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Death and Sorrow (Cont'd)

 

Looking for Jews in the Forests of Kerchon

After walking almost the whole day, we came close to a village area in the late afternoon hours. We knew this because of the barking of the dogs. We saw houses and fields. We thought that we had arrived at Kerchon. We sat down to rest and eat what we had left. We meant to go to one of the houses in the evening to ask if we really were in Kerchon and where the Jews were in this area.

 

Aid and Words of Encouragement from the Leader of the Polish Partisans

As we were sitting and talking, we heard voices of people coming in our direction. We stood on our feet to escape, but suddenly we heard a voice say in Polish, "Stop! Don't flee. We are partisans!" We stopped, and we found ourselves surrounded by three armed men with rifles, and one of them also had a revolver. He was the leader. They asked where we came from and where we are going to. We told them all that happened to us up to now and what our plans are for the winter. We added that we hoped to be helped by the Jews hiding in the forest in this area.

The leader of the partisans ordered one of his men to give us sheep furs so we could cover ourselves on the cold nights. He explained that we were near a Ukrainian village and Kerchon is on the other side of the train tracks. In other words, we must cross the train tracks. He said we could only cross the train tracks after dark and then enter the first house, whose owner had a large threshing floor. He would take care of it that the farmer would give us food and let us stay in his threshing floor until he would met us with the Jews of the forest. He even told us the names of the Jews. We also knew their names.

Seeing how poor, scared and lacking hope we were, he encouraged us in saying that the Germans will soon be defeated and we will be freed, and then we could avenge them and the Ukrainians. He said that the partisans were acting very strongly and caused the Germans many problems. He said we should not be scared when we hear a large explosion in a hour, as they would be blowing up a German train on the train tracks ten kilometers from here. Mother thanked him and wished them good luck in the battles against the Germans, and even suggested her help. But they said that the partisans only accept young men and women with private guns. We continued sitting and waited for it to get dark, so we could continue on our way as the partisan leader explained to us. Mother saw the partisans as messengers of G-d and made a thanksgiving prayer.

As was promised, we heard a great explosion, and we understood that the paritsan's act was carried out. That made us very happy. It became dark, and we turned to crossing the train tracks. We crawled to the tracks and crossed the tracks with each of us running separately. Then we turned in the direction of the house of the owner of the large threshing floor. We came close to the courtyard, and there was a large barking dog. Within a few minutes, a young farmer came out, called the dog, and came toward the gate. He asked us what we wanted, and we told him. We mentioned the name of the leader of the partisans. He opened the gate for us, and quickly took us to the threshing floor. He brought us food, and said later in the evening he would met us with a Jew of Kerchon by the name of Avraham with the closed eye, who would take us to the forest and get us settled with the rest of the Jews. We must leave the threshing floor tonight, because the Germans will do searching tomorrow, after the explosion.

We cuddled up in a pile of hay in the threshing floor after we ate the food that the farmer gave us and we tried to fall asleep. We fell asleep for a few hours. We suddenly woke up when we heard a discussion in Yiddish inside the threshing floor. I jumped from the pile of hay and I recognized Avraham with the closed eye, and another Jew by the name of Avraham who was a metal worker from Sarny. Avraham with the closed eye recognized me, my mother, and my sister. My mother told him our whole story. He told us his whole story and that he and his wife, Bluma, were still alive. But all the others had been killed.

The farmer came and asked them to take care of us. He made sure that they had a sheltered place for us during the coming winter, and a good hiding place for us if the Germans came to search. The two Jews said they have this for us, but they were not very happy because we might become a burden for them. My mother tried to explain that we were relatives through his wife, Bluma, and she asked if he could help us. The farmer added to us some more food and some old clothes. We went on our way with Avraham from Kerchon and Avraham the metal worker toward the forest. On the way, each of them entered the houses of non-Jews to stock up on food. We continued on our way to the forest.

Avraham knew his way in the depths of the forest in the darkness of the night. Finally, we got to a tangled grove, and met the rest of the Jews who were in a special building made of logs, covered with leaves and dirt. Near the building, there was a campfire burning. By the campfire, sat Avraham's wife, Bluma, the metal worker, Fissa, his daugher, Hanna, and his grandaughter, Zelda. After opening greetings, it seemed that we were received in a very cold manner. We sat by the campfire and they gave us baked potatoes that were taken from the ashes now. Avraham, the metal worker, opened by saying that we all had an obligation to take care of the widow and her two orphans. But we must take into account the existing plans for hiding the refugees in the forest, so they won't be discovered when the Germans come to make a thorough search.

 

Again the Individuals among the Surviving Jews

Avraham, the metal worker, was a strange type. On one hand, he was very kind. On the other hand, he was very nervous and apprehensive about being discovered. He said it was very important to hide our tracks in the winter and in the snow, in order not to be discovered. He said we could not all stay together, in order to not mix up the plans for hiding already made for the winter.

All the members sat quietly as a sign that they agreed with him. Avraham Hakerchoni (from Kerchon) had to explain to certain non-Jews the reason that we were staying separate in order to prevent misunderstandings. Thus it was decided that the next morning we would be moved to a different part of the forest. There was a shack there that was used in the fall months. Avraham, the metal worker, explained to us that in the winter months, when the snow began to fall, we were to move around as little as possible from the shack to the houses of the village. We should collect for ourselves a supply of food, and to put it in a hole in the ground and to cover it with leaves and branches, so it won't freeze. This referred to bread, onions, salt, matches, and a supply of dry leaves and branches for heating bonfires. If we had to go out, at any rate, we should leave a minimum of footsteps by covering them with the snow.

Avrham Hakerchoni even promised to explain and help us in preparing the shack for the winter, and would help us dig a hole for water close by.

Mother was very sad about all these talks. She cried. But there was no choice, and we had to accept the decision, and thought about how to survive the difficult winter.

That night we fell asleep by the bonfire. We woke up in the morning and ate baked potatoes and onions. Avraham Hakerchoni led us to our new home. After we said goodbye to everyone, Avraham, the metal worker, said to us that we could not visit them under any circumstances, as it would endanger them. But on the other hand, they would find time to visit us from time to time. Avraham Hakerchoni explained to us, on the way, the short cut to the village. He explained where the houses of the villagers who were willing to help us were located.

 

The Shack in the Forest

We arrived at our shack, we cleaned the floor, and put our bundles down. In the middle of the shack, there was a pit for making a bonfire. We lit a fire. A small distance from the shack, we dug a pit with the aid of Avrahma Hakerchoni about a meter and a half deep. We reached water that was clean and tasty. This promised us water for drinking and washing.

After we got settled, Avraham Hakerchoni left us and promised to visit from time to time. The three of us remained, and my sister and I went out to look for forest berries. We returned with berries and we ate the potatoes that had baked in the bonfire and ate the berries for desert. Then I collected branches of pine trees to cover the roof of the shack and with a tin that I found near by, I dug in the soft sand near the shack, and I pored sand on the branches in order to prevent leaking and cold. I also collected tall weeds, half-dry, and brought them to the shack. I spread them under us for bedding. Thus the day went by, and I planned to go to the village in the evening in order to collect food and other supplies for the coming winter. We tried to navigate in the shortest way, according to Avraham Hakerchoni's directions. As we got farther away from the shack, we left ourselves signs so we would know the way back to the shack.

Even though it was dark, we were not afraid of the animals. We were warned about the danger of the wolves in the winter. If we run into a wolf, we should scare him away by lighting a dry tree. The flame scares him away. After a half an hour, we got to the edge of the forest, and we saw the lights from the windows of the houses in the village. In a bent over position, we crossed the field and came close to the first house.

