In the Woods
I stayed in the basement all night. Big mice jumped on my feet and I did not sleep all night. When I calmed down a bit, it went through my mind whether I am really free. Various images appeared before my eyes: There I see my comrades and my brother, being on the other side of Berezina and preparing to go into battle to liberate our families languishing under the murderous bondage. It sent shivers down my spine, when I thought of the little Kyrgyz man, cutting off human flesh with his dull, rusty knife and having his pockets full of roasted people's flesh. People who were still among the living yesterday. People who had gone to fight for freedom and had fallen as heroes in battle. I also ate from that meat. There are still pieces of undigested human flesh in my stomach. A shudder goes through my body. I spit out and continuously clean my tongue in case a piece of human flesh still has remained there. I am lying on the wet cement, and my eyes are turned to the small open window, from which a thin stripe of gray light comes in and falls beside me. My pants are wet and stained with blood. My jacket is torn. First, I must see to acquire clothes, so that I can leave here. My plan, which I have worked out, lying on the cement floor, is:
I must escape to the forest, and there I will be free
as a bird. There are weapons in the forest, and with a weapon I will get everything and feel bolder and braver.
The large stripe becomes brighter and brighter. It is already daytime. The street is wrapped in a dead silence. The last stars go out. A rooster has crowed and soon a second. I get up and try to go to the window. My gaze falls on the garden, which is covered with dew.
Looking around, I see black clothes hanging in a corner, on the wall from the basement, on which the stripe of light now falls through the window.
Yes, clothes! Clothing from a railroad worker with brass buttons. Everything is present: Pants, a shirt and a coat; a hat lies on the ground. The coat is a little smeared by the white lime of the wall. I clean it and dress like a railroad worker.
Now I decide that when it gets later, about 8 o'clock in the morning, I will go away from here towards the station, to which the forest is very close. I am already ready to go out, but my shoes are torn and very dirty. There is nothing available with which I can clean them. I rub the mud off with my discarded pants. Now, I go to the window and take a look at the garden. All around it is quiet; from the street only moving trucks can be heard. From the position of the sun I conclude that it is already about eight o'clock in the morning. Now is the right time to go out. It will not be noticeable when I go to the railroad.
I am already standing in the garden, on the other side of the window. One jump over the fence, and I'm already on the street. It is silent. Several old women walk around, their heads covered with headscarves, whispering among themselves. I'm about to leave, my gaze turned to the front. Now I have come to the wide road that leads to the railroad.
Several railroad workers walk with fast steps in the same direction as me. Nobody pays attention to me. I take long
steps. I don't feel the sick leg at all. There, I already see the train station, and on its left the forest, to which my gaze is turned. I want to get into his arms as quickly as possible, because then I'll be saved. I turn left, leaving the train station to my side. Several more quick steps, and I have reached the forest! I walk between the tall pines. The path is littered with rifles. Trucks are lying with their wheels up, and around them are empty and full barrels of gasoline, empty and full boxes of ammunition. There is a tank with a thin copper wire around it. No one is coming toward me. The forest is deserted; only the sweet song of a bird and the murmur of the trees can be heard.
Where should I go? In which direction? I do not know. I go where the eyes lead me, somewhere further away from the city and deeper into the forest. I know that the forest is very large. It stretches three hundred kilometers from Minsk to Bialystok. So I have walked for two hours, until I feel a strong pain in my leg and an increasing hunger. I have not eaten for a second day, already. Now I feel weakened and decide to look for an opaque place where I can hide and stay until tomorrow. Then I'll see what to do next. When I opened my eyes, it was already dark around me. The forest instilled fear in me. With every rustle of the branches, I thought that someone was approaching me.
All night, I was sitting in one place. The cold crept into my bones and I could not fall asleep. Various images came to my mind as I sat leaning against a tree and letting my eyes wander into the darkness around me.
The night has seemed so long! I already was thinking that it would last for all eternity, and I would sit leaning against the tree forever. I don't know what time it is because I don't have a watch and the sun is not visible now. During the
day, I estimate the time according to the position of the sun. A gray stripe stretched across the forest, and with each minute it became brighter until I could already see the surroundings.
Birds have woken up from sleep, dancing and singing happily, flying from branch to branch. There, I see a squirrel jumping from tree to tree, squeaking to a second one that is on the opposite tree.
Hunger has overwhelmed me now, in the early morning forest air, and I have seen black streaks before my eyes.
Bread. A piece of bread, that is my only request. I want to get up, but the legs are weakened, and in my head, everything is turning. Everything is spinning before my eyes. With each passing moment , I'm feeling worse and worse. Now, I am going to faint, and soon I will perish. No! Don't despair! Get up! Get up!
I talk to myself, giving myself courage. With my last strength, I get up and stand on my legs, which are wobbling, not being able to hold my body. It pulls me down to the earth. I'm already falling, but (quickly) take another step. (Better, to) rest a little on the thrown apart boxes. I sit down on a box and a cold sweat is gripping my whole body.
A bird has flown down and stands in front of me.
Oh bird, oh bird, bring me a piece of bread, I murmur to the bird, which has noticed me and has disappeared back into the dense foliage.
Not far from me, there is a large, broken box, next to which are lying small, tinny cans. I lie down on the grass and crawl with my whole body forward to the box! Oh, maybe, maybe there is something there to eat, to satisfy hunger, to stay alive!
Just now, I am next to the box. I take one of the cans in my hand, on which is written in Russian, meat. And there, an open can is lying! I tear off pieces of meat with my fingernails and stuff them into my mouth with both hands.
