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Mottel-Hirsh Fisher

Son of Beila-Zelda [née Katz] and Baruch

Translated from the Hebrew by Laia Ben-Dov

Footnotes Added / Donated by Jeff Deitch

 

 

The chapter of our family's life covers many years. Our home was a traditional one, in which the principles of the religion were strictly observed.

My father was a strong, tall, healthy man, with something of a squint.[1] Since the time I was a boy, I remember him being occupied with trade. His business was the trade of meat and live animals, and the rental of orchards from farmers of the area. He provided meat to units of the Polish army that were camped in the region, and he also sent meat and live animals to large towns in Poland. Despite his many occupations, he always found time to devote himself to the needs of the community. For years he served as the head of the Jewish community, took care of the Gemilut Hasadim [Free Loan Fund] and was the gabbai [caretaker] in the Old Synagogue. He helped the yeshiva in our town materially and offered help to people in need: in buying a new horse for a wagoner to replace a horse that had died; in supplying wood for heating to widows in the winter; maot hitim [donation of money to buy food] for Passover, and clothing and school supplies for the needy.

My mother was also very busy taking care of our large family; she enjoyed inviting a guest to her home and feeding daily a few yeshiva students. I remember the day of the bar mitzvah of my brother Velvel [Zalman-Volf] of blessed memory, the oldest in our family, the hospitality that mother prepared, and the oration that my brother made before more than 100 guests. Mother melted with pleasure when my brother went up to the synagogue platform to read the Torah. When I and my brother Tuvia traveled to yeshivas far from home to study Torah, her happiness and care went with us.

When I arrived home for vacations, my father would put in my hand a number of gold coins, for giving as a donation to beggars, to the synagogue and to the shamash [caretaker] Reb[2] Uri, of blessed memory.

I remember the happiness in the house when, after six sons (two of whom died when they were small), three daughters were born. Thus we lived in our house until the Polish-German War broke out in September 1939: Baruch [Fisher] our father, Beila-Zelda our mother, the brothers Velvel [Zalman-Volf] and Avramke [Avraham] and the sisters Gutka [Guta], Rivka and Zlata, all of whom were killed most cruelly by the Nazi oppressor and his collaborators. May G-d avenge their blood. Of them all, there remained only my brother Tuvia and me to remember and speak. When the Russians took over western Belorussia [from mid-September 1939], we continued to lead our lives as usual for a number of months.

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As mentioned, my father was the supplier of meat and other provisions to the Red Army in the area. Our brother Velvel was manager of the office for procuring animals, but within a number of months everything changed. The [Soviet] regime established itself, and the problems began. Our brother Velvel was arrested following a denunciation and put in jail (but later freed because of a lack of proof). They began to send to Siberia people [who were considered] disloyal to the regime; these included merchants and of course those with hostile political opinions. Among large segments of the population, Siberia became a frightening word. Many nights our family lay down to sleep without getting undressed; we were prepared for any eventuality. It's possible that our good name among the population kept the authorities from harming us. Now, after all that happened, I can say: If only they'd exiled us to Siberia, it would have averted our family's tragic destruction. But fate decreed otherwise.

Immediately after the Germans entered Braslav [in late June 1941], they took Jews out of their houses for various types of work --- mainly to clean storerooms and stables. After they'd been in the town for some time, they ordered all the Jews to gather on one Friday at the end of Pilsudski Street.[3] Most of the Jews showed up, and the Germans took them, organized in rows of four, to the [Dubkes] swamp outside the town. There they were ordered to enter the swamp and sit in the water. From time to time, the Germans threatened to kill the frightened Jews. [Earlier] when the Jews had gathered on Pilsudski Street, I'd hidden in one of the houses, despite the great danger. Through a small opening in my hiding place, I saw how the Gentiles of the town and the surrounding area went wild and did whatever they wished, as if the town belonged to them. They robbed our houses, taking from them every valuable that they could, without interference. “The Jews won't return,” they cried. The next day, on the morning of the Sabbath [June 28], the Jews were freed from the swamp, knowing neither why they'd been taken there nor why they'd been released. They returned to their homes, which had been emptied of everything. That same day fell the first two martyrs of the Braslav Jews --- Reb Shlomo [Zilber] the shochet [ritual slaughterer] and Chaim Milutin.

All of the irresponsible and criminal Gentiles of the town and the surrounding area armed themselves and became the new authority in Braslav [under the Germans].[4] The lives of the Jews became forfeit; danger threatened us at every turn. How sad it is to recall today those few among the Jews who for some reason fostered the deception that with the coming of the Germans, following the Russian retreat, people's lives would be easier.

Every day brought new decrees. A Judenrat [Jewish Council] was established, and at its head stood [Yitzchak] Mindel. They tried to help the Jews, but they were powerless. Jews arrived in Braslav from other places where the Germans had [already] conducted Aktions to destroy the ghettos. The Jews who succeeded in escaping these massacres were received in Braslav with brotherly love. They were lodged among families in the town and lived there like members of the family. With these refugees, Rav [Rabbi Israel-Alter] Fuchs and the daughter of the Rogatchover Gaon, who was a rebbetzin in Jerusalem, also arrived from Latvia.[5] They put their trust in the saying, “He who changes his location changes his luck.” The Germans issued new decrees: Every Jew had to wear a yellow patch; it was forbidden for a Jew to walk on the sidewalk together with non-Jews; it was forbidden for a Jew to buy products in the marketplace, and it was forbidden to exchange various items for food. Each time, they demanded a “contribution” from the Jews --- a ransom --- in gold and silver and expensive items. In this way, matters continued until Passover Eve 1942.

On Passover Eve 1942 [April 1], the Germans decided to establish a ghetto in Braslav.[6] The Jews from Dubina [Dubene], Slobodka and isolated families from the surrounding villages were brought to Braslav.[7] The killing began [in the following way]. Following a denunciation by a Gentile, Zelig Ulman was arrested, together with his wife and family. Their son wasn't in the house at the time, and so he was saved. The Judenrat

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tried to free them, but failed. Several days after their arrest, they were shot to death. Another day, a group of Jews was taken from among the Jewish laborers that worked loading wood [at the train station] and shot for no reason.

In the yard of Leizer [Eliezer] Fisher[8], the Germans established a field bakery for bread. The workers were Jews. They divided among the workers the bread that was baked poorly. My father also worked in the bakery. It happened that one day he didn't feel well, and to revive himself he took a piece of bread. A German from among the supervisors saw this and immediately drew his pistol, wanting to kill my father. After much pleading, my father succeeded in stopping him. He returned home pale as whitewash, saying, “Today I was saved by a miracle from certain death.”

The crowding in the [Braslav] ghetto grew from day to day. Despite this, people believed that the evil would pass. Many Jews prepared secret places for themselves and their families, bunkers in which to hide during a crisis. One Tuesday [June 2] Germans came to the ghetto, accompanied by local police, and demanded from the Judenrat a large group of girls to work as cleaners. The girls who reported were taken, as became known afterward, to Slobodka, where they were held for a day and night. When they returned to Braslav they saw the destruction and ruin, the empty houses without Jews. A few of them lost their minds, running into the nearby lake and committing suicide. Witnesses related that my sister Guta was among them.[9]

The day after the girls were taken, on Wednesday, the 18th of Sivan [June 3, 1942], the Germans surrounded the ghetto on all sides. With shouts like those of wild beasts, they called to the Jews to come outside. The panic was terrible. The majority came out, and only a few managed to enter their hiding places. Then a few [Jews] said: “Come, let us set our houses on fire.” Others replied that this might harm those who'd hidden inside the bunkers. Our Avramke as well as Naftali, the son of Zalman-Yaacov [Fisher], tried to flee from the ghetto and were shot near the cattle market [a.k.a. the horse market].[10] I and my father hid [in a pit] under the floor in the Skuriat granary. We didn't know what happened to the rest of the family. Three days passed.

On Wednesday, Thursday and Friday [June 3-5, 1942], the Nazis massacred the Jews of Braslav. They took the Jews to pits they'd prepared ahead of time near the train station and shot them. Many of the Jews were thrown into the pit while still alive. From our hiding place, we heard voices of Jews who were being taken out of hiding places nearby. For three days, my father and I lay in hiding, and after that we went out to look for food and water. We walked during the night and arrived at [the house of] a Gentile woman, Helena was her name, who'd once been a servant in our house. We received a bit of bread and water from her. From there, we went on to another farmer and hid in his stable without his knowledge. My father, who all his life had been a proud Jew, was completely broken and became indifferent to life.

