« Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page »

[Page 339]

Mordechai (Motke) Rosenberg

Son of Leib and Chaya-Pesia

Translated from the Hebrew by Laia Ben-Dov

Footnotes Added / Donated by Jeff Deitch

 

We sat and talked; Motke spoke, and I wrote. He spoke slowly with pauses, sometimes in a trembling voice, sometimes continuously. He described the smallest details as if they'd happened yesterday, as if the wound was still fresh. He touched parts of his body while speaking, to illustrate his words.

We sat one evening and then more evenings until the late hours. He spoke, and I wrote in the first person. After that, I added descriptions and conditions because his language was poor at describing shades of emphasis and pain. “It was a war on survival, a war on life itself.”

He spoke, I wrote.

--- Yaacov Aviel [one of the editors of this memorial book, whose own account is on pages 323-338 of this memorial book]

 

I was a 10-year-old boy when the war broke out. I knew how to play hide and seek and how to play cops and robbers. The game of war was taught to me by life, and the game of hide and seek became a gamble taken on life.

I remember Opsa [18 kilometers southwest of Braslav/Braslaw], the houses, the streets; and how many streets were there? I recall the boys who were my age and those who were older than me. I ran around barefoot on summer days, alone or following the older boys, to the lake or in the forest.

I remember our house at the foot of the hill at the approach to the road to Vidz [Widze, 22 kilometers southwest of Opsa], not far from the hill of the church. Our house was built of rough boards, with a slanted roof of straw. It had many wings, connected to each other so that tenants could be taken in, both to get rent and out of pity for poor Jews. Where would they live, if not in Grandfather Mottel's house? I'm called Mottel after my grandfather, of blessed memory, a G-d-fearing man who welcomed guests in his lifetime (and after his death it was written on his tombstone). He was a poor tailor, wandering in the surrounding villages, carrying on his back his workshop, in which were contained an iron, scissors and a book of psalms.

My grandmother Hinda, short, wrinkled and bent, was very shy. All her life she worried about their livelihood, food for the Sabbath, and clothing for the children. My father, Leib, followed in grandfather's footsteps. He too was a tailor, but he left the villages, bought a sewing machine and worked at home. I had adult brothers, Gershon and Yisrael, and sisters: Sima and the twins Sorka and Hindka, who were born after me [and also a sister Tzila, mentioned later in this account].

[Page 340]

I was a lad when the war came.

What, in fact, was war? At first, it was thousands of miles away from us and distant as the news; without radio, without a newspaper. Why were they fighting, and how?

So they said: A war broke out --- and I was a boy of 10.

One day, a rumor was passed along: Soldiers were approaching Opsa. And they arrived [in late June 1941]. First it was the Russians, and after that, the Germans. There was a tank battle on the road from Opsa to Vidz. We heard the thunder of artillery from a distance. I didn't see anything.

Before the Germans entered, the Gentiles of Opsa established a kind of police force, a “militia” in the local language. The Gentiles chose the [Jewish] family Drisviatzki's building as militia headquarters. This was a nice two-story building, built of red brick. All the troubles began from this building. Then I began to understand what war was.

One day, I saw something but didn't understand what was happening, or why:

They began to gather all the Jews into the market square. They brought many men and told them to fall on their faces, to lie down and get up, to crawl, to eat grass. They kicked them and beat them. All of this was ordered by the local militia. They grabbed Moshe-Aharon [Donda] the butcher and tied him with a rope to a horse; my G-d, somebody mounted the horse and urged it to run --- and Moshe-Aharon was tied to it by the rope around his neck. They passed through the streets and he was dragged, screaming. At the end they threw him at the side of the road, seriously injured. I don't know if he lived or died.

The Germans spread throughout the town and the surrounding area, and they began to rule with cruelty. At night they entered the houses and took the strong men for hard labor, to repair the road or railroad. The women they took for cleaning jobs or the preparation of food.

After a number of days, they conducted a parade of the Jews. All of the Jews reported when their name was called. Among them was Leibke Rapaport, a deaf mute. The Germans thought he was just pretending to be deaf and beat him viciously, as he screamed in terror. The procession was accompanied throughout by beatings and humiliations.

Before the Germans had arrived, during the time of the Soviets, all of the craftsmen had been nationalized: tailors, shoemakers, to help the [Soviet] army. They'd called this a “cartel” and Hertzel Shneider, the shoemaker, had been made the manager.

When the Russians withdrew and the Germans entered, the cartel continued, but the managers changed. Hertzel the Jew was removed, and the Gentile Matush [Matusz] was appointed in his place. This Gentile had held a grudge against Hertzel for years, due to professional competition. He was jealous of Hertzel, who was the more successful, and the main thing: Hertzel was a Jew. After his appointment, Matush spread rumors that Hertzel was keeping a stash of hides and this should be punished. Hertzel was a courageous man with strength in his hands, and he didn't want to run away when they came to interrogate him about the stash. I heard they tortured him terribly, and finally they killed him.

More memories from this time when the armies changed:

Shmuel, the son of Moshe the tailor, was a Komsomolets[1] for the Russians and was accepted by them. When the Germans entered, the men of the militia grabbed him, dragged him through the streets, tortured him, and finally they killed him. In the interval between the Russian retreat and the German entry, the local militia was all-powerful. The Gentile Bludzhin appointed himself commandant of the militia and ruled over everything, deciding life, death or torture. There was no law and no judge --- fear ruled the Jews of Opsa. This Bludzhin began to rape Jewish girls one after another, and as his arrogance increased he also began to rape Christian girls. A local

[Page 341]

teacher denounced him; the Germans arrested him and put him in the prison in Braslav. Shamed by the loss of his power, he hanged himself there. What joy the Jews felt! David Levin, the head of the Judenrat [Jewish Council] in Opsa, didn't hide his happiness and that of all the Jews. On the day of the funeral, they all shut themselves in their houses. Only Shmuel's mother bravely went out into the street, approached Bludzhin's mother and showed her pain and joy as one.

The memories stay with me, year after year. Memories that shocked the soul of an 11-year-old boy. I remember a secret love between Mira, daughter of the tailor Moshe Bikov, and a young Gentile. The Gentile became enraged after he was rejected by Mira's parents, Jews, and he decided to get revenge. He obtained a hand grenade and threw it at their window. The grenade hit the lintel, bounced back and exploded on the road, opposite him, and he lost his leg.

