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My dear town! You too were liberated by the Red Army. I shuddered when I thought that the bitter day was approaching when that terrible tragedy with all its frightful events would be revealed in its stark reality. Troubling and frightful thoughts came in to my mind. Was it true? My whole family, all my acquaintances, my friends, my colleagues from charitable and Zionist organizations and all the other dear town folk, young and old, men, women and children! Can it be true they were all slaughtered?
And you, overcrowded houses standing on both sides of the railroad tracks, you stand gloomy and deep in mourning, abandoned, alone, saddened because the inhabitants left and no one returned.
And you, the old synagogue, you stand empty, full of despair. You are in mourning, without congregants to visit you. What is the fate of the Torah scrolls, the Torah crowns, the Trees of Life, the Talmud books, the Mishnah volumes, Yore De'ah, Hushan Mishpat, the Zohar and all the other sacred books? And what is the fate of the ark that stood on the eastern wall, overlaid with copper animals and birds? Over the two tablets of the ark an eagle spread its wings (symbolizing: as an eagle hovers over its fledglings ). And above the column stood two guardian lions with beautiful manes (symbolizing: Like a lion's whelp, O' Judah). And on both sides of the holy ark, two stags with large horns (symbolizing: Naphtali is like a fleet hind ). And you, the Eternal Light, that in your glow the Jews sat at night all year long swallowing pages of Gmara while holding a candle between their fingers to keep their eyes open so they won't doze off. Was this Light extinguished forever?
And the house of study, that always hummed like a beehive between minha and maariv services. In one corner sat the students of Gmara and in another politics were discussed. Here one Jew came in for a charitable donation and there, mitzvah emissaries came to collect quietly, for someone needy. The sounds of prayers, crying, singing and chanting of students that studied Torah were always supplemented by the voices of the various preachers and Zionist speakers. Even you are standing empty and forlorn and grass has grown in your pathways?
And you, lovely blue and white boxes, are you still hanging on the walls- embarrassed! Does a spider now settle among you, weaving its web on you without disturbance? For there is no hand depositing a coin or taking one out- as the delicate hands have been severed by the cruel slaughterer or are you empty, you? Or maybe the looters- the villagers- the sons of the good neighbors have benefited unexpectedly when they were searching the houses that had been emptied of Jews. Some of you found a new home in a strange surrounding, underneath the pictures of the Holy Christ or the Holy disciples. Do the old village women now collect in you saintly coins and expiation offerings for the village priest before Christmas to pardon the sins of the house dwellers?
Rokitno, my town! You always set an example for others with your Zionist and public works and Hebrew language and cultural activities. Indeed, you sent your best sons and daughters to be pioneers to Eretz Israel. Some of them entered Palestine during the British Mandate in strange ways- some by foot, some by jumping from historic boats into the sea. They are now in the cities, villages, moshavim and kibbutzim, where they embroider green carpets in the fields of the flourishing farms of their homeland.
Indeed, you wrote a brilliant chapter in the history of our people and our land. You deserve to be memorialized for the future, so you will remain in our hearts and in those of our descendants. Forever after, you must be a memorial to those that didn't succeed in reaching a safe shore.
My heart, my heart is yours, my dear town of birth. Your disaster, our disaster, is as deep and large as the sea.
As the Red Army came closer to the former Polish borders, the partisans were instructed to move west, to clear the area of the enemy and to perform sabotage activities. Our regiment was divided into two parts: one group went to the Kovel-Rovno area while we, the second group, stayed in the Polesia forests. In December of that year we received a telegram telling us to go towards the Red Army. It meant returning to Rokitno. We advanced towards town and a week later we reached its outskirts. At night some partisans were sent to the village of Rokitno to collect information. The scouts returned the next day with the news that the Germans were running away, the regime was collapsing and the road to town was open.
A group of saboteurs went to the railroad tracks north of town, to plant landmines in order to inhibit the retreat of the Germans. At noon we were ready to enter town. When we reached the entrance two hours later, we heard blasts in the distance. We discovered that the last armored train left for Sarny and on its way it blew up all the bridges behind it. However, near Osnitzek, it was stopped by the landmines placed there by the partisans. An exchange of fire between the partisans and the Germans followed. The Germans were shooting from the train to cover their escape into the forest. When the shooting ended only five dead Germans were found. The others managed to escape into the forest under the cover of darkness.
It was December 31 and a light snow was falling. Here and there lights were burning in the houses. Our convoy, which consisted of 50 sleighs full of armed partisans, passed through Rokitno with cries of happiness. I began to shake and my heart beat loudly when I entered our street and came to my empty house. I did my best not to burst our crying hysterically when I saw the town to which I returned after so much suffering and sorrow. I left Rokitno in fear and with grief and I came back broken-hearted.
On the street leading from the direction of Kisorich, distant lights began to glimmer. These were the tanks of the advance regiments of the Soviets. We drove towards them. We held the red flag in our hands and we sang partisan songs. We stopped. Soldiers peered out of the tanks and greeted us. We hugged and kissed and our happiness was indescribable. Some time later the advance 113th division arrived led by General Poliakov. We introduced ourselves and I, as a resident of Rokitno, took it upon myself to find them lodgings. I took them to the new town, which had not been destroyed. Some of its beautiful houses were occupied by the Germans. The Poles cleared some of their houses for the officers. They received the Soviets with restrained warmth. The partisans found lodging with other Poles on the same street. I was the commander of the group and its commissar and we settled in my aunt's house. A woman was living there with her children. She immediately cleared three rooms for us.
In the evening we went to Commander Poliakov's house. We ate dinner there with the officers and then we received our appointments. My commander became chief of security for the area and all the partisans were under his command. The commissar was temporarily named district secretary of the party and I was the representative of the Soviet government for the Rokitno area.
