by Munia Yossilevski-Yaron
Translated by Ann Belinsky
Swerznie, my birthplace, was spread out over the left bank of the Neiman it was established in the lap of nature, with orchards and flowering gardens full of greenery and fruit. Around it were groves and green fields which grew profusely for the inhabitants. It seemed to us that it was our town, we loved it and we trusted it and actually it also seemed that we had good neighborliness with the rest of the gentile inhabitants. A gay and vibrant town, enlightened youth, Zionist movements and clubs, school, synagogue, charity and mutual help institutions, shops, pharmacies, fire-brigade and cultural halls wherein balls were held to mark every Zionist and Jewish event: Theatrical plays. Speakers from all factions and streams visited. All in all about eighty Jewish families and double that number of gentiles lived there. And thus life flowed in peace and quiet like the flow of water from the Neiman until the hidden antisemitism of our gentile neighbors burst out and also was supported both secretly and openly by the Polish government. The ground began to collapse under our feet, the financial base began to weaken Jewish shops were boycotted by their gentile buyers. And shops with eye-opening signs in their facades: A Christian Shop sprang up like mushrooms.
A large part of the youth which was mainly Zionistic and with a national pioneering spirit made the right conclusions and emigrated to Eretz, and thus Swerznie began to empty of Jews. [The townspeople] would accompany the pioneers with happiness and pride on their way to Zion. Happy tears would fall from the eyes of the accompaniers and the throats did not stop shouting Hazak! Hazak Ve'ematz! To see you in independent and liberated Israel! The accompanying crowd would disperse with the whistle of the train, happy that a person was freeing himself from the Exile and sighing on who still remained there. But very quickly our world became completely dark. The Great War broke out the Second World War. In 1939 the Germans attacked Poland and defeated it. The Russians exploited the defeat and annexed Belarus and the Ukraine, and Poland as a state was erased from the map of the world. Only two hours after the first of the Red Army soldiers crossed the eastern border of Poland, Swerznie was already under the rule of the Soviet Union, for only a distance of 12 kilometers divided Swerznie from the Soviet border.
We were set free from the antisemitic hostile rule. We became free citizens with full and equal rights, but unfortunately this freedom hid inside it the chopping down of everything Jewish - Zionist and nationalistic, and Zionism was declared to be a crime. The Jewish youth of Swerznie did not come to terms with its national destruction and devised plans on how to slip through borders and to arrive at the longed-for goal. Od lo avda tikvateynu this was the motto of life in the short time of the Soviet rule in Swerznie. For this rule too did not have a long life. On the 22nd June 1941, the Germans declared war on Soviet Russia with a mighty and huge war machine. With a large army equipped with many modern and vast weapons of war, the Nazi Germans overcame the Red Army, which retreated east. And after five days of bloody battles, the German army entered Swerznie at daybreak, on 27.6.1941.
I managed to leave burning Swerznie and retreat with the Red Army east, I did not manage to get on a train of evacuees, for the trains were already immobilized and the bridges were bombed by the Germans. However I managed to pass by foot a distance of three hundred kilometers east until my strength gave out. We, a group of fleeing Jewish refugees, found a place to sleep in one of the forests on the banks of the Berezina, not far from the town of Ossipovitz. With the crack of dawn, the conquering Germany army reached us and we were taken captive. This was my first meeting with the German army - an army of murderers and predators. Captives were beaten and tortured, the wounded murdered in cold blood in front of their friends. Jewish prisoners were executed as they were captured. Luckily my facial features did not reveal my Jewishness and because of this I was not murdered. We were concentrated, thousands of captives in a prison camp, without a supply of food and water. On the fourth day of our capture a German car appeared with crumbs of bread and food and its contents were emptied into the compound. The hungry inmates fell upon the morsels and pandemonium broke out amongst us. The German sentries opened fire on the captives with no early warning and many were killed in their fight for a breadcrumb. The German murderers enjoyed the scene and did not permit us to bury the dead.
The night after this event when each was lying on his inadequate bed, I sensed a bustle among the captives. In any case I couldn't sleep
for I was hungry and thirsty and also I was scared that they would discover I was Jewish and my fate would be sealed. A bullet in the head -- That was the way many Jews were executed when discovered amongst the captives. I followed after several of my fellow captives, who moved close to the perimeter of the prison camp into the bushes in the place where the German sentry passed. The sentry was thrown down with a fast and daring leap and killed on the spot. With a silent call of Forward, the captives broke out in the direction of the forest which was not far from the prison camp. I seized the moment and with other captives who were close by, we burst forward in the direction of the forest. There was silence for no more than a minute, for the escape was immediately discovered by the Germans and heavy fire was opened on the escapees. I didn't look back, I only heard the groans of the wounded and I ran forward with all my strength. Luckily I arrived safe and sound to the thick forest which the pursuers did not dare to penetrate. In the forest we dispersed and in the darkness no one saw anyone else. When dawn broke I found myself among a group of five frightened and scared Russian captives with no future plan. We entered an isolated farm, took some food and asked where we were. We were told that we were at a distance of about twenty-five kilometers from the prisoner camp and in an area full of German soldiers. We returned to the forest, hid among the bushes and remained there all day. When darkness came, we continued further. But my Russian comrades told me delicately and aggressively, that my presence was not desired to them and I am a stranger to them because I was a Jew.
With no choice, completely alone, I continued west, back to the direction of Swerznie, my birthplace and my parents' home. My way back took almost a month, I walked only at night time in side and winding paths. During the day I would hide and rest in the forest. I avoided meeting the German soldiers who moved east on the main roads in hordes with their large quantity of military equipment. I was helped by gentiles. At night they did not recognize me as a Jew when saying I was returning home from a communist prison. But my situation was very dangerous in cases when a gentile would guess that I was a Jew and he would fall upon me with swearing and curses: Get out of here, damn Jew, you scoundrels, for a long time and more than enough you have eaten our bread. We won't allow you to remain on our land and breathe our air, you traitors and murderers of G-d. Creators of the damned communism. In this case I would hurry to get away in the darkness and to distance myself from the place and try my luck to ask for a slice of bread from another gentile and in another place. Thus I returned hungry, tired, broken and depressed, with my hair grown long and dressed in rags to my parents' home in Swerznie.
I entered Swerznie through the Okintzitz forests. Towards evening I crossed the Neiman quickly and went into one of the farthest Jewish houses, not far from the Neiman, to the home of Tzvi Epshteyn, zl of blessed memory. But when I opened the door and crossed the threshold, the owner recognized me. For several seconds we stood and stared at each other without speaking. The inhabitants of the house were scared and frightened, for a number of Jewish families had already been murdered, and terrible decrees had been issued, the worst being that every Jew must wear on his chest and back the badge of disgrace: a Yellow Star of David of diameter 10 cm, for every Jew from the age of 12 and up. A person would be shot with no early warning if he was seen in the street without this sign. Tzvi's wife Yehudit zl, a devoted mother to her children and to the rest of the town children, gave me a slice of bread with tears in her eyes, offered me a chair to sit and warned me not to sit by the window lest one of the gentiles would see me. I distanced myself from the window and felt the hell to which I was caught up in. I breathed heavily, and wave of sweat passed over me. One of the small children of Swerznie who by chance was in the house ran to my parents' home to tell them that I had returned. After a few minutes, my little 10 year old sister Tsippi zl arrived with tears streaming from her eyes from sadness and happiness sadness of the times and happiness of the meeting. In her soft hands were two Yellow Stars of David for me, so that I could cross the distance from my present location to my parents' house. I bent down so that my little sister could stick the badge of disgrace on my back. I felt as if heavy grindstones had been put around my neck and on my back. My back could no longer straighten from the weight and the significance for many months until they were unloaded from me by order of the many murdered by the order of revenge for the honor of Israel that had been trampled and the blood that had been spilt. After many efforts of my parents and the Judenraat, I was added to the list of Jews. I was a citizen with equal rights and obligations. Decorated with the sign of disgrace, I was required to go to forced labor like all the Jews of the small town. We worked on repairing the roads where the German army was moving eastwards. Insults, curses and beatings were our lot. After a short time, the sawmill in our town was put into use again under German management. From lack of workers, most of the Jews of Swerznie were put to work there. A Jew was permitted only to work at simple jobs and all the management roles were given to the gentiles, despite there being skilled workers among the Jews. We worked for free, not receiving any payment. For some reason, I and my friend Benyamin Vilitovski, a native of the town and my age, didn't want to work in the sawmill and so we worked in repairing roads and on the Gravel (Zifzif) Hill by our town. However after much pleading by our common uncle Yisrael Tselkovits who had a certain amount of influence on the foreman at the sawmill, we began to work there, pulling out the logs which flowed with the Neiman to the shore.
