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[Page 63]

The Community of Braslav during the Holocaust

Translated from the Hebrew by Laia Ben-Dov

Donated by Jeff Deitch

“… For behold, Your enemies stir,
and those who hate You raise their heads.
Against Your people they plot cunningly,
and they take counsel against Your protected ones.
They said, ‘Come let us destroy them as a nation,
and the name of Israel will no longer be remembered.’”

– Psalm 83:3-5

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Deep, Deep Pits and Red, Red Loam

By Shmuel Halkin[1]

Deep, deep pits, and red, red loam –
Once I too had a home –
Where the orchards bloomed in spring
And in autumn birds took wing
And in winter soft snow fell.
Now – the wind his moan howls there.

A disaster struck my home!
Open wide flung doors and gates
The vile murderers, the butchers,
They who slaughter little children,
They who hang the old, the weak,
They who leave no one to speak …

Deep, deep pits, and red, red loam –
Once I too had a home.

The years come, the years go,
Brimful are the pits
And redder still the loam.
That loam is now my home
There my brothers, sisters lie –
Torn limb from limb
Cut down on the spot
Shot down beside the pit.

Deep, deep pits, and red, red loam –
Once I too had a home.

Brighter days will dawn again
Fortune will yet smile again
And the pain will slowly wane.
Once again will children sprout
Once again will play and shout
Near the graves of the holy dead
Graves so deep, so full, so red –
And with the wind will sigh your moan.
Deep, deep pits, and red, red loam –
Once I too had a home.

Deep, deep pits, and red, red loam –
Once I too had a home …

Yes, once I too had a home …

Footnote

  1. Shmuel Halkin (1897-1960) was a Soviet Yiddish poet from Rogachev, Belorussia. His poem (in Yiddish, “Tife Griber, Royte Laym”) is an iconic work on the Holocaust, begun in 1943 after he visited what was left of his native town. The English version of this poem also appears on pages 628-629 of this memorial book. Return

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In Memory of My Father,
Rabbi Zvi-Hirsh [Valin],
of Blessed Memory

By Israel Valin

Translated from the Hebrew by Laia Ben-Dov

Footnotes Added / Donated by Jeff Deitch

Today, when we say the Yizkor prayer, full of horror for our loved ones who were destroyed, murdered, slaughtered and burned, we must remember that the voices of our brothers' blood are shouting to us from within the earth. They're demanding that we continue to keep their memory …

As one of those who was blessed to live for 20 years – from the dawn of my childhood – in our town of Braslav, I recall as a sacred obligation the image of my father, my teacher, the brilliant Rabbi Zvi-Hirsh (the son of Avraham-Yitzchak Valin), may G-d avenge his blood, the former rabbi of Braslav (who last served as the rabbi of the town of Goldingen, in Courland, Latvia [now called Kuldiga, about 370 kilometers northwest of Braslav]).

My father, my teacher, the rabbi, the Gaon, Rabbi Zvi-Hirsh Valin, was born in our town of Braslav to his father, Rav Avraham-Yitzchak Valin, one of the distinguished men of the town. In his childhood, superior talents were recognized in him. He studied at the Volozhin Yeshiva[1] and at the Knesset Beit Yitzchak Yeshiva in Slabodka,[2] and he received Torah from the head of the yeshiva, the Gaon Rabbi Yitzchak-Elchanan [Spektor] [1817-96], of blessed memory. His wonderful skills and great diligence shaped him and made him one of the great Torah scholars. After his marriage to my mother, the rebbetzin [wife of the rabbi] Sara-Hinda, may G-d avenge her blood, the daughter of the honored wealthy man Reb Yehuda-Leib from Sventzion [Swieciany, about 90 kilometers southwest of Braslav; now in eastern Lithuania], he continued to study Torah in his home and became a great man of stature, with a majestic appearance and a mouth that produced jewels. While he was still studying at the yeshivas, he won goodwill through his talent for speaking and practical initiative, and as a community worker and faithful Zionist. At all of the assemblies of the yeshivas and the rabbis, he was always among the main speakers, and everywhere he appeared he made a great impression. He had the strength to speak for three continuous hours without fatigue. With the magic of his oratory, with fiery words, he enthralled his audience.

When he was still young, he was accepted as a rabbi in Krasnopolia (Suvalk sector) [Krasnopol in the Russian province of Suwalki Gubernia, now in northeast Poland], and after several years he was invited to take a position in the rabbinate in Nei-Sventzion (Vilna sector) [Nowo-Swieciany in Polish / Svencioneliai in Lithuanian, in the Russian province of Vilna Gubernia, now in eastern Lithuania; Nei-Sventzion was about 90 kilometers southwest of Braslav]. After a time, the distinguished men of the town of my birth, Braslav, turned to him and asked him to take office as the rabbi of Braslav and the surrounding area. He did much, promoting and looking after the daily life of the residents of the town. He also established a grand yeshiva, to which streamed young men of talent from Braslav and the surrounding area, as well as young men who came to learn from the yeshivas in the cities of Poland, who were fleeing from being drafted into the Polish army. To enable the yeshiva students to cross the border into Latvia and continue their Torah studies there, my father formed a connection with a trader from Braslav, Reb Velvel the flax dealer, may G-d avenge his blood, who smuggled flax over the border. My mother, the rebbetzin Sara-Hinda, may G-d avenge her blood, should be remembered for her goodness; she did a lot to help the yeshiva students as well as the brides in the town who were in straitened circumstances. Among these yeshiva students were two lads who were wonderful in Torah and in their character. One of them was Rabbi Eliezer-Yehuda Nidzoyadovitz [or Nidubiadowitz] from the Chofetz Chaim Yeshiva in Radun [about 240 kilometers southwest of Braslav; now in Belarus]. My father chose him as a bridegroom for my elder sister Breina, may G-d avenge her blood. She and her husband and their children were killed in the Holocaust in Luzhki [Luzki, about 65 kilometers southeast of Braslav] (near Gluboki [Glubokoye]), where he served as the rabbi. The second lad was Rabbi Moshe Shtern (called the “young genius of Rassishk”) and he was among the yeshiva students who fled from the army draft. I, the writer of these lines, crossed the border together with him [into Latvia], with the help of Reb Velvel the flax dealer, and from there I went on aliyah to Israel.

My father also took an interest in the local youth, and he was original in his influence … I remember that one day

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the non-religious youths gathered to paint the [building of the] Halutz[3] organization; there also was a drama club in Braslav and at their head was my brother Moshe of blessed memory (the prominent Israeli impresario, who passed away in 1979).[4] The matter became known to my father, and suddenly he appeared among the youths painting the building and said to them, “There's some reason you didn't invite me to your group? … As the town rabbi, I'd be glad to serve at your head.” When they heard this, the youths were embarrassed and they dispersed … the next day my father brought out a kol-korei [rabbinic statement]: “To build up the precious faith and warm hearts of the youngsters, gather to us every pioneer, every generous soul who finds in himself the desire for the land of Israel, who's prepared to choose Zion and Jerusalem. Come, together we can consult and unite the scattered strengths into one camp, with the assistance of the Helper of Israel in Zion …” and so on.

