Translated from Hebrew by Aviva Kamil
I dread the terror of consolations which will arrive now, in the end.
And in front of my eyes, desecrate my catastrophe and destroy the depth of my mourning.
Consolations will come now; they should not lessen my agony, and expiate my anger,
The way consolations for the bereaved do.
Rip off the consolation of my soul, lest it'll scare away the grief,
My soul shouldn't be given cheering or compassion;
Let it stay angry in its grief to the end.
Bring agony to my heart till it'll be sated with bewildering destruction,
Till it'll suck out its rage like a leech; and sink in its sorrow, tranquil.
Only one wish I have in my heart, and let it be the last,
Let my devastation live forever and let it smolder in my soul all the days of my life.
Cursed is the one who clears my ruins, like the builder of Jericho, he will be cursed.
Like the mourners' temple, it will stay and residing in it will be the desecrated name.
Translated from Hebrew by Aviva Kamil It was Sunday morning, 22nd of June 1941. The town rose from its sleep expecting a day of rest after a week of work and worries. We, the youths, were just tasting the first feeling of the summer holidays after a year at school. Officers of the Red Army, family men and bachelors, as always on weekend leave, stayed in their private apartments in town, far from their units in the army camps.
We did not expect that day to be the first day of the Shoah.
In the early hours of the morning, before dawn, the murderous offensive of the Nazi German army against the Soviet Union started, without a declaration of war.
Our town was not attacked from the air as yet. A few planes could be seen at high altitude, but apart from a short raid on the army camp in the Skrydlevo forest, nothing happened. On the same day, we heard Molotov speak on the radio (he was at that time the Soviet foreign minister). He talked about the Nazi offensive, which only strengthened the impression that the Soviet government was not ready for war.
No one knew about the situation at the front or how close it was to our town. It was announced on the radio that cities in western Poland were bombed and that the German army invaded the western borders of the Soviet Union. The radio was broadcasting marches and encouraging appeals to the population almost non-stop, but, somehow, there was no unusual activity in the town and no signs of panic. Army officers who resided in town hurried to their units. Government officials of the Soviet administration, who came from Russia - vostochniks [meaning people from the east i.e. people who arrived from the east to the former territory of east Poland, invaded by the Soviets on the 17 September 1939], rushed between the different government and Party offices.
The Secretary of the party organisation of the city and the Recruiting Office issued an order to all those who were eligible for service in the army to assemble at the Cultural Centre, which was on the corner of Bazilianer Street.
The youths of military age, mainly Jews, were high school graduates, miscellaneous workers and tradesmen. With no clear instructions, they waited near the club and after a while dispersed. Young Jews walked around the market square and the old citadel (Shlos barg), their spirits high, not having the slightest idea about the coming Shoah. The adults were worried and cheerless. The Jewish refugees, who had come to Novogrudok from Nazi occupied Poland in 1939-40 were noticeably distressed. They comprehended the criminal character of the Nazi occupier and had seen the signs of Hitler's bestiality. We heard from those refugees of the horrors committed by the Germans and their aides, and we could assume that the Jews would not be allowed to live under the Nazis. But the massacre of millions, the genocide... no one could imagine that.
The first day of the war passed without any notable events. Housewives started to stockpile food and other necessities. Some officials took interest in the old shelters that were dug in the first days of the German-Polish war of 1939. The town was orderly. The public services were functioning as usual.
The night came. No lights were lit in the streets, the windows were covered with blinds. The town sunk into darkness. Now and then the movements of the militia and army interrupted the stillness of the night. Those who had a radio listened to Moscow or Minsk, but nothing that made sense was heard. The news was about fierce battles along an uncertain front and heavy bombing of unspecified cities and ports. No one knew what tomorrow would bring. Many could not sleep that night.
At the dawn of the 23rd of June, the second day of the war, the town's Jews hurried in the early morning to the main streets and the market square to hear the news. A change was noticed in the behaviour of the vostochniks and the soldiers of the Red Army. Their families assembled with all their possessions in a few places around the town, mainly around government and party offices, waiting to be evacuated. Scores of trucks loaded with women, children and private possessions were on their way to Minsk. This activity was accelerated towards noon, and it appeared that it was a complete evacuation of all the people who had arrived in Novogrudok with the conquering Soviets not long ago, among them Jewish families, many from East Byelorussian towns. Units of Russian soldiers on foot and in motor vehicles appeared from the direction of Lida (through Grodno street) and continued their journey east, to Minsk. A few army units marched in an orderly fashion with their weapons and equipment, but there were also scattered groups of soldiers, tired and dusty with no weapons and no commanders. It was obvious that the army was retreating after fierce battles and heavy bombing, the front was disintegrating. The sight of the defeated army was not encouraging.
