by Peysekh Epshteyn
Translated by Ruth Murphy
We worked at loading railroad cars with gravel. On a certain day German bandits arrived and ordered us to arrange ourselves in a row. I stood together with my two brothers Leybe and Yerakhmiel. Each was asked at which occupation he was competent. When I said that I am a blacksmith, the German responded that for such a small town so many blacksmiths were not necessary. So I was indeed the first who was set apart. Many others were also set apart. Meanwhile I utilized a moment to hide myself behind the railroad cars, after which I descended into a hole in the ground. During the counting of the selected people, I was missing, but nobody betrayed me. The selected ones were taken away and murdered. These were the first to perish from the ghetto of Swerznie.
A short time later, Jews were again taken out to be murdered. This was the general slaughter. Before this, the Germans demanded that the Jews in the ghetto supply a certain sum of money in gold and also other things. The next day all Jews in the ghetto were gathered together in the marketplace. The skilled specialists were separated and sent off to work. The rest were forced to get on trucks and cruelly beaten in the process. Yankl Inzelbukh tried to escape, and he was shot on the spot.
I was on the second truck, together with my mother and my sisters. My mother was beaten terribly because she couldn't climb up on the truck, until I placed her on the truck by lifting her up.
We knew that we were being taken to the Jewish cemetery to be murdered. So I decided to jump off the truck. There were no guards with us. While riding by the mill, I jumped off, and after me jumped off the pregnant woman Basye, Lipovski's daughter. She fell under the wheels and was killed instantly. A little farther Reyzl Menaker jumped off the same truck. She perished afterward together with others.
In jumping down I injured my knees. For a couple of minutes I was lying powerless on the stone pavement. From a distance the third truck was approaching. The drive to live encouraged me. I lifted myself up and began to run away along the little river from the mill to the River Nieman. The guard of the third truck noticed me and shot at me but missed. Thus I saved myself from death a second time. Along the Nieman I stealthily reached Stoibts Street, and from there slowly and unnoticed entered my brothers' smithy on Mir Street. From there I set out to my smithy at the other end of Mir Street.
I was alone, solitary. From the Jewish cemetery, the echoes of shooting were heard. There the Jews of Swerznie, including my mother and my sisters, were shot dead. When night arrived, I saw no alternative other than to return to the ghetto. I could not walk alone because that would have aroused suspicion, but when a group of Jews were returning from work, I succeeded in smuggling myself in among them. Thus I arrived back in the ghetto.
For two days I did not leave the ghetto. On the third day, I decided to go to the smithy, although being alone I no longer had anyone for whom to work.
The same day, approximately at 11am, an automobile drove up to my smithy. From the truck two Germans with rifles in their hands came down and ordered me to take my tools and get up on the truck. Somebody named Tsvertog from the Judenrat arrived and said that the Germans were sending me as a skilled specialist to work in the barracks in Stoibts. There I worked for four months.
Each day a German would lead me to work and back. Twice a day I would get rye meal soup.
First row: Third from left, Hanye Munbaz, murdered in the group of the first 30 young people
Later I was transported with other Jews from Stoibts to Baranovich. Here we were divided into groups, some to death and some to life and work.
I was sent to Kolditsheve, which is located between Horodishtch and Stolevitch. There we were under the supervision of White Russian and Ukrainian police. In this place thousands of Jews perished. We were tortured mercilessly. For each trifle one had to report, and during the reporting one was beaten over the head with a rubber truncheon or a stick.
Thus I lived for eight months until I was transferred to Baranovich to do blacksmith work on the horses of the S.D.
Four months later 18 Jews from Baranovich escaped. When I found out about it, I also decided to escape but I did not succeed because a strict check was carried out. In order to determine who had escaped, we were surrounded by a rigorous watch. The next day, quite early, we were loaded on two trucks and moved to Kolditshevo, and there we were beaten severely. The next day, 150 Jews were separated out, moved to a forest, and shot there.
Again four months passed. In the camp 93 people remained. We decided to escape and opened a hole in a rear wall and masked it. In the smithy I produced knives and a scissors to cut wires. On the night designated for the escape, we posted men armed with knives at the exit doors. It was decided that if any of the men we posted met a policeman, he would stab him immediately. The order in which we went out was determined by lot. Each of us drew a number. My brother Leybe and another Jew were to go out first, cut the wires, and then keep going. All 93 exited without hindrance. I was in the last group of 12 people. We lost contact with those who exited before us, right after they went out.
It was a cold, dark winter night. A thick snow was falling, accompanied by a strong wind. We almost did not see each other. We ran all night. Early next morning, we realized that we distanced ourselves from the camp only by eight kilometers, that is, we had wandered around. From a distance we saw someone going out of the camp to look for us, so we descended into a pit. The snow had covered our tracks. Thus we lay under the snow until night.
When night fell, we began to walk in the direction of the forests, with the aim of meeting partisans.
It was not until seven days later that we entered a forest and met partisans from Byelski's detachment. It was midnight, a strong frost and wind penetrated one's bones, we were half naked and barefoot, covered with beards, and hungry as wolves.
I arrived in the forest wounded by having been shot in my toes. When Byelski noticed this, he asked me for what purpose I came. He didn't need me . My situation was very difficult, so I decided to walk to another detachment. I found out that two kilometers farther there was a Jewish detachment under the leadership of a certain Zorin. It includes Jews from Stoibtz, among them Getsel Reiser.
In Zorin's detachment I immediately received great help. They sent me, accompanied by a nurse, a distance of 45 kilometers to a Christian detachment, which had a doctor. There they operated on me and removed two toes from my foot.
In 1944, the Russian armed forces occupied the region where we were. The partisan detachments joined the Russian military. I was mobilized into the Russian army. In Briyansk I was examined by a medical committee. To my great astonishment, they immediately sent me to a hospital to operate on my foot.
