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Thus It Began (cont.)

A New Spirit in Town

World War II started and the Soviets came to our area (in what is now Belarus) after the partition of Poland. Many members of our youth movement believed that the Soviets would understand our nationalistic desires, particularly our youth movement's desires, since these were based on Marxist ideology.

Particularly excited among us were Shimon Zirolnik and Nyomka Shulman. Nyomka was fourteen at the time, already a deep thinker, brimming with energy and a leader type. Both of them had hoped that the Soviets would help us accomplish our nationalistic desires as Jews. Nyomka and Shimon started studying Marxism very tenaciously. Nyomka even read Marx in German to be sure that he did not miss any of the intent. When the Soviets had just arrived, there was a feeling of comfort for some of us. The Christian boys who used to bother us were very quiet now. No one was allowed to say the word “Jeed.” The judge who came to our area from Russia was a Jew, and I must say that the political committee was working hard to try to educate the public. We, the members of HaShomer Hatzair, would gather in Nyomka's house no longer in secret. We would talk and argue. Some of us even had girlfriends who were Russian (not Jewish). In general, there was much more communication among the Jews and Russians.

I had new opportunities for education, particularly since prior to the Russian arrival I was a proletariat, a laborer in a printing place; consequently, my situation was very favorable now. As I told you earlier, I finished seven grades in the Polish school. I could be accepted to the fifth grade in the public high school. The elementary school in town now became a high school. Many of my friends were accepted to fifth grade, but some of us who had previously stopped our studies were about sixteen and seventeen, much older than the rest of the students, who were about fourteen. Some of the teachers were Polish but a few came from Russia. Now, many students came from Russia, from territories that prior to the war had belonged to Russia. Some people among us thought that there was no sense in studying, since we soon would be eighteen and would have to serve in the army. There was a huge difference in capabilities between the Jews and the non-Jews. The Jews were all very good students and, in no time, there was a big gap. Other than studies, the school also had many social activities now. There was singing and dancing and we had many lessons on communism. My biggest desire in those days was to continue to study medicine, but that was a long-term dream.

During the summer vacation of 1940, I went to work for the train station. My job was to check the tracks; the train tracks were made of wood and there was iron on top of them. I had to check that the wood was not rotten. The tracks would get affected by heat and cold so I had to be very diligent in my job and report the situation to a Christian, named Bogdonyuk, who was the head of the train station. At that time, they started widening the train tracks that had previously belonged to the Polish territories, since they were slightly narrower than the ones that the Russians used. Therefore, I was traveling on a little bicycle from Kurenets to Molodechno, and I would check things and report to Bogdonyuk.

I did my job so well that they suggested I should go to Leningrad to study in the Techniyon. I came home and told my mother that I had gotten an offer. My mother asked me, “Why the Techniyon? You always talked about being a doctor.” At that time, we had a renter who was responsible for the communist propaganda in the region. He was a Jew named Israel Guzman, and he suggested that if I could finish the ninth grade in high school before my time in the army, he would arrange for me to go to medical school. At that time, people from the Polish area were allowed to finish high school by graduating from ninth grade, rather than tenth grade, which was more common in Russia. I listened to Guzman, but I thought it would be impossible to finish four grades in the time that I had left before I would have to serve in the army. Mother did not agree with me. She said that I could study very hard during the summer and learn everything needed for sixth grade, so the next year I could go to seventh grade, and then we would get a postponement to finish ninth grade. Guzman agreed with mother, so I immediately discontinued working on the tracks and started preparing for seventh grade. Most of my friends also did the same, and by the time the year started we were even able to help some of the Russian students who were not so good in their studies.

The “Days of Honey” Do Not Last Long

The first weeks of Soviet rule seemed like days of honey. However, this period was done with in no time, and many troubles subsequently came to the town's population, particularly to “richer Jews,” such as the merchants. Many Jews were imprisoned and some were sent to Siberia. Our hope that the Soviets would recognize our nationalistic desire disappeared. In town there were many Jewish soldiers from the Red Army, and they would tell us that in Russia they lacked nothing and that they had everything they needed. One soldier who fell in love with a Jewish girl from the town would say in Russian, “ Me yee vosof emiem,” meaning, “We have everything.” The clowns in town would say that what he meant was that the word mayeem is “water” in Hebrew, so they do not lack water in Russia. We would learn about the true situation of the Russian people from the way the soldiers behaved. They would buy anything from any merchant in sight. They would even agree to buy two left shoes in two different colors! Soon the stores were empty of all merchandise and even local residents were waiting for merchants to arrive from Russia.

Now merchandise would come to the cooperative store and it would be divided among the residents, who would stand in lines to get the rations. The payment for the supplies was originally made with both Soviet and Polish money, Soviet rubles and Polish zloty. The cooperative stores opened in a few places in town. The Soviets made a few stores into one big store. The part of our house that was a store was taken. It became a component of a cooperative of leather goods. The smell of the leather spread all over our house and it was very hard to breathe. All day long, people would come to these stores to shop. No one knew what products would be found on a particular day. The main seller was a Jew from town, Moolah (Shmuel, the son of Yehoshua Alperovich). He was a true comedian and would have all kinds of stories to tell. We would come to him and ask in Yiddish, “Moolah, mas vin hind kind?” Moolah would answer, “Today only balalaikas.” One day, Moolah said that they sold many locks, but there was only one key to all the locks; still, everyone was ready to buy the locks.