For half a year [roughly September 1941 to March 1942], the Jews of Opsa were left alone. Special prayers were conducted in the synagogues that there wouldn't be killings --- because killings in the vicinity had been heard of. A rumor spread that the Jews of Opsa would be moved to a ghetto in Braslav or Vidz. In Vidz the guards were Lithuanians, murderers, Jew-haters, Shaulists,[2] and this sowed fear among the Jews of Opsa. Whoever was able to pay a bribe in gold was sent to Braslav.[3] The lot fell to my family to travel to Vidz --- we had no bribe to give. They [the militia] told us they'd already prepared burial pits for us, and this would be our end. We saw long lines of Jewish wagons on the way to Vidz, Slobodka, Yaisi [Jaisi] and more [sic].[4] The Gentiles supplied wagons and horses to transport the Jews. We too were put into these wagons. At the exit from Opsa, we crossed the railroad tracks, and passengers began to flee in the direction of the forest. They shot at them, but didn't harm them. A local policeman approached me and asked my father to let me flee. “He's a boy,” he said “it's a pity.” But I didn't agree to run away, I remained with the family. In this way, we arrived in the convoy at Vidz. This ghetto was crowded and dirty; all the Jews from the [nearby] villages were concentrated there. The Germans immediately began to take out the men for labor. We no longer had any link to Opsa. We heard only that there they'd also concentrated the [remaining] Jews in a ghetto. My uncle, Abba-Zvi [Abelevitz], traveled with us to Vidz, and my aunt Esther remained in Opsa.[5] My uncle wanted very much to return to Opsa to be with his family. He was a religious man; he had a beard and a Jewish appearance. People would know immediately that he was a Jew and turn him in. He absolutely didn't want to remove his beard; his soul pained him and he couldn't decide what to do. I volunteered to take my uncle to Opsa on foot --- I was just a lad.

Toward evening we went out of the ghetto in Vidz, and under cover of night we stole through the fields and villages. Toward morning, we reached Opsa. The ghetto [there] was around my uncle's house.[6] They all were gathered there. After a few days of rest, I returned to Vidz. This time I took courage and walked on the road. Lithuanians stopped me and realized I was a Jew. But an old Gentile pleaded for my life, and they left me alone.

I returned to the ghetto in Vidz through the same break in the fence I'd come out of, and along the paths I recognized. I learned that my brother Gershka and my sisters Tzila and Sara had already been taken away.

I began to dare to go out to the villages on the roads I knew, to bring food, exchange valuables for food, buy or beg. I was tall and blond like a Gentile. I grew up too soon.

The Germans began increasingly to search for men for labor. For some reason I, in my innocence, thought I was still a boy and they wouldn't take me. One day, I was sitting with another boy my age on the steps of the synagogue. Lithuanians and Germans came to us, spoke among themselves and decided to take us too for labor. Nothing helped, they wouldn't leave us alone. They loaded all of us on wagons and took us to the town of Dogalishok [Daugeliskis, about 22 kilometers west of Vidz and in Lithuania]. From there,

[Page 342]

they put us on railroad cars and took us to a labor camp.

This was a camp for hard labor. We built a road between Kovno and Vilna (Miligan[7]). I also found my father there. The Jews were forced to work hard from first light to darkness. Food was very scarce. I knew that my mother remained alone with the twins [back in the ghetto], and I was determined to flee to her. I told father of my decision, and he didn't object. Disappearing from the work place, I hid and jumped on a freight train that was on the way to Vilna [about 104 kilometers southwest of Miligan and in Lithuania]. This was my first encounter with a large, unknown city. People had told me that at a labor camp in Vilna there were Jews with work permits and they were centralized in an area called Kalish [Kailis labor camp].[8] I always turned to the elderly for help, and this time too an elderly Gentile assisted me and brought me to the gate of the camp. At the gate I began to speak Yiddish, and they let me enter. They gave me food, but didn't want to leave me because of the danger. They told me how to get to the large ghetto in Vilna. I entered the ghetto. I explained that I wanted to reach my mother in Sventzion [Svencionys, about 80 kilometers northeast of Vilna and in Lithuania].[9] They investigated, asking a lot of questions. In the end, they decided to join me to a transport of children whose parents were dead. In the ghetto there was no food, and I looked for a way to reach my mother. While searching, I found a man from Braslav --- Yerachmiel Milutin.

I and Milutin already knew each other.[10] When I'd been in the Vidz Ghetto, I'd gone to Opsa as a messenger. I got there on the day they were preparing an Aktion. At the last minute, the Germans postponed carrying it out, and we began to plan an escape back to Vidz. At that time, it was thought that Vidz was safer. Milutin [had] succeeded in fleeing the Aktion in Braslav [presumably the one on June 3-5, 1942], and he knew the group was planning an escape to Vidz and I was the leader. Milutin had joined the group and I, the 12-year-old lad, had led adult men. I knew all the paths and hiding places, the best times to pass, and thus I'd succeeded in leading a group of Jewish refugees from Opsa to Vidz. Milutin owed me his life.

Since then, Milutin had arrived in the Vilna Ghetto and been made responsible for a group of laborers with work permits. When I met him [now, in Vilna], he immediately turned to me and promised me safe passage. In his hands were permits for 13 workers. He waited for me near the gate, and there I joined his group. Milutin gave me his permit, putting himself in danger by traveling without a permit. The train was full of Ukrainians. On the way, they searched us [but] I knew that Milutin had succeeded in disappearing. I got off the train in Sventzion [sic].[11] In the ghetto, they didn't believe my story and thought I'd just fled from an Aktion. I stayed with my mother and began, as I had in Vidz, to wander in the villages, to bring food, to sell. Occasionally I was stopped, but people always had pity on me; “a boy,” they said, and they let me go.

Then the Germans wanted to concentrate larger numbers of Jews and decided to eliminate the Sventzion Ghetto. Part of the population would go to the Vilna Ghetto and part to Kovno. Later it became clear that the Jews of the Vilna Ghetto hadn't wanted to receive more refugees, they didn't want a large number. They didn't reveal to us that traveling to Kovno meant Ponar [Ponary], and this was the end of the road.[12]

We had the good fortune that our entire family arrived at the Vilna Ghetto. I was 15 years old.

In the Vilna Ghetto, I was taken for full-time work. My brother Gershon was also in Vilna. From there, he traveled to Panevezh [Panevezys, about 130 kilometers northwest of Vilna and in Lithuania], and after that, I didn't see him anymore. My father worked in a bakery so as to bring home a loaf of bread hidden between his clothes. The young ones, myself among them, looked for ways to go out of the ghetto and bring back food. There were four gates, where they did body searches. Despite this, I succeeded in smuggling flour, which I hid on my body. I was thin, and they didn't feel it in my clothes.

[Page 343]

My place of work was the railroad. My sisters worked in a place called Prubanek [Porubanek, a suburb of Vilna where there was a labor camp]. Again, the Germans began to gather people and take them out of the ghetto --- in other words, Aktions --- with all kinds of lies. One day, the guards came and took us. They gathered men and women also from other places of work. My sisters were there too. They gathered us together and began to force us into railroad cars. There was a great uproar. People broke out and began to run away. I fled too, jumping into a garden next to the train. The Gentiles yelled at me, “Yid, Yid, Jew, Jew!” I got over the fence and ran. I couldn't stay outside at night, from fear I'd be caught, so I returned to the ghetto. There they arrested all the escapees and told us, “Keep calm. Everything will be all right.” My parents were there. They suggested that my parents redeem me with a bribe, gold or silver, but my parents had none; all their requests to free me didn't help. Again we were loaded on trucks and brought back to the train. We thought the end had come, that they'd send us to Ponar. Instead, they transported us to Estonia.

