Donated by Florence Koplow
Translated by Milette Shamir
IN MEMORY of my parents, my sisters, my brother and the entire town's Jews,
who stood prepared in the selection rows - ready to die in martyrdom for the God of Yisrael.
Bless Their Souls.
As a Jew who was privileged enough to be among the few survivors of the horrors of the biggest massacre in our people's history, I am obliged to stand before the jurors of our nation, to testify and explain the bloody events, incomparable to any other event in history. Although the scope of my testimony includes only the town of my birth and its close vicinity, it undoubtedly exemplifies the general situation - and its main significance is not scientific, but lies in its presenting the naked truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
I do not wish to emphasize the facts. My friends have already done so the best they could, and I have nothing new to add. My testimony will therefore strive towards a more general awareness, and I will refer mainly to the spiritual state of those that were condemned to die a slow and prolonged death, a death that really began with the outbreak of the Second World War, when the boots of the Nazi soldiers crossed the Polish borders, but that was actually materialized only with the Nazi invasion into Russian territory. If I do insert facts here and there, I do so to demonstrate the general atmosphere that I wish to convey to our sons and to the next generations.
At the outbreak of the Second World War I was living in Poland's capital, Warsaw, where I worked alongside my late brother Yitzchak, who later fell in battle.
As soon as the first of September 1939, we felt the ground burn beneath our feet and preferred to be in our family's nest during the hard days that the future had in store. Although the aggressive invaders were the ones who carried the poison of Jew-hatred , and this alone should have convinced the assaulted Polish people to hold back their tradition of anti-Semitism, they remained, in fact, blinded and poisoned by their hatred for Jews. Even when they fought with their backs against the wall, they were unable to
||My brother Yitzchak
Bless his Soul
We were therefore forced to leave the train and advanced 400 km on foot, in constant fear. This trail was not easy, and here too we experienced anti-Semitism. When we approached a peasant's house for bread and water, he resisted dealing with us, explaining openly that Jews are not wanted in his house. Other similar experiences occurred again and again. We had no choice but to make it home hungry, tired, and feeble.
The Russian Invasion
In Ilya, the confusion was fully felt. The Polish, who retreated for fear of the advancing Russians, mustered all their people and transportation vehicles. The following morning the Russians crossed the border that lay 10 km away from town, and the first Politruks arrived. Their reception in town was varied. Some of the inhabitants, fearful of what's to come, walked about gloomily. Those who were proletariat were wholeheartedly glad, hoping that the newcomers will save them from their suffering and problems. Official, veteran communists we did not have in town, but there were quite a few potential sympathizers and people who leaned in that direction. We will not provide the details that illustrate the behavior of the sympathizing Jews, and how they made the lives of the wealthier town residents miserable. Today, when we are discussing the Holocaust, their actions resemble one drop in a sea of blood and tears of the Holocaust. On their actions we will only say this: if there is a God in heaven, and we are sure that there is - he will pay them back. Three synagogues were burnt and one church was turned into a movie theater. Apartment owners were transferred to the slums and their place was taken by the representatives of the foreign authorities and by the local ideologists.
As in other places, there were Jews in our town who hinted at subversion against the liberating regime. As a result, and because of informers, they were sent to Siberia and to prisons. The local Christians had already made their first steps toward mastering the art of informing against Jews, in appearing as witnesses of all types and forms.
A Wave of Marriages
The innovations and revolutions that marked this period solved many problems, and especially the problem of the adolescents who reached the age of marriage but could not get married up until then: on the one hand because of class distinction and family origin, and on the other hand because of the tough economic situation and the heavy responsibility that being married imposes on a couple. Now these problems were solved. The egalitarianism and equal employment opportunities regulated by this regime opened new horizons for these couples, and finally allowed them to fulfil their dream of getting married. As a result there was a increasing wave of marriages at that time, and the writer of these lines was the last to get married in this long matrimonial chain, before the bloody curtain descended.
The Eve of the German Invasion
The German invasion of Russia was felt in the air even before it began. The Jews, who feared the coming of the Germans, were apprehensive, although they did not believe the rumors of the cruelty of the Germans and deemed them exaggerated. On the other hand, the peasants and Jew-haters reared their heads, and planned the destruction of the Jews and the robbery of their property. A sense of helplessness and of general vulnerability spread among the Jewish population and they clung tighter and tighter to the town of their birth. They did not believe the horror stories, despite the sense of doom that prevailed.
