by Eliezer Melamed
Translated by Ann Belinsky
A Memorial candle for the soul of my honored father, R' Benyamin, who died in the prime of his life.
In memory of my honored mother Esther from the Manshek family,
In memory of my honored grandfather R 'Moshe son of Aharon,
who were killed at the hands of murderers in Steibtz Ghetto.
In memory of my brother Tzvi who was killed in the city of Stolin.
May their names endure forever!
The Conquest Of Steibtz By The Nazis And The First Decrees
The Jews of Steibtz developed their own way of life and left their mark on the local people. In some ways, they were also influenced by the people of the area. Life in the town was lively, noisy and full of content and, who knows how this life could have developed in future generations, if not for the evil hand that wiped the Steibtz community off the face of the earth.
22 June 1941
Sunday, when people did not work and enjoyed a day of rest. At 12 noon we listened to the radio broadcasts. Suddenly, we heard the voice of Molotov, full of sadness and deep seriousness, expressing, with great fear, what is about to befall nations and people: Germany had opened with a broad attack along the borderline of Russia, and bombed a number of cities. Depression prevailed amongst all the residents in the area, and a deep sigh from the silence burst from the heart of every Jew, for his heart prophesized the end of his people and the fate of his family.
News follows more news, that Hitler's troopers are approaching us. The atmosphere was full of anxiety of what would happen next. A bustle heralding bad news was sensed in the city. The government clerks were transferring their families far, deep inside Russia, and trains and cars full of army personnel, equipment and food, passed through Steibtz. The air was filled with terror.
In the first days the border was still open. Youth, members of the Kommosol, were the first who hastened to leave for fear of revenge by the Germans, and together with them, other youth who were driven east by the instinct to save their lives. Most remained in the city, and only a small percentage succeeded in carrying out this decision and left their hometown with a small bundle or emptyhanded, to roam far from home. The rest of the inhabitants did not have the courage to leave their wives and children. All of these remained confined to their home place.
It happened on Monday morning.
My brother, Yosef, put on his after-work clothes, his new boots, took with him his personal certificates and a few hundred rubles from his last salary. He got up and announced to us that he was leaving home, without knowing if we would meet again one day.
A clear and warm summer's day. In the early hours of the morning, when the city was already dipped in a sea of sunshine, I went to the bank of the Neiman River to swim and enjoy the splendor of nature, despite the despairing and depressing mood.
On the same morning I found there a few other men and youth who had come to swim. That day we did not spend much time there, for the days were days of tension, and the heart was in fear of what would follow. Suddenly I heard the whirr of machine guns on the other side of the river. The enemy had already arrived at the gates of the city. There was panic in the streets. Within a short time every living soul had disappeared. People closed themselves in their houses. The city was shelled and bombed heavily. There was no strong military opposition because there were only a few Soviet military troops here. The front crumbled and only a few forces, cut off from each other, showed strong opposition, but to no avail. This force could not stop the united German army machine even for a minute.
The whole city went up in flames. Most of the buildings there were wooden. The flames especially engulfed the Jewish quarter in the center of the city. The fire consumed the buildings in Potztovve, Paromneh, Shkolna, Vilenska, Nedniymanska streets, and in the market square.
In the course of the fire, people hurried to bury and hide household articles, fabrics and food in the ground, and to save something of their possessions for the coming days. At our house we did the same. Mother, who was full of extraordinary energy, worked feverishly, packed all sorts of boxes with whatever was at hand and buried what could be saved.
When the houses were catching fire and the situation was life-threatening, people abandoned their houses and fled the town, some in the direction of the Neiman River, while others turned in the direction of the mountain to hide behind the granaries. The area was open and in full sight. The Germans still continued shooting and a number of Jews fell dead there. We too left our home and advanced in the direction of the mountain, I, with my mother, my brother Aharon and also my grandfather, who was stubborn and refused to leave the house and wander with us. He chose to be burned alive and not to withstand the hardships of life and only after we wheedled and begged, he agreed to go with us. Our grandfather was in his eighties, was hard of hearing and sight, and walked with difficulty. We walked together with him leaning on our arms.
We were then still without any experience of war. The noise of weapons brought fear and terror upon us.
We hid behind the gentiles' granaries, which were behind the city on the mountain. Amongst us was also Reizel Dovroles with her husband, who was nicknamed Yosef the Chassid. This was a childless family who made a living by selling books of the Bible and prayer. The whole time we hid, they called Shma Yisrael. In the evening, after the battles subsided, the streets of the town were silent. People left their shelter and started to look for a roof over their heads. Most of the houses in the Jewish quarter were burnt. Yurzdika and Shpitalna streets, and a few houses at the end of Potzstovve and Pilsudski streets, remained [unburnt]. We walked in the direction of Shpitalna Street and entered the house of Avraham Meir Altman. He lived in a new wooden house together with his son-in-law Chaim Kaplan (Chaim Shifras, son of Shifra). They received us, and others, hospitably. And this is how all the Jews, whose houses were saved from the fire, behaved. But, when the Jews turned to their Christian acquaintances and asked for a corner in their house, the latter refused to take them in. Some of them rejoiced for the downfall of the Jews and impatiently waited for the minute they could
rob them. It should be noted, that there were also a few Christians who showed signs of participation in sorrow and also a desire to help their Jewish acquaintances. But they asked us not to discuss this, for they feared their neighbors and revenge of the authorities.
The first night passed on us quietly. We rested from the great stress. We all slept close together on the floor of the house. The next day we got up at dawn. It was the first Sabbath under the German rule. In the streets of the town, armed German soldiers wandered around. We did not dare even to look at their faces. Each person went to visit the ruins of his burnt house.
The remnants of food, which we took out of the ground, were a great find in our eyes. All the food was tasty, for we were all very hungry. Depression predominated in the house where we were hosted, Women were coming and going and telling all sorts of things about what was happening and what we could expect.
We left to look for another house. Most of the Jews were concentrated in Yurzdika Street. All the houses were occupied. In the end the Palei family agreed to house us as well, and we were about fifteen people living in one room. They organized beds in several tiers in order to exploit the space upwards.
The same day we left the house on Shpitalna Street, the first terrible tragedy occurred. This was the first Black Sabbath under German rule. That day they carried out the first mass killing, by assembling all the men, Jews and gentiles, from Shpitalna Street and from the nearby areas but most of those assembled were Jews. All this mass was shot and killed in the streets and yards.
All those living in the Altman house, who only yesterday had received us with open arms to their home with real hospitality, were killed, and together with them the rest of the people in the area. At the same time many children, who were not willing to leave their parents, were killed. One of those also was Yossel Filshchik, who was killed with his small three year old daughter. This was the first present that the Germans gave us on their arrival, using the excuse that from one of the buildings someone had fired on the German army and for that reason they had carried out an operation of revenge.
This action caused great depression for all the residents, and it appears that this was their intention to impose terror so that All the people will hear and be afraid. Actions like these were planned and carried out with precision and severity from time to time. And they had one aim: to annihilate the Jewish race and to ensure that the local conquered population would not even think of any resistance or express dissatisfaction with the new rulers.
It was in the first days of the conquest of the area of Steibtz by the Germans. We had still not managed to recover from the public action they had carried out with such cruelty and openly in the streets of the city. On the same day, peaceful people were killed for no fault of their own. And here again we were deeply shocked.
They talked with various local inhabitants and got information on the names of people who were known to be public activists. Afterwards, they ordered the Jews to gather in the public yard. They called the names of people according to a prepared list. These people were arrested and did not return home again. Their names: Moshe Bogin, Tuchman, Chaim Dvoretsky, Hirschel Kumak and others.
From time to time, the Germans would issue new orders to harm the Jews, to make their economic existence more difficult even up to starvation and to humiliate them morally and to abuse them.
A Jew was forbidden to come into any contact with a Christian. It was forbidden to trade, even to have a conversation. A Jews was forbidden to leave the boundaries of the city. It was forbidden to be found outside the walls of your house after sunset. But you had to go out every day to forced labor without payment.
The Germans would come in the early morning hours to the Jewish area and take a certain number of people to work. Lucky was the person who was chosen to work for a decent German and finished his job. In the evening he returned home, sometimes he received food, or also brought foodstuffs home. If, G-d forbid, a Jew encountered an accursed German, he would receive shouts, curses and beatings too. The sadistic German had the opportunity of satisfying his lusts to no end. It happened more than once that a Jewish worker would return home so beaten and bruised that he was forced to be bedridden for several days.
And behold again a new decree! To pass by a German, a Jew has to show signs of submission by taking off his hat, six steps in front of the German and five steps behind him. Afterwards, it is permitted to put on the hat again, and a punishment of whipping awaited anyone who didn't take off his hat, G-d forbid! A Jew was forbidden to walk on the footpath and had to walk on the side of the road where it was customary to drive cattle.
Every new decree implanted depression and despair into the heart of every Jew. People felt that they could not stand it anymore, but after a few days their minds came to terms with the new reality. Even so, the hope of ever returning to a humane life as in the past, lessened.
One day, in July, we were enlisted to work and brought to the area of the village of Okintzitz. We did very important work and had a good feeling. We chopped down the trees in the forest and paved the way leading east. We returned towards evening by foot, tired after a hard day's work. The Germans decided this time organize a happy day for them and us. SS guests arrived to the town just after we entered. Men of the Gestapo met us, stopped each one of us and interrogated us. And if the face of the person being interrogated pleased them, they let him continue home. They concentrated the rest, about fifty men, in the old Polish police station and I too, was incarcerated there.
They carried out their planned action in the police building. We were full of fear and didn't know their intentions. They began to ill-treat us sadistically in a way that a normal person would never think of. The show lasted many hours. We were ordered to kneel with our faces towards the wall without moving, and to do all sorts of exercises in total silence. And, whoever did not succeed in carrying out the orders exactly, absorbed beatings from a rubber truncheon. This was only a precedent to the main program.
According to orders, each of us was brought to a side room, where a half-naked German dressed only in gym shorts, received and interrogated us on all sorts of useless details and finally
our fate was decided. Those who were chosen to be sent to death were put into a special room. The rest, who were chosen to remain alive, he ordered to run between two rows of SS men who beat them liberally with rubber truncheons. As could be seen, all the office procedure was staged just to diversify the show. With the last of my strength, I ran home. I burst in the door and remained sitting silently. I could not answer the question of the fate of the rest of my nephews, for I couldn't speak because of all that had happened to me. The rest of the family sat opposite me in silence, their eyes trickling with tears. The next day we heard that those, who had not returned home that same evening, would never return, for they had been killed by a group of hooligans. The same day they had been brought for execution behind the city by the Steibtz abattoir. Some of their clothes were found strewn around their graves.
Among the victims were: Yaacov Lusterman, Shlomo Stolovitzki, Tzvi Milchenson, Daniel Milchenson, Germiza, Yaacov Rubenstein, R' Shlomo Khari, R' David Shmuelevitz, R' Moshes Gitales, R' Yaacov Dominitz, Yaacov Pras and another 40 others, among them many who were not Steibtz natives.
Grieving and despairing, we were helpless there was no justice in the world, no-one knew what tomorrow would bring.
The Germans appointed a Jewish committee, called the Judenrat. Its role was to deal with the administrative side, such as providing the German authorities with manpower from among the Jews, to provide them with money, gold, jewelry, presents, valuable utensils and other articles. The Judenrat was also responsible for dividing the portions of bread amongst the Jews.
These were the members of the Judenrat: The chairman was a Jew from Lodz named Vittenberg, who had escaped from the Germans in 1939, and found a refuge during the days of the Soviets in Steibtz. He was a capable and pleasant man who knew German well. He meant well to do and to act and to try to save as much as possible from the Germans and to lighten the fate of the local Jews. To hold on in these hard days with the hope, fon iberleben for survival. Iberleben was the expression on the lips of the Jews in the ghetto, and in it was embodied much of the sublime, and it was not known who had invented it. Iberleben come what may. Many wished them tzu iberleben towards survival to manage to reach the day of victory and after that to die. The word iberleben had a special sound and was understood only by those who lived in these conditions.
The deputy chairman was Yeremiahu Pras a well-to-do Steibtz Jew, who had worked all his life in the forest trade. His external appearance testified that he was endowed with much energy, courage and understanding. He knew to manage negotiations with the Germans and, more than once, he also succeeded in distracting the Germans from carrying out certain decrees. The Jews of the ghetto complained sometimes that he was exploiting his connections with the German authorities for a life of comfort. This anger was often directed at the Judenrat, in which they tried to see the source of evil and exploitation.
Pras, who was in constant contact with the representatives of the military rule of the Germans, always tried to circulate calming rumors on the future of the local Jews that the Steibtz Jews were not expected to be in danger of death, because they were a useful and productive element, employed in necessary work.
In the end, he too was deceived till the last minute and found his rest in the same mass grave the pit of death by the village of Zayamnaye. The other members of the Jewish committee were: Alter Yossilevitz, Berel Moshe Reiser, Zeev Tunik, Yehoshua Wainreich and a few others.
All these were men well known to the people of Steibtz. All their lives they had been involved in public activity. Honest men who were called to fulfill their duty to advice and to act in times of trouble. They were pained by the anguish of their brothers, and more than once they were placed in a desperate state of real life-threatening situations. Once, all the members of the Judenrat were arrested and beaten with rubber truncheons. This case caused broken-heartedness in the Jews, who saw what the value of their lives was, in the eyes of the Germans. As a result, all the members of the Judenrat were bedridden for several days and needed medical attention.
With great sorrow each person expressed his condolences on the fate of the elderly and weak Alter Yossilevitz, who absorbed blows from the murderers.
Every Jew was a work machine with a serial number, a number which didn't mean anything, an abstract number. But in the end this number would determine its owner's fate.
The Jews had to present themselves every morning in the public yard behind the city. They had to be organized in rows according to their serial number. After this parade, they would all be allocated to work places. Group by group marched to its place of work under a German command. The Jews were disciplined and carried out what was imposed on them. The morning parades were more difficult that the actual work. There was a feeling that in that place, where people were concentrated, all sorts of calamities could happen.
One day, the fate of the Jewish settlement in Steibtz was different from the rest of the days of the year. The Jews of Steibtz got up early that same day. Both those who threw their supplications in front of their G-d, and those who did not open their hearts with a discussion with G-d all went together to the place of assembly to carry out what would be allocated them. No one expected that on that same day it would happen, and many tears would saturate the ground.
The Jews organized themselves in rows and columns, everything according to the usual order. The commander, and his German helpers, checked the order. The commandant's voice was heard: Number one to step forward, Number fifty to leave the row Number one hundred, and so forth. Every fiftieth number had to leave the rows, the permanent place, and create a new row.
All these people left the rows of their friends forever.
And these are the names of those killed: Chaya Harkavy, Rachel Brochansky, Noach Bernstein (from Adasar family), Avraham Tribuch, Masha Tov, Yehoshua Inzelbukh, and about twelve more people.
These people were shot and thrown into a pit in the Jewish cemetery. What was the sin of these dozens of people? To this, no one could answer. We separated from them in tears, in pain, and continued to work…
A degree of salvation is needed that was the common request coming from the mouth of every Jew.