That evening I met some Polish acquaintances. Some of them wondered how I had remained alive. Others were pleased to see me. The owner of a restaurant on Messiviche Street would not leave me alone. He wanted me to sleep in his house that night. I willingly accepted his invitation. They boiled a lot of water so I could take a bath and change my clothes. The bath was a great undertaking because I had not seen soap for a year and a half. I cleansed myself thoroughly. I changed my underwear and lay down in a bed filled with pillows. I woke up after a deep sleep. I felt all my troubles had disappeared. It seemed to me that it had only been a nightmare. I wondered how I had withstood such inhumane conditions for so long.
On the next day, after I made my first visit to town, I met several residents of Rokitno. As soon as they heard that it was possible to return, they came out of the forests and hiding places. They were quite miserable. They wore rags and shabby shoes tied with ropes. They looked shrunken and their faces were pale as if after a serious illness. We hugged, we kissed and we cried together. Only now could we realize the extent of the tragedy. We could see how alone and miserable we were. And the utter sadness!
The streets were deserted. The old synagogue was no longer standing. Only its foundation stones were visible. The place was empty and even the sexton's house and the building used for the preparation of bodies for burial were destroyed. It turned out that the Germans sold the buildings to farmers who took them apart and built stables and storage sheds from the stones.
In the morning, I was appointed representative of the Soviet government. I had to organize offices to deal with ongoing problems of the civilian population as well as the army passing through town. That same day I issued orders asking the population to cooperate with the authorities and to hand in any arms in their possession. It was important because we did not have enough time to take revenge on the Poles who had collaborated with the Germans. On the first night, only a few Poles were killed by Jewish partisans and that was that. The next mission was to bring the traitors to the Soviet security authorities. Some tens of Poles and Ukrainians were sent to Siberia or to prison. They were never seen again.
In midday I continued to tour the town. The houses on our street, which used to be packed with Jews, were taken over by the Poles. The row of stone houses used to serve as residences and stores. Many were uninhabitable. The Germans had turned them into storage sheds and horse stables. Even the new town was full of destruction. The new synagogue had been broken into and it was full of filth and dung. All industrial buildings were bombed and destroyed. Before they retreated, the Germans had burned the glass factory, the sawmill and any other public buildings.
Within a week all the Jews still alive came out of the forests and returned to
town. They either entered the empty houses or they forced the squatters to
leave. There was no intention to settle down again. Everyone knew it was only
Therefore, three or four families occupied one apartment. Loneliness and sadness were prevalent. Those who remained alive searched for intimacy to ease their despair.
On the fourth day of our stay in Rokitno, the Germans bombed the town from the air. There was a casualty among those who returned from the forests. Haim Kek, a Jew in his fifties, who had suffered in the forests and in hiding with the peasants, was looking for cover between the houses. He was hit by shrapnel and died on the spot. The bombings continued for several months. The Germans intended to blast the railroad tracks, which the Soviets had quickly erected. When they succeeded in repairing the tracks east of town, they built a storage house for bombs and ammunition in the thick of the forest near the tracks. The Germans must have known this and they bombed the location non-stop. The bombing was mostly at night. Planes would first drop flare bombs by parachute and the area was brightly lit. Then the bombers would drop their load. It was impossible to use anti-aircraft artillery since the light was blinding.
The front lines settled for several weeks on the River Slutch near Sarny. Difficult battles took place there. There were bloody battles with the aim of conquering Kovel and its vicinity. The partisans, who performed miracles in the forests behind the lines, were sent to help the advancing army. In these areas the partisans met the enemy head on for the first time. Thousands were killed due to lack of military training in open warfare.
Most of the Jews who came back from the forests quickly found employment. They had managerial positions. They remained in their important positions in offices and were not conscripted into the army. Only one or two Jews were conscripted and their fate was unknown. Soon refugees from the west came as well as residents of nearby villages who were afraid to stay there. There were gangs of Ukrainian nationalists, Banderovtzis and others attacking in the area. Several times groups were organized with local citizens to go on raids to eliminate these gangs. In one of these operations, Yechiel Trossman died. His body was brought back from the battle. He was buried in the cemetery in Rokitno.
After the town was liberated and trains began to run again, letters arrived from Rokitno residents who had escaped to Russia. They were anxious for news of their families. One letter arrived from Natan Gendelman who was in Kazakhstan. It was the first address I could use to send a letter to my sister Sarah, in Israel. I wrote her a long letter detailing all the hardships, suffering, killing and extermination of our community. The letter reached Gendelman and he sent it to Teheran to the Jewish Agency. They sent the letter to Israel. It was the first terrible pronouncement about the fate of the Jews of Rokitno and Volyn. The letter appeared in the newspapers Davar, Ha'aretz, Hamishmar, Hamashkif, and even in the Argentinean press. I began to receive letters from various people in Israel. I did not even know these people, but they begged me to find out the fate of Jews in other villages. I did not have much to tell them. Unfortunately, I had to tell all of them there was no trace left of their families.
Some of our former residents living in Israel organized themselves as an association (landsmanshaft) and began to send us packages. Each package contained a blanket, clothing, soap and other necessities. The authorities did not make it difficult and the packages were directed by the Jewish Agency in Teheran. We organized a secret committee to make sure the items were properly distributed. The committee also took care of other matters. There were some orphans and singles that came out of the forests. We looked after food and shelter for them. There were a few couples that adopted these orphans, looked after them and brought them up.
One spring day we went to Sarny to the cemetery. Residents of Sarny joined us and we went together to the burial place. We saw on the street near the forest, on the other side of the tracks, where the killing took place, that the gravestones were strewn on the path and were used as a sidewalk. No one, especially the authorities, bothered to put them back in place. The large cemetery in Sarny was destroyed and abandoned. Past the cemetery we found the site where 10,000 Jews were killed and buried. There were remnants of whitewash on the sand. It had apparently been poured after the slaughter to stem the flow of blood from the common grave. One only had to scratch the sand to find human skulls with hair still attached. It was a horrendous and terrible sight. Our hearts ached and we said Kaddish together. Crying and wailing filled the air. For a long time we continued to cover the protruding bodies with sand. We also marked the graves. We decided to apply to the authorities for permission to fence the area and put up a proper gravestone. The residents of Sarny undertook that task.