In the pamphlet Otzar HaAretz [Treasures of the Land], published by Knesset Jerusalem in the year 5686 [1926], we find the signature of my father, my teacher, the genius, on the proclamation of the rabbis of Poland on behalf of Keren Hayesod.[5] At that time, my father volunteered to go abroad for a collection campaign for the Vaad HaYeshivot [Council of Yeshivot],[6] which was then in a difficult economic situation. For this purpose he traveled to Latvia, where the heads of the community in the town of Goldingen recognized and appreciated him, and they chose him to be the rabbi of their town. The young man Reb Moshe Shtern came to us, and my father chose him to marry my young sister Beila, may G-d avenge her blood. He [Shtern] was chosen to hold office in the rabbinate of the town of Schonberg in Latvia [now Skaistkalne in central-southern Latvia, some 180 kilometers northwest of Braslav], where he served until the day of the Holocaust.

The day of parting from Braslav was hard for us and for the residents of the town. The entire large community felt in its soul that it was parting from something precious and holy. When my father gave his farewell sermon in the synagogue, from which the residents of the town accompanied him to the train, they all felt a holy feeling filling their hearts … and a holy splendor poured over all those who gathered there, who were ready to break down in weeping … the impression was so strong and so dramatic … that at that hour all of them felt a hidden spiritual value in this true rabbinate …

In Goldingen, my father served as rabbi until the bitter day when the Holocaust came. Then all of them gathered together. My brother-in-law, Rabbi Gaon Moshe Shtern, his wife the rebbetzin (my sister Beila) and their children, my brother Mordechai, his wife and their children, my brother Betzalel, all of them went to my parents, who'd already managed to flee from Goldingen to Riga. There all of them were murdered by the Nazi oppressor and burned while they were still alive, together with other rabbis of Latvia, in the great synagogue in Riga.[7] May G-d avenge their blood.

… We will remember the comrades, the relatives and the friends who were killed in Braslav during the Holocaust and gave their lives as martyrs for the Sanctification of the Holy Name. To all of them, I read the words of Jonathan to David: “You will be remembered, because your place will remain empty” [I Samuel 20:18] … we won't forget you, your places remain empty …

 

Rabbi Rav Zvi-Hirsh Valin

 

Footnotes
  1. The Volozhin Yeshiva, also called the Etz Chaim Yeshiva, was a Lithuanian yeshiva located in what's now Valozhyn, Belarus. Established in 1806 by Rabbi Chaim Volozhin, a student of the famed Vilna Gaon, it operated from 1806 to 1892 and from 1899 to 1939. It served as a model for yeshivas established thereafter in Lithuania and was called the Oxford/Cambridge of Judaism. The building housing the yeshiva survived World War II and in 1989 was returned to the Jewish community of Belarus. Return
  2. This prominent yeshiva was located in Slabodka in what's now Vilijampole, a suburb of Kovno [Kaunas], Lithuania. It operated from the late 1800s until World War II. Return
  3. Halutz (Pioneer) was a Jewish youth movement that trained young people for agricultural settlement in Palestine. It was part of the Zionist youth movement. Return
  4. This refers to Moshe Valin, a founder and director of the Li La Lo theater group in Tel Aviv. Return
  5. Keren Hayesod was the Foundation Fund, founded in London in 1920 as a funding arm of the World Zionist Organization to help the Jews return to Palestine, following the Balfour Declaration in 1917. Return
  6. This organization, based in Vilna and active from 1924-39, was authorized by the Polish government to provide spiritual and financial support to the Orthodox yeshivas in Poland's five eastern provinces: Bialystok, Nowogrodek, Polesie, Vilna and Volhynia. It comprised a network of about 70 yeshivas with a total of about 6,000 students, with a supporting membership of more than 350 Jewish communities in the region. Return
  7. The Great Choral Synagogue, completed in 1871, the largest synagogue in Riga, was burned on July 4, 1941, three days after the Nazis occupied Riga; it's estimated that as many as 300 Jews were killed in the conflagration. Also burned on July 4 were other synagogues in Riga, including the Old-New Synagogue, the city's oldest. Only the Peitav Synagogue escaped destruction. Return

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In Memory of the
Rabbi Rav Avraham-Abba-Yaacov Zahorie,
of Blessed Memory

By Tuvia Fisher

Translated from the Hebrew by Laia Ben-Dov

Footnotes Added / Donated by Jeff Deitch

This rabbi, who reached his high position not because of the authorities but on the strength of his moral standing in the Jewish community, wasn't a man who studied Torah for a limited time, but one who dedicated his entire life to sacred studies and immersed himself in serving the Creator heart and soul, day and night. The rabbi's house was a study hall for learning Jewish law and was separated from the external, materialistic world. The rabbi's wish was to lead his community and influence it with words of honesty and holiness, to be a leader and set a personal example in his morality, in daily life in ordinary times and in times of calamity, G-d forbid. The rabbi sat among the people, though his conduct set him apart. He taught the members of his congregation “on his right, the fire of religion…”[1] Thus are scholars of the law recognized, “by their speech and their clothing in the marketplace” (Sefer Bracha). Everything said thus far, and much more than this, was embodied in the character of our rabbi, Rav Avraham-Abba-Yaacov, of blessed memory. With heart and soul, he was deeply tied to the Jews of the place. He shared all their celebrations and felt all their sorrows. With difficulty, he supported his family by selling yeast to housewives on the eves of the Sabbath and holidays. The economics of the household were the concern of the rebbetzin [his wife]. Rabbi Avraham-Abba-Yaacov was immersed entirely in his spiritual world, the world of Torah, and he didn't know the shape of a coin or its worth. When I was a yeshiva student living outside Braslav, I'd always make my first visit, when I came home for the holidays, to the house of Rabbi Avraham-Abba, to say to him “Shalom aleichem” [“Peace be upon you”] and wish him well. Always I found him sunk in his learning. Rav Avraham-Abba-Yaacov was satisfied even with very little. His main food was bread dipped in salt and boiled water.