Estonia, labor camp, Vaivara.[13] A new scene, another language, but the same barbed-wire fence, the same guards, the same starving faces, the same lowered eyes and bent back, the same fear of tomorrow, the same conversations about bread, soup and labor.

In preparation for our arrival, they evacuated the Russian prisoners and settled us in their place.

Already the next morning, they divided us into work groups, and . . . forward march! To lay train tracks from morning until evening, hard labor. Our food was a slice of bread and some soup. The crowdedness bothered us; it was impossible to move without stepping on someone. The huts were built without any toilets. Everything was improvised and temporary, built for prisoners. The Latvian and Estonian guards would hit us for every moment of rest, without reason or mercy.

I, Motke, a champion escaper, began here too to plan an escape. I was blond like a Gentile and could easily move among them --- until they caught me once. It was evening, and in the camp they had a roll call. They called names and a number of Jews were missing --- myself among them. The punishment for escape was 25 lashes. One could live with this, I decided, and continued with the escapes. After a few months, they moved us again to another camp, named Narva.[14] There I found my father, of blessed memory. We'd been apart and now we were reunited; I parted from my sisters and met my father. The bonds of affection between father and son can't be expressed; there was no time to talk with him. The conditions in this camp were the very worst. The work was digging, during the winter season, with little clothing and very little food. The guards were murderers and beat us very cruelly. My father fell ill, and they took him to a small hospital. I'd come from work and bring him a piece of bread I'd hidden. I watched him lying there. Once he said a few words and once he just looked at me, lying there with his eyes fixed on the ceiling, as if he was trying to penetrate it and ask for mercy.

One day I came, and they wouldn't let me in. “Your father died,” they said. Leaning on the gate, I grabbed the cold iron with both hands, tears wetting my face. I held onto the iron gate, not letting go. There's no G-d, there's not! You're cursed, cursed! I beat the iron with my fists until I finally sensed the pain and blood streamed from my hands. “Cursed, cursed . . . murderers.”

I was pursued by the memory of my father, yellow in the face, looking at the ceiling. Again I told myself to live. To live, escape. I wouldn't remain there.

Rumors came that the Russians were advancing, and so now we dug trenches against tanks. There was a scrap

[Page 344]

of hope for survival. We labored in the fields, deep in the earth. I decided: This is the place and time to escape.

There was a strange man among us: a prophet, a rabbi, a genius, crazy --- who knows?

Each day, he gave another sermon. Sometimes according to the weekly Torah portion, sometimes just a sermon. He said he remembered by heart all of the weekly portions and their order. Sometimes he preached words of reprimand, or prophecy. How did he sermonize on an empty stomach?! How did he stand up to curses and degradations, and speak his piece, in Hebrew or in Yiddish?! The guards would point a finger at their heads and leave him alone. Everyone talked about flour, potatoes; he sermonized from hidden books, from the Holy Zohar.[15] Those who knew him said he was a rabbi, eminent in Torah, but his mind had grown confused. G-d forbid! Thus he went around among the huts or next to the fence, sermonizing and chastising, comforting and proving. Thus he announced that the End of Days had arrived and we should prepare for the coming of the Messiah. Next to the food storeroom, women were standing in line for their daily portion. They spoke there in whispers about “this woman” and “that woman.” One of them said she'd seen “such and such a woman” meeting secretly with “the man with the buttons.” “Take care when you're around her, she's a foul, disgusting person.” Another said, “That piece of filth, screwing an official --- she should die of cholera!” The prophet came and rebuked her. She threw a shoe at him, but he forgave her. Then he approached me. “Moteleh,” he said, “today's a lucky day. The war of Gog and Magog is coming to an end. Whoever tries his luck today will succeed.”

“Today,” I said in my heart, “is my day. I'll run away.”

To the clothes of everyone who'd fled and been caught, they'd attached a red patch in front and in back. I already had a patch like this. They guarded me especially. “Let them guard,” I thought.

On the way to work, outside the city, we passed through the streets. We'd walk in the shade, in large groups. Ahead of time, I prepared other clothes without the patch, and while walking I put a shirt on my body and waited until we came to those streets. This was the signal. There was a crucified Jesus, “Yoshke Pandera,”[16] hanging there ashamed. I slipped into a side street, ran down another street, made another turn and here, opposite me, was a small house --- maybe here, I thought. I pushed inside. A lone woman sat next to a sewing machine. I spoke Russian and she answered me. “Yes, Jew, I'm ready to help you, but Germans come here to mend clothes --- what'll I do with you?” She took me to the attic. Up there were two Russian orphans; I joined them, becoming like one of them. The Germans who visited the house didn't know me and didn't touch the Russians. I became a helper in the house with household jobs, errands and the like. Since the woman was alone, she was glad to have me as a friend. A number of times she hinted to me that I'd do well to convert to Christianity and come with her to be baptized in church, because I couldn't live as a Jew.

One day, a Gentile came and asked me to go with him. He took me to the local church. There, inside it, there was no war and no fear of the Germans. The organ played notes of prayer and the believers crossed themselves together with the priest and sang the prayers with him. I sat among them and felt safe. After this visit, they began to press me to convert. One Sunday morning, I came down from the attic. In the room I found a bathtub with warm water and the seamstress waiting for me. “Get undressed,” she said, “and get in the bathtub.” I stood there without moving. I didn't understand the meaning

[Page 345]

of her words. “Wash yourself,” she repeated, “and after that, we'll go to church.” She approached me and started to nervously unbutton my clothes. I was a grown lad, and all kinds of thoughts began to dance in my brain. She left the room, and I got into the bathtub. After that, I went with them to church. The thoughts pursued me, and on the way I began to plan an escape. While everyone was on their knees and looking at Jesus the savior, I quietly snuck out into the hallway. There, the coats and boots of the congregation were hanging. I took some, put them on and slipped into the street.

I knew we were near the Russian border, and I knew the direction. Very quickly, I found myself outside the city. I hitched a ride in a sleigh. The Gentile passed along the road where the Jews were digging. They saw me and grew quiet --- here's Moteleh, running away again. I was afraid to say anything. The Gentile took me to his village, which was on the Russian border. I worked in his house at all kinds of jobs, and he gave me food and a place to sleep. I stayed there for a few days. Again, I progressed by hitching rides. Each time, I got closer to the Russian border. I traveled or walked from village to village, passing as a laborer or a Russian orphan. Unfortunately my Russian wasn't that good, and Estonians who spoke Russian realized I was a Jew. One evening a woman gave me some food; I sat at the table and ate. Suddenly she pulled out a pistol, aimed it at me and said, “You're a Jew, right? Don't move!” Germans were going around the village, and I was struck with fear. She stood by the window that looked into the street, and it seemed she was waiting for the Germans to pass by, so she could turn me over to them. The food stuck in my throat; cold sweat covered my body. “Oy, Moteleh,” I said to myself, “you got this far, only to fail at the hands of a woman with a pistol?” I'd already seen others like her, and I wasn't afraid. In a flash, I dove outside and got to the street. Walking quickly through the village street, I saw an open door and entered. An old woman sat near the stove, not sensing I was there. I hid under a bed, with my face toward the door. I pulled a bit on the blankets and held my breath. The woman from whom I'd fled was shouting, “A Jew ran away from here. A Jew, a Jew here!” I saw them enter and start looking for me. They asked the old woman. “I've been here the whole time,” she said, “and I didn't see anyone come in.” They stood up to leave but then felt the blanket that was pulled down to the floor. They got me to my feet and dragged me out. I received many blows and to every question I answered, “I'm not a Jew. I'm a Russian, a Russian.” I was without my coat, which I'd left where I was eating; it was cold outside. I trembled from the cold and the beatings, and blood poured down my face. They decided to take me in their wagon to Narva camp, and if they found I wasn't a Jew --- they'd free me. If a Jew --- they'd kill me.

