About the first days under the control of the Soviet regime
by Pearl Vernik
Translated by Jerrold Landau
We were afraid to leave the house during the first days after the Poles left the town. Nobody knew what would transpire during the day, and how the new regime would behave. The new regime began to impose order in the town after a few days. Our feeling was that we were sentenced to a prolonged death under Soviet rule. First, they removed us from our spacious, beautiful house, and housed us in the same house as the Fuchs family. All of the businesses of the Shapira family were expropriated and nationalized, since the regime considered them to be a bourgeois family. The right to work was taken away from the family. We were given identity papers with a special sign (a black page) that identified us negatively to all the citizens and made us eligible for deportation to forced labor camps in Siberia. I benefited from a unique status. Since I was fluent in the Russian Languages, I was granted the right to work. I directed a branch of the government sick fund. This gave me the possibility of helping the Shapira family to a significant degree.
My father's family had an easier situation. Apparently, the new regime did not consider them to be a bourgeois family, and two of the sons were permitted to work since they were considered to be a proletariat element. Therefore, they were able to manage. Thus did life continue until 1941.
Sh. Vernik relates:
The great fear of what was liable to come already began in July 1939. During those days, a draft of adults to the Polish Army was proclaimed, which was a clear sign of approaching war. After the Molotov Ribbentrop agreement on the partition of Poland between Germany and the Soviet Union, we already knew that Soviet rule was awaiting us.
Chaos pervaded in the town for several days. There was no government, since the Poles had left and the Russians had not yet arrived. Many Jews preferred to leave the city and seek refuge in the nearby villages, for they were wary of the disturbances that were usual during the time of a change of regime. My father of blessed memory did not want to leave the house, and asked me to remain with him. Our relatives, the Shapira family and my sister Pearl traveled to some village with the intention of remaining there until the wrath would pass and the situation would become clarified.
Our house was located at the end of the main road leading to Kowel, and we were therefore able to see the Polish army men and installations in their retreat. I recall that a day before the entry of the Soviets, a caravan of
the Polish Army passed through that street. They took out a farmer, who placed a red flag on his house to welcome the Soviets to the city, to be killed. To the best of my memory, this was the only casualty during the time of the change of regime. My father of blessed memory and I welcomed the Soviet soldiers with joy and a small meal. We knew that this was a miniature evil. Despite the fact that Father referred to the Soviet soldiers as Yachfanim, he knew that one must follow the law of the land, and therefore one must welcome the new regime in an appropriate fashion.
After some time, when the first news came of the Nazi atrocities in the region under their occupation, we began to understand that our situation was better, and that we must utter a blessing over the evil, for there is a greater evil
The first steps of the new regime failed to instill a sense of security in us. Everything in the stores in Ratno was quickly transferred to the Soviet Union. The Soviets purchased and took everything that came to hand, from shoelaces to eggs. It did not take long for all of the shops to be emptied. Anyone who hid merchandise was liable to a serious punishment. They indeed paid, but the money was non negotiable and it was impossible to purchase with that money new merchandise to replace what had disappeared. Father was correct: Yachfanim
The residents accepted the situation, for they knew that any complaints against the government might lead to deportation to the far-off plains of Siberia. The only thing that could be done was to complain within the confines of the family, with nobody to see or hear. Even the youths of the town, who were mainly Socialists, realized that all of the talk of equality without discrimination between nations and races appears good on paper; but things appear entirely different in the day-to-day reality. We had no choice other than to accept everything with love, to stifle
criticism, and to not arouse the wrath of the Socialists in our Ratno. The disappointment was bitter. The disappointment deepened after the new regime began to bare its fangs. The new institutions (including a court, prosecutor, and secretariat of the Communist party) began to prepare the Jewish youth for new ways of life and ideals. Of course, from that time, one had to be silent about the Land of Israel, for Zionism and other such concepts were fundamentally invalid. News reached us about deportations of Capitalist elements to work camps, but there were apparently not too many Capitalists in Ratno and in any case, nobody was deported. On the other hand, my uncle Shlomo-Tzvi, his daughter, and son-in-law who lived in Luck experienced this deportation, for they were considered to be property owners. The daughter Dvora returned from the work camp after three years (today she lives in Israel). It is possible that several Jews of Ratno might have experienced these camps in Siberia, but the Soviets did not have the chance to impose order in smaller settlements such as Ratno within the two years. They only had the chance to nationalize businesses, expropriate houses, etc. Apparently, nobody attempted to refuse their requests, and when the general prosecutor came to our house and said that he wanted half the house as well as the sofa and the bicycle, his request was fulfilled. With time, my father was able to find out that this prosecutor was a reasonably good neighbor, and it was even possible to conduct some sort of business with him.
After some time, they began to draft young Jews to the Soviet Army. This situation improved the situation, for it was known that if one of the sons of the family was serving in the Red Army, the family would be in a good situation with respect to the government, and would have all the rights that the authorities granted to citizens.
I was drafted to the Red Army along with eight other youths from Ratno in the latter part of 1940. Our camp was near the city of Kolomyja. Until the outbreak of the war between Germany and the Soviet Union, we worked at building an airport. We were located in a work camp that served as a corridor to the main hall, that is - to prepare youths before their actual draft to the Red Army. We were under Soviet rule for the duration of a year and a half, and we felt the Soviet boot in all its glory.
Tanya Bokser (Gandelsman) tells:
The war, with all the tribulations and suffering related to it, already began in September 1, 1939 for the Jews of Ratno. The road that divided the city into two was a main road in Poland at that time, and it was natural for it to serve as a target of bombardment. Most of the residents of the city escaped to villages at the time of the outbreak of the war, and our neighbors, Ukrainians who were known for disgrace, knew how to extort the maximum from the Jews who came to seek refuge under their roofs. Despite the fact that they were accustomed to making agreements on the price at the time that the Jews entered their village homes, they would set new terms and demands each morning, until the situation became loathsome to the Jews, and they returned home to Ratno.
When we returned to the town, we already knew about the partition of Poland into two, with the eastern sector of the country, including Ratno, being transferred to the Russians. The leftists in Ratno, or those who were known as such, displayed great excitement at the impeding changes, and tried with their enthusiasm to excite the rest of the residents who were very wary about what was awaiting them. The city council prepared a splendid welcome for the Red Army. A gate of honor decorated with many flowers was set up. Red flags fluttered for show atop all the houses. The residents tore off the white section of the red-white flags of Poland that they owned, and the entire city was decked in red Representatives of the city hall waited on the road to greet the Soviet soldiers. The vigil lasted for two days, for they did not know the exact time that the army would arrive. In the meantime, an entire division of Polish soldiers passed through the town on their way to Zabolottya. On the route of their retreat, they passed the place where the enthusiastic devotees of the Soviet regime were waiting, waving their red flags and hurrying to settle scores with them.
In our house, we were interested to know the whereabouts of our neighbor Pesia Sheines. The family was gathered into one house, and soldiers with weapons stood around us. A few of them went through the closets to search for red flags that would prove the anti-Polish sentiments of the residents. To our good fortune, they did not succeed in finding the red flag in our house, and they satisfied themselves with confiscating the fresh bread that had been baked during the night. Of course, during the retreat, they did not forget to shoot in all directions, and many bullets fell upon beds under which the frightened residents were sleeping.
When the soldiers of the Red Army entered the town, the enthusiasm began to dwindle. Various shopkeepers and merchants succeeded in hiding the merchandise that was in their possession, but they had to sell anything that remained in the shops. Business died down after several days. The tradesmen also went around without anything to do, with the exception of the shoemakers who had plenty of work, for they had to patch the old shoes since there were no new shoes to be found. Almost all sources of livelihood were closed off. A significant portion of the workers became government officials if no taint was found in their pedigree. The economic situation grew more serious from day to day. The Jews were very bothered that they would no longer be able to prepare a proper Sabbath, for what would the Sabbath be like without challas, fish, and meat, as the Jews of Ratno were accustomed to from time immemorial. The bread line increased from day to day. Many people stood in line at the cooperative for long hours in order to purchase what was available. People learned that they must buy everything that was available for purchase, whether or not they required the merchandise
In contrast to the serious economic situation, there was great pride in the cultural activities. The local elementary school turned into a ten grade school. Many people who had interrupted their studies under the former regime returned to the school bench. Various educational courses were organized. There were special courses for illiterate people, choirs, meeting halls, clubs, etc.
Cultural energy directed toward the instilling of Communist ideology to the broad community was felt.
The Tarbut School turned into a Yiddish school. Most of the teachers got accustomed to the regime and the new conditions. Many clubs were organized under the auspices of the school.
For me, the Soviet regime was literally a golden era. Despite the serious economic situation in the home, I returned to my studies. I studied Slavic languages (Russian and Ukrainian), I was active in various cubs, and I was also one of the three first members accepted to the Komsomol. The two others were Ukrainians. In the Komsomol elections, I was also elected to the committee of the entire district and to other committees. My activities gave me a true feeling of happiness. My happiness especially grew after I was sent to study in Lvov on the recommendation of the party institutions, as was the custom in the Soviet Union. I continued with my activities in the Komsomol and was elected as second secretary of the school even when I was studying in the Teknikom.
During the era of Soviet rule, the school in Ratno organized a large choir that quickly learned the Soviet songs. Its appearances during national holidays earned them great acclaim. My brothers and sisters studied in the Yiddish school.
I wish to note in particular a young, nice and very talented teacher, Moshe Karlin, who married Golda Droog. Golda worked together with me in the office. She managed the tickets and accounts of the cooperatives and displayed great skill in her work. She was known as a charming personality, and earned great approval. It is fitting to specifically mention this lovely couple, Golda and the teacher Karlin, as well as their tragic end.
The chief accountant of the cooperatives was Yitzchak Held, and his assistant was Yisrael Chayat. In addition, the following individuals also worked as government officials: Hershel Schneider, Yisraelik Weisblat, Dvora Held, Motel Kacyn, Mordechai Langer, Susia Frigel, and others.
by Shlomo Perlmutter
Translated by Jerrold Landau
Already on September 1, 1939, giant Polish signs were displayed in the town, giving notice from the Polish president Mościcki that The eternal enemy of Poland invaded our country, and we will return with war to its gate. Many people crowded around these signs, as if this was some sort of surprise. People spoke of the impending war for many weeks before this time, and from the depressed eyes of my parents and family members, I too realized that something unusual was about to happen. Now, that the matter of the war had become a fact, I comforted myself with the knowledge that school would not recommence, that the long vacation would continue, and that I would not have to travel to Kowel where I had been studying in the gymnasium
The next day, the noise of the German Messerschmitt bombers disturbed our calm as they dropped their loads on the roads upon which rows of Polish army vehicles and the first caravans of refugees had been moving since the early morning hours. I recall that my grandfather Shmuel Simcha of blessed memory attempted to calm us sitting with the entire family around the table: We do not need to be afraid of the bombs, and there is not reason to escape from them, for each one falls in the place preordained by Divine providence.
Many refugees passed through the town, and one day, a Jewish family that had escaped from Warsaw ate at our table. From this family, we heard details of the behavior of the Nazis in the areas that they had conquered. I internalized the true reality of this war when I saw that the father of this family gathered the crumbs of bread that were left on the table and hid them in his pocket
On September 17, we saw airplanes flying low over the town dispensing proclamations. Many people, myself included, ran to collect them. The proclamations informed us that the Polish state had collapsed, and the Russian army was about to enter the town and liberate us. In truth, I did not understand the meaning of this liberation, but there was a feeling of relief. This meant that it was not the Germans who were coming to us, but rather the Russians, and this was also a positive thing.
