By Moshe Bogomolski
Translated from the Hebrew by Laia Ben-Dov
Footnotes Added / Donated by Jeff Deitch
How have the heroes fallen?
--- Samuel 2:19
When I began to gather material for this book, someone asked me, Do you know about the actions of Tuvia Biliak, of blessed memory? I began searching for information on him, among people in Israel and in books. I made a free translation of the resulting material, but only the parts that concerned him.
My first source was Shlomo Yechielchik. His acquaintance with Tevka began in the Vidz [Widze] Ghetto, and they were together from then on, until Tevka was murdered in the basement of the Jewish [police] in the Vilna Ghetto.
Additional sources were the interesting book by Moshe Shutan, a man from Sventzion [Swieciany a.k.a. Svencionys]: Geto un Vald; Sefer HaPartizanim HaYehudim, published by Sifriyat HaPoalim; and Churbn Vilna, by Shmerke Kaczerginski.
--- M[oshe] B[ogomolski] [one of the editors of this memorial book]
[Shlomo] Yechielchik: I first met Tevka and his brother Avramke when they arrived at the Vidz Ghetto [about 40 kilometers southwest of Braslav/Braslaw], after their flight from Braslav at the time the Jews in the ghetto there were destroyed [June 3-5, 1942]. Confused and frightened, Tevka and his brother had traveled a long road full of danger until they reached us, searching for a place where Jews weren't being murdered. I got to know them better after they were rounded up by the Germans and sent to a work camp in Nei-Sventzion [Novo-Sventzion a.k.a. Svencioneliai, about 50 kilometers southwest of Vidz and in Lithuania], a camp that was fenced with barbed wire and well guarded by the Germans. They put us in the army barracks and horse stables of the former Polish army and had us work laying railroad tracks on the Vilna-Dvinsk line. We worked many hours from morning till night; the food they gave us was very limited. Because of the terrible conditions, we choose to flee the camp and enter the Sventzion Ghetto, which was 8-10 [sic] kilometers away. In the ghetto we'd meet, talk and make plans.
[Around early March 1943] Jewish police from Vilna arrived in the [Sventzion] ghetto, and at their head was a representative of the Vilna Ghetto and the chief of police there: [Jacob] Gens. He explained that there was a German order to shut down the Sventzion Ghetto and transfer its residents to the Vilna and Kovno ghettos. He promised us that nothing bad would happen to anyone. The people [of the Sventzion Ghetto] accepted the decree, believed his promise and began to organize themselves for the move. Men from the German-Lithuanian government handled the transfer of people to the train station [in Novo-Sventzion] and put them in freight cars. A group of young people decided to evade the transport and go to the forest. There were also a few among the Jewish police who advised the young people to join the partisans.
The freight cars, filled with Jews, stood on the track [at Novo-Sventzion] for a number of days. At this time, Tuvia and I were working in the train station [at Novo-Sventzion] and we knew the area and its surroundings well; we knew of hollows [filled with] orderly stacks of railroad ties, under which it was possible to hide if necessary. The Jewish police were among those accompanying the transport; we'd become somewhat friendly with them, and they said a few things that were useful to us later on. The police said they were traveling to Vilna and Kovno, but some of them acknowledged, Who knows? It could also be otherwise [i.e., the situation was uncertain].
Since he'd been separated from his brother Avramke, who had fled to the forest, Tuvia was sad; he didn't say much
and was sunk into himself. Despite his young age, we were friends. He was good-hearted and understanding, tall and athletic --- a strong lad. He awoke to action when events turned dangerous.
From Shlomo Yechielchik's testimony in Moshe Shutan's book: [During the organization of the transport in Novo-Sventzion of the Jews from the Sventzion Ghetto, ostensibly to the Vilna Ghetto] we located ourselves in the freight car next to the door. One evening [in the runup to the transport's departure on April 4], from the cars ahead of us, the sound reached us of voices, shouts and the slamming of doors. I think they're locking the cars, I said to Tuvia, Come, let's get out of here. We only just managed to get out of the car; the police shouted at us to immediately go back inside and not wander around, but we succeeded in getting away from them and hiding. To reach the Vilna Ghetto, we decided, there was no need for freight cars sealed with lead. We carefully approached the [other] cars from the rear and communicated with friends who were inside. They're deceiving us, we said. Sealing the cars is suspicious, and you should try to escape. A few of them agreed, but how could they get out when the doors were locked and the little openings above the doors were blocked with barbed wire? Tuvia found a metal pole, and with it we moved the wire away from the opening. The escape began. One by one, people slid through the opening and we helped them to reach the ground. These were Boris Ulman, Motke Vishkin, the Fogel brothers and a few more --- six men in all. The escape nearly succeeded. But suddenly, we were surrounded. Tevka and I again were able to get away and hide under a pile of railroad ties, but the six men were grabbed by the police and put into a freight car, and when they arrived in Vilna [early on April 5] they were put in the ghetto.