I stayed in the hospital eight months. Two days after returning to my regiment, I was sent to a different place and given a workshop to work, until I was completely discharged from the military.
After my discharge, I immediately traveled to Swerznie. Devastated, I walked through our little streets which were Judenrein. On the bridge, not far from where our smithy once was, I met one of the murderers -- Volodya Sherkovski. He stood there spending time cozily and contentedly. His conscience did not bother him. Apparently, he didn't even think about the fact that he had helped to kill the Jews of Swerznie.
I went to the NKVD in Stoibts and there filed a charge against Volodya Sherkovski. I reported to the chief of the NKVD about all Sherkovski's deeds during the period when the Germans ruled the town, how he tortured Jews and drove them to their death. I asked how it was possible that one who faithfully served the Hitlerite bandits and helped kill innocent people should walk around freely on the street.
The chief answered me that a Jewish girl from Swerznie signed a document stating that Volodya Sherkovski had not participated in the murder of Jews. My hair stood on my head. I was promised that the matter would be investigated. When I returned to Swerznie, I met the bandit near the railroad line, shackled in irons and led by a policeman in the direction of Stoibts.
Early next morning the investigation began. About 50 Christians were summoned to the NKVD. Each accused the other of committing various acts of horror. On the third day I was summoned to the NKVD and placed face-to-face with the bandit. Once again I told about everything that took place in our town, how hundreds of Jews were murdered, whole families destroyed, and that he, the bandit, actively participated in all these deeds.
The bandit contended that it was all a lie. But apparently the investigation uncovered all of the bandit's deeds. The chief of the NKVD exclaimed in my presence that everything which I told was the truth. Even further, it was shown that he participated in slaughters that took place in the whole vicinity. The chief added that the bandit's parents would no longer see him alive.
A few weeks later I left for Poland. From there I wandered through various countries until I arrived in Israel.
by Yisrael Tzelkovitz
Translated by Ann Belinsky
I leave the writing of the history of Swerznie to people who are talented at it. I, in my obligatory role, which was given to me by the committee of the survivors of our town, wish to record what I went through, and what my eyes saw. According to what I heard from the elders, who heard from their forefathers, the Swerznie community existed for centuries, i.e. it was an ancient town.
From my mother zl I heard that once very rich Jews lived in Swerznie. They sent boats loaded with all sorts of grains along the Neiman River to far-away places. In the town there were diligent and exalted Torah scholars, and also educated people. Although Swerznie was a small town, both Torah and greatness were inside it.
Swerznie was surrounded by water: from the east the Neiman River, which flowed from south to north and from the western side there was a small stream, Zes-shervka, which spilled into the Neiman from the northern side. At the southern end of the stream was the flour mill of Count Radzivil, and next to it an artificial dam water accumulated into a lake. The stream closed around the town and also spilled into the Neiman from the south. Thus, when you wanted to leave the town you had to cross a bridge. About three kilometers east of the town stood the Okintzitz Forest, which joined the other forests as far as Smolensk, and from the west was the small and pleasant Siniava Forest. The air was always fresh and pleasant and both Jews and gentiles enjoyed this. Up to the First World War there were more than two hundred families in Swerznie. Almost every family had a house of its own, with a garden which they tended and exploited to the maximum. They planted all sorts of vegetables in the garden: cucumbers, carrots, beetroot, cabbage, beans and potatoes. The vegetables supplied the family all year round until the new harvest.
The population of Swerznie was mixed: two thirds were Gentiles and one third Jews, The Jews lived in the center of the town and the Gentiles lived in its surrounds. Free tradesmen were not found in Swerznie. Nevertheless, there were many shopkeepers and artisans in the town, such as tailors, carpenters, shoemakers, and blacksmiths. There were a relatively large number of butchers. More recently, there was one ritual slaughterer and one rabbi in the town. One unique livelihood was sowing vegetables in Germany: Several heads of families, and their sons and daughters, would travel every year in spring to Koenigsberg, capital of Eastern Prussia. There, they would lease large areas of land from the estate owners, sow various types of vegetables and sell them to the German populace. They would remain there all summer, and at the beginning of autumn, after Rosh Hashanah, they would return home. This was considered a good livelihood in Swerznie.
In the winter they would work at some other type of commerce for extra income. But the mainstay of their livelihood was in Germany. Another special means of livelihood existed in Swerznie: lime quarrying and its firing, used by all the people in the area. From this, several families made a living.
Thus, the Swerznie Jews lived quietly and in peace. They would send their children to the cheder, and when the child worked diligently on his studies they sent him to Talmud Torah, which was in nearby Mir at a distance of 18 kilometers from our town, and if he excelled in his studies, he would afterwards be accepted to the famous yeshiva. Thus, every year students from Swerznie studied in Mir at the Talmud Torah and the yeshiva. There were also parents who sent their children to the Russian government school and afterwards they studied in the Russian school in nearby Steibtz, which was considered a high school. There were those who travelled to study in Minsk and from there went to study at the university.
In the summer of 1917, a fire broke out. Most of the Jewish homes and two Betei Midrash burnt down. This was at the end of the First World War. Many Jewish soldiers had not yet returned home. A lack of building materials was felt, but slowly the Jews began to rebuild their houses. Many plots remained vacant and their owners emigrated to the United States, or to Latin America, or moved to other towns. With difficulty somehow they established the two study halls with the financial aid of ACHBY in America.
The First World War in general, and annexation of part of White Russia to Poland, completely changed the character of Swerznie. After the Balfour Declaration, Zionist organizations of all streams arose in Swerznie. The children were sent to the Tarbut school in Steibtz, or to the Polish government school and also to the gymnasia. Almost all the youth knew Hebrew and were imbued with the Zionist idea, each according to his party line. Thus lived the Jews of Swerznie - worked, traded, married, educated their children and always strove and hoped for something better and more exalted. The attack by Hitler on Poland on 1st September 1939 shocked the Jews of Poland. The Polish army could not stand up against the vast force of the Germans, and Poland was conquered after merely several weeks. Then, Poland was divided between the Soviet Union and Hitler Germany. The Germans conquered Poland up to Brisk De-Lita.
