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A. The Town of Lenin 1939 – 1941

by Mordekhai Zaytshik

Translated by Amy Samin

On Friday, the first of September 1939 at dawn, Hitler and his Nazi army surrounded Poland, and after about 14 – 15 days had passed, they had occupied the entire country, except for isolated spots where the remnants of the Polish army continued to courageously defend itself.

Then the Red Army crossed the western border and occupied the Ukraine and White Russia. The town of Lenin, near the border, passed into the control of the Soviet Union; thanks to which the Jewish population of the place was able to live a normal life for almost two more years. In that regard their fate was much better than that of the residents on the other side of the Bug River, who immediately fell into the hands of the Nazis with their occupation of Poland, and upon whom the disaster fell in the blink of an eye.

The reality was not quite what the people of our town had imagined: they had assumed that the Red Army would quickly cross the bridge and the three hundred meters that separated them from our town. But the Red Army, apparently secure in its occupation of the area, did not rush to enter our town. Meanwhile, the Polish government was crumbling and the town was left on its own for a number of days.

In that transitional time, the situation in our town was tense. There were rumors that the farmers in the area were preparing to attack the town, to riot, plunder, and rob. The Jewish youth recognized the need for an organized defense and a watch, especially at night. They were prepared to repel any attack by rioters, even though they did not have any weapons.

Then the Russians crossed the bridge over the Sluch River and entered our town, without firing a shot and without bloodshed. They appointed a sort of temporary authority then continued marching westward. All traces of the Polish government, which had dominated the town for twenty years, were erased at once; there were no more signs of Poles, of the police, of the border guards, or of curfews at night. The Russian language reverberated once again throughout the town, as it had in the days of Czarist Russia.

There were residents who were dissatisfied with the change in government, for example the merchants and the shopkeepers, who were concerned about their economic situation. The religiously observant, who had heard about the war on religion and about the oppression of religious people in the Soviet Union were, on the other hand, happy not to have fallen under the control of Hitler, even though very little was known of the horror that accompanied that reign of terror. Most of the residents were happy with the change: there was work for anyone who wished to work, and those with the talent could find office work that carried with it responsibility. Particularly in demand were office workers, managers, and bookkeepers.

Gradually, the shopkeepers liquidated their stores and a department store opened in the town. In the beginning, there were shortages of everyday items, so that when things finally appeared in the store, the residents bought up as much as they could afford. People began to hoard things such as soap, matches, kerosene and other items.

Fairly quickly things settled down, and the situation returned to normal.

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A few families, both Jewish and Christian, whom the government suspected of being criminals and sinners against the Soviet regime, were exiled deep into Russia. Those who were exiled felt that the decree was a great disaster. But at the end of the war it was possible to say, as Joseph did to his brothers in Egypt: “But as for you, you thought evil against me; but God meant it for good…” (Genesis 50:20). Thanks to their exile they were saved from destruction. After the years in exile, whoever wished could return to his home and his town.

Many of those survivors went to Israel; others to America and other countries. They know enough now to appreciate the great favor that was concealed in their being sentenced to exile. Regarding matters of religion, the youth shook off the burden of Jewish tradition, but their elders did not. They continued in the ways of Israel, praying day and night without disturbance. A suggestion was made to convert the synagogue to a club, but it was quickly rejected.

The school continued to exist, but sadly the language of instruction was Yiddish rather than Hebrew. The study of the Tanach (bible) was removed from the curriculum. Children continued their Jewish studies secretly, at home.

There was a significant rise in the influence of other cultures. Activities were renewed in the Polish club Dom Ludowi. Theatrical productions became more frequent, as did the screening of films. A big new library opened, and next to it was a reading room.

The overall value of the town went up, and it became a regional city and a center for government institutions such as the Raikomparty, the Rayasfolkom, a courthouse and other institutions. From all the surrounding area, from villages and settlements near and far, people came to the town to settle their affairs. The closest town, Mikashevichy, was included in the Lenin region and their residents made use of the government institutions there.

The government had many plans: to drain the Pulsia Marsh, to make the Sluch River suitable for transportation, and to establish a hydro-electric power station which would provide electricity to the entire region, but the government was not able to put any of these fine plans into effect. Less than two years after this new regime was established in our town, the Nazi army attacked the Red Army and put an end to everything.

 

Under the Nazi Occupation

The 22nd of June 1941 was a day of darkness and despair for most of humanity, and a disaster for our town.

Only in the afternoon did we learn of the attack of the Nazis, and we were all terrified. There were horrible rumors of the lightning-fast victories of Hitler's army: they had entered Brisk, they had occupied Baranavichy, and they had even reached the suburbs of Minsk…

Four weeks after the outbreak of the war, we still had not seen a single Nazi. In those days our town was filled to capacity with refugees from other cities and towns. They

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rushed to our town in the hope that they would be able to cross the river and flee to the Soviet Union, or to board one of the transport vehicles that evacuated the families of the Soviet clerks from our town.

But the Soviet border guards maintained their positions and continued to fulfill their duty along the banks of the river, refusing to allow anyone across. In spite of the excellent guard work, in the midst of the commotion many succeeded in escaping eastward together with those in retreat; even a few young people from our town were able to cross the river.