There were four minyans in Braslav – four locations of prayer in which the Jews of the town prayed on weekdays and holidays: the Old Minyan, the New Minyan, the Sandy Minyan called Der Zamdiker [The Zodiac], and the Beit Midrash [study hall]. In three of these minyans, they prayed according to the Sephardic custom – Nusach HaAri Hakadosh – and only in the Beit Midrash did they pray according to the Ashkenazi custom.[2] Rabbi Avraham-Abba-Yaacov prayed in the Old Minyan, but he was accepted and very much honored by all of the prayer houses and congregations. The gabbai [caretaker] of the Old Minyan synagogue was my father, Reb Baruch Fisher, of blessed memory. Many of the men of the town would come to listen to Rav Avraham-Abba-Yaacov's sermons, which he gave in the Old Minyan. The place was always full from end to end with members of all the minyans. All the men of Braslav paid great respect to their Rabbi Rav Avraham-Abba-Yaacov Zahorie, of blessed memory, or, as he was called with affection by the people, Rav Abba der Rav. In his sermons, he didn't pain his listeners and he didn't moralize. He always saw before him holy, pure Jews, not sinners, G-d forbid. He explained Torah in new ways connected to a Jew's daily life led in terms of charity and honesty.

In the summer of 1939, I was drafted into the Polish army, which was about to go to war against Nazi Germany. Before I left home, my father sent me to ask Rav Avraham-Abba-Yaacov for his blessing, and of course I did this willingly. When I entered the Rav's house I found him, as always, immersed in the Gemarah.[3] Out of respect, I stood and waited until he sensed I was there. I blessed him with the greeting, “Shalom aleichem,” and stated my request. The Rav listened with great attention and then told me to say three times the verses

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“Do not fear sudden terror or destruction”[4] that are recited after the prayer “It is our duty to praise the Master of all…” [from the Aleinu L'Shabeach prayer]. In the difficult moments I had over the years that followed, I always repeated to myself these words of the Rav's blessing. The shining face of Rav Abba and his spiritual image were with me on every path. With G-d's help and the Rav's merit I arrived at old age, when the years of the war and the Holocaust that the Nazis brought upon our people were behind me.

Rabbi Rav Avraham-Abba-Yaacov, his wife the rebbetzin and his two sons, Reb Eliezer-Yitzchak and Reb Mendel, met their death in the massive slaughter that the Nazis and their collaborators carried out in the Braslav Ghetto on Wednesday, 18 Sivan 5702 – June 3, 1942.

May G-d avenge their blood.

 

Rabbi Rav Avraham-Abba-Yaacov Zahorie

 

Footnotes
  1. Deuteronomy 33:2, associating fire with the Torah. Return
  2. This reflected the spread of Hasidic Judaism, which from the 1700s had led to the application of Kabbalistic concepts to Jewish daily ritual. Before Hasidism emerged, most East European Jews had followed the generally non-Kabbalistic prayer liturgy inherited from West European Jewry: the Nusach Ashkenaz. The Hasidim, on the other hand, believed that the more Kabbalistically oriented Sephardic prayer liturgy (Nusach Sepharad) was superior, and they changed the prayer liturgy from the Ashkenazic tradition to the Sephardic one. Acceptance or rejection of this change was one of the major differences between the Hasidim and the Mitnagdim.

    HaAri Hakadosh refers to Rabbi Isaac Luria of Safed (1534-72), the scholar of Kabbala whose Sephardic teachings were adopted by Hasidic Judaism in the 1700s. Return

  3. Talmudic literature comprising rabbinical analysis of and commentary on the Mishnah. Return
  4. Proverbs 3:25-26: “Do not fear sudden terror or destruction caused by the wicked, when it comes; for you can rely on G-d; he will keep your foot from being caught in a trap.” Return

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About Chaim Munitz, of Blessed Memory
(Son of Shaitel and Rafael-Yaacov)

By Leyzer Ran

Translated from the Hebrew by Laia Ben-Dov

Footnotes Added / Donated by Jeff Deitch

 

 

Chaim Munitz was born in 1911 in Braslav in the Vilna district. After World War I broke out, he moved with his parents to the city of Kerch on the Crimean peninsula. In 1921, his family returned to Minsk in Belorussia. His father managed a cheder [Hebrew primary school], and Chaim studied there in the oldest class. In 1922, he returned to Braslav and studied at the Jewish public school.

In 1922 he was accepted into the Vilna Jewish teachers' seminary, and he also attended an art school where he learned cartography and photography inking [touching up]. In 1932, he finished his studies at the teachers' seminary and worked as a teacher in the Jewish school in Braslav. That same year, he took part in an autobiography contest sponsored by YIVO[1] (the Yiddish Scientific Institute), winning second prize.

In 1933 he worked in Vilna (together with a teacher named Biber) on the preparation of a Yiddish geographical atlas of Poland, supporting himself by inking photographic portraits. In 1937 he was accepted into the second graduation class as a research student (aspirant) at YIVO, and in the years 1937-1940 he prepared a research project on the subject “Jewish Attire in Eastern Europe in the First Half of the 19th Century,” which included an album of his drawings on the subject. Of this project, only one chapter was published: “Di Vaybershe Koptsirung” (“Women's Head Jewelry”), in the anthology Dos Tsveyte Yor Aspirantur (The Second Year of Research-Students) (Vilna: YIVO, 1938), pages 81-92.

In 1936, Munitz prepared the tables and illustrated sections of the writings of Mendele Mocher Sforim[2] for the Mendele exhibit at YIVO that year. He prepared for print volume five of Filologishe Shriftn fun YIVO: Yidishe Folklor (Philological Studies from YIVO: Jewish Folklore) (Vilna, 1938). He also drew the map of the area from which the folklore was gathered. In addition, he drew the geographic maps of the collected materials for a questionnaire that YIVO distributed on the subject “Min Fun Substantiv” (“Gender of Substantives”). Munitz was also involved in the illustration of Yiddish books. Among others, he drew the frontispiece and illustrated the book by Dr. M[ax]. Weinreich, Di Geshikhte fun Beyzn Beyz (The Story of Big Bad Beyz) (Warsaw, 1937). He also wrote poetry. His first poem, “Frost,” was printed in Der Vilner Tog [the newspaper Vilna Day] on January 31, 1936.

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In the anthology In Zich (Within Me), No. 19 (New York, 1935), a poem of his was published in the series “Dos Lid fun Khodesh” (“Poem of the Month”). In 1938, Munitz published a translation from Polish of a poem by Antoni Slonimski, “Two Homelands.”[3]

Munitz was especially active in the Vilna group of ethical socialists that was called “Fraye Shriftn” (“Free Writings”).

When the Nazis conquered Vilna, Munitz returned to Braslav, his birthplace. There he was appointed secretary of the Judenrat [Jewish Council] and kept a diary of events.

He was killed together with his wife and family [his wife Asya and their young son Rafael] in the massacre of the Jews of Braslav in June 1942.[4]

The above was written originally in Yiddish as an article for the Leksikon fun der Nayer Yidisher Literatur [Biographical Dictionary of Modern Yiddish Literature], published by Der Alveltlekher Yidisher Kultur-Kongres [World Congress for Jewish Culture] (New York, 1963).