For some time nothing changed for the better and, in fact, worsened. Our daily life became more restricted. The store of food began to run short. A number of Jews, who were outside the boundaries of the ghetto, were brought into
the ghetto. It was impossible to go out to the village to bring a little flour, potatoes or groats. A punishment of death was expected for someone who conducted negotiation with a Christian. Crowding in the houses reached a peak. Beds were built and organized in tiers to the ceiling. With difficulty one found a place to sit in a room. Yurzdika Street, where the ghetto was located, was surrounded by a barbed wire fence. We were ordered to decorate our clothes with the yellow badge, the sign of shame that was customary in the Middle Ages. It was obligatory for every Jew to sew on his clothes, on the left side in front and behind, the symbol of a yellow Magen David of a diameter of 12 cm. With this symbol the Germans marked the whole Jewish community so that they would be known and recognized wherever they were.
Standing from right: Rosa Bogin, Chaya Altman, the sisters Chava and Sonia Milcenzon, Chaim Stolovitzki, Eliezer Melamed.
Sitting: a Jewish youth, a native of Nalibok.
The Jews no longer have to present themselves in the public lot. The workers are confined to their usual place of work, and after the work is done there, they are sent to work at another place. The Judenrat is now in charge of the work schedule. They are accountable to the German authorities to provide the manpower needed. Those who had to work were: men from the age of 14 to 60 and women from the age of 18 to 50.
The types of work were varied such as: work in municipal services, road cleaning, collecting the rubbish and waste. These places of work were considered easier. There were services for the army, farm work, unloading, portage in the train carriages and storehouses. There were also construction works, preparing building casts, and concrete pouring. The Jews specialized in construction and quickly became professional. Construction was associated with the hardest type of work. Nevertheless, they showed more desire to work there, because German workers also worked there and they were treated more humanely. The most difficult place of work was, as it was called, zhoidobaniah a sort of mine, where gravel and sand were dug out and loaded onto railway wagons, and destined as building material for all sorts of structures and fortifications in the fields at the front. The work place was five kilometers away from the city, on the sand and lime hills behind the town of Swerznie.
The work was difficult and boring. Many women were employed. During all the hours of work, the worker had to carry out only repetitive body movements, and the German foreman would go around all, urging them on to work and shouting Bewegung. When he deemed it necessary, the rubber truncheon would come to help him hurry the workers along.
Pouring out his wrath, he would attack his victim and flog him to bloodiness or unconsciousness. The most well-known person for Jew flogging was the German Krolchik, and for the Jews it was a happy day on the same day and place that Krolchik was present. He would not return home until he had satisfied his sadistic tendencies. Broken and shattered were those who returned home after a day of grueling toil. With difficulty they dragged their legs until they got to their home. When they would return to the ghetto area, people would point out: here, the zhoidobaniah are returning meaning the people who are carrying the burden of sorrows on their shoulders more than others. There was also work in changing the wide railway track used by the Russians, to the narrower railway track used in the European countries. Apart from this, there were all sorts of work of different types as needed.
To tell the truth, it must also be emphasized: Here and there, it was still possible to meet among the Germans some with a moral conscience, in whom feelings of humaneness had not yet been extinguished and they deserve a few good words. Although among the Jews there was a common saying, A bad German, a harsh death, a good German, an easy death.
We must remember favorably those individuals the Righteous Among the Nations. In these times of murder and violence, the feelings of humanity were not blocked in their hearts. This was expressed in various ways if by a word of consolation and sympathy, or in a friendly attitude. I wish to name the German Peter Hugo, a delicate man, of good virtues and humane treatment, who left a good impression
in the heart of all those around him. His behavior with the Jewish workers was exemplary. Not only did he not raise a hand to harm anyone, he even warned the workers if an inspection was coming. He liked to chat and joke with the Jews, offer a cigarette and the like. One meeting with him, which proved his sincere attitude, will be told below.
The German authorities would impose contributions on the Judenrat, such as amounts of money in banknotes and gold, jewelry, valuables, watches, rings, fabrics, leather goods and more.
The Judenrat would obtain these things from the Jews. The Jewish police was busy collecting the money and the articles. Many would refuse. Then the Judenrat would use pressure and strength. They were forced to invent an imposed fine, or the policemen would carry out a search and take the possessions themselves.
The extortion of money and property for the Germans was justified as being an exchange, a ransom to cancel liquidation. The Judenrat also took trouble to spread among the Jews of the ghetto the version that if they will obey, they will remain alive as workers who are useful to the German people.
With the Advent of Winter 1941/42
Heavy snowfall covered the ground. This year there was a hard winter and intense frost. The allocated small piece of bread was all that a hungry man received. With his eyes he was ready to swallow the tiny portion, and it wouldn't even be felt. It was his obligation to divide the 200 grams of bread amongst all his family: with his father, mother and small children, who had not gone out to work and also had not got a slice of bread. Hunger is cruel to man and can break even the strongest. There were families who showed altruistic devotion and voluntarism to each other. They were ready to suffer the hunger and to leave the bread to their families. One of those, especially to be admired, was our dear mother, who prevented food from her mouth and gave it to her children. Strength of second to none. There were also friends and acquaintances who helped each other. On the other hand, there were also cases of quarrels over the distribution of the slice of bread. I was once invited to a house which was always known for its poverty. In the days of peace they didn't know satiation. The father was a tailor, sewing winter clothes Peltzlach for the Gentiles. It was seasonal work and with a meager income which had to provide for the needs of the whole year and in the house there were many mouths. On the same day, the mother brought home a loaf of bread. It was measured with a string and each received an equal portion.
It is not easy to understand someone suffering from hunger, permanent hunger. Both before eating and also after, the person dreams of the loaf of bread that will be placed on the table and that he will eat until he is satiated. This was an aspiration at its time. The worker would go to work with a dry slice of bread. For some, the custom was to swallow it immediately in the morning. They did not have the strength to keep it until the afternoon. They would say: I don't have to worry about afterwards. Shneor Bernstein, whom I often met at work, was accustomed to leave the slice of bread in his pocket until he returned home, saying: all the time that the slice of bread is present in my pocket, I have the feeling of security of satiation.
Sometimes there was luck to work with a German who had a spark of humanity in him, and honored the Jew with a little food. The Jewish Council established a public kitchen, where it was possible to receive and enjoy a little soup. Not many jumped at the opportunity. Many of the inhabitants remembered other days in the past, and did not want to come to terms with the lowering of honor to need a soup kitchen. But those, whose house was emptied, were forced to appreciate the aid that was given to them, and especially a large number of refugees who found refuge in Steibtz. The year was a year of an unbearable winter as if the heavens too had become cruel to us. The heating materials were used up and cold prevailed in the houses. Only the crowding caused a little rise in the air temperature. Clothing and shoes became torn. Sacking material was used as a substitute for covering the body.
The small towns around Steibtz, such as Horodzei, Mir, Swerznie, Turetz, Nesvizh, Kletsk and others, had already been completely or partially destroyed. Steibtz still existed, but the number of inhabitants slowly diminished. Here and there people fell and died on the roadsides. Today someone and tomorrow another. There were executions for minor infractions: One was caught for daring to go outside of the town and ask for foodstuff, or was caught for the sin of walking on the sidewalk; another exchanged words with a soldier.
At the beginning there were many cases where soldiers burst into Jewish homes in order to loot. They would also murder on these opportunities. Later, soldiers from Latvia came as auxiliaries to the Germans in guarding the conquered areas. They especially murdered many people on their own initiative. They would patrol the Jewish area during the evening hours and demand valuable objects. Once they found a baby sleeping in its cradle and stabbed him in his sleep.
This was the difference between the German soldiers and the Latvian, Lithuanian and Ukrainian soldiers who cooperated with them. The Germans were disciplined murderers and carried out their work cruelly and methodically, whereas the others were simple murderers, they were aggressive and stole everything.
Indeed, we suffered greatly from the winter cold, but, on the other hand, it caused us some consolation that the Germans suffered many casualties at the front from the cold, which they were not used to. Thousands of German soldiers froze to death during that same winter. The Jews who worked on the railway line were witnesses to the movement of thousands of Red Cross trains full of wounded soldiers travelling west. The Jews received this news with great satisfaction.
I turned to Kotkovski with a request to help me during this troubled time in organizing the duty roster in the municipal bakery. My contacts with Kotkovski were superficial. I knew him personally from the period of the Soviets via his brother-in-law Loganovitz, who worked then with me (in the Gurtop office for the production and supply of firewood). During the Soviet period we Jews would sit at work together with the gentiles, and since then, we had acquaintance relationships which were expressed in polite manners and sincerely asking the other how they were.
During the German period, Kotkovski worked in the municipality and was responsible for the department of food and supplies. I did not believe that he would answer positively to my request. At those times the gentiles were not very friendly to the Jews. To my amazement, I was answered positively. I received a letter of recommendation from him to be accepted to work in the bakery, which in the past had belonged to Flurianovitz, and was located in the market square, in the house of Azriel Roditzky. The building was completely destroyed.
Inside, the oven remained whole and the roof was temporarily repaired with tin plating. Baking was done for the local population with supervision of the municipality. All the workers were Jews: Hirschel Kushnir, Yitzhak Bernstein (Beyla Ashkas son of Beyla Ashka) and Tzirinsky from Steibtz. Leybush and Shlemkah were not from the area, Azriel Ginzberg (Shaikas-son of Shaikeh) worked as a woodcutter.
I was very happy, for I would be able to eat bread and I would be able to help my family. As well, I would not need to be under the direct daily supervision of the Germans, to look at their faces and be in permanent stress.
I presented myself at the bakery and told the bakery manager about the work recommendation, but he refused to take me and said that he did not have a suitable position for me. I turned again to Kotkovski and told him about the situation. Kotkovski became serious and said Who is this person full of bread, who doesn't care that another will be able to eat bread. You will be able to work there. And so it was. Kotkovski turned to him personally and ordered him to accept me to work. From the beginning they didn't look at me with favorably, because I didn't belong to the guild of bakers and I was forcibly accepted to work, but over the course of time they came to terms with this deed.
From the moment I was accepted to this work, I ate bread to satiety. I would receive a free loaf of bread for home and a second loaf in return for monetary payment. I used to give some of the bread to the home of my uncle, Zimel Khaytovitz. Zimel was formerly considered as one of the pillars of the community, a tradesman with an esteemed position. He was known as an honest and modest person. At the end of 1939, when the Soviets pushed their borders eastwards, they nationalized his property and he was forced to look for any sort of work in order to provide a livelihood for his family. He worked in all and any types of work so that the authorities would not consider him unproductive (these works were called in a foreign language, Chalturka moonlighting). From then on, his spirits fell. The Germans did a lot of harm, until he was completely broken. His wife, Sarah Dvorah, was my father's sister and my grandfather Moshe Melamed (my father's father) also lived in their house. The grandfather was already aged eighty. His eyesight was weak, his hearing was impaired and his legs didn't listen to him. He spent most of his days of his life within the walls of Beit HaMidrash, studying a page of Gemara. Now, in his old age, he was forced to taste the bitter taste of inhumane suffering, forced to spend days of restlessness and without enough food. More than once he expressed his desire to die, although such a thought did not befit a righteous man such as him. They lived in the house of the Baptists which was also within the confines of the ghetto. In this house there was a large hall where about ten families were housed, with no partitions between the families. And thus I had much credit, as I was given the possibility to enter the house and leave them the bread. My grandfather was accustomed to take an interest in the general political situation and ask many questions about the world strategy. He prophesized that Hitler would fall. His prophecy did come true, but, he and many others, did not live to see this fall.
We would honor our friend Yaacov Shpiegel with the other half of the bread. Shpiegel lived in Warsaw and during the Soviet period he found refuge as a refugee in the village of Zaluzh'e near Steibtz, and got a job as a bookkeeper in a factory making peat.
After his wife and his two children were taken from him to death by the Germans in the Swerznie massacre, he used to come to us almost every day.
From him, I learnt and became accustomed to the idea of resistance and escape to the forest. Over time he was also the spiritual leader of the resistance movement of Steibtz. There were rumors that there were partisans in the surrounding forests, but we thought that it was unbelievable. Who could have the strength to dare to resist the immense German machine? This is only a legend and nonsense, only dreamers could believe that. Shpiegel whispered to me in secret that he had heard from the gentiles that in the village of Surinova, partisans armed with automatic weapons had visited in the night. The village was situated only eight kilometers from the town, and in my heart I tended to believe it. Even if it was a lie, they are so close to us, there is a desire to help them. To see them, these mysterious human beings, for we all have one aspiration and a shared aim. In the meanwhile, several dead Germans were brought to the town and buried in the Catholic cemetery. Indeed, there was something correct in these stories. We were scared that the Germans would take revenge on us. On one winter's day, after work, laborers from the Ghetto were recruited for urgent work. My heart beat strongly. Would we have to pay with victims again?
We were ordered to construct a wooden gallows in the center of the town on the corner of the Pilsudski and Dominikinski streets by Wolfson's house. Several people were ordered to dig a pit. This time the aim was to hang several gentiles. The next day, on our way to work, we saw three peasants hanging. Their faces were blackened. Their bodies had frozen from the cold. The wind shook them back and forth, as worthless objects.
Three days later, the bodies were lowered and buried in the pit. In this case, the Germans said that those who were hanged were partisans who had been punished. We did not know if they were fighters or just citizens upon whom revenge had been taken.
Time passed. For us, it crawled slowly and despite this, it passed. The idea of resistance began to ripen a little in the minds of the youth. The realization, that one of these days the turn would come for the Jews of Steibtz to be annihilated, penetrated to our thoughts. For this we were obligated to be ready to resist, ready to go out to the forests, to make connections with the partisans and to follow in their footsteps. This whole action had many ramifications, and had both technical and psychological difficulties. One of the factors that braked and delayed the realization of the idea is this:
Each one, born in the town, grew up within the bosom of the family, among relatives, friends and soulmates. Would he be the reason that the Jews of Steibtz would be killed? Could he bear to carry the eternal sin that he was the reason for the annihilation of the Jews of Steibtz?!
Because of this, there were two schools of thought, one which claimed that we should be ready for the moment when the enemy wants to destroy us and then we would go out for a holy war. Most of those were natives of the place [Steibtz]. The other school of thought claimed that we had to make connection with the forest as soon as possible, and send an advance force to prepare the ground for those coming after. Peaceful and calm young men, residents of Steibtz with daring souls, reached a decision to fight a war of revenge on the total enemy, but this was a fact, and its organization began to take shape.
An Underground Organization Arises in Steibtz
It began with its activity in the method of fives. The activity was carried out secretly, hidden from the eyes of the enemy and also from fathers, mothers,
family and friends, who were still not participating in the organization. They especially wracked their brains for ways to obtain arms.
