by Nachman Flaksin, Buenos Aires
Translated by Harvey Spitzer zl
Steibtz, my beloved small town, how my soul yearns for you! You are always etched deep in my heart. You are always before my eyes. I shall never forget you!
In a dream, in a vision at night, upon awakening, in my imagination and in my thoughts you are always standing before my eyes and arouse within me memories, pictures, personages, events,
Memories of days past, when you were standing firmly established, with all your institutions and societies, with your study halls, your rabbis, your Gaonim, your students and your intellectuals.
Interestfree loan funds, banks, Talmud Torah, each society of its own kind, each one encamped by its banner, orchestras and club houses, courses and evening classes, expounders of Scripture and preachers, speakers, arguments, political parties and associations a life that was swiftly flowing, gushing and clamorous. The echo of ancient times protected you, my dear Steibtz. People of means, the welltodo,
|The Mass Grave|
the wealthy, community leaders and heads of the community, the poor and needy, beggars and common folk, merchants and workers who, with the toil of their hands and the sweat of their brow, ate their piece of bread you all pass before my eyes as in a movie…
Your Sabbaths and holidays are before me, drawing Jews to the synagogues slowly and calmly in rhythm and discipline, dressed in their Sabbath attire, sometimes patched, but always permeated with the sanctity of the Sabbath. Songs of the music of your cantors pull on the heartstrings, exposing and revealing sparks of longing for the hopes of Israel, for the return to Zion, for the Messiah and for better days than those.
Your disputes, your sides and your rabbis, those delaying the Torah reading, your Zionists and your Agudasists, the Bund, the Leftists, all of you, you are all dear and beloved to me despite your political factions, for you were all equal in the eyes of the enemy oppressing you, and you all sacrificed your lives on the altar of the nation.
The hewer of trees rose up against all of you, the destroyer, the exterminator of fathers and sons, the elderly and the young, with suckling babes. The lion arose from his den, killed and tore to pieces, slaughtered and annihilated thousands and tens of thousands. Like sheep, you were led to the slaughter, pure and holy souls.
You were beloved and pleasant in your lifetime, and in your death were not parted from G-d. The Rabbi, the Gaon, my teacher and my holy rabbi, Rabbi Yehoshua Lieberman May the memory of the righteous be blessed!May G-d avenge his blood and the blood of all our brothers! I see him, wrapped in his prayer shawl and crowned with phylacteries, walking at the head of all the streets of the town to surrender his refined and pure soul in the sanctification of G-d's name and that of the nation. Dr. Yechezkel Sirkin May he rest in peace! always smiling, did not separate from his brothers and family. Who can give details of everything; who can relate everything? I see you, my brothers and sisters, my dear fellow townsmen, being led to the slaughter. I see your eyes filled with fear and panic, terror and despair, rotting in their sockets. I see mothers hugging their children, the delight of their eyes, and kissing them with their last kisses, goodbye kisses, while the terrible angel of death stands, drawing his sword from the sheath, to take their souls….
I hear shouts, cries and wailing when the Nazis (May their name and memory be erased from under the heaven!) round them up with various kinds of rifles, around the big pit, next to Zayamnaye … I see everything and my hair stood on end from fear and trembling, terror and dread. I still can't calm down and rest. I see you grappling with the awful death and your holy souls rising in a flame to the heavens and tearing at the gates of Heaven, crying out bitterly: For what and why did this happen to us? They fly under the desecrated Throne of G-d and ask Why did we not merit staying alive until the wrath passed and see the revival of our people, the building of our country, the ingathering of our exiles, and the establishment of our State? The voice of your blood shouts from the ground. Earth, earth, don't cover their blood that is spilled like water, and let there not be a place for their cries of help! I see everything and my soul is pining for your love and affection.
My beloved Steibtz! Your memory is engraved in my heart! Foxes now walk on your ruins and destroyed places damaging the vineyard of our people, and foreigners are now taking possession of our property for which they did not toil. The memorial stone and the gravestone there will cry out bitterly: Why did You lend a hand to the sinners? Why did You help them, the cursed Gentiles, destroy our brothers and why did You let them take possession of our inheritance? Have you [plural] killed and also taken possession?
How can I bear witness for you? How can I encourage you and how can I comfort you, my town Steibtz? My sole comfort is that on your ruins and the ruins of the other holy small towns, our country and homeland is being built. And our children will return to their borders and among them, the surviving few of the Holocaust, our survivors, plucked out of the fire, the townspeople of Steibtz living and existing monuments. May our people flourish and multiply in our land and spread out and take root, grow strong and expand in the land. May we live and create a life of freedom!
by Shlomo Aginsky
Translated by Ann Belinsky
The war broke out on Sunday 22.6.1941. The Russian army advanced in the direction of Bialystok-Brisk. One day later we saw them retreating. The Russian officials and their families received an order to return to Russia, the trains were full and so crowded that people were travelling on the roofs. The Germans bombed the town, fires broke out and people were killed and wounded. People began to hoard food and discussed whether to escape to Russia or to remain where they were. The Russian border at Nigorla was now closed and many returned.
On Friday morning German paratroopers landed, dressed in civilian clothes and caused uproar and confusion amidst the retreating Russian army. The Germans approached the town from the direction of Minsk and surrounded the Russian army. Many inhabitants, mostly Jews, were killed and among them Leibe Machtey, Berel and Mendel Moltzadsky and his son-in-law Fish. Many went down to the Neiman River to hide, while others ran to the trench which had been dug by the Russians at the northern end of the town. The Germans shot with their machine guns from aeroplanes that circled the skies. Death lurked in every corner.
The German tanks invaded the town from the direction of the village of Shatzatzki. As they entered, they torched most of the Jewish houses.
Sabbath passed quietly; people sat in their homes behind closed doors expecting what was to come. Because many of the houses were burnt, relatives and friends began to congregate and crowd together in various houses and afterwards when these were filled to capacity, strangers came into the houses too. Whereas initially, five families lived in every house, later 10 families were crowded into the same house.
On Sunday tens of Jews were executed, among them Shepsl Manker, Silam Manker, the butchers Yosef Yenkel Rozovski and his brother Tzvi, and others. The Germans threw hand grenades into homes, and the houses burnt together with their inhabitants. This was how Berel Esterkin, Yosef Pilshtzik with his small daughter, Chasha Reznik, and Yaacov Sabin were killed and burnt. I participated in retrieving their bodies for burial. We buried them together in a mass grave.
We hid in crates of straw. I lay down in the attic and heard the shouts of the Poles as the Germans beat them mercilessly: Why and for what reason are you beating us, we are not Jews, we are Poles! Polish and Russian citizens were also killed.
