by Bat Sheva nee Brunstein Riar
Translated by Eilat Gordin Levitan
In June 22nd, 1941, I was busy preparing for a party of Pidion HaBen (a religious celebration for a son who reaches a month in age) for my first born, Yehudah. All of a sudden, my mother (Yente Brunstin) came running to the house and announced, MY daughter, don't waste time cooking or baking. The Germans declared war on the Soviet Union and they are quickly approaching the town. Only God knows what will now happen to us.
As soon as my husband Jonah Riar, who worked in the town Molodetzno at that point, found out about that situation, he left work and walked home and arrived during the night. Instantly, as the invasion started, the Germans swiftly advanced in Blitzkrieg as they named it, the Russian Army was decimated and many of troops lost their units as pandemonium spread The next morning our town was left without rulers. The farmers who lived in town and the environs abused this condition, and they immediately started looting and pillaging the town. Jewish possessions became free for all. This fact seemed to point to the beginning of the end, and ominously it foretold the future of the Jews.
Three days passed and at dusk, I stood with my husband Jonah and looked out the window from our apartment. We started shaking with anxiety as we saw a German soldier riding on a motorcycle and behind him hundreds and thousands of Germans in different vehicles. Some came in cars, others riding motorcycles, others in tanks, trucks, armored cars, and all sorts of transportation. Day and night the German vehicles rolled through town, heading east without any stops. Within a week, the Germans put a police headquarters in town, and their first mission was to arrest all those who were suspected of involvement with the Communist Party.
The first among the Jews to be arrested were Zalman, son of David Chaikin (nicknamed Zamka) and Baruch Zisman. Their arrests took place at four in the afternoon, on June 28, 1941. Already the next morning they were taken to the forest near the Haobichik and were ordered to dig a hole. There they were shot and buried. When their wives, Fania Chaikin and Leah Zisman, came to bring them food in the prison in the local Gmina, they were notified by the guards that their husbands had been killed. Clearly the women didn't believe them, and no one in town believed, but it was true. To find out if this information was true, the families paid large amounts of money to villagers who opened the graves during the night, and cut some of the clothing of the murdered men, and brought them as evidence of the tragic occurrence. The families paid large sums of money and were able to bring the bodies of their husbands and sons to a proper burial in the Jewish cemetery.
The members of the German police changed many times, but the pattern of desecration seemed to be consistence. After a few days passed, an order came that all Jews of the town must arrive every morning near the headquarters, and from there they would be sent out to different jobs such as cleaning the streets, the toilets, and other work such as this. The German headquarters confiscated a few of the large Jewish homes, and the house of my mother-in-law was amongst those homes. The Germans now lived in the front, and in the back rooms lived the family of my husband.
The German residents would enter the home of my in-laws (Chaia-Pesia and Noach Riar) and have a long conversation with my husbands' sisters; Yoheved (Shapira) and Taibe. They introduced themselves as a caring German, and warned them that soon they would be replaced by the SS, who would torture, kill, and burn all the Jews. They emphasized that the bodies of torched Jews at certain times warmed them themselves. My sisters-in-law would tell me about these awful tales, but we couldn't believe that such tortures were possible in our century.
At that point, we discussed it and said that no logical person could consider such tales could be a daily, systematic occurrence.
One time, after a night of drunken revelry at a dance party that lasted until the morning hours, the Germans returned to the house of my in-laws. One of the drunken German men, instead of going to his place, tried to break into the area where my in-laws lived. Of course he found the door locked, so he tried to break it in and the handle broke, hitting him in the face. He became furious and started screaming wildly, saying that he would kill all the males he could find in the apartment, because it must be that they were trying to hurt him. When the males heard this, they jumped out into the yard. When my sister-in-law opened the door, the German jumped in and started looking for the men. Lucky for us they had time to escape. The German could not calm down and he decided to look in the next home, the home of Sheinke, where my husband and I were staying.
When we heard the knock, I asked Jonah to open it, but his heart felt something bad and he asked me to open it. When I opened to door, the German soldier came in with his gun drown and screamed, If I find one man in this house, he will immediately be shot.