There was also a common grave in Rokitno. A pit had been quickly dug on a sand dune, near the tracks on the road to Moculnaka. Three hundred bodies were placed in it. They were either killed in the market square or were mortally wounded later on. Those killed in the forests, who had been brought in by the peasants for a reward, were also buried there.
One summer day the authorities informed us that they wanted to open the grave. We came with spades and we carefully removed the top layer of sand. A horrible sight awaited us. In the pit were bodies of men, women, and children completely deteriorated. There were parts of clothes, flowery dresses and men's overcoats covering the skeletons. When the bodies were exposed the committee began to take pictures. We tried to overturn some bodies, but we could not identify any of them. We asked the authorities for permission to transfer the skeletons to the Jewish cemetery. We were refused. We discovered that the committee only intended to take pictures as proof of the German atrocities. We covered the grave and after some time we received permission to put barbed wire around it.
On my first visit to Rovno on glass factory business (I was its manager for a while), I met a group of partisans. My wife Genia was among them. They lived in one building. The head of the group was Lidovsky. One evening he explained to me what they were doing and he included me in the group. It was a Zionist group that was active in transporting survivors to Israel. One evening, it was all formalized.
They swore an oath holding a pistol in one hand and a Bible in the other. The intent was to secretly transport young people to Poland or Rumania. From there contacts would be made to leave illegally for Eretz Israel. When I returned to Rokitno we held a secret meeting, organized ourselves and began our activities. My mission was to go to Rumania illegally to meet people there who would begin to arrange the travel to Israel. However, my wife was pregnant and I had to give it up. Asher Binder was sent in my place. When he reached his destination he found the organizers of the Escape (Bricha) and joined them. He went to Poland several times on a mission and succeeded in transporting some young people to Italy.
It was an extremely dangerous undertaking. On one hand we were members of the Communist party still, from our days as partisans, but, on the other hand, we were secret Zionists. All the activities were done in secret under the noses of the authorities.
In a certain way, the authorities treated the Jews fairly. They did not give us back our destroyed old synagogue, but they did not oppose the organizing by the elders of Shabbat services in a private dwelling. This synagogue was packed on the High Holidays and other festivals.
Most of Poland was conquered and the Soviets wanted to prove to the world that western Ukraine was an integral part of the Soviet Ukraine. An order was issued by Stalin that all Polish citizens were permitted to go west to their homeland, while Ukrainians living in Lublin Chelm Hrobishov, etc. could go to the western Ukraine. We were delighted with the order. The time had come to leave this cursed place that had taken its revenge on us. It had turned on us and ended the lives of our dear ones. We all registered to leave. The authorities were not pleased. The best local elements, which Russia had rescued from death and had revived, wanted to run away? They thought we were ungrateful.
Before we left we held a burial for the remnants of the Torah scrolls, which had been strewn everywhere. They were torn and dirty. We brought them to the cemetery and we buried them among the graves. It was our last visit to the cemetery.
I sat between the sacks for many hours and I thought about my town of birth. Everything that happened went through my head. It began with my childhood. I remembered events that I had never thought about. Thirty-two years passed like a movie in my imagination, in a few hours.
My heart was aching and the blood rushed to my face. Rest in peace my town where I spent happy years, but where I also suffered terrible sadness.
This is how all the survivors, two hundred people, left town. Two families only remained after they returned from Russia. The majority of the Rokitno residents went to Israel and they are still among us. A shiver of sanctity went through us as the train whistle was heard. We began our journey west.
It is autumn, 1945. While walking around, my heart lets out a shriek. Why? For what sin? I come to the Tarbut school where our children used to study. It was silent, empty and desolate. Only a hospital is there now. Sick people in gowns are dragging themselves around here and there. Sometimes a nurse in a white uniform runs by.
I am reminded of the happy resounding voices of the children, the ringing laughter and the patter of their feet. Was it a dream or a fantasy? It reminded me of the children's evening program when my oldest son, Ruvinke, graduated from the school in the spring of 1939. The hall was packed with parents, teachers and children. The children were beautiful and all dressed up with their shining faces and sparkling little eyes- black, blue and gray eyes- who don't know about trouble and worries and are full of hope and confidence about the future.
The music is playing and we, the parents, are singing and dancing, Shalom Alechem, Shalom Alechem. We are singing; the children are clapping their hands. It is festive and cheerful and one's heart grows with pleasure. The teacher comes out with a speech. The parents make their speeches. Although the parents went home late, the children were in the street till dawn, strolling and singing, fantasizing about a rich and beautiful future for all.
How could we possibly imagine what kind of black cloud was moving from the west over our heads? The tragic end that befell us all is well known to us. The children were annihilated. My son fell on the battlefield and only a few others saved themselves. I am sitting on the grass near what used to be the school and I grieve.
How can I not cry and grieve?
How should I not sit on the ground?
Since they slaughtered and killed our children
And stuffed them into pits and burnt them.
We came back on a Sunday morning. The sun was shining on the carpet of snow. It was a beautiful day. For a moment, I pretended that the years I suffered in the forest were only a nightmare and that, surely, my school friends would greet me noisily. Unfortunately, to my great sorrow, they did not come out to greet me. It was the local residents who wore smiles of deceit and hypocrisy. They put on a friendly face, but inside they were sorry that I had remained alive.
It was difficult to recognize the town. The Germans turned the large Polish school into a fortress. They surrounded it with a sand hill 3 meters high and with barbed wire. All the houses that blocked a direct view of the forest had been taken down. This is how many houses disappeared.