We went on the road in a horse-drawn wagon. I was dripping with blood and trembling from cold and fear. In the wagon, a young Christian woman sat next to me, and she began to whisper to the German to let me go, to run away. “What'll you do to him, he's only a boy,” she said to the guard. She hugged him, took the end of the blanket and wiped the blood off my face. The German put both of his feet on me, so that he knew where I was and I couldn't escape. We traveled like this for half a day, then night fell. After it got dark, the girl covered me with the blanket, and when she sensed the German guard was asleep, she put her hand under the blanket. I felt a warm hand touching my body. “You're a Jew, right?” she said. A strange warmth passed through me; I hadn't felt the hand of a woman like this. “Quiet!” she said. “I'll give a signal, and you run away.” When we passed the area of the trenches that the Jews had dug at the city entrance, she embraced the German. To me, she gave a kick. A dive, and I was out of the wagon. I ran through the streets, to life or death. When somebody ran and there were Germans in the area, they'd start shooting. Learned in escapes, I ran in twists and turns

[Page 346]

and zigzags along the streets and alleys. Where now? Here's the main street, at a crossroad. Here's the cross, and not far from there, the seamstress, the house where they hid me. I approached the cross. Next to it knelt a few believers, a man and two women. A thought came to me. I knelt too and began to cross myself.

I lowered my head so that they wouldn't see my face, which was covered with blood. A deep, long breath and a look to the sides. Are they chasing me or not?! There above, the crucified one was looking at me with pity. “Yoshke,” I said to him, “do something for me if you care about me; protect me with your cunning smile now, or I'll send you to kibinimat [a Russian word for hell].” On the way to the seamstress --- there was a German roadblock. “You there! Halt!” I replied, in Russian: “My mother's sick and I'm running to call a doctor. Quick! Urgent, very urgent!” “Jawohl [Yes] --- run, run!” Another few houses, and I was at the door of the seamstress's house. At the sight of my face, she began to cry and took care of my wounds. She fed me and laid me down to sleep. At the side of the house there was an empty structure, and she decided to put me there. She too was afraid of the Germans. Again I returned to routine. Again to errands, helping in the house and the like. One day, I was on an errand to sharpen some scissors, and behind me was the German officer Paniker [Peiniger],[17]7 riding his bicycle. I was on a bridge. He cut me off and pulled out a pistol. I saw no way to escape. He held me until a German car came that took me to the camp, and he followed.

In the camp, Paniker began interrogations and torture. They said about him that he'd worked in the circus and was alert and daring, with a head for strategy. He looked pleased with himself; finally, he personally had caught the great escaper, Moteleh. Now, he smiled to himself, he'd make a spectacle of me. It was morning, and the prisoners were at work outside the camp. He had time to torment me; we'd see about the champion escaper.

He dragged me to the roof of the building. “Jump!” he shouted. “No!” I answered. “Jump!” he shouted again. I said, “I'm a Jew and my religion forbids me to commit suicide. If you want to kill me, do it, like you killed my father, but to jump, to commit suicide, no. No.”

He left me alone and tried a different strategy, more painful, and in his opinion, murderous. He called the Jew appointed in the camp, Diller [the camp elder], to come to his side, and he began to prepare a gallows for me. I was thrown in the corner of the roof and saw how Herr Paniker prepared the hanging for me. First of all he checked the strength of the rope, the knot, the post, the loop, the height of the chair and the entire apparatus. All this for me, and I was breathing with difficulty.

The circus man leaned over me and told me that everything was ready. He put me up on the chair; he held me because I was trembling all over and my knees had failed. He wound the rope around my neck. I was pushed, I fell and lay flat, but with my hands I stopped the weight of the fall --- I was [still] breathing.

He leaned over me and checked if my elbow was broken. He stopped for a moment: “It isn't broken, amazing, how? What'll we do to this Jew?” He decided on one more try. He called Diller and said, “Look, if he comes out alive this time too, we'll give him his life as a gift. [But] let's find something to kill him; I'm tired of playing with him.” Having said this to Diller, he tied my hands behind me. These were the rules and we must follow the rules, like a faithful German. The end of the second hanging I don't remember. I fell with a terrible blow and fainted. When I awoke, Diller stood over me and sprayed me in the face, saying “Du lebst, du lebst” [“You live, you live”].

They left me alone until evening. They brought me into the hut, threw a blanket over me --- and I fell asleep. In the evening, when

[Page 347]

everyone came back from work, Paniker took a roll call. He stood everyone in a semicircle, with me in the middle. He said to me, “And now, you'll shout: 'Hurra, Moteleh ist da!' ['Hurrah, Moteleh's here!'], shout and run around, around the rows.” After this, he read the verdict: “Twenty-five lashes, done to he who runs away.” I heard the verdict and saw them approaching to whip me. “One, two,” each lash cut my flesh. “Three, four, five,” and through a fog I heard: “Six, seven.” My strength gave out. I yelled, “Shema Yisrael!”[18] and fainted --- and they continued to cut my covered flesh.

From the field they dragged me, tied with ropes, to an empty room, and Paniker ordered them to leave me there for two days without food; if I came out alive --- my life would be a gift. He finished instructing them and gave me over to the Jew who was responsible.

I lay on the floor of the room and cried. It was very cold, and all of my bones ached. Behind the wall were Russian prisoners, who heard my cries. They'd heard the story of the lashes. During the night, they took apart some of the boards [between the rooms] and found me still alive. They untied the ropes, gave me food, and then tied me up again. Then they closed up the boards, and it was impossible to see that anything had happened.

The next day, Herr Paniker came to visit --- was I alive or dead? “The lad's alive? How is it possible?” Again during the night they returned and untied the ropes, gave me food, tied me up again, and closed up the boards.

After two days, Paniker came again and found me alive. For the Germans, a pledge was a pledge. I was freed and left to do work inside the camp, not outside.