The harsh decrees from the Germans, the advance of their armies east and the crumbling of the Red Army depressed us very much. The false news that the Germans had conquered Moscow, fell onto us with a shock, for despite all we still had some hope, and looked forward to the advance of the Red Army. And here on one fell swoop, all hope faded away and we were lost. From whence shall my help come?
Since the sawmill was in the first stages of organization, not all the Jews of Swerznie were employed there and a fair number worked on the Gravel Hill by the town. Two days after Yom Kippur 1941 a dozen German soldiers appeared in the town, went into the Judenraat office and took away two of its young members, Ayzik Grande zl and Benyamin Machnes zl and on their way passed the hill where the Jews worked. They took them one by one and after a selection and sorting, took out 28 young men and women, only those who were residents of Swerznie, and sat them in their large truck. They were taken straight to the new town cemetery. On the way they were cruelly and inhumanely abused, and by the time they reached the cemetery they were all beaten, wounded and bloody. At the cemetery the young men were ordered to dig and prepare their own graves. When the pit was ready, the five young women of the group were shot dead. A minute before the execution of these five, one of the Swerznie girls burst out of the row. Duba daughter of Ephraim Vilitovski aged 17, clenched her fists in front of
the German murderers and instead of asking for mercy, while standing with supreme heroism, declared: The avenging Jewish hands will nonetheless find you! You will pay dearly for our spilt blood. You despicable German murderers! My friend Benyamin - her brother - told me this story several hours after the murder. He heard the description of the murder from one of the Russian policemen who was present at the cemetery.
Benyamin did not cry or mourn. Quietly he repeated the last will of his saintly sister The avenging Jewish hand. We felt in all our bodies and with all our hearts that from the saintly proud and quiet daughter of Swerznie, Duba daughter of Ephriam Vilitovski, had come to the order to revolt and avenge. At that moment we had still not managed to get organized. Our means were scanty and our options limited and we awaited the future with great trepidation.
After a number of weeks all the Jews of the town, about 500 people, were concentrated into the narrow and suffocating ghetto in a small section at the edge of the town, with the synagogue at its center. And from here the curse was fulfilled - And seven women shall bake their bread in one oven. After sitting for two weeks in the narrow ghetto, where ten people were housed in one room, the order came: each of the ghetto inhabitants, from youth to the elderly, must appear tomorrow morning at the market square for a general roll call. In the ghetto, panic, fear and anxiety spread. People ran about with fright from one to the other, wanting to know what was happening and what to do. At this fateful moment a lack of leadership and guidance was felt. We resembled a frightened herd with no shepherd. It is difficult to forget that day. It was a long day, its minutes like hours and its hours like days… In the evening I heard from one of the adults that it had become known to him that all the gentiles in the town had been enlisted to dig a huge grave in the cemetery. Jews he said Not good. Trouble is expected. Let us say Psalms! And the innocent and believing Jews grasped this traditional weapon, searched in the piles of books and found their book of Psalms… dissolved in tears and read The Lord hear thee in the day of trouble etc. The only gazes were directed upwards to the deaf and dumb heavens.
Oh, Exile, how you are accursed! Happy is the man who knew you not and did not breathe your air and did not eat your bread and did not walk on your soil!
A sleepless night was passed by all in the Swerznie Ghetto. And despite all, the sun set, the moon appeared and afterwards dawn, and after some time it was morning, the morning that we had to present ourselves in the market square.
All of us like disciplined soldiers, while darkness still reigned, reported to the market. All of us in straight lines, a wife by her husband, children by their parents, babies in their mothers' arms, the sick leaning on their supporters everyone. Everyone. Not a single person remained in the ghetto. Silence, don't make a sound was the order, for our gentile neighbors are still sleeping.
And here from the direction of Steibtz appeared the black image of the German law representative -- the same German officer who had ordered this gathering yesterday. He approached the top of the line, alone, greeted them - Good morning said the German murderer and ordered that the money, gold coins and jewelry in our possession be given to him immediately, otherwise he would have to punish us and we don't want that. Perfect German hypocrisy!
The German officer ordered all the males to hurry to work at the sawmill for the German army needs equipment for its war. After several minutes when we men had gone a short distance from the market square, we heard one shot, then another, and the whistle of the German officer, and a large group of German murderers and traitorous Russians who had hidden behind the high fence of the Russian church, burst out from the churchyard and surrounded all the people in the square. Thus the trapping and murder of the Jews of Swerznie had been planned by the German murderers and their Russian accomplices.
The groans of the wounded, the screams of the parents and the cries of children reached our ears, but we could not help them, as we were being taken to work surrounded by a strong guard. The shooting and sounds of shouting continued for several hours. We understood what was happening with our dear ones, the fate of our mothers and children. But we, whose lives had been served to us by grace of our employers, the German foremen of the sawmill - we were told to work and to work with even more so with vigor, for our lives were granted because of our work.
I and my friend Benyamin worked the same day on the Neiman shore positioning the logs which had been pulled out of the water. From the distance we could see the forest, where our cemetery was located and the Jews who had not been killed in the market square were brought there. The groans of the martyrs reached our ears with the noise of the Neiman waters. The convoys of those being led there could be seen clearly, and the echo of the shots was heard all around single shots and many volleys from automatic rifles. I thought then only of who was being felled by this shooting and this minute my mother, my sister, my neighbor or my friend. In the afternoon, after all the ghetto inhabitants had been murdered, the shots stopped and silence reigned all around, but my ears still reverberate with the groans which I will never forget, the groans of our fathers, mothers brothers and sisters who were murdered by the Germans for their only crime that they were Jews in Exile.
Afternoon arrived. Work was stopped and the gentile workers sat down, each comfortably in his place, and ate as usual, with enhanced appetite, for it was a day of rejoicing for them: Jews had been killed and murdered. One of the Christian foremen, hurried home and on the way he sensed that a Jewish woman was hiding behind a bush on the river banks. He brought a watchman, a Russian traitor of our town called Lonik Shakorinski and shot her three times. According to her dress we recognized her from afar the wife of Finkelstein, who lived in Shinkman's house. Several minutes later, another gentile appeared who pulled off her clothes and buried her on the spot leaving no sign. During the shots and killing, a small girl aged eight, named Belinka, daughter of the milliner Kirshner, ran to our workplace on the banks of the Neiman. Crying bitterly, she approached us the Jewish workers and told us what was happening in the market square. The child had somehow managed to get away from the place. A living witness to the Valley of Slaughter.
What did our dear ones say? How did our martyrs behave? We asked her. No-one resisted, everyone did what the Germans told them to do. But every one clenched his fist and shouted: Avenge, avenge our bloodshed!
Avenge, avenge! this was their last wish of my dear mother, this was the holy request of my little sister and this was the will and last testament of all our dear ones who died a martyr's death on sanctification of the nation before their murder by the Germans, cursed be their name!
Avenge! The word that was deeply etched in my consciousness and its echo and sound rang endlessly in my ears like a hammer on the blacksmith's anvil.
Avenge! This was the only slogan that accompanied me
and my friends in the battles with the German enemy in the underground and at the fronts until the crazed animal was destroyed.
At the end of the workday for the Jewish workers at the sawmill, on the day of the slaughter of the Jews of Swerznie on 8.11.1941, we were transported under heavy guard back to the ghetto. Horrible sights occurred that same evening and night when we, who had remained alive, found out the exact fate of our families the pure and tender bodies of many of our children were still scattered in yards and gardens in the ghetto like birds after hunting. There were many bloodstains all around and the houses had been looted. The Exile had appeared in all its terror and cruelty. Our gentile neighbors were still busy with the looting: one dragged a bucket, the other a bench or even a piece of clothing stained with its owner's blood, the main thing was to steal. We walked like shadows and sometimes it seemed to us, that we were going crazy from the immensity of the catastrophe. But hard and exhausting work at the sawmill was imposed on us, the living, and the punishment for not fulfilling an order was death by shooting.
Another 120 Jews from the nearby town Turetz were joined to the small handful of Swerznie men who remained alive. Their lot was similar to ours their wives and children had been murdered 2 days before and they were added on to us as a supplement to the workforce of the Swerznie sawmill. The ghetto was diminished in size and changed its status to a work camp. The camp was surrounded by a close-fitting board fence 2 meters high and now a barbed wire fence was added to the wooden fence. High watchtowers were set up at both ends, with sentries armed with machine guns.
I would like to remark that in these crazy days the youth of Swerznie remained strong in its spirit and body and did not given in to the enemy. And those who were educated in the national Zionist spirit did not want to reconcile with their bitter fate and to agree to conception of the period, which was: The finger of G-d, the messianic throes have arrived. Immediately after the massacre the youth got organized in an underground within the camp, and we began to think of acquiring both hot and cold weapons and to plan for an uprising and resistance to our murderers.
