Translation by Naomi Gal
In November 1941 the child Feldman arrived by foot from Rovno at his uncle Wolf Zamdweiss in Dabrowich and told about the huge extermination of the seventeen to eighteen thousands of the city's Jews, amongst them his parents and family members. Some details in the child's testimony, beside other pieces of information the village Jews heard from nearby Sarny, indicated that Dabrowich's end was nearing. On August 25, 1942 Dabrowich Jews were for the first time taken away by the Ukrainian police and the Gestapo to Sarny, where Jews from around Sarny-Rovno had previously been taken. It was clear they were being led to slaughter, despite all the camouflage and avoidance of a clear answer to the question: where were they being led and what for. Some people, and we among them, managed to slip away from the village several hours before the Jewish population was taken away. We turned to the forest without thinking and with no plan. We were young, and our heart was wrenched by the horrible news from Rovno, Luczek, Kowel and the surrounding villages, about the Nazi's deeds the wild beasts. Until then we suffered oppression and hunger, we were humiliated and forced to hard labor, but when the time came for the destruction of our community and its neighbors, the Jewish-human sentiment swelled in us and we decided to go against the enemy that was destroying our people.
The communication with the village was not interrupted while we were in the forest; we endeavored to keep in touch at all times. We immediately found out about the extermination of our families and all the village's inhabitants, and we decided to operate in a Jewish partisan group whose members were: Pinkas, the son of Mendel Nyman, Pinkas the son of Moshe Nyman, Abraham Nyman, the three Zlig brothers, Arie and Michal Sheyman and Meir Modreik. In the same forest, not too far away from us, there were around forty-fifty Jewish survivors who managed to escape and find shelter in the forest. Most of them were elderly, women and children. Their situation was very bad and we had to provide them with food. Although some of them had gold-coins and valuables they exchanged with the goyim in the nearby villages, most of them needed our help and we could not ignore our duty as brothers and fellow-citizens.
The Ukrainians in the villages were disappointed by the promises of their propagandists who were working for the Germans, after they were treated as Russians' sympathizers (in other words: communists), many of them were kept in camps and died swollen by hunger or from contagious diseases. No wonder then, that in the surrounding villages prevailed a spirit of a partisan revolt; the hated oppressors used to confiscate cattle, poultry and crops. The Germans, fearing a peasant revolt against these confiscations, had come to the villages with armed battalions, and they were quick to withdraw after getting from the village whatever they managed to get. The partisans, roaming around the villages used to come too, and ask the peasants for food and clothes, and if they did not comply voluntarily, they were forced to comply by threats. So the villagers' situation was difficult, and if this was not enough, with time the Ukrainian Nationalists appeared and they robbed and destroyed the peasants whose lives were always in danger. Under these circumstances many of the peasants opted to assist the partisans and join them in their fight against the oppressing enemy.
Our first priority in the forests was to get arms. We did not spare any means and used every opportunity to get the precious, precious weapons. We did not discriminate the means and did not flinch in the face of the perils involved in taking arms from Ukrainian policemen and Germans; most of the time we succeeded and eventually we all had a weapon at hand. Several Russian guys from around Kiev joined us, and the head of our squadron, which became an important military unit, was the commander Fyodor Messlyuk. With time our unit joined other partisan units and together we scared the Germans. In the beginning, when we were alone as a Jewish group, we saw our aim as personal revenge on every German and Ukrainian policemen, but once we became a mixed battalion we became more daring and over-confident: we began bold operations of destruction and sabotage on a large scale in the enemy's hinterland. After a few months we established connections with other partisans' units who were guided and experienced, among them the Fyodorov battalion, mostly from Rovno, which was in touch with Moscow and was getting assistance and directions. By the way, this Fyodorov was the head of NKVD and was active in Briansk forests when the first group of partisans was organized. He came to us in February 1943, when he was operating around Pinsk-Dabrowich as the head of our squadrons around Rovno, and a general headquarters was founded for all our partisans units.
