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[Page 184]

Chapter 15

My Life as a Partisan, 1944-45

And again-shall I take it for predestination, luck, good fortune, or God's supervision? I don't know. I have no understanding of such matters. But in any case, not my thoughts, not my wisdom, not my heroism, and not my will played the main role in the events I am about to relate. On the fifth or sixth day of hopelessly dragging myself around in the great, dense forests, I did, in fact, meet up with genuine Russian partisans, at a time when I was on the point of bidding farewell to the last bit of life remaining in me.

I was walking at night, in deep thought, on the “central” path that Arvids had pointed out to me, and suddenly, I heard in the distance a slight noise and the ring of human voices. In the twinkling of an eye, I was stretched out on the ground, quite dose to the path. I looked out from the thick foliage and saw five men walking by, armed from head to foot, and I could hear dearly that they were speaking Russian. My heart leapt. Partisans! I was eager to run out to them, but I held myself back. They might be Russian “bloodhounds,” spies, betrayers, who were in the service of the Germans! There were plenty of such people roaming around in the woods. And besides, was I certain that I had heard right?

A feverish inner battle ensued. Should I show myself to them or not? Yes!... No. Yes!... No. This lasted only moments. Before I knew it, I was standing on the path and shouting to them from a distance. “Hey, comrades, halt! Please stop!”

In a moment, I was confronted with five Russian machine guns. I advanced toward them with my hands halfway up.

“Who are you? Stop! Don't come any closer!”

“I'm one of your own. Put down your machine guns. You can see that I don't have any weapons, and that I have come to you by myself....”

They lowered their machine guns, and two of them patted me down and inspected me from head to foot. One of them, apparently the eldest, asked, “Who are you, anyway? And what are you doing here in the woods?”

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Now I was no longer in any doubt that these were genuine Russians and partisans. I was leaning against a tree, with all of them around me, and I began to tell them, as briefly as possible, the truth about myself. I saw that they did not have the patience to listen to the whole story, so I made it shorter. The eldest of them spoke again. “You think that we have to believe you, just like that? Well, you're wrong. I think you are a spy, a bloodhound for the Germans! That's what you are! Right?

I set about defending myself. One of the group, a short and heavy type, interrupted me. “Wait, wait! What was it you said? Your comrades were shot, but you they did not shoot. That means that you sold out your comrades, that you handed them over to the Germans. Right? How much did you get for turning in your friends?”

I protested with all the passion and pain of my soul. “How can you talk like that? I have handed over my comrades? I am a German spy? I would strangle every one of them with my own hands!”

“Oh, we know those stories. They killed all the Jews, and...you remained alive!” I got more and more heated and tried to bring out the truth, but to everything, I got one and the same answer. “Oh, we know, we know. Moscow doesn't believe any words, and not even tears.”

One remained to guard me, and four went off to the side to determine what was to be done with me. When they came back, I had the feeling that things looked bad. They ordered me to go ahead on the path. I understood what that meant: a bullet, or a series of bullets, from behind, in the neck or the back.

A cold sweat poured over me. Was this the end, here in the woods and from my own people, one could say? And such an ugly end, accused of being a German spy, a traitor! I felt an ache in my heart at the terrible, undeserved insult. But I quickly controlled myself, sat down on a collapsed tree, and said quietly, “Listen to me, comrades! I have already witnessed and learned quite a bit in the last few years. Death does not frighten me, but such an ugly and unjust death, at the hands of friends and fellow avengers, whom I have been seeking everywhere in the woods for many long months now-that pains me to the core. But hear me out!”

I saw that they were listening attentively. I stopped talking for a while, reflected briefly, and then continued. “Hear me out, for what I

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want to tell you! I can help you a great deal. Listen: If you want to organize a partisan group in the woods, between the Venta River, Ugale, and Piltine, I can be very, very useful to you. I know the woods there as well as I know my own five fingers. I also know a few local inhabitants and displaced Russian people on whom one can rely. Yes, I know one of the local people, Arvids Dooks. He is one of our people and, in addition, a born woodsman. I can take you straight to him. There are also escaped prisoners of war roaming around there in the woods, and one could easily organize a fighter group of a few dozen men. I-”

The eldest interrupted me. “What was it you said? Piltine? Do you
know a certain Stepka or Stepan Goryatchov there? He is a Russian civilian prisoner who lives in a one-story house belonging to a Latvian, in the village of Rabatzems. That can't be very far from Piltine.”

“I don't know Stepka, but the village I know very well. Tell me the
name of the owner of the house, and I will lead you to it. Also, my friend, Dooks, is from the same village. If you wish, we can go there, even tonight.”