The latest news on the radio was continuously interrupted and unclear. The situation was vague. There were messages about widespread operations of the German parachutists who landed behind the broken front lines in order to sabotage the roads, bridges and other means of communication and spread panic among the population. In the meantime the Germans advanced at great speed along the railway line Brest - Baranovich - Minsk, with no serious opposition.
The people of the Soviet administration could not explain the situation and could not advise the Jews what to do. It could be that, as a result of the chaos, the local government did not know what to do, or they had instructions not to encourage the local population to leave, so as not to flood the roads with refugees.
The last of the vostochniks were preparing to leave the town at any moment. They were looking for means of transport. I saw a number of Russian teachers who worked in various schools in town (among them women teachers who taught me in the Russian school). They left in a truck with their families, through Karelicher Street; they waved to me and called out see you soon.
What a difference between today and yesterday. No high spirits and no confidence in a quick victory. All that evaporated and disappeared entirely with the approaching evening. The Jews were perplexed, fearful of what was to come.
The soldiers, the militia, and all the government and party officials were evacuated from the town. All the vehicles were confiscated for the evacuation of the vostochniks and their families. The volunteer firemen (mostly Jews) drove off in their fire fighting trucks. The town was left without the fire brigade at a time when fire caused by bombing could become a real threat.
In the morning and at noon a few German planes could be seen at high altitude above the town. But nothing happened. Echoes of explosions and shootings could be heard from afar, but no one knew what was happening.
We thought of the Jewish families, who were considered to be an undesirable element by the Soviets and were removed to Siberia. They were deported on the night of the 19/20 of June, taken by trucks to Novoyelnia and from there in a freight train to Siberia. Heads of families were separated and sent to a jail, deep in Russia. When it happened it shook all of us, but now it looked as if it was a salvation for those families. It was a pity that only a few were saved in that way from the claws of the Nazis.
Near the citadel (Shlos barg) was one of the meeting points for the evacuation of the vostochniks. Crowded around the trucks were Russian women with their children, Party officials, chaos, no organisation, people forced themselves onto the trucks, hung to the sides of vehicles, pleaded with the drivers and beseeched them to take them east. Vehicles went on their way loaded to the brim. In the crowd I met my brother and many of my friends. We stood stunned and observed the happenings. No one told us, the town's Jews, if we should stay or leave and if we were to leave who would take us? Time was short, the hour urgent. For those who decided to leave, it was the last moment. What could the local Jews do? Officials and members of the Party, who were local people but were afraid to stay, found places on the trucks that were leaving and followed the vostochniks
I returned to the market place. It was bursting with people and all sorts of vehicles, I noticed young people, Jews among them, but only a few could find a place on the trucks, most of them rode bicycles or left on foot.
I met my friend, Yoshka Kopelman, near my home. My brother joined us and we examined the situation. After discussing things for a few moments we decided to leave the town. We ran home to take some supplies and to say good-bye.
My brother told our parents that we were leaving. They listened, understood and kept silent. There was tacit agreement, and also a feeling of inadequacy among all of us. Our parents were resigned and let us be responsible for our own fate.
We packed quickly some food and coats. Our parents gave us their wedding rings as if they knew that our separation was forever.
We said good-bye.... And left....
When we look back on the events of that day, we ask ourselves: why did so few (200) leave the town then, and why did so many, young and old, stay? It is not a simple question. One must remember that it is not so easy to leave a home at a time when the danger was not that obvious, as it became later. One of the reasons for the lack of information abut the current situation was the fact that Novogrudok was positioned far from the main routes, the nearest railway line was in Novoyelnia (23 kilometres from our town). One could leave the town in a motor vehicle, bicycle, horse cart or on foot. Not many had a car or a horse, so one had to leave on foot. Many were forced to walk hundreds of kilometres to reach a distant railway station which had not been bombed. The railways west of Minsk (the lines Lida- to the east via Molodechno, and Baranovich-Minsk) were bombed. Some people maintained that there was nowhere to run, or that it was no use to wander along the roads in time of war with no shelter and no food. Many Jews were quite fatalistic. They kept on saying: What will happen to the sons of Israel will happen to Reb Israel. But the sons of Israel in our town did not know about the extermination plans that the Nazi beast was preparing for them. Many remembered the Germans from WW1 and thought that it would be possible to live with them.