The synagogues became horse stables. When you passed by the houses that had been homes to many Jews, it was as if they were quietly sobbing. My heart broke when I saw a local wearing a coat or a suit that had belonged to a Jew. He murdered and inherited. The cemetery was desolate and abandoned. Many gravestones had been pulled down and many were being used for other purposes - as bedding or as millstones.
Soon the remnants of the town had gathered - two hundred souls. The horrors of the Holocaust united them into one family. The mourning survivors came out of the forest, from bunkers, hiding places in friendly non-Jewish homes and from daring partisan activities. The center of public life was a synagogue that was located in one of the houses. It served a different, special and sad purpose. It mainly was used as a place to remember those who died, to say Kaddish and to pray the Yizkor service.
Our first activity was to bury the Jews that had been buried outside the town. We searched for every grave and brought all the bodies to a mass grave which we had dug in the cemetery in Rokitno. We even placed there the torn Torah scrolls, which we found on the streets and in the houses. We gave them a proper burial in our destroyed town.
The Banderovtzis lay in ambush for us and planned to finish what they had not accomplished during the Nazi occupation. The authorities instituted severe security regulations including night curfew. In spite of the danger, we searched for collaborators who had spilled Jewish blood. We went to many dangerous locations and when we caught them, we turned them over to the authorities.
In one of the battles with the Banderovtzis, my father died near the village of Decht. I went out with a group of soldiers to bring his body back to a proper Jewish burial. His funeral was held under armed guard because the Banderovtzis were everywhere. Tody Linn dug the grave and put up a stone. His work was done under difficult circumstances.
When I got up from Shiva for my father, I decided to avenge him. There was a fellow in Rokitno by the name of Leon Yachun, a relative of Schwartzblat. He was friendly with the Poles who were also involved with fighting the Banderovtzis. Seven of us took two automatic rifles and we set out towards Decht. At the entrance to the village, the locals informed the Banderovtzis that Yechiel Trossman's son came to avenge his father's death. We were immediately surrounded by the Banderovtzis.
We saw that we were in great trouble and not wanting to fall into their hands, we decided to retreat slowly towards the forest. One of the Banderovtzi horsemen chased us. We shot towards him and we injured his horse. He went down and hid in a tree. We used the opportunity to go deeper into the forest.
Meanwhile, a group of Soviet soldiers arrived and extricated our seven Poles who had been taken by the Banderovtzis. The latter returned to town and spread the rumor that Yachun and I had been taken by them. The Jews were worried for us and greeted us with cries, kisses and hugs when we returned.
Each one of the survivors did his own reckoning. We knew that, without a doubt, this was not our place and we went as a group to Poland. From there, we went to Bytom. Tody Linn was one of the first organizers of Hashomer Hatzair there. In the camps in Germany and Poland, we were among the first to organize orphanages, youth camps and assistance to the needy. The survivors of Rokitno, who were loyal to Zionism and to Hebrew - most of them went to Israel.
When Rokitno was liberated, I was 15 years old, but I looked like a ten year old. I felt that I was an old man nearing the end of his life. I saw myself as a man of 100 years, where 90 years were a long nightmare full of fear and trepidation. I stood near our house (it had been taken over by Polish refugees and their families). The broken windows, shattered glass and peeling walls made it look like a mourner. It too, seemed like a miserable orphan complaining about the atrocities. I went up to the attic and I spent a long time there. I looked for traces and mementos of my mother and my two dear sisters. The only item I found was a pair of dusty and worn shoes. I held them to my heart and I sobbed. My tears reminded me of my happy childhood, too short, before the Holocaust. We used to play in the yard and the laughter of happy children still echoed in my ears. In that attic my soul was tormented with a terrible question: Why? For what sin? This question still pierces my mind to this day, as it must do to other survivors.
Hunger woke me from my sad thoughts and I slowly made my way down, tired and drained, in order to satisfy my hunger. My body did not participate in the sad thoughts that tortured my soul. Like an alarm clock, it woke me up and brought me back to continue on, in spite of everything.
My only hope was that my father had been drafted by the Red Army and that he would come back to me. I would then have someone to lean on, someone who would let me cry. I would not be so alone. This hope encouraged me and instilled in me belief in the future, in better times to come.
How did the survivors in liberated Rokitno look to me? Life was like a torn cloak, badly mended. It could disintegrate at any moment. The Germans continued to bomb at night. The nights were awful. Death lurked at every turn and every step. The enemy wanted to destroy army buildings and especially the railway, which was used to transport thousands of troops to the front. The small Jewish nucleus lived in fear of the Ukrainian killers who roamed the forests well armed. They slaughtered Poles, Jews and Soviet soldiers whenever they could.
The main park in Rokitno became a cemetery for the soldiers of the Red Army who were killed almost daily by the Ukrainian killers. We had no hope for a normal life in Rokitno. Everyone waited for the war to end so they could run wherever they could.
The thought of escaping this hell occurred to me also. I went to the authorities and I asked to be sent to a children's home where I could live until war's end and where I could pursue my studies. They promised to fulfill my request as soon as possible.
However, the matter dragged on for several weeks. In the meantime, I received letters from my father telling me he had been transferred to Archangelsk to do hard labor and that he was constantly hungry. I could not help him much, but I did sell some belongings and I sent him some money so he could feed himself. His letters were like arrows in my heart because they were very sad and depressing. My father was very ill, yet he still had to do forced labor. My heart was full of sadness. My father, who had suffered so much, was now forced to do this work. There was no one to help him or to save him.
Eventually, I was sent to an orphanage in Kiev. I arrived by train and I saw a horrifying town. It was totally destroyed and defeated. We arrived at the home and were received by the lady director.