In July 1943 arrived Bagma, the secretary of the Communist Party, a Russian that served previously in Rovno as a General-Major. He came to serve as the operating commander of the partisans in Volhynia. In the surrounding forests there were back then four partisans organizations: ours, Fyodorov's Rovno's unit, Bagma's unit and the fourth one of Polish partisans. United under one command we became a battalion. We went on living and wandering in the forests and we got accustomed to lives of wandering and danger. In summer we were able to move easily from one place to another and hide ourselves and the families that accompanied us from the invaders, but in winter it was far more complicated, to the point that some of us were beginning to despair.
Once, a German bullet wounded a Dabrowich son, one of our friends, and one of his legs froze. Doctor Erlich, who was with us, suggested approaching Doctor Malinovski, an expert surgeon from Dabrowich. We felt bad for our wounded friend and after some debating we decided to take him to the surgeon in the village. Ten of our armed friends surrounded the hospital's building; we took the wounded to the corridor and called Doctor Malinovski to examine him. The German guards were not too far from the hospital and we knew we were all in danger, but our wounded friend needed treatment. After the doctor's examination we returned to our base with the injured.
Another time we issued a death verdict on Ukrainians who pillaged Jewish property in Dabrowich, and we found a way to execute our verdict. Through our contacts with the villages' peasants we knew what was going on and that the Germans paid one kilogram of salt for every Jew that was handed to them. There were Ukrainians who got such prizes. We, on the other hand, made sure to take revenge on them: blood for blood!
We used to hide during the day and go out on operations at night. This went on until December 1943, when we received an order to go and help the Red Army that was attacking Rovno. On our way we passed Rafalowka, Wlodzimierz-Wolynski, Stepan and other villages. We had casualties on the way, killed by German bombings, but we managed to arrive according to the plan. We met other partisans' squadrons that came from other directions, also with the aim of freeing Rovno. Thus we arrived, a big army of soldiers and partisans to the city's entrance. That was by the end of January 1944. The Germans retreated hastily. When we entered town our joy was mixed with deep sorrow when we saw the huge destruction and the Jewish houses that were still standing, inhabited by strangers.
Under an army command we stayed in the assembling place all day long; only in the evening we were granted permission to go out to the city. We encountered Russians and Ukrainians, but we paid no heed to them, we were looking for Jews. We went to Shkolna Street. The synagogues on that street stood broken open and two of them served as warehouses. We saw a Jew peeking out of a glassless window. We came closer and asked if he was a Jew, when he answered positively we entered the house. On the second floor we found six men and two women, exhausted, shriveled and their expression horrified. With them was a boy whose eyes were huge in his emaciated face covered with whelks. We were glad to see Jews who were alive and free, they came out of hiding the previous day and were still terrified and hungry. We spoke with the survivors, tried to assuage and strengthen them and promised to take care of them. The next day we came early and brought them our food rations and some used clothes. It turned out they were not from Rovno but from near and faraway settlements.
On February 4, 1944 a Jewish partisan squadron arrived at Rovno, with them were the Lydovski brothers who excelled in their operations and were famous. Together we went on inquiring about the fate of the Jewish survivors and took care of them. The city was under the rule of the Red Army and Bagma's battalions.
After two weeks our unit joined Fyodorov's camp that was sent across the Bog, where the retreating Germans were trying to hold on. On April 25 we returned to Rovno where we found around 60 Jews who lived in scattered houses, some near the big synagogue on Shkolna Street and the rest of them on Direktorska Street. They were still under the impact of the nightmare they had been through and were afraid to leave their apartments after dark, since there were some Ukrainians who continued to frighten Jews. A Jewish Committee including Doctor Erlich, Shuster, Lev, Lydovski and others was organized in town and aided these wretched victims.
On May 11, 1944 German airplanes bombed the city heavily. In an hour and a half the enemy's airplanes emptied incendiary and destructive bombs on different parts of the city. Fires broke out, buildings collapsed, many were wounded and dead. When the bombing was over, squadrons of aid (amid them Doctor Erlich, Pinkas Genzel and some Jewish partisans) went out to collect the casualties. In a house on Shkolna Street that was partially destroyed they found three dead Jews. In another house nearby they found two young sisters who were hiding under a table, the table protected them when the house was hit.