Here I remember one of the gloomy evenings, at the first meeting of the first underground that took place in one of the cellars of the camp, the words of our friend Benyamin Vilitovski who is alive with us at present in Eretz (Israel). He is a native of Swerznie, a graduate of the Tarbut school in Steibtz, a member of a Zionist youth movement, one of the architects of the revolt in the Swerznie camp, and this was his first declaration: Comrades! We must organize and arm ourselves with every weapon that we can get, and not only to save our lives. The fate of our people is our fate too, from which we cannot escape, but the youth of Swerznie will not be led like lambs to the slaughter, we will fight and we will avenge the spilt blood of our people. The problem in front of us was: not how to live with honor, but how to die with honor.
An order was given to cease the restraint, an order to revolt.
The first action taken by the underground was during the construction of the fence around the camp. It was erected by carpenters of the camp who worked in the carpentry workshop of the sawmill. Benyamin Vilitovski, Yosef Adon-Olam, I and Kalman Stolovitzki zl who fell at the front after the partisan period, worked as apprentices and thus helped them construct the fence. We organized the work such that we would build the rear wing, which faced the fields opposite the old ritual bath. The person responsible on our work was one of the professional carpenters of the town, Ben-Tzion Reznik zl, older than us, a realist and intelligent. He served as a sort of political mentor. His words were that the slaughter was not by chance and not local. This is planned murder of the whole people of Israel. The aim of fascism is to annihilate all the Jewish people and we must defend ourselves with all our strength and not expect a miracle. After a short time Ben-Tzion sickened with a disease which did not seem serious, but since there was a lack of medical aid in Swerznie he was transferred to Steibtz, where there was a sort of Jewish hospital. Ben-Tzion never returned to Swerznie. He was murdered by the Germans in Steibtz. We did put the planks in place, under Ben-Tzion's supervision. However we hammered in quarter nails, the main ones, in such a way that we could easily breach the fence at a time of need. We did this carefully and secretively, so that even our Jewish friends and our German managers were not aware of it. It is worthwhile mentioning that people passed several times along this part of the fence in their role for the underground. We began to search for ways and connections in order to acquire weapons. Our comrades, who knew they were working not alone and that behind them was an organized body, could work with more energy and confidence to carry out operations. Each one felt that behind him, inside the camp, there was a certain force that would defend him at least from our Jewish opposers, of whom there who were many at the beginning of the establishment of the underground. The innocent Jews believed the German liar, manager of the sawmill, the German SS officer, Okon, who said that he would save us and not let us be liquidated on condition that we work energetically and stay quiet, that the underground would cause the camp to be destroyed. These innocents, opposers of the underground, acted with their own strength to destroy us inside the camp but not G-d forbid, by informing on us to the enemy.
The first who brought a concrete suggestion about the possibility of stealing and bringing in a hand grenade was our comrade the youth Yitzhak, son of Yosef Hertz Peretsovitz zl, who fell in the partisan wars.
Yitzhak, a native of Swerznie, known to us as Itch'keh- Esther Yakha's, did not even finish the Tarbut school in Steibtz, a tender and warm boy who was deeply shocked when he saw with his own eyes how the Germans murdered his father and mother the day they entered Swerznie. The same bullet of the German murderer that split open his mother's heart hit the youth's leg, and he suffered from the wound till his last day. His wrath burned like a volcano, he was a hero who knew no fear, and remained alone, for his sister and younger brother were murdered at the time of the massacre. Yitzhak continued to work in the bakery of his father as an assistant baker. In his work he met with a gentile friend from his schooldays, son of one of the Swerznie inhabitants. In a friendly conversation, the shegetz told him that he possessed a hand grenade and that he was willing to give it to him for money, and was willing to bring it not far from the ghetto fence and to hide it among the shrubs on the small shore of the river which flowed close to the synagogue. We considered the matter and it was decided to carry out the action. The next day the shegetz received recompense from Yitzhak: a watch, and promised that he would immediately transfer the grenade to the agreed location, which all of us as natives of the place knew well according to his signs. The tension among us was great, and none of us really completely believed him. We thought that maybe a trap was being set up, or that it was a provocation. But from lack of choice we decided to take the risk and fixed a certain time to come and remove the grenade from its hiding place. For precautionary reasons none of us came at the determined time to meet the gentile. We decided to keep track of the camp watchmen and learn the times of their guard. The towers had indeed been erected but the guards were sloppy in their role and didn't climb them every night,
maybe because they thought that in any case the Jews were not capable of any action and the strict guard was unnecessary. One dark night when the enemy was not guarding outside and without any of our internal opposers sensing anything, we approached to the fence and quickly and in silence we removed the planks which were joined with quarter nails. Yitzhak left the camp and after a few minutes returned with the hand grenade in his hands. The boards were returned to their place without leaving any sign of breaching.
There was much rejoicing in our quarters. In our hands there was a means which could harm the enemy: a live hand grenade! This was the source of encouragement and hope. Taking the model of the live grenade we fashioned similar wooden grenades in order to at least frighten the unarmed population during an operation or escape.
In 1942 from the neighboring towns we received news of the massacres and killings. The Jewish settlements, large and small, had been decreed Judenrein, and not a single Jew remained in them. And we, a handful of 360 Jews, mostly men fit for work, and about 30 women, who had been left by the Germans as cooks and housekeepers, and a few children who had managed by all sorts of reasons to remain alive after the massacre, sat in the camp starving and humiliated and worked for the enemy in the sawmill, enclosed firmly in all directions and waited for the unknown. Some had already accepted the sentence for our many sins that we must suffer until we are released and we meet with our beloved ones to the World to Come a world that is all good.
But the members of the underground did not think this way. They were even more harnessed for organization and explanation, and many Jews answered our call and stood by us. The immediate aim was to acquire weapons.
The first rifle was brought to our camp by Nathan Goldstein zl, who fell in the partisan battles. A native of Swerznie, graduate of the Tarbut school in Steibtz and a member of a Zionist youth movement. We succeeded in hiding it from the eyes of our opposers among the Jews and from our gentile enemies, and the rifle was brought into the camp. In similar circumstances, in daring and complicated operations and in exchange for large payments, the underground in the Swerznie camp acquired and brought in a dozen weapons and a large amount of ammunition.
And thus a disciplined and united underground military body was established in the Swerznie camp. At its head did not stand our leaders and our community leaders or adult people with a background of community activity. At the head of this body were youth whose Zionist and Hebrew education were strongly criticized by the dominant circles in our small town, who waited only for a miracle from the heavens. We thank our Zionistic Hebrew teachers who had implanted into our consciousness a complete negation of the Exile and a deep national recognition, the basis of human pride. We used this as an impetus for revolt and insurgency and in our perception that our national and personal pride was trampled and our dear ones were led like lambs to the slaughter, this military body made an unequivocal decision - we will not be led like lambs to the slaughter! - we must escape the camp to the thick forests and those lucky enough to get there must manage the war of revenge on our enemies from the forests. I do not want to blame the people opposing the underground and the revolt, for it was clear to all of us that this is Metzada - a war without chance of success to remain alive and we must die with dignity as is proper for the offspring of the Zealots whose national honor was dearer that their lives. In my opinion, only a person educated in this spirit was ready to pay the costly price for the ideal which he had supported all his life. But unfortunately only a few in the Exile were thus educated, and few had the courage and strength to arise and revolt.
The act of bringing arms into the camp was as difficult as parting the Red Sea, and not easier was the problem of where to store arms in the camp. The opposers of the underground wanted to disarm us at all costs, thinking that this would stop our activities and we would not carry out our mission an uprising and escape to the forests. We knew too, that every attempt in this direction would bring after it complete liquidation of the camp, but also we knew that we were the last of the Jews in the area and our end was inevitable. Our opposers hoped that maybe because of ancestral merits or thanks to miracles, we would nevertheless remain alive. We didn't believe in delusions like these and we knew that it was only a matter of time and nothing else.
The headquarters of the underground in the Swerznie camp sat whole nights and deliberated: what to do and how to act. Opinions were divided. There were those who claimed we should leave and not consider the fate of those left behind. For if we wait we would lose. Others claimed: wait for the decisive moment, and then resist with the arms we had and to escape to the forests. It was hard to decide. In the meanwhile our previous decision was implemented: to practice on the weapons in our possession, so that each of our comrades would know how to use them when the time came.
The arms were concentrated in one place and in one cache and I was given the responsibility for them. The arms were hidden in a large wooden box, in a 2 meter depth pit dug in an abandoned storehouse of my aunt Chana-Sarah the only storehouse that was in the camp, and in a dilapidated condition. In the summer months we - I, Benyamin, Yitzhak zl, and Nathan zl would sleep there at nights. In order to additionally cover them up, we brought in Yitzhak Brachonski from Steibtz to sleep there. He lived with his family in terrible crowding in a corner of a corridor in the house of the town rabbi, R' Avraham Alpert zl. We knew that our opposers had given Brachonski the job to spy on what was happening with us. Thus in his presence we didn't speak about the underground.