After a week the Germans issued an order: All male Jews from the ages of 14-60, and females from 16-50, must report for forced labor, paving roads, working in the sawmills and various trades. All the citizens of the town were assembled early in the morning in Pilsudsky Street
and were divided into various groups. A German was appointed to each work group, who would take us out of the town in a large truck. We worked in the forest paving roads. When darkness fell, we returned from work tired and broken and each one of us lay in his corner, hungry and thirsty. As a food allowance, we received only 120 grams of bread a day. Once when we returned from work, the Jews were stopped by Gestapo men, who executed Reb Shlomo Chari, Reb Moshe Gittles, Reb David Shmuelevitz (Hashe Leah's son), Sarah Tuchman, the wife of Yoel Lusterman and others. Whoever managed to escape, remained alive. On a second occasion, when I was returning from work, I saw a car and Gestapo men milling around alongside the house of Munia Wolfson and next to them stood Pedyeh Shtzars. A few youths sat inside the car, among them, Yossel the son of Elya Tunik. They caught me too and asked Pedyeh what I do and who I am. The latter recommended that I be set free, telling them that I was a good Jew, not wealthy, and that they need not bother with me. This is how I was saved.
After 9 in the evening, Jews were not allowed to leave their homes. Whoever disobeyed this order was shot dead. In 1942 an order was issued, that the Jews must move to a small area which was declared a ghetto. A barbed wire fence was erected around it. Every time, after Jews were killed, they would pacify us, saying that no further calamity would occur. The men were compelled to go to the railway station and from there they were brought to work camps in Baranovicz and Minsk. The work camps in Baranovicz were places of torture and the workers were engaged in hard labor at the railway station. We saw trains full of German soldiers travelling to Russia and on their return they brought the wounded and the looted property.
The food portions were poor and miniscule watery soup and a slice of bread. People suffered from hunger and beatings. We carried heavy metal railway tracks. When a German saw or felt that someone was sick, he was executed. Many came to work feverish. The meagre food allowance caused many deaths. Those who died of hunger were Zimme Kitayevitz, Moshe Yitzhak Bernstein, Ezer Bernstein, Berel Inzelbuch, Maishl Reznik, Yechiel Reznik, Mordechai Moldatsky and others. We had to bury them in the camp. There was no white material for shrouds. We wrapped them in the paper of cement bags. Those who were sick were executed near the camp and we heard their screams.
In the power station next to the railway tracks, Yedidia Kalmanovitz from Swerznie, and Noach Kumak worked with me, as well as many other Jews from Steibtz and Swerznie. They had more food, as they had only just arrived from the town and brought a little flour, groats and other commodities with them. The railway workers who lived next to us, some of whom were drivers or coal stokers of the engines, would pass on greetings to us from Steibtz. Among the railway workers we met a Christian lady from Steibtz named Mayavski, whom I now recognized as a gentle, kind woman who always secretly, gave me half a loaf of bread. In order to get to her house, I had to cross the railway tracks, that were truly life-threatening, but the hunger bothered me, and I risked my life for the bread. One day when I came, she asked me not to come again because it was endangering her life. When I returned without the bread, the German guard said: You see, everyone hates you people, even your Christian friend does not want to give you bread any more.
Life in the camp became harder from day to day. Yedidyah Kalmanovitz and I decided to escape.
It was a clear summer's day. On the roads we passed wagons that were returning from the market. When the German guard wasn't looking at us, we took the opportunity, left work, and ran quickly into a grain field. We lay there among the tall grain stalks until dark and then began to walk in an unknown direction.
It was a fine summer night, the stars sparkled above us as if hinting at freedom and liberty. We heard a dog barking and walked in the direction of the sound. It became evident that neither of us could see. The lack of food and suffering had affected our eyesight. We walked arm-in-arm like two blind people and with difficulty arrived at a fence. We walked along, clinging to the fence and arrived at the hut of a (Belarussian) White-Russian farmer. We asked him to show us the way to Steibtz. The farmer told us that we were on the road to Slonim. When he saw our torn clothes and our appearance, he understood that we were Jews and warned us to be careful of entering houses, as there were Germans in the area, and many farmers were collaborating with them. He warned that they would hand us over to the Germans and our lives would be at risk.
He told us that if we were careful, we would reach the partisans in the area. This farmer also gave us bread and we continued our journey in the dark, and by feeling and groping we walked on to the main road to Slonim. It was paved with stones, and we made our way by following the stones. The road was devoid of any traffic, as the Germans also feared travelling on the road at night. They were afraid of the partisans, who would attack them.
At dawn we arrived at a deep river and the only way to it, was by swimming. I knew how to swim, but my friend was afraid of the strong current. We met another Belarussian farmer, who looked at our torn faded clothes, called us aside to a grove of trees and explained the seriousness of the situation. There were many collaborating with the Germans, but he himself sympathized with the Jews and was collaborating with the partisans. He said that he would go into the forest to speak with the leaders of the partisans and ask them to let us join them. He brought us more food in the grove. We stayed there to spend the night. We trembled from hunger and fear. At night, the man returned and invited us to his stable. His wife cooked and prepared hot food fit for a king, the like of which we had not tasted for a long time. He also gave us two shirts, as ours were falling apart and torn. This farmer returned from the forest and his response was negative: the partisans only accept people with firearms. This farmer showed us the way to the village of Yazova which was governed by the partisans. It was a long way to the village a total of several days on foot.
During the day we were afraid to walk because of the danger of the Germans and at night our eyes were blinded. We walked along round-about roads, on roadsides, and through the woods. We approached houses and asked for food. There were places where we were threatened that we would be handed over to the Germans and there were other farmers who gave us food and explained to us, the route that we should take. One evening we arrived at the house of a Baptist farmer, who received us well and despite the possible danger to him, he gave us water and soap to wash our dirty bodies. We changed clothes. We were served food and offered a warm stove on which to rest and sleep. When we lay on the stove we could not fall asleep, as we thought a lot about our families.
We could not stay long with the Baptist. We wandered around the forest for a month and slept outdoors. We found a farmer's hut where hay was stored, we pulled out a stone from the base of the house and through the hole that we made we squeezed into the hut and slept on the hay. Once, when we were wandering in the forest, we met three mounted horsemen. They were partisans.
They pointed their guns at us. We raised our hands. They interrogated us to see if we were spies. We explained to them that we were Jews who had escaped from the forced labor camp in Baranovicz. The partisans were dressed in the uniform of German soldiers, and we did not know how to speak to them. But they spoke fluent Russian. I said to the commander: Since you are going to shoot us, give me a cigarette to enjoy life before I die. He laughed and gave each of us a cigarette. Afterwards he said: We don't shoot Jews, only at the Germans who are annihilating you, and us. We are sorry, that we can't accept you into our unit of partisans, as you have no weapons. We need fighters and we don't have enough arms. Wait here in the forest until we tell you what to do. The next day two Jewish partisans came to us Boris Fiman and his son brave, armed, Jews on horseback. They belonged to the partisans' unit and after much wandering they brought us to the Jewish camp where they lived in a zemlyanka. In the forest there were partisan units, and they knew of our existence. When danger was perceived, they would let us know and we would move to another hiding place. Sometimes we were surrounded by hundreds of Germans who shot at us. In one of the clashes, I suffered a head wound but thanks to the treatment and help that I received, I recovered.
In the meantime, the number of farmers in the area collaborating with the Germans increased. Among us there was a Russian partisan who informed on us. The Germans began to surround us and bombed us. We left the camp at night and moved to forests in the vicinity of Brisk.
The Red Army began to attack the Germans. The battlefront was coming closer to us. A spark of hope beat within us. Redemption was close. On 9th of July 1944 the Red Army liberated us.
