by Sarah Nashmit (Kibbutz Lochem Hagetaot)
Translated by Janie Respitz
At the end of October 1941 I arrived in Lida.
Jewish homes were filled with refugees, living in constant fear, especially the new arrivals. The city was heavily guarded and the roads blocked by the gendarmes.
I arrived in Lida with a brigade of Jewish workers who were working on the highway.
I went into a Jewish house. There were seven in the family plus five refugees.
Going to Zhetl
One cannot sit in Lida. My hosts tremble from fear. They warn me, every stranger that presents himself is shot. Not presenting oneself is worse. Every few days they inspect the Jewish houses. If they find someone who is not registered they take him away with his hosts.
Where does one go?
Go to Zhetl they tell me, It's calm there. But how do you get out of Lida?
All the roads that leave town are guarded by the gendarmes. Anyone caught without a permit is shot.
They point out a wagon driver to me who takes people from Lida to Zhetl for money. He has already transported about a dozen men. He had a permit and was allowed to travel. Jews are running from Lida to Zhetl…
I found the wagon driver.
It will cost you 500 gildn.
Complaining did not help. This Jew did not want to hear it.
Five hundred, not one groshn less. I have only my body and a short coat.
Go to the marketplace and sell your coat, he advises me.
No choice. It is worth it in order to go to Zhetl. I quickly found a customer for my coat but they offered only 150 zlotys.
I decided to try my luck and walk to Zhetl. The wagon driver took a wealthy man from town and his family in his wagon. Approximately 8 people. He receives ten gold rubles and departs. I take a farmer's basket in my hand, tie a white kerchief on my head and walk barefoot along the highway. After walking 500 metres I see from a distance, the gendarmes stopped a wagon on the road. I get off the highway and crawl through the field, pick grass and put it in my basket…
On the third day I arrive in Zhetl, enter the Judenrat and collapse from exhaustion. There I heard they had stopped the wagon driver and his passengers from Lida. A few days later they were shot. They arranged for you to stay at Fayeh the seamstress' they told me, after the doctor took care of my swollen feet and drained the pus from my wounds. You will lie there for a while. Fayeh, here is your tenant.
A short middle aged woman approached me. She greeted me with a shy smile. Seeing my bandaged feet she offered me her arm.
I went in after her to a low little house, with an even lower roof. Lime falls off the whitewashed wall onto the wide wooden bed, the table and two long benches.
My hostess does not ask me. She prepares the big bed and lays me down on high folded pillows. I know this is her bed, but my protests don't do any good.
I lay there for ten days unable to stand on my feet. This quiet seamstress Fayeh cared for me like she was my own sister.
Years have passed and one forgets many meetings and personalities who we met during these sad days of wandering and fighting for our lives…but always, when I return to those years, the two mild eyes and the subtle smile of the lonely Fayeh shine from the past. I will always remember her hands and her soft footsteps, her motherly worry with which she cared for a complete stranger, a refugee, who she met for the first time in her life, the sensitive heart warming way she shared her food.
Fayeh the seamstress was not the only one in Zhetl during these bitter times to bring the homeless into their homes. It was not for nothing that thousands of refugees remained hidden in small Zhetl, among them Jews from Vilna and Congress Poland.
A Quiet Island in a Stormy Sea
The fields of Zhetl stick out under a thin layer of snow, the farmer's warehouses and houses are full. In the wooden houses in the villages around Zhetl and in the small house of Zhetl's gentiles, where the homeowner lives in one half of the house and his cow in the other, they now had previously unknown housewares: the beds were covered with white shining bed sheets and blankets, and in the corner of the pillow, blushing like a drop of blood, an embroidered Yiddish monogram!…they sleep better on white shiny Jewish pillows and under a Jewish blankets.
On Sundays, gentile women and girls would go to church wrapped in the coats of Jewish daughters. When they celebrated a wedding they set the table with Jewish silver, and stuck kosher forks and knives into pork while piously saying:
I did not steal this like the others. I gave my neighbour Yenkele a piece of bread and a dozen eggs for this…
Meanwhile in Zhetl there were three Germans who bossed around the local White Russian police. Our former neighbours, good brothers, were now holding Jewish lives in their dirty fists.
But for now, the authority in Zhetl was good. There had not been a slaughter in Zhetl. There is an agreement with the authorities. Here a gold watch, there a diamond ring, and Jews remain alive. So called living! But in such times a moment of respite is also good.
Zhetl now has the reputation of being a quiet island in a stormy sea.
Zhetl also has a ghetto. Jews are forbidden to appear on Christian streets. They are starting to build the fence, partly from wire, partly from wood. You could still get through, you can still come and go.
Zhetl also had a Judenrat: honourable, well established men from town. The chairman was the old man Kustin, his deputy, the lawyer Alter Dvoretzky. He was the real boss. His words and opinion were respected in the ghetto.
The Judenrat in Zhetl carried a heavy burden. The town was filled with Jewish refugees. One third of the residents in the ghetto were refugees. Where do you find dwellings for them? How do we provide wood and bread?
The rooms of the Judenrat were always filled with people. They are looking for work, and not just any work but work that can provide a piece of bread for their wives and children.
Others began to do business with the surrounding gentiles, failed, and had to be pulled out of their hardship…
But the biggest problem was housing. How do you put a roof over the heads of so many roofless? And where do we find wood to warm frozen limbs?