It happened once that when Brachonski was inside with us, we found that in the morning we were closed in and locked from outside. A rumor had spread through the camp that we and our comrades were going to escape that night from the camp. Our opposers, who had set up sentries in the camp, thought that just to make sure, they would lock us up from outside, and in the morning we were forced to break through the wall in order to leave the storehouse. At the end of summer and when the weather was colder, we stopped sleeping in the storehouse. But it remained used by us as a center for the underground and its meetings, and as a hiding place for weapons and training. Trainings took place every Sunday, when we didn't go to work. It was hard for me to leave my comrades in the living block and get up early in the morning in order to open the cache and take the weapons out, but each time I found some reason (naturally with the help of my underground friends) to go out to this difficult and dangerous work. As an instructor for these weapons was our comrade, a native of Swerznie, a Polish soldier in the past, who had participated in the Poland-Germany war in 1939, Shmuel (Mula) son of Tzvi Epshteyn. He would first sneak secretly into the storehouse, and after him according to a queue and predetermined signs, one of our comrades would enter to practice on the weapon. I remember the tripod and sandbag that I prepared for these training sessions, and the happy smile of our instructor Shmuel when his students succeeded in their practice. It was hard also to forget the emotion
Ch. Szenkman, M. Dektarevitch, Mina and Benyamin Szenkman
when a comrade pinned the weapon to his body. His eyes shone, his hands shook and all his body trembled from the sanctity of the status: training with live ammunition, weapons of revenge within the Jewish camp, twenty-thirty meters from the nest of German murderers, on the other side of the fence of the camp. The German murderers' nest was in the house of the Shenkman family and the nest of the Belarussian traitors was in the house of the Treczsziniecky family. These were Jewish houses, which bordered the camp fence and the storehouse and only a few meters divided between them and us, separated only by the fence.
When winter came and the ground hardened, it was decided to distribute the weapons among the comrades in small caches, where each was close to his living quarters. We took one rifle for ourselves, the inhabitants of Block Number 8 - the house of my uncle Yisrael Tzelkovitz. A second rifle was given to the inhabitants of the block in the house of Tzvi Rubin: the instructor Shmuel Epshteyn and the brothers Tzolovitzki (the Tzolovitzki family comes from Vilna, and they came during the war to Swerznie. An honorable family - parents and three brave children, Sasha, Yitzhak and Avraham, who were members of the underground in the camp. The parents were murdered in Swerznie. Sasha and Avraham fell in the war, and Yitzhak lives amongst us in Israel). Another rifle was given to Comrade Yoel Mazodvitz, a native of Mir who worked as a carpenter in the Swerznie sawmill and was attached to the camp with another group of carpenters from his town. The rest of the weapons were divided amongst our comrades who lived in the women's division of the synagogue. Naturally all our desire was to find more weapons and especially ammunition, of we didn't have much.
One of our best people, a native of Swerznie, Gedaliyahu son of Shmuel-David Machnes, a member of the underground who lived together with Shmuel Epshteyn in one room in Tzvi Rubin's house, wanted bring in a lot of ammunition into the camp by himself …
Gedaliyahu zl and his father R' Shmuel-David zl were tailors by profession and as tailors they also worked in the sawmill. They sewed clothes for the German foremen of the sawmill and also for the Ukrainians, who were brought in as Red Army prisoners of war and betrayed their nation and worked serving the Germans. They received German uniforms and arms, and filled roles of guarding the sawmill and around the Jewish camp, and took part also in the massacre of Jews in the surrounding small towns. The Ukrainians serving their German masters in their cruelty and coarseness did not fall from their German lords. When one of the Jews in the camp, a Swerznie native, Alter Kravitz zl, was caught out of the camp with a loaf of bread and a bottle of milk in his hands, which he had bought in return for a piece of clothing, they arrested by him and the next day at the roll-call of the camp Jews inside the sawmill, he was beaten to death by one of the Ukrainians to the enjoyment and laughter of all the gentiles of the sawmill. Among these Ukrainians was one called Tshorny, who was not conspicuous in cruelty and even showed that he was better than his fellowmen - several times he approached us and expressed his sorrow on our fate. It happened that the Ukrainians received new clothes from their German masters. The Ukrainians exploited the presence of the tailors in the sawmill and brought the clothes to be altered, as they too wanted to look good in their appearance. On this opportunity, Gedaliyahu made contact with the Ukrainian Tshorny and promised to alter his clothes first, in return for ammunition that Tshorny would bring from the storehouse, and so it was. When he received his clothes, Tshorny brought a box full of bullets and gave them to Gedaliyahu and immediately received his clothes. Tshorny hurried to show off his new clothes to his friends, which aroused their curiosity and they asked: Why did the Jew sew your clothes before making the alterations
for our commander and his deputy. Tshorny, with all naivety and stupidity (for he was indeed innocent and stupid) revealed the secret: I gave the Jew ammunition and he sewed my clothes first. Immediately was made a search in the workroom of Gedaliyahu and his father R' Shmuel-David and the ammunition was discovered. Gedaliyahu and his father were arrested on the spot and brought to the interrogation cellar. Why did you need the ammunition and for whom were you preparing it? his interrogator-torturer asked Gedaliyahu. He was whipped, beaten vigorously and his body crushed, but he stood heroically until his last breath and didn't open his mouth.
Our comrade and hero, the native of Swerznie, Gedaliyahu Shmuel David's (thus he was called in Swerznie) did not surrender to the enemy, did not betray his comrades and took his secret to the grave. May he be remembered for eternity!
The interrogation of his father was fixed for the next day and the old man was put into the cell of the Ukrainians to sleep.
How great was the heroism of this old man. One of the honorable of the Swerznie community, the man of toil and conscience who did not rely on his strength
to stand opposite his interrogators and not speak and harm others. He tore the sweaty shirt which he wore on his pure body, prepared a noose from it and hung himself.
The next day several Jews were called by the Ukrainians to take down his cold body from the noose that redeemed him from pain and suffering and bury his body in the foothills of the Zifzif Mountain by our town.
On the afternoon of that same day, soldiers of the Gestapo came into the camp and with them a Belarussian native of the town the traitor Lichtshov and made a search in the place where Gedaliyahu and his father lived. When we returned from our work the search was still continuing and our oppressors had not left the camp. We, members
of the underground, knew the seriousness of the matter, for we knew that there were weapons in the place being searched. We gathered for a short meeting where it was decided: If the weapons are discovered, our fate is sealed, thus all of us must leave the camp the same evening, for in the morning we may be surrounded, and all would be lost. The weapons were not discovered and the Germans returned as they had come, but in order to satisfy their taste for Jewish blood, they took the house owner, Tzvi Rubin and his son Avraham. On the way, before passing the gate, they met by chance Chaim Gorodiski from the town of Mir, who worked as a carpenter in the sawmill and took him too, to the Gestapo, from where they never returned and were shot after a cruel interrogation the next day in Steibtz.
The blow was severe, but the heroic stand of our comrades Gedaliyahu and Avraham who did not open their mouths during the interrogations and torture until their last breath, encouraged us and we saw that Swerznie townsmen were fashioned of special material and that we must continue their way. We passed hard days and sleepless nights, for each one of our comrades was anguished by torment as if he personally had stood the torture of the Gestapo and kept silent. The sufferings a body receives from strangers are severe and I think that no less are those with which a person torments himself day and night and prepares himself for them. But these sufferings only toughened us and we set to action and deeds with more vigor: putting our ranks in order, increased training and acquiring more weapons.
The existence of the underground and weapons in the camp turned into an open secret to all and one after this incident. The names of my comrades in the underground were mostly known to its opposers. Slander and even threats from several powerful ruffians were heard against certain members of the underground. One of our comrades, the veterinary doctor Dr. Daniel Apperman, was beaten badly by these people. Harsh and unwanted words were voiced to our comrade Yitzhak Pertovitz who brought a rifle into the camp, and we were really frightened that by an action or gossip of an irresponsible individual, the existence of the underground would become known to those who did not need to know about it. We could not permit ourselves to keep silent on irresponsible actions and talk of these people and it was decided to take counteraction.
One evening, both delicately and aggressively, one of the ruffians among the opposers was invited to the cellar of one of the houses in the camp and was told in unambiguous language and with a pointed gun, to keep quiet. How great was the tragedy when both of us burst out crying over our bitter fate without being able to convince one another of the righteousness of our way, for both we and the opposers were acting from desperation without knowing whose actions were right and desirable at the same time in the same period. The wretched Jew swore that he would keep his mouth shut and from that moment onwards his voice was no longer heard in the camp.
The failure of our comrades and the bloody price that we paid strengthened the ranks of the opposers and their activities became stronger. After a hard and grueling day of work, the pitiful ones would stand whole nights and guard us lest we escape or carry out some underground activity. The situation came to such that the group of ruffians tried forcefully to take weapons from me.
