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[Page 171]

Dreamers and Fighters

 

[Page 176]

Feiveh Aginsky

by Getzel Reiser

Translated by Ann Belinsky

Born in Steibtz in 1904. The son of Dov and Henia Aginsky.

From an extensive family, of good standing. His father died in the prime of his life and he was brought up by his mother.

He enlisted for active service in the Polish Army. He managed to wed and build his own house. He was a business man.

When war broke out he went to live in the Rubezevich ghetto. He purchased sophisticated weapons and went out to live the life of a partisan. Once he encountered Christian partisans who attacked a group of Jewish girls and to defend their honor, he stood up to them with great courage and fearlessness. During the battle he remembered the humane obligation: “all who save one soul of Israel, it is as if he saved a whole world”. And he lost his life defending these girl friends.

It is difficult to accept his death. Those who served with him in the unforgettable years will carry his memory in their hearts and will not forget him.

May his memory be blessed!


A. Yehoshua Peker

by Dov Ben-Yerucham

Translated by Ann Belinsky

On the high hill between the railway station of Steibtz there is a windmill. The farmers from the area and the Jews of the town would bring their grains to be ground by the owners of the windmill. This was a proud, upstanding and hard working family, who would manually lift the sacks of grain. No one remains from this family. One of the sons –Yaacov, managed to escape to the forest with his son Yashika, where he was killed by a German bullet during the retreat, one day before the liberation.

Yashika, son of Yaacov and Chaya Peker, managed to escape to the forest when he was only 15 and at this young age was already a brave fighter against the devouring Nazi beast. The dangers of death or hunger were often part of his life.

A survivor (of the Holocaust), he arrived in Eretz Yisrael in 1946 on the illegal immigrant ship “Josiah Wedgwood”. He was not alone, surrounded by a new family, the family of HaShomer HaTzair [1]. One spring day during the War of Liberation, I met Yashika the Palmachnik[2], strong and courageous, tall and handsome and who within a short time had already made history in the country.

In the fervor of youth he had begun to realize his child-hood dream. He was a member of Kibbutz Gat and after that, of Kibbutz Yakum. He worked in agriculture, as a construction worker and finally joined a group to create a settlement in Gal-On.

At the beginning of the War of Liberation he joined the Palmach. During the period of the British Mandate for Palestine, he served in the Harel Brigade, filling responsible roles in the battles. He excelled in devotion and calmness.

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Yaacov Peker

 

In one of the battles to free Ashdod, while with a group of Palmachniks attacking the enemy 40 meters away, he stood with a Bren in his hand and mowed down many of the enemy. After receiving an order to retreat, he was badly wounded but with no possibility to receive first aid he died on 3.6.1948.

He was transferred to the Nachalat Yitzchak cemetery on 31.8.1949. May his memory be blessed!

 

Translator's footnotes
  1. HaShomer HaTzair: Left wing youth movement Return
  2. Palmach: the elite fighting force of the Haganah, the underground army of the Yishuv (Jewish community). Members were called Palmachniks (Wikipedia) Return

 


B. Yaacov Riefler

by Dov Ben-Yerucham

Translated by Ann Belinsky

Yaacov Riefler, son of Tzvi and Rivka (Perlman), fell at Hulata.

Yaacov, the beautiful, dark-eyed child, grew up in a hut in the Makhlul Neighborhood, opposite the sea of Tel Aviv.

From his youth he loved the sea and was already a good swimmer. At the age of 12 he joined the Machaneh-Olim[1] Youth Movement and from 1949 was part of a youth group at Kibbutz Hulata. At the age of 16 he worked as a fisherman and stood out in his work. No natural catastrophes could stop him along his way. The same stormy character that he exhibited and his courage rendered him undaunted and fearless of endangering himself while working on the eastern shore of Lake Huleh, right in front of the Syrians, to catch fish, to establish the fact of our existence in the lake and also [to participate] in the night patrols and in ambushes.

While in the Nachal[1] he joined an Officers' Course.

And here –suddenly-Yaacov is no more…as he went out at night in the vineyards of Hulata; a bullet hit him and severed the thread of his life… May his memory be blessed!

 

Translator's footnotes
  1. Machaneh Olim: Youth Movement Return
  2. Nachal (Nahal): Israel Defense Forces program that combines military service and the establishment of agricultural settlements. (Wikipedia) Return

 


[Page 177]

C. Meirka Machtei

by Dov Ben-Yerucham

Translated by Ann Belinsky

Meir, son of Yosef and Fania Machtei received a pioneering education at home and in the Machaneh-Olim Youth Movement. His father Yosef was badly wounded in 1929, while defending Jewish property and his son continued devotedly in the Haganah[1].

On the eve of the War of Liberation, he participated with his father in defending Tel Aviv, and he was only 17 years old. In February 1948 he went with a Palmach training group to the front at Hulata. He completed a machine gunner's course and took part in liberating the Galilee area. After Tiberias was liberated, the Palmach division left for Mt. Knaan.