After I have eaten the first can, I have lain on the grass, my eyes turning to the piece of blue that shows itself between the branches. I feel better and the hunger is satisfied. I
can get up already. Now, I have to get a gun. A rifle or a revolver, to defend myself in case they try to catch me.
Guns and grenades are lying around every tree, but all are without locks (bolts?). The locks had been taken out in time by the Russians. I take a machine gun in my hand , thinking: This will be my comrade, but where can I get a lock? A lot of bullets are scattered in the forest, but the main thing is missing a lock!
I decide to go in the direction of Baranovitsh (Baranavichy). But I'm going to walk only at night; during the day, I would better lie well hidden and sleep.
On the third day, next to a gasoline tank, I found a dead Russian soldier sitting there, holding the cog (1a) in his hand, with a deep hole in his chest. Next to him is a machine gun and a lot of bullets. First, I took the machine gun and quickly walked away between the dense trees.
Now, I am already more joyful and I feel bolder, holding the rifle with which I will defend myself and fight for my survival. I have thoroughly cleaned the lock and have inserted a full magazine of bullets. I have also filled my pockets with bullets. In a military sack, I've packed several cans of meat. Now I am full, having in my hand a comrade, who gives me strength to live and fight. I go to find a well-hidden place where I can sleep.
Already in the evening, I have woken up. Every time I take a step, I fall down with my whole body on a tree, hitting my nose. The sky is covered with stars. A cool wind is moving the branches and leaves are falling to the earth.
I walk and feel bolder and braver now. My only goal is, to find a group of partisans and fight together with them. It is the third night that I am in the forest. But now, the darkness no longer frightens me. I feel braver and bolder. With every rustle I hear, I already have the machine gun ready, with my finger on the trigger.
In the same early morning, I see a startled rabbit hobbling by. Immediately, I have taken the machine gun, aiming
and hitting it. The rabbit was lying there with a torn belly.
This was the first shot in my life that I fired at a living creature.
So, I was walking slowly ahead through the forest, and when I noticed a beaten path or a path where horses had been walking with wagons, I quickly moved away from it. My path only led along between dense trees where there was no path or trail.
I lie hidden during the day and march ahead during the nights. On the sixth day, I found a dead Russian soldier, who was already black as a glovnye and from whom a strong smell emanated. I approached him, holding my hand over my nose. Next to the soldier, there has been a piece of moldy bread with yellow flies crawling on it.
First, I took the bread and then started searching in the pockets of the dead soldier. I was looking for fire and tobacco. I found a lighter, but its gasoline had already dried up. I pulled off his boots, which came off his feet with great resistance. Only after fierce efforts, I managed to pull them off. I left my tattered shoes next to the dead soldier. His boots fitted me well.
Now, I became warmer on my feet. I also found a blanket in the forest. And all this was my current inventory. Henceforth, my goal was to obtain gasoline so that I could start a fire, if it was possible (safe).
You only could set a fire when it was very foggy so that the smoke was not visible. Foggy mornings had been very frequent, and there was no lack of and wood and paper. Just the main thing was missing, fire! I already have a lighter, but I still had to get gasoline.
The next early morning, I found a barrel of gasoline, of which I poured a bit into a military bottle, which I also found that morning.
The whole path was covered with various military accessories, which had been very useful to me. I found tobacco and paper and in the time when I would not sleep, I used to smoke and clean my comrade, which I guarded like gold.
I often used to shoot birds and roast them on the fire, and then, with a full belly, I went to sleep. I usually found bottled water, or I drank rainwater. At times, the thirst has been so great that I tend to stand there with my mouth open when there is even a little rain but with the result that the few drops of water tend to make me even thirstier. I also packed a helmet, which served me as a pot for cooking. I usually found snails and frogs in a stream. These I used to fry or to eat raw. Bread, on the other hand, I had very little, my only food was meat. I did not see any potatoes.
So I became accustomed to solitude and almost believed that I had been among birds in the forest all my life, separated from people, from towns and villages.
Once, after three weeks of living in the forest, I left very early in the morning to look for water. My tongue seemed to me like a wooden board, and it had been several days that I had run out of water and no rain had fallen.
Suddenly, I noticed an open field where grain was sown. I was trembling all over: That means I'm close to a village and need to leave the place quickly!
But the thought that I might find water on the other side tempted me to go through the tall grain.
The field was among the woods.
A strong smell of rotten horse is penetrating my nose. I enter the cornfield and notice a large, white parachute, close to which a German is lying, with his face to the sun. He is black as coal and his face is covered with yellow flies. Next to him lies a machine gun and two grenades hang from his belt. Also,
A revolver hangs at his side. I hold my nose with my hand. The smell is so strong that I feel nauseous from the first minute.
His body is swollen. He looks as if there were a pile of stone coal lying there. On one hand, which is stretched almost completely under the body, I discover a watch. The bracelet has dug deep into the flesh. I try to take it off, but I can't. The flesh around the leather strip is rotten. I took the revolver off his belt and stuffed the cog (of the wheel lock) under his watch. That's when it fell off the leather strap. On the second hand, he had a large compass, the sight of which gave me a big smile. I quickly took off the compass and ran back into the forest with joy.
This was the first German I had seen lying with his head shot through. This made me very satisfied and happy. First, because I saw a German, lying in a rotten state with big flies eating him with relish , and secondly, because I got a good revolver and a compass with a watch. The clock and the compass worked well. I set the time according to the sun. I already had a map and now I knew exactly, where I was and where to go next. My joy at winning was so great that I even forgot about my thirst.
