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Nesvizh That Was and Does Not Exist Anymore

by Gavriel Katz

Translated by Rabbi Manis Friedman

Nesvizh was a prominent Jewish town, with streets full of Jews – youth, adults, and seniors. Jewish girls, beautiful and sweet, young women in their prime, grandmothers and grandfathers. All of them saturated with Jewish lifestyle of many generations. Nesvizh was a Jewish town. Not just any town, but a busy center for the surrounding area. The Jews of Nesvizh were well known, not for their unique philosophy and local dialect, but in every detail of their lifestyle. These Jews were like a tribe unto themselves, with a unique flavor of their own. They were a source of folk wisdom attained through experience overflowing with Yiddishkeit and warm–heartedness. This was evident, too, in its sons and daughters.

Only poets who heard the whispers of the public and private lives, who were moved by the lifestyle of this Jewish community, could successfully describe something of its charm and beauty. Holiness flowed in the narrow paths that housed these Jews who loved life and commanded respect. Nesvizh, saturated with pain and suffering, oppressed by enemies from all sides, produced great products. Torah scholars, students full of wisdom and knowledge, teachers and moral guides, educators, and instructors.

Nesvizh in its prime was suddenly struck with unprecedented bloody pogroms at the hands of the Nazis. Many hearts trembled for the fate of these Jews, but none could help. How was this beehive of Jewish activity destroyed? We don't know all the details and not all its secrets have been revealed. But the fact is there are no more Jews of Nesvizh. Thousands died in a common grave – who knows what their last thoughts were when they faced their final moments. Did they believe that their children and descendants, wherever they may be, would mourn for them and remember them?

The sun no longer shines on the Jews of our city, and the moon no longer looks down at them. The birds no longer sing to their children in the early morning, as they make their way to school. The flowers of our gardens are now in the hands of strangers, and will not be placed on the graves of these martyrs. From that blood sodden earth, not one voice calls out, but many. The voices of the martyrs. The cries of the righteous. Descendants of tzaddikim, of moral giants, of all the generations. These stirring, choked cries can be heard from a distance, with a small, still voice, the souls of brothers and sisters, children and grandchildren, far and near, not resting even for a moment, after hearing of the Shoah that struck the most beautiful of our people. And this cry will never be silenced, will never be stilled. Until we merit the end of days. When “tears will be wiped away from every face.”


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Memories From the Days of the War

by Yosef Damesek

Translated by Rabbi Molly Karp

In the year 1942, I fled with my brothers and sisters from the Nesvizh ghetto. I joined a fighting group of Partisans in the name of Yuzik Marchevinsky. My first action was to return to Nesvizh, in order to free the prisoners in the jail there. After we returned to the Nesvizh forests, we decided to go out for an ambush on the Nesvizh–Stolpce highway. A pouring rain was coming down, and I was stationed about 100 meters from the ambush, as a liaison, to announce the appearance of the Germans, when suddenly the German car appeared. I had enough time to inform the commander about it, and I fired a small shot with my sawed–off rifle into the car's window. The car stopped. One German was killed and the other fled. Then we all got into the German car and travelled on the road for the purpose of encountering another German car. After additional thought, we decided not to endanger ourselves to that extent and we burned the car in the forest. On our way, we came upon the German Police and we killed a German policeman. Our dear friend, who distinguished himself in the battle, Berel Alperovitz, may his memory be for a blessing, the machine gunner, put on the German uniform, and then we decided to rest a little. However, our rest did not last long; we did not sense that the Germans had succeeded in surrounding us, and a cruel battle burst out between a small group of Partisans and the Germans, a number of whom came up on us. Finally, we broke through the ring, but in this battle Berel Alperovitz, may his memory be for a blessing, fell like a hero.

In the rest of my action as a Partisan, after becoming organized, I transferred to a brigade “For the Sake of Soviet Belarus[1] (repeated in Hebrew).” The battalion commander was Vasutin. At first, I was a patrolman costumed as a shepherd in civilian clothes. I was 13 years old then; I participated 13 times in face–to–face battles with Germans. I participated in sabotage actions on the railroad. I blew up railroad tracks, I participated in blowing up a train.

In the year 1943, a Belorussian Police Force was organized, at whose head stood a Belorussian officer by the name of Vignitza, from the Volozhin headquarters. In its time we suffered greatly, since they wore clothing like ours, and they caused us loss of life.

At the end of 1943, I and 7 members of the Partisans encountered this Belorussian group by surprise. After a short battle, the Commandant Vignitza was also killed. I took his clothing and his horse. I put on his long clothing, and returned with my friends to the unit. For this action, I received a medal of distinction from the Russian government. In addition to this, I received the decorations: The Partisan Medal and The Medal of Victory. Over the course of the two and a half years of my being among the Partisans, I received three marks for praise.

I learned and was educated in the “Culture” school in our city. My only teacher that was saved – is the Partisan Shalom Cholavsky.


Translator's Footnote

  1. In Yiddish. Return


In the Shadow of Death

by Shulamit Gordon–Damesek

Translated by Rabbi Molly Karp

The bitter and impetuous[1] day was not late in coming. It was 7 Av, 5702 [1942], the month that was the time of calamity since long ago. The night was the evening of this day, fixed by the young men, set for fleeing from the ghetto. At the hour of 11:00 the ghetto was surrounded by Belorussian police and Germans. Across from the wire fence that surrounded the ghetto, policemen were stationed at a distance of 4 meters from each other, which prevented any escape. The night was foggy. Occasionally shots split the air and we did not know the reason for them: were people shot in their attempt to escape, or were shots of fear fired, so that none would dare to emerge from the ghetto?

My older brother Moshe went out of our house to meet with the young men. Each man turned to the place that was appointed for him, to answer any attempt of the policemen to burst into the ghetto, with the fire of the munitions that they had in their possession. Moshe's post was next to our house. There he was supposed to arrive from the meeting place. The hour of midnight was nearing. The policemen that were stationed next the ghetto sensed it and began to shoot towards the ghetto. He advanced in the direction of our house while periodically hiding from the gunfire. The houses before our house were sparse, and far apart from each other. Here my brother was forced to crawl on all fours, because there was no cover for him there, and therefore he was in crossfire, and only towards morning did he reach his target. In the house our nerves were stretched very tight. When we heard frequent shots after midnight and Moshe had not yet arrived, terror fell upon us, for we suspected that he had been wounded by the shooting, and the worst part was that it was impossible to go out of the house to him because of the frequent shooting by the police. With dawn, when Moshe arrived, we saw that they were digging pits in the cemetery that was across from the ghetto, not far from our house. It was clear to all for whom those pits were designated.

The post, from which it was expected that Moshe would operate concealed, was in the garden next to the fence. Across from the fence the policemen stood equipped with machine guns. Their muzzles were turned towards the ghetto, and Moshe could not cross the short distance from our house to his post. The desire to live won out. Anyone who sought a hiding place fled, but the police fired on anyone that their eyes could see outside of the houses.

Our relative entered our house and said that he had a lot of money and he would offer it to the policemen to redeem his life. This relative raised his brother's daughter, a girl of about 6 years old. The girl's parents were killed in the first slaughter. Our neighbor came in and said to us that underneath his house was a defended hiding place, and that we could join him. When our relative requested to accompany us to that same shelter, the neighbor refused to admit the girl, lest she scream or cry when she heard shots or explosions, and then the place of the shelter would be revealed. Then our relative decided to try his luck, walked straight to the fence, and there he met his death.

Moshe, who had despaired of reaching his post, succeeded in reaching the center, and at the same time the battle was already raging in full force. He reported that the German car was stopped before the gate, and the Germans that were in it requested that a few professionals come out to them, among them Millstein, an expert and owner of a textile factory, and also the head of the ghetto and his family. None of these professionals wanted to go, and Millstein had already for a few days not returned from work (they assumed that he had fled to the forest, and indeed he remained alive). The only one who was willing to come out was the head of the ghetto, but when he reached the gate young men appeared who he had prevented from fleeing with pressure and threats. They warned him that since his fate was tied together with the fate of the residents of the ghetto, it was his responsibility to remain there. But since he stuck to his opinion, one of the young men struck him, and a grenade was thrown at the car that had come to take him.

A rain of shots burst out. The pile of straw was ignited. The weapons that were in the hands of the young men were activated and quickly military reinforcement arrived in order to reinforce the chain that surrounded the ghetto. The soldiers shot in every direction, and a few of them were wounded. Mother tried to get us away from the window that could be seen from the German side, but while she was standing in the doorway to the room a bullet struck her next to the heart, and she dropped to the ground. Yehudis my sister and I ran to bring a doctor. They shot at us from every direction, apparently because we had not ducked down, and so we ran with all our strength. The doctor refused to go, knowing that in any case we were all lost. The two of us wept, we begged and pleaded until he agreed to go. People came and asked him for opium, and he gave out as much as he had, and finally he said that he only had a little left for himself (in our house there were already the bullets mentioned above). We ran to the house accompanied by the doctor. We again had to pass through the rifle fire.

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By the time we returned home, Mother had already lost a lot of blood. The doctor bandaged her wound, but he said to Father that she would not remain alive.