My heart fell, but I tried to control my nerves. I knew that the fate of my husband, who was hiding in the bed, depended upon my calm behavior. I invited the soldier inside and sat on the bed, trying to hide my husband, and quietly taking care of my little baby Yehudah, who was lying near the bed. Since the German didn't see Yonah, he left to the area where Sheinke lived to look for men.
Her sister, Itka Alperovich, who lived on the other side of the wall, heard everything and ran to the headquarters to call a German officer. When the officer came, he told the soldier to get out of the house. So now it was proved to us that the horror stories of the Germans were true.
Still, we tried to tell ourselves that it was just one incident, and asked, Why would they kill us for no reason? It couldn't be true.
As this unit was replaced, the next unit ordered us to establish the Judenrat. A committee of the Judenrat had to work diligently on a job that was very difficult and unpleasant, but the Jewish community understood the difficulties they encountered. The Germans would order the Judenrat to collect different taxes from the Jewish people and to supply swiftly all the needs of the Germans, which kept increasing. The first order was to confiscate all the cows. They were taken for the German Army and that really hurt the poorest population, since the cows gave them milk for survival. Next they ordered 400 bushels of wheat and 3000 meters of carpeting. Clearly everything that they demanded they received, although it was difficult to find these goods.
Together with those demands, the Germans told the Judenrat to bring 10kg of gold. It seemed like there was no end to their demands. Although the members of the Judenrat knew that it was very difficult for the Jewish community to fill the orders, they had no choice but to hurry them along and urge them to do it. They were under the illusion that this would save the lives of the community.
As the winter months approached, the Germans ordered the Judenrat to collect all the warm clothes that the Jews had, and to give them to the military. Fur coats, boots, warm blankets, wool socks and gloves. After much tribulation, we were able to reach our quotas, and we tried to believe that this would save us all. I believe that Germans succeeded in making the Jewish population complacent by keeping them under the illusion that they could stay alive as a prize for fulfilling all the demands that were put to them. They were helped by the fact that in the nearby towns of Radoshkovich, Molodeczno, Vileyka, Kurenets, and Dolhinov. there had already been many massacres. But here the Germans didn't kill the Jews of Ilja other than the two during the summer.
Every Jewish survivor who arrived in town from a massacre in another town was received happily and we shared our homes and our food with them. So despite the fact that they would say we shouldn't have illusions and that our fates had already been decided and it was only a matter of a time, people refused to listen.
I remember a young man from nearby Pleshensitz who came to us after the massacre there. He insisted that the Jews should prepare some dry bread and escape to the forests. Only a few listened to him, but most of the community said that he was insane. But then came the bitter day and what we so feared occurred
On March 17, 1942 as dawn came we realized that the Gestapo had surrounded the town. They started taking Jews out of their homes and herded them into the central Market Square. Not one person left his home willingly. The Germans and their local collaborators took the Jews out of their homes by force. It took only about an hour and all of the Jews of the town, old, women, and babies were in the central market, surrounded by Germans with drawn weapons. I won't give details of that bitter day. Even today I cannot bring myself to discuss that, but I will try to tell about a few special moments that have left an eternal imprint in my heart.
While we were standing there, surrounded by the Gestapo, waiting for our deaths, a few of the police from the local population came to us and announced, Jews, these are your last minutes on this earth. Give us the gold and the money that you hid. Anyway, you'll never be able to use it.
Since the community had already given up, some started telling them where they had left their possessions. Even my husband Jonah wanted to give his knife, but I told him not to, since I thought they would get mad that he was only giving them a knife. I remember that Hillel Kopilovich told one of the Germans that in his house he had gold and silver. The German took him out of the line and brought him to his home to take the treasure, but Hillel really wanted to take his Tallit and Tfillim, and to try to trick the German. As soon as he took his Tallit, the German thought there was gold inside the cover of the Tallit, and he pulled it out of his hand and realized he had been lied to. He became very cruel and started beating him until blood spilled everywhere. Hillel returned all wounded and covered with blood. The German kept cursing him, Cheating bloody Jew.
Even today I don't have the ability to describe that horrible feeling we had when the Germans started making a selection of who was to live and who was to die. The Germans needed only small portions, about 20 families of skilled workers. Amongst them they chose my husband and I, with our child Yehudah, to live.