When the train began to move [from Novo-Sventzion, on April 4], we got on it and placed ourselves at the front of a freight car that was intended for the escort, but no one was there. The trip [to Vilna], which ordinarily took about two hours, took an entire day. At the freight station in Vilna [presumably on the morning of April 5], we saw trains full of Jews from Grodno and Oshmiany [sic]. Opposite us, on the nearby track, stood another train. A maintenance worker was checking the wheels of the cars, tapping them with a small hammer. Suddenly he saw us through a soot-stained window and shouted, What are you doing here? Run! They're taking all of you to destruction!
. . . After a fierce argument between Gens and the head of the Gestapo [Martin] Weiss, the latter agreed to free [some of] the Jews intended for the Vilna Ghetto. The others --- thousands --- were taken to Ponar. [This happened on April 5, 1943, whereas from what follows it becomes clear that Tevka succeeded in escaping the massacre at Ponar on April 5 and died later, in August 1943 in Vilna].
. . . [After Tevka was killed in August 1943] The eyes of Shlomke [Shlomo Yechielchik] darkened. Since the time he'd lost his family, he had never been so sad and bitter as now, when he lost Tevka. Tevka is no more, he muttered.
From Shmerke Kaczerginski: Fleeing the killing in his town of Braslav, Tuvia arrived by way of Sventzion at the Vilna Ghetto [on April 5, 1943], where he organized groups of partisans from among the young survivors from nearby towns who had come to the Vilna Ghetto. As part of this, he sought to buy weapons in the city [i.e., in Vilna outside the ghetto]. He wandered around without a [yellow] patch, like a lion. One day in August 1943, he went with another man, happy and carrying a weapon, by way of the Lidzki Alley to a place where he was supposed to give the weapon to friends, through a gate leading to the ghetto. Unfortunately, just at that time many people and police were walking there, and it was difficult to complete his mission. Suddenly there was a shout in Lithuanian, Zydas! (Jew!), and someone grabbed Biliak by the hand.
Biliak dove from his place and began to run down the narrow Kommandantska Alley toward Troki Street. The police gave chase and grabbed him, catching him with a pistol in his hand. [Hearing this] Biliak's friends
became upset; there was great concern as to whether he could withstand the interrogation. At the beginning, he said his name was Kaczerginski. They tortured him so much that the Jews who worked for the Gestapo as black laborers returned from work exhausted and broken from hearing the wild screams and blows that came from the torture cellar where the interrogation was taking place. But the screams hadn't come from Tuvia; he only confessed his real name. The screams were from the torturers, insane with rage at the stubborn lad who uttered not a syllable and didn't even groan.
Weiss, the murderer of Jews, told Gens he'd never seen such a lad, who died like a hero under torture.
From Moshe Shutan [describing the same incident as above]: The last time Tevka tried to enter the ghetto [in Vilna in August 1943], two agents grabbed him, pulled his hands behind his back and tied them. They searched him, found a pistol and took him to the Gestapo. From the Gestapo, they returned him to the [Jewish] police for investigation of criminal offenses, to Gens.
Weiss himself, the head of the Gestapo of the Vilna Ghetto, stood there and beat him terribly with a whip. Weiss wanted to learn who'd sent him [to the ghetto] and where he'd gotten his weapon. Tevka was lying tied to a table. He was quiet; he didn't speak, he didn't even sigh. Standing to the side, Gens politely took the whip from the hands of the exhausted head of the Gestapo and continued the assault on Tevka. Blue and red stripes appeared on Tevka's tortured body. Gens stubbornly continued the blows until he was covered in sweat. Weiss, who could do no more, ordered Gens: Throw away the whip. Then Weiss left, slamming the door.
Gens came out of the interrogation room tired and angry. He looked with scorn at the [Jewish] police, who jumped to attention. Suddenly, between his teeth, he muttered: Idiots! He stopped for a moment, turned to them and said, A son, a son like this I should have.
Shmerke Kaczerginski concludes: The Jews of the [Vilna] ghetto admired Biliak, but later events in the ghetto --- where 20,000 Jews were fighting for their lives --- acted to obscure his name. Now his name is known again, and the young hero casts a light in all his brightness.
From The Book of the Jewish Partisans: Tevka Biliak tried to shoot at the agents with his pistol, but missed. They succeeded in grabbing him and took him to the ghetto police. He was imprisoned and then cruelly and inhumanly tortured. The police cut up his living body. They tried every method they could to get information from him about his group, its location and direction. He knew every detail, but told them nothing. Summoning great strength of spirit, he withstood all the tortures of the soul, but his body was unable to endure. After terrible suffering, he died; he was 19 years old.