 

Manka -- the Guardian Angel

I knocked on the door, and a fat, short Polish woman appeared, and asked us to enter. In the house, her husband and her daughter were seated. It was very pleasant and warm in the house, as opposed to the cold and wind outside. The woman told us to sit near the heater, where we could get warm. Even though this was a first visit, we did not totally surprise them, and they knew of our existence in the area. We understood this because the woman asked about our mother, the widow. We told them about how we got settled in the shack, that mother was weak and tired from the tribulations of the traveling until we got to Kerchon. We answered their questions about where we came from, what town, and how we escaped. Tears fell from the woman's eyes, and she did not stop crossing herself, and saying prayers.

She and her husband were disturbed by the fact that Avraham and his people did not let us stay with them, but sent us to a separate place. Wasn't it shameful that an escaped Jew dids not want to help someone who was weak and needed help? They served us warm food -- cereal, borsht, and potatoes. The non-Jewess found some of her daughters' clothes and gave them to my sister. She warmed water in a big pot, and suggested that my sister go in back of the heater and shower and wash her hair. She suggested that I let my sister stay with them for the winter, because my sister would not survive the difficult winter in the forest. She insisted that my sister already stay the night, and that I return to the forest and tell my mother. If my mother was against this, we could return her tomorrow. The non-Jew went outside and gave me a sharp axe and said this would help me in the forest -- to cut wood for heating, for building, and for protection from animals, and people.

The woman gave me cooked food -- warm cereal and warm milk, bread, cheese, potatoes, and matches. I thanked her and went on my way back to the forest to the shack. I tried to go back the way I came and according to the signs I left myself. Within a half an hour, I got to the shack, and I found mother napping by the fire. Mother awakened when I entered, and I gave her the warm food that I brought her. She drank a little of the milk. I told her of the warm heart of the non-Jewess, Manka, and that I left my little sister with her for the night, as she suggested. Mother was happy and we decided that tomorrow mother would come with me to visit my sister in the village. I added some more wood to the fire, and I fell asleep with mother in the shack for the night.

 

Organization in the Forest for the Winter

The next day, I was busy digging a ditch in the corner of the shack for hiding potatoes for supply, so they would not freeze during the winter. Then I collected some tall weeds and covered them. Then I used the axe to cut some dry wood, and I prepared a pile of wood for heating for the winter. Then I collected some berries. During the afternoon, I took advantage of the nice day and the fall sun, and took off my rags and shook out my clothes from the lice. I took a bucket of water and washed myself a bit. Mother did the same. Thus we prepared ourselves for the visit with the nice non-Jewess, where my sister was.

At dark, we went on our way that I already knew, and in a short time, we arrived at the house of Manka. After knocking on the door, and identifying ourselves, she opened the door and received us warmly. My sister jumped and hugged us as if she had not seen us for years. The woman sat us by the oven, and gave us warm and well cooked food. We enjoyed the food. My mother did not stop thanking the woman for her good heart, and thanked her for the suggestion to keep my sister in her house for the winter. The woman said she would teach my sister how to knit while she would sit by the oven during the day. My mother told Manka about her diseases and her suffering. Manka gave us sour milk in a big jug and additional food for storage. After two hours in her house, we said goodbye, thanks, and blessings.

 

Another Righteous Woman

When we went out of the house of Manka, my mother suggested that we try to enter the next house in order to fill our supplies for the winter and the snow. We left our bundles by the door and knocked on the door. A tall and thin non-Jewess opened the door, and asked us to enter. Apparently, see also already knew about us. This woman looked very pleasant, and tried to help us to her best ability. She suggested to us to eat. But we thanked her and told her that we had just eaten in another house. After an hour of talking, she gave us potatoes, bread, onions, pickled cucumbers, and cheese. She also gave us some clothes. We thanked her and went one our way. On our way out, we collected our bundles that we left outside, and continued on our way back to the forest. After a short time, we arrived at the shack. We lit the bonfire again, placed the potatoes in the pit that was set up for them, and placed the rest of the food and clothes aside. Then we got ready for a night's sleep by the bonfire.

Thus we continued our daily lives as the winter came closer. The days got gradually shorter and colder. We tried to go to the village as little as possible, but we needed to collect supplies for the winter--potatoes, matches, salt, and onions, in order that we need not go to the village during the snow.

In our surroundings, it was usually very quiet, except for birds chirping, and voices of animals. Nothing usually bothered us. But at any rate, we always listened, and tried not to make unnecessary noises, in order not to stand out.

 

Danger of Destruction and Escape

One morning we heard steps of people getting close. I got closer and looked from the shack. I knew it was Avraham, the metal shop worker and his wife. They entered the shack, said hello, and asked how we were getting along. He made a lot of noise and talked a lot. His wife was a lot quieter and smiled from time to time when he talked. He said that he heard for a reliable non-Jew in the village, that there will be an "oblaba" -- searching with tracking dogs of the Germans in the area of the forest of Kerchon. We are quite far from the village, and he did not think that they would get to us. But we must be careful and be very alert. He and his wife were on their way to a distanced area in another direction from the village, on the other side of the railroad tracks. They planned to stay in hiding for a couple of days, until this searching was done. My mother suggested that they take me with them for my safety, and that she stay by herself. This was to lessen the danger for us. Avraham, the metal shop worker, agreed immediately, but I refused to leave my mother by herself. My mother insisted, and convinced me to join the two of them. With tears in my eyes, I left my mother and left her alone.

Avraham, the metal shop worker, was at the head, and he left me and his wife farther back. He went into the depths of the forest, getting farther away from the village. In the end, we stopped, and sat down to rest and eat bread and forest berries that we collected. Avraham opened his mouth and began to plan the future out loud. It seemed that he had not exactly decided where we should hide and where we should go. His wife, Chaya, said her opinion that we had gone far enough and that she was tired, and that we should look for a place in the nearby surroundings, in one of the deep groves. Avraham quieted her in an unpleasant manner, and that she shouldn't give her advice, and that she should totally trust his judgment. His wife, of course, was quiet immediately. He ordered her to continue after him. From time to time, he told us to lie down or stop, and he would listen carefully that he didn't hear any suspicious noise.

Thus the day passed and it began to get dark. It was very windy and the sky was very cloudy. We continued by the same method until we found ourselves by the railroad tracks. Avraham stopped, and told me to cross the tracks by running bent down and to wait for his wife and himself. I did just that. Then his wife crossed the tracks in the same manner and then Avraham. We then continued walking quickly because we were afraid it would start raining. Avraham said nearby there was an isolated house, and about one kilometer from the house, there was a pile of hay under a hay roof. We must steal ourselves to the pile of hay, cover ourselves and stay there for a couple of days. If we were successful doing so without being heard, we could stay there until the searching would be completed. We didn't think that any one would find us.

 

The Hiding Place in the Hay Stack

Within a half hour, we found ourselves before the hay stack. With the help of Avraham, I climbed on the pile first. Then his wife climbed on the pile with Avraham's help from below and I pulled her up. After joint cooperation, we got on the hay stack, and then Avraham climbed on it. On the top of the pile, we felt the strong wind. We then fell into the hay stack and in that way, we protected ourselves from the cold and the wind.

Avraham and his wife had food -- bread, onions, cooked potatoes in their peels, cheese, and drinking water. Avraham gave us a rationed portion of food, and I fell asleep for the night. I didn't sleep so well because I worried about my mother and my sister, each of them far away from me.

That night it rained heavily and there were strong winds. By morning, the rain stopped a bit and the winds calmed down, but it was very cold and the sky was very cloudy. Avraham said soon heavy snow would fall. We were at the beginning of the month of January 1943. Very shortly, snow began to fall, and the surroundings were totally white. According to Avraham, the change of weather will affect the accessibility of the Germans to the area. If they haven't done their searching as of yet, they will not do so in the days to come. Therefore, he planned that we get off the pile of hay when it became dark, and that we continue on our way in the forest, to our living quarters. On the way, we shall enter some houses of non-Jews in the village and collect food, and we will know if the Germans did their search.