The sight of torture will never leave my eyes. I saw my handsome, talented, dear brother Yakov, his body was lifeless in the middle of the street. Until today, the ripping calls of my little brother Elimelech ring in my ears. He said to me with a heart-wrenching cry, But I am so young, why do I have to die? Why do I have a death sentence?
The torturous image of barbaric sadism that was so thirsty for blood will stay with me forever. My husband' sister, Yocheved Shapira, who was selected to be killed, handed me her beautiful little daughter Henia, with her golden curls, to be given to her sister Zipora (Korbynik) who lived in Eretz Israel. But a German sharp eye discovered the transfer, and with cold blood, he pulled the girl out of my arms, holding her by her golden curls, and threw her with full force on the road and shattered her skull.
It was about 40 degrees Celsius below zero, and those condemned to death stood frozen and in shock. Here and there were young people who tried to organize a rebellion to jump the killers and escape. They were told by their parents not to do it, that maybe God would save us at the last minute.
All of a sudden I heard the voice of my mother in law, Chaia Pesia Riar, who called my husband Jonah to not forget to pray Kaddish for them so that their souls would go to heaven. Surrounded on all sides, the Jews of Ilja were taken on their last walk, their final steps…. Many walked apathetically, as if they were lambs in the slaughter. Many wore their tallits. They were pushed into the icehouse, which was on an empty lot near the house of Veinus. The machine guns shot at them as they were walking in. All the doors were then locked, and the building was set on fire. The sounds of Shema Israel, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai HaEhad kept coming from inside it until everything became quiet and all became dust.
||The Brunstein family||Standing from left: brother Ytzhak who came to
Argentina before the war. The author, Bat-Sheva.
Brother Yaakov who perished on. March 17, 1942
Sitting: parents, Yudel who died before the war and
Yente who perished on March 17, 1942. The young
Elimelech (melech) Brunstein who perished on
March 17, 1942 is at the bottom
||The Brunstein brothers who went
|On the right, Binyamin
who when the book was
written lived in Argentina and Baruch who died in
Argentina at a young age.
The ones who were sentenced to live were locked in the barn of Tartavich until the killers finished their destruction of all the Jews in the town and burning their homes. We were freed only at night. We settled in a few houses across from the big synagogue. The houses we settled in started from Sarah Racha Sinders' home (mother of Melech and Wolf), and ended in the house of Baruch Levin. Surrounding these homes there was barbed wire and this was a temporary ghetto for the few survivors.
The next morning, Zusman Gitlitz and my husband were ordered to collect the bodies of the Jews that had been shot near their homes or in their hiding places. My father-in-law, Noach Riar, was able to hide during the massacre and survive. I asked him to live with us. He asked me to go with him to his home to take something. I refused and said to him, Only yesterday you were able to escape death and now you are already trying to risk your life? I will not go with you. My heart told me that something bad would happen, but my father-in-law was very stubborn and insisted that he should go. The son of his sister, the young boy Itzhak Alperovich, felt pity for him and joined him. They went to the house and opened the door. A Gestapo man came by, and he shot and killed them on the spot.
My husband Jonah and Zusman Gitlitz, who collected the bodies, happened to pass by the house at that moment. They received orders from that Gestapo man to take the two additional bodies. Jonah who was dismayed to see the body of his father refused to work for them any longer. For that he paid dearly. The Gestapo man beat him mercilessly, and he was wounded badly. Blood spread everywhere, and he had to lie in bed for several days until his wounds healed.
||The Riar family||Standing from left; Brothers, David-Yaakov,
Teibe and Yoched Riar who perished in 1942,
Zipora who came to Israel before the war and Jonah Riar.
The parents, Noach and Chaia Pesia, sitting.
A few days passed and my husband Jonah was transferred to the Vileyka Ghetto Camp for work, and at this point, my son and I were still in the Ilja Ghetto. I very much wanted to join my husband, but it was very difficult to even get in touch with my husband. Since Jews were not allowed to send mail, I had to illegally transfer notes to him by local people who went to Vileyka. But at this point there was no way to receive permission to join him.
