Son of Mira-Leah and Shmuel-Hillel
Translated from the Hebrew / Donated by Guy Elitzur
(In honor of his grandmother's family, the Lif family of Slobodka)
Revised Based on Laia Ben-Dov's Translation / Footnotes Added by Jeff Deitch
The small town of Slobodka was located on a hill between Braslav [Braslaw] and Druysk [Drujsk]. Forests and lakes surrounded it, and at its center stood the large Christian church, whose spires could be seen from a great distance. Its inhabitants weren't many; only about 200 families, of which close to 40 were Jewish. For how many generations had the Jews lived in Slobodka? I don't know. There are no written sources to consult, and unfortunately the Jewish elders of the place are no longer alive. I know only that my mother and her parents were born there.
Jewish community life didn't really exist in the town. All matters involving the Jewish community were centered on Slobodka's single synagogue. My father, Shmuel-Hillel Berkman, was manager (gabbai) of the synagogue, and he handled all community matters. As for religious matters, the Jews enjoyed the great assistance of Rabbi Shabtai Rymshinyat, rabbi of the nearby town of Druysk. The Jews found their living in tailoring, the fur trade, shoemaking and small trading. The Jewish children studied at the Polish school and then went to continue learning in the cheder [Hebrew primary school], which held its lessons in the synagogue. The teacher-tutor in the cheder was always either a young local man who was a student at one of the yeshivas in the region or a young yeshiva student from elsewhere. The tutor was a day eater sustained by the people of the town, the custom for generations in small Jewish communities.
Only a few of the inhabitants of Slobodka left to study elsewhere. My elder sister and I were educated at the Yavneh school in Braslav. Of all the Zionist youth movements, Slobodka had only a small branch of Betar. Neighborly relations between the Jews and Gentiles in Slobodka were very good thanks to the head of the local council, who knew how to build strong ties of friendship with the Jews. Life in the town passed peacefully for many years.
A large base of the Polish army, located in Slobodka, was well known as a camp of the elite brigade of Polish border guards. [At this time, the border with Latvia was about 12 kilometers to the north.] When the Polish-German war broke out [in September 1939], the Polish army left the town and there was no one in control. Taking advantage of this time of anarchy, the Gentiles of Slobodka and the surrounding area began to rob Jewish property.
Our family had six souls. Our parents, Shmuel-Hillel and Mira-Leah; their daughters, Rashka and Zisla; and their sons, Boris [me] and Leibke.
Following the Russian-German pact and the division of Poland, the Soviets arrived in Slobodka. Their coming brought the time of anarchy to an end, and life slowly returned to normal. Jews returned to their business in crafts and trade without disturbance. The Russian army occupied the army base and kept order in the town and the surrounding area. Everyone grew accustomed to the new conditions and hoped that they'd continue. But the situation changed when the Russian-German war began on June 22, 1941.
A few days after the war broke out, the entire Soviet army withdrew from Slobodka and the region, heading east. The local authorities left with the army, and Slobodka was once again without a ruling authority. The local Christians, and with them the Poles from the surrounding area, appointed themselves the new rulers. They marched joyfully through the streets of the town, announcing that they were awaiting the arrival of the German liberators, who would free them from the yoke of the Soviets and the Jews. For an entire week, they went wild without restraint.
Among the Poles who were openly proclaiming the end of the Jews, especially prominent was the son of a Polish family in Slobodka by the name of Richter. On the day the Germans arrived, we --- the Jews --- stayed shut up in our homes. No one went outside. Alarmed and fearful, we sat and wondered what would happen. And indeed, we didn't have to wait long. A few days after arriving in Slobodka, the Germans began to impose decrees against the Jews. Every hour, every day, more decrees were announced. Here, Jews can't go. There, Jews mustn't stand. From time to time, they demanded a ransom. Sometimes they demanded gold, once they demanded cash and another time clothes, fur clothing and other items. The Jews were forced to comply with the demands within a few hours. If not, the Germans threatened to kill Jews.
One day the Germans appointed a committee of Jews, headed by Entin, a Jew who formerly had owned a store in the town. In accordance with the Germans' instructions, Entin was linked to the Judenrat [Jewish Council] in Braslav, from whom he received the Germans' orders. We, the residents of the town, worked in groups at various types of forced labor, especially in loading and unloading next to the train. Molka Geskin and Yeshayahu Kanfer worked with me.
