Translated by Eilat Gordin Levitan
Hinda Tassman was born in Minsk in 1932. She immigrated to Israel in 1959. David Cohen interviewed her for her story.I was born in Minsk to the Nechamchik family. My father was a proletariat, a builder. In our family there were seven children. We lived in a private home that we owned, and our life was pretty good. As the war started in 1941, I finished four years of public Belarussian school. My older brothers and sisters even had the good fortune to study in the Yiddish school. At home we spoke Yiddish. Minsk was a town of many Jews, and most of them spoke Yiddish to each other, but most also spoke Russian and Belarussian.
My father was a traditional Jew and would put tfillim daily. He would wear a tallit and pray with a yarmulke on his head. Our mother was mostly busy with domestic chores. She had a fruit garden as well as a vegetable garden, two cows, chickens, geese, roosters, and even sheep and goats. And this was all under our mother's domain. Every morning, Christian children would come by and gather the cows to take them out to pasture in the field that belonged to the Tatars, and in the evening they would return them. We would sell the dairy products and that would supplement the income of our large family.
As the war started in June of 1941, my older brothers and my cousin Yochevet Rovenchik escaped from Minsk and arrived in the forest. But the Germans came towards them and they had to return to Minsk. As soon as the Germans arrived in town, they announced that all the men, both Jews and non-Jews, should go to the camp in Proskinetz. After some time they did a selection in which they let the Christians go. My uncle, Israel Rovenchik was in that camp, and we would go there to bring him food. Next to that camp was the camp for POWs. It was a huge camp for both Russian Jewish and non-Jewish POWs. They didn't receive any food or water, and if someone would go to the nearby river to get water, they would immediately be shot. Nearby they dug trenches where they ate and relieved themselves.
Back for the camp of the Jewish men who were residents of Minsk; After some days all the Jewish men were transferred from there to the prison in Minsk on Volodarski Street. The people that had a profession, amongst them my uncle, were released. Then we were all transferred into a ghetto.
Soon they started capturing Jews in the street. Near our house there was a public nursery school for the children of working mothers, they took the men that were caught in the street and deposited them near the walls of the nursery school and shot them. We hid in our attic, and from there, through the cracks, we could see everything. My father hid under the railing. We could see that the Germans randomly caught some Jews and killed them. Later, a group of Germans with SS officers started going to the homes and threatening to kill people unless they would give them some bribes. So people gave them everything they could give.
Then they announced the establishment of the ghetto in a small area. All the Christians who lived on those streets that were designated for the ghetto were ordered to transfer, and the Jews who lived in other neighborhoods were ordered also to transfer. We were allowed to take our belongings, but everything that would not be transferred in time was confiscated. The Germans selected a Judenrat committee that would serve as intermediary between the Jews and the German authorities, and they gave us our instructions.
Many of the Christian people received the furniture in the homes of the Jews who had been forced to go, and they guarded them until the war ended. But there were also some Russians and Belarussians in town who totally collaborated with the Germans. They immediately joined the police under the German rule. Also, many Ukrainians arrived in Minsk and they became the main murderers in the ghetto.
Soon the Jews started preparing malinas, which are hideouts, as they feared they would be killed. At first my mother refused to make a hideout. She remembered the Germans favorably during World War I, (They were in Minsk in 1918) and thought that the Germans would not murder people for no reason. Anyway, she was finally convinced and we built a malina in our house.
On the night of the fourth of November, 1941, we were all at home. We heard a knock on the door but we didn't open. We didn't even have a chance to run to the hideout. The Germans broke the glass windows and entered. There were four drunken men who were dressed in Latvian uniforms, and they asked if we had gold, jewelry, and watches. My father answered, I am a laborer. Everything I had has already been taken. But here I have a clock. Please take it.
From the street came another two Germans. They pushed Father and started behaving brutally. My 23-year-old sister, Chaia, whose husband was at this point far away with the Red Army, was pulled to another room and raped. They cut of her breasts and then shot her to death. In our house also lived our uncle with his daughter, Esther. They tore her clothes off and raped her and shot her. My 12-year-old sister Deena, a beautiful girl, with braided blonde hairthey started molesting her. She fought them back, and threw at the Germans whatever she could find. Finally they shot and killed her. Then they started shooting everyone at home. They immediately killed mother and my sisters. My father stood next to me. He threw me on the ground and covered me with his body. They shot him until they were out of ammunition, and then they left.
Father was groaning for a long time until he died. I lay under my father until he was completely quiet. Then I got up and checked all the family members who were lying on the ground, in their blood. All of them were dead. Then I heard some sounds of life. I looked and found my brother under a bed. He had been shot in his stomach. I put him up on the bed and gave him some water to drink. He was mortally wounded. At six in the morning he died from his wounds.
I left my house and went to the house of my uncle, Israel Rovenchik, it was a very difficult walk, and as I trudged to his home, I knocked on his door. Since they were sure the Germans were coming, they didn't open the door. I whispered, Israel, it's me, Hinda.
They finally opened the door and I told them what had happened. They refused to believe me and told me that I had only had a nightmare, but later they went to our house and found all the bodies. Since it was the first murder of an entire family in the Ghetto of Minsk, many people came to the funeral, even Christian people. They buried my family members in pairs in the Jewish cemetery. [Others had been killed, including her grandmother and others she did not mention.]
From the entire family, I was left alone at the age of 9. I returned to our home. Together with me came an aunt who guarded me. After a few weeks there was another night attack where they killed the family of my uncle and aunt. In the seventh of November of 1941, there was a mass action. During that day, the Germans surrounded the streets Nimiga, Ropovska, Solana, and Zampova, and murdered all of the residents that they found. On that day they didn't come to our street. After that murder, the area of the ghetto became smaller, and the Russian residents entered the homes of the people that had been killed.
