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Chapter 14

In the Woods and Swamps of Kurland, 1944

Jacob Rassen's oral narrative ends in 1945, as he escapes from Nazi captivity. To complete the story are chapters thirteen through eighteen of Jacob's book, Mir Veln Lebn {We Want to Live). Written in Yiddish and published in 1949, the book was translated into English in 2007 and published privately.

For two full days and nights, I lay like that under the heap of straw, without food, without drink, and without movement. On the third day, when it was already close to nightfall, I crept out, opened one of the barn doors from inside, and went onto the road, heading for the nearest town, which I had seen a couple of days earlier. I knocked on the door of one house, then a second house, and begged for a piece of bread, but as soon as they noticed my clothing and my appearance, they closed the doors and windows out of fear and anger and drove me away.

The next day, at nightfall, I crept out again, but this time I sought out a garden. I had never in my life eaten such juicy, tasty food as those half-ripe tomatoes and cucumbers. I stretched myself out between the beds of growing vegetables, and I ate and ate without stopping. When it was becoming daylight, I picked myself up and saw an even better food: beans. I stuffed my shirt full of beans and cucumbers and made my way back to my hiding place in the barn.

That is how I lived for twenty-nine days and nights. Every night, I would go out to the water hole opposite the barn to wash myself and drink my fill of water. Every third night, I would head for the garden. Very soon, I became rich with other food as well. The time had come for cutting the grain, and during the day, the farmer used to drive into the barn and lay down sheaves of wheat and corn. He and his wife and two children, along with his worker, a Russian war prisoner, used to

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wander for days in and around the barn, and I would be under their very noses.

When I lay near the wall of the barn and looked through the slit, I saw what was going on around there. Dozens, even hundreds, of men and women were on the road with spades, axes, and saws. I understood that the Germans were telling the civilian population, and also the Russian war prisoners working with the farmers, to dig trenches and make fortifications. They were getting ready, it seemed, for a lengthy resistance. Should I just remain lying in the straw, in the barn, and die a long, slow, unavoidable death, like a mouse in a hole? Oh, no! I had to continue fighting!

And again, as though by a miracle, I found new strength in myself. For two nights, I wandered around in the barn, searching and foraging, until I found a couple of old, torn doth sacks and a thin wire that had been lying on some empty boxes. I dragged those things into my hiding place, and by the light that shone through the slit in the wall, I “sewed,” out of the two sacks, a pair of trousers. The thin wire served in place of thread.

In the evening, I pulled the “new trousers” over my old prison pants and put my formerly bright blue prison shirt, now black, over my small prison coat. Then I made a belt with a piece of string and attached it where necessary with wire. That is how I was able to hide my otherwise quite obvious prison clothes. Next I took a spade I found in the barn, cautiously opened a door, and ran swiftly across the road and into the woods. I washed myself in the water hole, and then, carrying my spade on my shoulder, I set off along the wide road. I encountered lots of people, including Germans, on foot or driving by, but I kept going straight ahead, like everyone else, and after walking for a couple of kilometers, I turned off on a side road, near the woods, and went into a farmer's house. Speaking Russian, I begged for some food.

I told them, “I am a Russian war prisoner. I work for a homeowner twenty-five kilometers away, and a couple of days ago, they sent me to work here, to dig trenches. My boss gave me enough food for two weeks, but, you know, yesterday there was a heavy rainfall. I got soaked, so I hung up my clothes to dry in a barn where we were all spending the

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night. And you know, of course, what these times are like. They stole everything from me.”

Food they gave me, as much as I could eat: a plate of milky noodle soup, and with wonderment, they looked on as I ate a fourth and fifth plate. I had in general not known that noodle soup could have such a heavenly taste. They also gave me half a loaf of bread with a piece of cheese and put it in a sack. They told me they didn't have even an old or a torn pair of trousers, but I saw that in the kitchen, there hung a pair of expensive yet torn old trousers with large new patches.

