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[Page 23]

Chapter One

A day like any other weekday — but the air is filled with a silence that seems to burst apart at any moment. More people walk the streets than usual on weekdays. One passing by casts a silent glance at the other and continues towards the market, where small groups of people are standing and talking. One walks from one group to the next and listens intently to what exactly is being talked about.

It is Thursday, 10 o'clock in the morning. The police are agitated. Every moment another person approaches and tells current news. I am interested to know what is being told in the groups.

I approach one of the groups. One is talking and gesticulating in time with his hands — up and down. A small man with a pointed beard is speaking. He, a Jewish leather merchant, tells the latest news from Warsaw. Staying in this city yesterday, he had felt that the air was filled with gloom. And now he is speaking to this group of curious people, of which I am one. A policeman just passes by and orders us to disperse. Each is leaving in a different direction.

I walked toward our house, but stopped at Odinok's big brick house, which had its windows open. Inside it was full of people. Everyone was waiting for something and turned their eyes up to the big wall clock hanging above the open window.

I went in, but stopped next to the door, because I could not go further: The whole room was packed with people, head to head.

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The air is filled with thick, stuffy smoke. In the corner is standing a small table. On the table — a radio. Around the table are sitting quite a few people with their heads tilted far toward the radio. A quiet, sad music can be heard.

The wall clock ticks to the beat. It shows 10 minutes to 5.

The music is interrupted by a long whistle. One hand of the clock approaches twelve, the other five.

Shortly, a communiqué from Warsaw will be heard.

Everyone pricks up their ears and listens with their mouths half open. Suddenly, a word breaks the silence: “This is Warsaw, this is Warsaw!”

The faces of the people — frightened and pale.

Everyone just wants to know, as quickly as possible, what is coming at them from afar, behind fields and seas. What does he want, the one with the forelock, that Adolf? What does he want from Schmigly [General E. Śmigły-Rydz?] The radio speaks, ”We don't want to give anything away! We will defend every sliver of earth, because otherwise we are doomed to perish! The corridor — this is our existence! Just as a fish cannot live without water, we cannot live without the corridor. We will not give away a single button of our military coat. Victory is with us! Justice is with us! God is with us!“

One looks to the other. One wants to say something to the other. The radio continues to speak: “This morning at 5 o'clock, German soldiers shot 5 Polish border guards — five sons of our people. We will not be silent either. Blood for blood!”

The radio is silent again. After a few minutes of silence, a long, deep moan escapes from our hearts.

People are starting to disperse. Grief lingers in the air. I go back to the street. Again, new groups of people have formed. One man joins the second, still a third comes along. Thus, a group is formed again. One talks, and the others listen with pricked ears.

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People run from one group to the next and listen to what this one and that one says. I walk back down the street toward our house. Now the streets are already full of people. Everyone seems to be keeping a secret, keeping it to themselves.

On the street I meet my comrade, Leizer Temkin. He tells me that there is no more work in the factories and the factory owners do not pay the salaries to the workers, but postpone this until later.

Suddenly I hear a commotion and noise. People walk in the direction of the market square, to Yosl Mostovlianski's gate. I also walk with them and recognize the poster-sticker from the magistrate walking with a smeared footstool in one hand and a bucket of glue, with the stick of the brush looking out of it, in the other hand. In this same hand he holds a bundle of pink papers — rolled up into a kind of tube. He walks towards Mostovlianski's smeared gate and stops there, casting a sad look of pity on the black huddled crowd, where one bumps into the other. Everyone wants to be the first at the gate. From minute to minute more and more people gather around.

The poster-sticker slowly, with trembling hands, takes the brush, stands on the three-legged footstool and again glances at the crowd. The brush smears a bit of the wall and then falls back into the bucket with a thud and a splash. Long fingers grab a piece of paper from the paper tube, and move to the smeared wall.

Everyone turns their eyes to the wall, and the first large black letters appear: “MOBILIZATION”. And after that, already smaller letters follow. I read, “Every citizen of the country between the ages of 18 to 45 is required to stand in defense of our fatherland. Everyone of this age must report to the magistrate and the police. In the event that someone does not comply with

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the regulation, he must answer to the highest tribunal of the court martial. Signature: General Burtsovski”.

Everyone in the crowd has stopped as if frozen. No one move his lips to speak a word. One cast a glance at the other. Tears come to everyone's eyes. Everyone turns around and runs apart hanging their heads down. I quickly go home to break the news. When I come in, I find my father with a newspaper. His other children are sitting there playing. My dad asks me, “What do you hear on the street? Is there anything new?”

I stop transfixed, not knowing what to do. Should I tell the news of the mobilization or not?

I decide to tell it, “On the street, it's a sad atmosphere. They have announced the mobilization of all men 18-45 years old.”

“What, what, a mobilization?” asks Dad, “a mobilization already? So soon? Did you read that yourself?”

“Yes,” I say, “I read it myself. It is written there in big black words”. Ringing her hands, my mother approaches, tears at the corners of her eyes running down her pale cheeks.

Loud wails penetrate the silence, “Oy, oy, my children! What will happen now? Until now we have worked and only just held the children on our laps. Black shadows have come to tear our children away from their mothers, the men from the women and the fathers from the children!”

Each of us sat there, our eyes fixed on our mother. Each of us looked to Mom with compassion and mercy — to all the mothers who now had to send their children away to shed their blood.

My older brother, Osher, approached Mom and said in a trembling voice, “Don't cry, Mom, we won't fight for those who just a few weeks ago were looking for new places for us Jews to be sent out of the land where we were

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born. But now we have to go to the police and report. After all, it's the day before the war”....

The sky is hanging full of clouds. Sadness and melancholy can be felt in every house. The streets are full of people. Women and children are crying. Pleas from children are heard, “Dad, Dad, stay with us! Don't go away!” One image is more horrible than the other. I go out into the street. Before my eyes I see Sheyke Dreyzik. As he walks, he holds a small child in his arms. Another child is running after him. Women and children are crying. Mrs. Meyerovich is walking on the side, holding a small box in one hand, and in the other — a wet handkerchief. She speaks to herself, “My children, who will be like a father to you now?”…

Their father cries without tears, casting a glance from one child to the other. The child he carries in his arms gently strokes his dad's unshaven face. All run in one direction. Again, small groups of people are standing on the street. But already older Jews with beards are standing there, talking to each other. One recalls the war of 1914-1918.

Another says in a confident tone, “Nothing at all will come of it, for, as they say, out of gloomy great clouds falls but a little rain. England and France will come to the rescue and the 'Berlin Haman' will be quickly crushed.”

Another speaks up, saying that yesterday he heard on the radio how the “Führer” shouted with an insolent voice and full of strength that “everything, everything, belongs to us, to our people”. And further, with even more arrogance, “The whole world belongs to us. Our people above all other peoples of the world! 'Doytshland, Doytshland iber ales', [Germany, Germany above all]!”

And the man continues: “yes, we Jews will still have to experience many difficult days. The future can still bring us terrible things!”

I go together with all the people in the direction of the police. The street is black with people. Policemen are walking among the crowd, casting penetrating glances at everyone.

At the police station, the mayor is sitting with a piece of paper, writing down everyone's names and surname. A sound of trucks can be heard. People bump into each other as they make way for the vehicles. In several minutes the trucks are fully loaded

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with people who take last glances at their families and wave their hands. Gruesome scenes. Women fainting, children screaming. The police push the people away, who stand as if chained to the cars. The vehicles start moving with a sluggish sound. One after the other they drive off.

The mayor wants to calm the crying women with good words. He stands on a chair and speaks to the distraught women and children:

“You don't have to cry that your men are leaving you; they are going to defend the fatherland! Our fatherland has called us to defend every little chip. You should be proud that you send your sons to defend our and your fatherland!”
I stopped — not understanding that it was precisely that person who a month before had preached and openly proclaimed anti-Semitism: “Poland only for the Poles! The others should leave our country!”

Just now he said that we should be proud to defend our fatherland. Now, when our blood is needed, they cry out, “You are equal citizens!”

Only a short time ago, people of the 'upper echelon' ordered outright, “Beat the Jews!”. And today we, the Jews, are asked to go and defend Poland.