My uncle (mothers' brother) had a profession. He was a plasterer. I lived in this uncle's house with an aunt and one of my cousins, Manya Solovyechik, who was also left as the single survivor of her family. Together with us there was another cousin, Hirshl, who survived the war and now lives in Minsk. We were always fearful of staying at home since it seemed that daily there were murders in the ghetto. In the streets of Minsk you would see the gas truck [a truck painted in black. They would catch whoever was walking in the street, men, women, and children, and push them inside this truck. They would then drive, and whomever they caught would be killed when they released the gas in the truck.]. Everyone wanted to go to work so as to avoid the danger. Despite the fact that I was still a young child, I joined my aunt; Nechama Rovenchik, together with my cousin Yochevet Rovenchik and we worked in a place where bricks were made. We would take the still hot bricks out of the oven and put them on a truck, and our hands would burn from holding those hot bricks. We would go to work at seven in the morning. We would line up in pairs, and the German truck would take us to work. We would ware a yellow tag on the left side of our chests, and also on our backs. Each one had on the yellow tag the number of the house in which they lived.
The Germans, with the help of the Judenrat, gave a number to each home in the ghetto, so they could keep track of the people. We only received food at the workplace. The people who were left in the ghetto didn't receive any food. In each home lived between ten to thirty people. Most people brought along some possessions. They would go under the barbed wire and out of the ghetto to sneak out to the Russian area, where they would exchange their possessions for food. Sometimes even the Germans would sell us sugar, soap, and dry bread.
My cousin and I would sometimes go under the barbed wire to a long distance away from town. Sometimes the ghetto police caught us and we would free ourselves by giving them bribes of half of the possessions we had in our hands. As soon as we got out of the ghetto, we would take off the yellow tags and dress like Christians. And once we were able to exchange our possessions for food, we would return to the ghetto, lift up the barbed wire, and enter. One time we left with a girl by the name of Genya Botvinnik. Her sister-in-law was not Jewish and lived outside the ghetto. Sometimes, when we would arrive to this sister-in-law, she would give us bags filled with potatoes, meat, and flour. A Russian policeman followed us one time and said, I know that you are Jews, but I'm not going to do any harm to you. I only want to get something. I am also poor.
So my cousin gave him a coin of five rubles and he released us, promising that next time he saw us he would not bother us. Since only the people who went to work were registered, it was fairly easy to leave the ghetto, but if a Jew fell into German hands in the Russian area and was recognized as a Jew, the Germans would immediately kill them.
The people who were taken to work outside the ghetto would always check the garbage of the Germans and take all the leftovers, especially potato peels, and sneak it back to the ghetto where they would make soup and other foods from them. To warm ourselves we took the wood from broken buildings, fences, and even furniture. Still, most of the time we were freezing during the winter. We covered our hands and legs with torn clothes and rags. At the beginning, for a short time, the Judenrat established a kitchen for people who didn't work. They received soup that was practically water and a few hundred grams of bread. This bread was mixed with sawdust. People started dying from starvation, cold, and disease. They would bury the dead in common graves in the cemetery. The people who buried them were the Jewish police of the ghetto.
There was an underground unit in the ghetto that had been organized by Party Members and the KOMSOMOL, and they started taking Jews to the forest. When we hid in a hideout in the alley of Zaslovsky Street, there were some prominent Communists who hid there, amongst them, Yoel Rolvin, who, during the Soviet days, had been the head of the Policlinic for children. There was also Nachum Feldman, who was later one of the heads of the Minsk underground. They were in the upper part of the hideout, and we were in the lower part. In this hideout there were barrels of water, food supplies, and even weapons. The underground did much to transfer Jews to the forest, and many survived. When the Germans found out about our hideout, Feldman and his people escaped to the forest, but many of them were killed there since some of the Partisans thought they were spies. It was a very confused time.
The Germans caught Rolvin and a dog (German shepherd) pulled him all the way from the Anniversary Square to Komrovka Street and tore his limbs to pieces until the Germans shot him. His son, who was also a member of the underground, escaped, but the Germans eventually caught him and shot him in the head. His brains exploded. Only one young sister survived, and when it became dark, she gathered the brain of her brother and buried it in her yard. The Germans had took the body of her brother. Helena Rolvin survived the war and now lives in Minsk.
On March 22nd, 1942, I was at the house of my uncle Israel Rubonchik. My uncle took very good care of me and guarded me carefully since I was the only survivor of my entire family. At one point, my cousin Yohevet and I went outside and crossed Anniversary Square. We saw many armed Germans, Belarussian and Ukrainian police. Immediately we realized they were planning a pogrom, so we went through the yards and knocked on doors and told all the Jews to hide. Then we went ourselves and hid in our attic. We looked through a hole in the wall and saw Germans going from home to home, killing everyone they could find. This pogrom lasted for a few days. When it ended they gathered all the Jewish policemen and ordered them to gather the dead. They put them on sleighs since it was wintertime, and brought them to a big hole in the ground in the neighborhood Ratkomka. This hole was there even before the war. That was where people would throw broken bricks. During that day, two Christian women and one Christian man came to the ghetto to rob the Jewish homes whose inhabitants had been killed. When the Germans saw that, they didn't ask any questions. They just killed them and threw them in the hole too.
The next morning, they brought dynamite and put it in the hole, and all the bodies were torn to pieces. Then they covered the hole with dirt.
There was another pogrom on July 28, 1942. One of my cousins, and an aunt and her children were killed. My two uncles worked in the mill that day. In that mill there were some underground people who would sabotage it. So one day, they took all the Jewish workers there and put them in prison, together also with their wives and children, and they were all murdered.