In one of his letters to his parents, he talked with praise about the heroic behavior of his comrade in battle, who was mortally wounded and requested his friends to continue the battle and to win. On one of the beautiful spring nights Yosef and Fania were sitting listening to the Haganah radio broadcast, when the conquest of Safed was announced. On that terrible night, 1st Iyar, 5708 (1948), Meirka fell with a machine gun in his hand, in the battle to liberate Safed.

He was buried in the Safed Cemetery

May his memory be blessed!

Sto177a.jpg
 
Sto177b.jpg
Meir Machtei   Yaacov Riefler

 

Translator's footnote
  1. Haganah: A Jewish paramilitary organization in the British Mandate of Palestine, which became the core of the Israel Defense Forces. (Wikipedia) Return

 


D. Asaf Shachnai

by Miriam Shachnai

Translated by Ann Belinsky

Sto177c.jpg
Asaf Shachnai

Born 27th Kislev 5689 (1928)
Fell 26th Kislev 5708 (1947)

 

Asaf was first on the list of the first casualties who fell in the Negev. I am sure that he was among the first because of his character. Although I was not there, when I close my eyes I see Asaf, responsible and cool headed, devoted and defending those weaker than him. He was always ready to help his friends extricate themselves from troubles, without thinking about himself. Two days before his death, while he was at home, I spoke to him a lot. He always had one answer: “The bullet is marked; it will find me wherever I am. But Mother, whatever happens, “always be strong and brave”. I promised him and fulfilled his last wish. I am very strong. I am only sad that I was not with him in his last moments and did not feel his last breath and did not hear his lips moving. Maybe he also said something and the wind carried his words and last wishes. I am sad that until now, his three remaining friends have not come and told me how he fell.

He was 19 years old when he fell, and I still cannot believe it, but it is a bitter fact. He was handsome and goodhearted; devoted to his home and to Sura (a girlfriend?). He was a pleasant and refined person, the live wire among his friends. He did not like to stand out but always did. He was a member of the Machanot Olim youth group, a member of the Hachsharat Maoz[1] unit. The house was always full with friends, who did not move without Asaf. He was not afraid of anything or anyone. In his short life he was arrested twice in Haifa. He also remained in Latrun on the “Black Sabbath” with all the members of Bet Ha'Arava.

I could say so many things about him, but he did not like people talking about him too much, When one of the Negev commanders told his father when he visited that Asaf is a man of the future, Asaf asked him not to exaggerate, saying as always: “There are many like me”. And he was right, too. There is no need to write or say a lot, everyone knows how great is the pain of the parents, but the acknowledgement that our sons fell for a purpose, for which we strove and dreamt about for many years - that encourages us. Once Asaf left home I was ready for anything, and on his leave I always tried to be close by and give him the maximum. I always thought: Maybe this is the last time.

Asaf was the first to fall in the Negev. We will remember his simplicity, the truth in his simplicity and his strong heroism that was revealed to us.

Asaf fell in the battle for the Negev. Sometime later, when the IDF fought the Egyptian infiltrators in the Western Negev, this operation was called “Operation Asaf”, in memory of Asaf Shachnai, the young officer who fell heroically in the Negev battles.

 

Translator's footnote
  1. Hachsharat Maoz: Training Farm Unit Return

 


[Page 178]

Sarah Gershenovitz

by Eli and Miriam Shachnai

Translated by Ann Belinsky

 

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Sarah Gershenovitz

 

I got to know her from her letters to us when she was still in Poland. The content of her letters showed a character and wisdom of life, that she acquired from suffering and much experience.

When she came to Eretz Yisrael in 1927, I found that my evaluation was not false. On the contrary, externally she showed majesty, nobility and wisdom. Her love and desire to help others, her love of the country and her people, was revealed right upon her arrival and first steps in Eretz Yisrael.

I remember well her behavior in the riots of 1929, 1933, 1936-39 and in the days of the World War when her sons left home to defend Eretz Yisrael or to enlist to the army. She had to stay home with her married daughters and grandchildren.

She knew well to hold back her simple emotions, was always proud of the actions of her sons for the homeland, and I had the feeling that she was sorry that she was not younger and couldn't join the ranks of the Hagana[1] together with her children.

During the siege of Jerusalem in the days of the War of Liberation, she was already more than 70 and this did not bother her to go out to the street after every shelling, to see if there were wounded who needed help.

I remember her reaction when our dear son Asaf, of blessed memory fell. She asked us not to weep, for one does not cry over the death of heroes, and we should try and overcome our mental suffering.

Sara'keh Gershenovitz (as she was called in her hometown) is a classic type of Jewish mother about whom the greatest of our poets have written.

It is possible to write much about this woman of valor, Sara Gershenovitz; about her confronting difficult trials which she always knew how to overcome, without those around her being aware. May her memory be blessed.