 

Our Return to the Forest and to my Lonely Mother

We got down from the hay stack and walked quickly. We had to walk slowly at the beginning, because our feet had fallen asleep because we were under the hay stack all night. Avraham said it was good that we continued because the snow would cover the hay stack tonight, if we continued staying there. We arrived at the railroad tracks, crossed them by running, and got close to the houses of the village of Kerchon. Avraham suggested that he and his wife enter one of the houses, and that I enter another house, and that we meet near the last shack by the forest. He who came first would wait for the others, and that we should not stay more than an hour in the village. Thus it was.

I knocked on a door and after identifying myself as a poor orphan, they let me in. An elderly Polish woman stood at the entrance of the house. When she saw that I was frozen and very poor, she let me in her house quickly, and closed the door. She sat me down by a warm oven. The house was warm and pleasant, and her family sat around the table, four men, women, and their children. The non-Jewess figured out who I was and without asking too many questions, she gave me warm cereal and other warm food. After I finished the large bowl of cereal, someone else offered me warm milk, and I finished it without any trouble. When I finished eating, they were all surprised that I ate so much. I told them for almost two days I hadn't eaten, and before that, I mostly ate baked potatoes. I answered their questions about my mother and my sister, without saying that my sister was staying with a non-Jewess in the village.

The old woman prepared for me food for the way -- potatoes, cooked meat, and pickled cucumbers. They gave me dry rags for rapping my feet. The others were wet and worn out. I thanked them and continued on my way.

It was very dark outside. I heard dogs barking and wolves whining. The snow continued to fall, and I moved toward the shack we decided to meet at. When I got near the shack, I heard a whistle in another direction, and I moved toward it. Then I ran into Avraham and his wife. We continued into the forest, and Avraham asked me how I was received in the house I went to. He was surprised that they received me so well, because he said this family was not usually so nice, at least to him. As we continued to walk, Avraham continued to tell us what happened to him one night, when he ran into a family of wolves. He got them to leave when he lit a bit of dry wood, which he always kept with him. Of course, the fire acted very well, and caused the wolves to leave immediately. He heard that the wolves preyed on a dog of one of the villagers that night.

He explained the great importance of not walking in the snow in order to prevent leaving tracks. We must be careful and not to eat too much, and not go to the village in any circumstances. If one must go to the village, we should do it during a snow storm, because the tracks get covered. We should cover up our tracks at any rate.

After a half an hour walk, he explained to me the way to my mother's shack, and told me how to go. He said he and his wife will go their way. He reminded me to be careful and hide my tracks. I continued on my way by myself. There was a snow storm, and it was very dark. I ran into a branch here and there, but I continued with all my strength. I was anxious to see my mother and to know how she was. I wanted to be with her. Avraham's stories about the wolves scared me, but I continued on my way.

After walking a half of an hour, I found myself near the shack. I entered inside, and found my mother sleeping with the bonfire almost out. I lit the bonfire again, and then my mother woke up, and I gave a bit of the food I brought. She ate a bit, and I told her my story, and what happened when I was gone. My mother complained of the cold, and how her whole body was aching.

I put the food supplies in the pit. I warmed some water by melting snow in a can I had, and gave mother something warm to drink. I added wood to the fire, and then I put mother and myself to sleep, wrapped in rags that we had. Our backs were to the fire, and they were warm. But the front part of us was very cold. But we comforted ourselves that another night of tribulations had passed.

 

The Tribulations of Winter and the Isolation in the Forest

The cold outside became worse. The snow storms would come back, and the piles of snow around the shack would get higher. It was hard work to shovel the snow in front of the shack so we could have a passage. We continued our daily routine, and we made sure that the bonfire was always lit, for heat and for baking potatoes, our major form of food. The supplies of the other food were finished during the days we couldn't go to the village. For drinking water, every morning we broke some ice that was above the water pit. In order to warm ourselves, we would boil the warm water in the can that we had, and drink the warm water. That helped us warm ourselves, because it got colder every day. We rationed ourselves potatoes, so they would last this long period of the winter. We hoped the weather would improve.

Mother was very weak, and the cold was very difficult for her. She suffered from heartburn and constipation, which got worse as the week past. We were worried by the situation. Our supply of matches was running out. We tried our best to keep the fire going all the time, but it burned out sometimes, and we would have to use the matches to light the fire again. Mother warned me that we shouldn't fall asleep at the same time, in order that one could watch that the fire wouldn't go out. She said people fall asleep when it is very cold, and could freeze to death while sleeping. She asked me to awaken her from time to time, and she did the same with me. It happened from time to time that we fell asleep at the same time, because we were weak and exhausted, from lack of healthy food, and because of the intense cold.

One morning we woke up frozen, the fire went down, and we had very few potatoes, and very few matches. After a few tries to light the fire which were not successful, we were half frozen, hungry, and isolated from the outside world because of the snow storm outside. Mother stood with my help, and we tried to move our limbs by walking in the shack in order to relive our frozen limbs. We decided we must find a way to the village to get more food and matches, or we would be "lost".

Our problem was how to find the way to the village as all the paths and roads to the village were covered with snow, and there were no signs. Also we were weak, hungry, and half frozen. It was very difficult for us to walk in the snow. But at any rate, we took our bundles, my axe, and went on our way. The walking was very difficult, and half of our body was covered with snow. My mother and I felt our feet freezing, especially our foot soles. We moved our feet, as if we were moving logs. We walked as if our feet were artificial. I would have to pick up my mother from time to time. We continued at a very slow pace. We noticed that it began to get dark, and we didn't see any sign of the village. In usual times, it took a half an hour or an hour to get to the village.

 

On the Verge of Freezing and Death

With our last strength, we got to a pine grove. I recognized the area, and I knew that in this grove there was a shack. I left mother to sit, and I tried to find the shack, trying to push myself through the thick pine grove filled with snow. After many efforts and trial with my axe, I got into the grove, but I didn't find the shack. It got dark, and I returned to my mother, who sat bundled up and asleep amongst the snow storm and the intense cold.

I woke her up, and reminded her of what she had told me -- that it is forbidden to fall asleep in the cold, and that we could die. My mother answered that it didn't really matter, and that she is going to die. I broke out crying, and begged her not to fall asleep. I suggested to her that I would go in the direction of the village, because it seems that we are close to it. My mother remained sitting by herself, and I wrapped her as well as I could with the rags I had. With the last of my strength, I went in the direction of the village. Even though it was dark, I found the correct direction, and I found myself near the houses of the village. I went to the closest house, knocked on the door, and the tall good-hearted woman who was the neighbor of Manka opened the door. When she saw how frozen and poor I was, she crossed herself several times and cried. She took me in and got me close to the fire. I told her that I couldn't feel my feet. She took off the rags that were on my frozen feet, and rubbed them with snow until I began to feel them again. She then rubbed pig fat on them and told me to put them near the fire and warm them slowly. She gave me warm milk and warm, cooked food.

Before I began eating, I began to cry and told the woman about my mother's state and where she was situated. I asked her to give me something warm to drink, matches, and some food, so I could go quickly to my mother. The woman convinced me to finish eating, and she would in the meantime prepare what I requested. She prepared for me new rags for my feet with dry hay and I put them on. My feet and the rest of my body were a lot better after the warm meal.

I was very worried about my mother, and I hurried to bring to her what I had. I put my bundles on my back, which included a bottle of warm milk. I ran to my mother. The warmth of the milk bottle bothered me, and I put it on the ground for a short period of time in order to switch hands. But the milk of the bottle spilled when I placed it on the ground. I felt very bad, and I wrestled with myself to go back to the woman and ask for more warm milk, or to hurry to the forest to my mother. I decided to go to my mother as I was already very far from the house.

After a half an hour, I found my mother. I gave her the bread, cheese, and cooked potatoes. But mother barely ate it. I collected some branches, and lit a bonfire. I collected logs that I cut with my axe. The fire got stronger. Mother recovered a bit, and we hoped to last until morning, and then find the shack in the grove.