The authorities fired teachers in the school. This was the situation of the headmaster, Mataras. To replace the fired teachers, they brought teachers from the Vostok and some local residents became teachers. One was Yitzchak Zimmerman who was called in town Ytza Ckatzies', meaning Yitzhak son of Yechezkel. Ytza was known as a very learned man. He became our teacher for Russian studies. He was renowned among the students and the teachers alike. He was a very educated man, knew the Hebrew language very well, and would win any argument. He had a good voice and was very involved in the synagogue. The teacher, Josef Scrantani, continued teaching. He taught mathematics. His wife also became a Russian teacher, but their situation was very difficult. Scrantani became sick with tuberculosis but continued smoking. I, myself, did not smoke. I was not allowed to, according to the rules of HaShomer Hatzair. However, I had an easy time getting cigarettes, so I would buy cigarettes and come to school to give them to Scrantani, pretending that I was trying to stop smoking. The fact that I never saw anyone from the Scrantani family stand in line for cigarettes or anything else made me think that I should do something for them. We really believed that sugar had a healing effect. During the Polish days, there were posters saying, “Sukiari keshpeh,” meaning, “Sugar makes you strong.” Therefore, I decided to get a large amount of sugar for Scrantani to compensate for the fact that I was giving him cigarettes that I knew were bad for him. My sister Henia worked as a checker in the restaurant in Vileyka. I approached her, told her about Scrantani, and asked her to sell me two bags of 1kg each. Although it was much more expensive to buy it there, my financial situation was good, so I did not mind paying a higher price if I did not have to wait in line. Henia gave me the sugar. The next day, I approached Scrantani's wife. She was very excited when she received the sugar and said, “You don't know, my dear, how we appreciate your deeds. At the same time, I think how things have changed. In the old days, I would have been extremely insulted if someone had tried to help me like this, but these days things are different. I cannot express how wonderful it is that you care for Scrantani so.” I paid for the sugar with 32 rubles. She assumed that I had stood in line and paid me 20 rubles. I said that I only paid 10 rubles, so that is what she gave me. Scrantani, who was a Polish Christian, told Mataras (who was also Christian) about what I had done for him. The reason I am telling this story is that they were very helpful to us in the days to come.

In the Christian villages, there was hatred toward the Soviet rulers. Many of the villagers who had horses were forced to work for the Soviets. There were also rumors that soon they would establish kolchozes and confiscate the farms, including the cows and horses, and bring them there. So now, many villagers tried to get rid of their horses. They would bring them to the meat market and sell them very cheap. They would pretend that the horses were sick, slaughter them, and take the skins to sell to the government. The rule was that in order to establish that a horse was sick, a veterinarian had to assess the health of the horse. Sometimes, the veterinarian was paid under the table, so many healthy horses were killed. Many of the Jews and the local authorities were involved in this practice and were eventually caught and sent to Siberia. The situation with cows and other livestock was similar to that with horses. Those days, many cows were sick with tuberculosis, but many people pretended that healthy cows were sick with tuberculosis so that they could sell the cows for meat and leather.

I remember that, about that time, my parents bought another cow to add to the one cow we already had. We bought it from a Christian farmer named Kostya. Truly, the cow was healthy, yet when they checked her, they said that she was sick with tuberculosis. Moreover, she must be slaughtered immediately. Kostya and his wife were very honest people and came to us saying that when they brought the cow to us she was very healthy; therefore, she had turned sick more recently. They told us that as a consolation they would give us a one-year-old calf. In the end, we did not agree but we became very friendly with them.

Father, the Enemy of the Proletariat

At just about the same time, someone informed on my father, saying that he used to be a “major merchant.” So on his identification card it was put that he was an enemy of the proletariat. This was not enough reason to send him to Siberia, but he was limited in his ability to get a job and was only allowed to do menial work. Father, who was only a middle-class merchant who had worked in accounting for Gmilut Chesed, now had to start doing manual work. He would go to work with one of the gentiles from town, Meetzkovsky, and would be his assistant in building furnaces. Father would hand him the bricks and other materials. Meetzkovsky was a very friendly person. He could speak Yiddish fluently, and when he spoke it sometimes, his language would be much nicer than that of the town's Jews.

The Russians not only confiscated apartments and stores; they also confiscated the synagogue that was called Beit Hamidrash, where the Mitnagdim prayed. There were other prayer houses. Two belonged to the Chasidim and there was a minyan of the rabbi where only the most religious of the Chasidim would pray. The synagogue they confiscated became a community center. There were meetings and speeches, and movies would even be shown there. The Jews took out all the bibles and the head of the community center took out the beautiful bima so that the place would be larger inside. Now most of the townspeople, Christians and Jews, would come there to watch movies. The older people of the town would tell how the bima was originally made. In 1924, Max Shulman, a former town resident who had immigrated to the United States and become very rich, arrived in town. He gave a vast sum of money for, among other things, improving the synagogue and putting in the bima. He even brought a painter from Vilna to paint unique scenes for the bima.

In those days, father was dreaming of becoming a farmer. If he had to do manual work, he decided to get a parcel to farm. At that time, anyone who lived near a land parcel was told that he could get the land next to the house if he wanted to be a farmer. Therefore, father decided to register to get such land. Among the persons who were granting the land was a Jew from Russia. He abruptly whispered to my father in Yiddish, “Da oom vah ava rhysm. Af laka tif din art,” meaning, “Here you must know that a person who owns some land ends up being buried in the land.” Father immediately understood the meaning and decided to return to his job with Meetzkovsky.

Aunt Reskah's house was also confiscated and now it became the home for the Russian authorities and my aunt and her children had to leave. The same was the fate of the house that belonged to the Einbinder family, the parents of my friend Yetzkaleh.

Test Time

The meetings of our youth movement became increasingly covert. In many ways, this was the beginning of our underground activities. The core of the youth movement for us was our leader Kopel Spektor, although he didn't spend much time in town. Kopel finished his Techniyon studies in Vilna with very high grades. When the Soviets realized his skills, they sent him to work in Molodechno, where he had a lab. He was working on an invention. He made something to do with trains.