Fearful that the farmer's family would find us, we left the stable and entered a small deserted house nearby. I went up to the attic and asked my father to come up also. I rigged a small scaffold to make it easier for him. But a little girl appeared and saw father, putting us in danger. She let out a great scream and ran to call the police, who were searching in the area for Jews. They came immediately and took away my father. I was sitting above, hidden. I heard my father's last words to the police, “Don't take me anywhere. Kill me here.” They removed him from the building, and after a few more steps they shot him. A witness told me afterward that a local policeman named Milavski [Milawski] was the one who shot my father. In the moments when the police were removing my father, I succeeded in getting away and reaching the nearby forest. When the police returned to look for me, I was gone.

At night, despite the danger, I again entered the granary of one of the farmers. In the morning, he entered and found me. To my surprise

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he didn't drive me out, but said he'd bring me some food and water. After I stayed in the granary for several hours, the farmer's sons came and told me that the Germans had announced they were no longer shooting Jews. They said they'd been told this by a policeman.

That night I left the farmer's yard and returned to Braslav. When I got there, I grew afraid; it was a place of ghosts. One of the survivors told me that my mother and my two sisters, Zlata and Rivkele, were alive and hiding in a pit in the yard of Leizer [Eliezer], the son of Feivush [Fisher]. My brother Tuvia and his wife Chana were hiding in the yard of Falka [Rafael] Fisher.[11] They also told me that the son of Zalman-Yaacov Fisher --- Motka [Mottel Fisher, the brother of Chana Fisher] --- Mottel’s wife Liuba and their two children were alive. All of us gathered together and went up in the attic in the house of Berel the teacher, to discuss what to do and where to go. Was there a place to go? We all knew that the statements of the Germans were only lies and tricks. We agreed that none of us would leave the house, to avoid revealing ourselves. The people in the attic, who'd been in the ghetto during the fateful hours, said the Germans had wanted to leave the head of the Judenrat, [Yitzchak] Mindel, alive, but he'd asked to die; he didn't want to remain alive without the [other] Jews. So they shot him first. The Germans had also wanted to leave alive Rabbi Fuchs, the rabbi of Dvinsk, because of his vast knowledge of German. The rabbi asked them to also spare the life of the rebbetzin from Jerusalem [Rachel Citron], but the Germans wouldn't agree to this. So the rabbi asked to die, and they shot him immediately. The cruelest policeman was a man by the name of [Stefan] Zhuk. This murderer said to Moshke, the son of Leiba-Meir, who was lying seriously wounded in his stomach and asked to be killed, “For a Jew it's not worth wasting even one bullet.”

And an incident that I saw with my own eyes from the attic where we sat: Policemen brought Moshe-Baruch, the chimney-sweeper of Braslav, tied up with ropes, with some other men, women and children, to kill them. This was what the “amnesty” looked like.[12]

At night I went down below, and without anyone seeing I entered the apartment where we'd lived. I found a piece of dry bread there and gave it to my mother. We told her we'd go out to search for a hiding place with one of the farmers in the area, and return immediately to take them all there. We walked only at night. We came to the village of Achremovtzi [Achremowcy a.k.a. Achremowce, seven kilometers southeast of Braslav]; there one of our acquaintances told us he was prepared for us to come to him, the entire family: mother and my sisters, and Motka's wife and two daughters. With that same farmer, we found Falka Fisher. We were overjoyed that the farmer was so good-hearted and immediately set out for Braslav to summon our dear ones. On the way, from time to time we had to hide from farmers who were traveling in their wagons to and from Braslav. In one place, we found the young daughter of Natke [Natan] Biliak, who'd escaped from Braslav. She told us that a farm woman had revealed to the enemy the hiding place of our family; the Germans had come and murdered them all. Hearing this news shocked us to the depths of our souls. We didn't want to believe a tragedy such as this. We continued toward Braslav. A Gentile we met confirmed what Natke Biliak's daughter had told us. If we'd gotten there a day earlier --- just one day --- we could've saved them all. What a cruel fate it was!

We remained with the farmer in Achremovtzi for several months. Since he was a poor farmer, we had to get our food from somewhere else. At night, we spread out to vegetable gardens in the area and took all kinds of vegetables. We cooked cabbages and pickles. Somehow we survived. But what would we do in the winter, which was already approaching? Our Gentile occasionally traveled to Braslav for fairs, and when he came back he'd give us the news. Once he told us they'd brought Shachna Band and his brother Yehoshua to the city tied with rope. Another day he told us they'd brought Rachka Lans [sic][13], her husband and their son to the town in handcuffs. He made sure to tell us about the Gentiles' hunt for Jews who'd escaped from death, tying them up and handing them over to the Germans.

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One day, he came with news: “In Braslav Jews are running around, completely free.” He'd seen them in the streets of the town and in the markets. I asked the Gentile, on his next visit to Braslav, to find out who these Jews were and if any members of our family were among them. We waited anxiously for a week, until his next visit to Braslav. When he returned, he told us the Germans had established another ghetto, a new one, on the sands of Braslav, which extended from the house of Benjamin the tailor along the entire right side of Pilsudski Street and on the hills, and they'd fenced it in with a two-meter-high fence.[14] They made an entrance gate next to Benjamin the tailor's house, with a permanent police guard. Those in the ghetto were mostly Jews from Vidz [Widze] and Opsa who the Germans had driven out of their homes [Vidz and Opsa were respectively 40 kilometers and 18 kilometers southwest of Braslav]. After we heard the farmer's words, we didn't know what to do. True, all of us felt that during the coming winter months we wouldn't be able to continue at the farmer's. But what brought us to the crucial decision to enter the ghetto was the knowledge that Falka Fisher, his wife Fania, their two daughters and son Naftal were there.

One night, we walked to Braslav and entered the ghetto. During the first days there, we didn't go outside. I stayed in Benjamin the tailor's house with Falka Fisher and his family. My brother Tuvia, his wife Chana and her brother lived together with a family from Opsa. After we stayed several days in the ghetto, they registered us as residents and we went out with everyone to work. In the ghetto there were about 1,000 [sic][15] Jews, entire families and single individuals. There were a few Jews from Braslav. I, Tuvia and his wife Chana, Mottel [i.e., Mottel Fisher, the brother of Chana], Falka [Fisher], his wife Fania, their son Naftal and two daughters [Esther and Rivka]. We worked at different jobs, near the train [station], where the farmers brought different seeds --- tax for the lands that they worked. The registrar of the tax was a Jewish lad from Opsa, and thanks to him we occasionally received food from the farmers. The danger was great, but the will to stay alive made us risk our lives to get food. Life in the ghetto got worse from day to day. There was nothing to eat, and sickness increased. Only from time to time did the Germans distribute a bit of flour, potatoes and a small amount of wood for heating.

One day --- it seems to me it was a Tuesday in the month of February [1943] --- a great panic arose in the ghetto. Everyone saw this as the beginning of the second ghetto's destruction. That day, Falka and Fania Fisher spoke to their son Naftal, [to convince him] to leave the ghetto and return to the farmer in Achremovtzi, where all of us had been staying when the first [Braslav] ghetto was destroyed [on June 3-5, 1942]. They said to him, “If you go, then maybe at least one of our family will remain alive.” They dressed Naftal in the clothing of the village farmers, so that he'd look like a villager returning home from the market. Mottel, Chana's brother, accompanied him to the house of Hertzke Skopitz. From there, he went out on the road alone. As I've said, this was in February. Everything was covered with a great deal of snow; he had to walk in the tracks made by the farmers' sleds. After he'd been walking for some time, policemen and Germans, who were returning from one of the villages, approached him from the opposite direction. Even though to us Naftal looked like a real villager, one of the policemen recognized him as a member of the Fisher family and, without asking anything, shot and killed him.[16] That day in the ghetto, despite the great fear that took hold of everyone, nothing unusual happened. “Life” continued as before. (When we returned to Braslav after it was liberated by the Russians, the farmers showed us the temporary burial place of Naftal, of blessed memory. We transferred his bones for burial next to the pits where the martyrs of Braslav had been killed.)