My brother, Yoshka Kopelman and myself were among the last to leave in the late hours of the evening. Mothers, fathers, friends and acquaintances stood in front of the building of the fire brigade. They accompanied those leaving with sad looks, pain and dread. Tears were in many eyes. Everything happened in devastating silence. No waving, no shaking of hands. In our hearts, as we walked down Karelicher Street, were some doubts and regrets: wouldn't it be better to go back home to the family... I will never know how we overcame our terrific urge to return home.
Along Karelicher Street, loitered groups of young Poles. They ridiculed us, their comments were full of hate and venom. They enjoyed themselves. They did not have to wait long to put their blind hate into practice. The Germans gave them a lot of chances. We passed by the Mount Mendog and the Court Houses. The sunset could be seen through the trees and it illuminated the rooftops on the hill. As we moved on, the silhouettes slowly disappeared into the night. We could still see in front of our eyes the looks of our dear ones, who just a short time ago accompanied us on the start of our long journey.
Two kilometres out of town we met the teacher Solomon and his two sons returning slowly to the town. We were friends, but at that time they did not look at us and did not say a word. A short time later we met Abrasha Plozinski and Dr. Bergman (a surgeon who came to our town as a refugee), they were also returning home. An armed man wearing a Red Army uniform came out of the trees of Hardelovka forest. He asked us in Russian if the Germans are already in town. We told him that they were not and continued walking. A suspicion arose in us that he was one of the saboteurs the Germans parachute behind the front lines.
The traffic on the road was heavy, all sorts of army vehicles raced in the direction of Stolbts - Minsk. We tried now and then to stop a car and ask the drivers to take us with them, but to no avail. We walked at night at a brisk pace, taking notice of nothing, not even a familiar face; we did not want to lose precious time. At midnight we arrived in Karelich. The town was fast asleep. All was calm and relaxed as if there was no war in our world. At dawn we passed the town of Turets. Again we met groups from Novogrudok. We walked with them for a few kilometres until we realised that it was too dangerous because of raids by the German planes. A small group of three was not that noticeable and it was easier for it to find cover when it was needed. In the morning we saw from a distance the town of Mir. On the road signs of recent bombing could be seen, the ground was covered with holes, ditches and fragments of bombshells. We entered the town. The war was felt there. The streets were crowded. We met people from Novogrudok everywhere, in food shops and restaurants. There were a few who came the night before and slept in the town. We spoke with some fellows who just returned on their bicycles from Stolbts. They told us that Russian soldiers were stopping anyone who was trying to cross the old Polish-Soviet border and were sending them back. Many people from our town came to the conclusion that it was impossible to escape and turned back to Novogrudok. Others could not decide what to do and stayed for the time in Mir.
We were very tired after many hours of walking non-stop. We decided to take a nap in a small wood across the river near the bridge. We lay down in the shade of a few trees, close to the bridge. We were inexperienced, and did not know how dangerous it was. Within minutes we fell into a deep sleep. We woke up to the sound of terrific explosions. The earth trembled and dirt was thrown on and around us. Above us circled planes that shot at and bombed the bridge. All was covered in clouds of dust and smoke. We started to run as fast as we could up the hill and into the wood. We sprawled on the ground among the thick bushes and waited for the raid to end. From our high position we could see the town burning. When the planes left we returned to the road.