Again the neighbor appeared and requested that we go with him to the shelter, but not one of us agreed to go without Mother, and to carry Mother with us was impossible because of the shooting from all sides. For the sake of caution, it was necessary to steal into the shelter one by one, so that the Germans would not notice us. We all seated ourselves around Mother, who did not cry or even moan. She only said: “Master of the universe, why do I deserve a hard death like this?” Apparently, Mother heard when the neighbor offered his shelter, and she said: “Go children, I will die in your place, and it is my desire that you live.” Father sat on the ground next to Mother, who had stopped speaking, and he said: “Go children, and I will remain next to Mother. Together we lived and together we will die.” To this day, I don't comprehend, and in that same hour we didn't understand, how it happened that we left our parents by themselves.

When we entered the neighbor's house, the members of his household were already in the shelter. We went down to the shelter. A daughter of one of the families who lived in that same house, was sitting on the ground and crying. The girl's father said that soon the girl would stop crying, because they had given her opium. The girl's mother could not bear the child's weeping anymore, and she too took opium.

The three youngest from our family reached the shelter first. My little brother Yosef, me, and my sister Yehudis, who was two years older than me. After a few minutes, Moshe, our older brother, arrived. He came running, and from a distance he was already screaming that we should open up quickly. The Germans were already inside the ghetto. They chased after him and shot at him. Two of the floorboards were moved, and he came down to us. They barely had time to return the two floorboards to their place when footsteps were heard in the house. The girl stopped her crying. We heard footsteps above our heads. We heard a cupboard fall on the floor, the door of the cellar opening, and shooting a few times. It was clear that these were the ones that had chased after my brother, and that they were searching for him. Every minute they were likely to discover the opening to the shelter. We held our breath. The minutes dragged on like days. We heard them knocking on the floor with the butt of the rifle, and entering the room under which we were hidden. They also rolled something round on the floor, in order to find some echo of an empty space under the floor.

In the making of the shelter, a box of earth was connected under the two floorboards that were the entrance to the shelter, to prevent the echo of an empty space. Those pursuing us, being certain that someone was hiding in the house, began to pull up the floor panels. The mother of the girl that took opium began to make a choking sound. The neighbor Chishin, one of the neighbors that participated in building the shelter, said to the woman's husband that he should put his hand on her mouth. The husband did so. It was difficult to understand how they didn't hear the moans, while we perceived every one of their movements. And maybe they had already discovered our hiding place and because of that they were continuing to tear up the floor boards? We heard the sound of an order coming from a distance, and then the Germans quickly left the house. The woman became forever silent; around us and above us silence prevailed. Again, the echoes of gunfire reached us, and screams from a distance. We heard the rattle of a car. Afterwards, total silence reigned. After a few hours, we again heard footsteps. Chishin looked between the cracks of the floor and saw that they were not policemen, but Christian neighbors that apparently had come to loot. We all fixed our eyes on Chishin, who was peeking through the cracks, and waving his right hand as a sign of the all–clear, as if to say that there wasn't great danger.

In the winter, when the firewood was used up, on the cold nights, the owners of the shelter gradually broke up a sort of small barn, that was next to their house, and used the wood for heating. The house that we were staying in was close to their house, and the owner of the house was about to be surprised: from where was there so much dirt in the neighbor's barn? Since the homeowner and his neighbors dug the shelter in all of the winter and summer nights. When they finished the digging of the shelter, they were going to dig a tunnel, that would go across the fence and serve as a place to exit in a time of trouble (they did not have time to dig the tunnel). And all of this was absolutely secret. Only those who lived in the house knew about it.

The shelter was dug half under the house and half outside of it. The light, to the extent that it penetrated into the tunnel, filtered in by way of the cracks between the floorboards, which were concealed and appeared as a continuation of the floor. In the shelter only sitting, or standing bent over, was possible. I remember Chishin standing stooped over, his head bent up and his eyes peeking through the crack in the floor following after the movements of the Germans. Next to the house there was a sidewalk, and every step on it sounded to us like steps in the house. In addition to that, many people visited inside the house. It appeared that the Christians from among the townspeople had already raided the houses for the purpose of looting and stealing. We in the shelter suffered terribly from these visits, and every echo of footsteps seemed to us as if our secret had already been discovered.

 

The Escape

In the shelter it had already gotten dark, and it was possible to think that outside it was also getting darker. People began to plan an escape to outside of the ghetto. In the possession of my older brother, Chishin, and Reuven Skokolski, were pliers. I did not know about it, because of which the thought tortured me – how would we cross the ghetto fence? It was quiet; from a distance footsteps reverberated. Chishin decided to open the door of the shelter, took out the iron rod that held the two floorboards, and by force pushed them up. They turned on their sides, and the light of day burst inside. Chishin, as if he had seen someone, started to scream and plead in Polish: “Friends! Save me! Help!” The blood froze in our veins. We had not seen anyone. Total quiet prevailed all around. It was possible that Chishin, in opening the door, imagined that he had heard footsteps on the sidewalk, and it seemed to him that someone was inside the house.

Chishin went up and helped the others to come out of the shelter. We went out of the house by way of the window that faced the yard. Outside it was still broad daylight, and there was a concern that someone saw Chishin when he put his head out from under the floor, and ran to inform the Commandant about it, and therefore it was necessary to act quickly, in order to save our lives. We needed to cross a distance of less than 50 meters to the ghetto fence, however, on the other side of the fence stood a house in which Christians lived. We continued to walk the length of the fence to a corner. There it turned right, and across from it, grain grew. Here at the corner my older brother, Chishin, and Reuven began to cut the wire fence. The three of them worked feverishly. Suddenly rifles opened fire on us from the side of the cemetery, which was exactly opposite us and on our right, that is – across from the center of the ghetto. But the young men burst across the fence, and we did not tarry a minute. Quickly we crossed the breach and advanced in the direction of the shooting. We wanted to reach the standing grain. The Christian, who lived across from us on the other side of the fence, and who used to provide milk to the ghetto, positioned himself on the porch of his house and began to scream: “Hurry! They escaped!!”

Not five minutes had gone by from the time we emerged from the shelter, and we had already crouched down in the field of crops that was on the other side of the fence. The gunshots did not stop, and Moshe said that he would crawl first, and we after him. I was certain that the rest were crawling after me. But when I turned my head around to see who was crawling behind me, I was surprised to realize that no one was behind us. I said this to my brother Moshe. We lay and waited for an extended time, but no one arrived. We were helpless. We did not know if the people changed the direction of the escape, or if they had been wounded by the gunshots. Is it possible that they were all killed? Our sister Yehudis and our younger brother Yosef were among the missing. I suggested to Moshe to crawl back to look for them. My brother, who served in the Polish army, and withstood battles, saw that the gunfire was directed at us, and said that at the moment it was forbidden to us to return; we needed to wait until the day grew dark and then we would see what to do.

Between one burst of gunfire and the next we heard the voices of the Germans in the area of the cemetery, and we saw that they were quite close to us. The cemetery was on a hill, which could be seen across from the ghetto. There is almost no doubt that the Germans noticed us when we crossed the fence. There is room to suspect that they were chasing

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after us and searching for us in the grain. We continued to crawl forward; my knees and the palms of my hands were already injured from the crawling. Moshe was dressed in a suit, and his long pants protected his knees. I wore socks, but already at the beginning of the crawling they were torn, I was bruised, and my knees left after them signs of blood in the grain. I caught up with Moshe, and I suggested that he rest a little. We lay down and waited until the sun went down. We were extremely tired. On the last two nights we had not shut an eye, also food had not entered our mouths for a long time. It was no wonder that we fell asleep. I don't remember who woke up first. There was the dim light of twilight. I said to Moshe that night would come in a little while, but Moshe recognized by the dew that had fallen that the night had already passed, and the dawn of a new day had risen.

Now we sought to reach the forest, without waiting for the day to end, lest the Germans continue their search for us, and we could not miss even a minute. But, which was the direction to the forest? The day began to brighten a little, but it was forbidden to stand upright and cast a glance at the area. Sitting amidst the crops it was impossible to discern anything at all that would give us a hint as to the direction of the forest. With my finger, I signaled to my brother the direction of the forest, and this was precisely the direction to the ghetto. I don't know according to what Moshe found the right direction, but we began to crawl towards the forest. We avoided the cemetery, and we went by way of the field. Here we had to cross a paved road. It was at the beginning of the harvest, when many farmers were working in the fields. Outside of the field the crops did not provide cover for us. And we had the desire to live. It is not exaggerating to say that no animal could consider us as this animal walking on two legs and speaking human language. Because even just a Christian, or a worker in the field or a traveler on the road, whoever saw us crawling from the grain, was likely to inform the Germans that there still remained Jews alive, and then…

We came close to the edge of the field that was before the paved road. We delayed for a tiny minute. We paid close attention, and when we did not notice anyone, we crossed the road. From here we began to evade and take a longer route, so that we could stay far away from the houses of the Christians. Suddenly we saw before us a small building in the field, a kind of pump house, or station. We did not know what this building was used for. Even my brother, who knew the area well, did not know, and he whispered to me to be careful, because it was possible that there was a guard inside this station. Avoiding the station would entail difficulty, and the important part – it was a waste of time for us. The hour of the morning was already approaching, and in a little while movement in the fields would increase. We had to crawl in this field that was sown with potatoes and circumvent the station. The wounds on my knees and hands that had formed scabs during the course of the night, again began to bleed. Moshe told me to lay down in a furrow, and he himself crawled forward to scout the area. He said that afterwards I would follow behind him, but in the event that they shot at him he would attempt to cross ahead, and it would then be up to me to change direction and crawl around. Moshe had just begun to crawl, when the shout went up: “Halt! Halt!”[2] (Stop!). I raised my head to see what was going on, and here Moshe was getting up on his feet and running with all his strength, and a man was chasing after him. I put my head down so that I would not see my brother get wounded, and then I heard a shout: “Damesek! Damesek!” It was someone named Mazya, who had come out of the shelter together with us. When I heard them calling our family name, I calmed down. Still from a distance I heard Moshe calling to him: “Idiot! Why did you yell?!” Meanwhile I had already gotten near them.