Shortly it was dawn. I collected some more wood, and increased the fire, without worrying that we would be seen or heard, because if I didn't, we would freeze. I made a huge fire, and placed my mother nearby, once with her back to the fire and once with her face to the fire, in order to warm her. I went in the direction of the grove, and very soon I found the shack. I returned to my mother, and dragged her with all my strength in the direction of the shack. She could not stand on her feet.

 

My Dying Mother

After a short time, I was able to get mother into the shack. It was as cold inside as it was outside. I took all of our belongings, and with my axe, I collected a pile of dry branches, and made a fire in a special tin in the shack that was made by Avraham, the metal shop worker. It was an old bucket that stood upside down with its opening toward the ground. On its lower part was an opening for placing the wood and lighting the fire. Lower down there was an opening for ventilation. On its upper part, there was a pipe chimney through the roof of the shack to the outside. I was able to light the fire and the tin bucket was very hot. Thus we were able to get warm. I quickly melted snow in a tin and boiled water. My mother drank from the hot water, and tasted a bit of the food I brought. I thought she was getting a little better. I took off the rags from her feet, and took care of them the way the non-Jewess took care of my feet. I rubbed her feet with snow, and dried the rags on our hot "heater", and wrapped her feet. My mother said that she didn't feel her feet at all. She asked me to let her fall asleep. I promised her that I would keep the fire going. I went outside to prepare a supply of branches for the fire.

When I came back with the supply of wood, I saw her snoring and making strange distortions, opening and closing her eyes. I ran to her and screamed: "Mother, mother!" I gave her warm water in the tin. She drank a bit, and recovered a bit. She said she almost died, and it was forbidden for me to bother on her deathbed. I began crying and begged her to recover. She promised that she would make all the efforts to recover.

 

My Mother's Death in My Arms

Thus another day passed in which we had a roof over us. I tried not to fall asleep, as I saw my mother's situation was getting worse from minute to minute. I gave her warm water from time to time. At dawn, my mother began to convulse again, I tried to help her, but I didn't know what to do. My mother mumbled all sorts of names that had no relation to one another. She mentioned my father's name, my brother's name, her father's name, her mother's name, and other names of family members. Then there were no more signs of life and her eyes opened.

I began to cry very strongly, and tried to call "mother, mother, wake up! Don't leave me alone, please, mommy." I kissed her and hugged her with all my strength, and I felt that her body was cold and hard. I placed her head on the ground, and covered her face with rags. I lowered my head, and began to cry about her fate and my fate. An hour later, I uncovered her face to see if there was a miracle and that she was alive, but to no avail. I began to think what I must do now.

 

A Lonely Orphan

I decided that I must turn to Manka's house and get advice on what to do, as I didn't know where the rest of the Jews were. I left the shack that I had entered with my mother. The snow storm calmed down outside, and the clouds dispersed. But it was very cold outside. But the sun was shinning and it warmed me up a bit. I sighed and thought why my mother couldn't have reached this moment, so she could enjoy the sunrays. I continued on my way to the village during the day without thinking of the dangers involved in this.

I arrived at the edge of the forest and I stopped and looked around well ahead and to the sides to see if there were any suspicious people. I didn't see anything exceptional but some farmers near their homes. I ran quickly to Manka'a house, and in the courtyard, I met Manka's husband. He was surprised to see me in the middle of the day. He quickly placed me in the threshing floor and told me to wait and he would go to call for his wife. His wife appeared. Manka, the compassionate and good, comforted me. She asked me not to go in the house and not to tell my sister at this point. She promised that she would find the Jews of the forest as soon as possible and tell them what happened. Then they would bury my mother. She gave me some food and told me to return to the forest and wait for the Jews. I of course did what she requested. Quickly and carefully I went back to the forest, to the shack, where my mother died a few hours earlier. Even though I was sure that my mother was dead, I went up to her body again, took off the covering on her face to see if there were any vital signs of life. But I realized the bitter reality.

 

The Burial of My Mother in the Forest

I sat and waited for the Jews to come to help me to bury my mother. Suddenly, I heard voices come near. I went outside of the shack, and saw the two Avrahams, two other men, and Rabbi Pesa. Avraham Hakerchoni hugged me and tried to calm me down. It seems that Manka's husband knew of the hiding place of Avraham Hakerchoni and the rest. He called him to leave the hiding place, and told him that he had something important to tell him. Since Avraham trusted him and knew his voice, he came out of the house and he told him about my mother's death. Avraham told me all of this, and that he would organize the rest, and they would take care of the burial.

We went a bit away from the shack, and in the same grove found an iceberg that was a bit high. One of the men, a relative of Avraham Hakerchoni, by the name of Yosef, had knowledge about the burial laws. He decided on the place of the grave. Then they began to remove the snow. After that, they dug. At the beginning, the progress was slow, as the upper layer of earth was frozen. But later, the earth was sandy, and the digging moved along quickly. They finished digging the hole, they cut poles of wood to cover the body, and they set up a framework in the hole. Then they entered the shack and took the body of my mother who was wrapped in her rags, and lowered it into the grave. The dark, knowledgeable fellow said a prayer and then I said Kaddish. The grave was covered. They placed a wide pole on it with its upper part divided and on it my mother's name -- Mrs. Tibel Prishkolnik, the daughter of Rabbi David Tzukermin from Brozna.

 

Under the Auspices and Guardianship of Avraham and Bluma

Avraham Hakerchoni hugged me and tried to calm me down. He began moving me away from my mother's grave. He moved the rest of the people away. He said from this moment on, my sister and I will be together with him and his wife, and will be under his and his wife, Bluma's, auspices. What happens to him and his wife, also happens to us.

When we got close to their living quarters, which was very close to our shack and to my mother's grave, Avraham, the metal shop worker, gave orders how to make access to the shack. He organized us in single file and commanded us to go after Rabbi Pesa, and to leave a minimum of tracks. He and Avraham Hakerchoni were at the end of the line, and they had in their hands containers with snow for covering up our tracks. Thus in a short time, we arrived at their shack, and here we found Bluma, Chanah -- the daughter of Pesa from Kazimirka and his granddaughter, Zelda, and Chaya, the wife of Avraham, the metal shop worker. All of them pitied me and tried to comfort me. They tried to analyze the reason for my mother's death. Most of them claimed that the main reason was that she was sick from before, and her general weakness didn't allow her to withstand the intense cold. Therefore, she died. Perhaps, maybe it was for the best. Who knows what hardships are before us? Bluma fed me and said that I should lie down to rest on the bed of rags near the fire.

The rest of the Jews that were present at my mother's burial, were close to Avraham Hakerchoni and even they were from Kerchon. There was a mother, a son, a daughter, and brother-in-law, Yosef, who the one who was well versed in the burial laws. He also said to me: please remember today is the first of February, 1943 -- the day of the death of your mother.

The relations between Avraham and especially his wife with his relatives were very bad. Therefore, they hid out in a different part of the forest and had nothing to do with the relatives. Avraham Hakerchoni knew where they lived. Therefore, he invited them to be present during my mother's burial.

During the first week in their shack, they didn't let me do anything. I sat most of the time in front of the hot oven, and they would give me baked potatoes and onions from time to time. Everyone liked me, and Bluma and Chanah especially took care of me.

Thus the grey daily routine continued in the shack, which was warm enough. From time to time, I would go out to collect dry branches for heating, and would put in and take out potatoes from the ashes of the fire, at the bottom of the heater. Part of what we would do during the day was to take care of our clothes -- looking for lice and killing them, or shaking our clothes over the bonfire.

The lice were very bad. In addition to the fact that we had very little food, the lice sucked the last of our blood without mercy, and they multiplied, and got fat on our expense. From time to time, arguments would break out between Avraham, the metal shop worker and Rabbi Pesa about Avraham's exaggeration with regard to his strange ideas and his carefulness about camouflaging our tracks. Sometimes the situation would get so "hot", that only Bluma and the wife of Avraham, the metal shop worker, could calm them down. From discussions I heard, I found out that near Milinsk, there was a large group of Jews, amongst them Jews from Stepan and Bronza. They were hiding in the forests of the Ukrainian village of Brono. Pesa said he knew the non-Jews of the village, but didn't trust them too much. He thought that there was danger of destruction of the Jews there, if they didn't escape soon.