But anyone who gets on the truck now is not going with the intention of fighting for those who are now hiding in their basements or making a nice day of it. But each of the sons and fathers who now take up a rifle goes to defend himself, to save his family from terrible murderers who want one thing above all: To drink our blood.

The last truck is driving up. I approach to say goodbye to friends. My mother is standing next to the vehicle with her sister. My cousins are carrying small children in their arms. Their husbands standing by hold one hand on the vehicle and the other on their child.

One child cries out: “Daddy, Daddy!”, and his little eyes make him realize and sympathize with what is happening right around: Big, heavy tears fall on the pavement. The truck moves slowly away from the place.

The shouts of those leaving and the screams of those standing still echo through the air. The surge of waving hands rises higher and higher.

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They are hidden by a large grey cloud of dust, and on the sides of the pavement you can see shadows: Women who have fainted. Men are shouting, “Help!” The police disperse the surrounding crowd. Still, the sound of the trucks echo. The crying women are comforted by other people. For a few minutes it remains silent. The police no longer allow gatherings on the market square. The shtetl wraps itself in a painful evening; it is covered by a deep mourning. People are wandering the streets like shadows. From time to time, a car moves by, casting a wide streak of light, only to disappear again into the nocturnal darkness. Groups of people stand next to the houses where radios are located, waiting for the latest reports from Warsaw and Berlin. Everyone is engrossed in conversation.

Going to a window again, I take a look into the room, where people are sitting close together, their eyes fixed on the radio and the clock. The sad radio broadcast is interrupted by a long whistle; we can hear: “Radio Berlin”. Everyone feels the pressure of silence and the beating of hearts. We hear: “Today, the Polish government rejected the legitimate demands of our Führer and our people; the Poles want the war. The Jews from Warsaw, Paris and London are driving the Poles to war. The Polish soldiers are provoking our border guards.”

A tremble is gripping everyone' s limbs. One casts a sad glance at the other. We continue to listen:

“Polish soldiers attacked our border guards today at 2 o'clock in the afternoon. Two have been killed and six were wounded. And there is no end to their aggressiveness. We will not tolerate this any longer. They will have to pay us for all the sacrifices. Our brothers and sisters of the 'Free City of Gdansk' are reaching out to us in search of help. Our people and the Führer will come to the aid of our suffering brothers.”
It is followed by a steely chant: “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles, über alles in der Welt, heute gehört uns Deutschland, morgen die ganze Welt”.[1]
A deep sigh escapes into the air. Everyone wipes
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the cold sweat from their faces. The Jew standing next to me speaks to the crowd going out, “Yeah Jews, he wants the whole world to belong to him. Oh, how unhappy we would be if that became reality. The murderers would eat us all alive!”
And, even more passionately, the same man continues to speak: “Jews, you heard it, 'the Jews of Warsaw, Paris and London want war.' We Jews don't want war, why and for whom should we want war?”

I leave the talking Jews and go on to our house. When I enter the parlor, everyone is sitting silently and looking at me. They ask me, “What is to hear outside?” My mother is sitting at the sewing machine. Next to her, two village peasant women. Osher, my older brother, is sitting with a newspaper in his hand. His head deeply low, he gives me a silent look.

I answer the question, “There's a turbulence in the street. The air is enriched with fear, with what the next day will bring”.

It is already late in the evening. The streets are shrouded in a dead silent haze. I go to sleep, but my thoughts are flying far away to the border where the dead soldiers lie. And immediately, those images come back to my mind — the numerous soldiers, heavily armed, marching to the front. Among them, I recognize many acquaintances from our shtetl who left early this morning with the trucks, leaving a last pleading look to their families. My eyes get tired and slowly fall shut.

When I get up at 7 a.m., the street is black with people. Horror is written all over everyone's face. I go out. Groups of people have formed on the street. I stick my head into a group and hear Mr. Yeshaye Glezer speaking:

“Folks, today at 4 a.m. the Germans attacked the Polish border, but Poland is resisting hard. This is war! War between Poland and Germany!”
I quickly run back, up to the parlor, and tell what I heard.

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kry031.jpg
Anti-Nazi demonstration on the eve of war in Krynki

The following can be seen: Messrs. David Zak, Pinye Garber, the 'zshondtse' (the manager) of the court, the engineer Galinski, David Linski, Shmuel Tenor, Gershon Pruzshanski, Motke Shteinsafir, David Shushanski and Pinye Nievizuski

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September 1, 1939

The youngest day of this month has brought sorrow and pain to all our hearts. The men and women who accompanied their husbands and children to the trucks yesterday, are standing wringing their hands and large, heavy tears are rolling down their pale, trembling cheeks.

I walk towards the market. The whole population is on the street and in the market. Everyone goes to the poster wall from which new black letters are shouting: “Every citizen of the city must prepare for an air raid: The windows must be well closed. No bright shine, no light must be seen. Next to each house must be a barrel of water and sand. Anyone who does not comply with the ordinance will be court-martialed!”

Police officers walk the streets with strained looks, fully armed. Again, everyone runs to the poster wall, where the “sticker” of the city authority is standing, smearing glue with his brush on the old, already read posters. Again we read a message from the police:

“Every citizen is allowed to go out on the street only until 9 o'clock in the evening. There is a state of war in the country. Everyone must submit to the decree. Signed: Police commander of the city”.
I take a look at the clock. It is already 7 o'clock in the evening. Everyone is going home to comply with the government's orders, fully aware that today is the first day of the war. The streets have become deserted. Policemen walk around with heavy, slow steps. Each footstep reverberates. The sky is starry and the air is filled with a mood of mourning. The moon is hidden under a black cloak. From time to time it sticks its head out and casts a comical glance at the dreary shtetl.

Night descends and everyone sits behind covered windows.

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The first day of the war is over. Everyone is asking: what will be tomorrow, what might the next morning bring us?

 

September 2, 1939

From time to time a truck passes by, on which terrified soldiers are sitting. Some cars go to Grodno, others to Sokolka. Within the municipal government there is a tumultuous atmosphere. Several officers have stopped next to the magistrate, and a few minutes later the poster sticker is again gluing new decrees on the wall: “Everyone must deliver his horse and wagon to Viriant's yard. The ordinance goes into effect immediately!”

After a few minutes, sad people can be seen, Jews and Christians, holding their horses by the bridle, walking towards the courtyard, where several officers are standing, receiving the horses and carriages, and handing over a slip of paper, on which is written the sum that the owner has to get for his horse.

While walking, Jewish carters hold the red paper slips in their trembling hands, and their wives at their side walk with teary eyes. Every minute, more and more farmers from the surrounding villages arrive and the place fills up even more with horses. I walk out to the market and see the poster sticker again. He walks with slow steps to the smeared wall, and after a few minutes I already read a new ordinance: “Every man 18 to 45 years old must report immediately to Virian's yard to bring the mobilized horses to a certain place!”

Immediately, I go home, and report the news in the parlor. Tears stream down my mother's pale, gaunt cheeks. Two of us in the room have to leave: Me and my older brother Osher. Everyone is sad. From each house one or two have to leave. Their mothers and fathers are worried, not knowing where their children are going.

We leave, carrying a small bag of bread and water under our arms. Our mothers and sisters accompany us, looking at us

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with teary eyes widened in shock. We arrive at that yard. Our names and families are written down, and then everyone has to line up one behind the other in a long row to get a horse and carriage. Suddenly we hear a noise! The horses get excited, the soldiers start shouting around — the officers as well. Everyone turns their eyes to the sky. The noise gets louder and louder with every minute. And now a white, steel bird is flying above our heads! Some shout, gesturing with their hands, “Faster, hide!” Then everyone drops down, facing the green grass. A stampede breaks out. The horses neigh, and some dash in fright sideways across a plowed field, dragging the broken-down carriages behind them. Every second, the plane descends even lower and approaches the tall pine trees under which people are lying one on top of the other. Their faces are chalky white. Lying down, the soldiers keep their rifles hidden under their bodies.

Next to me stands an officer whose hand has, due to the fright, accidentally fallen into a pile of horse droppings, but he only directs his gaze to the flight of the plane, circling above the tall pines. When glancing at his hands, he says, almost laughing, “Stinks pretty good, but the place is well disguised!”

