[Page 225 Hebrew] [Page 450 Yiddish]
by Meir Yosef Itzkowitz
Translated by Rabbi Israel Rubin
My hometown Divenishok (Oszmiana District, Province of Vilna) was one of the cities on the way to VilnaMinsk. It was far from the railroad and highway, the approach was by dirt road and exclusively by wagon.
The Jewish residents had many great attributes: they kept the mitzvas, were hardworking and loved mankind, rose early to serve the Creator, and hurried to help those in need.
In this village and its surroundings Yakov Schneider grew up and was educated. He was the oldest son of the Schneider family, renowned and famous for their acts of kindness, charity, and concern for others.
Yakov received a national-traditional education. No wonder that as soon as he became aware of himself, he joined the ranks of Beitar where he found what he was looking for a place to express his inner feelings, dreams, and ideas. He dedicated [all] his spare time to Beitar and found satisfaction [spending] time in Beitar club with his friends. He teached Beitar ideology to his trainees and together with them hoped to fulfill the prophecy of reestablishing Malkhut Israel.
In a short period of time Yakov stood out among his friend and he was appointed commander of Beitar the last commander in our town before the rise of the butcher of the Jews of Eastern Europe.
I remember well the dream–laden youth who was the first commander of the Beitar group in our city, quiet but bursting [with energy], with a decisive character that would stand by him when the day would come.
The situation for the Jews of the city did not improve, and fell to the same circumstances as every Jewish city at the time of the RussianGerman war: persecution, pogroms, torture, humiliation, and murder. Those who remained after the great slaughtering that took place in May 1942 in our city, and those surrounding it, moved to the Lida ghetto.
In the ghetto barbershop run by Gordon (born in Vasilishok), the Young Chalutz group and the former JNF members would meet with the students of the Beitar movement, the Zionist Youth movement, the Shomer HaTza'ir movement, and others. At these meetings, they evaluated the situation, exchanged views, and collected experiences from the past, in order to draw inspiration, strength, and faith to continue on. They made one decision: To the forest!
One of the meetings left a deep impression on me and I remember it in great detail: There were stormy debates when we discussed the appropriate time to leave the ghetto. One of the participants did not voice his thoughts. He sat quietly engrossed in his thoughts. At the end of the session, I asked him Yanke'le (as he was nicknamed in the city) why are you so quiet? He answered me in Yiddish: You have spoken a lot, but have not taken any action. Then he was quiet. The next morning I was told that Yakov left the ghetto the previous night and went toward the forest.
Two days later, the news arrived that Yakov's arm was wounded by a domdom bullet in the Dovinski forest on the way to the partisans. He was then returned to the ghetto by a pointman. I visited him and stood by his bed where his mother was crying. He turned to me and said quietly, Commander, explain to my mother that Tromflador also lived with one arm and when needed he gathered up the strength to do wonders with just one arm. Those were the last words I heard from his mouth, while standing at his bedside in the Lida ghetto.
Under those conditions, it was impossible to obtain proper medical care in the ghetto. He was transferred to the city hospital, where they amputated his wounded arm. The news quickly spread to the German police that a wounded Jew was in the city hospital (!), and they did not hesitate to stop by. He was immediately taken to the local prison for interrogation. They wanted to know: how and where were you wounded? Who were the pointmen, and where were they located? Who were the heads of the partisans?
Yakov was covered in blood, without bandages on his wounds or medication. He withstood [their interrogation] with superhuman strength and refused to answer them. The questions were repeated again and again, the torture became more severe, the wounds became worse, and blood was flowing, but Yakov was silent. The police were prevented from executing their will, because Yakov was silent, silent forever.
We find a dedication to the Schneider family in the introduction to the book Oznayim LaTorah (Genesis) that was published by Rav Zalman ben BenTzion Sorotzkin, the Rabbi of Lutsk, in Jerusalem 1969:
I remember by Gd's grace, the holy BenTzion Schneider HYD, from the prominent members of Divenishok, a lover and friend of Torah and its learners, for the kindness he did for me during the Holocaust when he hid me, along with many rabbis in his house when we fled from the Communists when Poland was conquered by the Red Army. In his house, I found shelter and help to cross the border of Lite (Lithuania). Through him I merited, with the help of Gd to move to the holy land of Israel and be in the courtyard of Gd in Jerusalem.
Eventually, Rabbi Sorotzkin passed away, and the Schneider family were cruelly butchered by friendly neighbors during the Holocaust, with the exception of one son, Shmuel (the younger brother of Yakov), a student of Beitar, member of Atzel, [who was] exiled (by the British) to Kenya.
The name of Yakov HYD will shine forever among the names of the holy members of our nation and its heroes.
by Meir Yosef son of Natan Itskovitsh
Translated by Meir Bulman
I feel like I must return to the city of death to visit the absentees, memorialize the dead, stop by every Jewish home that is no more, stand by the souls of the martyrs, and recite a silent kaddish.
I want to stop by the ShulHoyf where two synagogues stood, the old and the new, and the Rabbi's house, the homeless shelter, and the Hebrew school. I see myself stationed in the abandoned yard, close my eyes, and imagine that the dear townspeople are gathering on holidays and festivals in the synagogues, cloaked in prayer shawls holding prayer books. We the children, wearing festive clothes, holding bags of fruit, running around as the polish (a room for resting and waiting between services) bustles, filled with congregants who desire a cigarette.