He was beloved by all of us teenagers and we waited impatiently for the times he would come to Kurenets. At some point Josef Kaplan came to town. He was one of the principal leaders of HaShomer Hatzair in Eastern Europe and now he came to communicate with us and tell us how we could still immigrate to Palestine. He told us that we should go to Vilna. From there, people would go to Japan and from there somehow to Palestine. Our friend Chaim Yitzhak Zimmerman went to Vilna to inquire about it. It was very difficult to reach Vilna, which now was on the other side of the border; therefore, he had to pay a large sum of money to bribe someone to let him proceed. When he returned to Kurenets with the needed information, some of us prepared to leave for Vilna. However, Vilna soon thereafter became part of the Soviet Union and this plan was not viable anymore.

One time the chemistry teacher was trying to do an experiment with dangerous chemicals and since I was experienced at such things, I told him this was dangerous. He told me “If you are so scared, go to the back benches.” I immediately did as he told me. I was right, and the teacher got a burn on his face while doing the experiment. The next day I showed the class how to do it in a safer way. Therefore I got a good grade, but I was sent home for bad behavior—being disrespectful to the teacher. Mother came to the high school to talk to the headmaster the next day. He was from Soviet Russia and he was a Jew by the name of Fishkin. She said “There was something wrong with my son's behavior but the punishment was too strong. Everyone admitted that there was something wrong with the way the teacher did the experiment, not only wrong but also dangerous. Nevertheless, despite the mistake, the teacher is staying in school. My son, who is sorry for his behavior, is taken out. Is that justice?” The principal was convinced and I was let back into school.

Meanwhile, since I planned to skip some grades, I had to bring a note from the doctor saying that I could withstand such a difficult task. A Jewish doctor named Cyrynsky came to our area in 1937. He was highly respected by all. He was very helpful to the poor people. I went to see him and asked for a note. He tried to convince me not to undertake such a difficult task and asked me why I was in such a hurry to skip grades. I explained the fact that I was older, and eventually he gave me the permission. So I took the difficult tests and managed to get into the eighth grade in high school in Vileyka. In the evening I would go to classes for ninth grade. One time, the head of the education department in Vileyka came to see me; he sat in the classroom during a test. When I finished the test, he came to me. He said, “What grade were you in last year?” I told him, “I was in fifth grade.” “Can you explain, if you were in fifth grade, how you are in ninth grade? In Russia, there was one person named Lomonosov who was able to do it. You must try to be like him.”

Now, I was emotionally prepared to study medicine one day. Some years earlier I had another great desire. I was studying Spanish because of the civil war in Spain. The war of the Republicans against Franco appealed to workers all over the world. Many volunteers came to fight, and I dreamed of volunteering; that's why I studied Spanish. Finally we reached June 15, 1941. I graduated from the ninth grade, as I needed to do. My sister Henia would say that she was ready to clean floors so we would have enough money to send me to medical school.

The Way It Began: To Run or Not to Run?

I was able to enjoy my vacation only for a few days. I felt that now my dreams could be realized and a bright future was waiting for me. Then the fateful moment of June 22, 1941 came, the day of the attack by the Nazis, their invasion of the USSR. That day, at four in the morning, German planes bombed the train tracks in Molodechno. People said that many were wounded and killed there. Even though there was obvious pandemonium all around us, the authorities in Kurenets tried to calm us down and promised that very soon the Germans would be annihilated, so we shouldn't panic. Still, many of us thought we shouldn't stay, that we must escape to the east.

People started arguing about what we should do. Should we run or stay? There was a library on Vileyka Street with many books in Polish, Russian, Hebrew, and Yiddish. For unknown reasons, someone from the Soviet authority ordered that the library be destroyed, and all the books were thrown into the street. I looked at the books and—how ironic—among them I found a Spanish- Yiddish dictionary that I had searched for a few years earlier. I took the book. I was hopeful at that point, sure that the Red Army would overcome the Germans very soon. Someone who saw me with the book laughed at me and said, “This is an unreasonable time to learn Spanish. Now that the Germans are coming you should be learning German.” On the other hand, our renter Guzman was very sure that the Red Army would win soon. He said to me “We'll push them out. The Red Army will show the awful Nazis that they are not dealing with the Polish army anymore.”

A few days passed and the Germans were going from one victory to next and the Soviets were retreating from our area. Now pandemonium was everywhere. Mother told me that it would be better if I would run away to the east. She prepared supplies for me. I didn't know what she put in the bag; she just gave it to me and said, “Run away my son, run east. The situation is very bad.” Many started leaving town in the neighboring community of Ratzke, which had about fifteen Jewish families; I met with Meir Mekler, Abba Narutzki, and the son of David the shoemaker. I also remember a few of the policemen and members of the Soviet authority there. We rested near Ratzke, about 8 km from our town. A Soviet officer came to us, told us that the situation at the front was improving so there was no reason for us to run east, and that we should return to Kurenets. We didn't trust him and decided to wait there a little longer. It was around noon and we got hungry. I opened the bag for food, but I found out that instead of food my mother had packed many boxes of cigarettes. Again I realized that my mother was very clever. Although she knew I was not smoking—my youth movement had rules against it—nevertheless she knew that cigarettes were worth more than money. She was thinking about my future. Therefore, I gave some cigarettes to one of villagers who gave me food in return. I shared my food with a girl from Kurenets who was with me.

Most of the people who were with us didn't accept what the officer said and continued going east. The girl and I decided to return to town. We reached the village of Bogdanova, which was 4 km from Kurenets, and since it was already dark we decided to sleep there and go back in the morning. We slept under a tree. It was a nice summer night and there were many fruit trees in the area. In days of peace, the Jews would lease those fruit orchards. Early in the morning, we were awakened by the young villagers who took their cows to pasture. They must have thought that we were lovers. We got up and returned to town. When we returned we were told that those few policemen we had met in Ratzke had also returned but didn't stay long. They immediately left to go east. Therefore, on the evening of June 25, 1941 there was no one left from the Russian authority. Everyone had gone east.