After the airplane has circled the heads of the lying people several times, a long machine-gun salvo is heard. Some of the bullets chase over the prancing horses and others over the people who at that moment keep their heads pressed low, one lying under the second, like tortoises in the furrow of the earth. After several more hails of bullets, the plane heads towards the city, from which you can already hear the intermittent whistle of the siren, which scares everyone.

As soon as it has become quiet above our heads, the colonel's voice sounds in a command tone: “Quick, everyone on the horses! We start moving!“ And the pale soldiers, rising from the ground, quickly gather with us.

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The co-optees are ordered to pick up the scattered wheels, the shafts of the carriages, and the torn, blood-spattered horse collars from the fields.

Further away, the horses have stopped. White dense steam rises from them as if boiling water had been poured over them. Some of the horses stand on only three feet. Blood trickles from their fourth feet, and the horses' eyes plead for rescue with a mute look. Dense white foam drips from their mouths.

Each of us has grabbed a horse and quickly runs to the broken carriages. The officials are furious, shouting and cursing with every word: “Faster, faster, and if you don't have a carriage, just take the horse!”

After a few minutes, hundreds of horses are lined up in a row on the highway, with pale, frightened Jews and Christians standing next to them.

Mothers and sisters have accompanied their loved ones to the highway, wet cloths in hand. A command is heard, “Depart!” The wheels and hooves spread out on the hard highway and move away from our companions in the direction of Sokolka. We're going slowly. A cool autumn wind blows by and gets under the hair of the horses' manes.

Night falls, a black veil remains between one carriage and the other, and with every minute, the carriages that are in front of you are less visible.

So we trudge along laboriously until large, foggy clouds appear in the evening sky. A cold morning wind whistles through our bones. Many of us have no warm coats and snuggle up to the warm skins of the sweaty horses. We enter Sokolka and stop next to the barracks, where unrested soldiers walk around with their collars up.

After a few minutes of standing, another command is given by the transport leader: “Onward, forward!” None of us knows how long we'll be trudging forward like this. Some of us feel a shiver running down our entire bodies:

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“Maybe all the way to the front, or maybe even further?” We drive again in the direction of Bialystok. The soldiers who accompany us, riding sideways on their horses, know as much as we do.

After a 10 km drive from Sokolka, we are directed from the highway to a dirt road that leads to a dense, black forest. At the edge of the forest, we see small houses with thatched roofs, around which geese, chickens and pigs are cavorting. Deeper in the forest, by the old moss-covered trees, there are soldiers standing and sitting. Blue smoke curls out of a small fire made of dry twigs. The colonel is the first to drive up to the houses, where he dismounts heavily and sleepily from his two-wheeled carriage, and several minutes later his order goes out: “Here the horses are handed over! There will be no further driving!”

The joy is written all over everyone's face. Brothers run to brothers and fathers to their children to share their joy. Everyone is satisfied that they do not have to go any further and will soon return home, under their warm feather beds and under the anxiously caring eyes of their mother.

Above one side of the black forest, a red patch of sky appears, from which a brilliant autumn sun is forming. Its rays fall on our frozen limbs and increase our joy.

Each one goes to a small house where quite a few soldiers are already sitting at a small village table; and each one hands over his horse, one with a carriage, the other without. As a result, everyone receives two paper zloty and is no longer subject to the supervision of the military.

People gather in groups and head home on foot. One group wants to overtake the other, a merry bunch it is! From their little sacks, they pick pieces of bread and smear them with butter or take a bite from a long pork sausage (in the intestine). Others, with all five fingers, hold a piece of white bacon and eat with a good appetite. Moving forward, everyone is eating and taking another look back at where they left entire groups, spread out over the stone highway.

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And so fields, bushes and white little houses quickly pass by, which we didn't even see on the way there. Leaving Sokolka behind us, the spire of the Polish church of Kamenka is already visible. Aggressive village dogs run out and accompany us part of the way until they tire of the futile barking and run back to the peasant huts.

The sun is already at its zenith, moving further towards the horizon every minute. There we are leaving the suburb of our shtetl and can already see the mountain range that lies to the other side of our shtetl. When we reach the first cottages, everyone just runs faster! Everyone wants to be the first at home in the parlor. Mothers and sisters come running out of their houses and welcome their children and brothers with joyful looks, as if they just came back from the front as victors.

It is already the third day of the war. Police discipline is weakening with each passing hour. Gloom spreads through the hearts. News from the front is bad. The Germans are taking new cities every hour.

I go to an open window where there is a radio. Curious people stand at the window, waiting with great impatience for the front report.

We hear: “This is Warsaw. England and France are coming to our aid. Today England has declared war on our enemy Germany”. A cheer breaks out among everyone. People squeeze each other's hands or kiss each other with joy.

“Now we're going to win”, chimes the cheerful voice of a young, Polish student, “now we're going to show them what we are capable of!”

The news spreads quickly throughout the shtetl. Old and young — everyone is happy. Mothers who sent their children to the battlefield cry with joy that they will soon have their children back with them.

A happy evening in the shtetl. The third day of the war — and already such a fortune: we are not alone!

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The fourth day of the war begins with the sound of airplanes over the houses of the shtetl. The alarm siren forces old and young to race. The planes have flown over the shtetl, leaving a silence that lingers in the air. So, the fourth and the fifth day pass quietly.

The reports are worsening day by day. Then a rumor makes its rounds and spreads like lightning over all houses: The Germans are already at the gates of Grodno!

On the sixth and seventh day, there are ongoing news updates.

The eighth and ninth days begin with a police crowd, and like a storm, a rumor quickly spreads through the shtetl: Grodno has fallen; the Germans are already around our shtetl!

A shudder seizes the shtetl. People walk around gloomily. Pious Jews go to the Bes-Medresh reciting psalms. Some decide to fast. Women visit the dead in the cemetery to ask for mercy and help in our great need. (1)

Every minute, the rumor turns out to be more and more true. The police no longer maintain discipline. Police officers gather next to the detention center and it looks like they are preparing to leave the shtetl. There you can see carriages, ready for departure, already. The complete police archive material is packed onto them, and more and more people gather around the carts. But the police are no longer dispersing them. In a few minutes, they'll probably have to leave the shtetl. Already you can see the tear-stained faces of women crying out hand-wringing: “Who will they leave us to? Who will defend us? Who will save us from the cruel hands of the murderer?”

No one to answer that. The population now has to live in this mood of panic.

The police commander shows himself on the stairs, turning to the assembled audience with a trembling voice:

“Go apart! We are not leaving yet. We have only received an order to prepare for a withdrawal if necessary.
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But in the meantime, be quiet and keep order.” Everyone feels the affecting voice in his speech — like a drowning man begging for rescue.

This mood lasts for three days. On the tenth day after the outbreak of war, the police and all officials leave Krynki. The entire population is filled with horror and shock. There we get the message that the Germans are only 10 kilometers away from us. Indeed, we can already hear the shots from heavy guns and tanks. In the sky, squadrons of airplanes are roaring. The siren no longer sends a signal to hide. Everything has died off. With each passing minute, the fright grows even stronger. The streets become empty. All around there is dead silence. From time to time you can still hear the heavy footsteps of Yakob Kazoltshik ( “Yankl Khazer“)[2], who walks all alone with a stick in his hand over the dead streets, and every step echoes. We all are sitting in the parlor with the windows covered. All around is just silence. My little sister also feels the scare. Dad instructs us to get down on the ground in case there is any gunfire. From time to time, heavy cannon shots boom, lingering in the silence of the surroundings. Slowly, I leave the parlor and crawl up to the attic, looking out of the square opening through which I can see the highway leading to Sokolka-Bialystok. My gaze reaches to the wide horizon, where heaven and earth unite. There I see Yakob Kozaltshik walking alone through the streets, holding a loaf of bread with salt in one hand, and in his second — his stick.

I shudder all over my body. The surroundings that my eyes can perceive are lifeless. No sign that there are living people here. The shutters are firmly locked. Yakob is walking ahead to the highway with long strides. A gunshot cracks through the air and echoes in the surrounding silence. My mind goes, “Where is he walking to? Why is he risking his life?” I want to shout through the attic opening, “Yakob, Yakob, don't go, you'll be shot!” But he is already too far away from me. He stops next to the well. I turn my gaze back to the highway.

