by Yakov Bloch
Translated by Meir Bulman
Divenishok, our native town, the hundreds-of-years-long intermediate station for Jews on their long journey from Eretz Israel to the State of Israel we will not forget you. We, whose years of youth were passed in you, we who were blessed to reach a Jewish state - we will not forget you.
We remember your narrow roads paved with rocks, and the dirt alleyways in which our bare feet were injured during our childhood. We remember your houses built of either wood, brick, or mortar, pressed together, hugging one another, as if expressing the love of Israel within them.
We remember you Jews, whose faces were adorned by sidelocks and beards, who carried Judaism as a crown, the crown of your people Israel [2 Samuel 7:23]. We remember you, wonderful Jews, who placed no barriers between yourselves and those who had observed a tradition passed from generation to generation.
You, who upon your exile from your land, took with you its Torah and culture, and observed them as if still in the Homeland, each and every one of you was willing to become a soldier to guard and protect them, and always willing to die for them because of you we made it this far.
Jews of Divenishok, those adhering to their faith, and even those who objected, we will not forget your synagogues, the Old and the New, where you read three times a day, May our eyes witness your return to Zion in mercy.
We will not forget the glory of the Sabbath days, when you demonstrated your independence among the gentiles, we will not forget your holidays and festivals, when you sanctified and observed the freedom of the Nation in days of bondage.
Jews of Divenishok! We will not forget your sons, encouragers of the messianic era, for the faith which you planted in our hearts was faith in the redemption of man, the world, and Israel. At their clubs, libraries, and gathering spots they worked altruistically for the sake of the towns Jews.
We will not forget your suffering, torment, horrible torture, and your cruel deaths. We will bind your souls in the bond of our souls in the Homeland, and in each of our endeavors you are one with us. You are a party to the redemption, partners in the effort, partners in the building, and partners in plowing, planting and harvesting, partners in night-watches and partners in the wars.
We will remember our parents, brothers and sisters, our friends, and relatives who perished by cruelty. We will remember that our lives, loves, and hopes came from them. We will remember that we are their ambassadors to the Homeland, and they fell during the journey. We will mix their living souls in our living souls.
by Taiba Griner
Translated by Meir Bulman
I left my parents' home in 1938, after I married a relative in the town of Koblynik, by the famous Narach Lake. It was a quiet and peaceful town, crowded in the summer with vacationers and tourists who came to sail on the lake.
When the Germans entered gloom fell on the town. A curfew was announced and exiting a home after four in the afternoon was forbidden. Anyone who violated the curfew was shot on the spot. The town's Jews were forced into unpaid labor. In the spring of 1942 the Germans began exterminating the town's Jews. Every day a number of families were executed following witness testimony by the gentiles that the condemned were communists. Jews, including women and children, were led to the cemetery, and after they were tormented, were shot inside the greaves they had dug for themselves. Once, the Germans shot our neighbor during work, then came to his house and took his wife, Iyta Reider, and her two children, a six year old girl and a two year old girl, and led them to the cemetery. I tremble as I recall Iyta walking with her baby in her arms and the older girl attached to her body, the Germans following behind and clubbing them. The sixyearold girl probably understood their fate, and as she walked she wept bitterly and pulled out her hair. The defenseless girl's crying only intensified the Germans' cruelty and they continued beating them. The blood of the mother and her daughters trickled from them the whole way to the cemetery, marking the trail of torture of a Jewish mother in the hands of predatory beasts who craved the blood of the innocent.
After a few days of staying with the children by my motherinlaw, I saw through the window the Germans leading my husband towards the cemetery, striking him with their guns. I understood the end has come. I left the children with the motherinlaw and decided to hide until the storm would pass.
At the time, I employed a domestic worker named Khenye Sipka, from a village 16 kilometers from Kobilnik. Her parents visited her every Sunday and we became close friends. If something happens, they told me, come to us. In the morning I left for the village, anxious and fearful. I often turned back my head, fearing that I was being chased; with every rustle I hid in the forest. I felt dizzy, my knees were weak, my legs failed me, and I dragged them heavily.
The road was endless. I reached the farmer's home only at nightfall. He greeted me kindly and hid me in the cellar. The Germans threatened the townspeople that if they did not turn me in all the residents would be executed. Three Jewish women came by and searched for me. I wanted to go with them because I did not want the blood of the town's Jews on my hands, but the farmer would not let me. They'll kill the Jews no matter what, he said, it's better if you don't leave.
After some time I became aware that the Germans had captured my children, a four yearold boy and a one year old girl, and had viciously murdered them.
The farmer led me to an abandoned hut in the marshlands where I stayed for three weeks. One day the farmer told me he would continue to shelter me only if I gave myself to him. He was an old farmer, ugly and disgusting. I shivered as I heard those words. I decided I would rather die than give myself to such a disgusting gentile.
I ran from the farmer's house to a mansion located approximately 15 km from the village. Jews from Svir were working there so I joined them and worked with them until we were returned to Svir.
The men of the Jewish Police did not allow me to stay there, as they claimed that would harm the Jewish residents. For lack of any other option I joined a labor camp in the village of Loshe where the Germans were paving a new road. Since I am a professional seamstress, I asked the German overseeing the camp if I could work for the local peasants, and in return I would give him butter and eggs as a gift.
He agreed, and every week I would send him eggs and butter very valuable items at the time. I managed to befriend the peasants and word spread of what a good seamstress I am. That is how I arrived at the Lotovits home. I sewed him a shirt and he admired my work very much. Such golden hands, the Germans could die. I must save you, no matter what. And indeed, he and his wife Carolina saved my life.
The camp held on until the fall. Some Jews managed to escape, but most were executed. The Lotovits family continued to hide me. They taught me Christian prayers, especially the blessing when the priest enters the church. The first time I got confused and recited the prayer backwards, as the priest looked at me with curious eyes.
My benefactor Lotovits recommended me as an employee to other peasants. I lived for a few weeks with one peasant and sewed for the family, and then relocated to another peasant's home and worked for a while and managed to save up some money. Lotovits arranged a forged Polish identity card for me, with the aid of another Pole, for which I gave 20 pods of grain and 12 litters smogon quite a hefty sum.
Since then my name became Lonya, as was written on the ID card. I felt safer and even dared to go out and look for work.
Once when I visited the Lotovits residence, I saw from the window two Polish policemen approaching the home. Suddenly they changed course and approached the neighbors' house, but the house was closed. They briefly consulted one another and then turned towards the village. After a while, I learned that the policemen would not have been satisfied by capturing me, but were also searching for a way to execute the Lotovitses, but needed two witnesses to sign the required document.
Carolina knew the risks, gave me a fur coat it was a cold, stormy day and encouraged me to quickly escape to the woods. Before long the policemen, accompanied by collaborators, followed my trail and meticulously searched the house, the yard, and the barn, and left the place, cursing.
I hid in the woods all day. The cold gnawed my bone marrow, the hunger and thirst bothered me to death, and I breathlessly waited for nightfall.
At nightfall, I arrived at the nearby Kano Village and knocked at the first house on the edge of the village. An elderly woman opened the door and asked what I wanted. I told her I wanted to reach Vilne but missed the train. After I showed her my Polish passport she relaxed and showed me in. At night, her daughter came with her lover and brought smogon, drank to intoxication and poured some for me, but I spilled mine under the table. In his intoxicated state, the man began telling how he worked for the Germans, and his role is to deliver Jews to the Germans. As he spoke, he cursed the Jews. He boasted that he had sent more than one Jew to the next world. What did I fall into? I thought, What should I do? Where to run?
I could not sleep all night, my mind was racing, and suddenly I recalled Kasatshenkova the teacher, maybe I could find shelter with her? I knew Kasatshenkova for a long time, while in my parents' home. In Divenishok I was a wellknown seamstress and all the Polish nobles hired me. Among those customers was Mrs. Kasatshenkova. She taught Polish at the Hebrew school in our town and was acquainted and friendly with all. She and I developed a special bond because she was very satisfied with my work. I learned that Mrs. Kasatshenkova was living in a remote home in Renkatsinski near Vileyka, not far from Vilne.