I visited the house of Hildesheim. He had prepared a living corner at the home of Nashkeh Menaker (Kurtes-Kurt's son) in the market place. The house was damaged during the battles. The walls remained and the rest was somehow organized. Hildesheim took out a broken rifle from its hiding place and began to repair it, so that it would be useable. I had not imagined that a young Jewish man would be capable of repairing a firearm. He cut the butt and shortened it, so that it would be suitable for use in our conditions. He used a file, fitted parts and made the finishing touches. In the end, another weapon was added to our stock. This was not an easy thing at that time, to store the prepared weapon in a hiding place. As well, to steal and carry junk from the army storehouse, and bring it to a prearranged place was a real danger to life.
An underground building was built inside Moshe Zaretzki's house, a magic act with all sorts of patents and inside there was also an arms storeroom.
In this manner, Steibtz's youth invested their thoughts and energy for the idea of preparation and resistance. A minimal amount of rifles and hand grenades had been accumulated, and incendiary material was distributed to the Jews in order to sabotage the Germans' war effort. There were other preparations intended for the one and only aim, which was to arouse anger, to revenge, to dig sharp fingernails into the impure body for the murder of innocent souls. This idea added vitality, strength and confidence to us to stand up to the tribulations of life.
Shpiegel began to preach the idea of leaving to the forest. The season of spring was chosen for an advance party to go to the forest to scout, to look for contact and make connections with the partisans, and after that, to pass on some information so that we could get organized. There were many consultations and the decision was not easy.
There was no lack of volunteers to go out on this operation, but the group lacked a head and a leader in whom one could place faith.
Sunday 2 May 1942
Shpiegel came to my home and told me that today he was leaving the town together with the first group. I wasn't particularly pleased that Shpiegel was leaving the town. I feared that the local organization would be weakened. He explained to me that there was no choice. The people leaving demanded unequivocally that Shpiegel join them as head of the group, and without him they were not willing to leave.
With no choice, and with not much desire, I was forced to come to terms with the thought that today Shpiegel is leaving us for a sublime goal. Maybe with time, much use would spring from this, but at the present we would miss him daily, and in the future we would lack an intelligent man with a bright expression on his face and with a small smile hovering over his lips. In his words he always added encouragement, courage and confidence to us.
We honored him with a last meal. We gave him a towel and a piece of soap for his travels. With warm-heartedness and sincere feelings I separated from a friend and comrade. I accompanied him for quite a distance until he made his way and disappeared from my sight. I separated from him for eternity, for I never managed to meet him alive again. I heard that from within a group of fighters against the Germans, he found his death in a village.
I will always remember him.
After the group left the town we expected that something might happen, for the Germans of course would want to take revenge on us because there are traitors amongst us.
The Judenrat spread a rumor that they had all been caught by the Germans. All this was to impose fear on the rest of the people, so that they would not dare to take similar steps, for things of this kind could bring disaster on the Jewish population. Although we didn't believe this information spread by the Judenrat, we did not receive any news from them for a long time. After some time, we found out that they had reached their destination and were integrated with the fighting partisans. However, they couldn't make connections with us because the partisans were not enthusiastic about the Jewish element in the ghettos. This was both from understandable reasons and from non-justified reasons, and their special relationship to some extent to us as Jews. Although much has been written on this, and much has been told by eyewitnesses, I will permit myself to pause over this briefly.
The Jews, who were rotting in the ghettos, needed to be saved, for it was expected that they would be completely annihilated.
The Jews also turned to the Christians, their friends of yesterday, to request shelter in their hour of need: Please, take me to a hiding place and feed me every day just a slice of bread and water, until the danger passes. In exchange, I will give you all my wealth in money, gold, and other property, and I will recompense you favorably all the days of my life. There were some who responded to the request of the Jews and agreed to help them and save them.
And then, those gentiles, whose main thought was only to become rich, willingly received the gold but delivered the Jews to the German authorities. With this, they released themselves from a troublesome person. There was also another section, which, at the beginning, had a sincere relationship and in good faith wanted to save Jews. Here he would hide the Jew and would also become rich, and in the future he would have someone on whom he could depend an eternal promissory note, and also G-d would remember him for his good deed. But who imagined that the war would continue many years. From day to day, the fear grew in his heart that the neighbors, people of the village, would smell something and would inform on him in the ears of the Germans, and then he would find his death together with the Jew. And in the meanwhile, in the surrounding towns, town after town, the Jewish population was being destroyed. He did not have the strength to keep the Jew for a long time and in the end handed him over to the Germans.
Only a very few outstanding individuals found a refuge amongst the gentiles. Only in isolated cases, did people get up the courage to endanger themselves, give the Jew a refuge and save him in his time of distress. And the rest, are there no more righteous ones left in the world? The individual was not ready to endanger his life for others. The bad seed spread quickly, penetrated inside. For the most, it was absorbed well and exploited to the detriment of the Jews and their existence. In the camp of the partisans, whose main operations were in holy war against Hitler they too were not completely detached from reality and they did not relate with a sincere heart to take many Jews into their camp.
At the beginning, the partisans were only men of war who, with weapons in their hands, maintained a nomadic life. So they were not willing to receive Jews with their families, who could still be an obstacle in their militant plans.
The partisans received their sustenance from the local villagers. At the same time, they did not want to add extra load on the shoulders of the peasants, and thus cause the partisans to be abhorred by the peasants, who without much desire always answered their demands. Even the same part of the Jewish youth, who were ready to endanger themselves and to give their lives in the holy war with the Germans, they too were not received favorably. The general opinion was that the Jew is not a person of war. And in general, not all the partisans especially wanted to save the lives of Jews.
To the Work Camps
The German headquarters informed the Judenrat that they must supply a quota of 500 workers from Jews of the ghetto, in order to carry out certain works in the areas of Baranowicze and Minsk. And that was only for a limited period, for when the work was finished they would immediately return to their homes. Again, there was panic among the Jews. No-one could guess to where they wanted to bring the people and for what purpose.
Rumors spread, various opinions were expressed as to who is more likely to be saved, those leaving or those remaining in the place. There were those who turned to their acquaintances, to the people of the Judenrat, for some information. The Judenrat on its side persuaded and calmed the people that no harm would come to them. Workers are needed for the Germans, especially cheap and disciplined manpower. The Germans have no interest in annihilating the Jews, but only to exploit them and make use of them.
The Jews ran back and forth, whispering and consulting. After consideration, they came to the conclusion that the balance tended towards those leaving the place. Their argument was: the Germans especially need young men capable of work and to helping the fighting force. And what are the chances of those who remain in the ghetto and among them old people, women and children. Will the Germans not kill them?
I myself did not have a tendency to leave the place, but I was only able to explain it to myself from inner feelings. It was more comfortable to be in a place that I knew than to wander on an unknown way; and another reason was, that I could never cut myself off from my mother and leave her alone. She was a lonely woman and had suffered a lot in her life. Feelings of love had always joined us more than usual for a mother to son, and son to mother. For this reason, I dodged out and went outside the barbed wire fence and hid until the end of the operation. I succeeded this time and remained in the place. Others too, would have preferred to remain and anticipate a shared fate. But there was no choice and an order is an order.
Willingly and reluctantly, those leaving for the camps in Baranowicze and Minsk packed their belongings, leaving for the unknown. They separated from family and relatives with a heavy heart. Who knew if they would ever meet or see each other again. Greetings, blessings, handshakes, kisses and tears of sorrow accompanied both those leaving and those remaining. Among those leaving was also my brother Aharon. We separated from another brother of my family. Emptiness prevailed in the ghetto. We felt as if bereaved, there was less crowding and its lack was felt. In hard times it was easier to live when the family was complete and the crowding was greater.
In the morning hours I looked out of the window and did not see the rows of workers leaving for work. Towards evening there was no movement of the workers returning from their labor, there was no one to receive and with whom to talk, we did not hear jokes and encouragement. We had all become orphans.
And again, life continued from morning to evening, from evening to morning, with expectations of what a new day would bring and what the following day would bring.
Some gentile told us that when he was in Baranowicze he saw with his own eyes the Jews of Steibtz, who were working on the railway line. Once a German came from Baranowicze and brought news from our brothers who were in the work camp. Others gave him letters for family members. They wrote that all was well, and asked them to bring some winter clothing. There was a lot of bustle, the news made us happy. We sent them whatever was possible. We calmed down a little, for we had heard that no bad had come to them. After that, three weeks passed. It was on the second day of August 1942. Again the same procedure, the Germans again need a number of workers, this time they requested about one hundred workers to be sent to Baranowicze. One hundred members of the ghetto left and were transferred in the direction of Baranowicze.
The feeling of isolation increased. The emptiness within the ghetto caused people to panic. The lack of confidence in the chances of living was accepted deep in the heart of every individual. This change in the situation fell hard on the entirety of the plans of the organization which had been set up earlier. For those who remained, each one in his limited group made plans for what was coming.
Many of the local people there decided to prepare bunkers. Each according to his capabilities, talent and ability, dug a deep pit of a certain size in his yard or inside his house, under the floor or in his storehouse. They made suitable arrangements in the bunkers in order to enable living there for some time, and to store food.
All these structures were covered with soil to camouflage the place. All this was destined for a time of trouble when the Germans would begin their handiwork of destruction. At that time, each one and his relations would enter inside in the hope of being saved and remaining alive.
There is no other hiding place for the Jews. Your eyes look around the world looking for a place of shelter and refuge. There is no place to hide, everything is visible, there are no human arms willing to embrace and accept you. All hope is lost and there is no comrade or friend. Only to the depths of the earth did man still try to escape, but it, too, was disappointed us, and did not give shelter. It was only ready to receive and embrace them for eternity and thus it was.
The Great Massacre
The Days of Awe arrived. Because the population of the ghetto had been reduced, the number of men arriving for a minyan for prayer was reduced. The Holy Day arrived, prayers go out from the depths of the heart confessing and asking the Creator of the world, Remember us for life and inscribe us in the Book of Life. The prayer service finishes, the Fast is over, they also didn't forget to sanctify the moon, and each wishes his friend a year of redemption.
But fate decreed otherwise, and two days after Yom Kippur, the 12th Tishri 5703 (23rd September 1942), the Jews of Steibtz were shaken awake at dawn and found the ghetto completely surrounded by armed guards from the Belarussian police dressed in black uniforms and hats, standing ready with bayonets
in their hands, all along the perimeter of the ghetto which was surrounded by barbed wire fences. At certain places, policemen and German soldiers stood with automatic machine guns. Suddenly, the Jews had received an unusual and excellent guard. Is this the day that we feared and didn't want to think about? Is this the day when we will be completely annihilated and the remnants of the Jews in the Steibtz Ghetto will be exterminated? Are we standing on the edge of the underworld and will we all be buried in a mass grave?
For what reason? Old people, women and children. How? How can this be? G-d of the World! One person claimed that the Jews were being guarded against purchasing anything from the gentiles. At the last tragic moment, he tried to take his mind off the evilness, that no harm would befall him.
Although some of the people are not finding rest, his threads of thought move at lightning speed how to take advice and disappear from this damned place. His eyes move around at a dizzying speed and search for any hole or crack through which he can disappear. Unfortunately there is no piece of earth that is not guarded by the armed guards.
The crowd was pushed and pressed towards the locked gate. With frightened eyes and despairing faces, people ran back and forth. Their gaze was turned towards the other side of the gate, a place of life. Eyes frantically seek and search for a German acquaintance who will come and recommend [that he be spared] as he had worked all the time with loyalty and devotion. Maybe he will be removed from here and will be transferred to the other side of the gate, in the place where live people are walking.
Hands are raised above as if they want to grasp the air and approach the gate. Each one exerts the remnants of his strength to discover a final initiative in order to be saved from the inferno, to find an opportunity and to be pushed via a narrow opening, or a breach in the gate, and will win life. A picture of horror and full of terror.
When I went outside and glanced at this picture I did not know yet how I would behave, and how I would act in these tragic moments. I approached this crowd, and my heart did not tend to a careless initiative lacking a chance of success. My mother was still in the house opposite. I left the place and turned towards the Palei house, my mother was there. I opened the door of the house and found no-one to greet. On the bench in the kitchen, a heap of dough was prepared, ready to be baked to bread. The dough had risen and overflowed. No hand had touched it, and no one had noticed what had happened. Last night people had prepared the dough for bread. They had not yet believed this catastrophe to be possible. They had worked and taken pains to obtain a little flour, maybe in exchange for a last remaining valuable. In the early morning hours, they had managed to knead the dough in the hope that they could sustain themselves with this bread. The oven was lit and a fire was burning in it.
The red tongues of fire dance and jump as if they express the joy of Satan. And inside the house, despairing and broken people are wandering around. The quiet before the storm is well felt. You feel as if all are choking with tears lest their sound be heard.
Shlomo Palei, the homeowner, is walking backwards and forwards the length of the room without speaking a word. His wife is wringing her hands and bitterly sighing. In the house are: Aizik Borishansky, Horenkrieg, Yaacov Levine and a few others. All are glancing at the gate.
In silence I approached my mother. I could not open my mouth to say a word. I could not help her and I could not comfort her. It was clear that in the afternoon we would be separating from the world of life. My mother embraces me, presses me to her with all her strength. It has been decreed that we will die, my son, it is better that we die together. But, you are still young and you must live. Go, my son, and try your fate and may G-d be with you. At the same time she took off her outer clothing and said: Wear this coat my son, and you will be warm.
This was the coat of railway workers from the days of Soviet rule. It was dark blue and buttoned up to the neck. This coat had remained with us from that time, when my brother, Yosef, worked in the power station by the train.
It was pleasant for me to be together with my mother and I did not want to leave her alone. We kissed warmly and at length. My eyes filled with tears and I burst outside in the direction of the gate. I mixed with the crowd. I was pressed to the block standing in front of me and tried my luck, maybe I would be able to walk a few paces and advance to the other side of the gate.
Several Germans appeared, holding lists of names of people that the Kommandatur of the SS had approved to be released to carry out certain jobs. The people, whose names were called, passed through a strict check. They were counted and checked lest a stranger would infiltrate amongst those leaving. The eyes of those remaining accompany those leaving with a look of jealousy. Those leaving were hastily pushed in and left their dear ones and relatives alone. A husband his wife, a mother her children, a son his parents. Thus each went their separate ways, either to life or to death.
Suddenly, my eyes caught an unnatural sight. Dr Sirkin returned back to the ghetto. No-one forced him to do so. He, on his own initiative, decided to remain in the ghetto. Dr Sirkin who did not know him in the town and the surrounding area! A Jewish doctor with a good temper, warm heart, loves a conversation and a joke. A tall man and straight-backed, thin, with measured and quick steps he hurried to return into the ghetto. He decided not to evade death. Sirkin was liberated and given the pardon of life because of his medical profession. There was no other doctor in the place apart from him and Dr Greenberg, director of the hospital.
He reached a decision to die together with his family, and did not want to leave them alone. The Germans did not want to free his family, he joined them.
In our town there was a watchmaker with paralyzed legs. His mode of transportation was a four-wheeled bicycle cart which he propelled with his hands. On the other side of the gate we saw the watchmaker turn his bicycle around and hurry to return to the ghetto as if he might be late. He too was sick of this life and chose to join and unite with his family.