Life in the Ilja ghetto continued, but now there were no illusions about our fate. Most of the people knew that their days were numbered. In order for them to survive, they started organizing groups to build bunkers and hideouts, but no one wanted to have me join, fearing that my baby would cry and the hideout would be discovered. My soul was very bitter and I cried continuously. When the holy day of Shavuot came, finally the miracle that I so hoped for occurred. All of a sudden, there was an announcement from the Ilja police that Rishka Epstein Yankel Sheina and I with my baby should be taken out for transportation to Vileyka. So finally, during the holy day, we joined our husbands.
It didn't take long, and the rest of the Jews in the Ilja Ghetto were massacred. Although most of them hid in their bunkers and hideouts, they were all caught. A few tried to escape, but they were shot while running. Only three people succeeded in reaching the forest: Shraga Solominsky, my husband' cousin, Chaim Riar, and David Rubin. Shraga Solominsky and David Rubin joined the partisans and after the war came with us to Israel. Chaim Riar who also joined the partisans, was killed during a partisan mission near the village Olkovitz. It seemed that once again the hand of fate decided in the last minute to give us (my child and I) a reprieve and let us survive.
Life in the Ghetto of Vileyka was unbearable. The women had to harness themselves instead of horses, and to pull firewood. They also had to clear the snow from the streets, to clean the toilets, and other work. After a while they divided the population into two camps. The professional men who were under Commissar Schmidt and the women under the Jew from Kurenets, Zisting.
After half a year, the women's ghetto was liquidated and most of them were killed, and then arguments started in our ghetto about escaping to the forest. I was all for escape, but my husband Jonah said that our baby would never survive life in the forest. I answered that it's better he die from starvation or from freezing than that we should all be killed here by the Germans.
Meanwhile, the idea of escaping became more and more favored by the Jews in Vileyka, so we started preparing for life in the forest. First we wanted to collect weapons and ammunition for the partisans. As the contact between the Ghetto and the partisans and other Jews in the forest increased, there was a Christian farmer who would bring wood for the German Commissar. This Christian man brought regards from the Jews who lived in the forest. The husband (Yerachmiel Shapira) of my sister-in-law Yoheved, who perished in the first massacre in Ilja, was amongst the Jews who hid in the forest. He would send us notes via the Christian farmer demanding that we should join him. The partisans demanded that we should transfer bullets and ammunition. The head of the camp/ghetto, Schatz, a Jewish guy originally from Austria, arranged for weapons. Some were stolen from the Germans and some were bought. We took anything we could.
During the winter of 1943, a few days before the holyday of Purim, something unexpected occurred that made us run to the forest before the planned time. The farmer who was our contact with the partisans came to the ghetto to transfer the bullets that we would hide in a hollowed out piece of wood, which had been specially made. After the wood was put in his wagon, it seemed like the police needed his wagon, so one Gestapo man came and took the wagon from the farmer. When the Jews in the ghetto found out about it, they assumed that the police realized that we had been transferring weapons, and now they were going to get their revenge, so we fled unorganized.
My husband Jonah took his yellow star off and walked out of the ghetto and out of the town in quick steps. I also took off the yellow tag and started walking through the main street of Vileyka, carrying my little son Yehudah. So like this we walked. First Jonah, and I many steps behind him. When we arrived to the outside edges of the town, he disappeared, and while I was looking for him, I encountered German soldiers who were training. I knew that I had no choice and that I could not retreat, so I walked confidently forward, resolved to walk straight, although I didn't even know where I was walking. So like this I passed by the German soldiers, and they didn't seem to suspect at all that I was Jewish.
I couldn't find my husband, but I remembered that in one of my conversations we decided that if we got lost, each one of us should try to reach Hatzentzitz (Khotenchisty/Chacencycy 30 miles north west of Minsk). So now this became my goal. I found myself by the public slaughterhouse and the burned bridge on the river Vilja. I reached a small house near the slaughterhouse. I entered the door and told the Christian owner that I was a Jew. I continued saying, Now they are murdering us, but I prefer to be killed while escaping.
The Christian man looked at me and said, Too bad. You are still a young woman and you might bring something useful to this world.