The next morning I began walking towards Renkatsishok Village, 150 kilometers away. My journey spanned a few days because I traveled on foot and on various side roads until I reached her.
She greeted me warmly, not out of much love for me as a Jew, but out of a desire to exploit me, and what more, a seamstress in those days was a very valuable commodity. I stayed with her for five months and sewed clothes for the whole family. I worked day and night to meet her demands, all for no pay, in exchange for food only.
Once, we needed a fashion journal for women's dresses. She proposed we travel together to Vilne and pick out the right designs for her. It was a rare opportunity to visit Vilne, the Jerusalem of Lithuania. I passed through the streets and occasionally saw a Jew walking in the middle of the road (Jews were forbidden from walking on the sidewalk) with a yellow patch on the arm. I will never forget the sight; their appearance was oppressed, hunched over, worn and torn, starving, wretched and miserable. Their appearance awoke fear and horror in me.
The teacher would tell me nonstop that the Germans were murdering the Jews, and with what joy and light she would say that, I felt the hatred boiling in her, and I my heart would weep in secret. Once, I wept bitterly when I learned the fate of the Vilne Jews, and the teacher found me like that with my eyes shedding tears and she said, Why are you crying, for your life or maybe mine?
After I completed the sewing for all family members, Kasatshenkova told me, I can no longer hold you, got to the forest, the forest!
I decided to return to the Lotovitses, who greeted me nicely, but they proposed I look for work with the peasants and not stay in their house, to not arouse suspicion by the authorities. I constantly worked with the peasants, but occasionally visited my benefactors the Lotovitses. The situation continued like that until the White Poles appeared, and my situation took a turn for the worse. The Poles gained the admiration of the population who collaborated with them and would assist them in finding Jews. They would take out Jews from hiding spots and savagely execute them. The Lotovitses hid me for seven weeks in the cowshed attic. Twice a day Carolina brought me food with the food she brought the chickens, so I would not be detected. Interestingly, the White Poles chose the Lotovits home as their headquarters, which instilled in me a feeling of safety, because they would not think a Jewess was there. Through the cracks in my hiding spot I saw them coming and going on their missions. Those Poles were terrible! Once they captured a Jew name Levine who was taken out of a bunker, laid him on the table, tormented him, hit him, and tortured him until his soul passed.
They told the farmers, Give us the Jews, hand over the Communists, and we will settle the score with them. Now we will be masters of the land! We will divide the lands among you. They would rebuke the peasants and say, What kind of loyal Poles are you that don't want to give us the Jews. Once, probably influenced by the Poles, Carolina told me, Maybe you should go to the Narats River, there are many Jews there.
No! I told her, I will not leave you again, I am staying here, it is better if they kill me here in your yard, and you will bury me here and pray at my grave.
My cry probably influenced her and she began crying. As a thankful gesture I requested wool to knit sweaters for her and her husband.
In the final weeks before Liberation she would tell me, We might stay alive, the Russians are nearly here.
After Liberation I traveled to Vilne and arrived once more at Kasatshenkova's, where I met Bezalel from Vileyka, I married him and we traveled to Poland and from there to Israel.
In 1957 I visited Divenishok with my husband and two daughters. The town was abandoned and burnt, only a row of houses remaining at the marketplace. We also visited the cemetery, where the tombstones were ruined and broken, shards of tombstones spread throughout the territory, surrounded by wilderness and abandonment. I searched for my mother's grave. Where there was once a tombstone surrounded by a concrete belt, now I could find nothing. The fence was in disrepair, the trees uprooted, and the peasants working the fields as of yore, sitting to rest on the tombstones, their cows grazing between the graves. I could find no marks on the graves, everything uprooted, broken and ruined. All the trees in the cemetery were chopped by the peasants and used as building material for their homes.
I shed many tears for the loss of my family and the destruction of our town. My tears were absorbed in the ground of the Jewish cemetery of Divenishok.
by Tsvi Novopolanski
Translated by Meir Bulman
I was not at home on the day the Germans stormed Divenishok. At the time I was working at Ziamya Slava, a large estate located about 10km from Divenishok where we built a large airport with underground hangers for the Soviet defense infrastructure.
The people in our town who were mostly merchants and traded with local peasants were left unemployed after the Russians invaded. They did contractual work to collect stones and bring them to be made into gravel for the fortification, so they could make a living.
Most of the workers were prisoners who had committed minor crimes like frugul (arriving late to work) and the like. About 10,000 people worked there. I worked as a technical clerk in the warehouse. There were several large military bases in the area.
It was a Sunday morning and all the nachal'nik (commanders) lay stinking drunk in their beds. I was glued to the radio and heard of the German declaration of war on Russia and about the lethal bombings on Russian military pockets. I took a horse and rode quickly to the main officer and told him: War! The Germans are bombing! and he, drunk as a skunk, turned on his side and mumbled: Forget that nonsense, and kept on napping. The next day all workers were declared recruits and the work resumed as usual. I sent a letter home with Yitzach Levine: We have all been enlisted and I am staying here. The next day we packed everything and began traveling east.
The road was busy with vehicles and people. Conditions became unbearable around Radoshkovichi, which was a border passage between Poland and Russia until 1939. The road was packed and the Germans picked us off from the air. I met many Divenishok townspeople, among them Tsvi Krizovski and Yosef Levine. We continued to Minsk where there was a roadblock; military personnel unloaded civilians from cars and loaded them with soldiers.
Minsk was in flames. German bombers came and dropped bombs periodically on the city. It is hard to describe the turmoil and shock, the sighs and screams of the wounded. The road was flooded with blood, maimed men and women sighed in pain, blood gushing from their wounds, yelling for help but to no avail. It was a truly horrific scene. I jumped from the truck, crouched in a ditch, and covered my head with the two loaves of bread I bought on the road.
After I calmed a bit I raised my head and saw a Jewish woman from Minsk that I worked with at Ziamya Slava. Go back to your small town it will be calmer there, she told me, As you see, Minsk is burning.
I listened to her and started to make my way back home. The swarm of people moved eastward and I was walking westward. I traveled a distance and encountered a group of young men and women from Oshmene, about 17 people. You have no reason to return to Divenishok, they said, The Germans are already there. I decided to join them. The Germans bombed us nonstop. We reached the town of Lahoisk on the MinskBobroisk road. Older Jews from the National Guard greeted us as their sons (among them were some army recruits) and gave us food and drink. People joined together in defending the spot, dug trenches, and prepared to meet the enemy with weapons. We helped them to the best of our abilities. The Germans would not occupy the town until they brought in tanks and conducted an aerial bombing. After they occupied the town they retaliated with cruel revenge on the population: they killed all the men and burned the houses. We decided to return home since the Germans were everywhere anyway. With the help of two young Polish women who accompanied us we received a permit from a German officer saying we were Polish workers at the Polish Electrit electronics factory, returning home.
We Are Not Jews
The German army rapidly moved East as we traveled West. When we reached the town of Lvidov a German yelled, There are Yudeh! We were surrounded and hit with gun muzzles, and were led straight to the synagogue where we found Jews wearing talits and tefillin, praying, crying, reciting loudly 'Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is One Lord. German soldiers surrounded the yard. Officers were giving orders, Torah scrolls spread across the road and trampled on by wheels. The Germans gathered Jews from the area, rushing them with curses and blows.
The Polish sisters approached the German officers and said, We are not all Jews; here is a certificate saying we are returning from Minsk to Vilne. Why are we kept here?
Five German officers came to examine us. One of them looked at my head, turned it right and left, and yelled, Yudeh! Yudeh! as in, Jew! Jew! I erupted with wild laughter (I played the part), and another officer told him, Stupid man this is not a Jew. They still suspected the rest of the people. Eventually they decided we were not Jews. We were given cigarettes and coffee. Our belongings were returned and they sent us on our way.
