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Holocaust and Heroism

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Poem on the Murdered Jewish People

Yitzhak Katzenelson

Translated from Yiddish by Judie Ostroff-Goldstein

How can I sing – so that the world will know?
How can I play with broken hands?
Where are my dead? G-d, I am searching for my dead,
In every hill of ash: - Oh, tell me, where are they?

Shout out from the sand, from under every stone,
From all the dust, shout, from all the flames, from all the smoke –
It is your blood and sap, it is the marrow from your bones,
It is your body and your life! Shout, Scream, loud!

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Shout out from animal entrails in the forest, from fish in the river –
I want a shriek, an outcry, a voice from you,
They ate you. Scream from the lime kiln, scream small and big,
Scream murdered Jewish people, shout out!

Oh, alas, my people appear. Raise your hands
Out of the deep, mile long graves and sealed shut,
Layer upon layer, doused with lime and burned,
Up! Up! Ascend from the obstacle, the deepest layer!

Everybody come, from Treblinka, from Sobibor, from Ostrolenka,
From Belzec come, come from Ponar and from others, from others, from other!
With eyes torn open, raise a cry and without a voice,
Come from the swamps, from deep in the mud, from Poland -

Come, you who are drained, ground down, crushed. Come. Stand up,
In a circle, a large circle around me, one large ring –
Grandfathers, grandmothers, mothers with babies in their wombs –
Come, Jewish babies of powder, of a bit of soap.

I am the man who watched, who saw
How men threw my children, my wives, my young, my old
Into wagons, like stones you were flung in there, like discards,
And they beat you without pity and spoke to you as wantons.

And now? You see wagons, trucks now, you watch,

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You silent witness of such burdens and of such pain and of such distress!
Silent and closed, you watched, Oh, tell me wagons, where
You are traveling to. You the people, the Jewish people, have departed to death?

The first killed were the children, forlorn, little orphans. They are called
The best of the world, the most beautiful that the dark earth possesses!
Oh, from the loneliest little orphans and children's homes should grow our comfort, from the cheerless, mute, little faces, the gloominess will not be allowed to take us!

They were the first to be taken to their deaths, the first ones on the wagon,
Men threw all of them in the wagons, like a handful of garbage, like rubbish –
And took them away, murdered them, destroyed them, there is no trace
Of them, of my best, no more remains! Akh, alas, woe is me!

The sun will rise once more over small villages in Lithuania and Poland never to meet a Jew again
A light in the dark, an old man, a man reciting a chapter of Psalms, a man going into the synagogue -
After all, the peasants will travel in wagons on all the roads, they will travel to the fair after all,
So many gentiles – good gracious! Yet more than before! And the market, the market is dead. The market is full and is not full!

There is no longer a Jew to beautify the fair for great distances around, they are no longer lively, there is no longer any spirit
And no longer will a Jewish long, black coat flap over the market with a sack of potatoes, flour and grain, and a Jewish hand
Will no longer raise a pot, a soft chicken, caress a calf…the peasant a drunk, whips
His horse in grief pulls the full wagon back to the village… gone! Gone, there are no longer any Jews in the country!

And Jewish children – they will not wake up from sleeping, from dreams, every one of them bright in the morning –
They will no longer go to school, no longer let their minds wander, no longer play pranks, no longer play in the sand,

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Oh, you Jewish youngsters, oh, bright eyes! Little angels…where are you from? From here, in this town? And not from here!
Oh, beautiful young girl, your brightness, your neatness, everything in order, your little face is not messy.

They are gone already! Oh, on the other side of the ocean, do not ask, do not search in Kasrylewka, nor in Jehupiec…leave it alone!
Do not search for any one…not the Menachem-Mendels, the Tuwia Milkhikers, the Shlomo Nagids, the Motke ganefs, oh, do not search!
Like your prophets, Yeshaya, Jermia, Jehezkiel, Hosza and Amos, from the eternal Bible

They will cry out to you from Bialik, speak to you from Scholem Aleichem, from Scholem Ash, from one of their books.

It is that lost voice from the Torah no longer heard from any yeshivas, from any study house and pale yeshiva students,
Noble in learning, poring over the Talmud,deep in thought…no, no, not pale, there is such a glow!
Already extinguished…rabbis, heads of yeshivas, Jews studying, geniuses thin, dry, weak and full of Talmud,
With post Talmudic commentators, small Jews with large heads, with high foreheads, clear eyes, they are already gone, they will no longer be.

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Our Town is Burning

by Mordecai Gebirtig

Translated by Selwyn Rose

It is burning, brothers, our cherished town, it burns!
Our poor unhappy town is on fire!
Enlivened by evil spirits
And from the wild-fire ruins
Everything is already burning all around.

And you who look upon it while folding your arms!
And you stand and just stare and look.
How our town burns!

It is burning, brothers, our beloved town, it burns!
Our poor unhappy town is on fire!
You already know full well how the tongues of fire swallow all, -
Everything is already burning all around.

And you just stand and look...

It is burning brothers, our dearest town, see how it burns!

The moment may come when the town will remain – G-d forbid,
Together with you, like after a battle, -
Blackened and desolate.

And you stand and just look…

Only your hand, your hand can prevail!
And if the town is dear to you,
Take tools and quench the flames, quench them with your hands

And prove your hands failed you not!

Do not stand, brothers, like that to the end, with folded arms!
Do not stand, brothers, put out the fire, for our town is on fire!


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Our Exile from Jaroslaw to the Siberian Forests

by Moshe Katz

Translated by Selwyn Rose

“How doth the city sit solitary, that was full of people (Jaroslaw) and her Jews are not.”[1].
It was that same fateful summer of 1939, a short time after Nazi Germany attacked Poland and the Second World War broke out. One bright morning we found the Jackboots of the Nazi army in our town, captured virtually without a fight and without a shot being fired.