The Epshteyn Family
At the Judenrat there was an active aid committee. The driving force was Dvoyre Epshteyn. Where does this thin black haired woman find so much physical strength? Her face, pale, her cheeks sunken, but her clever eyes look out with an inner fire.
Her house too was swarming with family and strangers. It was always full. As soon as one left, another came in. She and her husband, Khaim Meir Epshteyn, leave their door open. All day they run around trying to earn a living. Not for themselves, but for others. In the evening friends and strangers gather, sit around a kerosene lamp, discuss the latest news and secretly read a German or White Russian newspaper, which a former neighbour, a farmer, a good man, brought them.
The Germans boast they have captured another city. There are pitiful remnants from the Red Army. In only a few more weeks they will hang the Swastika over the Kremlin in Moscow…
The mood is heavy.
This is what they want…it will never happen!… maybe they suffered another defeat and want to conceal it with their boasting. What do you think Dvoyre?
Dvoyre smiles, half seriously, have mockingly,
They say Minsk was bombed by Soviet airplanes.
How I would love to kiss the wheels of Soviet tanks said Khaim Meir Epshteyn sadly.
At the Rabbi's House
December 1941. The streets sink into the wet snow which becomes mud. The feet of Zhetl's refugees sink into it.
There are new Jewish mass graves in the surrounding towns. New refugees are running away from fire and the knife, wandering into the rooms of the Judenrat, filling the sad apartment with the rotted floors of the rabbi. I also go there: I want to hear what's doing…
When I arrived there one evening
to meet the rabbi's daughter, my childhood friend, I found a large crowd. More than usual. In the entrance women were standing with tearful eyes and sadly swaying. In the dining room, elderly Jews were wrapped in prayer shawls and were praying out loud. Among them was a midsized young man with a light little beard.
Who is that? I asked, pointing to the young man.
That is Dr. Atlas from Kazlaishchine. His family was killed. He came here to say the mourner's prayer.
Looking at the young man who was enveloped in sorrow, no one imagined he would become a heroic Jewish partisan.
I heard the Judenrat is choosing people to go to the Dvoretz Camp. What do you have to say about it? I asked.
We advise you to go there. They will in any event send all the refugees to Dvoretz. In Dvoretz you will be safe.
There was chaos among the refugees and the poor: the Judenrat wanted to get rid of them. Zhetl received an order to deliver 400 people to the camp.
You understand who they will send? The refugees and the labourers. The wealthy will not budge from here!
People were embittered and walked around grumbling…
That's when we heard the word for the first time: forest. It would be better for us to leave for the forest…
I no longer remember who thought up this slogan, and if it had real meaning. Here and there we heard rumours of individuals and even whole families who were in the forests. Who?…What?….It was very difficult then to find order. Everything was foggy, secretive and absurd…
Dvoyreke is distressed and worried. Each time she has to care for another.
The matter of Dvoretz was unclear. We don't know anything about it…it is hard to learn the truth from the Germans…
Who are they sending to Dvoretz?
Dvoyreke, what do you have to say about it?
I don't know
Zhetl is now suffocating…they have sealed off the ghetto…Dvoretz is near the forest…
Goodbye Fayeh, goodbye Dvoreke, goodbye Khaim Meir. Let us meet again in happier times. Thanks for everything.
by Sarah Nashmith
Translated by Judy Montel
Dozens of refugees are in the building of the Jewish Council [Judenrat] in Zhetl and in the home of the local rabbi. I went there as well to hear the news.
In the entryway at the rabbi's house, I found women shaking and crying. In the dining room a minyan [quorum required for prayer] of Jews, wrapped in prayer shawls and praying out loud. Among them a young man, of medium height with a short beard.
Who is that? I asked Dr. Atlas, from Kozlovshchyna. His family was murdered and he came to say Kaddish.
I looked at the young man who was wrapped in his grief and didn't imagine to myself that he would soon become famous as a peerless fighter and a hero of the partisans.
I heard that the Judenrat is registering people for a camp in Dvoretz. What do you think? I asked.
We advise you to register. In any case they will send all the refugees to Dvoretz. The situation in Zhetl is getting worse and worse. In Dvoretz it is safer.
An alarm spread among the refugees in Zhetl. The Judenrat wants to get rid of them.
Of course, who will they send to Dvoretz, the poor refugees. Those from Zhetl, the children of the wealthy families, won't move from their places.
The refugees walk around embittered and grumbling. And then for the first time the word is blurted out: to the forest!
Who started this word - I don't remember. There were rumors about families who had gone to the forest. Who? Where? It's hard to figure out. Everything was hazy and mysterious.
Dvora is sad. Every day she worries about someone else. Now she explains to me: The Dvoretz matter is obscure. It's hard to know what it smells like. You can't figure out the Germans.
The atmosphere in Zhetl is stifling. They are fencing in the gate to the ghetto and Dvoretz is close to the forest.
See you later, Faya, goodbye Dvora and Chaim Meir, thank you for everything. I hope we meet!
by Basieh Rabinovitch Yashir (Tel Aviv)
Translated by Janie Respitz
Worried Jews meet in the ghetto and everyone asks the same question:
The events of the past few days have brought about more fear. A few boys, together with the lawyer Alter Dvoretzky escaped from the ghetto. The Judenrat is ordered to betray the escapees and the Christian population is called upon to help find these Jewish criminals, but without results.
Later, notices were hung up on the streets in German and White Russian offering a large amount of money for Alter Dvoretzy's head.
