by Meir Chadash of Tel Aviv
Translated by Jerrold Landau
In 1943, the Germans rounded up all the Jews who remained in the area from Michaliszki, Svir, Kobylnik, and other towns and sent them to the Vilna Ghetto. 100,000 Jews were concentrated in a small area. At that time, news reached us about the setbacks that the Germans suffered at the fronts, and it was already clear to us that their downfall was approaching. For us, every day was precious. We knew well that we would not be kept in the ghetto for many months.
At that time, news that there were partisans in the Kobylnik area reached the ghetto. The problem that faced many of us was how to get to the forest, to save ourselves from annihilation, and to take revenge on the enemy. Actual details about these partisans reached us from the actions of Commander Markov in that region. Markov, a teacher from Swięciany (Švenčionys) and a Communist from before the war, retreated along with the Red Army at the outbreak of the war. He was sent back through the enemy lines in 1942 and reached the area with the objective of setting up a partisan movement.
We began to prepare for our departure to the forests so we could join the partisans. We would meet together in the evenings after a day of backbreaking work: ChaimAsher Gilman, Herzl Gordon, Berl Reznik, and Chaim Meltzer of Svir. We knew that the partisans do not accept anybody unless they have weapons in their hand. Therefore, the acquisition of weapons was the primary concern of the moment. I had a school buddy named Hershka Warszewczik who served in the Jewish police of the ghetto. He got us our first gun. How great was joy when he brought us that revolver!
The month of April arrived. The cold dissipated and we began to prepare for our departure to the forest. How does one leave the gate of the Vilna Ghetto? ZalmanBaruch Yoel of Svir worked as the head of a group of workers who went out to work in NovoVileka every morning. He agreed to join us to his group, from which we could set out on our journey to the forest.
Through that Warszewczik, we also succeeded in arming ourselves with a forged permit from the ghetto police, confirming that we were deported to work camp in the forest near Lawaryszki (Lavoriskes), about 30 kilometers from Vilna.
We were the first ones to leave Vilna on May 14, 1943. The Germans drafted workers that day. The five of us, along with other workers, arrived, and were permitted to go through the gate. We went out to the Vilna truck station. We arrived in Vileka already during the morning. We received our work implements there without any problems, since they saw the yellow patch on our clothes. We continued secretly to the forest without arousing any suspicion. It was impossible to hide. At one place, we ran into a Lithuanian policeman riding a bicycle, who shouted to us to halt. We immediately decided together that we would approach him and explain that we were on our way to the work camp in Novo Ruski. If he leaves us alone good. If he does not leave us alone we will liquidate him on the spot. The policeman claimed that this work camp had already been liquidated, and requested a permit. We showed him our document from the Vilna ghetto police. Since he did not know how to read, he let us be.
With great difficulty, we reached a certain gentile near Michaliszki. At our request, the gentile obtained a gun for us. Its year of manufacture was 1917. We paid a large sum of money for it. He also drove us to the Vilya River. However, how were we to cross the bridge, with the guard so stringent?! We knew a different, roundabout route, but it passed through a known village of murderers. We crossed the Vilya at night on a barge with great difficulty.
We reached the vicinity of Svir. We obtained information from Misha's sister, whom we had met, that a group of partisans had crossed through the area two days previously, and was about to come back through at any time. We ran into our first obstacle at the meeting place. Hertzka Gordon got a high fever, and we were forced to remain there for an additional night. Suddenly, we heard a scream. At first, we were startled, but then we understood that the partisans had arrived!
There was one Jew in the group of partisans. We explained our situation to him, and he promised us that he would take us into the forest if no additional partisans arrive. He was enchanted by our weapons. We finally went with them. That means they traveled in a wagon and we ran behind them on foot. They promised to obtain a wagon for us.
We reached an isolated house after running for several kilometers. An elderly gentile came out and gave us something to drink. We suddenly heard the women's voices coming from the depths, from the cellar. It was dark outside. I recognized one voice in particular Sara Krovechki! She told us briefly about all her tribulations. We explained to her that we must move on. We met her later in Partizanka.
We approached the area of the partisans, near the Narach and bogs. We arrived at the base. We found Jews there, but the command informed us explicitly that they will not accept us. This was the era after the long siege of the partisans. They did not take our weapons from us.
We found out that certain Jews from Kobylnik were living in the forest. We reached the place, near Rusaki. There indeed was a camp there in which there were also Jews, but we did not find it. We called out in Yiddish and Russian but nobody answered us. The place was abandoned and desolate. Later, we found out that the Jews left and were hiding somewhere else. We searched for them and found them. It is difficult to describe the meeting. This was in the Birurka Forest. We found shadows of people: ill and dirty, with their feet covered in rags. Their hair had fallen out. They were all ill with typhus. Their appearance was unnatural. We remained there for a few hours and continued our journey.