One morning a number of trucks entered the town, accompanied by the Germans and their collaborators. They stopped in the town center and announced that they needed Jewish lads to carry out a certain task, whose nature they didn't disclose. The committee decided who among us would go. We got into the trucks and waited for them to move out. There was great fear; a suspicion arose in our hearts that this wasn't to do with work. We asked ourselves if these hours would be our last. After several hours had passed, the drivers started up the vehicles and we set out on the road, while the sad eyes of our parents followed us to the end of the town.
They drove us to Druya [about 22 kilometers northeast of Slobodka, next to the border with Latvia] and put us in its large synagogue. Inside we found Jews from Druysk, who were sitting there in distress and fear. They'd been brought there a few hours before us. The synagogue looked like the aftermath of a riot; the floor was littered with pieces of parchment from the Torah scrolls and pages from other holy books. Of the young men of Slobodka with me, I remember Molka Geskin, Shneiur Biliak, [Yeshayahu] Kanfer, Falka Zelikman, and a few from the Dagovitz family. We didn't see any Jews from Druya in the synagogue, and we didn't know what had happened to them.
Night fell. We laid ourselves down on the floor and wondered what fate had in store for us. At the crack of dawn they woke us, ordered us into lines, and we started walking. We reached the Dvina River [the border with Latvia]. There they stopped us. There was a raft-bridge over the river. With shouts, the Germans ordered us to immediately dismantle the bridge,
even though none of us had any idea how to go about it. Nevertheless, we began working. German shouts of Jude! Jude! accompanied by curses, continued without letup. The task was complicated and difficult. At certain moments Molka Geskin stumbled, and the Germans beat him without mercy. The work continued for two days with no break; finally, the bridge was dismantled. When we were done, the Germans ordered us to return home on foot, some to Druysk and some to Slobodka. Slobodka was 25 kilometers away [as the crow flew it was 22 kilometers, to the southwest]. Very tired, we set out on the road, and after many hours of walking we arrived utterly exhausted in Slobodka.
There everyone had been sitting and waiting tensely for news of what had happened to us. We returned to our parents' houses, and life in the town went on as usual: forced labor, meager bread and water of oppression. We survived by selling belongings that we'd succeeded in hiding from the eyes of the robbers. Things continued in this way until the middle of winter in [early] 1942.
One winter day, the Germans announced that the Jews of Slobodka would have to leave their homes and the town and, together with the Jews of Druysk, move to the town of Vidz [Widze, about 50 kilometers southwest of Slobodka and 40 kilometers southwest of Braslav]. Winter-wagons were brought to the Jews' houses, driven by their owners --- farmers from the region. Gentiles from the area gathered immediately near the wagons, expressing their joy that at last all the Jewish property would be theirs. For years, they said shamelessly, they'd waited for this moment.
Weeping and full of sorrow, we loaded a few of our belongings onto the wagons and set out on the road. The road to Vidz passed through Braslav. In Braslav, we knew, the Jews had been shut up in a ghetto, and they too didn't know what to expect. On the way farmers told us, Behind Braslav, there are pits prepared for the Jews. We listened and kept silent. We continued the journey, none of us uttering a word; only as we approached Braslav did my father, of blessed memory, break the silence. He said, Children, whoever has the strength to flee should get up and run, find a place to hide, and hopefully you'll be saved. Mother and I no longer have the strength to do it. Our sorrow was deep, we didn't want to part from our parents. We entered Braslav and there, somehow, I took my courage in both hands. I jumped from the wagon and slipped away before the escorts noticed.
Now I was alone. I spent my first days in Braslav at the house of Moshe Milutin's parents. After that, I lived together with the Jews from Yaisi [who were in the Braslav Ghetto; Yaisi was seven kilometers to the east]. From time to time, I had to move to another apartment. Jews in the Braslav Ghetto were prohibited from letting in Jews from outside the town. I remember once I was staying the night at the home of Moshe Milutin's parents, who took care of me like I was one of their family. At midnight, there was a knock on the door. Moshe's mother called out, What's wrong with you? Won't you let us sleep at night? They immediately hid me in the basement and then opened the door. The callers were Jews, messengers from the Judenrat, who'd come looking for Jews from outside Braslav.