Members of the escapee's immediate families were arrested. The murderous Hitlerites tried through torture and beatings to learn more, but without success. They held those arrested over night, then sent them back to the ghetto.
On April 29th 1942 a representative from the regional commissar and gendarmerie came to the Judenrat. They carried out an indepth investigation and arrested all the members of the Judenrat.
Evening. It's getting dark. You see fewer people in the streets of the ghetto. Everyone is hurrying home since it is forbidden to be out in the evening.
Suddenly we hear shooting. Everyone ran where their eyes led them. I fell into the house of Moishe Beres. Soon we heard movement in the ghetto. The streets were filled with Germans and White Russian militia. Jews crawled into hiding places which were prepared in almost every house. The inhabitants of this house took me into their hole.
We sit crowded and afraid. We could hear the bestial shouts of the Hitlerites and their collaborators. A little later we hear steps. They are coming closer. They are already in the house, they turn everything upside down. They take everything their hearts desire. But the main thing, they are looking for Jews. We feel their steps over our heads. A little longer and they'll find our hiding place. A few present in the hiding place begin to recite a confession of sin, traditionally said before dying. Family members say their goodbyes.
I sit as if frozen. My thoughts are with my family. Where are my parents, sisters, brothers in law? We had been together the whole time. We had decided that whatever happens, we will remain together. And suddenly, such a tragedy!
The murderers did not find us. We hear them leave the house. A half hour later all is quiet. One of us moves out about a metre and tells us all is calm, but we still hear people crying. From time to time we hear shooting.
Time is dragging. Every minute, an eternity. Finally the day breaks. I decide to go home.
The inhabitants of the house try to convince me not to go. They say I will not accomplish or change anything. When they don't succeed to convince me they tell me they categorically will not allow me to go as I will put everyone's life in danger.
Of course I had no choice but to remain.
It was day time. All around you could see frightened Jews. I ran with them.
At home I found my sister Soreh and her husband. I learned from them that they and my parents were dragged by the murderers to the old cemetery. There they were divided into two groups. One group was sent home and the other group was taken away and no one knew where.
Our sister Leah did not manage to return home. When the shooting began she was near Avrom Moishe Kravetz's house and was saved there but unfortunately not for long. She was killed in a later slaughter.
The 1000 Jews they took out of the ghetto were brought to Kurfish forest where there were prepared graves. These unfortunate people were forced to undress and were then thrown alive into the graves.
My father sat and recited the confessional prayer. My mother could not stop looking around and said to those around her:
I am happy I don't see my children here.
Khasie Ganzovitch hugged her ten year old son and comforting him said:
Don't be afraid Feyvele, it doesn't hurt!
These were the last regards we received from a few Jews who succeeded in escaping the murderer's bullets.
by Kahim Veynshteyn (Ramat Gan)
Translated by Janie Respitz
Thursday April 30th 1942. I will remember this terrifying day forever!
At dawn, as I was sleeping sweetly when my father woke me up:
Khaimke, wake up, quickly, the Germans have surrounded the Ghetto.
Maybe it's a dream, I thought and tried to go back to sleep. The panic in the house got me out of bed.
A slaughter, a slaughter! were the words people were saying to each other.
I quickly got dressed. My skin is trembling. We hear shooting in the street. People are running like poisoned mice from one side of the ghetto to another.
Elye Faytches from the Judenrat passes our house and says that those who yesterday received an order to work at Novoleniye should report to the Judenrat immediately. We calmed down a bit.
If they are asking people to go to work it appears nothing will happen comforted my father.
My father was among those that had to report for work. He said goodbye to us, took his parcel of food and left.
A short time later we heard screams. I ran out to see what happened. The German police are demanding we gather in the old cemetery.
Without giving it too much thought, I go with the others to the old cemetery. A terrifying scene unfolds before my eyes when I arrive. A mass of Jews are standing surrounded by German police. They divide us into two groups. One group to the left, the other to the right.
How useful would a twelve year old boy like me be? They send me to the left. Suddenly I hear someone shout: Khaimke, Khaimke!
I see my father. He is among those sent to the left.
Why did you come here? Where is mother and Khanele. Motele and Shayndele? Why didn't you hide with them? Oy, why did you come here? he repeated in despair.
Papinke I said, it's too late. What can I do? This is my fate.
After sorting, the Germans began to push more than 1000 Jews to the graves which they had prepared in advance. They beat people with butts of guns and whips. They drove us like sheep. I held my father's hand.
Papinke, I will always remember your final road. We betrayed You and robbed You were his last words.
Now we are walking through the marketplace. The church bells are not ringing, the sky is blue, and the sun is shining as always, as if nothing happened. Each one of us knows this is the final road.
We walk down Novoredker Street. Here is our house. This is where I was raised.
This is the last time I'm seeing you, my dear home. You are standing empty with open doors and windows and mourn this horrible sadness.
We come to the road that leads to Kurfish. There is a small forest nearby. The bandits stop us. They stand around us with machine guns and rifles.
I look at the beautiful nature. Precisely now, in spite of everything, the day is so beautiful. The sun is shining with all its magnificence on this spring day.
The murderers take ten people to the grave. When they finished with the ten they came to get more victims. I say goodbye to my father and slide to the very end. I cannot believe that soon I will not be alive.
It can't be! I thought.
They are taking my father. I slide to the very end. I want to live a few more minutes.