My aunt, Nechama Rovenchik, stayed in the ghetto with five children. When they started the murders, she caught the children and started running. A policeman came to her and hit her with the butt of his rifle on her head. She became confused by the force of the hit and didn't know where to run. The children went to one street and she ran to another. She came to an empty alley in an area where all the people had been murdered and hid in one of the hideouts that she found there. The children were all caught and killed. She could not hear as a result of the hit by the rifle.
During that time we worked in the brick factory, and we knew there was a pogrom. When they put us in the truck we were sure they were taking us to be killed. Together with us there was, Hirsheleh, the young brother of my cousin Yohevet. We pushed him out of the truck and said to him, Run away, you are blonde and you look like a Christian child! Go hide with the Christians, maybe you will be lucky and survive. We never saw him again. His sister immediately passed out. One of the women had a little milk and after some trouble we revived her.
They took us through the ghetto and the cemetery. There was not one Jew in the streets, only Germans and Ukrainians. The street was filled with torn clothes and blood was all over the side of the street. We were taken to Krasno Shtitza, and there we found out there was an order not to harm any of the workers, and that they should all be settled there. This was a labor camp about 10 km from Minsk. There we met many Jewish workers who asked us about the fate of their families in the ghetto, and we didn't know what to say. We were there for four days, and then they returned us to the factory. When we finished the job that day, they returned us to the ghetto. When we returned to the ghetto we saw a few Jews getting out of their hideouts, in famished condition.
When we arrived to our home we found Nechama Rabonchik. Her hair turned white overnight and she was now deaf and her locks were in a big mess. She kept saying, They murdered all my children. I was left alone and deaf, and I don't know what to do with myself.
We took her with us to work. We were too fearful to leave her alone in the ghetto. There was a good German man there. He told us that he was a teacher and he was opposed to this war. There were also some Czechs natives there who guarded us, they were kind to us too. One time we bought soap and cigarettes from the Germans in the brick factory, and also some milk from the Christians. When we returned to the ghetto, a German officer and a policeman checked us. My cousin and I hid the soap and the cigarettes in our socks, and the German found it. There was a policeman who talked Russian. He was a Folksdeutsche (ethnic German). He drew his gun and put it on my neck. He said, As I am killing her now, this is the way I will kill all of you if you don't tell me where you got these supplies. Everyone started crying and gave him everything they had, but he wouldn't calm down and said he must kill me for hiding the supplies. My aunt started kissing his hand and his boots, begging him not to kill me since I was left alone out of my entire family. All the other people begged him to spare my life. All of a sudden he calmed down and said, Quickly go back to the truck.
The Czechs would take us to the ghetto every day. The killings kept increasing, and one day there was an order that pretty Jewish girls must come to the Belarussian theater named Yankapopela in Maxim Gorky Square. When they arrived, they were all hanged from the trees, amongst them was the sister of my husband-to-be. In one working place, the Germans fired all the workers, mainly women, but the people were too fearful to stay in the ghetto, and since they didn't send a truck to take them, they decided to walk to their workplace. As soon as they arrived to their old workplace, the Germans put them on trucks and brought them to the Anniversary Square. There, they covered their eyes and told all the people to watch while they shot them all. With us in the brick place worked a Christian Russian woman by the name of Natasha, and she would always say to us, Children, run away. The Germans will kill you all and nothing will be left of you.
My cousin; Yohevet Rovenchik was very brave. Sometimes, when she would go to the Russian area, the Germans would shoot at her and send dogs after her, but she always escaped and continued with her mission. One day in the winter of 1943, she whispered to me, Listen Hinda. I'm going to join the partisans. Natasha promised to give me her sister's address. I will sleep in her place, and then she will show me the way to join the partisans.
She gave me all of her family pictures and said, Please guard these pictures. If I succeed and arrive with the partisans, I will return here and take you all out.
After she left one of the Germans who guarded the place were we worked started asking questions about where she was. He used to torture her. He had a Tatar lover who worked with us also. He used to give her our food rations. Yohevet would often complain to him, How could you do this? How could you make us work so hard and leave us with nothing. For being rebellious he would always torture her, so for days after she escaped, he would ask about her, but finally he stopped asking.
After a month, one day after work, Yohevet arrived to the ghetto together with her friend Fania. Yohevet said, Get ready to leave. We found the partisans and I am going to transfer all of you.
Her father started yelling, Why did you return?!
He was worried that the Germans would find out that his daughter escaped and now she had returned and they would kill us all as punishment. For some reason, he believed that the Germans would not harm him otherwise. We locked all the window shutters and started preparing to leave. I cried bitterly as I feared they would not take me with them. Yohevet whispered to me, Don't worry, I will take you with me. Go buy whatever you can from the black market. Sugar, soap, anythingthis evening we will leave.
We prepared everything, and in the evening she returned. Together we left the ghetto; Yohevet's mother and her brother and a friend with her mother, and I. The streets were very quiet, and we didn't encounter anyone, since by that point there had been many massacres the Germans were hardly guarding the area. Or maybe because there was a Russian offensive at the time the Germans were busy with that and didn't guard the ghetto.
We left through the gate and arrived at Staroya Selo. No one seemed to pay any attention to us since we didn't walk together as a group. We walked a certain distance from one another and we didn't have yellow tags on our cloths. In Staroya Selo we met with the partisans. Yohevet left us there and joined her troop Tchakolov. Before she left to get us, she was afraid to tell her commander that she was going to the ghetto to save her family. when she had a chance to go to a mission of putting explosives on the railroad, she quickly left for the ghetto to save us. The area where we were now in was filled with small villages controlled by the partisans. The Christian farmers would give us some food. We would often beg the partisans, Please take us with you. But they refused, How can we take you with us? You are children and women. We need fighters with weapons in their hands, not women and children.