The sorrows of the Jews began the following morning after the Germans mobilized the Jews for work (sometimes simply fabricated and unproductive). The work was intended to abuse and humiliate the Jews more than any other purpose. While working the Jews were beaten mercilessly by the Germans. Anti-Semitic Poles took part in that and goaded and aggravated the Jews.

It was the morning hours of a lovely day when the writer of these few lines, together with his mother, were in their grocery store at 4 Spytka Street when suddenly a German entered the shop accompanied by two Poles. The Nazi spoke a couple of sentences to my mother that could only be understood in one way and that was:

“All the Jews of the town of Jaroslaw and the area must congregate today, no later than three this afternoon in the town's stadium, with a parcel of belongings to take with them. The Jews must lock their apartments and business premises, workshops and arrange all the keys together with the addresses of the properties and the personal details of the owner.”
Many of us, in our innocence and naïveté did as the Germans commanded and reported to the stadium. The Germans body-searched everyone carefully taking everything of value they could find, especially money, gold, diamonds, rings and other articles. Many at the same time bullied the Jews with blows and then moved them across the River San.

Many of them (my family among them), understood the intention of the Germans and crossed the river on their own initiative and in so doing saved themselves from robbery, insults and pain. And thus, within one day alone, our town was cleared of all its Jews, leaving behind them quantities of personal property, homes, stores full of goods, workshops

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and also much public community property – splendid synagogues, Study-Houses, schools, the “Yad Harutzim” building, public and other meeting rooms. Most of the buildings in town were owned by Jews and everything remained, everything was confiscated, rapidly and completely and we even had no time to prepare provisions for the journey; The Jews left behind them the organized Jewish lives and traditions that sustained them in Jaroslaw for many generations.

Within two or three days, we were met by the Red Army that was advancing rapidly towards the San which according to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Agreement was to be the international border between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany after the fourth carving-up of Poland.

Most of the Jews of our town spent the winter of 1939-40 in Eastern Galicia.

The spring of 1940 did not bode well, although our townspeople somehow managed to survive with acquaintances and relatives and among ordinary Jews and sometimes with Poles from the Righteous Among the Nations. We were only sorry that there were so few of them.

The Soviet Union brought order to the annexed territories and offered the population Soviet citizenship. The Jews of Jaroslaw as one rejected the offer, considering themselves refugees with the hopes that at the end of hostilities they would return to Poland. They asked to remain as refugees and waived the offer of Soviet citizenship. There is no doubt that the rejection wasn't pleasing to the Soviets and Stalin's reaction was came quickly.

It was a dark summer night when the N.K.V.D. came to visit the refugees - the Jews of Jaroslaw. They ordered our refugees (together with tens of thousands of other Jews who fled when the war broke out), to gather their belongings and once again fulfill the biblical injunction “Get thee out of thy country…”[2].

That same night, guards transferred us to railroad wagons with small windows and we journeyed eastwards in the closed wagons. When we passed Lvov, many of the town's Jews brought us bread, something to drink and other supplies. A few Yiddish words were all that was needed for them to bring as much food and supplies for us as they could get their hands on before the train moved on eastwards. After three days, confined within the wagons and travelling in the direction of Kiev we noticed at every station a conspicuous sign with the word “Kipiatok”– we didn't know why the town “Kipiatok” had so many stations.

At fixed times during the journey, the wagons were opened once a day and we received bread, soup and tea. It was only during the journey eastwards we learned the that meaning of the word – “Kipiatok” was “boiling water” -

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“boiling water” that was so essential for the preparation of tea during long journeys lasting several days.

We continued eastwards.

The train passed through all of European Russia, travelling for a week or two (during which we often stopped for a number of hours). And here we were already in Asiatic Greater Russia. If there had been earlier doubts among the Jews as to where we were going, those doubts now disappeared. The thought of forced labor now gnawed at our minds. We travelled on and on for about 4 weeks until the transport arrived at a town called Barnaul. The biblical injunction of “get thee out of thy country…” continued as far as the area of Topchikhinsky and the village of Topchikha as we penetrated deeper and evermore deeper into endless forests. It was possible to travel for days on end through the Taiga[3]. areas, imprisoned by the forests from which there is no escape or exit.

Our final destination in the Topchikhinsky raion (district) was barrack number 3. It was our “resting place”. We were about seventy Jewish families, some from Jaroslaw: the large Kaufmann family, with Yeshiayhu Kaufmann, the Shachne Rubinfeld family, the Blond Family, owners of the paint shop with their son the veterinarian, Dr. Korman[*]. The Zadok Prinz family, the Sonnenblick family- metal-workers from Jaroslaw, Leib (Arieh) Katz and his family, owners of a grocery store at 4 Spytka Street (who immigrated to Jerusalem and lived there for many years and was privileged to see the reunification of the Eternal City). There were additional families from Jaroslaw whose names have unfortunately slipped my memory.

The first winter started before Rosh Hashanah, we began to bury our dead in ever increasing numbers due to poor living conditions. We suffered from hunger and the cold weather.

When we arrived, we found a large bare barrack block with no partitions and that is where about seventy families were placed. There was no kitchen and no facilities. We “lived together” communally throughout the first Siberian winter. We were selected to work in various forestry works such us chopping down trees. The payment for the labor was barely enough to maintain us for about one third of our needs. We had two Russian work managers as overseers and also an N.K.V.D. officer. We were told quite clearly that we would never leave that place – “No one is ever released from Siberia”; and “if we build for ourselves

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living quarters it will be for our own benefit for we have hands, there is an abundance of timber and no restriction about building a place to live.”