I hear the pleasant voice of R' Munye Herszon, Munye the Tailor, the wonderful cantor, as the congregation accompanies him by humming.
The clear echoing voice of R' Avraham Noakh the ritual slaughterer, standing at the podium and starting the recitation of I called upon the LORD in distress, and the weeping sounds heard from the women's section.
I open my eyes and find myself as one of few remaining survivors, spared death, who only 34 years ago was a member of a large and extended family.
Therefore, we must attempt to explain and answer the question plaguing every Jew who was not in the valley of death; How was an entire nation led as lambs to the slaughter?
Well, it must be said once and for all in a loud voice to our brethren, the People of Zion, and the Sons of Ishmael should hear and listen: our loved ones did not go as lambs to slaughter!
The heroic acts by individuals, uprisings in the ghettos and death camps, the thousands of Jewish partisans who served the resistance movement across occupied Europe, 1.5 million volunteers, soldiers and officers on all fronts serving the Allied Forces are the answer to the big and terrible lie!
Our nation had a significant role in ending the Third Reich.
We have sinned an unforgivable sin against ourselves by overemphasizing the events of the Holocaust over the bravery in WWII.
The period of a written and signed agreement between the two allies from the left and the right ended in 1941. The MolotovRibbentrop Pact, a signed contract, was trampled on by the steel chains of the German army which encroached on Russian soil.
German army forces entered our town through Vilne Street, the street which housed the synagogues, the Hebrew school, and the Rabbi's house. Two tanks infiltrated directly in front of the Old Synagogue while afternoon prayers were taking place. German soldiers entered the synagogue, took Torah scrolls out of the ark, and tossed them in a pile in the yard. The tanks then trampled them. After the ‘victory in battle,’ they left the ShulHoyf and went onward.
That was their first step the first action, as if taunting, Where is your God? in front of the town's pious and faithful elders, the Spiritual leaders of the local Jewish community.
Humiliation and Breaking the Spirit
They moved to the next level after desecrating holy artifacts.
One bright day, all Jewish men were gathered in the market square at the center of town and ordered to weed between the gaps in the sidewalk. That task, whose sole purpose was a debasement of the Jews, was performed by the town's notables, as they kneeled, surrounded by Gentiles raucously mocking them as they kicked the behind of a random Jew.
After the stage of disrespect and humiliation came the stage of fright and terror.
And So, It Began
For some reason, it is common among Jews to believe that all troubles and edicts happen specifically on Fridays.
I do not remember the exact date, but I will remember that damned Friday as long as I live.
It was a pleasant sunny day with blue skies, without even the lightest of clouds. Distant shadows were seen moving in a long line approaching from the woods on Vilne Street. It slowly became apparent that those were German soldiers riding bicycles approaching the town. They reached the market square and parked by the church fence. The head of the city council (wyat) was summoned quickly, and after a brief conversation the Christian collaborators present went door to door and announced that all men from 1460 must gather by the Church with hoes.
Confusion overtook the house. What to do? Present ourselves or not? I proposed that father not do so but hide in the attic, and my brother Eliezer and I went. When we arrived we found most local Jews there gripped with fear and pale as ghosts. Without saying a word the Germans stood us in two straight lines and the concert began.
An order given, drop! and immediately, rise! repeatedly. Gershon Shlovski, (nicknamed Gershon the Turk) was to my right. In one of the exercises, the German ordered us to kiss the ground. Gershon, the experienced soldier who remembered the JapaneseTurkish War asked me innocently, What is with them? Are they normal or have they gone crazy? Gershon did not imagine what those Germans would soon inflict on him. Exercises continued and intensified, to the amusement of local Gentiles, who observed like they were watching a circus act.
The breaking of our spirit and pride through our humiliation by the Gentiles began.
As we concluded the exercises, we were ordered to sprint towards the City Council (gmina) located a kilometer away. We were forbidden to look back and were told that anyone who disobeyed that order would get a bullet in his head.
We started running along the marketplace and Geranion Street, as joy and satisfactionfilled eyes observed us from the windows of the Gentiles' homes. While running, Yehezkel the butcher's (Chaikel Velvel Khaykl's) hat fell. Yehezkel, who was observant and would not run bareheaded, turned back and picked up his hat. Then he was dealt a blow from a German's gun handle. Remarkably, Yehezkel with his fragile weak body was not broken and continued running.
We reached the City Council building and were again placed in rows, faced by Council Chairman Kakraka, the German officer, and some German soldiers. The officer said, Yesterday, two German soldiers were killed as they passed through Dovinki Forest. They were killed by Soviet soldiers, remnants of the defeated army. We know the Jewish population is giving food, clothing, and hiding places to the retreating Soviets. We also know local Jews have weapons in their homes. You are required to hand over the weapons immediately, otherwise, we will execute every tenth Jew in each row.
He finished speaking and asked his men to pass by the rows and pick out every tenth man. Eliahu Blyakher suddenly left his spot and asked the councilman and the German officer to speak. Eliahu claimed the Jews have no weapons and that local Jewish residents were law and instruction abiding, and had been living here peacefully for decades while maintaining mutually respectful treatment of their Christian neighbors, which the local government officials could confirm.