He told me to wait there until nighttime, and then he would help me cross the frozen river. So he did that and blessed me with good luck. So now I was across on the other side of the river. This was a dark, wintry night. I was in an unfamiliar surrounding, with a baby in my arms. The first thing I tried was to enter the forest and get lost deep in it. This was the first time in my life that I was on a wintry night alone in a forest. As I was getting deeper and deeper, I saw from afar, blinking lights. I kept walking until I reached a small house. Without considering the danger, I knocked on the door and entered. I put the baby on the bench near the entrance and asked the owner to let me rest. The owner gave my baby a little milk and he gave me some food. Only then did he ask me, Who are you? Where are you going in such bad weather?
I didn't lie to him nor did I try to avoid answering. I said that I was escaping from the Germans. They let me rest and sleep there, but the next morning they asked me to leave. I thanked the owner for his kindness, and said that I was not planning on staying there anyway, and that I planned to reach Hatzentzitz. I asked how I should continue without encountering the Germans. He said that if I continued a certain way, in his estimation I should reach my goal. It only took ten minutes after I left the house and reached the main road. I felt that the German police was behind me. I was too fearful to go right or left to return to the forest, which might make them suspicious, so I kept moving forward quickly. I had one hope in my heart, that there would be a house near the road so I could go there until they passed. Finally I reached the house, but the owner of the home refused to let me enter. She said that the Germans were in the town. I begged her with eyes filled with tears and implored her to at least take my baby. It seemed like I succeeded in getting her to pity me. She motioned to me to walk behind her, and she took me to the pig sty. After hiding there for a few hours, she returned and told me that the Germans had come and asked if there were any Jews in the village, and then they left.
Her story made me feel confident enough to ask her where I could meet with the partisans without using the main road where there were many Germans. Surprisingly, she was very kind. Her husband brought me past the village along a side road, and instructed me in how to reach the village Phozba. He thought I could meet with the partisans. Finally, I started believing that I was on the right road, but as you will find out, I still had to go through the seven levels of Gehennam.
I reached the village Phozba in the afternoon. I entered the first home and asked if I could get some hot water for my child. They inquired about where I had come from. I didn't tell the truth, but my accent told them that I was Jewish. Despite the fact that this village was a large one, immediately there was a rumor that a Jewish woman with a baby in her arms had come looking for help, and all the residents of that village were warned by one another not to help me.
Night came and I was hungry and thirsty and frozen. I walked with my child who slept in my arms, and I cried. I didn't know where I was going. Was I going in the direction of the partisans or directly into the arms of the Germans? All of a sudden, a door of a small home opened, and at the entrance stood an old farm-woman. She asked me why I did not ask her for help. I said, Because here there are only mean people. Not one of the people I asked for help let me enter his home.
The farm woman said to me, My daughter, the war is not over yet, and who knows what our own fate will be?
When she finished her sentence, she opened the door wide and asked me to enter. She prepared warm meals for my son and I. She changed our wet clothes and gave us some dry clothing, and then asked who I was and what was my wish. I told her the entire truth, that I was looking for partisans since my husband joined them. Now I am trying to save ours lives.
I was wondering if my husband was really able to survive this difficult road? Was he sitting there patiently waiting for me? I went to sleep, and at one point the farm woman woke me up, saying that soon the partisans would arrive. While we were waiting, a Christian woman from Vileyka came by and told the homeowner that she saw many bodies of Jewish women and children lying in the streets of Vileyka, and they also found many men who were killed in the forest. This news made me feel horrible, but I couldn't think too much about it as the homeowner said, Let's leave your baby here, and I will take you to the forest, and together we will join the partisans.
It seemed like my hopes were coming true. As I met the first partisans, I told them the entire truth, and when they asked what it is that I wanted, I asked them to take me to Hatzentzitz. They didn't refuse but they said I had to wait four days, since now they were on their way to destroy a train. I refused to wait four days, but they said, Do as you wish and they left.
I stayed with my hostess for another night. At three in the morning, another group of partisans arrived. I asked them what I should do. When they asked, Why do you have to go to Hatzentzitz? I told them that it was where I had made tentative plans with my husband, who was somewhere with the partisans. They told me the names of all the villages that I should go through to reach my destination.
Since there were many attacks by the partisans, the Germans kept guard in most of the villages that I was to go through, but it seemed like the partisans didn't know about it at that point. Since I took out-of-the-way roads, the first village that I reached had a river that I had to cross to reach it. I didn't know what to do to overcome this obstacle, and I decided to throw the baby like a ball to the other side of the river, and I would cross it by swimming. With resolution I did it.