Mirsky a tailor from Vilna a childless family, chose to remain with his wife. As well, there were various extraordinary phenomena. The reactions of people who wanted to express their strong protest to the world's most abominable injustice. It is told of an enlightened man, who on the same day of catastrophe did not get out of bed and was not willing to move, so that if the murderers would want to slay him, he would be taken without trying to save himself in any way.
R' Yehoshua Liberman, the town rabbi, wrapped himself in a prayer shawl and tefillin and was ready for the sacrifice.
By the gate, the number of people decreased. For some, luck played and they went out. The rest still expected a sign that they would be called. In the street, movement also decreased. People closed themselves in their houses, some decided to descend to their bunkers, which they had prepared earlier, and now the time had arrived to find a refuge in them. In front of the gate, from outside, appeared the commander of the supply base of the air-force, in the place where I, and several others had been employed in work recently. The commander, with the rank of captain in the air-force, short, plump, with a paunch belly and dressed in uniform with a sword hanging on his thigh, which moved when he walked. He came in a rush and demanded to free his people who were employed by him. The Judenrat man, who stood by the gate and helped in the arrangements, called our names: almost all hope had gone that someone would come and request us. Thus, we exited the ghetto one after the other. The group included others: Chaim Stolovitzki, Rosa the wife of Moshe Bogin, the sisters Hava and Sonia Milcenzon, and Haya Altman (Kushes-daughter of Kush).
Our place of work was in the building of the former post office and customs, in the days of Polish rule. In the basement there was a big expansive hall that was used as a place of exercise lessons for school children of the government high school, and now it was designated for storage of supplies for the air-force. Inside there were various necessities, from packages of biscuits to bottles of wine and champagne. Chaim and I worked in portage, and the young women worked in cleaning and orderliness.
On that day, we wandered around as shadows inside the basement. Our hearts contracted from pain and tears choked us. I did not know what to do at this tragic moment. To cry? To scream bitterly? To roar in madness that would reach the heavens? Or to attack, like a carnivorous animal, one of those of German descent and strangle him?
Sad memories and pictures are going around my head. Is it possible to imagine, that people have the strength to arrest women and children and lead them to the slaughter? How does the hand not tremble on the trigger of the gun? How can one describe the picture when our old grandfather was brought to slaughter? A man who was privileged to reach the age of eighty. In his last years, his senses of hearing and of sight were almost taken from him, and he walked and moved with difficulty. The world was strange to him in its customs and he did not understand their language and desires. And here, the Germans, with great politeness, will take him under his arms and help him climb onto the car. For many years he would stand by the long table in front of Jews who prayed in the old Beit Midrash together with the other participants, mainly the elders, on the eve of Passover, and finish one of the tractates of the Mishna. And on this day, all stand clinging to each other and finish the tractate of life. Holy Jews are being brought to the fields of Zayamanye to give their life for the sin of their Judaism. In the sands of Zayamanye, which did not give produce to the peasants, huge deep pits were dug to bury the bodies of the elderly and the young, men and women, small delicate children, who have not yet known the savagery of humanity all of them together in one pile. Bodies on bodies were buried alive. Here, in this place, the Jews were ordered to undress and remain naked as on their day of birth. Wedding rings were taken from their fingers, the last memento of a family connection. They were stood in row upon row, and the whirr of machine guns put an end to their lives.
Very many fell alive into the pit of slaughter and were covered by a layer of sand. For days afterwards they remained alive in the pit. The layer of earth, which covered them, moved for several days, for the living bodies inside shook it.
Even for several days before the massacre of the Jews in the ghetto took place, the Germans enlisted the peasants of the area and ordered them to dig a pit in the area of the village of Zayamanye, which could contain the number of Jews still remaining in our town. The news of the preparations for liquidation reached several of the inhabitants. When they turned to Pras about this, he calmed everyone down and claimed that these were false rumors. Unfortunately, this was a bitter reality. The massacre of the Jews in the city lasted eight consecutive days. They could not do it all in one day. Over eight days every hiding place, attic, every hideout was visited, lest even one would remain and survive. Every day, the remnants were hauled out, those who had succeeded, for a number of days, to hide in a bunker or some other place hidden from sight.
There were cases where the crying of a baby exposed a hiding place of a number of people in one place. According to the news that reached me, I found out that my mother, who had remained alone from all her family, was taken into the hiding place of Hillel Akon. During the battles, the house of Hillel Akon was burnt down. After that he went to live together with his wife in the house of Henia Sargovitz. Hillel Akon was an energetic man. He too dug a pit inside the wood storehouse next to the house, prepared a bunker and camouflaged it well.
On that bitter day, Hillel Akon and his wife, his daughter Henia and her children, his brother Baruch Ozer and his wife Hinka were inside this shelter, and my mother too, found a corner there. I received this information with satisfaction, that my mother was not alone on the crucial day.
Until the second Intermediate Day of Sukkot, they managed to remain inside the bunker. On that day, they were discovered by the Germans and executed. On the other hand, there were several cases where people were present in a place which was almost not camouflaged and yet they were hidden from the eyes of the Germans.
On this day, the revolt of revenge, on which so much hope had been placed, did not occur. The sparks of revolt faded. The main cause, which foiled the plans of operation, was that most of the young men had been exiled from their city earlier to the work camps. Those who remained were also taken from the ghetto to their place of work without the possibility of communicating to each other.
In the last minutes, Eliakim Milcenzon showed great courage, when he
set on fire his two-story house in the center of the ghetto. The blaze, which flared to the heights of the sky, was the last sign of alarm before the Jews of Steibtz left on their final journey.
On the same day of the catastrophe, we almost didn't talk to each other. We were not interested in anything of all that was going on around us…
The Germans did not keep us completely busy on that day. Some showed signs of sharing our sadness, left us to ourselves, so that we could ease a little of the pain. Several tried to approach us, to show they did not identify with the above actions, and also to check closely, out of curiosity, how a living person reacts in tragic moments, at a time when his dear relatives are being taken to their deaths. It was possible also to see how a German sentry looked around to see that nobody was watching him, approached and said in our direction: if he had received an order to shoot Jews, he would have refused to carry out this order. Another expressed contempt of the leader and cursed him, blaming him for all the evil and prophesied him a bitter end.
The Germans decided to carry out the liquidation of the Jews of Steibtz in full precision and accuracy as befitting the German people. We were not permitted this time to return to our homes. Each of us was forced to sleep in his place of work, in order not to disturb the plan of operation and the searches after hidden Jews. For all the eight days of annihilation we remained to sleep outside the ghetto confines. We were organized to sleep inside the basement where we worked. Many were housed in the military barracks from the days of the Poles. Next to the building, military sentries were stationed to guard the Jews lest they would dare to escape. Or, G-d forbid, carry out a sabotage activity.
The next day, news came that the Germans had managed to discover many of those hiding, among them the two daughters of Moshe Bogin. In the meanwhile, they were arrested and imprisoned until a significant number would be collected, and then they would be taken together for execution. The mother of the daughters who had been captured was together with us in the workplace. This information, that her daughters were still alive, energized her and inserted within her an inexplicable breath of life, that hope to save them was not all lost. With emboldened steps, without looking sideways, she ran directly to the base commander, an air-force captain, and turned to him weeping and begging: please your honor do me a kindness and free my daughters, the apple of my eye, from their arrest, and attach them to us, to the number of workers.
The officer, by nature, was a calm good-hearted man. On hearing these words, he jumped up like a lion from his lair, and as if he felt his high ranking position and that his mission was fateful and exalted, he willingly acceded to her request.
Without words, he donned his ceremonial uniform as an officer of the air-force, pinned on his emblems of honors, girded a small shiny curved sword on his thigh, and rushed out on his way to try and request a pardon for the two girls.
We waited impatiently for his return. After a few hours the officer returned but with a cruel answer NO. Depressed and in despair, he told us that there was no way to influence the men of the SS.
My soul found no rest. From within an internal unknown strength, I was pushed to action and a daring deed. In all innocence I decided that since the Germans had already carried out a criminal act, and taken from us our most dearest, I would not keep quiet, would not agree to live with them much longer, and I would not continue to work and serve them. I decided to escape to the forests and join the camp fighting against them. I racked my brains, searched all ways of connection with friends to escape to the forest. Every discussion and thought was about the single and special idea, to escape come what may.
I exploited every spare moment to look for a way to implement the escape. I left the place of my work towards evening and searched for people sympathetic to my idea and partners in its activation. It was possible to see groups of people crowding together and consulting in whispers. Gathering advice and looking for a way to escape to the forest. Not all were yet ready for this step. There were still a few women who, for them, this undertaking was too difficult. Also the men flinched from this daring step to move and wander in the winter, in snow, wind and storms, without clothing and food. A human being is terrified by the thought of moving around the forests between heaven and earth, with wild animals close by, and fearing the shadow of man. To knock on the door of a peasant, would he be ready to give you a slice of bread, or would he call for help to catch the Jews loitering in the area and looking for shelter. You would be ready to expect suffering and torture, and in the end you would fall into the hands of murderers and abusers. The hidden and the unknown drew sad pictures and a period full of danger. There were those who thought of coming to terms with fate. And if to die better at home.
The first condition for going out into the forest was to obtain a firearm, even rusty and old. This gave a man a feeling of security in a foreign environment. The weapon gave a chance of material existence, with which it would be possible to obtain food and defend oneself. The weapon was a convenient means, and its owner is strongly respected by its corrupting power, casting fear on others. Not everyone obtained this precious instrument. Some had luck or they endangered their lives and acquired it. Those who had arms were considered privileged. The second condition to go to the forest was the need for someone who knew the area, who knew to show the way along roads, and was knowledgeable of the forest paths. Not everyone has this characteristic. Most of the Jews were people of the city, and only a very small percentage had to spend time on the roads in normal days for their livelihood. Only they knew, and were knowledgeable of the paths even on dark and murky nights. On these two facts, the foundation of the group to leave to the forest was established and around them the group was enlarged. The time of Jewish life in Steibtz was finished. The Jewish kibbutz in the city was liquidated. The handful of Jews who remained strayed and groped in the darkness of life. The heart had become rock-hard, the instinct urged towards life even if bad, it is still life. Man chooses life in subterfuge and looks for clandestine and dangerous ways to continue in sunlight rather than to be hidden and buried in darkness of the earth.
Preparation for the Forest
Time is not right for much mourning, for who will console the mourner? Man needs to strengthen himself, to make an effort to search for a way out. On the second day of the massacre, I spoke with a number of friends. We decided to distance ourselves from the place of horror and proceed to live in the forests. We created the framework. We began with consultations, making a timeline and ways of action. It was necessary to determine what was needed, for life without a roof over our heads, for non-organized
and irregular life. The burning question how to obtain weapons. Hirschel Posesorski, from the group who intended to go to the forest, gave the solution for this urgent problem. This same Hirschel Posesorski, a refugee from Warsaw, when escaping the Germans in 1939, found a place together with his family in Steibtz. He was very active during the period of the partisans in saving Jews. To his credit he saved many Jews, who are still alive today. It is possible to tell many stories about his heroism, humane integrity and courageous heart. He was a hero in the simplest meaning of the word. He rose to the heights of superhuman duty in modesty and fairness, and always hurried to a heroic operation, endangering his own life. We must tell every generation about him, as a man of the people who was always ready to sacrifice his life for fellow-men and for freedom. We owe it to remember him in subservience and with a bowed head. He did not succeed in his lifetime to see the downfall of the barbaric monster. He fell by the hands of abusive partisans. May his memory be blessed.
Hirschel Posesorski and his work friend, Yosef Reich, were employed by the Germans as railway workers. Reich worked for them in his profession as a tailor. Posesorski assisted in various jobs. Since he was a fast and clever worker, he was utilized in sorts of necessary labor. So, Posesorski raised the idea of leaving the town at 12 noon, when the Germans would go to eat lunch. At this time, they left their barracks for an hour or so. Hirschel and Reich would remain alone in their room to take care of what was needed.
And this was his plan: During these few minutes, when the Germans had left their lodgings, it was possible to exploit the moment and take their personal weapons, which they usually left in their rooms without suspecting the Jews. To leave the town in the middle of the day from a central point near the railway station. This was a daring and dangerous operation, with not much chance of success, for the area was full with movement of Germans, police and other workers. And who would not notice our flight? And in order to get from here to Okintzitz Forest, behind the slaughter house, was an action of more than half an hour and in an open area. It was not easy to agree to such an idea. Danger was already expected from the first step. Its implementation was based on speed. Loss of a few minutes could cause failure and bring about our downfall. Posesorski extolled his plan, for there was no other way out. With no choice, we agreed to this suggestion. Desire overcame wisdom. Posesorski warned us not to renege on this decision at the last minute, for from the time that he takes the guns from the Germans there is no way back, and then we must advance to our intended aim with no hesitation and no glancing to the side.
The group numbered eight people, who were ready to organize and leave and these are their names: (I have already mentioned two Herschel Posesorski and his work friend Yosef Reich). Shneor Bernshtein, son of Itchk'eh Beyla Ashka's (Itchk'eh son of Beyla Ashka); Yulik Pinchevski, grandson of Yosef Chaim Yona's (son of Yona); someone called Piga (not from the area); this writer [Eliezer Melamed]; Moshe'leh Tunik, son of Idel; Yosef Machtey, son of Leibeh the coachman. The last two (in the list) had to be used as guides, as the forest paths were known to them.
During the lunch break, it was possible to walk from one workplace to the other, to meet, to talk and discuss, consult, to keep an eye on the goings on and just to sniff out what was going on around us. Also during the hour after work we could exploit for these doings.
I remember that we went to the barracks building from the days of Polish rule. We, a few Jews, were sent to sleep there for the night until the massacre was finished. It was twilight. By the building the German Peter Hugo stood on his guard, with a rifle in his hand. Peter Hugo, under whose supervision we worked at all types of labor, was well known to us for his humane character and educational attitude, which, in those times, was not at all a common phenomenon. Peter Hugo never revealed to anyone his attitude and his personal opinion of the barbaric actions. But, in his actions and customs it was felt that he was completely different from the others. In our hearts we trusted him. We gave honor to his personality, which gave light to a star in the darkness of night. We opened up to him about various matters, and he willingly entered a discussion and gave simple answers. He claimed if one of those under his jurisdiction would try to escape from here he would not see anything and he didn't care. I was frequently astonished where does the man draw his self-confidence from, without fearing the cruel authorities?
We dared to confess to him that we wanted to leave the city and go into the forests at noon, and what his opinion on this matter. On this, he commented that it wasn't worthwhile to do so in the middle of the day, because it involves a lot of risk and failure. It would be better to leave towards evening. Then, there is also less movement, and it was more likely to succeed. The advice and guidance of a German brought both calm and faith in the future. The sun was about to set. Each had to return to his residence, it was impossible to remain outside. I hurried to return to my bed.