That night, I approached the house again, removed a pane of glass from the kitchen  window, and crept in. Crawling out again, I had become, if not the lawful, at least the factual owner of a pair of old, patched trousers. Oh, how fortunate I felt at that moment! You may be of the opinion that I had done an injustice to the good farmer-Shtockmans was his name. I, in your place, would perhaps also think that. But
I will get a little ahead of myself in my story and tell you briefly how I came to be in his house again, four months later.

Our partisan group was conducting operations in the woods about fifteen kilometers from where he lived. With two comrades, I paid him a visit in the middle of the night. Understandably enough, he did not recognize me, and his fright was great when he saw in front of him three armed “bandits” (as we were officially called, according to German nomenclature). But then we took out a bottle of local whiskey called Samogonka, and he added something good to eat with it, and I reminded him of the five plates of noodle soup and the vanished trousers.

At that point, the whole family recognized me, and Shtockmans acknowledged, “I had thought at the time that you were a runaway Jew, and when you went away, I was very sorry that I had not given you a pair of trousers. But the following morning, I really rejoiced to see that you yourself had taken the trousers, and that you hadn't taken anything else. Oh, I am not at all angry with you. Just the opposite; I'm delighted.”

The farmer was well acquainted with Gershon Yakovson and was very sorry about what had happened to him. Everyone in the region, he said, knew about it and deeply regretted it. But what could one do? This

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was such a wild and bloody time. When I told him that I was the only one of the five Jews ofYakovson's group who had run away, the farmer jumped up. “So that's why they searched in the whole area around here and promised ten pounds of sugar and one pound of tobacco to anyone who could help find you!”

He looked at me as though I were some kind of fantastic phenomenon, and I thought to myself, Who knows what kind of ideas are floating around even in your mind, my dear Shtockmans? Would you have resisted the temptation if you had known who I was?

My partisan comrades and I relished the warmth, the whiskey, and the food, but partisans dared not sit around for long in one place. Shtockmans gave us exact information about the “guards” who had participated in the shooting of my friends-information that I quickly made use o£ As we were leaving, I gave him a new military uniform that I had taken off a German officer and kept especially for him. Let him dye it a different color, alter it. It was my gift to him for the trousers.

Only the beginning is difficult. Mter that, things go more easily. I was still at that difficult beginning. I now had a pair of trousers, but I did not have a small topcoat or jacket of the kind I would need to be able to show myself among people. And it was already cold in the woods, especially during the night. At nightfall, I walked quite a little distance and approached a large, well-appointed farmhouse. They received me quite coldly and barely gave me anything to eat. No one said a word about giving me bread and whatever else to take with me on the road. In the middle of the night, I came back. After much exhausting effort, I opened some kind of little window in the kitchen wall and went inside. I found a couple of large loaves of bread, a piece of old smoked meat, butter, cheese, and a couple of dozen tiny smoked fish-the sardine-like things that people used to bring to market to sell. But what I was really looking for was a jacket or topcoat-and I did, in fact, get my hands on such a garment.

I had barely succeeded in crawling back out through the window when lights came on in a couple of windows, and a little dog began to bark. I disappeared into the woods, and for the rest of the night and early morning, I ran without stopping, until I stumbled upon a small, lonely barn packed with fresh hay. It was one of those forest barns,

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where the farmers used to keep the hay they cut from the meadows in the woods; during the winter, they would transport that hay to their own farmyards. I used to occupy those isolated forest barns from time to time, lying there for days and nights in solitude.

There I lay day and night, and devoted myself to my sad thoughts and my brighter dreams and hopes. I dreamed about life and about living long enough to experience the moment of freedom and revenge. But what purpose would be served by lying hidden in a barn? So again, I took up my spade, my now-shrunken sack, and my new topcoat. In the brightness of daylight, it turned out to be an older woman's jacket, of cotton, with ingenious large buttons. Well, I thought, I am thinned down enough so that it fits me, and I need it. Besides, no one looks at fashions in the woods. Nevertheless, I tore off the fancy buttons and replaced them with bits of wire.