The place did not appeal to me at all. I saw children torn, dirty and wild like animals. It turned out to be a reform school for young offenders. The children in my group decided to return to Rokitno. One of them still had a mother in Rokitno while others had some distant relatives. For me there was nowhere to return. I began walking the streets of Kiev without knowing where I would find help.
Suddenly, a woman approached me and stared at me. Aren't you a grandson of Gedalke Feldleit from Dombrovitz? she asked me. The woman was from Dombrovitz, my mother's village, and she knew my family. After she heard my pitiful story she took me home, gave me food and encouraged me not to worry.
This wonderful woman quickly introduced me to the writer David Hofstein. He asked me several questions and after he heard my sad tale took me to his home. The Hofsteins were very nice people and I felt very happy with them.
I continued to receive letters from my father. He complained that his illness was worsening. With Hofstein's blessing, I wrote a letter to the President of the Soviet Union, Kalinin, and asked him to liberate my father from army service. What was the purpose of keeping an ill man? I discovered that I was too innocent, since Kalinin's reply read: We cannot free anyone from serving as long as the war is still on and the fascist criminals have not been defeated. Soon after I received that reply, my father died from his illness and hard work in a Soviet concentration camp. He was only 39 when he died.
The shock that befell me when I heard the bitter news of my father's death created in me a hatred of everything around me. I surrounded myself with a wall of silence. The silence was very painful for Mr. Hofstein. I informed him that I had decided to make aliyah and he was very hurt.
I returned to Rokitno and I obtained documents which enabled me to leave Poland.
Before I left, I returned to Kiev to say good-bye to my wonderful friends - the family of the writer Hofstein.
I had a lot of work and a great deal of responsibility in the first days after liberation. The first survivors came from the forests and they found shelter either in their own homes or in homes of friends. I took Betzalel Kek to be my assistant and he was in charge of providing food to our soldiers on a regular basis. He also took care of fodder for the cavalry horses. I gathered all the workers of the glass factory, mostly all Poles and I spoke to them about the urgent need to rebuild the burned down factory. They volunteered to clean up the area from all the ruins and to begin by reconstructing the big oven in the factory. In the meantime I discovered that there was one whole generator left in the sawmill. We energetically began to transfer it to the glass factory to be able to restore the only electrical power station in town.
At noon on the 10 th of January, a policeman informed me that a certain general wanted to see me. I was in the factory yard and I did not rush back to my office. It was located in Turok's house on the road to Messiviche. When I entered my office, I was shocked to see Nikita Khrushchev standing in front of me. I recognized him from the pictures that hung in the school when I was still a teacher and a principal.
Is that really you, you who made me wait so long? he asked.
I became scared and I asked for his forgiveness, saying that I did not know that such an important guest was with us. I asked him to come inside the room, but he said, with a smile: I do not have much time now. I am going to the front and I will see you on the way back. We decided to meet at 9:00 in the evening in my house.
I was prepared to greet my guest at the appointed hour. Policemen stood outside waiting to receive him and to direct him to my house. A festive meal was prepared. The house was lit with several large lanterns. Exactly at nine o'clock, the guests began to appear in a convoy of about ten shiny cars. Nikita Khrushchev led wearing a general's uniform, a long fur coat and a Persian lamb hat. He looked fresh and happy. He came in with his friend Major Kozlov, followed by about 20 high-ranking officers.
I immediately invited him in to the large room and everyone sat around the tables. I addressed him as one would address a general, but he asked me to call him simply Nikita Sergeyevich.
At first he wanted to know the story of my life, as is the norm in Russia. I told him I was a Jew, that I had been a teacher and a principal, how I had spent time in the forest as a partisan, how we had met the Red Army and how we had reached this point in time.
He was quite interested in the economic situation of the area. What there had been and what was left after the destruction and how I intended to continue. He wanted to know what I planned to do in my capacity as governor of the area.
I presented to him all my plans. First, we had to restore the electrical station and the glass factory. This was essential in wartime as well as being a main source of income for the local residents. What is the status of the restoration now? What do you have and what do you still need? he asked.
I explained to him that the factory yard was cleared of debris and that we were now dealing with the restoration of the big oven. We hoped that if everything went as planned we would rekindle the oven in a month and two weeks later we could produce glass.
He took out a pocket calendar, looked at it and said: I want to shake your hand on your promise that on the 20th of February I will receive a telegram from you informing me that the factory had begun production.
I solemnly promised him that I would try my hardest to fulfill this promise. He shook my hand warmly.
If you need any help in fulfilling your task come to see me in Kiev. I will help you. He took out of his pocket a small calling card and gave it to me. I thanked him and invited everyone to dinner. However, when Khrushchev replied that they had just eaten on the road and would only have tea, it was served quickly.
While we were drinking I tried to talk him into sleeping over. The Bulbovtzis and Banderovtzis were still roaming the forests and there was danger in traveling at night.
He laughed and said: Have no fear. I have to be at work in my office in the morning. (He was then secretary of the party in the Ukraine and a member of the Central Committee).
Soon, when the drinking was finished, one of the drivers brought in a large basket full of excellent apples and placed it on the table.
This is for you, Boris Borisovich! he said with a smile and rose to say good-bye. We parted amicably and we accompanied them to the cars.
Four days passed. Within two weeks the technical divisions of the railroad accomplished a great deal. They repaired the tracks, all the bridges and we resumed contact with the east.
Four days later the chief engineer and two other engineers from the glass factory management appeared in my office. I treated them to dinner.
The manager told me that Khrushchev had informed him that there was a Jewish partisan in Rokitno, Boris Borisovich, who was restoring the factory there without any facilities. It was essential to help him immediately with guidance and with materials. That was why they came to see me.