When we asked for food from the Christians residents of the area, they suggested that not far from the village there was a cowshed where we could sleep, and there they would give us food. Nobody wanted to let us stay with them since our group contained my aunt Nechama, whose hair had turned all white and was now deaf, and I was only ten years old. With us there was also another older woman named Rachel Zukerman and her daughter Ida. We were amongst the first families who escaped from the ghetto. One morning as we sat in the cowshed, we heard people speaking Yiddish outside. A man entered, a tall man with a mustache who was wearing boots and a uniform and he said, Women, don't you recognize me? I am from Minsk. My name is Zorin.
The women were very happy to see him and started kissing him. They were so happy that they started crying. He said to them, Don't cry, I will help you as much as I can.
Zorin was the commander in the camp of Zarionov. After one month he arrived in the cowshed with Nachum Feldman. They brought us a sack full of food. Often we would have visits from Jewish partisans who asked us about their family members, sisters, brothers, and wives in ghetto Minsk. We didn't know what to tell them since there were so many murders that it was hard to know who survived. About the same time, Zorin decided to go to the head of the entire partisan camp and asked to be allowed to establish a family camp of non fighting Jews and try to save as many Jews as he could. At first Feldman was skeptical about it, but Zorin received permission to create a camp for Jews who escaped. Then they were faced with the question of how to save the Jews of the ghetto. They decided to send small children who would have an easier time of entering and leaving the ghetto unseen, and they (the children) should transfer the Jews to the forest. This job was given to Ida Zukerman and I, two young girls. I started crying bitterly and said I didn't want to go to the ghetto, that the Germans had killed my entire family and now they will kill me too. Zorin said there was no choice since the older women would not be suitable for such a mission, so I must go now and do all that I could to save the Jews from certain death. My aunt also cried, but then she said, Hinda, there's no choice. You must go.
Ida, who was about 12, looked Jewish. I, despite my black hair, didn't look Jewish. Zorin brought us to a home where there was a contact woman by the name of Tonya. She gave us the name of the ghetto people that we must come into contact with. Zorin said that we should bring some doctors back with us, since a doctor was most needed in our camp for the women and children. He was talking about a doctor by the name of Zibitker and a female dentist by the name of Barazon. He also asked that we try to bring some young men. There were some young men who worked for the Germans. They gave me an address in the ghetto where I should find the men between the ages of 18 and 20 who worked for the German SD, who they knew (in the underground) that those men were going to be shortly liquidated by the Germans.
We left at two in the morning and arrived to the village Medvedzina, about 10 km from Minsk. There we met with German guards who started shooting in our direction and screamed as if a full brigade was attacking them. We ran to the forest. I don't know where we got the energy to run, we crossed forest Tsero, and there we were caught by a storm with thunder and lightning. When we returned to Storo Seylo to our contact Tonya, she was mad at us for not completing our mission. She said that an order was an order, and if we would not do it we would be executed. So once again, we must go back on our way to the ghetto.
We slept in the village, dried our clothes, and the next morning Aunt Nechama and the mother of Ida took us part of the way to the ghetto. Then we continued on our own. We passed through the village Madvezhina, where we met some Christians and police and Germans, but they didn't pay any attention to us. We arrived at the Christian cemetery in Minsk, but we could not yet enter the ghetto. We waited until seven in the evening, when people returned to the ghetto. We had food with us but we couldn't touch it. We just sat there in the cemetery and pretended like we were crying over the graves of our loved ones. After two hours we changed our clothes and entered together with a group of people who were returning from their jobs.
Near the gate stood the SS officers, screaming as usual. We were successful and we entered the ghetto. We went immediately to where my uncle Ravonchik lived along with some aunts and cousins and the brother of my mother and his three children. We told them they must all prepare to go on the road to join the partisans. They all were shocked when they saw me since in the ghetto there was a rumor that I had been killed. On my own, without asking permission, I decided to have my family members join. My uncle Aharon, the brother of my mother who was a plasterer, refused to leave the ghetto. He assumed the Germans would not touch him. He had permission to go to the Russian area. I also told my uncle Israel Ravonchik and my cousin Hirshel and my cousin Nimya and aunt Simha who was a dentist that they must prepare to go on the road. They gathered some provisions and waited for me. I went to Avutkova Street to Dr. Zivsiker and told him I had received orders to bring him to the forest, and that he must bring with him any medical supplies he could get his hands on. The same I did to the dentist Karzon. They all gathered in the house Avodoka Street and then I came to the group of young men who worked for the SD and told them that they should come to the partisans and take weapons with them, that we could defend ourselves if we met with Germans. They all gathered. Two women, Rasha and Nella, joined the young men and also a young girl by the name of Raya started begging me to take her with me, and I couldn't refuse. So now we were a group of more than thirty people. I told them that I would go at the head, and one by one they should follow me and take off their yellow tags as soon as they were out of the ghetto. And then we would meet in another place again.
Things at that point were quiet, and it wasn't difficult to leave the ghetto. We transferred to the Russian area. It was pretty dark there, which made the mission easier, and like this we arrived to the village Medvedzhina, where we all agreed to meet. There was a forest, so we collected sticks and anything that could look like weapons to make ourselves look like we were an armed group.
We arrived in Storyo Selo at dawn, and there we met the commander with my aunt and the mother of my friend Ida. When they saw us they kissed us and the commander thanked us and gave us some food. We rested for a while, and then we were told to return to the ghetto to get more people. We were asked to bring men and children and a certain singer who used to perform for Radio Minsk, also in Yiddish. Her name was Plutkina, and she had a sister. So when we arrived in Minsk, I told Plutkina to gather all the people. She gathered a group of men with their wives and children. This time we all gathered at the home of my uncle. There were rumors that the Germans killed some people in Avodoka Street because of the other people who had escaped from the first group [the men from the SD].