Many of those in retreat died on the way, some killed in bombings and some in other circumstances. In spite of those difficulties, there were many from our town, especially the young, who were willing to run eastward for their lives even though they didn't know and couldn't even begin to imagine what kind of treatment they could expect at the hands of the Nazi beasts.

As was mentioned, a few young people from our town were able to escape. A few days before their own retreat, the border guards spoke to us, urging us to remain until the rage had passed; they promised us that the Red Army's retreat from the place was just temporary, and soon they would return. The young people, therefore, should remain, carrying out acts of sabotage against the Germans: cutting telephone lines and putting other stumbling blocks in the path of the occupiers.

On July 17 in the evening hours, the last tanks of the Soviet Army retreated, together with the last remaining members of the Communist party in the Rayasfolkom.

Complete silence prevailed in our town. Anxiety about the coming unknown trembled in the air, and to the great despair of the residents the last retreating members of the Red Army blew up both bridges, one leading over the river and the other over the lake; dividing the town into two companies, one completely isolated from the other.

The next day, on Friday morning the 18th of July, the first Nazi bandits appeared in our town. They came from the town of Mikashevichy and the village of Hryczynowicze, entering the town by Podlipya Street. Immediately upon entering the town they established positions at the ends of the streets and pointed their machine guns towards the Sluch River.

That which we had feared had befallen us. Thus it all began. In the evening of that same Friday, with wild screams the Nazis summoned only the Jews, rushing them to the river and forcing them to work on the construction of a temporary bridge, over which would later cross cars, weapons, horses, and tanks. They also immediately demonstrated their cruelty to the residents: they hit, pushed and threw people into the river – why? Just for the sake of being cruel.

Suddenly a Soviet airplane appeared and bombed the bridge. No one was hurt, but the heroic Nazis were the first to run, frightened, and hide under the bridge.

The next day, on the Sabbath, for the second and last time a Soviet plane appeared in the skies above the town, and dropped a bomb somewhere. Many of the Nazi soldiers and their officers, who happened to be out in the street at the time, panicked and ran to hide in the old synagogue.

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That marked the end of the Red Army's resistance to the occupation where we were. Two or three days later, we heard the echoes of cannon fire, but it grew fainter and fainter, and we knew that the Red Army had continued its retreat.

From that day on they forced us, men and women both, to work day after day, repairing roads on the other side of the river in the direction of the villages of Lyudenevichi and Zhitkovichi, places where we had not set foot in more than twenty years, since the establishment of the border along the Sluch River. Every morning we would set out, hundreds of men and women, equipped with rakes and picks, and we would work under the supervision of the Nazis – it was slave labor, done without recompense. If a day passed when we were not beaten, that was our wages.

We still didn't realize, even after we had seen the cruel way they treated us, that the Nazis were also likely to kill innocent people. The refugees who had come to our town from Warsaw and the surrounding area in 1939 had told us that the situation of the Jews there was very bad indeed: the Jews were forced to stand in separate lines, and in some places the order was given for Jews to wear the yellow patch on their clothes. But they had not said a word about the murder of innocent people.

The first victim in our town was Nachman Eleynik: he was shot by an S.S. man who had ordered him to bring wine and tobacco. Nachman was sick and lying in bed, and was therefore unable to fulfill this demand quickly enough. The town was terrified. That murder taught us that to those animals, our lives were worthless.

On the evening of the same day, the same S.S. murderer ordered that eight young komsommols (members of a Soviet youth group) would appear before him and his friend. Among those eight young men were Shimon Shusterman, Shimon Bagelman, Kusha Gelenson, Minsk and others; they were shot to death that night in the yard of the Gmyna (city hall), all except for one: Ayzik Brodetzky, who was able to evade them in the darkness and run away. They chased him all the way to the bridge over the lake (which had been repaired immediately after the Nazis entered the town). When he saw that escape was impossible, he jumped over the side of the bridge into the waters of the lake and drowned. He chose to die in the lake rather than fall into the hands of the murderers.

For many days the killers searched for him in every corner of town, even in the home of his bereaved parents. But the murderers were not satisfied with this; a few days later they slaughtered another fifteen people (among them, all the members of the Gorodetsky family – five souls).

This is the story of the murder of that family: for no real reason a quarrel broke out between Chaya, the daughter of Gorodetsky and Mrs. Hilkovic, the wife of the mayor at the time. Chaya spoke carelessly, telling her, “Do not imagine that your time has come to rule!” That same evening, the people of the town saw Chaya and her mother being led down the street by soldiers and policemen, heading in the direction of the hill behind the city on the way to the village of Steibelovichi. Before reaching the village, they killed the women and left their bodies lying in the road; so that people would see them and be afraid. The bodies remained there for twenty-four hours. Chaya's two small children

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(twins) and her brother were killed in their home the same day. The bodies of the two children were thrown out of the window. The next morning, when their bodies were found there were signs they had been gnawed on by pigs.

A few days later, Yudel Levin and a Christian resident were shot. Someone had reported to the authorities that they had predicted that Germany would be defeated in the war. Judah Golub and Yaacov Maslov, upon their return from their service in the Polish Army, were executed as soon as they returned to their homes and families. Young men from the town of Mikashevichy who had been released from the army were taken to the hill, shot and buried there.