Rumors reached us later that a big massacre had taken place in the synagogue and that the remaining people had been sent to an unknown destination. From there we continued to Horodok and on the way, we saw stacks of burnt cars. Here we met the second line of Germans who moved slowly as they transported supplies. They had enough time to murder and plunder and they did so with great joy. When we reached Horodok we decided not to enter the town for safety reasons. We entered a farmer's house at the edge of the road and sent the girls to survey the situation. I was very tired and fell asleep. I awoke to the screams of the Gentile, The Germans are searching door to door, looking for Jews and foreigners.
I left everything including my backpack and hat, and ran out into the street. With no backpack I looked like a local and could move freely. Germans surrounded the town and no one could enter or leave. I blended in with the Gentiles who had come to rejoice and watch Jews being exterminated.
I saw all the Jewish men being led to the marketplace, ordered to lay face down in the dirt, and then ordered to rise. The Rabbi and other bearded men had their beards plucked and shaved. The Germans were obviously not careful and they cut flesh with the beards. The blood dripped slowly, soaked into the kapoteh, and swallowed up the golden sand as the crowd cheered in joy.
I was very disturbed at that sight and left the place. I recognized one of the girls who was with our group and asked about the fate of the others from Oshmene. Escape quickly, she said, all the guys are already captured.
Standing there not knowing what to do, I met a young Polish man wearing a student's hat. Tell me, young man, I approached him, where can a Polish guy like me stay for the night? Come, let us ask the German officer, he answered. I was out of options so we approached the feld comandant who directed me to the priest. I told the priest my name was Yampolski, a day laborer from Vilne, and happened to come across the town and wish to return home.
The priest gave me food and a place to sleep. The next day at sunrise I managed to sneak through the barrier around the priest's home, and with a staff in hand continued towards Oshmene. The state of affairs in Oshmene was poor; Jews were broken and afraid. I did not stay there long and hurried home. I finally arrived at the river that crosses Oshmene Street after three eventful weeks. I went to Yakov Bloch's mother, ate, rested, and shaved, and at night I arrived at home.
Divenishok Under German Rule
The Nazi criminals and thieves now controlled the governance of our town. The police were composed of criminals. All the criminal types were now in positions of power, like Kasiuk Skyviss, Gvidon, Treshkavits and others. They entered a different Jewish home every night, assaulted, tormented, and left. Cries were often heard from Jewish houses, Help! Robbers! but nobody dared go outside.
When Gvidon learned I had returned he came up with the idea to reunite the school orchestra that had entertained them before holidays (I played violin). He gathered all the musicians; Getsl Herszon, Binyamin Lipkunski, Eliahu Rogol, and others, and brought us the Polish school hall and where we played all night.
Afterward, Gvidon approached me and accused me, You ran to the Russians, you are a communist, and arrested me. When my father learned of that he brought him a few bottles of vodka and I was released.
We lived on Dovizishok Street not far from the mogilnok (the Christian cemetery.) I once passed by the cemetery and saw a long row of graves. I asked my mother for an explanation and she replied, On the third day of their invasion, the Germans brought hundreds of Russian soldiers and their officers on freight trucks to the cemetery, forced them to dig long ditches, shot them into the ditches, and covered them. The Geneva Convention did not exist for the Germans.
A German radio unit was parked on Dovizishok Street, whose role it was to disturb Russian radio communications. They would appear periodically and impose ransom (contrevuzia) on the Jews, demanding furs, silver, and gold. The Yudenrat would gather what they wanted from the Jews and give it to them.
Once, members of the radio unit demanded 14 young Jews for labor. I was sent along with Avraham Meyshke Kotler, Meir Yosef Itskovitsh, Zeytske Shvintolski and others. They had a radio tower and wanted shacks built for them [near it]. They brought poles and hammers, and told us to place the poles in the ground. I began to hammer and the handle broke off, was given a second hammer which also broke, as did the third. The German was angered and told me to climb the 35meter high tower. This is the end, I thought. Bring down the antenna! the Germans yelled at me. I did so. Now come down! I was relieved. After two weeks we were released.
One day a German unit appeared in town accompanied by Polish collaborators. The Jewish men were gathered in the market place and were ordered to lie on the ground facing the church and bow to the cross. After that we were instructed to perform different tasks and then instructed to run towards City Hall. There, a German officer instructed us to stand in formation and announced, From this day forward you start work.
Then started the zvengas arbet (forced labor) in town. Every morning we were organized, given various tasks such as cleaning gutters, fixing the road, and the like, all of course without pay. An order was given to wear a Star of David patch. The situation continued like that until winter.
Several farmers from Divenishok headed by the kakerakes who were Lithuanian, petitioned the Germans for Divenishok to be transferred to Lithuania, and indeed, in January 1942 our town was handed over to Lithuania. The Jews were frightened, as the fate of the Lithuanian Jews was well known to us.
Zalmen Leyb Lieb (Tsvi Ahuvi's brother) chairman of the Yudenrat, who had lived in Danzig for many years and mingled with the Germans, knew their mentality, and spoke fluent German. He was connected to the Gvits Commisar in Lida and bribed him into issuing a decree transferring all the Divenishok Jews to the nearby Voronova, which was in Belarus where the Jews were not yet being exterminated.
It should be noted that the Yudenrat officials in Divenishok were good, and did their best to help not only town residents but also the refugees who had escaped Vilne and other places, and found refuge in Divenishok. With the help of the Gvits Commisar documents were forged for all the refugees present in Divenishok. They transferred to Voronova along with the town's Jews. Residents of our town treated the refugees faithfully and respectfully, helped them as best they could, and shared their last piece of bread with them.
My dear mother Sheineh will be fondly remembered for hosting many Jewish refugees from Vilne in her home, and thanks to her many survived. One of them was a dear friend of ours, Dr. Tsvi Yoffe, who served as an army doctor with the Red Army in Vilne and married Khayeh of Yitzach's family. During the ‘actions’ in Vilne he escaped to Divenishok and stayed at our house. He managed to escape, with his wife, from Voronova to the partisans and survived (Dr. Yoffe later served for a time as the chief doctor for the IDF.)
In the Voronova Ghetto
In January 1942 the Jews of Divenishok packed their belongings, loaded them on wagons and traveled to Voronova. All the houses in Voronova were full because the Germans had transferred all local Jews there and placed them in a designated quarter. In addition, they added the Jews from Divenishok, Benakani, Soletchnik, and surroundings, to the crowding. We huddled with people from Geranion who were our relatives.
In Voronova I was tasked with treeclearing around the village of Yanushevits. It was backbreaking labor but had one advantage to it: we were housed in farmers' homes of the many [farmers] were detained or had escaped. The farms were abandoned and had nobody to work on them. We befriended the farmers and helped them in our free time, and they helped us too. I would take the risk, dressed in peasant's fur, of loading wood on a sled and bringing it home. This was a significant help since firewood was very scarce in the ghetto.
In the village we met Russian soldiers who were hiding from the Germans. They were strong men who worked nicely so the farmers did not turn them in. Among them were officers who had hidden their weapons in the woods, and when the Germans came searching for them they escaped to the woods. They created the first partisan groups. The Russians were experts in making wool overshoes (woolenki), a very important product to the farmers who had no shoes.
Dismantlement of the Voronova Ghetto
A month before the dismantlement of the Voronova ghetto, an order was issued to return all workers to the Ghetto. On the evening of May 7 a curfew was announced. Documents were strictly examined. On the morning of May 8 we saw from our home a row of police officers as reinforcements to the SS, and behind them stood another row of police and volunteers.
Many people attempted to escape. Some encountered guards and were killed; many managed to escape. On May 1 Yudenrat officials patrolled the streets and announced on a loud speaker that Jews must leave their houses and gather in the market place with their families. If anyone were to be missing from a family, the rest would be punished. Frightened Jews gathered in the marketplace, while gangs of rioters passed door to door, robbing, hitting, and killing. Farmers armed with pitchforks, sickles, axes, and knives gathered near the houses and plundered joyously.