That morning when I passed by my aunt Reshka's house, which had been confiscated by the Soviet authorities two years earlier, I decided to enter; there was no one there. The house was a total mess. I found many papers, documents, and IDs with pictures, so I took many of those documents saying to myself, “Who knows what the days will bring? Maybe they can help me somehow.” I also went to Chaim Sotzkover's house, which was also confiscated by the Soviets prior to the German invasion, and there I found a lot of papers and I took them too. I returned home, hid everything, and went to rest. I was very tired and fell asleep immediately.

The town was now without rulers. Villagers from the surrounding villages started coming to town, planning to rob the Soviet stores and the Jews. An amazing phenomenon occurred, and this gave us Jews a little encouragement. The Christian inhabitants of our town organized a committee to prevent the villagers from robbing our town. We soon found out that they were doing it because they didn't want our possessions to be taken by others. Dr. Shostakovitch, who later was a German sympathizer, now was with the Jews, organizing a patrol of Christians and Jews, and we started a watch all around the town. This patrol lasted about two days and then the Christian residents started robbing the Soviet supplies and a few of them took supplies from the Jewish stores. In addition, some of the villagers managed to come and rob our homes too. I remember something funny that occurred, which—if it were not such hard time, would be a good comedy. One Jew, Zalman Neta Wexler, was very sneaky and clever; when the gentiles came to rob his house, he mixed in with them and pretended to be one of the robbers and managed to “steal” some of his own possessions.

On June 28, six days after the war began, a few Germans soldiers entered the town. They came from Vileyka Street riding motorcycles and cars. They stopped for a while at the corner of Vileyka Street and Smorgon and continued passed Dolhinov Street. The gentiles gave them flowers and milk. Among them were Kasick Sokolovsky, who was holding a rifle in his hand, Pietka Gintoff, and Pelvic. The three were later collaborators and killers of many Jews. Some Jews observed the arrival of the German soldiers, and I was among them. The fact that they crossed town and didn't strike anyone encouraged us. Someone said, “They passed and didn't cause us any harm; maybe the monster is not so bad.”

At eleven in the morning, tanks came into town. Now there was an ominous foreboding. The soldiers' first question when they met us was “How many Jews are in town?” One of the people standing there answered. A Germans said, “Too bad, too bad. They'll all have to be moved out of here.” Still some Jews said, “Don't take it seriously, he's just talking.” Others said that during World War I, the German invasion was good for the Jews.

The picture of the Germans approaching Kurenets and the gentiles giving them flowers and milk was printed in one of the German newspapers. The tanks went through Myadel Street to the market center and went east to Dolhinov. At 1:00 P.M., there was an order by the Germans that everyone who had a weapon had to return it to the authorities. Two young boys, cousins with the same last and first name, Shimon Zimmerman, returned the weapons. When they returned them, they were murdered. Fear spread all over when we found out about it. Even the ones who thought the Germans would be okay, based on memories of World War I were asking, “What should we do?” They tried to find a reason for the murder of the two boys. Since the two murdered boys were members of our youth movement and our good friends, we were all shocked. Nyomka came to me very upset and said we should do something. Therefore, we decided that we should all meet with Kopel Spektor and decide what to do, and this is how our underground activity started.

Kopel said that we must meet in a secret place, so we met by the swamps behind the bathhouse, a place crowded with bushes that could not be seen from the main road. So here we met: Kopel Spektor, Nyomka Shulman, Yitzkale Einbender, Zalman Gurevitch, the brothers Motik and Elik Alperovich, Yechiel Kremer, Shimon Zirolnik, and I. It was clear to us that in the coming days death could come from any corner. We vowed to fight. The question was how to fight, how to get weapons. Our ideas were still unclear. Someone suggested that in our situation there was only one option: jump on a policeman, kill him, and take his weapon. That was the way of the Underground. Shimon said that besides physical fighting we must also have political fighting, i.e., posters and propaganda. We must make flyers to distribute among the villagers and tell them to fight the Nazis invader. He told me that I should organize it. I used to work in a printing house.

As we came out of the bushes we met Josef Zuckerman, who was much older than we were. He told us that a few days earlier, when the Russians left, he saw that one of them who passed through the swamps threw a gun somewhere. He showed us where it was. We looked for it and found it; it had three bullets.

Although the two Shimon cousins were killed cruelly, people still tried to not judge the Germans. They wanted to see if it was an unusual case, not one that foretold the future. People whose homes were taken by the Soviets now returned; that looked to some to be a good thing. It was July 1st when the Germans actually entered the town and put officers there. The first order that day was that all male Jews had to go to the town market to register. Anyone who would not come there would be killed immediately.

When we came to the market, we were told that we must choose a Jewish committee, a Judenrat that would be our communication with the authorities. A refugee from Austria by the name of Shuts was elected a head of committee. He came to town in 1939. He was expelled from Austria and was badly hurt. When he came to our town he had a head wound, but he found a place here and became a German teacher in the Polish school and a physical education teacher. He was respected in town and his German was excellent, so he was suitable for the job. The SS let it be known that from this time forward, the Jews had no rights. From now on, we were ordered to do whatever told. We had to wear a yellow tag, could not cross the street, and could not go on the sidewalk; rather, we had to walk in the middle of the street, like horses. No more were we allowed on trains or in cars. There were curfews at night from 6:00 P.M. to 6:00 A.M. We were not allowed to be in groups of more than three Jews. We were forbidden to have communication with gentiles. When the SS man ended his speech, he ordered us to disperse, and everyone left.

A few days later, the German army started coming to town. There was a never-ending parade of troops driving or walking through Vileyka to Dolhinov at night. It was impossible to cross the street, which was filled with German soldiers. It was very difficult to take cows to the pasture during the daytime, so we got up early, at 6:00 A.M., when there were few soldiers. We would somehow manage to cross the street to take the cows to the pasture. We used to take the cows to an area of abundant grass. I would usually take the cows and stay all day, until 6:00 P.M., and then I would make the cows run quickly to get back to our yard. On the way back home, I had to go by the house of Motka Alperovich. Now the Germans had taken his house, so this part of the walk was very dangerous. At that point, we were told not only what not to do, but also what we should do from then on. There was an order that every time we saw a German, we had to take our hats off and greet him with respect, in recognition of his superiority.

