a thin silence. Each one who escaped alive did a self-evaluation. There were those who discovered that what was lost was overwhelming and despair increased … We former partisans were accustomed to living together and this habit stuck with us. We meet and eat together and carry on conversation but the end of every discussion, no matter what topic it started out on, was the same. Where to? Even with all of our gratitude to the Russian people and for their future wellbeing, most of us could no longer walk on the ground that was drenched with blood. The group from Mildos 7 and their colleagues came together again. The bond that developed in the forest with our friends from Vilna was firm and enduring. We were at one with the determination, even if we did not openly express it that the goal was – ALIYAH.

We were liberated from the reign of terror with its nightmares but nothing else. We returned our guns

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satiated with revenge. But who could free us from the heaviness in our hearts, the atmosphere of bereavement and the loss of parents that gazed from every street corner and shrieked from every clod of earth? At first we envied our Vilna colleagues who already returned home, so to speak. At 'home' they only found some five hundred emaciated and pale Jews who rushed out of their hiding places.

They were survivors who were saved from a tremendous conflagration. When we heard that Kovno was liberated we rushed there as in a frenzy. Everyone went to his/her own house with trepidation and fear. We went to our house, Mildos 7 – a pile of ash with burnt bricks. This is all that is left of the entire house. In the smoldering pile we found torn pieces of paper with accounting notations and a lists of food supplies in Hebrew. A blue sign covered in enamel with the number seven written on it gleaming in its whiteness as though it was demanding recognition for the house that once stood on this spot. The long shadows slowly dissipate. Very slowly the light of day pours over the face of the earth but most of us can no longer step on this blood soaked earth. There is only one possible goal, even if not expressed – ALIYAH TO ERETZ YISRAEL.


VII. Epilogue

The advancement in stages towards realizing our goal of Aliyah, or more correctly escaping southwards from Soviet Lithuania in the direction of Eretz Yisrael, started in the first weeks after we left the forest. Even the sympathizers with the Soviet regime among us were aware that such plans were considered activities threatening to the state if not actual treason. Therefore, we had to keep them to a minimum, carefully and secretly, just as before in the forest. That is, at this stage we could only share the idea. The secret operations committee was basically composed of the remnants of the political organizations that joined in anti-Nazi activities in the Ghetto, naturally, without the communists who we distanced ourselves from as one would from fire.

On the other hand, it was not possible for me not to reveal the secret to my friend from childhood and school Abrasha Yashpan, who to my great surprise and delight returned from the front with decorations of merit, but also with battle scars. He endured a period of wandering and hardship until he was accepted in the first-rate Panpilov Corps of the Red Army under the new name of Artiom Semionovitz Jashpanov, indicating that his parents were Russians of Lithuanian background. Thus, he was quickly taken into the higher command of the Soviet administration in Lithuania. I had to work on him day and night in order to remind him who he really was. I reminded him about how we parted by a dramatic telephone conversation as the Nazis invaded Lithuania in June 1941. In

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the end, not only did he resume speaking in Hebrew to me, but he enthusiastically joined our forces with all his heart.

As the senior deputy to the head of the committee of the peoples' commissars of Lithuania, he had unlimited control over the issuance of travel orders (komandirovka) and movement permits stamped by government ministers. Obviously, these passes were distributed to our colleagues in utmost secrecy who were preparing to move southward in the direction of Romania to 'catch' a boat sailing to the Mediterranean Ocean.

In my modest apartment on Raseiniu Street 3, where we lived together, we would host our friends or just plain Jews who survived in Lithuania and who wanted to get out of here any way possible. Those who seemed sincere, we helped and that with a permit from the secret actions committee. What our many visitors did not know was that behind every picture hung on the walls, secret instructions were hidden along with the code names of contacts and travel certificates that could be used anywhere in the Soviet Union. Practically every visit from old-time friends and generally anyone else spontaneously led to a friendly get-together as it should be with plenty of alcohol and Hebrew songs. Almost every guest would write down for us as a memento a few words, according to his ability and his frame of mind. Nonetheless, the path to the fulfillment of the exciting plans to escape from here to Eretz Yisrael was not a bed of roses.

Soviet sentries opened fire at the border crossing between the Ukraine and Romania causing fatalities. Among those arrested were my colleagues from Kovno already mentioned, like Gitta Pogeer, who still has the table cloth she embroidered while in jail bearing the words “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither,” Psalm 137:5 and Abrasha Yashpan, who astonished us again with his ingenuity. At a trial that took place 19 April 1945 in the military court in the city of Chernovitz he pretended to be a madman and succeeded in not only concealing his real identity but he convinced the judges of his simplistic version of events - that he just happened to be at that place by accident since he wanted to buy nails. I found out about all of this when we were reunited after he was released and reached me in Bucharest. There was no end to my exhilaration since all during the time he was jailed I had trouble sleeping worrying about his fate. I felt guilty since it all happened because I was the one who got him to return to Judaism and Zionism and because of this, he was paying a high price.

Compared to his experience, my journey southward was relatively easy from the time when I left Vilna on 17 January 1945 using the documents that Abrasha Yashpan prepared for me stating that I was traveling to buy dried fruit in Chernovitz for a particular factory in Kovno.

The journey to Eretz Yisrael stretched out to almost a year, since I frequently had to make stops, change the route, travel by car, on foot, in trains and on the roofs of trains and change as needed my real and forged travel permits. Repeated below

Since I kept a diary at that stage of my life, I am able to provide a very accurate account of the roundabout nature of

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my wanderings both chronologically and geographically. A map depicting this journey is presented in Martin Gilbert's book Atlas of the Holocaust and is called "Way of One Man."

The map of the author's journey to Palestine (1945)

 

The Soviet Union (USSR):

Vilna – January 17, 1945
Minsk – January 18
Baranovitz – January 19
Kovel – January 22
Lwow (Lemberg) – January 22
Stanislawow – January 27
Lwow – January 31 (returned because of incarceration of comrades in Chernovitz)

The author (standing on right) with
his journey companions, Masha and Isser Gail
and others, Lvov (Lemberg), January 1945

 

Poland:

Przemysl – February 1
Jaroslaw – February 12
Rzeszow – February 26
Lublin & Rozwadow – February 27
Rzeszow & Krosno – February 28
Rymanov – March 1
Sanok – March 2

Carpatho-Russia:

Humenne – March 3
Chop – March 4
Uzhgorod & Munkacz – March 5
Gati, Beregszasz & Shevlius – March 6

Romania:

Halmi – March 7
Satu-Mare – March 8
Oradea-Mare – March 9
Cluj – March 10
Bucharest - March 11 to June 30
Cluj – July 2
Alba Julia – July 3
Arad – July 4
The author (on left) reunited with Abrasha Yashpan,
after release his from a Soviet prison,
Budapest, July 7, 1945

 

Hungary:

Budapest – July 7
Shombathely – July 11
Shengothard – July 12

Austria:

Folsdorf – July 13
Graz – July 15
Kefllach & Lankowitz – July 16

Italy:

Tarvizo – July 17
Mestre - July 22 to August 14
Milan – August 15
Padua – August 24
Bologna – September 13
Bari – DROR Camp - September 15 to October 15
Illegal Immigrant Ship – Pietro 2 – October 16 to 22

Eretz Yisrael:

Rishpon-Shefayim Coast – October 23
Givat Hen – October 24
Kibbutz Ma'anit – October 24
Kibbutz Beit Zera – October 26
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