Around early March 1943, Gens and a group of his assistants traveled to the Sventzion Ghetto from Vilna. Gens told the Jews in Sventzion that their ghetto would be shut down and they'd be transferred to the Vilna and Kovno ghettos, the two largest ghettos in Lithuania. Gens then returned to Vilna, leaving behind an assistant, Anatol Fried, and a small number of Jewish police from the Vilna Ghetto to supervise the move.
By April 4, 1943, the Jews from the Sventzion Ghetto were moved in wagons by road to a rail head at Novo-Sventzion, about 12 kilometers northwest of Sventzion. There they were put into freight cars. The great majority had been assigned to go to the Kovno Ghetto, while a small minority --- comprising the Sventzion Ghetto Judenrat members and their families, as well as skilled craftsmen and their families --- were to go to the Vilna Ghetto. The Vilna Ghetto was considered the safer destination; in return for bribes, some inmates who'd been assigned to Kovno were reassigned to Vilna, displacing poorer inmates and causing much anger.
On the night of April 4, some 40 freight cars departed from Novo-Sventzion station for Vilna (bound thereafter for Kovno, which was further away); 33 or so of these cars were intended for Kovno, two more were to unload in Vilna, and up to five more contained men destined for other labor camps. (Sources don't agree exactly on the precise total of freight cars.) At the request of the Germans, Gens traveled to Novo-Sventzion to oversee the transfer. He and Jewish police from the Vilna Ghetto were in one of the two freight cars bound for the Vilna Ghetto. Once the ghetto inmates had entered all of the trains, all the cars except for the one containing Gens were locked from the outside.
On the morning of April 5, the 40 or so freight cars reached Vilna train station; the two cars containing people for the Vilna Ghetto and the five or so cars carrying people for the labor camps were uncoupled and left there. The train remained at Vilna station for several hours on the morning of April 5, while several thousand Jews from another train transport were being killed at Ponar outside Vilna. (The Jews killed in the morning transport were from the ghettos of Oshmiany, Soly and several other locations.)
After the Jews from Oshmiany, Soly and elsewhere had been killed at Ponar, some 33 of the approximately 40 cars containing the Sventzion Ghetto Jews were taken out of Vilna train station and driven about eight kilometers southwest to Ponar, arriving on the afternoon of April 5. At Ponar these freight-cars were unlocked and, under armed guard, the Jews in them were taken out in small groups and shot for burial in mass graves, by policemen from Lithuania, Latvia and elsewhere, commanded by German policemen under the German SS man Martin Weiss. Some of the Jews from the Sventzion Ghetto resisted the massacre with fists, knives and a few pistols they'd brought with them, killing and injuring some of the policemen. Amid the chaos, a few of the Jews managed to escape; their number was estimated by the Polish Gentile eyewitness Kazimierz Sakowicz at perhaps around 20.
The death toll at Ponar for all of April 5, 1943 was estimated by Avraham Tory, a diarist from the Kovno Ghetto, at 4,000-5,000, including the transports in both the morning and the afternoon and comprising the ghetto inmates of Sventzion, Oshmiany, Soly, Lida, Smorgon, etc. For some of the Jews from the Braslav region, particularly those from Dubina (Dubene) --- many of whom had been transferred to the Sventzion Ghetto from the Vidz Ghetto --- the afternoon transport to Ponar on April 5 was their final journey.
According to Ghetto in Flames (1982), by the historian and former partisan Yitzhak Arad, the rerouting of the trains on April 4-5 to destruction at Ponar took place after a last-minute refusal by the Gestapo to accept the Jews into the Kovno Ghetto. According to Arad, the refusal was due to the Gestapo's fear of a link between the thousands of the new ghetto inmates, if they were resettled in Kovno, and the partisans in the forests.
At the time the destruction occurred, Gens was widely believed to have lied to the Sventzion Ghetto inmates about the transfer to the Vilna and Kovno ghettos; the few survivors assumed he had known they'd be sent instead to Ponar and killed. However, documentary materials from the time that later came to light --- the diary of Herman Kruk, a highly placed member of the Vilna Ghetto, and the diary of Avraham Tory, secretary of the Jewish Council in the Kovno Ghetto --- showed that Gens and his assistants, though aware of the possibility of deception by the Nazis, were sincere in their belief that the inmates would be transported to Vilna and Kovno, and not to Ponar. Gens was taken by surprise by the Gestapo's last-minute refusal, and it was due to his last-minute efforts at the train station in Vilna that two of the freight cars were unloaded in Vilna and not sent to Ponar.
Gens himself would be shot in Vilna by the Germans on September 14, 1943, after forgoing the opportunity to flee the ghetto. The Vilna Ghetto would be liquidated on September 22-24.