One remained with me, and four went away to consult. I could hear them talking heatedly among themselves, and finally, the eldest called out, “The devil take it-maybe he is speaking the truth! We have to be cautious, but let's try! Hey, what's your name?”

“I am called Yashke-Yakov; that is my real name.” Then I added, “Comrades, rely on me. You will not be sorry. Come, let's go; it's dark enough.”

My five new comrades had parachuted into the forest, and they were armed not only with automatic machine guns but with hand grenades and small pistols. They had two portable “radio stations” on their backs, and they carried land maps, compasses, binoculars, white masking tape for camouflage in winter, and who knew what else in their special parachutists' backpacks.

They - Kola the great, Kola the small, Mitka, Sasha, and Vanyarepresented the command staff that had come from the big partisan base to organize a partisan brigade in “my” woods. They were bitter young people, valuable teachers with long, hard experience as partisans. I, Yashke Litovitz (Yashka the Lithuanian), as I was called then, was at first their pathfinder, escort, and communications person, their

[Page 187]

Russian, Lithuanian, and German translator. Thereafter, I, too, became an avenger.

My partisan life began in the so-called kettle of death in Kurland, on a small tract of land where a German army of more than a million men was firmly locked in, pushed close to the edge of the Baltic Sea. The Germans remained encircled in Kurland until the end of the war, when their entire military machine was in Russian hands. Only then did we, the organized and well-armed partisan battalions, attack the enemy from the rear, doggedly and without rest.

But the enemy also did not spare us. We were constantly attacked and pursued by thousand-man armies of Germans with their reinforcements: Latvians, Lithuanians, and Estonians, in addition to “vlassavtzes,” who were a mixture of traitorous Ukrainians, Russians, Uzbeks, Cossacks, and other Russian-Asiatic prisoners of war. Whole armies of Germans, with all these outcasts, attacked us in the woods.

A few times, we were encircled. We broke through blockades. We had many victims and were not far from total annihilation, yet we continued to carry out our assignments at every opportunity-disrupting, destroying, burning, slaughtering, and spilling the blood of the enemy.

We conducted an embittered and just battle for death and for life a battle in which we had every chance of dying, but dying a worthy death. I am not prepared, at this time, to tell you about the life my comrades and I led. That would be a much too great and exalted chapter. Justified revenge and score settling is holy; it has no place in a book that describes the dark years of ghettos and concentration camps, the years of enslavement, degradation, torture, and meaningless death. I shall only offer a few observations I made at the time. Among the many, many hundreds of partisans in Kurland and western Lithuania, there were a few dozen, maybe as many as a few hundred, who were Jewish. The “Revenge Song” was quite popular among them. It used to be passed from one person to another and sung. Here it is:

[Page 188]

Revenge Song

Our life is not worth anything,
And our tomorrow is-our “now.
” We live but predestined moments,
Chiseled in blood and fire.

Our life is not worth anything,
But we give it up quite dearly;
With his life now in ruins
The enemy pays for one of ours.

In our hearths there burns revenge-fire,
And now is the time for revenge....
You too, loyal comrade, take up arms,
And fight with us here, side by side!

We are the revenge-takers.
We cut with the sword of revenge
For the blood of children, wives, men,
With which the earth is now soaked.


You too have a long account to settle....
And now it is your revenge-day!
So come to the woods! To the death-struggle!
These murderers...beasts-Kill them! Strike!

Now your life does have some meaning
Right here, amid the bloody battle:
You will not give it up in vain.
You are not walking your last road!...

{Written in the woods of Lithuania and Latvia, winter, 1944-45. Jewish partisans sang it in the forests of Latvia and western Lithuania.)

 

Our partisan brigade, assembled mainly from runaway prisoners of war, conducted its operations in the wooded areas of Shpareh, Usma, Ugale, Piltine, and, at the end, in the woods around the rivers Venta

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and Ababa, in Kurland. Here is a reflection of our partisan battle in the “death bowl” of that period:

In the Death Bowl

The enemy is lying in its dugout stronghold
In Kurland's tightly crowded encircled bowl.
Trenches, bunkers, fences, dugouts
Are built up left and right.
Fields are strewn with buried explosive mines
Fortifications are placed row after row.
The woods are being noisily chopped down
The enemy's army is ready for battle.

And encircled and closed off from dry land,
And hard pressed against the edge of the sea,
The enemy lies locked into the encircled bowl
And from there spits out its snake-poison.
The Baltic states have been free for years,
Only here has the enemy held out so long....
Your bite is still poisonous, though lost
Is your battle, you people's-enemy, you snake!