It was not long before a caravan of Soviet tanks arrived in Ratno from Kowel. Along with all the children of Ratno, I ran to welcome the soldiers of the Red Army who displayed great politeness, permitted us to sit on the tanks, distributed boxes of Russian matches to us, and told us a great deal about the wealth and plenty in the great expanse of Russia, from which we would shortly be able to benefit
It was not long before delegates of the Soviet regime, along with several local Ukrainian collaborators and several Jews who were known for their Communist inclinations, came to us and began to impose order in the town. The shopkeepers were commanded to open their shops, and tradesmen were ordered to return to their workshops. The new rulers stated that the lines of communication between Brisk and Kowel would be reopened, so it would be possible to stock up on new merchandise and renew the inventory in their shops.
The owner of the textile shop began to suspect that the sources of his livelihood had been closed off.
I returned to my studies in the Hebrew Gymnasium of Kowel, but to my great surprise, it was no longer a Hebrew gymnasium. Instead of Hebrew and Bible, the Russian, Ukrainian and Yiddish languages were taught. The change was extreme. It was particularly difficult for me to come to terms with the fact that the teachers who had formerly taught Hebrew had begun to teach Yiddish. I could not bear to see the anguish of my beloved teacher Yosef Avrech, left handed, who later became well known for his acts of bravery during the actions in Kowel. I recall that he invited me to his home one day and gave me a private lesson in Bible. We studied the 11th and 12th chapters of Jeremiah, and my beloved teacher explained to me the interpretation of the war of the prophet against the people of Anatot. I will never forget the dual meaning of the verses What business has my beloved in my house, seeing that she has practiced lewdness, and You would be right, Oh G-d, if I dispute with You, I will reason with You, why does the path of the wicked prosper? Why are those that deal treacherously secure?. He repeated the end of this verse several times, and I understood his intention very well, even though he sufficed himself with innuendoes, for these were very obvious innuendoes
In contrast to specific teachers who demonstrated the ability to become accustomed to the new regime, there were many students who did not easily get used to the new spirit with its fundamental changes. The spirit of Zionism and our love and desire for the Land of Israel was hard to uproot. We organized groups, and continued to secretly study Hebrew and Bible in parallel with our courses in school. Several teachers came to these groups and gave us clandestine lessons in Bible and Hebrew, despite the danger involved in this In a postcard that I sent to my friend Avraham Papir (Nir) in Ayelet Hashachar on January 17, 1940, I gave expression to our feelings during those days. (The content of the postcard was later published in
the Davar newspaper in the Land of Israel.)
I would travel from Kowel to Ratno once every two weeks. The great change was also felt in Ratno. My friends who had graduated from the Tarbut Hebrew School with Noach Kotzker as the principal began to study in the public school. The Tarbut School became a nine grade school with the language of instruction being Yiddish. Kotzker was not allowed to set foot therein. The Hebrew library was closed and there were tattlers in the town who transmitted details of all the Zionist activities to the security services (N.K.V.D.) One day, I invited approximately ten good friends to my house, and we established a group for the study of Hebrew, despite the danger involved in this. I gave this group the name Gechalei Retamim [Coals of Broomwood]. All the members of this group swore before the Holy Ark of the Synagogue of the Stepan Hassidim to refrain from saying anything about the existence of this group and its aims. Whenever I came to Ratno from Kowel, the members of this group would gather in our house, close themselves off in one of the rooms, study Bible, read the poems of Bialik and Tchernikovsky, and even sing Israeli songs in a whisper. To the best of my memory, the following people belonged to this group: Avraham Cohen, Davidl Sheftel, Chayale Hochman, Merida Liberman, Chaya Kotzker, Golda Karsh, my brother Shikale and his friend Henich Droog, Avraham Mogilensky, and others.
It is appropriate to mention something about one of our activities - bringing back the confiscated Hebrew books. It happened as follows. We found out that the banned Hebrew books were housed in the wall closets in the Papir house, where
dances were arranged by the local authorities every Saturday night for the youth. On one of those evenings, all the members of our group came and spread themselves out among the dancers. When the tumult reached its peak, Mogilensky and Davidl Sheftel pulled out the electric plugs. Our members began to carry out the action in the darkness that ensued. We emptied the shelves of Hebrew books into sacks that had been prepared from the outset. By the time the electric disruption was repaired, all the Hebrew books were already in the secret place designated for them. The operation succeededá without any of the adults knowing about it. Davidl Sheftel and I traveled to the gymnasium in Kowel the next day, as if nothing had happened. However, the N.K.V.D. men quickly followed after us, and opened a detailed investigation with the goal of revealing the books and the perpetrators of the iniquity. Dozens of adults were brought to the investigation, but they never thought that the sinners were 12 to 14-year-old children. It did not take long before my grandfather unintentionally almost placed us in the trap. One day when he was working in the barn, he discovered some of the books that had been hidden there. He brought the books out into the garden and hid them in the snow. Heaven helped us, for that night, a heavy snow fell, that better covered the books. When the snow began to melt in the spring, it was necessary to take the books to another hiding place. We consulted about what to do with them, and after obtaining advice from my uncle Reb Asher Leker, a wise, scholarly Jew who was dedicated to the Zionist idea with heart and soul, we transferred the books to the Shtibel of the Karlin Hassidim, and hid them in one of the geniza closets. Despite the ban and the danger involved, we continued to read Hebrew books, and the members of Gechalei Retamim distributed them amongst the youths of the town.
by Avraham Berg
Translated by Jerrold Landau
Ratno was conquered by the Nazis on June 23, 1941. During the first days, German soldiers were not seen in Ratno, and the occupation was merely strategic. Not far from where we were, the conquering Nazi soldiers divided into two branches. The right branch marched across Ukraine and the left branch marched through White Russia. Our town was left in complete disarray, and no trace of the occupiers was seen for two weeks. At that time, it was possible to escape to Soviet territory via Kamin Kashirsk and the surrounding forests in the direction of Sarny and Kiev, but who thought about escape? During those two weeks, small units of the Soviet Army passed through Ratno on their way to the Soviet Union. Some of them were armed, and others were already wearing civilian clothing, and sought hiding places in the homes of the farmers as workers or shepherds. Jews from the Soviet Union were among the retreating Red Army soldiers. They were equipped with machine guns and wanted to break through to the depths of Soviet territory. They convened a meeting in the middle of the market, and called the local youth to join them. Were we to have listened to them and joined them, or were we to have created partisan units - and there was more than enough weapons at that time - the destruction would not have been so great. However, who could have imagined in those days that the Germans would perpetrate their satanic plans upon us? Therefore, the local youth did not join the retreating Jewish Russian soldiers who were passing through the town.
In the meantime, the tribulations and poverty in the town increased from day to day. Tidings of Job arrived from the cities and towns of the area, instilling melancholy in all the residents. Local activists and leaders attempted to calm and support people. According to them, the German anti-Semitic incitement was nothing more than a means to win the war. However, as the Germans advanced and gained strength - what need would they have to kill Jews? Even after we heard the confounding news of the murder of Jews in various places in the region, it was hard to believe that such was the case. We heard with our own ears the blood curdling provocations of Goebbels on the radio, but everyone still tried to convince themselves that the evil will not come upon themselves, and that they themselves would somehow succeed in escaping.
This illusion did not last long. The great tragedy began through our close neighbors, the anti-Semitic Ukrainians, in the town and in the surrounding villages. On Saturday, July 5 (10 Tammuz) 1941, at 5:00 p.m., we found out that the Ukrainian intelligentsia, that is to say the sons of the landowners and the priests, visited the villages and demanded that the farmers come to town to perpetrate pogroms against the Jews, rather than wait until
the Nazis would arrive. The despair and fear that overtook the Jews cannot be described. Everyone went about perplexed and downcast.
It took place the next day. On Sunday July 6, at 5:00 p.m., armed shkotzim entered town, and immediately began shooting in all directions. They broke into the shops and private houses, and pillaged and robbed anything that came to hand. The first victim fell at the beginning of the pogrom - Binyamin Framan, the son-in-law of Leiber Karsh. Before he fell, he succeeded in killing one of the hooligans with an axe. The pogrom perpetrators were surprised when they realized that the Jews knew how to respond to war, and they fled back to their villages, taking their victim with them.
The next day, the pogrom perpetrators continued the work of pillaging on a larger scale, but this time, they satisfied themselves with merely pillaging and shooting in the air. No victims fell. That evening, when the Nazis in Kowel found out that the Ukrainians were pillaging in Ratno and anarchy prevailed in the city, they sent a unit of soldiers armed with machine guns to Ratno. The soldiers opened fire upon the pogrom perpetrators, whom they thought were young Jews who had come to aid of the Jews of Ratno, and therefore were returning the fire. The Nazis killed ten of the village pogrom perpetrators during this exchange of fire.
On Tuesday, July 8, the Nazis ordered all the Jews out of their homes and concentrated them on the road next to the house of Izik Steinberg. Among those gathered were some elderly people who were only able to walk with difficulty, as well as women with babies in their arms. After a few hours, the elderly and the wives with children up to the age of 13 were freed. They interrogated and tortured the Jews for ten full hours. They did not pay attention to the fact that it was the villagers who shot at them, and they placed the entire blame on us. One of the group, a Nazi captain, cursed and disparaged the Jewish nation, saying that it was the cause of all the difficulties. A loud voice calling out, No! was heard from the crowd of Jews gathered on the street. This shout emanated from the mouth of Yitzchak Hirsch Held of blessed memory, a lad with national consciousness. Nobody turned him in despite the demands of the Nazi captain who wanted to know who was responsible for the brazen shout.
The Nazis did not hesitate, and they immediately issued their verdict. Since they were greeted with shots when they came to town, they must immediately kill 70 people. They would grant us mercy by including the number of pogrom perpetrators who were killed in the number. Sixty people, 30 Jews and 30 local Ukrainians, were to be killed. They agreed that instead of killing the 30 Ukrainians, they would kill 30 Russian prisoners of war. These were hauled from the Kowel Road and killed by shooting. They chose 20 strong Jewish men to bury the dead. Then the Nazi captains passed through the Jews who were gathered in the square, examined each one and chose 30 people who were placed separately. Two of the 30 succeeded in disappearing and escaping (one of them was Binyamin the water carrier, and the second one was not a native of Ratno). The 28 Jews were hauled to the same spot where the 30 Russian prisoners of war had previously been taken,
and were killed there. Among the 20 strong men who were given the task of buried the victims were the fathers of two sons who dug graves for their children with their own hands: my brother-in-law Nathan Marder and Yaakov Steingarten (the latter was later saved, and succeeded in arriving in the Land of Israel via Italy). When the son of Nathan Marder, who had already been wounded badly, saw his father, he called out, Father, I am still alive, bring me a bit of water, my insides are burning. Nathan was very perplexed and did not know what to do, for the Nazi murderers stood close by. When they left, he attempted to save his son, but it was already too late. One of the 28 Jews was saved - Yaakov Klodner from the old city, the son of Asher who was nicknamed Der Geier.