Suddenly a taxi arrives. It is the regional commissar Taub, may his name be blotted out. He gave an order that all Jews that have a certificate saying they are useful should be freed with their families.
I see Nakhman the blacksmith from Ruda. I ran to him and asked if he could say I am his son. He agrees. He takes out his certificate and goes with his family and me to the murderers and shows them he is useful. They free us.
A few Jews returned that day from death. Returning to the ghetto I found my mother, sisters and brother. They hid in the cellar and came out after the slaughter. I cannot describe this meeting. I returned from the afterlife, but father did not return.
The next day I went to recite Kaddish, the mourner's prayer…
by Yitzkhak Rubinshteyn (New York)
Translated by Janie Respitz
On the 30th of April, 1942, at three o'clock in the morning the ghetto was surrounded by White Russian police and a small group of Germans. Learning about this, everyone ran to find a hiding place, some to previously prepared places while others went wherever they could. People crawled into dark holes and pits wanting to avoid this bitter fate.
Around nine o'clock the Jewish militia announced in the streets that everyone should come out of hiding, everything will be OK, they were just checking passes. Their gathering point was the old Jewish cemetery.
I went with my family to the cemetery. There were dozens of Jews there with pale faces and pounding hearts.
Suddenly we were surrounded by armed White Russian, Lithuanian and German police. We realized we had been fooled and this was not a pass control but a slaughter.
The cries and screams of those gathered reached the heavens. The segregation began: who will live and who will die?
Finally they began to push us through the synagogue yard to waiting trucks, promising us they were taking us to work in Novolunie. However, nobody went into the trucks as they smelled of the blood they had absorbed.
Beside me, among the White Russian police was a Christian acquaintance of mine who was now wearing the uniform of a German soldier. I knew him well. He would often come into my store and I would often sell to him on credit believing he was an honest decent man. Now he was one of those leading us to the slaughter. I asked him if he would at least take my little daughter Leah, so at least she could remain alive. With the voice of a wild raging animal he responded:
We walked through the marketplace and Novoredker Street as sheep going to the slaughter, biting our lips with hearts of stone, not allowing a tear to fall.
Dear God, what did we do to deserve to walk our last road on such a beautiful spring day, when everything around us is blooming? Why do our innocent children deserve to be killed in their blossoming years?
Our Christian friendly neighbours stood on the streets and watched our death march.
Suddenly we heard a shot. The entire crowd stood still. People are whispering to each other that Dovid Alpert's son Gedalyie ran away from the line to a field near Tcherne's mill. They chased him and shot him.
They brought us to a small forest on the Lida highway. They ordered us to sit in a row and not to budge. Beside me was Hinde Barishansky with her little one and a half year old daughter. The little girl was wearing a pretty holiday dress. Her mother gave her a piece of bread and straightened the ribbon on her head.
An S.S man with a rubber stick came to us. He counted 10 people and hit all ten on the head. All ten were taken deeper into the forest where they were shot.
They came to my row. I was among the last twenty. My motherinlaw, father in law and little daughter were with me. We were lucky. They sent us to the right side of the field where there were a hundred people, a few pulled out from every group of ten.
My wife remained with the last group of ten. Seeing from a distance they were taking people to their death I ran to the German officer and begged him to leave her. At that moment the German murderer had a moment of compassion and pulled her from those sentenced to death.
We quickly ran to the group that remained alive.
We heard bullets hailing down behind us. Soon the terrifying screams were silenced.
They brought us back to the ghetto. The houses were half empty. One thousand of our brothers and sisters met a horrible death that black morning. Those who survived were broken and depressed missing those near and dear.
by Lize Kaplinsky (Tel Aviv)
Translated by Janie Respitz
On April 30th 1942 the Germans ordered all the Jews of Zhetl to gather at the old cemetery. They said they wanted to check passes.
My husband, Shaul Kaplinsky had already been arrested. My son Rafael was shot in the operation against the 120. I was very despondent.
At first I did not know what to do. Should I go to the cemetery or not? Perhaps I should hide? No, too scared. I decided to go.
I was already at the Talmud Torah. I stand among all those gathered and see, this is the devil's game. I want to go back, but it is too late. I am surrounded by militia, I am lost.
The Germans divide us left and right. I stand in the row on the left. This means: Death. I take out my hospital pass and go to the executioner Hick. I show him my pass and he answers me abruptly:
To Novolunie, to peel potatoes.
There is a commotion and noise. They are shooting. Isar Gertzovsky's son and a few other Jews were shot on the spot. Those on the left were guarded and we were led through the marketplace to Novoredker Street.
We could barely drag our feet, but the White Russian policeman is angry:
Walk faster, do you think you are going to Palestine?!
We arrive in Kurfish forest, near the graves. We sit on one side of the highway, the executioners are on the other side.
We sit like stones in silence. We cannot say a word. My sister in law, Shayne Khane Zelikovitch and my cousins Itke Rabinovitch and Bayle Bom hug me crying, but without words.
The executioner Hick hits everyone on the head with his rubber whip. He hit me with the tip in my eye. I feel my eyes and my face are swollen.