Jews of the ghetto who could do so prepared hiding places. But in the house where we lived, there was no chance of doing this. As mentioned the house stood next to the ghetto gate, and police were

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always near the gate. Everyone continued to go out to work each day. Matters went on in this way until two days before Purim 1943 [March 19, 1943]. It was a Friday. Toward morning, a great noise of vehicles was heard. A glance outside showed Germans and police surrounding the ghetto. We understood what was about to happen. I quickly left the house and got over the fence, running [northeast] in the direction of the Sandy Synagogue and Lake Noviata. The police and Germans fired many rounds at me, but luckily I wasn't hit. It was a miracle: I don't understand how I was left unharmed. At the lakeshore, I reached the house of Zalman-Yaacov [Fisher]. In the house lived a Gentile woman who'd worked for the family before the war. I went inside and told her what had happened. I asked her to explain what was being done to the Jews in the ghetto. They [presumably the Gentile woman was with her own family, now living in the house] said that in the ghetto the police and Germans were preparing a great massacre of the Jews, and that Leizer, the son of Meir-Yossel Biliak, had shot the policeman Milavski, who'd died of his wounds. (As mentioned previously, this same Milavski had killed my father. May this be the fate of all our enemies.)

During that entire Friday and Sabbath, I lived in great fear. I didn't know what had happened to my relatives, who I'd left in the ghetto. When the Sabbath ended, the Gentile went out, as was always his habit in the evening, to lock the cowshed [presumably this refers to the Gentile woman's husband]. He immediately came back inside, looking happy, and said, “Mottel, we have guests.” Behind him my brother Tuvia came in with Chana his wife and her brother Motka. They'd stayed in their hiding place for two days. In the evening, they came out and reached us safely.

The Jews who survived after the massacre in the second ghetto [on March 19, 1943] were few. With deceit and lies, the Germans had gathered the Jews who remained alive after the first ghetto. Now they'd killed them also. There were no more Jews in Braslav, none. We were their mourners.

We remained hidden with the Gentiles in Zalman-Yaacov's house for some time. After that, we left the house and began to wander from place to place and from farmer to farmer. I don't have the strength to describe what happened to us during that time, until the region was liberated by the Russians [in July 1944]. Someday I'll do this, if G-d grants me long years and strength. Many have researched and written about the Holocaust, and the survivors, who by a miracle remained alive, have told much in their accounts. But does anyone have the strength to tell everything that the Germans and their collaborators did to the Jews? They're the remnants of hell on earth, branches broken from rootless trees. Their descendants lack complete families; they've no grandfather or grandmother, no uncles spread out in different places in the city and neighboring towns. They've no knowledge of the existence of the Jewish family in general, and on the holidays in particular. The destruction harmed the soul and spirit of the nation and will never be forgotten.

People ask, and asked me, why didn't we protest? I don't have a clear, unequivocal answer. Not for others, and not for myself. Only some thoughts about it:

  1. The Germans weakened us with threats and tortures. They took everything from us. Each day, they threatened death. They degraded us to dust.
  2. The will to live in man, the miracle that each one of us believed --- or wanted to believe --- would happen, the miracle of survival, the connection to the entire family [kept people from acting]. Concern for the children, the thought that maybe they'd succeed in rescuing the children from death, more than once stopped those in whom the fire burned to fight and take revenge.
  3. When we believe in Divine Providence, we see the destruction as a decree from Heaven. Who are we to question what and why?

Footnotes

  1. The father, Baruch Fisher, was a son of Zelik Fisher and Guta and a grandson of Morduch Fisher. This Fisher family had lived in Braslav [Braslaw] since at least the time of Morduch, born ca. 1800. Mottel-Hirsh Fisher was a brother of the Tuvia Fisher whose accounts appear on pages 68-69 and pages 108-110 of this memorial book. Return
  2. Reb is an honorific term, something like an exalted “Mr.” Return
  3. Other survivors recall this event as happening on June 27 (Saturday), the day after the Germans arrived in Braslav. Return
  4. According to the Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos, 1933-1945, Volume II-B (2012), on June 30, 1941 --- a few days after entering Braslav --- the local German commandant began to recruit a local police unit from among local ruffians who were sympathetic to the Germans. A Pole named Yashinski [Stanislaw Jasinski] was made the unit's commander. Other policemen in the unit included Kriwko, Stefan Zhuk, Malinowski, Masara, Czeslaw Kolkowski, Zarniewicz and Stanislaw Nowicki. A man named Sucharewicz was one of the most brutal participants in the persecution of the local Jews.

    In autumn 1941, responsibility for the local police was transferred from the German army to the German gendarmes, after a civil administration had been established to replace the military administration. (That is, the German gendarmes supervised the local police unit.) Among the men based at the German gendarmes' outpost in Braslav were Johannes Czapp, Willy Dittmann, Otto Hayman, Paul Kontny, Leo Leidenroth, Ludwig Müller, Ernst Schreiber and Waldemar Schultz. Return
  5. Rebbetzin is the title used for the wife of a rabbi. Rachel Citron, a widow, was the daughter of the late Hasidic rabbi of Rogatchov, the Gaon Rabbi Yosef Rosen (1858-1936). Around 1936, Mrs. Citron traveled from Palestine to Dvinsk in Latvia to help compile and safeguard her late father's writings. Working in Dvinsk with Rabbi Fuchs, a devoted student of her father and his successor, she was able to publish several volumes of her father's writings and send copies of his notes and correspondence to New York City, before fleeing with Rabbi Fuchs to Braslav following the German invasion on June 22, 1941. In accounts in this memorial book she's described as being from Jerusalem, but other sources say that she was from Petah Tikva. Return
  6. April 1, 1942 was the approximate date the Braslav Ghetto was fenced in or formally established. But Jews had begun to be concentrated in the area of the ghetto since approximately August 1941; see, for example, the account of Alexander Dagovitz on page 357 of this memorial book and the account of Chalvina Pinchov on page 393. Return
  7. Dubina was 16 kilometers northwest of Braslav, Slobodka was about 11 kilometers northeast of Braslav. A number of Jews from Dubina stayed in Braslav only a short time and were then taken to the Vidz [Widze] Ghetto, as is clear from the accounts of survivors from Dubina in this memorial book. These Dubina Jews remained in the Vidz Ghetto until around the autumn of 1942, when it was closed and the inmates were transferred to the Sventzion Ghetto. (The exceptions were mainly those who escaped from the Vidz Ghetto, died in Vidz from privation, or were removed and sent to labor camps.)

    In March 1943, it was announced that the Sventzion Ghetto would be shut down. On April 4, 1943, the Jews in the Sventzion Ghetto, on the pretext of being taken to the Kovno and Vilna ghettos, were instead taken in freight cars to the execution site at Ponar outside Vilna, where they were shot on April 5. Only a very small number survived this massacre. For a number of Jews from Dubina, this was the path to destruction. Return
  8. Eliezer Fisher was a son of Feivush Fisher and a grandson of Zelik Fisher, as well as a great-grandson of Morduch Fisher. Eliezer Fisher's account is on pages 155-158 of this memorial book. Return
  9. Other accounts say that the girls were marched to the pits outside Braslav and shot, although they differ on whether this happened on the day the massacre began (June 3) or the day after. Return
  10. Naftali Fisher was a son of Zalman-Yankel Fisher and a grandson of Neftel Fisher and Lana, as well as a great-grandson of Morduch Fisher. Return
  11. Rafael Fisher was a son of Neftel Fisher and Lana and a grandson of Morduch Fisher. Chana Fisher was a daughter of Zalman-Yankel Fisher, a granddaughter of Neftel Fisher and Lana, and a great-granddaughter of Morduch Fisher. Chana was thus a cousin of her husband, Tuvia Fisher, the brother of Mottel-Hirsh (the person giving this account), since Tuvia and Mottel-Hirsh were also great-grandchildren of Morduch.