We arrived in Steibtz dejected and exhausted. My birthplace had become a huge cemetery for my family and friends, a mass grave of 3000 Jews of Steibtz.
by Zalman Aginsky
Translated by Ann Belinsky
On 22 June 1941, the day the war broke out between Germany and Soviet Russia, I lived outside the city with the Konkolevicz family. Many of Steibtz 's Jews came to me, to hide in the wheat field for fear of the bombings. The Germans advanced towards the city. The Red Army retreated in panic. The trains were bombed from the air, and the artillery thundered (Soviet cannons, camouflaged in greenery, were stationed in the Jewish cemetery). In one heavy bombardment, I hid in the cemetery and was arrested by Soviet soldiers. Thanks to the recommendation of several Russian acquaintances, I was released. When I returned home, I found frightened Jews and amongst them also several wounded.
On Friday, with the entrance of the Germans, I was forced to leave my apartment among the Christians, and move to the city. In the ghetto, Jews from the ages of 14 to 60 were employed in forced labor. Hunger bothered, diseases broke out. We had to make do with a small portion, a little soup that was mainly water, and a small piece of bread. Groups of youth, who were recruited for work, were executed in the forest. News arrived about the elimination of Jewish settlements in the area. But the heads of the Judenrat calmed us down, saying that there was hope we would remain alive.
The youth began to organize for defense and secretly accumulated weapons. They practiced shooting in hidden places and prepared for the bitter day when we would have to defend ourselves.
In our city, there were many Jewish refugees from Lodz and Warsaw, and they spread propaganda that we should flee to the forests. These were the first who escaped from the ghetto.
From time to time, Latvian soldiers would attack the residents of the ghetto, looted, robbed, and raped women. The men were forced to go to work camps in Baranovicz and Minsk.
I was sent to forced labor in Baranovicz, We worked hard physical labor near the railroad tracks. Whoever was wounded, or sick, was shot to death by the Germans. A Baranovicz resident, who didn't have the strength to drag the railroad sleepers, was shot in the head. I was ordered by a German to take off his bloodstained clothes and wear them. I also had to dig a pit and bury him. After a day of hard work, we had to lie at night-time on hard boards, tired and hungry.
With the pangs of hunger, it was impossible to fall asleep, and you would lie in the darkness and dream of your family and children in Steibtz: are they still alive? In the darkness of night, the bitterness of life was felt in all its might. You cry secretly, hunger and cold have taken over, and there are incessant thefts. Suddenly, it was heard that a slice of bread had been stolen from someone who had bought it with his last prutot. The stealing of bread was a daily event. There were those in the camp, who had money, and they would buy bread from the peasants (Byelorussians) who brought food to sell.
We felt that our end would be bitter. Every day someone was dying from hunger. The Germans would kill the weak. We began to talk about escape. We didn't know how or to where.
One day, towards evening, Yisrael Machtei, son of Reuven the tailor, brother of Melech'keh, stole into our camp. He was dressed in peasant clothing, had a weapon in his pocket, and was also armed with a deep desire to liberate relatives and friends. He organized, with great talent, the escape of a group of seven Jews without anyone noticing.
I immediately felt that Hershel (Tzvi) Tunik, my relation, and his sons were not present. Someone took their belongings and sold them. I beat the Jew who took their belongings, and he informed me of the Germans. They put me into a special room and beat me thoroughly. I lay unconscious. One of the Germans called several Jews to take me away and bury me. They dragged me away and thought that I was dead. On the way, I gained consciousness. They gave me food and saved me. The next day I returned to work.
I decided to escape, no matter what. The director of the camp, a Jew named Kalina gave a speech to the camp workers. We were told that we were forbidden to escape. The escape of a Jew would cause the execution of a hundred Jews. The Germans promise work and food. One day I was organized in work to repair railway tracks. The soldier, guarding us, went into the house of a Polish woman to spend time with her. We were seven men, most were Jewish refugees from Poland. I suggested that we escape and all agreed. We went into a rye field and lay there until dark.
We crossed the railway tracks and arrived at a small village. We heard the barking
of dogs, and didn't know where we were. The villagers were asleep, and we feared that maybe a guard of German policemen and soldiers would come across us. We crossed the village successfully and approached the Usha River. The water was deep, but we helped each other, and using sticks we crossed the river. Wet, tired, and hungry we arrived at the village of Planitzka, which was known to us, for Jews lived there. We passed Jewish homes with no one inside. We knocked on the door of a hut and asked for the way to Stolpce (Steibtz). The peasant showed us the way to Mir via Horodzieja. At dawn, we encountered peasants who started to fire at us. Crawling, we dragged ourselves to the nearby thicket. We lay in the pit and rested there all day. Cold and hunger did not allow us to sleep, and we waited for the night to continue on our way. We arrived at the house of a farmer and asked for food. He gave us slices of bread, and we continued walking until we approached the Barshtan Forests. Suddenly, we saw people approaching us, scared and shaking. We knew them Yaacov Pecker from Steibtz and two Jews from Mir. We hugged, wept, and told each other about the hardships and all that had gone on with us. From them, we heard about the annihilation of the Steibtz Jews and the loss of our families. We moved away to a stable within the thicket and there we met many Jews from the Mir and Novogrudek area. They agreed to accept me to their group but not my companions.
In solidarity, we left them and continued walking. We roamed for several days and nights in the big Barshtan Forests until we reached the thicket, where we sensed movement and also heard singing in Yiddish. We found there were many Jews from Mir. Acquaintances gave us a little flour, we prepared food and revived ourselves. Life in these camps existed by wandering around the villages and searching for food there. We also managed this way and wandered around the villages asking for food and anything else for sustenance. There were cases where we were driven out and threatened that we would be handed over to the Germans, but there were other farmers who, out of pity or hate of the Germans, gave us food and also showed us the way. Once, in our wanderings in the forest, in our torn and worn-out clothing, we were met by Russian partisans, they aimed their guns and were about to shoot us. Among them I knew Vanka Kazitz from Steibtz, he asked them to let us go.
We were several months in the thicket. And once, while walking in the fields to seek potatoes, I met a Jew from Mir. He told me that he had met my brother, Shmuel Leib, and he was a partisan. A glimmer of hope awakened in me, that I would find him alive. A month later, eight Jewish partisans from the Steibtz came and transferred us to Svestobashchina near Rubezhevitz. There I found many Jews from Steibtz, and among them Rivka Kanterovitz, Here, we already had enough food. The Jews of Rubezhevitz had connections with their town, influenced by the partisans, and they had connections with the villages of the area. They always got food and vodka, but Russian partisans came and blamed us for stealing, as we were stealing from the poor villages in the area. After clarifications and a trial, conducted by the commander, they warned us not to take food from the poor villagers and left us alone. In the meanwhile, a partisan from Nalibok named Kesler arrived and asked us to join his camp. We wandered through the forests and arrived at the camp by Kroman [Lake Kroman], in the heart of the Nalibok pushtcha. There, we found many Jews from Steibtz, who received us happily. In the area of Kroman, there were several Jewish camps, and the largest camp was of Tuvia Bielski from Novogrudek. His deputy was a Jew from Steibtz the Commandeer Malbin. They united all the camps and obtained weapons. In the camp were more than a thousand people. We had horses, cattle, and weapons. The clothes on our backs were torn. There was no soap. Diseases broke out and there were no medicines for wounds, we lived in huts dug in the ground (Zemlyanka). Around us were Russian partisans. Sometimes there were also clashes between us. The upper Headquarters gave orders not to touch us, and also to defend us when there was a German hunt. But, the local commanders would disobey the orders, and sometimes they harmed our young women and pulled the boots from their legs. In the Nalibok Forests, there were companies of Russian and Polish partisans. We had skirmishes with the Poles and they killed several of our young men.