I still do not know from where Eliahu had such courage to take that step and will not know if his honest words influenced the officer, or if it was part of the show the Germans had prepared for us.
After the desecration of national holy artifacts, breaking spirit, the accusations, threats, and frightening, began the period of planting delusions.
Those Lacking Identification Cards
Local Jews were issued ID cards (Avsweis Karte). There were refugees who came from near and far and with no possibility of proving their ties to the town and they were not issued cards.
One day an identification operation was declared for the local Jewish population with the explicit promise that its purpose was only to locate those without identification who were suspected as dangerous elements who might complicate matters and endanger local Jews.
13 people were captured and executed during that operation. Among them was an elderly Jewish man, Kalmen, son of Berl Kalman's, who had refused to obtain an ID card in the days of Tsar Nikolai and in the time of Pilsudski the Pole, and would say, Na, teshto, minia passport kali ya sam tot? (Why do I need a passport when I am here?). When the Germans entered he did not obtain a passport either. He was found without one, and as a dangerous element he was sentenced to death. He was shot by the German occupiers who ‘feared he might damage the Third Reich. ’
The Chronically Ill and the Disabled
As long as Germany is at war, it was repeatedly explained to us Jews, it is impossible that the German soldier is deprived in favor of the ill and the disabled who contribute nothing to society. The true purpose was to convince us all that only healthy workready Jews who could contribute to the war effort had a right to life.
On one winter day, German soldiers from Zunder Commando units passed from house to house, and all Jews found bedridden were shot where they lay.
That is how the eldest among our Zionists, Aryeh Leyb Rogol, was murdered in cold blood. He was the owner of a local pharmacy. He was an enthusiastic Zionist from a young age and a talented speaker. Even though in his later days was afflicted with partial paralysis, he was careful to uphold the National Convention on Tamuz 20th. Once his illness worsened, he remained bedridden unable to move or speak.
That same day, Frumeh from the Hekdesh was murdered. Frumeh (devout) knew much suffering and poverty. The Hekdesh was a small wooden structure whose walls were almost half sunken and sprouted mushrooms. It served as a shelter, a place where the impoverished who wandered from town to town could lodge free of charge. She was short statured, and due to her odd body structure was deemed by the representative of ‘the superior race’ as unable to contribute to society and sentenced to death.
In that operation they also murdered the town's water delivery man, Eliahu Portnoy (Elke the dumb) who was a deafmute from a young age and who made his living drawing water from the well and delivering buckets to homes. He was also an observant Godfearing Jew and would wear tefillin and pray enthusiastically.
A very elderly blind man staying with Yeshayhu Kaplan was also murdered.
Professionals and the Healthy
All professionals will work in their field and will contribute to the war effort. People with a healthy and strong body will do public work clearing rubble and do construction. Those were the slogans that gave hope to those imprisoned in the ghettos. After the desecration of national holy artifacts, the harming of human respect, and the suppression of spirit and thought, still a flicker of hope remained in their hearts.
But the Germans, who used volunteering collaborators, our neighbors and friends the Gentiles, to ease their own effort, had already planned the allencompassing destruction. The first stage in the destruction approached. On 5/11/1942, when the Jews in Voronova awoke at dawn to pray, they found themselves surrounded in all directions by German soldiers and local Gentile police officers. Nobody knew what it meant, but there was a bad feeling. I noticed that across the street in the house of the Stul family from Benakani were two soldiers from the military phone station in town. We recognized them; they were Austrian natives, and though they wore the German uniform, they were unusual. They associated with the Jews and were uninterested in politics. Through the window I saw they said something to the residents who responded by putting their hands together and pulling out hair.
A rumor quickly spread (tsum neyem plan [Tr. Note: The new plan]) that we were to be killed and a deep pit was being dug for that purpose at the edge of town towards the woods on the road to Lida.
I managed to sneak out of my house and reach a nearby house where my friend Edelshteyn lived. He was a brave and proud Jew. He had taken 8 bullets in his left hand when the Poles attacked his familyowned flour mill in 1922. Movement in his hand was limited since then.
He had a young, pretty wife, and an only son, a beautiful 1andahalfyearold who was born with an unstable spinal cord and a brain defect.
We deliberated our next action, and he proposed that at nightfall we and other friends escape through a gap in the siege. Edelshteyn said he had a weapon hidden near the flour mill (north of Benakani) and once we reached that spot we would decide our next steps.
Then arose the question of the baby. It was impossible to take him with us, but his mother did not want to leave him behind alive. The parents finally decided to poison the baby before they left.
At midnight I heard the bird whistle of Myshke the Grasshopper who whistled our familiar password. I arose from my bed and accidentally touched my brother Yehezkel. In that house we lay clustered together, my father and my two brothers, Eliezer and Yehezkel (may God avenge their blood!) When Yehezkel awoke he woke Father, and when I reached the door he stood there, leaned on the doorway, and said, You will not leave! I replied, Father, you should know that only death awaits us here! There is no way but to escape to the woods. In a dogeatdog world we need to become predatory animals! My father answered, Listen, son! I am your father and I raised you and educated you. I held food from myself just to teach you Torah and knowledge, and I will not allow you to disobey me! and then added, Know that there is a God above, there is still a vast free world, there is a humanity left. The world is not abandoned! You will not leave!