During the three days we were enclosed inside the Ghetto, farmers dug deep pits in the Belaruski Woods at the end of Lida Street and prepared chlorine and lime for disinfecting the bodies. According to the original plan, the Germans intended for Jews to dig the pits themselves. But they had learned their lesson in Radin, where the Germans had tasked 300 Jews headed by Meirke der Shmid (Meir the Blacksmith) to dig the graves; he organized an uprising and a large battle ensued which lasted a few hours. The Jews managed to kill police with their shovels and waged a persistent battle on the arriving reinforcements. Meirke did exceptionally well, hid behind a pile of stones, and fought persistently. And thus hundreds of young men from Radin managed to escape to the woods and formed the first core of the Jewish partisans. In Voronova the Germans organized matters so that there would be no surprise.
For three days I built myself a melina (hiding spot) in the attic. Father did not want to go in there and said, We are a strong and healthy people. We will surely survive. We should give it to weak and disabled people who would be otherwise executed. We placed 10 people in the hiding spot and they indeed survived.
The marketplace was surrounded by Germans armed with machine guns and grenades. Germans stood at the intersection of the main roads, lead by headquarters' commander Windisch, and directed those destined to live to go to the right and to the left, and those for destined for death to go straight. My father wanted to go straight but the officer pointed him right. Stupid guy, I told you to go right.
After a while we heard faint gunshots and shouting. We understood what was happening.
After a few days, when I left the ghetto for work, the farmers told me that all along that [death] path had stood Gentiles with axes, pitchforks, and sickles, and were hitting Jews until they bled, in order to stun them. When they reached the graves, they were laid on their faces, and waited in line for their deaths. Group by group they were unclothed, entered the graves, and were shot in the neck. The dead were covered with lime and chlorine, and the horrific acts were continued with the next group. The murders continued until all the Jews were exterminated.
Despite all the safety measures the Germans had taken there were a few men who tried to resist. Gentiles told me of an unusual heroic act by Zalmenke Shrira. He was led to the grave with his mother Mineh and his sisters Mashke and Esther. He jumped and stunned the Germans, broke the chain, and began running towards the woods. A few Germans chased him riding motorbikes and caught up to him. He jumped on and flipped a bike, shoved its rider to the ground, and took his gun. A second German rider came up and he flipped him too. He took a position and pointed the weapon to the Germans who surrounded him and fought them until a bullet pierced his heart. A few days later farmers found his body a kilometer from the graves, riddled with bullets. People confirmed it was indeed Zalmen Shrira's body.
After the extermination the Germans spread a sheet and commanded the Jews who had survived to toss their silver and gold onto the sheet. Later we will conduct a search, the murderers said, and anyone found with silver or gold will be killed. The sheet was filled with silver, gold, and jewelry.
Of all the Voronova Jews, only seven hundred people remained, transferred after a few days to the Lida Ghetto.
At the Lida Ghetto
A calculated dismantling of the ghettos in the Navaredok and Lida districts took place in May. Zunder commando units passed from town to town and exterminated Jews. Those who remained were transferred to the Lida Ghetto. Before that operation began, 6000 Jews were killed in Lida, to make room for the survivors from the area towns. Before that, about 8000 Jews were killed near the army base. The rest of the Jews were placed in a small and limited ghetto. The rest of the area Jews were placed in that dense and narrow parcel.
The Lida Ghetto made a very depressing impression on me. I felt like we had arrived in the valley of death, everything ruined and broken. Every step and corner highlighted the murder, the robbery, and the plunder. Jews were crammed into houses with much overcrowding under a strict ghetto regime: the yellow patch, the walking in the middle of the road, licenses to leave the ghetto, and difficult compulsory labor.
In the first days of our stay at the Lida Ghetto we were very pessimistic because German success at the Russian front was at its height, and we could see no way out. We put all our hopes into joining the partisans and avenging the Jewish bloodshed.
We heard from Gentiles that there were partisans in the Nalibok and Lipnishok areas, but how would we reach them? It was also clear to us that the partisans accepted only people with weapons. But where would one get a weapon? As luck would have it, a group of Divenishok people was sent to work at the train station where a train loaded with many weapons arrived on its way to Germany. Despite the station teeming with Germans, a group of Divenishok men including Dovid Schneider (Dovid Zekkel's son), Leyzer Shklar, Tuvye Blyakher, Meir Levine and his brother Sender from Soletchnik, and I, decided to put on a performance. We approached the train cars while pretending our job was to transfer weapons between cars. We chose gun parts and hid them under our long rain coats. We made an effort to ensure barrels were functional. We hid the weapons and after work we smuggled them into the Ghetto. Getting the guns into the Ghetto was not easy, but each person improvised to his ability. One tied the weaponry to his leg and pretended to limp, one tied the weapon to his shoulder under the coat, another in his sleeve, and we managed to smuggle various parts into the Ghetto. We set up a workshop in our basement to fix and upgrade the guns.
We began developing ties with the Partisans at that point, including several Divenishok people like Eltsik Blyakher. Eltsik came to the ghetto a little later to rescue Jews, but I was prevented from joining him because although I wanted to leave with my cousin Schneider using the same gun, he [Schneider] unexpectedly contracted typhus.
Meir Levin from Soletchnik arrived later at the Ghetto to extract his family (he took the weapons from the train station with him) and took with him a group of youths from the Ghetto including several Divenishokers: Dovid Schneider, Avraham Kotler and his wife Leah, his brother Shlomo Kotler, Tuvye Blyakher, and I. My father knew I had a weapon, but my mother was surprised by it. I will never forget the moment we parted ways. My mother prepared my package for the road and when she saw the weapon she handed it to me and said, My son, take the weapon and go take revenge on the Germans! and began crying. It was a very shocking separation from my family.
40 people left the ghetto that night. There was harmony among us and everything went well. In one night we reached the village of Sagli, about 20km from Lida. That village was under Partisan control and served as a front position and passage spot for the combat troops. We felt like we had been born again as free people and not human dust.
On our way to Bielski the next day we encountered a horse dragging a wagon and a dairy cow. A man slept in the wagon with his rifle next to him. We woke him and to my surprise it was Shmuel Schneider my cousin from Ivia (he was also called Kalmen Vigosh). He told us he was an assistant to the Isscara commander and his task was to supply milk for a Jewish baby living with his parents and hosted by a Gentile in the small village hutur. We accompanied him and gave the cow to the farmer. From there we traveled to Sstara Huta, commander Bielski's base. We did not find Bielski's units and instead saw some of his men patrolling on horseback; they told us the Germans were about to attack. They took us to the Zhorabalnik woods, 30 km from there.
And indeed the next morning a German assault began aided by Polish units. We had to escape. Hershl from Oshmene's (Zalmen Kushes' fatherinlaw) daughter Rachel was injured there. We then traveled to Baksht but the Germans attacked us there too. Bielski led from there to the Naliboki Woods (Naliboker Puscza.)
The three Bielski brothers were blessed with rare gifts that were manifested in their operations as partisans. They had great leadership abilities when conducting military operations, but they particularly excelled in their love for the people of Israel. They could have joined any Russian partisan battalion, but their primary mission was not only to fight the Germans but to save as many Jews as possible, and indeed, Bielski gave shelter to children and the elderly, who were not deserted.
We were given two tasks: one, to go on revenge missions against German collaborators, and the second to go on estate missions, meaning supplying food to the combatants and to the family camp which expanded daily.
I knew no satisfaction during my stay in the Naliboki Woods. The German drive to destroy the partisans was at its height and we were in a constant fearful retreat from the enemy. I was tasked with transferring the families deep into the woods and we had to pass through swamps to cover our tracks. Walking was done only at night and with much tension. We were freezing, barefoot, and starving. After two weeks we arrived deep into the woods and felt relieved.
Bielski summoned me one day and said, I know your father, he will be a brave fighter, take a friend and bring your parents and any Jew who wants to join the partisans.
I chose Leybke Kaplan (Alter Yashe Nashe's son) and traveled 150 km until we reached Sagli village which was the buffer zone between German and partisan controlled territory. There we learned the Germans had reinforced the Lida Ghetto perimeter.
We decided to enter the Ghetto. We hid in the bushes whenever we observed dark figures. We held our breaths and realized those were German troops wearing rain ponchos preparing for an ambush. We waited until morning and with the help of a farmer managed to enter the Ghetto.