The main sources for the above description of events, besides (1) Ghetto in Flames by Arad, published in English in 1982, are (2) Avraham Tory, Surviving the Holocaust: The Kovno Ghetto Diary, published in Hebrew in 1988 and in English in 1990; (3) Herman Kruk, The Last Days of the Jerusalem of Lithuania, part of which was published in Yiddish in 1961 and in a more extensive English translation in 2002; and (4) Kazimierz Sakowicz, Ponary Diary 1941-1943: A Bystander's Account of a Mass Murder, published in Polish in 1999 and in English in 2005. Return
From other sources, it's known that Boris Ulman survived the war; he was from Braslav and his account is on pages 143-144 of this memorial book. Motke Vishkin was Mordechai/Mottel Vishkin (later Max Wischkin), born in Dubina and the son of David Vishkin and Dina Kagan. Mr. Wischkin survived the war, married Yetta/Yentka Fisher --- whose account appears on pages 117-119 of this memorial book --- and immigrated to the United States. He didn't give an account in this book. Return
By Y[aacov] Levin
Translated from the Hebrew by Dr. Ida Schwarcz
Footnotes Added / Donated by Jeff Deitch
Our Father, Our King, act on behalf of those
--- From the [Avinu Malkeinu] prayer
If the Baal Shem Tov had lived during the Holocaust, that time of torment when G-d seemed to hide His face, he would have asked of the Holy One, blessed be He, that his place in the Garden of Eden might be among the multitude who were martyred for the Sanctification of the Name, and that he might be seated next to the simple folk who exposed themselves to death and stood up against the Nazi oppressor . . .
Moshe-Baruch Bank was such a simple, G-d-fearing person.
He had a wife and two sons. He toiled from the early days of his youth, was drafted into the Russian czar's army, and in the time
|The Bank family|
between the wars he worked at various jobs to feed his family.
At daybreak he hurried to the synagogue to pray, and immediately after prayers he lifted a ladder onto his shoulders or took his tools in hand to start work.
When the time of massacre and destruction was near [on June 3-5, 1942, when the Braslav Ghetto was destroyed], he didn't hesitate. With his bare hands, he stood up to those who sought to murder him and he struggled with them.
As happened in the story by I. L. Peretz about a young Jewish woman from Mainz, the killers tied him to a horse's tail and dragged him through the streets of the town until his soul left his body . . .
His younger son Yosef was drafted into the Red Army in 1941, fought against the Nazis and died in battle near Warsaw. The following notice reached his relatives in Leningrad: Sergeant Bank, Yosef, son of Moshe, born in 1919, fell in action near Warsaw on September 20, 1944 for the Socialist motherland.
His older son, Yisrael, left his yeshiva studies and immigrated to the Land of Israel in the mid-1930s. He was a member of Kibbutz Sha'ar HaGolan [in northern Israel] and there he raised a family. When the Jewish settlements were in danger, he enlisted and fought in the Palmach.
Son of Esther-Musia and Leib
Translated from the Hebrew by Laia Ben-Dov
Footnotes Added / Donated by Jeff Deitch
From the Ghetto to the Ranks of the Partisans and the Palmach
When the Germans came to Braslav [Braslaw; in late June 1941], they immediately organized a police force there. The policemen were young local Poles and Belorussians who collaborated with the Germans. At the head of the police was a great hater of Jews and a known hooligan --- Yashinski [Stanislaw Jasinski]. He was the murderer of the Jews of Yod [Jod, 25 kilometers southeast of Braslav] and Dubina [Dubene, 18 kilometers northwest of Braslav]. He would take bribes from his victims and then kill them. At the time of the destruction of the Braslav Ghetto [June 3-5, 1942], he went from house to house and took the Jews from their hiding places. During the Aktion, when I hid in the attic of our house, I saw with my own eyes through a small window how Yashinski found a Jewish family that lived across the street from us, and he demanded they give him all the valuables in their possession. The father of the family, a lieutenant in the Polish army who'd fought the Germans at the start of the war, argued with him, From where would I have money, when I only just now returned home?! To this, Yashinski replied with a shout, I killed all the Polish officers some time ago! He stood the man against the wall and shot him in front of his children. Then he and his assistants killed the children. To this day, this horrible deed of Yashinski's appears before my eyes.
The Aktion in the Braslav Ghetto began in the first days of June 1942. The Germans destroyed the majority of the Jewish settlement in Braslav --- about 4,500 people, men, women, children and the elderly. Only those few who succeeded in hiding remained alive. Two or three days after the terrible murders, the Germans sent a few Jews into the streets of the town and forced them to announce: They won't kill any more, you can come out from your hiding places. [Some] Jews believed this lie; they left their shelters and reported to the Germans. The Germans held these people for 10 days [sic]. Some of them were kept busy gathering the bodies that had lain in the streets of the town and burying them; after that, all were taken to the killing pits and shot.