It was quiet in town for several weeks, however the echoes reached us of the pogroms and slaughter that was taking place in other cities and towns were sufficient to embitter our lives. It was clear to us that this was the calm before the storm.
A flood of decrees was issued against us. The first was the decree that every Jew was required to wear a yellow patch. This was a moral degradation for each of us. Later, a Judenrat was imposed upon us, and the situation worsened throughout the following months. In all the towns of the region, Kowel in particular, Ghettos were established for the Jewish population. Murderous aktions began, including the murder of 18,000 Jews of Rovno. We felt that the ground was burning under our feet, and the noose was tightening around our necks.
The economic situation deteriorated. There was a complete paralysis in all areas of work. The pillage of Jewish property continued. The Jews were forbidden from leaving town. All of their cows and horses that they owned were stolen. It was even forbidden for a dog or a cat to be found in a Jewish home.
To the extent that our situation worsened, the situation of our Ukrainian neighbors and the village farmers improved. The anti-Semitic venom permeated their bones, and they were interested in exploiting the Jewish tradesmen, and they attempted to obtain permits for such from the Nazi rulers. To a certain degree, this was to the benefit of the Jews, for the Jewish tradesmen who worked in the villages received their payment in the form of food products, which saved the town from starvation. There was another benefit to working in the villages: the hand of the Nazi occupier did not rule there, and it was somehow possible to breathe and even to hope for better days.
Our town Ratno was fortunate. A ghetto was not set up for the Jewish population, as was the case in many other cities. They did not hunger for bread, and life was more comfortable than in the settlements of the area. However, it was not long before various decrees were issued. Endless taxes were imposed. Furniture, high quality clothing and all valuables were confiscated. The Nazis took everything that they wanted, packed it up, and sent it to Germany. Every sign of opposition was liable to cost one's life. The harshest thing was the demands placed on the Judenrat to supply Jews for work. At first, the Judenrat decided to send only bachelors to the workplaces. A period of weddings then began in the town. Anyone who was able to got married, without investigating whether
or not the girl was appropriate for him. These were weddings of sadness and not weddings of joy. Everyone knew what work meant, and therefore they did not investigate carefully, but rather did all that they could to avoid being on the list of those sent to work. It very quickly became clear that the number of bachelors was small, and it was necessary to include married people on the lists of those to be sent.
In December 1491, the Nazi authorities set up a union (Artel) of workers in the paradigm of the Soviet Union. All tradesmen were unified in a single cooperative that had all types of professional sections. The profits of the sections were tallied up, and 20% of the profits were designated to carry out the Nazi propaganda.
by Shlomo Vernik
Translated by Jerrold Landau
I was among the 50 youths who were drafted in Ratno to go to work in Kowel. It seems to me that the aim of the Nazis was to reduce the number of young men in town to the extent possible, and thereby to make it easier for them to carry out their designs without disturbance. My brother Aharon was also one of those who was to be sent to forced labor in Kowel, but my father volunteered to go in his place. He claimed: I do not want to be bereaved of both of my sons, and if someone of our family is destined to survive, let it be my son. Mother wept bitterly. The agony was felt in all corners of the house. The sadness was felt especially on the Festival of Shavuot, the first holiday without Father in the house, for all holidays had been celebrated with all the family together.
After some time, the youths who were sent to work in Kowel were taken out to be murdered. Father succeeded in hiding in a chimney, and began to return to Ratno a few days later. When he came close to the town, several Ukrainians met him and told him that there are Germans in the town, and it would be best to disappear. Father refused and said, What will happen to my family will happen also to me.
I worked in the sawmill in Zabolotya together with 80 other people of Ratno. We were allowed to return home on the Sabbath eve, and return to the camp on Sunday. It was a distance of 25 kilometers, but this did not bother us, for we were happy to get together with our family and friends even once a week. One Sabbath when I came home, I was surprised to see Father sitting with the family and telling them of all the tribulations that afflicted him in Kowel. We sat down all together, and not just for one evening, and listened to Father's stories as the fear in our hearts increased.
We looked out the windows the next morning, and saw Ukrainian vehicles on the street. It was obvious that something was about to take place. I recall that Father approached me, gave me my tefillin and a pot of cooked food, and said to me, I am very suspicious that the verse 14 in the Book of Jeremiah, 'one from a city and two from a family' will happen to us. Guard the tefillin and perhaps they will also protect you. Go quickly to your workplace in Zabolotya, for you have a work permit, and you are better protected than we are. Perhaps you are destined for life, and you will continue our large family. He broke out in bitter weeping, as if his heart predicted that we would not see each other again. That day, Father, Mother, my young sister Breindel, and two children: the son of my sister Perl who now lives in Israel, and the son of my sister Batya were all taken out to be killed.
Who did not know Mendel the glassmaker of Ratno? Who did not use him for the summer or winter windows after a fire or on another opportunity? This Mendel was a quiet, modest Jew. He conducted his work faithfully, and raised four children who helped him in his work. In the town, everyone knew that Mendel and his sons would even clean the windows in the houses of people who could not afford to pay. When they would get money they would pay.
I recall that when I was seven years old, a large fire broke out in Ratno and the home Mendel the glassmaker was also burned. My father Yehuda Leib Vernik of blessed memory housed the family of Mendel in our old house. He had a large family: Mendel Plotzker, his wife, four sons and two daughters. However, Father was very happy to have the opportunity to perform this commandment, even though this lasted for a year and a half.
I met four of the sons of this Mendel in the work camp of Zabolotya. I was working in carpentry and they worked in glassmaking and smithing. We had a work permit from the Germans, which in those days was like a life insurance policy.
All 80 of the people who worked in the camp lived in very cramped conditions in several dismal bunks. Each morning, we spread out through the area, each person to his own work in the large sawmill. In the evening, we
returned to the bunks. During this period, I learned to appreciate the Plotzker brothers, the sons of Mendel the glassmaker, for their fine deportment. The eldest Simcha was the leader who held authority, and he was indeed worthy of such. He was a strong lad with broad shoulders. He had formerly served in the Polish army. He was wise and decisive in all his actions. The other two brothers, Moshe Yankel and Yehuda Leib, were also positive characters. When the aktions began in Ratno and the tidings of Job regarding the deeds of the Germans began to arrive in quick succession, Simcha and his brother convened a secret meeting with those people that they believed they could trust. We decided unanimously to not wait any longer, and to escape at the first opportunity. The decision to escape with fraught with many difficulties, especially due to the fact that we had wives and children. It was not easy to escape with them, and it was even more difficult to escape without them. We took council together and decided that we would escape no matter what, and that the sign would be given in a few days. The next day, I worked as usual in the carpentry shop, but I sensed unusual preparations. I looked out the window and saw that they had taken Simcha out. They brought him to the threshold of the carpentry workshop, shot him, and he fell. A veteran Ukrainian technician who was responsible for the machines approached the dead Simcha, moved him by his legs, and said, I wish that I could see the last of the Jews in this situation. That day, they also took Simcha's brother out to be killed. Apparently, the Germans found out about the plans of escape. They gathered the rest of the workers in the camp and told us that it was to our luck that they found out about the plans for escape in time, and therefore we could continue to work. If we would remain orderly, we would live. Thus, I continued to work in the camp for eight more months, until I escaped and joined the ranks of the partisans. This image of the murder of Simcha stood before my eyes throughout the entire time that I was in the camp. A shudder passed through my body as I passed by that hated Ukrainian technician, but would could I do under those conditions? On day I heard that the technician had fallen ill. Indeed, we saw that he was weakening from day to day, until one day we merited to see him fall down not far from the place where Simcha had been killed and he never got up again. We regarded
this as a miracle from heaven. This strengthened and encouraged us. We began to believe that there is justice and there is a judge, and perhaps we would yet see a better world.
I recall Moshe Kagan still from my childhood. He came to our house often from Zabolotya, where I now was, and father would host him. He was a strong, healthy Jew, but his speech was somewhat strange, as he only uttered short, cut-off sentences. Father explained to me that this Moshe was my second cousin, that he was strong and brave, and that all the gentiles were afraid of him. As was told, Moshe had a strong rib frame on his belly, and that he could choke any person on this frame. During the First World War, Moshe fought against various marauding groups, and showed them his power. Hearing of his deeds of bravery was an unforgettable experience for me. I met Moshe when I was working in the carpentry shop of Zabolotya, and we made plans about how to escape to the forests.
One morning, as I was working in the carpentry shop, a German and two Ukrainians burst into the carpentry shop, and gave a package to the German director of the workshop, that included broken guns that were brought to be fixed at the workshop. A Polish woman who worked in the carpentry shop, Juza Plock, who also was busy with the Germans at night, disclosed who had brought the guns to be repaired. They hauled Moshe outside the village, gave him a spade, and ordered him to dig a pit. Moshe understood their intentions. As he was digging the pit, he attacked the two Germans who were standing at the side with his spade. They were seriously injured from the severity of the blow. Their two guns were broken, and we were ordered to repair them quickly and in utter secrecy. Dozens of bullets sliced through the body of Moshe, may G-d avenge his blood, after this deed. The stories of his past were proven to be true. He fell as a hero.
by Ben-Zion Kamintzky
Translated by Jerrold Landau
I was about 13-years-old when the Second World War broke out. Everything that took place to me then is etched strongly in my memory. I see the home of my parents standing near the main street leading from Ratno to Brisk (Hornyk). My father was a tradesman, and he also owned agricultural land, a barn, a stable, and a fruit orchard. He was considered as one of the people. He nurtured good relations with the Ukrainians, and it seems that due to these relations, he and our entire family were saved from the Holocaust, as will be told later. Mother took care of the home, and especially of the education of the children: the sisters Beilcha and Udel, and me, the only son.
Father supported and maintained a private teacher in our home who taught me Hebrew as well as general subjects. I also studied with a Rebbe in the cheder, and later in the Tachkemoni School in Brest Litovsk. After that, I studied in the Tarbut School in Ratno. I became a member of Hashomer Hatzair, and became fluent in Hebrew. The teacher Kotzker was the one who taught me Zionism, and love of the people and the Land of Israel.
I remember well the years prior to the war, especially the many pogroms that were perpetrated in the cities of Poland during the years 1936-1939, as well as the anti-Semitic propaganda under the influence of Nazi Germany. More than once, my sister Beilcha escaped from Brisk to Ratno due to these pogroms and the Jew-hatred that was well-rooted in the Poles during those days.
In the eyes of my spirit, I see the first days of the war, when the Russians beat a hasty retreat from the town, and our Ukrainian neighbors began to pillage. I stood on the road next to our house along with several other Ukrainian shkotzim of my age. Suddenly, an army car with Germans appeared. The S.S. captain exited the car and requested in German that we bring eggs. When he saw that his German was not understood by the youths, he utilized various hand gestures to explain his request. When we brought him the eggs, the captain gave the Ukrainian youths some German money (Reichsmarks) and emphasized, Do not give this money to the Jews! I understood very well the meaning of this statement. I saw myself degraded. I fled home, lay down upon my bed, and wept. Perhaps that was when I first felt that I was of a lower class, a person of no value, a Jew
When the command that every Jew must wear a yellow 12 centimeter Star of David upon the back and the chest, my feelings of embarrassment and degradation deepened. I recall that I went out one day without the Star of David. An infamous Ukrainian policeman named Ivan ran into me, grabbed me, and beat me until I was bleeding. He kicked me with his boots and threatened me with his gun.