Once inside the Ghetto, we began gathering people. We gathered 100 people, but extraction was postponed. The Germans began an allout assault on the Partisans. We saw villages burning in the distance. Chaos erupted among the Partisans, gangs of thieves formed and began attacking Jews. People were killed for a pair of shoes or a weapon. People who were sick, injured, or infected returned to the Ghetto after encountering trouble, dirt, and hunger. There was no hope of returning to the woods the situation was dire with no way out.
After ten days of staying in the Ghetto, German troops surrounded it, and people were ordered to stay indoors. The next day an order was issued to pack clothes and food and go to the gathering point. My mother proposed we hide but my father strongly opposed, saying it was well known that in Byalistok the ghetto was burned after dismantlement and there was no point in hiding.
We offered the hiding spot to people from Ivia: Shmuel Geller, Dr. Gordon, Rachel and Chava Stotzki entered and survived.
Escape from the Train Station
From the gathering point we were directed to the train station where we were to wait for the death train. My sister requested permission to bring water from the nearby yard, took advantage and escaped. I stayed with my parents. I saw Gentiles in the distance digging pits. I jumped in a pit, took a hoe, and began digging. After a while I put the hoe on my shoulder and began walking on the sidewalk. As I walked slowly in a cloud of sadness and heartbreak a Gentile stopped to look at me. My blood ran cold. I thought he recognized me. Do not be afraid, he said, your sister is with us and she sent me to search for you. He brought me to his house and we stayed there until the evening. He was an unfamiliar Gentile. He simply saw my sister wandering aimlessly, took pity on her, and brought her to his home. The reunion with my sister was very emotional; she cried and cried. I have no time for this, I told her. Let us go to the partisans.
On the Way to the Partisans
Near Lida there was a hutur named Plashevitsi. A single man lived there with his mother. His name was Vladek Melkhovski. One day, he appeared at our house in the Ghetto and helped my sister bring some flour from the city. How did that happen? He saw a group of Jewish women clearing bricks from the ruins, among them my sister. He approached her and said, I want to help you. At nightfall, after work was done, he joined the group and brought us flour. I would like to meet the girl's family, he said. He offered to hide us at his farm for the duration of the war. We ignored him and did not take him seriously. He gave us his address and left.
At nightfall I left Lida with my sister and we headed to Melkhovski. I knew Plashevitsi was behind the train tracks. I asked people for directions. To this day I do knot know if I was mistaken or misled, but I was told to walk towards the forest where I would find the tracks. It was dark. We moved through the woods and saw trenches with empty food cans near them, and some pieces of paper. This is a training spot, my sister said. I scolded her, You just left the ghetto and already you know better than me. We kept walking, the trees thinned, and we suddenly heard an order, Shty! (Stop!), and gunfire rained down on us. My sister was probably hit on the spot because I heard her horrifying screams. I jumped in a trench. The Germans gathered around to search for me and when they were somewhat distant I jumped into a potato field. I lost contact with my sister then, but I am certain they executed her because I heard her screams from a distance and then she fell silent. I later found out that we were at the back side of a German military base, the infamous army camp where the Jews of Lida were executed.
I lay there shocked, did not know what to do, what to decide, or where to turn. I do not know how long I lay there but suddenly the moon rose. Lumps of fog rose and behind them the moon emerged. I saw a group of soldiers leaving the base, jumped out, and crossed the road towards the base; I thought they would not search for me there. I crawled into a natural grazing plot with rocks scattered across it, clung to one, and wanted to die. The suffering had depleted my strength and hope. It was too much to lose my parents and sister on the same day. I noticed a horse tied at a farm and thought it was the Godsend that would save me. I got on the horse and let it walk. It reached a solitary, crumbling house and stopped. I got off the horse and knocked on the door. A pale, scared face appeared before me, and said, Listen! A search was conducted here five minutes ago. They said I was hiding Jews. Hide nearby until morning and tomorrow I will tell you where to go.
I fell asleep in his garden due to exhaustion. Rain started falling in the morning and I awoke. I entered his house and the farmer cooked potatoes with lemon for me, and explained how to reach Plashevitsi. He gave me a hoe and a basket as a disguise like I was going to gather potatoes.
I reached Vladek Melkhovski that same day. When he saw me he hugged me and wept as he asked about my family's fate. I told him about my sister and parents. He put me in the barn. He took a bike and patrolled all day, reached the base and gathered information. He learned the Germans had searched the area, captured Jews who escaped the Ghetto, and put them on the train which had been at the station for the past three days. A few days later in the afternoon hours he came to me beaming and said, I found your family. It turned out those were the Jews from Ivia to whom we had given our hiding spot. They hid there until nightfall then exited the Ghetto to look for another hiding spot. The Pole had found them in the field and brought them to the barn.
There were already eight people in the barn and he cared for them all with friendship and devotion. We stayed with him for a few days until that wonderful man obtained weapons for us. As it turned, out the famous Sagla Village was 15 km from our location, and our only hope to survive was in reaching the village. One foggy morning we packed our guns in a package of birch wood. We shouldered the package and made our way to Sagla. The group parted ways there, our group made its way to Bielski, and today are alive and well in Israel. I began walking towards my birth town, Divenishok.
The Search For Members of Our Town
While speaking to Partisans, I learned that the Divenishokers had decided to leave the Naliboki Woods where conditions had become unbearable due to the constant searching by Germans, and had moved to the woods near Divenishok because: first, things were calmer there, second so they could be masters if their own fate and not suffer antiSemitism on the part of Russian Partisans, and third so they could take revenge against Gentiles in the Divenishok area for their robberies and killings of Jews.
I began traveling, dressed like a farmer, with a pistol and two grenades in my pockets. I approached Yanushevits village, the same village I worked at when I stayed at the Voronova Ghetto. On the road, I portrayed myself as a farmer wanting to buy a horse or carriage, and traveled among the peasants, inquiring as to the situation. The Gentiles told me there were many gangs of White Poles being particularly cruel to the Jews. Here, in this yard, the Poles killed a Jew, and here they killed another, they pointed. Of course that news saddened me.
After a long investigation I found out that our group was in the Kalelishok area, but I was warned that the place was overrun by White Poles who were eager to hunt for Jews. After extensive searching in the Kalelishok Woods, I reached the Divenishokers' spot. They lived in a wellhidden dugout. The reunion was very emotional. We hugged and cried, bitterly mourning that so few of us remained. There I found Leyzerke Shklar, Tuvya Blyakher, the Kotler brothers Avraham and Shlomo, Avraham Kotler's wife Leah (from Lida), Kalmen Kartshmer, Dovid Schneider, Meir dem Zekl's son, Chaim Levine (Chaim der Milners), his brother Yosef Levine from Danoyke village, and two brothers from Kalelishok. The experts on the area were the Levines from Soletchnik.
My friends told me a fascinating story about their first reunion with Kalmen Kartshmer. One night, when they came to Yurglan Village to search for food, a bearded dirty creature approached them and began begging from them, Brothers! Do not take anything from this village. They are good people, I am Jewish and they look out for me; please, take pity on me and leave them alone.
Kalmen? Is that you? What are you doing here? The Divenishokers began yelling, Come join us, come with us, brother.
Kalmen began crying and joined his friends. The Gentiles were shocked.
What? You want Kalmen!? Take whatever you wish but leave Kalmen to us. Take pigs, take cows, but do not take Kalmen.
The valued Kalmen a lot, because he chased away the Partisans with his begging and then they would not take their smogon (moonshine).
Attacks by Germans and Poles
After we stayed with them for a few days (it was July at harvest time) we relocated to a forest near Sleski Village. Since we had heard that local Gentiles had collaborated with the Germans, robbing Jewish homes in Divenishok and plundering their belongings, we decided to come even.
One night we attacked the village and conducted a search in the houses. We recognized mirrors, pantries, cabinets, and other items, and smashed them to smithereens. We beat them for what they had done to Jews. They were fearfully shaken, begged us to forgive them since they regretted their actions. We took bread and meat from them and returned to the woods.