*

My mother Sarah Gershenovitz was born in Steibtz to the Rozovsky family, a well-to-do family, with many children, and with a progressive Jewish tradition. Some of the family left Russia and moved to England and the US, some remained in Great Russia. At the end of the First World War, when Steibtz passed into the hands of the Polish government, only my mother and her seven children remained there.

After my father died, she endured many difficult and bitter days.

When I travelled to Eretz Yisrael in 1922, I paved the way for the rest of my family, and over time they arrived in the country. My mother adjusted relatively quickly to the conditions of the country. Her house was open. All those who entered, loved her and honored her. She helped all who asked for her help. She was proud of her children, who played important roles in defending the country. It was impossible to hide anything from her. She read the newspaper, knew what was going on her, and was only sorry that she could not participate in an active way in defending the country because of her advanced age.

She felt good in the company of her children and grandchildren, and derived great pleasure and respect; an attractive woman with a good heart and a delicate soul. Her death came as a surprise. She was 75 when she died.

Translator's footnote

  1. Haganah: Jewish paramilitary organization in the British Mandate of Palestine (1921–48) (Wikipedia) Return

 


Tanchum Rabinovitz

by M. Neched

Translated by Ann Belinsky

(Wounded on 1st Nissan 5705, 15th March 1945, and died from his wounds on Thursday, 20th Nissan 5705, 22nd March 1945.)

He volunteered to patrol twice in one week. The third time, on the 15th of March, he was chosen to participate in a patrol and in that operation a catastrophe befell him and us. When he returned from the patrol, he was shot in the leg by mistake, operated on several times, fought death for several days in the military hospital in Rovneh, and on the 22nd of March 1945, several hours after his leg was amputated, he died following a heart attack.

He was 26 years old at his death, with a rich Zionist past. He began his Zionist activities in his town of Stolpce. He travelled all around Poland and did as much as he could for Eretz Yisrael. With the outbreak of war, he secretly crossed the border twice to bring the light of Zion to the youth, and in the cellars and caves, in 1939-1940, preached Zionism and making aliyah[1] to Eretz Yisrael. Finally he succeeded in escaping from Poland, which was stained with Jewish blood, wandered around Russia, Japan and India and succeeded in reaching Eretz Yisrael. He did not live there even one day, but enlisted immediately in the battalions.

He absorbed within himself all the best of Polish Jewry.

[Page 179]

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Tanchum Rabinovitz

 

His ways were pleasant and moderate. He possessed a logical and clear way of thinking, an upstanding Jew, proud and fighting for his people and land. A trusted and pleasant friend in his Company, with much energy and great organizational skills.

From the book of the Brigada Hayehudi by the military Rabbi Captain Yaacov Lipshitz)

 

There were three of us. Yasha was the oldest of us three, the moderate and the quiet one – and in every argument that would flare up between his two friends Tanchum and myself, he would give the final judgement. Yasha carried within him extensive knowledge. In his European knowledge: he was an expert in the history of humanity and well versed in arithmetic and also swam in the law of Zionism like a fish in water. In matters of Judaism in general he was an ignoramus and Hebrew was foreign to him. Tanchum, on the other hand, concentrated within himself both worlds: Hebrew came out of his mouth as if the language of the prophets was in the ears of the hearer. French and English literature conquered his heart no less than the poems of Bialik and Tschernikovsky. He would read Pushkin and Gogol with diligence and industriousness and in his heart, he carried the anger of Uri Tzvi Greenberg, which very much suited his character.

There are Jewish boys who were born in the small towns, who were created by God to be active in the world and capitals of different countries, from place to place. Tanchum, a native of little Stolpce, was like this, and was prophesized to have a brilliant future in the national movement, for he was very successful wherever he was sent to disseminate the Zionist law – in all the corners of the whole country of Poland.

He aspired to acquire education through diligent study which was unparalleled and he had patience to sit and delve into the problems of the world, starting from the history of the revolt in Ireland and up to the theories of Marx and Engels. He took an interest in numbers of import and export from Soviet Russia, to the history of the life of the famous singer Caruso, but was never distracted from the primary goal before him and toward which he strode as a small child and until his last day, in the war to liberate the nation and Eretz Yisrael.

He was strong in body and courageous, with great will and exemplary heroism. Two facts that I present here provide evidence that he knew no fear and nothing could stand in the way of his wishes.

In 1940 he was sent twice to the Russian-occupied area, in an important role. A “trip” like this was not only uncomfortable and hard-suffering, but also life-threatening. He fulfilled his role responsibly and with devotion, and while he was admired and praised, he remained humble and modest. He hated to “show off” and called the praise and adoration “extreme”. In February 1941, he did something which served as an example to hundreds of illegal immigrants, and although not all following him succeeded, we must note that many saved their lives thanks to his heroism, sacrifice and great will.