I stayed. Did I do the right thing? I leave the answer to those who ask, How did that happen? Is it possible?
The next day, all Jews were ordered to leave their homes and gather in the yard facing the church. Among those who went was my cousin Eliahu (Yitzach der Sheindel Makher's) from Bastuni, a simple Jew, pure of heart and Godfearing. He was a villager, lived among the Gentiles far from any Jewish area, alone with his wife. He was not familiar with politics, did not read the paper nor did he listen to the radio. He lived with his prayer books and Psalms. He was a tailor. He would travel on foot through nearby villages, get homemade fabric from the villagers, record their measurements, and return later and get paid. He was an honest man among honest men. When the order to gather arrived, he cloaked himself in his prayer shawl, put on his tefillin, and silently prayed and recited the Shehecheyanu and thanked God for the opportunity to fulfill the mitzva of Kiddush Hashem, for thy sake are we killed all the day long. He did not return.
As I walked to the concentration yard, I met my neighbor the miller and he approached me and offered me a hiding place. We quickly snuck between the houses and climbed to the attic in the house of the town's dental technician, Yitzach Katzenellenbogen. Inside he told me that when the time came had come for escape, he had approached his son, holding the poison, but his wife had caught his hand and stopped him. It spilled on the ground. They too had not escaped that night, but now we were determined to escape at any cost.
Through the cracks in the wooden wall we watched the death procession. Mothers held their babies, families held one another's hands, walking in a single line in one direction. Our Gentile neighbors stood on both sides of the road holding clubs and sticks and hit anyone who strayed aside. The procession continued, our acquaintances, relatives, neighbors, and friends passed. Suddenly, Edelshteyn the miller called out, Listen! If my wife and son have not yet passed and I see them walking, I will leave and join them. I could not bear to see them abandoned and being led to their deaths as I escape to save my own life!
Indeed, when he noticed his wife with the baby in her arms, he immediately jumped towards the exit and out of sight. He joined his loved ones knowing full well what they were walking towards.
Is that not a brave act? You answer the question if he acted correctly, gentlemen!
On 11/5/1942, two thirds of the Jewish community in Voronova was exterminated. After being deemed as supposedly desirable professionals, those who were not shot and killed were given an arrogant speech by Gauleiter Mindits (his trial took place a few years ago and was attended by witnesses from Israel who said he remained a Hitlerist as before.) He said, You hear the echoes of the gunshots carrying out the death sentences of your parents, brothers, and sisters, due to the guilt of World Jewry which has declared war on the Third Reich. You were left alive, for now, as collateral. If your brethren across the world continue their war against us, you will meet the same end. Mark my words!
I must mention two figures among my town peers whose bravery was later described to me by a Pole who was present at the time. Menke the butcher, Velvel Khaykl's son, was a tall and strong man whose strike of the hand was feared by the Gentiles. When he saw what was about to take place he attacked his murderers and struck them. He broke the head of an SS officer with a rock and wounded two Lithuanian soldiers taking part in the extermination. But his strength and courage could not withstand the bullets fired upon him and he fell. The second is Zalmen Shrira, who jumped out naked (clothes were removed before the killing), skipped over the dead and dying, running in a curved path to evade the murderers' bullets, and managed to escape out of reach of the bullets until he reached a grazing field. A shepherd then approached him and while speaking supposedly kind words called his friends who captured Zalmen and returned him to the killing fields.
The few who survived [and heard what] the Gauleiter said were again concentrated in the Lida Ghetto, and survivors from nearby towns were brought there as well, and the Ghetto was once again packed with Jews as if nothing had happened.
After the bloody events of May 1942, in which Jewish communities were destroyed consecutively, inhabitants of the Ghetto began sobering from their delusions, their eyes were opened, and a shift began towards reexamining the situation and seeking an exit.
We began gathering in the evenings to discuss the situation. The attendees were young members of Zionist youth groups from various backgrounds and differing opinions. In one of the meetings devoted to Hanukkah, we discussed the miraculous bravery of the Maccabees who battled as few against the many and were victorious. After that meeting, I and another friend left the Ghetto without parting ways with our families and joined area partisans. After conducting several sabotage missions, such as sawing telephone poles and derailing or bombing trains, I met a friend, currently with us in Israel, Yakov Strudvorski, and we decided to return to the Ghetto and extract Jews from there. We were not alone in that sacred mission of rescuing Jews from the ghetto. Eliahu Blyakher and Hirshke Novopolanski also did so.
I will mention Leybke Kaplan, Feigeleh Kaplan's brother, who went to the Ghetto and could not leave.
Meeting in the Ghetto with My Father and Brother
We reached the ghetto area at dusk. We hid among the tombstones in the Jewish cemetery and waited for nightfall. We intended to cross the tile fence surrounding the ghetto under cover of darkness. Unfortunately, it was a bright moonlit night which made infiltration difficult. We observed Polish patrol officers, the collaborators, patrolling the fence, and between rounds snuck in from our hiding spot. We searched for a moreorless secure hiding place since the ghetto residents feared to host partisans and we did not wish to put them in danger.
The ideal spot was found in the apartment of Yosl ‘the buttocks’ (der tukhest). Yosl, a Jew originally from Vilne, was a member of the underworld. The nickname ‘buttocks’ was given to him due to the rumor that when he would climb to a top floor for a ‘job’ he would slide down the drainpipe and land safely on his buttocks.
