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[Page 454]

The Holocaust and Heroism
Memoirs From the Nazi Occupation

by Peysekh Epshteyn

Translated by Ruth Murphy

I don't remember any dates, but I remember exactly how some twenty-odd people were called out from work in order to be killed.

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.

[Page 455]

Each day a German would lead me to work and back. Twice a day I would get rye meal soup.

 


A group of students from Steibtz and Swerznie

First row: Third from left, Hanye Munbaz, murdered in the group of the first 30 young people

May the Lord avenge their blood

 

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 Getsl 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.

[Page 456]

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[1]. 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.


Translator's footnote

  1. Judenrein (German): term used by Nazi's - cleansed of Jews. Return


[Page 491]

The Town Nalibok, Its Life and Extermination
Memoirs From the Nazi Occupation

by Chaim Shlosberg

Translated by Ruth Murphy

Nalibok[1], a little town in the district of Stoibtz, was marked on all the maps and known in the whole region thanks to the big forests that extended for hundreds of kilometers and were known by the name “the Nalibok Virgin Forest.”

The town of Nalibok was also known because of a famous rabbi to whom Jews and Christians would come to request a blessing.

The Jewish population had lived in the town for hundreds of years. Around the town were also “yishuvnikes[2] in various villages such as: Prudy[3] Kletishtsh[4], Tserebeyn[5] and Rudineh[6]. They would come to the town to pray on all the holidays, and in due course they moved to live in Nalibok.

In the last years there were approximately 45-50 Jewish families in the town who numbered about 350-400 souls. Like the general population, they lived in poverty and need. Their existence was based mainly on trade, craftsmanship, agriculture, and taverns that would supply brandy and various other drinks for the peasants and workers. Some of the families also needed assistance, that would be collected in the town for every holiday, such as “maot chitim[7], etc. In a word, this was a town like all Jewish towns, the same sources of livelihood and the same poverty.

The Jews barely had enough to support a cheyder[8], with a teacher who was hired from another town. This was the end of the education of many of the youth, who could barely read and write.

In the years 1900-1914 until the outbreak of the First World War, some of the youth emigrated to America and Canada, and with time they began to support their parents - this was one of the main sources of their existence.

After the end of the First World War, Nalibok became part of the Polish Republic. The Poles founded a public school that Jewish children also had to attend. In cheyder, instead of the Rabbi, a teacher was employed, who also began to teach general education. Some of the youth also traveled to study in yeshives[9]. The economic situation of the population made it impossible for the youth to travel to acquire general education, and the cultural situation of the town was significantly backward.

The ideal of the Land of Israel and the Jewish enlightenment movement brought light to Jewish life in Poland, as well as to the life of the Jews of Nalibok. As mentioned above, they also began to study general education, and parents began to take an interest in a better future for their children.

The year 1929 marked a new page in the history of our town. In this year of the well-known unrest in the Land of Israel, some of the youth who studied in Talmudic academies and in cheyder gathered together and decided to take their fate into their own hands. A youth organization called “Hashomer Hatsair[10] was founded, and in the course of time, also other Zionist organizations.

The main task of the youth organizations was to bring the youth closer to the issues of the times - regarding the Land of Israel and about raising the cultural level of the town.

A committee for the Jewish National Fund was founded, a library was established, lectures were held about various problems, theater performances were presented, etc.

Youth began to travel for preparatory agricultural training and began to think seriously about immigration to the Land of Israel.

[Page 492]

The parents also had great hopes that in due course their children would bring them to the Land of Israel.

In 1933, when Hitler came to power in Germany, the antisemitic atmosphere and action increased in Poland as well. This did not exclude the Jews of Nalibok. Economic boycotts against Jewish trade began, and the existence of Jews was threatened. Regrettably, the possibilities for immigration to the Land of Israel were very limited at that time, and there was no way out of this situation for the Jews.

In 1939, when the Polish-German war was already imminent, the Polish government imposed a large monetary levy upon the townsfolk and the situation worsened from day to day. Part of the youth was mobilized into the army.

After the outbreak of the Polish-German war, the Soviets entered Nalibok. All the young people returned from the front, and for almost two years Nalibok was under Soviet-Russian rule.

After the outbreak of the Soviet-German war, Nalibok was occupied by the Germans in the first days. Immediately some of the local Polish youth collaborated with the Germans and caused the Jewish population much trouble and pain, especially those who had worked with the Russians. I want to recount one incident here out of many hundreds that aroused the conscience even of the Christian population.