The second night after the destruction, I came down from the attic where our entire family had been hiding. I went outside the ghetto to search for food to bring back. To my great distress, when I returned the next night to our hiding place
I found not one living soul of my dearest ones. Shocked and confused, I stood there not knowing what had happened. A Gentile in the street told me the police had found them toward morning and taken them all to the police station. They were held there for a short time and then taken to the killing pits. That day I lost my parents, Leib and Esther, my sister Rivka and my brothers Yisraelka, Mulka, Meir, Shimon and Leizer --- the entire family. Only I remained, the sole survivor.
Few of the Jews of Braslav remained alive after the Aktion; I was one of them. I didn't know where to turn or who to ask for shelter. For three days, I wandered from place to place without food and water. On the night of the fourth day, the hunger began to trouble me severely and I saw no way to get a piece of bread other than to turn to a farmer in one of the villages, despite the danger of being betrayed and turned over to the Germans. I knocked on the window of a farmer in the village of Hutory. I heard the voice of a woman saying to her husband, It must be some poor unfortunate Jew --- a note of humanity that I hadn't heard in a long time. They opened the door, and I asked for a slice of bread and a place to sleep for one night. They took me to a haystack, and in the morning an old farmer brought me bread and milk. From what he said, I got the impression that he was a wise and religious man, about 70 years old. I told him about myself and the home of my parents, a poor house. I had only an uncle who was a wealthy man, and the farmer knew him well. I told the farmer that I'd seen the place where my uncle had hidden his gold, and I could show it to him when the war ended, if he'd give me shelter in his house. The old man listened to my words and said, I don't want the property of others, and continued to talk about G-d and his messenger Jesus the Christian. All the troubles that befall you Jews --- he said --- are because you don't believe in Jesus Christus. In my heart I thought, To save my life, maybe it's acceptable to agree with him. I told him I was prepared, after the war, to convert from my religion. The old man accepted this with great satisfaction and immediately began to teach me the laws of Jesus. From then on, each morning when he entered my hiding place he said, Praise Jesus Christus, and I had only to answer Amen. This continued every day for six weeks.
One morning the farmer came to me very frightened and asked me to immediately leave his house. He said the Germans had found a Jewish family at his neighbor's house and because of this had arrested the farmer's family. I tried to speak to his heart, because he was a good man. I said, The Germans and their collaborators are mass murderers, with no faith in their hearts, but you're a religious man, you believe in G-d, how can you drive me away to certain death?! --- I don't want to drive you from my house, but my daughters are afraid of the Germans. Again I spoke to his heart, and he replied, Chaimke, go somewhere for a week and after that you can return to me. He gave me a loaf of bread and a bottle of milk. That same night, I left his house. Where should I go? It occurred to me to go to Vidz [Widze], and that's what I did. The distance from Braslav was great, about 40 kilometers [to the southwest]. Before I left his house, the farmer told me which path to take. In the Vidz Ghetto, they received me nicely and made sure I had everything. The local Judenrat [Jewish Council] joined me to a family with whom I could stay. This was at the end of summer 1942.
One day the Germans gathered 40 young people, myself among them, and took us to a labor camp in Podbrodz, not far from Vilna. In the camp were 100 young men, all of us working at a sawmill. The camp was surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by adult Germans who were over army age. I was there for two months. I became friendly with a young lad, a Gentile, and we'd talk with each other. Once he told me that the forests in the area contained many partisans, and there were also Jews
among them. If we wanted to join them, he was prepared to take us to them in exchange for a nice payment. There was no better chance to leave the camp; we were five young men who wanted to go to the forest. One Sunday, the day of the week when we didn't work, we left the camp and went out on the road, instructed by the Christian lad. When we entered the forest, he told us to stay where we were and wait for him until he came back. He left but didn't return. We kept walking, without knowing where we were going, until we reached a farmer's house. He told us that in Pastavy there were Jews with the local farmers. He said also that he'd seen flyers in which it was written that Jews could come to the Gleboki [Glebokoye] Ghetto without any harm being done to them. We knew this was again a German trick to mislead the Jews who'd succeeded in escaping the first Aktion and were wandering the area. We continued onward. On the way, we learned that in the Gleboki Ghetto there was a secret organization that helped people who wished to join the partisans, and the help included obtaining personal weapons, without which the partisans didn't accept new members. Having no choice, we went to Gleboki and entered the ghetto. The head of the Judenrat there was a man by the name of [Gershon] Lederman --- a wise and energetic man. He believed, he said, that the young people who went to the partisans in the forest had a chance to remain alive. The others --- the adults, the elderly and the children --- could be saved, he argued, only through dedicated work for the Germans. He had established factories in the ghetto for wool, cotton, felt boots and more, in which Jews would work until the hard times pass. But even his [own] sons didn't believe in his ideology. In Lederman's house gathered young men who left the ghetto and went out to the forests at night. In his house, there was also a weapons storeroom.