He finally demanded ransom money from my father and my father was forced to give him a gold bracelet.
One autumn day in 1942, two days before the High Holy Days, Breitza Frumka (who died in the United States) came to us, knocked on the shutter, and shouted to my father in a choked voice, Herzl, escape, save yourselves, the shtetl is burning, the Germans have surrounded it from all sides, and the great slaughter is approaching! There was no room for thoughts. We escaped. My parents, my sister Udel and her two children, my brother-in-law Yaakov Hochman of blessed memory, and I found refuge in the home of a Ukrainian farmer at the edge of the city, two kilometers from the Prochod Mountains. The next morning, the farmer brought us bitter news: the Germans and the Ukrainian police were drafting residents to dig pits in the Prochod Mountains. That was that. The time of the final aktion had arrived. Throughout that entire day (13 Elul), we heard shots. The gentile who had given us refuge ascended a tall tree and looked across the Prochod Mountains. At times, he came to our hiding place and told us what he had seen. He wept, and we all wept with him. We knew that the end had come to the lives of our dear ones, our relatives, and all the Jews of Ratno. The shouts of Shema Yisrael echoed across the entire length of the Prochod Mountains. They were taken out as sheep to the slaughter. There was no, and there was no possibility of any, attempt of resistance. The thought that we were alive and all the rest of Jews had been killed and murdered was frightening and oppressive.
The Vow of the Anti-Semitic Ukrainian
That evening, the Ukrainian farmer asked us to leave his house. He was afraid of slander. Having no choice, we moved to a grove in the region and hid there. At midnight, we saw some sort of moving image in the grove. We identified it by the light of the moon. This was a Ukrainian who was known as a Jew-hater, an avowed anti-Semite. We did not know whether he intended to kill us or turn us in to the Germans. In any case, we did not have any delusions, and we surmised that our end was coming as well. We were all surprised when this Ukrainian suddenly fell upon my father's neck, burst out crying and began to tell his frightful story: In the evening after the slaughter, I went to the Prochod Mountains to search for silver, gold, and clothes that had been left behind by the murdered Jews. When I approached the place, I heard groans bursting forth from the ground that was still quaking. There were still living, breathing souls in the bowels of the earth Blood was still flowing from the channels that came from the layers of sand I was not able to stand there, and I fled I swear to you, Herzl, that I did not take anything. I fled while I still had my soul, and as I fled I made a vow that if I find a Jewish family, I would try with the best of my ability to save them. I swear to you, Herzl, in the name of everything holy, that I will bring you food every day. I will protect you. You must live.
That is what the anti-Semitic farmer said through his weeping and sobs. In order to prove that he was telling the truth, he told us to remain where we were, and he would go to his house to bring us food. My father and brother-in-law apparently could not believe that he really meant it. Perhaps he went to bring reinforcements to turn us into the hands of the Germans in return for the monetary reward that the Germans used to give to everyone who
turned in a Jew? When he left us, we escaped to a different place
We met him again after some time. He searched for us. He was not angry at us for escaping. He understood our concern. He told us that he brought food and milk for the children, but when he came to our hiding place and did not find us, he realized that we did not believe him. This Ukrainian farmer remained faithful to us and always helped us. We found support and encouragement in his house. He fulfilled his vow, and the fact that we remained alive is due to him.
We Were Saved On Account of Thieves
It was a very cold winter, and snow fell without stop. We trembled from cold and fear. We dwelt in some structure filled with straw and fodder. We attempted to dig very deep into the pile of fodder to warm up a bit. We were dirty, and the lice ate us voraciously. We were oppressed and desperate. We were certain that we were the only Jews who had survived. The murderers conducted thorough searches, and any Jew who was found was immediately killed. We thought that the Nazi motto of Judenrein had been realized.
At that time, our hiding place was in the house of some gentile widow. She pleaded with us to leave her house. She was afraid that they would kill her and us together. We returned to our house that stood on the noisy street through roundabout paths. We had one and only hope: that the Germans and their Ukrainian collaborators had already conducted searches in that house, and perhaps we would be able to stay there for a day or two until we find another hiding place. My family members remained in the house, whereas my brother-in-law and I went out in the darkness of the night to the small settlement of Siltse in order to search for a hiding place for the entire family. After remaining in our house for two days, the Ukrainians entered at night in order to pillage what was left. They moved from room to room, and when they reached the room at the edge where my family was sitting, and they saw people, the robbers became frightened and fled. Of course, my family members were also frightened. They fled from the house and found refuge in the barn of a farmer - and thus we were saved again. The next day, the Germans arrived and set up a police station in our home.
The Death of Yaakov Hochman
We continued to wander from one hiding place to the next. Ukrainian farmers assisted us, supported us, and advised us where to hide. All types of gentiles gave us food. In the evening, I would go with my brother-in-law to the houses of the farmers, from where we received bread, milk, potatoes, and the like. During summer nights, we gathered potatoes in the fields and cut fruit from the trees. One summer evening in 1943, a year before our liberation, I went with my brother-in-law to search for food. We decided to not go together. Rather, we each went to a different farmer. After I furnished myself with several loaves of bread, I decided to walk among the bushes in the direction of the hiding place of the entire family. Shots rang through the air, and I lay down in the bushes, trembling in fear. This was the first time that my brother-in-law was not with me. I was afraid of his fate and the fate of my family. Who knew which of them were hit by the bullets? I saw dark things in my imagination.
I lay silently for a long time, and then decided to crawl along. I reached the barn in which my family was hiding. They also heard the shots and were concerned about our fate. They were happy of course that I had returned in peace, but who knew what happened to Yaakov? He was a brave, optimistic man, and the pillar of strength within the family circle. He had served in the Polish Army, and knew how to overcome all fears. I had become very close to him during the long nights that we would wander together in the fields, groves, and the houses of the farmers. I attempted to calm my family members, and told them that Yaakov would certainly return early in the morning. Instead, the gentile came to us in the morning, and told us the bitter news. He found Yaakov lying on the crossroads, with a bottle of milk and a loaf of bread in his hands. The gentile covered him with a blanket, and at night, according to our request, he buried him atop a hill in the area. However, the family, including my widowed sister, her two orphaned children, and all of us were grief stricken. After some time, we found out that he had been murdered by a young Ukrainian who wished to take revenge for his father who had been killed by the partisans, who according to him were Jewish.
In the Hands of the Ukrainian Nationalists
Good news began to arrive. The Germans were defeated in Stalingrad as well as on the eastern fronts. The German Army retreated and the Russians advanced. There was a ray of hope. We continued to move from hiding place to hiding place, but now we were no longer as oppressed as previously. At that time, we found refuge with a farmer named Vokolka, who helped us greatly. A change took place with the Ukrainians who had collaborated with the Germans. They decided to sever their covenant with the Germans and begin to struggle to establish an independent Ukrainian state. These people were headed by a Ukrainian general named Bulba, and they were called Bulbovchi after his name. They fought against the retreating Germans as well as the advancing Russians. We were caught between the hammer and the anvil. Our situation became more serious and required us to take extra precautions, for the Ukrainians were organizing in the forests and the groves in which we found refuge. The discussions amongst ourselves were conducted in sign language. We were afraid to utter a sound. My sister's young children who had lost their father talked in a similar fashion. One day two representatives of the Ukrainian organization suddenly appeared accompanied by the farmer who had saved us. They had a unanimous announcement: since my father had a trade and knew how to fix weapons, our entire family had to move to their camp near Khoteshov, where they would protect us. My father would work at fixing weapons, I would help him, and my mother and sister would weave scarves and socks for their fighters. We could not refuse, and we moved to their base, where a small house was put at our disposal. They treated us well in accordance with the explicit directive of their commander.
I had been accustomed to night living during the two years of wandering. I loved the dark that protected me, and I recognized all paths in the dark. I was afraid of the sunlight, for the light was liable to turn us in to the murderers. It therefore seemed strange to me to walk in the light of day, to absorb the sun rays, to breathe the clear air, to be free, and to see people outside and not be afraid of them
Everything had now changed with our way of life. We slept on a bench rather than a pile of straw and fodder. We ate at a table rather than in a barn or sheep pen. We felt that the Bulbovchi Camp was like a royal palace We lived with them and enjoyed our freedom for seven months. Indeed, this was a very forced freedom, for we knew very well what these Ukrainians had perpetrated against the Jews in the past. We also knew that they did not maintain us out of love, and if they reached the conclusion that we were no longer of benefit to them, they would not spare our lives. However, as long as we were of benefit to them, they provided all our needs. We thought on occasion: what will these murderers do with us? We searched for means of escape, but the nationalist Ukrainians were stationed throughout the area. Our attempts to make contact with the partisans who were some tens of miles away also came to naught. My father became friendly with one of the captains, a member of the staff that was responsible for us. He greatly valued our work at repairing the weapons and weaving the scarves. His nickname was Stochka and he had been a policeman in his time. He revealed a secret to my father: they had decided in their group that in the event that the partisans were to advance to us and attempt to conquer the area, they would kill us. He swore that he would save us if such a time came.
One evening, I visited the house of one of the farmers along with the friendly captain. The host brought refreshments and liquor. Our friend became drunk, and when wine enters, secrets come out. He said that the situation had become serious, the partisans were pressing from all sides, there would be a need to retreat, and they would be forced to carry out the plan that he had told my father secretly.
Before we returned home, the captain tapped my shoulders and said, Do not worry, as long as I am alive, no harm will befall you.
Despite his promise I was very depressed. When I returned home, I told the members of my family what was about to happen. Sadness descended upon all of us. We did not sleep that entire night. What could we do? Now more than ever we wished to live, to witness the final defeat of the Nazis, and to taste the taste of true freedom. However, we knew that they were following after all of our footsteps day and night.
Toward the next evening, the Ukrainians retreated from the area due to the pressure of the partisans who had begun to clear the area to prepare for the advancing Russian Army. We remained alone among ten families of farmers. We had been warned that we were forbidden to leave the house in which we lived. We were awake all night, tense and uptight over any sound from outside. Our friend Stochka returned to us toward morning. He was tired and unshaven. He told us that they wanted to come at night to kill us, but he convinced his friends to refrain from carrying out their plan, and promised them to turn us over to them. He advised us to flee in the direction of the partisans, and asked that we remember him positively. Tears flowed from his eyes, and, from the appearance of his face, we sensed that he was speaking the truth. We felt sorry for him, and we advised him to escape together with us, but he did not want to betray his friends. We parted from him in great agony.
At that time, Frumka was with us. She was the girl who had warned us before the extermination that we should flee from our home. She and my mother went out as scouts
to search for the partisans in the direction that the friendly captain had mentioned. However, in the interim, the partisans arrived to the place we were, riding on horses. They were surprised to meet Jews and young children. There were Jewish partisans among them. It was difficult for us to believe what our eyes saw: Jews fighting with weapons in their hands. The partisans burned all the houses, took all the weapons and sacks of wheat, and left the place. We joined them. We arrived in Khoteshov and from there to Kamin Kashirsk, where we met other Jewish Holocaust survivors. After years of wandering, affliction and terrible tribulations, we began to breathe the breath of freedom. The Russian Army took control of the area, and we were able to walk through the streets without fear.
by Yisrael Chayat
Translated by Jerrold Landau
I am pacing along a tortuous path toward the destroyed shtetl of Ratno. Along the way, I passed through Jewish cities and towns whose Jews way of life for many generations was now covered with dust, ashes, and thousands of graves. The Holocaust survivors are now wandering over these ruins; brands plucked from fire, gases, and shards remaining from the axe of the executioner, one from a city and not even one from a family, who now look as stalks cut from desolate fields. To anyone who did not witness it, my journey along paths that I had sworn never to return to seems strange. I cannot bypass them. All of the roads here are paved with Jewish blood.