The distress, the hunger, the lack of sanitary conditions and the hard labor had a devastating effect on our community. The religious traditions constituted a crime - public prayer - a crime. During that first winter, we began to count our dead. Among the first were Mr. and Mrs. Kaufmann, who died of starvation and the hard conditions they were unable to withstand. Shacḥne Rubinfeld lost his son from starvation and lack of medication and hospitalization. A significantly equipped clinic was tens of kilometers away (the nearest mail facility was 32 kilometers distant). During the twenty months period we were there, tens of people died, among them the entire group of elders and the youngest children. Only the strongest in body and spirit managed to hold on and were granted “Amnesty” through the Sikorski-Stalin agreement, leaving Siberia for central Asia at the end of the two-year period spent in that “Garden of Eden”.

In the hot central Asiatic zones in the difficult tropical climate of Tashkent, Dzhambul, Alma-Ata and so on (Kazakhstan), we met up with other Jews, many of them from Jaroslaw. The shortage of

 


The Northern Part of the Central Square
On the left Grodzka street

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food and the minimal conditions for mere existence as a result of the war, against the Nazi beast, the illnesses – malaria, dysentery and so on – all these made us very frail.

It was only at the end of the war that a small number of our townspeople returned to Poland but not to Jaroslaw. The anti-Semitic beast had decided unequivocally that the Jewish property and Holy places in our town will remain free of Jews. And thus, it was.

I visited Jaroslaw in 1946. I strolled around many different parts of the town. I was shocked. I didn't recognize my town at all. It was Jaroslaw without Jews – I felt as if the heart had been torn out of me. But worst of all – there were no acquaintances, no friends, no family, no ḥassidim, no Mitnagdim, no Zionists, no Socialists. Everything was strange everything was foreign. Even the Jewish cemetery with its impressive tombstones was as if it didn't exist.

I spent about two weeks in Jaroslaw in the summer of 1946 with my mother, Batya-Basha Katz (Z”L). I covered the town from side to side and from top to bottom, from the church as far as the River San, in the direction of the railroad station, to Dietziusa Street area near the home of Lazar Diller and the municipal hospital in the direction of the Wandoły. Everything was there and in place – but the soul – non-existent. We have suffered enough pain. We left the deserted Jaroslaw without Jews, never to return there.

Again and yet again, our souls directed us onwards – to the Land of Israel.


Footnotes

* The family of Baruḥ Kalchheim (the brother of Moshe Kalchheim - the mainstay of the “Akiva” Zionist youth movement in Jaroslaw before the war Return
  1. Taken directly from the opening verse of the Lamentations of Jeremiah. Return
  2. Taken from Genesis XII; 1.Return
  3. Taigas are subarctic scrub areas found throughout the northern latitudes from Canada to Siberia Return


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In Memoriam

by Alexander Silberman

Translated by Selwyn Rose

When the first days of September came and with them the threats of the bloodthirsty leaders of the criminal people, together with the Polish leaders' proud declarations concerning the “undefeatable weapons of war” that Poland possessed; In an atmosphere between hope and despair, it was possible to hear the weak voices of Jewish optimism of “...the demon is not so terrible”

And thus, on the first of September, 1939 the Second World War broke out with massive bombing attacks by the Germans on defenseless towns and cities and the fate of Europe's Jews and with them the Jews of our town Jaroslaw, where its Jewish community had thrived for centuries was sealed. The contribution of that community to the cultural life of Poland is well known.

On the 8th of September, the Nazis entered the town and conquered it and we, the Jews, were degraded to nothing more than hunted animals by blood-thirsty criminals. Confiscations, robbery, collective punishments and cruelties became daily occurrences.

On 28th of September, we were forced, under weapons' threat, to leave all our homes open and vulnerable for several hours and afterwards we were deported across the River San. That same day, Jaroslaw Jewry ceased to exist and the Jewish citizens of our town became homeless wretches, wandering from place to place, in Siberia in the east, or became prisoners in extermination camps that the Nazis built in the “New Europe”.

Torments and suffering were the lot of some of the Jews of our town and we together with our brethren chopped down trees from the forests of Siberia, mined coal in the Urals, rotted in concentration camps, ghettos or fought with partisans against the common enemy.

And now we are the survivors of the Jaroslaw's Jewry. We have no idea where the bones of our mothers and fathers are strewn, where the children are buried or where our relatives were murdered, whether in Bełżec (Belzhetz) or Treblinka or Auschwitz, Mauthausen or Bergen-Belsen. And now we are the remaining Jewish survivors of Jaroslaw, living in our homeland understanding and knowing full-well the enormous obligation we have to perpetuate the memory of the magnificent Jewish community and how important it is to honor and respect those who are no longer with us; to hand down to our children and future generations a diligent description of Jaroslaw's Jewish community before its total destruction.


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In the Struggle against the Nazis

by Mundek Hebenstreit

Translated by Selwyn Rose

Tragedy was the fate of Poland's Jewry during the Nazi occupation. Before the war the Jewish population numbered three and a half million Jews. At war's end only few thousands remained.

It was particularly hard for Jaroslaw's Jews and their chances of surviving were slight. After being expelled from the town by the Nazis, they were dispersed to several different places completely strange to them and at decisive moments, when the ghettoes were liquidated, they had no acquaintances among the Poles who may or may not have been in a position to prepare hiding places for them and those who did were few and far between. Because of that, the Jews of Jaroslaw perished in their multitudes without the slightest possibility of defending themselves as did some Jews in other places.