The militia lines us up in rows of 30 and leads us to the graves. I was the last one in the row. At first I wanted them to shoot me as soon as possible, but then an unknown power pushed me back. Utilizing the moment I walked back about twenty metres to those still alive. Someone said to me:
Mrs. Kaplinsky, the director of the general staff asked for you. Without thinking long, I crossed the highway and went to the director. I said to him:
I am Mrs. Kaplinsky. He looked at a piece of paper and said:
Yes, OK. Go Across. Later I learned this was a mistake. The director of the general staff was looking for Hirshl Kaplinsky's wife who was hiding in a cellar. But thanks to this I was saved from hell.
When the executioner Hick saw this operation was happening without resistance, he got into a taxi and left to go eat lunch. It was noon. The local authority took advantage of this situation and freed 30 Jews, including the dentist Aliyeh Kuperman, her family, Dr. Levkovitch and about ten craftsmen.
I sat with this freed group. Dr. Levkovitch came to me and wrapped my eye with a handkerchief. I sobbed.
A German heard and ran to me screaming:
Stay calm. The freed Jews beg me:
Stop, calm yourself! It was hard for me to calm myself after this experience.
When I returned to the ghetto I thought: I could take revenge on Adolph Hitler, who buried our people alive.
by Mashe Rozvosky Shvartzman (Petach Tikva)
Translated by Janie Respitz
The 29th of April 1942. I stand by the gate of the ghetto and look out through the slats at the gendarmerie which officiated across from us in Avrom Slonimsky's brick house. I see dozens of police doing gymnastics and are learning how to walk in line, but I don't understand why they are doing this so late at night. And why so many police? I have never seen so many. With a trembling heart, I left to go to sleep.
A sad morning woke me up. I ran through the garden to my aunt Itke Bayle to tell them what I had seen the day before. I go out to the street and hear the Jewish police:
All Jews must go to the old cemetery for pass inspection. I return home and say:
Come, we must hide, they want to deceive us and annihilate us.
Everyone from our house went into the stall where we had our hiding place. We sat pressed together hardly able to catch our breath. We could hear shooting and our hearts are pounding like hammers. We hear a shot! A Bang! Someone is crying, another shot! Someone screams, moans.
What is happening? Are they slaughtering Jews?
No one says a word. Minutes feel like hours. Suddenly we hear footsteps. Our hearts stop from fear. They search for us in the yard, in the house and in the stall. At that moment I felt our lives were hanging on by a hair.
But they did not search the stall for long, they left to continue to carry out their murderous task. After ten hours of gunfire all was quiet. We no longer hear crying, we no longer hear screams. But there, in the Kurfish forest, as I later learned, they cried, this is where hundreds of Jews ended their lives.
We sit with grieving hearts and wait, maybe someone will show up? Yes, someone is coming! We hear a quiet voice:
Auntie! Come out. It's over.
This was my cousin Mikhl Gankovsky. My mother's heart immediately felt the tragedy as she asked:
I don't know he responded sadly.
By his answer we understood my brother was no longer among the living.
I ran into my Aunt Itke Bayle's and asked: What's with Shikeh? They don't know.
Come with me to his house I asked them, but nobody wanted to come.
I ran alone. My feet are breaking under me. Night is falling. It's getting dark. Cries emerge from the ghetto houses. I arrived at my brother's house. I hear crying from each room. I go into my brother's room. I look around. Sadness is hanging on the walls. My brother was not there. My sisterinlaw was not there, nor the children. I fall onto the bed and start wailing.
My dear brother and sister! Those dear children! Why were you taken from this world so young? Why, for what sin?
I did not stay there very long. A dreadful fear came over me. I ran home. I go into my aunt Itke Bayle's and what do I see? They are praying the evening prayers, and my father is reciting the mourner's prayer and crying after his son.
This is the first time in my life I hear my father cry.
My mother cannot be calmed. She bangs her head on the wall screaming and crying.
My dear children, where did you go? Just yesterday I saw you, just yesterday we were together, and today you are gone.
I cannot describe my mother's sleepless nights. Her pain only grew. My imagination creates horrible scenes. I see how my brother stands with a child in his hands, my sisterinlaw is also holding a child and they look at each other with pale faces and do not say a word. These were screams without words, cries without tears.
And their children? I see before my eyes my brother's children, Yosefke and Khayele with their beautiful black eyes. I cannot forget them.
Twelve years ago my brother Shike and his family's young lives ended.
These twelve years have not distanced us from them. My eyes tear and my heart aches when I think of them.
Four months later the rest of my family was killed.
by Khane Mayevsky Klar (Holon)
Translated by Janie Respitz
My father Yisroel Asher Mayevsky was killed on July 23rd, 1941. Right after the German's occupied Zhetl, he simply lost his equilibrium, as if he had a premonition of the approaching end. He was taken with the first 120 to work, but in fact, they killed them near the Novogrudok prison.
Our family remained without a head, a body without a head. My mother was depressed and broken. She had always been affable and good natured but now she walked around quiet, silent as a shadow. Only her eyes spoke.
We, the children, saw what was happening in the ghetto, one edict after another, and no one knew what the next day would bring. We walked around locked up in ourselves trying to find a way to save our broken family.
We survived the first slaughter in the potato cellar of Tchirl Skrabun, where we were living then. Due to our initiative they built a primitive cellar: a hole in the vestibule covered on top with wood. The entrance was through a small kitchen cupboard. Thanks to us, the family of Muliye Shimanovitch from Bielitze that lived with us in the ghetto was saved.
After the first slaughter the size of the ghetto was decreased and our house was no longer within the ghetto.
Bad luck decreed that we move into the house of the Pilnik family across from Hirshl Busel.