About two weeks after I was staying in Avraham Hakerchoni's shack, on a night of a heavy snow storm, he suggested taking me to see my sister. He said we should take extra clothing and some food. We were on our way. We arrived at Manka's house very quickly. We entered the house after knocking on the door, and identifying ourselves. Manka received us warmly and with compassion. She called my sister.

 

The Fact of My Mother's Death was Told to My Sister

We hugged each other, and I broke out in a bitter cry. I told my sister what happened to our mother. My sister joined the crying. Manka calmed us down, and promised to continue keeping my sister until the intense cold passed. But, if I wanted, I could take her with me to the forest. I agreed to this and thanked her. Manka's husband and she criticized the Jews in the forest again for not helping us, and that they didn't let us join them in the days of intense cold. Avraham Hakerchoni tried to justify their actions because of their fear of tracks and noise of too large of a group. But the Poles were not convinced and continued to claim that this shame would not be forgiven. Avraham was offended, hurried to leave, and promised to meet me at the entrance to the forest in an hour.

Manka hurried to prepare a good warm meal for us, gave me some clothes to switch my worn out and dirty clothes, and gave me a supply of food. I thanked her for everything, and sat with my sister, sad and depressed, by the heater. We brought up to idea that from now on, we were lonely orphans without someone to lean on. We could only lean on each other. I, as the older brother, took on the responsibility for her existence in all conditions and circumstances. I told her that when spring comes, Avraham Hakerchoni and his wife will separate from the rest of the group. Avraham will help me build a new shack in a place he would choose. Then she could join me and we could live together. My sister claimed, with tears in her eyes, that she was impatiently waiting for that moment, even though she felt good with Manka and that they were very nice to her.

Then I took my bundles, and separated from my sister with a kiss. I thanked Manka again and turned to meet Avraham. At the edge of the forest, Avraham Hakerchoni waited for me and we continued on our way to our living quarters. The snow continued to fall and covered our tracks. But near the shack, Avraham covered our tracks. I walked first, and he after me, spreading snow from his container in his hand in order to cover up our tracks. We returned to the shack and continued with our grey routine. The days passed and we felt that it was less cold, and that the weather got better. We could get enjoyment from time to time from the sunrays and its warmth -- the end of the winter and the beginning of the spring.

At the beginning of April, we had another occupation, and that was milking the white and erect birch trees. It was enough to make a groove in the bottom of the trunk of the tree. Then sweet sap would drip out of the groove. It was so tasty -- sweet water. Since the dripping was slow in general, we would place near the groove in the trunk of the tree a thin branch, and then the drops would drop into the bucket. This caused us much enjoyment. I was an expert at this, and I would collect the sap for most of the members of the shack. Of course, all the knowledge about this activity I acquired from Avraham Hakerchoni.

 

The Inner Struggles of the Survivors

The nights were not always so calm. From time to time, I would hear the discussions of Avraham Hakerchoni. and his wife, Bluma, as a slept nearby them. The arguments would get stronger and they would accuse one another for losing their children in the Holocaust. She would accuse him that he didn't return to the ghetto on the day of the escape in order to look for their children who were staying with Bluma's mother. He and she, it appeared to me, worked outside of the ghetto of Brazna. There the two children stayed with Bluma's mother. Avraham would explain that there was no reason to return to the ghetto, because when they heard the rumor of the destruction of the ghetto, the ghetto was already being destroyed. He would have only risked his life, without even saving his children. The argument would always end in heavy sighing and crying by both of them.

This of course caused me to think of all that we had gone through at the time of escaping the ghetto. This caused me horrible nightmares.

At the beginning of the spring, the rain caused the snow to melt. There were only, here and there, islands of snow left. The chirping of the birds and the clearing of the sky made it clear to us that spring was beginning. This encouraged us a bit, at least life would be a bit easier without the intense cold, and the terrible problem with the tracks of our feet.

 

The Building of a Separate Shack

Avraham Hakerchoni and I went to work building a new shack. Avraham was a man of great energy, and of great ability to improvise. I tried to help him to the best of my ability, with carpentry of the wood, and cutting and taking down branches. We worked all day straight through, with short breaks for eating. After one day of hard work, a large shack stood hidden amongst the many trees of the forest.

Thus we continued a whole week and improved the shack, including making a roof covering of branches and earth, and straightening the floor inside and making furniture. Also, there was a double bed in one corner for Avraham and his wife, a second double bed, a dining table, and a hole for water. The beds were not connected by nails as we had none, but by tying soft branches, and straps from the bark of trees. Everything was strong and stable. Close to the shack, we dug a wide hole for storing potatoes and other vegetables. With the help of Avraham, the metal shop worker, we built a heater from old metal that Avraham Hakerchoni once brought from the village. The heater was wide and had a chimney with a shield to prevent sparks from spreading in the night.

After finishing the work, we cleaned the shack, spilled white sand on the floor, and cleaned the courtyard before the shack. Our new house was ready. The next day we moved things over and about noontime we said goodbye to the others. Bluma came to live with us in the new shack. Avraham Hakerchoni was very proud of his work, and he really did a very good job. Bluma was satisfied. Avraham said that if everything went well, they will have a new baby soon, and pointed to the place in the shack where they would place the cradle. The baby should be born in the summer and this would make it easier to take care of him. Bluma said it was too soon to talk about it, and they shouldn't discuss this.

From time to time, we would go to the village to supply ourselves with food, and enjoy a warm meal. My left big toe was frozen and hurt me a lot. On one of our visits at the non-Jewess in the village, I complained about the pain on the toe of my foot, and she suggested I take off the rags on my foot. She brought for me a bowl of hot water. I placed my sore foot in the water and it seemed that my foot had begun to rot. The non-Jewess brought a clean and soft cloth and cleaned the toe carefully. She made a bandage with non-salty pig fat. She also suggested that I come to her from time to time so she could take care of the toe, and not to neglect the toe, otherwise it would get worse. I thanked her a lot, and returned with Avraham Hakerchoni to the forest. One time I asked from Bluma and Avraham to bring my sister back to the forest, as I had agreed with Manka. I felt a need for this for several reasons: 1) I felt myself very lonely since my mother died, and 2) even though I knew she was doing fine with Manka, I understood that sitting by the heater for days on was not too comfortable. Since the spring had arrived, she would enjoy being a "free" bird in the underground, along with her brother. I took into account that she would feel good with Avraham and Bluma in the new house.

 

My Sister Joins Us in the Forest

On one of my visits to the village, I came to Manka, and I told her that I was ready to take my sister to the forest. I thanked her very much for all that they had done for her during the winter. Manka gave me a warm meal as usual, and took care of the sore on my foot. Since the toe didn't look too good, she decided not to put anymore pig fat on it, but a special leaf from the house plants. She cleaned the sore well and made a new bandage. She gave me a supply of leaves to use when I changed the bandage from time to time. Manka gave my sister a lot of used clothes. My sister kissed the family goodbye, and we then turned to the forest. Bluma and Avraham received her with open arms, and Bluma explained to her the way of life in the forest. My sister said she would help in the upkeep of the house.

My sister began to get used to the life in the forest. I think she felt less lonely since she was with me. Bluma taught her to prepare potato soup with onions and garlic. She was busy with the tasks of the house. She would fix her clothes and also my clothes. On the nice days, we would take off our clothes and wash them. We would boil them in boiling water in order to get rid of the lice. Then we would wash them from time to time in warm water. But we never got rid of the lice. We would be more successful sometimes and would prevent the lice from spreading. My sister helped Bluma prepare diapers and the rest of the things for the baby to be born.

Thus we continued our lives. I left my sister in the forest, and at night would go to the village by myself. During the day, we would go out to pick mushrooms, under the supervision of Bluma who could distinguish between poisonous and edible ones. We would cook the mushrooms in the potato soup -- which would make our usual potato soup a little different.