Now I had found a good place between young, dense trees. I hid myself well with branches and lay down to study the map with the help of the compass. According to my calculation, I was in the area between Slonim and Baranovitsh (Baranavichy). My further plan was to go in the direction of Bialystok, because partisans had to be there. My only goal was, to meet them. I had already gotten used to the forest, the darkness and the loneliness, as if I had been there and lived there for years.
Sometimes, when I am lying there, my eyes turned to the blue sky, various thoughts and images used to come to me. There I see my Mom, my Dad and all of the family, sitting there,
mourning and crying over me, because I am (supposedly) already among the dead. And there, I see my brother, lying shot near Minsk, and flies are eating him like that German. But I also see other terrible pictures: In our shtetl, the Jews are locked up in the camp, waiting for the day when they will be liberated. And there, I see our shtetl with its happy, proud youth, walking to the Shalker forest on Sabbath, after the tsholent (meal). All this seems like a dream to me now, as if none of this had ever existed, as if I too had been born from a stone, without a mother and without a home.
At times, when the rain is already drenching me to the body and the wind is sweeping through my bones, a thought tends to take possession of me, to put an end to my life; to hold the revolver to my temple, to press the trigger and finished!
For what should I continue to live such a lonely life, without a tomorrow, not knowing what else will happen?
No, I want to wait one more day, maybe I will find a comrade, then I can share my melancholy with him, that's how I used to talk to myself to convince myself to wait one more day.On a day, when the sun would rise again, when the wet clothes would dry and the limbs (bones) would tighten again, I used to reflect:
That world is so beautiful, with its bright sun, with its free forest. And you want to end your life yourself and leave the world forever, not bringing any benefit to the world?I don't want to do that! First fight for life, and finish the fight!
But after several days, when thirst or hunger would torment me, the thought would come again: stop, full stop, finish!
One day after another went by and I was slowly moving forward, not knowing my destination and where to stop. So I drag myself along for 5 1/2 weeks. My leg was already significantly better. Every day, I used to put leaves (on the wound) and they helped to heal. I used to keep my inventory with me at all times while I sleep. I often put the machine gun and bullets right under my head, and sometimes, when I
wake up from a bad dream that someone is standing next to me and wants to pull the machine gun out from under my head, I used to quickly grab the machine gun, looking around with sleepy eyes.
Lying under a tree that just had a lot of birds on it, I felt like shooting a few and waiting for fog so I could roast them.
I take good aim at them and shoot into the flock of birds. The shot has echoed loudly and two birds are falling to the ground. Both have been hit by the same bullet and have torn bellies. It was evening now. I plucked the birds and hid them for tomorrow morning; maybe it would be foggy and I could make a fire.
In fact, as if God himself was with me, the next morning a thick fog fell and I made a fire, roasted the birds and boiled some rainwater that had collected drop by drop during the night. I sat down to eat with a good appetite, drunken from the water. A bird sang to me in a tree and I was happy that everything had gone so well. The main thing is that I had enough to eat and drink. Even if the meat was without salt and half raw, I considered that good. Because very often, I used to eat something completely raw. Now, I was in a good mood. After the meal, I rolled a cigarette and took a deep drag, as if I had just finished a lunch at home.
Sitting there and leaning against a tree, my family comes to my mind, as they all sit there hungry, looking for a piece of bread. I see Mom sitting and crying for me, and my older brother, being a soldier in Russia. Oh, if only the birds, so numerous around me, would carry a letter to my mother that I am alive, fighting for my survival, and that I am healthy and feel free, really as free as the bird(s) around me. Thus, I decide that I will approach our shtetl and enter our house by night to take my father out with a number of comrades. Then we'll be together in the forest, fighting together.
According to my study of the map, I must now be in the area between Volkovysk (Waukawysk) and Zelva. It's not far from the town of my birth, Krynki, only about 40 kilometers. I'll be there in five or six days, and then I'll work out a plan for how to go in or otherwise connect with family and comrades.
I've been in the forest for six weeks and went through everything early on: I was in the hands of the murderous Hitlerists already, I saw a dead German, and I've been between the forest, air and sky for six weeks. While lying there, I mentally work out various plans on how to get into our house during the night and then quickly flee back, taking the youth of the shtetl with me. Then we fight for our survival and against the murderous bandits who condemned us Jews to death.
That night is rainy and a strong wind shakes the trees. I'm sitting right now wrapped in the blanket, which is already wet. Suddenly I hear footsteps! I quickly get up, holding the machine gun ready to fire.
There is dense darkness around me. I can't see my own hands in front of my eyes. Leaning against a tree, I hear (again) footsteps. Small twigs break under each step. Leaning against the tree, I kneel down and look in the direction from which the steps are coming. I hear someone approaching me.
I ask in Russian, Who is there?
Parol! someone answers me in Russian.[Page 111]
Who are you? What are you doing there?, I hear a voice again.
I am one of you!
From which city?
I'm from Krynki.
Did you know Levit?
Levit! Levit!, I shout loudly in a joyful voice. Of course I knew him!
Well, that's me. I am Levit! the voice answers me and the person approaches.
After he arrived next to me, lighting a headlight, he fell on me and we kissed as brothers. This was Levit the technologist from the factory where we had worked together.