At this time my sister Yochevet's first son was born, and the ritual of his initiation into the B'rith of Abraham was far from joyful, as would have been appropriate. This mood was present in the circumciser's suggestion -- Rabbi Yitzchak, may he rest in peace, that the newborn be named Chaim, emphasizing that such a name is
symbolic and crucial at the present time, when the heavens are darkening and heavy clouds appear in the skies of our fate. A few days later I was supposed to celebrate the rite of Pidion for my eldest son, but this never took place...
My family. Standing from right to left: myself, my sister Tziporah
who is in Israel. My sisters Yochevet and Taibe and my brother
David Ya'akov who perished in the Holocaust.
Seated: my father and my mother
The Nazi armies, marching from one victory to the next, reached us, too. Rumors of the murderous and horrible deeds that they committed in cold blood passed from mouth to ear, but only a few believed them. This is impossible! The Germans are, after all, a civilized people. We live, after all, in the twentieth century. Those comforting words were uttered, ironically, by the wisest, known publicly for their intelligence. In addition, the murderers were psychologically careful to explain the disappearance of this population or that, by their transference to productive labor. This explanation suited the Jewish temper very well, at the core of which optimism is rooted, and eternal hope: things will be well. Even when the first steps of the extinction took place -- the killing of a few individuals as if for just reasons -- even then the eyes of the blind optimists remained shut. Even in the last stages, as they literally stood on the threshold of the grave, they continued to believe in God the savior who will appear momentarily. And with their secret hope they burned.
The Planning of the Extinction
The stages of the extinction were slow, calculated and planned, so as to not incite the Jewish population to rebel, and so as to not put them in a desperate situation while they are still at the peak of their mental and physical strength, and may organize and take certain steps in opposition. First, they had to get used to life in productive labor, in other words, the imposition of strenuous labor on them, and their placement under the charge of oppressors. The Jews gradually got used to this, and the slogan: mir volan zie iberlaben [in Yiddish] was carried from mouth to mouth and from heart to heart. The second stage was of course to starve them under the excuse of war conditions and necessary sacrifices. When his stomach is empty, a man can no longer consider rebellion, neither to save himself or the collective. The third stage was of course to break their spirit, to employ them in degrading labor such as the cleaning of toilets and carrying the manure on their backs during scorching summer days, to persecute them and at the same time forbid them to react, to force them to wear a yellow badge in front and in back, and to make them sick by concentrating them in unusually dense conditions. Everything in stages- planned and consistent, until one tires of life and the spirit of self-defense no longer arises. A sense of indifference to life was created, until they wished for death to save them from the dire straights they were struck by.
The Beginning of the Pillage
And what was the attitude of the neighbors, with whose fathers and grandfathers we lived as neighbors for hundreds of years? First they tried to ask their Jewish acquaintances to give them their belongings - you're better off giving it to friends than to the enemies that rose against you. These demands were made even before the German enemy has arrived. As soon as in the following day they shed their mask of congeniality. They came and, without saying a word, took things, and in their eyes glimmered hate and murderousness. Although never articulated, it was clear that he who would resist will be murdered. And the Jews read these thoughts and did not even try to resist. The neighboring people, whom we more than once regarded with amicability and trust, were exposed in their sadistic and murderous nakedness, of which they were aware and proud. This zoological instinct was resurrected, and liberated a deeply rooted impulse - hatred for the chosen people. There was full and frank cooperation between the invader and the neighbors, and although each of the partners had his own reasons for murder, the murder and extinction themselves constituted a common purpose.
The Reason Why Only a Few Escaped
The obvious conclusion was that it was necessary to run and hide. Undoubtedly, this is the conclusion of many, especially those of good fortune who were out of Nazi reach. Suppose so. You who support this idea, would you explain where could one have run to? To the villages? To the peasants, who up until yesterday were considered friends? Now at least 90% of them cooperated with the Nazis and delighted over the prospect of spilling the blood of any Jew who accidentally came in their way, or that placed his fate in their hands, out of trust of his erstwhile friends. The sons of those who were your class-mates, your sports team-mates, were the first to lend their hand to the murder of your parents. They became militia men and showed lively interest in uncovering hiding Jews, and killing them on the spot or turning them over to the Nazis.