I remained in the Braslav Ghetto until that bitter day, 18 Sivan 1942 [June 3, 1942], when the Germans and their collaborators in the local police began to drive the Jews from their houses and run them over to the Pravoslavic [Eastern Orthodox] church. They led us like lambs to the slaughter. From there the Jews were taken away, group by group, to the killing pits [north of town]. In my group of Jews, we whispered among ourselves and agreed to try to escape; we had nothing to lose. We kept walking and when we approached the pits, about 50 meters away, I broke away and ran. I raced toward the railroad tracks, and when I reached them I collapsed. Apparently, I fainted. I don't know how long I lay there unconscious; maybe an entire day, maybe longer.
When I awoke, I was utterly exhausted. I waited for nightfall and began preparing to get away from there. With great difficulty,
I reached Lake Noviata [also north of town] after dawn. There I sat down in a concealed place to consider my situation: Where should I go? I knew the area around Slobodka well and thought I should go there, but how? To get there it was necessary to cross two bridges, which would certainly be well guarded.
One of them was a railroad bridge. I approached it, laid myself on the ground and looked around. I saw guards on the bridge, maybe they'd leave with the coming of daylight. And indeed, when daybreak came the Germans walked off the bridge. After they left, I took a chance and crossed the bridge to the other side. Then I walked on backroads, taking great care to avoid getting caught. On the road were farmers going to work in the fields. I reached a certain distance from the village of Glinovka [perhaps Glinowka, 4.5 kilometers north of Slobodka]. There the boys of the village noticed me and immediately began shouting, Zhid! Zhid! [Jew! Jew!]. One of the farmers came running toward me with a pitchfork in his hand. As he approached I recognized him, he was called Kishel. He sent the boys away to bring the police from the village. Luckily, before they arrived I succeeded in fleeing from this place and the Gentile, a friend who'd visited our home more than once before the war.
At night I continued to walk, and during the day I hid in places I found on the way. After several nights of walking, I arrived at the village of Verkovshchitzna [Wierkowszczyzna, about 4.5 kilometers northeast of Slobodka], at the home of the farmer Milkevitz [Milkewicz], who was a friend of our family. In the first days of the war, my father had given him a large part of our property for safekeeping. I told him what had happened to the Jews and our family, and asked him for a place to hide. To my great joy, he agreed to this immediately. The same day Milkevitz and his sons, who were about my age, prepared a hiding place for me in the barn where I could sit.
I stayed there for a long time. One day, the sons of Milkevitz told me that their father had spoken to the priest in Slobodka and told him he was sheltering me in his house. The priest had replied that it was a very righteous act to save a Jew pursued by the Germans, and it should be done even if it was dangerous. The priest was known for his good relations with Jews. I stayed with the family, quiet and secure, until the day that a neighbor of Milkevitz saw me going out from the barn. After that, unfortunately, I had to leave the place immediately.
With the help of the farmer's son, who had connections with a friend, a pistol was bought for me, which would later add greatly to my security. After the war, I stayed in touch with the Milkevitz family by letter for many years.
Once again, I began wandering. It was now the winter of 1943. Each night, I camped in a different place. The cold was cruel and intense, and I lacked warm clothes. After walking a long distance, I began to feel that my feet were frozen and couldn't move anymore. I was near the village of Gaveiks [Gawejki, about 4.5 kilometers northeast of Slobodka, near Verkovshchitzna]. Having no choice, I decided to knock on the door of one of the homes, hoping to find a farmer who'd let me in. I knocked. An elderly peasant woman opened the door and asked who I was. I explained to her my difficult situation and asked her to go and tell the Germans there was a sick Jew in their home, so that the Germans could come and take me away.
Heaven forbid! said the Gentile woman, I'll tell no one. You can stay with us, and I'll take care of your feet. I was very glad to hear this, and I remained with them. The peasant woman treated my feet, with the help of all sorts of ointments and especially the gall of pigs. Only after a few days had passed did she tell me that local farmers had been asking her: Why are you constantly asking for the gall of a pig? She replied that it was for her granddaughter's frozen hands.