Footnotes

  1. Yidisher Visnshaftlekher Institut (Yiddish Scientific Institute), founded in 1925 and based in Vilna before the war, where it preserved, studied and taught the history of European Jews and Yiddish. During World War II, the headquarters was moved to New York City, where it continues to operate. It's now known in English as the Institute for Jewish Research. Return
  2. Mendele the Book Peddler, the pen name of Sholem Abramovich (1835-1917), a founder of modern Yiddish and Hebrew literature. Return
  3. Slonimski (1895-1976) was a Polish author of Jewish descent who expressed his love for both Palestine and Poland and was frequently critical of Polish nationalists and Jews alike. His poem was published in 1933. Return
  4. Lucy Dawidowicz, the American scholar of modern Jewish history who befriended Chaim Munitz while she was studying in Vilna at YIVO in the 1930s, left a brief description of him in her memoir of Vilna, From That Place and Time (1989):

    Chaim Munitz wasn't a historian at all, but an artist. Originally from Braslaw, a small town not far from Vilna, he'd studied at the Yiddish Teacher's Seminary and for a while at an art school. He was tiny – about my height, thin to the point of emaciation, with a beautifully expressive face, dark eyes, and a rich head of dark wavy hair off his high forehead. He was a person of fine sensibility and was known to write poetry. He lived at the edge of penury. Sometimes he had work drawing maps or retouching and at the YIVO he did whatever artwork or design was wanted. His Aspirantur project, in the field of social history, suited his visual and graphic talents. He was preparing a lexicon of Jewish clothing in the first half of the nineteenth century.

    In February 1939, at twenty-eight, Munitz decided to get married. The aspirantn [research students] were invited to the wedding. We were his family. His mother was dead, and his father, seriously ill in Braslaw, was being cared for there by Munitz's only sister [sic; Chaim had several sisters, but Dawidowicz knew only one of them]. The bride, a seamstress, was as small, thin, and dark as he, and just as poor. She had only her parents, who lived in an old-age home, which was where the wedding ceremony, canopy and all, was held. (p. 95) Return


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Masha Maron
Daughter of Breina-Malka and Chaim [Maron]

 

 

Mendel Maron
Son of Sofia and Chaim-Aizik

 

 

Translated from the Hebrew by Laia Ben-Dov

Footnotes Added / Donated by Jeff Deitch

In June 1981, survivors of the ghettos and extermination camps met in Israel. In this month, on the 17th of Sivan [June 19], our memorial day, a ceremony was held in the cemetery in Holon to unveil a monument to the memory of more than 4,500 Jews of Braslav [Braslaw] and its surroundings, who were cruelly annihilated by the Germans and their collaborators.

Under the monument an urn was buried, containing a container of earth taken from the graves of the martyrs and smuggled from Russia to Israel by an immigrant from Braslav --- Shlomo Reichel.

The chairman of the U.S. association of the Jews of Braslav and the surrounding region, Mendel Maron, came to the meeting and ceremony with his wife, Masha. We took advantage of their presence here and wrote down a small part of their description of what happened to them during the years of the German occupation.

Mendel speaks: The war broke out [in 1941]. The speech of Soviet Foreign Minister [Vyacheslav] Molotov on the radio shocked everyone. What now? . . . What should we do? . . . Russian officers swore that their army was unconquerable and would repel the attackers within a few days, but the situation was otherwise; the German army advanced without meeting any real opposition. Already on the fourth day of the war, we saw Russian army units retreating eastward and then Communist Party members, Soviet clerks and police began to leave Braslav in disorder. We watched them with worry and fear about our own fate. We knew of the cruel, degrading attitude of the Nazis toward the Jews of Germany and the areas they occupied. Part of the Jewish population, mainly some of the young people, decided to leave the town and flee into the depths of Russia. The fortunate ones, who owned horses, hitched them to their wagons and set out. Some people managed to leave on the train before it stopped running. A few took advantage of the transportation afforded by the withdrawing Russian army, but the majority went on foot.

My family had an additional concern: Two months before the war broke out, my older brother Hirshke had been drafted, along with many other Jews of Braslav. They were busy building an airport next to the town of Skidel near the German border.[1] None of them had returned, and we had no information or news. Though our parents decided to remain, I harnessed our horse, we loaded

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the wagon with a few clothes and some food, and left Braslav: I, my little brother Mulka [Shmuel] and my brother Hirshke's wife Batia and their little daughter [Sara].

The roads were full of people, with everyone rushing eastward. We wanted to cross the old (pre-1939) border between Disna [Dzisna] and Polotsk as soon as possible.[2] We thought that at the Dvina River maybe the Russians would succeed in halting the invaders and we'd quickly return home. When we approached Miory, 40 kilometers [east] from Braslav, our horse grew tired and we were forced to stop and rest. In Miory we heard the bridge over the Dvina had been destroyed by German bombing and their army was already there. Having no choice, we returned home, and there . . . were the Germans.

Masha speaks: We didn't know much about the Germans and their behavior toward the Jews. Geographically we were far from them, and we'd only read in the newspapers about their treatment of Jews; we didn't always believe what was written. We'd begun to hear of fearful events when the Germans occupied most of Poland [in September 1939]. Fortunately, the Russians also occupied parts of Poland where most of the population was Belorussian or Ukrainian --- and so we were saved from the claws of the Nazis [until June 1941]. Then, everything changed. The Germans invaded Russia and advanced quickly. Many Jews fled eastward.

In our house, we were seven children. I was the oldest girl. My mother suggested that she stay to watch over the house and our possessions, while father would travel with the children (with the hope that it wouldn't be for long). But in the end, we all remained at home.

A few days after the Germans entered Braslav, a young German soldier visited our house. He boasted that no army in the world could conquer the German army. Their goal was to take Russia, and after that, England. Nor would America withstand their army's pressure. They wished to bring a new order to the world, in which the Germans would rule. He thought the fate of the Jews was sealed: “They'll be slaves.” On his visit, he brought us some bread and fish. Apparently the silver hair of my mother and my sister Sonia's blond hair misled him and he took us for Gentiles, but when he saw me and my black hair, he realized his mistake. I ran out of the house immediately, and he didn't visit us again.

The first to enter the town were patrols on motorcycles. After them came battle units. One unit remained in Braslav and took over the government. Many of the local Gentiles volunteered to help the Germans; some of them even put on police uniforms.[3] The first order was that the Jews must mark their houses with the word “Jude” (I think the German soldier visited us because we hadn't yet written this “special name” on the wall of the house). The next order was that every Jew had to wear yellow patches on his chest and back. Once, when I went to work, the policeman [Stefan] Zhuk caught me. I was terrified of him. With his bayonet he moved aside my hair, which covered my back, to make sure I was indeed wearing a yellow patch.