    Chana Fisher also had a brother named Mottel Fisher, described later in this account, and he too survived the war. Return
  12. After the first few days of killing the Jews of Braslav (June 3-5, 1942), the Germans and their collaborators announced that the killing would stop and those Jews who emerged from their hiding places would be registered. However, they soon killed most of those who'd emerged. Return
  13. The surname Lans doesn't appear in the list of victims in this memorial book, nor in the Yad Vashem database of victims. It's possible that it's a misprint in the memorial book and the surname was actually Gans/Gens, which does appear in the memorial book and the database: Victims with this surname included a woman named Reichka Gans/Gens, her husband Chaim and their unnamed child. Return
  14. In August or early September 1942, some 50 Jews in Opsa were transferred to the former ghetto in Braslav, to repopulate it after the original inmates had been slaughtered on June 3-5, 1942. Because the members of this second, new ghetto in Braslav were from Opsa, the ghetto was also called the “Opsa” Ghetto. It would be liquidated on March 19, 1943. Return
  15. The number 1,000 appears to be an overestimate for the second ghetto. Other accounts say that only 50 or so survivors from Opsa were brought to Braslav to make the second ghetto. The size of the second (“Opsa”) Ghetto as shown on the map on pages 20-21 of this memorial book also was very small. Return
  16. This killing was also described on page 119 of this memorial book by Naftal Fisher's sister Yetta. Return


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Yerachmiel Biliak

Son of Sara-Gittel and Chaim-Leib

Translated from the Hebrew by Laia Ben-Dov

Footnotes Added / Donated by Jeff Deitch

 

 

I was born in Braslav [Braslaw] in 1904. Here I lived with my family until the end of June 1942.

It was on Friday, June 27, 1941 that the Germans arrived in my town. Fear embraced us all; we ran about in confusion. We received the first portion of dread immediately: We were ordered to come out into the street. They took us to a large swamp beyond the town [in the Dubkes forest]. On the way, they warned us that if even one man tried to flee, they'd kill 10 of us in his stead. They threatened to pour boiling oil on us and burn us alive. Two among us who tried to run were caught and shot before our eyes: Shlomo Zilber (the shochet [ritual slaughterer]) and the lad Chaim Milutin. On the way to the swamp, the Germans forced the men to take off their boots and hand them over. They fenced in the marshy swamp with barbed wire and mounted machine guns around us, then put us into the swamp. We sank in up to our knees, and we sat like this, wet and frightened, from Friday until the Sabbath. On the Sabbath, they said they were waiting for the judgment of the mayor. If he testified that we were good and useful Jews, they'd free us. And indeed, at 11:00 in the morning [on Saturday] we were told we were free to go home.

While we were in the swamp, our Christian neighbors went wild; they robbed our homes and took everything of value that they needed. We were happy to have returned alive.

The first two who'd been killed [Zilber and Milutin] were buried on Sunday. On Monday, toward evening, the mayor gathered us at a certain location. He told us that now everything had changed. The government was different, as were the rulers, and the treatment of the Jews would be different as well. We'd have to obey each instruction, order and request without argument or appeal. “Know,” he said, “your good years have ended. Now you're under German authority. From tomorrow, Tuesday, all of you will go out to work. You must choose a Judenrat [Jewish Council], and through it you'll receive all future instructions.” He finished speaking and left. For the Judenrat we chose Yitzchak Mindel, Eliezer Mazeh, Rafael Fisher, Gershon Klioner and others.

On Tuesday morning, we went out to work. They took everyone. They even forced the elderly rabbi [Rabbi Avraham-Abba-Yaacov Zahorie], who was 80 years old, to go to work. We

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were divided into groups. Some worked at repairing and improving the roads. I was joined to a group that worked at the train station, loading ammunition. People worked continuously at these jobs, also at night. On Friday, toward evening, again they ordered us to gather in the field behind the Pravoslavic [Eastern Orthodox] church near the lake. A German, the officer Steinhaltz, arrived with his staff in his hand, and ordered us to divide ourselves: separately into women [without infants], women with infants, children, and men. Again we were seized with terror, and once more we thought our end had come. In a frightening voice, he screamed at us: “We know who you Jews are . . . soon I'll command you to run to the lake and go into the water . . . I'll check your attitude toward work . . .” and before finishing his threats he added, “Now I'll blow a whistle and you must disappear immediately from this place.” And so it happened. Once more, we returned home alive. On the Sabbath, we went out to work. One day, they had us move stones from place to place. After two days of dragging the stones, we were ordered to return them to their previous location. This was how we worked and how they oppressed us. Our supervisors were two Belorussians. At the end of a day of hard labor, a German Unteroffizier [sergeant or squad leader] arrived on a bicycle. He pulled one of the young men from the group, and ordered him to run after him while he sped on his bike down the streets of the town.

One day we noticed that one of the supervisors was recording people's names. The next day, when we got to work, 13 of the men received no tools. Within a short time, a gendarme arrived; he took these men, put them into a freight car and closed it. We, the remaining men, continued to work. We were on edge. At the noon break, one of the supervisors noticed me saying something that to him seemed suspicious; actually I was expressing concern to my friends about the ones who'd been arrested, saying we should do something to free them. Suddenly the supervisor approached, grabbed me and began to drag me away. I told him I could walk by myself, and for this remark he hit me on the head with his staff. He took me over to the boxcar of prisoners. Fortunately, a Gentile acquaintance and a member of the Judenrat showed up, and with effort they were able to get me away from the murderer.

The member of the Judenrat went to try to free the prisoners, but they were already dead. Here are their names, as engraved in my memory: Boris Karas, Yitzchak Blecher, Nachman Zubovich, Shalom Budzin, Hirsh Goldman, Velvel Deitch, Chatzkel [Yechezkel] Vinokur, Zalman Lif, Chaim Todres, Chona and Gedalia Shapira, one man from Opsa, and one man from Dubina.[1]

After the incident with the supervisor, I went to the Judenrat and asked for my work location to be changed, so that I wouldn't encounter murderers who intended to do evil to me. In this way passed 10 months of oppression, killing, suffering and fear.

By profession, I was a driver. One day I was called to the Judenrat and ordered to drive Belorussian policemen to the town of Gleboki [Glubokoye], about 100 kilometers from Braslav [actually about 70 kilometers southeast of Braslav]. They gave me an exit permit, and we started out. During the trip, snatches of the policemen's conversation reached my ears, and suddenly I realized that I was transporting murderers to destroy the Jews of Dokshits [Dokshitsy, about 20 kilometers south of Gleboki]. When I arrived in Gleboki, I hurried to tell the members of the Judenrat, and they tried to inform Dokshits of what was going to happen. Some of the Jews succeeded in fleeing. After reaching Dokshits, the murderers killed 496 Jews.[2] When I returned home, I was happy to be with my family again.

[On June 2, 1942, Tuesday] the day before the destruction of the [Braslav] ghetto, they gathered 80 young people, children of the town (among them my daughter Gitka [Gita]), and took them, supposedly, to work in the nearby village of Slobodka [about 11 kilometers northeast of Braslav]. On Wednesday toward morning,

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they brought them back, confined them in the fenced area of the cattle market [a.k.a. the horse market], and murdered them all. I know that Naftal, the son of Feivush and Chaya Fisher, and also Tevka [Tuvia], the son of Chava and Chonka [Chona] Biliak, succeeded in escaping, but Gentiles grabbed them and killed them.[3] That same morning, Wednesday, 18 Sivan 5702 [June 3, 1942], saw the start of the utter destruction of the Jews of the Braslav Ghetto. I and three of my children [Chaim-Leib, Leizer-Itza and Sara-Esther] succeeded in fleeing. My brother Chontza [Chona] and his children, who hid at the Gebelman family's house during the days of the massacre, left their hiding place on Sunday and succeeded in slipping out of the town.[4]

We were helped a lot by the Gentile Vintza Kolkovski [Vincenty Kolkowski] from Belmont [a locality a few kilometers southeast of Braslav, near Lake Dryviaty]. ---

From a distance, we saw a bridge. We approached the house of a Gentile acquaintance and asked him to check if anyone was on the bridge. Yes, he told us, there were police. Having no choice, we moved about a kilometer away and crossed the river by swimming it. As we were dressing ourselves after crossing the river, we saw a man standing not far from us. I said to my [Gentile] friend loudly, in Russian: “Vozmi v ruki vintovku” (“Grab the rifle!”), even though we had only a shovel for digging . . . The man heard this and ran away, as did we.

We approached Braslav [presumably from Belmont, to which they had fled]. We took off our shoes and quietly entered the town. It was nighttime: silence. We walked slowly. We heard footsteps and hid behind a house. A patrol passed by, and we continued on to my house. When we entered, we saw that it had been plundered and destroyed. I didn't find a thing I'd wanted to take, and my soul despaired. We went back [presumably toward Belmont]. On the way, we entered [the house of] a Gentile where I'd hidden some items. I took away something and brought it to the Gentiles where I was hiding.