The Treatment of Jews in the Forest
Where, do you suppose, would one escape? To the forest? Do you suppose that here a Jew could find peace? The few that went from door to door to request a piece of bread were turned away or deliberately turned over to the Nazis. And those who were saved from this fate, for some reason, did they find rest and an opportunity to avenge the spilt blood? Are the Jewish partisans that were slain by their brothers in arms, likewise partisans, rare? Are there only a few Jewish girls who after a wild escape managed to find shelter in the forest, only to be raped by dozens of brothers in arms, until their souls expired? Do you suppose that if a Jewish youth managed to escape the storm of bullets that were aimed at him and to reach the forest, he was accepted with empathy by the partisans? If that is what you think, you are mistaken. The hatred for the Jews was so deeply rooted, and the atmosphere so poisonous, that only a few unique individuals managed to be absorbed into the new community. We will not examine the fact that the Jews were purposefully sent first to the most dangerous locations, to evaluate the situation with their bodies and lives. It is not surprising, therefore, that only relatively few were willing, under those conditions, to go toward immediate danger -- and even fewer managed to escape to the forest without getting hit by the storm of bullets fired in their direction.
The Reason Why So Few Rebelled
We have already mentioned that the Germans began their actions with careful planning and that they advanced in stages. It is possible that were they to begin the extinction immediately, things would have developed differently: the Jews would have rebelled and the slogan: let my soul perish with the Philistines, would have become the rule. But they approached the murder with scientific precision and planning, which purpose was to drain out vitality. First they enslaved them, robbed them of their property, oppressed them, broke their spirit, but did not take away the hope that they will survive, and even encouraged this belief. The plan in its every stage was perfectly detailed, and its main purpose was to create an illusion... that hope was not yet lost...
For the sake of truth we should not conceal the fact that the youth saw what was coming better than their parents and argued that an escape to the forest was necessary, despite everything. But our parents interpreted everything as the coming of the messiah: in his sermon, the town's rabbi, Rabbi Remez, may he rest in peace, said that the Jews must build Petom and Ramsis to be worthy of salvation.
But did the Germans directly enslave the Jewish population with menial labor? Was it only the Germans who made requisitions on Jewish property? Excluding the first and main requisition, that was performed by the authorities of the invading enemy, this task was performed by the Yudenrat, our own flesh and blood. Yes, they too did it, they too performed the task. I am not condemning the Yudenrat. On the contrary, they did as they could to alleviate the cruel edict, under the circumstances. They conducted themselves with honesty and supreme objectivity. They remembered their friends favorably. Their friends were the first to risk themselves by meeting directly with the representatives of the forces of destruction. Although they conducted themselves with honor and brotherly love, here and there people complained about the Yudenrat's behavior, and perhaps justly so, but undoubtedly these cases were rare. Most of the Yudenrat, despite their special situation, were fair. They realized and understood what a heavy burden was imposed on them, and their credo was to save whatever was possible, and to postpone the end as much as possible. In case a miracle occurs in the meantime, in case God remembers his chosen people.
The People of Israel are Responsible for One Another
Evidently, the only way to counter cruel fate, even if only for a short while, was through bribery. This is the path that the Yudenrat took. Common fate led to true love and wonderful unity. The people of Israel are responsible for one another. Private property, property that is mine was out of the question. Everything belonged to everyone, and if bribe money was needed, those who still had some resources carried the burden. The phenomenon of extreme devotion in helping another was revealed in all its glory. Cruel fate proved that the unity of Israel is not merely a legend. The boundaries that formed in the course of many generation were erased, offenses were forgiven, and traditional family feuds disappeared. A love for Israel, such that was never experienced since we became a people, was now demonstrated.
The love for Israel encircled also the war refugees from the surrounding towns, who stormed our town looking for temporary shelter, their houses having been destroyed, their families killed, their birth-towns erased from the face of the earth by the enemy. Every such refugee was adopted by a family and it provided him with shelter, food, bed and roof. For some reason the refugees believed, unfoundedly of course, that the Ilyites will be saved by some heavenly force.
Strenuous Labor under the Guise of Productivization
Under the guise of productivization, that indeed began under the Russian regime, the Germans worked the Jews strenuously. And, of course, not only in productive labor, but in every type of labor that breaks the body and destroys the soul. The Jews were made available to the local Christians, who could use them for any degrading labor. Cleaning toilets became a regular employment in which Jews became specialists and were forced to perform with their hands. Thus decreed the oppressors, who were really the town's native residents and knew every Jew and his family personally. They were literally delighted by the tragedy that befell the Jews and gloated over their misery.