Jewish Rovno was wiped away. Jewish survivors were arriving from different places, hoping to find a Jewish environment and maybe some security. From different places people were addressing Rovno to ask for advice and guidance for the moment and for the future. They were hoping to get help from Rovno. They began assembling the Jewish children that were still alive after the horrible bloodshed. Rovno was again a place to make connections and a gate toward the wide world.
Translation by Naomi Gal
Six kilometers from Rovno, in a pine-grove known as Susenki is the mass grave where twenty-three thousand and five hundred of Rovno's Jews are buried, victims of the Nazi beasts.
A witness to the horrible scene was the old forest-keeper, who used to welcome there the Jewish youth and the many hikers on Lag-BaOmer and on other occasions.
And this is what the guard told excitingly:
Forces of German and Ukrainian police surrounded the forest and blocked the entrance. No one could come or go. No one was allowed to come close, probably so that there would be no witnesses to the ignoble murder. I did not understand and could not imagine what they were scheming. A few days beforehand prisoners of war were digging ditches in the forest. The diggers had no idea why they had to dig these ditches. I was not there in person but when I heard incessant shootings and screams that pierced the sky, I looked from far away through a window and saw what the wicked were doing.
For three whole days the earth that covered the ditches did not stand still.
A group of Jews and partisans that repaired the graves and the tombstone
Second raw, seated under the tomb: Dr. Tavenchik, Shimon Nudel, Nathaniel Zarnkin, Gellman, Wosskovniek, Yochevet Eidelberg and others
(Page 571 in the Hebrew text)
It must have been because there were people who were buried alive. It was a horrible nightmare. My family members were afraid to approach the place or pass it even by daylight.
Two years later, when the Red Army took over the city, the following incident happened: a local peasant came to plough a portion of land on the forest border. As he began plowing his plow encountered the hand of a child and immediately afterwards a body of a baby-girl. The peasant stopped plowing and reported to the KGB. A policemen squadron arrived and discovered a grave under a thin layer of dirt; when the grave was opened 200 hundred bodies of Jewish children were found from this bitter and atrocious day. The investigating committee prepared a protocol and fenced the grave.
When the first Jews returned to Rovno they heard about the tragic end of Rovno's Jews and about the 200 hundred babies' grave. These sole remains, survivors who were broken and stunned from the huge catastrophe, erected a humble tombstone for the Jews of Rovno that found their rest in the mass grave. Ukrainian nationalists harmed this tombstone. But on May 2, 1945 the returning partisans repaired the graves.
Translation by Naomi Gal
1944. A freezing winter night. The falling snow covers the military cars that are traveling from Stalingrad on the faulty roads of Ukraine and Polesie, the roar of the artillery and the airplanes uproar, the tanks and the vehicles in front and behind made napping impossible. We, the partisans were now part of a military regiment and were learning the details of military conduct in the front. My thoughts kept taking me to the past and my longing for my hometown and my relatives intensified. We knew we were advancing in Ukraine, but we were not told where we were.
Suddenly I heard the order of the division's commander: The front part of the division is 20 kilometers from Rovno, the artillery should let them advance and conquer the town.
Hearing the name Rovno I was shaken, we all became fervent. We began advancing in a clad iron chain, ignoring the roadblocks and the enemy's resistance. After operating for 24 hours a new order: Stop the operation, Rovno is surrounded and our forces are in the city's entrance. I quickly inquired and found out that the enemy was still in town and that the fighting went on in its streets. At that time my unit was about 80 kilometers from Rovno. I could not contain myself and asked Vassily Michaelovitz, my commander, to take over my squadron for one day. He understood my request (he knew about my connection to Rovno) but tried to convince me not to rush to the city before it was cleared of Germans. He said: 'One more day and your feet will lead you home.' I disregarded his advice, insisted and he was not able to refuse.
Here I was in an armored car with four fierce warriors: my friends, enough weapons and we were galloping towards Rovno. After a short hour we were twenty kilometers from the city and we saw blazing fires coming up from different areas. And here we were at the entrance to the city where I was born and raised, where I lived all my life till I was uprooted and how estranged she was! The streets were strewn with bodies of Germans that were not collected yet, smoke was billowing from the bombed buildings, all around ruins everything spoke of war and destruction.