We went, the three of us, and we reached the main road, which was a kilometer from the ghetto and we had to go double that distance to cross the road to the forest, our chief desire. While we got closer, we asked and interrogated Mazya about the rest of the people that came out of the shelter with us. He said that he did not know, because they all scattered, and from the time we went through the fence, he did not encounter any of them. We came until just before the road, which led from Nesvizh to Horodziej. In order to move ahead in the direction of the forest, we had to cross the road. Again anxiety. In order to cross the road, we would need to cross by the “Tartak” (sawmill); if we turned right, we would have to cross by the school, where my brother, my sister and I studied. Hah! Where are those days, in which we were free of any worry and we did not know what fear was? Then we did not imagine at all that the day would come when we were afraid to cross by the school, that mortal danger would be expected for us in an encounter with one of the teachers or students.

We decided to cross by the sawmill. We approached the road and lay down for a little while until movement quieted on the road, and then we entered the ditch that was on the side of the road. There was water in the ditch, but this impediment was not considered. Again we waited until movement quieted for a moment, and then hurriedly we crossed the road and entered the field of grain, which was on the other side. Here it was, as far as we knew, less dangerous, and we allowed ourselves to run instead of crawling. It was much easier, and the important part – more effective. It was already the hour of late morning, and it was already two days that food had not entered our mouths. We went on an unpaved path that was parallel to the road. We saw people and cars travelling on the road. We reached the field that belonged to us. At a distance of about half a kilometer ahead of us ran a road, and alongside it there were rows of trees. Next to the trees we felt among guards, that stood at a considerable distance from each other. We sat down on the ground to consider what to do. How to reach the forest. But we sat, and the hunger and the fatigue began to bother us, and everything – the thirst that had accompanied us the whole way, and that possessed us more and more. At one of the corners of the field there was a swamp. They did not harvest there in the summer because of the mud, but in the winter, when the ground hardened with frost. We reached the swamp and drank to satisfaction from its stinking waters. Suddenly I heard a gunshot. I fell to the ground and said: “Here they are shooting!” But my brother is telling me that this was useless fear, and that what I heard was the clap of the wings of a large bird that flew nearby. We continued to consider what to do. A fear began to arise in us that if for the length of the road sentries were guarding, then it was possible that the forest, which was not dense, was also surrounded by guards.

When we scattered in the field in our escape from the ghetto, we thought that we would again meet our brother, our sister, and the rest of the members of our group, who had escaped together with us. But now, when day and night had gone by, and there was no sound and no communication from them, except for Mazya the doubt began to nest in our hearts if we would get to see them again.

While having these thoughts, we were reminded of the farmer Pitkovitz, to whom Father once transported our bees in 12 hives, because a war had broken out among the bees, and it was told to us that it was necessary to move the hives to a new place for a certain period. Pitkovitz also used to order various work from our factory.

We said to ourselves that if Yehudis and Yosef had not been wounded by the first shots next to the fence, with our exit from the cellar of the ghetto, then it was possible that the two of them had found a shelter with Pitkovitz. We decided to get to him, and no matter what happened, even if they were not found there, it is possible that he knew or had heard about them, and since the walk to the forest was presumed to be dangerous, that I would go, for I said that they would not pay attention to a girl; also, they would think me a Christian. Therefore, I took it upon myself to reach Pitkovitz, and on the way back to bring food for the two men and also a hat for my brother, who suffered from severe headaches, and he had nothing with which to cover his head from the sun's rays. I took my shoes off my feet and left them with them. I was wearing two summer dresses. The outer dress, which was flowered, I folded up to my thighs like the village girls in our area did, and so I went out on the way.

When I had gotten far away from the two adult men and found myself nearing the forest alone, I looked in every direction. Dry wood or felled timber frightened me. It seemed to me that a person was standing or laying down in it. I even suspected the whole time that they recognized me, that I had fled from the ghetto.

I walked on an unpaved road in the direction of the forest. When I reached a distance of 50–60 meters before the main road, that passes by the forest, I noticed guards, who stood on this side of the road. It seemed that their function was to prevent the crossing of people and their entry into the forest. However, there was some possibility for me to succeed in avoiding the policemen, crossing the road, and entering the forest. But it came to my mind that on the other side of the road there would again be policemen standing to prevent entry to the forest, and if so, I was likely to fall into their hands.

And in my imagination, I had already described to myself my brother Moshe awaiting me, and when he sees that I am late in coming, he goes to look for me and falls into the hands of the policemen, and then that's that... I decided therefore to return. I remember that I thought then that if the policemen had already noticed me, and began to shoot, then I would begin to run. This was indeed not a very wise idea, since I was likely to reveal by this the place where my brother and Mazya were found. However, the policemen did not notice me, and I was able quietly to make my way back.

In my return, I came to know that there were indeed policemen in the place, which I imagined beforehand that I would see. I reached my brother and I told them about the dangerous points, where policemen were found. This was exactly the direction where we thought to go after I returned from Pitkovitz. Now we were forced to change the direction of our advance.

The three of us left the unpaved road, that went straight to the forest, and we chose to turn left, in the direction of the village of Rudavka. We walked by way of the tall standing grain, bent over a little, and when we were closer to the forest we advanced slowly, crawling. Occasionally we stopped in order to listen carefully that there were no people nearby. In this way, with the help of the blessed grain, we reached and entered the forest.

When we had penetrated into the forest, we sat under a bush to rest a little and consider the continuation of the way. We struggled to imagine how many hours were left until the day grew dark, and in spite of everything we thought to reach Pitkovitz in the evening. We felt trust towards him, and with him we would be able to get food and maybe also provisions for the road, and, the most important part, maybe he would be able to help us to find out about our brother and sister, if they were alive and where they were hiding. In our sitting this way under the bush we heard a rustling of footsteps moving on dry leaves. We threw ourselves down on the ground, so that large leaves that grew all around, hid us a little. We lay holding our breath. Not far from us we discerned through the trees a farmer walking to his field with his sickle in his hand.

 

The Joyous Meetings

A day before this, Yehudis and Yosef had reached Pitkovitz healthy and whole. The farmer gave them food and hid them in the grain that was next to his house. At the request of our sister, the farmer sent his son, a boy of about 10, to search for us in the forest (when we first made our escape plan in the ghetto, we, the members of the household, discussed that if we were forced to scatter at the time of the escape, we would meet again in the forest). When he reached the forest the boy yelled: “Mushke and Zenya!” These are Polish names, so that no suspicion would fall on him that he was searching for Jews. And so they called us that way too. All that same hour we lay in the forest and waited for it to get dark, and the boy was running around and searching for us. We did not hear his calls, because it was possible that the boy did not go far into the forest for fear of the Germans, and that same time we waited on the other side of the road until evening.

We rested for some time and before it got dark, we started to step carefully in the direction of the road, in order to cross it and get closer to Pitkovitz's house. Our eyes searched the area and our gazes penetrated between the trees to know if anyone was seen in the area, and suddenly a voice was heard: “Moshe!” Someone got up from the ground and presented himself across from us. It was Berel Alperovitz, who left the ghetto a day or two before the liquidation. Even this time he left the ghetto, as was his custom, to meet with the Christian girl that he knew, but he did not return again to the ghetto, rather he headed straight for the forest.

Now our mood had improved somewhat, and together with everything we decided to wait until it got dark, and then afterwards we would walk to Pitkovitz.

With the dim light of evening we crossed the road to the forest area that was on the other side of the road. On the way, we met a farmer who was coming from his work. He gave us the little bit of food that he had left over from the afternoon. I don't know if it was from recklessness or because the boys relied on the darkness, they questioned the farmer about where the policemen were. He answered that he did not know. We continued to walk, and on the way we met Lachuvitzky with his daughter. They were very happy to meet us, and they willingly joined us. On our way forward we met Farfel[3] and his son[4] with his girlfriend.[5] The three of them sat or lay on the ground, and when we passed by them, they recognized us and got up to greet us. We also met Yankel Lifshitz. Since the group had grown, we sat ourselves down again to decide on a plan. Moshe suggested that he would go to Pitkovitz by himself, but the rest said that our brother was dark–skinned, and that they would immediately recognize that he was a Jew, therefore I was more suited to this assignment. I took from Freyda Lachuvitzky her head scarf, Lifshitz gave me his coat, and I again took off my shoes and went out on the way, with Berel accompanying me.