In Soviet Russia there is a “law” negating the right of free travel from town to town, because of the dangers awaiting a stranger travelling of his own accord in Great Russia, who may fall into the hands of the NKVD, and be sent north. Every foreign citizen who has a visa, must travel under the auspices of the “Intourist”. Tanchum did not have dollars and the money that his friends had was enough to cover the travel expenses from Vilna to Japan. We were all worried as to his fate. But he did not show any worry, and two days after receiving the visa, seeing that he could not obtain the foreign currency, he got up and with a smile on his face, announced that he was leaving on his own …he took several hundred rubles and a small bag of provisions. And the way? It is not at all short, for the way from Vilna to Vladivostok is…. 11,000 kilometers.

The rumor of his departure spread amongst the refugees like an arrow and all the paupers who did not have foreign currency began to appear at this writer's house, in order to find out Tanchum's fate. These were three full anxious weeks, but punctually and meticulously he sent telegrams to his two friends…

He was arrested on the way three times and succeeded to escape the claws of the NKVD, and then arrived at Vladivostok – where he encountered great difficulties and overcame them successfully with the help of the Japanese consul, who held a conversation with him in… Japanese, and won him over.

When this author received the telegram and the good news which he shared with many, it unleashed a flow of emigration of all the indigent, and many of them succeeded. Tanchum was the guide and the pioneer.

One moonlit night, in Kobe which is in Japan, three people walked from the main post office: The author of Hamashkif in India; Tanchum of blessed memory, and this writer. A tall chubby German “attached” himself to us and started to revile and insult the People of Israel. Even though it was midnight and it wouldn't have been difficult to overcome the despicable Nazi, although he was accompanied by a Japanese, it seems that he was involved in espionage…at first we decided to ignore him so that our response didn't cause more troubles for the families of the refugees, but finally…I concentrated all my strength in my fists and “hit” my first blows to one of the representatives of Hitler in the Axis countries… what I started… Tanchum finished…and he knew the job. At the end of the incident, when the Nazi was lying in a puddle of blood in the middle of the road, Tanchum approached me, shook my hand and said “Menachem - as well as the feelings of deep friendship, you have now acquired, with your behavior, much respect for yourself”.

Tanchum had a look of splendor, a pleasant man, well-liked. It was not for no reason that he had a reputation as a “gentleman par excellence” to all

[Page 180]

groups while still in Europe and afterwards in Japan. He was a good speaker: his lectures were full of content and new ideas. The reasons are convincing, his voice and his gestures were quiet and calm. He was intelligent and would “deal” “with his enemies cleverly and tactfully. In Japan we chose especially him as our representative in the Eretz-Yisrael Office, and it must be mentioned, his efforts were crowned with much success. He dressed modestly, cleanly and nicely, and he would compare his old coat from his life in Lithuania, to that of Akakiy Akakievitch, Gogol's hero in his book – “The Cloak” (“Shinel”) and he would promise me that until he would be in the “liberated” country, he would not change his coat. He was very generous and did not want to recognize the value of money. He despised the saying: “All the organs depend on the heart and the heart on the pocket” and if he wanted to mention a beggar in the society, he would call him by the derogatory Kopieyechnik.

He left India at the first opportunity and hurried to Eretz Yisrael, where he had lived in spirit from his days of childhood.

We met again in an army camp…at Sarafand, both of us in army uniforms…we embraced one another. Also in the army there were differences of opinion between us - whereas this writer believed in Britain and expected justice in Israel, Tanchum forecast an anti-Zionistic policy and would explain and give reasons for Britain's evil intentions. However, he was dying to get to the front in order to show heroism and not shirk responsibilities and remain in the back lines, while his friends and pupils were on the battlefield.

Our last conversation in Rome and his last letter to me from the front to the hospital in Cassarata, proved to me that he was full of pessimism and feared for his life…he also asked me to take care of his friends who had remained in the town of his birthplace, Yasha our friend and the rest of his relatives that would remain alive. Ten days after receiving this letter the painful and shocking news came to me – Tanchum is no more – tragically – by a stray bullet from the rifle of an army officer– this handsome and noble-minded Jew fell. The wick of life of a young man with many unique qualities, who was destined to work and to be of much use to his people and his land in every place, was extinguished.

(The newspaper: HaMashkif (The Observer), Friday 29th Adar, 5707, 21.3.1947)

 

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Zionist Youth on La”g B'Omer in the forest