I stayed in the Gleboki Ghetto until May [sic] 1943, when the second Aktion began to destroy the last of the Jews. Together with my good friend, we bought a pistol and decided to escape to the forest. Unfortunately, we delayed our exit from day to day, until the morning when the Germans, equipped with light and heavy weapons, surrounded the ghetto and called to the Jews to come out of their houses [August 20, 1943]. Hearing their shouts, we saw how many Jews ran in the direction of the fence around the camp, broke through it, and continued to run toward the forest, which was about 300 meters from the camp. I and my friend joined the flight. Heavy fire opened up on us; many people fell. The rest continued to flee. At the outset, we'd decided that if one of us was wounded the other wouldn't leave him to suffer. After that, I was wounded in my leg and couldn't continue to run. I thought of putting an end to my life, because the pistol was in my hands. But my friend and another Jew sensed this; they grabbed the weapon from me and dragged me with them into the forest.
A great many, maybe 1,000 Jews, were among those who broke through the fence, but only a small number of them remained alive. Only 20 young people gathered in the forest. Fate took its course, and I and my friend remained alive. The group said they'd go and look for the partisans. I was a hindrance to them, because I couldn't walk and they had to carry me on their backs. We didn't encounter any Germans on the way; after the heavy fire they'd rained down on the escapees, they didn't think anyone remained alive. The Gentiles who we met on the way left us alone, because they knew Jewish partisans were operating in the area and were likely to make them pay a heavy price for any crime. Reaching a village, we decided to wait for the partisans to come. After a short delay a group of them arrived, among them two Jews. One was Abba Kozliner from Luzhki [Luzki, about 65 kilometers southeast of Braslav, near Gleboki] and the second was a lad from Disna [Dzisna, about 72 kilometers east of Braslav] whose name unfortunately I can't recall. The partisans told us to wait until they returned from their mission, which we did. When they came back,
they hitched up a horse and wagon, sat me inside it, and together we arrived at the Miory forest. This was the camp of the Belorussian Brigade, which numbered 500 men, of whom 80 were Jews. Their officer was the war hero Sazykin. In this brigade there also were gypsies. I remember that once, when the officer [Sazykin] was a bit tipsy, he gathered two of the children who were with us into his arms. One was a Jew and the other was a gypsy, and he sang a Russian song to them: Behold, for these I'm fighting. The relations between the partisans were good. They didn't feel any difference between a Jew and a non-Jew. One veteran partisan once said to me, Look, Yefim --- that's what they called me --- 50 kilometers from here you Jews are thought to be dogs, and here, among us, you're like my brother. The man was a writer and the brigade historian. In the brigade there were Jewish officers, and the Party secretary was a Jew.
After my leg healed, I was joined to the fighters and the unit's patrol and assigned a horse. I was able to take revenge on the murderers of Jews, but my conscience didn't permit me to kill innocent people. One day, there arrived at our partisan headquarters news that in the town of Miory [40 kilometers east of Braslav] they were organizing an A.K. (Armia Krajowa) to fight against the partisans. Among these there also were murderers of Jews. Our unit ambushed them and captured 10 of them; our field court sentenced them to death. I stayed with the partisans until the liberation of the region by the Red Army in August 1944 [sic, other accounts say July 1944]. The partisans then joined the army's fighting units. I was sent to the partisan headquarters and from there to a military course. All those who received a rank after that were sent to the front.
Here I saw for the first time that Jewish young people were leaving the partisan camp and returning to the forests where they'd lived until the war, with the purpose of searching for their relatives and, if they found any survivors, giving them as much help as possible. The officer of the camp was a Jew. He always found a way to explain the absence of the Jews and thus protect them. My friend Reuven left the camp. After two days, I was called to the exit gate of the camp, where I met a Jew named Fruchtenbaum and his sister, and they told me that my friend Reuven had recommended me to them and they were prepared to help me. That same day, I requested a day's leave from the camp officer and I went with them. We traveled together to a kolkhoz [collective farm] in the Chernigov district of Ukraine. There, I found another four Jewish families who, like Fruchtenbaum, had come there from Siberia after the Russian-Polish agreement that allowed Polish refugees to approach the Polish border. They arranged the appropriate certificates for me on behalf of The Polish Partisan Organization, and in them it was written that I hadn't been drafted into the army.