On a certain day, several young bandits of the local population drove almost all Jewish inhabitants of the town into the bathhouse, young and old, men and women, undressed everybody naked, and ordered that they wash each other. The next day the priest of the town gathered the local population in the church and strongly condemned such inhuman and sadistic deeds.

In November 1941 the Germans decided to gather all the Jews of the small towns into one ghetto in the town of Rubieżewicze.[11] They did it to have everybody together in one place in order to be able to carry out the “final solution” of the Jewish question.

On one autumn day in November, all Jews were instructed to appear in the square near the town hall.

One can imagine the panic that this evoked.

People who had lived in their little town, where their ancestors had lived for generations, suddenly had to leave everything, without even knowing where they were going and what awaited them tomorrow.

I see before my eyes how, at dawn, all Jews, young and old, dragging themselves with their bundles in their hands, knowing that this would be the last time that their feet would step on the earth where they were born. As I was leaving the town, I saw the long chain that moved one after the other, each taking a last look at their own house that they would never see again. Everyone shed a tear under the hail of blows and lashes that fell upon our heads in order to hurry us and not even allow us to say good-bye to our old home.

We were brought to Rubieżewicze, where we were not allowed to sit for long. Some youth, who had been driven out of the surrounding towns, were caught and moved to work in Dvorets. They brought us into the street and did not even let us say good-bye to our parents, who were standing at a distance and saw us being taken away, without even knowing our destination.

That was the last time that we saw our dear parents, those who were closest and dearest to us.

In this way, parents and children, men and women were parted forever. The remaining Jews in Rubieżewicze, mainly the older people, were gathered by the Germans in June 1942 and everyone was slaughtered horrendously -- almost no one was able to save themself -- and no one even had a Jewish burial.

Another group of the Jews of Nalibok was in Dvorets. One day we received the horrible news about the cruel death of those closest to us in Rubieżewicze.

We saw that our end was also approaching. Our situation in Dvorets was very difficult, we worked hard and did not have anything to eat. We began to think about escaping into the forest. We sold our last possessions and began to prepare weapons.

But the cruel murderous enemy did not let us remain long in Dvorets either, and on 28 December 1942, when we rose very early to go to work, we saw that we were surrounded by Germans.

They wanted to deceive us and told us to bring only small packages that we could carry by hand because they wanted to take us to work in another place. Some let themselves be deceived but others, among them Jews from Nalibok and from other towns, succeeded in hiding and running away into the forest. But the largest part of those in Dvorets, mostly Jews from Nalibok, were

[Page 493]

murderously slaughtered and met their death in the general pits near Nowogródek.

After both mass slaughters, about thirty Jews remained, of all the Jews of Nalibok. After difficult wanderings and troubles, we arrived in the large Nalibok Virgin Forest and dispersed into various partisan groups. We took considerable vengeance for those dearest and closest to us, who were no longer with us. The town of Nalibok and surrounding villages were reduced to ashes. The Germans moved the peasants and the bandits, who inflicted so much suffering upon us, to Germany. In the Nalibok forests there were tens of thousands of partisans, among them the few lonely, broken Jews of Nalibok, who took severe vengeance and brought much honor to our town.

Not all Jews who escaped from Nalibok lived to see the liberation. Some fell on the way from cold and hunger as well as from enemy bullets.

In the month of July 1944, we were liberated by the Soviet military. We all gathered in the town of Ivenets, and only then, we felt our loneliness and our anguish. Eighteen Jews of Nalibok remained -- broken remnants of a renowned Jewish community that had existed for hundreds of years. We decided not to build our future on the ruins of our closest and dearest parents and friends.

We decided to leave our old home; we took the wandering cane in our hands and set off on our way.

The largest number came to the Land of Israel, and some immigrated to the United States.

This is how a bloody chapter in the history of one old Jewish community ended forever. Some families did not leave even one relative behind. The graves of our closest and dearest are scattered over White Russia, and we do not even know where.

Each year a few surviving Jews from Nalibok gather for the anniversary, to remember all the martyrs of Nalibok.

Honor to their memory.

 


“Poalei Tziyon” (HeChaluts) of Stoibtz with members from the kibbutz in Israel

Sitting from the right: Avrom Inzelbukh; Hinde Rozovski; kibbutz member; Tsipe-Rokhl Tunik; Mordekhy Rozovski; Leybl Garmize.
Standing from the right: Akirzhner; Moishel Klutsh; kibbutz member; Chaye Reznik; kibbutz member; Moshe Borsuk; Moshe Tunik (Etkes); Brokhe Borsuk; Berl Moltsadski; Sholem Ruditski; kibbutz member.

