The forest offers us plenty of shadows and gloom to hide in. We prepare red flags with which to receive the approaching Red Army. But when the front reaches us, we hardly feel the war. Instead, we cheer on ranks of tattered-looking Russian boys. They battle the Germans on the main road. We watch two German soldiers running away from us, the dying people. The partisans bring them to the headquarters to be investigated.
We are preparing for our return to Kurenitz. Our emotional state is very difficult to describe. Only now do we begin to understand all that we have gone through – and it is impossible for us to accept everything that has happened. Yesterday, our hunger for life filled us with a determination to fight for survival. Today, we find ourselves in a barren land. We are free now. Our lives are no longer motivated by the sheer will to live and our hearts have a chance to remember and reflect on the tragedy that has occurred. Now we wonder, What did we stay alive for? Why did we fight so hard? What was the purpose of all this? Where, and to whom, will we go tomorrow? Our hearts still cling to the reality of the past. Now, the present and the future have no meaning.
The memories come to me in sharp, jarring fragments. They are jumbled in my mind, and I can't foretell what memory will arise at any given moment. For some reason, I keep hearing the terrible echo of Balzinyouk's voice, Palzili vasimanast selovieck – We lay them down! We killed eighteen Jews in one place. He struts around – proud and excited with his accomplishment. Thirty-two Jews were killed that day. Balzinyuk was referring to the eighteen souls he had found in the house of Chaim Zukofsky, and whom he had killed on the spot.
More memories flood my mind. They are broken with no real chronological order. I remember the day of the slaughter. Zalman, my husband, the father of my children, is being dragged away by the Germans while on his way to warn the Jews praying in the Minyan to escape. We hid in the attic, but knew we had to leave as soon as we could. We fled to the village Kilin, and then to the forest. What are we going to do in the forest? How can we sustain ourselves here? I asked Rugbin's wife when I met her. You must collect handouts from people. Go from door to door like beggars. Knock on windows, and in your most pitiful voice you say, `My world has darkened. Please give me a helping hand.'
Can you hear, my daughter? Do you know how low we've sunk. We were in desperate need and we've walked all this way crying.
The forest rises again before my eyes. My daughter Rivkale is sick with typhus and she is lying on the damp forest floor. I have covered her with tree bark. She must stay warm!. Everyone has run away and left us. They are afraid of the coming German blockade, but I am staying with my sick child. Soon enough I hear the soldiers coming. I cannot breathe. I think, `How can my heart still be beating?' By the time I realize that the soldiers are in fact partisans, I am certain of death. The partisans' hearts are with us and they ask me, How are you healing her?. I recover enough to answer with a sense of humor and irony: I heal her with cold water. Full of pity, they give us bread and butter, some medicine, and six eggs – and then warn us not to tell anyone. None of us in the forest can brag. As I continue through the forest, I see Rachel Kanterovitz. She's lying dead among the fallen leaves. On her face, there is an eternal frozen smile.
Horrors – horrors! Was this all a nightmare, or were we really awake?
And today, they tell us that we are dismissed! Where will we go from here? What will we do now that our freedom has been returned? What can the broken limb do – drying and lifeless?
The head of the partisans, a Jew named Sernack, arrives. He arranges for the people going in the direction of Kurenitz to be taken there by horses and wagons – the partisan troops' only means of transportation. He gives us supplies for the first few days, because he knows we won't find any in Kurenitz. When we enter Kurenitz, we find some Jews who have arrived ahead of us, My daughter and I were invited to live in the house of Tzirka Alperovich. We had been living in the same hiding place since last winter, so she invites us in. The house has been destroyed and the gentiles have ripped up the wooden floor. But compared to our hovel in the forest, this is a luxurious apartment.
Our first move is to go to the graves at the end of Mydell Street. There, we find huge holes at the site, which has not been covered well. Next to them are smaller holes. Handkerchiefs are thrown onto the ground. The place is not fenced off. According to the villagers, it had been used as a place for pasture until the last few days. We stand here and cry, overcome with emotion again. Our sense of loss is renewed. We realize just how empty life has now become. Even so, we have not fully lost our instincts for survival. As I cry, the intensity of pain reminds me that there still exists a hunger for life within the dry limbs.
Some gentiles – the bloodsuckers – are not pleased to see us. As we stand on the steps of Tzirka's house – on our very first day back in the village, a few pitiful women, gentile women, pass by us and exclaim in amazement: Boze myee yeshtang asta alas – God! Oh God! There are still many of them left! But there are other gentiles, who honestly respect us and sincerely share in our sorrows. They come to console us and name the people who have taken our possessions. Statoayudviga told us that many days after the slaughter, she had seen our stamped books, encyclopedias, and picture albums circulating all over the market, but she was too scared to take them.
I couldn't live with myself if I didn't mention the names of Ingaly Birook and Bakatz. They were two virtuous gentiles who did all they could to save things. You see, I too stole and robbed from you, Bakatz told the Jews. And with this he returned to us a large Torah- scroll, which he had kept hidden in his basement for years.
On one of these senseless days, I forced myself to visit the wife of the Organizer to see if they had any of our stolen belongings. I am forced to enter the house of these thieves, and to talk politely. She is fearful of my being there. I recognize one of our blankets and point it out to her, but she denies that it is ours. She says that when her husband and daughter ran away with the Germans, they took everything with them. She claims that this blanket was one of many that she had purchased in a store.
A few years back, we had left some of our more expensive belongings with Shostakovich, the doctor, for safekeeping. I visit his house to ask that they be returned. I find that Shostakovich, being the head of the Belarussian committee, had been imprisoned – along with the other committee members – for signing the request for the Jewish slaughter. His wife, always the obedient law-abider, claimed that all our possession now belonged to the new rulers
One villager, a woman, returned the iron she had taken from us a few days before the slaughter. And I succeeded in getting back our bed, which I had hidden in a special location.
The whole town had been burned down. Behind the old home of Mendel, son of
Yechezkel Alperovich, there used to be fields that belonged to the Jews. Now
some gentiles had planted potatoes in the lot that had previously belonged to
us. Many of the gentiles have now run away, fearing Communism. So we, the
survivors, have taken all the potatoes. This is what we eat, and this is the
way we live. We are free and ravaged. Before the war, Kurenitz was known for
the outbreaks of fire that destroyed sections of the town. Afterwards, the
streets would come to life, as everyone gathered together to help erect new
buildings among the ruins. Now, there is only earth and dust. And on this
dreary surface we walk like shadows – void of life and of the will to
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