I transferred the group to the forest. The third time, I gathered a group of 50 people. Meanwhile, a rumor spread in the ghetto that I brought people to Storyo Selo, and people started going by themselves to the area. Everyday, Jews left Minsk and somehow arrived in Storyo Selo, but still many were killed on the road. Like this I went to the ghetto five times, and I took men, women, and children, and in a short time we had three hundred people in the forest. The commander said that this was enough, and that now I could rest and not go to the ghetto. Now other children that I had brought to the forest would replace me. This was the way it continued. Among the girls who went back to the ghetto were Raya and Sima. Sima was a very brave girl. She would go to the ghetto every day and bring people to the forest. Children were always used for these missions. First because they appeared less suspicious, but most because they were very brave and tough and knew no fear.
After we had gathered many Jews in our camp, they organized groups of fighters to defend the camp. Other groups would collect food, and others were sent on resistance missions against the Germans. Storyo Selo became too small for us. Also, there was fear that the Germans had found out about it, so Zorin decided to take us away from there to the forest in Nalibokie, about 150km from Storyo Selo. The transfer took more than a week, which meant we used out of the way roads. Only the small children or the old women and the sick and the medical supplies and food were ever put in carriages. The rest had to go on foot. On the road we would enter villages and ask for food. Some Christians gave us food happily, food that they hid from the Germans, but some refused and we took it by force.
When we finally arrived at our destination, we found an area in the forest that was designated for our camp. The first thing we built was a small factory to repair weapons. We had a Jew from Minsk whose specialty was weapons repair, and he could work miracles. The weapons were given to the young and old people who knew how to use them, and my aunt Nechama Ruvonchik became responsible for the kitchen, and on the road we found big pots and pans that we used to make the food.
It seemed that daily more people would arrive at our camp. Amongst them were also some who served as Jewish police for the Germans. When the Jewish police would arrive, there would be an investigation and a trial to see whether they were forced to work for the Germans, or whether they were decent, or whether they had helped Jews. Only if they found out that they had collaborated with the Germans were they put on trial. The judges were the commander Zorin and other escapees from the ghetto. If they had collaborated with the Germans, they received a death sentence, and the executioners became the witnesses against them. This was a necessary part because we were very fearful that there would be collaborators who would inform the Germans of our location.
Some of them begged us to let them go to the ghetto so they could bring back people and weapons. In a few cases this was done, and after they did the missions they received a pardon. There was one policeman in the ghetto who arrived to the camp with his wife and child. When he received the death penalty he begged for his life and gave 80 rubles for his life. The money was hidden in hair of his wife. This money was used to purchase food. Once in a while we would collect jewelry or watches from all the escapees in exchange for food.
People trusted Zorin with all their hearts. We all knew how dedicated he as well as the other leaders were to saving our lives. Some of the units were responsible for collecting food and they would enter the villages and confiscate some livestock, and once in a while they would encounter German guards, Belarussian guards. One time they even fell into the hands of polish partisans, the Velasov unit, and they took their weapons and killed them. Altogether, 12 men were killed. But slowly there was a cow herd in the camp. We would take it to pasture and guard it dearly. Who knows when the day of liberation would come? We constructed bunkers where we lived. Zorin also established a children's camp where the children had something that resembled a school. The teachers were some women from Minsk. Amongst them my friend Frieda Torohod. Hundreds of children were divided by age into classes. The people who escaped from the ghetto brought some of the books, and other books were taken from the Christian people in the area. We also established a library. The language of the school was Russian. Nothing was taught about Judaism, despite the fact that there were some Jews in the area that had come from Poland.
Then came a time when the Germans had a blockade on us. They surrounded the area of the partisan camp. Zorin took care of us. He instructed us to be constantly on the move. Zorin acted like he was the father of all the children in the camp, and he was particularly caring about them. The best food was always given to the children.
During the blockade I lived with my uncle Israel Rovenchik and my aunt Nachama in a bunker. Yohevet was not with us. She was the commander of a resistance unit with the true fighters. Once in a while she would visit us and she would be received with great honor since her bravery was well known amongst all the partisans.
When the blockade started and an order was received to move, Zorin noticed that I was not there. He looked for me and found me asleep. He woke me up and we started retreating. The German plane passed above us and shot at us. We hid amongst the bushes. There was a rumor that we were surrounded and there was a great panic. Many ran in hysteria and were caught in the Germans and perished. We walked with Zorin to the marsh. We crossed the marsh. The men and women carried the young children. We arrived to the forest and stayed there for some days. Finally the blockade was over. The red army was approaching and the Germans ran away. This was the summer of 1944. By coincidence, the retreating Germans came to the area where we hid in the forest. They started a battle and Zorin was wounded in his leg. We put him in a carriage. The carriage was filled with blood. We dressed his wounds and we buried all the people who were killed and went into the forest.
We met with some partisans, but they all said that they couldn't help us. They must fight the Germans themselves. We wandered until we met with the red army. The meeting was both happy and mournful. We hugged and cried they helped us carry our belongings and gave us some of their food. They consoled us that soon all the towns would be liberated and everything would return to the way it was.
The young men begged them to let them join the red army, and soon after there was an order that all the partisans should enlist in the red army. We started walking in the direction of Minsk, which was already liberated. We encountered some army trucks on the road, and they took us some of the way. We arrived at Minsk a group of people from our camp. As soon as we arrived they separated us, the children from the adults. The children were put in a children's home. I was 13 at that point and put in the children's home. Zorin, who was wounded, was taken to a hospital in Moscow. In the children's home we were washed and given food. They changed our tattered partisan clothes with clean clothes. We had beds with sheets. My cousin stayed in the children's home, but I was determined to see our home. I found our house locked, and on the door was a note in Russian that read, this house is the possession of a captain of the NKVD. I took off the note, I broke the lock and entered the home.