Persecution by the Militia
The militia, consisting of the Christian-Polish intelligentsia of town, was a full and direct partner of the Germans in their acts of pillage and murder. It performed its job with efficient and consistent cruelty. But not only the lions in the herd excelled in cruelty. The weaklings did not remain far behind, and sometimes were more aggressive than the lions, to cover up their insecurities. And not only the official militia excelled in its dedication to the job. Most Christians turned into Reich patriots and aided the Germans. In persecution and pillage at first, and then in physical destruction. Every person with arms and legs used them to prove his strength by abuse. And needless to say, reaction was forbidden. He who did not control himself was immediately executed. The Jews suffered silently, because in their subconscious they believed in mir volan zie iberlaben, but their self control did not help and their hopes were disappointed. They managed, in fact, only to prolong their physical and mental agony for a few days, a few months at the most. The militia used every excuse, or a shadow of an excuse, to increase the burden. Every blow at an invader, his property, his loot, or anything he owned, was considered the fault of the Jews and as a response they were pogromed.
The Budding of Resistance
For truth's sake we must assert that the first organizers of partisan resistance troops were the Russian prisoners of war who were concentrated in different locations in occupied Byelorussia. This is not the right forum to determine whether partisan organization was done from patriotic motivation, or for the sake of survival. Possibly, both are true. But, undoubtedly, hunger and homelessness were significant causes in the realization of the idea. These conditions caused fermentation in the camps, and a mass escape to the neighboring forests ensued. Reason and the will to live still ruled in their hearts.
In the forests they needed to seek a new course. The little food that was given to them in the camps was no longer provided. For lack of other possibilities, they began theft operations in the near-by villages. The harsh treatment they received by the peasants forced them to organize in groups, and to arm themselves, so that they could overcome anyone who physically resisted them. The weapons, purchased literally with blood, were later directed towards the enemy. Nazi soldiers who found themselves in the forests were attacked by partisans, disarmed and killed.
When the theft increased and reached serious proportions, the Christian residents attributed it to the Jews, and indeed this is how they presented the situation to the Germans. As a result the Germans ordered the Jews to wear the yellow badge, on which the Star of David was featured. This occasion was celebrated by the Byelorussian patriots of the Reich, whereas the Jews were presented with more difficulties, on top of the existing ones.
From the Depth I Call to You, Lord
Stress and heavy depression descended on the Jews, and a sense of impending doom prevailed. This time they felt more emphatically that something serious was about to happen, and soon. At this moment, traditional and ancient prayers seemed very relevant, as if they were composed especially for the present time. Although only the lips moved, and no sound was heard, the heart cried:
... Our Lord, Our King - cancel the thoughts of our enemy...
... Our Lord, Our King - cancel the cruel edicts...
... Our Lord, Our King - alleviate the cruelty of our sentence...
But despite all, the prayer did not help. The sense that the extinction plan was being formulated and approached its final form with constant, cold logic was growing.
We were now approaching the final stage, and many illusions were being shattered. The impending end was felt in the atmosphere, a kind of a prolonged day of atonement, that persisted for days, weeks and months and enveloped the Jews. The feeling that the day of judgement was coming told that this time, the Netane Tokef prayer was final. Lips prayed in whispers, eyes shed tears -- for He is terrible... And the brain, to the extent that it could still function, raised from oblivion the sentences: Who shall live and who shall die? Who has reached his end and who hasn't? Who in water... and who in fire...as if the heart predicted that most of them were destined to perish in fire... The mere though that this is the destiny in store for the individual and for the collective shattered the nerves and deprived them of the will to live. It is no wonder, thus, that very many prayed a quiet prayer to their God: Master of the Universe, until where, until when will the suffering and humiliation continue? For is not death better than life of enslavement and degradation?
Towards the First Massacre
Then the inevitable came. Tuesday, the 29th of the month of Adar 1942, an accelerated motion was sensed from early morning, and we felt that today we are destined to stand before judgement: some to live and some to die. Everything around us bore witness of what's to come: reinforced and fully armed units consisting of S.S. men filled the streets. The assisting militia, comprised of Byelorussians, Ukrainians, Lithuanians and Latvians - disconnected all the roads to and from town, and especially guarded the routes that led to the neighboring forests. Machine guns were positioned to form a wide front that surrounded the town, as if the enemy was about to combat a huge, offensive force. And against whom was this murderous might directed? Children, women, men and the elderly, half starved, broken in their bodies and souls, tired and exhausted by their plight and the constant degradation - ready to go towards saving death together with joy, in order to end this chapter of suffering and hardships.