This is what happened on one of the first autumn nights of 1942. The rifle of underground people in Block 8 was hidden in the soil of the cellar near our living quarters, but it became clear to us that the place was not safe and its approach was difficult, so we decided to take it out of the ground and to keep it in a place that where we could easily remove it at the time of need. My friend Benyamin and I went out to carry out this action. The hour was after midnight. Complete darkness around and it seemed
to us that no-one was sensing our activity. But we made a mistake in our thinking, for our opposers did sense us, and immediately an earnest organized group of ruffians came to fall upon us and take away our weapons. Benyamin entered the cellar, and I stayed outside on guard. We decided that Benyamin would come out of the cellar only after I would give a signal from outside. When I sensed the approaching group, I understood their intentions. I quickly signaled to Benyamin about what was going on outside. They pounced on me and I was forcefully pushed away from my guard and they went to break open the cellar door in order to go inside. Benyamin didn't lose his nerve and even before they had succeeded in opening the cellar door, he managed to activate his weapon which he had taken out of the ground inside the cellar. The burglars stopped and then Benyamin's voice was heard cracking from outside the cellar: Whoever opens the cellar door except for Munia bears the consequences. Luckily, the shot was not heard afar, for the cellar was hermetically closed and the Germans who were slightly distant didn't hear it. I was fighting outside with my attackers but we spoke quietly lest the matter be discovered by the Germans and the fate of us all would be sealed. Someone called the Jewish commander of the camp, who came there immediately. The Jewish commander of the camp at that time was Kalman Reichman zl, a refugee from Lodz, who had come along to Swerznie together with his wife, who was murdered by the Germans during the slaughter of women and their children in Swerznie: he was a good intelligent fellow, who fulfilled his role well, and never hurt any of us, and more than once absorbed beatings from the Germans to teach us. Thus the murderers said to him, that he should learn from them how to behave with the Jews, and one who receives blows will know how to give them. But Kalman Reichman did not raise his hand on his brothers in the Swerznie camp and our suffering was also his suffering, our distress was also his distress.
Reichman order us to scatter quietly, and everyone understood the seriousness of the moment and left. When I saw that no-one was left, I signaled to Benyamin and he opened the door and we transferred the rifle to a new hiding place. Whoever was not present in the place did not know about the incident, which was not spoken about till the last day of existence of the camp, for everyone knew how serious the matter was and what was the price we might pay if the matter be known to the enemy.
The arguments between us did not stop and the decision was hard despite that the summer of 1942 had passed and winter was approaching. We knew also that in the winter conditions it would be difficult to act. From lack of courage to make concrete decisions, we continued to work for the enemy army and we anticipated the future with anxiety.
What happened was that most of the underground activists worked together as carpenters and carpenter apprentices in the sawmill. The carpentry workshop was in a closed structure relative to the rest of the workplaces which were all outside, and the cold did not disturb us especially in the winter for the stoves heated the building. For lunch we would boil a little water to heat up the body and to moisten our dry bread. And more than once workers were brought in from outside to warm them and drink boiling water, despite the prohibition to outside workers to enter the carpentry workshop. The foremen related to the carpenters with a little respect and did not use violence against them as to the other saw mill-workers. A Jewish worker in the sawmill was likely to receive murderous beatings from his German manager for no reason except for the pleasure of the German sadist, and especially those loading products on the trucks absorbed blows from their drivers and the accompanying Germans who had come from the front. Here, opposite the helpless, hungry and exhausted Jews, these heroes proved what they couldn't accomplish in the place where they had come from - the Russian front. An extension of the railway also entered inside the sawmill. And every day a train would appear to take the output of the sawmill: wooden boards, and wooden houses completely outfitted with all the accessories, which were built in the sawmill and then dismantled into pieces, brought to the front and reconstructed there. Often a group of workers from Steibtz would come to load products and among them we met acquaintances and friends. From them we heard of the bitter fate of the Steibtz Jews. Their fate like ours and that of all the Jews in the area: methodical slaughter. Hunger and hard work to those remaining. Especially difficult was the situation in the cold winter months. Thus entering the carpentry workshop, heating the body and receiving sustenance with which we honored our unfortunate brothers: - a cup of boiling water, sometimes sweetened with saccharine which we had, would sustain the exhausted body.
A fellow who we didn't know previously would appear with the workers from Steibtz in the sawmill. He was a refugee from Warsaw and often visited the carpentry workshop, for his brother-in-law Zlotovitz who was adjoined as a carpenter from Steibtz to the Swerznie camp worked there. He was a translator with the railway workers and his German manager permitted him to enter the carpentry workshop and wait until the end of loading the train and to warm himself by the burning fire. Naturally he also enjoyed the morsels and enlivening his spirit with a cup of warm water, which he would find ready for him on the stove. In his outward appearance he was not more prominent than the rest of the Jewish men at that time. He was dressed in rags and wore the badge of shame on his chest and back. Tzvi Possesorski was his name. Within a short time, in his short and well-chosen words, he conquered our hearts and we revealed our secret to him, that in the camp there is an underground and that we have weapons in our possession and are planning an action against the enemy. He told us that also in the Steibtz ghetto the youth were organized and they too were planning an action. After some time the terrible tidings came to our ears of the great massacre of the Jews of Steibtz. We saw also the tongues of fire that burst out of the ghetto houses that were set on fire at the time of the massacre.
The guard on us was worsened, Jews were not permitted to work on the night shift in the sawmill and our friend Tzvi no longer appeared.
On the day of the Steibtz massacre when we were each standing tense by our work tables a boy aged about 8, scared and frightened, with tears rolling down his cheeks and speechless, appeared at the entrance of the carpentry workshop. Our comrade Shimon Zlotovitz immediately recognized the boy, he was his little brother-in-law, brother of his wife, who had remained in the Steibtz ghetto, and brother of Tzvi Possesorski Shimon. Quickly and hastily he moved towards the boy, took him inside the carpentry workshop and hid him, as much as possible, from the eyes of strangers. The child only confirmed what we already knew…thanks to his Aryan appearance he had succeeded in escaping the ghetto and also to cross the bridge over the Neiman in a place where Germans were guarding, and come to the sawmill to his brother-in-law about whom he had heard and knew from stories of his brother Tzvi in the Steibtz ghetto. The boy had no place to return to, for in the Steibtz ghetto most of the Jews and their children had been slaughtered, and if a Jewish child was discovered, his sentence was death by shooting. Towards evening in the darkness, the child was brought with all the Jewish workers into the Swerznie camp. When the presence of a foreign child in the camp was known, there was a certain amount of agitation, but thanks to many of us and the goodwill of the Jewish camp commander Reichman zl, the boy was hidden
in the camp without the Germans knowing about it. The child Shimon left with us to the partisans and after many wanderings in roundabout ways, arrived to Israel, served in the Israeli army and lives today amongst us. His name in Israel is Shimon Israeli, formerly Posesorski, one of the most esteemed actors by the Israeli audiences.
In the camp, life continued as usual, hard work and anticipating the future. The rumors coming from the front were encouraging: the advance of the German army had been broken by the Red Army. Also, fragmented and unclear news arrived of the presence of partisans in the surrounding forests, which increased the underground organization within the camp even more. The camp divided openly into two parts: one in favor of an action, which would put an end to the humiliating and hungry life, and the other part no, we must postpone the end and we must hold back.
I remember one of the assemblies of the camp after a skirmish between the underground opposers and its initiators. The assembly was already called by the first Jewish camp commander Shvertek zl, in order to calm down the tempers without the Germans, of course, knowing about it. One of the underground opposers gave a speech and wanted to convince us that we were hotheads and making a mistake and misleading the majority. Who are we and what is our strength against the wishes of our Father in Heaven and His judgement is fitting he said. To get to the forests and to be partisans this is impossible, the way to the forests is far and dangerous and if you will get to the forests, you will die of cold and hunger, and in any case, can a Jewish youth and while speaking he pointed at one of us come to a gentile in the night and take from him a cow, horse or something else necessary for existing in the forest? With more reasons like these, he almost convinced all the assembly, but not the Swerznie youth. The other reality proved that we were capable of anything, not only taking horses and cows from our enemies. They paid by their lives for the blood of Israel. We burnt bridges, exploded trains full of enemy soldiers. Benyamin was commander of the sabotage squad of the battalion and in many cases acted alone, solo, in daring operations. He sent sky-high four German trains full of equipment that were on the way to the front. We destroyed German units in their strongholds, we ambushed them on every side day and night. We showed that the bullet of a Jewish youth can kill like a German bullet. There was great panic and fear in the German garrison in the Lekovitz District, in the area where our group operated in the framework of the Zhukov partisan otriad after we succeeded in an ambush and face-to-face battle to destroy a whole squad of soldiers. And when it was known to the Germans afterwards that these were Jewish fighters, the enemy was scared to leave its fortification even in the daytime. I will never forget the marching song that the enemy squad sang before it was struck by the cross fire of our machine guns: We will pass all the mountains and obstacles with success, and we will succeed in exterminating the Jewish communists to the last one, and when it was known to the enemy that our platoon was close by, they would say in fright: the Jews are attacking and that was enough for them to disappear from the environs, except for their presence in trenches and fortifications. We paid a dear price, but we proved to the enemy that Jewish blood is definitely not cheap.