In Bielski's camp, there were brave young men. Often, they would attack trains, together with the Germans guarding them. In the middle of 1943, the Germans put a siege on the Naliboki Forest. The partisan companies engaged them in battle. Our camp was forced to leave its place of settlement and leave behind food and cattle. We were surrounded and we had to retreat in the nights to the area of the Kroman swamps. By a miracle, we survived, but many Jews were killed.
Our life was difficult. In the winter cold and hunger were our lots. In summer our situation was better. We obtained potatoes and food. In 1943, news of the victory of the Red Army reached us and we sensed the Germans' retreat. In 1944, the Germans retreated and the partisans attacked the retreaters and bullied them. The mighty German army retreated without orders. Many partisans got clothes and weapons from the retreating army.
The day of liberation arrived. As individuals, we returned to our birthplace Steibtz. The Belarusian inhabitants who saw us, were frightened as if we came from the World of Truth, and the old people crossed themselves: what, are there Jews alive in this world? Steibtz was destroyed, half was burnt down. We met the inhabitants dressed in the Jews' clothing. We recognized the clothes and belongings of our families. Trials began and many Christians were sentenced to years of imprisonment. The surviving remnant [Shearit HaPlita] was small and restricted. Several dozens of us lived in a few houses. We would come and tarry by the large pit where our relatives were buried, and weep. The cemetery had been looted, and the gravestones had been taken to build houses. We repaired the cemetery. We set up a fence around the big grave, in which the Jews of Steibtz were buried after the slaughter, and erected a memorial monument.
The Soviets gave us work, but we could not stay. The destruction and the loss of our dear ones depressed us. We had remained alone and isolated. We decided to wander far away. We left our town and moved to Poland. We stayed for several weeks in Lodz, Austria, and Italy, in the UNWRA camps, and after wandering from place to place we arrived in Israel.
by David Levin
Translated by Ann Belinsky
The night of 27th December 1942. In half of Yurzdike Street alone, there were 300 souls. The ghetto was surrounded that same evening by tens of Ukrainians. Will there be a massacre? This question was asked by the Jews. The Germans calm them down and some believed them.
Father, who had connections with those who had left several weeks earlier for the forest, was heavily guarded. At night his shoes were taken from him, and a guard was positioned in his house to guard him.
When the ghetto was surrounded, the number of those who had believed the Germans decreased, and en masse they came to Father: Lead us out of here. Yet my father remained under constant guard. The discussions continued until midnight: to depart for the forests or not. Escape at night was much more dangerous apart from the high wooden impenetrable fence, there were armed guards everywhere.
After midnight Father went to sleep, declaring that no-one goes tonight. I was confused was this a trick by Father to calm the guards or had he really given up… I don't dare to ask.
We lay down but no one slept a wink. Outside it was freezing (winter 1942 was the famous Stalingrad winter); perhaps I dozed off a little. Close to four in the morning Mother left, accompanied by a youth aged about 15 (sadly I do not remember his name may these lines serve as a candle in his memory), and they broke through a few planks of the fence. When she returned home, we arose and went to the fence I do not remember how it happened we found ourselves next to it. At the opening we started to escape through the barbed wire. We were lacerated and continued to walk. I managed to see several more groups of people. Forward, forward they are urging, on every side. It was already clear to all of us, that we could not go the right way in the direction of the young men who had gone before us and were in contact with us. The direct route to them led us over the railway tracks and there was no chance of going that way. We continued to walk and to run. It was a race with the dawn, in order to find some sort of cover.
We approached the frozen Neiman River, but here the ice that covered the river was cracked and people started to drown the outside temperature was 18-20 degrees below zero [Celsius]. A rescue operation was quickly organized, those who were of light weight, with my mother at their head, stood close to the crack and with a chain of hands, succeeded in pulling out those who were drowning. We changed clothes, furs were given to those who were wet, and we continued on our way.
At sunrise we reached the forest, a distance of 4-5 kilometers from the town. Here we remained all day, 17-20 people wandering around, shivering from the cold and afraid to light a fire. We were lost and helpless.
The main topic of conversation all day was deliberating and surmising the whereabouts of the partisans.
It is better to die in the frost or to be hit by a bullet while escaping, than to fall into the hands of the Germans these were the hopes with which we all consoled ourselves, and one of the best consolations was that the frost was a numbing death that was also specifically narrated in the story of The Little Match Seller.
At night we continued to walk. My father, being a forester, knew the paths well and revealed an extraordinary sense of orientation. Already on the second night he brought us to the village where the partisans were. Our joy knew no boundaries we found the saviors who were to redeem us, but we were soon disappointed by them. Instead of receiving us fairly, they ridiculed us. Only later it became clear to us, how lucky we were that they did not kill us. Many others fell victims to the partisans at their first meeting. Our meeting with them was a poisoned chalice as we suffered greatly until we grew accustomed to partisan life.
When our town of Steibtz was liberated and we returned there, we found only destruction and cemeteries. In every corner of our town, Jews were killed and here they found their eternal rest.
May their memory be blessed forever.
by Isaac Berkovitz
Translated by Ann Belinsky
In the heat of the summer of 1942, the people of Steibtz had already felt the bitter taste of the ghetto as they were burdened by impatience and hard forced labor. They were beaten for no reason and tortured at every opportunity. They waited in great fear. Members of the underground tried to anticipate what was to come, stored fuel, blade weapons, and a few firearms. As they had succeeded in doing in other places, the Germans managed to mislead the inhabitants of the Steibtz ghetto that no harm would come to them.
One morning, when most of the people were working at various jobs outside the ghetto gates, the Commander of the city, accompanied by officers of the Judenrat, arrived with a request to send most of the men to Baranowicz for urgent work for only two weeks. Even the optimists doubted the sincerity of their words and had misgivings that those who were sent would ever return.
The following thought was on my mind constantly. I knew that in the event of an aktziah by the Germans and their collaborators, a signal would be given to revolt against them. The agreed signal was burning the building of the German headquarters (the Commandatora) by members of the underground working there and setting fire to a large well-known building in the ghetto. My role, at the same time, was to ignite the electric station where I worked (with a supply of fuel that I had hidden and kept for this purpose inside the factory). Those who possessed weapons had to use them immediately against the enemy. Other than that, all those who worked for the Germans had to attack them, deprive them of their weapons, and use them against them. There was no detailed fighting plan, however, there was unanimous agreement that we would not go like sheep to the slaughter but cause loss of life to the murderers. At that time, we did not know whether it was possible to exist in the forests.
A small group of officers and sergeants, from the Engineering Unit of the German Army (Tadet), arrived at the gates of the ghetto. They carried out work for the German army and did not directly deal with the liquidation of Jews, only with the employment of Jews in various jobs. It was not surprising at all, that the underground was divided in its ideas. Some claimed that removing the men was only a tactic to weaken the strength of opposition in the ghetto and it was necessary to act immediately. Conversely, others claimed: perhaps the Germans needed workers and we should not hasten the end and sacrifice the women and children by revolting.