They really helped a lot. In the meantime, the party secretary, who was there before the Nazis, resumed his duties. In my innocence I told him about Khrushchev's visit here. He became very excited and started to visit the factory daily, to encourage the workers, to make speeches and to conduct propaganda. He kept it up to the promised deadline. On February 20, 1944 he sent a telegram to Khrushchev saying the factory was in production. He signed Nebobo, regional secretary of the party.
The Jews began to escape westward, in dismay, from the bloody land and in attempt to reach Eretz Israel. Emissaries from Israel were active then in Poland and other European countries where convoys of survivors traveled. They organized the illegal immigration.
Survivors from all of Europe were centered in Germany, Italy and Austria. Many were Polish Jews and among them were residents of our town and its vicinity.
We left Poland two weeks before Rosh Hashana 1946 and traveled through Czechia, Slovakia and Austria. We traveled a little by train, but mostly we went on foot. We rested for two days at the famous Rothschild Hospital in Vienna. Thousands of Jews passed through there. Austria at the time was divided into three areas conquered by the Allied forces. It was extremely difficult to go from one sector to the other.
From Vienna we reached Camp Bindermichel near Linz in Austria. The camp was built by Dutch Jews who were exiled there by the Nazis. They had done forced labor in constructing fancy houses for the Nazi murderer Goering, may his name be erased. When the construction was finished they were all killed and buried near the camp. I met there the family of Leibl Zaks from Rokitno on its way to Israel.
After a short rest we moved to Camp Saalfalden in the Austrian Alps, near the Italian border. Here there was a concentration of convoys, which crossed the border illegally into Italy. There I met another resident of Rokitno Israel Hirsh Zaks, the carpenter.
A convoy of 800 people was organized in the camp to cross the Alps on foot. Those going had to undergo a serious physical examination to see if they were medically sound to march through the high Alps. They were only permitted to take a small shoulder bag with them.
On a rainy fall night, in absolute quiet, we started on our way through the Alps near us. The members of the Bricha urged us to move as fast as possible before daybreak so we would not be seen by the locals.
We ran up the high mountains covered in snow. We went as far as we could and we even threw off the shoulder bags to make the walking easier. Some did not have the energy and stayed back. Before dawn we arrived, tired and worn out, at a fenced building called Givat Aliyah. After a march of 16 kilometers and a day's rest we continued at night. This time we traveled with army vehicles to the border. At 1:30 AM, we were smuggled across the Austria-Italy border at the famous Brenner Pass.
We spent the rest of the night under the stars in Italy. We traveled a whole day from a small train station. In the evening we reached Milan and we settled on the Via Unioni in the center of town. It was a place that served as a transfer point for many Jewish survivors who arrived illegally from other parts of Europe. The house and the yard teemed with Jews. I met there a resident of our town, the partisan Asher Binder. He was active in smuggling Jews to Italy from other European countries.
After a few days' rest we moved to a suburb of Milan to a former officers' school called Scuola Kadorno. In the meantime we visited the beautiful city of Milan and we marveled at the buildings built in a magnificent architectural style. The Italians were extremely hospitable at all times. We were not used to such niceties and we really appreciated them. Since this was a temporary location only, we left Milan and went to a camp near the village of Rivoli near Turin. This camp had a high concentration of pioneers. There were kibbutzim from all political streams. The commander of the camp was an officer from the Jewish Brigade, from Eretz Israel, named Aryeh Avissar. He was a well-educated young man who was esteemed by everyone. Every morning we raised our national flag in the camp. On Friday nights we had Shabbat celebrations at tables set in the dining room. The commander read to us from the weekly parasha and sang songs from Eretz Israel, accompanied by his accordion. On the first night of Hanukah the whole camp paraded with torches throughout the streets of the village of Rivoli. The Italians received us with applause and shouts. We spent the whole winter of 1946-47 in this camp. We spent most of our time studying. In spring of 1947, on the second night of Pessach, early in the morning, in complete silence, we boarded the immigrant ship Moila Bugliska that was anchored in one of the Mediterranean ports.
The ship was built 70 years earlier for the purpose of transporting coal within Europe. It was bought by the Hagganah and quickly became an immigrant ship used for bringing survivors to their homeland. It was not really intended to transport human beings. The ship set sail under the pretense of a South American flag bringing freight to Turkey. The crowding was unimaginable. There were 600 people without any sanitary facilities. We received a ration of half a liter per person of drinking water. In daytime we stayed on deck and at night we went down into the hull of the boat to sleep. It was very stuffy. The captain, a veteran, highly experienced seaman, was an Italian, as were the rest of the crew.
In the middle of the Aegean Sea, near the Greek Islands, we stopped for one day. At night 200 more people came on board. These were immigrants from another ship that had to return for another purpose. This ship took with it some of the Italian crew members who refused to continue on this voyage. They were replaced by members of the Hagganah who were the actual commanders.
When the ship approached the shores of Palestine, the Hagganah members informed us that if the British discovered us we would have to fight back and not give in. The opposition was only symbolic because we knew they would overcome us. British planes discovered us. They were followed by two destroyers. The British wanted at first to board the ship and warned us not to oppose them. We greeted them holding iron springs from our mattresses and cans and we hit them. Finally, the British boarded and a face-to-face battle ensued. At the end of the battle the British took over the ship. Seventeen of our people were injured, I among them. (I had a head injury.) As a result of the battle, the ship was completely destroyed. It was towed listing sideways to Haifa. Even here we refused to get off the ship. However, the British removed us with force after we sang Hatikvah. We then found out that the name of our ship was Sh'ar Ishuv (Remnant of the Nation).
In the port of Haifa we were taken to the exile ship Isun Veigur and we arrived at night at a detention camp in Cyprus. At the end of April 1947 we were taken to a new camp, No. 67. It was fenced with barbed wire and surrounded by watchtowers. British soldiers guarded us day and night.