We went back to the children [apparently the children had been left somewhere around Belmont]. There was nothing to eat. From a piece of wood I made a scale, which helped me divide correctly what little food we had. We, the four adults[5], received 50 grams each. The children, who were smaller --- 40 grams, and the littlest ones --- 30 grams. This was three times a day.

One day, after we'd stayed 73 days in a pit, the local Gentile came and showed me an order, according to which he had to put in his hayshed --- which contained the pit where we were hiding --- 21 horses belonging to the German cavalry. He explained to us that we had to leave, because he was in great danger. ---

My son Chaim-Leib died of a heart attack. I asked my daughter Sara-Esther what had happened, and she told me: “After you left us in the stable and went away, that evening there was a party in the village. The Gentiles became drunk and quarreled, and then the police arrived. Shooting began not far from the stable; he took fright and died.” We took him for burial in the forest nearby. The next day my brother Chontza went with Fisher [sic], and I remained with my 10-year-old son Leizer-Itza and my eight-year-old daughter Sara-Esther. I stayed in that place for 82 days [with the Gentile Francis Kolkovski], until the winter. The local Gentile woman hinted to me once that it was preferable for us to find another place for the winter. Aronchik and Fridman came to me and repeated the words of the woman who'd told them as well that she didn't have a place to keep us in the winter. “Maybe we should go to the ghetto? In Braslav there's a second ghetto[6],” they said. I said I'd think about it.

I waited until evening. I took my son [Leizer-Itza] with me, and we went down to the river. There we found a rowboat. We sailed in it to a Gentile, who'd earlier suggested that we come to him. I asked the Gentile if the offer was still good, and he replied, “Yes, but only on condition that no one else knows about it.” We determined that I'd return to him with the children on Sunday. We waited until evening and rowed back. I said to “my” Gentile that on Sunday we'd leave him, but I didn't tell him where we'd go. On Thursday, the Gentile prepared a boat for us. On Thursday and Friday the frost increased, and it continued to do so on the Sabbath as well. On Sunday, besides the frost, there was a strong wind. The Gentile warned me that on the bridge there was sometimes a police guard --- after some time, he came to me looking very worried and told me the following. Twenty Germans had been traveling on the Kozian [Koziany]-Peltrova road [Kozian was about 40 kilometers southwest of Braslav]. Partisans had attacked them from the nearby forest, shot at them

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and killed them all, to the last one. The partisans then stripped the clothing from the Germans, leaving them naked, and wrote on a nearby post, “Don't touch the bodies.” Someone had notified the gendarmes of the German dead. The gendarmes immediately drafted 80 wagons and set out on the road with a German escort; “my” Gentile had been among those drafted. When they reached the place and found the dead Germans, the German officer ordered that all the villages near the forest be set on fire; the local young people were to be taken away, and an order was given to burn the elderly along with the houses. The cows and horses were also taken.

And that's what happened: The gendarmes went from village to village, taking out the young people and the animals. They gathered the old people in one house, raining fire on it with machine guns until it went up in flames. This was the fate of dozens of villages in the area. My Gentile acquaintance told me all this, and because of it he was afraid to shelter me any longer. The Germans had notified all the villages that if they discovered a partisan or a Jew in any of the villages, they'd burn the entire village. The Gentile asked that I leave and look for another place. I promised to do so, but asked for permission to stay with him for just one more day.

I sat and considered where to go. The time --- the days of Hanukkah [December 1942]. It was getting colder. The children were naked and barefoot. I had to go --- but where? I heard someone knocking on a door [nearby]. When it opened, I heard the local Gentile woman saying [to someone], “Go to that house, he's there.” Darkness. Then I heard the voice of my brother [Chontza Biliak] calling me: “Yerachmiel, where are you?” He approached us, and I asked him what was happening. He told me he had no hiding place, and for a few weeks he'd been wandering from place to place each day with the children, and he hadn't a crumb of food. He'd heard that Jews from Opsa had been brought to Braslav [around August-September 1942] and a ghetto had again been established. But they didn't let Jews enter from outside, unless they succeeded in sneaking in, and woe to the Jew who got caught entering without permission by a policeman or a German. The punishment for this was shooting. Because I had a hiding place, my brother asked me to take his little girl [Sara-Gitka], so that maybe at least she'd remain alive. To my question of where were the [other] children, he answered, “In the bathhouse of Francis Kolkovski,” the Gentile where I'd stayed earlier for 82 days. I told him the Gentile didn't want to keep me either. It was a bad and bitter time for us. I waited until morning and then went inside to speak with the Gentile. I said to him, “What should I do? My brother has a good hiding place [sic], and I know that you also wanted to save us, but you cannot, and now you're telling us to leave. I can't go, because they'll certainly catch us. I won't tell others where I've been hiding, but I can't guarantee what the children will say. I suggest that you hitch up the horse to take us to Braslav.” I knew he wouldn't agree to this --- and indeed he didn't. Then I said to him [with sarcasm], “Maybe I'll warm up the bathhouse; shall I take the children inside and we can be suffocated there by the gas?” He replied that he didn't agree. I said, “I see that you want me to live, so I have a suggestion. With your agreement, I'll dig a pit in the punia[7] (hayshed). Today my brother's here and he'll assist me, and maybe with your help my children and I can stay alive.” The Gentile spoke as if talking to himself: “The ground is frozen,” and told me to wait a bit. After a short time, he called me into the house and suggested that I move the hay to another place with my brother's help, and dig a pit there. Until the evening, we worked at moving the hay aside. Now we were sitting and thinking: We must dig the pit; we must go to my brother's children --- they were alone in the bathhouse [of Francis Kolkovski], and the Gentile didn't even know about it. I decided to go again to my homeowner. This time I told him, “We're hiding some things in a certain place. We agreed with the owner of the place not to allow one brother

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to take any of the things unless the other brother is also present. With your consent, we'd like to go now and take some of them.” He agreed. I explained to the children that I and my brother were going and would return the next night, bringing with us Sara-Gitka [Chontza's daughter]. “When we knock on the window, open the door for us, and we'll bring her inside without the Gentile knowing there's another girl with us.”

My brother and I set out. We walked through the fields and came to the bathhouse. The children [of Chontza] were there. We waited for dawn and sent two of the oldest children to the ghetto: the 10-year-old daughter Feiga-Tzipka and the eight-year-old boy Tevka [brother of Feiga-Tzipka]. Nechama Gebelman, who was 23 years old, went with them. We remained, waiting in the bathhouse. Toward evening, the boy [Tevka] came back and told us that the ghetto had received them nicely. They'd gotten food, and the Judenrat had divided them among several families. It grew late: It was night. We kept the boy with us until morning, and then he returned to the ghetto while we went back to our place. One of us brought a package with him, and the other put the girl [Sara-Gitka] into a sack, and we proceeded. Outside there was snow and a stormy wind. The distance wasn't great, only five kilometers, but it was hard to walk in such weather. We progressed slowly. Finally we knocked, and my child came out and opened the door for us. We went inside, and the Gentile didn't realize we were there. We waited until morning. I heard them [the Gentiles] walking around in the house. I went inside and gave them the package with the items that we'd brought. The woman took the package willingly and the Gentile brought us to the hayshed to dig the pit. Somehow he realized we'd brought the additional girl [Sara-Gitka]. He grew very angry. “I've no room for you,” he said, “and you do to me a thing like this?” I explained to him, “My brother fled the massacre with an older daughter [Feiga-Tzipka], and she was tormenting this little girl. I already told you he has a place and food. But the older daughter was hitting the younger one. When she saw me, this girl began to cry and beg me to take her with me. Her words touched my heart, and I couldn't refuse her. I've taken her only for a limited time and I won't ask for food for her.” We began to dig. Toward evening, the Gentile came back to us and said, “I have bad news: They caught Berel Miaisi with my neighbor Blaika. They tied him up and took him to Braslav. They also announced that everyone must lock up the granaries, bathhouses and stables properly, so that undesirables can't hide in them.” He was already sorry he'd given us permission earlier to dig the pit. Dejected by events, he insisted that we finish digging that same evening. It was hard to dig; the ground was frozen. It was forbidden to make any noise; we dug with our teeth [sic] and nails. We padded the pit with a bit of straw and put the children inside. Later the Gentile came, forced my brother to leave, and closed the hayshed. After two hours, I broke a board off the fence and my brother entered through the opening. Now there were five of us in the pit, without the Gentile knowing it. They brought us food once a day, sometimes twice. After the Sabbath, my brother went to a Gentile acquaintance, Vincent Kolkovski [Vincenty Kolkowski], who went to church in Braslav on Sundays. Through him, my brother passed a note to his children in the ghetto, asking them to come to him, because he was waiting for them. The Gentile returned with a note from the children that it was better for them in the ghetto than in the pits, and they didn't want to come out to us.