I hadn't yet entered the house where we worked, when Velodzia, the manager of the peat factory in Zaluzh'e from the Soviet period, passed by me in hurried steps. I knew him from days past, when I would meet him. A simple peasant, with a low education, only by merit of his communist party activity had he reached the relatively honorable position. However, he was an honest man in his conduct. I was glad to see him now. I had the impression that I could get some information from him about connections with the partisans and about life in the forest. We greeted each other. Without wasting much time, I asked him about matters concerning our purpose. He answered me that time did not allow him to tarry and if I wanted, I could come with him to his home in the village, for tomorrow he is already going to the forests to the partisans. I followed him with emboldened steps and didn't know what to do. I had to decide the same moment without hesitation. He continued walking forward step after step. In the meantime, I had made some distance from the city. My thoughts were not prepared for this idea and I did not dare yet to agree at the same minute to go with him, lest I would be noticed, I would be caught and the Germans would seize me, then my life would come to an end. If I would not be caught now, I did not know what was awaiting me. I did not know his home, his family and not his village. Am I sure that I will find a place for my body, and I am on my own. In the end, I did not have the strength to take this non-calculated step. I stopped for a second and told him that tomorrow a group of Jews would be leaving the town, and joining the partisans. Thus I parted from him and returned to the German lodgings.
Day after day passed. Here is the day that we had hoped for. Today at 12
noon, I have to be ready to go. Specifically, this day advanced slowly, I was bored and work was loathsome. I went outside often. The hour of twelve approached, zero hour had arrived, we hurried to the meeting place.
We divided into two separate groups. One went first and the second departed the place after an interval and followed subsequently. We had to meet at the entrance to the Okintzitz Forest behind the abattoir.
Moshe'leh Tunik and Yossel Machtey announced, at the last moment, that they were reneging on their decision and not joining the group. Posesorski angrily honored them with a curse on their unfair action.
There was no going back. Posesorski had already taken the weapons from their place. Under his armpit he held the treasure wrapped in a sack. He had taken five firearms from the Germans. Three Parabellum guns and two pistols of German make are of great value for our future ways. To remove weapons from under the noses of the Germans in the heat of the day was extremely daring.
Now, every minute was more precious than gold. It is forbidden to linger for a second. The earth is burning under our feet. We must leave and flee from here in the direction of the enchanted forest, some distance from us. In these times, even the peasants preferred not to leave their homes without some special reason. The Germans especially feared the forest. They did not feel very free in the forest. The threat of the partisans cast fear amongst them. Awful stories were told about them. Imagination increased their fear, when they imagined that under every tree in the forest a partisan was lying in wait to ambush them.
The six of us stood pressed together, on standby, according to the final instructions and ready to leap. Posesorski swayed, moved on the spot from foot to foot, a complete bundle of nerves. His eyes, expressing shrewdness and courage, glow like coals darting to and fro in their sockets. He was full of energy and vigor. These moments are full of tension. They will seal our fate. In a short while, we will be free men, or we will be brought to execution.
The first three left and hurried in the direction of the Okintzitz Forest. On the way they had to pass Kotkovski's flour mill by the lake. The building of the flour mill rested on its high foundations. On its side was the lake, and in the summer many flowers grew in it. Colorful waterlilies popped up from within the layer of green water. Under the bridge, water burst in anger through the dams. This spectacular landscape was once used by the inhabitants as a place for walks and provided pleasures to the soul. In the winter the lake was covered with a transparent layer of ice. The local youth spent their spare free time in skating and sport.
Today the approach to this place was forbidden to us. We had to smuggle ourselves over this area, lest a foreign eye was watching.
We monitored the figures of our friends, who were distancing themselves from us. Young Posesorski's image, his blond head covered with curly hair could still be seen, walking lightly and with fast steps. On his one side, short Reich continued with long and sure steps. On his other side walked tall Shneor Bernstein with heavy steps. We turned our gaze towards those who were making their getaway and out of sight. May it be that they make their way out with no obstacle or mishap.
We did not have the patience to wait exactly until the time that had been fixed. After a few minutes, the three of us got up with renewed strength and walked forward. At first we turned in the direction of the iron hang-bridge over the Neiman River, over which the train passed, and after some distance we turned left. We descended by the path on the side of the railway line. We wanted to encircle the flour mill lest we be forced to cross the bridge leading to the forest. We made our way through the meadows. We walked on clods of green earth, spread out on the furrowed area. The clods are soft, we walked and jumped through.
Still we had not yet gone a long way. We heard shouts from some distance. Several young gentiles from the houses in the area burst out and in loud voices yelled that the Jews are escaping to the forest. From our mouths came the curse Damn you bastards!
Even now you are still bloodthirsty. We did not pay attention to their shouts, and continued forward with even more determination. We ran fast and advanced without looking sideways, as if the words did not concern us. We must continue with our mission.
We had already passed the border of the flour mill. Here, on the left, the dirt road continues in the direction of the village of Okintzitz. We have to cross the path for a distance of several hundred meters which separates us from our friends and partners in fate. There, in the grove of trees, at the entrance to the Okintzitz Forest behind the abattoir, we agreed to meet. And, surely, they are expecting to rejoin us so that we can continue our longed-for path. We still had not managed to go in the direction to this close target, and here the Belarussian police in black uniforms on bicycles are chasing behind us. We felt their fast movement. The hour was fateful. We had no choice, but to flee across the plowed fields in the direction of the forest a distance of several kilometers.
The policemen got off their bicycles, for it was impossible to journey over a plowed field. They aimed their rifles at us and opened with a burst of fire. The bullets sped through the air with a thin whistle. Here and there they buzzed by the ear and with a hum they got stuck in the ground. They fell right and left. We invested the remnants of our strength in retreat so that we could get to the forest. This forest was our last hope. Once we arrive there, there is hope to be saved from the pursuers. I felt the image of the youth Yulik Pinshevski running by my side all the time. The third, Piga, was nowhere in sight. Maybe he would still get to us.
The field was full of clods of earth which made it hard for our advance. Suddenly, I saw that my friend, Yulik, tripped and fell. I suspected that he had been hit by an enemy bullet. I could not delay and check him. I could not help him. The time was completely dedicated to escaping and saving oneself.
The shooting stopped. I suspected that they were continuing to chase me. A final jump and I am already by the trees of the forest. On entering I looked back to see what was happening behind me and saw my friend Yulik dragging himself with his last strength. I was very glad, and in an act of friendship we hugged each other. Both of us, between the heaven and earth, vowed without words to a brotherly loyal covenant.
We advanced some distance into the forest.
Yulik What happened to you! I thought you were hit by a bullet and fell? Yulik replied with a small smile… No, I tripped on a clod of earth. I fell, got up, and kept on running with fright. Our friend, Piga, fell from an enemy bullet in the middle of the field.
Alone, on the outskirts of Okintzitz Forest. On one side, in front of us and very close, we saw the train moving. Whistles and chuffing of the engine split the air. Shouts and cries of the workers reached our ears. On the other side, in front of us, was the forest, enveloped in the darkness of night. Only the gentle rustling of the tree branches interrupted its silence. We stood and weighed the future of our way. Is it right to continue to walk on roads and in the forests in search of fighting units living in the forests? Since the morning we had not eaten. The hostility towards Jews penetrated into almost every corner and remote place. Neither of us was armed. We could easily be caught in one of the villages and they would take vengeance on us. We did not know the area. If we had arms we could stand up for ourselves and also find conditions suiting us. We decided to return temporarily to the town [Steibtz], to reorganize with an armed group and return to the forest on a stronger base. In the town, search operations for Jews who were hiding, and their liquidation, were still continuing. The situation of the Jews was chaotic. The Germans did not know to check the Jews personally. There was no register of those who were still alive. Also, those saved wandered from one place of work to another without special inspection. We must return and find a different workplace and the Germans will not notice our absence. In a few more days we will return to the forest, we will search and obtain weapons at any cost.
We waited until dawn and then jumped out of our hiding place, and returned in the direction of the railway line. We hurried to cross the field. Very carefully, we entered the area of the trains. The hour was early, and the Jewish workers had not yet been brought to work. We entered a small wooden storehouse where there were hoes, pick-axes and other work tools. The Jews would receive these tools in the morning for their work. We went inside to hide there from any watching eye. This time, we found loaves of bread laid on shelves. In the days of the massacre, when the Jews were absent from their homes, they would divide the limited rations amongst themselves so they could still sustain their souls. After a full day of fasting and wandering we had found a veritable feast. We sliced the bread and swallowed it with great appetite.
After some time, Jews appeared at the storehouse in order to take work tools. To their great amazement, they found us lying here in the storehouse. In the town, the rumor had spread that we had all been caught and liquidated by the policemen. Yulik's mother, who was still alive, showered him with kisses mixed with tears. The mother of Shneor Bernstein clung to us, requesting that we tell us about her lost son. We told her all that had happened to us and reassured her that her son was alive, but fate had separated us. She refused to believe our words and suspected that we were hiding the truth from her, in order not to sadden her. She begged that we tell her the whole truth about the fate of her son. In the end, she was convinced and tended to believe us. In a short period of time, the news spread that Yulik and I had returned from our way.
Chaim Stolovitzki, and several other workers with whom I had worked together, came to greet us. They told me about the impression of the Germans after we had left the city. As if thunderstruck, the Germans had wandered round, once they discovered that their guns had been stolen. We, on our part, did not disclose to anyone our future plans, that we planned to return to the place from whence we had come.
Several friends from work began to try and persuade me to return to my previous place of work, and nothing bad would happen to me. After much lobbying, I agreed and presented myself before the German commander. He began to interrogate me as to where I had disappeared. Waves of anger and poison were poured on my head, he swore at me with strange and various curses.
After that, he ordered that I be taken to the basement and guarded very strictly, and forbade me to leave. I went down inside the basement and thought that I had been sentenced to death. At the suitable moment, they would call me and bring me on my final path. I walked crazily around the long basement, completely immersed in sad and bitter thoughts.
My work friends were struck with dismay. They had never believed that such a situation would be created. Depression descended on my friend Chaim, for he felt as if he was guilty for my sufferings. A deathly silence enveloped us all. I didn't exchange a word with anyone, I did not complain about my bitter fate, and I didn't feel a grudge in my heart to any of my friends. I knew that they had wanted only for my good. I understood Chaim's torment and pangs of conscience. We had been deceived after our folly and now there was no exit.
The Germans did not come down to us often. This too, added to the tension. Only from time to time, they came and gave us our food. The day passes slowly. Every minute lasted like a year. Evening has descended. We settle down to sleep. I was still tired from the day of hardships, full of stress and fear. I lay out on the hard bed at the end of the basement.
I fell into a deep sleep. For a number of hours I forgot my bitter fate and what was happening around me. Towards morning, I opened my eyes and noticed that nothing had changed in that basement. The German guarding me had been changed in the meanwhile by another, who continues to march along the platform and strictly guard me. To go to the toilet, I was taken under armed guard, and returned to the murky ground floor. I didn't expect anything happy. I meditated all the time and thought how long still remained to me to breathe from the air of this world.
Noon arrived. An order was given to all the Jews to come up in front of the building outside. Everyone turned sad glances at me. This is all because of me. We were blessed with a clear day, full of sun, and the universe was drowning in an abundance of light. Everything around was nice and pleasant. But not everyone gets to enjoy the beauty and freedom.
Here, in front of the building, we were ordered to stand together. Several Russian prisoners stood by us. Their appearance is fresh. Four prisoners are here under the patronage of the Germans and worked together with us, they enjoyed the food from the kitchen of the German soldiers. Their mood was usually high. Outwardly, they didn't care what was happening in the world. They awaited the end of the war and to the time when they would return home. Several of them were educated and, except for one, we liked them all. Friendly relations existed between us and there was a certain feeling of comradeship, although we were careful and they too, not to get into forthright conversation. They, too, were worried about the fate of their families, from whom they had been cut off for a long time. Nevertheless they were full of hope that when they would return after the end of the war to their homes, there would be
a possibility to rebuild the ruins again. We had no such expectations of seeing our families again and of who would even be saved from the killing machine?!
Suddenly, the short, dwarf-like German commander appeared, and expressed his desire to photograph us. His intention was completely unclear. It seemed that he wanted to keep a reminder of abnormal days, when the Germans massacred the Jews and he had ruled over a certain number of Jews and Russian prisoners.
We were ordered to stand in line. The Jews stood close crowded to each other, chastened and shamed. The two sisters, Chava and Sonia Milcenzon, arm in arm with special friendliness, joined to each other affectionately. They looked sideways. Haya Altman looked down. The innocent girls did not want to look directly into the camera lens. These unfortunate girls, who were humiliated to no end, showed their proud stand, and in their behavior expressed their protest to the whims of the Germans. On the right hand side, Mrs. Bogin, who related to everything with complete apathy after she had lost her daughters a few days before, closed the row of women. I clung to Chaim's back and hid the badge indicating my Jewish origin.
Below, kneeling with two sheep and with a German dog was a boy from the town of Nalibok. This simple boy, who rolled between the Germans' legs, managed to find a refuge for the time being. He never showed signs of worry of the existing situation and found gratification in remnants of food from the Germans' table.
After the photograph, the commander announced to us that I was freed from my arrest and in the future I would have the same rights as the rest of my fellow Jews.
I have always found it difficult to understand this strange German in his actions and attitude. Nevertheless, we realized that there was no happiness in his heart for human sacrifices, even of Jews. My friends breathed a sigh of relief and were happy that my life had been saved. Chaim turned to me with a smile and greeted me heartily. I had still not tasted the joy and did not feel the significance of the pardon. I felt relief, and again I pondered in my heart about the future of my ways. Thoughts raced through my brain about plans of escaping from the ghetto.
On the same day that I again was merited to enjoy the rights of life, thanks to the commander and his unusual attitude which I don't understand to this day, the work of cleansing and the liquidation of the Jews of the ghetto by the Germans was completed. This activity had continued eight full days. During this time they searched and ransacked every hiding place, hole and crack on the earth and underneath it. Every human being in the form of a Jew, who they managed to discover, was sent to the World of Truth and added to the great family in the mass grave. Within the bounds of the ghetto, whose length was just one street, Yurdizika Street and a number of houses in Potztovve Street, the Germans were forced to invest work and much energy to completely cleanse it from Jews. For eight successive days they toiled and took the trouble to pull out every single one, lest a living soul would remain. Over these eight days they washed their hands in human blood, clean blood of elderly and newborn, old women and young girls. This work was done by German soldiers, fathers of sons, who left their homeland and went far from home to do their impure work. This task they did in its entirety, for this was the command of The Leader.
In the Ghetto after the Massacre
Towards evening, at the end of the day's work, we were told that today we could return to our homes in the ghetto. This was the sign that the campaign was finished. We are returning home to the ghetto with complete awareness that we are returning to a place of destruction and desolation, to a place empty of footprints of man. To a place which previously there was life of man, where a multitude walked, short and tall, educated and simple people, generous and miserly, different and strange people in their outer appearance and in their character. Today we are returning impatiently to see the emptiness and to hope that maybe… maybe by a miracle, there are survivors.