One time when I passed by a German, I deliberately didn't take my hat off, so they beat me mercilessly. Next time I decided to be smarter and walked without a hat. When they caught me this time, not only did they beat me up: they also shaved my head in the shape of a cross, one ear to the other and forehead to neck. My mother cut off all my hair. The third time, I was wearing a hat and took it off when they came by. When they saw that I was baldheaded, they figured I was a Russian soldier who had escaped from being a POW, so for that they would kill me. One German was holding a gun and another German passed by and said to the other guy, “Look this is a perfect example of what Jews look like. You shouldn't kill him. Now when the time comes for no Jews, he can be an example of what Jews look like, with long noses.” They laughed and let me go. Even when I think about it today, I cannot believe how sure they were about their victory, thinking that one day there would be no more Jews left. Sometimes my father would go with the cow, and he experienced horrible treatment. This was on Kosita Street, not far from the train tracks. Some German soldiers came off the train and when they saw him, they called for him. When he went to them, they beat him severely. He returned home but didn't tell anyone what had happened. Later that day, my sister Rachel told him that she met some German who treated her well, like a human being; Father got upset and took his shirt off and showed us the injuries on his back. We were shocked and immediately gave him first aid. He told us of his memories of Germans from World War I. Even then, he was almost killed one day and it took a miracle to get out alive. From then on, we avoided taking the cow to pasture and most of the time we would take grass from the field and bring it home for the cow, which stayed in the barn.

Not far from our home, between the house of the Wexler family and the house of Yitzhak Moshe Meltzer, the hatter, there was a row of stores that were used during Soviet times as supply rooms. The Germans continued to use the supply rooms and they put flour and other supplies there. Now they made the Jews carry the sacks full of flour. One time, when I was carrying a sack on my back, I unintentionally touched a German who stood guarding us, and the flour from my clothes came onto his uniform. He was very mad and started screaming and said to the other German standing there, “When will I get a new uniform? I was in other battles for the homeland in Czechoslovakia, Austria, and Poland and they would always give me a new clean uniform. So when will I get one in this war with the communists?” His friend said that the day of victory would come and he'd get a new uniform, “but until that day, this Jew will clean it for you.” I had no choice: I took a brush and cleaned his uniform and knelt to clean his pants.

We Decide To Fight

A few weeks passed following the announcement of the new rules. Many people suffered, and we only knew a little of their suffering. One day at 9:00 A.M. we gathered at the house of Nyomka Shulman. Yitzhak Zimmerman, who was much older than we were and a member of HaShomer Hatzair since 1928, was also told of our plans. Nyomka Shulman had a very old and blind grandmother and she had her own room. Her room was always dark and she seemed as if she was not aware of the present. All day she would repeat a sentence. She said this sentence in Soviet times as in the German days. “God in heaven, please help every Jew and keep everyone healthy and safe.” Despite the fact that she seemed unaware of what was around her, in her sentence you could hear something of the horrors outside the room. Occasionally the old woman would leave the room, but even when she sat in the corner we could discuss everything; she was ignoring the outside world.So now we met, five people—Nyomka, Itzka, Zalman, Shimon, and I—to discuss what to do. We all realized that the situation was getting worse and that we must not sit and do nothing. Getting weapons was an intricate assignment and we didn't even fathom what to do with a weapon once we got it. However, at this time we were more concerned with how to obtain it. Someone said that near the river between Poken village and Myadel, not far from Chaim Zokofsky's carpentry, there was a rifle. At that time, the Germans took Zokofsky's carpentry and it was dangerous to walk around it at night or in the morning. Nevertheless, we decided to check the spot.

Mother was told about it and she suggested she would help. Zalman and I went with mother. We pretended to be collecting grass for the cow. Mother thought that if she joined us we would appear less suspicious. We paced on all sides as if collecting grass and after a while we found the rifle; we took the sack that we had and put the rifle into the sack, laden with grass. The sack was too short and the rifle stuck out, so part of the way I put it under my jacket. Finally we reached home. When my father saw the rifle, he became worried. He said that we were taking a tremendous responsibility on ourselves. We were playing with fire. Dad was a traditional Jew even prior to the war, but now he became intensely Orthodox. He said, “Whatever God has decided for us will happen, and we will not change his will.” He would continuously repeat this sentence. Father was now taking part in every funeral in town, and at this time there were many funerals. One day two young guys—one was Mendel the grandson of Leib Motosov, the other, Mendel, the grandson of Chaim Velvel, the owner of a store for metal work—were sent to work in Vileyka. The order for their new job came from the Gvitz Commissar. On the way to work, they met Shernagovitz, a local policeman who worked for the Germans. He killed them both on the spot. One gentile from a nearby village found the bodies and brought them in his buggy to Kurenets. Leib Motosov, the grandfather of one of the youths, who was a very intelligent man, was mourning and extremely distressed. “What is the reason here?” he said. “There must be some logic in things. They were ordered to go to work by the Gvitz Commissar. Each one was holding a saw and ax, ready to work as they were ordered. Nevertheless here comes a policeman and kills them. This is a crime that the Gvitz Commissar cannot ignore. We must complain.” Father believed that everything was decided in heaven. He told us, “We can never understand the reason why things are. Moreover, there's no reason to complain to the Gvitz Commissar. It will just open the mouth of Satan.” This was in the first month of German rule. People didn't believe that things that were more awful were going to happen. Moreover, that they would happen almost daily.