And do you, the enemy, think you will be helped
By your power, army, and hatred toward us?
The Red Army, the freedom-fighters,
Are for now still leaving you alone to rest.
When comes the time, and the freedom bringers
Will loose the hounds of the war-machine,
Then everything will crack. Steel
and fire Will annihilate you, as in Crimea!

Meanwhile, into the death bowl, in the middle,
We too have been hard pressed and drawn in.
Pursued like wild animals, we, the “bandits,”
Have almost been suffocated in the circle.
The winter has been grim and gruesome for us

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In the woods, going hungry, and without a roof
We, like helpless little children,
Were, in those days, still quite weak.

But now, in the death bowl far below,
Well hidden, armed, and in disguise,
We, the Partisans, bold and confident,
Prepared for battle, organized-
From beyond the front, merely await the call
To join the outbreak of battle according to plan....
Then, enemy, will you also, in cold Kurland,
Know and feel the force of the Partisan!

And lo!...we already experience consolation!
We can now bite with sharp teeth
And hurt the enemy in the back. It is sweet revenge,
When you can smash to pieces the enemy's bones,
When you can lie in wait at the forest's edge,
You are ready to pounce like an animal to the call,
When your rifle cracks, or a grenade is fired
And pierces through the enemy's body!

The wooded thickness is what protects us.
A tree, a hole in the ground is our home.
We are night-animals, annihilators
Disrupted, killed...and-run! Go!
The circle tightens and presses the enemy more,
The earth burns under the enemy's feet.
And we at the enemy's back ever more firmly
Strike a blow! A stab! A rip! A bite!...

Right here, in the death bowl, annihilated,
Is where, enemy, you will now remain! No exit!
And there-headed toward your capital city,
The Red Army is spread out and going ever forward!
No incitement or lies will be able to help,

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Neither will new weapons for resistance!
The final death blow you will receive
Upon the soil of your very own land!
(Written in the Kurland woods, winter, 1944-45)

 

On one occasion, I was sent with my comrade Siomke, a tender twenty-year-old from Siberia, on a kind of mission. Our task was to figure out the hamlets and villages where certain special German groups were going to requisition wheat, hay, straw, and animals from the farmers. We, of course, planned to wait for these groups beside the road and welcome them as was proper, with lead and fire.

Gathering such information was very delicate and risky work, and I was able to do it only because I knew the local language and the area so well. And even so, my comrade and I had to mask ourselves, hide ourselves, poke around the villages and the farmers' homes, and disappear from under the nose of the local police and spies.

On another occasion, I was sent, again with my comrade Siomke, on an out-of-the-ordinary and very risky mission. We were to determine where the Germans were locating their trenches, bunkers, and ammunition dumps. We mingled with hundreds oflocal people who were doing the fortification work until they sensed who we were. We noticed that we were being stealthily followed. We hid in a kind of abandoned bunker, a camouflaged hole in the ground that I knew about. It was very close to the Germans, directly under their nose, and we had to lie in it for an entire week and wait for a snowstorm or a thaw that would cover our tracks on the flat, undisturbed snow. We did not dare to take one step, because if they had spotted our tracks, it would have meant certain death. Finally, the snowstorm did come, and we set out on a long night march.

Lying in a hole, without moving, and in solitude, was much harder
than going on even the most difficult of partisan missions. Here is what, at the time, I felt, thought, and recorded:

Winter in the Woods and Forests

You must have a heart that is hard as stone,
Congealed blood in your circulatory system,

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Nerves as strong as rope and wire
And a head that is even colder than ice
Only then will you perhaps endure
The loneliness and the pressure of despair
That gnaw unceasingly at your frame of mind
In the hole in the ground in which you lie hidden.

Whether snow or rain, frost or sunshine,
Or great storms turn worlds upside down,
Whether that's a man walking, or an animal running.
You do not see or hear in the ground,
In that narrow camouflaged “bunker,”
Deep in the woods and far distant from humans, Where you are lying hidden from the enemy
And counting up that eternity-which is time....

Thoughts are curling themselves up like worms....
You see your whole past, and how your life will end.
Your brain is spinning out a thread of imaginings,
You are lying in a quandary of despair, and you hope.
You hope that nevertheless salvation must come.
You are waiting with tension in every limb.
Night falls.... You crawl out to the outside
And you listen attentively to winter's song.

Deep snow has covered land and water
And coated the entire forest in white.
As though wrapped in shrouds the trees stand
And slumber, cooled by winter's presence.
A stillness, frosty and frozen hard,
Hangs in the air. No noise, not a peep.
Heaven looks with its starry eyes
At how white earth is substantial and delicate.