On the Way to Concentration
The Germans now began to take the town's Jews out of their houses and to concentrate them in the place allocated for the selection, in the middle of the marketplace. Two by two, S.S. men armed from head to toe, entered the houses and extracted any living soul from them. They returned a second time to the house and inspected it carefully, in case someone was hiding. Thus they progressed from house to house. Those who resisted or were ill were killed on the spot, and the others were pushed on, whole families interlocking their arms as if on the way to a wedding, to the marketplace, in front of the late Moshe Zut's house.
The groups advanced together toward their bitter fate, but still their faces were not darkened by sadness. On the contrary, the suffering and prolonged humiliation made them despise this degrading life, and they saw in death salvation and deliverance.
Those candidates for death reached the concentration spot, where the decision would take place on who would live and who would die. They took advantage of a pause to say goodbye to each other - a farewell that bore the traditional character of Yom Kippur Eve, when each and every one awaits his verdict. Each forgives his fellow if he hurt or offended him - the idea is to atone for sins between man and his fellow.
The atmosphere becomes a bit more tense when parents and friends, close and less so, turn to the younger ones -- that they believe have a better chance of surviving -- and ask them to pray Kaddish for their souls on the anniversary of their death. Parents give an oral will to their sons, kiss, embrace and cry -- the most important will is that concerning the kaddish for the dead -- and many promises are made. Even though they were condemned to die and their oath will descend to the grave along with them.
Exactly how the selection was to be performed none of those present knew. Most assumed that the young and healthy would survive and the elderly be executed. But this is not what happened. Very few survived the selection, and those were mainly the various artisans: tinsmiths, cobblers, tailors, and so on. All others departed from the land of the living. Harrowing scenes took place when a husband, needed for labor, was separated from his wife. The husband refused to remain alive, and thus forced the Nazis to let the entire family live.
As the selection ended, two groups were formed. One consisted of the majority of the town's Jews who appeared at the concentration scene, and they were condemned to die. In contrast, the small second group, consisting mainly of skilled workers needed for serving the Germans, were freed for the moment from the fate of their friends, parents, brothers and sisters. But, to serve as a warning, they were forced to watch with their own eyes the execution of the actzia -- the burning alive of their parents and relatives.
A deathlike silence prevailed in both groups. Each, it seems, had some soul searching to do. Although more than 400 souls were present at the scene, not a word was heard. Even the children understood the severity of the moment and kept silent. As if all had frozen. Suddenly a voice split the air, coming from the middle of the crowd, that, due to the silence, sounded huge: Jews! Brothers! These are our last moments on earth, let us pray in public confession. This was Rabbi Moshe David Vines, a wise and clever and worldly man. For as long as I can remember he was not considered a religious man. He was liberal and that is how he raised his children as well. But thanks to this cry he earned a big privilege. In one second he saved his soul and immortalized his name. On his lot most of the town's Jews were burnt, and hence his lot became a cemetery for evermore.
The confession ended, and now a command was heard: Jews, march forward! The rows advanced. Mothers that held onto their babies' hands moved forward. Fathers who led children marched in front, and following them a large crowd: adolescents, men, women and children, old men and women. All marched towards destiny, towards the unknown. The feeble who lagged behind were killed on the way, apparently to illustrate to the remainder what their fate was. But the entire camp seemed younger, stood up tall and marched to its destiny with courage and pride, as if to say: you cannot beat us! Larger and stronger enemies tried to destroy us. In almost every generation we were threatened with extinction. But, in spite of it all, we are among the most ancient people on the face of the earth.
On Vines' lot opposite the fruit storage house that was erected during the Soviet rule, the command was heard: Stop. This storage house contained a deep pit for ice storage, to preserve the fruit during the summer, that was now empty. This provided an ideal place for the execution of the vile murder. The crowd stopped, and deadly silence spread. The oppressors ordered them to strip naked, and those who refused were beaten until they bled. Especially beaten were our modest women, the pure and innocent daughters of Israel, who refused to strip before the men. Then the sadistic murderers tore the clothes off them with force. Now the miserable women stood oppressed, lowering their gaze to the ground so that they would not be recognized.
Into the Fire
Suddenly, the voice of the master of death was heard. Jews, forward march to the storage house. But, incredibly, although the people did not decide in advance to resist, and marched until then towards death without objection and without hesitation, they now instinctively refused to follow the order. The murderers were taken aback and confused, and silence deepened, nobody moved. Even the wind, stormy until then, spontaneously ceased. Everything stood still. This situation lasted only a few seconds, although it seemed like hours. The murderers recovered their senses and began consulting with each other. What happened? they wondered. Up until now everything went smoothly, and suddenly the Jews are refusing to fulfil the role assigned to them?