The rifle that we found near the river was hidden in our attic. The rifle had no bullets. Nevertheless, the ingenious Nyomka Shulman said, “Even if we have no bullets, it's worth something. If you meet a policeman, you point the rifle at him; he won't know that you don't have bullets. The policeman will hesitate and you might be able to overcome him and take his own weapon.” That day we managed to get a gun from a villager from Volkovishtzina by exchanging some salt, and this gun was also hidden in our attic. In a meeting in Nyomka's grandmother's room, Shimon suggested again that we should start propaganda and showed us that he had already done something about it. He brought a specially made frame that could be used to make flyers. That same day I almost was killed when I walked through the market, which was usually empty. I heard the voice of a German watchman far from me. He told me to stop, yelling, “Why didn't you greet me?” He started readying his weapon to shoot. I knew that if I tried to run, he'd kill me. Therefore, I started to tell him something. Luckily for me, an officer came and the soldier changed his tune. He screamed, “Bloody Jew, get away. Don't come near me.” I was still afraid that if I did as he said and ran, he'd shoot me. For some reason, the officer allowed me to go home. I didn't know why the first one was upset and I didn't know why the second one let me go. Therefore, in a hurry, I left the spot.

In the Meat Market

The victory of the Germans at the front brought many prisoners of war to town. The meat market became a station for transferring the thousands of POWs who continually passed through town. There was barbed wire around the meat market and there were watchtowers with lights at the corners. POWs would stay one night and would be transferred west. Many of them would die there in the meat market; they would be buried right there, and the next day there was a new group of POWs. Many were wounded and starving, and they were kept under extremely inadequate sanitary conditions. The gentiles, the residents of the surroundings towns, would stand at the side of the road and throw food to them, potatoes and fruits. They had a lot of compassion for them. The POWs would run to the food and start fighting each other to get something. The Germans, who hated any disorder, would hit them and threaten the people who gave them food. “If you want to give them food, it has to be in an orderly manner,” they said. The officer would constantly yell, “There must be order. You must collect the food in one place and we will divide it among the POWs.” Many of the Jews brought water from the well and the river by Dolhinov Street. The POWs who were wounded badly would be killed prior to arriving at the market. However, some badly wounded POWs would be brought to the other market in buggies. The gentiles did as they were ordered and put food in one place. The Jews and non-Jews would take the wounded off the buggies and lay them on the ground, as told. We were ordered by the Germans to put the heads in one straight line. At first, we didn't understand why they cared if they were in straight lines, but soon enough we learned the reason. The officer stood across from the row of heads with an automatic rifle, opened fire, and killed all of them.

One day a German officer caught me and Yechiel Kremer, the son of Yekutiel Meir, who was much older than I, and we were ordered to wash the car of one of the officers. He told us, “If I find out that you didn't clean it well or sabotaged it, I'll kill you like dogs.” This was on Dolhinov Street, not far from the meat market. He ordered me to take the wheels off and clean them. At first it was hard to take them off, but eventually we did it. Then the officer demanded that we remove the seat covers from the car and clean the inside. He was teasing us, saying, “We are going to Moscow and I must come there with a clean shiny car.” When I was done with the job, I asked the German officer if I could go to eat. While we were standing there, I saw what was happening in the meat market. When I was done with the job, the officer decided to send us to work with the POWs. As we walked there, we passed a garden in front of a Polish house. I saw that in the bushes close to the sidewalk there was a weapon. Carefully, I moved the weapon to a more hidden place in the bushes. When we reached the meat market, we were told to help with the distribution of food to the POWs; the gentiles had collected it in one area. Among the POWs who were brought to the market, I saw a young Jewish man from Ratzke, named Hoinsihof. I saw that he threw a note on the ground when he saw me. With his eyes, he signaled me to pick up the note. I did it and saw the first two lines. He was begging me to let his family know he was there. I threw the note to the side immediately. One of the Germans saw this and thought I was the one writing the note. I explained to him that I had seen it on the ground and was curious. He didn't believe me, put me next to a wall, called a guard, and said to him, “Aim at the head.” Nevertheless, a second later he changed his mind, thinking maybe he was wrong, and instead of “Fire,” he yelled, “Halt,” meaning stop. The soldiers put their weapons down. He asked me, “Are you going to continue to spy?” I couldn't say a word; my tongue was paralyzed. With the stick he had, he hit my hands and that brought me back to reality. I explained that I didn't write the note. I wasn't guilty. He listened to my defense but still ordered me to lie on ground, and he hit me. Eventually I fainted. They poured water on my head and I woke up. Then he let me go home but reminded me that I must return to work the next day. It was already dark, and I managed to crawl from the market to my home. My whole back was full of wounds and I was bleeding everywhere. My mother put dressings on the wounds, and although the situation was bad she was happy I was alive.

The POWs continued to pass through town. The situation was heartbreaking, and one day we met at Nyomka's and talked about how we could help the POWs. We decided to do something. We went to the Judenrat and demanded that Shuts send us to work in the meat market. While we were working there, some of us managed to give the POWs clothes. When we left, a few escaped with us.Among the escapees was a man who later was code-named Vlodia and who became one of the leaders of the Underground in our area. The sight we saw in the meat market was horrible. It was so crowded that some POWs couldn't find a place to lie down and rest. During the day, flies enveloped the place and the heat was unbearable; at night, it got cold. The POWs who still had some capabilities managed to cut pieces of wood for small fires, to keep warm. I can never forget one of the POWs: from what was left of his uniform I could tell he was an officer. He managed to get water and he washed and changed clothes. He arranged a fire pit to warm himself. One German was watching him the entire time and didn't like what he saw. He approached him from behind and with great force hit him on the back with a rifle. The officer collapsed lifeless.