Here I met a resident of our town, Mrs. Polya Lifshitz-Rotman, who was an emissary of the Jewish Agency in the detention camp in Cyprus. In the camp were also, among others, Raizel Shteinman and her husband Pinhas Binder, Avraham Eisenberg, the brothers Shmuel and Natan Levin and Moishele Trossman, Yechiel Trossman's son. He fooled the British and escaped from the camp with the help of his brother Issachar. The trip in our ship from Italian shores to Eretz Israel took 18 days. I stayed in the camp in Cyprus for 7 months. My wanderings, which began in the summer of 1946, terminated at the end of 1947. All through the traveling I met survivors from Rokitno who, like me, intended to reach the Eretz Israel. In early 1948, I reached Eretz Israel as a free Jew.
My dear sisters and Shaike,
My letter will, most likely, sadden you because I describe in it our bitter and terrible fate. We suffered for many months under the cruel Nazi beasts. In the end we lost all our unforgettable dearly beloved father, mother and sister. What can we do? Crying will not help us. We are not the only ones! This calamity touched thousands of Jews. We must continue our life of loneliness and mourning and worry about our subsistence. We must avenge the blood of our dear ones, which was spilled like water.
My dears! I cannot describe what happened to me and how I was saved. It was a miracle. We lived in the ghetto. We wore a yellow patch on our back. We worked and we were continuously abused. In the end we were gathered in the market square and shot. I managed to escape from the killing field to the forest. I lived there for 18 months. Life in the forest was a series of fear and atrocity. We walked about hungry, barefoot, naked and chased like animals. We were not allowed to live. We were denounced and we were pursued. Only a few managed to hide and stay alive.
After I returned to Rokitno, the town of my birth, it was often difficult to believe everything was in ruins and would never be revived. Here and there, bare walls stood nearly falling as silent witnesses for life that was snuffed out. Now, there is nothing here for me. I am completely alone, without any friends or relatives. I hope I will meet you again and then, I hope my mood will improve.
I receive letters from Sarah'le in which she writes that she is happy and this
encourages me very much. There is no one left alive of the Shachnovski family.
They are all dead. Even our dear grandfather and grandmother were
exterminated. We, who remained alive, have no choice but to take heart and to
stand up, if not for ourselves, for our own happiness, then to avenge the
spilling of the blood of our beloved ones.
Sarah'le went to Lvov. She is trying to continue her studies. We, the orphans, have nothing left but education. It is our lifesaver, the basis of our lives. When Sarah'le returns, we will decide if we will stay in Rokitno or go to Lvov.
I have already written to you about my suffering under the Nazis. However, I
cannot even describe what I am going through now. Perhaps when I will be with
Sarah'le, life will improve.
After months of wandering I am here with Sarah'le. My happiness is boundless.
We live together and we seem to manage. Sarah'le is studying at the medical
school. I am working for now because there is no opportunity to study. We live
like students, but never mind! As soon as Sarah'le finishes her exams, I will
take time off from work and we will go together to visit relatives. We can
then rest a little.
The weather is awful. My heart is in pain. There is no hope. I went to look for work, but there is none. The situation is desperate. The room I live in is large and cold. I run the household. I read a little and I study. It is six months since I have met anyone. There is no one to meet. I envy those who are studying. I would like to learn to play the piano, but I have no way of doing it. I must find employment. Life without work is useless.
Sarah'le's birthday is coming up. I have no money to buy her a gift. It hurts me very much. I will prepare supper, read a little and go to sleep. Another boring and sad day has passed.
Everyone has left Rokitno. I have no contact and no news of it. It is not good. G-d has averted his face from us because of our sins and he has abandoned us. There is no purpose to my wandering. My eyes are directed there, to the land of Eternal Spring! As of now I have no hope of reaching you. It is very sad.
Finally, yesterday, the terrible and shocking news came from my brother-in-law's brother, Baruch Schwartzblat. My dear parents, my dear sister Maniale and my dear brother-in-law Mendl Schwartzblat, their daughter Malkale and other relatives, the entire Schwartzblat family and other friends were slaughtered by the murderous Germans.
Bitter tears are flowing as I write this letter. It is a cry of despair to the heavens. It is difficult to believe that my dear father wandered aimlessly in the forest for seven weeks. Can you imagine his suffering? Later he was caught, tortured by the killers and then he was killed in the village of Berezov. At the same time, the others were executed in Sarny, a nearby town, on that mournful Thursday, August 27, 1942. Around 600 Jews from Rokitno were brought there.
In Sarny, 9000 area Jews were gathered and within three hours all were shot, thrown into ditches and covered with earth. My dear mother, my dear sister Maniale and her child and the rest of the family as well as hundreds of Jews from Rokitno were brought to Sarny. This happened on the 19th day of Elul (1942).
Many Jews were killed in the synagogue. This was the destiny of our family. My brother-in-law managed to live another six weeks in the forest. They lived like animals eating grass and stolen potatoes. One Saturday morning their lean-to was surrounded by well-informed Germans who released a barrage of bullets.
Of the eleven people who were hiding in the lean-to, the only ones to remain alive were my brother-in-law's brother and Betzalel Kek, Michel Kek's son.
There are two graves in the forest. In one lies our dear brother-in-law Mendl and in the other one - a man called Katzenelson from Rokitno and Moshe Lifshitz's son, Leibl.
How did my brother-in-law's brother and the second person remain alive? He himself does not know how. They were left forlorn, shoeless, hungry, dirty and covered in lice in the forest among many menacing peasants.
The peasants caught Jews and took them to Rokitno. For each one they would receive a kilo of salt from the Germans. The peasants would remove clothes and shoes from those caught. The Jews begged them not to kill them with a hatchet. It is only thanks to the partisans with whom the two made contact that they remained alive. It is from my brother-in-law's brother that I now know the fate of our dear ones.
It is difficult to believe that our dear ones have departed forever to their heavenly repose. We are left all alone - orphans. My heart is hardened with sorrow. The wild Germans took their revenge on those dearest in the world to me.