If the latter argument did not convince the former, it certainly discouraged them. They did not have the courage and initiative to organize the revolt themselves.
Many of the underground members were not known to me, since the underground was organized into cells, and the head of each cell knew only his commander. Among those whom I knew, and whom I remember were: Azriel Tunik son of Herschel, Moshe Zaretzky, Yaacov Pras, Possasorski from Warsaw, and may they live a long life, Azriel Tunik Velvel's son, Yulik Pintchevsky, Yosef Honig, and others.
We received the order to return from our places of work to the ghetto. We began to gather at the gate. Every moment we waited for the order to revolt. My hands gripped a sharp ax under my coat and in my pocket was a Molotov cocktail. Scores of Germans and policemen stood by the gate of the ghetto and were not at all suspicious that something was about to happen. And indeed, nothing happened. The order was not given. Today I wonder why? Is it because we didn't have a person in the right place, to take mercy on the women and children? One man could have ignited the fire of revolt and then who knows, perhaps the story of Steibtz would have taken another turn and be reflected as heroism and sacrifice. Disappointed and depressed we returned our weapons to their hiding places and began to assemble to go to work.
In the Work/Labor Camp in Baranowicz
The commotion was great. Wives, mothers, and children came to take leave of their loved ones. Tears and wailing filled the air, each felt in his heart that this was an eternal farewell either in life or in death.
The Germans organized the men in rows and marched them to the railway station. Here it became clear that about 350 men were being sent to Baranowicz and about 200 to Minsk. For those being sent, it made no difference. No one knew what was awaiting him in Baranowicz, just as no one knew what was awaiting him in Minsk. But many made all kinds of speculations and assumptions and began to run from the group that was allocated to Minsk to the group allocated to Baranowicz, and vice-versa. After a few hours, several cattle-wagons arrived, and we were forced to enter them.
There was massive crowding inside. The carriages were locked, and a guard was appointed to each carriage. When the train moved, the sun was already setting and when we arrived at the Polska station in Baranowicz, the carriages were opened and in one of the waiting halls, a camp had been prepared for us. The windows were closed with dense barbed wire. In the hall, close rows of bunks made of thick boards in three tiers had been installed. Two people were ordered to share one bed. This board was both a bed and a table for each person. The only padding on the boards was a little straw that the Germans divided amongst the detainees. The exit was strictly guarded day and night.
The next day the Germans woke us early. They gave each of us a portion of bread about 350 grams for the whole day. And they took us out to work.
We engaged in all types of hard work and the most despicable jobs. We found out that although there was much work, it was possible that it was temporary, that it would be done quickly, and that we would soon return home. We labored from sunrise until sunset and the Germans showered us with curses and beatings. Most of the people dug in the mountain with a shovel and spade. We piled the sand onto wagons and a small engine would transport it several hundred meters away, where it was emptied into a deep ravine. In this way, the area was flattened and with time, we built workshops for engines and railway carriages on this ground.
The work was debilitating. The dust and the sweat consumed us. Within a short time, our clothes and shoes became rags. In the first two weeks, the food we received was not too bad: a little margarine, thick soup, and even a little artificial honey. It was explained to us that we were receiving the food of regular workers and not as Jews, but
with the destruction of the Steibtz ghetto, they reduced our food to a portion of bread and a little watery soup once a day.
When we arrived at Baranowicz, several hundred men were sent to work in Molodatzna to weaken the power of resistance in the ghetto in Baranowicz. This demonstrated to us even more, what was liable to happen. Despite all of this, a glimmer of hope was hidden in our hearts. Perhaps the situation would change. In truth, there was no logical basis for this optimism. But it was hidden subconsciously, and we were grasping for any positive signs. For example, one day when the Germans didn't beat us, we deluded ourselves that their attitude had changed and that they had retreated from their evil plans. And we were comforted. Perhaps there would soon be a turn of the tide on the battlefront, and the German army would be defeated.
A week after we arrived in Baranowicz a group of 7 artisans, that included my father, were chosen from amongst us. Accompanied by several Tadet soldiers, that were sent to Steibtz to bring all their tools from there. They spent a few hours in the ghetto and brought regards from the families, as well as clothes, a little food, and money. The Germans exploited this opportunity, and again took a group of 80 men from Steibtz and brought them to us, to the camp in Baranowicz. They arrived on the eve of the Jewish New Year 5703/1942.
A Jew from Lodz named Tatarkin, an excellent metal worker, who was one of the artisans selected to return to Steibtz, managed to escape en route, together with his wife and daughter. After a long time, I met them in the forests, and in one of the raids by the Germans in the forest, he thought that his wife and daughter had been killed and he committed suicide.
At the same time Leibel, the son of Azriel Ruditzky, was shot when he tried to cross the barbed-wire fence of the ghetto.
After another week, many became sick or were injured while doing their hard labor. One day the Frontenfuehrer of the Tadet appeared again and explained that those who were very sick could go to the Baranowicz ghetto to recuperate. Many jumped at this offer, for there were still comparatively humane conditions in the Baranowicz ghetto. People lived in houses, and they still had something to eat.
The Frontenfuehrer chose 10 men, who were transferred to the Baranowicz ghetto, but their stay there, lasted only one day. The day after Yom Kippur 5703 (1942) the Baranowicz ghetto was surrounded and the second big aktziah began. Thousands of people, among them many women and children, were put onto trucks and transported to trenches that had been prepared earlier, and there, they were shot with machine guns. The people of Steibtz who were transported for recuperation also died there.
The massacre in the Steibtz ghetto began early in the morning, the day after the Baranowicz massacre. In the evening, when we returned from our hard labor, a Christian coal stoker from Steibtz passed on the tragic news that he had heard from workers from Steibtz whom he met near the trains.
Deep mourning prevailed in the camp. The hearts of all were silenced by the fate of their families there in the ghetto. Bitter weeping shook the hundreds of thin and emaciated men. Bitter despair overcame everyone. One was surrounded by hostility and if you succeeded in escaping from the camp it was certain that the first Gentile you encountered would recognize you as a Jew by your poor appearance, and would be overjoyed for you to die, and would hand you over immediately to the Germans or the local police.
This despair led to cases of suicide. Those who were inconsolable took their own lives by hanging themselves in the small filthy toilet.
Autumn, and then winter, arrived. Clothes disintegrated; people wrapped themselves with the paper of cement sacks. The 3-tiered bunks called narres were infested with fleas. The lice in our clothes irritated us and sucked our blood. After work or on Sundays, people would take their blankets outside and shake out the fleas and lice. They would light fires using shavings and pieces of wood brought from their workplace, boil a little water in a large tin can and wash their bodies and underwear. They would cook a little soup from 2-3 potatoes and a little flour. To exist in this environment demanded great strength and energy, and that of course, was lacking in many, after their grueling work and depressed mood. Many people who were once known to be full of energy and strength, surrendered to their fate. After a short time, they were unable to rise from their beds. Their bodies were bloated from hunger. Often one would get up and see that one's neighbor on the narre was lying lifeless…
After the massacre in Steibtz, the Germans left only a small number of people alive, whom they still needed for work. From an economic point of view, the situation of these Jews was fair, even though the Germans, the police, and the Christian neighbors looted the property of those who were murdered; yet a small part of their possessions was enough for the few Jews who remained alive. They made every effort to help their relatives in the Baranowicz camp and bribed the good Germans, who were mainly from among the railway workers. These men took some parcels or a little money to those in the camp. With the final destruction of the Steibtz ghetto, 25th Shvat 5703 January 1943, this last source also came to an end. With the final destruction of the Baranowicz ghetto, scores of Jews who survived this ghetto were brought to the Steibtz camp, and again filled the places that had become vacant.