After that the pace of the murders slowed down, and we wanted to believe that our lives would return to normal.

 

The Council (Judenrat)

By order of the Nazis, a Jewish council (Judenrat) was selected in our town, for the purpose of fulfilling the demands made by the Nazi government on the residents. The members of the Judenrat were: Aharon Millner, Yitzhak Kolpenitsky, Benyamin Starobinski, Moshe Reuven Zaretsky, and Yosef Rubenstein.

Bitter was the fate of those selected to those positions. The residents spewed insults and curses upon them. People had not yet given up on life; they cherished each and every one of their belongings. The Nazi robbers showered the council members with their demands for one thing after another. First they demanded all of the soap in the possession of the residents, after that the eau de cologne, then the watches, rings, gold, silver, sugar, cocoa, clothing, shoes, samovars, musical instruments – in short, every single thing that they saw and coveted.

And after all that came the worst demand of all – the residents were commanded to turn over to the government all of their cows and chickens. Thus was the supply of milk taken from the mouths of the babies!

The council was required to fill the position of an employment agency: they supplied the Nazis with the number of workers demanded by the beasts for cutting trees, pumping water, cleaning, repaving the streets and paths, and clearing the snow in the winter.

 

The Physical and Emotional Situation

There was great fear of killings, especially in the first months, and the situation - which already was awful – grew worse from day to day. But they couldn't take from people their will to live.

Although faces were gloomy and eyes filled with deep sorrow, hidden in the heart there remained a spark of hope that things would change; it was inconceivable that the current situation would continue forever.

There was nothing to eat: no meat, no milk (no one even dared to dream of eggs and butter), but in spite of that we continued to live somehow. People secretly traded with the Christian population. They traded in clothing, handkerchiefs, undergarments, and shoes taking in exchange loaves of bread, or a kilo of potatoes here, a cup of

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milk there. All of this, of course, was done in secret. Milk, eggs, meat and fats were expressly forbidden to Jews.

The allocated portion of bread, 100 grams per person, was doled out by the Jewish council. Every person was required to pay a head tax every month. A rumor was spread that the Nazis intended to lock us into a ghetto. Everyone understood what that meant, and people began to hoard food, especially bread (that is, flour and grains). Many among us did not have anything to trade with the farmers, and nothing with which to buy foodstuffs, and were clearly unable to put anything aside for the coming days.

The front line withdrew farther and farther from us each day, retreating deeper and deeper into Russia, beyond the eastern valley, which distressed us more and more.

There were days when we could see, to our sorrow, Nazi reinforcements passing through our town, various forces: infantry, mechanized forces, cannons, cavalry, tanks, and within them companies of S.S., all moving eastward, in apparently infinite numbers.

It is difficult to describe what we went through in those days, living in the grip of fear day and night. The young people would hide amongst the cornstalks in the garden or in the privy, peering out through the holes and cracks, following the approaching army with terrified eyes, frightened by their wild screams and the orders of their officers which could be heard from one end of the street to the other.

Hungering for even a scrap of bead, we were forced to watch satiated, healthy, red-cheeked soldiers gobbling with full mouths the geese and chickens they had stolen from us, and the pig meat stolen from our Christian neighbors, and finishing off their meal by guzzling wine. They would cut off the heads of the stolen chickens and force whichever young person they caught to pluck the carcass and prepare it for the cook pot. Occasionally the person doing the work was rewarded with the legs or the head. Immediately he would run home with his spoils and prepare a feast fit for a king. There were others, however, who in spite of their hunger, refused to eat anything that was not kosher.

Soldiers who passed through our town would pound on the doors and demand to be given wine, tobacco and other things which would pleasure their filthy souls. Those visits filled us with terrible fear.

Who can describe the sadistic abuse those predatory beasts used against our people? In the middle of their hard, exhausting slave labor, the old people were forced to get up and dance for them, and the young women were forced to strip and dance naked for them on the tables. They performed still other abominations which I can not bring myself to put to paper.

One day a company of S.S. soldiers passed through our town, tarrying for a couple of hours. The commander of the company called for the leading rabbi of the city, Rabbi Moshe Milstein, of blessed memory. He took the rabbi into the barber shop, sat him down,

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and ordered the barber to shave off half of the rabbi's beard, after which horrible act they forced him to sing for them. At the sound of the rabbi's beautiful voice, shaking with tears, singing the Kol Nidre prayer, the hearts of the Jews bled.

Like an arrow from a bow the rabbi ran home, his hands covering his cheeks. Even in those bitter, difficult days he did not cease his work; he would sit and study, day and night. He was a prophet who predicted that in the end the Germans would be defeated and overthrown. He was certain of it.

In the spring of 1942 whispers infiltrated our community that companies of partisans existed in the woods, daring occasionally to enter the villages in order to take hay for horses or obtain necessary items, then returning to the forests. It was told they entered the villages armed with rifles, machine guns and other weapons.