Not all of them, for all that, were tortured to death in the camps or at the times of the Aktzias by the blood-thirsty Nazi beasts. There were tens of young Jewish Jaroslaw-born young men, who fought in the ranks of the Polish army or in the Red Army, some of whom fell in battle against the Nazis.

Since I have no names for these fighters, or information as to how they fell, I will describe one of them and by doing so commemorate for eternity all the fallen of Jaroslaw who died with weapons in their hands in battle against the Nazis.

 


Mordecai Hebenstreit

 

Mordecai Hebenstreit was known in our city as a humble and quiet guy who was interested in studies. He was first educated in a Ḥeder and later in a Talmud Torah. Like most children his age, he attended an elementary school and in the latter years

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there he began to find much interest in social ideologies and his perceptions, apparently, tended more and more towards the left. He himself never displayed his views publicly.

His father, a religious Jew, favoring tradition, never sent his son to the gymnasium because there it was obligatory to attend on Shabbat. Mordecai was forced to study his high-school curriculum privately and at the end of his studies successfully passed his matriculation examinations that took place externally, in Lvov. After that, he registered to study at the Lvov Polytechnic.

Mordecai was fully immersed in his studies and only occasionally could be seen on the streets of the town and that was in spite of the fact that his circle of acquaintances was quite wide and he was liked and welcomed by everyone. He was always ready to help, active and modest – and was also very handsome according to the opinion of the girls in his age group.

With the outbreak of the war in 1939, on the 6th day of battles between the Germans and the Poles, Mordecai and I, together with a group of Jaroslaw youth, made our way over the eastern border of Poland. Our leaving was with the blessings of our parents because it seemed more than likely that with the occupation of the town by the Germans they would start torturing and murdering Jewish youth of military age.

It seems that our father was not aware of Mordecai's views because at the time of our departure he gave his son, among other items for his journey, his phylacteries and prayer-book neither of which had been used for a while, saying: “Take them with you and G-d will protect you and have mercy on you”.

We went on our way. After wandering around for a week, we met some units of the Red Army that had crossed the eastern border and invaded Poland. In light of the new situation, we decided to return to our town of Jaroslaw. But at the village just before town, we were stopped in our tracks by what we saw before us.

The Jews of our town, from whom we had parted just two weeks ago appeared terrified while meandering around the rented carts of the local peasants, unloading their belongings and carrying them to the attics of the meager houses of the villagers. Some acquaintances explained to us what was happening.

The Germans had ordered all the Jews of Jaroslaw sent across the River San. All their property, the labor of years and perhaps of generations was confiscated. The people told us that after the town had been occupied, the Germans took thirty Jews, among them our father, as hostages and imprisoned them in the cellar of the Municipality where they were cruelly tortured.

The reunion with our family was painful. My father's appearance

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who's hair had turned white, and his beard chopped, stunned us; we saw the shock on Mordecai's face and we knew that at that moment his hatred of the Germans grew enormously. The Nazis were the enemies of humanity but especially were they the enemies of the Jewish people.

In 1940, Mordecai completed his studies with excellent grades and entered into competition for a post as an aspiring mathematician under Professor Bartel (ex-Prime Minister of Poland). Mordecai won the competition and remained at this position until the outbreak of the war between Germany and the Soviet Union.

On the third day of that terrible bloody war, the authorities in town organized the evacuation of college employees to Russia. By doing so, the administration intended to save the intelligentsia, who were among the first – together with the Jews taken out and executed, in all places occupied by the Germans.

Mordecai and his wife, Hela Krug, left Lvov and turned eastward intending to get as far away as possible from the battle areas. But on the way, when they got as far as Kiev he suddenly changed his mind. He left his wife and enlisted in the Red Army in order to fight against the Nazi conqueror. In a short while, he attained the rank of an officer and was sent to the front.

At the same time, the strong German army succeeded in encircling the Red Army in Ukraine. All this was within the framework of the well-known “Operation Barbarossa”.

The encircled Russians disposed of their arms and uniforms and sought a way eastwards knowing what awaited them if they fell into the hands of the Germans.

Yitzhak Damast of Jaroslaw, and other eye-witnesses serving in the same unit stated that his comrades in arms suggested that Mordecai join them in trying to find a way out of the siege because their situation was hopeless.

Mordecai refused. He voluntarily decided to remain and fulfill his obligation to fight the Nazis. Mordecai stood by his decision and told his comrades that he will not desert the field of battle and will fight the enemy with all his strength.

And thus, it was. A few days later he fell in battle. That same modest man from Jaroslaw died the death of a hero.


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From the Ghetto to the Forest
(The last hours of my stay in the Vilna ghetto)

by Moshe Kalchheim

Translated by Selwyn Rose and Susan Rosin

Looking for Prowodnik[1]

I lived with my friends Jacky Pillersdorf and Steffi Shanzer (today Spiegel, living in Shavei Tzion) in Straszuna number 2 street. On one of the last days of July in 1943, a messenger arrived and told me that Abba Kovner[2] wanted to see me at the headquarters of the FPO[3]. When I arrived, I found a blond woman named Dunka Shapira and from her and Abba Kovner I heard the following story:

A few days ago, a messenger from a partisan unit in the nearby Narocz forest under the command of Fiodor Markow[4] arrived in the Vilna ghetto. The messenger, whose name I believe was Haim, was to get a group of FPO fighters and guide them to the forest. While in the ghetto, Haim began to organize a group of the boys and girls to join the partisans, charging them large sums of money.

Dunka and Kovner said that last night thirty boys and girls left the ghetto in small groups, most of them paying large sums of money, on the way to the assembly point outside of town, as appointed by the guide. When they arrived at the meeting point, it became clear to them that instead of waiting for all to arrive, the guide took thirteen of the group with him and went on. Seventeen people remained, among them some girls, in a wooded area, with some scattered houses. They had no idea where to go.