We also found Jews in another place, near Krunis. We remained in the area for a few days. We gathered food at night. The partisans of Mizor Cherkasov operated in the area. He fought against the Germans, but did not accept the authority of the Russians. The man was a great antiSemite. One day these partisans found us, and told us to raise our hands. They accused us of being German spies… They took our weapons and removed our shoes. We were left naked, without anything…
We searched for other partisan groups. We found the man who made the connections. This was on the main road between Myadel and Vileka. After we told him everything that had happened to us, he told us that there are Jews in the area, but he was not willing to tell us the location. After much urging, he brought us to one bunker. The family of the rabbi of Myadel was there. It is difficult to explain the emotions of the meeting. Their situation was better than the situation of the earlier ones. Their only food was black beans.
After days of despair, we found out about a partisan brigade whose commander was a Jew from Moscow. When we met the commander and informed him that we were Jews, he greeted us with Shalom Aleichem He accepted us into his brigade and warned us that we were required to fight. We joined the brigade the next day. The weapons that had been taken from us were returned. Our brigade was nicknamed Istrobital (The fighters). He taught us how to use weapons.
The era of partisan rule in the area and largescale military activity began. We joined these activities, and continued with them until the liberation.
by Zila Charmetz
Translated by Janie Respitz
Edited by Toby Bird
A small Shtetl in Vilna county; similar to many other towns, but a little different. Perhaps it was prettier because of the surrounding forest? Perhaps particularly the Narach?...Fresh air? Through memories, people remember their daily worries, struggling to exist. But they continued to observe the Jewish Sabbath, holidays and Friday nights. Sabbath candles and lamps shone from the Jewish homes in the market. No one seemed to notice what made the week easier or harder...but the celebration of the Sabbath emanated from all the houses. Sabbath, holidays and Friday nights. Sabbath candles and lamps shone from the Jewish homes in the market. No one seemed to notice what made the week easier or harder, but the celebration of the Sabbath emanated from all the houses. Yes, all was fine and good until the outbreak of World War II, September, 1939. Until July 9, 1941, it was relatively quiet; that was the end of autonomous rule. The same day, the first German detachment marched in and immediately we saw the first sacrifices: Tsapnas the barber, Vexler the tinsmith, Chaya-Rivka Gordon and Solomon the teacher. The other 12 were White Russians. In general, it's hard to bear these wounds. Those who experienced it, reading this will remind them of their troubles; those who did not witness it, will find it very hard to believe, that people could carry out such deeds. After July 9th, we lived in tension. We went to forced labour where everyone would meet their fate, in the fields, on the roads, washing laundry, cleaning houses, sweeping streets, cleaning the marketplace or tearing up grass with their bare hands. We were happy; we hoped, believed and waited for something better...but nothing better came. Erev Tisha B'Av, as usual, they gathered 50 men in the Polish school for work. Right after head count, the beatings began. They beat all the Jews, the communists and the Zionists. This was just a game; the lucky ones came out that night; the rest remained to sleep in confinement.
The following day, when we arrived for work, we found those who were abandoned: forgotten and bloodied. It was good that this game had no fatalities. Hitler's army advanced. They moved closer to Moscow, Leningrad and Stalingrad. In fear and torment, we existed until Sukkot 1941. Friday, a few days before Sukkot, an S.S division arrived in our Shtetl with the skull insignia on their sleeves and caps. I, as usual, had no luck and was immediately sent to work with them; the work was impossible. This was a group of animals dressed in the uniforms of Hitler's army. They prepared bags of dirty laundry and said:
You Jews are too dirty to serve us here; take the bags and have everything ready by early Monday morning! March!Saturday evening, the leaders of the division were taking a walk with Burmitch Vantzkavich, may his memory be erased, and with the military police. They walked through the marketplace, but it did not occur to anyone they would carry out the death sentence on everyone! Sunday morning, the S.S came to the police with a list. We didn't know what to Do - to run, or rely on fate. Sarah and my brother-in-law Nosn and I remained at home. Meanwhile, they assembled 48 men and led them to the Polish school. I can see it in front of my eyes, as if it happened today: Rabbi Makovsky and his family, Freidl Levitan with her children, Meir Gavtovnik with his wife and child, the Ratvinik family, the Kravchinsky family. Also: Rabbi Pulik, Kaplan (who lived with Levitan) Greenberg, Yakov-Beinish, Shloyme Yavnovich, Zelig Natzky with his wife from Fadbrodz with his old mother, Gilman and others. This lasted until 10:00. At 11:00 they came to collect more Jews, now only men. No one knew where they were taking them. It appeared they were taking the last group to dig graves. My brother-in-law, Nosn Zar was at the slaughter.