It was Ratno at the end of 1945, on a Sunday morning. The sun is warming and shining beams of light today, as always. I was contemplating: For whom? Petrified, I was walking as a wanderer in the darkness, with one thought afflicting me incessantly: Is it indeed possible for the sun to light up and bestow warmth upon the murderers and victims together? I walked along the ruins and grassy hills of Jewish Ratno. Between walls about to fall and mounds of ash, Jewish houses still stand that appear to Jewish eyes as canopies in
the cemetery Living beings peer out from these houses, asking in astonishment: Is there still a living Jew in Ratno? I linger next to a garden that is turning green today as it did in those days. Alas! Children are dancing and singing in a circle, but my eyes are directed to another place - to that part of town that has turned into a heap of ruins, to the children buried under the piles of bricks and ashes, and perhaps to the sin that they sinned by planting these gardens?
I meet my former neighbors as they are dressed in their holiday finery, on their way to worship their god who chose them as murderers and us as victims, and I contemplate: My G-d in heaven, were you to grant me now the powers of the mighty Samson in order to shake the sacred objects of the murderers, and Let my soul die with the Philistines!
The sun is setting, night is approaching, and I am still lying beside the graves in the Prochod Hills. Everything around is desolate and deathly. Only the clouds are moving across the dark sky - clouds whose source is the smoke of the crematorium that carried them here, the smoke of the burned bodies. These clouds make me drowsy and envelop me in dreams.
Today as always, my beloved wife greets me, but her dark, glowing eyes are now extinguished; her pink, smiling face is now pale as never before; and her delicate lips that would drop me motherly kisses now whisper: Do not come here again, don't come
My child, my treasure, my diamond comes to greet me, but today he comes to me without his childlike language With his soft hands that would always hug my neck he shows me today his small head that was shot, and from which warm, childhood blood flows.
I wake up in a cold sweat, with a broken heart and in agony and pain. The clear moonlight shines upon my dream heroes I lit memorial candles for the elevation of their souls. To the light of the candles, I begin to read bloodstained pages of books that I collected from the ruins of Ratno:
The heavens shed tears, and blood pours from my heart.
I close my eyes so that I can plunge into my agony If I had read these words that emanated from the hand of a Jewish lyrist, whom long ago I would have understood differently than I do today, but even today - I do not understand why the heavens did not shed tears when the Nazi murderers shot at the hearts of Jews, and why they continued to give light during the days of the murder of the Jews as they did during the days of Jewish life?
by Yaakov Grabov
Translated by Jerrold Landau
At times I have some sort of feeling that a mysterious, invisible hand, perhaps the hand of a baby, is sticking out from a pit, throwing innuendoes and saying to me, 'Tell, tell Yaakov, tell everything, so that they will know until the end of all generations what happened to us.
I left Ratno in 1938 and went to hachshara in the city of Rovno. When the First World War broke out, a directive was received from the central leadership of Hashomer Hatzair to liquidate the hachshara, to return to our homes and our families, and to guard the coal until the wrath shall pass. (Who knew then for how long this wrath would continue…) We acted in accordance with the command. I returned to Ratno via Luck and Kowel, and I already saw signs of the war in every place through which I passed. When I arrived in Ratno, I already saw caravans of the retreating Polish Army on their way to the railway station in Zabolotya. We slept among the vegetable patches, hiding from the retreating Polish troops. When the Russians arrived in the wake of the Molotov Von Ribbentrop agreement, it was clear to me that the grave had been covered over all of our Zionist ideals, over Hebrew culture, over the activities of the national funds, and over much more. Our only hope was that the Russian occupation would not last long, and with time, we would be able to Renew our days as of old.
When the war between Russia and Germany broke out in 1941, the Russians began to leave the town, and several Jewish families left along with them. My eldest brother Shmuel and his family were among them. The town was without government for several days, and the farmers from the extended region streamed into town in order to pillage it. Some of them entered the home of Avraham Hochman, the son-in-law of Liber Karsh. At that time, his brother-in-law Binyam Frajman from the village of Krymne was sitting there. When he saw the hooligans, he grabbed an axe and cut off the head of one of them, but he himself fell victim at the hands of the rest of them, who left the house empty handed. There were two days of quiet in town, but German troops quickly arrived. Their first command was that all the Jews of Ratno were to gather on the road and arrange themselves in rows according to families. When the Jews set out for the designated area, the Germans decreed that if there are any Soviet soldiers among the crowd, they must leave the rows. Two Jewish youths who had served in the Soviet army left the rows, even though many people tried to prevent them from doing so. The lads said, We do not want destruction to be perpetrated on the Jews of Ratno. You acted relatively well toward us, and we will not pay you back with evil instead of good. Perhaps the Germans will satisfy themselves with the two of us, and no evil will befall you.
After this, a bespectacled German with a severe facial expression passed through the rows and identified 30 young people who were to leave the rows. Among those who were taken were my good friend from Hashomer Hatzair Leibel Steingarten, Yisrael Kanfer, Yankel Klodner, and others. When the thirty youths were collected at the side of the road, Eli Janowicz approached the German who had chosen the victims and said to him in German: My master, I was the mayor of the city during the First World War, and I served the German authorities faithfully. Here are my documents. The German slapped him on the face and said to him, The Germans of today are not the Germans of that time. Return to your place!
As is known, all 30 were taken to be killed, except for Anyuman the water carried who escaped without being noticed, and Yaakov Klodner, who fell on the ground with the first shot
and was left for dead, but who later left the pile of corpses.
Night fell upon Ratno. A frightful night that lasted for years.
The Germans confiscated the cows in the town and it was necessary to transport them to Kowel. Moshe Zamel, Yisrael David Fajntuch, and I were among those who transported the cows. When we reached the approach to Kowel, one of the cows fell behind the others. Yisrael David approached it, and whipped it with a stick to prod it. When the German who was with us realized that a Jew was raising a stick to the cow, he called him aside, removed his hat, took out a pair of scissors, and cruelly cut and pulled out the hair of his head. Then, the spark of revenge was ignited within me.
The day would come when I would take revenge for the Jew who had been denigrated - I thought in my heart.
A flood of decrees poured down upon us. Each day had its decrees. I was an eyewitness to the following event: The Germans ordered a certain quorum of people to present themselves for work at a certain hour. The Judenrat determined who must go. At the set time, not all of the people who were supposed to be present were there. Even the Judenrat secretary, Yitzchak Karsh, was a few minutes late. When he appeared, the German called him and began to whip him with the whip that he held. Blood flowed from Itzel's head, but he did not say a word. When he collapsed completely, another spark of revenge was ignited, or perhaps the first spark became stronger. I thought in my heart: If only I would remain alive, I will take revenge also for the blood of Itzel.
The Judenrat was again ordered to provide workers. There was no choice but to gather the rest of the men who remained in town. Among others, the lot fell upon the only son of Shimon the musician (Sdovnik). His mother and blind father screamed
frightening screams: You are taking our only son, who will sustain us?! Despite the fact that this draft did not fall upon me, I left the line and said, I will go in his place. Leibel Grabov approached me, hugged me and said, Yankele, you are a man of valor, a true proletarian.
The immediately took us to Kowel, and we were told to gather all the belongings from the ghetto, whose residents had been murdered the previous day. We worked the entire day until sunset. Suddenly, the German who was supervising our work noticed that two lads put something in their pockets. He motioned to them to come to him, searched their pants, and found two bars of soap. This is theft! the German shouted. He took out a long rope, tightened it, and ordered the lads to run without stop around the rope as he whipped them mercilessly with a whip. The rest of the workers stood around and were forced to watch the spectacle. I closed my eyes, for I was unable to look. The fire of revenge burning within me increased more and more.
After several days of work in gathering the property and belongings of the murdered Jews, they transferred me to work on cleaning railway lines. Avigdor Fajntuch of Ratno worked together with me. They worked us hard, and demanded a great deal of productivity. One day, my strength weakened, and thoughts of escape entered my mind as I was working. A mysterious voice echoed in my ears commanding me to get up and escape. I stopped working for a moment, and suddenly I felt on my back the rubber whip with a heavy lead ball at the end. A German stood next to me, You are lazy, you are slacking! The desire to attack him and kill him awakened within me, but I saw his gun and recoiled.
The next day, I did not go to work. Avigdor Fajntuch and I set out in the direction of Ratno. They captured Avigdor next to Butsyn and killed him, whereas I reached
the home of my parents in Ratno through a tortuous route. Mother hugged me, but ordered me to escape to the forest and to search for my brother David who had disappeared and was no longer here. I went to the forest and joined the partisans. The sparks of revenge that pulsated inside of me ignited more and more, and in the various actions in which I participated I had a number of opportunities to fulfill the vows that I had sworn to myself, and to take revenge upon the Germans.
by Yaakov Grabov
Translated by Jerrold Landau
I spent most of the winter in attics and barns of local farmers without them knowing. Only one of them was prepared to give me a hiding place in the barn for a few days, after which I was forced to leave the place out of suspicion of being noticed by the neighbors. The farmer apologized to me and gave me a loaf of bread. I left the place at dark, and went to the city in which the house of the Polish forester, who had left the place at the outbreak of the war between Russia and Germany, was located. The farmers of the area had removed the windows, doors, and any other item that could be dismantled. The only things remaining were the walls and the attic that held the fodder and hay for the cows.
I entered the ruin, went up to the attic, and covered myself in fodder and hay, for otherwise I would have frozen from the cold. I fell asleep… I got up in the morning, broke the bread in my sack into pieces, and placed the sack over my shoulder in such a manner that the farmers would not suspect a simple person. Two bats were hanging from a beam next to me. I thought: For them, it is good. Nobody is bothering their rest, and they will revive and be free in the springtime; whereas I am lying here persecuted and thirsting for revenge. And the lice are eating me alive…
I peered through a crack and saw that everything was covered with white snow, and the pine trees were standing with their green foliage covered with snow like white cushions. According to my calculations, it must have already been the end of the winter. Thick snow fell all night. I could not go out, and if I went out, I would leave footprints in the soft snow, which would be liable to give me away.
All night, as I slept, I had visitors in the hut. That night, my eldest sister visited me and caressed my head. The previous night, I was at a Chanukah celebration in the school. One night, my father also came, covered me in his tallis, and took me to the cheder of Reb Motel Sarpad. Mother came adorned in a Sabbath kerchief. Her white hair poked out onto her pure forehead, and her blue eyes shone. She covered me and said, You will remain alive, and it is up to you to avenge our blood. Do not forget! I woke up and looked outside. Perhaps this time I would succeed in seeing somebody from my family, but the sheet of white snow still covered everything, and the shining sun moved along the heavens, casting rays that broke into all colors of the rainbow. I was situated in a white prison…
One night, I heard from afar the crunching of snow under people's feet. I looked through the crack and noticed two young farmers approaching the hut. I saw their red faces and their small eyes. They stood and looked around. One of them said to his friend:
Perhaps some little Jew is hiding here?