Mendel: The decrees followed one after another. One Friday, about two weeks after the Germans entered Braslav, they ordered the Jews to gather in the square of the Pravoslavic [Eastern Orthodox] Church.[4] They separated the men from the women and children, and arranged all of them in rows of five. The line was so long that it reached the Skuriat windmill at the edge of town. For their amusement, the Germans pulled from the line the elderly shochet [ritual slaughterer] Reb[5]

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Aharon-Zelig Singalovski, cut off his beard, sat him on a motorcycle and drove him at dizzying speed the length of the line and the streets, back and forth a number of times. The next day, the man had a heart attack and died.

[That day] they took all of us to a deep swamp in the Dubki [Dubkes] forest [just outside the town]. On the way, despite the prohibition against talking, we told each other we were about to be killed. We were surrounded by SS men and policemen armed with rifles and machine guns. Two men among us tried to escape, my friend Chaim Milutin and Reb Shlomo [Zilber] the shochet. Both were caught and killed before our eyes.

Masha: Within the line of women, a German policeman saw a beautiful, blond girl [Masha's sister Sonia]. He was convinced she was Aryan. “Was machst hier?” (“What are you doing here?”) he shouted at her. “Gehen schnell heraus!” (“Get out of here quick!”), “Gehen zurück” (“Go back”), he ordered her. He ordered the other patrols to help her leave the place. My aunt Chana, who was watching what was happening and didn't understand, grew frightened and shouted to her, “Soniale! Where are they taking you?” Sonia explained to the German that the woman was a little “crazy.” Sonia was my younger sister. The patrol accompanied her to the pharmacy [in the town center] and then returned to work. Sonia ran home, frightened by the events; the street was empty of people, and no one was in the house. Our house stood near Lake Noviata [Nowiata], and on the shore was a boat that had been turned over. Sonia's first thought was to sail to the other side of the lake, and from there to continue on foot to the village of Dubina [Dubene a.k.a. Dubinovo, 16 kilometers northwest of Braslav], to our grandfather and grandmother, but she changed her mind lest the enemy suspect she was fleeing from the Aktions and shoot her. She spent the rest of the day and that night under the overturned boat. We found her the next day, when they freed us from the swamp and we returned home. This time, the matter ended merely with threats and intimidation. Those who knew how the Germans operated said we'd been saved from certain death.

That black Friday became a holiday for the Gentiles. While we were away, they treated our houses like they were their own. They stole everything they could, and what was impossible to take they broke. We found our houses empty of possessions and were left without resources. We had to set things up anew, get a bit of food and clothing, something for the bedrooms and something for the kitchen and the house.

Anything was permitted when it came to oppressing the Jews. In the evenings, we shut ourselves up in our houses, afraid to go outside. Children didn't study. The stores had been closed. Occasionally people were grabbed and put to work at various labors. The Germans and their collaborators abused us at every turn, as they liked. It's true that among them were also men who were “human”; I knew one German like this. He was a veterinarian by profession and responsible for the horses. In the winter, out of concern for the horses, he'd “merely” take coats off of the Jews and put the coats over the horses. Later in the war, at a suitable opportunity, a girl from the partisans killed him.

Mendel: They ordered us to organize a Judenrat [Jewish Council]. Through the Judenrat, the [German] authorities channeled all their decrees, claims and demands regarding the Jewish population. At the head of the Judenrat stood Yitzchak Mindel, and with him other men who were known to the Jewish community: the teacher [Eliezer] Mazeh, Sasha Tempelman, the translator Ribash, Leib Valin, Yaacov Feldman and others. A few of them served as policemen and helped the Judenrat carry out the Germans' orders.

Masha: But all of them were good people.

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Every day or two, a “list of requests” was presented to the Judenrat indicating how many Jews to send to assorted jobs: to clear the snow or load wood on the train cars, send girls to clean the Germans' quarters; women to knit hats and gloves for the army, and so on. Each request was accompanied by threats that if the matter wasn't carried out at the specified time and pace, a certain number of Jews would be killed. Once they really did murder 13 or 18 Jews [at the train station], who they said were careless at work. By the same method, they also squeezed out bribes in the form of money, gold and other valuables as well as clothing. In situations like these, no one envied the members of the committee [the Judenrat], who did everything they could to meet the requests so as not to give the Germans a reason to carry out their threats.

Mendel and Masha: The worst thing for the general community was the [formation of the] ghetto. On Passover Eve 1942 [April 1, 1942], we were commanded to leave our homes [outside it]. We went out to find a corner in one of the crowded houses on Pilsudski Street; this was the area appropriated to become the ghetto, and all the Jews of Braslav were concentrated in it. Our houses and property [outside the ghetto] were confiscated by the authorities.

Masha: During our last two years in Braslav, we were fated to move three times. All the years up to then [1942], my family had lived in our own private house on the lake shore. In the yard was another building --- a bakery, the source of our livelihood. There our family grew over the years: seven children and the parents. When the place had become too small to contain everyone, my father built a new house, large and spacious. How happy we were in this new place. But we lived there less than two years. Our last dwelling place was the house of Chaim-Aizik and Sofia [Maron] in the ghetto; in other words, the house of my husband Mendel's parents.

Mendel: The real troubles began in the ghetto. The crowding was terrible; two or three families to an apartment. It was forbidden for farmers to trade with the Jews or sell us food. Only those who were sent to work outside the ghetto succeeded sometimes in exchanging valuables and clothing with the farmers for a bit of food. The locals excelled at oppressing us. Yesterday they'd been our neighbors, but now they took a major part in eliminating Jews from the neighboring villages.

We weren't so naive as to believe they wouldn't murder us. Our concentration in the ghetto was the first step toward physical annihilation. It was only a matter of time and the proper order to carry it out. The Jews in the ghetto began to prepare. In every possible place --- under the houses, in chicken coops, cowsheds, stables, under garbage dumps and toilets --- they dug pits, camouflaged cellars, built hiding places. Many people did this, and everyone took care that others didn't see their preparation. Under our house was a cellar, and we began to convert it into a hiding place. During the days of destruction to come, three families would find shelter in this cellar: my family, Masha's family, and Tuvia Vishkin's family. The days of the ghetto were numbered, a total of three months.

On Wednesday, the 18th of Sivan 1942 [Wednesday, June 3], toward morning, [German] gendarmes and [local] policemen surrounded the ghetto. With them were Lithuanians, Latvians and local residents. With threats and bestial shouts, curses and other degrading words, beatings with poles and shooting, they drove the Jews from their houses. Everyone ran about in fear: men and women, the elderly, children, youths, women with babes in their arms. All were made to run toward the train station, into a small wood [north of the town]. There, giant pits had been prepared for destruction. [In this commotion] our three families rushed into the cellar. We covered the entrance with a wooden panel and put a chair on top of it,

[Page 76]

to hide it. The killing of the ghetto's Jews continued for three days, and after that came the hunt for solitary Jews who'd succeeded in escaping.