I crossed the river by swimming and reached my son who was lying on the ground, wounded and bloody. As a result, my child stopped talking and had a strange look in his eye that yelled, Mother, what did you do to me? I took my kerchief and wet it with the river's water and washed his face. I put it on his wounds, but blood continued to gush. We were wet and frozen and hungry, but I didn't lose my resolve. When I entered the village, I entered the first home and the homeowner asked me what happened to my child. I cried hysterically as a result, but didn't answer her as to what had happen. So she put some bandages on his wounds and gave us some food, and we continued.
The next village was near the town Vyazin (Vjazyn), and I could see it from afar. I walked fast and determined, knowing that once I reached it I could rest from the long road and enable my baby to rest. I entered the first home but as soon as I opened the door, I was in shock. All the blood came to my face and my heart raced. In front of me stood a Christian man who I knew. He had been a regular customer in our store and knew my parents by their first names, and also me. But I stopped myself and pretended to be calm and said in Polish, Good morning.
Later on I found out that he also pretended and said to me, Who are you and where did you come from?
I said that I came from Vilki Luki, and that the Germans entered and everyone escaped. And now I am on the way to Shokovshchyzna, where I am going to work in agriculture. The farmer said, It's very interesting but I know someone in Ilja who looks so much like you, like a mirror image of you. That woman is the daughter of Yudel and Yente Brunstein.
I pretended to be naïve, Where is Ilja?
But since I wanted to change the subject, I asked him if I could have the baby rest here. Unwillingly the farmer let me change the subject. Finally with emphasis he said, Since you look so much like the daughter of my acquaintances, I will let you eat and rest, and even to sleep.
I lay down but I couldn't sleep at all. I kept thinking, Should I tell him the truth and disclose that I am Jewish or should I act like I knew nothing of what he was saying?
Early in the morning I heard the farmer and his wife whispering about the strange resemblance between the daughter of Yente Brunstein and I. I decided to tell the truth, and the farmer thanked me for being honest. He said, Even if you didn't tell me, I would show you the road, but surely you would fall into the hands of the Germans. But since I am thankful to you parents for some good deeds that they did for me, I will take you to another road that goes through the partisan area.
I took that road safely and arrived to the village Kozly. Here I was lucky once more not to fall into a trap. When I reached the outskirts of the village, I encountered children playing. When I asked them if I could cross the river, they said yes but they emphasized it was not a good idea now since the Germans had entered the town.
This made me very upset, but I didn't think much. Immediately I went back and hid deep in the forest, staying there until dark. As dark came, I decided to go to the other side of the river, and if I couldn't, I preferred to drown than to continue a life with no chance of survival. I didn't want to enter any homes in this village, since even before the war I knew that they hated Jews. Many of them were murderers and thieves, and this was the first village that did pogroms when the Germans entered, and they started the pillaging and looting from the Jews.
When I reached the shore of the river with my son in my arms, I encountered two villagers in a boat. I greeted them with good evening and asked them to transfer me to the other side of the river. They asked me who I was and asked me where I was going. Once again I repeated the old tune, saying I was a refugee from Vileyki Loki going off to find work. They invited me to sit in the boat, and in a few minutes I was on the other side.
I thanked them with tears in my eyes and in my imagination I saw myself in Hatzentzitz, but it wasn't so simple and easy. When I asked the villagers to show me the direction, they showed me the right directions but I was so excited and confused that I walked in the wrong direction, going back in the direction of Ilja.
Only when I reached the village Zabrodie (very near Ilja) with the light of the bright moon did I see the cross on the Catholic Church that I started questioning the directions. In the crossroad of the main road of Zabrodie I encountered a farmer who told me I was only a few kilometers from my town Ilja. I thanked him for this information and continued, but as soon as he disappeared, I turned around and ran into the forest. I ran all the time through the forest, to a certain direction but I didn't know where I was. I became all drenched and covered in sweat, and after I couldn't walk anymore, I sat and rested. My dress became frozen, my teeth were chattering, but lucky for me the child slept through the entire time. Maybe the clear air caused this.