We sit down next to a tree, and I tell him about my journey, how I got here, and how I escaped from the death camp. I tell him everything in detail, how the Jews were taken away on trucks into the forest to be shot, and so on. Levit tells me his experiences and that he is now in the forest with a group of comrades. There are 32 of them; many are former employees of the governing institutions of Krynki, such as the secretary of the raykos (party committee), the chairman of the NKVD and the director of our leather factory, Fridman.
My first words to him were, comrade Levit, you must include me in your group!
I can't decide that on my own. We have a commander, and he will decide about. I and Fridman will see to get you accepted into our group. We are here, in this area. Wait until tomorrow at the same time, and I will tell you the answer. Now I have to go, because it is already late, and I have to be back in the bunker at 5 o'clock.We said goodbye until tomorrow. The whole day seemed to me like a year. Every moment I looked at the clock and could not find peace. Finally, night fell, and at the appointed hour Levit appeared in the darkness, reciting his watchword that we had determined yesterday.
Comrade Alyosha, you will be with us! were his first words when we met. My joy was so great that I danced like a child.[Page 112]
Levit patted me on the shoulder, and after half an hour we were already standing at the entrance to the bunker a hollowed-out tree.
When we entered, there were already ten pairs of eyes on me. I, immediately, introduced myself to all of them. I put all my inventory
down on the ground, and sat down on a box that was full of mines, grenades and revolvers.
The commander, an old man of 60 with a sharp look, has a wrinkled but serious and stern face with a short-shaven red beard. In terms of stature, he is tall and a little inclined. The rest are young people; the youngest is 18 years old. Everyone is sitting on the floor, where moss is piled up and several blankets are spread out. There are 10 people here, the rest are distributed in two more bunkers of 11 people each. The bunker is two meters high. Several linens hang over the heads, to prevent earth from falling on our faces. There are two couches next to each other in a row; different clothes, civilian and military, are lying thrown together. On the side, by the entrance, there is a gasoline barrel filled with water. In the other corner is standing a second barrel, which serves as a stove. The smoke escapes somewhere underground, far away from the bunker. The air is stuffy. The first few minutes after I came in, I felt very bad. I was short of air. But later, I got used to it, like to everything else. The activity of the comrades consisted in playing cards, cleaning the rifles and puttering around the mines and grenades that had rusted after being exposed to rain in the forest.
Buried deep in the earth, there was a barrel full of meat, which was piled with salt and onions. The light came from a gasoline-powered generator, sitting on top of the stove, with its acrid smell stinging the eyes. No one was bothered by this anymore, except me. My eyes were watering, and if I hadn't been ashamed of it, I would have asked to be guided outside, into the fresh air.
But on the second and third day, I could already stand it significantly better. The food was very good, there was also bread. I don't know, where this all comes from, and I still feel like a greener (inexperienced). The commander introduced me to the group rules. Discipline was very strong, much
stricter than in the military. I was not allowed to leave the bunker for a single minute. Inside, there was also a barrel, the paroshka, into which everyone relieved themselves. And when it was full, the contents were carried with a bucket to the river, which was three kilometers away from the bunker.
The first week, I sat inside by the fire, telling all about the Germans, murdering the prisoners in the camp. My first activity was, to carry away the paroshka to the river in the evening, together with a comrade. During the first week, the other comrades left several times at 12 o'clock (midnight) and returned at dawn, bringing with them various food, clothes and tobacco. The bunker was guarded all night, and at night, everyone used to either sleep or tell each other stories and jokes. The commander often made political speeches or sat, tinkering with grenades and mines. They really liked my revolver, and the commander took it and played around with it. There were many revolvers lying around, but all of them were rusted or had bad locks. There were also many grenades and mine launchers, as well as rifles two for each person. Each rifle was stored separately, and they were very well guarded, cleaned and lubricated.
After ten days, I was already assigned to keep watch around the bunker, and I was already much more familiar with everything. Actually, I had oysgegrint (acclimatized) myself. I was already taken to work in the villages, which I liked very much. We used to scare a whole village so much that no one dared to take a step out (of their house). Thirty of us went to work. Three stayed there to guard the bunkers.
Our group was not yet in contact with anyone. We did everything on our own initiative. Our goal was to first accumulate a lot of food supplies for the winter and then start attacking the enemy by detonate the railroad, the bridges, and so on.
To the villages that were 10-12 kilometers away from us, we all went well armed from head to toe. We used to start marching
at 10 o'clock at night and returned, fully loaded, at three o'clock in the morning. In the villages, we were the bosses. Mostly, we take (goods) from the rich, bad farmers, or we take, what the village magistrate has accumulated for the Germans.
We used to get along well with the farmers and, usually, meet no resistance, only moaning and groaning. But this does not deter us. We act concretely, boldly and quickly. The peasants don't care to report (the incidents) to the Germans, because we tell them sternly, If you report it, we'll leave the whole village in smoke and ashes!
A few times, we come across very good food to take home, but it is usually very exhausting, until we have hauled all this to the bunker.
We are very careful with the excavated earth. When we dig a pit in the bunker to hide food, we carry every bit of earth away in a bag to the river and mix it with water there. This work is always done by those who had been standing guard.
Every weapon we find in the forest is a treasure for us. The commander takes care of cleaning them and putting them in order for later use. With each passing day, our inventory grows larger and more extensive. We cook only once a day, because the smoke in the bunker is very strong, and we would not have been able to sleep otherwise; our eyes would water and burn.
In this way we lived together for two months, and it felt like it had been two years.
Levit was my personal comrade. We once reminisced about how we worked together and how he lectured to me. Levit now [lit. only] requested permission from the commander to go to Krynki and to detonate the leather factory. But each day again, the commander refused to accept it. We were standing about 30-40 kilometers away from my birth shtetl.