Berel waited by the side of the yard of the farmer's house, and I went through the gate. In the yard I met Mrs. Pitkovitz, who immediately said to me that Yehudis and Yosef were alive and hiding in the field, but she asked that I return to see them later when there would no longer be any strange people in her house, and then she would bring me to them.

We returned to the group, who waited for us with bated breath, except for Lifshitz, who had gone to visit an acquaintance that lived in the forest. He did not return to us again. We saw him again only after the war, when we returned home, in Nesvizh. Then he told us that over the course of all the years of the war, a Christian farmer hid him in his room.

When I arrived at Pitkovitz the second time, with Berel, the woman came out to greet us, disappeared for a few minutes and quickly returned, accompanied by Yehudis and Yosef. The woman fed us with bread and other foods and we immediately hurried to return to the group.

The meeting with the two members of the family was accompanied by weeping. This was joyful weeping, diluted with stinging pain on those who were missing from the family, who did not get to participate in the meeting.

We spent that night in the forest. The cold penetrated to the bones, and bothered us no less than the hunger and thirst. The adults discussed where we should turn the next day.

The forest in which we found a hiding place was not a thick forest. A farmer who was walking to his work could sense us easily, and was likely to inform the police about it. Because of that it was forbidden to stay in it for a long time. Berel's suggestion to go to the village of Pogulyanka was accepted. There he had a Christian acquaintance, and this Christian had a friend named Yuzik, who had joined the Partisans in the forest.

The Christian Partisan was a husband to a Jewish woman that the Germans had killed, and afterwards he joined the Partisans in the forest. His desire was to avenge his wife. This took him out of his house and pushed him to the Partisans. By way of this, Berel expected to connect with him, in hope that all of us would become connected to the Partisans, our desire.

Early in the morning we went out to the village of Pogulyanka, and at Berel's request, Yuzik was supposed to meet us, and then we would request of him to be joined to the Partisans.

We went deep into the forest, and waited for him at the designated place. Towards evening Yuzik appeared, accompanied by a group of Partisans, who were about to carry out an action that had been assigned to them. They promised us that on their way back on the next day, they would transfer us to their base. Yuzik, since he had been married to a Jewish woman, knew many Jews from Nesvizh; we were also among them. When the Partisans parted from us to continue on their way, Yuzik left us his pistol.

Our entire aspiration those days was to reach the Partisans. Indeed, we were able to request shelter with Pitkovitz, however in addition to our desire to remain alive, we also sought an opportunity for revenge, and now, when the Partisans dwelt near us, we envied them, the heart opened from the chance to join the underground, and to strike at the Germans.

Again the night fell in the forest. How many more nights would we need to spend in the forest?

The Partisans promised that on the next day they would return to take us, but when the darkness spread through the forest, doubt began to nest in the heart. Who knows? Could it be that they wouldn't return? In our group there were 4 girls, and a young boy (Yosef my younger brother), and also the men – not all of them at an age suitable for the Partisans. We comforted ourselves with the pistol that Yuzik left with us before he left, a sign – that their words were spoken seriously. My brothers Moshe and Berel requested

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very much of Yuzik that they join him immediately (apparently, because they were afraid that Yuzik would go back on his promise), but he explained to them that they were going out on a dangerous path, and they would not be able to join the Partisans.

In the afternoon hours we saw Yuzik and his men among the trees, coming closer to us. We were happy that they were returning healthy, and towards evening we went out on the way together with them.

We walked until it got dark, and we did not stop our route all night. From the day that we escaped from the ghetto I had already had time to become accustomed, to a certain degree, to the hunger, the thirst, and the thoughts of death. Indeed, death accompanied us everywhere we turned, and we had already gotten used to seeing it as a faithful companion, but I was not ready for a walk like this. We went through villages, forests, fields, and again I did not discern anymore where we were. I only thought about this: when would we reach the place where we would sit down to rest? My legs were injured from so much walking. My socks were torn, and my skin had begun to peel from my shoes' rubbing.

With morning, after a long and tiring night, we reached the forest – to Yuzik's Partisans. We passed the guard that the Partisans had posted, and we approached the group. About ten men were sitting around the campfire, with a rifle in the hand of each one. We sat down next to them, and immediately a meal was served, and we ate with them. Horses and wagons stood on the side, with bags of food in them. There were also sheep in the wagons, but water had to be brought from a distance of a kilometer away. One of the men went to bring water; I joined him so that I could wash. We reached a small swamp. On the side of the swamp a small pit had been dug, about half a meter deep, which was full of water. However, the water was not very clean, but after the days of wandering it was pleasant to wash my face and feet. Yuzik worried about our needs and also gave us a towel.

We returned to the campfire and immediately “offered a hand.” We helped with cooking and all the work in the camp. We quickly paid attention that the men were not at all happy about the visitors, that is to say, us, and there were a few reasons for it: first, about half of our people (we were 11 Jews) were not of fighting age. Second, we had also not brought any weapons with us except for one machine gun that Berel took charge of in the forest, after he met us. The sub–machine gun was broken and didn't fire.

And there was another defect in us: we were Jews and the Partisans were Christians, and because of that they “looked down their noses” at us, and barely hid their displeasure with us. The grumbling in the camp got worse, until the camp was divided into two because of our arrival. Part of the veterans suggested that we leave the camp, but others were opposed. Finally, they agreed amongst themselves to divide the camp: part would move to another place and part agreed to let us join them. In the camp there were no tents, and of course, there were also no residences. Those who left loaded their share of the weapons and food onto wagons and went out on their way, and the rest stayed in place with us. Among the Partisans who remained were Yuzik and another man, Alexander Petrovich Dzirobo was his name. Alexander showed us much attention, and tried to help us as much as he could.

 

We Are Going Up to the Land

There was no British guard around our camp, and when our turn arrived to go up, we immediately went out on the way and we arrived again in Marseilles, to the camp where we lived before we went out on the ship “The Exodus of Europe.” The camp was full of people who had arrived before us, and here we stayed for an extended period. Everyone had to be ready at any moment, and if they were notified in the night or the day, they had to take their suitcase in hand and get in the car.

Also, in this camp we were lacking almost nothing, but the idleness was boring. Meanwhile they notified us to move to a smaller camp, which was adjacent to the large camp. All of the days in the hours before evening we would sit and guess who was the one who they would come to awaken this night and inform of his departure for the journey.

My brother notified them at the office that he, his wife and I were arranged to go up together. At night we hear footsteps, we are awake, in order to hear if they are coming to awaken us. The steps pass us by. It seems that it is someone else's turn has arrived, and we need to equip ourselves with additional patience.

After a time, our night arrives too. They awaken us and after a few minutes we get into the transport vehicle and towards morning we reach the camp. In the camp there were a few people, but nevertheless masses of people stream in over the course of the day. Hundreds and thousands of people were added, and the crowding and congestion increased.

On the next morning, it became known in the camp that the Establishment of the State of Israel had been declared. There was deep excitement; they also told that Arabs in the land attacked Jews in buses, and they fell as victims.


Translator's Footnotes

  1. Habakkuk 1:6 “…That bitter, impetuous nation…” Return
  2. In German, and given in Hebrew in parentheses. Return
  3. Gershon Return
  4. David Return
  5. [sic] David's wife Elka. They were married in the ghetto Return


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Under Seige

by Shalom Cholavsky

Translated by Rabbi Molly Karp

 

1. The Ghetto June 1941

The feet of the retreating soldiers crept heavily. The drumming of their feet on the sidewalk reverberated in a rhythm that was not a rhythm and filled the space of the street. Across from the firefighters' station, at the end of the street that turns left, a sign stood stuck: [in Yiddish] “na vostok” (to the east). The soldiers, with exhausted limbs, their eyes glued to the ground, dragged their bodies in the long line that was occasionally interrupted. All their movements speak exhaustion and powerlessness. Only at the intersections of the streets where they turned left or right were a few heads raised, cast an indifferent glance, diluted with a tone of irritation, at the sign that is positioned, and continued to go up the street.

June 26, 1941. Only 4 days before the confrontation began, and already the front had deepened hundreds of kilometers into the country. Where was all the intensification, the armed forces that were nurtured over the years? Only the day before yesterday one of the officers, while leaving the city with an expression of discomfort and stricken pride visible on his face: it's nothing! in another two–three weeks, we will return to you. But what is likely to happen over the course of these two–three weeks?

The Jews of the town of Nesvizh were hidden in their houses like mourners during the days of “shivah.”[1] Something was severed in their hearts, as if the ground was shaking underneath them. The air was saturated with fears. Only a day or two before, most of the Jews of the town had left their houses and turned east following the retreating army – but when they reached the former Polish–Soviet border, which was about 8 kilometers from the town, they were returned by a patrol of rearguard soldiers. Only a few got through.