Yosl greeted us with open arms, set a plentiful table for us, and promised that as long as we were his guests, not a single hair on our heads would be harmed. Yosl also served as a contact person and deliveryman. Nobody suspected he had other intentions besides stealing. Yosl was sent to call my father.
Father was not happy to greet a guest like him. It was below his dignity (he maintained his selfworth even in the ghetto) and was not willing to walk through the streets of the ghetto with Yosl. Yosl arrived first, followed by Father.
The meeting was shocking. The room was stuffy with smoke and the scent of homemade liquor. The image of his youngest son was unveiled through the smoke, his hair mussed, two grenades strapped to his belt, and a cigarette in his mouth.
Father approached me in small steps, hesitated a bit, and hugged me, silently weeping, and said, Why did you return to hell? Why? Why did you not stay in the woods? I hoped God would save you there!
After he had calmed, I told Father I had come to rescue them from the ghetto and he responded, My son, you know your mother is ill and suffers pain in her feet and walks with difficulty. She is immobile and I will not leave her. My brother Eliezer (Leyzerke) asked many questions, How do you live in the forest? Where do you sleep? And where does one get clothes? Eliezer did his best to maintain an organized and pleasant appearance, and quality food; in short, he was the pampered member of the family. My proposition did not appeal to him and he claimed that relative to other ghettos life in the Lida Ghetto was decent so additional waiting was necessary.
My brother Yehezkel (Khaykl), the observant Yeshiva student, did not agree to abandon Mother and Father.
The question which haunts me and causes pangs of conscience is, Did I act correctly? Should I not have forced them, or at least one of them, with threats, as I had acted on others in the group we extracted? While holding a gun to Dr. Tenenbaum's head, a group of 29 people was extracted, including a young woman named Esther who later would become my wife. Only one from the group was killed, and the rest are alive, mostly living in Israel. They established families and their children served or are serving the homeland.
I do not know if my father should have left and abandoned mother to follow me. My brother Yehezkel was a Yeshiva student and ordained as a rabbi, Godfearing and observant, he was educated according to the Torah and the mitzvah Honor your father and your mother. Should he have abandoned his parents? I will never know which is braver: escaping death or going to one's death fully knowing and conscious.
Meeting with the Yudenrat
News of our presence in the ghetto reached the Yudenrat. Sure enough, one morning we suddenly heard a knock on the door. We did not open immediately. As the knocks intensified we heard Maness's voice (the administrator of the vegetable garden and fruit trees for the gvits commissar); he had blocked the door from the outside with his hands and body and declared he would not allow their entrance under any circumstances.
The argument intensified and turned into yelling and we feared the commotion would raise the attention and suspicion of Polish and German police officers so we decided to open the door.
Eisenshtat, head of the Yudenrat, entered. He was a shortstatured man from faraway Galicia; he approached us and said, We, the Jews who remained after the big massacre, have two paths. The one you have chosen, and may God help you. The other is to stay put, to obey, gain time and trust in God. We were promised that what has happened will not be repeated and that our labor is needed: if we follow orders we will not be further harmed. We were also told that for every Jew who leaves the ghetto, a hundred others will be executed. So, I ask you, please, leave as you came, alone, and do not bring tragedy. I will not turn you in to the Germans in the hope that you will do as I requested. He then left.
We left the ghetto that night, 20 men and women.
We did not see Eisenshtat, head of the Yudenrat, again. He perished along with the other Jews of the ghetto.
Our loved ones were under siege conditions in a foreign land, surrounded by haters and German collaborators. They faced a powerful enemy which planned the extermination calmly with perfect German precision, utilizing science and modern technology. The extermination was planned by scientific geniuses, psychologists, experts in breaking the human spirit.
They operated against a peaceful and silent nation, scattered among the nations, honest and innocent, faithful believers in God and humanity, left leaderless and without hope of assistance. The enlightened world ignored them and did not even protest the horrors.
We will remember the sacrifices made by our loved ones, which are unprecedented in human history, but we will also learn a lesson from their errors and failures.
To end my memories from the valley of death I wish to tell the story of a heroic fighter who resisted the Germans.
Sholom Graviye was not a local native, but a foreigner who married a Divenishok woman and established a family. In WWI, he volunteered in the Polish Liberation Army of Pilsudski (the Legionnaires) and enjoyed rights not usually afforded to Jews.
Sholom built his twostory house using postakess (bricks) at the center of the market place. He rented the top floor to the police, who used it to observe the town. The bottom story was his residence and a store selling sewing products and tobacco.
The Yiddish he spoke was very different from the one spoken in town. He regularly flipped punctuation marks and we often mocked him when we heard him speak.
Sholom also did not follow local customs, did not rise for the morning prayers, and attended synagogues only on HighHoly days. He did not fit in with the town Jews and was like a foreign implant. He befriended the Gentiles, whose language he knew well, and especially fraternized with his policeofficer neighbors from the top floor. Due to that friendship, rumors spread that caution with him was advisable. Nobody bothered to verify the rumors. We will never know if there was a shadow of truth to that gossip.