I remember Batia Shteyngart came to us screaming: Help! Yosef is in shock! Save him! I went straight to him and gave him a tranquilizer which I had received from Dr. Dubovsky. She told me they would be useful. We assembled together (through the gardens; 5:00-6:00 because in the evenings, Jews were not permitted to be in the streets!) Jews gathered all their strength to give hope to one another. We hoped they would not exterminate all the Jews, and we would live to see their end. A day later, Avrom Goldzayger, may he rest in peace, came to us and said:
Remember, we Jews were slaves in Egypt. When it was terrible for them they said: 'And the people shouted out.' They were able to carry the burden of their suffering. But it passed and they said: 'Sighs of relief their cries went up. Compare them to us! We have to have strength to cry for our wounds. An end must come to our suffering. But the end did not come quickly or easily. Every day we struggled against death; every day, every week, we bought life. The little accomplices would throw stones through the windows of some houses, they would surround the Jewish houses and demand payment for not breaking their windows. We would pay these little Shtetl Christian boys. The Gentiles from the villages would come to buy Jewish goods. What do you need them for. They'll take everything from you anyways.They compared us to hunted animals. Very few displayed any sense of humanity. From there, to an event that occurred in the forest: One evening, in our mud hut, Shmerl Kacherginsky, may he rest in peace, came to us with Avrom Sutzkever. Through the light that came through the slats of wood, they read us their war poetry. This was the hut of Khasia Krukov. Our eyes were filled with smoke from the fanned kindling, but they were also filled with hope. Perhaps the persecuted, broken Jews will one day be people again?
About the Mass Grave Near Kobylnik Forest
In 1954, people arriving in Kobylnik said they dug up a mass grave in the forest. I went there immediately and saw a separate grave and 2 people sitting in the grave, picking through the sand, searching for valuables. I went to the local authorities and asked for militia and a bloodhound; they refused. I then called Patov and asked for Feyvl Tchernatsky. He came and we covered the grave. The end of that week, I had a dream. I dreamt that Gedalya's Esther-Laya came to me and asked: Have pity. Make sure they cover us. We are cold. The next morning I organizes the Kobylniks that lived in Pastov. Lazar Dimentshteyn gave us a car from his work. Once again we found the grave open. Understandably, we covered it again. A week later, my sister Sarah found the grave open again for the third time. This time, I approached the appropriate authorities. This result was, a certain Russian captain (who was searching the grave for gold), received a ten year sentence. From then on, the grave went untouched. A few years later, Feyvl Tchernatsky, Boruch Naratsky and Lazar Dimentshteyn cemented the mass grave. In 1958, before leaving for Israel, we encircled the entire cemetery with wood. This is how our life in Kobylnik ended.
by Chaim Gantovnik, Ramat Yitchak
Translated by Janie Respitz
Edited by Toby Bird
A Teacher for the Russians
The German Polish war of 1939 found me in Kobylnik. Without looking around or trying to make sense of this created situation we heard that the Germans were bombing Vilna - a small group of us decided we would ride our bicycles closer to the Russian border. But this was already superfluous because on the 7th of September the Soviet Army crossed the border and stretched out a brotherly hand to enslaved brothers.
A new life began under new circumstances. A life that the big accomplished ones from a small town were not prepared and couldn't gain any satisfaction. The youth took it a little lighter and slowly began to acclimatize.
Not knowing the national language (now Russian and White Russian) I was sent to teachers' courses, and after learning for six months I begin to work until summer vacation in a school in the nearby village of Ridufle, in a not exactly elevated atmosphere of peasants, both in attitude and power, both to me as a representative, from a not so beloved people. But again the same without any choice they had to get used to me.
After the vacation I received a promotion and was sent to be a manager of a school in Jejse ( a village not far from Kobylnik), where I don't work very long, because on the 20th of October 1940, I'm called to military service, and after a long journey, ten days later, I arrive in Baku ( Caucasus) in a military school.
It is hard to part with those nearest and dearest, with friends and acquaintances, with everything that for years you were intimate and connected. I long for all of it. I write often and receive letters. Who would have thought I would never see any of them again, and after wandering and returning home not finding anyone among the living.
The war finds me in the army near the Persian border, arriving at the Iraqi border where we meet the English army. We were not there for very long because the armies move forward ravaging everything on the way. They throw us on the front, but also here we don't remain for long. They find among us terrible criminals and they send us deeper into the hinterland to do hard labour. In order to be more isolated than necessary they send us to a deserted penal colony on an island in the Caspian Sea. The sky covers our heads and the four sides of the world are four walls.
On the Penal Colony Island
We work twelve hours a day at hard labour; we build reinforcements in a hot climate with minimal food. After a few months the new inhabitants on this deserted island look like the living dead, the rows become sparse, but war is raging and there is no time to think about such criminals. I become ill with Malaria; I lie in quarantine (a tent with a wooden floor) and get sent to the city to recover.
After spending time in the hospital, I had no energy to return, and remained to work near the city. Hunger, suffering, barefoot, naked, diseases and troubles to no end accompany us to the end of the war. The only hope is to return to my town and maybe find someone beloved and dear.
Unfortunate! My father, mother and little brother were all killed in Kobylnik; my sister and her husband after wandering, were liquidated in Pastov Ghetto. A few survivors from the destruction of Kobylnik told about the cruel days and the cruel destruction.
I had nothing more to do there, so I settled in Vilna. I begin anew, and with the first opportunity I left Vilna to begin a new life.