A glorious picture, that also casts a dread!...
You are the prisoner of the snow:

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Because flat snow inscribes the footsteps,
Even if you only make a move,or a turn.
It is deadly-dangerous to leave a trail,
Because the enemy is rummaging around nearby!
What can you do? Only wait powerlessly,
Hidden deep down and silent in a ground-hole.

Time is creeping, but days-they are running.
The enemy never rests, day and night.
A row of fortifications and trenches
Is being constructed here in the woods.
For this kind of forced labor they are driving
Also children, women, and horse and wagon.
From time to time with stern countenances
Some hard solid ground is torn open. Forest trees are being chopped. Ever nearer, nearer
The sound of axes chopping is carried to you.
You stick out your head, and then you hear
Also the voices of men, near the road.
Early evening sets in, the skies are clear.
From a distance a loud droning noise is carried.
And suddenly-Boom-Boom! Boom-Boom! Boom!...
A crash...a loud noise...a rapid crackling sound....

Bombed, demolished has the enemy's position become.
Machines are flying low, and close,
Bombs are exploding, the earth is shaking-
This is a greeting from the other side of the front....
From a distance cannons are also noisily bursting,
It has the ring of heavenly music:
-The time has come!... Liberation is on the way!
The heart leaps up for joy and happiness.

But once again all is still. Again time creeps
Throughout the heavy, dull nights and days,
And again there is the quandary of despair-hope:

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Is it far...Is it near...the brink of redemption?!


A cold wind brushes the treetops
And shakes the snow-dust off them.
And you?...a pursued target of the enemy,
You are lying imprisoned in a sea of snow.
And winter hovers with cold and hunger,
And the forest murmurs indifferently:
You, human! Will you endure for long
If your liberation does not come soon?

(Written in the Latvian and eastern Lithuanian forests, winter, 1944-45)

 

In a partisan kind of manner, deep in the thickest part of the forest, around huge bonfires, we celebrated the new year, 1945. At that time, we were more than a couple of hundred men, all assembled in one place. Guards were posted far and wide, all around the area, and that night, we were not disturbed. We sang, we shouted, we made noise and drank as much whiskey as we possibly could. We had also, at that time, met up with a couple of dozen Jewish partisans, forest people, thieves. But don't be frightened. They were all ordinary Jews, formerly from Riga, Vilna, Kovno, Dvinsk, Libave, Shavel, Ponevezh, and even Aishishke-good, ordinary Jews, just like you and me.

I did live to see the collapse of the bloody Nazi power and the capitulation of their mighty, “unconquerable” armies. That took place on the 9th of May, 1945 - a happy, historic day in the life ofhumanity. But for me and those like me, it was also a painful day, when the brain began to be deeply troubled by new and old questions, questions that had been pushed aside somewhere and were half forgotten:

Where was I now in the world? What should I do, and how might I cease to be a forest animal and again become human? My heart had not yet quieted down. It still boiled and seethed and might never again, perhaps, be at peace. And so, where could I go? To whom? There wasn't anybody left! Should I go home? I knew, after all, that all was now dead, annihilated, sunk in blood, in seas of blood.

No, I did not go so quickly back home. For more than three months,

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I continued my life in the forest, and this time in a stronger military fighter group, which rid the woods of the murderers, bandits, and robbers that had now begun to hide out there. They were mostly remnants of stubborn Latvian, Lithuanian, and German fighter units who had not given themselves up as war prisoners. The largest group was composed of leftover police, guard officers, overseers, and even Jew-murderers, most of them traitorous Russian military elements. Also included were other German hangers-on who had not been able to run away and disappear into Germany.

We wiped out hundreds of those bandits in the woods, and we captured hundreds of others. With the captives, we first established who they really were, and then they paid for their crimes according to what they deserved. And with what pleasure did I myself, with my own hands, shoot three of the murderers who had, exactly a year before, at Zlekas, murdered my comrades Laib Bobrov, Gershon Yakovson, Laib Yakovson, and Benjamin Vospy! (All together, we did away with five of the murderers, because we had already shot two at the time of the partisan battle.)

That was revenge for you, for your blood, “comrades of suffering and freedom,” just as I promised you at the time. But was there then, and is there now, a revenge that could truly compensate for the crime perpetrated against us, the millions of Jewish children, women, and men? And could any revenge ease the pain of those of us who remained alive? Is there, anywhere in the world, that great, that just, a settling of scores?

 

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