After a night bombardment, which passed over the “head” of the town and struck the remnants of the retreating army, the Germans entered the town at dawn. At the intersection of the street that turns east, a German sentry was stationed, tall and polished, and in place of the Russian sign, a new one was displayed: Nach Moskau.[2] Groups of wounded prisoners were brought to the courtyard of the synagogue. Hungry and worn out, they crouched on the pavement of the yard. Satisfied and cheerful German soldiers walked about among them and kicked their bodies with their feet. One of them harassed one of the prisoners and amidst screams and curses, kicked him in his chest and stomach. Afterwards he stood him up, and while he stood facing him, doubled over with his hands behind him, he continued to kick him. The prisoner, short and with a Mongolian face, opaque, did not understand anything of the “gargling” of the German. Suddenly the prisoner lifted his hand, and with all his strength he struck the face of the abuser. The German's face was flooded

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with blood, and the face of he prisoner did not change. In this way, a person redeemed his honor.

After a minute, the prisoner walked quietly across the yard, accompanied by the German. Immediately the reverberation of shooting was in the air.

Within a short time, German order was imposed on the town. In the ears of the residents the shelling still reverberated. The Jews were gathered in their houses, and emerged from them only for an essential event. They lived between expectation and fear: maybe in any case “they” would return. In the evening, unseen and secretly, a number of “Yediot Achronot[3] would enter the town, which were distributed with the speed of lightning. And even if there wasn't a drop of truth in them, they encouraged the spirits and strengthened the patience. Anxiously they followed the noise of every airplane that flew from east to west, and from its whirring, in which elders and adults also “competed,” they guessed that it was a “Russian” plane and in any case the “counterattack” of the Red Army was opened.

The reverberation of the shelling went completely silent. By degrees it became clear that the “two–three weeks” would last a very long time, and doubt stole into the heart as to whether they would get to see liberation. Decree followed closely on decree at a dizzying rate: it is forbidden to walk on the sidewalks, forbidden to enter a Christian house, forbidden to talk with a Christian on the street, forbidden to leave the gates of the city, forbidden to buy necessities from farmers, forbidden, forbidden, forbidden. Round–ups for work, wearing a white ribbon, a yellow patch, the opening of Leninskaya, Valenska[4] streets, etc. etc.

A Judenrat[5] was established, and at its head was Magalif, the refugee from Warsaw. He was a lawyer, but his personality aroused distrust, especially with the local residents of the town. The main fear was – existence! Religious Jews believed that the town was “protected” by the blessing of one of its great rabbis, who blessed with this language: “Don't indulge me with much goodness, and don't cause me to suffer with excessive troubles.” That also the second half would be fulfilled. However, the beliefs and the illusions began to dissolve.

The murder began. In order to intentionally increase the terror in the face of the shadow[6] of the German, and in the face of the lightest of transgressions of the “orders.” And this came in the wink of an eye.

On October 18, 1941, the men from the ages of 15 and upwards were assembled in the marketplace. Two hundred of them were arrested as a guarantee, and as a ransom for their souls, members of the town were obligated to redeem them with merchandise: hides, clothing, etc. The assembly of the men in the marketplace served an additional aim; it had another purpose, and maybe the principal one, that is to say: to accustom the Jewish population to be assembled in the marketplace.

On October 19, a “contribution” was imposed of half a million rubles, and 2 ½ kilograms of gold. In this levy, a Polish teacher in the gymnasium, Tomaka, participated to the best of his financial ability, which endangered his life. On October 21 Reb Aharon Levin, a respected elderly man who was loved by all, was taken out to be killed, for his going from the village to Horodziej in order to bring into the covenant of Abraham our Father a Jewish child who had been born. He was brought to Glinishtze – the killing pits. This murder agitated and depressed the entire town. For what transgression was this honest and respected old man taken out to be killed?

This event undermined all the accepted ideas of what was possible and what was not possible.

On October 25, Moritz Leder, Gershon Pik, and Yisrael Lampert were caught and shot to death for the crime of buying potatoes from a farmer. Dr. Ginsburg was arrested because at the time of his rotation in the hospital, he “permitted” wounded Russian prisoners to sing Russian songs.

In those same days, after I was dismissed from the vegetable–drying factory, I worked in digging peat together with Lolik Abelovitz, Shaul Friedshtien, Noach Charny, and others. We worked in the field, a distance from the city. With every echo of thunder of the cannons, it seemed to us: “here, here, the Russians are returning.” But with our return to the city towards evening, the wave of decrees and the bitter news of the passing day poured into our heads.

At the end of October, we succeeding in bring home in a wagon a little peat in preparation for winter. My brothers, Mordechai who studied in Lida, and Zalman, who was in the pioneer assembly in Vilna, returned with the entry of the Germans into Nesvizh on the month of August. They worked in other places.

 

The First “Action”[7]

 

Nes134.jpg
The communal grave of the martyrs of our community in Radziwell's Park, in which 1500 Jews were murdered

 

On October 30th in the morning, the order was given: the population had to assemble in the marketplace for the “checking of documents.” The heart trembled. The Jews raised many opinions in their hearts: maybe the Germans only intend to plunder the houses, and when the “work” was completed we would be freed. And maybe again, hostages would be taken for extorting possessions. And lest they intended something terrible, to choose 20–30 young men on the pretext that they are communists – as they did in the General Government, according to the stories of the refugees, and took them out to be killed?! And maybe – why burden the heart – they spoke the truth this time: to check documents. And indeed, now the Jews were already exhausted from troubles, and went without great consideration. Indeed, the town was already cut off and isolated without any news of what was done in the area, except bits of news from the farmers, which were largely considered unreliable.

Who among these Jews could have imagined the most terrible of all? Inasmuch as the ghettos had already existed for two years, as the refugees told, also in Poland, and nevertheless, somehow the Jews lived in them. Better, worse, but living. Who could have imagined that that same creature – the German – who was the most immoral of the immoral, that at least from the biological aspect alone belonged to the species that was called human, was capable of carrying out the atrocity of all atrocities? And even now, it is difficult to believe, even for eyewitnesses, that this thing actually happened.

They all came. The plaza was square. A large Jewish community, each person crammed in

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next to his friend, as if the crowding provided greater security. From the corner of the empty square, from the side of the shops, a sick young woman burst out, with a baby on her arm. She too is going to the group. How can she stay in bed alone with a baby when there are no Jews? She steps slowly. Her face is young, but it expresses suffering, and the tribulations of illness. A German soldier who was supervising her stood by her side, took hold of her arm and led her with one hand, and with the other, supporting the baby. Slowly, gently, and with great patience, he led her, as if revealing human emotion at the sight of a sick woman and a crying baby. But he led her, to death, gently, attentively, slowly.

 

Nes135.jpg
The communal grave in the park.

The sign that was put up by the Soviet authorities entirely ignored the Jewishness of the murdered, and indicates only: 1500 Soviet citizens. The original sign that was put up by the surviving remnant was maliciously removed by the authorities.

 

How enormous was the atrocity in the imaginary proximity between the human and the demonic!

When the German began to call practitioners of various professions to step out in front of the line, and with his single finger decreed to the right, or back to the line, many did not know how to behave. If the professionals that were chosen would be transferred to a camp, a distance from the town, then it was better to stay with the entire community. On the other hand, the selection hinted that a professional had a better chance. I, together with my father and my brothers, moved over to the right side as carpenters, with the professionals. Entire families were divided – half was transferred to the right, and half to the left. Only 585 professionals, and remnants of families, were moved to the courtyard of the gymnasium, and a community of Jews of about 4000 people were moved to the Snov road, and to the “Castle” road and were murdered in one day. The children, shot and half–shot, were thrown into the pit before their parents' eyes. Afterwards, they dropped grenades into it. For days, the earth that covered the pit shuddered.

 

Life in the Ghetto

The remainder – to the ghetto. In those same few hours – the next day – that were allocated for the transfer of possessions to the ghetto, a time that was permitted for the Jews to go out of the gates of the gymnasium, many of the local population awaited those who had gone out. They did not wait for those who had gone out, but rather, that those who had deposited their few possessions with them would not go out.[8]

The streets were abandoned. Only one in ten houses saw the return of their owners. The Jews hurried – the tears welled in their eyes. They couldn't look in the eyes of those who were waiting who stood on the sidewalks, with their indifferent gazes, without a drop of participation in the sorrow, who expressed hidden joy at the calamity. And these – only yesterday they saw a vision that even in Satan's imagination did not arise. Young people stood on the corners, students at the gymnasium, and when they saw their Jewish friends on the bench of studies hurrying bereaved to their houses, they derided them for their own pleasure. This derision cut into the wounds that flowed with blood.

The ghetto was shaped like a “yud”[9] on a few tens of its dilapidated houses in the area of the synagogue. Its width in its narrow area reached 50–60 meters. It was surrounded by wire fences. A sense of loss screamed from the desolate houses, a mute scream of the bereaved who walked around like shadows. They poured out silence and depression. And a silence without words, in only the meeting of glances. The full lesson was learned.