I went to Poland and from there to Israel. An end to my wandering a calm life for me and a future for my children.
by Yehosua Swidler
Translated by Janie Respitz
Edited by Toby Bird
Gate of Hell
I arrived in Vilna Ghetto after experiencing bitter events in Kobylnik, Svir, Mikhalishak and other places since the Germans occupied our area.
It was evening when the crowd streamed en masse from work back to the ghetto.
This scene left a lasting impression on me. People frozen, young and old, women and men, walked powerless with their heads down, as if sentenced to death. They walked four in a row with sacks and utensils hanging by their sides and stuffed with rags they collected. There was great congestion and upheaval at the entrance guarded by Jewish guards with rubber clubs. A few Lithuanians examined everyone, and woe to the person who had concealed something. This was my first glance at the Ghetto.
Our car drove along Osmianer Street where a place was prepared for us. They sent us to an unheated cellar that was once a warehouse. Water ran from the walls. It rained from the ceiling and the chimney smoked. We regretted our bitter luck.
The police guarded us to make sure nobody smuggled anything into the Ghetto.
Later, we waited a week for a bath and after that we became citizens of the Ghetto together with everyone else.
They quickly put us to work, which was very hard. Every day, we had to wake up very early for roll call. Then they took us to work like slaves. In camp, the discipline was very strict. We were beaten for the smallest transgressions. They disciplined us with various forms of punishment like jail and other things. Besides the physical suffering, we were also torn away from our families. We didn't see the sunlight. We worked very hard from darkness to darkness; the hunger was painful and we had no hope for better times.
At this time, rumors were spreading that they were about to liquidate Mikhalishak Ghetto, where my family was. The Judenrat said whoever has a wife or children in Mikhalishak can bring them to the Vilna Ghetto. Understandably, everyone did all they could to bring their families to Vilna. Later we learned that they actually murdered the Jews in the Mikhalishak Ghetto like savages. Thousands of people were slaughtered like calves, and everything was taken away from them. A few individuals managed to escape and tell the sad truth about what happened in Mikhalishak.
Our group in the Ghetto received an order to wear numbers around our necks like dogs. Anyone caught without a number would be shot. Even children were not exempt. Their hands were numbered with ink, like criminals.
Today We Live
The regular actions embittered our lives. The Providers, like the police and Judenrat, lived better than everyone. They ate well, guzzled and had various orgies. They knew that today they were alive and tomorrow they could be dead.
Many of the youth were demoralized and delinquent.
They sent us to work in rows. If you missed one day of work, you had to spend a night in jail. If we were sick, we needed a certificate from a doctor and these papers were very hard to obtain; we needed protection and luck. Mostly, the healthy sat home and the sick went to work. People took it upon themselves not to go to work. The Lukiszki Street jail was filled with people who failed to show up for work.
An inquiry began in the jail as if we were the worst criminals. Everyone was confined to a locked cell and had to lie on the dirty soil. The walls of the cell were covered with writings and slogans against the rulers of the Ghetto. I too was confined a few times in the Lukiszki Street jail for the same crimes. Later it would become even more strict and the people held back because they knew the first people they would exterminate were those arrested and sitting in jail, together with the real criminals.
The worst off were the refugees from the provinces like the Jews from Sventian, Mikhalishak and Smorgon who were in the Ghetto; they filled all the holes with them. There were groups of provincial Jews that wanted to leave the Ghetto, but this too wasn't easy. Passing the gates proved to be a great danger because they were well guarded. Besides that, if someone was caught, his entire family would be punished. So, very few people took this great risk. Only those who had no family could enjoy the luxury, although their housemates would be punished.
Once escaping began on a large scale, for every 10 people, one was made responsible to guard the other nine friends.
The Struggle for Weapons
While in Vilna Ghetto I met the following Kobylnik Jews: Chaim Asher Gilman with his sister Matle, and Feivl and Benchko Shteingart. Chaim Asher and his sister later left with the Svir gang to join the Partisans in Narach forest.
In those times, it was becoming very important to obtain weapons. Not once did one pay for this work with his life.
There was once an incident when a guy from Svenzia wanted to smuggle a revolver into the Ghetto: a Jewish policeman caught him, and the struggle between life and death began. The young man shot the policeman. Gens himself, the leader of the Judenrat, was almost shot. They disarmed the boy and shot him.
The Gestapo could never learn about this. They secretly buried the boy. Dageg, the policeman, enjoyed a large funeral where Gens himself delivered the eulogy. After that day, there was even stronger control, especially of the provincial Jews.
But all the restrictions could not deter those who were miserable and wanted to search for a way to bring weapons into the Ghetto at any cost.
A new phase of uprisings emerged when Keitel, the famous mass murderer, took over control of Vilna. From then, all strove to escape as quickly as possible into the forest and abandon the Ghetto.
A group of youths took it upon themselves to organize an uprising. Another group began to organize escape to the forest. Some began to build bunkers and Raspberries underground. [Translators note: Raspberry was a code name for hide outs in the Ghetto].