At the end of a week, my brother went to the Gentile and sent another note, asking his son and daughter [Feiga-Tzipka and Tevka] to just come and talk to him; he wouldn't take them out of the ghetto. Again the son refused, but the daughter agreed to come and see her father. After talking with him, she wanted to hurry and return to the ghetto, but the father delayed her from going, begging her to remain with him. Meanwhile, it grew dark. The father said to her: “I'll return at midnight to the pit and you'll return in the morning to the ghetto.” At midnight, the father suggested that she get dressed and come to see me and the children. At first the girl refused, but eventually she gave in to his pleas and came with her father to the pit.

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There was no shortage of fleas in the pit, and they attached themselves to her in droves. She began to cry out loud. I tried to calm her: “Don't cry, when day breaks you'll be able to return to the ghetto.” In the morning, she asked to go. I answered that she could go when it got dark, because in the daylight someone was likely to see her. In this way, a number of days passed. We cut her hair, and finally she remained with us.

My cousin Leizer Biliak was in the ghetto. At night, I'd go out with my brother Chontza. We'd go to Francis Kolkovski, take two loaves of bread from Francis and send a note with him to our cousin [Leizer], to the ghetto, and he [Francis] would bring notes to us. In the notes we described the place where we were located and suggested that if anything happened, he [Leizer] should take the boy [Tevka, the son of Chontza] and come to us. “When you enter the granary,” I wrote, “knock three times on the post and I'll come out to you.” One day while we were lying there, we heard someone crawl through the opening that we used, and then there were three knocks on the post. I wanted to go out and see, but my brother wanted to stop me. Finally I went out and asked, “Who is it?” And Leizer answered, “It's me.” We went down into the pit --- he was barefoot and hatless, with only a shirt on his body. I saw that a finger on his right hand had been injured by a bullet. It was Sabbath night. He told me that everyone had been shot [on March 19, 1943, when the “Opsa” Ghetto in Braslav was liquidated] and Chontza's son [Tevka] had been burned [alive]. He said that when they were in Bogomolski's house [in Braslav], toward morning a German approached a window from outside, knocked on it and signaled to him to come out. Leizer had a pistol and shot the German through the window, killing him. Two more policemen attacked the house. Leizer killed one of them and seriously wounded the other. As he jumped over a fence to flee, a bullet injured his right hand, and he dropped the pistol. This had been on Thursday, the night of the Fast of Esther, 5703 [the 11th of Adar II, or March 18, 1943]. The next day, on Friday [March 19, 1943], the massacre took place.

That same Friday, the Gentile came and asked me to look for another hiding place. Again he argued that he was worried about keeping me. On Sunday, he returned. He told me the ghetto had been destroyed and “your Leizer killed a German and two policemen. In public places, they posted notices about a big reward that would be given to anyone who turned Leizer Biliak over to the authorities. Many people know I had friendly relations with you, and I'm afraid they'll come and search near me. You must go and look for another place.” In the evening, the Gentile came back. He told me that Leizer had been caught and handed over to the gendarmes (at this time, Leizer was in fact lying near me in the pit). A number of days passed, and the Gentile calmed down. We talked among ourselves about looking for another place. In the hayshed, flax was stored. I twisted some rope from it and made Leizer some slippers. We went out into the field and found a deep pit that remained after potatoes had been stored in it. We dug and deepened the pit further, added posts to support it, and inside it we dug a second pit. We laid boards, brought in straw, and covered the second pit with sand, so that no one would find it. In a word, we did an excellent job. Everyone agreed it was possible to stay in this hiding place for a number of days; meanwhile, Leizer and my brother set out to look for another place, and to find out if there were partisans in the area. They set out on Wednesday evening, planning to return after the Sabbath. On Friday morning, the Gentile came, frightened, and told me the village was being searched. He quickly covered the exit [of our shelter]. Inside the pit, we lacked enough air. Somehow I poked a small hole in the wall and we were able to breathe through it. Toward evening, the Gentile returned. “Are you alive?” he asked, and he told us they'd searched the entire area of the village and left only when it became dark. He was worried that they might return and “then they'll also search near me. I've kept you for as long as it possible, I can't do any more.” I asked him to give us a few more hours; it was too early. “In another two hours, we'll go,” I argued. He left. Meanwhile, I took my brother's two children [Feiga-Tzipka and Sara-Gitka] and pushed them

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through an opening that was made by moving the board. I brought them to the pit and sat them inside it. I returned. I sat and waited for the Gentile to come back. He returned, bringing with him two loaves of bread and six onions, and in a bag a little salt.

All day on the Sabbath, I waited for Chontza and Leizer to come, but they didn't show up. Nor did they return on Sunday. I didn't know what to think. More than a week went by with no sign of them. So I took the boy with me [Yerachmiel's son Leizer-Itza], left the three girls in the pit [Yerachmiel's daughter Sara-Esther and his brother Chontza's daughters Feiga-Tzipka and Sara-Gitka], and we went out. I knocked on the door of the house of a Gentile acquaintance. There was no answer. I asked them to come to the window, but nobody appeared. I raised my voice: “If Petra [Petro] doesn't come to the window, I won't move from here.” I waited next to the window for another hour, maybe more, and finally he came out of the house and said, “Yerachmiel, what do you want? Why are you crying?” I asked him, “Did you hear anything about my brother and Leizer?” He replied, “On Thursday they shot both of them in the village of Rudva.”[8]

You can imagine what I felt. The farmer brought out about four kilos of beans and gave them to me. I didn't know what to do or where to go. I no longer had a brother, a place to stay, or a slice of bread in my hands. I remained in the pit with the four “chicks.” For me, the heavens had collapsed. I entered [the house of] a farmer and cried about my bitter fate. I received a loaf of bread from him, and we [Yerachmiel and his son Leizer-Itza] returned to the children [Yerachmiel's daughter Sara-Esther and his brother Chontza's daughters Feiga-Tzipka and Sara-Gitka]. On the way, we discussed whether to reveal the truth to them. I decided I had an obligation to tell them, I couldn't keep all of it dammed up inside me. When we entered [the pit], I told them, “Children, I beg you not to cry; you no longer have a father, and Leizer also is no more. They shot them. As long as I live I'll protect you, and we'll live together. But if you cry now, I won't be able to stand firm.” And so they didn't cry out loud. I saw only how tears fell silently from their eyes.

A number of days passed. The food was gone. I was lying in the pit and thinking: what to do? To go to the farmers' houses and ask for something was too dangerous. I was afraid that if they caught me, all of us would be killed. Late at night, I went out with my son to look for some food. We found another pit. In addition to a belt, I had a piece of rope. I tied them together, tied the rope under my son's arms and lowered him into the pit. Inside it were potatoes and beets. I passed him a sack, and he gathered these items into it. I pulled out the sack and the boy, and we returned to the children. We ate potatoes until we felt sick; they contained a lot of starch. Then we tried the beets and found that they were edible. Our meal became one beet in the morning, one at noon and one at night, a total of three beets per day for five people. From the beans [received earlier from the Gentile], I passed out 45 seeds to each child, taking for myself 55 seeds a day. When the beets were gone, I went out with the boy [Leizer-Itza, his son] to look for food in other pits. We didn't gather any more potatoes, only beets, radishes and carrots. One time the rope broke, and the boy fell into a deep pit. I got him out with difficulty. We found another place where there were vegetables, and we returned to the children.

Several days later, we went out again at night. It was dark and rainy. Hearing footsteps, we sought cover in the grass. Not far from us a policeman passed by, armed with a rifle. Later, we took a few more beets and returned to the children. I lived this way with the children for 102 days, on raw beets. The pit wasn't deep. The children could sit up in it, but I could only lie down or sit while bent over.

One Friday, I heard someone wandering around outside and saying, “What's this? Where did these footsteps come from?”