The next day, my uncles came. Many of the homes had been destroyed, but their house also survived the war and they lived across the street from our house. The next day, the Christian captain came to the house. He was in shock and asked, how did you get here? Why did you break the lock?
I explained to him that this was my house, this was where my parents and my brothers and sisters were killed. He said, well, if it's your house I can understand it, but I must also live here as long as I am in Minsk.
So he lived in my house for some years and paid me rent. After some time, the brother of my mother, with his wife and two children came and lived in my house. My uncle shared with me all that he had. Also, some of the Christian people who lived on our street started bringing me clothes, food, and other supplies that belonged to the Jews. They treated us very nicely. Maybe they were a bit fearful, knowing that they had stolen much of the Jews' possessions.
After a while, there were trials in Minsk. I informed the authorities that this house was mine and that it was the house where my parents and siblings died. The Christian neighbors also came to testify that I was telling the truth. A decision was made that I owned it, and a committee of the city gave me a pension of a hundred rubles a month until I reached the age of 18. This was a large sum of money at that time. First I attended school, but after some time I left school for night school, and in the day I worked for the Belarussian Voytog, where I studied to be a seamstress and worked in a place that made children's jackets.
In our yard we planted potatoes. My uncle, aunt, and I worked in the garden. We started selling potatoes that we had produced. The uncle received a job in his profession as a plasterer. After some time I met a young man from Minsk whose mother was originally from Poland. In 1947 we were married
My husband and my information about Eretz Israel was very limited, but secretly we listened to Israel's voice on the radio. We heard about the establishment of Israel and the war of liberation, and the formation of a nation. In 1957, when the repatriation of the people who were formerly citizens of Poland were allowed to return to Poland, my husband went to Molodeczno and received an identity card stating that he was a polish citizen since his mother had been from Poland. By that time we had two sons. My husband was determined to go to Poland, so I said I would follow him wherever he wanted to go. We asked permission to go to Poland and we received it with little difficulty, and we were among the first to leave Minsk for Poland.
As soon as we arrived in Poland we asked for a visa to go to Israel. We had some difficulties. I had to let go of my soviet citizenship, and finally I received an exit visa and left for Israel in 1959 with the kids. My husband joined us a year later.
Translated by Eilat Gordin Levitan and Rehan
Minsk was a Jewish town. Yiddish was heard both at home and in the street. We received secular education, not a Jewish one, but still we knew something about Jewish history and culture. Most Jews gave their children some knowledge about it. There were secular schools in Minsk where Yiddish was the medium of instruction. There was also a teacher's seminary that taught in Yiddish. In 1941 as the war started, most of the Belarusian population disliked the Germans and the members of the communist party were very disillusioned with the Nazi occupation. But still there was part of the population that was happy with the occupiers, but since that they did not know if this occupation is permanent they didn't show satisfaction with the occupation. Even among the Jews during the first days the opinions were varied. Most of the youth who grew up in communist Minsk hated the Germans, seeing them as fascists, but the older generation who remembered the days of the German occupation in the year 1918, were certain that the Germans were intelligent, hard workers and a wonderful nation.
We did not have to argue long. Troubles for the Jews immediately occurred. By the end of July 1941, Jews were rounded up in a ghetto. Our home was in the area that was designated for the ghetto so we didn't have to move. Originally we had food, since the food storage warehouses of the soviets were pillaged as soon as the Germans occupied Minsk. Eventually all the food was eaten. As soon as the ghetto was established we were told to put a yellow tag on both the front and the back of our clothes, ten centimeters in diameter. Later on they made us put the number of our home under the yellow tag (for collective punishment if we escaped). One day the German military arrived and went from one home to the next gathering men from age 16-60. Some men were able to escape and hide. When the Germans had the right number they took them away. Most of them were never seen again. My father was saved by coincidence. A German officer announced that he needed a plasterer; my father lied and said that he was a plasterer. The German officer ordered him to take two assistants and follow him He brought them to a suburb of Minsk and ordered them to clean a certain home. After he had done that he gave them some food and returned them to the ghetto the next day. Shortly after that the Germans ordered the Jews to take part in forced labor. In order to do that they established the Judenrat.
The Judenrat announced the written orders of the Germans in Russian. All the labor troops would leave from the square near the Judenrat building. At the time I was twelve years old and I took part in the forced labor. I worked in the warehouses that contained oil. Our particular job was to dig with shovels and bring the mud inside in the wheelbarrow to the other side of the road. This was a very difficult job. The Germans would guard us and once in a while would beat us whit a whip. We received food only at work once a day. We received soup and 280 grams of bread. The people who didn't take part in the forced labor did not receive any rations. I would save some of my bread and bring it to my sister and grandmother.
We drew water from the wells and there was not electricity in the winter. In order to worm ourselves in the ghetto, during the afternoon break at work we would pick wood from destroyed buildings. We would leave for work at seven in the morning and return to the ghetto at six in the evening. It was very difficult for us to sustain our selves with such a small amount of food while participating in such hard labor, so we supplemented our food ration bye exchanging our possessions.
Gentile women would come to the surrounding buildings where we worked and exchange food that they brought with them for clothes and dishes. If the German caught us exchanging our possessions for food they would confiscate all the items and would beat all of us mercilessly, including the Gentile women.
I took part in all sorts of jobs. One time I worked with my mother in a hardware building that contained weapons. It contained huge shells that we were ordered to clean and oil. Both men and women worked there. A German commander lied and said we stole weapons. This was really impossible because the shells were very heavy and we could not fit them in our baskets. Still they lined us and every fifth person was taken and killed altogether twenty people were killed.