Winter 1942-3. Frost and freezing at 30 degrees below zero. Snowstorms daily. On the railway line that passed close to the sawmill, the German enemy transported east trains of soldiers and military equipment in huge quantities, and back west trains full of wounded soldiers, with amputated legs and arms, frozen, dirty and unshaven, frightened and scared. It was a pleasure to look at blood-soaked enemy soldiers. And our conscience gave us no rest: - why we, Hebrew youth, healthy in body and spirit, are not participating in this holy work in destroying the accursed German divisions who were drowning all of Europe in rivers of blood and annihilating our People. Instead of action we were still helping the enemy in its military effort.
The discontent amongst us grew from minute to minute. Comrades presented themselves to the underground headquarters and demanded action. It was difficult to control them and we feared an individual action in a moment of weakness, or more correctly, a moment of heroism in whatever he would do (kill a single German) and that would bring about the end of anything planned by all the underground.
We felt that the wick of the gunpowder had been ignited and that the explosion could happen any time. Psychologically, each of us saw himself not as a condemned prisoner, but as a fighter and avenger, and that the move to an active operation was only a short matter of time.
We had almost forgotten our comrade Tzvi. There were those who said that he had been killed in Steibtz and there were those who said that Tzvi had managed to escape to the forests. On one of the cold days in December 1942 an unknown gentile appeared at the carpentry workshop in the sawmill and asked for Shimon Zlotovitz. When they met, the gentile hinted that he follow after him, and in a remote and hidden corner, he thrust a small note into his hand and disappeared. When our comrade Shimon showed us the note we were amazed at its contents which were written in Polish: Dear comrades, I await you in the village of Pogoralia by the village of Polosnya in the farm of the peasant Tross. Come ! See you again! Posesorski. We didn't understand what he meant. And there were those who said that the gentile was a provocateur on behalf of the Germans, since we were needed as essential workers for the German army who didn't let the SS liquidate us, and thus they needed a provocation in order to carry out their wicked intentions. I asked Shimon if that was the handwriting of his brother-in-law Tzvi but from over-emotion he could not answer my question. I decided to wait a little and to see what would happen. The tension reached a peak when a small group from within us announced that they were leaving the camp if we did not blow it up and leave. With difficulty the group was convinced to restrain themselves and wait for a coordinated all-embracing operation.
After some time we heard that Tzvi Possesorski had not been killed in Steibtz, for he had grabbed weapons from the Germans where he worked and had succeeded in getting to the forests and joining the partisans. He presented himself to the headquarters and received official permission from Shestopalov, the brigade commander of the partisans, to go and liberate the camp. He explained that in the camp there were organized youth who also had a few weapons and were ready to fight against the Germans. For this operation a squad of 11 people left, most of them Steibtz Jews. The squad reached the village of Pogoralia, a distance of about 12 kilometers from Swerznie and from there sent the note with a trustworthy gentile and it was he that gave it to Shimon according to Tzvi's instructions. The squad couldn't get any closer to Swerznie for the area was infested with Germans. When Tzvi saw that we were tarrying and not coming for some reason, and the time was running out he decided to carry out a solo operation, which was unique and one that only outstanding individuals have carried out actions like these to save their brethren
and release their comrades. Escapees of the Swerznie camp will never forget this wonderful figure, their hero, leader and liberator Tzvi Possesorski zl, who, by his merit and the merit of his heroism, blew up and liberated the Swerznie camp, and thanks to him about 200 Jewish prisoners, youth and adults, women and children, reached the partisan battalions.
When we got organized in the framework of the Zhukov partisan brigade, Tzvi organized a group of fighters from the Swerznie camp escapees. He left the battalion that was advancing south to Polesia and approached Swerznie to get more weapons for the comrades and to carry out revenge operations on the enemy of Israel. The group, headed by Tzvi, carried out daring operations, and Tzvi proved himself as a great commander and fearless fighter.
His operations were well known in whole area. The gentiles in the environs honored and respected him and he instilled fear in the Jew-haters.
The general commander of the local partisans, the Ukrainian antisemite Anenchenko could not stand that the name of a Jew would be waved as a hero, and began to constrict his steps and sabotage his operations. On an occasion when Tzvi's group met a group of Russian partisans headed by Anenchenko they tried, on order of their commander, to take the weapons of Tzvi's group. Thus the antisemitic partisans behaved towards their Jewish colleagues at that time when each group acted on its own initiative, before the Russian regime took control of the groups of partisans. The Russian regime in the underground gave equal rights to all the fighters from all the national groups. In our company there were about 150 Jewish fighters, who proved themselves as daring avengers. Antisemitism was decreed to be a war crime and its punishment was very grave. The antisemite Anenchenko exploited the fact that our lads were few and too far away from the main force, in order to carry out his wicked scheme: to disarm Tzvi and his group from their weapons. But the commander Tzvi was fashioned of special material he would never surrender, and although the gentiles were many and our lads were few, he ordered immediately: Bullet in the (rifle) barrel! The lads acted to his command and the antisemite gentiles retreated, understanding that it could end in a mutual bloodbath, for they saw in front of them a group of organized Jewish fighters who would not surrender to threats. This incident increased Anenchenko's wrath even more. The antisemitism inherent in his blood did not give him rest. On another occasion he suggested a trade-in to Tzvi. Tzvi had a personal German gun, which he had stolen from the Germans before his escape from Steibtz and Anenchenko had a personal obsolete Russian gun. It was not to his honor that the Jewish commander should have an excellent gun from the enemy loot, he wanted to exchange their guns, that is, that Tzvi would give him his German gun and would get instead the old Russian gun. Tzvi did not agree to this either, for his national and personal pride would be hurt and the antisemites would exploit this for propaganda against the Jewish fighters, that they are cowards and material for insulting antisemitic jokes.
Anenchenko understood that by force he would not overcome Tzvi and set a trap of a different type for him. Ostensibly he approached Tzvi and welcomed him and even suggested cooperation, where Tzvi and his group would work together with his company and its soldiers. Tzvi did not comprehend fully this antisemitic beast, and agreed to his suggestion. At one of the meetings, when they were discussing a coordinated and shared operation, and which was seemingly secret and with only commanders participating, Anenchenko fired a traitorous bullet in his back. In order to justify this murder, Anenchenko published the next day a false daily command with the ruling: The partisan commander Tzvi Possesorski was executed because of non-cooperation and carrying out actions that were of use to the Germany enemy. The heroic and communist great commander Anenchenko was not killed and remained alive. After the war we tried to renew the affair, but those who were dealing with our complaint against Anenchenko were no better than Anenchenko himself and the matter was silenced with all sorts of excuses and ruses. The file that was opened did not receive the fair treatment and we were too weak in the framework of the soviet law to pay the murderer back in his own coin.
Tzvi's body was thrown into a ditch and the members of his group were not permitted to bury him as befits a fighter and partisan, and all the group was scattered as individuals amongst to all the units in the area. We heard these terrible tidings in the spring of 1943 when the Zhukov brigade returned from Polesia in order to organize their return to the area of Kapuli to the forests of Lavy and Iyvishchi, not far from the place where the crime was carried out.
Anenchenko was already not in that area, for before our arrival he received an order to leave the area and we didn't know where he was stationed.
On the order of our headquarters, all our comrades from Tzvi's group were returned to us. Our first action was giving the appropriate honor to our comrade and commander Tzvi. We found his remains, and in a full military ceremony we buried him in the cemetery of partisans who had fallen in battles on the side of a hill between the villages of Lavy and Iyvishchi. No eulogies were given during the ceremony, for in the ranks of the partisans we were a minority and the Exile gave its signs there too. As a headstone, a signpost was placed which also did not tell the whole truth - a small and modest sign on which we etched only one sentence: Hirsch (Tzvi) Possesorski, a hero and liberator of the Swerznie camp, may his memory be for eternity. This phrase, with the addition of the whole truth, was written in the Golden Book of the Keren Kayemet Leyisrael. The certificate was presented as a keepsake to his sister Henia Agolinik, who was together with us in the days of the Holocaust and now lives in Israel.
Our liberator, our friend and commander Tzvi your memory and your operations will be etched in the hearts of your comrades forever as a symbol and motto for generations.