On the morning of 17th September 1939, the first Soviet platoons entered Swerznie. Despite the huge change that occurred in the life of the Jews, expressed in closing the shops and destroying trade, the Jews were satisfied that it prevented the Germans from conquering this part of White Russia.
We quickly got used to the Soviet regime: each found work, either in a workshop, or a cooperative or in a governmental office, and for a short time everyone became government employees. The youth adapted immediately to the Russian language. The children learnt in the government school and life began to enter a course. We were satisfied with our situation and hoped to manage better over time and to be loyal citizens to the existing regime.
On the morning of 22nd of June 1941, the little town of Swerznie was shaken. The radio announced that the Germans had criminally attacked the Soviet Union, bombed Brisk and were rapidly advancing east. Chaos broke out in the Jewish town. The Soviet institutions began immediately to leave the town. The Soviet citizens packed their bags and travelled east. The Jews ran around and asked each other what to do. Several left the town, either by car or by foot in the direction of Minsk. The majority stayed in their place we could not imagine what the Germans were capable of doing.
On the 27th of June, in the morning, the Germans were already bombing Swerznie and Steibtz. Light Soviet artillery provided cover for those retreating, by counter-bombing. From the shelling, houses were set on fire in Swerznie and fires started also in Steibtz. We left the houses, took the children, and ran to the fields to seek shelter in the bushes or under a tree. When the shooting stopped after several hours, we returned home. The Germans streamed east. We sat in our houses and feared to go outside. We felt that from now on, we were not free people.
The non-Jewish populace moved around in the streets, and it was obvious in their eyes that they were rejoicing in our downfall. Apparently they understood the situation better than us. The first two days passed without important events except that several Jews encountered Germans and were beaten, but they were not murdered. At night-time we did not undress and remained half awake. Soldiers from passing regiments were breaking into houses (it was forbidden to close the door), searching everywhere and taking whatever they liked.
At 5 in the morning of 29.6.1941, I heard shots near my house. I jumped from the bed, peeped out of the window and saw that in the market, opposite the house, a truck was standing and on it a machine gun and several soldiers were shooting at my house. I told my wife and children to go out to the corridor and sit on the floor. Suddenly, we heard that the front door had been broken into. An officer with a pistol in his hand, and several soldiers, burst into the house and when they didn't find anyone, they went through the rooms to the corridor. When they saw us lying on the floor, they ordered us to get up and raise our hands above our heads. I remember how my seven year old daughter, and my fourteen year old son, stood frightened with their hands up, without making a sound. The officer ordered us to go out of the corridor to the courtyard and stand in a line. He put his pistol to my forehead and yelled in a wild voice: Why did you shoot at the German soldiers? We stood petrified the whole time. He checked my pockets and when he pulled the Soviet identity card out of my pocket, he threw it to the ground and shouted Communist Jew. Then he left us and ran to the opposite house of Yosef-Herzl Pertzowicz, and when he encountered him, he shot him. On hearing the shots, his wife, Leah'keh, came out to the yard - the German killed her too, and shot and wounded their child. I heard the shots, but didn't know what had happened behind the house. At the same moment the officer returned with his pistol in his hand, and ordered the soldiers to guard us and to throw hand grenades into the house. And what a miracle: the house didn't catch fire, and the only damage caused was inside the house. Suddenly, the Germans told us to get out of the place. I hadn't believed it possible that we would remain alive. We left the yard, went through the garden to the lane of Beit HaMidrash, and entered Tzvi Rubin's house. We remained there until the afternoon. Afterwards we returned home. The destruction inside the house was conspicuous. The children were afraid to go inside. My wife and I persuaded them that something like that would not happen again.
Grey days began. Every day something happened. Here there was a robbery, there
Jews were beaten. We wanted to delude ourselves that it would pass and maybe the situation would improve, but our hearts trembled and predicted bad times.
After several weeks the Orts-Commandant arrived in Steibtz and began to impose order according to the Nazi ideology.
First acquaintance with the men of the S.D.
One morning, at the beginning of August, the Belarusian police announced that all the Jews must immediately present themselves at the local council house (Gemina). The Germans hurried us with shouts: Faster! Faster! There was panic and people began to run to the designated place. By the council building stood the S.D. men, the Belarusian police, with the hateful enemy, Eliyushka Kandibovitz, at its head, and received us with curses and kicks on our legs. Rabbi R' Chaim Avraham Alpert zl, the town rabbi, ran as best as he could, and when he got there perspiring, breathing heavily and with the corners/edges of his capote waving back and forth, and the fringes of his small tallis fluttering around him, a man of the S.D. received him with a kick from behind, and the policemen, together with a crowd of curious, enjoyed this sight and laughed loudly.