Here, at some distance, we see the wooden gate at the entrance of the ghetto, wide open and ready to receive those returning to it. Those going through are a few single and lonely Jews, only a handful of people still remained. On the right hand side of the road, at a distance of dozens of meters from the entrance, opposite the shack of Beyla Askas and the daughter of Henia Sargovitz, lies a huge heap of clothes and household utensils, mattresses, eiderdowns, pillows, torn clothes that remained from the looting, metal and copper saucepans, frying pans and various kitchen utensils and all sorts of junk. On the side of the heap also lies the soup cauldron, in which they previously cooked food for the needy and hungry. Next to this heap stands, by command, an armed German soldier, guarding this abandoned property. Scattered in the yards are papers, feathers, straw from the mattresses, here and there are broken plates, cups, glasses, porcelain vessels, the doors of the houses and storehouses are open. Inside the houses there is plenty of room for the remnants of the Jews.
I entered the house where I had lived before. It was the house of Henia Sargovitz. No living soul was to be found inside. I surveyed the small room. On the left of the building looking out to the front of the street, papers, pictures and many photos were scattered on the floor. Two years ago, with the conquest of the city by the Nazis, I had saved them from the fire and hidden them for a memory for times to come. I always related great importance to this valuable treasure. Every photo testifies and reminds me every detail from my life of the past. These photos I collected, looked hard at them, stared at them with thirsty eyes, to live my previous life for just a moment. These silent photos drew images of people who were close to my heart and soul, companions and friends from the days of my youth, images of a life that was and is no more. Even today, in days of despair and depression, I found much interest in them. I chose several from the collection, wrapped them in a piece of material and inserted them into the breast-pocket of my coat these will be pictures of memory for me wherever I go. I went outside to see my brothers in suffering, what they are doing and where they are headed. They are standing dumbfounded and looking at the space of the world. Scrutinizing and exchanging ideas about what had been done. Opposite, a soldier stood guard. Some approached him and exchanged a few words. The soldier stands dressed in grey army uniform, his countenance showing that he is apathetic to his army role that he is playing at present. He confesses to us that he is a Czech citizen, and that the things being done here in the conquered countries, he is seeing for the first time in his life. Already today, he cannot understand how such a thing can be done by members of the German people.
One of the survivors also approaches the German soldier with a request:
Honorable Sir, would Your Honor please be merciful to me and permit me to take one frying pan from the pile? He agreed to the request of the person addressing him after some hesitation and side glances to be sure that none of his superiors sees him. The Jew takes a frying pan from the looted pile and returns with the feeling that he has obtained the utensil needed for his day-to-day life. He is still alive and has to eat. Another Jew approaches and requests that he be given a mattress to sleep on at night. His request too, is granted. The survivors search for benches and articles necessary for the comforts of life. There is a rumor that a number of people had remained alive. By chance, the eyes of the Germans did not see them during the liquidation of the ghetto.
Pras's wife and their daughter were alive. Dvorah Sarah, my father's sister together with her four children Tzvia, Aharon, Masha and Benjamin were saved from the massacre and are among the living. I ran to meet them and see the miracle of life. How could a weak mother with her young children escape the claws of the murderers? I found them looking half-dead.
It is difficult to look at them. All are frightened, pale faced and skinny, feeble and faltering legs, all shaking from weakness and fear. When the Germans snooped and searched for hidden Jews, they lay innocently in the attic of the house of Leyzer Zaretzki, in a central part of the ghetto over the whole eight days of the slaughtering operation. The Germans passed underneath, searched and found all sorts of hiding places, and did not notice those who were located above. They had not eaten almost any food for eight days.
They lay silently in the corner of the attic, closed-up within themselves from fear of the murderers. On one of the nights when they felt that their strength was ebbing from the stress of hunger, the mother descended to the kitchen and collected potato peelings from the rubbish which had remained from the previous days, and on these she fed herself and the children so that they were able to hold out until the last day of the slaughter operation. If they had had to remain in the hiding place one more day, hunger would have surely overcome them and destroyed their bodies.
Formerly, and even up to a few months ago, it was possible to see many hundreds of Jews leaving every morning to work. Now the picture was completely different. A handful of Jews remained from the masses of yesterday. They stand and look at each other's face in astonishment and in fear of what today will bring. Several mothers with their small children dragged their legs with difficulty until they arrived at the meeting place. Weak, with no stamina to stand on their legs from the suffering of hunger and the distress of the eight days of hiding, shaking with the fear that the appearance of their faces would testify that they had remained in this world without permission of the rulers.
The meeting took place with no special ceremony. In the middle of Yurzdika Street in front of the house of Shoshana and Mishka Aginsky the fishmongers. This was the first house at the entrance to the Ghetto Street. Here, the German commandant, Shultz, appears to look at his loot of living property that still remained to him. At first, he fixed his gaze at Pras's wife and her daughter who had somehow remained alive. With the man, Pras, he always had an orderly relationship. Who like him, like Pras, had access to the place of abode of His Excellency the Kommandant. Not even every Christian man had been privileged to be in his company and to enjoy honorable treatment. More than once, Pras spent his time with government officials in conversation with a glass of drink and socialized as friends. He also served as an advisor in his affairs and with this he was also rewarded to hear many compliments. On that day, when he [Shultz] saw that the Pras family was still alive, his anger was kindled in him like fire. He attacked Pras's wife with shouts and curses, not understanding how she dared to remain alive. He immediately took them out of the row and stood them against the wall of Aginsky's house.
After that, he saw the small children of Sarah Devorah, little Benyamin'keh with the round face and bright eyes and the girl Masha with blond hair. He also took them out of the row and ordered them to stand by the wall of the house. Innocent eyes of the children peeped at us full of compassion and we, from lack of courage and fear, were ashamed to return their gaze.
After the act of selection was completed who will live and who will die he ordered the rest to march to their work. And with those innocent children, who had received a few more days of light in the world, the great campaign of the annihilation of the Jewish community of Steibtz was completed.
Frenzied souls of pure children flew to the cosmos, and we continue to live, marching to work, looking for a way and wanting to continue to live.
I did not return again to my previous place of work, I did not return again to the good-hearted German, who had twice pardoned me to live, who revealed himself to me, in those cruel days when human life had become completely futile, as an exalted man with a clean conscience from shedding human blood. I remembered his kindness, his fair treatment, and I respected him as a person. But I had not abandoned the idea of escape to the forest for a minute. I did not want to put myself in the hands of the Germans. I infiltrated another workplace where I was a stranger, and they didn't know me and they had not got the information of my past unlawful activities.
Escape to the Forest
The next day, towards evening, when we returned from our work, the weather was stable and comfortable. Various people ran around outside for their affairs. Yulik and I took off our shoes in order to ease our tired feet after a day of toil. Yulik was inside the room making preparations for the night sleep, and I was still wandering backwards and forwards for various reasons. By chance, my eyes caught the movement of fast and suspicious people. I didn't hesitate for a minute and called, in a commanding voice, through the open window to my friend Yulik, to put on his shoes on with a lightning speed and immediately come with me, for we are leaving…
With quick steps we left the room where I had lived for approximately fourteen months together with other people, both close and strangers. Bitter and hard days had passed on us and on our families in this place, in living conditions of crowdedness and distress. The tension and the lack of patience were great. Complaints too, were not lacking. Arguments and answers mainly between one to another, and sometimes also curses rang out in the space of the room.
Now the house was empty from the sound of humans. There is no one with whom to discuss, and there is not even with whom to argue. We left the cell of the room without looking at it properly. Time did not allow us to think that, perhaps, here in the room there is some article which could be
of use in the future. We left the room with a clear aim not to return again to that place until the end of the terrible war.
A dim twilight enveloped the air space. A number of people passed-sneaked between the houses of the ghetto, one after the other, turning towards the barbed wire fence that surrounded the whole area. Above, on the top of the mountain, by the previous Strostra building, was an overlook point of the German guard composed of young Belarusians with a machine gun, who meticulously checked the visible part of the area.
There was a good feeling, full of confidence, and a belief settled in our hearts that we are doing a good deed, a human duty. Each is exhilarated and feels great satisfaction in this action. We approach the building of the Baptist house, which is on the perimeter of the ghetto. (There is no house to be found at any distance from the perimeter of the ghetto).
Here we stop and wait for the rest of the group, to organize as if in a military way, to prepare for the next step of the action crossing the barbed wire fence and a final leap to the other side. It must all be done without a living soul seeing what we are doing, otherwise, we are doomed. In the dim twilight appear figures of people who will complete the group. Among those coming is almost all the family of Leyzer Zaretzki (Strostra), a wood engraver, an older person aged about fifty who is still physically strong. All his life he worked in his profession of carpentry and making work tools for carpenters. He had set up in his time a sophisticated workshop with modern equipment which worked on electricity. According to the concepts of the small town in those days, this was considered to be a craft with modern techniques. In the life of the ghetto, he was partner to underground activity in hoarding and hiding weapons in the basements. Today he is the old man going to the forests to wander, to hold a gun against the wild men of Hitler, and together with him, here at the last point, before leaving the ghetto, stand his son Moshe, his daughter Masha and his son-in-law Nachum Bernstein. They have come organized and equipped with satchels and bundles of food according to all the rules of behavior of a person leaving on a journey. All is calculated according to plans of an organized householder.
The military equipment of the group constituted five rifles, among them one with a short barrel. It was called Atraz in a foreign language, meaning cut. In addition to this equipment was a little ammunition for the rifles. This property could not provide the possibility of conducting a battle for many days. But it could already be used as a recognizable physical and moral support for defense, and also as a means of obtaining other necessary requirements for life in the forest. These weapons were purchased mainly by Moshe Zaretzki, Azriel Tunik son of Hirschel and by a few other members. The arms were taken by them from the weapon storehouses of looted junk of the army. It was stolen and brought into the area of the ghetto. This activity endangered the lives of the people dealing with this task and not only them. They also endangered the lives of Jews in the ghetto, if they had been caught in these forbidden doings. Every rifle was checked and repaired, as much as possible, to be fit for use and then hidden in the basement of the house of the Zaretzki family.
For this, the Zaretzki family was allowed to be among the privileged and to leave with all their family, even with their daughter Masha, at the same time that others left their close family behind to their fate, for this was the condition those leaving are not permitted to take women with them, because they cannot stand up to the effort of war in the life of the forest, and could be a burden and an obstacle, although this consideration was fundamentally wrong. Experience showed that the women stood up to the physical effort no less than the men and were very useful in many spheres.
Apart from this property we also had pliers and scissors. We had equipped ourselves with these in order to cut the barbed wire fence and make an opening to pass outside.
Everything was ready. Yosef Harkavy took the role of command. Yosef, son of Shlomo Harkavy, came to Steibtz together with his family at the end of the First World War from Kremenchug in Russia. In his childhood we had studied together at the Tarbut school. He was an alert lad, punctual and with a talent for studying. When playing games with his friends he was prominent in his energy and surpassed the others. He was educated and grew up in this city together with others of his age. After he had finished his studies at Tarbut school and the Polish school, he continued his studies in Warsaw at a vocational school. He was a member of the Hashomer Hatza'ir youth movement and active there all his youthful days. He was an intelligent and honest youth, with initiative and full of vigor. He tended towards extremism in his character. Such he was when the Germans, in one of their operations, took his wife and child from him. Despairing and depressed and lacking all interest in life, he claimed that he was not interested in his future fate and refused to initiate any saving or resistance activity. In the end, after much persuasion and entreaties by friends, he changed his mind and decided to join the group leaving for the forest. He was accustomed to issuing orders and demanded unreserved discipline. He was a grumpy person and belonged to the family of Kohanim [priests]. For this reason, arguments very often broke out between him and other family members.
Yisrael Machtey tall, giving the impression of a powerful and strong man, ran backwards and forwards impatiently. He took upon himself the role of speaking to the sentry who stood on the other side of the barbed wire fence, opposite the Baptist House, and to bribe him. Thus, his invention was simple. He approached the Belarusian policeman and suggested that he go and bring several bottles of vodka and in return he will be paid. The shektz was very happy about the great bargain that had come his way. He willingly received the sum of money and disappeared on his way to look for sources of alcohol supply. We had waited for this moment. After the sentry had not gone far and without further delay, we got down to work. With the big shears we cut the barbed wire of the fence and made an opening at the height of half a person.
Yosef's order was not late in coming: to advance in a line through the open gap. We went through the fence and already found ourselves on the other side of the ghetto area. This fateful hour would seal our destiny. We left the town and directed our footsteps towards the thick Belarusian forests, to seek and find brothers-in-arms in order to fight the common enemy.
It was a dark night. The moon was not seen in the sky. Only innumerable stars covered the face of the sky. We could distinguish each other only with difficulty. The line advanced in full discipline, in complete silence within the darkness of the night, with no sound that could awaken suspicion on the direction of our walking, for the sentry, when returning from his assignment, had already discovered the signs of escape.
From here onwards, the initiative passed to the hands of Shmuel Leib Aginsky,
whose role was to be leader and guide. He understood all the ways in the area. In the dead of night he knew where every path led to. He had learnt to know every track and every trail in the areas of the forests and across the wide fields. He had spent many days of his life passing along the ways and villages in the course of his business. He dealt with leasing fruit gardens from the Polish landowners and in purchasing livestock from the villagers. Because of this he was an expert and knew ways of the settlements so well. Shmuel Leib undertook his role, and, full of energy, jumped quickly and in a rush to the head of the line and took the responsibility of leadership. He felt that a supreme role had been put in his hands and was proud of it. He cupped his ears and heard every rustling, like a wild rabbit which listens and checks what was going on around it and if there are no unwanted creatures ambushing it. Often he looked on the waysides. When the line had to pass a crossroads, he ordered the group to tarry a little and wait and he alone would go forward carefully and check what was happening around the open area. After he was convinced that no danger was to be expected, the sign was given that it was possible to continue, and thus we continued marching forwards.
The next day, when the sun was sinking and the village streets were emptying of people, we were accustomed to go and visit the inhabitants of the village of Svery-Novo. A group of five armed men would visit the houses of the village in order to bring a little food to the group and to receive important news about what was going on in the area, news about partisans and also about where the Germans were located and times of their visits to the villages in the area. We returned from these visits equipped with food supplies and new and interesting information about what was going on in the forest. The news was very happy and encouraging, for the villagers mainly told us about the successes of the deeds of the partisans. They gave slightly imaginative descriptions. Among other things they would tell us about the fear of the Germans, who were careful even when visiting the villages, because of dread of the partisans. We already made strong connections with several of the villagers who showed us signs of friendliness and loyalty, and promised us that they would help make connections with the partisans who came often to the village. We were encouraged and full of hope that we would soon be able to join up to the fighters' camp.
On the other hand, we took care of the security situation according to all the rules of behavior in war. Shifts of armed guards were set day and night at observation points and lay in waiting to defend against any surprise that might happen in a state of war.