In my new clothes, I felt much bolder. I went out onto the great
road. There I saw a large group of workers walking-local men and women, Russian war prisoners, and tired civilian prisoners-all of them with spades and axes. Without reflecting for long, I began to mingle among the crowd, and when they started working, I pitched in.

I very cautiously conducted conversations with the Russian prisoners and learned a great deal. The Germans were digging trenches everywhere and were making fortifications that were three lines deep. A huge German army was encircled and locked in here, in Kurland, as though in a kettle-they had been pushed to the edge of the sea and could not go beyond that-but the Red Army had come to a halt. Who knew what they were waiting for, or why they were allowing the Germans to build such strong fortifications? Meanwhile, the Germans were in command, with their Latvian helpers, the police, and their “officers,” and they did whatever they wished. They were in the woods with their bloodhounds, chasing after runaway Latvian soldiers and runaway Jews. Those whom they caught were immediately shot. On the other hand, Russian partisans had appeared, way off in the wilder woods. That last unclear bit of information was for me the most important. Partisans! How could I get to them?

The next morning, I perceived that there was no point in hanging around with the others. They had taken to asking me too many

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questions. Besides, I didn't have any food. At midday, I began to move away from the others, first going off to one side and then breaking from the group altogether.

But I shall not recount for you every detail-how and where I lived for two and a half months, how I managed to get food, how I wandered aimlessly about, what I thought, and what I did. Instead, I will give you a song that I wrote down while I was lying in a forest barn. At the time, I had no paper, so I wrote it on a shingle board that I found there. A few months later, I went back and found the board again. Here is what I felt at that time, and what I wrote down:

l am a Wild Beast

I am a wild animal, pursued....
Just like a wolf, a fox, or a mouse.
I lie hidden in woods and holes,
Here near a hillock, there beside a river,
Here beside a nearby farm house,
And in a barn, beneath the hay,
Here in the stall, a warm corner
I seek out, between the dust and the straw!

Where I spent the day, I do not spend the night....
Danger is in pursuit, who knows where,
Across the woodlands, swamps and holes
Without any good outlook, without any sense.
Eye and ear always sharply perked up,
Strained attentively to every noise....
Quiet!... What lurks there? Perhaps people?
Do I stay lying down?... Do I move forward?

In the distance shooting is heard
From a rifle, from machine weapons....
Oh, the enemy is again searching, in pursuit,
In the woods, in its length and breadth!
... And a dog is barking...perhaps bloodhounds
Seeking, smelling, on the track of human beings?...

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I look from a distance-at the path through the woods,
It seems to me, that's a farmer's wagon passing through.

Shall I inquire of the farmer,
Whether he has seen or heard anything?
Or shall I not inquire.... How can he help?
He can only betray me, on the contrary.
It's a good deed, after all, for him to catch
And pursue me, step after step.
The death penalty threatens him, if he helps me
- My name, after all, is “Jew” and “bandit.”

Weeks and months are going by,
Now the summer and the harvest time are gone.
The bitter winter looks cold and gruesome
From my homeless hiding place.
Night in the forest is long, cold and sleepless,
A restless day arrives, then passes....
The heart weeps in silent loneliness:
Save me, please, oh God, from death!

Grant me, now, oh God, very sharp nails,
The fleet feet of a deer, and the teeth of the wolf
Give me the firm stout heart of the robber!
... I am, after all, a wild animal!... I am alone!
I flee like an animal from my pursuers,
I rob and bite as all animals bite.
Give me protective cover, you dense woods!
Strengthen in me the spirit of the animal.

And meanwhile, at the nearest war front
The fight continues in the nearby towns.
-Will I live to see my own salvation
Or...will it already be too late?

(Written in the woods of Kurland, near Ugale, September 1944)

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I decided to go to Ugale and see a farmer who had been a friend of Yakovson. I could no longer endure the loneliness in the woods. From the farmer I hoped to learn more about the lives of my comrades. I thought he might also give me some information about the partisans, if there were any in the surrounding woods.