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and then moving away. I considered what to do, and decided to go and speak with the Gentile. I waited until Sunday. Early in the morning, I parted from the children and went out into the fields. I laid down in the standing wheat, not far from the farmer's house, and waited. I saw the Gentile woman take the cows out to pasture; after her, the Gentile went out with sheep. When he approached, I called out to him, “Jozef, Jozef!” He saw me: “Rachmiel, is that you? Maybe you want something to eat?” I answered that I didn't want to eat but wanted to talk to him about something else. “In a little while I'll come back,” he said. He returned and asked what I wanted. I said to him, “I ask that you give me a place to hide.” He answered, “It's summer now, why do you need a place with me? Here, all around you are many pits, go into one of them and live.” And he pointed to one pit and another pit, and another one. I asked him who the pits belonged to, and he answered, “They're mine, but it's impossible for you to keep living in them. If I didn't know you were here, I wouldn't have to deal with it. But as it is --- tomorrow, Monday, I'll come to take apart your hiding place.” I began to explain to him that I and the children were located there and asked him to give us permission to stay there, but he insisted that we leave immediately, that night. Finally, he agreed that we could remain for one more night. I found another pit; I and the boy brought boards and twigs. It became clear that this pit was very deep. I looked around the fields and found two chains for hitching horses. I attached them and went down inside the pit. Within two nights, I and my son prepared the place for ourselves. We returned to the children, and I told them that at night we'd move to the new shelter.

When it got dark, the Gentile came to me and said, “If you forsake your religion, I'll bless you.” He took a prayer book out of his pocket, told me to kiss the book and continued, “Not far from here, near a tree, there's half a loaf of bread. Go and take it.” We went there, took the bread, and continued to the other pit that we'd prepared. I put the children inside; I went down myself, and we all sat in the pit. I didn't notice that the Gentile was following us. Early in the morning, I heard someone walking around near the pit and then going away. After an hour someone came and called, “Yerachmiel, Yerachmiel!” I recognized the voice and replied, “Jozefa, what do you want?” “The place isn't for you,” she said, “Leave here.” I answered, 'Today I won't go. Outside it's raining hard; I'll go tomorrow. Bring the police if you want, they can throw a grenade down on us. But today I won't go.” To the children, I said, “Not far from here there's a cemetery. Maybe we'll go and dig a hiding place there: a pit?” The children agreed. I took the boy. We passed through the entire area of the cemetery to find a suitable place, but we had nowhere to put the sand that we dug while making a pit. So I gave up the idea.

The next day, Jozefa returned. I asked her to get her brother [Jozef]. She went to call him, but immediately came back and said her brother was sick, but he'd ordered us to leave the village immediately. “They know you're located here and they'll catch you,” she said. Her brother suggested that we go to the Zamosh [Zamosz] forest, where there were partisans.[9] She brought us a lighter as well as bread, butter and cheese. When it got dark, I took the children and set out on the road. After a short stay outside, the clear air began to affect the children and they fainted. I cared for them, and little by little they recovered and continued walking slowly. Daylight began to appear. I gave each child a little slice of bread. On our way, I found a field sown with peas. I laid the children between the furrows, covering them all with greenery, and we stayed there until evening. When it got dark, we continued to walk through fields and swamps, until we arrived at the bathhouse of Mikola Markovitz [Markowicz] on Saturday night. Without his knowing it, we crowded inside it until Monday morning. On Monday morning, I found the shepherd who was taking the cows out to pasture. I asked him to send

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his father to me. He came immediately. I began to plead that he rescue me and the children and permit me to build a hiding place near him. “I don't have a space for a hiding place,” he answered, and continued, “I think you don't need one. Partisans come to me from time to time. I'll talk to them.” I was very glad to hear this, but didn't show it. “When did they come?” I asked. “and when are they supposed to return?” “Maybe tonight,” he replied. “Meanwhile, stay here in the bathhouse.” The next day, he came and told me they hadn't showed up. I asked for permission to stay an additional night in the bathhouse, but again no one came. Then I asked for permission to leave the children so that I could go out and look for the partisans myself, and to this he agreed. I put the three girls in the attic of the bathhouse; in the evening, I and the boy set out. We passed through 20 kilometers of fields and swamps, and arrived in the village of Okolitsa [Okolica, about 13 kilometers southeast of Braslav, near Rudawa]. I knocked at the house of a farmer. In reply to my question, he told me there were partisans three kilometers away, in Zamosh [to the southwest of Okolitsa]. He suggested that I not go there at night, because they were likely to kill me [in the dark]. I waited for the daylight, and we set out. In Zamosh, they told us there were no partisans. I asked a farmer again, quietly: “Are there partisans in the area?” and he answered that there were some eight kilometers away, in the village of Babiles [perhaps Bobyle, about eight kilometers southwest of Zamosh, in the middle of the forest]. We went there. I met a lad and asked, “Where are the partisans?” and he showed me a house nearby. I entered it. A man wearing a hat was sitting and sewing a saddle. He asked what I wanted, and I asked for the commander. He suggested that I sit down. He raised his face toward me and continued, “Are you interested in seeing some of yours (that is, Jews)? They're here, sitting in the stable.” I hurried to the stable and indeed found many of my acquaintances; among them Shalom Gens from Slobodka, Yitzka Samovar, Yankel Shneider and his brother, and two more from Ikazna [Ikazn, about 14 kilometers east of Braslav]. To my question about when they'd arrived, they answered, “Just two days ago.” From them I learned that the partisans weren't prepared to accept them into the otriad[10], but they were giving them food and drink. I was also told that a commander and a commissar were there. I waited for evening, until they returned from somewhere and all of the men of the village gathered to hear the news. The commissar got up on a chair. In his speech, he promised to drive out Hitler even from Germany. The commander followed him and continued in the same vein, promising that someday the red flag would fly over Berlin. Afterward, I approached him and asked to be accepted into the otriad. He asked if I had a rifle; I said I didn't. “And whose boy is that?” he asked. “Mine,” I answered, “and I've three more children with me.” “I can't take you into the otriad, but there's a Jewish family camp here, join them,” he said, and he went away.

I calculated my next step. I decided to move the children to the camp and hope for the best. I passed through fields and swamps and returned to the bathhouse. “Children, are you here?” I asked. “Yes,” they replied. They told me that during the daylight hours a German unit had passed by, stopped a while to rest, and then moved on. I waited for the night; I took with me the four children [Yerachmiel's son Leizer-Itza and daughter Sara-Esther, and his brother Chontza's daughters Feiga-Tzipka and Sara-Gitka], and we set out on the road. I turned toward the villages that were under partisan control.

We walked slowly. Within two nights we arrived at Zamosh, and from there we continued to the village in daylight --- we had no place to stop and rest. I was accepted to work at a farmer's place [under partisan control]. I plowed fields and gathered crops; finally the children had something to eat. I didn't allow them to run around outside, because the partisans didn't want strangers to be seen in the village. After three weeks of work at the farmer's place, a sergeant of the partisans approached me and asked if I wanted to join them to work at the mill, and I agreed. There we did the grinding

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using the village method. The grindstones were operated using horses. I kept busy with the grinding, and the children sped up the horses when they were changed every hour. I continued to do this for a number of weeks. Once I saw three riders approaching the headquarters. After some time, the sergeant came and told me to bring oats for the three horses, 15 kilograms per horse. I asked, “Why such a large amount? The allocation is three kilograms per horse.” “These are high-ranking officers,” he explained. When I went to bring the oats, I went past the house where the officers were sitting and looked in --- and who did I see among them? The chairman of the regional committee who I'd worked for in Braslav as a driver. I put down the sacks, entered the room and stood next to the door. He recognized me and shouted, “Rachmiel, you're alive?!” “I'm alive,” I replied, “and I'm glad to see that you're alive.” He invited me to sit next to him with all the officers and commissars. After that, we went outside to talk. He introduced himself to me --- he was the top-ranking officer of the partisan movement in the region. He wanted to know about my situation. We talked a lot. I told him I had four children with me and couldn't get into the otriad. We reentered the room. “Who in the otriad do you wish to serve?” he asked me. I pointed to the officer Antonov.[11] He introduced me to Antonov as one who'd been his driver in the past, adding that I was very responsible and could do any job. The officer called the commander to him and ordered the sergeant to hand over to me responsibility for all quartermastering of the partisans [storage and distribution of provisions]. I was appointed to oversee the farm sector [farms that supplied the partisans], and carried out my work successfully. Things continued like this for three months. Then, one fine morning, our patrol returned and told us that the German army had been sighted in the villages nearby. The next day, the enemy approached the forest where we were located. We organized a defense and fought them for nine days, until our ammunition began to run out. We began to withdraw, keeping intact the framework of the brigades and the otriads. The Germans didn't pursue us; they preferred not to enter the forest. The officer [Antonov] suggested that I remain with him in the base. “What about the children?” I asked. “Take a wagon and send them into the forest --- to the partisans!” And so I did. I put them in a wagon, and told them what to do and gave them the password. But the guards wouldn't allow them to enter the area and sent them back.