Me, my mother, my sister Pesieh, my brother Khonyele and my little sister Hindele were given a small, enclosed corner. Besides us, living in that house were: Simkhe Robetz with his children (his wife was killed in the first slaughter), and two families from Lida. (Pilnik's family was killed in the first slaughter).
Realizing the only recourse was hiding and not passes we asked if we could build a cellar. No one wanted to listen to us. They said it was impossible. Later it turned out, everyone hid in the Tarbut School which was a good cellar.
Not seeing any other recourse we decided: I will stay with Yehoshua Levorontchik, my boyfriend and best friend. I was always in love with him and given that they were making a cellar, I will, in the event of a slaughter, bring my mother and the children and we will hide all together.
Another possibility was at Hirshl Patzovsky's. They also made a cellar and their house was closer to us.
However it happened, as usual in such circumstances, things do not go according to plan.
The tragic Thursday night (6.8.42) I awoke from a difficult night of bad dreams. I found the household awake. The following cruel news rang in my ears like thunder: The ghetto is surrounded. No commentary is necessary. This meant: A slaughter. There was an immediate stampede, a commotion.
Without stopping to think, I ran out the back door in order to bring my mother and the children. I soon heard shots, screams, desperate spasms, and more shooting…I didn't believe I would make it to my dearest and I returned to the house.
I did not find Yehoshua and Henekh. In the interim, they ran away. Their father Binyomin, their mother Dvoshe, their sister Frume, and the other members of the household were standing in the middle of the room confused. I tell them we should go immediately to the cellar, because soon it will be too late. The house was at the edge of the ghetto and will be the first to be fired upon. They hesitate. A while later we went into the cellar without food or water.
This was a hole covered with wood and on top, a flower bed. The entrance was a shed, closed with a small door masked with garbage. Air came in through a concrete pipe that stood at the edge of the cellar.
Days and Nights of Suffering
Besides me and the ones already mentioned, Avrom Lusky, his wife Babl, their son Itche, Babl's mother Krayne Khaye, Dovid Velvl Medvedtsky and his wife were with us in the cellar.
One day of suffering followed another. We heard from Elke Khaye's cellar next door how they took everyone out. Everyday we heard someone in the attic. Our good neighbours, the White Russians and Poles were searching for
the remnants the Germans rejected. There was shooting during the day and night.
We are sitting with cut wounds. I am mourning my mother and the children. They ask why I am mourning them when my fate is no better. I had such a premonition, but no idea how. I also had a premonition about my sister Pesie that she would survive.
Yishayes' parents are worried about their sons, the brothers. Everyone is despondent.
On the third day, Saturday morning we began to talk about leaving the potato cellar. I was categorically against it even though we had no water or bread.
Early Saturday morning Itche Lusky went out and brought back two bottles of water, a thin dried out bread and a knife. He told us he was outside the ghetto at Fantchik's well. The gendarmes saw him take the water and did nothing. It was hard for us to believe.
The same day, in the afternoon, he went out again. This time he did not return…
Another night passed. By Monday everyone was losing patience. Early in the morning they decided to go out. I said:
Let's sit, although I had no expectations. However, I was sure if I went out I would be killed. We were also afraid because the house was at the edge of the ghetto. They did not listen to me. Monday, 10 o'clock in the morning we went out.
I was the last one out and felt we were doing something absurd. We went through the attic of the smaller house and instead of going down into the garden, Frume and I went up to the second attic which was outside the ghetto.
It was empty. We remained standing for a moment. Birds in the attic were singing as if nothing had happened. I took out a small mirror, examined myself and said how terrible I looked: my eyes were big, my face was black, covered in mud.
It's a beautiful world I said to Frume, but not for us. At that moment she saw the gendarmes were surrounding everyone. I called Frume back to the potato cellar. She did not want to go, perhaps because she was in shock about what happened to her parents and could not figure out what was happening. I warned her again:
Come, we must not wait, soon it will be too late. But she did not come. I went by myself, as quickly as a cat, back to the cellar. There, the old Krayne Khaye bombarded me with questions:
Where are the children? Where did they go? Why didn't they come back? After five days of sitting in the cellar, she was losing her mind. I calmed her down saying they would all soon return healthy and refreshed.
A short while later I heard a policeman talking to Frume. I did not hear what they were talking about but I had the impression he was interrogating her and she did not want to speak.
A moment later a man's hoarse voice called out:
Sansevitch, there's work here! And at the same time they blocked the opening where the air was entering from. Then they really started to work. I heard them digging. I heard shovels on the wooden boards. This was my end. At the last moment I wanted to leave and go into another hole in the same stall. But the door did not open.
Why they did not enter the cellar remains a mystery. Perhaps out of fear? There was an episode when Sholem Krashinsky shot from the cellar. Or maybe they were sure if there was someone there, they would die from starvation.
I was desperate. I sat by the tiny window which let in a bit of air and thought these were my final moments. I imagined them taking me to my death, and soon I would be shot. I thought: I'll ask them for a little water before I die. Oh how frightening it is to realize you only have a few minutes left to live.
With these thoughts I fell asleep at three o'clock in the afternoon until 11 o'clock at night.
I awoke refreshed, with clear thoughts and a strong desire to live. I decided to go out through the opening in which the air entered. With the long knife I dug out quite a bit of earth and through the overgrown stones in the narrow concrete pipe I pushed myself through, first with one shoulder, then the other. I walked out into freedom.