The toiletry needs of the people in the camp took place in a small room close to the large hall, where two disgusting half barrels stood. The half barrels were not sufficient. People suffered mainly from weak bladders because of the cold and the food that contained a lot of water. They often ran to the toilet, particularly in the morning, so at that time, the toilet was very crowded. It happened on many occasions during the night, that the person sleeping in the upper bunk would urinate unwittingly and wet those who were lying below. As a result, quarrels would break out during the night, often accompanied by fistfights. The barrels would always overflow, and a permanent stench filled the space of the camp. … Two men, who were routinely appointed to this task, remained in the camp to remove the feces barrels. They would hold the two handles of the barrel and carry it far from the yard opposite the camp and empty it into a deep pit.
The Sandlers, a Christian family that lived in the yard, would sell all types of food to the Jews. Their German supervisor would of course, for a bribe, ignore the above transactions and the Jews would put the food into the same empty barrel, return to the camp, and sell it to anyone who wanted it.
But the money that some of the prisoners had managed to bring with them into the camp, soon ran out, and anyone fortunate to have gold teeth, would pull them out and exchange them for food.
The hard labor was accompanied by constant beatings that sapped the strength of the workers and also injured many of them.
The Germans did not want to deal with the unproductive workers or to heal them. Once a week, a vehicle with people of the S.D. the notorious German security division came and took them, threw them onto a truck, and sent them to their deaths… This was the reason that the sick feared remaining in the camp and would collapse at their workplace from exhaustion. There was one German supervisor from the Tadet, called Wilhelm an evil man, aged about 60. He would push the person who fell, to the side, shoot him and order the others to bury him on the spot.
With my own eyes, I saw how Menachem, son of Zelig Menaker was shot, along with many others.
The rumors about the partisans were vague and contradictory. When the Steibtz ghetto still existed, it was known that in one case, partisans killed 30 German soldiers in a successful ambush. Six men escaped from the ghetto to the forest, but no information was received of them. In the Baranowicz camp, we heard that during the massacre in Steibtz some people escaped to the forests. At the same time, a few people from the Baranowicz ghetto also escaped to the forests, but nothing was heard from them either. Was it possible to survive in the forest? Were the partisans supportive of us? All this was a mystery to us.
At the beginning of the winter, the first group escaped from the camp. The group consisted of 7 people from Steibtz and a few from Baranowicz. Among those who escaped: Hirschel Tunik (Feyga's son) with two of his sons Leibe and Fyveh; the brothers Meir and Elimelech Machtay, Aharon Melamed, and Tzvi Aginsky (son of Shmuel Leib).
They escaped from their place of work. Their escape impressed the camp inmates. Did they have a connection in the forest? Did someone come to take them, or did they escape on their initiative? All sorts of assumptions became legends, and the main question was, did they arrive safely? The Germans spread rumors that all had been captured and killed. Naturally, we did not want to believe this. At the end of the winter, a second group escaped, that included David Kopilovitch, a doctor from Poland, and others.
The German Frontfuhrer of the Tadet ordered all the people to stand for roll call. The Uber-yudeh a German Jew by the name of Klineh, personally announced, that if another escape occurred, all the inmates in the camp about 200 people would be executed immediately, but if we behaved reasonably and were not deluded by the possibility of escape, and if we worked industriously and listened to our guards and our employers we would live… and Klineh added his message: Jewish brothers! Please do not do anything stupid. Anyone who escapes will be caught, and here we have a chance to live since there is still work for us for an entire year…
At the same time, all the ghettos and camps in the surrounding areas were already liquidated and everyone knew that the end was near, but in one's subconscious, each hoped for a last-minute miracle. If even the slightest sign had been given by the partisans, perhaps a mass escape could have been organized, but the people were weak and despairing, like a flock without a shepherd.
In the spring of 1943, we were transferred to work in the supply base for the steel railway tracks. It was in a large area surrounded by a high barbed-wire fence. Within this area were buildings of the military, as well as buildings full of technical supplies, storehouses containing parts of bridges, huge piles of railroad tracks, railroad ties etc. Every day trains came, and sleepers, tracks, bridge parts made of steel, were loaded and unloaded. The remnants of the Jews of Steibtz, exhausted and sick, were employed for this grueling work. They gathered their remaining strength and worked. Otherwise beatings and curses. And if a steel railroad track crushed someone's foot and injured him the verdict was death on the spot.
Every morning the camp inmates were woken, put into two carriages, locked in, and transported about 5 kilometers to work. They were returned at dusk and then these exhausted people would stand in line to receive their small portion of bread and a little watery soup.
With the arrival of spring, people were a little less in despair. Fragments of news reached us about the fall of Stalingrad and the Warsaw ghetto revolt and brought a breath of hope into the hearts of the prisoners. The actual possibility, that in the spring or the summer it would be more feasible to exist in the forests, made people think of escape. They talked about a mass escape, but this was almost impossible to implement for these reasons:
Nevertheless, a large group was organized that wanted to break through the barbed wire and escape, but every time they were threatened with exposure by those who were unable or did not want to escape. The group even managed to steal a gun and some hand grenades from German soldiers and smuggle them into the camp. Then it became clear that a large group had no possibility of escaping and if they did, it would only be possible from their place of work. But it was hard to escape from there because people worked in gangs, each guarded by two armed Germans. In addition, the whole area was fenced.
It happened, that one prisoner named Karil from Warsaw, succeeded without being seen, to distance himself from his group, break through the barbed wire fence and go some distance. To his misfortune, the Germans sensed this, chased him, and as he was physically weak, they caught up with him easily and killed him. The second escapee, Tzvi Stolovitzky, succeeded, although he was on the verge of exhaustion. He was accustomed to leaving the camp secretly to obtain a portion of bread from the Christian inhabitants of the area. One day he left but did not return. We were sure that he had come upon a policeman and was shot. When we reached the forest, to our joy, we learned that he had wandered on paths and in fields for 10 days, until he reached the forest. (Indeed, a miracle happened to him; unlike others, who escaped, he did not come across the police and he was not handed over to them).
My young brother Michael may his memory be blessed, was very active, and insistent that we escape.
He was strong, courageous, and full of energy. Our German overlords respected him because of his ability to work and his agility. Once when he was working at covering a high roof in the railway workshop, he slipped and almost fell to the ground to certain death; but at the last moment he grabbed the eaves of the roof and he remained hanging there for a long time, between heaven and earth, until ladders were brought, and he was taken down.
He was among the Steibtz underground activists and one of those who did not come to terms with the expulsion.