We had forgotten about our desire to have a nap, it was much more important to distance ourselves from the danger zone, there was no time to waste. On leaving Mir we met a few people from Novogrudok, among them: Solomon Zuk, Sema Shlobovski, Shimon Ostashinski and Moshe Niankovski and his son. They rode on a horse-drawn cart. In the afternoon we reached Stolbts. Getting closer to the big bridge on the river Neman we heard the echo of shots and the drone of planes. We found out quickly that the bridge was attacked non-stop by enemy planes. We had no choice, however, but to cross the long bridge. We crossed it in a quick sprint while hearing the drone of the planes above us. The town was in distress, the streets empty, we met a few militiamen who came from our town the day before. They advised us to hurry lest we would be too late. The hint was transparent, but before we left town we experienced more air raids, which forced us to run for cover. It looked as if the enemy planes did not leave Stolbts in peace even for a minute. Suddenly, while passing the last houses of the town, a German plane dived on us without making any noise, and showered us with bullets. The attack was so sudden that we could hardly understand what was happening. We jumped into a wheat field along the road, and flattened ourselves to the ground while blood-curdling whistles of bullets hit the ground around us. We lay without moving a limb; the plane passed above us and then gained altitude with a deafening boom. None of us expected the others to be alive after that amount of lead that was showered on us. To our luck no one was injured. Stunned and excited we looked at each other, what would have happened had one of us been killed or injured? We dusted ourselves down, tightened the straps of our kitbags and were again on the road. Near a big farm, a few kilometres out of Stolbts, we ate the last of our food. We did not know what was going to happen to us. We walked on the dusty and sandy road, our eyes sore from lack of sleep and from the exhaust fumes of the motor vehicles, which sped, forcing us off the road. We pleaded with the army drivers to take us but most of the time we did not even get a reaction. Walking became very difficult. The thick dust penetrated our throats and lungs, our shoes were full of dust, our legs were covered with bloody sores. Our eyes would not stay open. Our heads were as heavy as lead. We urged each other on and with the last of our strength we dragged our feet forwards.
Night fell, as we were advancing along the road through the thick forest, around us were Russian soldiers from different units retreating with no order or discipline. The torrent of people, motor vehicle of all descriptions, carts and horses were moving in one direction - to the east. As we moved on we saw some frightening figures; bearded ruffians wearing worn-out clothing, their gait heavy and their appearance proof of them having been in difficult circumstances. Clearly, they were criminals, who were released or had escaped from a prison, as the Germans were advancing. We felt that they were interested in our kitbags and clothing. It was a very dangerous situation; we understood the meaning of the prisoners' interest in us. Somehow, with the cover of darkness and the unrelenting flow of masses of people, we managed to evade our pursuers. We were aware of the danger of meeting German parachutists or saboteurs, who were everywhere, their task was to murder, destroy and spread fear and panic behind the lines.
Near one of the army trucks, which stopped for repairs, we engaged in a conversation a friendly Russian officer, who showed us his understanding and who was ready to give us a ride. He tried to explain to us that our effort was in vain, because as far as he knew the Germans cut off all the roads around Minsk. We listened to his advice but continued our journey with the hope that we would somehow succeed.
At about midnight we reached a railway crossing. It was a checkpoint on the old Polish border. Soldiers who were guarding it stopped us before the road barrier. We were ordered to identify ourselves. While explaining to the soldiers who we were, I noticed a pile of corpses in the ditch beside the railways. It was hard to see the faces of the dead in the dark, but judging by their clothes they were people from our part of the country. It could be that among the dead were people from our town. We felt we had to get away from the place as soon as possible. Later we found out that the army guard stopped scores of refugees like us from crossing the barrier, many people were concentrating in front of the barrier, and an enemy plane spotted them and gunned them down.
We walked all night at a quick pace. We knew we must not lose time. With the morning light we could see the horrors of war. The roadsides were strewn with broken and burnt cars, in and around them were corpses of men, women and children. It was the work of German pilots who did not overlook even a single refugee walking beside the road. Now and then we were forced to look for cover or hide in the fields when planes marked with black crosses appeared. They kept raiding the bloody road to Minsk.
Late in the morning we met Motke Movshovich on his bicycle. He brought us the bad news that a number of kilometres in front of us, the NKVD built a barrier and no one was permitted to cross it, except for vostochniks and army personnel. One had to have a document to prove that one was from the eastern parts of the country. We met hundreds of people who were returning, desperate and lost. We tried our luck but to no avail. We were ordered to return to the place we came from. We decided to circumvent the barrier through the forest and then return to the road, leaving the barrier behind us. But we were frustrated there too; the forest was swarming with armed soldiers, camouflaged and dug in. We knew that we should avoid endangering ourselves; the risk of being shot by the soldiers was too high. We set in a ditch not far from the barrier and waited for whatever may happen. We looked for a way out of the situation, one thought chasing another.