It was very difficult to believe. Could it be possible? There were Nazi soldiers and policemen at every turn, and they were well-equipped with ammunition and weapons. They watched every movement and governed with an iron fist. Could it be possible that in an area under their control, right under their noses, there could be operating a group of people who would dare to oppose them and rebel against them? Where did they come from? And how could they survive in the forests, especially in the winter? We heard rumors that a group of partisans had entered the nearby village of Khvorostov and taken control of the place for a few days, until they saw a need to withdraw. Another story was told in whispers, that our people who worked repairing the road to Mikashevichy had seen, not far from them, a company of partisans armed with weapons and dressed in the uniform of the Red Army. And once, we saw with our own eyes a company of Nazis establishing a position next to the Christian church, and lying in the trenches with their machine guns pointed towards the forest. They remained thus for two days. Why else would they take up a position of readiness – and against whom – when the Red Army was as far away as east is from west?

It was difficult to believe the rumors about the existence of a partisan company. But the rumors and whisperings did not cease, and in our hearts there glowed an ember of hope. If it was true, then the world had not yet come to an end. We began to doubt the boastful stories of the Nazis, who claimed that their army had already reached the gates of Moscow. They had made such claims when they first entered our city; now, ten months later, they were still at the gates of Moscow and not yet within the city?

Even a prisoner in jail was less removed from the world than we were. We had no radios, no newspapers, and no passersby. The only news we heard came from a deceptive source, the mouths of the Germans, and we did not believe their stories. We knew that in the towns closest to us, Mikashevichy, Lachwa, and Horodok, the Jewish communities still existed. But we had no communication with them, because none of us left our town, and none of them came to us.

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We had no knowledge of the activities in Jewish towns far from our location. We heard that in the cities of Pinsk and Luninietz, they had taken all the men away and they had never returned to the town or their homes. Nothing was known of their fates. It was said that they had been taken to a place of work. Our mental state was divided between two extremes; hope that we would be rescued on the one hand, and despair and hopelessness on the other. A few times there hovered over our town the danger of destruction and annihilation.

We remember fondly the German Max Fiershtenhauffer, a resident of our town for forty years, who knew each one of us and was a friend to every resident of the town, especially the children, and who was an honest and loyal man. More than once he saved our town from destruction – before it could happen he would run to the army officer and the S.S. and ask for mercy to be shown towards the Jews of the town who, as he said, were the best Jews in the world. And those evil men would grant his request and spare us, for his sake.

We also remember the wife of the town's minister, who took into her home the Kliger girl, daughter of a refugee from Warsaw who had come to our town. The girl remained alive thanks to her, for she claimed the girl as her own daughter.

 

The Ghetto

On the 10th of May 1942, the Nazis imprisoned us in a ghetto. They brought into our town the Jews from the neighboring villages and from villages farther away, such as: Khvorostov, Hryczynowicze, Garbov, Milevich, and many families from the Volka village. Altogether there were gathered about one hundred and fifty people.

The center of the ghetto was on the main road which came to an end at the bank of the river. The borders were: the lane next to the two-story house of Herzl Paperna and the corner of Podlipya Street opposite the lane. From there the border turned to the Street of the Gentiles and crossed that street until the end that reached the riverbank; that is, to the house of Mordechai Ziklig, cutting the house in two. That side of the main street was within the ghetto, and the other side ran along the Pulsia Marsh outside the ghetto. The area of the ghetto was the portion of the main street from the lake to the river, and half of the Street of the Gentiles parallel to it.

Within that narrow area were confined the Jewish residents of the town and the surrounding villages. Obviously it was terribly crowded, and conditions were difficult. Three or four families, along with all of their furniture and belongings were forced into a single apartment; men, women and children. Our mutual, bitter fate and the fear that hung over our heads brought us closer together. We didn't fight or bicker; in fact, the opposite. Everyone helped each other as best he could; since we couldn't help one another materially, we comforted one another.

Immediately after the order establishing the ghetto came the command to wear the yellow badge. We were required to put two badges

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on our clothes, both front and back: one over the heart and one on the right side of the back. It was forbidden to be seen outdoors without those badges. At the beginning, we were ordered to put a yellow Star of David on a white background on our sleeves. Afterwards, we were ordered to put a yellow Star of David on our fronts and backs, and finally we were forced to wear a circular badge with a diameter of ten centimeters (four inches). I look back now in wonder and amazement, how easily some of us accepted that order. There were even young men and women who rushed to be the first to leave the ghetto with their clothes decorated with the yellow badge, so others would see them.

The main street of the ghetto was always full of people. After the work day, young people would wander aimlessly in the street, visiting friends, unaware of the fate that awaited us all. As usual, the Jewish council continued to supply the Nazis with workers; they would leave in the morning and return in the evenings to sleep in their own homes. Of course, the economic situation, which had been bad enough before we were enclosed in the ghetto, only grew worse until things became unbearable.

Those confined in the ghetto were unable to continue their trade with the Christian residents. The ghetto was enclosed with barbed wire stretched between wooden posts which had been driven into the ground, and guards were stationed to ensure that no one left the ghetto. We were prevented from bringing any foodstuffs into the ghetto. Occasionally, a few of the workers were able to bring in a kilo or two of flour or potatoes hidden in their clothes as they returned to the ghetto from their work. They were able to do so at the post and on the watch of a kind-hearted policeman who was one of the young Christians of the town.

We came to know the policemen very well, and to distinguish between the good ones and the bad, and information about the guards on duty was passed from friend to friend: “Today a good man is on duty” or “A bad fellow, hostile to Jews, is on duty today – be careful!”