Sitting from the right, Row A: Lipkovsky, Raya Gurevitz, Leah Goldberg, Khaitovitz, Aventzik, Kayla Rozovsky, Tziporah Zochovitzky, Bella Pilshtchik, Gittel Menaker, Nachama Axelrod, Zelda Tunik, Hinda Tsartsas, Aharon Reiser, Lolik Menaker, Aharon Melamed, Russak, Beyla Menaker.
Sitting from right, Row B: Eichel, Gershon Goldberg, Henia Tunik, Pesiya Aginsky, Shalom Velochvinsky, Sonia Proshtzitzky, Rachel Eshkovitz, Yehudit, Esterkin, Chava Milcenzon, Hillel Akon, Leibel Epshstein, Beyla Gorfinkel[2], Axelrod, Chana Lungin, Leibel Palay, Nachman Tunik, Yentl Gurvitz, Sarah Goldberg, Sonia Lungin, Nachama Gorfinkel, Matitiyahu Lungin.
Standing from the right Row C: Gina Tunik, Eshka Mazeh, Esther Menaker, Avraham Reiser, Chana Mazeh, Patashnik, Luba Aginsky, Noach Tunik, Moshe Esterkin, Chava Milcenzon, Hillel Akin, Leibel Epshtein, Beyla Gurfinkel[2], Pesiya Khakhurim, Sonia Aginsky, Mordechai Shmukler.
Standing from the right, Row D: Itka Pilshtchik, Henia Auskerin, Zissel Tunik, Adelah Esterkin, Esther Tunik, Chaya Moltschadsky, Fania Gurevitz, Rachel Kushnir, Dvorah Berstein, Pesiya Epstein, Hinda Narotzky, Yaacov Lusterman, Hershel Dvorestzky, Hershel Melamed, Tzvi Tsartzas, Mordechai Gershonovitz, Raizel Mazeh, Chana Reznik, Sarah Tunik, Sarah Baruchansky
Standing from right, Row E: Raphael Reiser, Yisrael Machtei, Azriel Tunik, Yisrael Goldberg, Moshe Menaker, Reuven Zochovitzky, Shmuel Iskov, Yaacov-Shlomo Tunik.

 

Translator's footnotes
  1. Aliyah: Coming to live in Eretz Yisrael (Israel) Return
  2. Esterkin, Chava Milcenzon, Hillel Akin, Leibel Epshtein, Beyla Gorfinkel –These names are mistakenly repeated in two separate rows Return

 

[Page 181]


Elimelech Machtei

by Dov Ben-Yerucham

Translated by Ann Belinsky

The Germans annihilated the Jews of Steibtz, among them children and youth. Very few remained alive. Meilachka (nickname AB) was among the only ones who went through the war with the partisans, came to Eretz Yisrael, participated in the War of Liberation, and died from cancer as he was about to start his life. This is especially a tragedy as some of the only ones who remained [from their families] after their great suffering were cut down in their anonymity and there is no one to remember them. Aged 16, Meilachka was sent to forced labor. The townspeople went to work outside the town and would return to the closed ghetto, sharing a slice of bread among themselves. Whole families of 20 people were closely packed into one room, worrying about the family and the shared suffering of a bitter fate. Meilachka was sent to forced labor in Baronowitz. He was separated from his parents, siblings and relatives.

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Elimelech Machtei

 

Torture and beatings, suffering and hard labor were his daily experience. He worked as a porter at the train station in Baronowitz, lifting heavy train rails and other work which was beyond his strength.

Terrible rumors came from Steibtz, that youth, old people, babies and children, friends and relatives were being killed daily.

A Christian railway worker told him that after Yom Kippur, there was a huge massacre, where thousands of Steibtz Jews were killed. Meilachka was worried about his family.

His older brother Yisrael succeeded in escaping to the forest and became a fighting partisan. One day out of the blue Yisrael arrived at the forced labor camp of the Baronowitz ghetto dressed as a peasant. He succeeded in organizing the escape of several of the Steibtz citizens. Meilachka and a group of youths from Steibtz fled from the Baronowitz camp.

By chance – he was separated from the group. After searching and much hesitation, he found himself in the Swierzne camp.

After the escape from the ghetto with all the inhabitants of Swierzne he reached the partisans camp. There he began the hard life of a partisan. Thin and weak, he stood on guard duty with a rifle, in life-threatening situations. In fights with the German soldiers he strengthened himself and became accustomed to duties. His brothers[1] were killed in the forest by German bullets and he came through all the dangers. With the entry of the Red Army into Steibtz, he returned to his town Steibtz.

Only a few had left their hiding places. Dressed in shabby and torn clothes, Jews walked through the destroyed town with no place to sleep. The Gentile townspeople walked around in the clothes of Jews who had been killed.

A number of Jews gathered at the mass grave outside the town where they poured out their hearts. This is where three thousand Jews of Steibtz were buried. The Gentiles looked upon them as though they had returned from the next world. You are still alive – a Gentile neighbor acquaintance would ask upon meeting them.

With several tens of Jews from Steibtz who had remained alive, Meilachka took a walking stick and went to Lodz, where many of the survivors were concentrated. There too, there seemed to be no future and he moved with many other Jews via Austria and Italy, setting his sight in the direction of Eretz Yisrael. Here in Israel, on the eve of the War of Liberation he found his place, learned the trade of a metalworker and worked in construction.

The days are the eve of the War of Liberation. The Hagana is enlisting youth from among the partisans. Meilachka enlists and participates in the most dangerous places. He is in the besieged [settlement of] Ben Shemen.