News arrived that a large German army was preparing to lay siege to the forest. The officer suggested that I take the children to the family camp and then return. Patrols reported that the Germans were close by and numbered in the thousands; the commissar ordered us to evacuate. I asked one of the partisans to take the children and avoid the field of fire. We'd only just left when the entire village went up in flames. I got the children and traveled with them to the Kozian forest, where the family camp was located. When I arrived, it became clear to me that it was in great confusion. I spoke with many people, asking them to care temporarily for my children because I had to return to the otriad, but no one would help. I saw people gathering in groups and asked where they were going. Confused, they replied that they themselves didn't know. Night fell; we found a hut and went inside. During the night, I adopted another three children. They told me everyone had left the camp.

At dawn, we went outside and heard the crying of a child, who'd certainly been forgotten. We returned to the camp. There we found nine partisans and two compassionate nurses. One was a Jewish woman from Kozian, Peshka Hoffman, and the second one was named Galina; with them was a wounded officer. They were angry that I'd brought the children to such a dangerous place. I promised to take the children far into the forest, to the area of the swamps, to a piece of higher ground between

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the swamps. I found a good place where I left the children and then returned to the base. I'd visit them at night, and this pattern continued for a number of days. Then German airplanes arrived and bombed the area. Fires broke out, and German soldiers hit us in a series of attacks. The children said, “Father, if they get close to us, start running and we'll run after you.” Suddenly, enemy soldiers appeared! I began to run, and the children ran after me. While running, I heard my son shouting, “Father, wait for me; you watched over us all this time and now you're leaving us?” I stopped; I knew it was hard for them to run barefoot. When they reached me, we entered a dense wood, where we hid. We heard the shouts of the Germans. The sound of shooting reached us. And here . . . a German bullet passed through my daughter's head scarf [without harming her]. What luck!

After a rest, we kept going. Finally we escaped the encirclement! Then we encountered a farmer and his family, the two compassionate nurses from the otriad, and a partisan. Once more we entered the bushy vegetation so that we wouldn't be seen. From a distance, we saw how German soldiers trapped the partisan and the nurses. To the question “Who are you?” the nurses answered, “We're villagers from the area.” The soldiers replied, “No, you're partisans!” and took them prisoner.[12] I think these soldiers were Ukrainians who were serving the Nazis. We stayed in the bushes for three days, and for three days we licked a bit of flour from a bag that I had with me. The shooting stopped, and we started to return to the base. I and the Gentile farmer were first, and the others followed us. The zemliankas [cabins partly buried in the ground] had been burned, and the supply storerooms for people and animals were still burning. We began to put out the fires. When the Germans returned and attacked the base, we fled once more to the swamps and hid in the tall grass. The children's feet froze. This time, the Germans wounded and killed Froika Boretz --- a lad from Gleboki who'd joined us. Again we returned to the base. We had food and everything good: potatoes, flour, salt, lard and beef in wooden barrels. Everything was protected, [buried] in the ground. I knew that a wounded officer had remained in the area, and I went to look for him. I reached the approximate place and called his name, “Kolya, Kolya!” but got no answer. I didn't know what had happened to him. As I turned to go back, I heard him calling my name: “Bilka, Bilka!” and indeed, it was he. I carried him to the children's hiding place. The partisans came to us occasionally to equip themselves with necessities for their units. In the forest I found our horses tied to trees, and I took them to the base. I received a letter from the officer of the otriad, in which he wrote, “I was glad to hear that you and the children weren't hurt in the attacks. In the last battles 22 partisans were killed, and there are many wounded.” He asked that I continue to care for the wounded officer, and said that in a number of days he and his men would return to the base.

Two days later, I was asked to report to a certain place. I went there with Kanoil [sic, it's unclear who this refers to; perhaps Kolya, the wounded officer]. An officer and three soldiers who'd arrived from the east suggested that a few of us go eastward, toward the Soviet Union. But I told them that when the liberation came, I wanted to return home. I asked that they take with them the wounded officer; I parted from him and went back to the partisans.

The reserves of supplies were almost used up. Sixteen fighters were sent to Belmont to bring cattle. They returned with 36 cows. Our otriad was allocated 10 of them. I and Leizer [Eliezer] Fisher[13] killed them, cut the meat, salted it, put it in barrels and buried them in the ground. Except for a few partisans who were killed in operations, the surroundings were generally quiet. A few weeks later, the scouts came again and told us that a German unit was preparing to attack the base. The commissar himself, at the head

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of a partisan unit, went out to meet the enemy, who was stationed in the nearby village. At dawn, the signal was given and the partisans went out to battle. They pushed the Germans back eight kilometers and caused them many losses. We killed 170 Germans. We took booty: artillery, machine guns, automatic rifles, ordinary rifles and pistols. We lost two partisans, and two others were wounded.

In a formation after the battle, the commissar praised a few of the fighters, among them Yankel Shneider. The commissar was also promoted. The next day, we went out to bury the German soldiers and their horses that had been killed in the battle and were spread out over the area, then we returned to the base and the daily routine.

Footnotes

  1. All of the men identified by name appear in the memorial book's list of victims in Braslav, except for Gedalia Shapira. Opsa was about 18 kilometers southwest of Braslav, and Dubina (Dubene) was 16 kilometers northwest of Braslav. Return
  2. According to the Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos 1933-1945, Volume II-B (2012), the Dokshits Ghetto was established in November 1941 and suffered three Aktions in the course of its existence. In the first Aktion, in mid-March 1942, some 60 Jews were killed. In the second Aktion, in early May 1942, some 400-600 Jews were killed; presumably this is the event to which Mr. Biliak referred. In the third Aktion, on May 29, 1942, the Dokshits Ghetto was liquidated, with the loss of some 2,600 lives. The liquidation of the Braslav Ghetto began a few days later, on June 3. Return
  3. Chona Biliak, also called Chonka and Chontza later in this account, was Yerachmiel's brother. Return
  4. The account on pages 159-163 of this memorial book of Tzipora (Feiga-Tzipka) Toker (née Biliak), daughter of Chontza Biliak and niece of Yerachmiel Biliak, adds more detail to some of the events mentioned here. Return
  5. The adults aren't identified here; the account is hard to follow. Return
  6. In August or early September 1942, some 50 Jews in Opsa were transferred to the former ghetto in Braslav, to repopulate it after the original inmates had been slaughtered on June 3-5, 1942. Because the members of this second, new ghetto in Braslav were from Opsa, the ghetto was also called the “Opsa” Ghetto. It would be liquidated on March 19, 1943. Return
  7. Belarussian word for shed. Return
  8. This was presumably Rudawa, about 13 kilometers southeast of Braslav, near Belmont. Return
  9. Zamosh was about 16 kilometers south of Braslav and about 10 kilometers south of Belmont. From Zamosh, large forests extended to the south and west, and southwest as far as Kozian, which was about 40 kilometers southwest of Braslav. Return
  10. Russian word for a partisan military unit. Return
  11. Presumably this was the leader of the Antonov detachment of the Shirokov Brigade, which operated in the region to the south of Braslav.Return
  12. The nurse called Peshka Hoffman in this account was perhaps Pesia Hochman from Kozian, a combat medic for the Spartak Brigade. According to the Lexicon Hagevura (Biographical Dictionary of Jewish Resistance), published in Israel in 1965, she was captured at a partisan base while caring for the sick and wounded, and then tortured and shot. According to the Organization of Partisans, Underground Fighters, and Ghetto Rebels in Israel, she was killed in the Koziany Forest on November 13, 1943.Return
  13. The account of Eliezer Fisher, another native of Braslav who survived the massacre of the Braslav Ghetto in June 1942 and later joined the partisans, is on pages 155-158 of this memorial book. Return

 

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