I kept talking to Levit that we had to go to Krynki to take the youth out, but the commander did not allow it. He didn't want our group to increase because we weren't doing any fighting activities yet. We were just preparing for it. First, the commander wanted to get in touch with the partisan staff and then carry out actions according to a plan. It should bring more success that way.
Once, about ten o'clock, all thirty of us left, and entered a distant village, where we had never been before. But the farmers of the villages where we had been before, used to point out to us that this village was very rich and that no Germans were there.
It took longer than two hours, to get there. First, we usually surrounded the village, so that no one from there would come out, and then we went to the first farmer, usually a poor one, and asked him about everything: Where does the village magistrate live? Has he accumulated food for the Germans? and, what is his relationship with the farmers? And so on.
This time I stood guard around the village. The rest of the comrades were gone, and after half an hour, a revolver shot was heard. After that it was quiet again. This night was very bright. The moon was also shining, and one could see each other well.
After an hour, the comrades came back, bringing a cart with a horse harnessed in front of it. There were various things in the cart, and the commander moved the guards away. We made our way to the bunker with quick steps.
When we had to turn on the path towards the forest, the horse and his cart stopped. We unloaded all the stuff and everyone took something. However, we could not grab all the things, so we left the rest and camouflaged it a little with branches. We steered the horse with the cart towards the village and let it go to run back to where it had come from. The path was very difficult to walk, the trees were very close together.
Anyway, we reached the bunker, put everything down for now, and the commander ordered us to leave again quickly and get the rest of the things. So all thirty of us left, and when we got to the spot, it was really light out, about 4 in the morning.
Suddenly, we hear the clatter of horseshoes. We prick up our ears and the sound approaches. The commander carried a lorgnette, and after his first glance, we hear his command: Everybody up in the trees! Three to four men to a tree each!
Quickly, we were all among the branches, all in one place. The commander was sitting on the tree opposite me.
Everybody get the grenades ready! he orders. We all sit there, holding the grenades and revolvers in our hands.A hundred meters from us, the Germans stopped and tied their horses to the trees.
There are Germans, riding horses, we hear the commander's voice, wait for my order! When I say 'fire', attack!. And while speaking to us, the commander's eyes are looking strained through the lorgnette.
We see them shuffle themselves from tree to tree, and then start a blind shootout in the woods. Only the German lieutenant is still riding on his horse and shouts something to those who run from tree to tree.
Suddenly, one of them notices a sack of flour, and immediately, almost everyone comes running around the sack, and the lieutenant shouts loudly:
The bandits must be here! Fire heavily at every tree!We are sitting strained, nestled against the branches, everyone is holding ready the grenades. There, we hear a shout: Ogon! (Fire!)
Through the air, shells are falling on the Germans. A black smoke rises to the sky. The horses neigh, and shots from machine guns hit in our direction. We quickly jump down from the trees.
Our commander is the first to run to the black smoke and all of us after him. Each (of us) throws a grenade and fires shots from our revolvers and 'machine guns' (oytomatn). After 50 meters that we have sprinted forward, we stop. The Germans have scattered, leaving behind their horses tied to the trees.
Immediately, the commander gives the order to shoot the horses and all wounded Germans! We quickly take our three wounded comrades leaving five dead. The battle has cost us eight comrades and the German murderers have lost 18 dead and wounded. Their wounded we killed immediately and took their weapons, which they left behind. And with quick steps, we run away to the bunker, without the food, but with many German rifles, machine guns and clothes.
Everyone was drenched in sweat. When we arrived at the bunkers, it was already nine o'clock. Immediately, we covered all the tracks and headed down to the bunkers. Everyone tiredly fell onto the couches. The wounded were screaming and begging to be shot. Two were lightly wounded and one seriously, and he was really shot the same day. He remained lying in the bunker together with us. We had already lost six comrades! We were in a sad mood, the cries of the wounded grew stronger, but we had nothing with which to heal their wounds. Among us was a military doctor, but empty-handed even he could not help.
For four days we did not leave the bunker. The doctor asked for various medicines and suggested to send two people in civilian clothes to the city to get various medical and pharmaceutical items from a doctor there. The commander determined that I and Levit should go. We agreed and decided to go to Krynki. There, I knew doctors from whom I would receive everything needed. I was also drawn there to see my family and get information about them.
We took two revolvers and set out on our way. It took us two days, to get to the Shalker Forest. Here, Levit was to wait for me for a whole day until I would return in the evening. I handed my revolver to Levit and we said goodbye to each other.
I left for a well-known farmer and asked him everything about the Jews, where they were being now and where they were working. I got a lot of information from the farmer. All the Jews were already living in the ghetto, being in a bad situation. Very many Jews had been shot by the German murderers.
The farmer tells me about a Jew, Berl Tevel, who was led to be shot along with another twenty people. Berl was the only one who was not shot. The bullet passed next to his lungs and exited under his arm. He got up and walked with shaky steps back to the shtetl to the first house, and now he is in the ghetto, he is alive, the farmer tells me.
I told the farmer that I came from Grodno, not knowing how my family was. Together with the factory workers, who always walked united to and from work , I entered the ghetto.
When I opened the door of our house, my mother fell over on the ground. My sisters around me were crying. I did not recognize my Mom and my Dad. How terribly they had changed!
When Dad saw me, he wept silently with joy. I told no one, where I had been and where I was standing now. This was a secret, and even my parents were not allowed to know.