How did we live?

As was mentioned above, many people made sure to bring in foodstuffs on which they could live for a certain amount of time. Others were able to sneak things in on their return from work or other opportunities. For how long could we have lived like that, if we had been given the chance? It is difficult to answer that question. Every day our supply of valuable items used to trade for food grew smaller and smaller: clothes, undergarments, sheets, pillows and jewelry. Shoes also disappeared. We continued to live, somehow, if such an existence can be called living.

* *
*

Shortly before we were imprisoned in the ghetto, the Germans removed a group of young men from our town and sent them to work at the train station in Hantsavichy (near Baranovichi). The group consisted of about sixty professionals in the fields of construction, carpentry, and welding. They would send us greetings, and occasionally letters.

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On the 21st of May 1942 an order was given for all men between the ages of fourteen and sixty to gather in the field of the club on Lachwa Street. Of those gathered, one hundred and fifty men were selected and told to stand to one side. The remaining men were the feeble, the sick, and a few professionals who were needed to perform work in the town. We were told that they were going to send those of us who had been selected to join the first group of sixty men who were working in Hantsavichy, where the commander in charge of the work was located.

Many of us tried, by any means possible – pleas and begging – to be allowed to remain in the ghetto and not be sent to work. Those who were about to be sent away were envious of those allowed to remain in town. It was hard for them to be separated from their loved ones, to leave them and go who knows where, without knowing what awaited them there. And the family members – parents, sisters, brothers and children – cried bitterly over the fate of those who were leaving. Who knew when they would return, and when they would be seen again?

After all that, it never occurred to even one of us that we were parting forever, and that we would never again see our dear loved ones.

On the last night, the eve of our departure, no one closed an eye, and no one sought his bed. We were busy preparing for the journey. We were equipped with two or three loaves of bread and underwear. Those who were able brought valuables with them to trade with the Christian population of the place where we were being sent to work. These included head scarves for women, silk stockings, ribbons and similar items (based on the advice we received from the sixty who had set off to work before us).

Early the next morning, on Friday the 22nd of May we set off, a group of one hundred and fifty men surrounded by policemen walking towards Mikashevichy. Our packages followed behind in a wagon. All of these commands and troubles fell on our heads on a Friday; is there any possibility it was purely by chance?

The Nazis entered our town on the 18th of July – a Friday. All of the orders and decrees were given on Fridays. We were sent to Hantsavichy on the 22nd of May, a Friday. And finally, the bitter and hurried day - the day the people of our town were slaughtered – was the 14th of August, a Friday.

* *
*

When we arrived in Mikashevichy they put us in a fenced yard opposite the train station. The Jews of that town, which was a sister town to our own, were all of them familiar, good friends or relatives of the people of Lenin. They were not put in a ghetto but instead walked about freely. They rushed to bring us food, commiserated with us, and felt our pain.

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According to the Nazi's division of the area, Mikashevichy was not part of Lenin or White Russia; but rather was considered one of the areas of the Ukraine. The command there was different from that in our town, and there was no ghetto there. In the end they put us into two transport cars, seventy five men in each, and closed us in.

The darkness and crowded conditions in the car were intolerable. Most of us stood up, a few sat on top of their belongings. The next day we arrived in Luninietz and were taken to the ghetto to spend the night. The streets of Luninietz - which had formerly been full of life and gaiety, teeming with people, mostly Jews – were empty. As we made our way to the ghetto, here and there we passed by a solitary Christian or a policeman; they stopped and stared at the group of Jews burdened with all sorts of heavy packages, boxes and baskets.

As soon as we arrived in the ghetto we saw the evil that had befallen the Jews of Luninietz. There were no men to be seen or found in the ghetto, just women of all ages and children. Where were the men? No one knew. They were taken away and were gone…Among one of the few men left we found Brodinski, who served us tea.

The next day we reached Hantsavichy, where we found the sixty men from our town and a group of one hundred and twenty men from the town Pohost, near Pinsk. They put all of us into the small houses at the outskirts of town, houses that had once belonged to the poor people of the Jewish community.

After a few days they added another twenty men from our town, the last group of workers from our town. We were a work camp of three hundred and fifty people, and a new way of life began.

The Nazis crammed twenty-five or even thirty of us into a single room. We slept on long wooden benches on three levels, one above the other, with hay spread on them. In these crowded conditions we were ordered to maintain complete cleanliness, such that there should not be found – God forbid – any speck of dirt, and that there should be absolute orderliness. We were responsible for the cleanliness of the walls and the floor.

The Germans would perform frequent cleanliness inspections, and would suddenly perform surprise inspections of our persons, examining our skin and hair with a magnifying glass. And woe to the man on whom was found any bit of dirt or any kind of sore on his skin; he could expect to be shot to death. We were told that before we arrived two people had been put to death for this reason.

We did the best we could (though our ability was quite limited!) to keep clean. On Sunday, which was a day off from work, we devoted our time to cleaning, especially washing underwear.

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We had long ago run out of soap. We scrubbed our underclothes as best we could, and boiled them in water. They were not white, but they were clean.