 

A street in the Braslav Ghetto: The building on the right is the police station.

 

Masha: Two days before the massacre, the Judenrat had received an order to send 100 young girls out to work. On the third day [the day of the massacre], in the morning, the girls were taken to Slobodka (10 kilometers from Braslav).[6] There they cleaned, washed and polished the army barracks. Among these girls was my sister Sonia. My little brother Lusik, one of the twins in our family, volunteered to accompany his sister. On the fourth day [the second day of the massacre] they were returned to Braslav and taken straight to the pits. They took their last journey by way of the outskirts of the town, outside the ghetto, an area where only a day earlier it had been forbidden for Jews to go.

On our third day in the hiding place, we heard someone enter the house. There was talking in German, while they searched and turned over everything. In a corner stood a sack of potatoes, which they tumbled to the floor. A few of the potatoes rolled away and touched the board covering the entrance to our cellar, and they noticed the board was wobbling. They approached and lifted the board, and shouted that we had to come out immediately or they'd throw a hand grenade inside. We trembled in fear. The parents began to say their goodbyes to us and to each other. Someone quickly pulled out the pipe for ventilation, and a few stones in the wall came with it. We burst outside through the opening and ran in every direction. They surrounded us. Father ran in the direction of the lake, maybe he decided it was better

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to drown than to fall into the hands of the murderers. But there wasn't time, a bullet caught him before he reached the lake. My brother Moshele ran far; they caught him next to the bathhouse and killed him. He was only seven years old. My sister Atzinka, who was eight years old, managed to run to the Milutins' house, and there she fell from a murderer's bullet. Mendel's mother [Sofia] was murdered when she came out of the hiding place. I managed to hide in a nearby storage shed without them seeing me. In the cellar remained my grandmother, my mother [Breina-Malka] and my brother, the second twin, Abrashka [Avraham, the twin of Lusik]. This was the year of their bar mitzvah. Also there were Mendel's father [Chaim-Aizik], my sister Rachla, who was 12, and Moshe Vishkin's mother [Sara-Leah]. Meanwhile, they found me and a policeman shot at me. His bullet hit a tree, and a splinter from it must have hit my ear. I fainted from the strength of the blow. Thinking I was dead, the policeman rushed off. When I awoke later, it was quiet. I went outside. What I saw is indescribable. Before me was a field of destruction. The first one I found was my father; his head had been smashed by bullets. A little further on lay my sister Atzinka, like an animal. A bullet had penetrated her skull. I took her in my arms, but then I saw a policeman approaching. I laid her down and fled.

On the third day after the start of the massacre, the murderers had announced that they wouldn't kill any more and whoever remained alive should come forward to register with the police. Later I learned that my mother [Breina-Malka] and grandmother, my sister Rachla, my brother Abrashke and Mendel's father [Chaim-Aizik] had been arrested by the police. I ran to see them. Mother didn't yet know that father and four of her children [Sonia, Lusik, Atzinka, Moshele] were no longer alive. She was angry that I'd come to see the family [at the police station] and told me to get away from there. To the police [station], she said, there was only an entrance, not an exit. [At the police station, after seeing my mother] I asked for permission to go to the washroom. An unarmed policeman accompanied me, but it was dark outside, so I was able to flee. In the streets outside, I saw the bodies of people who'd been murdered. I succeeded in reaching the Milutins' house. I went up into the attic, and from there they took me to a hiding place. Mendel was there too. The hiding place was big and wide, and many people were hiding there, children also.

The people who the police had gathered from their hiding places, and others who'd believed the Germans and come out (after the Germans said they wouldn't kill any more), were all concentrated in the Folkshul. On Monday morning [June 8], the fifth day since the beginning of the massacre, we heard policemen searching the house. All of us remained in our hiding places, not moving. The children did the same. The police turned the house upside down, searching for a hidden entrance to a bunker. But without intending to, they managed to hide the entrance even better, by moving a truck seat that was in the house to the area in front of our hiding place. Finding nothing, they left the house. We were very lucky; we were several dozen people. That day, we were saved from certain death.

Toward evening, I got a strong feeling that my mother was near our hiding place. To this day, I'm convinced it was my mother and she was looking for me, having risked her life by escaping from the Folkshul. I whispered to the others, “My mother's here,” but they didn't let me communicate with her. I'm convinced I heard her footsteps, though the others thought it was the police. We lay as quiet as the dead, and my mother went away like [I felt] she'd come. I never saw her. The next day, Tuesday [June 9], they took all the people who'd been in the Folkshul to the pits and shot them. And so, of all my large family, only I was left. Until my last day I'll remember the words of my mother, who'd said, two days before the Germans entered the town, “I'll stay to watch over the house and the farm; you, father, take the children and flee . . .” [Neither of the other siblings of Masha --- Abrasha and Rachla --- survived the war.]

. . . After the war, when I returned to Braslav, a Christian neighbor told me this: they took the Jews from the Folkshul down the street where our house stood, on the way to the pits. Suddenly, my mother broke from the line and ran toward the house. The oppressors grabbed her and put her back in the line that was being led to slaughter. I don't

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know what she was thinking when she ran toward the house. Did she want to flee? To be saved? Or did she just want to enter the house and tell the walls that Chaim Maron, the 17-year-old blond beauty Soniale, the twins Lusik and Abrasha, Rachla, who'd reached the age of mitzvot [age 13], 8-year-old Atzinka, and Moshele, the smallest at 7 years old, were no more and she was on her way to them?

Mendel: The massacre lasted a week. Only a few dozens were saved, the living witnesses to the destroyed Jews of Braslav. Masha is the only one left of her family. Of our family, I and my brother Mulka remained. Somewhere, in a hiding place, in the attic or in a pit under the house, others were hiding. Now we had to flee. We made plans. A few had a Gentile acquaintance in one of the villages who'd agree to help. The others, who lacked an address [to flee to], escaped somehow, fleeing at night on back roads without knowing where they were going. The main thing was to avoid getting caught by the haters of Israel. If you fell into the hands of one of those --- you were lost. For each Jew he'd receive a reward --- a sack of salt (16 kilograms).