Even at that point, some believed that the Soviets would overthrow the Germans. Our group would discuss the subject, but we didn't know how to help the Russians. Shimon Zirolnik would particularly talk about it; he believed that the day of revenge would come soon. Moreover, the Nazis would be annihilated in a short time. The Germans put electric lights in the meat market so they could watch the POWs at night. The villagers brought food and clothes, since they felt pity for the POWs who many times walked around almost naked. The clothes would be put in one pile. There were rumors that among the POWs many managed to get clothes and then mix with people who came to work, and escape. I was prototypically Jewish-looking and the POWs knew that they needn't fear me. I was approached by one of the POWs and was asked how he could escape. I pointed to the clothes and he understood my sign and managed to escape. One night the electric power was cut off and there was darkness. People were whispering in secret that it was done by Dania Alperovich, the son of Chaim Abraham, who worked in the carpentry of Chaim Zokofsky. The carpentry was right next to the meat market and the electric lines ran through the carpentry. Among the escapees that day were two POWs who managed to reach the Ungerman pool. When they realized that someone was following them they hid under a bridge, and there they were found and murdered.

The Flyers

It was the end of August and the nights became colder. We still met at Nyomka's house and still didn't know what to do. Shimon was very excited about the POWs who escaped. He said that some were experienced soldiers and they could help us with the Resistance unit. He suggested that we make flyers and that perhaps they would reach some POWs who had escaped and were now in hiding. Meanwhile, he improved the printing press, but there was still a problem. We didn't have letters to use for the printing. Josef Norman, the man with whom I learned to print, was working on the printing press that was now in the hands of the Germans. Therefore, we decided that I would meet with him and tell him our plan. Perhaps we could get the letters from him.

In the first days afterthe Germans entered the Vileyka district they ordered all the Jewish males from Vileyka to come to a certain place. From there, they took them to a bridge next to the river and murdered them. The few who didn't show up as the Germans had ordered managed to survive. Now many Jews of Kurenets were taken under police watch to Vileyka to do different jobs: cutting wood, cleaning streets, doing park work, and other work. I was also taken. One day when I was near the printing place, I found the courage, entered the building, and met Josef. I told him promptly what I wanted, whispering for him to collect a few letters for me. When I came back three days later, he gave me a little package with letters, papers, and black ink. We managed to meet a few times and eventually I had a lot of letters and printing materials to accomplish the mission.

The Germans at that point were not watching us strictly. If they were suspicious of anything, they would just kill us on the spot. That's why it was doable. My mother helped me. She took pieces of cloth and made pockets and that's where I kept the letters. In each pocket, I had a different letter. We thought that if there was a moment of danger, we could immediately use the cloths as aprons and we wouldn't look so suspicious. One day when we returned from Vileyka toKurenets, I had a little package from Josef. The Germans started taking us to a different location. I was very worried, but soon we realized that they wanted to show us something—two gentiles they had hung for robbing someone. They wanted us to see what happened to all who disobeyed. After that, they let us go home. When I went home, I saw that they had also hung someone in the town center for robbing.

We dug a hideout in the ground and there I hid the letters and printing materials. Except for my cousin Zalman, no one knew where we were making the printed materials. Even our own troop members did not know. We decided that if anyone got caught, it was better if they didn't know where it was. At that time, the house of Nathan, my uncle, also became a meeting place for us. Nathan sensed that we were doing something dangerous and was very fearful. Nathan's wife, Batia nee Ayeshiski, was sick; she was in a nursing home when the war started. She tried to go back home, but she died from starvation on the road. Nathan felt very responsible for his orphaned children and was fearful that what Zalman was doing would cause danger to his other children.

At that time the Germans printed flyers for the villagers saying, “Farmer, keep your bread. Don't give it to the criminals. They will eat it and then they will hurt you and burn your farm. Keep your bread for the German army that released you from communism.” As an answer, Shimon Zirolnik wrote our first flyer. It said, “Farmer keep your bread for yourself and your heroic brothers who fight the horrible conqueror. Don't give one seed to Germans. Death to Hitler.” We printed about 100 and distributed them in various places. Our Shimon was able to see the first flyer, but a few days later Shimon didn't come to the meeting. We found out he was imprisoned; with him a non-Jewish farmer was taken and another town resident was also imprisoned, our town barber Leibe with the beautiful voice. When he would cut hair, he would sing beautiful songs. After a time, we found out that the Germans murdered them and it was a horrible blow to us. We so loved Shimon. If I mention the barber Leibe, I must say a few words about him. As I told you, while he cut hair he would sing songs. I still remember one of his songs, which he sang in Russian. He would sing it with deep expression, and it would go like this. “I will die, I will die. They will bury me and no one will know where my grave is and no one will know to come to my grave. But one morning in spring a nightingale will see it and sing.” How ironic the song was. Could Leibe ever imagine that this song would accurately foretell what was going to occur?

During that time, there was little Underground activity in our area. There were rumors that the Russians had parachuted some troops in and they managed to burn many German supply rooms; that's what the Germans were referring to in the flyers regarding criminals. Our own flyers were found by Jews from the town, and this gave them hope that there was an Underground. Someone even showed me a flyer. Zalman Gurevitch, who had many friends among the villagers, helped a lot with the flyers. He knew who should be informed. Moreover, he knew who could distribute them among the population.

No Secrets

The desire to do something, to fight, existed in many Jews, but the possibilities were close to nil. As for us, our small group, we were particularly united since we had a similar past with strong ties to the youth movement. Besides, we were so young and still believed in the impossible. At times we received emotional pleas from older people, as well as from very young ones, to join our company. I remember how Shimon Alperovich, the son of Zishka (son of Shimon), once came to the house of Nyomka Schulman when we gathered there. Shimon was much older than we were and he was a much-respected person. And now he approached us sounding very worried and not knowing where to get help. He asked us to let him join our group. In Yiddish he said, “Fragst nit anmir” (Don't forget me). He was almost begging. [Later on he joined the Partisans and died fighting.] Also very emotional was the plea of Araleh Gordon, son of Shaptai, brother of Riva and Mikhla, who was much younger than we were, still a child. He asked to join us. We said to him, “Araleh, do you have a weapon?” And Araleh naively and with a hint of embarrassment said he didn't have a weapon at the time but he knew how to play the mandolin. He tried to explain to us thatthere was a need in the Resistance for a social life, and that until the day he received a weapon he could be an entertainer. Until today I feel excitement when I remember his plea. We were sure that our Resistance unit was secret and soon it was clear to us that there were no secrets in our world and that many knew about our unit. We still had a very unclear idea as to how we would resist, and many would come to us urging us to take them into our ranks. [Araleh Gordon was killed while hiding from the Germans (in a tree?)]