When we were all in the place, organized in two rows as in a festive parade, the officer took out a list and called Rabbi Avraham Alpert to leave the row. He stood him with his face towards the fence, and an armed policeman stood by him. After this, my name was called and I was placed next to the Rabbi. He called the names Ben Tzion Goldin and Leibson. The names of A.D. Shkolnik and Berl Doktorovitz were called. It was lucky for them that they had escaped east before the Germans entered. We stood with our faces to the fence and waited for something unexpected. A short time later, when the procedure was finished, accompanied by curses, threats and warnings that for every violation, light or serious, the criminal and many others would be shot, for there would be collective punishments. The assembled people were ordered to run and disperse quickly. The policemen accompanied those fleeing with shots above their heads. We, who stood with our faces to the fence, thought that they were shooting at the fleeing people and they thought that we had been liquidated. Silence prevailed and we didn't know what was going on. After a few minutes a policeman approached us and told the rabbi to go home, and told us to go into the council building. They stood us with our faces to the wall and the soldiers stood behind us. At the same time they brought another victim. He was R' Aharon Viner, the son-in-law of Dov Sargovitz, owner of the flour mill in Swerznie. The soldiers caught him at the mill and joined him to us. Approximately at the hour of 11 in the morning, a soldier came over, pushed me and ordered me to get into the car. I had to show him where I lived and we drove to my house. Two officers and a soldier went into the house. They told me to give them the money and began to search in the cupboards, in the drawers, in the beds, and under the beds. Every valuable they found, they took with them. Tablecloths and sheets were packed in suitcases and I had to haul them to the car. With this cargo we returned to the council house. Ben-Zion Goldin and Liebson were not there already. Only Viner remained. They put him too into the car and together they brought us to Steibtz to the Orts-Commandant. There, we found Goldin and Liebson standing facing the wall and we too joined them. After several minutes Liebson was put into another room. I heard his screams. It was terrible but within a moment all was quiet. The turns of Ben-Tzion Goldin and Viner came, and they too emitted terrible screams. When my turn came the soldier kicked me from behind to go into the room. An officer sat by the table on which was a thick rubber hose and a pistol. The officer hinted to me to sit and warned me that I must tell only the truth. Otherwise he showed me the hose and began to interrogate me: Where did I work and what was my profession. To which party did I belong, what was my education, place of learning, and where did I get my knowledge of German. At the same time, the door opened and the Belarusian police inspector, Volodia Sanko, appeared. He walked rapidly through the room and went into the other room. After a few minutes an officer came out of the room, told my interrogator to stop the interrogation and turned to me shouting: Get out of here immediately. After I had been freed from certain death I found out that my wife zl had run to his house and begged him to go and save me. He came to release me. The others didn't return. I must note that the same Volodia Sanko participated afterwards in all the operations of liquidation of the Jews in the area of Swerznie and Steibtz, and in the annihilation of the Jews of Nesvizh and the surroundings.
New decrees were published daily by the Orts-Commandant. An announcement in large lettering in German and in Belarusian, decreed that every person of Jewish racial descent has to fasten a Yellow Star of David on his right sleeve. Another poster: People of the Jewish race, men and women, from the age of 14 up to 60 years old must work; and another poster: A Jew meeting a German soldier must take off his hat to him. The soldiers exploited this decree fully: when meeting a Jew, who naturally took off his cap, they would put it back on his head, with shouts, as if he hadn't taken it off and order him to pass in front of them again. This would be repeated several times, each time accompanied by a beating. When the Jew managed to escape these tortures he felt as if he was reborn. These abuses were a daily occurrence. Our neighbors took great pleasure in this shameful sight. And now a new poster appeared: Jews are forbidden to walk on the sidewalk. Jews must walk on the road by the sidewalk. Violators will be punished by death. It happened once, when we, several Jews, returned towards evening from work at the same time that the cows were returning from the pasture. They gave up the road and climbed on the sidewalk …The Belarusian police brought the decrees to our attention in the market square. One or two policemen would pass along the street and tell several Jews that they should run and fetch all the Jews to the market and within five minutes all had to stand in two lines. Woe to whoever was late. After that the police used a different method for those who arrived late. The punishment was collective. For example, we all quickly gathered and stood in line and here in the distance we saw Alter Kravitz running towards us. In other words, he was late. The policeman ordered all of us to run towards Alter, who was coming from the south. When we met Alter, we had to run back. Not just to run, but with the last of our strength. In the distance, from the north, we saw Yudel Polonsky also running. The policeman ordered us to run towards him. Thus we would run until we were exhausted.
On one of those days, a Belarusian policeman came to me and said that I had to present myself to the head of the council, Mr. Shkutkeh. Of course, I didn't wait for a second invitation and ran to him. Shkutkeh said to me that the Orts-Commandant wanted a Judenrat of five members in Swerznie and he was appointing me as chairman, and adding the town rabbi R' Chaim Avraham Alpert, Berl Shachanovitz, Ayzik Grandeh and Benyamin Munvez.
Daily, and sometimes several times a day, various demands would come to the Judenrat from the Orts-Commandant, who had established his residence in the house of Haya Frotas. Once, two Gestapo men came with a demand to supply them, within four hours, for the wounded soldiers: 10 pillows, 30 blankets, 30 sheets, woolen material for 10 men's outfits, 10 leather bags, 200 pieces of washing soap, 100 packets of cigarettes, and 15 kg of leather for shoe soles and 10 liters of vodka. The Judenrat hurried to fill this demand, we went from house to house to collect the quota and after much toil we found we couldn't collect it all. Jews didn't have vodka, but we got several liters in exchange for rye from a Christian woman, as she didn't want to sell them for cash. We got almost all the rest. All this we brought to the council house where the Gestapo man was already waiting. Ayzik Grandeh and I went into the German's [office?] and announced to him that we had brought the order. We apologized that we could not supply the order in full. The Gestapo man surveyed what we had brought and when he saw that he liked what he saw, he spattered: Get out, dogs.
Demands like this occurred daily and every time we tried to fill them. Once, they announced that they needed 15 cows. All in all, the Jews owned thirty-something cows. After some time they took the rest too. After that they imposed a tax of 1000 gold rubles on the Jews. This too was supplied. An order came that the Jews to pass over all the copper in their possession, including the window and door handles. After several days again another order: The Jews must pass over to the German authorities all their silver and gold, including coins, utensils and jewelry. For any evasion, expect the punishment of death. It was forbidden for Jews to have books in their possession. We concentrated all the books in one place and passed them on to the authorities.