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Small, dark figures are moving on both sides of the highway. Every minute, they become bigger and clearer. There, I see two rows of steel helmets. By now, they already have reached the first houses! With their guns ready, everyone walks forward with slow steps. I turn my eyes to Yakob: He is standing there frozen, in the middle of the street. Now they are already next to him! A shot is fired and I think that he is already lying in his blood. A tremor runs through me. Now, I already see their glances quite clearly, and each step of their nail-studded boots echoes in the dead silence. A loud shout rings out and echoes through the air, “Hände hoch — Hands up!”

Putting the bread and salt aside, Yakob raises his hands high above his head.

“No rifle?”

“No”, echoes the 'wholesome' reply from Yakob.

“No Poles in town?”

“No, no soldiers”, Yakob replies.

“If we're shot at from a window or a courtyard, you'll be shot, understand?”

A shaky reply, “Yes, sir!” And they walk toward the marketplace. Yakob is going in the middle of the street. The Germans' rifles are pointed at him. Each of their steps reverberates as if they were going over sheet metal. Their murderous eyes check every little corner. They disappear from my field of vision. I look down to the highway. There are small figures to be seen there, but they linger on the spot.

A few minutes later, the heavy footsteps of the Germans can be heard again; they're walking back to the highway from where they had come. They have been the scouts; about 20 people.

For an hour, the previous silence continues.

With each passing minute, the daring in all of us grows, and so everyone tries to keep their heads out of the windows. I decide to go down from the attic. But at the same time I hear that people are already moving on the street — the more audacious ones.

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I go down to the street, despite my mother's plea not to go, because they (the Germans) might come back again. So I go down towards the market, where quite a few people are already standing in a circle. On the side is a box with empty beer bottles. I approach and can hear Yakob, telling what the Germans said to him. “I told them that the city sent me to welcome them!”

All the bystanders burst out laughing, mixed with tears. And Yakob goes on telling us that they asked him how many Jews lived in the city. “And after that they told me: The Jews don't need to be afraid, because the Russians are coming here!”

The words are hanging in the air and everyone asks again, “What? What?”

But he swears by the health of his wife and children!

One looks the other in the eyes, asking silently: “What's wrong? Is Yakob meshugge? The Russians? Why the Russians? Suddenly? They're not even at war with Germany!” “No, Yakob, you didn't listen properly,” says one of the Jews standing by.

But in a flash, the news spreads in the shtetl that the Russians are coming. The majority does not believe it. Everyone is interpreting the news in a different way. Above all, it is believed to be only a provocation of the Germans and not necessary to talk about it anymore.

And while we are standing there talking, there is a shout from the other street:

“Yakob, Yakob!”
Yakob is called! We hear the sound of a motorcycle. Quickly, everyone runs apart to their houses. In the market, motorcyclists are rattling, Krinki is once more in fear. The Germans are entering again from the other side. Sitting locked behind the curtained windows, our panic is growing with every minute. After an hour, curious people are to be seen walking around again. I, too, go back out onto the street to the market. Yakob is standing there, telling a group of Jews and Christians what the Germans said. Again, he repeats the previous words, “The Russians are coming!”

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In the meantime, the Germans have issued a command to organize a citizen police force that will be responsible for keeping peace in the shtetl. In addition, the Germans have ordered bread from the bakers and meat from the butchers for the next day. Tomorrow, they will pick it up. After a few hours, the (most) respectable citizens of the shtetl are already walking through the streets, wearing a red-black-yellow ribbon on their left arm, holding a stick in their hand and chasing everyone into their houses. This now is the citizen police! It consists of Yankl Khazer, Borech Tarlovski, Yosl Mostovlyanski, David Lipkes, Alter Ayon, Fishke Listokin, Motke Shteinsafir, Meilekh Zalkind, Mair Alyan, Cheikl and others.

Every now and then, a small vehicle passes by quickly, in which several officers are sitting, with their eyes piercingly examining everyone at whom they are directed. This is how we experienced the first day under German rule — without seeing a single German in the shtetl. Over and over, two motorcyclists use to come into the shtetl, riding through all the streets, only to quickly turn back. The first day remains quiet throughout.

The second day begins with a vigorous movement of vehicles through the shtetl. At 10 o'clock in the morning, twenty Germans on bicycles and an officer enter the shtetl again. Immediately they give the order:

“The whole population has to come promptly to the marketplace! There will be an announcement about the new rules of conduct for the population!”
After just a few minutes, everyone is on the move: Women, men, old people, small children; nobody dares to stay at home. All of us leave our parlors and go to the market.

The Germans are sitting at “Miriam's parlor”. One sits on a motorcycle, piercing everyone he looks at with his eyes. The others are laughing at an old Jew with a beard who is standing opposite them, shaking all over.

The citizen policemen are standing three steps away and have their eyes studiously watching for the slightest peep of the Germans.

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A cold, murderous yelling starts from an officer who has just stepped out of his car with a long, coarse cigar between his lips:

“Is everything here yet? You bastards, damn it!”
Continuing with exactly this “melody”, he climbs onto the crumbling balcony of “Miriam's Parlor”. With puffy eyes, he looks down at the corpse-pale people chattering their teeth. The other (Germans) also go up. After each step, the old balcony trembles. The police, in which the manufacturers of the shtetl are represented, stand in two rows, like soldiers at the oath on the flag of the army.

A wild, murderous scream rings out , startling everyone. Each one holds their breath, and a dead silence lingers in the air above people's heads. We hear:

“Every inhabitant of this shtetl has to keep quiet and obey the orders of the German army. Every inhabitant has to obey what the police (and he points his finger at the citizen police) orders, because their members were selected by the German army. Whoever does not obey their orders, will be executed by us. There must be complete order in the shtetl, so that the Russians will find everything as it should be”.
Each of us casts a glance at the other, and we have dialogues with our eyes, “What? What is he talking about?”

We are allowed to be on the street until 6 pm. After six o'clock, there will be a state of war. Everyone is going to their houses now.

Quickly, there is a jostling, a stampede. The remaining Germans, who had been standing next to the officer, are pulling hand grenades from under their belts and hold them in the air, ready to drop them on the people. This causes even more terror and increases the hustle. Woman and old people fall down on the pavement, others fall over them. The Germans go down from the balcony and run after the fleeing, frightened people with red, laughing faces. They push them with their feet, shouting wildly, “Jude, Jude!”

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In a few minutes, the marketplace is deserted, as if no one had just been there. The citizen police strut around like winners. Every one of them holds his head high, shouting, even if it's not necessary: “Everybody into the houses! We are responsible for everyone!”

This is the fifteenth day of the war. No one knows what is happening at the front. The majority has hidden the radios, and so the shtetl is cut off from the outside world. There are no Germans in the shtetl. People come out of their houses because it is not yet six o'clock.

Suddenly, we hear the sound of an airplane, and everyone raises their heads to the sky. The sound becomes clearer and louder with each passing moment. Now we can plainly see a white plane, flying over the shtetl. It rotates a few rounds, and then an unfamiliar sound is to be heard. We can clearly identify a star, a red star on the wing of the plane, which is getting closer and closer to the rooftops. Now it is already above us! We recognize two small faces and two hands, throwing down a pack of papers, which fly apart like white doves, driven by the wind. And there, some slips are already falling over our heads, but the wind is playing its game with us, driving the slips away, and dozens of hands are reaching out to catch them. One falls right over our heads. People jump as high as they can, all hands grab a corner of the same paper, and finally, everyone is left with just a white, written scrap of it. I, too, hold a torn off snippet and look at it. It is inscribed on both sides, but it is not legible. The place is full of people now, and the crowd is growing more with every minute. There, again a sheet of paper is flying, sailing down over dozens of hands. I jump up over the heads of the others and manage to catch it.

I quickly run home. The streets are full of people. No one listens anymore to the screams and the clamor of the just created police. I run into the parlor, my father takes off the leaf with trembling hands, and we all stand around him

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with open mouths. Everyone wants to gulp in a word even faster. Daddy reads aloud. We hear:

“To the citizens of Western Belarus and Western Ukraine: the Polish government has abandoned you lonely and miserable — like sheep without a shepherd. Śmigły-Rydz and Beck[3] have fled abroad. You are citizens of our peoples, and we come to your aid. Our government and our comrade Stalin have ordered the Red Army to cross the borders of Belarus and Ukraine, to guarantee your lives and property.