At dawn, as we skinned the sheep, Germans and Polish police officers arrived and began to surround us. We left behind all the supplies and managed to retreat with our weapons, while dragging Shmuel Levine whose hand was injured. At night we brought him to the doctor in Kalelishok who extracted the bullet from his hand.
Preparations for the Winter of 44/45 in Stoki Forest
After that assault we decided to relocate to the Stoki Woods, hoping to find a stable, wellhidden zhmlanke (den) to gather food for winter and stay there until it was safe. We chose a spot in a molodniak (young forest), assuming the peasants avoided visiting there. We brought birch trees, built the zhmlanke with planks, uprooted trees, and replanted them atop the hiding spot so the spot was well hidden. Happy at the success of the mission we went to bed and the two women who were with us prepared a festive meal.
Food is ready! the girls called and we jumped from our spot. Only Tuvya Blyakher stayed asleep. We went to wake him. He lay covered in sweat and spoke Hebrew in his sleep. Gentlemen! he mumbled, gentlemen, how do I get to Petah Tikva? My brother went to war, so what? He will fight for our freedom and we will win. We'll win, of course, we will. But why are you crying? Everyone is here with us! Everyone, everyone (and he began saying the names of everyone in the den). They are here with us. Together we were in the Partisans; we fought the Germans together. And here they all are in Israel, everyone! Everyone! We avenged the blood of our brothers and sisters! We took revenge on our enemies! And here we are in Israel, he wept in his sleep.
We stood around amazed and crying. It was the first time in years that we had heard Hebrew. All the pent up emotions in us erupted; we remembered the lively Jewish youths in our town walking about with the Hebrew language rising to the heavens. We remembered the cultural life, the lively youth movements, remembered our parents, our siblings, our relatives. Where are they? Why have they fallen silent? We felt orphaned, alone, without a past or a future, surrounded by bloodthirsty enemies who wanted to take our lives. And far away freedom awaits! Our friends await! But how can we reach them? How can we untangle the noose of the tragedy threatening our lives? How could we reach freedom? A stream of tears grew stronger and turned into bitter weeping, taking over our beings. When Tuvya awoke we asked him of what he had dreamed about? I do not remember a thing. I do not remember, and he wiped the sweat from his face.
Chaim Levine, his wife, and his brother Yosef from the closeby Danoyke village joined us in the Stoki Forest. They hid in a zhmlanke located a few kilometers from us, and a friendly farmer supplied food. Two men from Kalelishok and two from Vilne joined us as well. A young Russian man named Mishka Lytnent who roamed the area joined us as well.
We hoped to form a large and powerful partisan force that would instill fear in Divenishok, and the region, becoming a strong supporter of Jews still hiding in various places.
We began to reorganize for that purpose. Mishka Lytnent was appointed as commander. The group was composed of 11 armed people and 7 unarmed. Our first mission was to obtain weapons for the remainder of the members. We were in contact with several farmers who lived around the woods whose farms served as bases where we could meetup and exchange information. They also notified us where we could obtain weapons.
We had unique methods of obtaining weapons. When we learned a farmer had weapons we would appear and ask for them. When he refused, we threatened that we would search the house and if we found weapons we would burn the house down. To frighten him, we would order him to bring straw from the barn to burn the house, until he relented and brought the weapon. Then he would receive some blows for not complying.
We took unique measures to cover up our tracks. We constructed a small wooden bridge from the sleigh, raised it above some brush, and continued to our residence from there.
When the cold intensified we decided to go on a special mission to prepare food in case of emergency and to bring winter clothes for the people who had joined us and had nothing. Six armed men went on that mission. We prepared 3 horsebound sleighs and traveled to a more distant and rich area, though we knew it was swarming with White Pole militias.
We reached the village and loaded the sleighs with bread, meat, and potatoes, and intended to turn back. Dovid Schneider and Leybke Kaplan from Voronova went into one of the homes to bring winter clothes. We suddenly noticed a woman's figure sneaking into the woods. The commander gave an order to immediately retreat since we knew of strong units of White Poles stationed in the area. As we turned the sleighs around, armed people came out of the woods on foot and on horseback and opened heavy fire. Commander Mishka gave an order to stop at the turn, return fire, and then get on the sleighs and escape.
Dovid Schneider and Leybke Kaplan who had stayed in that house, stormed out, and began a close combat with the Poles. The Poles left us and concentrated their fire on the two young men, probably assuming a large force of ours was stationed in the village. Leybke managed to break through and reach us. My cousin, Dovid Schneider, held a position by a pile of wood and fought bravely until a bullet pierced his heart.
The next evening we attempted to approach the village but learned that the Poles had placed guards by the body, hoping we would return to retrieve it. The man was not buried. It was our first casualty in the Stoki area.
The White Pole headquarters located our spot. To tighten their grip they took positions in nearby villages until only the woods remained for us. They waited for their first chance when we would emerge from hiding so they could attack us.
Headquarters then decided to locate the Partisans and clear Stoki from Partisans once and for all. To ensure results, they decided to wait until January, when the cold would be intense and partisans avoided missions. We sat in the bunker with nothing to do until January 11, 1944, when we ran out of supplies, and decided to go get food. Commander Mishka, Leyzer Shklar, Shlomo Kotler, Yosef Levine (from Danoyke), and I went out.
This time we went to the Kalelishok area since we knew a rich farmer lived there, a Jewhater, who had handed two brothers from Kalelishok to the White Poles, after setting a trap. I will introduce you to Partisans, he told them, and when they arrived, the Poles were waiting for them in his yard and executed them on the spot. That took place in the summer of 1943.
At this opportunity we decided to settle the score with him. We arrived there, recognized the people, and introduced ourselves as Polish partisans. We asked him to hitch two horses to sleighs, loaded them with meat and bread, and then we asked, Do you know the two brothers from Kalelishok? he turned pale. We put a bullet in his head, executed his family, and burned the farm. We left a white sheet on which we wrote in their blood, Blood for blood, Jewish blood will not be disregarded! Dog death for dogs!
At dawn a large snow storm started. A white coat covered the area and we feared the sleigh tracks would be visible to the Poles on the freshfallen snow. We decided to unload the supplies at a small abandoned bunker located 2 km from our bunker. The brothers Chaim and Yosef from Danoyke used to live in that bunker. Just as planned, Kalmen Kartshmer, Chaim Levine, and Avraham Kotler waited for us by the bunker. We gave them the sleighs with the supplies and they transported them to a distant location to prepare the meat for consumption. Chaim's wife and Avraham Kotler's wife who had arrived with their husbands were in the bunker then.
We five, exhausted by the mission, entered the bunker to rest a bit, but since the spot was narrow we decided to sleep in shifts. As fate would have it, Yosef Levine and I remained awake for the first shift, and the three brothers went to sleep. Suddenly we heard gunfire. Turns out, the Poles had planned the attack long ago; that morning they followed our tracks and came close. Luckily, the clothes we had out to dry confused them and they thought we were outside and began shooting. I took my gun, jumped out barefoot, and crashed into a Pole. I hit him with the gun handle and he fell. I had thus breached the chain of Poles. Yosef Levine and Leah, Avraham Kotler's wife, escaped through that gap. Fourth was Chaim Levine's wife, who was hit by a bullet and died immediately. They chased us. We managed to widen the gap between us. The three of us ran as a unit. My bare feet were suddenly wounded by some branches and I feared the blood tracks would be the end of it. Luckily, I had on cotton underwear. I stopped for a moment, took off the underwear and tied my feet with them. We looked for a clever way to trick the Poles. We probably ran in the same direction where a search had already taken place since we saw many footsteps on the way. That, of course, made things easier, but we were still in danger. I suddenly discovered a pine tree lying on the ground in the direction we were running, with its top inside a thicket facing us. We climbed on the pine, crossed it, and then jumped in the thicket. We remained there until nightfall. We feared to make a sound and held in our breath since there were many White Poles in the woods. We heard shots, orders, and even conversations. The only action we took was rubbing our hands and feet so we would not freeze.