Keitel the murderer was the liquidator of the Vilna Ghetto as well as the fighter against the Partisans. He appeared ordinary and refined and masked his criminal plans. Before coming to Vilna, he had on his conscience thousands of murdered Jews. In Gezdan camp alone, he murdered 1,100 Jews that were confined there.
Transports to Letland (Latvia) and Estonia
In 1943, Keitel ordered six thousand Jews from Vilna to be transported to work in Letland (Latvia) and Estonia; the situation was extremely tense. Keitel wanted the Jews to voluntarily board the trains, but this didn't happen. Jews understood what was in store for them and those who could, hid in the bunkers or anywhere else they could hide. It didn't help matters, when Gens himself went through the courtyards and demanded the Jews, with kindness and anger, volunteer to go.
When no one listened to him, he threatened to rip out the bunkers. The Jews remained headstrong.
In order to carry out the plan the Jewish police had to go from house to house and capture people with force. They also captured Jews from work and stuffed them on to train cars. Through trickery they managed to get a few victims. They sent off one thousand people.
Now the situation worsened and people were afraid to go to work. Life in the Ghetto was paralyzed. A week later, they began again to try to get people to go to Estonia. When they didn't succeed, they blocked the entire Ghetto and the Jewish police, with their own hands, sent those remaining to Estonia.
Panic and Self-Defense
In the first days of September, 1943, the worst days of the Vilna Ghetto began. A dangerous panic ensued, a stampede in the hunt for victims. They searched in all the bunkers, holes and attics. At the same time, many thought if they helped to reveal the bunkers, they would be freed from this turmoil. In time, some showed where the bunkers were. But in the end, the traitors were sent away with all the others who were captured. At this fateful time the youth were creating self- defense organizations. On Strashun Street, house number 12 where I lived, the entire residence was destroyed because it was believed that a shot from the self- defense fighters originated from there.
I was then hiding on Shovelske Street in a Raspberry. I knew absolutely nothing about it. Later I learned that another group of fighters blocked and occupied two residences, and on the balcony of the children's kitchen, set up a machine gun.
The surrounding people were armed with bottles and stones and were ready for any event. But Gens knew what type of consequences could result from this. He evaded the two residences in order to prevent a huge bloodshed and validate the fall of the Ghetto.
The situation became more confined. The Ghetto was locked. Hunger was on the rise; a kilo of bread now cost 150 Ruble. Whoever had the chance to run away from the Ghetto did. There were even rumors that Gens himself was helping people escape from the Ghetto, maybe due to pressure from the Partisans.
The Story of Itzik Vittenberg
In those days the resistance movement was becoming less clandestine, no longer a secret. Shootings and fights between the Ghetto police and members of self- defense organizations were now in the open. I remember the tragic event that happened to the heroic worker Itzik Vittenberg, the commander of the fighting organization in Vilna.
He was betrayed to the Gestapo as a member of the underground movement, and the Gestapo demanded that at any price, Gens should give him up. A life and death struggle began. He wouldn't be taken so easily. The police pursued him, but it was pointless. The Germans demanded the Ghetto residents capture him, and if they didn't, the whole Ghetto would suffer. Vittenberg disguised himself as a woman and no one was able to find him. They knew he was armed with two revolvers and it would be hard to approach him. This death game could have continued for a long time, but he himself decided to give himself up to the Gestapo so the rest of the Ghetto would not suffer sanctions on his behalf. After a day of horrible suffering at the hands of the Gestapo, Itzik Vittenberg gave up his young heroic life.
The Chase of Victims Persists
The Germans continued to capture people and began to tear apart bunkers and other hiding places. The destruction was huge. We saw doors and windows ripped open, window panes smashed, roofs and balconies hung in mid-air. Piles of nails and debris blocked the way. All the streets were strewn with nails and various other items. It was hard to save people lying under the destruction. The chasing of people persisted. You had to be careful not to fall in the hands of the kidnappers.
The provincial Jews were the worst victims. They simply captured them and their families with force and sent them away to Letland (Latvia) and Estonia. I remained for a while hidden in an attic, but the last days of the Ghetto were quickly approaching, the end of the sad life we were living.
It was Tuesday evening, September 14, 1943. Gens was called to the Gestapo and never returned. They shot him in the yard. The news caused great distress throughout the Ghetto. Immediately, various stories and legends began to spread. People deified him and praised his strength and patience. In general it was hard to have a clear understanding of his character. He supported varied politics and hopes in the attempt to save Jews and survive the difficult Hitler years. But unfortunately, this did not work out and his calculations were wrong. He had been a captain in the earlier Lithuanian army, an assimilated Jew who had married a Christian woman.
After Gens' death, Dessler became the leader of the Judenrat, but only for a short time; the Germans killed him too. Later it was Benia Kansky who remained until the liquidation of the Vilna Ghetto. With the change of leadership in the Judenrat, nothing changed in our lives. The destruction and disturbances continued. In time, our block was also ripped apart and I moved to the German street. My wife worked in the children's kitchen so we had some food, which played a big role.