January 1943. Winter dominated in full force freezing, up to 30 degrees below zero. The advance of the Germans in the front was broken by the Red Army. The Germans who arrived from the front to the sawmill to take products looked sad and angry and they would take out their anger on the Jewish workers. The German and the civilian foremen were serious and the belittling smiles had disappeared from their faces. Only a few months before, the German Skobernek, manager of the carpentry work shop in the sawmill had boasted See, German victory is close. I have already received a large estate in the Kiev area. Soon I will travel with my family to have fun and to be happy. After our victory, every German for twenty continuous years will eat, drink and enjoy all the pleasures of life in this world and all the peoples that we have conquered will work only for us. And suddenly something went wrong. The longed-for estate in the area of Kiev was less tangible than it had seemed to this German. In order to annoy and to humiliate us, the German would bring to the carpentry workshop the infamous newspaper of the criminal Julius Streicher Der Sturmer which was full only of antisemitic material about the Jews and pictures of monsters as if they were all Jews.
It is difficult to describe our happiness when we saw in this newspaper a monster of a person on whose head there was steel helmet and in his hands a sub-machine gun, and underneath was written A Jew from Palestina. The monstrous image did not interest us, but a Jew with a submachine gun in his hand and a steel helmet on his head, a Jewish fighter holding a weapon against our great enemy, against the Germans. We ripped this picture out of the paper and every day a different comrade would take it in order to gaze and study it at home without anyone noticing. We derived much encouragement and strength from this picture, and we visualized a large Jewish force in Eretz-Israel. Don't despair, there is hope (literally: Israel is no widower) we said. Our place - among our ranks. Discontent increased every minute and we felt as if the explosion and the revolt were already in our hands. Our comrades did not abandon the cold weapons which were hidden on their bodies for a minute. The hot weapons were stored in places where they could be taken out easily and immediately. The axes that were thrust under the waist rope of the carpenters, most of whom were active in the underground and were used by them as if a type of work tool spoke for themselves as if announcing loudly in public that the revolt could break out any minute. We had had enough of restraint, blood of Israel will not be abandoned, the moment of realizing the holy will of the slaughtered and the tortured - to those remaining alive - is approaching To revolt! To battle! To avenge!
Friday 28th January 1943. Everything is as usual, waking up before dawn, and we walk to the sawmill under heavy guard. We did not imagine, and neither did the enemy, that he was guarding us for the last time and that it is the last day of the labor camp and death in Swerznie.
On the same day before 12 in the afternoon, I left on an errand for the foreman to bring nails from the storehouse. On the way I met our comrade Dr Daniel Opperman. I felt something unusual in his expression. Before I had managed to ask him what was meant, he turned to me in military language as if a commander speaking to his soldiers: Stand here, where are you going? With all the tension, I did not pay attention to his words and continued walking. He stopped me forcibly and turned to me again in military language You must go in the direction of the boards in the corner by the sawmill fence. What happened? I asked him. Carry out the order he said to me. I continued in the direction of the batches according to the directions and command of Opperman. I walked between the piled up boards, which looked like tall houses with spaces between them resembling narrow winding streets. In one of the corners stood our leader and comrade Shmuel Epshteyn with a cold weapon in hands, and called out: Stop! Your life is in danger. I was frightened and amazed. What is going on, I asked. Don't move from your place until I tell you where to go. Shmuel turned round, walked a few steps, bent down and said something and came back to me: keep walking on this path until you see someone. I continued along the path between the piles according to Shmuel's order, and suddenly my eyes lit up: In front of me, leaning on a pile of boards, stood our acquaintance Tzvi, dressed in a big sheepskin coat, an ear-cap on his head, and in one hand a drawn pistol, in the other hand a hand grenade. I wanted to run to hug and kiss him, but Tzvi didn't let me come close and in a clear and decisive voice announced told me: Today at 9 in the evening we are breaking out of the camp, take care of organization and order, help me too to enter the camp and be amongst you. All the women, the elderly, and the children are leaving with us. Everyone who manages to stay alive and wants to go, will be taken with us into the partisan battalion from where I have come.
When I returned with the nails to the carpentry workshop I already felt a special bustle amongst our comrades. In one location they already knew of Tzvi's arrival. I saw how Benyamin was hammering with unusual energy and force on the nail heads and it seemed to him, that he was already hammering with his weapon on the head of the enemy of Israel.
The hour was several minutes before the afternoon break. During the break the headquarters of the Swerznie underground met for their last and decisive meeting.
With emotion and quietly, each made his suggestions, and the final organizational decisions were made for carrying out the revolt and the breakout.
And this is what was decided:
The location of the breaching would be in the fence at the place where the planks were held by quarter nails, and the meeting place for those remaining alive would be go past the liara the meadow behind the camp - and to advance in the direction of the yard of Zishka the peasant. To extend maximum help to those wounded and not leave them in the field. Tzvi would not come into the camp with us, lest he be discovered by the opposers of the underground and the operation fail.
Tzvi would be brought in towards evening at darkness through the breach of the fence, without anyone being aware of him. He must get to the ruins of the bath-house behind the camp. Several comrades were appointed to carry out tasks. Our comrade Avraham Kershitz received this role: Several minutes before nine, via the breach in the fence, he would take out an ambush of comrades armed with cold and hot weapons to kill the German patrol if it would appear in the area of the breach. The fact that in the cold winter months the sentries were taken down from the towers at nighttime helped, as only patrols moved around the camp and in the night they were negligent in fulfilling their role and warmed themselves in the watchman's room at the entrance to the camp. The person in charge of the ambush was our comrade Avraham Veynberg, a native of Lodz, who during the war arrived at Swerznie. He is now living in Israel. The members of the ambush were commanded to use only cold weapons. Hot weapons were only for the worst scenario, as shots would wake the guards in the watchman's room. Exactly at the hour of 9, a stone was to be thrown through one of the windows of every house or Block, as the houses in the camp were called at that time, in order to wake up the tired sleeping Jews, who lay on their bedding from lack of light. Other comrades were appointed to carry out this action. None of the active underground members were to leave their rooms or be prominent that same evening, lest any suspicion be aroused by the underground opposers.
Benyamin was appointed to be among the first of the breachers and to be Tzvi's bodyguard.
I was given the role of going to the center of the camp and directing the frightened people leaving to run in the right direction in order not to lose time, for those living in the camp would not know where to run and where the breach was. I had to quieten any noise and to leave the camp with the last of the breachers.
It was decided to give an order to the blacksmiths and to the carpentry shop to bring in the evening as many cold weapons knives and bayonets that were in their possession, with no further explanations.
When the afternoon break came to an end and every one of us had to return to his work table, the comrades arose, and standing and with a soft voice each swore to himself: For the spilt blood of Israel, the trampled honor of Israel, revenge on the enemy of Israel!!!
Success - we softly wished each of our friends.
Work in the afternoon continued as usual, but we did not stop thinking and planning the execution of the operation. From time to time Tzvi's orders were passed on, how to conduct ourselves, how to act. We also explained to Tzvi how he should get to the ruins of the bathhouse, from where he would be taken into the camp.
Only some time later we heard about Tzvi's operation. Tzvi, seeing that we weren't coming to the meeting place, understood that despite the organization within the camp, we were lacking in courage and guidance to carry out the escape. He planned with the company of partisans who had left with him from the battalion, to carry out a sudden attack on the guards of the camp, and with help of the underground to liquidate the watchmen and escape to the forests. However on the same days, large forces of the enemy arrived to Swerznie to an encampment before their transfer to the front, and this operation was doomed to failure from the beginning. Thus Tzvi acted alone. He got to Steibtz, crossed the bridge over the Neiman that was being guarded by the German sentries and entered the lion's jaws into the sawmill where the guards stood at the gate and every person entering went through a thorough check. Tzvi passed the inspection thanks to his enormous self-confidence and complete control of his nerves, for his aim was to save comrades and his own life at that same moment was unimportant.
The few hours between the afternoon and the end of the work day passed in a flash. The awaited sounding of the siren from the sawmill loudly announced the end of the work day. And for us the end of disgrace, humiliation and suffering.
The Jews were stood in rows, the regular guards in front and behind, and marched back to the prison camp. Many of those being led and also those leading did not know at all, that this was their last way and that the next day we would stand one opposite the other as equals in two fighting camps in a war that knew no mercy or compromise. Members of the underground avoided speaking to each other and to awaken any suspicion among the Jews. The German shifts received us as usual with laughter and derision and contempt. This time we looked at them with proud stares and entered the camp with our heads raised. Each of us thought in his heart: Soon we will prove to them, the scum of the human race, beasts, bloodthirsty murderers, damn Germans what the youth of Swerznie are capable of.
We went into our rooms without saying a word. Benyamin found the right reason to leave the room for a minute and organize the exit of Kadshitz, whose role was to bring Tzvi into the camp. After a few minutes Benyamin returned all rejoicing and full of energy and in a soft voice told me that Kadshitz was already outside, that the fence had been breached easily thanks to the darkness and the falling snow. Those lying in wait to ambush were already prepared to take their place after Tzvi would arrive. They would let us know immediately when he entered the camp.