After nightfall we heard a trumpet, probably a signal for the Poles to return to base. We had a Russian semiautomatic and a Russian rifle with bullets, and we pondered our next action. Yosef Levine proposed going to his hometown Danoyke, located not far from us, where a friendly farmer lived who had cared for him and his brother while they were in their bunker. I have a feeling he escaped to him, he said.
We were out of options and accepted his proposal. We made our way towards Danoyke. We stopped about 500 meters from the village. That spot was great for observing, the village could be seen as if on the palm of the hand. From a distance the village seemed lively: lighted houses, we heard singing, yelling, and cheering. I left Yosef and Leah in the field and crawled towards the farmer's house to peak through the window. I crawled 100 meters and encountered a body in the snow, no boots on, frozen, stiff. At first I did not recognize him, but when I took a closer looked I saw it was Chaim. Turned out that Kalman Kartshmer, Avraham Kotler, and Chaim Levine, who had taken the supplies to prepare for storage, also encountered White Poles. Kalmen and Avraham had run deeper into the woods, while Chaim had run towards his hometown Danoyke, intending to reach the farmer. There was a sniper's mound on the pine hill and Chaim walked right into their crosshairs. They executed him on the spot.
I turned around, told my friends everything, and we decided to leave quickly. We changed course and headed to Kalelishok where the Levine family from Soletchnik was hiding. I should note the Levines greeted us kindly and said, We will share our last piece of bread with you, whatever happens, happens, one fate for us all.
It was clear that there was no other way to survive than by joining an established partisan group. But first we wanted to know our friends' fate. We decided not to reemerge and to conduct searches for the next two weeks.
Two weeks later, Yosef Levine and I took our weapons and went towards the forest to search for survivors. We had emphatically decided to gather all survivors and go to the Partisans. First we went to check on Yitzach from Voronova. It was a small, well camouflaged bunker where he lived with his wife, their daughter and her husband Tsvi Shatsitniski from Turgel (cousin of the Shatsitniskis from Divenishok.) We had sponsored that bunker. They had no weapons and we supplied them food. On the last mission, during which my cousin Dovidke Schneider was killed, we managed to bring them food to last through the winter. They had not left the bunker since then and the Poles had not found them. Much to our surprise we also found Kalmen Kartshmer and Avraham Kotler there. We were very excited; they thought we had been killed and we thought they had been killed.
The Bitter Fate of Our Brothers in Stoki Forest
We then learned of the fate of our brothers in the main bunker. The bunker was discovered by the Poles when Leyzer Shklar, who was among the three who were attacked in their sleep in the zhmalnke, managed to break the chain of Poles, and in his shock began running towards the big bunker where the rest of our group were. He was shot near the bunker, which led to the discovery of the bunker, and a hopeless battle took place between our friends and the Poles. The men could not withstand the large enemy force, and all fell in battle, including Tuvya Blyakher, Dovid Schneider's girlfriend (he fell in an earlier mission,) and some people from Kalelishok and Soletchnik. The Poles blew up the bunker and took the bodies with them to show the Germans their heroic act.
The next day we went to see what had happened in the first bunker after I had escaped. Near the bunker we found the bodies of Mishka Lytent, Shlomo Kotler, and Chaim from Danoyke's wife Esther, all frozen. Mishka's pants were down; they probably wanted to see if Mishka was Christian.
We dug three graves since Kalmen ruled it was not permitted to bury a man, a woman, and a Gentile in one grave. We carved their names on the trees above their graves. We sat atop their new graves and mourned. A low weeping sound echoed through the woods. We decided then to leave this damned place soaked with the blood of our brothers and to join the wellorganized Partisans to avenge their deaths.
In the Rudniki Woods
All who were left in that area gathered and we made our way to Rudniki Woods. We were led by Shmuel Levine from Soletchnik and Yitzach from Voronova who were very familiar with the area. We walked all night and reached Salki Village across the VilneGrodne train tracks the next morning. This was the point of entry and exit for the Partisans.
We knew that Borukh Levine from Soletchnik served as a major in Captain Protzhenov's combat company. He was related to Shmuel Levine and served as a contact to the Partisans. We reached the company on the front lines that guarded the entrance to the woods named Perkunas (thunder in Lithuanian). The unit commander was a Lithuanian redhead named Burakas. He was a quick and witty man who excelled in war tactics. After he fell in one of the battles against the Polish, we learned he was a Jewish man from a small Lithuanian town who had been parachuted in by the Red Army as a Lithuanian commander and founder of Lithuanian partisan companies. I would like to note that in the entire Lithuanian company I encountered almost no genuine Gentile Lithuanians: there were Russians and Jews. We found some Jews from Voronova in that company (Borukh Grevetski, now in Beer Sheba, and the two Arkin brothers.) The young among us, Yitzach Levine and Kalmen Kartshmer, joined combat operations, and the rest were in services. Kalmen Kartshmer was tasked with preparing sausage for winter.
Fighting with the Lithuanian Brigade
The youngest in the group joined combat operations and were included in all sabotage missions against German army bases and roads, including ambushing motor convoys, attacking roads, and ambushing German supply sources. We went to blow up bridges and railways every evening. We conducted thorough operations. Operations were hastened by the destruction of telegraph poles spanning 5 km and the destruction of train tracks for many kilometers.
We were considered an elite unit and our base was at the very front position, about 67 km from Salki Village. Due to that, we were familiar with all the units of the Vilne Brigade that passed through us. By that chance, we were familiarized with the two Jewish companies in the Vilne Brigade.
In the spring of 1944, when actions by the White Poles increased, we hoped to reach a compromise with them, that we fight the Germans individually and not point our weapons at each other. All fighting should be directed at the common enemy.
Since we were in the front position it was natural for meetings of the leadership to take place where our unit was located. Expert snipers guarded meetings. There I met the famous sniper Grisha Gorvits, who came with me to Israel where we were fortunate to fight alongside one another in the War of Independence.
I Was Appointed as an Expert Sniper
In April 1944, a unit comprised of five Jewish members headed by Russian commander Kostya was to blow up a train between Soletchnik and Vilne. We planted the dynamite sack under the tracks. An operational mechanism was inside the sack. We tied explosives to the sack and the mechanism was triggered by pulling a rope. Similar missions succeeded many times and sometimes we would derail up to 14 cars. This time, Lithuanian patrollers replaced the Germans and they took their task seriously, sending a crew of 18 people to scan the track. Some scanned the surface of the tracks while others went on foot and scanned the ditches with a mine detector.
The device was found by the Lithuanians and disposed of by the technicians. Hellfire rained down on us and we barely managed to return to base. Luckily, our commander was Kostya. Otherwise, the Jews would have been courtmartialed.
Headquarters decided to retaliate against the Lithuanians and to destroy that unit at any cost. At night, we set out to ambush them with the full force of the 120man company. Some took positions on one side of the tracks and others on the other side at some distance, myself included. The Lithuanian patrol arrived on time and much to our misfortune passed the first ambush heading towards us. We opened fire. The Lithuanians abandoned the tracks and took positions behind the mound and returned fire. An order was issued to move forward. The Lithuanians began throwing grenades and facing me lay a Lithuanian sharpshooter who fired heavily in my direction. I then heard him slamming the gun's handle and cursing that it had malfunctioned. I jumped over the track and killed him with a submachine gun. Once their marksman was gone, the Lithuanians started running towards Soletchnik. The ambush on the other side finally sprung into action and joined the chase. And so we killed all 18 Lithuanians as they attempted to escape.
We returned to base with a large haul and great satisfaction. I got a modern 1943 Bren light machine gun made in Czechoslovakia. The next day a festive formation took place and unit commander Sergei himself handed me the gun, praised me for my bravery and said, Grisha! Hit the enemy so the tragedy of the ghetto will not be repeated. The stock of the ten Jewish men in the unit increased monumentally.
The machine gun was the weapon with the strongest firepower among the Partisans and its operator was the strongest, most experienced soldier in the company. The sharpshooter had special standing in the unit and it was no wonder the Russians' regard for us was changed for the better. I had many occasions to operate that machine gun and it was close to my chest for the duration of my stay with the Partisans. More than that, with the same Bren gun I participated in the War of Independence.