Not many days went by, and life entered a kind of routine. Here and there remnants of hopes blossomed. The German method, intentionally strict, helped with this. Just as the purpose of the flow of decrees and victims before the slaughter was to impose terror and fear, to suppress the will to live and opposition, so too the lull after the slaughter served to pull the wool over their eyes, and to encourage the remnants of hopes. Therefore, during the course of the whole time that the ghetto existed, the Germans did not carry out actions. Two Jews fell victim during that time in the ghetto; Yehoshua Kravitz was caught while collecting a debt from a farmer, and the lawyer Mesita was stopped during a visit to the house of his Christian friend outside of the ghetto. For the sake of the impression of greater security, even the Belorussian police were not permitted to enter the ghetto. But the lull also gave some kind of pause for people to make an accounting of the days. Residents of the ghetto still did not comprehend what had happened. The body and soul were one wound that was not scabbed over. October 30th weighed on the entire ghetto. It choked people's throats, did not give silence in the nights. It pursued them in their dreams of horror, gnawed at them relentlessly. One of the “facts” that shook me was the burial of the victims who were murdered by the Nazis. Together with a group of young Jews I was sent to Glinishtze – a place designated for murder, to bury 7 Soviet soldiers who were murdered. I returned to the ghetto entirely broken.

The days – days of autumn – days of heavy rain. Groups were sent to Jewish houses outside of the ghetto, in order to gather their possessions and transfer it to the German warehouses. The wind whistled through the open houses, wailing the sense of loss. Every handbreadth in the house is a reminder of a living person, a child, a wonderful baby, a youthful meeting, and great Jewish life, which appeared now in all their beauty, and the cruel reality whispers that these lives will never again return to normal. Every garment, every book, every album, burns the hand. Papers, letters, photographs flying from windows are lying in the puddles of water. A man bends over, picks up a picture and looks at it: this is a picture of his friend from the fields of the Galilee. He strains, pauses for a moment, and as if awakening from his sleep hurries at a faster pace to the gate of the ghetto.

And in the ghetto – the crowding is tremendous. The people are seated on their beds evenings and nights. No one closes an eye. A candle flickers its dim and minimal light in the cold room. People write letters to friends far away without pen or paper, and pour out the bitterness of their hearts, and the heaviness of the questions trouble and gnaw at the heart.

 

The Underground

At the end of December 1941, I assembled the people of “HaShomer HaTzair” who remained alive. Among them were Siyomka Farfel and Freidl Lachuvitzka. In this meeting the reality in the ghetto was analyzed, the danger of false hopes, and the lesson of the times. Rumors were spread: fighting, struggle. The plan of action had not yet been consolidated, but the content of the words of the members who participated in the meeting was one and decisive: October 30th would not return again. We would not go to the slaughter and we would not leave the ghetto alone, but we would go!

This meeting was the beginning of the Shomrim–Chalutzim underground in the ghetto. But was this the first time that these people had met in the underground? These were the last members of the Shomrim underground that existed in the Soviet period. From the time of their arrival the better part had continued, and the concept of the members of HaShomer HaTzair and graduates of the Hebrew school was to act and to live movement lives in the framework of underground groups. In secret meetings of great mental tension, crumbs of information were transmitted regarding the organization of the movement

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in western Belorussia and western Ukraine, on the land. Passages from the HaShomer–HeChalutz press were read that were secretly kept, passages of Hebrew literature. Among these young people were the activists Arieh Funshtein and Shabtai Cholavsky, who rescued Hebrew books from the library, hid them well in their houses, and afterwards these books passed from hand to hand in the underground. They rescued the movement flag, and the book of the Jewish National Fund. On Sabbath nights they clung to the radio receiver in hidden places and listened to fragmented Hebrew sounds from the land – and their eyes lit up with happiness.

These groups were well–organized, and formed ties with their members in the towns of Stolpce, Sverzhna,[10] and Baranovich. There even existed meetings between municipalities in the underground. This was a wonderful phenomenon against the background of spiritual adaptation that the Jews experienced with the coming of the Soviets.

Spiritual and practical ties bound the town with Vilna – with the land, with the pioneer ascent. Meir Abelovitz and Yaakov Charlap, graduates of the movement in the town, after their return from the German–Polish front, went out to a meeting with Yosef Kaplan in Lida and began the smuggling of Shomrim and Chalutzim to Vilna, in the proximity of the town of Dvinsk, the place of the Soviet–Lithuanian border crossing. Yaakov Charlap was caught in this work and sent to Siberia, from which he did not return. In one of his last letters he wrote to us: “if one of you is able to reach the shores of the warm land, remember your brother who died on the shores of frozen Siberia.”

At the end of 1939 I met with the Haganah[11] in Vilna. Emissaries of the movement visited occasionally in the town, and our people went out to regional meetings with them, and underground material from the press of the land and the movement were brought to the town. Amidst the youth who were studying, Tzila Gilrovitz and Freidl Lachuvitzka were especially active. One who revealed ability and devotion among the working youth – Siyomka Farfel.

Some of the graduates, among them Zalman Cholavsky, Yashke Gilrovitz, Henya Damesek, Wallach and more, went out to an assembly in Vilna at its beginning, establishing ties and occasionally secretly visiting in the town and bringing word of the land and the movement. With the coming of the Germans, activity was not cut off, but it took on a different manner. In the second month after the arrival of the Germans, Zerach Zilberberg and Gedalyahu Shik, members of the movement – (afterwards among the first of the fighters in the Bialystok ghetto. One time, Gedalyahu Shik went out to the street, and after a brief hour returned home out of breath. On his way, one of the Belarusians struck and pushed him. Gedalyahu lifted his hand and returned to him what he had coming. When they went, it was still not clear where they were going, but there almost no doubt about what they were going towards) – passed through the town on their way from Vilna to Bialystok, and stayed there for a number of days.

In September 1941 Tzila Gilrovitz, F. Lachuvitzka, Siyomka Farfel, Meir Abelovitz, Slivovski and I entered my house for a meeting, in which it was agreed to immediately organize the youth and the older school children for an action and learning in secret groups on the conditions of the German conquest. A work plan was also set for these groups. However, when we approached the activity, the slaughter of October 30th took place.

This meeting in the ghetto was then a continuation. The underground formed additional ties to expand its ranks. Among others, it connected with Borstein, a Poalei Tzion man, a refugee from western Poland, and Natan Messer, a man with the manner of a fighter, a graduate of HaShomer HaTzair and a refugee from western Poland. They also formed ties with a number of communists: Buzin, an active communist from Warsaw, and Rechtman, who in the ghetto clung with all their souls to the Jewish rock from which they were hewn, and attached themselves to the national Jewish worldview.

In the underground, the issues of acquiring arms and forming ties with the outside were discussed. The two issues were bound together. The non–Jewish population was composed of two layers: a) the Belorusians, and b) the Polish intelligentsia, Osadniks, (Polish settlers who were brought from the west to eastern regions for the purpose of Polandization of these areas).

The first revealed a treacherous face, murderousness in the October slaughter. The Polish intelligentsia did not have in them a socialist workers' element, but rather the patriotism of the Polish Pilsudski. They bore in their hearts deep enmity towards the Jews, because they accepted hospitably the coming of the Soviets to the western territories of Belorussia and Ukraine. They saw the Jews as responsible for and initiators of the Soviets' actions in the years 1939–1941, in the expulsion of hundreds of Poles from the town to Siberia. Their enmity towards the Jews was deeper in their hearts than their hatred towards the Germans. The ghetto was steeped in terrible, incomprehensible, isolation. The people of the underground engaged in the meantime in the preparation of cold personal weapons; knives, irons, etc., and sought tirelessly after other weapons.

Despite everything, echoes from the front reached the ghetto. I worked then as a carpenter together with my father and my brother Zalman in the Kuzimir synagogue, which had been converted to a carpentry shop. From there I would occasionally sneak into my old house, in which there now dwelt a young Pole with his mother. In the youth's possession was an underground radio receiver, and with him I would listen to news, especially from the front. This Pole was caught afterwards, and taken out to be killed together with a large group from the Polish intelligentsia.

 

The Judenrat/The Worker's Council of the Professional Unions

It was necessary to manage the public's struggle against the Judenrat, which was mostly made up of refugees. Magalif, as was said, was a capable man, but aroused distrust. He believed that with the help of organization and bribery it was possible to prevent disasters. He was the only one who represented the issues of the ghetto to the German Commandant, and within the ghetto he controlled all issues, almost like an autocracy. The underground, with the purpose of strengthening its standing in the ghetto, and in order to prepare the ground for a semi–legitimate action within it, anticipating opposition and uprising, established for itself the purpose of changing things on the surface, to erode Magalif's standing without negatively affecting the ghetto. How was it possible to do that? Mostly all of the residents of the ghetto were professionals and remnants of their families. They were bound together in guilds, and worked in their various professions in and outside of the ghetto as carpenters, tailors, textile factory workers, in serving the local population.

The members of the underground in guilds raised the idea that the professionals, who constituted most of the residents of the ghetto, were obligated also to determine its life. Therefore, they needed to choose a workers' council made up of the members of the professional unions, and the Judenrat would be obligated to accept its decisions and considerations. The thing was carried out. In the professional unions, elections for the workers' council, which represented and expressed them, were held; that is to say, the entire ghetto.