 

The Danger of the Bandrovechim in the Forest and Taking Precautions

Avraham Hakerchoni returned one evening from a visit in the village and told a horrible story of how Bandrovechim, National Ukrainian partisans, assaulted Jews who were in the forest near Milinsk-Broni. The Poles told Avraham that the activity of the Ukrainian Nationalists was increasing. They were rebelling against the German rule and formed an independent government in Stepan. The Poles, who were very worried from this growing activity, began to organize themselves for self defense, and increased the guard duty at night.

All these things concerned us greatly. It was known that the Ukrainian Bandrovechim were even more cruel than the Germans. There was a new danger upon us -- perhaps they were in the forest in our area. We took some precautions -- being more quiet and camouflaging our living quarters even better. One time we went in a different way in order not to form paths or tracks.

One morning Avraham, the metal shop worker, and his wife, Chaya, appeared. This was the first surprise visit in our new shack. Avraham, the metal shop worker, opened with a story of the results of the assault of the Bandrovechim on the Jews near the Milinsk. According to him, the nationalist Ukrainians murdered five Jews, among them children and women. The rest of them, who escaped, got to our forest and some of them are hiding in the houses of good non-Jews in Milinsk. Avraham described the present situation as very serious, and he brought plans how to flee from this area, and to prevent a concentration of too many Jews together. According to him, we were about a hundred people.

Bluma began to argue with him, claiming that there was no logic in changing our place. Actually here, near Kerchon, it seems safer, because the Bandrovechim will not dare to get near here because of their fear of the Polish defense, unless they plan to attack the whole village. If this was the case, we would have heard of this from the Poles. Avraham, the metal shop worker, suggested a plan of observation by sitting on trees in the area, from a certain distance from our living quarters, to observe, and to warn if there was any danger approaching.

It was decided by Avraham Hakerchoni and Avraham, the metal shop worker, to make a meeting with all the men who are now in the forest. Thus, there was such a meeting with the new Jews who escaped the area of Milinsk. Amongst them stood out a tall and skinny fellow by the name of Francis. It seemed that he had initiative and was very forceful. There were men from the Katz family, the Brier brothers, Benyamin, Yosele, and Shalom. There were several fellows from Stepan -- Shimon, the red head, the son of the baker, the brothers from Korost -- Yosel, Mania, Aharon, and Avraham. Chana, the daughter of Nahman Shenker from Stepan, was also amongst them. There were also two girls from Sarni, the wife of the doctor with her young daughter from Brazna, along with several other men from Brazna. But I knew very little about them except children stories and knowing the Tzukerman family and that they had known my mother very well.

Francis explained that we must divide into two groups for two reasons: 1) so that we would make less noise and tracks, and 2) in the case of a capturing, we all won't be captured at once. He claimed that he had a rifle and revolver and some more weapons for self protection in the worst case. He explained that in the case of shots, we must lie down on the floor, and it is best in back of a heavy trunk of a tree or in the back of a hill. With regard to the idea of Avraham, the metal shop worker, about observation from the trees, he tended to accept the suggestion partially. He said we should have patrols every couple of hours during the day and at night for checking the situation and for warning. He suggested that we should be as quiet as possible.

In summary, the first suggestion of dividing the camp into two was accepted and to keep good communication between them. It was decided that Francis, his wife Mindel, her old mother, her brother and his wife, who was also Francis's sister, would live nearby us. The Katz family, the father, the oldest brother, Zerech, the young brother, the oldest sister, and the two younger sisters, Faysa Hanah and his granddaugher, Avraham, the metal shop worker, and his wife, and the rest, including, the girls from Sarni, the doctor's wife and her daughter from Brazna, and the other Jews from Brazna and Milinsk would live farther away, in a second area.

I was very jealous of Francis because he had weapons, and I tried to get near his weapons, to touch them, and to learn how to use them.

We continued our lives as our fears of every leaf moving were great and very strenuous on our nerves. Every day we would hear rumors, and new and horrible stories. We continued in the same manner to collect food from the village, as the appearance of the Germans in the village was not very probable. From the stories of the Poles, we learned that the situation of the Germans on the Russian front was worse and they began to retreat. Along with this, there was the activity of the partisans, who supported the Russians on one hand and the Ukrainian Nationalists on the other hand. They told us that the Germans were planning a big revenge action on the Ukrainians in Stepan. There was a rumor that when the Ukrainians rebelled in Stepan recently, they hung several Germans from the government in Stepan on phone poles.

These stories encouraged us, and especially the rumor of the retreat of the Germans and their fall in Russia, and the possibility of revenge of the Germans against the Ukrainians. All this gave us a little hope, that perhaps we would be redeemed one of these days. This was in spite of the fact that the news was general and not usually based on fact.

Along with all the fears that were caused because of the situation, I had self confidence based on the fact that we had a reinforcement of Jews -- strong men with some weapons that they possessed. We would meet with them often and listen to discussions, arguments, prophesies, and evaluations about our chances of getting through the war and being free soon. We found friends who were orphans, and we would go out together and collect mushrooms and forest berries.

One morning, Avraham Hakerchoni returned from a patrol in the forest, and he announced to us that he met a Jew, a person he knew from Korost, his wife, her sisters, and her brother. It was apparently Rafael, the partisan, who could tell that he was the leader of the partisans, and he has different and strange plans about how to deal with the Germans. According to him, he had a secret connection with the headquarters. I knew the truth from his wife, and from his sisters, and especially from his little sister – Devora (Devorke) who said that he had escaped from a group of Ukrainian partisans who turned into Ukrainian Nationalists. Therefore, he is in our area. Rafael would be by himself for hours, even for days, as he would tell about the meetings with the partisans, and terrorist acts on railroad tracks and German installations. Most of the Jews of the forest belittled these stories and thought they were only in his imagination. Once he pointed to a square package that was placed near him, and said this was terrorist material that would soon be activated, and would blow up another train of the Germans.

 

Collecting Food for the Winter

The summer was coming to an end and time for the harvest: the grain crops, the fruits, and the field crops were ripe. On one of our visits to the village, it became known to us that the Ukrainian Nationalists raided the Polish villages in the area of Stepan, killed, robbed, and burned. The residents of the village, being surrounded by Ukrainians, were afraid for their future, and decided to evacuate the village as early as possible, and to move to one of the nearby cities. This was according to the recommendation of the Germans, who said that when they are on the front, they could not promise to protect them. And so, after a few days, the Poles began to evacuate their village. We said goodbye to them, and especially to Manka and to the rest of the good people, with tears in our eyes. They tried to give us utensils and clothes, and said everything that was left in the fields, in their houses, and in their barns was ours, and we should use it. And thus it was.

As soon as the Poles left the village, we began to take care of ourselves with regard to food supplies for the winter. It was the time to collect from the fields. Almost everything was left in the fields and a lot in their houses as they left in a hurry. It was known to us that Ukrainians from the nearby villages would visit. Therefore, we made our visits in the evening or at night.

Avraham Hakerchoni was the expert on finding all sorts of bargains, like household utensils, like a millstone or a barrel of pickled cucumbers, pickled cabbage, cheese, or oils. With the cooperation of Avraham, we collected everything from the fields -- potatoes, grain crops, vegetables, and fruit.

In our hiding places in the forest, we set up huge wooden barrels from the village, and we filled them with wheat and rye grains, after threshing, drying, and cleaning. By the shack, we set up a millstone with great difficulty, which we brought with a small cart that we pulled from the village to the forest. We also brought a mortar and a pestle from wood for grinding the oily grain after drying in the sun or by the fire. On one of our visits, we discovered a barrel with salty preserved cheese and we took it to the forest. We dug two huge holes and filled them with potatoes and carrots, and covered them with hay and sand so they would keep for the winter and would not freeze. When fall arrived, we had collected for ourselves a supply of potatoes, wheat and rye grains, onions, garlic, some preserved cheese, pickled cucumbers and cabbage, oil grains, beans, and some salt. All the others Jewish residents of the forest did the same. At the beginning of the evacuation, we caught a bull that had run off to the forest. Mr. Pessa, the butcher, took care of slaughtering of the bull and dividing the meat to everyone. It was enough for several weeks.