All night long and well into the morning, they lay low unmoving in the forest anxious to avoid being noticed by the nearby residents fearing they would be reported to the police. In the end, they decided that Dunka Shapira, one of the girls who had distinctly Aryan features, should return to the ghetto headquarters of the FPO and report on the situation. When she arrived in the vicinity of the ghetto entrance, she waited until a group of laborers were retuning and with them, she was able to sneak into the ghetto.

Dunka pleaded that the 17 remaining people be moved from their vulnerable situation in the direction of Narocz forest. I was familiar with part of the way to the Narocz forest.

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I told Kovner that I would be willing to go on condition that my two friends, Steffi Shanzer and Jacky Pillersdorf could come with me and with an additional man who knew the way from Bezdonys to Narocz. An hour later, they called me again and told me they had found a Jewish man, a timber-merchant, who knew the area very well and would lead the group on the second part of the route.

I returned to my friends and found there Hillel Seidel[5] who, unlike us, had lived in the ghetto since it was established and belonged to the group of fighters led by Yeḥiel Sheinbaum[6]. I told them about the conversation with Kovner and my refusal to accept his suggestion to go without them.

While we were still talking about it, the messenger from Abba Kovner came again, calling me back to headquarters. When I got there, Kovner told me that I could take Jacky and he committed to send Steffi with the next group in a few days. I told him I couldn't accept his claim that Steffi's inclusion would endanger the whole operation and added that without her I wouldn't go. But I told him that I would give him my final answer after I had discussed it with my friends.

Leaving Kovner, I found Steffi, Jacky and Hillel waiting for me on the street. They urged me to accept the proposal. Their argument was that not one of us was armed and we had no money to purchase arms. Abba Kovner's promise (to get them out) was worth more than arms. Therefore the plan should be accepted.

I returned to Kovner and told him that I agreed to go with Jacky on the condition that Steffi would be sent to Narocz forest with the next group.

Inside the headquarters, they introduced me to the timber merchant whose task it was to guide us on the trip. I saw in front of me an elderly Jew and with him was his young daughter who was about 13-14 years old. Some unexplained feeling caused my heart to flutter. I asked the Jew: “Are you really sure you know the way beyond Bezdonys?” He replied by stretching out his hand and saying: “You see my hand? I know the area as well as I know that hand; I have lived here nearly all my life.” Although I relaxed a little, I remained skeptical. Unfortunately, I was proven right. Throughout the entire journey, the man was a nuisance. The difficult journey was especially hard on his poor and sickly daughter. It was agreed that we would meet at 7:30 at headquarters; the merchant with his daughter, Dunka Shapira, Jacky and I and from there we will set out, through a secret passage, to the Aryan side.

The separation from Steffi was particularly difficult. For two whole years, we lived together literally 24 hours a day in each other's company as friends and companions under very difficult conditions in the work camps

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of Bezdonys and Biala-Waka and the ghetto. Together we suffered from different illnesses, persecution and harassment and the need to wander from place to place and together we were happy when we began to profit from trade with the peasants and when life became a little bit easier. And now – after 700 long days and nights together like this, we had to part. I consoled myself with the thought that Hillel Seidel, who had proven his faithfulness to us in the past, will certainly care for Steffi when I leave her on her own.

At 7:30 in the evening, we all gathered at headquarters. In place of Kovner there was a member of the Headquarters staff, representing the Communist Party, Chiena Borowski. She informed us that she was going to get us out of the ghetto by a secret passage to Niemiecka Street, on the other side of the ghetto. We began to walk but when she saw Jacky Pillersdorf, she stopped and said that it was decided not to include him in my group but to attach him to the group leaving in two days. At first, I began to protest and said I wouldn't leave without him and it is impossible that within an hour headquarters would break a promise that was given to me by Kovner. She began screaming at me accusing me of sabotaging the safety of the group and the success of the entire operation. She said I should trust the Headquarters of the FPO, and that I cannot endanger the entire operation at the last moment. To this day, I have no idea why Jacky and I eventually gave up. We hugged each other before I went into the building. I waved to him with a sad smile on my face and he did likewise.

After me, there were many groups of FPO fighters who left for the Narocz forest and also to Puszcza Rudnicka. Steffi Shanzer, Jacky Pillersdorf and Hillel Seidel were not among them. All three of them were taken to Estonia in a big Aktion during of the liquidation of the ghetto. Hillel and Steffi survived and are in Israel. Jacky perished in the Klooga camp in Estonia.

 

The Trek to the Narocz Forest - Translated by Selwyn Rose, Edited by Susan Rosin

In the evening twilight, after we had found our way via the attic of the house bordering Niemiecka Street, we were on the Aryan side of Vilna: Dunka Shapira and I walked arm-in-arm like two lovers, while behind us were the timber-merchant and his daughter. We continued towards the hiding place of the group. After a while, we found them without difficulties, safe and sound but extremely tense and nervous. It is difficult to describe their great joy, even though they had to keep it down but they surrounded us, happily kissing and

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hugging us. I asked Borka, one of the group to give me his pistol and he did so without any problems. I began to lead the group and after about an hour we were far from Vilna and the city lights had faded in the distance. We sat down in the forest and for the first time in 24 hours felt we could breathe more easily. We distributed what little food we had among the girls who dined on it gratefully and recovered somewhat, and then we continued on our way.

We knew we had to cross the railroad of the main line between Vilna and Minsk which was most certainly heavily guarded by the Germans. I searched for the easiest way to cross, far away from any station and indeed after many hours of searching, found it. I instructed everyone to remove from their pockets any object that might make a noise to ensure that the guards posted along the tracks would hear nothing as we ran across.