Thus, we began to experience the life of fighters in the forest. And overseeing all this was Yosef Harkavy from our group, who was appointed to be our military leader and whose command we were obligated to honor. Yosef filled his role loyally, with confidence and very seriously. He functioned in his role as suits a military officer with much experience. Yosef did not know fear. He weighed every move with severity and consulted with his friends, but the minute he had voiced a command, he was not willing to yield to anything but full implementation. He excelled in the honesty of his heart, and was a man of clean conscience. He did not deprive anyone and did not know favoritism. And thus the first conflict between him and between one of the group did not delay in coming. The disciplinary method and military order was met with resistance by one of the group. This person refused to carry out one of Yosef's instructions and as a result, an open argument burst out and could have soon reached a fistfight, until the group was forced to separate the rivals, to calm down the atmosphere and to continue with an orderly life.
Yosef excelled in exemplary punctiliousness. This was because of his past education in his parents' home, from his school and from his educational youth movement Hashomer Hatza'ir, where he was always prominent in his actions and was amongst the leaders.
Each of the group filled his role with order and complete discipline. No mishap was felt, nor was any complaint or dissatisfaction heard. Everything worked according to plan. Most of the people, who had left were trained and ex-military, each knew to use arms, knew the laws of fighting and knew field conditions.
Thus, several days of a fighters' life passed on us in the Svery-Novo Forest. In a short time we learnt somewhat to adjust to the life in the forest, and we learnt to approach and start a conversation with the local peasants with a certain caution lest, G-d forbid, they were trapping us, while putting on a friendly face.
Although, on the other hand, others from the group, when visiting the houses of the village, often showed an attitude of crudity, cruelness and intimidation and yes, more than once they threatened with weapons. There were already arguments within the group about this conduct if these ways of behavior would be effective to us in conditions of our presence in the forest, or, that it would be more correct to show courage together with fair and courteous human relationships. In the argument, the side of proper behavior triumphed, but in daily activities there was almost no change. Each of us behaved according to his mood, according to his understanding and according to his habits.
A Meeting with the Partisans
One day, the group was preparing for the road. The sun was dipping. At twilight we set out with the necessary caution. When we entered the village street we heard a strange rustling, and saw abnormal and suspicious movement of people. We took up stand-by positions on the roadside. Suddenly we saw a group of armed horse-riders. According to the indicative signs, we realized they were partisans.
When they spotted us, they stopped us with the accepted cry: Stand Who goes there! Our answer came immediately, we answered: Jews from Steibtz! We approached and made a friendly acquaintance. This was the first time we had come face to face with the partisans about whom we had dreamed for some time. We believed in good faith, that these people were soulmates, whose one exalted aim and a shared fate connected us. Our happiness knew no limit. An expression of happiness and joy covered our faces. We were on the verge of bursting into tears from great joy, for we had met what we were hoping for. We scrutinized them with our eyes, making a strict inspection from foot to head. We checked their dress. We fixed a curious glance at their faces, we observed their way of standing, their speech and every single movement, as we wanted to learn and know about the character of these people.
At the head of the group stood a young and pleasant man, a Russian type, of medium height, sitting on his horse. On his chest hung a weapon of half a meter length, in its center was a round part shaped like a frying pan. This was an automatic weapon, suited especially for fighting in the forests or in night attacks at close distance, and was called PPD. On his head he wore a conical leather hat, like the headgear of the Kuban Cossacks. The front part of the hat was decorated with the material badge of a red star. His stand
indicated his courage. His movements were uninhibited from the first meeting. He and the people in his group inspired a relationship of honor and admiration. From his words, it turned out that he had heard the news of a group of Jews from Steibtz, who were about to leave the ghetto and join the fighters in the forests (apparently this information was passed to them by Velodzia whom I had met some time before on the railway line to Steibtz, and disclosed to him the plans of escape). As we found out later, he was the commander of the partisan unit, named Donayev. We didn't know as yet that we were dealing with one of the most praiseworthy partisan leaders. After some time we got to know him as one of the most courageous fighters against the Germans. In his honor, one must write a glowing page about the period of his fighting.
We made our request that he adjoin us to his unit. He answered negatively to this, for they were on the move and had important functions in front of them. Thus, they could not fulfill our modest request. He was ready to tell us how to find the concentrations of partisans, and to explain indirect ways that would lead us to our desired destination, without danger on the way. We could meet one of the commanders of the partisans named Lyuba Gilczyk, a Jew from the city of Kopil (Kapulye) of the Minsk district. This man, Gilczyk, assembled and collected many Jews to his unit from the towns and villages from all over Belarus, who had escaped from the cells of hell and were roaming in the forests without organization or command. He organized partisan units composed mainly of Jews, called Zhukov.
With no choice, we accepted the ruling without joining the Donayev unit. However, we were filled with hope, for we had been shown the way and the day was approaching when we would arrive at our goal.
We turned east via Mahlina, Piaseczna, to the area of Kopil where the place of concentration of the partisans was to be found. Towards evening, everything was ready for the journey, our rucksacks on our backs. We organized ourselves in a military column led by Yosef Harkavy.
We passed through the village in order and discipline and approached the other side. At the edge of the village we stopped for a while. Several of our people were sent to enter a house and get more directions. How great was our astonishment that in that same house, we met the three friends together with whom we had left from Steibtz and its borders but our failure and bad luck had affected us when armed policemen had chased and separated us from them as if forever. Today, in an unexpected way, we had met them again on the main road, where shared paths were bringing us to the same destination. Hugs, kisses and handshakes unhinged the military order.
In the meanwhile, we found out that the reason of their presence in this house was an unfortunate event that had happened to Hirschel Posesorski, whose leg was wounded. Since the hand of fate had met us so suddenly and mysteriously, we decided, without much thought, that we would join up again and continue our way together. We left again on our way without much delay. The other group numbered 22 people armed with seven rifles, five guns, a sizeable number of bullets and a few hand grenades. In partisan conditions, this was a well-armed group, which could fulfil serious roles. At this stage we had not yet properly valued our power of organization and our military equipment. But over time, when we met with various other partisan units, we came to understand how great was our strength in terms of army equipment, unity and the readiness for action and to demonstrate our combat fitness. Later, we met partisan units who were much poorer in all the features that we were blessed with.
We arrived in Mahlina at the time that the sun was in full strength, several hours before sunset. We marched through the city streets in military formation and orderly rows, with the eyes of the Christian inhabitants following us. Mahlina was previously a small town in the Soviet area, neighboring close to the border, with not a large number of Jews. A quiet and remote place, not especially developed, that even the technical development of the Soviets had not managed to penetrate it. In the center there were several empty houses, with broken window panes. These houses bore witness to us that Jews had lived here previously, and had been expelled from the houses together with their wives and children and perished very tragically at the hands of murderers, as had the rest of millions of Jews in the European continent.
We advanced quite a distance and towards evening arrived at a village. Here, we stopped as usual in order to equip ourselves with a little food. When passing among the village houses we came across two partisans in one house. The meeting was mysterious and surprising. The partisans who sat inside the house felt that armed people were approaching and suspected that the Germans were coming. Because of this they hurried inside and hid in the next room, to be ready with arms at hand in case of any trouble. But when we went inside, the house-owner recognized us as people of the forest and thus he hurried to announce in a loud voice to those were hiding, and called them by their names to come out of hiding. It was recognizable by his words that they were connected in a friendly way, as he turned to them in a fatherly mocking tone on their needless fear.
The two hurriedly exited their hiding place and with joyous cries of happiness invited us to eat, as was the habit of partisans to invite a friend familiar or not, and to drink a bottle of vodka, an alcoholic product made by people in the village. During the war there was almost no house which did not deal with this alcoholic product, called in Russian Smogon, that is to say, distilled and created by independent means. Alcohol was a beloved friend of the partisans, not neglected during sadness or happiness. It accompanied the partisan to friendly meetings or military operations.
We were a group of Jews with not many days of seniority behind our presence in the forest. We were not drawn into the lust of drinking, and also at the beginning we did not have a strong connection with this drink. So we rejected the invitation very politely, for we were hurrying on our way and we did not have time to tarry. As was the habit with these people, they begged us to drink together with them L'chaim as a sign of friendship if not, that is a sign that we are not showing friendly faces and as well, we are insulting them. With no choice, we were forced to do the mitzvah of at least appearing to drink and then leave in peace by consensus, for the good of all.
We made acquaintance with our new friends and told them where we were bound for. On hearing our words, their answer was that we all had the same destiny, and for them too, it was the same route. Thus they were ready to help and guide us the very goal we aspired to. For a success
such as this we had not hoped. From the same day that we had left the town, success had been kind to us. In all that we turned to, we had not encountered any obstacles. Indeed, as if it was intended to be.
The fact that we would not have to grope in the dark and not have to get information from the gentiles on the ways we needed to go, became a source of joy.
Our new friends were more experienced than us in the ways of life of the partisans, so they knew well that it was not good for a partisan to journey by foot. For this, there are horses belonging to the local farmers which must take loads on their back and bring the partisans to their intended location. An hour had not passed and these two hurried to find horses and ordered the villagers to harness them to wagons, to organize several sheaves of straw inside the wagons for more comfortable seating. Thus we continued on our way. Quite like nobles Who is like unto You, Who is equal to You, Who can be compared to You?
This region belonged to the State of the Partisans. The Germans did not set foot in these places. All these areas were occupied by the partisans and they ruled without limits. The Germans did not set up any state or administrative government and did not collect taxes. They abandoned these areas to an ownerless government, as they thought that this situation would not last for very long. When the day of victory would arrive, they would be able to spare time for interests such as cleansing the areas of the partisan units. Now, there was no free hour for activities that demanded a huge amount of manpower.
We arrived at the town of Piaseczna [Piasocnaje]. The peasants and their horses were set free and ordered to return to their homes. We passed through by foot, organized as becomes trained soldiers. Piaseczna is one of the small towns of White Russia, in the area of Soviet Russia. These small towns are similar in their external appearance to the structure of a village. The main street is paved with a road of stones with no upper covering. Thus a journey was accompanied by shakes and jolts. Usually a sidewalk did not exist on the side of the street. Here and there next to a house, there was a narrow wooden floor that acted as a sidewalk. The houses were built from wood and had narrow windows such as are seen in village houses.
In several of the houses it was possible to see broken windows with no panes, where wooden boards were fixed diagonally covering the breach. Here and there a door swings on one hinge. All the signs indicate that these houses are empty of people and neglected. Once, there was life in these houses, for people lived there, and against their will had left them forever. It is not difficult to guess the fate of these people who had spent all the years of their lives here. Without knowing them, these people are close to our hearts. In our hearts, feelings of pity and heartfelt yearning awakened towards these people whom we had never seen or met.
I wanted to enter one of the houses, to look at the walls and all the belongings that had remained, to learn from these silent objects the stories of these people, their way of life and their situation in the last minutes before they left their homes.
There is no time for sentimental feelings. Our columns march and advance confidently to their new roles and I am within the ranks, dragged by the flow. We arrived at a house on the corner of the street and here we stopped. Our guides were cheerful. They told us that here was the location of the honorable headquarters of the partisans. The front fašade of the house was in good order and very clean. The furnishings were simple but it could be seen that this was not a poor household. In a side room sat two Jews by the table. There were no signs indicating that this was a headquarters of a military office. It looked like all the rest of the rooms. Next to the table stood several chairs, maybe it was modest because of the secrecy. When people are working in underground conditions, secrecy and hiding suit the reality of the times. These young men also did not give the impression of coming from good families. As men of the headquarters, they should be head and shoulders above all of the common men and excel in intellectual qualities and in personal example. Here too, you make an excuse to yourself that in the circumstances of war conditions and abnormal times, talents emerge from simple people who, with strength and energy, take command of important positions. Several pages of paper and a pencil were lying on the table.
Each one of our people was called inside, questioned and requested to answer details about his personal character and the type of weapon that he had and the number of bullets in his possession. After all these procedural details had been recorded, we received an explanation from the staff that all the arms in our possession must be handed over and left here in the hands of the people of the headquarters, explaining that the partisans have abundant weapons and this regulation is an order from the Command of the partisan movement and on this there is no dispute. When we will arrive at the place of our assemblage, each of us will receive a new personal weapon from the arms storehouse.
On hearing this we were hit by dismay and it was hard to be convinced that these words were truthful or signs of a trick or improper action. In any case, it was hard to delve into the depth of this matter which is foreign and unclear to you. If so, or otherwise, one cannot find the key to the truth of the matter unless one is prepared to leave its solution to another day. Nevertheless, suspicion plagued our hearts and the more we thought about it, the more our suspicions grew. Although there was no doubt that these people belonged to the partisan camp, the matter in no way seemed to us to be entirely proper, for the spirit of mischief and deceit dissipated from it. Nervousness and restlessness attacked us. The weapons were still in our hands but we had to make a decision. We began vigorous and stormy discussions, and arguments spiced with signs of emotion and jumpiness. Yosef Harkavy, although he was quieter than usual, argued strongly and with all his power that we do not have to hand over our weapons, for without them we have no existence, without our weapons we are nothing. We are wandering amongst strangers and in unknown places, and any fellow or child can push us and hand us over to unwanted authorities. But, if the decision to keep the weapons in our hands comes from our side then we must be ready for every surprise, even for an armed conflict and to defend ourselves with weapons in our hands and fight to the end. Yosef summarized that on his side he was ready for this step if the majority would agree to it. As known, Yosef was a daring young man and very fervent, stubborn like no other, even ready to pay with his life for a matter that he thought to be correct and just.
The matter was definitely not simple. Within the group there were not many supporters of this dangerous idea. There were those who claimed that if we had arrived at this point to the areas of partisan concentrations, it was not logical to endanger our lives
over a matter of principle. And maybe indeed their words were sincere and the treatment of us is genuine. With a broken heart and unwillingly we agreed to hand over our arms and in return we demanded to receive a written receipt. We laid down our precious weapons, which had cost us mortal danger, and whose price had risen above everything else in the world in the conditions at that time.
In return for these valuable possessions we received an illegible receipt, with no stamp and without a number or name of the unit, simply a piece of paper of no value or importance. Insult covered our faces when we recalled this incident. Each one was ashamed to look at the face of his comrade. Feelings of discomfort lay heavy on our hearts. A weighty stone that was impossible to push aside, the feeling of pain that one cannot be liberated from on the loss of something valuable, as if it is our entire fault.
But, we didn't give up. We will go to the village, we will ask the people there, and we will look for the two, we will try and check the trails leading to the place of Gilczyk's encampment. Group by group we left in different directions with the one and only intent to search for the to where that we set our sights on. The task was not easy. The two partisans accompanying us did not know the answer and they didn't know them personally. It seems that they were not well known, they were simple folk, rank and file, and like them there were thousands in the forests. Regarding Gilczyk, and the place of his concentration, it was not easy to get the information. There were those among the farmers, who knew Lyuba [Gilczyk] well, and friendly ties bound them, but it was a time of war and secrecy, and silence was imposed on every one, as long as his life was precious to him.
There were several who said that today or yesterday he had visited the village, and one never knows when he will come again. Among the farmers we met goodhearted people who expressed feelings of condolence and gave help in our fate, comforted us in a sincere and friendly language. They stirred future hopes in us.
It was already the middle of the night and we were forced to find rest for our bodies so that we could continue the next day, and the days to come, to run around and seek our objective.