I felt that I couldn't continue any more to work in the Judenrat. Therefore, Berl Shachanovitz and I went to the Mr. Shkutkeh and I begged him to free us from this exalted role. He acceded and others entered in our place and the Judenrat was enlarged to 12 men. I began to work in a carpentry shop, where most of the Jews of Swerznie worked. A considerable part of the Jews, women and men, worked also on the Limestone Mountain, loading sand onto the railway wagons and mining the limestone.
On the 13th Tishri, 5702 [4th October 1941], after Yom Kippur, two of the Gestapo men came to the Judenrat with a demand to the secretary Schvartag (a refugee from the Nazis from Warsaw), to provide them 30 young men, including 2 of the Judenrat, to be executed. Since all the Jews were at work, they demanded to show them the place of work. They went to the mountain and from there took 28 adults 18 young women and 10 young men. The men were told to take shovels with them, as if they were being transferred to work in another place. They were seated in a truck, and transported to the cemetery and told to dig a pit. The Gestapo men led the women by foot through the town and added the Judenrat men on the way to the cemetery.
And these are the names of the first people to be slaughtered: HaRav Chaim Avraham Alpert - the town Rabbi, Elka the daughter of Rabbi Alpert, Yoel Aginsky, Nechama Aginsky, Yitzhak Inzelbuch, Lyba Trachtenburg (stepdaughter of Avraham Berl Kravitz from Terechin), Elka Bernstein from Lodz, Ayzik Grandeh, Mordechai Goldshteyn from Lobertov, Nechama Gildin, Feigel Greenwald, Duba Vilitovski, the father and son Zisk from Poland, Yocheved Yossilevitz, Matitiyahu Lungin from Steibtz, Benyamin Munvez, Henia Munvez, Tamar Pines, Feigel Farfel, Eshka Kuznitz, Tamara Robenchik, daughter of Peshka, the daughter of Yedidya Shlimovitz, and among them two more young men and five girls whose names I do not know, Polish refugees from the Nazis.
The daughter of Peshka mentioned above, remained alive. By chance she was not hit by the bullets and fell into the open grave together with the dead who stood by the pit. After she had recovered and felt that the Germans and the policemen had left the place and left the pit uncovered, she crawled and got out of the pit and hid among the bushes in the cemetery. When it was dark she returned to the town.
We were completely cut off from the world. We got news about what was happening in the world from the Christians whom we met at work, and sometimes also from the German or Belarusian newspaper that we got from them. Echoes reached us about Jewish towns where the Germans had annihilated all the Jews. We continued to work, either in the carpentry shop, on the limestone hill, in various crafts or at all sorts of work.
The Establishment of the Ghetto
Rumors were spread that we were going to be closed in a ghetto. Since the source of the rumor was from the head of the village (Soltis), the enemy of the Jews - the Belarusian, Pioter Yaroshovitz, with whom, in normal times, I had a good relationship, I decided to approach him and ask if there was truth in the matter. He answered me laughing: If you think that it will be a ghetto, you are nothing but mistaken it will be a type of animal cage. After some time, they sealed off Steibtz Street from the bridge next to Alter Munvez's house in the north, up to Aharon Zelibinsky's house in the south. It was enclosed with a high fence above the windows by the houses and around, up to the stream passing by Beit HaMidrash, and created a small enclosure.
24 hours before closing the ghetto, on 24.10.41, the Belarusian policemen announced that all the Jews would be moving into the designated area. Anything that they didn't manage to transfer within these 24 hours to the new location would remain outside the area and would be confiscated. A terrible panic burst out among the Jews. Everyone wanted to make sure that he would have a place in the ghetto to where he could transfer his property, and it was impossible to transfer this property of the Jews of Swerznie in one fell swoop. It was before the winter and it was necessary to bring potatoes from the cellars, firewood from the storehouses and various chattels from the house, and for this, time, place and strength were needed.
On 25.10.41 the ghetto was closed. The density was considerable, 4-5 families had to manage in one house in the evening hours, for during the day they were all at work. Many families settled in Beit HaMidrash, and in the women's section they set up partitions with tablecloths and sheets. They brought into Beit HaMidrash tables, beds, cupboards, boxes, sacks of flour and potatoes that without them, it seemed that it would be impossible to exist. But the furniture mostly remained in the houses. Finally, each one determined his place temporarily until the storm would be over. After several days we also became accustomed to this situation in the hope for better days.
Nine days after the closing of the ghetto, towards evening, on the 4th of November, the Belarusian policemen, henchmen of the Orts-Commandant announced that tomorrow,
at 5 in the morning, the Jews must assemble in the market by the shops. Everyone, from the youngest to the oldest, babies and women and even sick people, must assemble there. Another order by the police on that evening was that the Jews must amass all their money and give it in the morning to the Gestapo officer, who would come to collect it. Anyone who was found with any banknote or coin the next day - would be shot. At the same time we announced that each person should bring his money to Shimon Movshovitz's house. Several Jews sat there and received the money from each person and the amount was registered on a page.
We felt that something bitter and terrible was about to happen the next day, but no-one dared to say what he thought. That same evening we sat in the Swerznie ghetto, each with his family in his corner, and we wept. The children cuddled up to us and cried silently in secret, until they fell asleep on us. Thus the night passed. We did not know then that the ghetto was already surrounded by Belarusian policemen so that no one could escape.