All this happened, it turned out, toward the end of the war. The Russians broke through the German front and were rushing forward. In the camps there was now hope for life and a great awakening. One day they told me I was being transferred to Vaivara camp, the work camps were being centralized. Paniker's deputy, who was appointed to do the transfer, told me this on the way, in the train. He said that I shouldn't run away, because he feared punishment; he gave me chocolate and food. He brought me to the camp and I was pushed into the officers' room, where they awaited me. When they saw me, they burst into thunderous laughter. They'd thought some strong man would appear, and here before them stood a hungry, beaten lad. They knew I'd survived without food for two days --- how had this lad come out alive? This was the escaper-hero? They laughed and laughed. In the room were their bloodhounds, which were trained to knock down a man and tear out his throat. They stopped the dogs and kept laughing at me. I was known for my many escapes. “You aren't afraid of us?” they asked. “Ich habe hunger” [“I'm hungry”], I mumbled. I was thrown outside into the camp. In the huts I met my sisters; they'd heard about me and found me. Again, the family was united.

Here too, rumors came about the Russian advance and the German withdrawal. As they retreated, they moved the camps closer to Germany and eliminated as many as they could --- so that there'd be fewer Jews to feed and care for. Because I was guarded especially, I was made Paniker's personal servant; he was responsible for two of the camps. I served him food, cleaned his hut, polished his boots and did all kinds of errands inside the camp. Apparently he liked me, and he began to show a human attitude toward me; the Germans appreciated bravery and initiative. One morning they began to put Jews into trucks, maybe to be moved, maybe to be killed. When the Germans suffered a defeat, they'd liquidate 10% of those in the camp. With frightful German precision, they'd count the prisoners, calculate

[Page 348]

the percentage, choose those to be sacrificed and take them to destruction. During one such Aktion, I hid under the hut. They found me and returned me to the ranks for the roll call. Dr. Bodmann,[19] the German, would walk with a little stick in his hand, counting and pointing, deciding who'd survive for the time being, making a sign with his stick, and the doomed would be taken to the truck.

Here he was passing before me, his eyes searching --- who's next in line? Enough? They already had 10%. The rows breathed in relief, but wait! Now they're signaling that one's missing from the correct number. And again, they're taking me. All eyes observe the drama, but there's no voice, tear or sigh. I'd already been in a truck like this once, now here I am again. Then here comes Paniker at a run, yelling, “Where's my servant?” He pulled me forcefully from the truck and shouted, “You lazy loafer, quick, go and polish my boots.” This time, he gave me my life as a gift. Those put in the truck were murdered.

Over time, the entire Vaivara camp was moved to Sonda camp, a short distance on foot [sic].[20] This camp was like most of the camps of Jews. Our neighbors were Russian prisoners of war; they and we worked in the forest. During this time, I became friendly with a Georgian prisoner; he'd bring me a bit of food, because they were given more. These prisoners knew everything that was happening at the front, and they told me the Russians were advancing rapidly and the Germans were retreating. He'd heard that they were going to kill all the Jews, he even knew when and where this would happen. There was great cooperation between us; both of us wanted to escape together. We set an appointed time and place for our escape.

But when the day came, many guards arrived at our camp, and it was impossible to flee. On that day, they began to load us onto a train that entered the camp. The Georgian friend saw everything on the other side of the fence, and he parted from me in tears.

From the train, they brought us to the port. We were put in the bowels of a ship, and we sailed away. On the ship, I again met my sisters. It was terribly crowded there; people were befouled and vomited, and the dead were thrown into the sea. After several days we arrived in Stutthof, near Gdansk.[21] It was easy to see that the Germans were fleeing and the Russians were advancing and pursuing them.

In Stutthof camp, things were very difficult; it was terribly crowded. There were concentrated all the survivors of the camps in Europe. There was little food and no regular work. We were a burden on the Germans, and they wanted to be rid of us. In this camp there were cruel, embittered Polish guards. They were the kapos there, because whoever didn't want to be a kapo was excluded.[22] Severe decrees were issued. It was forbidden for people to be found in the blocks during daylight hours. It was very cold, there was very little clothing, and food --- there was none. For entire days I went around with an empty stomach. I was always hungry, day and night, and when a man is hungry, thought and logic don't operate. One wants food at any price, even at the cost of life. I was gathering cigarettes in a pail at great risk, and selling them to the cook for bread or a potato. One day, they announced they'd give half a loaf of bread to whoever came to the gate. Something in my heart told me this was a deception, they wanted to grab us and send us to death. So I didn't approach the gate. Later I learned that those who were caught had been sent to the ovens.

The Russians advanced, and the Germans withdrew more and more toward the border of Germany. We felt the nervousness of the guards, and they said specifically, “We must eliminate the survivors faster, quickly, as fast as possible.” Each day, there were roll calls and loading on railway cars, and the cars went away full and came back empty.

[Page 349]

One day, I was pushed along with the elderly and found myself with lads my age in Buchenwald camp [some 700 kilometers southwest of Stutthof and in Germany]. Buchenwald was a big place; it had two camps with a barbed-wire fence dividing them. One camp for us, the Jews, survivors of the camps; thousands of people, mud, dirt, density, and hunger. All the time they brought in more people and took some out, shoved and beaten, filling and emptying, and the trains operated at full speed, bringing and taking. On the other side of the fence was a prisoners' camp; it was clean and orderly. There were imprisoned opponents of the regime from Germany and other countries in Europe. Veterans, satiated, nice dwellings; loudspeakers called them to meals; there were few guards. “What's over there?” we wondered. One day, a well-dressed man came to us. He spoke politely and said that if we wanted to live, we must cross to the other side. But how? He told us, drawing a number of slips of paper from his pocket. “Those who win these will cross to the other side.” I was among them. They brought me to a block and showed me a bed. A bed! G-d in Heaven! I hadn't slept in a bed in years. And there was a kitchen, and food, and soup. I ate six portions at once. I ate until I was full for the first time in years. The jobs they gave me were easy. There was no pushing, no beating. Was this a dream, or reality?

The dream didn't last; already as a child, I'd known a dream wouldn't last a long time. One day, Germans passed through the camp between the blocks and announced on the loudspeakers that all those who'd crossed over to the new place must return to the old camp and present themselves at the formation ground. “Anything but this,” I said, and I hid between the blocks. Everywhere I hid, they didn't want me; the Czechs and the Russians were afraid to help. All of a sudden, I found myself opposite a German with a bloodthirsty dog. No one could stand up to these dogs, which the Germans trained to attack and tear people to pieces. The Germans trained them to identify Jews by their clothing and smell. Here I was, opposite such a dog. I was pushed to the formation ground. Forward, to a transport!

 

The Long Journey into Germany

We felt that our end was approaching. They took the survivors of the camps out on a death march. We could sense the end of the war in the eyes of the Germans and those of the guards: these were Ukrainians, Latvians, Estonians, and anyone who'd sold his soul to survive, out of bestial impulses. Everyone in whom burned an appetite for murdering Jews, everyone who'd lost sight of G-d during the blood-soaked years of the war, everyone who saw murder as redemption for himself. Two thousand people, men and women, young and old, we were gathered at the formation ground. I didn't know a single person in the crowd. There were Jews who were survivors from the camps of Europe, a babble of languages, individuals, “eaters of misery,” cleaving to life at any price, without G-d, faith or hope to survive, solitary and isolated, each person a lone wolf. They kept us on the ground for two days, closed and locked up. We were guarded with rifles and machine guns, until the order to move was given.