The moon shone brightly and sacred me. I look around. Elke Khaye's house was destroyed. The garden
covering their cellar was dug up until the boards.
I pick a beet from the other garden. It is tasty. I walk through the gardens, passing Mankovitch's yard.
I walk to Tzalie Patzovsky's yard because according to my calculations my closest and dearest should have been there. I call out a few times:
Mama! Mama!, but no one answers. I walk by Rashkin's yard, past the old people's home, I run over to the other side, near Zerakh's house, and come out beside Gordon's house. I want to jump over the ghetto fence. I hear Yanek's dog bark loudly. He is beside me and grabs my dress...
I gathered my last bit of strength and jumped nimbly over the ghetto fence. I am now on the other side, on the field at Bielush's. I'm afraid they will hear me. I know them well, our former neighbours. I walk quickly on my tippy toes.
Walking along the river I ran to drink with my mouth and nose, then continued walking.
A curve to the right, past Shaye the miner's calcium mine. I continue along the river until a small rural settlement.
Meanwhile it started to drizzle. Tired and wet, I covered myself with a small jacket, the only thing I had, and fell asleep.
I was awakened by a nearby shooting. It was a grey dawn. I found myself across from the Jewish cemetery. Two peasants were standing beside a haystack and looked at me with pity. I could not call it anything but pity. I was barefoot (one sandal got stuck in the cellar and I threw away the other) and my dress tore as I jumped the ghetto fence.
I was frightened at the sight of these Christians, but I had no choice. I asked them to hide me in the hay. They told me they were bringing it to the barn. I asked them again to hide me anywhere but they told me this was impossible. They advised me to leave quickly. I was so close to Zhetl.
Go to Dvoretz. A lot of Jews escaped there. And don't take the main road. There is no shortage of dirty dogs.
I left. I knew the way to Dvoretz along the highway, but I was not familiar with the side roads.
It began to rain again. Once again I fell asleep and in my dream I saw my mother and the children dead. I was awakened by a joyful conversation among Christians, who were returning with trophies, Jewish goods. Luckily, they did not notice me.
I continued on through the forest near the Dvoretz highway, about 3 kilometres from Zhetl near the good Yanovitchizne. But I did not know where I was.
I sat down. A young Christian woman passed and I asked her the way to Dvoretz. She looked at me with great compassion and told me not to go there now. When it gets dark I should go first to the left, then right and I will be on the road. When she saw my swollen eyes from crying she said:
Calm down, you will not get far in your condition. Go at night and watch out for people.
I waited for it to get dark. At dusk I continued on my way. But I made a mistake and instead of turning right, I went left.
After a half hour of walking I heard a few gunshots and saw the Zhetl church. I was a few hundred metres from the end of Dvoretz Street. My absentmindedness and short sightedness were to blame.
I quickly began to run back. I met an elderly woman. I went with her. She did not ask me anything and I did not tell her anything.
It was now really dark when I arrived 5 kilometres from the farms in the village of Muliyari. Dogs were barking loudly. I was only afraid of their masters. I had no choice and decided to sleep in the field and continue at dawn.
I took the path on the right, and lay down between two rows of cabbage. A damp chill runs through my body. It is an autumn night. The sky was clear. Thousands of stars were twinkling cold and unfamiliar. The cold does not allow me to fall asleep. It enters all my limbs.
Daybreak. I get up and continue on my way. I go right, into a ditch. I continue walking. Christians are travelling in wagons, on bicycles. I see a policeman with a large briefcase and my heart stops. Luckily, no one noticed me.
Suddenly two children emerge from a farmhouse:
Moishe Abramovitch's sister Libe and her little brother Itche. We were so happy to see each other and walked together.
However, the joy did not last long. About 10 kilometres from our destination, a young Christian guy appears suddenly as if from nowhere and starts to run after us. I was the closest to him and he actually grabbed my by my hair. The children managed to escape. The guy said the police placed him there to capture Jews and bring them back to town. He doesn't stop to think and starts to take me back. I cried. What else could I do?
Farmers were working in the field. They told him to let me go. What does he have against me? This does not help. He does not let me go. Suddenly, his grey murderous eyes shine: in my hair I had two brass yellow pins, made in the ghetto. He thought they were gold and began to tear them from my head. I gave them to him. He stopped.
The children return. They soon figured out what was going on. They told him we have family in Dvoretz that would give him money and things if he brought us there.
He believed them. We promised him the world just to tell us how to get to Dvoretz. Little Itche reasoned with him the most. From a bitter enemy, he became our guide. He told us he was from the village Vorevitch and under his patronage we had nothing to fear.
He took us to the edge of town. Here we met Jews from Dvoretz who after work, brought us into the ghetto. We promised the Christian guy that in the evening we would bring him lots of good stuff…
The Dvoretz ghetto was like a miniature ingathering of the diaspora. There were remnants from many Jewish communities, from Iviye, Klezk, Nolibok, Derevniyie and others.
Here, as in other ghettos, a large portion of the Jews believed they would not be touched. Dvoretz was a labour camp and they would remain alive. This was what the Germans wanted them to believe. However, there were many who were preparing to go to the forest.
Through a friend of my sister Peshke, I received a corner of a bunk in the vestibule. It was crowded with no lack of lice or fleas.
There were a few dozen people from Zhetl. A group of representatives was formed. One of them was Khaim Mikhl Roznov. They make an effort to get 25 grams of bread and soup for us from the Judenrat. We eat the bread immediately even though it is hot.