 

The Birth of Peretz

One day, Bluma had to give birth. With the help of several Jewish women, she gave birth, and they named him Peretz (Perchik). We had a new member to our shack who was happily received with much love. But we were worried that his crying could be heard by the enemy. But we were comforted by the fact that the fall winds got stronger and would make more noise than the baby's cry. The conditions for taking care of the baby were not good, but we tried our best. As far as I remember, there were a few more births in the forest, and the babies grew up in the conditions of the underground.

There were two tragedies. A Jew from Brazna was shot while taking potatoes out of the field near the railroad tracks. We did not know if the bullets were from the Germans or from the Ukrainians. In the evening, he was brought to the forest and was buried by my mother. My mother's grave turned into the cemetery.

The other case was Rafael, the partisan, who disappeared or was kidnapped. When he went to the village early in the morning in order to collect fruit, with his wife's little sister, Devorke, she returned to the forest by herself and told how she saw him being taken by two strong unknown men who spoke Ukrainian. She saw how they tied his hands in back of him, how he was blindfolded, and led away. She was told to go back immediately to the forest. She arrived running and out of breath. She told the story of what happened to Rafael, while crying. His wife and the rest of his family were very sad, and this worried the rest of the Jews in the forest. There were several hypotheses: 1) since they were Bandrovechim, they knew there were Jews in the forest and looked for them in order to kill them, and 2) if they were Russian partisans, they would let him go, or they would try him on some crime. This was very difficult for us. We hoped to see him one day. But the days passed and we heard nothing from him. It was clear that he was killed.

 

The Cruelty of the Bandrovechim towards the Poles

One morning, we heard great explosions from the area of Stepan. We guessed that they were the bombings of the Germans, and we were glad that they were avenging the cruel Ukrainians, blood thirsty, who murdered and robbed the Jews along with the Poles. The houses of the Poles looked like the houses of the Jews when they entered the ghetto. They were destroyed, looted, destroyed doors and windows, and even houses. That is what they did in the village of Kerchon.

Along with all the worries and difficulties, we continued to supply ourselves with food and wood for heating in the winter that was approaching. In the evening, by the bonfire, we would ground the grain on the millstone, and store it in bags. We cleaned and sifted the beans, the onions, and the garlic. After drying it, we would store it.

The High Holidays of 1943 arrived. The services were held near Mr. Katz's shack. I remember very well the services of Yom Kippur. We were the whole day outside by the shack, we prayed, and listened to the adult prayers. But we also listened to any noise, being afraid that someone was coming near us. Our situation got worse because of the many Bandrovechim. But on the other hand, we had a feeling that the Germans were falling and that our redemption was near. There was a great desire to pass this and remain alive -- to avenge what was done to us. Yom Kippur passed and everyone went back to their shacks.

 

The Persecution by the Gang of the Ukrainian Murderers

A very sad and worrisome case took place. From the direction of the other concentration of Jews in the forest, we heard shooting. After a short while, several fellows came to us after escaping. They told us of the story of the attack of the Bandrovechim and how they captured the Jews. This caused great panic, and it was decided to leave everything and move over to the grove near the railroad tracks of Sarny-Rovno. We thought that the Bandrovechim would not dare get close to the railroad tracks because of their fear of the Germans and that the Germans, being worried with their defeat and afraid of getting involved with the partisans, would not enter the forest to search.

That same night we fled to the railroad tracks, and we assembled, everyone with their bundles in their hands. We were very careful to be quiet, and not to make a bonfire during the day and the night. When we did light a fire, we made sure that no sparks were in the air by using fitting wood. It was decided that the real solution was to start digging large living quarters, deep in the ground, which would be covered by logs, branches, and earth. In this large shack, all the Jews who remained were to live.

Therefore, a collective building effort began, organized and managed by Avraham Hakerchoni and Avraham, the metal shop worker. In the meantime, the rest of the Jews were found and nothing bad had happened to them. There were those who the Bandovechim caught. But they only wanted to know where the rest of the Jews were and if they had a connection with the partisans. In the end, they let them go and said that they were invited to live in Stepan, along with the rest of the Jews of the forest. They claimed that they needed craftsmen, and there must be some amongst the Jews. They claimed that the Jews of Stepan had lives of their own with all the rights and that Stepan has been under independent Ukrainian rule for some time. They suggested that we decide within a week to come of our own freewill, and that would be best. If not, they would bring us to Stepan against our will, as it is for the best.

This seemed to us very strange, and there were arguments amongst us. There were a few who tended to believe the Ukrainians, but most didn't believe them, and understood that this was a trap in order to kill the remaining Jews in a total manner. But we picked several fellows to go to Stepan and to see the reality there.

We, seventy people -- men, women, and some babies -- crowded ourselves in the huge underground shack. We didn't light the fire during the day, only at night. During the day, it was freezing, as the winter arrived. At night we warmed ourselves by the heater and baked potatoes. The crowding was horrible and made life very difficult. But it seemed that the suffering was on the way to redemption.

After a day after the men left for Stepan, they returned very frightened, as they met a non-Jew from one of the villages who asked them where they were going. After they told him their story, he asked to come with them to the forest. Later he told them that the story of the Bandrovechim taking care of the Jews was a lie, and that they shouldn't go to Stepan. He also told them that the front was getting closer, and it seems that within a month the Russians will be here. If we had lasted this long, we should hold on a little longer and hide, because the day of freedom is near. He said that we shouldn't worry about the Bandrovechim because they are busy hiding from the Russians who are getting closer.

He was really the messenger of G-d, one of the righteous men of the nations of the world. The fellows returned to us and told us what "the guardian angel" told them. Then we decided that we should get organized where we were, and that we should get as much food as possible, without moving when the snow began in order to prevent tracks in the snow.

 

None of Your Honey and None of Your Sting

One day, after we succeeded to organize most of the supply of food and even to grind flour, Avraham Hakerchoni decided to go out with me to the other side of the railroad tracks. There were a few abandoned houses of Poles. These houses were not far from a village of Ukrainians who were known for their cruelty. Bluma tried to convince us not to go, but Avraham said he would carry this out, because of his stubbornness.

We left at dawn. Outside it was still dark, and by the early morning hours, we reached the houses. It looked very abandoned and it seemed that the Ukrainian neighbors had stolen most of the things, including doors and windows that were taken down from the houses. Avraham found by one of the houses a beehive. He decided that he wanted the honey. He knew that he had to take precautions against possible bee stings. He knew from experience the use of smoke, and the possibility of flooding with water. Since smoke would reveal us, Avraham decided to equip ourselves with many different rags, and cover our bodies including our faces, so that we had air to breath, and try to overcome the bees by flooding with water. Thus we did, but we were attacked by the bees, and I felt that that were penetrating past the rags and that they were stinging my whole body. Avraham felt the same thing. After we poured buckets of water into the first beehive, Avraham suggested that we retreat and clean ourselves from the bees. We cleaned ourselves from the bees and saw that we had been stung on our whole bodies. But Avraham was stubborn to get the honey. After a short rest, we moved toward the hive that we had flooded again, and began to take pieces of wax that were full of honey. We filled our buckets, and we were stung again, but continued with our work. We placed the honey in back of the trees. We looked for large containers to carry it back. We found two large milk jugs, we cleaned them with water, and began to fill them with honey, as we separated the honey from the wax in order to save room. After we tasted the honey, it gave us the desire to get additional amounts of honey.