We were hoping to overcome the hurdle in front of us, but did not know how. We were afraid that the moment the Russian soldiers would leave the barrier it would be too late, the Germans would capture us. Hoping that, perhaps during the chaos created by an air raid it could be possible to sneak through without being noticed. Thirsty and hungry we sat waiting for developments. After a short time, a dozen German bombers appeared on their way to Minsk. The anti-aircraft guns, hidden in the forest, opened fire. Big pieces of metal from the bombs, which exploded in the air, sprayed us. We covered our heads with our kitbags for protection. Patches of white smoke and fire appeared around the planes in the sky above, but they continued to fly and disappeared behind the horizon. In the meantime a young Russian soldier, from a defeated unit, who was looking for a new group to join, sat down beside us and told us, with the typical Russian openness, about a great battle at the old railway station near Baranovich, where the Red Army suffered heavy casualties, especially from air raids. How could we fight when we could not raise our heads above the ground? he complained. We understood that the German forces moved from the direction of Baranovich parallel to our route and there was no power that could stop them.
At noon we noticed that the guards at the barrier disappeared. Without losing a moment and at a fast pace we took the road towards the Negoreloye railway station. The heat and dust worsened our thirst and hunger. The kitbags were heavy and their straps cut into our flesh. Many of the walkers, and we among them, threw away some stuff in order to lighten the load. (Later, when the Russian winter came, we regretted the loss). In the late afternoon we arrived at the junction before the town of Negoreloye. Clouds of smoke covered the burning town. The railway line to Minsk was cut. The road we walked on till then led to Minsk, which lay 50 kilometres from the junction. A dirt road led to the right (south-east). It circumvented the town from the south. We did not know where to turn. The soldiers around us said that Minsk was bombed and burning and advised us to turn to another road. Most of the people from Novogrudok went, though, in the direction of Minsk and took side paths to go around the town before reaching it, in order to find a railway station that was still functioning. After a time we realised that the way we had chosen was safer but much longer.
The 25th of June drew to an end. Darkness fell. Huge flames were seen from the distance. It was Minsk drowning in a sea of flames and smoke. Around us small fires flickered -villages and small towns were burning, The Nazi planes did not spare them. The skies were red-grey; no star could be seen. Echoes of explosions were heard regularly. We watched the horrifying sight, our eyes red from lack of sleep and fatigue. Because of our weariness we did not feel our feet which were covered in sores, our heads were heavy, our senses dull. On that eternal walk we were overtaken by a strong longing for our homes and our dear ones, something inside us oppressed us terribly. Sometimes we stopped by a well, a creek or a puddle to draw water to quench our thirst. We did not dare to rest because whenever we sat or leaned on a tree sleep took over. Sometimes we fell asleep, as we were walking. We had no choice but to move forward, we knew that the enemy was following close behind us. In our mind was the persistent question: would we be able to get away as far as possible from the battlefields to be saved from the enemy's claws? We were still walking when the morning of the 26th of June arrived. We reached the small town Uzda, the first town behind the old border .The locals stared at us with suspicion. They saw that we were strangers, our appearance and strange dress was different from the usual dress of local citizens. Some people asked where we came from and who we were. They also asked us about the front and the German advances. We told them that we were evacuated from the front zone by the government. We did not say that we left on our own initiative; we did not want to be told that we were spreading panic and damaging the war effort. We tried as hard as we could not to stand out. It was long since we had some food; the hunger troubled us. With no other choice we stood in a queue for bread in one of the shops. We all bought a ration of bread and our mood improved. We entered a local restaurant that was still serving meals, and ate well. In one of the shops we bought a map of the district, so that we could find our way without asking too many questions, which was dangerous for us to do because of the constant suspicion of officials and the population. It stemmed from the fact that there were warnings about the activity of parachutists and saboteurs sent by the Germans. We stopped by one of the houses to ask for water. The owner, an old Jew, asked us in. We used the opportunity to look at the map to find the way to the railway station. Our clothes and behaviour made our host suspicious. Without saying a word he sneaked out of the house while we were still glued to the map, and called the police. We left the house and after a few steps we were suddenly surround by a dozen militia men with bayoneted rifles. They ordered us to go with them. When we reached the police station they put us in a locked room, despite our desperate attempts to explain to them who we were. They did not even want to have a look at our documents, as if we were spies. Our situation was bad. We heard that even if there was the slightest suspicion, no effort was made to find out the identity of the suspects. In the conditions that prevailed then, there was no hesitation in shooting the suspects, all was dependent on the whim of local security people. We tried to make it clear to them that we are Jews who were evacuated from our town and were trying to escape the enemy. We waved in front of them our passports; but the police officers did not take any notice of us. After a few hours and a change of guards, one officer eventually agreed to check our documents and listen to our explanation. After a thorough investigation they released us with a severe warning to leave the town immediately and not to loiter around. We did so and had no intention to get involved with the police again. We left Uzda without turning our heads. Suspicious looks followed us.