Morning came - The morning that we had so feared. Between the slits of the fence we saw the policemen prowling in the street next to the ghetto. People began running within their houses and from house to house. One asked the other what he had heard, and what he intends to do, and no-one did anything. The policemen entered the ghetto and began to urge people to assemble, and together with this, ordered them to take the warm coats and the furs out of the houses and to bring them to the market for the German army, since winter was coming. The young people, who worked in the sawmill, were told to go to work as usual and those remaining to present themselves in the market square. I parted from my wife, my son and daughter and went to the sawmill. The policeman, Volodia Sherkovski (Vayatch), stood at the ghetto gate next to Alter Munvez's house. When I passed the bridge by the ghetto I had qualms: Why did I leave my wife and children and I, as it were, had saved my soul, and I returned. By the gate the policeman stopped me and asked why I was returning. I told him that I had forgotten to take the factory list and I needed it for work. When I reached my yard, I met my wife and children leaving the house to the assembly area. They were surprised that I had returned. My son advised me to join the Judenrat and to stand with them. I consulted Shvertag, the secretary of the Judenrat, and he told me to stand by him. When we stood in the yard the policeman, Lonik Shakorinski, appeared in order to hurry us up to go to the meeting place. He entered the house to check if anyone else remained. I went after him, since my mother-in-law, an old and weak woman, who could not stand on her legs, had remained in bed. When he saw her, he approached her and told her to leave. But she could not get up. The policeman grabbed her arm and began to pull her. My pleas to let her be did not help and she was taken out. In the yard she stopped, held out her hand to me and pressed it with her remaining strength, looking at me with eyes full of tears and silently murmured words that I could not understand, and we went out to the street.
When we arrived to the place of assembly, I approached the Judenrat members, who were already standing in the place, and stood by them. My wife, and our seven year old daughter, stood in the row with all the people. I did not see my son although I looked on the sides and searched for him. The policemen walked backwards and forwards, and looked over the assembled crowd. And now the Gestapo commandant appeared. The policemen ordered everyone to stand straight in two rows. The commandant approached Shvertag, the Judenrat secretary, and asked him several questions - if he had collected all the money the night before and if all those who had not gone to work were present. To every question he would answer Yahwol, i.e. Yes. The commandant, together with Kandibovitz Eliyushka the policeman, passed several times by those standing and began to take out young girls from the rows and stood them in front of the Judenrat. They were counted, and then a few more were taken out and when they got to twenty, the commandant ordered the members of the Judenrat and the twenty girls to go into the house of Feygel Shenkman. When we were all inside, a policeman entered and told us to close the curtain of the window, to hang a blanket above the curtain and to close the door. It was forbidden to look outside. Whoever would peep out would be shot. At the same time, trucks with Gestapo men arrived from the direction of Steibtz and began to hasten the assembled people to climb onto the trucks. Whomsoever did not move fast to get on was beaten with murderous blows and thrown into the truck. Those, who moved away, were shot on the spot. The shouts and the cries were heard from a distance. The trucks, loaded with men, women and children, were driven at great speed in the direction of the cemetery, accompanied by armed policemen and Gestapo men armed to the teeth. Those, who remained in the place, were surrounded by the men of the Gestapo, and the policemen pushed them into the cellars under the burnt shops and guarded them until the trucks returned from the cemetery and quickly loaded the rest and returned there. Those beaten and the half dead were thrown into the trucks like logs, with enthusiasm and wild joy. Our neighbors of yesterday also watched this sight with recognizable satisfaction. A 6 year old girl managed to escape the cordon of the Gestapo and the policemen and ran in the direction of Minsk Street. The mother of the policeman Kandibovitz noticed this and immediately called the policeman, and he aimed his rifle and stopped her escape. I heard the story of the little girl, Pashkah Denzon daughter of R' Zeev Kliatshuk, from several Christians who were standing there at that time. At 11 in the morning, the soldiers and policemen finished their task. They returned from the cemetery and began to search the orphaned ghetto houses. Valuables were taken and what they couldn't take with them they divided among the gathered crowd, who stood and waited with wild lust to win something. Towards evening, when the men returned from work, we too were removed from Feygel Shenkman's house, where we had been imprisoned. The policemen took 20 Jews with them to the cemetery to cover the pit and to straighten the soil. Thus, all was ended for the martyrs of Swerznie and the refugees from Polish towns.
My wife aged 35, my son aged 14 and my daughter aged 7, were killed on that day. I remained alone.
The same evening the remainder of the Turetz community were transferred to us, about one hundred and thirty people, men, youth and middle-aged people capable of all work. Their wives, children, parents and elderly had been annihilated yesterday on that bitter and violent day.
The Work Camp in Swerznie
The day after the massacre, a soldier of the rank of SS sergeant named Bazler came to the destroyed ghetto and announced that from today onwards, he would be Commandant of the camp. He brought workers and reduced the size of the ghetto by moving the southern fence up to my house, and in the north up to the house of Dov Shachanovitz. On both sides of the camp, two towers were erected and guards from the captured Soviet prisoners were placed there armed with machine guns, to oversee the movement within the camp. At the entrance to the camp
a German soldier always stood and the gate was tightly closed. It was completely forbidden to exit the camp. In the morning we were brought to work to the saw-mill accompanied by soldiers armed with bayonets and we returned this way to the camp again in the evening. The houses in the camp were called Blocks and each block had a number. The crowding in the blocks was terrible and it was difficult to maintain hygiene.
Together with the Jews of Turetz, who had been transferred to us, we were three hundred and fifty people, including twenty women whom the Germans had left alive to serve the camp.
Many people lived in Beit HaMidrash, Block Number 2. In a corner by the stove they set up a kitchen with two huge pots that had been brought from Steibtz, in which they cooked, twice a day, potatoes in water. Each person, before leaving for work and in the evening, received about half a liter of thin potato soup. As well, each person received 250 grams of bread per day. The refugees from Warsaw and Lodz, the people of Turetz and also Swerznie, who had no connection contact with the Christians on the other side of the fence, suffered from hunger.
We were cut off from the outside world. Only during the work hours in the sawmill did we heard from the Christian workers something about what was happening in the world.