We saw the Germans abandoning us, and it was easy to understand what was happening. With first light, they took us out on our way, through back roads, dirt paths, fields and villages. At night, they let us sleep in granaries and barns. The transporters of food who were with us began, from the start, to slip away one by one. Germans also slipped away, leaving us with the murderous guards.

As we walked, we grabbed whatever we could to eat. We drank from wells in the fields. Whoever had trouble walking was immediately killed. They'd stop with their rifles a group that was lagging, shoot them and throw

[Page 350]

the bodies to the side of the road. The survivors would then break into a run ahead. They were also stopping and killing the first ones. Each day, the procession grew smaller. Every day, fewer and fewer people went out on the road. At night, hunger gnawed at us. In the daytime, walking in the fields, we found some greens or agricultural plants, stuffed them into our pockets and ate them at night. We went mostly in pairs. My walking partner was a Hungarian Jew, much older than me, who shared the events of this journey. One night, in a barn, we saw that they'd given the cows beets to eat, good beets with healthy tops. My partner grew excited. He prepared a sharp piece of barbed wire and with it, after a number of trials, he succeeded in “fishing” out a nice beet. It was almost morning, and he decided to keep it for the next night; we'd make ourselves a meal fit for a king, he said. But that day, they killed him. The beet remained in my pocket. That night, I didn't have the strength to eat it alone. I whispered the words of the Kaddish, curled up like an animal and chewed on the beet while lying down.

 

The Journey Continued

In the fields and paths, between villages and forests, beaten and chased, starving and eaten by lice, barefoot and covered with rags or half-naked, without any embarrassment we relieved ourselves in front of everyone. Whoever fell down didn't get back up, and whoever remained alive envied those who'd fallen. It was a journey of the sons of death, who wanted to die --- I was among them. I counted my young years; did more time remain for me to live? One must cleave to life at any price, I said, no matter what! To live, to live! One more day, one more day. I want to tell the story of the coat without stripes from the men of the camps, a faded and frayed coat. The value of the coat --- the value of my life:

The guards were busy killing the people who were lagging. One of the dead lay at the side of the road, clad in a civilian coat. I thought of taking the coat, but the guards crossed their rifles and wouldn't let me approach. I slipped under the rifles; I was a young lad, and I quickly grabbed the coat from the dead man. They saw me and began to shout, “This boy, this boy!” I merged into the crowd, and they left me and the coat alone. This coat made me unidentifiable and gave me hope and enough spirit to keep going, no matter what. There's no limit to a young man's wish for life.

The journey continued for a month and a half. From 2,000 people, at the end of the journey there remained only 160. And so we arrived at Lebenoy[?] camp, near Salzburg [in Austria, about 380 kilometers south-southeast of Buchenwald].

Walking skeletons, wounded and eaten by lice, limping and lame with swollen feet, some in rags and some in camp uniforms, we entered the gates of Lebenoy. They told us the place was a camp for prostitutes of the German army. We heard shots, shouting and large movements; we saw many soldiers running around us. Not recognizing the uniforms of the American soldiers, we thought they were Germans. Among these soldiers were Jews who spoke Yiddish and Polish, and they told us we were free. What is this free? We wanted to express our happiness and fall at their feet, but they stopped us, because . . . how did we look? The American soldiers rained food and clothing on us, and told us that Germany had lost the war, and they were now standing on the land of conquered Germany.

They told us of a Jew, a shoemaker, who'd found the officer of the transport. This German [had] made himself a canopy on wooden poles and the Jews [had] carried it. The shoemaker immediately called the Americans and a Jewish chaplain, and they decided to put him on trial. But before they could begin, the Jews attacked him. They

[Page 351]

beat him and tore him to pieces.

 

Epilogue

Many hardships passed over me until I reached this place in Givatayim [Israel] to tell you, Yaacov, of my Holocaust. My brother Yisrael remained alive; he's in Russia. We write to each other. There were attempts to bring him to Israel, but he's very ill and unable to leave Russia.

My sister Sima lives in Hadera [in Israel]. She has a family; she came to Israel 20 years ago.

My sister Tzila reached Canada 20 years ago. She's married to a man from Opsa, Meir Zilber, and they have a family.

My sister Sara, one of the twins, made aliyah to Israel 20 years ago. She lives in Hadera, and she has a family.

The second twin [Hindka] made aliyah from Russia 10 years ago, and she lives in Ashkelon [Israel]. She has a family.

Footnotes

  1. Member of the All-Union Leninist Young Communist League, the youth division of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Return
  2. Literally, “riflemen” (šauliai in Lithuanian). These were members of a rightwing, nationalist paramilitary group that had been established in Lithuania in 1919, following Lithuanian independence, and banned after the Soviets took over Lithuania in 1940. The Shaulists violently opposed Communism and all those they saw as enemies of the nation. Those Lithuanians who committed mass murder under Nazi leadership often came from among their ranks. Return
  3. This refers to events around April 1, 1942, when the Braslav Ghetto was officially formed. It appears that around this time some Jews of Opsa who could afford to pay bribes were sent to the Braslav Ghetto, while other Jews from Opsa were sent to the Vidz Ghetto. As it turned out, the Braslav Ghetto would be liquidated on June 3-5, 1942; the Vidz Ghetto continued functioning until around October, when most of its inmates were transferred to the Sventzion Ghetto. Return
  4. Slobodka was 27 kilometers northeast of Opsa, and Yaisi was 23 kilometers northeast of Opsa. It's unclear why Jews would be sent to these small places; generally, the transfer of Jews was from the smaller villages to the ghettos. Return
  5. Zvi and Esther were the parents of Yaacov Aviel (Abelevitz), whose account is on pages 323-338 of this memorial book. Return
  6. So far as is known, there was a ghetto in Opsa until at least July 1942, containing some 300 people (according to the Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos, 1933-1945, Volume II-B, published in 2012). Presumably it continued until August or early September 1942, when some 50 Jews from it were transferred to the ghetto in Braslav, to repopulate that ghetto after its inmates had been slaughtered on June 3-5, 1942. Because the members of this second, new ghetto in Braslav were from Opsa, the ghetto too was called the “Opsa” Ghetto (even though it was in Braslav). It would be liquidated on March 19, 1943. Return
  7. This refers to Mielagenai labor camp, which was about 20 kilometers southwest of Vidz and in Lithuania. This camp was also mentioned by survivors from Dubina (Dubene): Sima Feigen Moretsky on page 371-372, Rivka Maron Rukshin on page 378, and Mira Shneider Lotz on pages 383-384 of this memorial book. Return
  8. Kailis was a small labor camp inside Vilna that operated from October 1941 to July 1944. At its peak capacity, it's estimated to have held about 1,500 Jews. Return
  9. By around October 1942, most of the Jews of the Vidz Ghetto had been transferred to the Sventzion Ghetto. So the narrator is saying that his mother and his twin siblings were now in the Sventzion Ghetto (having been transferred there from the Vidz Ghetto) and he was planning to go to them from the Vilna Ghetto, which he'd just reached by escaping from Miligan labor camp. Return
  10. Yerachmiel Milutin's account appears on pages 254-257 of this memorial book. Return
  11. There was no train station in Sventzion; the train station was in Novo-Sventzion, also known as Svencioneliai, which was about 12 kilometers northwest of Sventzion. Return
  12. This refers to events in March-April 1943, when the Jews from the Sventzion Ghetto --- along with the populations of other small ghettos around Vilna --- thought they were being removed to the Vilna and Kovno ghettos on April 4. Instead, they were taken in trains to the execution site of Ponar outside Vilna and shot on April 5. Only a tiny remnant managed to survive the transport. At the time, it was widely believed that the massacre was due to a refusal by the Vilna Ghetto to take more inmates, but this wasn't the case. For more information, see page 283 of this memorial book. Return
  13. According to the Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos, 1933-1945, Volume I-B (2009), Vaivara was the largest Nazi concentration/labor camp in Estonia, taking in some 20,000 Jewish prisoners during its time of operation from September 1943 to September 1944. It was about 540 kilometers north of Vilna.