After some time, with them help of a Jewish policeman that we knew, we were sent to work in a potato storage building. This was a much desired work place. Here we had to select the better quality potatoes for the German kitchen. We were allowed to take the rotten potatoes with us. Father was also allowed to take the potatoes peels form his work place. We would clean and grind them and make latkes which had a bitter taste. We shared the food with old people who didn't work. Amongst these people was an acquaintance who was a musician. I would always bring him something to eat from work. Despite the fact that we always suffered from hunger, we always shared our food with others. Someone suggested that certain grass was edible, so we started collecting grass and making soup out of them.
The first massacre occurred on November 2nd 1942 and lasted three days. More than 10,000 Jews were killed. They were taken to area where there were open graves and were shot and fell in the graves. Some of them were not killed and only wounded and because of the fact that during the first days the Germans did not cover the graves, they were able to get out form under the piles of bodies and return to the ghetto. The Jews were ordered to collect contributions and give them to the Germans. These contributions were usually of silver or gold or whatever the Germans needed. It was the job of the Jewish police to collect the contributions. Some of them would come and plead with the Jews of the ghetto to share the possessions in order to save the lives of the ghetto residents. Other police would yell and force the people to give them money and gold. The Judenrat members announced that the Germans threatened them that if the contributions would not arrive at the given time they would murder 20,000 Jews. So they would collect the needed amount.
After the November massacre the diameter of the ghetto was decreased and a barbed wire was put around it. Despite the fact the Germans guarded the ghetto it was not difficult to escape. At certain intervals the Germans would enter the booths to eat and they left the guarding to the Jewish police and they would let us pass. But we did not escape to the Aryan size because the had no place to run. The Russian people were afraid to hide Jews in their homes since anyone who was caught hiding Jews in their home received the death penalty. Also everyone was fearful of informers. Of the women I know who escaped to the Aryan side; there was not one who survived.
During the massacre that occurred on February 2nd 1942, my mother was murdered. There was an orphanage in the ghetto and there were mass killings and all the children in the ghetto were killed. During such an action that occurred July 28th 1942, my younger sister who didn't take part in the forced labor was murdered. Between the different mass actions there were individual murders. The Germans would arrive and kill all the residents of a particular home. After a German officer was killed by the resistance in town, the Germans came to the ghetto and arbitrarily filled five trucks with Jews to full capacity and murdered them all.
After the massacres on March 2nd 1942 and on March 20th 1943, as the number of Jews decreased our situation improves since we received more food. I worked together with my older brother who was two years older than I. His friend Metya who 15 and a girl named Tanya who was 19. We worked in a hospital that was designated for German soldiers who were wounded. Near the hospital there was a farm with chickens ducks and pigs. Our job was to feed and clean the pigs as well as to warm water for the patients and clean the bathrooms.
Our guards were of Ukrainian descent. The head commander was German and the nurses were Latvian and could speak Russian. The nurses were very cruel to us.
We started noticing that there was a bathroom that was always kept locked. Since the walls that separated the bathrooms didn't reach the ceilings, my brother lifted me. I saw that the tub in this bathroom was filled with weapons. It was weapons of Ukrainian guards. This occurred in May of 1943. At this point only about 5000 Jews survived and we knew that our end is coming soon. We found that the Germans suffered defeat near Stalingrad. Some had a secret radio in the ghetto and they would let us know the news from the front.
Soviet airplanes started bombing Minsk. This caused great excitement and started raising our spirits. During the night we would go outside to wait for the bombs to fall. We were almost hoping that we would be killed by our bombs rather than be killed by the most hated Germans. During the last month of 1942 we found out about the resistance in the forest but we didn't know how to research them. Smika, the youngest brother of Tania, escaped from the ghetto to get to the partisans. Before he left he promised that he would return to the ghetto to get us out. But we never heard from him again.
On the 25th May 1943 a gentile friend of my brother, a Russian man by the name of Jurka who attended the same school as my brother, came to ghetto and told him:
You must leave they intend to liquidate the ghetto.My brother said to him that he didn't know where to go. He said that he will come the next day at noon time and take him to the partisans in the forest. My brother asked him to let me join, but Jurka didn't want to take me. He said I looked Jewish and I would endanger the escape. My brother refused to go alone so I offered Jurka that my brother would bring some weapon with him. Jurka was very happy that we had access to weapons.
The plan was the Jurka would come there at noon and my brother would walk some steps behind Jurka to a certain distance. Incase one of them was suspected no one would know that they are connected to each other. We decided to use the opportunity while the Ukrainian soldiers were drunk to steel some weapons. So my brother lifted me to the bathroom with weapons and I filled a sack with automatics guns, bullets and some grenades. We hid the sack in one of the broken buildings and hid for the next day. We were very fearful that the Ukrainians would discover the weapons. The next morning we all arrived to work as usual.
Jurka arrived exactly at noon, the time our guards went to eat. We escaped and gathered the weapons we hid and divided them amongst ourselves. Each took two grenades. Tanya took the automatic weapons and I took the bullets in a basket. We changed clothes and put clothes that didn't have yellow tags and went on our way. Jurka went in front of us and at some distance walked Motke. Tanya and I walked together busy in discussion. In the road we met some Germans but they did not stop us. They couldn't imagine any Jew would dare to go to the street in the middle of the day. We all agreed amongst us that if the Germans will stop us we will blow ourselves together with the Germans using our grenades. We arrived at the outskirts of the town. There were German guards at this place but they were sitting in their barracks eating lunch and at this point no one stopped us.
We left the town and this was the first time that Jurka turned around. When he turned around he saw that four Jews are following him. He said to us If I knew that all of you were following me I would have never risked my life. He pointed the direction we should go in and said once you reach this location you will meet many partisans but don't use any one the main roads or enter of the villages. With the weapons you have I'm sure the partisans will accept you happily, but don't let anyone take they weapons away from you before you reach the partisan headquarters.