 

[Page 494]

Already in 1949, a request was noted in the official record of the Stoibtz survivors' society to publish a memorial book, a living monument, and immortalize the destroyed town of Stoibtz and its surrounding area.

To realize the idea of publishing such a book seemed almost like a beautiful farsighted dream. Our Stoibtz survivors were small in number and weak in organization. Only a few of those who remained had the intellectual strength to devote their abilities to this purpose.

At the annual memorial meetings, the warm call of our Zalman Shazar[12] would resound: “It is the commandment of this generation, and indeed here, in the fervor of this hour, to begin to think about a memorial book for Stoibtz.”

The thought was close to our hearts and appealed strongly to our feelings. But how could we accomplish it?

Years passed, and in the course of time, dozens of cities and towns published memorial books.

In 1954 it was decided to take the first steps to publish a book about Stoibtz. We began to involve ourselves with this question and study it, in all its aspects. We turned to proficient people who published the books about the cities of Luninets, Baranowicze, Kletsk, etc. in order to learn and benefit from their experience.

The first step was to collect materials, articles, memoirs and various lists, regardless of their format. At the same time, we searched through archives, libraries, the press, and periodical publications about life in Stoibtz.

The frequent calls and appeals to those from Stoibtz at first did not meet with a good response. Few sent in notes and memoirs. But every small list, every hand-written piece of paper, was appreciated and preserved like a precious stone. Slowly papers and writings were gathered, and something was created out of nothing.

A great contribution to the book was made by Mendel Machtey in his written notebooks in which he dealt with various levels and ordinary people from Stoibtz. During the first steps of the book of Stoibtz he served as a stimulating and driving force for subsequent literary work. Parts of his observations appear in our book.

Articles and correspondents' reports about Stoibtz were discovered in archives in Hameylits, Hatzfirah, etc. from the end of the preceding century.

The active members of the editorial board did pioneering work, dedicated much time and effort to the book of Stoibtz. Days and nights were devoted to sorting the individual lists, editing every written article, and placing it all in a suitable and correct place.

There were disappointments. Often, we reached a point of inaction, something of a crisis, a stalemate. It seemed as if no way out or final resolution was visible. Nevertheless, the work slowly moved forward and somehow found the high road.

Recognition and thanks are owed to our editor (as well as the editor of “Pinkes Slutsk” (“The Chronicle of Slutsk”), Nochem Khinits, for his devoted and energetic collaboration, for his patience and understanding and finding a common language with each one separately, in every situation.

Getzel Reiser contributed much with his constant diligence and initiative in realizing the publication of the book. Comrades Eliezer Melamed, Tsvi Stolovitski, and the editor Sholem Akhiezer deserve a real “Well done!” for their tireless work in editing, sorting, and collecting the material.

And last but not least, thank you to the many dozens of people from Stoibtz and others who contributed to this book by writing articles, memoirs, and lists. Thanks also to the co-workers of the cooperative printing press “Akhdut” and the co-workers of the Land of Israel zincography in Tel-Aviv, who carried out their work conscientiously and with love for the task. -- All these collaborated and contributed to the general success of publishing the “Memorial Book Stoibtz-Swerznie”.

The Committee for the Book

 


The Editorial Board

Sitting from the right: Nochem Khinits, Getzel Reiser
Standing: Eliezer Melamed, Tsvi Stolovitski

 

Translator's Footnotes
  1. Nalibok: 45.7 miles WSW of Minsk, 5346' N 2628' E. Return
  2. Jews who lived in rural Christian settings. Return
  3. Prudy: 42.9 miles W of Minsk, 5347' N 2632' E. Return
  4. Kleshishche, Kletsishche: 49.8 miles W of Minsk, 5350' N 2621' E. Return
  5. Terebeyno, Terebeyna: 45.6 miles W of Minsk, 5348' N 2628' E. Return
  6. Pil'nyanskaya Rudnya, Rudnya: 40.8 miles W of Minsk, 5348' N 2635' E. Return
  7. Maot chitim - (Hebrew) Contributions for providing the poor with Passover necessities. Return
  8. Cheyder Yiddish from Hebrew: traditional Jewish religious school for boys. Return
  9. Yeshivas: (Hebrew and Yiddish) Talmudic schools. Return
  10. Hashomer Hatsair: (Hebrew and Yiddish) The Young Guard a Jewish Zionist youth organization. Return
  11. In this article, the town's name is spelled "Rubieżewicze". Return
  12. Zalman Shazar, the third president of Israel (1963-1973), was born in Mir, now Belarus, not far from the towns discussed in this book. He lived in Steibtz during his childhood and youth. Return

 

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