One of the evenings when the streets of Tel Aviv were full of people, although Arab snipers were firing on the city, I met Meilachka in the crowd next to Carmel Street. He was unshaven and tired, and said: “Tonight I am taking part in the Occupation of Jaffa. Who knows if we will remain alive? I am 20 years old and for 4 years I have had no rest. If I fall remember my name some time”. In the War of Liberation he was active on various fronts: freeing the Negev, freeing the way to Jerusalem and, the Nachshon Operation[2].

The war ended and the young man entered life with much energy, established a bakery cooperative, and was successful. But then he took ill with terminal cancer. I visited him at Beilinson Hospital, where he lay for many months. He sobbed to his friends: “Save me, I want to live”. For a month he lay in Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, fighting the angel of death. He struggled, was defeated and was plucked in the essence of his youth.

May his memory be blessed!

 

Translator's footnotes
  1. His brothers escaped to the Kapoli [Kopil] forest and were accepted into the Zhukov Brigade (List of names extracted from “Biographical Dictionary of Jewish Resistance” on the JewishGen website –Machtei, Yisrael and Meir). Return
  2. According to Wikipedia: Operation Nachshon (Hebrew) -מבצע נחשון, Mivtza Nahshon) was a Jewish military operation during the 1948 war. Lasting from 5–16 April 1948, its objective was to break the Siege of Jerusalem by opening the Tel-Aviv – Jerusalem road blockaded by Palestinian Arabs and to supply food and weapons to the isolated Jewish community of Jerusalem. The operation was also known as “The operation to take control of the Jerusalem road”. Return

 

[Page 182]


At the End of the War

by E. Melamed

Translated by Ann Belinsky

Return to Steibtz

In 1944 the German army continued to retreat. Every morning we would listen to the news announcements telling us that the Soviet army was advancing and daily conquering vast territories, and towns that we knew by name were being captured in our area. At the beginning of July, Belarus and Polesia had been liberated.

Secretly we announced that we were leaving the forest and began marching towards the cities. We left the thick forests, the swamps of Polesia, where we had lived for years of fear but also where we had friends. There we already knew every track and tree, every stone that we had used as a pillow and every stream that had quenched our thirst. There we had gone through days of suffering and disappointments and sometimes also days of happiness and brotherhood. Here the hand of the bitter enemy had not reached us; the forest was a refuge for us from sorrow and the pursuing enemy.

Actually in the days of wandering and hardship, more than once one yearned to eat at a table, to be at a family party and to find sleep and peace as a human being, and here, the day that which we wished for – had arrived.

We leave the forest, return to the town. We pass by places of settlement with a feeling that the enemy is no longer lurking on the road and won't surprise us suddenly. The forest has finished its role.

We pass from a way of life of irregularity, from life in the forest, wandering, forced to act according to commands and directives - we stand again to return to accepted norms. On the other hand the feeling of abandonment has increased the feeling of orphan-hood and bereavement with the acknowledgement: “I, where shall I go?[1]”.

In daylight we arrived at the city of Lekovitz (present day Lyakhavichy A.B) In the streets we met people from the army and partisans. The government had begun a new order of life. Here and there we found acquaintances. Suggestions were made for different regulations there. I, my brother Aharon and several others from our town were in a hurry to return to Steibtz. Even two years ago, we had forecast its destruction and the annihilation of all the townspeople. Even so, then there was the strong desire to visit and to look around. Surreptitiously, doubts gnawed us: Perhaps, in spite of all…

To meet and to question the people there. To listen to the words of more candid people. To verify how the Jews of Steibtz went on their last journey. Where is their resting place and where are the boundaries of the burial place of all the Jews of Steibtz?

I arrived at the town several hours before sunset. I found the train station and the grand buildings standing strong and upright as if nothing had happened over time. The railway line was useable - over the last few years, carriages packed with an army and its equipment had passed through on the way to the battlefields and returned with carriages full of critically wounded and disappointed soldiers. In the town the signs of destruction and ruin were visible and prominent. These were the first days of its liberation. Jews, residents of the place returned to the town of their previous dwelling. In the spacious house of Idel-David Kopilovitz, nothing was touched. In the first days people walked around expecting to meet friends, they hugged old acquaintances, and roamed the streets with a feeling of no tomorrow. Hope filled their hearts and they stuck with those who had remained alive. In their closeness the feelings of grief of orphaned brothers arose and raged.

Azriel Tunick together with a group of women: Nechama, her daughter Chana Pilshchik and the three Kaplan sisters, Dvorah, Esther and Zahava, who had hidden and lived with a gentile woman near the village of Zadovaria, were the first arrivals to the town. Azriel as usual tried to encourage those who arrived and to guide them how to organize their way in the new situation.