We found a house where we were taken in to sleep overnight. The house owner hurried to bring sheaves of straw from the granary, and spread them on the floor. After a day busy on the road, full of nerves and mental stress, full of despair and disappointment, we found our rest in the unknown house of this farmer, who gave us loyal service and gracious hospitality.
The question of food did not bother us. Every threshold of a house was open to us and we were received readily. Was this indeed an expression of good will or a forced activity? in any case, at every house we were welcomed with a greeting, food and drink. Some tried to set a table with a hearty meal. They were apparently house-owners who on the same day chose to eat some other food, and there were also those who served a meagre meal: bread and a cup of milk. We took any food readily, usually ate it in darkness and thanked the hosts politely. The partisan community wandering around the forests had already established the acceptable conditions for feeding the people of the forest, for this was the order of the hour and none of the house residents could avoid this conduct. Since we were partisans who had not yet managed to reach to the partisan concentration and integrate into its ranks, we too enjoyed all the same inclusive rights. And thus we did not feel helplessness, we had a feeling of security and strength to bear the evil, and thus we passed a few days in this village.
And then, something happened. When we were wandering around the village among the houses, we met in one house two partisans sitting and enjoying a meal and passing the time in friendly conversation. They welcomed us, showed a sympathetic and friendly attitude and took an interest in our situation. After we told them our history and heart's desire, they suggested that they would help us and take us to a fighting partisan unit. We accepted their advice and suggestion willingly and happily.
Next morning, according to the request of our friends, we presented ourselves at the designated place in the village and from there we marched together to the meeting place. We came to a forest and organized our ranks as befitting regimented soldiers in whom one doesn't recognize any flaw. All the soldiers stood erect in the front line.
At the designated time two commanders showed up to review us, to see if their candidates are suitable to be accepted within the fighter ranks. The impression of the commanders was positive. Our proud standing showed that we were sturdy and courageous fellows. To tell the truth, there was no exaggeration in this and nor any false impression. We could be proud as young and courageous men with a resolute countenance.
After the appropriate survey, we were told that indeed they were willing to receive us within their ranks but only on the condition: that we show and prove that we really deserve to belong to the partisan organization. For that, we had to carry out only one mission, to go to back the way that we had come, and after we return with a booty of weapons from a German source only then we will prove ourselves as daring people deserving to be accepted to a partisan unit. They emphasized, that they do not accept people coming empty-handed, each one needs to obtain his own weapons, and here in the forest there is no stock of weapons from which they can equip every passerby.
Another dose of disappointment was added to all our wanderings in the forest, that of insincere treatment and an attempt to cheat us. We realized, even more, that the paths leading to the partisans were not smooth and are not at all exempt from signs of disgrace.
|(right to left) Partisans Eliezer Melamed, Yulik Pintchevski|
Gilczyk had heard the news that the group of youth from Steibtz was wandering round the nearby villages and could not connect with his unit, which was used as a shelter for all those escaping from the field of slaughter.
Immediately, liaisons were sent to guide our way to the place of the encampment. The hardships and cruelties were immediately forgotten. With renewed energy we hurried to the longed-for meeting with Jewish partisans.
We arrived at the outskirts of the Reeobka Forest. Here, the group was stopped for a short time by the local guard, in order to be informed and get instructions from the headquarters how to act with the new people, and find out if they were permitted to enter the encampment, which was a closed military area.
A carriage harnessed to a pair of gallant horses hurtled out of the forest. There were three sitting in the carriage and one was Michael Fish, son-in-law of Idel Tunik, who was married to his daughter Hassia. Michael was considered as a native of our area. We hugged and kissed with tears in our eyes. During the German rule, Michael had moved to the city of his birth, Nesvizh, whose buildings had remained standing and were not damaged during the battles. He was one of the organizers of the revolt in Nesvizh. According to what had been told then, the Jewish rebels had cut down many of the enemy camp when the ghetto was liquidated, and then fled to the forests. Who did not know Michael Fish in Steibtz? Happy and goodhearted, full of life, joking and friendly with everyone.
The second was Lyuba Gilczyk from Kapulye. A handsome young man stared at us with penetrating eyes and checked us with a look of compassion and fatherliness. Lyuba, the courageous and sturdy, who had become renowned with praise in the expanses of the forests, could not constrain himself and his eyes filled with tears.
They were accompanied by a Christian woman of personal charm who was Gilczyk's partner for some time.
The period of wandering was over. After roving around and bitter tests, we had arrived to our souls' desired location. We joined the Jewish fighting partisans. From here and onwards a new page, a different experience and in different living conditions from those we had known previously.
At times the new life was encouraging, and sometimes very disappointing. In descriptions and in records, it is told about the heroism of the fighters as if living legends. But it was full of suffering that continued for two years in the forests with no roof or shelter, while fighting for existence and defending one's life. In a war against an enemy, whoever he may be, sometimes it seemed that all hope was lost, and during crises those around you are hostile too.
In the Forest
Here we found Jews from the towns in the area such as: Nesvizh, Kletzk, Kapulye, Uzda and other settlements in the area. Mostly those who managed to escape the slaughter at the last moment. In all they numbered about five dozen people. We slept in tents made of branches from trees in the forest.
People had eaten well from the agricultural produce supplied by the villagers. For those who had left the ghetto and who were hungry for a slice of bread, this was like a great bounty. The first days they guzzled down anything and everything and were still not satiated.
The area former Soviet villages, related favorably to the partisan army, and received them at home with friendliness and hospitality. They were willing to give their full help with advice and material.
In the same place, there were also Christians who, together with the Jews, constituted one unit under the command of Gilczyk and other Jewish and Christian commanders.
In general, the atmosphere and the cooperation were good and fair with no difference of race or nationality. Gilczyk did everything to return our stolen weapons, which were returned in part and taken into our camp. We were equipped according to the need and the possibility at the same time. The only one who received a personal weapon, German-made, was Hirsch Posesorski, brave-hearted, the daring instigator who more than once endangered his life.
Over the coming days we moved to the nearby Staritsa Forest, to settle down there over the winter days and to equip ourselves with provisions, in a forest relatively small compared to the virgin forests in the area.
A supply of grain and potatoes was accumulated in the underground storehouses over several weeks. A strange picture appeared, as if the Soviet rule was ruling without deterrence instead of the Germans, who were present in the area as if they did not exist. Convoy after convoy of wagons waving the red flag and loaded with produce of the fields, brought the levied tax to the fighters in the forests every day.
The day of the holiday of the October Revolution was approaching, and in the camp there was a lot of bustle and preparation as in normal times. A stock of vodka bottles for unlimited drinking, and also a festive meal and white bread. For many days we practiced festive marching to the sound of the tempo of the orchestra. In the center of the square a stage was decorated for the senior staff of the command. Everything was ready for the holiday.
On that same morning, 7 November 1942, when the bustle of a holiday eve was felt, the first shots were heard in the depths of the forest. The rumor arrived quickly that the Germans had surrounded the forest with tanks, and shelled the forest with heavy weapons all day. We showed armed opposition in the open area. In that same battle, one of the Steibtz townspeople was injured, Moshe Vineshtein. It was the first baptism of fire for a young man who had never even smelled the odor of gunpowder, except for the mental training as an ex-member of the Betar youth movement. On the same occasion, he proved himself as a daring fighter and did not abandon his post until he was taken into the forest for first medical treatment.
When he recovered, he participated in all the military operations as a good and dedicated fighter. He met his death in the Nalibok Forests together with other townsmen of Steibtz, in a battle with a Polish nationalist unit.
The situation became difficult and with no way out. When we attempted to leave the forest from time to time and retreat to a safer place, we came across strong opposition. The enemy soldiers were much greater in number. They had modern mechanized weapons and were aided by the air-force. Day and night we were bombarded with strong shelling. The forest was a shelter for us, for the shells crashed on the treetops. We had almost lost all hope of leaving the forest. However, by chance one of the Christians knew to guide and take us out of the forest along a narrow path full of obstacles, and we succeeded in slipping out. We left behind all our possessions, all the living property, cows and horses and a large supply of food for all the winter. We did not manage to take anything with us except for weapons and clothes. We lost connection with the headquarters.
Over a whole day we had covered a long distance by foot and finally arrived as if to a place of safety, a new and unknown place in the Varubiev Forests.
Hungry, tired and exhausted, with no command or order, we were worried by the lack of connection with the headquarters of the battalion. Here, for the first time, we came across the cruelty of the period. Young Christians took upon themselves the roles of command, and did everything possible to harass the Jews. A rumor was spread that the headquarters had been destroyed, and that the Germans had asked them to give themselves up on condition that they hand over the Jews, and if so, the Christian partisans would be pardoned. Also hunger hit us, as supplies were not regular. Each one with his group of close associates did what was possible to supply their material needs.
There was an incident Ozer Maz'eh from the Steibtz group fell asleep by the campfire. The fire caught his pants and Ozer remained almost naked as the day he was born. The nights were chilly. The group managed to get him some clothing to cover his nakedness. The commander, Biliosov, threatened a trial for this theft, as it were. Slowly they began to take personal arms from the Jews. As fate would have it, several Jews left to search for the lost headquarters. After several days they returned and announced that they had found the headquarters and they are waiting for our arrival. The hostile atmosphere changed immediately.
From there we moved and changed a number of places. In December 1942 we came to the Orliki Forest, to the area of the thick forests. Here we set our permanent dwelling for the winter and the desolate area began to be crowded from so many people.
Huge trees were felled and the sound of axe blows was heard. The work was dedicated to tree felling for building huts and organizing them in the ground. All was suited to the needs of time as a shelter from the cold and a place of sleep and rest.
On the 25 of December, we had a happy day when we received a few more Jews from Steibtz, who had been taken at the time to the work camp in Baranowicze. They had succeeded in escaping and getting to our unit.
Again I met my young brother Aharon, whom I had not believed I would see again. Among those who came were: Hirschel Tunik with his two sons Leibeh and Feiveh, Meir Machtey son of Reuben, Hirschel Aginsky son of Shmuel Leib. The rescue operation was done on the initiative of a number of partisans from the people of the unit, and at the initiative of Yudel Vishnia from Baranowicze, who worked in the forests and knew the access paths into them. Yisrael Machtey from Steibtz, young and daring and full of energy, found a personal connection with the people of the camp and guided them and directed them to the partisan unit.
Several days after their arrival a catastrophe befell the camp. A guard was accustomed to leave every day to the back of the forest as an advance protection. During the changing of the guard, Belarussian policemen ambushed and attacked them. All were killed and only one man, Kantorovitz from the town of Uzda, managed to escape and arrive at the camp with this terrible news. Among those who fell was Azriel son of Hirschel Tunik. All those who fell were brought to rest in a military ceremony inside the Orliki Forest.
In the Orliki Forest, military orders were maintained according to the conditions, and from here the fighters took off for operations against the enemy. Surprise attacks were made on the police fortresses and ambushes were set up for groups and also for trapping individuals, blowing up railway lines and derailing carriages, and all sorts of harassment tactics, in order to embitter the lives of the Germans.
In the same forest, we were lucky to hear for the first time the encouraging news from the distant front that the Germans had halted their advance, and after fierce battles they had been forced to retreat in various places along the front. The Germans advertised publicly that they were straightening the lines.
In the Orliki Forest we were lucky to receive kinsmen the last of the remnants from the Sverznie Ghetto. It was Hirsh Posesorski, with his sophisticated and daring tactics and in his endless dedication to save Jews, freed all the prisoners of Sverznie. Some of them arrived and joined our company and the rest went to other forests.
On the 10th of February in the morning hours we were called into action again, for a burst of machine gunfire had been heard on both sides. The horses were harnessed to sleighs, the camp, with its cargo, began to move in guerilla fighter fashion. From that intense winter day, we did not know what a permanent residence was. We wandered a lot, each one found his nightly rest under whatever could be called a shelter. In freezing cold, in heaps of snow under the forest trees, everyone found rest for the night.
As usual, in times of troubles, unexpected and completely unpleasant decrees befell us. Biliosov gave an order that the old people who lacked fighting abilities - according to his assessment must leave the ranks and create a separate camp named The citizens camp. And according to this, Meir Machtey had to leave the group. His brother Yisrael, who was head and shoulders above all, tall-standing, and confident, objected vigorously to this order. Passions were inflamed. Strong words were exchanged, but Biliosov was not willing to take back his words. Yisrael got up with his weapon and left the row and joined Meir as a loyal brother, relinquishing his right as a daring fighter, and with this expressed his protest on the injustice. From then on, we lost trace of the two brothers. There were various speculations, but where they met their deaths we do not know to this day.
Ozer Mazeh excelled in his bravery and was always willing to go out towards the enemy. One day, in the summer of 1943, he left on a very dangerous road to search for and uncover hidden weapons in the area of Steibtz. From that time on he did not return to the unit. He encountered an enemy ambush and there met his death.
Rumors came, that in the virgin forests of Naliboki, many Jews were concentrated under the administration and command of Jewish commanders.
Eight Steibtz townspeople decided to go to these comrades, and share their suffering. Equipped with arms they left on their way: Shmuel Leib Aginsky, Yekutiel Altman, Moshe Esterkin, Boaz Axelrod, Shneur Bernstein, Yosef Harkavy, Moshe Vinestein and Avraham Shulkin. But five of them met their death: Yekutiel Altman, Boaz Axelrod, Shneur Bernstein, Yosef Harkavy, Moshe Vineshtein.
The economic situation of the partisans became difficult. The villagers became impoverished. On one hand the Germans exploited them, and on the other hand the partisans came to their houses and demanded supplies for their subsistence. There were almost no animals. The farmers sowed their fields for their own needs. The life of the vagabond, and the suffering, exhausted and wore out the man of the forests. The summer passed and also the winter and still there was no salvation.
In the winter of 1943/44, the German army retreated with fierce battles, and the Red Army advanced in its footsteps.
In the spring of 1944, the echoes of shooting from the front were already heard.
According to orders that came from Moscow, the partisans carried out daily daring actions of harassment, and on one of the days of May, a group went out to cut down telephone poles. On that same day Yaacov Pras met his death when he trod on a landmine.
May my article be a monument to the memory of the Jewish partisans, people from Steibtz, who fell in the forests and on the battlefields.
May my words serve as a memorial and gravestone for those who were buried in a foreign country, and also for those who were not given a Jewish burial.
May their memory be blessed!!
In the summer of 1942, Jews from the Ghettos of western Byelorussia fled into the forests south of Minsk. They served as the nucleus of the Zhukov Partisan Unit, commanded by Lyuba Giłczyk. The unit attracted Jews from the Ghettos in the region and accepted them even if they did not bring weapons. Its fighters mined railway lines, attacked police stations and freed some 250 Jews from the Swierzen labor camp. In the winter of 1943, when the Germans began a major campaign to crush the partisans, the Zhukov fighters and associated family camp withdrew into the marshes of Polesie. In advance of the Soviet offensive in 1944, the unit moved to the Baranowicze district and participated in the fighting there. At liberation, in July 1944, the unit's 270 surviving fighters emerged from the forest. (Yad Vashem). Return
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