    Vaivara camp had been established to hold the Jews remaining in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia after the Germans decided to shut down all the ghettos in those countries. For example, the Vilna Ghetto was shut down and the Jews there were dispersed in September 1943. The Kovno Ghetto was taken over by the SS in autumn 1943, reduced drastically in size and converted to a concentration camp. Most of Vaivara's prisoners came from the Vilna and Kovno ghettos.

    In mid- to late 1944, as the Soviet army approached, many of the prisoners of Vaivara and its subcamps, including Motke Rosenberg, would be evacuated by ship, executed or sent on death marches. Return

  14. Narva (a.k.a. Narva-Ost), in northeast Estonia, was one of many subcamps of Vaivara concentration/labor camp, operating from September 1943 to February 1944. Return
  15. The foundational work in the literature of Jewish mystical thought known as Kaballah. Return
  16. An irreverent reference to Jesus, called in Jewish texts the son of a Roman soldier named Pandera. Return
  17. This refers to SS-Hauptscharführer (Chief Squad Leader) Kurt Pannicke, who was among the handful of Germans supervising Vaivara concentration/labor camp, assisted by Estonian and Russian guards. He took command of Vaivara in August, shifting to command of Narva camp in September. Camp inmates called him Peiniger (Torturer), rendered in the Hebrew original as “Paniker.” He disappeared near the war's end, and postwar efforts to trace him failed. He's mentioned in Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos, 1933-1945, Volume I-B, in the sections on Narva and Vaivara.

    Diller, mentioned later in Mr. Rosenberg's account, was the camp elder, or Lagerältester; in other words, the senior prisoner assisting the Nazis with administration of a camp, in return for extra food and other privileges. This enabled the Nazis to operate the camps with fewer of their own personnel. Return

  18. “Shema Yisrael”: The affirmation and confession of faith incumbent, when possible, upon Jews in extremis, and recited thrice daily in prayers: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our G-d, the Lord is One!” Return
  19. Franz von Bodmann, SS camp doctor for Vaivara and its subcamps. He would kill himself in May 1945. He's mentioned in Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos, 1933-1945, Volume I-B, in the sections on Vaivara and other camps. Return
  20. The accuracy of this statement is uncertain; Sonda was a very small camp 55 kilometers west of Vaivara. Return
  21. Stutthof (now Sztutowo, Poland) had been established in September 1939 about 35 kilometers east of the city of Gdansk, in occupied Poland. From the beginning of 1944, with the German Army in retreat from the Eastern Front, about 60,000 Jews were transferred there, mainly from labor camps in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. In 1945, evacuation of the camp was carried out, by sea and through death marches, during which many prisoners died. Return
  22. A kapo was a Nazi concentration camp prisoner who received extra food and other privileges in return for supervising the labor of other prisoners. This enabled the Nazis to operate the camps with fewer of their own personnel. Return


[Page 352]

Arieh Munitz
Son of Esther-Golda and Yisrael-Yitzchak

Translated by Joshua Leifer

Donated by Jacob Levkowicz

 

 

The Town of Opsa and Its Jews

I haven't found an explanation for the source of the name of Opsa. The buildings and courtyards of the town, those belonging to the Jewish residents and to the Christian peasants, were mixed together. The main street crossed the town, and at its center stood the platz --- the marketplace. Houses scattered on the hills, a quiet lake of sweet water, a Christian church with its gardens and fields, pine groves in several directions, then the forest that stretched into the distance and beyond, the neighboring towns and peasant villages. On the northern side, the lake washed the steps of the entrance to the mansion that belonged to Polish nobles from the family of Count Plater. It's likely that the noble family's subjects, including its Jewish residents, were concentrated in Opsa.

On one of the sandy hills was the synagogue of the Mitnagdim [traditionalist opponents of the Hasidim], and around it stood the houses of the middle class, who earned a living from the weekly market day. There were tailors, shoemakers, merchant-traders, wagon-drivers, and among them those who walked great distances to the neighboring villages during the week and returned home to greet the Sabbath Queen.

On the eastern side, the street led to the synagogue of the Hasidim; they were the well-connected and the wealthy, among them the richest and most influential. There was also a cheder [Hebrew primary school], where the learned Reb[1] Yitzhak the melamed [teacher] instructed in Torah. Later a second cheder was opened, in which the melamed was the shochet [ritual slaughterer], Reb [Menachem-]Mendel Liberzon. The barn in Reb Mendel's yard was used as the slaughterhouse for small animals (shechita kalah). The slaughterhouse for larger animals (shechita gasa) was located east of the town.

The weekly market days provided many with their livelihoods. Government clerks and merchants from the large towns would come by train to the market, some from as far away as Vilna [about 140 kilometers southwest of Opsa]. They'd buy milk products, cheeses and butter, eggs and all kinds of agricultural products. On market days, the Jews would open stalls with all kinds of haberdashery, textiles, kerosene, salt and more to sell to the peasants.

Life there went as it did in all the towns. Everyone knew what was cooking in everyone else's pot; a simcha [celebration] in the town was a simcha for everyone. Families

[Page 353]

intermarried, forming clans of a sort. Of course each social class remained separate, without mixing.

There were also spiritual and cultural endeavors. There was a small Yiddish library. Youth groups tried to organize performances --- in particular, those by Goldfaden,[2] and people would come to see a “theater” production held in a storeroom of one kind or another. In later years, a children's library was set up. At the same time, chapters of Keren HaKayemet [the Jewish National Fund] and Zionist organizations such as HeChalutz and Betar began to be organized.[3] Betar was the largest and most active. A few of those who were in Betar came to Israel, where they're living now (may they live to be 120).

There were also activities and gatherings organized to prepare for aliyah to Israel, and of course there were parties just for fun.