Very carefully, while looking out to see that the Ukrainians from the neighboring village did not see us, we continued with our work, as we did the first time. We were successful in filling two jugs with honey, which only needed to be strained and purified. We got stung again, but we were already immune. We moved away from the houses and from the hives in the direction of the grove in the forest, and we planned to rest until the sun set, and then to pass the railroad tracks in the direction of the shack. We lied down to rest and licked the honey, but the pain from the bee stings increased, and I saw how Avraham looked and how I felt. We were swelling up from minute to minute. My eyes swelled up, and I barely could see anything.

In the meantime, the sun set. Avraham found a strong branch and we placed the two jugs on our shoulders and continued on our way to the shack. We passed over the railroad tracks by running. We got to the shack late that night, because the jugs were heavy and because of the bee stings. We walked slowly and heavily.

Bluma and my sister were happy to see us alive, knowing that we took a big risk. We showed them what we had brought back and began the work of straining and purifying the honey on white pieces of cloth. In the end, there was left a large amount of honey, which added to our food supply greatly. Avraham and I suffered from the bee stings for more than a week. I even had a high temperature. Bluma took care of me and Avraham with all sorts of leaves and moist clothes with water and honey. After a week, we felt better and the swelling began to go down.

 

Organization for the Winter Days -- a Collective Framework

As long as it didn't start snowning, all seventy residents of the shack tried to help in organizing for the coming winter. Avraham and I, like the others, carried on our backs sacks of potatoes and hid them near the shack. My sister and Bluma baked supplies of bread, and we dried it so it would last the winter. We brought supplies of honey, onions, garlic, and anything else we could carry. We dug a well nearby with the cooperation from everybody. The preparations continued as long as it didn't begin to snow. We organized our daily life and found a place for everybody in the shack. We set up metal heaters, made by Avraham, the metal shop worker, and the chimneys were slanted sideways and downwards so the sparks wouldn't fly at night. Nearby the shack, we collected dry trees for the heaters.

Even though it was very difficult not to heat during the day and only at night, the majority received this decision without reservation. Everyone had in their hearts the feeling that was sometimes expressed in discussions that we had gone through the worst, and that we were near to being freed, and that we should suffer the maximum for this short time, so not to fail.

 

The Bells of Redemption and Freedom on the Horizon

When all the preparations were finished, December, 1943 arrived and the snow storms began along with intense cold. We heard from far away bombings and the sounds of artillery, mostly at night. An airplane that we heard every morning and evening along the railroad tracks of Rovno-Sarny, stopped flying. The tension of what was to happen was in the air.

Every night we would set up a number of guards outside of the shack in order that they could search, guard, and listen, and if necessary warn of a danger approaching.

One night two fellows entered and told that they heard voices in Russian from the direction of the railroad tracks nearby. Immediately the two Avrahams, Francis, and some other Jews joined them, and got close to the tracks and tried to listen. They clearly heard voices in Russian, and footsteps in the direction of Sarny to Rovno.

After we returned to the shack, there was a strong argument. Many of the residents tended to believe that according to all the signs and rumors up to now, the Russians had arrived and that we would be soon free. But a small part of the residents, including Avraham, the metal shop worker, said this was not possible and at most this was a group of partisans that was passing by, and that we should not show ourselves because then the Germans would follow.

 

The Meeting with the Liberating Russian Army

Thus the discussions continued and the listening and surveillance continued at night. Finally there were compromisers amongst the residents that suggested sending a group to Hutor, the nearby Ukrainian village, there lived a reliable non-Jew who Francis knew. Francis was the head of the group. We were all very tense, and in inhumane conditions, we awaited impatiently for the group to return. The wives of the men who were sent were very scared.

One night four men went out in the direction of Hutor, taking advantage of the snow storm which covered their tracks. The next day, before noon, the weather improved and we were expecting them to return that night. But during the day, they came happy, approaching the shack, singing in Russian. Avraham, the metal shop worker, who was always suspicious, began to go crazy and swear to them how they could endanger us in the middle of the day, and why they weren't careful to cover their tracks.. They made fun of him and began saying: "Jews, we are liberated! We met Russian soldiers and at their head a Jewish commander. We got an exact report from him about the situation on the front. The Russians are making progress on all the fronts. There now are battles in the area of Kobel and they are making progress in the direction of Lavov, to the center of Warsaw. The Germans are fleeing and are very scared." They suggested that we take the necessities and go in the direction of Milinsk. Avraham, the metal shop worker, claimed that he did not believe them, and that it is at the most partisans. He refused to leave the forest until formal Russian representatives would arrive and invite us to be liberated.

The majority made fun of him and were quick to leave the forest. We walked on the railroad tracks toward Milinsk. It was the liberation march of the starved, full of lice, fear, with rags on our feet, partially barefoot, marching in the cold and snow, happy, knowing that we were free.

As we marched, the Russian Army passed by us, proud and self confident. When they saw our sad case, they threw us canned goods and clothes.

 

Organization of Life after Leaving the Underground

By evening, we arrived at Milinsk. Avraham Hakerchoni led the convoy. We all stood by the village council building. Avraham and the rest of the Jews of Milinsk entered the building to the head of the village council, and requested that they be given their homes back. And each family received a room in houses that belonged to the Jews before the war. In a large house in the center of the village, Avraham Hakerchoni, Bluma, Pertzik got organized in one room, next to them Pessa, his daughter, and his granddaughter, next to them the Briyerim, and next to them my sister and me. The rest of the Jews were in houses that belonged to some of them in the past, others in houses they were given and that were owned by Jews in the past. Milinsk was a railroad station between Sarny and Kostopol. The non-Jewish neighbors and the Russian army helped us get organized for the night, by giving us hay mattresses and food. It was the first time I had slept in a house after seventeen months in the forest. We felt free and felt we had rights like all citizens at the time of war.

The next day, we walked amongst the Red Army, and very soon we met Jewish commanders and soldiers. The stations were full of soldiers, in cars, on horses, or by foot that fought against the retreating German army. Trains passed by all the time filled with army, weapons, heavy tanks, artillery, and bombs that were covered in order not to be discovered. On the roofs of all the cars of the trains, there was artillery against airplanes, machine guns against airplanes, with brave soldiers situated on them.

We talked with the Jewish soldiers and commanders and we heard from them that the Nazis had murdered most of their families. They helped us the best they could by giving us canned goods and some clothing. We turned to the village council and they gave us potatoes and flour. With the aid of the non-Jewish neighbors, we began organizing ourselves at home, including wood for heating the oven that was used for heating and cooking. One of the activities that we placed must effort on was destroying the lice. We sorted all of our bundles and burned the extra clothing. My sister washed the clothes, first in lukewarm water and then boiled them in hot water. We washed our bodies in hot water from buckets and bowls. We washed our cut hair in hot water and with kerosene -- according to our neighbors' suggestions. This activity wasn't completed after one time, but we did this a number of times, until we felt free of the burden of the Nazi persecution and the lice.

After a short time, I got sick and felt a strong pain in my knees. I couldn't stand on my feet. The non-Jewish neighbors helped my sister take care of me. Bluma and Chanah took care of me with family remedies. An army doctor, who was brought by one of the non-Jewish neighbors, took care of me. Within a couple of weeks, I felt better and began to walk again.

In the meantime, several orphans from Stepan came to Milinsk, and they told us that there were several fellows in Stepan who were still alive. I began to plan a visit to Stepan, in order to 1) to see how much the town had been destroyed; 2) to hear who was still alive; and 3) to collect some of our belongings and our relatives' belongings that had been left with non-Jews at the beginning of the war.

At the beginning, the plan was postponed because we were afraid of attacks from the Bandrovechim. We had to take care of our daily existence. Therefore, the men who were of army age, were drafted to the army. Bluma organized a cart with horses, with the help of the Red Army. One morning I traveled with them to the forest, to the place where we hid, and by the shack, we took out potatoes and some grain from the grain that was leftover from our time in the forest. This involved great danger from the Bandrovechim. But along with the accompaniment of some Russian soldiers, the task was completed as planned. This promised us food for a certain period of time.

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