Thousands of people were concentrated on the Hospital Street. We called it the Stock Market. It was here where we could hear and learn about things in the outside world. Many things were made up. There was no shortage of provocateurs and agents who roamed around and spread rumors about the Ghetto. There were two Cafes in the Ghetto which were always filled with people until late at night. This was also a source of lies and gossip. Much of this eventually became true. I wandered around the Hospital Street for many hours, heard so many stories my head could no longer think. With no way out of my difficult situation I began to think about escaping from the Ghetto. To do this, one had to have a revolver and the price of a revolver was 25,000 Rubles. I did not have so much money.
Wednesday September 23, in the evening, nine days after the death of Commandant Gens, the Ghetto was trembling from the announcement that the day of liquidation had arrived. We were given until noon the next day to voluntarily assemble on Rudnitsky Street. Everyone understood what this meant.
It is difficult to describe that moment. I needed nerves of steel to carry this out and remain with clear judgement. One could see heart-rending scenes everywhere. Hopeless and broken, people were running around with no idea what to do. Many who were weary from hunger went on a wild chase through the warehouses, bakeries and kitchens; they broke the locks, tore the bars, destroying and trampling on everything. Everyone grabbed what they could. The police and Ghetto authorities chased after them like wild animals and murderously beat whomever they caught. Women were having spasms; children were crying bitterly. Everyone took their packages and families and gathered at the meeting place. Those who had a bunker hid. Seeing what was going on, I too went with the crowd with a few loaves of bread, and ran home to figure out what we would do.
In our yard there was a Raspberry that belonged to the chimney sweeps. It was the best and the surest, equipped with all the comforts, including big beds and water. The entrance was man made and we got air from a chimney. There was a string attached to the chimney which allowed us to go out and see what was happening outside. The chimney sweeps were really specialists. Who would have thought that they would suffer our greatest defeat the very next day. As I later found out, one of the people in the bunker had no patience to sit underground and crawled out through the chimney to get some air and check what was happening around; the murderers noticed him from above, surrounded the yard and eliminated the bunker. They made everyone surrender voluntarily and captured everyone. They sent a few away to the camps. I remember a few days before they destroyed the bunker, the chimney sweeps demanded all the parents in the bunker who had children under the age of three suffocate their children because they feared a child's cry may put them all in danger and everyone would be killed.
We're Searching for a Bunker
My youngest son was six months old, but besides us there were many parents with small children. It's superfluous to describe the misery of the parents who received this order. My little boy was actually quiet and did not cry, but the others did not agree that he should remain with me. They all said I was no better than everyone else and neither was my child. But there was no way I could suffocate my child with my own hands; so, together with my family, I left the chimney sweeps' bunker. We went into the streets looking for a new hiding place, but it was pointless. There was not a lot of time. I saw people streaming to the exit on Rudnitsky Street. My wife and and I and three children dragged ourselves through the yards, cellars and attics but couldn't find an acceptable place to hide. We finally arrived at 8 Shovelsky Street, where we hid before the big round-up to Estonia.
Here we found a bunker where they let us in. The bunker was built on three stories. The entrance was concealed in a wall in the neighboring cellar.
When I entered I found a packed bunker, around 100 people, among them many women and children. It was stifling. Down in the cellar it was a bit cooler, but it stank because that was where the toilet was where everyone came to empty their needs. This was the spot where I had to lie with my family on the bare earth, but I was happy with this too.
Suffocate the Children!
Thursday September 24 at night. A dead silence looms; everyone was afraid of his own breaths. It was very hot. People were lying half naked enjoying cold water. The air was scarce, without oxygen; it was hard to breathe. The children were crying bitterly. Nothing worked to calm them: not kindness or anger. They cried without stopping. Everyone was losing patience. Everyone's nerves were shot and they feared for their naked lives. We heard the desperate and bitter orders to suffocate the children. If not we would all be in danger. Mothers desperately wrung their hands and with heartrending cries asked: How can we suffocate our innocent babies with our own hands?! But the complaining was pointless. The distress among the frightened people was growing. The children didn't want to understand and continued to cry, not with their own voices. It was decided that the parents take their children, bring them to an empty room nearby and leave them there.
One can imagine the tragic desperation of the parents, how with their own hands, they had to abandon their own children, their flesh and blood, for a sure death. It's difficult to judge; no one can comprehend and understand that fateful, insane moment when everything was chaotic. Time was running short. There was no time to think. We took our children and left the bunker. Remarkably when my child felt the fresh air, he became lively and started to laugh, and looked around.
My wife, the desperate mother, stood frozen and mute, without words. With a bloody hot stream of tears she separated from her child forever. A long time passed before we could calm down. Our thoughts were there where the children were lying down and crying: my child, a boy, a rare beauty, 6 months old, my brother's child, 1 year old, and another child who I don't know who he belonged to. We left them all to die.