In the camp whispers about escape began. The youth searched for ways and schemes on how to get arms into the camp. Concerning the question of escape, the camp was divided in two for and against. There were also those who hesitated, who didn't know what was better. The main question was - what could we expect in the forest? It was not yet clear if there were partisans in the forests, or that it is just imagination. And if there are, where will we find them and will they accept us? And how is it possible to exist in the forest in the freezing winter of 40 degrees below zero. And those against and those for, had many more questions like these. In the eyes of some, escape was like suicide. On the other hand, those who were for escape, claimed that in any case the Germans would kill us and there was nothing to lose.
That is the way we lived, if it can be called life, in indecisiveness and arguments, for more than 14 months in this depressing and degenerate camp, until one Friday, on 29.1.43, Hershel Posesorski of blessed memory, a courageous Jewish partisan risking his life dressed as a Christian worker, infiltrated the sawmill. In the evening, he joined the rows of the Jews being accompanied back to the camp by soldiers. On that same evening he organized the escape.
Thanks to the great cold that existed the same evening, the Ukrainian sentries left the towers and didn't guard the camp. Our organizers breached the fence from the western side and put boards as a sort of a bridge over the stream flowing by Beit HaMidrash, and at the hour of 8:00 in the evening about two hundred and twenty people left the camp covered in white sheets, so that from a distance the movement would not be noticed on the white snow. We marched in the snow up to our knees until we had encircled the lake by the flour mill and left the town. Apparently the Germans learnt about the escape from the shouts of one person who didn't want to leave the camp.
We saw the spotlights in the dark, but the Nazis didn't dare pursue us, for they thought we had many weapons.
At the time that the noise was made, there remained in the camp, unfortunately, about one hundred and thirty people who had not managed to leave before the Germans appeared. After two days they were all liquidated, except for three: Chava Shachanovitz, her father Yerachmiel Goldin and Lipa Bernshetyn, who hid in the basement in Block 4, i.e., in the house of Moshe Yossilevitz, at the same moment that the Gestapo men came to execute them. In the evening, they left secretly the hiding place, crossed the town by indirect paths without the Belarusians noticing them, and went out of town. On the way they encountered Germans, who opened fire on them. Yerachmiel Goldin fell on the spot. Chava and Lifa, after many hardships, arrived at a Christian-Baptist settlement, which gave them shelter until the Germans' defeat.
We continued to march in the snow in a roundabout way and distanced ourselves from the spotlights, and when we reached the forest near the village of Polosnia, we felt some relief.
We were given an order to enter the forest to rest (from the time we left the camp everything was done according to orders). Tired and sweating we sat down, or more correctly, we fell on the snow and chewed the frozen bread which was in our pockets. Here, several felt that their limbs were frozen, toes, an ear or a nose. We removed the Yellow Star of David badge from our clothes, and it was as if as a new spirit of clarity enveloped us. Despite the danger of being trapped if we were surrounded by Germans, it was also clear now to each that the Germans would not imprison us again in a ghetto or camp, while we still had life in us.
After a short rest we continued on our way and when we arrived in the village of Polosnia, it was already sunrise. We recruited horses and wagons. We loaded the knapsacks which had so weighed us down on the way, and sat those who were weak and frozen in the wagons. After several minutes we left the village in the direction of the Liv'ye Forests. There, we were met by Jewish partisans: boys from Steibtz, Nesvizh, and Kletsk, and thus we became partisans.
Life in the forests was not easy, especially at the beginning. We passed many trials and tribulations until we became partisans. We tried all sorts of ways and means and we obtained arms. We became fighters equal to the Russian partisans, who were also present in the area. Many of us excelled in courage and in motivation for revenge, and were also praised by the Russian commanders.
Over time as partisans, we moved to and operated in the forests of Polesia, Orliki, Morotshanka, Ruspa, Tsitzovitz, Kopil, Vilshin, Liv'ye and other forests, whose names I don't remember, until the Soviet army defeated the Nazi invader. In the area of Kopil, our partisan platoon met the Red Army which was pursuing the retreating Germans.
The partisan platoon was enlisted to the Red Army. I, who according to my age did not have to enlist, returned with a few other Jews to Swerznie. This was in the middle of June 1944.
For some time I worked in Steibtz, afterwards I worked in Nesvizh, and in the year 1945 I left Soviet Russia as a former Polish citizen and came to Lodz, from there I continued further via Czechia, Germany, Holland, Belgium and France until I arrived in 1946 to Eretz Yisrael on the illegal immigrant ship, Tel Hai.
It may be that someone, who is not Jewish, will claim against us that we were not courageous enough against the German invaders, that he, in our place, would not have acted that way, but the facts prove otherwise. For example I will tell the story of a Christian youth in Swerznie, who lived on Steibtz Street on the banks of the Neiman River, who came to the field by the shore in order to gather branches from the trees that had remained in the water from the Soviet days. It was in the morning before work started.
I worked then in the sawmill as an assistance to a Pole named Perchik, who called himself Volksdeutsche and thus took my place as foreman, but in truth, it was I who did all the tasks and he would sign his name on the documents.
The yard's watchman was also an inhabitant of the town, who lived on the banks of the aforementioned river. He told the youth not to take the branches for firewood and to leave the yard. The youth refused and even said to him And why, are you the owner? He took a log and went home. The watchman was insulted, went and told the story in the office.
When I came to work, we met the watchman and he told me about this matter. I told him that he shouldn't have mentioned such a small matter to the office. After several minutes, one of the workers came and said that I must appear in the office in front of the director Okon, who was a German aged about 35, with the rank of Captain in the army. When I stood in front of him, he asked me what had happened on the bank of the Neiman River. I told him that it was before I had started work and I had only heard the story from the watchman. In my presence Okon phoned the Kommandatura in Steibtz and said that the Belarusian youth had been cheeky to the Belarusian watchman at the saw-mill and then said It is fitting that the youth will be shot and finished the phone call.
I returned to the yard on the shore, work carried on as usual, the Russian prisoners of war, and the Christian townspeople with their horses dragged the logs from the water.