She was a very pious woman. She acted as she did out of deep religious feelings and the goodness of her heart. Her family prepared a pit for me in the barn. There I sat until the Germans began searching for Jews in the farmers' houses. Sometime later, I learned that the pit in the barn had been discovered --- at the house of this Savitzki [Sawicki] family. I felt terribly sorry about it. People like them, with human feelings, were very few
in those days.
Despite the hostile reception that I'd gotten earlier near the village of Glinovka, I decided to return to it and the Murashka [Muraszka] family who lived there. The members of this family were known for their kind hearts. After few nights of walking, I reached them. As I'd hoped, they received me with sympathy and agreed that I could stay with them for as long as I wanted. They were poor farmers who barely earned their living, and feeding me was no doubt a heavy undertaking for them. I decided to help them.
From time to time, I went to the village of Verkovshchitzna to ask the peasant Milkevitz for help, and I always received it. But during one of my night visits, something happened that nearly scared me to death: Some distance away, a group of young people suddenly appeared, singing and rejoicing, and at a certain moment I heard a shot. It seemed to me that they knew I was a Jew, and I felt trapped. Without hesitating, I pulled out my pistol and began firing. Immediately there were shouts --- Partisans! Partisans! --- and they ran off. I quickly got away from there and returned to my hiding place without being seen.
I stayed with the Murashka family until news reached the area that there were heavy German losses at the front and they were starting to retreat. German troops began to appear in the village, and their number increased. The sound of artillery was often heard. It seemed that the Germans' defeat was close at hand. But with their number rising in the village, the risk to my life was growing. I decided to leave the house of Murashka, who'd done so much to help me survive. In peasant clothes, with a rope tied around my waist, I set out on the road to reach the village of Luni [Lunie, about three kilometers southwest of Glinovka and three kilometers northwest of Slobodka], near the lake, and an island near the shore that I knew well.
There too I was lucky --- it was like the hand of fate --- a good man appeared near the lakeshore, a farmer from the village of Luni, and he agreed to take me to the island. He also gave me a little food and water. I regret that I can't remember the name of this farmer; thanks to him and others like him, I survived.
I stayed on the island for several days. Suddenly, a heavy silence fell all around. The front had moved away. [This was probably around July 1944.] One morning, the farmer came in his boat and called out to me: Young Berkman! Where are you? The war's over! I was stunned by his words. For years I'd been running like a lone wolf, hunted by those who sought to kill me. Was this good farmer speaking the truth? Had my life been saved? It was hard for me to believe it.
Carefully and in great fear of the evil eye, the farmer took me to his house. I was weak and needed several days of rest, and the farmer's family agreed to let me stay with them for a while. After recovering, I thanked them from the bottom of my heart. I left them and went to Slobodka, hoping to find someone from my own family.
The town was full of Gentiles, who were living in all the houses of the Jews. Of all of Slobodka's Jews, there remained only Shneiur Biliak and the Gans brothers (Shlomo, David and Shalom); the Gans brothers later immigrated to Israel. I didn't stay long in Slobodka; I went to Druya to meet my uncle and my cousin, who had survived. My cousin, Zuska Berkman, immigrated to Israel and lives in Kiryat Motzkin [in northern Israel].
I tried to find out what had happened to my parents, sisters and brother, who I'd left in the wagon in Braslav on the way to Vidz when I ran away. From the few who survived the Vidz Ghetto, I learned only general information that contained no hint at all about my family. Jews from Slobodka and Druysk had indeed gone to Vidz and entered that ghetto. The Germans didn't destroy the Vidz Ghetto, but transferred [some of] the Jews there, group by group, to labor camps scattered around the occupied territory. In the Vidz Ghetto there remained Jews from Vidz, Druysk, Slobodka and other places in the surrounding area. Only a few succeeded in escaping and reaching the forest where the
partisans were operating. My family was lost together with other Jews in the camps, without my knowing where or when. I learned only one clear detail: My father Shmuel Berkman, of blessed memory, had been transferred to a camp in Latvia near Dvinsk [42 kilometers northwest of Braslav], where he met his death together with many other Jews.
Of our immediate family, I was the only survivor. In Druya I was drafted into the Red Army, in which I served until the summer of 1946. I was released from the army in the city of Orsha. I traveled to Riga, Latvia and remained there. There I married Galia Ginzburg from Vitebsk, and there our boy Shmuel was born. In 1957, all of us immigrated to Israel.
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