The two camps stood ready, as if something is about to happen. And indeed something happened: from the last rows there arose a lengthy Yom-Kippur melody from the Netane Tokef prayer... who in fire... who in water...who in stoning...who in strangling... And the crowd accepted these sentences like the ruling of a higher court. Evidently, this was decreed... and now the camp moved forward, to jump into the lions mouth, as did Nachshon Ben-Aminadav in his time, when he jumped first into the bustling Jordan river, out of deep faith in the salvation of Israel.
The first foursome entered the storage house and was followed by a hundred additional foursomes who crowded into the storage house and were swallowed by it. The murderers locked the gates of the storage house instantly, and used the gasoline barrels they prepared previously. The wooden walls of the edifice were moistened with gasoline and set on fire. The dry storage house caught on fire immediately, like a pile of straw. In a few moments the Jews inside were in the heart of the consuming fire. The cries of the burning children rose up towards the skies... undoubtedly it reached the holy seat... the Shma Yisrael chant of the adults split the seventh heaven and echoed in the ears of God... Through blood and fire and columns of smoke the holy souls flew in the air on their way to heaven.
The Destined to Live Contemplate
The destined to live were locked up in a stable, and from a considerable distance they heard the echoing shots and cries. Through the cracks in the walls they saw the flames of the fire that was consuming their parents, sisters, brothers, and their other loved ones. But there was nothing they could do. Each one in the little group isolated himself in a far corner, withdrew into himself, and contemplated his own fate. As in a movie, each one's life, past and present, passed before his eyes. The shocking fate of his loved ones would not leave him alone. In their agony, they complained to God: Master of the Universe: what crime did these innocent Jews commit, that you delivered them into the hands of the damned ones? What sin have these dear ones committed? Were they not filled with good deeds? Have they not given their bread to the poor? Fed orphans and widows? Given charity in anonymity, and helped the poor and deprived? Why all this misfortune on these people? Why...
Hope flickered in the eyes of each, that perhaps not all of them perished, perhaps his father and brothers, cousin and others that he did not see at the concentration spot managed to hide and survive. Perhaps! Master of the Universe, I pray that this proves to be the truth.
An electric current ran through our bodies. We recognized the voices of the murderers approaching us, after the fire ceased over there. Suddenly they opened the gate. Each one of us stood up instinctively, to hear the bad news with an erect posture. But instead of shouts we hear a quiet order: go home.
We were surprised, as if cold water were suddenly poured on us. Home? what cruel joke is this, which home? The one where Sister was shot, where her child was torn to pieces in front of her eyes, where Mother, the matriarch of the household, was thrown out and into the flames? Which home to go to, the one where only the violated walls remain? The one where the beds and mattresses where cut by the robbers' knives, who looked for silver and gold? Only yesterday the term home had a significance. Only yesterday it was filled with love and life, and now? A deadly silence rules all. The house is empty, abandoned, destroyed, lonely and orphaned, like us.
On the way home we passed by the murder scene. The fire had already died, but it was still smoking. A pile of ashes was revealed to us. Here and there burnt bones stuck out, that were once arms and legs. To stand and gaze at length at this death valley we could not, we choked on our tears and our hearts broke. Unconsciously we let our legs carry us to the place that until yesterday was our home, into these walls in the midst of which we first saw light, where we grew up and matured. When we came closer we found the doors broken down, the furniture in disarray, every valuable stolen. But we hardly paid attention to these. The hope that somewhere hides a living dear soul filled our brains exclusively. That thought spurred us to check all the best hiding places, known to us since childhood. And, indeed, our efforts were not futile. We found the father, that miraculously managed to hide although the looters passed right by him, and thus he was saved. Near him lay a cousin, saved as well. In this fashion more than 150 Jews were saved.
Both the joy of finding these dear souls and the agony over losing the rest are unimaginable.