We didn't lack for work. Everyone had to work every day; it was strictly forbidden to be sick. Professionals such as tailors, shoemakers and carpenters mostly worked in workshops to provide items for the Germans and the policemen. The rest of the workers were busy with various jobs: gardening, cutting trees, tanning leather, loading trains, and flattening and paving roads. For our labor our cruel captors allotted us 200 grams of bread and twenty grams of groats per day, nothing else.

Two hundred grams of bread is not enough to sustain a small child; it certainly wasn't enough for a grown man doing hard work. It is completely clear that such a miniscule portion of food could not sustain anyone, let alone a man doing hard physical labor.

Secretly, at great danger to our lives, we would bargain with the farmers in the area: coats, trousers, sandals, socks and handkerchiefs were given in exchange for potatoes, flour, oils, and sometimes eggs. We were in need of God's mercy, that He should protect us and rescue us, and ensure that the allowed basics would fall into our hands and not into those of our oppressors. We had hiding places under the floor and in the attics. When night fell we baked bread, secretly and at the risk of our lives, and divided it up amongst us. It tasted like paradise to us, and the more we ate of it, the more our appetite grew. It is well known that a few grams of bread do not satiate one.

It was then the season for picking blackberries, and we bought them from our neighbors in the yard. We made jam from the berries, sweetened with saccharine, to spread on our bread. On the way to our place of work we sometimes passed over fields of ripened grain. We took advantage of the opportunity, picking the grain and filling our pockets with the stalks. We ate them later, raw or roasted over a fire. This source of life and nutrition did not last for long, though. After only a few days a guard was stationed there; the owner of the field had issued a complaint to the area commissar, that the Jews had eaten a large amount of grain, and he demanded compensation for the damage we had caused.

The commissar of that place was Miller, and he had two deputies who were responsible for the execution of the work: the engineer Kolvic, and his friend Zigred. The first, Kolvic, wasn't bad. He had lived in Russia during the First World War and spoke Russian.

Among the officers, there were another two (ironically, members of the Nazi party) who were unusual amongst the gang of murderers. They were cultured men of conscience who, in their hearts, despised the actions of the Nazis and their cruel, murderous ways. We knew this from our face-to-face conversations with them, but what could so few do against the pack of vicious animals in men's form?

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They feared even their friends, who knew nothing of mercy even towards their own people, indeed even their friends. There was one officer named Koplavski (a Polish name?), a tall handsome man, who was by far the most cruel, evil and malicious. This officer was the scum of the earth, head and shoulders above the rest in his actions during the slaughter of the Jewish communities, and the leader in the torture and murder of martyrs.

* *
*

Among the many things the Nazis forbade the Jews were: to smoke, to eat fats, to walk on the sidewalks, and to enter the homes of Christians. All of these prohibitions were clearly posted on bulletin boards all over town. When we arrived in Hantsavichy we saw no Jews at all. We were shown a few mounds and told that the bones of the Jews were buried there. I cannot describe the despair we felt when we saw those mounds. But we knew from the farmers that in other towns, both near and far – Klatzk, Baranovichi and others – the Jewish communities still existed.

At times we were terrified for our lives because of the surprise inspections the Nazis would suddenly organize, usually in the middle of the night. They would take ten people from among us and stand them off to one side. They were hostages; the murders would kill them if they discovered that someone had run away from the camp.

There was no threat in these incidents; it's just the way things were. When these assemblies took place there were policemen posted all around us like a wall in the yards and lanes, and armed German soldiers stood at the ready. More than once we thought to ourselves, “This is our end.” Once, not far from Hantsavichy, a German soldier was found dead in the road. They immediately gathered us together and told us what had happened, then threatened us that if there would be another killing of a German, ten Jews would be executed – ten Jews for one German.

Every day we saw people passing by, their hands tied behind their backs, on their way to be executed. Sometimes they were accompanied by Germans, but more often by policemen equipped with rifles and hoes. They killed many Polish youth, women with children, and White Russians. The news that reached us from the front by way of German broadcasts was all bad – like the lamentations of Job. Although we were convinced that the news of their successes was exaggerated, we didn't know for certain, because the Red Army continued to retreat.

Hitler's army occupied Sebastopol, and the Germans joyfully celebrated that victory with cheers and applause, while we turned our faces to the ground, depressed and full of despair.

One day, while we were in the forest, a young man from the city of Klatzk came running up to us, telling us that the Nazis had organized a massacre of the Jews in Klatzk. Only a few young people had successfully escaped the gunfire, when the Germans had set the city on fire on all sides. A few young hotheads from our group wanted to run away

[Page 60]

that same day after work, but the rest of us convinced them not to take such a rash step that could lead to disaster for all of us.

Every day our determination to run away grew stronger. It was clear to us that although the fact that we were in a work camp indicated that the Germans needed us, our fate was likely to be the same as all of the Jewish communities, and we understood that we should not deceive ourselves that we would transform the murderers into good men, and we could not just sit back with folded arms.

We knew that if we ran away it would bring about a disaster for our brothers, sisters and parents left at home. Our escape would speed the death sentence of the members of our community. For now, we knew they were still alive; policemen, the sons of the farmers of the area, would bring us letters from them. That knowledge and the awful thought that their precious blood would be on our hands – God forbid - virtually tied our hands and prevented us from running away from the den of wild animals. We were caught between a rock and a hard place or, more accurately, to use the allegory from our sages of blessed memory, we were the dove caught between the hawk and the snake.