I searched for someone who could be relied upon to tell the lad's mother (his father had died a long time ago), that she should hide him from the Germans, and then I saw the manager Smol, the Volksdeutsche from Czechia, coming with the head of the gendarmerie of the Gestapo and calling me to approach. He told me to gather everybody to the place. I summoned all the prisoners and the townspeople, and then saw that a Gestapo soldier was leading the youth.
The commandant said to place him next to the nearby pile of wood. Silence prevailed the whole time. It seemed that all those gathered had suddenly stopped breathing.
The commandant took his rifle off his shoulder and ordered the youth (he was about 14), to turn around with his face to the pile of wood and aimed his rifle, as if in a shooting contest. The German did not miss, and the youth fell back lifelessly. A smile was seen on the German's face as if he was proud of his handiwork.
We continued to stand frozen in our place. Now, Mr. Smol turned to the Belarusian townspeople and said (he spoke Russian with a Czech accent): You are all lazy and don't want to work, this time I will behave with mercy to you and leave you alive, but each of you needs to get his share as payment, and ordered the first to drop his trousers and lie on a piece of wood which was lying there. He didn't think twice and did as told. He absorbed twenty whiplashes from a German soldier. After him came the second, then the third, until the tenth, and not one of them opened his mouth and didn't flutter an eye.
At the end of this sight, Smol said to the Belarusians: know this, that was only a small payment and if you do not work with the required energy, we will shoot you like dogs, and now, get to work.
It should be noted, that the Belarusian inhabitants of our town were considered, by all in the area, to be brave and heroic but, towards to the German invaders they were weaklings and cowards.
by Michael Grande
Translated by Esther Libby Raichman
That was the most terrible night that I have ever experienced in my whole life, a night that stretched like an eternity that I will not forget, as long as I am among the living.
In the ghetto we endured inhuman conditions, worse than the way that animals are encaged. A whole town of Jews were taken, and we were placed in an area that stretched in total, from the house of Aharon Zelivansky to the house of Alter Munbaz. The overcrowding was unbearable. Close to 50 people were crammed into our house alone. Every day we were chased to the sawmill where we worked, from very early until dark, and instead of being paid, we were beaten both by the Germans, as well as by the White-Russian overseers, who were gentile youths from our town.
On the 14th Cheshvan 5702, when we returned to the ghetto from work, we were told that the Germans had been there during the day and decreed, that whoever had money, gold and jewellery, had to hand it over immediately, and that early the next morning all the residents had to assemble, including infants, and whoever else was living in the ghetto. The assembly would take place at 6am for those who worked at the sawmill, and 7am for the rest. Those who did not carry out one of the two decrees, would immediately be shot, on the spot. A little later Noach Bokav, who was a member of the Judenrat, came to me and with tears in his eyes, told me that he had come to bid me farewell, because who knows if tomorrow at this time, we will still be alive. At that moment, we saw many peasants walking with pick-axes in the direction of the Jewish cemetery. Yes, he said, they are going to dig graves for us. Then he asked me not to tell anyone, because there would be a terrible panic in the ghetto, and he left.
Under no circumstances, however, could I bring myself to keep quiet. No, I must go and warn everyone, perhaps someone will yet manage to escape and in this way, and remain alive to tell future generations, what the Amalekites of the 20th century did to us. I immediately went and alerted the whole ghetto. Of course, that night nobody slept. No matter how bad life was, yet no one wanted to die.
Very early the next morning we all still prayed, trying at the last minute to raise favour from heaven that would annul the terrible decree. A few Jews said Viduy, dissolving into bitter tears. That was the 15th Cheshvan 5702.
When we went out to the Zbyurke (assembly), the ghetto was surrounded by the White-Russian police. We were placed in straight rows. The German murderers approached us and warned us for the last time, that we were to give them the money and the jewellery, because whoever would be found in possession of these items would immediately be shot. Later, they announced that all those who worked in the sawmill could go to work and the rest - must remain at the assembly place. I went into the ghetto again to report on the situation. I said farewell to everyone that I met, and their cries reached to the heart of the heavens. As I was walking, I met my sister Esther, in tears. In answer
May the Lord avenge their blood.
(Michael survived and is the author of this article)
to my question about what she planned to do, she said that she had decided to go to the assembly point. I persuaded her not to do it and took her with me to work. On the way out, we met Yisroel Tzalkovitz actually going back into the ghetto. To my question: Why are you going back? He told me that they would not allow him out of the ghetto, and he believed that they would not allow me and Esther to pass through either.
I immediately found my bearings in the ghetto that had been established and sent my sister to the other side of the ghetto, near the large synagogue, directing her to go through the small river, and through the fields, until she reached the gate of the sawmill. She actually managed to come in with me, to my workplace. When we were already in the courtyard of
the factory, I hid her between the stacks of the layers of wooden boards and in this way, for the meantime, saved her from death.
Shortly after, I saw vehicles arriving from the direction of Stoibtz that were filled with armed Germans.
As I was later told, as soon as they approached the marketplace, they immediately opened fire on the unfortunate Jews who had gathered there earlier. Those who fell first, were thrown on to vehicles and their transportation to the new Jewish cemetery began. Those who were still alive, were, for the time being, crammed into the empty shops, and were later taken to a mass grave where they were all killed, and some were buried alive.
When we returned to the ghetto from work, we found none of those nearest and dearest to us. A deathly silence prevailed in all the houses, like at a cemetery, and cast a fear over all of us who slunk around the small streets, like living shadows.
May the day of the slaughter not be forgotten by all the Swerznie residents who remained alive in Israel, and in all corners of the world. From generation to generation, the stories of the German murderers should be told to our children, and our childrens' children.
On the destruction of the Jewish community of Nove-Swerznie, I say: Yitgadal Vŭitkadash Shmay Rabbah!
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