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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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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.

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

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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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