Leaving the town behind us, we stopped to discuss our plans in a small wood. It was clear that we had to be careful, and not only of the Germans. We read the map and found that we were walking on the road to Shatzek. It looked strange to us that neither in Uzda nor on the road did we meet people from Novogrudok. It worried us, did we take the wrong route or miss the train? we were asking ourselves. Some weeks later we found out that a few people from our town, who reached Negoreloye junction, turned to the other road which lead to Minsk. Some of them went through the bombed town and caught trains at other stations. Train loads still departed along that line to Orsha and Smolensk. Others took side roads around Minsk and arrived from the south to stations on the railway line to Bobruysk or Mogilev. Those who had cars, horses or bicycles continued on their way to the big cities, mainly Mogilev and Smolensk.
We continued walking. From bitter experience we learned not to enter villages or towns unnecessarily and not to ask locals or soldiers any questions.
Several times we saw soldiers and policemen arresting German parachutists and saboteurs. We noticed that the Germans wore Red Army or militia uniforms to try to deceive the Soviets. In the late afternoon we reached a crossroad on the road Minsk-Slutsk. A few kilometres further, on the left side of the road, we saw Red-Army units hectically digging themselves in. Cannons were pointing to the north. It was done at speed and in battle order. Orders and the rattle of weapons were heard. To our left on the far horizon a few tanks appeared, they looked like small tins. They crawled towards northeast, probably towards Minsk. It was hard to distinguish whose tanks they were. Behind our back we heard cannon shots. The units that just dug themselves in went into action. It was clear that we came upon a break in the front, through which the German armoured units advanced. The next day the Germans had occupied some positions behind Minsk and were attacking the important road to Moscow. Danger was everywhere. We raced on. At nightfall we entered a big forest. Darkness, the road was silent, no traffic. We felt the dread of loneliness and feebleness. We did not know the direction we were taking. Cannon shots echoed in the night. It seemed that somewhere behind us a cruel battle was fought accompanied by rockets and flares. The horizon was red. Before midnight we left the forest. In the darkness we came close to an isolated village. We stopped by a group of villagers. They noticed us and one man introduced himself as the chairman of the kolkhoz. He invited us to the village club to sleep till the morning. He did not hide from us the severity of the situation. He did not know how far the enemy advanced. We entered the club. A man was sitting by the phone trying in vain to contact someone. His monotonous voice added drama to the gloomy atmosphere of the club. Some people lay on the floor. We stretched ourselves in one corner to catch a short nap. Tired, in a few moments we were asleep. After a few hours I awoke in fright. I dreamt that the Germans occupied the village. I woke my brother and Yoshka and forcibly dragged them out on to the road. It was still night. We started walking, half asleep, our legs heavy. The dawn of the 27th of June arrived. The echoes of explosions were not heard any more. Silence. We felt the tension reducing slowly. A strange fatigue came upon us.
We passed by the small town called Shatzek. Caution and a desire to hurry prevented us from entering it. We sat for a few minutes by a well and watched with interest the movement to the east where the front was, of army vehicles loaded with supplies. It was something new for us-we were not used to see convoys going towards the front. It cheered us up a little, hungry and sweating we kept on walking. At noon we reached a small river. The weather was hot and oppressive, our clothes stuck to our bodies. The cool river water tempted us; we washed in the shallow water, roughly bandaged the sores on our feet and sat on the riverbank to read the map. A few Russian soldiers approached us suddenly and grabbed the map from our hands, saying that they needed it to investigate the surrounding. We tried to convince them that without the map we would lose our way and might fall into German hands, but that only aroused their suspicion. They examined us and said that they knew nothing about us, and what were we doing here, anyway. As luck would have it, that incident ended without further repercussions and the soldiers left. It could have been for the best that they took our map; we might have lost our lives because of that piece of paper, our naiveté and our carelessness.