His friend answered, Let us go away. Since the hut had been abandoned, only ghosts and spirits live there. The Yids are big scaredy cats. They would prefer to die than to enter here. Bats also find refuge there. He crossed himself as he said this. Two ravens began to call out and to fly around the hut, filling the entire forest with the noise of their crowing. One of them stood on a pine tree and the other on the roof of the hut, as they continued to quarrel. Their crowing filled my heart with joy, as if this was a Divine melody in the world that was being destroyed, whose time had come to end…
At night, I felt a light wind blowing, and I became warmer. Even the lice were rustling more. Toward morning, I noticed that the bats also began to move their antennae. It seemed that spring was approaching, that the snow would melt, and that I would be able to leave the hut that was on the road leading to two Ukrainian villages, populated by murderers who collaborated with the Nazi enemy.
I still had enough bread to last for a few days. I quenched my thirst with the snow that piled on the roof. In the morning, I would peer through the hole and see black stains on the white sheet that covered the ground, as well as a few blades of green grass. I could leave, and my footsteps would not give me away…
In the darkness of night, I covered my feet with straw and rags, and took the bread in my bag. I hid the knife deep in my shirt, bade farewell to the bats, thanked the ravens and left the hut. Only the lice were bound tightly to my body… It was dark around me. The howls of the wolves, crying over the hunger in their bellies, could be heard from afar. A lone star twinkled through the thicket of pine trees, and it seemed that today, it too was persecuted…
I set out for a lone house standing at the edge of the forest, a distance of about an hour of quick walking. If I would succeed in reaching the house without incident, I would go up to the attic over the barn and remain there for a few days. Even if the farmer would notice me, he would not turn me in. At the very most, he would ask me to leave, and might even give me a loaf of bread.
I tied up my tired feet and measured my steps so as not to make any noise. Who knew from where a murderer might be lurking, who would get a kilo of salt and a bottle of liquor from the Germans for turning me in. I carried a grooved stick in one hand, and grasped tightly with my other hand. Soon I would ascend the attic in the barn and I would be able to sleep without fear.
I opened the door to the barn and entered. The warm mist given off by the cows filled the barn. I found the ladder and went up. I sensed the smell of the fodder and hay, and lay down. I was warm, and I fell asleep.
Dawn broke, but it was still dark in the barn. I heard a voice in Yiddish, Rachel, I think that someone else is here. A woman's voice responded, No, Meir, it is your imagination. The two names were known to me, Rachel and Meir from the village of Khoteshiv. I girded my strength and responded, It is me, Yaakov, the son of Pesach and the brother of David Grabov of Ratno. When more daylight penetrated into the barn, I approached them. When they saw me, they were astonished at my thick beard filled with lice like a hive. Meir said to me, Yaakov,
let us go down and I will cut your beard between the cows. Otherwise, there will be a flood here, and we will not be able to sustain ourselves.
We went down the ladder, and stood between the cows. Meir began the task of cutting my beard. Suddenly, we heard the screech of the heavy door turning on its hinge.
One of the sons of Farmer Duda entered. He stood in astonishment as he looked at us and our actions. Meir turned to him as he caressed my head covered with hair white as flax and said to him, Yoske, don't tell your father that someone else is with us. Right, you promise? Yoske looked at Meir with his blue eyes and did not say anything. He turned to his chores, gave fodder and water to the cows, left the barn and closed the door.
Will he tell his father? Yes, he will tell! Duda taught his children from their early childhood not to lie and to tell only the truth to their father. When he finished cutting my beard, we returned with stumbling feet to the ladder, as everything seemed to us like an open abyss. The three of us sat silently and waited for what might come.
The hours passed by slowly as we awaited the frightful verdict. We heard the heavy footsteps of Duda approaching the ladder. He went up, and as his head reached the attic, he turned to Rachel and said, Come here Rachel? Are you not embarrassed to teach my son to lie to his father who bore him? Tears streamed from the corners of his eyes and flowed onto his black beard that glistened like a sheet of steel. Rachel wished to justify herself, but Duda began to go down before she managed to say a word.
Rachel returned to her place and sat next to us. Once again, a terrifying silence hovered over us. After a little while, we heard the squeak of the gate. Had the end come? Would Duda turn us in? Meir said to me, We will resist. We are strong. I have a knife, and you do too. They will not receive any salt or liquor from us. Rachel said, Duda will prefer to die with his family rather than turn us in. We heard the screech of the ladder as Duda was coming up. Before we saw his head, we sensed the warm steam coming from the black pot. Duda went back and brought a smaller pot. There were potatoes in the large pot and warm milk in the small pot. Duda turned to Rachel and said, Eat, and be satisfied, and may G-d be with you and with me, so that I can withstand this test that I am undergoing. For me, this was the first hot, cooked meal that I had in many months.
Toward evening, Duda came again with black bread and warm milk. He turned to Rachel and said, Listen Rachel, I am a poor farmer caring for ten children, and I am doing everything so that you will live, as G-d commands. Yesterday, I obtained a bit of wheat. Come into my house tonight, grind it into wheat in my grinder, and bake matzos, for tomorrow is your Passover holiday. You will have matzos for your holiday. I will cover the windows so that no light will shine outside. The young children will sleep, and the older ones know how to keep a secret.
Rachel burst out crying, hugged Duda, kissed him on his forehead and eyes:
No Duda, there is no need to endanger your life and the lives of your children. If they find me in your house, they will kill me, your family, and all of us, but if they find us in the barn, we will say that you did not know of our existence. G-d will forgive us for not fulfilling the commandment of eating matzos on Passover.
The night after the Seder night in Duda's barn, I left Meir and Rachel. Duda gave me a large loaf of bread for the journey. The aroma of the matzos that I had eaten at my parents' table rose in my nose. The new chain of escapes and persecutions began, until I joined the ranks of the partisans at the end of the summer. I fulfilled the command of my mother, took revenge, and then some! Meir fell as a hero in the ranks of the partisans, but not before he also took revenge. Rachel made aliya to the Land and set up her house in Neve Mivtach, and I also succeeded in making aliya to the Land.
by Hershel Mustiscer
Translated by Jerrold Landau
I was drafted into the Polish army in 1938, along with the rest of my age cohorts in Ratno, and I was sent to the city of Zamosc. I was assigned to unit 9 of the infantry soldiers. My friend Simcha Plotzker from Ratno also served with me. We were scheduled to be released on September 15, 1939, but our release was delayed due to the outbreak of the war. I managed to fight against the German Army that invaded Poland near the city of Pulawy, and we retreated to Krasnystaw near Lublin.
The massive, incessant German bombardment sowed confusion amongst the soldiers, who stopped believing in the possibility of a victory. Many began to escape. My friend Simcha Plotzker advised me to escape with him in the direction of Ratno, but I refused to abandon the army ranks as long as our unit was fighting. One night, a fierce battle raged between the Germans and us, and I was wounded. A great deal of blood flowed continually from my foot, and I suffered hellish pains. I was saved thanks to a Polish woman from the nearby village who found me, bandaged my wounds, and calmed me, but left me in the field. German soldiers who found me in the field took care of me despite the fact that I told them that I was a Jew. They transferred me to the hospital in Krasnystaw, where Polish physicians under German supervision tended to me. For a few months, they moved me to various hospitals in Chelm and Lublin. Finally I was transferred to Warsaw, where they removed the cast from the lower part of my body, and I began to walk, something I could not do for many months.
I began to be more optimistic with respect to my future, but the news of the fate of the Jews in the area of Nazi occupation afflicted my spirit. I was treated as a Polish prisoner, so I was able to visit the Warsaw Ghetto a few times, where I was an eyewitness to the suffering of the Jews and the atrocities perpetrated against them.
I was released from the hospital in June 1941, and, in accordance with my request, I was transferred by the Germans to the city of Hrubieszˇów, where my friends who served with me in the Polish Army were situated. I hoped for their help so that I would be able
to return to Ratno.
When the war between Germany and Russia broke out, I was transferred via Majdanek, which then served as a prisoner of war camp. By chance, I met there Notka Szuster and Yoel Marder of Ratno, who had served in the Russian Army and were taken as prisoners by the Germans. To my dismay, I was not able to offer them any help at all. When I arrived in Hrubieszˇów, I no longer found my friends whose assistance I had awaited. I approached the Judenrat to ask for work. After some time I found out that my good friend Reznik of Baranovich, who had served with me in the army, lived in the nearby village of Strzyzżˇów. I went to him, and was helped by him to a certain degree. In that village, I met the woman who was later to become my wife - Sara. Her family lived in that village and worked in the cattle trade. I succeeded in finding work in my trade of tailoring. I sewed clothes for the villagers, until I was transferred along with all the Jews of the village to the Hrubieszˇów Ghetto in 1942. At that time, the first liquidations of the Jews began, and I had the feeling that the earth was burning under my feet.
We began to search for a more secure refuge. For some time, I worked in an agricultural farm in Rogalin, not far from Hrubieszˇów. When the situation grew more serious, I escaped with Sara and her two brothers. We found a hiding place in the barn of Polish friends. We went out from our hiding place at night to search for food. Nine Jews who were with us in Rogalin were captured by the Germans and shot. We survived thanks to a Polish woman, Rybkuba, who is worthy of being considered as one of the Righteous Gentiles, who offered us help to the best of her ability.
After the war, we reached the Displaced Persons Camps in Germany, where our daughter Tova was born. From there, we immigrated to the United States. My brother Meir served in the Red Army and fought against the Nazis. He reached Poland at the end of the war. He too arrived in the United States after a great deal of wandering. Our daughters Miri and Tova made aliya and live in Tel Aviv. The rest of my family (father Chaim, mother Tova, young brothers and sisters) were all murdered.
by Yehuda Kagan
Translated by Jerrold Landau
June 21, 1941
It was 4:00 a.m. when we heard echoes of the first bombardment from the German airplanes in the town, waking up all the residents of the town from their sleep. Nobody knew what had happened. People began to run to the office of the Communist authorities of the town, where they were told that these were merely training exercises of the Soviet pilots. At 10:00 a.m., people came from Kowel and told us that the Germans had bombed Kowel. Now, it was clear what had happened. At noon, Molotov delivered a speech on the radio and confirmed that war had broken out between Germany and the Soviet Union.
The Russians began to retreat. We pleaded with them to take us along, but there was nobody with whom to talk. They left us to our bitter fate.
June 23, 1941
The town was surrounded by bloodthirsty Ukrainians from the nearby villages, who began to pillage and perpetrate a pogrom. After they took out the first Jews in Ratno to be killed, my father began stating to anyone who was willing to listen that the earth was burning under our feet, and we must escape. We went to a village not far from Ratno, were we remained for about three months. The Ukrainian pillaging continued in the village as well. They murdered and pillaged without end. A Ukrainian police force was set up and headed by a well-known robber. He aroused trembling amongst the Jews by his very appearance. One cloudless morning, a command was issued that all the Jews, from young to old, must gather in the synagogue. There, a tall German and the head of the Ukrainian police, whose appearance instilled fear upon the Jews, were already waiting. Two Ukrainian teachers were sitting on one of the benches, mocking the Jews. A policeman with a gun in his hands and with a Ukrainian beret with an insignia upon his head also sat there. Next to him sat a Ukrainian policeman wearing high boots and holding a whip in his hands. "Who is the head of the Jews here?" he shouted. The elderly Reb Meir Olishneker came forth from the row and said that he was the one. In response, the policeman began to whip the old man on the back with his whip. The Ukrainians standing next to him began to count the lashes - to fifty. The old man did not utter anything. His face was covered with blood and tears. At the end of the beating, he was tossed into another room as he was kneeling down.