The one person who failed to obey the warning was, as it happens, the second in command – the timber merchant. The moment he started running across the tracks with his daughter a loud noise was heard that froze all of us with fear and dread. It was the rattling sound of tin army mess kit that had been hanging on his belt, had fallen off and rolled on the rails and ballast and in our ears sounded like a thunder. I immediately instructed those who remained with me across the rails to run forward but as soon as we started running gunfire opened from several sources – although fortunately we were far enough away and out of range.

We ran like madmen in the direction of the forest at the side of the track and on into the forest itself until the sound of firing stopped and we found ourselves deep in a swamp that reached almost to our hips. We dared not progress further for fear that it got even deeper – yet neither could we return to where we came from fearing we may not find our way out of the forest. I knew that we were safest in the swamp, hidden by all the tall weeds. Once I was sure that all twenty people were together, we decided to remain where we were until dawn.

When dawn came, we suddenly discovered that the swamp covered only a small area on the edge of a lake on the banks of which stood a single house and anchored close by were two boats. There was a small raised area that was drier. We climbed up there and kept ourselves warm by hugging each other. We were wet, tired and hungry and the morning was bitterly cold. The little girl began to cry and barely stopped all day long. Fortunately, the house on the other side of the lake was far enough away and the sound of her crying didn't carry that far. I found some candies in my pocket and they helped to calm her a bit. Around noon, one of the girls

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remembered that she had a small vial containing a few drops of valerian. She gave the child a large dose and she fell asleep.

The undergrowth hid us all quite well and we could not be seen from the house opposite but we could see what was going on around the house and the area. At about 9 o'clock in the morning one of the residents approached one of the boats got in and began rowing in our direction. We were gripped with fear and it was clear that if he got close he could not avoid seeing us, and then – we knew for sure – that would be the end of us.

Fortunately, the young man rowed to the center of the lake and then turned the boat towards the dry area where he moored it, collected some dry wood from the shore and loaded it into the boat. He worked there for a while before returning home with his cargo.

Throughout the whole day, we sat huddled without moving, making sure to keep low so we wouldn't be seen. In the meantime, the sun came out, warmed us up and dried our clothes. At the same time, thirst began to be a problem and one of the men crawled towards the water and filled a small container and passed it round among the group. Drinking was not simple at all, because in order not to swallow the dirt in the murky water, we spread a handkerchief over the container and through it we slowly drank the filtered water. The hours dragged on endlessly until twilight. We decided to skirt the lake on the dry side, but to do so we had to cross a certain area of swamp that separated the island on which we sat, from the dry area we noticed during the day and assumed it continued to the house in front of us.

When darkness fell, we left the island and through the swamp arrived at the dry area. The swamp was not deep but we still got wet above knee level. When we arrived at the dry area I left the group at some distance from the house. With three of the armed men we approached the house, knocked on the door shouting to those inside to open. Our intention was to obtain food and water.

After a few minutes, the door opened. Together with another man, I burst into the room, leaving the remaining two guards outside. The people inside were very frightened and immediately agreed to our demands bringing bread, white cheese, a portion of butter wrapped in cotton and the woman even took some hot potatoes out of the stove and laid them on the table. At that moment I had an idea. I turned to the owner and told him he has to take us to Vilna because we didn't know the way, threatening the family that if they informed the police, their father would never return home; but if they remained silent and kept the secret,

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he would return towards morning and all will be well. In the meantime, the remainder of the group outside found two large jugs of cream and sour milk. They told the rest of the group to come closer and within minutes all the food was gone. We shared the bread, the butter and the cheese and also the potatoes.

All that took less than 15 minutes and we were on our way again. When we were about a kilometer from the house I told the farmer not to take us to Vilna but actually to lead us in the opposite direction, adding that no harm would come to him but if he deceived us he would be killed.

To our great surprise, he told us he had seen us that same morning but didn't know whether we were partisans or Jews who had fled the nearby town and he had followed our movements all day long and that now he could see we were partisans. He went on to say he hated the Nazis and will willingly help us escape them and get us to our destination. Nevertheless, I decided he should stay with us all day until nightfall and only then we would release him to go home.

We walked rapidly while I, and one of the men walked with the farmer and the rest of the group trailed along behind. We were in a good mood after a day and night of fear, hunger, and thirst. Hearts were quiet, stomachs full and the hike light and easy.

We walked nearly the whole night without a break. From time to time the farmer stopped for a couple of minutes to make sure that all was in order and so before dawn, we arrived at the forest and settled ourselves on a hill from which we could “control” the surroundings without being surprised by sudden “visitors”; all that with thanks to our farmer who now introduced himself to us as Stefan and a true and serious hater of the Germans. He was even prepared to continue onwards with us for another night but was afraid that if he failed to return home that night there could be a disaster. Eventually, during the afternoon hours we decided to let him go and after talking to him some more I knew exactly where we were and how we were to proceed.

At about 4 in the afternoon, it was time for him to leave us. He said goodbye to us with hugs and heartfelt greetings.

As darkness fell, we began walking. On this night, also, we carried on without stopping and towards morning, we arrived at a village known to me. Before entering the village, I left the group behind sheltering in a forest and went in alone. I arrived at the house of a farmer I knew from “business dealings” I had with him when I was in Bezdonys. He was surprised to see me and thought I was long since dead because he had heard that all the workers

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of the forced labor camps had been murdered by the Gestapo. I told him that I was with a group of friends that were waiting for me outside the village, making our way to join partisans operating in the Narocz forest. I asked him if he could spare some food for my friends and me. He cut off a few kilograms of smoked meat added two loaves of black bread and a chunk of white cheese. He put it all in a sack, placed it in my hands and afterwards accompanied me to the outskirts of the village parting from me with the blessing: “May G-d preserve you.”