I passed from one street to another, peeked into houses, searched in every empty deserted corner; death reigned everywhere. I looked for our house and found it broken open and in mourning, I went inside and my heart sank. No one was there; the house was empty. The mezuzah on the door was the only sign that Jews lived there once, where were they? An old Ukrainian passed by and I decided to ask him if he knew anything about Jews and about my family. At first he was silent, then he remembered and said that my uncle the doctor was alive and in the hospital. Excited and nervous but full of hope I rushed to the Jewish hospital. At the entrance I asked: is Doctor Tavenchik here? He might be, they said. I went from one room to another and suddenly: my uncle Dr. Tavenchik? In tattered clothes, he did not recognize me till I called his name. Then he fell into my arms and cried, and I cried, too. My uncle was broken and old. He just came out of hiding and went to the hospital. I drove him to my unit. I fed and clothed him. I heard from him what I already knew about what happened to Rovno's Jews, about the extermination and how he was saved by hiding throughout the Nazi invasion. When we came back to town he directed me to the pine-grove Susenki. We visited the graves of Rovno's sons, our family and friends, and all the while a heavy stone was pressing against our hearts.
Translation by Naomi Gal
Inscription: A photo of a letter from Ester Tov, Rovno, that was sent by
the Judenrat through the Red Cross and was returned to sender
(Page 573 in the Hebrew text)
Rovno September 22, 1944
My dear friend Goldenstern,
I received your letter. The head of the city committee gave me the letter you sent in his name. I can inform you about the fate of your relatives: I lived with your father, mother and the rest of the family for a few weeks in the house of B. Kagan on 6 Krassnoermyska Street. I lived there since my house was destroyed when the Germans entered Rovno. According to the Judenrat statistics at the time of the Germans there were in Rovno over 28 thousand people that for tragic reasons were not able to escape hell in time. Now there are only 19 Rovno people that survived Hitler's murderers. All and all there are now 200 Jews in Rovno, but they are from villages and towns around Rovno who settled in the city. The survival of each one of them, like my survival, is a whole history, miracles and wonders, legends of Arabian Nights. We are left with only one consolation to see the total obliteration of the barbarians, the sadists of the 20th century, and indeed their demolition is near.
Kind friend, you and I have lost the most important thing one has in life: our loved ones, our dearest and nearest. I am miserable, I lost my family and all my relatives and I am alone at my old age. I am consoling you, because I was a witness to the great disaster, the catastrophe that led to their graves hundreds, thousands and millions of innocent people, old, women and children. Our personal disaster is but a drop in the sea of disasters, dreadfulness, blood and tears.
I don't know if you are getting news about the horrible crimes committed by the fascist Germans every place they conquered, places which are now being freed by the Red Army. When the next generation will read all this they will not believe, and maybe would not be able to imagine that this could have happened.
But enough about it, it is tough! I read your letter to our Rovno people; your condolences and willingness to help us evoked tears. We thank you. You ask if there is anything we need? Thanks to your letter we organized a Rovno committee. We are grateful for your brotherly advice. God help you. Warm clothes and especially warm underwear for winter would aid every one.
Write, my dear, do not interrupt the connection with orphaned brothers. I am ending the letter and asking your forgiveness for lengthening my words, I could not write you a short and clear letter. Be well. I am shaking your brotherly-hand.
Rovno September 14, 1944
This letter is written to you by Yaakov (Yasha) Gedelievitch Rosenzwieg and Raisa Koperstien. I returned to Rovno a few weeks ago. I am one of the lucky ones since out of 32,500 Jews the fascist murdered heinously, only six are left. Among them are my wife, Yevegenia Shochman and Rachel, my mother. I cannot pen what our eyes have seen. A human mind cannot fathom what Hitler's murderers were capable of doing. There were 2 big actions in Rovno, the first on November 7, 1941 and the second on July 12, 1942. They were all led to Susenki grove where ditches had been already dug, most of them were killed by shootings and many pushed inside and covered with earth. The earth shook, trembled, breathed. The bloody Nazis and their henchmen robbed all the Jewish homes where with blood and tears Jews made themselves a paradise on earth. But these cursed will not be permitted to run wild any longer. The Red army is beating them forcefully and they are fleeing, soon the day will come when they will have to account for their deeds.