Now and then we reached junctions and did not know where to turn. Sometimes we tried to use our natural sense of direction. We seldom asked questions, so as not to awaken the suspicion of the local population and the security people. While we were still debating which route to take, a man dressed in a Russian shirt and boots, with a revolver, turned to us and asked us about our destination. He gave the impression of a party man responsible for security matters in the area. When we told him who we were and what we wanted he pointed to a road across some green fields and said that that was the easiest and shortest road for us. He had a fatherly attitude towards us; we shook the good man's hand and started to cross the fields. After half an hour we came to a well-made, straight road, which was not marked on our map. Was it not shown for security reasons?. After walking a few kilometres, we reached a land of endless swamps covered with rich vegetation. It was a flat plane with no settlements, divided by the strip of a narrow road, like a long bridge over the boggy swamps. If planes were to attack us then, we would be lost; it was impossible to step off the road. It seemed that the Nazi invader did not know about that road. We did not see dead people or destroyed vehicles. It was the quietest section of our long walk from Novogrudok. In the early hours of the evening we reached the end of the swamps. The landscape changed.
We came to the town of Marina-Gorka, a few kilometres from Pukhovich. We remembered the name from the map and we knew that there was a railway station in that town. There we met our teacher from the Russian school, who taught us Byelorussian. His name was Zaloga. He was a vostochnik and a member of the party. We were glad to meet an acquaintance from our town, especially when we did not know what to expect in the town we were in. The teacher told us that he was in Novogrudok on the 24th of June and saw on the market square scores of dead people after an air raid. The streets of the town were deserted, no one was burying the dead. He escaped by car.
The news was worrying and depressing. We feared for the fate of our families. The teacher pointed out to us the water tower at the railway station and we went straight there. It was a big station. There was no sign of it being bombed. We noticed a freight train with scores of railroad cars and a smoking engine. The train was ready to depart. We tried to find out from the workers where that train was going, but we could not get a clear answer, or they did not want to tell us. We decided to climb into one of the carriages because it was obvious that the train was departing soon. With the last of our strength we climbed into a high carriage. We were exhausted and weak, all our limbs ached, we helped each other and the three of us managed somehow to crawl into the carriage when the train's wheels started to roll. We lay on the floor of the carriage without moving. Our hearts beat like hammers from the exertion and the excitement. Finally we were in the desired train, which was taking us to a safe shore! Our mental and physical strain was at its peak and at the same time at its end. Absolute fatigue and fogginess of the senses came over the three of us. Moving pictures of the events of the last days, like a dream, passed in front of my eyes. Eyes shut, the monotonous sound of the train's wheels and its rocking quickly put us to sleep. It was a deep and peaceful sleep after four nights of walking with a minimum of sleep and a tremendous physical effort. We woke up when the train stopped at Mogilev. To our surprise the sun was shining. We realised that we had travelled all night and passed the railway junction Osipovichi. We climbed down from the carriage and found out that it was a big station bustling with army men and civilians. We went into town to find some food. Walking with the kitbags on our backs, looking around for a restaurant we felt the stares of passers-by. Our clothes, again, betrayed us; did they think that we were saboteurs or Germans? Preparations for war were felt in the town. Long queues stretched in front of food shops. Russian fighter planes circled over the town as a defence against enemy bombers. We entered a big and splendid restaurant and ordered a meal. Our appearance awoke the curiosity of the diners, but no one bothered us. While eating we noticed one person looking at us with suspicion. The result was not long to come. The police was waiting for us on leaving the restaurant. The person who was watching us called them. He thought we were spies. This time, again, we had to convince the Russian security men that we were evacuated youths from the front in west Byelorussia and not German saboteurs. After a thorough investigation we were released. We returned to the railway station and knew that we had no choice but to go east as far as possible away from that dangerous zone. Without asking anyone, we entered a passenger car of the nearest train that was ready to depart. We chose some comfortable seats and after a short time were on our way. After a pleasant journey of a few hours the train stopped at a small, forlorn station. It was night and we had to find out where we were. Soldiers' voices were heard, they went from car to car. They wore battle- dress and were heavily armed. They arrested us, of course, and took us under heavy guard to the station building. We were brought to a lit room. In it sat a few officers around a table loaded with maps and communication devices. They investigated us at length, felt our kitbags in case we had some incriminating evidence. We explained to the officers that we were students from a Novogrudok school and we fled the Nazi army and only by mistake had boarded the train that brought us there. This time we were in real trouble, we were in the hands of a battle unit, its people under the circumstances could draw a conclusion which would be tragic for us. We went through some difficult moments but in the end our investigators were convinced and told us that the next train returns in the morning to Mogilev and we should be on it. We went outside and heaved a sigh of relief. There was absolute darkness, on the horizon, we could see sudden splashes of lights and we heard the echoes of explosions. We spent our night under the open sky and waited for the morning. Before dawn we boarded a train and at noon of the 28th of June we were back in Mogilev. All around the station zone one could see the signs of bombing, but the trains kept going after quick repairs of the rails. We met two fellows from Lida who told us that they were among the few who managed to escape the bombing of their town. They joined us in the evening when we caught the train that left Mogilev in the direction of Moscow.