I rested a little bit before continuing on my way. My frozen dress kept making noise while I was walking, and in my imagination the noise became like the sounds of bullets being shot at me, but I continued my walk resolutely. Many times I prayed that a wild animal would kill me, or that even a German would get me. But I encountered no one. Since I walked for such a long time, it seemed to me that the road had no end. I was so tired that I kept falling. Finally I just sat on the snow and fell asleep until morning came.
I woke up to the sounds of dogs barking from afar and decided to go in that direction. Every time the dog barked, I got up and walked. When he stopped, I rested. Finally I reached a farm house. It seemed that the farmers were still asleep. I knocked on the door. The owner came and asked me what I wanted. I asked if I could rest there, and he went back in the house and asked his wife what he should do. He said to her that there was a woman with a baby in her arms and that she asked to rest. His wife agreed.
As I entered, the couple started asking me questions. I said, Forgive me, but I am so tired that I can't answer you. I lay on the ground, which was made of clay, and I lay down with my son and fell asleep.
I don't know how long I slept, but when the owners woke me up, it was already dusk. The winter sun sent its last rays through the windows, some of which had no glass. The owners of the home gave me food and asked me the usual questions, Where are you coming from? Where are you going?
I was already desperate and the hope of meeting with my husband, which kept me overcoming the obstacles, was almost gone. In many ways, I lost my will to survive, without hesitation, I told them openly of my situation and said, You can give me to the Germans to be killed, and I really meant it because I could not continue like this.
The farmer understood me and said kind words, Don't worry, you've finally reached the partisan area. You are now in the village Huta (Guta). Last night, there were two Jewish partisans here, Solominsky and Riar from Ilja.
When I heard the name Riar, I was so excited that my eyes started to fill with tears. I thought he was talking about my husband Jonah, but later I found out he was talking about his cousin Chaim, but still my spirits were lifted. Meanwhile, night came and I decided to continue southeast towards Hatzentzitz. Maybe I could encounter some Jews amongst the partisans and find some information about my husband.
The villager who walked with me said, You can continue without fear. Here you will encounter no Germans.
I continued until I saw a flickering light and I decided to go there. It was a small farm, Bartizky. I entered the home without waiting for them to let me in. I found a place to sit, and they asked me once again, Where are you from? Where are you going?
When I answered I was from Ilja, they didn't hide their feelings, and with surprising openness they said they did not feel any pity for the perished Jews from Ilja. They only felt pity for the Riar family. When I said to them that I was a member of the Riar family, they didn't believe me and said, We know all the family members.
I explained to them that I was the wife of Jonah. When I said his name it seemed they were really happy. They gave me new clothes for my son and good food. Since I was in a hurry to continue, they suggested I should go to the village of Starinski, that was located near Hatzentzitz. I took my son in my arms and with renewed confidence walked in the direction of the village Starinski. Although it was in full light, fear left me entirely. I reached the village in the evening and was immediately stopped by a partisan who brought me to the headquarters in the village.
The interrogator asked me many questions, and I answered them honestly. Shoot her, he said, She's a spy. How could it be that young men who tried to escape from Vileyka were killed, while she with a baby in her arms is here while the road is filled with German soldiers? This is unbelievable.
All my explanations were not accepted. They asked me where I intended to go, so I told them I was looking for my husband, who I thought was in the area of Hatzentzitz.
Meanwhile, many of the villagers came to look at me, the Jewish spy. One of them asked me who I was, and I said I was from Ilja, and the daughter of Yente Brunstein. The Christian man made the cross and asked the interrogator not to shoot me, since he knew my parents and even knew my grandmother and I couldn't be a spy. But still the investigators did not listen to me.
I said loudly, Never mind. Your bullet is also a bullet, but still it would be easier to die with your bullets than from a German's bullets.