I read the letter to the chairman of our committee. Unfortunately I cannot consol you. I know that Yasha and his wife and Aussic are alive; they are probably in the army, when I'll find out I will let you know at once.
My dear Isaac, I am asking you to send, if possible, warm underwear for my wife and mother. Fania and Yasha say hello. What is Bluma's address?
Shalom to all of you,
My address is Dr. Yaakov Gedelievitch Rosenzwieg, Rovno, 23 Mickiewicz St.
A letter from a Rovno priest * [* Information given about the priest Ponder and his daughter cast a shadow on his sentimental outpouring]
Very respected citizens Sonja Jacobson and Clara Gurbitcz,
In response to your second letter that reached me on October 10 this year I am informing you: it is extremely unpleasant for me to describe the horrible tragedy, which was soul shaking and occurred not only to your parents but to the whole population of Rovno. It is quite clear to me how bitter it is to lose one's parents in that way.
And this is what happened:
On November 6, 1941 an announcement was published in town that the Ukrainian population is forbidden to leave their houses after 6pm. At 11pm a terrible crying and noise was heard in the streets. This was when the Jews were on their way to the grove. I could not stay in my room and went out to my doorsteps when your parents were leaving their place with Mrs. Rosskis and her family, the Michelsons and the rest of the people who lived there. Your parents and Mrs. Rosskis came to bid me goodbye, but because of the stream of tears they said nothing.
As soon as they left, German soldiers collected in cars and wagons all the properties from the houses, so that by morning all the apartments were empty. Your big house remained, was not hit by bombardments, and the small house, as it was called, was destroyed by the Germans. Now your house hosts an establishment I don't recognize. Generally yours was the only house that stayed as it was.
Many of Rovno's Ukrainian citizens were lost as well by the hand of the villain Germans. Before they left the city an order was issued that all the inhabitants had to go out to the square. Those who went out we had no news from them till now. And many people died during the enemy's bombardments! Both my daughters were killed and my two sons fell at the front, so I am left all alone.
Before the Germans entered Rovno we sat for a week in the basement under the church, your parents were with us and I helped them with food because by then it was difficult to obtain food and I still had bread and vegetables. They told me nothing about you and I don't know how you got to the Bokharan region.
A few Jews came back. Not long ago I saw Dr. Tavenchik and other good acquaintances. We now live differently than we did and suffered in the German days, since they gulped everything and tortured us with cold and hunger. For this reason I left for the country, where it was better, since they did not allow to take anything into town.
I am concluding with deep sorrow and offer my condolences for your calamity and suffering on losing your parents.
Signed: Protoiray Daniel Ponder
If you would write to me I will respond.
Fishchev Village October 21, 1944
Translation by Naomi Gal
It happened on June 1944 when we, the survivors of the city and other places arrived at Rovno. We lived in the big synagogue. We were around forty people, amid us 4 families: Lupatin, Uni, Driker and the family of the oldest son of the Kashvek Rabbi. The rest were singles, amid them: Idel Vinoker, from the Wolja, Haim Harber, Haim Shuster, Frieman, Poznanski, the two partisan brothers Rozenboym from Shpitalna Street, the brothers Eliezer and Abraham Lydovski and some other partisans. We had a committee (known as the Synagogue Committee for a known reason) that managed our affairs, its members were: Eliezer Lydovski, Haim Shuster, Moshe Driker, Abraham Uni and Poznanski. The safety in town was not restored and we did not know what tomorrow might bring.