I learned a lot of new things concerning some friends and comrades, (also?), who had been shot by the murderers. I was also told that 50 Jews were working on the highway. All my friends came to me; they had already suspected me among the dead. My cousin, Libe Jelinovitch Levi, tells me how they tormented her while she was moving into the ghetto. The killers photographed her with a
broom in her hand and her hair tousled, and ordered her to roll around on the ground while they took pictures. Jews who wore beards were also tormented in various ways.
That same day I could not leave the ghetto. All the things that our doctor had written down for me, I got from a Jewish doctor, Lichtenshtein. I decided to leave the ghetto early in the morning without telling anyone. Only my Dad I wanted to let know, because when I came, he asked me why I was not with the partisans, but back in the claws of the murderers.
I had not answered all the questions, but decided, to trust my actual situation to my father, and to tell him that I would go back to the forest again. I had hidden the medication well, and I had already worked out a plan, to leave the ghetto without going through the gate.
In our house, I met my younger brother, Peretz. He had returned from Minsk with two other comrades, and, not being able to get through this city, his group had to retreat. My brother told me, how he had lost me, being already sure then that I had fallen in battle. The day I was in the ghetto, I felt like I was locked in a cage, like a caught bird.
For a whole day, our door did not close, because many curious people came to see me, trying to get information, where I had been all the time. Everyone asked me about their children or men who had fled with me, along with the army. I just said that I didn't know about anyone, because I had been lying in the Grodno hospital.
The hour approached, and I decided to make my way to my comrades, who were waiting with great impatience for my arrival. The screams of the wounded comrades who ask to be shot, are still very present to me, as is the commandant's clear commanding voice that we should not be late, but return as soon
as possible, because we were on a very important mission namely to save three comrades!
I told my father that I was leaving for the woods and that after several weeks, I would come to get a lot of people out of the ghetto. Nobody noticed, when I left. It was quiet in the ghetto; the streets and courtyards were wrapped in a cloak of sadness.
I take my backpack that I had hidden under the stairs and walk to the fence of the ghetto, opposite the Christian church. I take a glance to the other side; it's quiet, the narrow street is empty. I quickly jump over the fence and walk straight across the field to the Shalker Forest, where Levit is impatiently waiting for me. Just now, I'm leaving sideways the Elektrownia (power station) and take quick steps through the Alshinkes to the forest.
Suddenly, I hear the sound of a motorcycle. I let myself fall to the ground and at the same time, a bullet is flying over my head. I've thrown my backpack aside. I hear a German scream:
Halt! (Stop!)The motorcycle has stopped and heavy steps are approaching me. I am lying tense, with my face to the ground.
Hands up! I hear a cold voice and get a boot kick in the side.Being pale, I get up and already have put my hands up.
What are you doing there, you damn Jew? another boot kick in my stomach. At first, I am too upset to know what to answer.But soon he notices the backpack and grabs it with both hands.
Suddenly, the gendarme takes out a chain, and immediately my hands are cuffed. This is followed by a kick in the back and a shout: Ahead!
Oh, I already know, why you were hiding! You damn Jew![Page 121]
The motorcycle was a dyad, equipped with a sidecar. I was immediately thrown into the sidecar and taken to the gendarmerie. There, I was immediately thrown into a cellar, where it was very dark and wet. I fell on the wet cement and did not understand what was going on. Fumbling at my pocket, I look for my revolver. Where is my revolver? Levit is waiting for me, and I am lying there, in the murderous hands of the Germans. At the first moment, I don't know what is happening to me at all. What should I tell them, also in terms of who the medication is for? Or should I say that the backpack is not mine? No, I'll say that I'm carrying it for the Jews who work on the highway, and that I myself also work there. That will be the best excuse.
I hear the rattle of keys on the iron door. It opens and two tall assassins appear at the entrance, with guns in their hands. Both are drunk and almost unable to hold themselves up straight. Get up, cursed Jew, damn it!
I get up and stop, my gaze turning to the two red faces with their watery eyes.
Ahead, to the government office, quickly! And a thrust into my side with the butt of the rifle is following.When I entered the office, the two companions stopped next to the door, and I in the middle of the room. At the side, by the window, sat a tall lieutenant looking at me. His gaze pierced me up to the heart. He had pushed his large glasses up onto his forehead. Piles of papers lay on the desk. I decide not to give my real name. I will give the name of my brother who is in Russia.
What's your name?[Page 122]
Who were you carrying the drugs for?
For the Jews who work on the highway.
hat's when I see him pull my backpack out from under the table and dump it all on the table.
Who did you get all this from?I remain thoughtfully standing and do not know what to answer.
Suddenly a wild shout and a bang on the table so that everything jumps into the air.
Who handed this to you, damn, dirty Jew? Damn it! The Judenrat, huh? The Judenrat! Well, we'll see about that!He picked up the phone, and after ten minutes the Judenältester (Jewish elder), Yosl Goltz, came in. Being pale, he stopped, casting frightened glances both at me and at the gendarme, who was now smoking a coarse cigar.
Do you know this man?The Judenälteste stood there with his eyes wide open, not knowing what to answer. My heart began to beat harder; I would have liked to shout out, Say that yes, say it, and save my life with it!
Yes, I do, the Judenälteste answers.
Did you give him medicine for the Jews working on the road construction?
But he only raised his shoulders, shook his head, and a silent no was heard in the air, which was suffused with death and life.