With Cohen at the Chevrei Kadisha
I barely managed to exchange a few words with my father, rest his soul, and with my little cousin, when I heard the sound of the spiked boots of a Nazi S.S. soldier from behind. He brought Zoshka Geitlitz with him and ordered us both to collect all the bodies of those who were shot; in the houses, the streets, the yards, and on the way to the forest, and to bury them in a common grave at Vines' lot. I tried to avoid this cruel task and begged him to let me go, since I am out of physical and mental shape. As a response to my request he showered me with blows until I collapsed. Despite this, he demanded that I do the work.... beaten, wounded and bleeding, I began to work. First we went to the tar mine, a long distance from the Jewish tenements, where I found the body of Mirim Rubin, brother of our friend David, and we mounted him on the wagon and went back to town. The second house we entered was that of the cobbler Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Katzovitz. There we were confronted by a horrid scene. The body of his daughter Itka was perforated by bullets and near her lay her little baby, slain as well, holding his mother's nipple in his mouth and breast feeding. We loaded the corpses on the wagon, went back home, and called in Yiddish: whoever survived can come out of hiding. Suddenly the cellar door opened and on the threshold appeared Rabbi Shlomo Zalman, white as a wall and shivering from cold and fear. We now reached the house of Ya'akov the blacksmith, where we found many corpses in the yard: Faya and her two children literally torn by domdom bullets. Reshka and Meshka and their children. As soon as we finished loading the bodies from this yard, a shot was heard close by. When I turn in the direction of the shot, I realized that those killed were my father and my cousin. Still warm, they twitched between life and death.
Master of the Universe! Where did we find the strength and how did we not collapse during work? We went to our house for a moment to drink a glass of pure alcohol and perhaps put end to our miserable existence. But it did not effect us at all. The oppressor again appeared in front of us, and we were forced to continue to concentrate the hundreds of bodies lying around. We found Teibale Akman's body as two pigs were nibbling on her flesh. Thus we combed the town through. Where weren't there dead bodies? In the yards, in the houses, in the cellars, and in hiding places in the meadows on the bank of the river. Oh, how close were the latter to survival but were shot on the bank of the river, a few meters away from the saving forest.
We brought all of those to a common grave and shut it close as our lips whispered... Yitgadal Veyitkadash Shmei Raba.... Thus ended the first historical mission in Ilya.
To the Ghetto of the Professionals in Vileika
On the following day I was summoned to the regional headquarters where I was informed that I must be on my way immediately to work as a locksmith in Vileika. The car was already waiting in front of the headquarters. Aside from myself, other Ilyite artisans were present: Zoshka Geitlitz, Shefsel Epstein, and a few others. I will not detain us with stories about the way to Vileika, for we were suspicious of the fact that we were indeed sent to perform labor. We suspected rather that we were being led to slaughter. But, despite our doubts, we reached the place. Indeed, this was a labor camp consisting of various types of artisans, each serving the war effort of the Germans. Here I met Jews of my acquaintance from various towns and especially from Kornitz. Vileika was, by then, Yudenrein and not a single Jew was left there. During my stay in the camp I found out that Fania Cheikin was in the prison house, employed by the S.D. to search for gold, silver and valuables in the clothes of the slain, to pull gold teeth out, and so forth.
Fear ruled the day. We all knew that our date of execution was approaching, but that for now we were crucial. For now they will not harm us. What worried me most was the fact that my wife remained in the ghetto in Ilya and I did not have enough details on her life. We all lived under the impression that all the ghettos in the vicinity will be destroyed soon, and therefore my wife's future worried me very much.
On a certain day I was summoned to the camp's commander and he ordered me to make him a gold key. Right before my eyes, he opened a big trunk full of gold and silver. I used the opportunity to ask him to transfer my wife and son to the camp. Since she is a good seamstress and will undoubtedly be very useful. Although he reprimanded me loudly and kicked me out of his house -- get out, bloody dog he yelled -- it wasn't long before my wife and son Yehuda were transferred to camp. Now we were all together. This was not a good omen, though, regarding the Ilya ghetto. We understood that the end of the ghetto was near and that all its residents were condemned to die. Indeed, after a few days, what we feared has materialized. The Ilya ghetto was destroyed and its residents all killed.
This event was a turning point for us. Now that in virtually the entire area all ghettos were destroyed (except Kurenitz) we knew that our end was near. We therefore began to organize, to gradually purchase arms, and in due course, to escape to the forest and join the partisans. Our secret headquarter consisted of: the professional manager of the ghetto Mr. Schwartz, a Jew from Kurenitz, Mr. Yossef Zukerman, Ravonski, and the writer of these lines -- who did everything possible to purchase a few arms or to build them, but the results were poor. Every weapon we collected we transferred to the partisans through a peasant messenger. Thus, days and weeks went by and we lived in a state of continual insecurity concerning our fate.