One day Idel Vinoker entered our synagogue and cried excitedly: I found Torah scrolls, come with me! We hurried in his steps to Shuster's nearby courtyard that was on the synagogue's side. We went down to the basement and found a big trunk covered with rugs and in it 15-20 Torah books. We put all the scrolls into the ark of the synagogue and many were delighted because of the precious treasure that was discovered. This event prompted us to start collecting the desecrated Torah scrolls from the synagogue's corridor, courtyard and other places. We packed them in sacks and performed a public burial with all the Jews who were there. We were all sorrowful, we felt as if we were accompanying our dear ones on their last way. We put one of the partisan's guns beside the scrolls and swore to remember what the enemy did to us and to the Torah scrolls, and to take revenge.
The funeral of the Torah Scrolls, Rovno, 1944
(Page 576 in the Hebrew text)
We crossed the ruined city's streets, reached the cemetery on the end of Litovska Street and there, next to the grave of Rabbi Meirke the Just, we dug a grave for the scrolls. We took a picture of the sacred occasion for memory and next generations, we read some psalms and after saying Kaddish went broken and depressed home to the synagogue, where we lived. While passing the graves we discovered that many of the tombstones were missing, and it turned out that they were used to pave the city's pavements.
Afterward, whenever we were at the cemetery, we would first go to this sacred grave, the way we went to the big mass grave in the pine grove. When we were about to leave Rovno we decided to take with us the Torah books we found with the purpose of passing them to Jewish centers in the world and especially to the Land of Israel. We distributed the books amongst those who took upon themselves the holy honor of taking care of them. I got a Torah book, as well, and kept it in all my wanderings till I reached our homeland.
Translation by Naomi Gal
Since I left Rovno, my city, when the Soviet rulers departed in 1941 I wandered in Russia and in September 1944 I was with my family in Tashkent's Diaspora. Like other refugees there I followed the information on the radio and newspapers reporting the German's defeats on the Russian fronts. I was especially interested in the advancement of the Red Army in Ukraine, and when I heard they entered Rovno, I hasted to return to my city, which I never stopped missing.
I packed my few poor belongings in sacks and together with my wife and our little daughter left on our way. That was unbelievably rough: the wagons were packed with people and bundles and it was extremely crowded; along the way you could see the war's devastation, and a huge movement of people all worn and tattered.
The voyage took a month; the closer we got to Rovno the greater was the fear in my heart. I have heard in Tashkent about the horrors the Germans performed in Rovno, but I did not imagine that the destruction was so bad; I did not think that all the Jews were annihilated. When the train stopped at Shefetovka Station gunshots from the nearby forests could be heard. It turned out that bands of Ukrainians were still roaming the nearby settlements, robbing the inhabitants and frightening them. They even sabotaged the Red Army and harmed Jews wherever they found them. We could not wait to get to Zdolbuniv and from there to Rovno.
It was a rainy evening; the sparse lights outside did not light our way. When we left the wagon we looked for Rovno's terminal and could not find it, the big, beautiful building was destroyed in the bombing. A few steps from there stood a shack that served as a train-station. Neglect all around. Houses could hardly be seen; I thought that because of the dark I couldn't see them and felt deep loneliness. Where should I go? I was helpless.
One of the railroad workers passed by with a lantern. I asked him, where do Jews live? He did not how to answer and maybe he did not want to, since my question seemed strange. But when I asked where could I find shelter from the rain he indicated some shacks across the tracks and went away. I put the two sacks on my shoulders and we began advancing toward the shacks. On the way I fell into a ditch and was hurt. Finally we arrived at the first shack we found. It was empty and broken in. The night we spent there was long, the humidity and chill penetrated our bones and we were eagerly awaiting daylight.
In the morning I went to town to find someone, something- alas! The streets were mostly wiped out, most of the buildings were destroyed, whole neighborhoods disappeared. Saddened and depressed I went on walking in my city among ruins. I met very few people, I stopped a street guard and asked him if he was Jewish. He did not answer and passed me by. I asked another person: are there any Jews here? He answered that there were a few Jews in their synagogue.
I did not know which synagogue to turn to, but I walked toward the big synagogue on Shkolna Street. I passed by two-three abandoned and deserted Torah schools and went on till I reached the big synagogue. There was a bakery there and up, in the women's gallery around 10-12 Jews. Some were sitting on the floor on top of sacks or bundles. Their faces spoke of sufferings and depression, I did not know any of them. They formed the Jewish community in the big city that was ruined. The survivors of a community of more than three thousand Jews. Shocked I remained standing at the entrance, till an elderly man approached me and started a conversation. His astonishment was great when I told him I was from Rovno and that I arrived last night from Tashkent. He invited me with my family to come in and said: You are our brother!