*

Not all those who managed to escape to the forests remained alive. Some fell in the forests during battle. Sometimes they would be buried honorably as heroes. There were others who fell and their grave is unknown. Of those who survived, not all returned to their hometown, but immediately left the forest and joined the fighters on the front. Many volunteered themselves there from despair and disappointment, for the feelings of revenge beat strongly in their hearts. Their desire was to see the final defeat of the empire of the Reich. Although Hitler and his army had been defeated, not all the townspeople of Steibtz had won this consolation.

And these are the partisans who fell afterwards on the Front:

Abraham Shkolnik son of Tanchum; three brothers, sons of Baruch Ezer Akon: Hillel, Simcha-Zalman and Berl.

*

On the first evening of my arrival in Steibtz we ate dinner together. In the same house we were honored with a place to sleep and stretched out on the floor. In the morning we went out to the street where we had lived, to see the Jewish environs, to be dumbfounded at the place where our house had stood. The houses were mostly burnt down; obliterated as if they had never been. The courtyards were full of weeds and wild plants. It was completely impossible to recognize where they houses had stood, the only remnants were stone stairs which the fire had not destroyed.

We went to look for the place of the mass grave, where most of the Jews of Steibtz had been buried. The grave was not signposted or fenced off and was located a distance of a number of kilometers behind the city. The area and all that surrounded it – fine sand, blowing away in the wind. No greenery or plants could grow there. We talked with the peasants in the area to find out details from them and any knowledge of the annihilation and its implementation. They answered us to some degree. They gave details with some reservations. Over a few days there was activity to set up a fence and memorial stone. Each donated his part for this enterprise. The initiatives of Getzel Reiser, Dov Shraga Berkovitz and Zeev Getler are to be especially commended. They invested a lot of effort to create a memorial there.

As usual, the order of life necessitates creation of a social-family framework and material existence. And relating to family life, of course after the Holocaust there was inequality in finding a partner, especially because of the lack of women, to whom that period had been several times crueler. Their escape from the ghetto and absorption in the forests was seven-fold more difficult.

[Page 183]

In Steibtz there was a phenomenon of groups of people who organized and established a collective style of life, lived in one house, ate at one table and managed a communal life, from the feeling of friendly “closeness”. In general, they had, modest requirements, they didn't aspire to great things. They had a shared social life. They met often together in the spirit of friendliness and goodwill. Life in the town flowed in its course and received its special form in the spirit of the times.

Unexpected happenings obliged the public to establish a small organization in order to deal with daily matters. One of the women survivors returned and lived in Steibtz. In the meanwhile she got very sick and was hospitalized. It was felt that there was lack of organization in arranging treatment for those hospitalized and needing help. This case gave the first push for action. The first women volunteers were immediately mobilized: Dvorah Kaplan, Nechama Reiser, Chana Hankin, Rivka Kanterovitz; and on their initiative they began a campaign for donations. Every household received them well, each gave according to its capabilities. The place of meeting for public activities was the previous house of Yaakov Savin, in Shpitalna Street. The second meeting place was the house of Berl Feiveh Berkovitz in the center of the town, opposite the white church. These houses and others were wide open for every survivor, where they met and exchanged opinions of various topics.

Various actions were undertaken to return Jewish property which had remained in the hands of Gentiles. The group was especially excited when they discovered that Torah scrolls and other holy objects had been left with the Gentiles. Activities of surveillance, detective work and connections with the government authorities needed to be carried out and David Slutzky was especially active in this area.

After some time, a general assembly met in the house of Berl Feiveh and it was decided to choose a committee to deal with daily matters. Getzel Reiser and Chana Hankin were requested to organize a Hanukkah party that took place also in the same house. At the party, there was made a mood of spiritual uplifting, they sang partisan songs and tried to lessen the atmosphere of mourning, but they couldn't. Many wept over the destruction of the town. At the same time, a sum of 1500 rubles was collected, for buying Torah scrolls back from the gentiles.

During the Yamim Noraim[2] (10 Days of Repentance) there was public prayer. The ritual slaughterer from Sverznie, R' Aharon Bokov, who served at that time as the community Rabbi, served also as the prayer leader.

But tragedies struck us, each different. Nachum Kanterovitz , the son-in-law of Azriel Roditzky died. During the days of the war he had hidden with peasants in Krugalicia (place not identified A.B.). He was concealed in the basement and lived there in difficult conditions which caused his body to become generally weakened. After the liberation he walked around like a shadow and in addition, for lack of efficient medical treatment, his life flickered and died.

Bringing him to a Jewish grave needed the care of volunteers of the Chevra Kadisha (Burial Society) from people who had never dealt with a deceased person. The first to volunteer were Eliezer Reiser (may he rest in peace), Getzel Reiser, Berl Feiveh Berkovitz (may they live a long life) and others.

After some time a second tragedy occurred. Daniel Horenkreig. while travelling to Minsk for his work, met his death in a traffic accident. This man was in his youth, in full strength and at his best. This news depressed all the people of the area and on their initiative, he was buried in the Steibtz Jewish cemetery.