Chaim Zukovsky owned a sawmill and carpentry mill that had been taken away by the Nazis, and now an army officer managed it. Someone told us in secret that the officer was actually a decent man, a unique person who disliked the Germans' behavior towards the Jews. To us it was an unbelievable phenomenon, particularly remembering our neighbor Shernagovitz, the murderer who killed Jews daily; thus, to find a person among the Germans who was such a righteous person was a true miracle. We were told that once, when the drunken Shernagovitz approached the area aiming to torture the Jews who worked there, the German hid them inside a cold boiler and saved them from being murdered. We somehow found out that this German was willing to sell weapons to the Jews. I don't remember now who gave us this information, but we found out that he was willing to sell a Nagan with seven bullets for ten gold rubles. We gave the money to Yankeleh, the son of Chaim Zalman, so he could give the money to the son of Lazar Shlomo, who had contacts with the German man, and he bought the weapon. When we sent someone to Lazar Shlomo to transfer the Nagan to us, he refused to give us the weapon, so we decided to trick him into returning the weapon. Some of us approached his house at a night hour when there was a curfew. We pretended to be Germans and yelled, “Juden heraus!” We gave them enough time to run, and when we found out that they had hidden and the house was empty, we left a note in which we said that if they would not give us the weapon, the consequences would be severe. We sent Yankeleh, the son of Chaim Zalman Gurevich, and he also wanted to keep the weapon for himself after receiving it, but after some threats he gave it to us. I point this out to you to show how many wanted weapons so they could fight the Germans.

The Germans kept demanding money from the Judenrat. Some of the members of the Judenrat were dishonest and took some of the money for themselves. In our home were a new couch and carpet that we bought before the war for my sister Henia, who was about to be married. When the war started, Henia's groom was taken to the Polish army and died during a battle between the Polish and the Germans. One of the Judenrat people, the very worst among them, knew about the sofa and the carpet, so now he demanded that we give those things to the Germans, who asked for furniture and carpets. My sister Henia was very much against it. These things were very dear to her as a reminder of her dead groom, and she asked that they be left with her. The Judenrat man slapped her and took her things by force. When I found out about it, I came to the Judenrat and I said to the man, “You must know that we will never let you, a Jew, slap another Jew. It's enough the way we are treated by the Germans.” He answered, yelling, “What do you think? Do you think I am afraid of your gun? Do you think I don't know you own a gun?” “It is not a secret that I have a gun,” I replied, and I pulled out my weapon. He must not have thought I'd react so fast and he went pale and never came to our home again.

The head of the Judenrat and some of its members were new arrivals from other towns. They were not always decent or honest, and it wasn't the rescue of the community that was foremost in their minds. The people who were the public servants before, whose names were famous for dedication and good deeds, like Zalman Gvint and others like him, clearly knew that being a member of the Judenrat meant having to fulfill the wishes of the Germans, and they could never accept such a job. Zalman Gvint, who was experienced with pharmaceuticals, established an enterprise at this time with Nathan Gurevich to make chemicals for soap, shoe polish, and ink. They suffered much at the hands of the Judenrat, which demanded their products. Leib Motosov had a place in the deep forest before the war that made turpentine and tar. He knew all the little paths in the forest. He also clearly understood that the Nazis would soon annihilate us. So he came to Zalman Gvint, who agreed with him, and suggested that they should escape to the forest, where he knew many of the villagers in the area and thought that since they were friends they would help him. They started planning their escape. I also remember that my mother in those days talked a lot about leaving the town and escaping to the forest. While everyone was planning such an escape, a tragic event took place. Some families escaped to the forest secretly from everyone, among them Zishka Alperovich's family, but someone informed on them and the mutilated bodies were brought to town. It was a huge disappointment for all who dreamed of going to the forest, and it momentarily shocked everyone and caused them to postpone their plans. Nyomka Shulman, who was very energetic and a go-getter, was still full of excitement and plans. He was the leader of our group, and he came with an idea to lift the spirits of the people. We did something that was dishonest, that we should not have done. We made a pamphlet of encouragement, filled with imaginary events that had no basis in reality. In this pamphlet we wrote that the wonderful Red Army pushed the Germans out of the Polaczek area and soon would free our entire area. We ended it with the words, “Death to Hitler.”

There was a rumor that something might happen in Polaczek, but to say that the Germans lost there was a greatly exaggerated statement. Anyway, the Jews were greatly encouraged by this pamphlet and talked about it, especially Motl Leib Kuperstock, who used to have a flourmill. He would stand in the synagogue among the Jews, spreading the rumor that the pamphlet had come from the Soviets. They beat the Germans, he would tell everyone, and were going through Polaczek. This had to have been done by planes, he added, and since we were only 120 km from there, it would not take long until they reached our area. Motl Leib was very interested in politics and strategies. There was a time when he lived in the United States, and he knew how to add certain sentences in English that greatly impressed the people, the residents of the town. Among the people who spoke with him, there was someone who took his samples and said he really knew that the retreat of the Soviets was only a trick and that they would quickly show the Nazis their might. For some days they were talking like this, but there was great disappointment when nothing happened. We felt bad about what we had done and from then on we decided to write only real news.

Time passed and Noach Dinestein from Vileyka joined our group.

He was older than we were but was once a soldier in the Polish army. In 1939, when the Germans and the Polish fought, he was drafted. After a battle with the Germans, his unit suffered greatly. He was somehow able to escape, and he came back to our area. When the Germans killed the man in Vileyka near the bridge on the Vilia during the first month of the war in our area, Noach somehow escaped from the place and arrived at Kurenets. Here he taught us how to use weapons and trained us in other military operations.

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