We were tensed and ready for every blow. We made an agreement that if we were forced to run away, we would all go, with no one left behind; all three hundred and fifty men, an organized unit. It wasn't long before the hour for which we had prepared was upon us; the sudden push to run away immediately was the total destruction of our town, Lenin. <

 

The End of Our Town

Oy, how difficult and horrible is the chapter I am about to write. The wounds in my heart, which have healed just a little, are reopened and bleeding as I recall the horrific scenes that pass before my eyes.

Those final hours! The last moments! Who can imagine?! Who can describe to himself the thoughts that passed through the minds of our dear ones then?! Who among us has the strength to imagine himself in the midst of those old people, young people and children who stood and saw the atrocious death that awaited them, their grave open before them?! Who has the strength to imagine jumping into that grave together with them?!

* *
*

On Thursday evening, the 13th of August 1942, army reinforcements and policemen streamed into our town from the surrounding towns of Strubin, Hantsavichy and others. The residents of our town wondered, and didn't understand why those reinforcements had come. But the next day, Friday the 14th of August 1942, with the coming of the dawn, they realized what awaited them.

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The order was given to awaken all of the residents of the ghetto, from the youngest to the oldest, and gather them in the street not far from the house of the officer of the city (commandator), on the other side of the bridge over the lake. All of the streets and gardens of the ghetto were surrounded by soldiers and policemen with machine guns and automatic weapons of all kinds.

The soldiers and policemen searched every corner to ensure that no one escaped, grabbing by the neck those who dawdled or lagged behind. When the people had reached the gathering place, the Nazis arranged them in rows, four in each column. Mothers stood together with their children in an attempt not to be separated from them. Everyone tried to stay close to his family. Thus they arranged themselves in columns, each man with his family.

Everyone knew that they were being prepared for an inescapable death. They stood silently, frozen in place. Their hearts had turned to stone and they were unable to react in any way.

Young mothers, their babies still caught up in sweet sleep in their mothers' arms, whispered to them: “Sleep, my baby! Don't wake up. Sleep, my child, do not awake.” The murderers approached them, and separated out some individuals and several families from among the columns of those about to die. They separated those who would stay alive and put them to one side. They were professionals – tailors, shoemakers, and other artisans –whom the murderers felt they still needed for the time being.

Among those standing in the columns were a number of young women who, through some kind of instinct, snuck away from their positions and stealthily joined those set aside to live, as if they were the daughters of those families. Their shrewd instincts proved fortunate, and they were saved from death. Twenty-eight people remained alive: the artisans and their families, including the young women who joined them. As has been said, the murderers decided to keep them alive for as long as they found them useful, though as will be told later, a miracle happened and the twenty-eight managed to escape from the murderers and were saved from death.

Our people stood a long time in those columns with no hope of salvation as the killers loaded them group by group into trucks. They took them to the well-known bloody hill on the main road to the village of Steibelovichi, opposite the orchard of the Agarkov farm.

Deep ditches had already been dug there. At the edge of the ditches the cursed murderers undressed the people of our town and took their clothes, and opened fire on them with their machine guns. Their shocked screams were heard by the Christian residents, who were eyewitnesses to the massacre. The bodies of our martyrs rolled and fell into the ditches. The killers arranged the bodies in layers, one on top of the other.

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And blood mixed with blood. The blood of babies mixed with that of their mothers, grandfathers and grandmothers. There is no doubt that some of them were buried alive. The trucks filled with living souls kept on coming, one after another, and the entire horrific massacre was completed within an hour.

* *
*

 

Len062.jpg [10 KB] - David Shusterman
David Shusterman

 

As all of the Jews of our town stood in lines, a scant hour before they were executed, and while the Germans searched for and selected a few families of tailors, shoemakers and the like to keep alive for the time being and be put to work for them. Among those, they were prepared to keep the tailor David Shusterman and the barber Yaacov Afman alive. But the Nazis determined that the families of the two men were “too large” for their taste, they refused to allow the families of the men to remain alive. Shusterman and Afman gave up the opportunity to stay alive, saying that if their families were to be massacred they would join them.

* *
*

The Tanis family (who owned the pharmacy in Lenin). Nachum (or as he was called, Naum), from the city of Pinsk, who married Sonia the daughter of the pharmacist in Lenin, was considered to be a little bit sickly all of the time he lived in Lenin, and far from being a hero in either body or spirit. He would walk slowly in front of his house, taking small steps. His wife watched over him to be sure he wouldn't, God forbid, take sick. They were a very intelligent couple. They lived peacefully and watched over one another. They did not have any children. When they were loaded with the rest onto the trucks on what they understood would be one-way trip, they decided to die at their own hands rather than at the hands of the cursed Nazis. During the ride on the truck they swallowed some poisonous pills which they had prepared in advance, which put them to sleep forever.

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* *
*

Yentel Starobinsky, the wife of Betzalel, hid while the Jews were being awakened and rushed to the special gathering place from which they would go to be slaughtered. She hid under the porch of a house and lay there for awhile. After the killings, policemen who were searching and snooping around for money, gold and other valuables found her. They took her to the jail (a small building in the yard of the Gmyna). That night, she tore her nightgown into strips, wove it into a rope, and hanged herself.