The train sped over great Russia, we passed the towns of Roslavl and Kaluga, but were not permitted to enter Moscow. The militiamen took us off the train, checked our passports and told us to board another train, which circumvented the capital from the south. In that train we found a number of people from Novogrudok among them: Shmuel David Dzentsolski and Uri Yarmovski. We travelled together. Every one of us had a lot to tell. We were glad that our group grew bigger and we were not alone any more in a sea of strangers. At one of the stations we met Dr. Levin, the dentist from Novogrudok. I could hardly recognise him. The hard life on the road left its mark on him. He told me that at the start of the war he went on an errand to Minsk and could not return. He did try to reach his brother in Orsha.
We left behind us the towns: Penza, Kuybyshev, the Ural mountains, Chelyabinsk, till our train stopped at Kopeysk, a coal-mining town in the Urals. My brother, Yoshka Kopelman, Dzentsolski and I continued from the Urals to the south. We travelled days and nights through barren land till we arrived in Uzbekistan. We stayed a few days in Tashkent and then moved to Samarkand, our final destination. We decided to stay there, find work and wait and see what would happen.
People from our home town, who left Novogrudok like us were scattered all over Russia, reached remote Siberian towns and the planes of Central Asia. Some stayed in one place, some moved from town to town trying to make a living. Soon the Russian winter came and with it hunger and epidemics. To some of the fellows fate was cruel, because of the harsh conditions. They became sick and died in some lonely places and no one knew where they were buried. On occasions, it happened that people from Novogrudok met each other in remote places in Siberia and Central Asia looking for work, troubled by sickness and hunger.
We were worried and fearful about our families back home. We knew nothing about them in the first few months of the war, but we expected the worst. At the end of the winter of 1942 shocking stories were published in the newspapers. There was news about the horrors the Nazis committed in the conquered areas, the murder of Jews in the towns of Byelorussia and the Ukraine. The worry and dread turned into despair and sorrow, into passion for revenge and with it a horrific sense of inadequacy.
Months and years passed by, the horrific war continued to play havoc, spreading destruction and extermination. Many young men from Novogrudok were enlisted into the Red Army, fought the enemy and fell as heroes on the battlefields. Among them was Izek Boldo, whom I met in the autumn of 1941 in a kolkhoz near Samarkand. We met others.
A large part of our men departed Russia with the Polish army under general Anders and arrived in Erets-Israel [The number of Jewish men and Jewish families who were allowed to leave Russia with Anders' army was very small, much smaller than the proportion of Jews among the Polish population in the Soviet Union. Later Anders was severely criticised by Jews and others for his anti-Semitic behaviour]. Men from Novogrudok also served in the Polish Army, which was organised by the Soviets. Every man met his own fate. Most of them succeeded to reach Erets Israel after the war and strike roots there. But a few were not permitted to leave the Soviet Union and they are still there, dispersed in the vast country, lonely with no contact with the rest of their brethren (among them was Yoshka Kopelman). We heard nothing about scores of people whose traces disappeared in the wide expense of Russia, in the midst of war, hunger and epidemics. Their memory stayed with us, who had walked the bloody roads of Byelorussia with them. We share the memory of those who left but did not arrive.
Today, when we think about that fateful month of June of 1941 and the events of those days, the hurtful question comes up again: Why did we depart, when the catastrophe was on our doorstep, without the other members of our families whom we could have saved?
There are many answers but we should not look for justification - our dead forgave us...
We cannot escape the burning ache and deep grief in our hearts and the memory of our dear martyrs is living with us forever.
[Yaakov Kivelevich, who has written these memorable recollections, left the Soviet Union with Anders' army, fought in Africa, was severely wounded, practiced law in Erets Israel. He died a few years ago.]
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