After the Germans invaded the town, the Christian population collaborated with them to humiliate local Jews. Sholom could not stomach his Polish acquaintances turning their backs on him, the same people for whom he had fought in the Polish Liberation Army, and it depressed his spirit. In a conversation I once had with him after [some] refugees from Soletchnik arrived in town (‘great and tiny Soletchnik’) and told of the massacre of the Jewish population, Sholom said, The Germans will not lead me to my death. I will not give them that pleasure. If I reach that state, as an experienced fighter and a proud Jew, I will end my own life!
After the massacre in Voronova (11/5/42) the lives of most of the Jews in our town and nearby towns were severed. Zunder Commando units and death squads from the Lithuanian army, accompanied by local Polish police officers, shot our loved ones next to a massive pit they had dug a few days prior. Local Gentiles dug the pit at the entrance to the forest on the road to Lida. Gauleiter Minditz gave his arrogant speech to the survivors who remained alive as we kneeled in the yard facing the church in Voronova and the gunfire echoed in the distance. That temporary remnant was then transported to the Lida Ghetto.
The Jews of the ghetto were given various tasks. Sholom worked at a gas station. One day a cigarette was thrown near the gas tank, the station burned, and Sholom disappeared. The German police arrived at the ghetto, searching for him and his family, which had gone into hiding after hearing of the fire. The policemen announced that if Sholom did not turn himself in by the next day they would execute one hundred Jews. The announcements reached Graviye and he asked the people to remain calm, promising to turn himself in.
The next morning, Sholom Graviye turned himself in at the gas station; the Germans found his body hanging atop the charred remains of the gas station. Sholom hung himself using his striped gown. He kept his promise.
Blessed be his memory!
by Pinkhas Lipkunski
Translated by Sara Mages
My father was called Nahum and he originated from the village of Dogalishok near Radin. My mother, Slova, from the Binyamin Schneider family, was devoted, and fearful of the fate of her children. She was tall, dark, beautiful - but a weak and sickly woman. Despite all that, she carried the burden of managing the home and the business.
My father was a baker and our bakery was adjacent to our house.
As a villager, my father had no formal education, but as a self-educated man he acquired a basic knowledge of mathematics and geometry. In his youth, he studied for a short time at the Radin Yeshiva, but in his view he was a secular man - and that, as a result of his service in the Russian Army.
His participation in the First World War, and later in the Bolshevik Revolution, deepened his atheistic world view. He took an active part in battle and was wounded by shrapnel in his hand and legs.
In his youth he served in the Far East, near Vladivostok. He always told in his fascinating stories about the wonders of the Taiga and of a tiger hunt in which he participated. He was courteous and friendly and participated in conversations about politics and world affairs.
He loved to play chess; so much so, that he left his work to sit and play. My mother would get angry and shout: Nahum! The bread is burning in the oven, why chess in the middle of work? And he, calmly: Soon Slova! Here- I'm almost done. Just one minute!
My sister, Hannah, was beautiful. She had long, blond hair and blue eyes. My brother, Binyamin, was a weak boy in his childhood and a poor student. However, at the age of Bar Mitzvah, it was discovered that he was a gifted child in all areas. He matured physically and played the violin and mandolin. He was a good boy and was accepted by his friends. His positive character was discovered in the Lida Ghetto: he left for work and managed to bring food, not only for our family, but also for all the tenants
My brother was very enthusiastic about the partisans and smuggled an Obrez (short-barreled rifle) to the ghetto. My father encouraged him to leave for the partisans, but my mother opposed it: It's forbidden to break up the family.
On the first day of the occupation, 22 June 1941, all the who's who of the town gathered to discuss the situation. There were fierce debates about the outcome of the war. All were optimistic and said that it's the end of Hitler.
On the second day of the war, in the evening, a unit of German Stormtroopers was already in the town. Five to six motorcyclists burst northwest of the town, from the direction of Divenishok, and then, for a week, troops of German soldiers moved eastward.
At the end of the summer of 1941, the Germans imposed a contribution on the town - to bring them gold. As collateral they arrested, Pina Kretschmer, the owner of the restaurant, my father and several other Jews. They returned them after they received the gold. My father's appearance was awful - weak, thin, stooped and completely broken from the torture at the prison in Oshmene.
In Vilne, which was under Lithuanian rule, the persecution of the Jews had already begun in the first days. Many Jews from the city and refugees from Poland sought refuge in nearby towns. A young man named Shalom arrived to our house and asked to reside with us. We welcomed him as a family member.
The town's priest, who visited us, saw the young man and asked who he was. We told him the matter, and on the spot he expressed his willingness to save his life under the condition that he would convert. After the war he would be able to return to the fold of Judaism. The young man agreed - and then he disappeared without a trace.
When we arrived to Israel and settled in Ramot Remez in Haifa, we became friendly with our neighbors who were former residents of Vilne. Once, on Rosh Hashanah, we found a Jew at their home whose leg was amputated after being wounded at the front. He recounted the whole story before me: The priest got him a job as a laborer in a farm near Divenishok. When the Russians arrived, he returned to Judaism and volunteered to the Red Army. He was wounded in action and his leg was amputated. He was among the ma'apilim [illegal immigrants] in Cyprus and now he lives in Ashdod.