Early in the morning, when it was just barely becoming light out, I came upon a crossroads, and there, from what was written on a signpost, I learned that I was not going in the direction of Ugale but rather toward Piltine, a very small town. That meant I had lost my way. So what? I thought. Let's go where fate is leading me. At the first side path, I plunged again into the dense forest. Gradually, the woods became more sparse, and I began to see meadows, lawns, and fenced-in grazing ground. Then, in the distance, a poor farmer's home on the edge of a second forest, which looked as though it would be very large and dense. I came closer, stationed myself behind a thick tree, and for a good hour observed what was going on around the house, who went in and who came out.

And so it was predestined that the Dooks family would play a fateful role in my lonely, animal-like life. The mother of the family, who was nearing her fifties, understood from my first words who I was and how I came to be there. After breakfast, when we were alone, she burst into tears and told me that in Piltine, which was seven or eight kilometers away, she had had many good Jewish friends. Her son and daughter had also had many Jewish friends there. But they had all been killed.

Clara Dooks took me in like a member of the family, like a good old friend. It simply had not occurred to me that such good-hearted and dedicated people still existed. The first thing she wanted was that I should make myself more orderly. She handed me a small piece of a mirror; I took one look, and-I was astounded. The man looking back at me had a fallen face, with a pair of sunken, unfamiliar, wild-looking eyes and a thick, overgrown, black-and-gray beard. I didn't recognize myself.

The Dookses helped me regain a more human appearance. I shaved my three- or four-month-old beard. The master of the house, Krishnan Dooks, gave me a haircut. They warmed the little bed, and at night, having been bathed and groomed, and clothed in fresh, clean

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undergarments and a neatly pressed shirt and trousers, I sat down with the whole family and ate the evening meal.

The small kerosene lamp barely lit up the kitchen, and from the oven there came a pleasant warmth. The chickpea filling of the blintzes, with butter and sour cream, melted all through our bodies. Everyone spoke to me quietly and in friendly fashion, and remarkably, like an enchanted person, I again felt that everything had already taken place long, long ago. I saw clearly that I had once before sat with these people and that I was reliving the entire experience, including my own thoughts.

A light knock on the window shutter tore me away from these thoughts. I made a dash to the back door of the darkened room, but the family quickly quieted me down. They opened the door, and in came a tall, healthy man, about twenty years old, with a smiling and open countenance. This was their son, Arvids. He had been mobilized to fight with the Germans but had at once run away. The German and Latvian police had already come by a few times looking for him, but even though they had turned the whole house upside down, they had not found him. Now he was living in the woods, wandering around not far away, with two comrades much like himself.

For a couple of weeks, I enjoyed being with the Dookses. It was understood that I could not remain in their house, but Arvids had now become my best friend, and I went away with him into the woods. Late at night, we would sneak back into the house to have something warm to eat.

Arvids knew every little path and byway in the area, and from him I gained quite a bit of practical knowledge that soon became very useful to me. A few times, we came unexpectedly upon Russian soldiers, prisoners of war, who had run away from the Germans and were hiding out like us. Like suspicious wolves, we would first move cautiously closer to them; then, after we figured out who they were, we would share food and cigarettes. I learned from some of these soldiers about organized partisan groups.

But neither Arvids nor the runaway Russians had any desire to look for partisans. One night, I said good-bye to that friendly family, and Clara Dooks gave me a full bag of food for the road, along with a simple, hand-sewn blanket from her daughter's dowry box. I really did not

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want to take such a valuable gift, but she insisted. With tears in our eyes, we wished that we might meet again soon, in better times.

Arvids accompanied me for about a dozen kilometers, until we had crossed a wide border. There he led me up to a narrow forest path and gave me my last instructions. “Go on this little path, straight ahead, always straight, for a dozen kilometers. That's where the most dense of the large forests begin. You will not see a house of any kind for about a dozen kilometers, and there, probably, is where the partisan camp is located. Many people are wandering around in the woods, and these days a human life is not worth anything, so be careful. You will surely meet up with the people you are looking for.”

 

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