The People's Commissar for Foreign Affairs of the Soviet Union, V.M. Molotov!”[4]

Joy arises in the shtetl! People run into the streets and fall around each other's necks, with tears of happiness and delight rolling down their cheeks. My brother is dancing with joy. Mom is crying. The little sisters are standing around, not understanding what is going on.

The streets become black with crowds of people. Some say that it is a provocation of the Germans and that we will pay dearly for our joy. People still stand together in groups, reading the same over and over again: the last words of the leaflet. Some read it in Russian, others in Polish. But in both languages, it is the same. The last words, “…guarantee your life and fortune”, cause everyone to cry tears of joy.

 

Translator's footnotes:

  1. In Judaism, the invocation of the dead is expressly forbidden. However, there is the idea that one can get in touch with their souls — from Jew to Jew — and thereby bring about a kind of mediation before the Almighty. Return
  2. Yankl Khazer: A nickname. A khazer is a pig (or a coarse, stingy person). Yakob was a broad-shouldered, very strong man, who was called “the Samson from Krynki”. We will learn more about Yakob Kozaltshik (there are different spellings of his name), later. Return
  3. Mashall Edward Śmigły-Rydz and Colonel Józef Beck, see https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Rydz-%C5%9Amig%C5%82y#/media/Datei:Marshal_Rydz-Smigly_LOC_hec_27123.jpg and https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:J%C3%B3zef_beck_1.jpg Return
  4. On September 28, 1939, Vjacheslav M. Molotov signed the German-Soviet Border and Friendship Treaty in the Kremlin, there's to find more here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/German%E2%80%93Soviet_Frontier_Treaty#/media/File:MolotovRibbentropStalin.jpg Return


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Chapter Two

The Russians Are Coming

The streets are black with people whose faces are full with joy. The Germans are not here. The citizen police cannot restore order.

The workers gather in the professional union and decide to organize a demonstration. Everyone is already lulled into a sense of security that the liberators will arrive soon.

Suddenly there is a shouting: “People, go into the houses! The Germans are coming!” And we hear the sound of trucks. Everyone is running, again there is fright everywhere. Two or three trucks appear, with Germans sitting on them, their eyes shining like those of tigers. Everyone flees into a courtyard, the streets are quickly empty. Only the citizen policemen are standing around, pale and scared.

A vehicle stops in the market. A tall, coarse man gets out and casts a piercing glance at the empty surroundings. Screaming around, he calls two policemen to him, who stop three meters in front of him, standing with their arms hanging down like soldiers facing their general.

The German's grumbling is followed by a choppy reply from the police officers:

“Yessir, yessir!”
The German walks to the vehicle and quickly drives off, leaving behind a white cloud of dust that rises above the heads of the police officers.

A few minutes later, everyone already knows what the German officer was talking to the policemen: “No one is allowed to show

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themselves on the street. There must be peace and order in the shtetl. Anyone who goes out on the street will be shot by the Germans who will soon carry out a check!”

Lifelessness is in the air. The joy that reigned just a few hours ago has disappeared. The women are crying again, the old people are moaning.

So two days go by and everyone keeps asking themselves whole the time: “Where are our liberators? Where are those who want to protect our lives and assets?” But no one gives an answer.

On the 19th day of the war those who listened to the radio are reporting that fighting is going on near Warsaw; the Red Army has already taken Baranovitsh and Slonim and is now marching towards us. Germany and Russia are not at war with each other. Germany has signed a 10-year pact with Russia.

After the radio listeners' report, everyone gets all aflutter and asks, “How is it possible that Hitler and Stalin, two bitter enemies, have become 'good friends' since Wednesday[1]? What is going on? What has happened in the world?” Everyone asks, but no one knows the answer.

The early morning is cold and foggy, when I look out the window. Black crows are standing in the middle of the road, rummaging through horse droppings. The “Krakra” of hungry black crows echoes as they fly over each other, from tree to ground and back.

The light footsteps of a sleepy Jewish policeman can be heard, who, while walking, keeps his hands buried deep in his pockets and sneezes from time to time. I go out into the street. People crawl out of their houses and gather in groups on the street corners.

The clock shows 7 am. No Germans here. Every now and then, we hear the sound of a flying by airplane, but we can't see it. With each passing minute, more people gather, and everyone

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keeps asking, “What's to be heard? What will be? And where are the liberators?”

Suddenly, a man appears riding a bicycle with a red flag hanging on it. He rides straight to the municipality, and curious people run after him. His face is full of joy and his eyes sparkle. He stops next to the pole on which they raise a flag on holidays. From his chest, he takes down a big red flag and unwinds it. People run up to him, asking, “David, what are you doing?”

He answers with a smile on his face, “What are you afraid of? The Russians are coming soon! They are already in Amdur, 30 kilometers from here!”

David — this is a farmer from a village who had the chutzpah to do this — even before anyone knew when and if the Russians would come to us. But with every minute, the number of such daring people are growing, who already put red ribbons on their right arms — and they will become our police! The former citizen policemen were already quietly taking off their ribbons and hiding behind the ovens. Those who are wearing red ribbons now, are mostly workers and peasants. Farmer David who was the first to raise the red flag, has become commander of the workers' militia. Now the streets are crowded with people. Old and young, sick ones with frail bodies — all flood the streets of the shtetl. Everyone is aware that soon the liberators will arrive. I, too, am among those who wear a red band, helping maintain the order. More daring farmers from the surrounding villages are already showing themselves. They all come in holiday attire, with red flowers in the lapels. There we see an old farmer approaching, with a long white beard that he has combed wide apart. He sits on a reddish horse whose neck is draped with red flowers. Everyone walks closer to the old farmer, and in a few minutes a large crowd forms behind him. His eyes are shining with joy, and his old, shriveled face is getting younger every minute. Everyone asks

[Page 469

who is that farmer, being so happy? After a few minutes we know that this is the old Pretitzki from the village Arkavutch. His son shot a provocateur in Vilnius and was sentenced to death. But thanks to an intervention of the Soviet government, the death penalty was commuted to life imprisonment. And the (old man) is the father of this heroic son who is now in Vilnius prison, waiting for the moment of his liberation.

The whole marketplace is full of people. Girls are standing with bouquets of red flowers and baskets filled with red apples. Their faces are beaming with joy. Quite a few young lads have gone out to the Grodner highway to greet the Red Army. The demonstrators walk down to Grodner Street with red flags. In the roundabout turmoil, one hears a far reverberating, loud noise. The earth vibrates under our feet. With every minute, the sound of tanks becomes louder and louder. People are jostling one against the other. Children are crying to be taken high in the arms. There, in front, we can see large, steel “forts” sliding down the mountain, kicking up dense columns of dust that cover the early potatoes on either side of the highway.

And now, they are already next to us, they already reach the first houses! Red flowers fall on the heads of the soldiers who, gesticulating with their hands, shout that we should make way. Their eyes shine with joy. In the great turmoil, we hear them shouting, “Comrades, we are your brothers and we have come to free you!”

A long “hurrah” bursts from all our hearts. One person wants to drown out the other. The pavement is covered with red flowers and apples. The tanks drive away one after the other and have to slow down their speed, because the large crowd is pushing closer and closer.

A lieutenant gets out of his tank. He walks dressed in leather black pants, a leather jacket and a black leather hat with half “ little wheels”, like “ Kishkes sausage”[2], on it. He asks the people standing around:

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“Folks, disperse, make way, we still have to liberate many towns and villages; many people are still waiting for us!”
His words have an effect and everyone pushes back. The noise swells again, and stones pop out from under the heavy iron chains. With each moment, even more tanks pass through, accompanied by some trucks and motorcycles. People are already hoarse from shouting “hurray” and there is just a lack of flowers; the baskets are also already empty. So again, those flowers are thrown, which have already lain on the dusty pavement. The men from the Red Army throw back from the tank tobacco cigarettes and Russian newspapers. People fall on each other, and each tears off his own piece of the paper.