I, my brother Shmuel [Mulka] and Moshe Milutin resolved to stay together. We also persuaded Masha to come with us. Not far from the town hospital was a garage belonging to the gendarmes. The one responsible for it was a Pole, a very honest Gentile. Moshe Milutin, a blacksmith by profession, had sometimes been sent by the Judenrat to work at this garage. Above it was an attic, and this was our destination. The danger was great. Moshe and I went first; at night, through the alleys. The next day, the same way, Masha and my brother Mulka came to us. It didn't occur to the gendarmes that Jewish survivors were hiding in their attic. The next day, when the Polish manager came to work, we spoke with him and promised him that within a certain number of days we'd leave. He agreed and even brought us some bread and water. Five days passed; we had to go. In our hands was an address in the village of Krasnosletzi [Krasnosielce, four kilometers west of Braslav]. This time, I and Masha went first. At night we sneaked through the quarter where the Polish clerks had lived. It was a beautiful area: solitary houses, with red tile roofs, in a sea of flowers. We passed through the Karpovitz [Karpowicz] forest and arrived at Krasnosletzi, to the farmer to whom Moshe Milutin's father sent us before we left the small dam. But this time we failed; the farmer wouldn't receive us and drove us away with curses and mockery. Disappointed and depressed, we left not knowing where to go. Moshe and Mulka received a similar welcome and went off in another direction. Our paths separated. Later, I found out that my brother Mulka had been murdered in Ponar.[7]

We crossed a forest and entered a village. We spent the day in the small village bathhouse, continuing on at night. Toward morning, we approached another village. When the sun came up, we found a pit in a field and climbed down into it. In the afternoon hours children played outside, and one of them jumped into our pit and grew very frightened [on seeing us]. We begged him not to reveal our presence to anyone. At night we again continued onward. We came near a house at the edge of the village, and Masha knocked on the door: “We're hungry,” we said. The man took us inside, gave us some food and agreed that we could sleep in his house. We were impressed by his decency and asked him to hide us. He didn't reply, but neither did he send us from his house; he went out by himself. Later we learned his name --- Ignacy Matul --- and we found out that he was hiding a few Jews from Dvinsk [in Latvia, 42 kilometers northwest of Braslav]. Toward evening he returned, accompanied by his nephew, who took us to his house. Our path that night was through the swamps. Before we left Matul's house, he calmed us by saying that everything was arranged and we were going to a safe place.

[Page 79]

Masha: We arrived at the village of Kochanishek [Kochaniszki, about eight kilometers northwest of Braslav] and the Chesnoviski [Czesnowicki] family. A young lad took us into a small house with one room and a stable. There were three people in the house: two sisters, Emilia and Jadzia [Jadwiga], and the young lad, whose name was Alfons. They weren't married, they were religious and orphans. They received us nicely. A heavy stone was lifted from our hearts. It's hard to comprehend that during those days there were people who put their own lives at risk to rescue Jews. For 22 months, they hid us in their attic and shared their scanty food with us, without payment. Occasionally they'd host me in the house, on the stove.[8] The only thing that I gave them was a watch I'd received from my grandmother. To this day, I don't know how to explain why they did all this for us. Maybe they wished to convert us to Christianity? Maybe they acted in good faith? One thing I know: The two sisters and their brother saved our lives.

Mendel: They didn't save only us. When they began to destroy the second ghetto in Braslav[9], Chana and Tuvia Fisher, Baruch's Motka [Motka the son of Baruch Fisher] and Zalman-Yankel's Motka [Motka the son of Zalman-Yankel Fisher] succeeded somehow in fleeing from it. The Chesnoviski family wanted with all their hearts to help the escapees, but their house was small and it was dangerous to take all of them. But the Chesnoviskis didn't send away escapees from death. These friends of the Jews suggested that we build a hiding place under the cowshed. We dug a pit, camouflaged it well and there we hid, six souls, until the liberation.

 

Conclusion

Mendel: Spring 1944; the Soviet army was advancing. The Germans were withdrawing and destroying everything in their path. In July, Braslav was liberated. Fierce battles took place; villages went up in flames. A stray bullet hit the straw roof of the Chesnoviski family, setting the house on fire. But we'd gone through too much to be burned alive now or suffocated by smoke. We burst outside and, crawling through fields of grain, moved toward the lake we saw in the distance. Next to a cemetery, we met a Russian soldier who told us that Braslav had just been liberated.

We knew the way home. After hours of walking, after three years of hardship, we arrived back in Braslav. It was a strange feeling, to see Braslav with no Jews. Each step was soaked in the blood of our dear ones. From the other side of Lake Noviata, the Germans were continuing to rain fire on the town. We had to leave again temporarily for the forest and live with the partisans. After the Germans were driven out of the area for good, we returned.

Masha: We knew we couldn't remain in Braslav. It was impossible to build a life in a cemetery, when memories tormented you day and night, when every step you took was on earth soaked in blood. With tears and thankful gratitude, we parted from our saviors, Jadzia, Emilia and Alfons. Before we left Braslav, I gave them my parents' house as a gift. To this day, we write to each other and we provide them with as much material help as we can.

In 1973, I went to Vilna [about 165 kilometers southwest of Braslav] and Braslav. My purpose was to visit the graves of our dear ones and meet with our saviors. I left Braslav with a small bag of earth that I took with me from the graves of the martyrs. May their memory be blessed!

Footnotes

  1. Skidel (Skidziel), then in Poland, was about 310 kilometers southwest of Braslav. Return
  2. This refers to the pre-1939 border between Belorussia and Poland, which lay to the east of Braslav. Disna was about 72 kilometers east of Braslav, and Polotsk was about 35 kilometers southeast of Disna. Return
  3. According to the Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos, 1933-1945, Volume II-B (2012), on June 30, 1941 the German commandant in Braslav began recruiting a local police unit from among local ruffians sympathetic to the Germans. Stanislaw Jashinski, a Pole, was the commander. Other policemen included Kriwko, Stefan Zhuk, Malinowski, Masara, Czeslaw Kolkowski, Zarniewicz, and Stanislaw Nowicki. A man named Sucharewicz was described as one of the most brutal participants.

    In autumn 1941 responsibility for the local police was transferred from the Germany army to the German gendarmerie, after a civil administration had been established. Among the men based at the gendarmerie outpost in Braslav were Johannes Czapp, Willy Dittmann, Otto Haymann, Paul Kontny, Leo Leidenroth, Ludwig Müller, Ernst Schreiber and Waldemar Schultz. Return

  4. Other survivors recall this event as happening on June 27 (Saturday), the day after the Germans arrived in Braslav.Return
  5. Reb is an honorific term, something like an exalted “Mr.” Return
  6. Slobodka was about 11 kilometers northeast of Braslav. Return
  7. Ponar (Ponary in Polish, Paneriai in Lithuanian), located outside Vilna in Lithuania, was the major execution site in the Vilna region during World War II and the largest execution site in Lithuania. Between July 1941 and August 1944 an estimated 50,000-70,000 Jews, 2,000-20,000 ethnic Poles and 5,000-8,000 Soviet prisoners were killed there. Return
  8. In Russia, Belorussia and the Ukraine, ovens were traditionally made of brick masonry that retained heat for long periods of time, and their outer surface was safe to touch. In winter, people would sleep on top of the oven to keep warm. Return
  9. After the first Braslav Ghetto was liquidated on June 3-5, 1942, the Germans repopulated it in August or September 1942 by bringing in some 50 Jews from Opsa, many of them craftsmen. Because these people were from Opsa, this second Braslav Ghetto was also called the “Opsa” Ghetto. It would be liquidated by the Germans on March 19, 1943. Return