I stayed at the kolkhoz for an entire year. When travel to Poland became possible, I immediately went there. I arrived in Lodz [some 660 kilometers southwest of Braslav] and the preparatory kibbutz of Gordonia. Later I traveled to Shechichin [Szczecin, now in western Poland and some 380 kilometers northwest of Lodz], and from there I continued to Landsberg in Germany, because I'd been told that a kibbutz was there whose members were former partisans [Landsberg was some 660 kilometers southwest of Szczecin, west of Munich and in the U.S. occupied zone]. The manager of the kibbutz was Dr. Blutovitz [sic]. I made aliyah to the Land of Israel on the immigrant ship Yagur, which was intercepted by the British, who exiled all the immigrants to closed camps in Cyprus. Three months later, I came to the Land. This was at the beginning of 1947.
With the declaration of the State of Israel and the beginning of the War of Independence, I felt that my place had to be among the fighters for the state. I was drafted into the Palmach and the Israel Defense Forces. I was a soldier in the HaPortzim battalion of the Harel-Palmach Brigade, which fought on the Jerusalem front. Among my officers were Poza --- Chaim Poznanski, who fell in the Battle of Nebi-Samuel [April 1948], and Dado --- David Elazar.
Letter [Written in 1948 by Chaim Ben-Arieh during His Army Service in Israel]
My dear friends Munitz and the Per family,
This is intended mainly for Tova, because I think that you, Tova, can fulfill my request. At this time, I'm near the enemy. Our enemy is strong, and much has to be sacrificed. We cannot know who of us will pass through everything safely to reach the happy day [when the war is over].
So if I fall in battle, don't grieve too much. I'm not more deserving than my brothers the fighters or the six million who were destroyed in Europe. My consolation is that I'll die on the soil of our holy country, in the Land of Israel.
My request to Tova --- that she take charge of my possessions and divide them according to what I write --- is as follows:
Twenty pounds are intended for the planting of trees in the Negev in memory of my father and mother, Arieh ben Yosef Burat and Esther-Musia bat Chuna-Zissa Dagovitz.
And 20 pounds for the refugees from Braslav.
The remaining money and my clothing should be transferred to Moshe Goldin from Braslav.
May 18, 1948
Chaim Ben-Arieh (Burat)
May you all be healthy and have much happiness in the State of the Jewish People.
Written in the parking lot of Kibbutz Maale HaHamisha
Company 4, HaPortzim [Battalion], Palmach [Brigade]
Son of Gita and Shlomo
Translated from the Hebrew by Jerrold Landau
Footnotes Added / Donated by Jeff Deitch
In an article by Stefan Kharkovsky in Nasz Glos [Our Voice], published on February 3, 1968 on the participants in the Battle of Stalingrad, there appeared the following excerpt: . . . in 1945 Lieutenant-General Isser Rabinovitz was among the soldiers in the Fourth Infantry Division near Austrovitz [Ostrowice] [now in northwest Poland]. The commander of one of the brigades of the German 163rd Division surrendered himself and his division of 650 soldiers to him, together with their arms and flags.
Isser Rabinovitz, today a lieutenant-general in the reserves, was born in 1914 in Braslav [Braslaw], a small town in the Vilna district. He studied at the Yiddish Real-Gymnasium [Realgymnazye] in Vilna and completed his education at the Vilna technical college of ORT as a qualified electrician.
In 1924 he joined the ranks of the youth wing of the Communist Party and later the Communist Party of western Belorussia.
He was arrested and imprisoned several times for his Party activities. He was a prominent activist from the Jewish sector.
As a Polish soldier, he began his military career at the time of the August operation in the ranks of the Independent Engineering Battalion and fought near Augustov and Grayev [presumably Augustów and Grajewo, both in what's now northeast Poland].
Then, at the beginning of August, after completing the preparation of fortifications for which the battalion was responsible, it was decided to make a foray into east Prussian territory. Among the volunteers for the operation was Private Isser Rabinovitz. He endured his baptism of fire during the tragic days of August with a direct attack on the enemy territory of the Nazi invader.
The force succeeded in crossing the border and penetrated deeply into east Prussian territory, destroying several railway stations and immobilizing German troops. When they returned to their base, they couldn't find the soldiers of their unit; in their absence, the unit had received an order to move southwest. As a result, they were unable to take part in the fighting against the Germans. The next military activity of Isser Rabinovitz in the struggle against the Nazi conqueror was with the Red Army, when he was mobilized in the autumn of 1941. A year later, he fought near Stalingrad as a member of special motorized units. In September 1943 he was
transferred at his own request to the Dombrovski [Dąbrowski] Second Infantry Division that was combined with the Polish Army First Corps in the Russian army. Isser Rabinovitz joined the unit while the division was being organized on the Ouka[?] River near Siltse. In the beginning he was delegated second-in-command of a platoon in an anti-tank unit of the fourth battalion, and later promoted and assigned the role of second-in-command of political affairs of the battalion. He finished the war with the rank of captain.