The Killing of Yosef Kaplan A Disgrace to the Russian Partisans
The antiSemitism hidden in the hearts of the Russians was uncovered in the next event: We departed for an assault on a large procession passing from Soletchnik to Vilne. A Jewish unit of 8 people took a position on the side of the road. Its role was to open fire on the approaching Germans so they would concentrate their fire on us while the assaulting force located at the edge of the woods would storm the procession and destroy it. I was positioned with my machine gun on a well camouflaged tree and awaited orders.
Three partisans, among them Yosef Kaplan, his brother, and another man from Voronova were on the lookout, and their role was to announce the arrival of the Germans. It was agreed that if tanks secured the procession we would not open fire since our weapons were not fit to fight armored troops. The Jewish men mistakenly announced the convoy was headed by tanks and an order was given to hold fire.
When the convoy approached I was surprised that it was headed by two wagons loaded with hay. German supply vehicles followed them and a German musical band [was] behind them. The entire convoy passed without a single shot being fired. A supply vehicle then approached from Vilne and we killed them. We left the overturned car on the road and returned to base.
The Kaplan brothers and the third man arrived at the base only the next morning. A formation of all companies was conducted, they were placed in front of the formation and were accused of three counts: A) not fulfilling their combat mission, B) false notice which led to the failure of the mission, and C) cowardice and late arrival at the base.
The verdict for all three was a death sentence. Yosef Kaplan, group commander was sentenced to death by firing squad, and the other two to a suspended death sentence.
Yosef Kaplan's claims were that the German tanks being grey like the color of hay had fooled him from a distance, and that the sun was in his eyes and obstructed his vision. In reply to the accusation of being late, Kaplan argued they were surrounded by Germans who had come to search the area after the mission, and they could not leave their hiding spot. All this to no avail: the young man was taken behind the formation and executed on the spot.
That sight haunts me to this day. The young Jewish man weeping and saying, Brothers, I am innocent, do not shed innocent blood! I am your brotherinarms, I risked my life for the sacred goal. I am young and want to live and see the triumph of good over evil. Please, brothers, avoid bloodshed!
His pleading was ignored. As the Jewish man was led, his fiery gaze met our eyes as if pleading to the heavens, asking for mercy. And we felt as if our hearts were being cut by a sharp knife. Is there a God above? Why is fate so cruel to us? And Yosef's brother wept bitterly, tears streaming down his face. The sound of weeping merges with the sound of the forest and the ringing gunshots. We were stunned, angry, and sad, gritting our teeth in pain. Our hearts were ripped to shreds and we were inconsolable.
We felt the hatred of Jews expressed in all its might since we knew of worse incidents in which partisans had lost their lives due to negligence, but because those were Russian partisans they went unpunished. The Jews suffered the full consequences. I am certain that if that same event had taken place with a Russian partisan he would not have been shot.
When the Red Army approached Vilne we were ordered to join them in capturing the city. Battles in Vilne lasted 7 days. Many SS men were positioned in Vilne, as well as many Vlasovians who fought bitterly. Combat in the city was difficult and very deadly. We fought doortodoor and many Russians were killed by German snipers positioned on the rooftops. I remember that when I passed through the Ostra Brama (a famous holy site in Vilne, where, according to Christian tradition, the Blessed Mother revealed herself, and where everyone passing through the gate, even Jews, had to take of their hats if they did not want to risk getting beaten), I saw a Russian soldier lying there soaking in his blood with a bottle of vodka in his pocket. Many fell prey to the vodka.
A tough battle was waged over the Blokshiki prison, where we captured 63 SS men. The company commander, a Jewish man from Minsk, told me, Take them and finish them. It was at the height of battle. I did so; I put them up against the wall and finished them off with a large burst from the machine gun. That was a happy feeling I had not yet encountered. I waited my whole life to spill the blood of these prey animals and avenge the blood of my parents, my sister, and of all the shed Jewish blood. I was happy to fulfill the oath I swore to my mother as I held the gun when parting ways at the Lida ghetto.
After the conquest of Vilne, a formation was conducted at the Napoleon Yard and we were placed in various units. I was drafted as an accountant for the NKVD at Blokshiki Prison. I worked there for a year before making aliyah.
Visiting my Hometown Divenishok
I very much wanted to visit Divenishok, but I knew it was swarming with White Poles and thieves, so I approached my commander and told him. He took two NKVD squads and we drove to Divenishok in two trucks after spending the night with some Gentiles in Vilne. I was angered at the sight of the town in its abandonment. A fire burned in me when I witnessed the thieves and murderers walking around enjoying Jewish property. Hast thou killed and also taken possession? My heart screamed in pain. I walked around dazed. Where are my friends and family who filled the street with sound on holidays? Where is the lively and happy youth? All fell silent! Is this reality or a nightmare? Indeed, that was a reality as bitter as wormwood.
I met the infamous Gvidon on the street, he who had served as a policeman for the Germans. We took him with us and settled the score with him in the woods on the way to Vilne.
Activity in HaBricha
I then traveled to Poland from Vilne. I joined Haganah in Lodzh and was part of a special unit tasked with organizing Jewish exits to Italy. That organization was named PPS (initials for partisan, pioneer, soldier). We were sworn on the bible in a dark cellar near the Lodzh ghetto.
Our organization transferred Jews to Italy and from there they were transferred to Israel. We opened various paths of escape to Italy. We used various tactics for that purpose. In Krakow we gathered Greek passports and crossed the border to Hungary, claiming we were Greek POWs returning home from captivity. From Hungary we crossed the border to Austria through difficult paths in the mountains. The Jewish Brigade operated in Austria and they transported refugees to Israel. Meanwhile, the British detected the Brigade's activities and exiled them to the Benelux states.
HaBricha's efforts to bring Jews to Israel did not cease and we looked for new ways to transport Jews to Italy. I was sent in a group of 4 men to Yugoslavia to examine the option of transporting Jews to Italy through Trieste, but the border there was hermetically sealed.
Extermination of the Dachau Camp Commander's Son
One day, I was given an order to relocate to Villach, a large city near the Italian border at the foothills of the Alps. There was a large camp where refugees from multiple nations were living. One evening, I went out to the movies with three friends from HaBricha, including the brothers Pinto, and Shefern. We stood in line to buy tickets and rain started pouring down. In front of me stood a young blonde man, who started to curse in Polish. He seemed suspicious to me and I decided to figure him out. We started talking and he told me his father was the commander of the Dachau concentration camp and that he himself was uber murder fun kinder meaning he was headmurderer of children. Maybe you are joking, I told him. No! he swore and showed us photos of his horrifying acts. It boiled my blood and I decided to exterminate him at any cost.
After the film ended we invited him to a party with friends. We have quality whisky and pretty women. We will spend a nice evening together. We are Polish too, we collaborated with the Germans. We convinced him until he agreed to come with us. At camp, we gave him vodka and then killed him. We wrapped him in an army blanket and threw the package in the middle of the street. We phoned the English police and notified them that an army vehicle had dumped a package in the road and left. The Police came, took the package, and left.
After that act we quickly left and relocated to Italy. There we boarded the Aliyah Bet ship Enzo Serni with 915 immigrants on board including 350 partisans. The British army discovered us by plane near the shore of Beirut and an hour later a British destroyer appeared and wanted to tow us to an unknown location. A message was delivered from the boat announcing we would not agree to be towed until we were promised to be brought to the port of Haifa. When we reached the shores of Israel, leaders from the Yishuv, including Moshe Sharet, David HaCohen, and Golda Meir arrived on a motorboat. They requested we not resist the Brits since negotiations were taking place to release us using previously unused certificates from wartime. We were the first illegal olim, which was an advantage. We were taken to Atlit and I was released two weeks later. That was in January 1946.
Then a new period in my life began, a period of renewed fighting, first with Haganah and later IDF this time on our soil and for our People. That time was full of suspense and heroic acts that did not cloud the partisan period. But that is a separate ordeal and when the time comes will be written as a historic testimony for the generations to come.
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Updated 9 Aug 2018 by LA