We Are Suited For
Friday morning, September 25th. One hundred shadows linger between life and death. One hundred shadows are being hunted by the murderers at any cost.
Everyone is worried and broken. We try to figure out what will happen next. How much longer will be able to sit like worms in the ground, in a dark grave without light or food? We had no choice. We began to adapt to these conditions in order to overcome the time.
Whoever had an electric pan was able to cook. But for most the problem was, why them yes, and us no?! It was decided one can only cook for children and the elderly because the heat and the fumes were unbearable. After sitting locked up for almost three days the air became so stifling it was unbearable. The children became pale, temperamental and everyone suffered from headaches. It was much worse in the cellar. Big blood-thirsty flies appeared. On top of this we lost light due to a short circuit. You could feel the darkness with your hands. We tried to find ways to get rid of the plague. Some people took a potato, made a small hole and poured in some oil with a wick. This provided a bit of light. It was a sad light and a sad life. People lay stretched out on the boards without movement, without life, without hope. In addition, a child got sick with a lung infection. The suffering of the child and the unhappy parents is impossible to describe. The child is running a high fever. His lips are burning. His mother sits desperate over his thin, pale body and bathes him with her bloody tears. She has nothing to refresh him with. No medicine or warm water. We all sit motionless. Heavy sighs are heard from everyone breaking the silence. A weak light shines in our bunker and dark shadows sweep over the walls. The child moans. His parents do not know what to do. They are bitter and prefer to leave, no matter what. The others hold them back from these terrible steps.
I personally have joined the unhappy group in our senseless suffering. Who knows how long we'll have to sit. We have to find a solution. We should try to go out to see if there are still any Jews in the city. We also have to repair the light and open the door to let in a little fresh air. If not, we will surely die.
Sunday night we risked opening the small door. The stream of fresh cool air made us drunk. We stood and swallowed the fresh air. Everyone came alive and had a new outlook. We swallowed the air like a fresh stream of water. A cool breeze came in and the stifling heat left the bunker. The bolder ones crawled from our bunker into other rooms. It became more comfortable and freer.
The night was covered in a thick darkness. We fixed the light and got rid of the darkness which had lasted three days. Our little household took on a whole new look. The children were happy with the light.
We forbade cooking with electricity, and from that day on, every night we allowed a fire to be lit in the adjoining rooms. Everyone cooked what they had and we really revived. We were also now permitted to go to rooms a bit further away. We looked for food and other useful items. I found an expensive library with rare books and a little rare Torah. I had it with me in the camp and I don't know how I lost it. I read entire nights to help pass the time.
Slowly, the people in the bunker became used to the bitter conditions. We began to live a night life. At dawn, when the whole world was waking up, went to sleep, and late at night we began our lives. We were our best when the damned slept.
The men collected wood, food the women cooked. This is how we spent the sad times. Torn away from outside the world, we forgot what daylight looked like and didn't know what was going on.
Tuesday, September 29, 1943. Totally unexpectedly we received a death knock.
We lost our important lifeline water. When we noticed it, we froze. Water! Water! We couldn't live without it. What could we do? The only thing was to give ourselves into the hands of the murderers. Confused and worried with great aggravation, we sought advice on what we should do. As great as our fear was, we had an idea. When night fell, we all schemed where we could find a bit of water to quench our thirst. Some of the braver ones went around to the other rooms, toilets and tea houses searching everywhere. People worked together. It was decided that we had to go to the yard to look for the faucet which decidedly closed. Nobody wanted to go out into the yard. Everyone was sending the other. I volunteered to go and needed to take someone with me. We discussed it for a long time and then a brave woman said she would go with me. Slowly and carefully, like criminals going to do a terrible thing, barefoot, we tiptoed out into the yard. We searched and tapped around in the dark until I found a little iron door deep underground. Unfortunately, the murderers closed all the water. We returned with nothing.
This sad reality left a sad impression on everyone. We had no idea what to do. I believed that if fear is exaggerated, we don't see or hear anything.
There were two places in the Ghetto where we could get water, in the bath on Strashuna Street, and in another courtyard from a pump. Some brave ones went away with buckets and found cold fresh water. Everyone was very jealous of this treasure.
Everyone worried about getting water. It was our biggest problem.
Thanks to our will to live, we permitted ourselves to go through the Ghetto in search of food. We found various products like potatoes, turnips, cabbage and other produce and we would meet people from other bunkers near the water.
They did exactly as we did. We knew they were cooking and baking, even bread.
We also knew that due to carelessness a house burned down in the Ghetto. We were sure we would survive these sad times. We had no idea how refined our enemy was, what vulgar ruin they were directing toward us. They knew very well that taking away our water would force us to crawl out of our holes. They waited for us near the water.
Every night at a set time, Lithuanian and Polish murderers came dressed in civilian clothes. They talked to us and offered to sell us bread and promised to get us out of the Ghetto. This is how they spied on us. The next day, they came to the same places, plowed down every corner, revealed the bunkers and killed everyone.