We had with us two hundred grams of bread for each persona and a few potatoes. We walked through the forest and didn't encounter any partisans. We had no more food and became very hungry so we entered one of the villages and asked on of the gentile women for food and she gave us a few potatoes and point in the direction where we could find partisans. We walked in the forest for three days and received food from gentile people.
Finally we heard some voices in forest and we saw a house where a small group of people riding horses arrived. On their heads they had red stars. We came to them and they received us happily. We told them that we had escaped from the ghetto and that we wanted to take revenge on the evil Germans. When they saw Tanya and me they said they would not take any girls to the partisans. My brother said that he is not going to separate from me. So they said that they would talk to the commander about us.
When they saw our automatic weapons, their eyes lit up. We did not tell them that we had bullets and grenades. They said to us:
How do we know that you really want to fight the Germans. You might be spies. We couldn't believe what we were hearing. What Jew would risk his live for the murder of his people? At night we arranged for guards. Every two hours there would be another guard. But the girls didn't take part in the guarding. When Motka was done with his guarding the partisan who replaced him asked him for his automatic weapon. The next morning the weapon disappeared. When we asked for the weapons we were told the commander took it to the headquarters. They said to us that we shouldn't worry and that we would receive the weapons when we got to the headquarters. They gave two people to take us to the headquarters. After we walked for a short time in the forest the two people said to us Take your shoes off.We said to them Listen guys! Our live is worth nothing. We didn't just come to the forest to survive, we came to fight the Germans and we can start the revenge with you We took out the grenades. They became scared and said that they were only kidding. They said we received an order to kill you but we are just going to leave you here. But you must be careful of partisans since they have no use for women and they might kill you all. After they left we decided to go to the nearby village and incase we would encounter Germans there we would throw grenades and fight to our death.
We entered the village and found other partisans and amongst them the Jew Hirsh Smaller. They received us very warmly and after we told them the story of our troubles with the partisans they made us feel better and Hirsh smaller ordered one of the partisans to take us to the brigade by the name of Prehemenko where we would encounter many Jewish resistance members. Smaller was the commissar of the brigade of Smiliof. Before we left he asked us many questions about what had occurred in the ghetto. When we showed him our weapons he started laughing loudly when he looked at the grenades. He said they have no pins and they are useless. But they still did their job. On the other hand your bullets are worth gold
He exchanged all the ammunition. We received two riffles and thirty bullets. We left and arrived in the camp of Parchomenko where we were received very warmly. Many of the members of this unit were Minsk residents who escaped to the forest.
Our camp was situated about 30 kilometers away from Minsk. Occasionally, Jews who escaped from Minsk arrived, some of them with children. The older children were sent to go back to the ghetto and bring people out with them. They used children, firstly because they were very brave, and they aroused less suspicion. Once the children reached the ghetto with the help of the Jewish police, they would take Jewish people out of the ghetto.
The four of us were members of the same unit. We took part in missions and also guarded the camps. As time passed our numbers increased and we were more than 200 people. Since our location was near Minsk we didn't stay in one place for more than five days for safety reasons. This forest was relatively small and it became very dangerous to the unit that contained dozens of non-fighters, both old people and children and became vulnerable to German blockades. Shalom Zorin came to the headquarters and suggested that he would transfer the children, women and the old men to the forest of Naliboky. He said he needed fifteen young men with weapons to make it safer for the transfer. He gathered 120 people. I was amongst them. I had to say goodbye to my brother who refused to enter a family camp and wanted to continue resistance activity as a fighter. We left by foot. On the road the men would enter the villages and bring food for us, bread, baked potatoes and beans. The difficult journey lasted seven days. We walked only at night. Rain was pouring.
After 150 kilometers we arrived at the forest of Naliboky. They choose an isolated place to establish the camp. We were told to make tents out of branches of fir trees. We were divided into four groups we would have an assembly and we would be assigned to different missions. The main job was to look for food and some times the men were able to get sacks of potatoes and flour from the villages. I, as a fifteen years old, guarded the camp from the inside. We had a common dining room. We were able to get some pots from the villages and for plates we used empty cans. Everyone who was able receive food had to give it to the common kitchen and the entire supply was collective and Zorin would divide it amongst the people. Zorin was very involved among the people and knew everyone personally. He would walk around the camp and ask each person about their particular situation.
More and more people arrived from the ghetto. After they escaped they usually arrived in the Pachaminko camp and once they contained twenty to thirty people the Pachaminko people would transfer them to us in forest of Nalibokie. One day we received a group of one hundred people! As time passed our economic situation improved particularly in the season of the potatoes gathering season. We were able to receive some cows; we also got supplies of meat. During the harvest season we received a large amount of wet wheat, which we dried on the fire and made into flour. Now we had time to improve our living conditions. Each division dug themselves a large hole in the ground, 3 meters deep. The ceilings were made of wood logs and they were covered by dirt but they had openings to get the smoke out. Inside they built wooden sleeping areas. We all slept in our clothes. We never took them of because we wanted to be ready for whatever came our way.
Zorin, who was a very energetic man, realized that people must have something to occupy themselves with. So he established small workshops like a flourmill, shoemaker and a hospital that was staffed with doctors from Minsk. Also there was a workshop for repairing weapons and making bombs. There was a small factory for processed meat and a tailors shop. Now each person in the camp had a job. The products that were made were used for the entire resistance movement.
A school for the children was established as well as some cultural activities for the adults, musical gatherings and adult education. Our sprits greatly improved and for the first time since the beginning of the war we felt that we were no longer parasites eating bread that was handed out.
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