Our situation in the Lida Ghetto was very bad. We were hungry for bread and became ill from lack of food. In my external appearance I didn't look like a Jew. From time to time I snuck through the fence to the market, bought potatoes, carrots and onions and brought them home. Once, we were caught by Christian teenagers who took our vegetables. They gave us a severe beating and put us in the Judenrat's cellar where we were held for a week. My mother came every day to the prison and cried for her son. My beloved, what will be your fate? The hunger at home was unbearable. My father brought soup (Balanda) when he returned from work to revive our souls.
My father worked in the road near the Gebietskommissar and became friendly with a Pole named, Mackevic, who supervised the Jewish slave laborers. My father became friendly with him. It turned out that Mackevic loved the Jews. I came to him from the Ghetto and he bought vegetables for me. This man saved me when I escaped from the Ghetto.
On September 1942, the Ghetto was surrounded by Gestapo sentinels. An order was issued for the Jews to gather in the streets. There, they were divided in groups of 100-150 people and led in differed directions. The gentiles stood in masses on both sides of the street and rejoiced. As fate would have it, our group was led between the tracks in the direction of a place called The Green Forest, where some of Lida's Jews had been slaughtered in 1942. When I realized this I told my parents: see where they're leading us - to a certain death. I'll try to escape.
My mother objected and said you're too young, you will get lost (I was only eleven then). My father, on the other hand, encouraged me and said: try my son, try! Since my mother held me tight, I bit her hand, and crept among the gentiles who stood crowded around us.
In the street I looked like one of the shkotzim and didn't draw attention to myself. I walked slowly, slowly until I arrived to our acquaintance, Mackevic, who lived on the other side of the city. They were frightened, but welcomed me, and were glad that I survived. They took me to the barn and hid me under piles of straw. I was there for three days.
The gentile's wife brought me food and drink on her way to milk the cows without saying a word for fear that the matter would be discovered. I lay in the straw and cried in secret: what would be my fate? Where are my parents and my sister, are they still alive? Will the farmer keep me, or betray me? These, and similar thoughts, pecked incessantly in my head. A lonely little boy is in a hostile environment - and the tears choked my throat. Suddenly, I remembered that I must not cry-- not allowed to say a word.
On the third day, at nightfall, the woman entered the barn and whispered that I would have to walk to a certain intersection in the forest where I'll meet two children. Join them, she told me, and they'll lead you to a safe place.
It turned out that they were a brother and sister, members of the Hochman family from Soletchnik. They had also been hidden by the same gentiles in a second barn. I joined them and we wandered in the forest until we reached a village where we saw figures walking around with rifles on their shoulders. I got closer to one of the figures and discovered, to my surprise, that it was Moshe Druck. He hugged me and took me to one of the buildings where I was given food and clothes. In this manner around one hundred people gathered in the village. A few days later they gathered us all and Yakov Druck, together with his friends, led us to Naliboki Puszcza.
After a journey of three days we reached the shore of the Berezina River, and there we met Russian partisans for the first time. They heard that Jews had arrived and searched for a doctor among them. By chance, there was a doctor from Baranovich in our group. On this occasion they took me and also two young men. In addition, they also took two young women from Lida, Tzila and Yehudit, apparently with the intention of exploiting them. However, the young women stood bravely and didn't give in to them. For this reason they were expelled and found refuge with Bielski's partisans.
The core of our group was organized in Moscow and consisted of 20 men
who underwent a long period of training for guerilla warfare. Among them there was a Jew, Yakov Smolowitzki, from Homl. When he learned that they had brought a Jewish boy, he protected me and took care of me like a father. Two days after I arrived to the group he returned from a mission and brought me a pair of appropriate boots, underwear, and fur. He made sure to equip me with a short-barrel shotgun. The commander was Major Ruscinsky.
Our camp was situated behind Berezina River, at the entrance to the Puszcza. We were surrounded by swamps and the only passage to the Puszcza was through the lake (The Black Lake). We guarded the bridge and our people constantly patrolled the lake by boats.
We had been entrusted to guard the entrance to the Puszcza. It was one of the most critical and dangerous tasks. For that reason our people were very alert to what was happening outside and followed the Germans' movements.
After I integrated a little into the place they started to use me for acts of espionage and scouting. Rumors reached the Otriad that a hunt was about to happen. Then, they decided to send me to Lida, to sniff and see if there was any military movement. Sometimes, I sat for hours across from the German Gendarmerie and followed what was happening there. Sometimes, I watched a military camp and in the evening went to an agreed location from which a runner took me to the base.
Once, I met Jews who had escaped from the Fort in Kovne and were headed to Bielski's camp.
From Divenishok's people I only met Meir Yosef Itskovitsh. It was about two months after I arrived to the partisans, when I was on guard duty at the lake. Suddenly, a group of partisans arrived and their scout, who was riding on a white horse, moved back and forth in search of a place to cross. I got closer to him and to my great surprise - I couldn't believe what I saw: before me was Meir Yosef Itskovitsh. The meeting was emotional. We hugged, kissed, shared about two good hours and parted.
During my time with the partisans I also got to experience a hunt. It was in late autumn of 1943. The Germans surrounded us with great forces and started to advance into the Puszcza. We were forced to escape to the boggy marshes, deep in the forest. For a weak we lay in the marshes, hung the rifles on the bushes and survived by eating Brosnitzes (sour-flavored red berries that grow in the forests of Poland in the autumn). We drank the water from the swamp, like frogs.