[Page 86]

Yaacov Levin
Son of Chaya-Sheina and Leib-Meir

Translated from the Hebrew by Laia Ben-Dov

Footnotes Added / Donated by Jeff Deitch

 

A Simple Story: Prison Camp, Exile, Struggle

In the short, cruel war between Poland and Germany [that began in September 1939], I was drafted into the Polish army, but the days of my service were brief. After a few days of battle, we learned that the Red Army had crossed the eastern border. As if caught in giant pincers, trapped with no way out, mired in disappointment and despair, we were taken prisoner by the Russians. We then traveled a long, exhausting road until arriving near Smolensk [370 kilometers east of Braslav], where we were put in a huge camp housing tens of thousands of war prisoners. As fate would have it, we didn't stay long in the camp. Most of the men were freed after a few months and returned home, but the time was enough for all of us to get the taste of a prison camp and the rough conditions that prevailed there. However, we had little time to live quietly; the Germans attacked Russia.

That day, the day the horrible disaster began [June 22, 1941], I was in Bialystok [some 400 kilometers southwest of Braslav]. Somehow I managed to return to Braslav and was immediately drafted into the Red Army. All was in chaos, everything was mixed up. After a few days, we fled in every direction like sheep without a shepherd, and each of us had to take his fate into his own hands. From the place where the Red Army draftees had been gathered, I returned to Braslav with the aim of locating and helping my mother or other relatives, but I found no one. The town was without a government; army officers and those from the local authority fled in panic, leaving the inhabitants in uncertainty and fear.

I left the town and headed [east] toward the old border between Poland and the Soviet Union, to somehow find a way into the Soviet Union. On the road I met Beinish Milutin, traveling in a wagon hitched to a horse, coming from the other direction. He and his family had been staying for days in the village of Ukla, near Ikazna [Ikazn, about 14 kilometers east of Braslav], and now he was returning to Braslav to get some possessions. I described the situation to him and added that Braslav was deserted; hoodlums might riot, it wasn't worth putting himself in danger. He listened to my advice, and together we returned to the village [Ukla, about four kilometers southeast of Ikazn].

We were confused and didn't know what to do: stay in the village until

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the hostilities passed (we thought the war would end in a month or two) or flee with the entire family (Beinish's family was in the village, as well as Iska, my brother Yehoshua's wife). In the end, we decided to take the road toward the old border: the men only, because a rumor had spread that the Germans were killing only men.

We parted from our dear ones and left them. The three of us --- Beinish, his son Katriel and I --- traveled in a wagon from village to village, town to town. When we passed the villages, we felt strongly the depth of the hatred toward the Soviets and the Jews that beat in the hearts of the Christian population.

We traveled day and night, awake and listening to every sound, until we reached the old border. But here we were disappointed --- we weren't allowed to cross. Under ceaseless bombing from the German planes, we were forced to lie for hours in boggy swamps. At the time, the Red Army was withdrawing toward the Soviet Union to reorganize. We were helped by Jewish-Lithuanian soldiers, who joined us to a convoy of artillery, and with them we passed into Russia. Again we wandered from town to town, from place to place. The roads were crowded, and we advanced slowly amid thick, choking dust, deep into the Soviet Union. At every place we arrived, the officer of the town sent us onward, onward.

In Vitebsk [some 200 kilometers east of Braslav] we sold the horse and wagon for a sack of rye bread, and after many hardships we arrived by freight train at the city of Ufa [1,830 kilometers east of Braslav and near Kazakhstan], the capital of Bashkiria. There, our paths parted: Beinish and his son remained there and were put to work by a relative. Together with other young men from my town who we'd met on the road, I was sent to a village, to a kolkhoz [Soviet collective farm].

During the winter months of 1942, I found my brother Peretz. Like me he'd reached the Ural Mountains, and he was working as an accountant at an agricultural machine station (M.T.S.)[1]. I traveled to him, and after staying there a number of months both of us were drafted into the army. After a short time, though, we were released as unreliable, since we were “westerners” [from Poland] and the Soviet authorities didn't trust us.

Peretz was then sent east, into the heart of the Ural Mountains, to the region of coal mines, and I was drafted into a labor battalion. In just a few months, I and many others turned into living skeletons. The scarce food, poor living conditions, illness and isolation took their toll.

It was forbidden to leave the workplace; this was regarded as desertion. It was also forbidden to travel in a train without an official permit. Despite this, one day I decided to burn all my bridges; with a small piece of whole-wheat bread, a can of makhorka [cheap-cut tobacco] and a towel, I left. I took my fate into my hands; I'd nothing to lose, and I fled. After many troubles, hungry and crawling with fleas, I reached my brother Peretz. A thorough disinfection and a hot meal gave me renewed strength and hope. I began a new chapter of my life, together with my brother Peretz, until we were drafted into the army [again] and sent to the front in 1944.

[This happened in the following way.] As essential workers in the coal mines, Peretz and I had “armor”: we weren't drafted into the army. But then an incident occurred in which Peretz showed his Jewish pride: the coal miners' union failed to meet its production quota. At the time, Peretz was working in the union as the chief accountant. The manager was afraid of being reprimanded and removed from his high post for failing to meet the quota, so he ordered Peretz to fake the production results and add thousands of tons of coal to the lists to cover the deficit.

[Page 88]

Yaacov Levin: Citation of valor from the Red Army for his action in the capture of Gdansk

[Page 89]

Peretz refused, saying that forgery wasn't part of his job. The manager reacted with clenched fists and slanders about his Jewishness, threatening to draft him and send him to the front. Peretz replied that for him the front wasn't a punishment; he'd be happy to avenge the blood of his son, wife and relatives, rifle in hand. With that, he left the manager's office.

I waited for Peretz in the hallway. When the incident became known, we went together to the officer of the town (who by the way was a Jew named Levit), and I asked that the “armor” be removed from me as well. And so it happened. We were drafted at about the same time and sent to nearby battalions, and from there to the front.

Peretz didn't return. He fell on February 8, 1945, a few months before the end of the war, in eastern Prussia. Later I heard he'd been wounded in the arm [or hand] during an attack; an officer then ordered him to go to the field clinic, but he refused. A few minutes later, he was hit and killed by a shell fragment.

I fought until the end of the war.

The news of the victory reached me at the Elbe River.

 

Footnote
  1. Mashinno-traktornaya stantsiya: Machine and tractor station, a state enterprise that oversaw agricultural machinery used in collective farms. Return

 

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