I returned to the group and when they saw the “treasure” I had brought with me, their joy was unbounded. We shared the food among us and decided we would “dine” either in the middle of the night or in the morning, because it was important to get away as far as possible from the village to avoid any trouble.

That night also passed without incident. In that area I was “at home” and towards morning I found an excellent hiding place where we could spend the day. We sat and ate although thirst was a problem especially after eating the salted meat. We had no option other than to suffer since we could not go out in search for water in the forest.

This time we decided to split into three groups, each had a mix of men and women so that we could sleep in shifts: two groups would sleep while the third would be on guard. Thus, the night passed uneventfully.

When darkness fell, we went on our way. Before we started, I spoke with the timber merchant and told him that starting the next day he will have to lead the group because I no longer knew the area. I estimated that we had another two nights of walking ahead of us to reach the Narocz forest. It then became clear to me that I had no one to rely on. He began to cry and told me that he couldn't remember the area at all and had no idea where we were. He begged my forgiveness in tears for deceiving Headquarters and us but that it had been ten years since he was last in the area and he hadn't the slightest idea how to continue telling me that at night he was completely lost. One of the men attacked him and began beating him and I had to separate them. I managed to calm everyone down by telling them that from tomorrow we would revert to our old tactics of the second night, when we got into the swamp.

I chose the two men again who had the appearance of seasoned partisans and we agreed that we would enter a house at the appropriate time. Encouraged by that decision we went on our way.

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That night everything went wrong. First of all, we were “accompanied” by pouring rain all night long that made walking difficult even within the forest. The mud stuck to our boots and our feet sank into the soft ground. In the middle of the night, a ferocious thunder storm began. It was difficult to continue because we couldn't see what lay ahead of us. In spite of the storm we continued walking. I knew that somewhere in the vicinity was a police station of sorts, always manned by German soldiers. There was no way we could allow ourselves to fall into their hands or we would be lost. Soon we heard through the thunder the barking of dogs but it was difficult to discover how far away they were. We stopped and I sent two men forward to scout out the area. A few minutes later, they returned and told us we were right next to a large village. We decided to take a large curve around the village. It was not an easy task but we had no other option because entering an unknown village was unthinkably dangerous. German units might be there, like the “Todt”[7] or even the Gestapo.

In the meantime the rain had lessened somewhat and we managed to proceed a little quicker. We arrived at the edge of the forest and saw before us open fields and over to the right edge were the last of the village houses. We had to run across the fields – a distance of more than a kilometer. Unfortunately, the fields had just been plowed and we found ourselves in deep mud. Not only was it impossible to run, it was even difficult just to walk because our boots simply got covered with kilograms of mud. We sent the girls on in front and we followed behind so that we could always be there to pull them out of the mud. Eventually we got to the edge of the forest on the other side of the fields, exhausted and at the last reserves of our strength. In the meantime, the rain had strengthened again. Luckily, no one in the village had discovered us and even the dogs had stopped barking.

We sat down in the forest and tried to remove the kilograms of mud that had stuck to us. After about an hour, we started to walk again. We were very tired and wet and just before dawn we found an ideal place: a barn full of hay. We knew we were close to a swamp because usually in these areas, the farmers built their barns next to marshlands and it was a sign that we were not close to a settlement. We went into the barn and buried ourselves in the hay to help ourselves get dry. I told everyone not to fall asleep because wet straw produced intoxicating gases that deaden the senses. (I learned that from the farmers I knew). I set an efficient guard up until daylight. In the morning dry but hungry, we settled down in the

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attic of the barn that had a small window through which we could see the outside area and everything that happened in the surroundings.

During the day, we saw some people picking crops and understood that we might be close to a small settlement or village or maybe just a few homes in the area. I favored the last assumption because there were only few adults in the fields.

We waited until it was completely dark and only then did we leave the barn and began walking in the direction that the people had come from during the day. After about half an hour, we came across an isolated house. I left the rest of the group some distance from the house and together with those same two men from before, we approached the dilapidated house. We knocked on the door and the window at the same time telling the occupants to open the door. The door opened immediately. “We are partisans” I shouted and I entered a large shabby room where I saw five or six people spread out on the floor lying on mattresses.

In spite of the fact that we were all hungry, not having eaten a thing for two days, I couldn't bring myself to demand anything from them but I ordered the oldest one to get dressed and come with us. I said loudly that he was going to take us to the village close by where we stayed the previous night.

The man slowly got dressed and the women began to cry. I told them not to be afraid because the man would return that same night after he had shown us most of the way. As on the first occasion, I warned them that if they told the police or the Germans the man would die and their house would be burnt. My words didn't help and the women continued to cry. We left the house and told the man to lead us. As before, after we had gone about a kilometer, we ordered him to reverse course and take us in the opposite direction. When I asked him if there were Germans in the area he answered that the same morning, the Germans had burned an entire village after they had confiscated a herd of cows, the horses and all the food they could find. The farmers dispersed throughout the swamp area before the Germans had arrived taking with them all that they could manage to carry from their homes. After a walk of about two hours, we were suddenly attacked with gun-fire from the hills parallel to the road. The man who was with us suddenly began to run and in a moment disappeared. We didn't know who had opened fire on us or where the shots came. We started to run across the fields and in a moment became separated from each other. The gunfire stopped just as suddenly as it had started. We began to quietly to call the names of the group and slowly we all became reunited again. We returned to the main road where we found the farmer lying with a gun-shot to his leg. He was the only one who got hurt. One of the girls bandaged his leg. He told us that most certainly the shots were by

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partisans because they came from the high ground where there were no houses.