Oh, now I already realize for whom you were wearing the backpack!, and heavy footsteps approached me, now I already know exactly who you are! Tell me quickly, who are your comrades, these bandits, the partisans?And a heavy, hairy paw fell into my face. I saw only black dots in front of my eyes, and my legs gave way under me. A second, violent blow near my heart robbed me of consciousness, and a cold sweat broke out all over my body.
I don't know what happened to me after that. When I opened my eyes, I was lying there soaked, with a swollen face and stains of dried blood on my shirt. My whole body felt like it was riddled with holes. Every single limb hurt me. My body felt swollen, blue patches of flesh that were hot like fire.
I woke up as if from a dream. Where have I gone in this world? Where are my comrades? Where is my revolver? Has it all been just a dream?
So I lay there for a whole day and a whole night. A small square window with an iron grille was located in one wall of the little room, which was the size of a step [in diameter]. In a corner lay my jacket, wet and splattered with blood. It was difficult for me to move a foot or a hand. My feet felt like heavy oak blocks.
So I lay there for two days and nights. On the third day, the two murderers came and ordered me to get up. I was not able to do that. They then poked me in both sides with their boots, laughed insolently at each other, watching their victim, who lay on the wet cement, writhing, unable to get up.
I said a silent prayer, Shoot, shoot, shoot, shoot me!
A cold laughter, filled with fun, was the answer: Shooting you would be far too little, you dirty Jew! We will keep cutting pieces of your flesh, until you'll tell us where the bandits are, for whom you carried the medicine!
A push with the boot in the side, which I have no longer felt. Every bit of flesh on my body has already been an aching wound.
If you tell us where the partisan bandits are, we will release you.I don't answer and keep my eyes closed to avoid seeing
those murderous red faces. But if you don't say anything, we'll shoot you like a dog!
I don't answer and wait for the bullet they have just threatened me with. Oh, if only they would shoot me now! That would be a good thing to finally stop writhing like a snake on the wet cement!
I get kicked, they spit on me, and while shouting Jew pig! they leave. I hear the door slam shut.
My tongue is burning, my lips are parched. There is not a bit of saliva in my mouth. I lick the wet cement with my tongue, which feels like a board.
On the same day, the guard brought me a little water in a tin ladle with a piece of moldy bread in it. I was not able to get the bread into my mouth. Every muscle of my palate pricked like needles. The water I drank in one go.
I didn't know what day of the week it was, or even if it was day or night.
After I got the little bit of water the next day, I could already move one foot and one hand. I also looked at the window and saw a piece of blue sky watching me. The same day, I could already slide on my knees to the wall and take my jacket. In its pocket was a handkerchief, with which I could wipe some of the sweat and dried blood from my face.
I tried knocking on the wall, maybe someone from the other side would answer me. But all around me I heard only a dead silence.
I knew exactly what the verdict would be like and was just waiting for it to be executed as soon as possible. My only desire was that I could just inform my father in the ghetto and send him, or my brother, to my place to Levit.
In the evening of the same day I was brought
some water and a piece of bread. I asked the guard, a Pole, what day it was. He answered that it was Friday. I asked him to let them know about my situation in the ghetto, but he immediately refused.
On Sabbath morning, Yakob Kozaltshik, the then-commander of the Jewish police, came to the small door window, and shouted in to me:
Don't be afraid, I will save you!Now I was sure that they already knew about my desperate situation at home.
Oh, why didn't I say goodbye to my mother and the rest of my family! This was God's punishment for that.
I feel the excruciating pain in my bones much more than I did yesterday and the day before.
Where can I get a revolver? is my only thought. I want to die in battle, together with a German murderer. I know very well what is waiting for me, but I am at peace with myself, because I had strength and courage enough to endure the terrible blows and to remain silent. Let them do what they want to me, the fight for freedom will go on! In fact, with even more determination and even more loyalty! For each victim, those cold, predatory murderers will pay dearly! And in this awareness, it is easier for me to die.I have been lying in the dark detention room for 4 days. Without the small window, I would not be able to distinguish day from night.
Lying on the wet, cold cement, various images come before my eyes. Just now I see our group, all sitting cross-legged, playing cards. The old, gray commander sits next to the stove, cleaning a rusted grenade. And now, I see the German murderers lying there with their mouths open and their bodies torn open, staring at us with their eyes wide open, begging for mercy.
And there, I hear the cries of our wounded comrades as they plead with tears in their eyes, shoot, shoot us!
Has it all been just a dream? As if none of these things in the world really happened? These thoughts are going through my mind now, as I lie there, bleeding and broken, because for so long, so long a time, I have been living in the wet darkness now. With every rustle that can be heard from the other side of the iron door, every limb of mine shudders. Now, I hear the heavy boot steps of the murderers. And there again, I see their red faces drenched in blood, their cold, steely laughter stabbing through my heart and my whole body.
It's Sabbath today! I remember Sabbath days of yore, when we were sitting happily together and playing in the sand, or were funny playing hide and seek. And later, after the tsholent meal on the Sabbath, we went out to the market, [carefully] combed and with polished shoes, and made our rounds around the stores, walking behind girls who walked ahead and made the street resound with merry laughter. Summertime, Sabbath evening, we are walking on the highway behind the shtetl, lads and lasses. Our sounds pour over the green fields, covered with a wet veil.
More and more images come to my mind now of those Sabbath days and the holidays, when our proud, heroic youth marched so boldly and bravely across fields and forests, wearing blue shirts and red ties, and all were united under the red flag that flew in wide, blue heights. I am still so young, and in the middle of my bloom, I am torn away from the juicy roots of life. Today me and tomorrow others. The verdict on the future is in for everyone, but there is a way out: to fight and fall like heroes in battle. That is how we were taught.