Next, the turn of my father Nachum came. He was 55 years old, had served in the Russian Army from 1914 to 1922, was in prison four times, had been injured several times, and in his time had also been beaten by the Balachowiczes. My father closed his eyes, kneeled
down on his knees, and removed his hat. My younger brother and I were eyewittnesses to the murderous blows with which the Ukrainians whipped him. My father's coat was torn, and his body was red with blood. "L-rd, G-d, how?" - this was the call that emanated from the mouth of my beaten father, as he burst out crying. The Ukrainian who was whipping him boiled with anger and issued the verdict: "You will get 20 more lashes for your crying." After my father fainted, the Ukranian tossed him outside. Now my turn came. I bit my lips with my teeth, but I stayed standing. It was not the lashes that hurt so much, but rather the pain and suffering of my father. When the turn of my younger brother came to endure the lashes, I screamed to him, "Maintain your stand, Yosel-Ber!" He maintained his stand to the point of sobbing. This was the fate of all the Jews who were present there. Blood flowed from their bodies and their clothes were tattered and torn.
At the end of the whipping, the Ukrainians lined us up and ordered us to march through the muddy streets, singing Jewish songs. In this manner, we reached the Turiya River, with Ukrainians standing on both sides of the road, their mouths filled with laughter. We were given the choice of either drowning in the river, or pulling out 30 meters of entangled wood from the river and arranging it in rows. We worked with the last of our energy until late at night. When we finished the job, we were allowed to go home, where the despairing, weeping mothers were waiting for us. When we entered our house, Mother fell upon our necks with heartrending weeping. Father removed his coat that was flowing with blood, and his skin was literally black as coal.
Days, weeks, and months passed. We worked at hard labor cutting trees for the Ukrainian police, with our feet covered with diapers or rags, and our hands frozen to the point that they could not be warmed up at all. One day in the month of Adar, I returned from work with my brother Yosel-Ber and we sensed the spirit of Tisha B'Av in the house. The reason became immediately clear: my brother and I had been requisitioned to go to a labor camp in Kowel. Mother was already weeping for us, for she knew the meaning of a "Labor Camp." Father was also weeping bitterly and praying. There was no morsel of bread in the house, and the cold was penetrating all the bones. I suggested that I alone remain to wait for those who were to take me to Kowel, while they go out to the forest. One victim was sufficient. I went outside, and a wagon quickly appeared upon which ten Jews were sitting. The Ukrainians wanted to know where my brother who did not show up was. Without waiting for an answer, they began to rain beatings upon me. They broke into the house, tore up the bedding, and destroyed everything that came into their hands. We meandered from village to village as they gathered in the wagon the poor Jews who had lived and worked in those villages for many years. The sobbing and weeping of the families whose sons were gathered into our wagon was indescribable. I recall that at one of the stops, a woman burst forth from the forest, wanting to take leave of her husband for the last time, but one shot from the Ukrainian policeman felled her to the ground, as her blood flowed. At the sight of this wounded women, we thought in our hearts: This is the end that awaits us all. We will not even merit a Jewish grave.
The Ukrainians were supposed to take us to Kowel, but after some time
we arrived in Ratno. The city was teaming. Jews were brought there from various places with their sacks in their hands. A certain degree of "business" was also conducted there. Youths "redeemed themselves" in exchange for gold watches and placed the children of the poor in their stead on the wagons going to Kowel. Suddenly, I saw my father, my mother and my aunt Slava. I gestured to them to disappear. They brought us to the German Commissariat office, which was surrounded by German police. One Ukrainian, a former Balachowicz, was beating the Jews who had gathered left and right, to the pleasure of the Germans. From there, we were taken to Kowel, but when we reached there, the command was given to return home. I arrived home late at night, and everyone was sad and agonized. Rivers of tears poured from Father's and Mother's eyes. Everything that had been in the house had been pillaged and destroyed. When they suddenly saw me, the weeping in the dark house increased.
The winter was difficult. There was no firewood, and the house was as cold as outside. We waited for spring, but things did not get any easier. We had become somewhat accustomed to the tribulations. One night during the month of Iyar, there was a knock on the door of our house. This was a representative of the Judenrat in Ratno who came to inform us that Yehuda Kagan must present himself at the German Commissariat in order to go to work along with 50 other Jews. This news dumbfounded all the members of the household. I immediately sent my parents to Ratno, and remained to wait. The next day, a telephone message reached me from Ratno saying that I must come quickly. I parted from my brothers thinking in my heart that this might be our final parting. I arrived in Ratno. Mother and Father were downtrodden and hunched over. They gave me several small packages, which the police tossed onto one of the three wagons that were laden with packages, whereas we had to walk to Kowel, a distance of 50 kilometers, by foot. There were 55 youths, including the leader of Hashomer Hatzair Moshe Pogatch, Wolf-Ber Tenenbaum the son of Motel the shochet, Avraham Kagan, and others. The parting was literally heartbreaking. My father looked at me with confounded looks. My mother was wailing. I already wanted to be far from there, for it was hard to watch the agony of my parents. We began to march, and at the end of the day, we were already bereft of energy. We arrived in the region of a Russian prisoner of war camp and we were ordered to refrain from looking in the direction of that camp. Our eyes noticed the barbed wire fences and the tall towers surrounded by Gestapo men riding on horses. Guards with hunting dogs stood around, as well as soldiers with machine guns. The march drained our energy, but we arrived at the approach to the city of Kowel. They brought us to the Kowel Judenrat, and two Ukrainian policemen gave our names to the head of the Judenrat. From then on, the Jewish policemen who were making the rounds with sticks in their hands to ensure that none of us escaped were responsible for us. The next day, we were taken to the German work office in Kowel. We were divided into groups, and my lot fell into a T.A.S. group. We marched to the area of "Nowa Kolyuwa" near the train station. From there, my group was sent
to perform excavation work to repair the railway tracks.
My first day of work was backbreaking. I hauled cement in a wheelbarrow that slipped from time to time, and the cement spilled out. We were surrounded by S.S. men who prodded us and whipped us right and left with their whips. Vehicles came at noon to take the S.S. men to their lunch, while we were taken to the Jewish kitchen. The price of a meal was 1.50 marks. Many of us did not have a cent, for our payment for a day of work was 250 grams of bread. Our work day ended at 8:00 p.m., when we lay down on our beds drained of energy. The next day, we presented ourselves again at the work office, where we were again divided into groups for various jobs. Each group was led by Jewish policemen wearing white armbands. This time, I ended up with an easier job on a grain threshing floor. Russian prisoners worked alongside us. We continued working in this manner at various jobs for several weeks, with our food ration being 200 grams of bread per day. The situation grew more serious from day to day.
Days and nights passed with fear, threats and endless worry. The murderous aktions of the Nazis became more frequent and frightful. We were
constantly surrounded by Ukrainian policemen and German S.S. men. After some time, a decree was proclaimed: The Jews were to go to two ghettoes - one to the civic ghetto and the second to a special ghetto for workers. Nobody knew which ghetto they had to go to, but everyone knew that anyone who was not prepared by 12:00 would be shot. Everyone was busy with farewells and packing belongings. Rumor had it that the boundaries of the civic ghetto would be Brisk Street and the market, whereas the workers' ghetto would be located on the sand dunes near the railway station. People trudged along with their bags in the direction of the ghettoes, and the sick people were loaded on wagons. The panic increased from hour to hour. Parents could not find their children, and the children did not follow after their parents. There were literal scenes of horror, all witnessed by the Ukrainians and Germans who were laughing at us and mocking us. Noon arrived, the sounds of the first shots were heard, and the first victims fell. Whoever did not reach the designated area within the bounds of the ghetto on time was shot. I too arrived at the street that was designated as the ghetto. This ghetto could accommodate 600 people, but 6,000 people were crowded into it, with 20-30 people per dwelling. The crowding was terrible, and many people slept outside due to a lack of space. Even worse - there was nothing to eat. People gathered potato peels, and there were long lineups to obtain a bit of water. The ghetto was fenced in with boards covered with barbed wire on top. At noon, a vehicle arrived with 12 S.S. men and high captains who demanded 120 people. I was among the 120 people. Everyone was sure that they were hauling us to our death. They placed us in fine vehicles and brought us to nice houses in Kowel whose owners had abandoned and locked them. We were ordered to break the locked doors. Physicians who had abandoned their property and escaped had lived in many of these houses. Everything that was found in those houses was to be loaded on vehicles, and we were forbidden from taking anything. A German officer checked our pockets to ensure that we did not violate the command. A bar of soap was found in somebody's pocket, and he was shot on the spot. When we returned to the ghetto, they looked at us as if we had risen from the dead.…
An order was issued that only people with work permits were permitted to live in the workers' ghetto, but such permits had only been issued to several hundred of the 6,000 people. Everyone else was obligated to move to the civic ghetto. I was among those did not receive such a permit. It was decreed that anyone who remained in the workers' ghetto without a permit would be taken to be killed. Fear prevented people from running to the civic ghetto. Many people hid in abandoned attics. Four other people and I without permits hid in a small attic in the workers' ghetto. The first shots, accompanied by frightening screams, were heard at 1:00. They were shooting our sons and daughters. Many were forcibly dragged out by the Ukrainians and S.S. and S.D. men to Brisk Square and loaded onto wagons. 100 people were shot on the spot. We looked for hiding places in the water sewers, ovens and any place in which it was possible to hide for a brief time. The Judenrat men were hauled to Gurka, and shot after being tortured. We heard shouts of Shema Yisrael, and the screams of women and children throughout the entire night. The entre city was turned into one huge slaughterhouse. Those who were not murdered were hauled to
the synagogue. Many of them wrote their names and their family names in blood, and added a call for revenge over the spilled blood.
We waited for our turn to come as well. Knocks on the door were heard at daybreak. It was the Jewish police, who were informing everyone to not leave the house until the order was received from the commissar who was appointed over the district. At noon, a group of Jews were enlisted to bury the dead scattered throughout the entire city. We came out of our hiding places and were also enlisted in the task of collecting the vast amount of scattered Jewish property. The S.S. men pillaged anything that came into their hands. I turned to my friends and said, "We must escape from here. We should remove our yellow patches and escape!" So we did. We tried to get to a certain German driver who was known as a friend of the Jews. We followed him from our workplace and asked him to take us out of the city. When the German heard what we were requesting, he began to shout, "Accursed Jews, why did not you kill at least 100 Germans and Ukrainians?" He was afraid to endanger himself, but he showed us the way to go. We appeared as Ukrainians, and also spoke a good Ukrainian. We took our lives in our hands and went toward the railway line. Siddurs, chumashes and tefillin were lying along the way. We stopped a Ukrainian and asked him what was new. He told us that trains of Jews were arriving every half hour, and the Jews were being shot. We again heard the shouts of Shema Yisrael. The voice of the city rabbi was heard, "Murderers such as you, you are shooting us and burying us, but you will be shot like dogs and will not even have a burial!" He was hit over the head with a gun, and he fell into the pit while still alive.