* *
*

Nishka and Chaya Issers, daughters of Yisrael Aharon, and one other girl, a relative of Itka Vinnick, hid in the attic of Nina Obchinikov, and thus remained alive for several days. Nina, a Christian, had always been considered among the supporters of the Jews. Her only daughter had always been friends with Jewish girls.

In spite of that, one day she went with Sima Firshtenhauft (son of the German supporter of the Jews, Max F.) and reported the girls to the authorities, who came and took them away.

* *
*

Beshka, the daughter of Mordechai Ziklig, lived in the house at the end of the street. She also succeeded in hiding in the attic, after preparing enough food to last her for several days. She crawled into a hidden corner and waited. Some small Christian boys found her and reported her to her neighbor, Lender, who was used by the Germans as a policeman. He came with a few others to take her. She asked them to allow her to live, and promised to give them all of the gold she had. They asked for the gold first, but Beshka thought it over and told them that anyway they would kill her (she knew them well), and didn't give them anything.

As they brought her past the house of Efraim Goldberg, the building used to house the 28 people who the Germans had selected to live, they saw her walking by with her back straight and her head held high. She turned her head toward the window and bowed her head in a gesture of farewell as she passed by.

* *
*

Rachel Vecherbin, wife of Asher Golub, who had always been very energetic and opinionated, also managed to hide. First she sat in the bathroom of Aharon Migdalovich, later she moved to the garden of Yaacov Nemchania, who had lived opposite Efraim Goldberg. She lay down between the flowerbeds, and sometimes they would bring her a little food. She asked if they would hide her in the house of those who remained (something that was almost impossible because of the guards and the inspections). Once, when she stood up for just a moment, the Germans spotted her and took her away.

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* *
*

Eliyahu Ziklig and Layzer (Eliezer) Golub worked in the village of Moritz at the time of the slaughter in Lenin. After a few days they were brought back to Lenin. They were shadows of their former selves, their faces covered in stubble, filthy and broken down from the journey. All the way they had been cruelly abused and beaten; they had fallen down, gotten up, and fallen down again…

They took them all the way to the big bridge in order to kill them there; a pit had already been prepared. Olshevsky, the son-in-law of Max Firshtenhauft and someone who, ironically, was known to us to behave badly towards Jews, especially in the days of the Germans, went to the place to delay the execution. The Jews were put into the home of E. Goldberg, with those who remained; they all ran away to the forests together during an attack by the partisans. In a further touch of irony, the two were killed by the partisans during the infamous “oblawa” (chase). The partisans didn't want to accept them during the time of the oblawa since they were out in the forest then, and not in a partisan camp, and they were shot to death by Ivanov.

The youngest son of Eliyahu Ziklig, Noah, stayed alive thanks to Moshe Rabinovitch of blessed memory, who managed to grab him and hide him in his large cloak in a way that he went unnoticed; thus he remained alive. Rachele Kliger (daughter of the refugee, who was in Lenin), was also saved by a miracle thanks to the self-sacrifice and righteousness of the minister of Lenin's wife, who took her in as her own daughter. Noah and Rachele were sent later on by air to Moscow, where they live. Rachele was reunited with her father in Moscow.

The twenty-eight people whom the Nazis saw a need to keep alive for the time being were returned to the house of the Jewish council, in the former home of Avraham Yitzhak Chinitz. They sat and labored there under guard, expecting to meet the same fate as the other Jews of our town. About a month after the massacre, a partisan company attacked the town, occupied it and remained there for awhile. When they left the town, they took the remaining Jews of the town with them and burned the ghetto and its main street to the ground.

Most of the twenty-eight eventually made their way to Israel, where they made their homes. A few stayed in Russia, and a few immigrated to the United States.

The town of Lenin was completely emptied of its Jews, and no sign remains of their existence. A tradition hundreds of years old was wiped away. Gradually, house by house and street by street, the town of Lenin was built by a peaceful people who loved life, who worked and strove, and were satisfied with their lot. Then came the savage beasts and with one movement put an end to it all.

The Jews of Mikashevichy were massacred by the Nazis eight days before the Jews of our town were slaughtered. Two weeks after the massacre of the Jews of our town, the Nazis executed the Jews of Horodok and the Jews of Lachwa.

I cannot refrain from mentioning at least a few of the courageous acts of the Jews of Lachwa. Those acts deserve to be written down in detail from the memory of a witness and recorded in a book of the tales of the brave acts of rebellion in the ghettos. In the hope that it will be done, I provide here a few lines:

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the number of Jews in Lachwa was greater than that in our town. The men there, and also the young, were not taken to work camps. They were, therefore, prisoners in the ghetto. When the Nazis came to massacre them, the young people set the ghetto on fire, killed a few of the soldiers from the companies of Nazis that held the ghetto under siege, and ran away into the forests and swamps.

Only a few were saved and remained alive. Most were hunted down one by one by the Christian population around the city, who had always been known as Horchokim (named for David Horchok), and who were known for their heartlessness and cruelty. Those Horchokim caught the runaways and killed them with their own hands or delivered them to the Nazis. In spite of that, many of the runaways were saved and joined the partisans and were able to participate in the war of revenge against the enemies of humanity.

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