 

Sto183.jpg
Zelik Kanterovitz and Mordechai Mirski in the Steibtz Cemetery in 1956

 

The winter of 1944/5. The front moved further west, battles took place on German soil. Each found his own monetary arrangement, either small scale or with prosperity. It was still early to think about the future. Even so, the impression spread, that life without a purpose was as if living in a vacuum and what can be expected from the future? Over time, a feeling arose that the ground where we were born and grew up, was now despicable. Actually the way of life was in accordance with the law and peaceful and our relations with the authorities were proper, based on mutual trust. The relationships with the Christian inhabitants of the place were also good. And more than once they showed a tendency of exaggerated friendship.

The war still in full force…Communication with the outside world was still nonexistent. Life was mainly centered around the area of settlement. Various unauthorized reports arrived, whispered from mouth to ear, that Jews are leaving secretly to Eretz Yisrael from Romania. These rumors encouraged people to leave their location in the east and move westerly to a place where there was hope of connecting with other Jews in the world. At that time the intergovernmental Russian-Polish committee began to act. Its aim was to enable those citizens who had lived in the area of Poland until the beginning of the war, if they wished to return to the areas of new Poland.

Hankin Dassia and his family were the first amongst the Jews who tried their luck in this way. With no problems they managed to

[Page 184]

organise all the formalities, to receive the confirmations from the authorities and the required certificates and were permitted to leave Steibtz. For the Jews here, this was an unusual event, arousing excitement. All came to take their leave of this family and wish them a successful journey.

I too decided to go the same way. Everything went smoothly. My Christian friends were those who helped me a lot with this. I was promised help during the journey, fulfillment of all the arrangements. I needed an authorization of release from my place of work. For the first time I was met by a refusal. One day we, the Jewish workers, were called to the manager's room for a friendly discussion. Those who gathered on the same status were all Jewish except for the chairman, named Zakarov, with a rank of major and who served in the Security Service. He spoke to us with words of explanation and persuasion: “Why do you want to leave this regime and go to far-away materialistic countries? Now the government is giving you full backing, you have responsible jobs. The academic institutions, high ranking jobs and superior positions are open to you.”

I admit, I was influenced by the charm of his personality and the sincerity of his words and they were heard with much pleasure. I was requested to reply to him, “We thank and are grateful for all the good and encouragement from the government. Only one thing works today in the subconscious of every Jew. In this place where we saw life, we were educated, we studied Torah. Here we grew up within family life and within it we created our type of culture. But after the terrible Holocaust, where we lost our dearest ones and only a very few of us were spared, we returned to the town of our birth and we found a city of graves. Every path that we walk on is stained with the blood of our brothers, every stone in the wall cries out to us”.

These things were said in deep pain. It seemed that they also touched his heart. In submission he accepted my words with silence and understanding, without agreeing. Thus we separated. He continued to reply with empty words and I continued with my preparations to leave in secret. At the beginning of March 1945, one of the Sundays of the month, at five in the morning, I took my baggage and left for the train. Some of my friends came to say goodbye and also my Christian landlord Klimovitz. On Saturday evening, they honored me with accordion tunes played by their son Seriyochka, gave me provisions for the journey and we parted as good friends. I was determined in my decision to travel, at any cost.

I arrived in destroyed Warsaw and from there to Lodz. After some time the rest of the Jews of Steibtz arrived there. In the end, all received permission to travel to wherever they wished. The one and only Jew who remained, until this very day, is Zelik Kanterovitz. He lost all his family, despairing and depressed he has remained in Steibtz, lonely and forsaken.

We passed through cities and countries: Krakow, Budapest, Austria, and Italy. In each place we stayed only as long as we had to. In December 1945 I arrived at the shores of Israel in the illegal immigrant ship “Enzo Sereni”.

This was also the route of the Shaarit HaPlita[3] (the survivors - those who remained after the Holocaust) from Steibtz who live today in Israel.

 

Sto184.jpg
Shkolna Street

 

Translator's footnotes
  1. “I, where shall I go?” - This is a quotation from the Bible - Genesis 37:29-30. Reuven upon returning to the pit and seeing that Joseph was not there, tore his clothes, returned to his brothers and said, “The child is gone, and I, whither shall I go?” Return
  2. Yamim Noraim – The 10 days of Repentance (between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) During this time it is considered appropriate for Jews to practice Teshuvah (literally: “returning” or “repentance”) which is examining one's ways, engaging in repentance and the improvement of their ways in anticipation of Yom Kippur. Return
  3. Sh'erit ha-Pletah (Hebrew: שארית הפליטה, lit. “the surviving remnant”) is a biblical (Ezra 9:14 and 1 Chronicles 4:43) term used by Jewish refugees who survived the Holocaust to refer to themselves and the communities they formed in postwar Europe following the liberation in the spring of 1945. (Wikipedia) Return

 

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