We found out that we were among the first to return to Rovno. The same day we settled in the synagogue and became part of the survivors' family the remaining strangers that became our relatives by fate's decree. After a few days I made up my mind to leave the depressing ambiance of life in the synagogue and manage somehow, even temporarily. We moved into an abandoned building, which I fixed up as a living place for my family and another family. At the same time I began to run around to the Soviet authorities' institutions and ask based on my service in the past for a job, till I was accepted in the supply service of the train line between Kiev and Kowel. I worked in this job over a year while preparing to immigrate to the Land of Israel. Life was not easy back then and great was the suffering of the few that were arriving to the ruined city. Everyone wanted to leave, get away from the place where death and annihilation were roaming to emigrate. Everybody wanted a new life; most of them wanted a new life in the Land of Israel. And one day I left with my family on a difficult path of illegally crossing borders endangering our lives, until we got safely to our homeland.
Translation by Naomi Gal
Faraway in western Kazakhstan on the Ural River, where the river joins the Caspian Sea stands the city Guriev. The river separates her into two sections: one European and the other Asian. In the boring nights guys in army uniforms sat and listened to the radio news from the front. The speaker announced in jubilant voice the victories of the Red Army that was liberating one place after the other from the Nazi invader. Many hearts trembled with excitement and enthusiasm was increasing while everyone celebrated in his heart his victory when his hometown was liberated, and in one's head plans were spinning around about returning home to one's family, to the dear ones. But there was no celebration in my heart. Of course I was glad for the destruction of humanity's monster, but where was my city? My hometown?
One evening, while we were sitting and listening to the radio I heard the name Rovno amid the names of the liberated cities. The announcement ended with canons roaring in memory of the soldiers who fell while conquering the freed territories. My heart jumped: my Rovno! And what about those who lived there? Were they all, all of them slaughtered? I could not come to terms with that thought; I could not believe that they were all killed. Could it be that at least one or two of my family members were still alive?
I began pressing for a leave and a special permit to visit Rovno. In September 1945 my leave was approved as well as the permit to visit my home. Nervous and impatient I boarded the train to Moscow and from there through Kiev to Rovno. On the way to Moscow I saw no signs of war, as if this area was on Mars during the Holocaust. But when I left Moscow on my way to Kiev signs of war became apparent: ruined cities, burned villages. After a few days of traveling and moving from one train to another we entered west-Ukraine getting closer to Rovno. My thoughts became frantic, the tension grew and my patience was expiring. Finally on a Tuesday, a rainy morning, at 9 pm the train stopped and the conductor declared: Rovno!
I stepped down from the train and stood there wondering, where am I? If it was not for the huge sign ROVNO on what was left of the railroad station I would not have known that my feet were standing in Rovno. I began walking toward the center, to Third of May Street. I realized that the railroad tracks that crossed the road were rioted: on the left the city was in rubbles and on the right the Wolja was still standing. I turned left. I entered a house, not far from the railroad tracks, where in the past used to live a high school friend of mine. I entered and was struck: the same apartment, the same furniture, which was not even moved, and even a picture of her I remembered from past days was still hanging. An old Christian addressed me, What do you want, officer?
I pulled myself together and responded, I came to visit my hometown and the house in which I spent time in my youth. I am a Jew, where are the Jewish landlords?
My answer embarrassed her. She began apologizing so I wouldn't suspect her. She had no idea about the owners of the apartment, she came here after the war from a far away part of Russia and the local council gave her the apartment. She expressed her condolences and invited me to sit down, and offered me food. Agitated, I asked her where could I find Jews that were still alive, There are a few Jews here, she said, who are all in their synagogue, where they pray.