There were the three of us in the Baranowicz camp: my father, my brother, and I. My father Berel-Fyveh Berkovitz was a watchmaker and was sometimes fortunate to receive a portion of bread from a German whose watch he had fixed. He would then add it to our meager portion of food and in this way, we maintained our strength. In the spring of 1943, the Germans called everyone to roll call and asked if there were electricians amongst them. I stepped forward. As a hobby, I had some basic knowledge of electricity, and we had a shop selling electrical goods before the war; I also learned about electricity in physics lessons at school. There was another electrician, a youth from Baranowicz named Kopilovitz. Our electrical work was easier than other work. We worked at installing an electricity grid at the base and installing high voltage lines outside the base. The person in charge of us was a German army officer named Shultz, whose trust we gained, and he treated us in a more or less humane way.
On the first of May, also regarded as a holiday by the Germans, all the Jews were brought to work to ensure that the communists would not enjoy the celebration! On that day, we were made to work hard unloading heavy railway anvils. My friend Kopilovitz carried a heavy anvil on his shoulders and threw it down. The German guard did not approve of the way he lowered the anvil, aimed his gun, and killed him on the spot.
At my request, my brother Michael joined me as an electrical assistant. As I mentioned above, we also worked outside the camp on high voltage poles. From the tops of the poles, we could see the surrounding area well and formulated a plan of escape. We were not familiar with the pathways, the villages, the fields, and the forests but decided to escape, no matter what.
The difficult problem was my father. Recently, the Germans had employed him to work in his profession. As the Jews had been annihilated, there was a lack of craftsmen in the town, so the German guards would receive watches from the residents in the area and my father remained in the camp and repaired them. In exchange for my father's work, the Germans would receive eggs, pork, etc. that they enjoyed. There was also a benefit for us, as our father did not work hard and also received some crumbs.
We could have escaped from our workplace, but we didn't want to leave our father in the hands of the murderers, who would take their revenge because of us.
Miraculously fate gave us the possibility of escape. In one of his visits to the camp, the German Frontfuhrer found my father busy repairing a watch. He raged with anger, hit my father, and ordered the guards not to leave him in the camp and to take him out to work together with the others. The guards took him with them to the base to work there they seated him in their shed and employed him again, repairing watches.
On the morning of the 28th of May 1943, I was working together with my brother, installing a power grid in the living quarters of the officers appointed to the base. In the shed next to it, my father worked repairing clocks and watches that the German Wilhelm, the worst of the murderers among our guards, had brought from farmers in the area.
He was appointed to guard a large group and therefore warned my father, perhaps half-jokingly, half-seriously, not to try to escape, otherwise, he would be shot.
Officer Shultz, who was in charge of the electrical services, was near us. It was a hot day, so he took off his belt with its holster attached, and his new semi-automatic pistol inside it put these in his room, and locked the door. I told him that I needed a wooden board to repair safety plugs for the electricity grid, gave him the measurements, and he went in the direction of the carpentry workshop to prepare the board, leaving us alone.
We acted instantly. I bent a piece of steel wire and opened the door of the room easily. Within seconds the holster was emptied and left on the bed. The loaded pistol and a cartridge of 8 additional bullets were in my pocket. Michael rushed to the shed next door, to hurry our father. When they returned, my father was pale and trembling. We coaxed him and left in the direction of the gate. The Germans, knowing that we were electricians, paid no attention to us, as they had often seen us wandering around alone in the camp. We passed a group of working Jews, who asked us what the time was. It was exactly ten-thirty. At the gate was a wooden hut that housed the transformer of the camp, and where wiring, tools, isolators, ladders, etc. were always stored. With a key in our possession, we opened the hut, equipped ourselves with tools and wiring, and with confident steps, turned towards the gate. The German soldier who stood at the gate saw us passing by laden with work tools. He was sure that we were leaving for some urgent repair of the mains outside the base. Fortune had smiled on us.
The road that led from Baranowicz to Pinsk passed by, about twenty meters from the camp. We crossed the road. Further along, was a sparse thicket that bordered the end of the German airport. Under one of the shrubs inside this thicket, we threw away all the tools and accessories that weighed us down, and we also tore off the yellow patches. We advanced several hundred meters in the direction of the town. There we crossed the road quickly and found ourselves on a narrow path that passed between the aircraft fuel base and the living quarters of the pilots. The whole area was immersed in thickets that hid us from sight. The short path brought us outside of the area of the bases, to the open field. The road that we had passed, through which we had planned our escape a long time ago, was the most difficult and perilous one but spread before us, were yellow fields and an unknown, dangerous path.
We walked eastwards. We knew that the forests were far in the distance, and we proceeded in that direction. Perhaps we would find partisans there? The gun in my pocket added to our courage, for at least we would ensure that we would not fall into the hands of the captors alive.
Within a few minutes, the skies darkened, and heavy rains poured down. We found out much later, that this rain saved us. When the Germans discovered our escape, they brought tracker dogs to follow our trail and sniff out our footprints, but the rain had washed away our trail.
The rain turned our tattered clothes into wet rags and despite this, we advanced eastwards, without delay. We had to cross a railway line and did not come across anyone, and advanced through fields. The first person we met was a farmer plowing his field. He turned to us and without our asking, suggested that we change direction. He realized that we were escapees, and his advice was to veer left, cross the Shachara River and advance via the abandoned road that the Russians had begun to pave (between Minsk to Brest-Litovsk) and had not managed to complete. We thanked him and continued on our way, following his advice. The river was deep but not wide. We took off our clothes, tied them into a bundle, and put them on our heads, and this is how we crossed the river.
A sigh of relief burst from our lips when we reached the deserted path that was called: The New Way before the invasion. We advanced quickly along the path. We were so excited that we did not feel tired. We passed isolated farmhouses but did not tarry. The sun began to set in the west. We passed by a partially built house, where we saw three people busy at work. When they saw us, they began to wave their hands and shout. We thought they were swearing at us, so we ignored their shouts and continued on our way. Possibly they wanted to warn us. We continued another few hundred meters up a hill and when we reached the top of the hill, we saw a huge multi-storied building that resembled a factory, and in its yard, policemen were practicing with weapons. Without deliberating, we immediately veered left into a high cornfield, where we crawled for a good part of the way. A few shots were fired over our heads but luckily no one pursued us. We reached the other side of the cornfield by crawling, and in a valley that we could see from there, we saw a group of policemen guarding the workers who were digging peat. We lay tensely on the ground until the policemen and the workers left the field when darkness fell.
We advanced another two kilometers. Hunger gnawed at us, as no food had passed our lips the entire day. We saw a house in front of us. Inside, a kerosene lamp was burning and a farmer and his family were at their table, eating their evening meal. We asked for food. I took out my gun and put it back in my pocket. The farmer understood the hint. The farmer's wife handed us bread and milk. We swallowed a considerable amount of bread, drank a jug of milk, thanked them, and left. We continued a few more kilometers and reached a forest that was in total darkness. We could not continue as the forest cast fears over us. The three of us sat down under a bush, and although we were tired, we could not fall asleep, because from time to time, whistles split the silence of the night, and we also heard the galloping of horses.