One day, fate intervened and dealt the cards, and forced us to escape the camp immediately. The event was as follows: our connection, who received from us, as usual, the weapon and bullets acquired with much effort and blood (literally), was summoned to the police, for the purpose of transferring something from one place to another. But, as the saying goes, the hat on top of the thief's head is burning. We feared that the peasant was caught by the police holding the weapons, which will serve as evidence for the existence of a resistance movement, and will lead to our end. We consulted briefly, and, considering the situation, we declared: he who can save himself should do so immediately.
Needless to say, an unorganized escape ensued, that wasted lives and brought on couples the agony of separation, especially the women. In escaping, I too lost my wife, and we were not reunited until a long while afterwards. Our situation in the Vileika ghetto was relatively good. We already mentioned the fact that, as time went by, we contacted the partisans. Therefore, when we presented ourselves at Atrad we were well received. Many Jews from other ghettos futily made their way but were not accepted by the warriors, for here, too, anti-Semitism thrived.
Among the Partisans
I will do my best to skip over the agonizing period ensuing my unexpected separation from my wife, Bat Sheva, during the escape to the forest. Only due to her courage she survived and managed to keep our eldest son alive as well. My wife tells this story in detail, and I will only add a few lines on life among the partisans and the main events. But first I must remark that when I finally met with my wife it was after a year of miserable separation. I brought her out from where she stayed and brought her to my regiment.
On life among the partisans there isn't much to add since the topic is well known, as well as the way of life. The Jews were generally disliked, and when they were used for war operations they were send to the most dangerous locations: to blow up bridges, purchase weapons, gather food, and attack the enemy's garrisons. This was life as usual. But when the Germans imposed a blockade and send whole armies into the forest, to put an end to the partisan movement which blocked the way of weapons and food for their troops, the personal situation changed a bit. But the situation in itself was unbearable. Very many died in these operations to break the Nazi front.
Suddenly the Nazi front collapsed and the war ended. Now the situation changed. Instead of us hiding in the forest, persecuted by the Nazis, they were the ones to hide now and ordered us to take them as prisoners of war. Now this wasn't the invincible Nazi, but one who is scared as much as we were in our time. He begged for his life, his knees shaking. A new German revealed himself to us now, very different from the one of the days of triumph.
Despite All, We are Aliens
The war ended. Partisan troops gathered at Minsk - the capital of Byelorussia, and were awarded badges of honor for their acts of heroism and the suffering that they bore with honor. But we Jews were so few among the rows of warriors, among the civil population, that we felt ourselves lonely and isolated. We fought for this country, but we were alien in it. We fought for our lives, and indeed a few managed to survive until the great day of the so-called military collapse of the invincible Germans. We Jews gained a bit of revenge, but the full satisfaction that we dreamed of and thought would be gotten was never awarded to us.
By the Graves of our Fathers, Again
This sense of being an alien among the gentiles was not particular to me. Each one of us survivors felt it with full force. Each was lonely, solitary, and abandoned. Though we witnessed the destruction of the town and its Jews, or heard of it from a distance, we still rushed to the town of our birth. There we gathered, the remaining few, and tried to rebuild our home. But here too ruled an atmosphere of hatred and alienation. Despite the freshly-dug graves of our darlings we have not found peace.
Every day we went to the new cemetery to try and grasp the great tragedy that occurred there. We finally decided to erect a fence around the place that was consecrated by the blood of Israel and to plant trees around the area where they found their long-lasting rest, until the coming of the savior and avenger.
To Return to the Land of the Fathers
The idea to move westward to join the builders of the resurrected Hebrew homeland now brewed in our heads. To pick up the travel staff again, but this time with a clear goal in mind: to reach Israel, already on the brink of independence, to build, develop and establish it, and to aggrandize its name. And indeed, we have reached the longed-for goal.
Now that we are well rooted in the land, we must not forget those who died and burned: our parents, brothers and sisters -- who died at the hands of the Germans murderers and whose blood was shed as water. Do not forget the parents' call for revenge -- their spilled blood. Who knows when we will finally be able to pay them their just deserves. Therefore, we commemorated these gloomy events for eternal remembrance until the last of all generations.
When we recall them in the holy land, we must not forget to light a candle of remembrance for the pure and innocent souls. We shall bow our heads to remember their courage and martyrdom, and pray, with tears, for their soul's salvation.
Yitgadal Veyitkadash Shmei Raba...
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