In his book of his military experiences Rabinovitz relates, among other events, details of the Battle of Pulawy [in eastern Poland] after he and his men crossed the Vistula [Wisla] River.
On the dark night of September 1, 1944, he and his unit floated across the Vistula on a raft. The order was to cross the river in the direction of Adamovki-Dombrovo. When the raft was in the center of the river, the enemy opened up with a heavy artillery barrage. Fearing the complete annihilation of the force, Isser gave the order to abandon the raft and wade across, but the river was deeper than expected and didn't match the information given by the navigator.
Isser Rabinovitz then continued to move with his unit in the direction of Varka [Warka], Warsaw [now in central-eastern Poland] and the province of Pomorze [Pomerania in northwest Poland] as far as the Elbe River [in eastern Germany]. An incident is engraved on his memory from the period of the fighting around the province of Pomorze in the vicinity of Sosnitsa. The area had great strategic importance as a road junction:
It was during the first days of February 1945. Our battalion was ordered to stand in operational readiness, prepared to attack.
When I arrived in the area that was held by a unit of our forces, the unit commander told me that there were clear signs of enemy activity. I immediately told my regimental commander and was informed that a unit of the Sixth Division was being hastily organized to come and reinforce the battalion.
I calmed the troops and informed them that reinforcements were on the way, but unfortunately the information I'd been given was false. Instead of help, we were subjected to a surprise attack by a German armed unit. Confusion spread through our ranks; the results could have been disastrous, but with the help of several officers I managed to control the situation and retreat with our men to a better defensive position in a clearing in the nearby forest.
We also needed to get to our company headquarters, which was in an area under the heaviest attack. This operation was carried out by one of the company commanders who, despite great peril, succeeded in getting through and warning the staff commanders. Thanks to this operation, our unit was able to move to counterattack.
At the beginning of March, I had a more pleasant experience. After we crossed the Drava [Drawa] River [now in northwest Poland], our regiment took part in a spearhead chase after the enemy. We advanced via a forest in the direction of Lake Sitsina [Lake Siecino, now in northwest Poland]. As we cleared the forest, the enemy opened an attack on us with machine guns and bazookas.
I was at the head of the unit. I ordered the troops to form an attack formation and open fire. We captured one of the hilltops that commanded the entire area. In front of us was the town of Austrovitza [Ostrowice, in northwest Poland], and from there the German unit rained a heavy fire on us.
The battalion commander, Captain Trobani, who commanded the remaining units, encircled the town from the southwest and began attacking the enemy. A heavy battle began. The enemy began to evacuate part
of its forces northward. With my remaining men, I encircled a platoon of German soldiers who were defending themselves on the left flank of the town. Our fire forced the Germans to surrender. A white flag appeared in one of the windows of a house. I ordered a ceasefire. A file of enemy soldiers walked out of one of the houses. I approached them together with two privates. Leading the German soldiers was a colonel who identified himself as the commanding officer of the battalion; he was surrendering together with 650 of his men. The Germans laid down their arms. We took also their flag and sent them to our rear. We joined the battalion that was pursuing the remaining enemy forces.
The front-line journal W.S.W. Sonitza Unit reported on other military events. Among the articles is one entitled Forty-eight hours on guard --- 48 hours behind enemy lines, in which we're told about two days of fighting against the enemy that surrounded our forces on three sides, a fight that was carried out in knee-deep mud, without food or supplies of ammunition. Three times the Germans launched a counterattack and our men repelled them with bullets and bayonets . . . the commander, Captain Trobani, never moved from the front line and personally encouraged his men. Colonel Rabinovitz, the education officer of the unit, was everywhere: He had praise, a good word, a joke and advice for everyone. He fought alongside them the whole time.
Among the many recommendations for valor that the regimental commander put his name to and confirmed was the following:
Isser Rabinovitz, son of Shlomo, born in 1914 of the Jewish faith, displayed great courage and energy in the battle near Virhof. In the strongest of counterattacks by the Germans that advanced
|War commendation received by Isser Rabinovitz|
with a superior force, his battalion became engaged in an especially difficult situation. Thanks to his courage and resourcefulness Colonel Rabinovitz succeeded in spurring his fighters on and raising their spirits, setting a personal example of heroism. The situation improved and the German counterattack was repelled.
. . . Apart from his activities as education officer that were performed at a high standard, he was also of assistance to his commanding officer in battle. He was always found in the front line of the forces.
When the deputy commander of the battalion, Lieutenant Nizhnikov, was killed, Rabinovitz assumed command of the force and led it into the attack. In the Battle of Halbe [April 24-May 1, 1945, part of the Battle for Berlin], Rabinovitz was already a captain. After the war he achieved the rank of colonel in the Polish armed forces, one of the many Jews who took active part in the struggle against the Nazi conquerors for a new and just Poland.
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