When dawn broke, we arose. The route was completely strange to us. We came across a lake district and had to retrace our steps quite often because it was impossible to cross the lakes. At noon we entered a farmer's house, where we received food and asked for directions. We learned from them that we were on the way between the town of Mir and the village of Zuchovitz. We were pleased that we had made good progress and had not deviated from our path. Now we had to cross the road between Mir and Zuchovitz and continue. We heard the sound of car engines and lay down behind a dip in the ground. Five cars laden with German soldiers passed before us. They were traveling from Zuchovitz in the direction of Mir. Our hearts were beating rapidly. They passed by without being aware of us. We got up and crossed the road. On the horizon, a long grey line of large forests began to appear, so we walked in that direction until nightfall. We arrived at a large village and decided not to enter it. Instead, we found a high pile of straw in a field, crawled inside, and fell asleep.
When we woke it was dawn. We circumnavigated the village and advanced quickly in the direction of the forest that seemed to us, to be very close a distance of about three kilometers. After a short while, we were already walking on a path in a thick forest. From a distance, we saw an abandoned and desolate house. The windows and doors had been broken and were wide open, and we went inside. On a large white oven, we saw a large inscription in Russian, written in black letters Death to the German conquerors! We stood petrified and looked at the inscription. So, the partisans were not far from here.
We heard that during the massacre, young people had escaped from the Mir ghetto to the forest, and were wandering around, armed. How could we reach them? We continued walking in the forest, saw two houses, and approached one of them. The farmer who came out of the house looked at us suspiciously. We told him that we were Jews, who had escaped from the Baranowicz camp and wanted to get to the partisans. He said that he did not know where the partisans could be found and that the Germans often passed by here. We pleaded with him to show us the way and my father also handed over his watch. Then he whispered to us while glancing to both sides, that we should go north, and we would reach the house of a certain farmer who knew where the partisans were.
After a short while, we reached the house of the second farmer, but he too did not rush to tell us the hidden secret the place where the partisans could be found. After persuading and pressurizing him, and after we gave him the second watch, he turned to his son and whispered something in his ear. The youth disappeared into the dense forest and after a quarter of an hour, he returned and told us to follow him. With beating hearts, we followed him into the depths of the forest, on an almost undetectable path. An armed man suddenly appeared before us, then a second, a third, and a fourth. There was a badge on their hats the red star. Our joy knew no bounds, for these were Jewish partisans, young Jews from the Mir ghetto. The group, which numbered about ten people, had come here to carry out the task of acquiring arms and food. The regiment to which they belonged was located about 80 kilometers northeast. They knew the area well. We learned from them, that several Jews who had survived the ghettos were hiding in the forests. They were not armed and existed on contributions from farmers in the area.
The partisans received us warmly. They brought us food, which we had not had for some time. The commander of the group, Shlomo Kharkhas, promised to allow my brother and me, to join the regiment. He suggested that my father join the Jews hiding in the forests. In return for my pistol, which had great value, he promised to give guns to my brother and me. Although we separated unwillingly from our father, the desire to join a fighting regiment was stronger. We also hoped that when we reached the camp of the regiment, we would work to bring our father to us.
Together with a few other fighters, we accompanied our father to the place where the civilian Jews were hiding. Among them, we also met some of our townsfolk from the Steibtz ghetto.
There we found out details of the final destruction of the ghetto. To our bitter disappointment, we learned that amongst others, our sister Miriam had been murdered by the Germans in the last aktziah in the Steibtz ghetto.
With our freedom, our hearts beat even more strongly, with a feeling of revenge. We were ready for every action against the Germans, even if it was the most dangerous. One of the things that I longed to do, that I had set my heart on, was to set out together with the Jewish partisans and to save Jews from the work camp in
Baranowicz. At that time, it was the only camp that existed in the whole area. As we were more or less familiar with the way, and also the danger that awaited us, I wanted to get to the area of Baranowicz with my brother or someone else, and somehow contact the camp inmates and organize a group of escapees, killing the guards at the same time, and escaping with their weapons into the forest. The plan was daring and certainly possible. But the bitter reality proved us wrong and revealed one of the reasons that many of our brethren went like lambs to the slaughter.
It was early Tuesday morning. I was standing guard at a distance of 30 meters from the group that had returned from a night mission of gathering food. The group, which numbered ten young men, was in a good mood. They had accumulated enough food and also improved their weapons. They had succeeded in acquiring a Russian machine gun that needed some repair. The next day they had to move in the direction of the base. After I had finished my guard duty, one of the partisans replaced me, and another partisan and I went to sleep. In my absence, my brother Michael exchanged places with the guard. He remained alone on duty. Figures appeared on the path. They fired their weapons and shots shattered the quiet of the morning. He did not flinch. Alone, and for the first time in his life, he aimed his gun at the attackers. One or two shots and one of the attackers were wounded. When they saw that the Jew was responding with fire, they stopped firing and began yelling don't shoot, we are partisans. He stopped firing, allowed them to approach, and from close-up, they riddled him with bullets. And this is how my brother fell, killed by traitor's bullets, like scores of other Jews, who thought that only the Germans were their enemies, at a time when many Gentile partisans did not hesitate to stab their comrades in arms, in the back.
Sadly, until this incident, we did not know this. The young men we had met did not tell us about the seriousness of the situation, and about the dangers facing us from the Christian partisans. These attackers were unruly men from the Danilo regiment, a regiment notoriously known for killing lone Jews and small groups, whenever they came across them.
When they heard of our group and its achievements, they came at first light, attacked us, and thought that they would easily seize our weapons and our food, but my brother, of blessed memory, ruined their plans. On hearing the torrent of gunfire, the partisans woke up and retreated into the depths of the forest. The partisans from the Danilo regiment organized a search for our group and pursued us for five days and nights. In an ambush that they set up, they killed four young men and one young woman.
After superhuman efforts, we succeeded in arriving at the base. The loss of my brother and the other Jewish partisans caused me much grief and sorrow.
It took me a few months to recover from my grief and to participate in the war effort against the German enemy. We were only a few Jews in the Christian partisan regiment, but we carried out most of the dangerous and difficult missions and were always at the head of the group. We always remembered and will remember that many of our best boys and brothers were killed at the hands of the partisans when they approached them, requesting to join the ranks of the fighters. May the memory of those who fell be blessed.
The Christian partisans hardly raised a finger to save Jews from the ghettos and the camps. More than once, when they came across a single Jew or a small group in the forest, they cunningly disarmed them, robbed them, and killed them. If not for this attitude of hatred, thousands more would have escaped to the forests and of course, many would have saved themselves from death.
One more group succeeded in escaping from the Baranowicz camp. A month after we escaped from the camp, they transferred the Jews to their former work tasks, not far from the railway station. A group numbering about ten people succeeded in escaping. The group encountered a police guard and some of them fell, but about five of them reached the forests.
At the end of summer of 1943, the remnants of the Baranowicz camp were transferred to the camp of the S.D. in Kolditzava, and there they were liquidated and their bodies burnt.
|Sitting from right: Avraham Kushnir, Mordechai Malbin, Hershel son of Leibke, Fruma Malbin
Standing from right: Baruch Ozer Akun, Hillel, Leibke and Rachel Malbin, Basha and Hillel Akun
Here is buried CHAYA MALBIN
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