For an hour already, the air has been filled with the sound of the mighty tanks, and with every passing moment many more are still coming. All of them drive ahead at a fast pace. The paving stones have jumped out of their places and are lying now between the feet of the people.

My brother hangs on to a tank and the two hands of a soldier grab him; already, he is on top of the tank and slides down with his face down inside. (His) two hands wave at us, and he drives away together with the chasing Red Army to Sokolka.

For four hours already, the steel chains roll over the streets of our shtetl. The surroundings are immersed in red flags. Everyone's eyes are shining with joy. The streets and the market do not become empty of people, but, on the contrary: constantly more and more farmers from the surrounding area arrive. Everyone is dressed in holiday attire. On two poles for electric lighting, next to Mair-Cheikl's stone house, is hanging a large banner with Russian inscriptions.

After the tanks have passed, trucks come with soldiers. They wave their hands, shout and jump one on top of the other in joy. Again, flowers and apples are flying over their heads, like a big rain. From 10 o'clock in the morning to 5 o'clock in the evening, the cityscape is dominated by moving tanks, trucks and motorcycles.

People are all hoarse and tired. The

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militia walks the streets with red ribbons on their arms. Some are already carrying rifles. The commander of the shtetl is Moyshel — Meishel Stamdler, and that of the militia is David, the farmer who first hung the red flag. On the very first day, there are arrests of Polish magistrate officials and others. They are now sitting in the new prison, which they had built themselves — for themselves!

I also get a rifle and stand guard outside the prison. Every hour, the guard is changed. The Russians themselves are not in the city. From time to time a vehicle drives by — always in the same direction. Now the workers are in power.

That's how two days go by. The stores are still closed, the factories are not yet in operation, and public life as a whole is suspended. On the second day, farmers from neighboring villages are bringing the 'Steigho(i)fer' [landowner], who was recently appointed mayor by the government. He is bound with barbed wire and shows black spots under his eyes. He is wearing no shoes and just a shirt.

So the former mayor of the shtetl, who used to cause new grief to its residents every day, is now walking across the street, and everyone is looking at him. He is taken to the militia, and there he gets what is coming to him. Staggering, he is led away to prison. The whole population, both Jews and Christians, felt a strong hatred towards this former mayor, who was in power for only one year. But he now has to pay for his sins against everyone.

So five days have passed, and the workers remain in power. On the sixth day, a Russian commandant's office arrives, beginning to impose widespread order.

Immediately, the stores are reopened, the factories resume their activities, and everything is becoming as before. All but a few of the militias have been withdrawn. There are no new regulations. The “power” decrees that everything should be the same

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way as before. The factory owners should produce again, the factories still belong to them.

Everyone was amazed that the labor power allowed the same system as before. The answer of the “power” is: “Everything comes in its time!”

And later this pledge will get fulfilled.

 

Translator's footnotes:

  1. On Wednesday, 23.08.1939 the “Non-Aggression Pact” between Germany and the Soviet Union was signed. Return
  2. kishke(s) sausage = stuffed intestine https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kishka_(food) Return


Chapter Three

Life under Russian Power

The Red Army has occupied the whole of Belarus and Ukraine.

The borders are set between Germany and Russia. The war between Poland and Germany is stopped. Poland is defeated. England and France continue to fight in the war.

A few days later, the reason why the Red Army moved so quickly towards Bialystok, becomes clear to me. The German “power” that occupied Bialystok, had issued an order to its soldiers to empty the city of all goods that could be exported. But the Russian General Staff was informed about this item and ordered to quickly surround the city and to control every German vehicle driving out of the city. The Germans had already loaded a number of trucks with various textile and sewing machines, wool, copper and many fabrics.

For two days, they were surrounded by Russian tanks and could not leave the city, until Ribbentrop, the German Foreign Minister, flew specially to Moscow to negotiate over the matter. After a few days, the Germans — supported by Russians and local Jews and Christians — unloaded everything from the trucks to leave the city with their heads hanging, accompanied by stones thrown at them from all the windows and balconies. They gritted their teeth, clenched their fists, but they could do nothing: In the course

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of three hours, they had to be on the other side of the city.

Life in the shtetl and work in the factories is going on as before. Stores are open. The money in circulation is still Polish. One does not notice the slightest difference, yet.

Thus, life flowed in the period of two months. And suddenly, on a cold, rainy early morning, there are posters on the walls, announcing great changes in urban life: “All factories and all shops will be nationalized from today!”

Immediately, new faces appeared in the shtetl — people with files under their arms — who went around the factories according to the order. The factory owners had to leave their factories and homes, immediately. The same happened to the big store keepers. It took three days to nationalize everything. Immediately, workers' committees were created, which co-managed the factories. All the special small factories were merged into one big one, which employed the whole Gabarska Street. All fences were removed so that the workers could march freely across the large yard. “Virian's Yard” has also been nationalized and its land handed over to the farmhands, who become the new owners. The same happened with the “Schalker Forest”. All workers had to go back to work in the factories, but no longer for the previous owners. A Russian Jew, named Kroyman, became director of the big factory. Also, a technical director, named Lievit, joined. The former workers were now becoming masters. I also resumed my work in the leather factory and after several weeks, I was appointed master of suede[?]. The surrounding village life also changed immediately. Thus, collective farms have been created, whether the peasants wanted it or not. The discipline was getting stronger every day. A working day lasted from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. late in the afternoon, and factories worked in three shifts, that is, around the clock, 24 hours a day. Our factory was called “Kozsh-Zavad [leather factory] Number 6” — and was one of the largest factories of Belarus,

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with a profitable and high-quality production. The daily wage of an ordinary worker was 7-8 rubles. Most of the workers, and urban residents in general, were engaged in black market trade, although this was strictly forbidden. Everyone in our family worked in the factory. Me, my oldest brother, my father and my youngest brother. After a few months at work, my father loses two fingers of his right hand and remains unemployed. He, no longer working, receives 300 rubles a month. Nevertheless, my mother also has to work — at the sewing machine. Life becomes more expensive day by day, and it begins to be necessary to stand in long queues to get various goods. And in the queues there are people who can get their living and earnings only by selling purchased goods for ten and fifty times more expensive than the purchase price determined by the government; for such activity one risked 5-6 years in prison. But people used to continue doing so, and every day even more, because a factory worker could no longer give his family enough money to live on. From time to time, workers in the factories or stores received various goods at government prices, about which they were, actually, happy. In general, almost everyone was satisfied, although material life was very deprived. (Finally,) everyone was asking, “Well, what if the German murderers had stayed with us?” And every day, sad news came from the other side, the German, because of the terrible suffering of the Jewish population. Every day, Jews arrived, the “bezshentses” (refugees), who told us what had happened to their families and homes. After a few months, individual factory owners and Polish anti-Semites were sent to Russia. The newly arrived “bezshentses” were also sent away to deep Russia at gun point.

Anyway, we were all happy and satisfied that we did not have to live in mortal fear of what the following time would bring. The next day seemed assured to all of us. We saw, and it was also talked about, how strong was the Red Army guarding the borders. There was no work on Sundays.

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The first winter is over. The war between England-France and Germany is growing stronger with each passing day, and then, breaking news that France has fallen! London is shelled with cannons from the English Channel. But the friendship between Russia and Germany is stable, and everyone is glad that we can continue our quiet life.

 

Summer 1941

The youth is prepared for military service. Every day after work, there are drill-units. I, too, learn how to hold a rifle. On May 2, four year groups are drafted into military service for 2 years. On May 6, my brother receives a “note” and joins the military. With him goes my cousin Menie Yelenovich, who comes back after 4 weeks with some more Jewish youngsters. No one knows the reason. They bring a taped up letter, and are sent back to the parlors. My brother serves in an army detachment near Kharkov.

A few weeks after my brother's departure, I am sent to Leningrad for training courses. I travel by train through Bialystok, Minsk, Smolensk, Oryol — to Leningrad.

A new world opens up for me as I take the very first step into the Russian city of Leningrad. I register at the given address and start studying 7 hours a day. Time to visit the city I have very little. I get all confused by the great bustle and noise. Worker's life is very hard after all. I use to study 4 hours of practical and 3 hours of theoretical knowledge. The six weeks are quickly over and the time has come, to go back to my little shtetl, Krynki, starting to work as before.