In Zamkova alley, the corner of Shkolna Street, the big synagogue was still standing, surrounded by ruins. I went in. From behind the stove I heard a voice saying in Yiddish, A goy just fell in. I turned my face toward the voice and saw a group of old and young people sitting around a table (probably the same table where in the past they used to sit and study Torah) and talking. They took me for a goy! Weak-in-the-knees I approached them and said in Yiddish, Shalom, Jews! I was once a citizen of Rovno! They came closer and we began talking. I did not know any of them, although some of them were porters from what used to be the Caucasus neighborhood: a blacksmith with his four sons (Mugilevski, I think) and some survivors from other places. It was my first meeting with survivors. I asked about my family members, relatives and friends no one could give me an answer. I learned from them that so far there was a small number of Jews who surfaced from the forests and hiding places. They were all worried and apprehensive and were planning to leave, to Poland and from there to the Land of Israel. I asked them to accompany me to the graves, and two youngsters complied.
When we left the synagogue we met an old broken man. He is a Jew, also, said one of the youngsters. He is our doctor. I greeted him and he said, Dr. Tavenchik.
I was stunned, is this Dr. Tavenchik, the high school and our family doctor? When he heard my name and the name of my parents he fell into my arms and sobbed. After a few moments of silence we parted with a warm handshake.
We drove a wagon to the pine grove, to the mass grave. A dead silence prevailed in the grove where around two thousand of Rovno Jews rested. In the murmuring trees, the blowing wind I heard a perpetual kaddish to the pure souls of the sacred.
Translation by Naomi Gal
Tired from wandering since I left Rovno in 1941 I headed to the Land of Israel. Before leaving this country of blood forever I decided to see Rovno, my hometown, one last time, to make a pilgrimage to the fathers' and brothers' mass grave the victims of the Holocaust. After a long journey I arrived at Rovno. I found the city in ruins, although there were first signs of restoration here and there by Russian and Ukrainian inhabitants.
I looked for Jews, relatives and friends to no avail. A few of my past colleagues (non-Jews) with whom I worked in the service of the Russians, asked if I wanted to stay and resume my work. The big synagogue building stood in mourning. About thirty Jews lived there and other families were living in the houses that could still be inhabited. Those were the remains of big Rovno, whose Jewish sons, my family amid them, were all exterminated by cultured cannibals.
I asked and investigated a lot. I run around and searched, at least for information. I wanted to find something from my parents' home as a memento not one thing, except for the big building, my father's house, which was still standing inhabited by strangers. I found out that Tamara, the daughter of our neighbor, the priest Ponder, (the same priest who sent me a condolences letter to Siberia describing the first extermination), entered my sister's apartment and occupied it and everything that was in it.
Depressed and heart-broken I made an effort to go out to Susenki to see the big graves and shed a tear there, but I was detained from all sides, they would not let me go there for fear of robbers that were still frightening even the Red Army. This filled me with sorrow. I could not come to terms with not visiting the graves, but when I realized the danger involved, I hurried out of town, running away from this bloody place toward the tempting faraway homeland.
As a survivor stepping anew toward life, I again began wandering from one place to another. In Byten I found amid the assembling survivors Rachel Krommirs, who used to be our neighbor, a woman 63 years old, the wife of a prominent forests' merchant in Polish-ruled Rovno. From her I learned some details about the last hours of my parents and some other Rovno people. Among other things Mrs. Krommirs told me:
While the city inhabitants went by the Nazi orders from November 5, 1941 to a gathering place, supposedly to leave for work, the family members of Levi Ides hid inside and did not go out. The priest Ponder, who noticed this, informed on them to the Germans or the Ukrainians and in the evening of November 6 a group of policemen arrived at the house. Mr. Krommirs tried to escape and was shot on the staircase and all the others were led under guard to the assigned place. Mrs. Krommirs asked a German guard to go aside for body wastes and he did not prevent her. That way she stayed behind and hid in a half ruined house for two days, without knowing the fate of the other Jews. She was frightened, cold and hungry, stealthily she slipped out and miraculously arrived to Groshvetz, a Czech village, where she found shelter with Czechs she knew and lived with them for two years till the Red Army freed Rovno.
I heard infinite miracles from many of the survivors with whom I spent weeks and months on my new wanderings, till we reached the shores of our destination, our homeland.
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