I Go Searching For Jews
Wednesday I decided to go to the German Street to the Raspberry of the chimney sweeps to learn what was happening in the world, were there still any Jews left, and was there still a chance to be saved. With great effort I found someone to go with me. With great difficulty, and very carefully, we set out on our way because every unsure step could be tragic. When we were finally in the yard, we heard heavy footsteps behind us. We barely managed to crawl into an attic. We then saw two men looking for us with flashlights. They were angry that we disappeared as if into thin air. On my knees I approached the chimney. I knew the entrance. I touched the rope, tried to pull, tear, call out but no one responded. I sensed that the rope with all its force was torn away. We remained lying down in the attic for a few hours and waited for it to be quiet. With great fear we headed back. I then said I will never undertake such a mission again. The mystery remained who pulled away the rope from me, because as I said, the next morning after the action, they were caught and killed.
Thursday evening we were preparing for Yom Kippur. Because Friday evening we had to fast, we feverishly prepared food for the next day. I remember well the sad moment of how the holiday appeared underground. The children ran about the room happily that tomorrow they will have better food. My wife even prepared Tsimes. We were busy all night preparing food. They men took care of everything. They brought water. The wives were busy at the ovens and it didn't dawn on anyone that this would be our last night all together. The children demanded food and we promised that tomorrow they would receive good things.
Who would have imagined that we would not live to eat this food?
Discover the Bunker!
Friday at dawn, Erev Yom Kippur a sign was given that everyone should enter the bunker. Everyone crawled on their stomachs through the door with the hot prepared food. The heavy iron door was locked and we all went to sleep. I was already asleep when my wife woke me. She stood beside me, pale and scared to death. Every muscle in her shook. Get up! A horrible tragedy has happened to us.
Our bunker has been discovered. Frightened by the sudden news, I jumped up from my bed to see what was going on. I went up to the third floor where I found everyone in horrible confusion. The women were crying and wailing, calling for their children and grabbing their bags. The children realized the great danger.
They clung to their mothers. The men stood despondent. I thought about what to do. The murderers were in the next room waiting for their victims. They commanded we surrender otherwise they would destroy the bunker. I tried to break a wall in the cellar that led to a closet but it was pointless because we were surrounded on all sides by Lithuanian, Polish, Ukrainian and German S.S.
We did not stop to ponder. We gave up. The door was opened and two S.S men came and began immediately to take us out. Out! Out! Everyone out! I tried to hide under a bed covered by potatoes. When everyone had left the bunker a Ukrainian searched under the beds. He even shot under a bed, but to my great fortune, in another direction. I was scared and came out on my own. He hit me a few times with his gun and led me to the group.
Walking there, I did not give up hope. Like always, I tried to think how I can get out of the murderers' hands. Utilizing the narrowness of the stairs from the third floor, as quickly as possible, I snuck into a side room and hid behind the furniture.
I entered a small buffet and remained there from ten o'clock in the morning until ten at night, wiggling like a worm. I was afraid of my own breath. I couldn't move or turn around. Time felt like an eternity. Horrible thoughts frightened me. The wound was still fresh. They captured my wife and children and were taking them to their death.
Later a few Poles came into the room to collect the furniture. I lay still and asked God to protect me because they could find me at any moment. They crawled around and rummaged through everything. I heard them joyfully announce that they found something valuable and how happy they were that they were stealing so greedily. I heard one say to the other: What would we do if we found a Jew here? The murderer replied: If we find a local Jew we will hand him over to the Gestapo! This is how I had to spend 12 hours. Every minute my life was in danger.
Suddenly, I froze. I sensed I few steps away from me a Pole was rummaging around. He opened every door and searched. I closed my eyes so I would not see anything. I clenched my teeth and imagined the great celebration they would have discovering me. I hid in a corner. My heart was pounding. My blood was boiling with noises in my head. My lips whispered a prayer and I was covered in a cold sweat. He was approaching my row, but didn't come to the little door. I heard a voice yell Lunch! (in Polish), and everyone left the room. I then breathed more freely and straightened my limbs. When I returned to myself, I began again to think about all the unfortunate ones who would soon be killed. My heart was exploding from agitation. But I tried to comfort myself, and I didn't know what would happen to me. I pulled myself together and told myself I can't lose because so much still lies ahead.
When it got dark I left my terrible unsafe spot and went to look for a hide out.
Here began my martyr's path: Where do I go and where do I look? A broken man, persecuted, I wandered around the quiet dark Ghetto streets looking for a place to hide. I wandered around searching for a long time through the court yards, empty rooms and cellars and could not find a suitable place.
Everywhere and in every corner death loomed. Every step I took could seal my fate forever. The Polish, Lithuanian and Ukrainian criminals, together with the Germans would hide among the ruins and search and rummage in order to catch Jews, if in fact anyone was still hiding and out of their hands.
My troubles did not end there. Besides the Vilna Ghetto I went through all seven gates of hell, also in Germany until I lived to see liberation.
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