When I return, I encounter major changes in the shtetl. The former militia commander, David, has been arrested. No one knows the reason, everyone says something different. All former factory owners were sent to Siberia together with their families. The director of our factory is a new(ly arrived) Russian Jew — Fridman. After my return from Leningrad on July 15, I meet with lieutenants of the Red Army.

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Everyone is heavily involved with the maneuvers and somewhat concerned about our “neighbors”. They all claim that they were good friends with the Germans, but they know very well that “the Jekke” is a bloody enemy of theirs and that he will still wage war with us.

On Sunday, everyone sets out to gather in the Shalker Wood, where the colonel of the city's armored division, who has taken up residence in Virian's yard, will give a speech.

It is the 20th of August. The forest is black with people. It is a very beautiful day, the sun is shining and its rays are fanning between the dense trees. The sky is deep blue. Little birds jump over the pine needles from tree to tree, chirping a sweet song. The air is fragrant, everything around is laughing.

The colonel appears, an old, gray, somewhat hunched forward man. He comes accompanied by several high officers and commissioners. Their faces light up when they take a look at the assembled audience. They hang a map between two young trees and the colonel, with a stick in his hand, approaches and takes the floor.

He speaks quietly, deliberately, choppily. From time to time, a loud cough slips out of his mouth, echoing over everyone's heads. His hand with the stick moves on the big linen map. Here he points to England, there to France, and there he shows the island of Malta and the German-Russian border. And further, pointing with his hand to the territory of the earth that is on fire, he says: “You see that there are two thatched roofs burning around us, and we are right in the middle. If only a single spark spreads to our roof, we will be taken over by the flames•. And more emphatically and with fire in his eyes, he continues to speak: “Therefore, we must all be ready and keep our eyes open”.

And his last words are:

“You workers can work with peace of mind and fulfill the government plan. But we, the Red Army, will protect you from
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any danger. We stand ready to defend every sliver of earth if it is attacked”.
These were the colonel's last words.


Chapter Four

War between Germany and Russia

Sabbath, June 20. The day is bathed in warm rays of the sun. The air is stuffy. The streets are almost empty. Every now and then someone walks by, fanning his face with a handkerchief. The workers are working as usual. However, the barbershops are full of officers and commissars. All are waiting in line to sit on the shaving chair and get under the hair clippers. Everyone asks, what's going on that there are so many officers in the barbershop in the middle of the Sabbath? And everyone gets shorn clean! The colonel is also among the waiting people and his short gray hair gets shorn smooth.

“What's that?”, all passers-by asked each other; but nobody knew an answer.

Finally, in the afternoon, the shtetl already has realized why the military people were all shearing off: Sabbath in the morning, the General Staff of the Red Army had issued the order that every military man, without distinction of rank, must be shorn clean, and therefore all officers were sitting there or standing in line, waiting.

I'm coming from work and there is a happy mood in the living room. Everyone in the family is happy: a letter from my brother has arrived!

While standing and washing myself, a militiaman, Motele Roitbard, enters and gives me a note: I am to report immediately to the “Voyenkom”[headquarters][1].

I, immediately, go out into the street and meet many familiar comrades who also enter the 'voyenkom' with the same slips of paper.

No one knows why we are called. But as soon as we

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get inside, we do know! All reservists have been called up for exercises, which will take place in the Shalker Forest.

Right after that, quite a few lieutenants appear, carrying 10 rifles, grenades and two different types of machine guns.

We, immediately, march off into the forest, and first of all, the chief lieutenant gives a speech on the political situation: Thus, we have to be prepared to hold a rifle in our hands. And his last words to us are:

“Comrades, the more sweat that runs from us now, the less blood will run from us in war!”
The exercises lasted until 12 o'clock at night. Everyone was dead tired. Our legs were shaky. We parted and went home, and immediately fell into our beds.

At 6 o'clock in the morning there is a knock on the door. I open it. Again, it is a militiaman who gives me a new note: At 7 a.m., I have to be in the field!

An order is an order, and one must obey, even if the legs do not want to go through such heavy exercises again, as we did last evening from 6 to 12.

There is already a lot of movement in the streets: Everyone is sleepily walking towards the field. When we, a group of Jews and Christians, arrive at the field, three commanders are already waiting for us, who immediately register who has come. At seven o'clock, on the green, still dew-covered field, several hundred young people are already standing and waiting for their order. This early morning is very beautiful. The sun is already warming, the sky is deep blue and covered with small white spots. The air is fresh and fragrant.

We receive the order from the commander that we should all sit down in the grass. And again, the current situation is pointed out — that's why we have to be prepared and must master the use of rifles and grenades.

We are divided into four groups, each with a commander. Quickly, everyone starts marching. After that, a little bit of running and falling.

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“Stand up! And fall again!”, and so it goes many times, until there are heavy drops of sweat on our cheeks, noses and foreheads. Then, throwing grenades follows. All of us already have our shirts stuck to our bodies. And so we go, running, falling, throwing grenades, until 9 am.

Suddenly, our exercises are interrupted by an unknown sound coming from behind the clouds. Everyone jerks their heads up, holding their hands on their foreheads, and we spot a white airplane flying high in the sky above our heads.

We ask each other what kind of aircraft this is, but our commander, immediately, confirms that it is ours, a Russian one, and orders us to continue our exercises.

However, suddenly, we hear a machine-gun salvo, and large clouds of smoke are lingering in the air.

“What is this shooting?” we ask the commander.

He replies angrily that this comes from our maneuvers and starts shouting that we should march on quickly.

But suddenly, we see two Red Army soldiers running in our direction. They are dressed in full war gear. One runs to our commander and stays there for a few minutes. His face is white, his tongue is rising and falling, he is breathing frantically. He talks fast, with choppy words:

“Comrade, it's war!”
The commander leaves the place with a jerk and runs along with the others, throwing a few words at us:
“Comrades, be ready! The moment is here to defend our borders!”
And quickly he runs away. At first, we all stand still as if frozen. But quickly a few comrades start to run in the direction of the shtetl, and I also run along. A loud sound of tanks reaches us, and when we arrive at the marketplace, the tanks are already chasing, all one after the other, in the direction of Bialystok. The colonel is standing with a red flag in his hand,

[Page 60]

his teeth visibly clenched firmly. Each of its limbs moves in a special way.

He shouts, “Faster, faster, ahead! Ahead!”

And the tanks chase one after the other, leaving behind dense gray clouds of dust that fall on the pale people standing around, who do not even suspect what is going on.

After half an hour, everyone is already informed that Germany has invaded the Soviet Union.

On a pole of the electric lighting, in the middle of the market, is hanging a loudspeaker, around which now have gathered black crowds of people, straining their ears. Meanwhile, we hear a soft, choppy music, but soon, the music is interrupted by a speaker, announcing that Molotov is about to give a speech. After a few minutes, the voice that gives the floor to Molotov, answers again.

We hear a shaky, quiet voice, filled with sadness. The market is black with people. Old and young, women and children — all stand around, their eyes turned to the black “bugle”. Everyone likes to be higher than the other to quickly catch the words. We hear:

“Citizens of the Soviet Union! Men and women! Today, at 3 o'clock in the night, the German fascist bandits attacked our peaceful borders, without any declaration of war. Fascist planes immediately dropped bombs on our peaceful cities, such as Bialystok, Grodno, Minsk, Kiev, Kharkov, Odessa and many others. Our government has mustered all its forces to avoid bloodshed. Our people are ready and determined to defend every sliver of earth until the victory over the bandit fascist army! Our armies have counterattacked on all fronts and have broken through the borders in some places.

Citizens and citizens! All to the gun! Everybody

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has to defend his city and his village! With us is the International Working Class! With us is victory!”
The “Internationale” is heard, and then the loudspeaker is silent. Everyone stops as if frozen, as if their feet were fused to the stones. A deep sigh escapes from each, gets caught in the hot air of the surroundings, now filled with the smell of gasoline and with dust. We hear the roar of an airplane again. The militia yells, “Quick, everyone to their homes!” And suddenly, the siren, which is on the roof of the highest stone house, starts whistling. Its choppy sounds evoke terror in the population. The plane flies two rounds over the shtetl and disappears on the blue-white horizon towards Grodno.