I will go to the iron bars of the windows and shout all this to heaven, perhaps a little bird will carry my cry to those, who will be in the same situation tomorrow as I am today. The sky that shines into the window gets darker and darker. I am lying with my eyes turned into the darkness. Suddenly, heavy footsteps approach the door again, and iron keys rattle. The door has opened and two German murderers have entered.
Get up, damned swine Jew! a kick in my back with a boot.I try to muster my last few strength and stand up with trembling knees and lowered hands.
Into the office, to the boss! And once again a kick and a push.I take trembling steps. My body rocks to the right and left. There, I already fall next to the door.
No, do not fall, gain strength!
With several pushes I have been led into the government office, where my legs immediately gave way under me.
A stern, piercing look has fallen on me from the lieutenant, who has sat at the desk, holding a large sheet of paper.
Stand up for judgment! Listen! the lieutenant yells wildly.I again exert all my last strength and stand up, leaning against the wall. I hear him reading the verdict off the paper:
In the name of the law, 'some number', the Jew Soyfer Osher is sentenced by the German military court to the penalty of death by firing squad! The sentence will be carried out on 'some date'. Do you understand?I don't answer, and large, black balls approach my eyes. I fall to the earth. When I open my eyes again, I have been lying on the wet cement in my dark cell again.
The next day, Sunday, I lay there all day, with my eyes turned to that patch of blue sky, and my thoughts flew far, far out.
My only thought was that I didn't want to die like a little lamb, I wanted to resist, even though I had nothing in my hands. In the evening, heavy footsteps could be heard and the rattling
of keys. The door opened and two gendarmes entered with their rifles.
Get up!, the drunken voice of one of them can be heard. With the last of my strength, I stand up on my trembling legs.A cool evening wind blew over my face. I stopped, as if drunk by the fresh air and the brightness.
Get out of the detention room, you damned bastard! A shove is delivered to my back. With trembling legs, I left for the yard, under the open sky.
The two gendarmes brought me a spade and ordered me to take it on my shoulder. The gate opened and the wide, empty Kościelna (Church) Street spread out in front of me. I'm walking with shaky, short steps towards the cemetery grounds, where the gendarmes lead me. My gaze falls on the shuttered windows, which look as if they are shrouded in a death veil.
Going ahead, I think I'm about to fall, my legs caving in after each step. Right now I see a curtain being pulled open at a crooked window, and a person's pointed head peering out onto the street. Every step of the nailed boots is echoing in the silent surroundings.
We walk in the direction of the Polish cemetery, down Mill Street. On one side, there is the fence of the ghetto, on the other side, ruins of houses.
Just now, we are crossing the bridge and I feel that any moment I will fall on the pavement.
Suddenly, I hear heavy, running footsteps behind me. They come closer and closer with every passing moment. I turn my head and see Yakob, the commandant of the ghetto, panting and sweaty, with widened, big eyes. Walking between the two gendarmes, he talks to them in a mixture of Yiddish and German.
My mind is spinning. My temples are throbbing like heavy hammers, and I don't understand a word they're talking about. I'm taking even smaller steps.
The gendarmes no longer chase me, as they did before, and my gaze is fixed on the ripped-out stones of the road. Just then, a frightened chicken runs past me and looks at me with a merciful glance. It feels my pain. I turn around to the back and see that Yakob is holding something in his hand, which the gendarmes are looking at intently.
I don't know what's going on. Maybe it's about my corpse, that it shouldn't lie in the Polish (Christian) cemetery, or is it about something else?
I can already see the stone wall of the cemetery grounds. The green trees are standing there, looking at the tormented Jewish lad, who is so quietly and alone going to die there. As we get even closer, a black cloud of flying crows lifts above the cemetery grounds, as if to accompany me with a funeral dance.
That's when I hear shouting, Turn left!
I enter the green grass next to the stone wall. One of the gendarmes has stopped on the way, and the other, together with Yakob, comes running up to me and grabs my spade. A small pit has formed next to me, into which Yakob and the gendarme have thrown a few large stones from the wall, and I hear Yakob shouting: You are saved!
A shot bounces on a small mound of freshly dug earth, which is between the green blades of grass. The sky is covered with black crows, the air is filled with (the smell of) powder.
I don't know what has just happened there. Standing leaning against the wall, I don't know if I'm alive or if I'm under the freshly dug mound.
The two gendarmes have stopped on the way, and Yakob has ordered me to hide between the crosses until 12 midnight. Then a person with a horse and cart will come and take me to Grodno. I must not show myself in Krynki as a person who stayed alive.
Yakob and the two gendarmes went away to the city, and I remained lying as if in agony. It was
pounding in my head like hammers. My whole body trembled with joy.
So I lay there until dark, with my head nestled in the grass, waiting for the person to come and get me.
It was impossible for me to get up alone and go away to the forest. The pain in my whole body had now become much stronger than before.
I could not fall asleep. Every rustle of a bird or a branch appeared to me as if the murderous Germans were coming to me again.
Suddenly, in the nightly silence, I've heard the tapping of wheels and horses' hooves. Next to the cemetery grounds, the horse has stopped, and a shout is heard in the darkness: Avromel!
I was lying in the grass and at first, I was afraid to pick up my head, but later I eased up and answered.
The wagon driver was an old Jew, Yitzchok Brevde. I got on the cart, and we drove away. The night caressed my aching body. Our way led along between fields, which slowly calmed my mind.
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