Rokitno is sad and in mourning - writes my brother-in-law's brother. More than half of the town is ruined. A great many of the Jewish homes were destroyed together with their owners. 83 Jews emerged from the forests. No more remained of the 1631 Jews. There are only a handful of helpless, poor, sick and broken souls.
It is difficult to overcome the tragedy. Write to all the relatives about it. Let the world know about the horrors and the cruelty of the killers. Let the world cry out about the millions of innocent victims and let those alive take revenge for the innocent spilled blood and for the murders and robberies. Respond to your one and only relative who remained alive.
My dear ones, we stand with our heads bowed over this sad yet true event. This is what happened. It cannot be denied. You did not live through the horror and you did not see the mass slaughter. Please honor with us the memory of my parents, my sister, my brother-in-law and our beloved child Malkale as well as the rest of our friends.
More than 1200 Jews from Rokitno, 18,000 from Rovno, 71,000 from Lublin, 16,000 from Kovel, and thousands more Jews were killed as martyrs.
My tragedy is already known. I am now an orphan. The deaths of my dear sainted family awaken in me, as they should in you, a desire for revenge on the Germans. My blood is boiling and will not subside until the name of the Germans will be eradicated from this earth. Let our terrible curses fall on them for eternity.
Your only relative,
(Printed in The Forward, America, 26 April 1944)
The sea is blue and calm
The waves innocently swerve wave after wave
On the bottom, on its golden bed under the water
Two stones rest.
One is hard and red as blood
The other is soft and blue.
Blood is red and the grave is hard
Happiness is blue and peace is soft.
The sea is stormy and tossing
The stones are flung from their resting place
They wander far from the sea.
Peace and happiness are carried
They are thrown in a forsaken corner
The second stone falls into an empty space
And blood and death now run the world.
Children sob bitterly
Fathers are taken away from their sons
Mothers are mourning their offspring
Blood rules the world
Screaming is heard on the other side of the water.
Human beings threw
The bloody stone, people to people
The world stormed and tossed
There was a war in the world
There is no pity and no fear of G-d.
The blue stone is far in a corner
Blood is streaming and death is near
This is how the world storms and tosses, will it be quiet?
Then the blue stone will fall
To the bloodthirsty world.
The world is quietly standing still
The hard stone
Is forgotten for now...
On the ruins of war
A golden sun is shining
With the sadness a smile is seen
There is a light in the eyes.
At a war-blackened stone
Children play peacefully
The world is quiet and resting
The soft stone is now in charge
Satisfaction and good rule the world.
The sea is calm again
The waves are clean and playful
Mothers are again happily hugging their children
Children are laughing with joy.
We, who spent our lives in you and were fortunate enough to reach Eretz Israel we remember you.
We remember your twisted streets and lanes where we stepped barefoot as children on your mud and your cobblestones.
We remember your bare little houses which were very close to one another as if to express the love of Israel, which was rooted inside them.
We remember your Jews adorned with beard and ear locks, so as not to lose even one hair off the appearance of a Jew. They wore their Jewishness like a crown the crown of the People of Israel.
We remember you dear and wonderful Jews, you who did not separate yourselves from the generations who received the Torah at Sinai. You who even though you were driven from your home, you took with you your heavenly Torah and your culture. You walked with them as if they were your homeland. Each one of you was a soldier of good will to guard and defend, ready to sacrifice yourselves. It is to their merit that we reached this country.
Jews of Rokitno! You are the true believers and you are surrounded with the love of Israel! We will not forger your houses of worship, the old and the new synagogues, where three times a day you declared: May our eyes behold your return to Zion in compassion. This is where our souls were shaped and the truth of the Torah was planted in us.
We will not forget the beauty of your Shabbat, High Holidays and other festivals where you demonstrated your freedom to live among other people.
You touched our souls to prepare for the Messiah even though he is tarrying, we will wait for him daily.
Jews of Rokitno! We will not forget your sons and daughters. Redemption is approaching for those who had the faith. This is the faith that was planted in their souls by you. This is the faith to believe in the liberation of the Jewish people without having to search for unorthodox beliefs for Jews and others. They wanted redemption for our people, but, unfortunately, they did not attain it.
We remember your efforts and your straining to build cultural institutions to give us a proper upbringing.
We will not forget your pain, your need, your suffering and your horrendous death.
We, the remnants, will tie our lives together with yours in a free homeland.
Whatever we will achieve will be in partnership with you.
You are partners in redemption, in building and working the land, in sowing and in reaping. You are partners in guarding at night and in our fight for peace.
As long as we will breathe, we will remember you, brothers and sisters, relatives and friends. You were so cruelly exterminated in Rokitno and its surroundings by the Nazi and Ukrainian killers.
We will remember you because you gave us hope and love and we will draw on that source.
We, the remnants, will remember because we were their emissaries to liberate the homeland. They fell on the way.
We will breathe with their last breath.
We will remember them forever.
Remember the destruction of Israel.
Remember the loss and the rebellion
They will be symbols and lessons for generations to come.
Let this memory forever accompany you when you walk
And when you go to sleep and when you rise.
You will always remember the brothers who are no longer here
The memory will be part of your flesh, your blood and your bones.
Grind your teeth and remember: when you eat remember
When you drink remember: when you hear a song remember
On a holiday and a festive day remember!
When you build a house, leave an opening to always keep in mind -
The destruction of the House of Israel.
When you plough a field, put up a pile of stones a memorial to your brothers
Who were not given a proper Jewish burial.
When you bring your children to the wedding canopy, you will, in your happiness
Remember first those children who can no longer be brought to the wedding canopy.
They will be as one those alive and those dead, the empty and the remnant,
Those who are gone and are no longer here and those who survived.
Listen, you people of Israel, the voice coming from the deep
Go in silence, quietly.
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