 

The Betar group of Opsa

Footnotes

  1. Reb is an honorific term, something like an exalted “Mr.” Return
  2. Abraham Goldfaden (1840-1908), the father of Jewish modern theater. Return
  3. HeChalutz (The Pioneer): A Jewish youth movement founded in Russia and the United States around 1905, advocating the training of Jewish youth for agricultural settlement in Palestine. Betar: A Revisionist Zionist youth movement founded in Latvia in 1923, advocating military training for defense and Jewish immigration to Palestine. Return


[Page 354]

About Melechke the Geroi (Hero)

By Arieh Munitz and His Sister, Zehava Bilogoski

Translated from the Hebrew by Joshua Leifer

Donated by Jacob Levkowicz

 

 

During the two Aktions or massacres --- the first from June 3-5, 1942, the second in March 1943 --- there were instances of bravery and sacrifice by individuals who were martyred.[1] Those who survived told the stories of these martyrs, so that future generations would remember them.

One of the chapters of resistance and struggle, which is also a chronicle of Jewish heroism and dignity, is the story of Melech Munitz, called Melechke the geroi, or Melech the brave [geroi being the Russian word for hero].

Melech was the youngest child of Yisrael-Yitzchak and Esther-Golda Munitz. He had an older sister, Zehava-Zlotka, who made aliyah as a pioneer in 1935, and a brother, the oldest among them, Arieh-Liebke, who made aliyah to study at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 1936.

Melech was a tailor by trade. When he was starting out, he apprenticed with a member of the Bikov family in Opsa. Later he completed his training and worked for a member of the Rapaport family from Opsa who lived in Vilna [about 140 kilometers southwest of Opsa]. After that he returned and worked in Vidz [Widze, about 20 kilometers southwest of Opsa] for the Sheibel family, to which his family was related by marriage. Although he had opportunities to go to Palestine through one of the channels of Aliyah Bet,[2] he didn't want to leave his mother after she was left a widow by the death of her second husband --- Menachem-Mendel Liberzon, of blessed memory, who had been the shochet [ritual slaughterer] and melamed [teacher] in Opsa --- or to leave his three young step-siblings: sisters and a brother.

Of the 300 Jews who lived in Opsa when the Germans entered the town [in 1941], within a short time only 50 or 60 remained. Most were transferred and expelled to the ghettos that were set up in Braslav, Vidz and elsewhere, and a few went into the surrounding forests. Of them, no survivors remained. The only Jews to survive were some who'd left Opsa and immigrated abroad before the Holocaust began and a few who were drafted into the Polish and Russian armies.

Most of those who remained in Opsa [i.e., the 50 to 60] were employed in various types of work and service for the local police and Germans in the town such as tailoring and shoemaking, chopping trees and cleaning. This remnant of the Jews remained in Opsa, whereas in the surrounding towns

[Page 355]

all the Jews in the ghettos --- such as Miory, Yod [Jod], Sharkovshchitzna [Szarkowszczyzna], Glubok [Glubokoye], Braslav, Druya, Druysk and so on --- were shot or transferred to death camps.[3] The Jews [in Opsa] were joined secretly by a few Jewish fugitives from the surrounding towns, forests and villages.

These Jews remained in Opsa after the liquidation of the Braslav Ghetto in the first Aktion or massacre (June 3-5, 1942). Then, in August-September 1942, the Germans transferred them to the ghetto of Braslav [making it the second Braslav Ghetto]. Only a few of them escaped, and after great hardship these reached the forests of Kozian [Koziany, to the south], and somehow found refuge among groups of partisans. There they found Jews who'd fled from the Aktions and ghettos before liquidation, and a few of these people remained [in the forests] until they were liberated by the Russians [around July 1944].

[Up to March 1943, after being transferred from Opsa to the second Braslav Ghetto] Melech remained in the ghetto in Braslav, along with a few other craftsmen who the Germans and local police allowed to work for them. In March 1943 it was felt that something was about to happen, and this time the killers would come for the skilled Jewish workers in their houses. The [Jewish] tailors had uniforms from the Gestapo officers who were at work, as well as lime for disinfecting and whitewashing. Crowds of peasants began to gather nearby in wagons, as they'd done before to claim the spoils [whenever an Aktion took place in the region].

Melech, sensing that the siege was about to begin, given rumors of an impending Aktion and expulsion of the remaining Jews (many of whom were from Opsa), saw at once that there was no hope of survival. He told his comrades to put on the German uniforms, which he also did. Next to the entrance [of their house], he prepared buckets of caustic lime. When the first German entered, he poured the lime on the man's face and blinded him. Melech then took his pistol and killed him on the spot, together with three other Germans. The Jews barricaded themselves in the house and began shooting at the Germans and police who surrounded them. Melech took advantage of the commotion and the fact that he was wearing a German uniform to keep firing at the Germans, who thought he was shooting at the Jews. As he did so, he told his comrades to flee.

The Jews continued to return fire with the weapons they had in the hiding place. Melech --- dressed like a Gestapo officer, tall, blond and handsome --- went like a lion through the streets of Braslav and shot at the Germans and police, unseen by them. Only at the edge of town did the local Gentiles recognize him, telling the Germans, who caught him and killed him on the spot.

A handful of the Jews who still survived in the surrounded house continued to shoot and kill every German and policeman who tried to reach them; the Germans retreated. Only when the Jews' bullets were exhausted and their firing ceased did the Germans approach and throw grenades into the house. The defense by Melech and his group of comrades came to an end. They fell with their weapons in their hands, dying in sanctification of G-d's name and for the sake of Jewish pride.

 

Footnotes

  1. This refers to the massacres of the first Braslav [Braslaw] Ghetto on June 3-5, 1942 and the second Braslav Ghetto on March 19, 1943; the second Braslav Ghetto (also called the “Opsa” Ghetto) contained a number of Jews from Opsa who'd been resettled there after the first Braslav Ghetto had been massacred. It was at the liquidation of the second Braslav Ghetto, in 1943, that Melech Munitz, brother of Arieh and Zehava, died heroically. Return
  2. Jewish immigration to Palestine without proper visas, called “Aliyah B.” Between 1920 and 1948, much immigration to Palestine occurred in this way, since the British Mandate severely restricted the number of visas. Return
  3. An exception to this was the Vidz Ghetto, which continued until around autumn 1942, when most of its inmates were transferred to the Sventzion [Swieciany] Ghetto. The Sventzion Ghetto functioned until April 4-5, 1943, when most of its inmates were taken in freight cars to Ponar [Ponary] outside Vilna and shot. Return

 

« Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page »


This material is made available by JewishGen, Inc. and the Yizkor Book Project for the purpose of
fulfilling our mission of disseminating information about the Holocaust and destroyed Jewish communities.
This material may not be copied, sold or bartered without JewishGen, Inc.'s permission. Rights may be reserved by the copyright holder.


JewishGen, Inc. makes no representations regarding the accuracy of the translation. The reader may wish to refer to the original material for verification.
JewishGen is not responsible for inaccuracies or omissions in the original work and cannot rewrite or edit the text to correct inaccuracies and/or omissions.
Our mission is to produce a translation of the original work and we cannot verify the accuracy of statements or alter facts cited.

  Braslaw, Belarus     Yizkor Book Project     JewishGen Home Page


Yizkor Book Director, Lance Ackerfeld
This web page created by Max G. Heffler

Copyright © 1999-2021 by JewishGen, Inc.
Updated 24 Feb 2020 by LA