In this way, the people of the ghetto achieved the expression of their opinion, and found in it an opportunity to speak to their concerns, to limit Magalif's authority, and to shrink it as much as possible. From now on the Judenrat and its actions would depend on the body that established the underground, which by this strengthened its influence amongst the public, and created a higher institution which determined the issues of the ghetto. In the workers' council and the professional unions, the underground encouraged the Jews to reveal opposition if a new action would be carried out in the ghetto, and acted against Magalif's exclusive control. This action achieved very positive responses among the Jews, and especially among the local residents, who refused to deposit the fate of the ghetto in Magalif's hands. He demanded to present himself before the workers' council, as a demand before a court, and to testify about events on the day of the slaughter – October 30th. Magalif presented himself and was interrogated by the workers' council; he was meticulously and mercilessly interrogated. This was a significant victory for the underground. With this, the moral authority of the workers' council was recognized, which expressed the public opinion in the ghetto that the underground guided and influenced.

The workers' council presented demands for the correction of aspects of things in the ghetto. The acquisition of the opinion of the community and the preparation for general self–defense constituted most important accomplishments. The underground understood that an uprising in this small ghetto would be possible only by a very few armed with weapons – even when the weapons would be in their hands, unless it would become fighting opposition of the entire ghetto and especially the young men and women.

[Page 137]

The School

In those same days, I organized a school in the ghetto, which was forbidden according to the orders of the Germans. The teachers were: Polatchik, Rechtman, Litvikova, and I. In my meetings with the children I told them chapters in the history of the people. Since 1939 they had heard nothing about it.

 

Nes137a.jpg
Chaim Eliyahu Polatchik

 

Nes137b.jpg
 
Nes137c.jpg
 
The list of students in the underground school in the ghetto, written by the teacher Chaim–Eliyahu Polatchik, a member of the underground fighters

 

Transcription of names
(including translator notes where handwriting was not completely legible):

Teacher: Rekhtman
2. Leibovich Leib
1931
1. Dukar Lea
2. Riklin Itzko
3. Vaksberg Braina
1930
1. Yankelevich Sara
2. Yankelevich Itzka
1929
2. Klyachko Pesya
3. Farfel ???? [possibly Siyomka]
4. Polyachek Movsha
5. Ostrovich Yakub [possibly Ostrovsky]
6. Karon Rokhlya
7. Yankelevich Morduch
8. Raif Volf
9. Abramovich Evel

iv group (on the right – teacher: Polyachek)
1. Margolin
2. Reznik
3. Rotleva
4. Noifeld
5. Toruzel
6. Belchinsky
7. Karon
8. Itzkovskaya

on the right – teacher: Rekhtman
1. Kreinovich
2. Ginzburg
3. Lipovska
4. Reznik
5. Shabes
6. Abramovich

v group
on the right – teacher: Goldshtein [probably]
1. Markovsky
2. Mogamir
3. Klyachko

vi group
1. Ershievich
2. Margolin
3. Khitin
4. Basinkevich
5. Cholyavsky
6. Rutshtein
on the right:
2. Zubak Leiba
3. Raif Mirka
4. Grinvold
1933
1. Berliner Git.
2. Belchinsky
3. Shimanovich
1932
vii group
1. Reznik
2. Cholyavska?

Absent or departed (by year)
1935
1. Fish Doba
2. Noifeld Lev
1934
1. Voloyavyanskaya Lea

?(assume i) group
on the right – teacher: Litvak
1. Voloyavyanskaya Lea
2. Labes ??
3. Robak A.

ii group
1. Margolin.
2. Shabes
3. Lipovsky.
4. Davidovsky

 

The meetings with the Jewish children in the ghetto stirred up the soul. A small and dim room, and facing me – wonderful Jewish children. Studies in suffering. The end of childhood, and a great maturation of suffering were spread over their faces. Their black Jewish eyes, more than ever, were filled with pleading for a drop of the taste of childhood, for life, total amazement at their fate, and they are asking one single question: Why? I was unable

[Page 138]

to lighten their suffering for them, but I sought at least to endow them with the feeling that the thing for which they are suffering has hidden in it a great light that will rule over this darkness in the world even when we cease to live. They did not know the fate of their people. I revealed many chapters of their origin before them, the suffering and oppression of their people. They especially clung, and I with them, to the legends of the destruction[12] and the last freedom fighters in the land of their ancestors. I never merited to hear stories like these. Their eyes sparkled – they understood it all – and all my terror when I parted from them, I considered in my heart – maybe this was the last meeting? Another underground organization existed in the ghetto, and Berel Alperovitz, Moshe Damesek, and Polatchik belonged to it. We connected with this organization, and afterwards we united into one organization.

 

Nes138a.jpg

 

Nes138b.jpg

 

Chapters from the work plans of Shalom Cholavsky with the arrival of the Germans in 1941

Arms

The problem of arms gave us no rest. Our efforts on the outside, and connections with acquaintances within the population, came to naught. Succeeding in playing music without a drum, the people prepared knives, daggers, and suddenly a chance was revealed: Leah Duker and Rachel Kagan began to work in the German armory. Leah knew weapons. The two girls began to transfer machine gun parts to the ghetto, and afterwards even parts of a second machine gun. The problem of ammunition was difficult.

With the coming of spring there suddenly arose a trace of a dim hope: maybe, maybe, a connection with the Partisans would be made. The farmers brought dim echoes of small groups of Partisans. In a meeting that took place between the people of the underground and Magalif, it was said to him: the fate of the ghetto would not again be like the fate of October 30th. He understood the clear hint.

The underground acted and made efforts to form ties with the Partisans. If such a connection was made, only then would the underground organize the ghetto immediately for exit to the forests. But if the matter would not be possible for the underground and until a new slaughter would be organized, the ghetto would revolt. Meanwhile it was necessary to be on guard and to follow all the information that was coming from outside, in order not be late in acting. First of all under pressure was the workers' council of the professional organizations, and community council elections were held in the ghetto for a new Judenrat. However, Magalif was chosen anew. He attributed his “privilege” to the fact that during the whole time of the ghetto's existence, no victims fell – but the rest of the people that were elected to the Judenrat were known, and the public had faith in them. In order to follow what was going on, in the days that began to be more anxious and crucial, in order to obtain the information and not miss the opportunity, the underground sent its representatives out of the ghetto. The fears about Magalif that had indeed weakened but not entirely dissolved, obligated them to be on guard. The responsibility of the underground for the ghetto and its position within it obligated it to oversee all that was being done within it, and the Judenrat.

At the same time the underground strengthened its activity in preparing arms and bunkers. The Jews of the ghetto identified with the underground more and more, especially the young people, but the adults also did not stand on the sidelines. Moshe Reuben Zatoransky and Klatchko demanded: we must do something! However, on the other hand, false hopes again spread through the ghetto; many months went by, indeed anxious ones, full of fear and danger, a bitter struggle for every piece of bread, for every potato that was smuggled into the ghetto, but more peaceful, without actions. No additional victims fell, except for two who were caught in the houses of gentiles. Now there remained so few Jews, maybe the plan to destroy the Jews would no longer be carried out?

 

The Liquidation of the Horodziej Ghetto

The crucial date in the ghetto was July 17, 1942. That same day information reached the ghetto of the destruction of the Jews of Horodziej, a town that was a distance of 14 kilometers from Nesvizh. This was the first information that reached us about the complete liquidation of a ghetto down to the last Jew. The crushing information about the slaughter in Baranovich in the month of March grieved the spirits in the ghetto then, but there still remained room for false hopes among a significant part of the Jews of the ghetto. The braking of the German army at the gates of Moscow and the counterattacks by the Red Army on various fronts at the beginning of the summer of 1942 fed the false hopes that maybe with a few months

[Page 139]

the Soviet offensive would begin, and the Germans would be defeated and they would not have time to liquidate the ghettos. And behold suddenly the cruel truth was revealed: the elimination of the Jews of Horodziej. Our ghetto did not know a thing about what was happening around it. Since it became known to us afterwards, a wave of bloody slaughter flooded the territories of Belorussia and Ukraine and also included the towns between Baranovich and Minsk, except for Stolpce and Sverzhna. These were days in which the Germans were halted on all fronts. They reached the peak of their conquests. But in those days, there also began the great confrontation between the Red Army, which had reorganized on the Volga, equipped with new weaponry and girded with a spirit of offense, and the Wehrmacht, which had reached the end of the limit of its ability. In this confrontation, which began in the summer months and reached its peak near Stalingrad, the Germans suddenly sensed the crucial change in the relations of powers, and their end, which was approaching sooner or later.

Was the enormous bloody slaughter of the Jews, which passed like a storm of destruction in the areas of conquest, some kind of compensation for their own doom and their feeling of defeat? Or the speeding up of the implementation of the “minimum plan” which included the destruction of the Jews in the conquered territories, while the dreams of the “1000 year Reich” began to pass by and the plan for the conquest of Russia seemed like a failed plan? Maybe the slaughter was one of the German plans for the purification of the home front, in preparation for the retreat that was revealed on the horizon, in their estimation of the Jewish population as leaven in the dough that fermented the forces of opposition, the Partisan and underground movements? And maybe all of these together?!