A few days later my two cousins arrived: Peshke and Khane Mayevsky. It feels more familiar. They receive a comfortable corner to live in. I still sleep in the old place but during the day we are together. They feel even worse than I do. They cannot eat and give me their bit of soup.
Shaye is Alive
One day, l learned from Soniye from Vizhank, who had just arrived in Dvoretz with her daughter Dolkeh, that Shaye is alive. He succeeded in breaking the chain surrounding the ghetto and after a few days of wandering arrived in Lipitshan forest.
His brother Henekh was shot immediately on Lipover Street. Their father who was a tanner was permitted to live. His mother and sister Frume were shot when they came out of the cellar. The murderers promised the unlucky Binyomin they would let his daughter live if he told them where he keeps his leather. Wanting to take advantage of this last chance he gave them all his leather. They did not keep their word. Binyomin was left all alone with two other tanners: Antzl Sokolovsky and Ben Zion Peskovsky.
The news that Shaye and his father were alive gave me a new soul. I did not feel so alone. I now had something to hope for.
I did not have to wait long to see Shaye. Two weeks later on a bright morning he arrived in Dvoretz ghetto with Yisroel Zhukhivitsky to take me with them to the forest.
That day, those close to me did not recognize me. I was a completely different person. My old dress was repaired, I was washed and combed and my eyes shone with hope.
Shaye stood in the middle of a gathering of Jews telling them about the Jews in the forest and about the partisans who are organizing and ended with these words:
Jews, why are you sitting here? Go to the forest!
They asked him to calm down, fearing he would be arrested. They asked him why he was looking for trouble for himself and others. He does not want to be silenced.
In the company of Khaim Mikhl Roznov's family, he talks from his heart: he is not yet in a partisan detachment because he does not have a weapon. He hoped to be accepted by the detachment, but you can also live in the forest outside the detachment.
There you are a free person. They listen to him with great interest. Everything he is telling them is so new.
That same night a small group of boys go out, among whom are: Yosl Gershovsky, (Khoniye the glazer's son), Yekhiel Yoselevitch, Leybl Benyaminovitch, Shepsl Lipsky, Shaye and Yisroel Zhikhovitsky.
Khane and Peshke also wanted to go, but Peshke wanted to wait for Berl Nikolayevsky, who was in Novogrudek ghetto. We part warm heartedly and wish to meet again soon.
At night, we cut the wires of the ghetto and go out. Yekhiel goes first. He knows the way. We wandered around for a few hours until we found our way. Then Shaye and Kokeh led the way.
I was impressed how our guides were so well orientated. Only rarely did we knock on a farmhouse door to ask the way. We avoided villages and took paths and detours.
At dawn we arrived at the farmhouses in Repishtche. Shaye comforted me:
Just a little longer and we will arrive. I can barely drag myself. Feyvl Kalbshteyn approaches us. He carries me in his arms, I am half unconscious, with wounded feet.
In the Forest
Meanwhile we make a tent. Through farmers in Repishtche, Shaye contacted his father who sent us cowhide. A little later, Yosef Novogrudsky and Itche Mankovitch arrived. They had been hiding in the tannery. They bring us regards from Shaye's father. Shaye dreams about bringing him to the forest, but the tannery is heavily guarded.
Hirshl Kaplinsky, the commander of the detachment is in contact with the tanners. There was a plan to bring them to the forest, along with the leather which would be very useful for the half barefooted Jewish partisans. However, the Germans had their own reckoning. They no longer needed these few Jews and in October, they killed them. Shaye did not achieve his goal or realize his dream.
Shaye received a gun in exchange for the cowhide. As a former Polish soldier it was not difficult for him to be accepted to the detachment. It's more difficult for girls, but he had no problems with me. The detachment needed a typist and I was the only one who knew how to use a typewriter.
This was my luck at that moment as well as later.
I worked for the 22 months I was a partisan as a typist at the headquarters of the Barba detachment (originally Orliansky), Lenisnske Brigade.
I found the work interesting and I did it conscientiously and accurately. I also was trusted and recognized by the leadership.
I was in the third company of the above mentioned detachment and I experienced the journey of all partisans until liberation (July 14, 1944).
Unfortunately, Shaye did not live to see liberation. He was killed sometime between July 5 12 1943 while carrying out an assignment. During his time serving in the detachment he carried out all his obligations exactly and precisely and participated in all the battles of the detachment.
And my unlucky mother and the children?
They were all, as we had agreed, in Hirshl Patzovsky's potato cellar. However, on the first day they had to leave, because the crying of Lidsky's child betrayed them. The result was tragic: almost all of them were killed. Only Hirshl was sent to Novogrudek ghetto. My sister Peshke was saved in an extraordinary way. After much suffering they left through a tunnel and arrived at Bielsky's detachment.
Cruel fate befell Hirshl the day before liberation. I met my sister after nearly two years of suffering. We were both broken.
The last regards from our mother and the children were given to us by Yehudis Mashkovsky. She was with them at the Jewish cemetery. She saw my dear mother near the graves, kneeling and hugging the children.
What was she feeling? What was she thinking?
Perhaps her aching heart found a bit of comfort with the hope that maybe Peshke and I were alive somewhere?
Her final thoughts were surly filled with protest and anger. And I ask: Why? For which sin was her short life ended?
Honour their memory!
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