We turned leftward in a single line, but kept a distance of several hundred meters from one to the other. We set out toward a small village 15 kilometers away that had no police. We walked over valleys and pits. At one place, we had to cross a brook of water. A farmer promised to bring a boat for this purpose, but suddenly four Ukrainian policemen came who searched our clothes and bags, and took razors and several bars of soap that we had. We were left naked as on the day of our births. We continued to wander through various villages, and after some time, we arrived in the village in which my family members lived. Everyone was surprised to see me. They were sure that I was no longer alive. We did not want to and were not able to remain in the house. We set out to the forest - to the partisans.
Translated by Jerrold Landau
Yehuda Kagan was born in Ratno in 1922, and studied in the yeshiva in the city of Kobrin in Pulisia until 1938. He joined the Beitar Movement in 1937 and was active in that movement until the Russian conquest of that area in September 1939. At the outbreak of the war between the Soviet Union and Germany at the end of June 1941, he was in the city of Birky near Ratno along with his family, and was sent to hard labor in Kowel, as is related I the article on the following pages. He succeeded in escaping from Kowel and arrived in the village of Birky, where his family was living. At the time of the liquidation of the Jews of the region, he escaped to the forest with his family. His father fell at the hand of the Ukrainians and Germans while attempting to defend 50 Jews who were hiding in the forest. After some time, his mother and the rest of his family were murdered. He and his brother, who today lives in the Soviet Union, were the only ones of the family to survive. At the end of 1943, he and his brother joined a partisan unit under the command of General Feodor Chernigovski, and participated in many actions. He later moved to the front and enlisted in the Red Army. He participated in battles on the fronts of Finland, Vyborg, Leningrad, Estonia, Lithuania, Warsaw, and Poznan. At the front in Poznan, he joined the communications division of the Red Army (S. M. R. Sh.) in the role of translator from German to Russian. In that role, he participated in interrogations of the captains and soldiers who fell into Russian captivity. When 150 Jews who had been in the Gerdenlagen Labor Camp were arrested in the city of StŘnzel for possessing German and American documents, Kagan freed them from prison on his own accord. For this, he was imprisoned by the security services. He was held under house imprisonment and interrogated by army interrogators. He escaped from his place of confinement, and after many tribulations
and serious danger, reached Frankfurt in the American occupation zone. He was the commander of the guard in the UNRA camp in Zeilsheim, and was also active in the Etzel at that time. He completed an Etzel course in Germany, was involved in Aliya Bet, and assisted in the smuggling of immigrants to the Land of Israel. Yehuda Kagan made aliya to Israel in 1948 and participated in the War of Independence in the second division of the Palmach. Later, he served in the Negev Brigade. He was discharged from the Israel Defense Forced in 1949 and set up his home in Givatayim.
In 1963, when he participated in an organized trip to the Soviet Union, he was arrested by the Soviet security personnel, placed in a KGB prison, and accused of deserting the Red Army when he served as a military translator in the S. M. R. Sh. unit, as well as transmitting military secrets to the Americans and acting as an Israeli spy. He was sentenced to ten years in prison. He served the sentence in seven different prisons: Kiev, Gorky, Penza, Kaluga, Rashucha, and Vladimir. He was active among the prisoners, telling them about life in Israel, and even distributing postcards of Israeli scenes. For this crime of Zionist Propaganda he was transferred to labor camp 17/358 where political prisoners were imprisoned, and which was known for its most stringent level of guarding. He was imprisoned in Camp 17 in the district of Mordovia along with the Leningrad prisoners: the pilot Dymshits, Chanoch Kaminsky, Korenblit and others, who are today in Israel. He was freed from prison after he served his sentence.
by Eli Zisik
Translated by Jerrold Landau
When the war between Germany and Poland broke out in 1939, I was serving mandatory duty in the Polish Army as a regular soldier. As is known, the Polish Army collapsed quickly, and the Russians occupied Western Ukraine and most of the area of Poland in accordance with The Molotov von Ribbentrop agreement. I was sent back to Ratno, along with many other soldiers who were also sent to their homes. It seemed to me that our town did not suffer especially, in particular not from an economic perspective, during the era of Soviet rule. Bourgeois families were indeed sent to Siberia, and those who were suspected of ideological crimes against the new regime were deported. In general, however, the residents got used to the new regime. Zionist activities ceased, and many people began to learn Russian and Ukrainian. At that time, information began to arrive from the cities of Poland that were under German occupation that the situation of the Jews was increasingly declining, and many Jews began to escape in the direction of the Russian border in order to escape from the Nazis.
I worked as a technician and projectionist in the Ratno Theater. In that capacity, I would frequently travel to Kowel to bring
films from there. I remember that when the first air raid took place over Kowel, nobody believed that this was the era of German airplanes. Rather, they thought that these were nothing more than training exercises of the Russian Army. That was how great the surprise was. Only after the Russians confirmed over the radio that the Germans had opened an attack, did the situation become clear to everyone that the Second World War had broken out. Immediately after this, the cities near the border were conquered by the Nazi Army. On the day that the ware broke out, I returned from Kowel to Ratno and was an eyewitness to the German attack. There was complete chaos in Ratno. The Soviet authorities proclaimed a draft, but, in practice, the Russians were the first to start to escape in the direction of Kamen Kashirsk. The Jews in town were perplexed, and could not decide whether to escape or remain put. The first group to organize immediately was the band of Ukrainian murderers who began pillaging and plundering. After that, a Gestapo Unit arrived in Ratno and decided to take out 30 Jews to be killed as a punishment for the alleged shooting by the Jews. I was among the 30 Jews who were designated by the Germans to bury the youths who were shot. We dug the graves, and there is no need to describe what was going on in our souls as we were digging. As far as I recall, only one of the 30, who was only injured in his foot, succeeded in escaping at night and was saved. Only after this act of the Germans did the residents of our town began to sense and understand what was awaiting them at the hands of the Nazis. Many began to escape to the villages, but the majority of the Jews remained in the town and were witnesses to the collaboration of the Ukrainians, who turned Jews over to the hands of the Nazis and even earned prizes for every person turned over. As a technician, I was taken to work along with other professionals. Our payment was one loaf of bread a day. I was able to wander freely about the area, and knew about everything with respect to the German decrees. The Judenrat that was set up in Ratno could not stand by all the decrees of the Germans, which became more serious with each day. Some of them served as guarantors. My father Chaim and my sister
Chaika and her children were among those murdered. I, my brother Yoske, and several other Jews received permission to bring them for burial. After the Germans liquidated the Kowel Ghetto, aktions began in all the settlements of the region. Screams of Shema Yisrael by those who were being hauled to be murdered were heard throughout the area, and reached my ears as well. I continued to work in Kowel in a garage next to the flour mill along with several other Jews whose professional services the Germans required. After news began to reach us of the defeat of the Germans on the Stalingrad front, we took council and decided to escape at the earliest opportunity. We began to equip ourselves with food, and gathered anything that appeared to us as useful for the escape effort. One night, we escaped from Kowel and set out in the direction of the nearby forest. We walked at night on a path parallel to the road that led to Ratno. Some Jews who worked in an Artel (workplace) in the service of the Germans remained, and we wished to include them as well. There was another reason aside from this one: I had hidden weapons, and wished to retrieve them.
We arrived in the area of Ratno toward morning. Three members of the group remained in the forest, and I continued on to Ratno through the marshes. I knew that the daughters of Gitel Karsh had found a hiding place with a gentile whom I knew, so I went to their house. As soon as I entered, they informed me that the day before, they had gathered up the remaining Jews of the town and took them out to be killed. I immediately severed my contact with this gentile and escaped from there. I knocked on the door of Chaicha Janowicz. She opened up immediately and also told me that the day before, they had taken all the Jews to be killed, and her brother had escaped and was with her. She brought me to the hiding place, and in a brief conversation, we decided to go that night to get the weapons from the hiding place and escape from Ratno to the forest. That is what we did. We took the weapons, cleaned them well, crossed the bridge, and went to the forest via the fields. We could not find the youths who had gone with me and who had remained waiting in the forest. We entered the home of a Ukrainian who used to pillage the wagon drivers who brought merchandise to Ratno. He received us well and told us that he knows of several Jews who were hiding
in the area, and that he was prepared to show us their hiding places. At night, the three of us (I, the aforementioned Chaicha's brother, and this gentile) went in accordance with his directions, and found Shlomo Perlmutter and Moshe Chaim Fuchs, who found a hiding place in some barn. We gave them food, took them with us, and went out to resistance activities. The Ukrainian gave us the weapons that we used to pillage the Jewish wagon drivers in the region in return for the Jewish property that we would gather together with him. From him we also received information about what was going on. Among other things, he told us that everyone was talking about a group of Jewish partisans who are fighting against the Germans and also taking revenge on Ukrainian collaborators with the Nazis. They were of course referring to our small group. We continued to go around to the villages during the nights with the intention of searching for partisans and including them in larger scale resistance activities. We succeeded in making contact with a group of partisans called Luginov. At first, they wanted to take our weapons, but they forewent this after the intervention of several Jews, including Meir Blit, and agreed to include us with them.
After some time, and after they began to trust us, we were sent to carry out resistance activities on the railway lines. However, they insisted that we not act as one group. Instead, they divided us into different groups, thereby breaking up our group. I transferred to the unit of General Feodorov, who received commands directly from Moscow. In this unit, I met Shlomo Perlmutter once again, who told me that the partisans of that general are the true partisans, and while we are in their ranks, we are able to take actual revenge for everything that the Germans and Ukrainians did to our family, and to the Jews in general. With his own hands, Shlomo had hanged one of those Ukrainians, who had served as a translator for the Germans. That was Ivan Makomachora, who had murdered many Jews in Ratno.
There were many Jews of the area in the units of General Feodorov. Those units acted as military units in all matters. They also received military equipment from airplanes
that landed nearby, and imposed fear on the population of the region, who changed their attitudes and cooperated with the partisans. At times, we encountered Banderowches (nationalist Ukrainians), and battles broke out between us and them. With the advance of the Red Army, these groups disbanded, whereas we, the partisans, joined the army and advanced along with it to liberate the soil of Ukraine.
I was with the Red Army also at the gates of Warsaw, where we were forced to remain for about a half a year, and I participated in its liberation. We suffered losses daily, including Yitzchak Szapira, whom I had met by chance. Later, I participated in the conquest of Berlin. This is how things went until the end of the war. I can state without hesitation that I fulfilled the vow that I vowed to myself and the Jews of Ratno. I took revenge for the spilled blood of our brethren.
JewishGen, Inc. makes no representations regarding the accuracy of
the translation. The reader may wish to refer to the original material
JewishGen is not responsible for inaccuracies or omissions in the original work and cannot rewrite or edit the text to correct inaccuracies and/or omissions.
Our mission is to produce a translation of the original work and we cannot verify the accuracy of statements or alter facts cited.
Ratno, Ukraine Yizkor Book Project JewishGen Home Page
Copyright © 1999-2023 by JewishGen, Inc.
Updated 8 Aug 2015 by LA