We asked him if he could walk and he begged us not to leave him because his life would be in danger, from both the Germans but also the partisans who often came to “collect taxes” from the farmers. He also promised he would bring us to a village where he had an acquaintance, who was a contact-man for the partisans in the area.

In spite of hunger and fatigue that we felt, we were happy to hear this information. Two of our people assisted the farmer all the way because of his injury. Another night passed before we arrived in the village and he took us to the contact-man's house on the far side of the village. He knocked on the door calling the name of his friend. When he appeared in the doorway half asleep, our man simply crumpled and collapsed on the threshold and fainted. It was clear to us that he had lost a lot of blood during the walk and using the last of his strength had managed to hold on until he arrived at his friend's house.

The whole house filled with people. The people living there, awakened from their sleep, gave us food and drink, which we did not have for the last 36 hours.

In the meantime our injured guide recovered somewhat and one of the women cleaned and dressed the wound. Towards morning, the contact-man took us out to the swamp, a distance of about 6 kilometers from the village and told us to stay there until evening when he would return to get us. He told us that there was nothing to fear but that the Germans were likely to appear and disturb the neighborhood as had indeed happened the previous day and therefore it was dangerous to walk to the woods in daylight, about 20 kilometers from where we were. That really was a day of rest. At about 4 or 5 in the afternoon, he arrived and told us he had heard that the previous night a group of partisans had attacked a German guard post about 10 kilometers from the village and during the fight two Germans had been wounded.

He brought us food; we ate and then he took us on our way.

 

Finally with the Partisans - Translated by Susan Rosin

After six nights of wandering we finally arrived at the partisans' encampment. We walked fast, and before dawn we entered into a forest. The guide told us that from this point on we were already in the Partisans' territory and we should continue on our own to reach the base. A short while later we heard voices: “Stop. Do not move” – two partisans with rifles

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stood before us on two sides of the road. I told them the secret password I received from Abba Kovner. The guards led us immediately into the base and to Wolodka, the commander of the Otriad (a partisan detachment). After I gave him the note from Abba Kovner, we found ourselves in the midst of Vilna people. When they heard about the arrival of the FPO group, they jumped out of their underground clay homes encircled us with hugs and kisses, asked us endless questions, yelling and dancing.

My old and dear friend Walter Zisser appeared into this pandemonium. He left the ghetto a few weeks before me with a group of FPO members.

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Among them were members of our kibbutz that were arrested by the soviets, but released by the Germans when the ghetto was established. The FPO command decided to send them to the Narocz forest when the first groups started to leave the ghetto.

Not far from Vilna, the group encountered German soldiers who killed two of the members and captured the rest. Walter was the only one who managed to escape. He swam across the Wilia River[8] and after many hardships managed to get to the partisans' base.

For a long while we remained in an embrace, without speaking. Then, we each talked about our escape to the forests. We both had one prayer: May Steffi, Jacky and Hillel and his family join us soon, so we can be together again.

So ended the first period of the holocaust for us, the labor camps and the ghetto and the second period started. This was the time with the Soviet partisans and it was filled with adventure, drama and tragedy. It was a period of armed struggle against the Nazis, but also a serious struggle in the partisan camp itself. It was a struggle against Antisemitism, discrimination against Jews and Jews' hatred by the Soviet partisans.


Translator's Footnotes

  1. A guide Return
  2. Abba Kovner (Hebrew: אבא קובנר?; March 14, 1918 – September 25, 1987) was an Israeli poet, writer and partisan leader. In the His attempt to organize a Vilna ghetto uprising failed, but he fled into the forest, became a Soviet partisan, and survived the war. After the war, Kovner led a secretive organization that aimed to take revenge for the Holocaust by killing six million Germans, but he was arrested by the British before he could carry out his plan. He made aliyah in 1947. Considered one of the greatest poets of modern Israel, he received the Israel Prize in 1970. Return
  3. Fareynikte Partizaner Organizatsye (“United Partisan Organization”; referred to as FPO by its Yiddish initials) was a Jewish resistance organization based in the Vilna Ghetto that organized armed resistance against the Nazis during World War two. The clandestine organization was established by Communist and Zionist partisans. Their leaders were the writer Abba Kovner, Josef Glazman and Yitzhak Wittenberg. Return
  4. Soviet partisans were active in the Narocz forest from the beginning of 1942. The leader of the first organized partisan group in the area was Fiodor Markow. Return
  5. Hillel Seidel (Hebrew: הלל זיידל?, 9 October 1920 – 14 February 1999). A member of the Akiva youth movement, he was involved with the anti-Nazi underground movement in the Vilna Ghetto, and headed the underground in the Klooga concentration camp. After World War II he headed the Akiva movement in Poland until 1947, and was a commander of the Berihah movement until the end of 1947. In 1948 he made aliyah to Israel, where he became head of the Immigrant Absorption department of the World Confederation of General Zionists, a post he held until 1952. He also became secretary general of the HaOved HaTzioni movement and a member of the Progressive Party's directorate. Return
  6. Yechiel (Ilya) Sheinbaum (1914-1943) led the Second Fighting Organization in the Vilna Ghetto. Return
  7. “Todt” – named for its founder, was a non-military Nazi organization eventually responsible for organized forced slave labor Return
  8. The river Neris, (Viliya (Belarusian) or (Polish: Wilia)) rises in northern Belarus. It flows westward, passing through Vilnius (Lithuania's capital) and in the south-center of that country it flows into the Nemunas (Neman), at Kaunas, as its main tributary. Its length is 510 km (320 mi). Return

 

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