The German intelligence made great efforts to plant spies among the partisans. The commanders tried not to accept local people, but, in spite of it, more than once, spies
infiltrated our ranks. Some of them were exposed right before my eyes.
After the winter, they stopped my intelligence activities and attached me to the ranks of fighters. As a partisan I left for action together with all the members. I participated in several activities. I had great satisfaction in laying dynamite blocks under the train tracks and watch from afar how German soldiers and equipment rose in the air
In one of the actions we destroyed a train that transported officers to a holiday. We caught five German officers, took them to the base so they could see everything with their own eyes. We told them to dig pits and undress, the Germans kept family pictures in a small pouch on their neck. When they got undressed the pictures fell and scattered in all directions. That reminded me of the pictures that were scattered near the death pits around Poland. The Germans begged and asked for mercy - but they were eliminated on the spot.
With liberation our company entered the city of Ivia. The vast majority were taken into the army, including my benefactor, Yakov Smolowitzki, who fell in battle. Our commander was appointed mayor of the city of Lida. Moshe Druck and his family also lived in the city. I was
sent to a vocational school where all the miserable people gathered. There was a feeling of discomfort in the institution. The Christian boys sensed that I was a Jew and started to harass me. Then, I made up my mind to escape. When everyone was taken to the bath house I dodged and escaped to Druck. I stayed with them for several days and in the meantime we learned that an orphanage for Jewish children was being organized in Vilne. Druck and his wife, Feigale, traveled with me to Vilne and handed me over to the director of the orphanage.
A Jewish school was organized near the orphanage. Children who grew up in Christian homes, or were educated in monasteries, or stayed, like me, with the partisans, studied there. The school had a team of Jewish educators whose only aspiration was to bring us back to the bosom of our nation and our homeland
by Nili Itskovish
Translated by Sara Mages
From the day I was born I was given everything I asked for. But, I lacked two things, a grandfather and a grandmother-- that my parents couldn't give me.
When I was little I didn't understand how precious they would be, but as I grew older I began to long for them. I longed for the little house that was built in the format of the time and was furnished in the old style, a grandmother who would sit on a rocking chair and knit me a pink sweater, and a grandfather with a beard, that I could sit on his lap when I would come to visit him and hear stories about my father, how he lived and behaved in his childhood, and then, come home and tell my parents: you see, you always blame me, but grandfather told me that you, too, father, didn't sit idle, and the whole family will laugh with joy.
I missed the meal, in which the whole family would sit together and grandmother would serve antiquated but very tasty dishes. I wanted a grandfather who will come to our house with a bundle of gifts and repeat the question: So, Nillinka, what to bring you next time?
That is all I wanted, and if it had been given to me I would've been one of the happiest girls in the world, but, God disappointed me and I would never get it.
Since I couldn't change the reality, I wanted, at lease, to see their picture, a small picture that would show me images that I'm so eager to see. One clear day I turned to my father with a question: father, can you show me a picture of grandfather and grandmother? But my father's answer was like a thunder on a clear day. No, Nilli, to my great sorrow all of my parents' pictures were destroyed during the war, my brother also doesn't have a single picture. Imagine how great my disappointment, but suddenly I had a spark of hope: I would turn to my mother. And if you ask why I forgot to mention my mother's parents earlier, I will tell you, but I hope that you won't tell it to my mother. I liked my father's parents more from the stories he told me about them. But, it's possible, that if my mother sat and told me about her parents, their life, their house and their village, they would also attract my attention. Therefore, I turned to my mother, and as you may have imagined I received the same answer from her.
When I heard her answer I lay in bed and burst into tears.
And so, the days have passed. I was jealous at the children who had a grandfather and grandmother, and my desire to see their [my grandparents'] picture intensified.
One day, my father came home from work and announced: a memorial service will be held today for my townspeople, and if Nilli will behave nicely, I'll take her with me. You can imagine how I behaved on that day. I imagined that I would get to hear interesting stories and tales about the Diaspora.
In the evening, my father and I got dressed in festive clothes and traveled to the hall where the memorial service would take place. The hall was filled to capacity. People talked to each other and reminisced. I sat in the corner and waited for the opening of the ceremony. The ceremony began exactly at six. The first part, which was a Yizkor prayer, didn't interest me, but I was very impressed from the second part. Pictures from the old days were shown on a screen. I looked at the pictures with great pleasure and suddenly, one of the pictures showed a middle-aged couple standing on the steps of a house and the name: Nathan Itskovitsh the tailor and his wife was announced. My eyes lit up; I looked at the picture with great interest. I looked at their facial features, the hairstyle, the clothes, and tears of joy burst from my eyes.
I engraved their image well within my heart, and then I didn't continue to look at the pictures. All that evening I saw before me a beautiful grandfather with fair hair and a bald spot in the middle of the head, long pants with suspenders, and a grandmother in a black dress. A black scarf was wrapped around her head and every crease and wrinkle in her face, which looked out of the scarf, was portrayed before me. I also managed to see the house,
the pretty garden, the stairs leading to a wooden door, and the sign on which a pair of scissors was painted - a symbol for a tailor.
There was no end to my happiness. The next day, I told all my girlfriends about my beloved grandfather and grandmother. Indeed, I got to see the picture of the people that I loved with my own eyes.
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