Information about the slaughter in Horodziej fell like thunder on the ghetto. The tension increased from hour to hour. The darkness of clouds covered the horizon, and people sensed that it was covering the skies of the ghetto. The false hopes dissipated. That same day the Jews of the ghetto gathered in the synagogue for a memorial and communion with the Jews of Horodziej.

A deathly silence prevailed between the walls of the synagogue. The congregation hears the information, choking groans and weeping. No one is able to look into the tearful eyes of their neighbor. The words of “Kaddish” are heard, accompanied by sighs and groans. Trembling passes through the community. Did this community not sense that it was saying kaddish for itself? And maybe we were the last ones left of all the House of Israel in all the territories of the conquest? Where is the voice of the great world? Is it blocked and maybe didn't hear about the murder of the Jewish nation? And if it heard and nevertheless remained silent isn't it a partner to this terrible slaughter? And where is world Jewry? Are you so lacking the power to save?

In that same memorial I too appeared, and I said: “Jews! Here we are cut off and isolated from the great Jewish world. Perhaps not even an echo of our screams will arrive, maybe we are of the last of the ghettos and the last of the cherished. Can these silent walls know, after us, to scream the scream that they absorbed? Jews! Let's defend ourselves! Let's defend the ghetto – the ground of suffering, we will fight as the last of the Jews did at Masada on the soil of the land. We will prepare for the battle – which is likely to come any minute! We will defend ourselves!”

The matter of self–defense became the legacy of the entire ghetto. From now the underground became the leader of the ghetto. These days were the most fevered in its action since the establishment of the ghetto.

 

The Revolt

The considerations in the administration of the underground were heavy: should we form a connection with the Partisans! It would be necessary to hurry and take the residents of the ghetto out to the forest, even though the matter entailed more than a few victims. But without any connection to the Partisans, and nevertheless to prepare the ghetto for self–defense in the event of an action, self–defense in the ghetto was preferable to any other way since the saving of Jews was not involved; this was the ground that was saturated with super–human torments. The hope of making a connection with the Partisans was very great, but a connection was not found. This fact determined the necessity for self–defense in the ghetto. The underground began to build bunkers.

On July 19th, I distributed, together with Hershel Savitzky, an underground man, the capable youths and men into fighting groups, five by five, and we determined their posts. This is the list: Chimi (Purdom) and Goldberg were assigned to prepare acids and distribute them – as weapons – among the people of the ghetto. The plan that the underground was considering: when the ghetto would be surrounded, a pile of straw would be set on fire inside the synagogue. The fighting groups, which would be spread out throughout the ghetto, would set fire to the houses of the ghetto, and in battle they would burst through from the burning ghetto to the forest. The people did not leave the ghetto. In my presence, on July 20th Neufeld and his wife sent their two children to their friend Zovovitz – a good and quality man. Buzin, the communist from Warsaw, the underground man, asked my opinion on whether he should send his 8–year–old daughter to one of his Christian acquaintances. I urged him to do it, but in the end he decided firmly: “I do not want my daughter to grow up a gentile.”

 

Nes139.jpg
The list of the fighting group in the Nesvizh ghetto, written by Shalom Cholavsky

 

List of Individuals
(mostly unreadable):

Bernsztein
Abrovitsch?
Kenigsztein?
Milstein, Shlomo
Fish
Gutman
Szusterman
Weissbrod?
Roth???
Bernsztein
Szkaliar
Polaczek
Gach
Duker
Kagan
Feit
    Sawicki?
Pardes
Plaskovsky
Ins
 

The tension continued to grow. The ghetto vigilantly followed every sign and symbol. On July 20th information arrived that a Lithuanian company had arrived in the town. The ghetto sense that its last moments were getting nearer and nearer. Towards evening it became known that the Lithuanians had left and turned towards Stolpce. We were a little relieved. Maybe in the coming days we would find a connection to the Partisans? (Every day and every additional hour were likely to change the fate of the ghetto!) Towards evening the young people of the ghetto gathered in the synagogue, where they were given the instructions for the fighting groups. The machine gun had a fixed position in the synagogue, and next to it, Leah Duker. Yukuv, Yisrael Schusterman, and Yosef Langman began to distribute kerosene and benzene to the houses. The ghetto was ready!

With the fall of darkness, the ghetto was suddenly surrounded by Belorusians. At the gate to the ghetto were stationed Belorusians, and the Jewish policeman were removed from their posts there. The administration of the underground sat all that night, anticipating information on what was going on in the ghetto. Frequent shots were fired at the ghetto during the night. With dawn shots were fired by the police into the house and fatally wounded Asher Damesek. Then the fighting groups went out to their destinations, which were set ahead of time, and in the center of the ghetto and near the gate its residents assembled. Next to the gate the German Commandant appeared with his escorts, and they called Magalif. On his way to the Commandant, Magalif turned to the Jews and said: “You suspected me the whole time – here I stand with you.”

The German Commandant informed him that this day a selection would be held in the ghetto. The “essential” professionals, and first and foremost the textile factory workers, would remain alive. Magalif returned to the ghetto and with him the German “announcer.” But the underground, and the mass of Jews in the ghetto, replied with their decisive answer: “No! We do not agree to any selection! If for life, then the whole ghetto, and if not, we will defend ourselves!”

Magalif returned to the German Commandant and informed him that the ghetto does not

[Page 140]

agree to the demand. When the Germans passed through the gate of the ghetto, the Jews began to set fire to their houses, and the Germans opened fire. Then the ghetto responded with shots that came from the direction of the synagogue, but the ammunition was sparse. The Jews defended themselves with irons, with stones, with knives, with implements that they prepared themselves. Yukuv and a group of Jews that stood next to a German set upon him and killed him. Klatzko the adult, and Yisrael Schusterman set upon one of the policemen and put him to death. The German fire grew stronger and stronger. Among the Germans were wounded and killed. The ghetto fought! The area was full of corpses.

The fire took hold of almost all the houses of the ghetto and the synagogue, and spread across the streets outside of the ghetto. Only a few burst out by way of the fire and succeeded to escape into the forest. Around the ghetto local residents gathered, seeking to plunder the little property of the Jews before the fire consumed it all, partly bloodthirsty and drunk on murder and plunder, pointing out every Jewish man, woman and child attempting to escape from the ghetto that was going up in flames. Simcha Rosen, whose facial features were like the face of a lion, took off the yellow patch from his clothing, grabbed his son, and, hiding him in a pillow, burst out of the ghetto. The gentiles did not recognize him, and thought he was a Christian who was looting the houses of the Jews. In his flight, he suddenly passed the pillow with the child to a woman, who with great surprise took him in her arms. He escaped from the city to the forest. A few of the Jewish fighters succeeded to reach the bunkers under the rain of fire. At night small groups went out of the ghetto to the forest.

The ghetto rose up. The Jews of Nesvizh set fire to their houses and fought for their lives with everything that came to their hands. Germans and policemen were wounded and killed in the alleys of the ghetto. The event was on July 21st, 1942, in the days when in many and large ghettos, the idea of self–defense and opposition to the murderers had not yet arisen, and in Nesvizh, a small Jewish community, cut off and isolated, without connections to cities or other towns, with no contact with underground organizations, without help or instructions, this small community was the first to raise the banner of revolt and self–defense.

With dawn, I left the bunker with the last ones.

A last glance at the ghetto. The dim light of dawn. Smoke arising from the ghetto, and I breathed its scorched air into myself. Through the dimness of the dawn there still murmured piles of cinders, which resembled memorial candles to the lives of those buried beneath them – to the revolt that occurred, silent witnesses to the atrocity, to the screaming, to the rebellion. But for whom were they left, and who would understand their meaning?

Will I be able – and this is my silent prayer, until my last breath, to scream the choked scream that is buried in them?

I took hold of some of the ashes of the embers of the fire, and when they were sealed on my heart I went out to the forests.


Translator's Footnotes

  1. The 7 days of mourning observed by Jews following the death of an immediate family member. Return
  2. To Moscow, in German. Return
  3. The name of an Israeli newspaper, used here generically to mean “newspaper.” Return
  4. The author uses the Polish –ska and Russian –skaya suffixes for street names somewhat interchangeably. Return
  5. An order of S.S. leader Heydrich required the local Jewish populace to form Jewish Councils. The Judenrat was responsible for organizing the orderly deportation to the death camps, detailing the number and occupations of the Jews in the ghettos, distributing food and medical supplies, and communicating the orders of the Nazi masters. These orders on the Judenrat were enforced by the Nazis with threats and acts of terror, including beatings and executions. Return
  6. Literally, “shadow of his shadow.” Return
  7. The roundup of Jews for transport to death camps. Return
  8. In other words, the local gentile population hoped that Jews who had left their belongings with them would not return. Return
  9. The Hebrew letter י. Return
  10. Novy Svyerzhan Return
  11. The nascent Jewish defense force. Return
  12. Of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE. Return

 

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