The streets are black with people again. Trucks drive there and back. The Red Army soldiers are disturbed and angry.

There, an order from the headquarters: MOBILIZATION!

Everyone receives a slip of paper and must place themselves next to the headquarters. My age group is also called. A great wailing begins. Women run around screaming: “My husband! My child!” It's the same scenes as a year and a half ago.

At 5 o'clock all the drafted people are already ready to march off. There is great confusion at the headquarters and militia. Everyone is angry and upset. The 1921, 1922 and 1923 cohorts are mobilized to defend our shtetl. Each of us is given a rifle. We are now standing next to the militia, and each of us is already holding something in his hand. We are divided into small groups, each of which is assigned a Red Army soldier who is the commander of the group. We receive orders to go to the Polish church to prevent anything from being looted from it. Our group includes 12 people, among them Jews and Christians. So we go to the Catholic church; the keys are held by our commander. Everyone, including the priest, is strictly forbidden to enter the area around the church. Every two hours the guard is changed,

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and in that time anyone can go into the city and help at the 'voyenkom' [headquarters].

The few age groups that were mobilized are led away in closed rows to Gross-Berstavitz, 14 km away from our shtetl. Night has fallen. I have finished my watch and am going back home. The streets are already empty and there is a melancholy mood. Every now and then a few vehicles drive by, their headlights covered. All of them are moving in the same direction, towards the leather factory. I want to know if we will work tomorrow or not. The factory is in operation, its machines roaring. The windows are already covered with black plywood.

I enter the factory. The director, Fridman, and the technologist, Lievit, meet me and give me the order to color all the electric lamps green. So I stay in the factory and start working. The faces of the director and the technologist look upset, their eyes are red. I work until early morning, and all the electric lamps have been already colored. When I had to go to my guard post at 2 o'clock in the night, I was stopped by patrols who demanded special permission from me to be on the street now.

The movement of tanks, trucks, and motorcyclists was much stronger than during the day. Everyone was hastening away in a single direction. The sky is starry, the air is cool, a small wind blows over the warm stones of the pavement, lifting dense clouds of gray dust into the air. The houses are shrouded in blackness, no trace of a light can be seen, everything is shrouded in darkness.

My eyes are sticky with fatigue. I go back to the factory and decide to wait until it gets light so I can go to the changing of the guard.

Meanwhile, I take a nap on the hard work table, placing a bundle of finished leather pieces under my head.

At dawn, the technologist, Lievit, comes to me and

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informs me that he must leave the factory and go off to the front, together with the director.

I ask him, “Comrade technologist, what happened? Why are you leaving? Who will continue to work here?”

“The situation is serious,” he answers me, “we must control the front! In some places our front has been broken, the enemy is attacking strongly. We leave the factory and you will continue to work! We will be in telephone communication with you!”
After listening to the technologist's speech, I decide to go out on the street to hear what's going on around us.

It is 8 o'clock in the morning. The workers are already at work, as they are every day. Their faces all look a little somber. I prepare more dyeing and go out to the market. The whole market is crowded with people. Next of the headquarters are several vehicles on which large, thick books from the headquarters archive are loaded. The old colonel is upset. He hastily runs in and out.

Nobody knows what's going on. The militia and the NKVD [People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs] are all in the marketplace; everyone is distracted. A truck arrives and quite a few lieutenants get out of it, asking for directions to the hospital. On a second truck, several wounded lie next to each other, wrapped in blankets. Their faces are chalky white. They are coming from the front — and now, everyone realizes that the front is near! Meanwhile, the trucks that were standing next of the headquarters have left in the direction of Grodno.

The colonel leaves the headquarters, walking towards the market, which is now full of people.

Everyone has their eyes on the colonel. He stops next to a truck that has just arrived. On this truck are lying wounded soldiers. He talks quickly and excitedly with the lieutenant and then walks with quick steps back to the headquarters.

After a few minutes, the colonel is already sitting on a truck, around which many people have gathered.

One of them asks the colonel: “Comrade Colonel, what is heard

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at the front? What's the situation? What should we do now?”

He casts an upset glance at the assembled audience and replies: “You must defend your shtetl! Everyone with a rifle in hand, even with a knife! Women and children — everyone must fight for each house! We follow the order to leave the shtetl and go to the front!”

The vehicle moves from the spot. The colonel's eyes fall on everyone, standing around: “Comrades! Be heroes! Defend every sliver!” These are the last words of the colonel, who has now left for the front.

The commander of our group also left the same day, and our group was still active until 8 pm on Monday. But there was no discipline anymore. The director and technologist — had already departed. Now the workers are no longer working, but they guard the factory.

 

Monday, the Second Day of the War

The whole shtetl is in fear of what is to come. Everyone asks the other: “What happened to the strong Red Army? Where are all the planes?”

From time to time a plane flies by, but a German one. The airspace is already dominated by German planes, which in low flight bombard every tank and every vehicle.

Monday evening, at 10 pm, there is a strong movement of tanks, trucks and pedestrians. All run sweaty, upset and angry. One shouts at the other. The stones of the pavement are jumped out, lying around under the heavy steel tracks of the tanks. The soldiers ask for the way to Minsk. No one stops, everyone just moves forward quickly. A tank has stopped there! Red tongues of fire burst from its 'pipes' and after a few minutes, the flames are already spreading around the market. The fire is getting bigger and bigger. Three Red Army soldiers quickly rush out of the flames and shout

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to the people who come running: “Run away, run away, artillery rounds are about to crash in!”

And right after these words, we hear several strong impacts. After half an hour, the fire is extinguished by the municipal fire fighters. But the movement is getting stronger with each passing minute.

That night no one from our parlor slept. Everyone stood at the window and looked into the night, how the tanks were passing by and throwing long tongues of fire into the darkness. So we all stood at the windows until gray streaks appeared in the sky, getting brighter and brighter until it was as bright as day everywhere.

I go out into the street, where people with sleepy eyes ask each other how things will be.

It is already the third day of the war. The militia and the NKVD have finished packing to leave the city.

No one knows where the front is. People, passers-by, coming from the Bialystoker highway, say that the Germans are close, only no one knows where exactly. There comes a truck, loaded with sitting and standing women and small children. These are the women of the Red Army soldiers. With each passing minute, more trucks arrive, all heading quickly in the same direction — to Minsk.

Soldiers run by barefoot, carrying their boots on their shoulders. And there are running pilots who left their planes on fire at the Bialystok airport. The youth of the shtetl gather in the market and divide into groups of 6, which, joining the running army, set off. Together with a few more comrades, I also decide to flee. We agree to meet at the marketplace. Everyone goes to his home to take food for the way.

I come into our parlor. My mother sits on the porch with teary eyes and says to me, “My child, what shall we

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do now? Just see, how the Red Army is retreating more and more with every passing moment!” “Mom,” I say in a trembling voice, “I want to leave together with the Red Army to Minsk!”

“No my child, you mustn't go, stay with us”, my mother replies in a tearful voice, with tears streaming down her pale cheeks. My little sister Manyele[1] is also crying. Her small heart is beating very fast. Her eyes look at me pleading: Don't leave us behind, stay with us!

I go into another room and think: What should I do now? Should I wait until the German murderers come back? But then our fate would be sealed! Shouldn't I better go away with other young comrades and fight against the murderers? I don't want to leave my sick parents alone with the little children — but I don't want to stay with them until the murderers come and kill us all! So what should I do?

I decide, to leave together with the Red Army and the comrades who are waiting for me at the market.

Mom sits on the porch, with Manyele in her arms, and cries. Dad is on the street. My young brother digs a pit as a shelter during air raids.

I quickly go to the kitchen and take some food in a white sack, and with shaky steps I go out the back door, casting a last farewell glance at my mother and little sister. I jump over a fence, and from the neighboring yard I run with quick steps to the market.

Neighbors follow me with their eyes. Women wipe their tears with trembling hands. Finally, our house disappears from my sight, and I arrive at the marketplace, where groups are already standing, ready to leave.

 

Translator's footnotes:

  1. “voyenkom” (voyenkomat-воемкомат) — means military commissar. However, to concretize the Russian term, the author puts behind it the Yiddish word “shtab” in brackets, which means “headquarters” Return
  2. Later, she is called “Sonyele” Return

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