This made the interrogator think. He asked one of the Christian men to bring some of the Jews from Hatzentzits . If they recognized you, you would be believed. The Christian men brought some Jews, and I didn't recognize them, but when they started talking I recognized the voice of Chaim Yosef. I said loudly, Chaim Yosef! but he didn't recognize me. He knew my mother Yente; everyone knew her, but they didn't know me. In spite of this, the interrogator released me and told them to take me with them, but the Jews didn't want me to join them since they didn't want to take care of me and my baby and supply us with food. I promised them that I would not be a burden to them, that I only wanted them to take me out of there. Finally, Elka who came from Minsk and who lived here with Shimshon from Hatzentzitz agreed to take me with them. She carried the child in her arms and we all entered the bunker. In the middle of the forest, in the ground, they dug trenches and covered them and camouflaged them, and that's where they lived. When I first entered the trenches, I couldn't see anything, but slowly my eyes got used to it, and I could see that this was a trench of about 10 meters long, and about a meter and a half wide. The walls were made of pine trees, and they separated us from the ground. On the two sides of the long wall, there were beds made of branches of trees so only one person at a time could pass through the width of the trench. Before we came there, there were 19 people living there, so now with my son and I there were 21 souls in a very crowded condition, without sufficient air or water. There was no chance of washing clothes and barely any places to wash, so it wasn't a surprise that this was an ideal place for lice, which were everywhere. Their survival depended on going to the nearby villages and begging for food. When we returned from such difficult workdays to beg for food, which would be a piece of bread and once in a while potatoes, we aportioned our time for our second duty, which was to get rid of the lice. Each one would hold lucgyna, a burning piece of wood. We would take our clothes and get rid of the lice. When this chore was finished, dinner would be made without washing our hands. In one of the corners of this trench, there was some sort of oven where they cooked the meals when they had something to cook. For my first meal I was invited by Chana the wife of Shimon. It was some kind of vegetable without any salt or oil or fat. I couldn't eat it, and even my son couldn't eat it. They gave us a place to sleep and since I Was so tired from my long journey I slept well.
In the morning, I woke up happy thinking that soon I would meet my husband. Chana gave me breakfast that consisted of four potatoes, two for me and two for my son, and we ate it with a great appetite. I tried to befriend everyone there, but I felt especially close to Elka from Minsk. She seemed to understand me much better than the others. I told her how I feared for the fate of my husband. Many times I would talk to my little son, I would ask him whether his father were alive, and he would nod his head positive.
A few days passed and I asked my friend Elka, How do you get the food?
She told me that they begged the villagers. I started shaking. How could I do that? I didn't even know the roads. But the will to survive was stronger than my shame and my fear; after four days my friend Elka gave me a backpack and said, For the first time, we will go together, and this will make it easier for you spiritually. Eventually you will get used to it.
The sense of starvation at that moment eliminated all the shame. I left my baby with the other people in the bunker, and together with Elka, we went on our way.
When we arrived at the first village, she told me to go to the first house and ask for a piece of bread. I entered the house, but when the woman asked me what I wanted, I became red and then white and I could hardly say the sentence, A piece of bread. Immediately I started crying hysterically. The farm woman understood I was new in this profession and said, It must be your first time but you will get used to it.
When I heard her I became even more distraught and cried even louder. She gave me half a loaf of bread. I lowered my eyes and left her home broken. Elka waited for me. When I encountered her, I cried again but she had nothing to say other than, You will get used to it.
She suggested we go to a few more homes, but I refused. I asked her to take me home since I was fearful that I would not be able to find my way.
When we returned, I gave a piece of bread for my son, and the rest I hid as if it was a most valuable treasure. When the bread was finished after four days, and again I felt the pangs of hunger, I left with my neighbor in the bunker, Segal, to another village. He went to one area and I went to another, and we received potatoes, and a few pieces of bread. When I returned, my neighbor Chana said my son was scratching and suggested that I should see if he had any lice. I insisted that this could not be, but the child was restless and crying. I didn't know what was wrong since he could not speak, so I decided to check him, and when I looked, my eyes darkened. The child was filled with lice. I tried to clean the dirt as much as I could. From then on I knew that when my child was crying I should check his clothing.
Since our daily condition was very difficult, and the shame of receiving food was so strong, I trained my young son to not ask for food supplies from other people. Our life continued like this for a few more months. After some time, Jews arrived in the forest. They were the survivors who had escaped from the Krasne ghetto at the last minute before it was liquidated. Amongst them was Mulik Dubrovski from Molodechno, his wife Shulamit, Bela Kaminski, and others.
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