Each of us sat on his bed around the table to eat his meagre slice of bread. Rivka, Benyamin's sister, took out of the oven the large pot of potatoes and, with the addition of a drop of oil and a slice of bread, divided them amongst us, all the residents of Block 8. We, the remnants of extensive families of Swerznie lived together and divided our bread as a type of shared fate and in conditions of the camp. Rivka had not yet managed to hand out our portions when we received the longed-for message: Tzvi is in the camp and he is in the women's section of the synagogue, where our comrades of the underground lived. And together with him are his brother-in-law Zlotovitz and his little brother Shimon, who only now we learnt was with us - a pleasant surprise.
It was 8 o'clock. Nathan Goldstein and Yitzhak Peretzovitz zl , Benyamin and I, all active members of the underground who knew what was going to happen in an hour, tasted the food and looked at each other and no-one uttered a word. The food got stuck in our throats, neither swallowed nor spit out, despite our hunger after a hard and grueling day of work. We lacked the courage to announce the fateful operation, that my father zl, my uncle Yisrael, Rivka and my sister Gita knew nothing about. With nervous hand movement, I moved the plate aside. I stopped the meal and told the participants at the table in a decisive voice that left no room for misunderstanding: In a few minutes a revolt will break out in the camp. Once the sign is given, you must get as quickly as possible to behind the synagogue in the place where a breach of the fence is already made, and escape. Those that manage to escape - must pass the liada (the meadow behind the camp) through the yard of the peasant Zishka, enter the olshnik (the small forest by the flour mill) and cross the Swerznie-Nesvizh road in the direction of the forests. We must not tarry and must be ready. The time available to us is short. After Benyamin had heard my words he took out a sharp knife from under his coat, and with a grand movement passed the knife along the length of the little sofa that he used as a bed. In front of our eyes the springs of the bed were freed and between them lay a brand new shiny automatic rifle. Benyamin took out the rifle and gathered the 350 bullets by it and piled them into a bag, loaded the cartridge and stood the rifle behind the door of the room, pushed the door to the wall and announced: We are waiting for the sign from outside to leave. Let's hope that we succeed…
My father zl and my uncle Yisrael, may he live a long life, were thunderstruck. With difficulty they pulled themselves together. When they realized the matter was serious, they got on their feet and announced that they would be going out with us and joining the holy war against the German enemy. Rivka did not lose her self-control and now, as always the faithful mother to one and all, together with my sister began to quickly prepare a small package (in the leather bags) for each one of us, with a little food and clothing necessary for the winter and cold raging outside.
The tension increased every minute. We wanted to know was going on in the rest of the blocks in the camp. But we obeyed the orders and didn't go outside of our rooms so as not to arouse any suspicion amongst our opposers. At these moments when each of us was in his room sitting alert and tense and waiting for what was to come, the commander of the camp, Kalman Reichman zl burst into our room at 8:30, full of anger, emotion and rage. He pushed his way forcibly through us all and came directly to me, caught me firmly with his two hands, lifted me from my place and in an agitated voice said to me: I don't believe any of your comrades and only you tell me what is going on here? I can sense unusual movement in certain blocks. The tension shows that something is not normal. Tell me what is going on? Are you preparing an action? I kept quiet and waited to see if anyone else would say something instead of me. I looked at my comrades and they looked at me and kept quiet.
But Reichman did not let up from me and began to shake me like a lulav and was uncompromising. Talk! I knew and was convinced that I mustn't tell him the truth, for that could fail the whole action, but on the other hand, my conscience did not permit me to brazenly lie to him. It could relieve the tension and quieten the many who knew nothing about
the action and their fate would be total annihilation. We wanted all to be awake at the decisive and fateful moment without harming the surprise so that there would not remain time for our opposers to organize a counter-action.
I managed to get rid of him with a clean conscience, not to lie and not to expose anything to him about what was going on in the camp. I told him - go to the synagogue in the women's section to the room of Shimon Zlotovitz. There they will tell you everything. I thought that in the meanwhile some time would pass and maybe Tzvi would stop him for a few minutes until the revolt broke out. Reichman listened to me, quickly left the room and ran to the place I had told him. After 10-20 minutes before 9, the zero hour, he returned running, approached me and said: I was in that place you sent me to, everyone is tense and alert, but no-one said anything and sent me back to you. Talk! And he began to raise his voice. I tried to calm him down Speak quietly, for the enemy is only a distance of 20 meters from us, for Block 8 was the farthest block. It bordered with the fence and behind it were the living quarters of the Germans. I looked at my watch, it was 5 minutes before 9, there was no use in not telling him the truth and in an authoritative voice I told him: Kalman my friend, at 9, in 5 minutes time, the revolt in the camp starts. Everything is ready and organized. The fence is already breached, the escape will be from behind the synagogue. We intend to overcome the guards if we come across them and to escape to the forests. And if you desire it join us.
My words jolted him from his place as a taut spring released from its stopper, and with emotion mixed with happiness he said to us: I am one of you - as we suffered together, so we will fight together. I have a weapon hidden in my room hidden in my room. He too slept in Block 8 and his room was alongside ours. I held his arm and not by chance and I felt that he was already trying to free himself from my hands and escape. I could not fathom what he wanted to do and if there was truth in his words. Just to be sure, I turned around and stood opposite him and blocked his way with my body. I pulled out my knife and affixed it to his ribs with one hand and with the other I grabbed his clothes, ordered him not to move and not to distance himself from the knife blade, for he would bear the responsibility. We would go together to take out the weapon. At that moment Benyamin half opened the door, grabbed his weapon and brought it close to Reichman's chest. Reichman understood the significance of the matter and the seriousness of the moment. Now I already urged him on and we both went into Reichman's small room. Kalman opened a small closed hiding-place made with great craftsmanship in one of the sides of his bed, took from it a Russian carbine rifle and hurried to hide it under his long coat, so that lodgers in the adjacent rooms would not see it. Now already I was not afraid of him, I was convinced that he was one of us. I asked him about the weapon. And he answered that he didn't have even one bullet, for he had not managed to get any ammunition. We quickly returned to our room, I took the weapon from Kalman, loaded it with our ammunition and gave it back to him, telling him to be careful for I had put a bullet into the barrel. He took the rifle and answered me mockingly: You baby - I, a warrant officer from the Polish army, know better than you how to use a weapon.
A stone was thrown like a bomb from outside through the window of our room.
Forward! The shout burst from Benyamin and he grabbed his weapon after me to the direction of the synagogue! He had to arrive first to the breach and join Tzvi to be his bodyguard. I had to get to the camp square and direct those leaving from the blocks, who did not know about the operation, in the direction of the breach. After Benyamin my father, Yisrael, Nathan, Yitzhak, Rivka and my sister left the room. I left the room last. I separated from them and turned to the direction of the camp square as I had been ordered to do previously. Our comrade Pesach Skalka came running towards me and gave me a rifle and ammunition and joined the ranks of those escaping. I saw half-dressed people coming out of the blocks despite the cold, to see what was going on outside and after a stone had smashed their windows. These poor people already did not return to the blocks, for every minute was dear and fateful, and unfortunately many of them afterwards suffered from the cold on the way, because they didn't have outer and warm clothes on. Luckily the German patrol did not make a round in the area of the breach. It was quiet and dark all around, only the wind and the storm made their noise and I stood with my rifle in the square of the German labor and death camp and showed my condemned brothers the way to freedom, to war and revenge…
Sometime later, those who left the blocks to see what was happening outside and saw me in the camp square standing and waving a rifle, told me that they thought that at first that some madness had hit me and I was carrying out an individual action, and they need to quickly remove me from the area, but it was quickly clarified to them that it might be madness, not of an individual but the craze of the youth of Swerznie, who did not want to accept their fate and were coming out with a holy war on the many enemies of Israel who had risen against it.
I didn't stay long on my post, for the silence that prevailed in the camp was quickly broken. The opposers of the underground and the escape began to run from block to block and made noise and shouts at a distance from where I stood, opposite the main gate of the camp. I knew that at any moment the sleepy German guards in the watchman's room or the patrol that had to make its round of the camp could wake up. I quickly left the square and advanced in the direction of the breach. On the way I still met the last of those leaving and together we passed the small stream behind the synagogue, by which was the breach in the fence. We had only passed the ruins of the bath-house behind the camp, and had not yet managed to get to the liada, and suddenly the darkness was lit up with tens of rockets and the quiet was violated by the whirr of the enemy machine guns and the groans of those hit by their bullets the breach had been discovered by the Germans and their response was not slow in coming. We, the last group of escapees, despite the rockets and the shooting ran with all our strength in the direction of the yard of Zishka and luckily none of our group was hit. In the first minutes the Germans did not catch what was going on and did not imagine that in weather conditions such as these, broken and depressed, hungry and despairing Jews could carry out an operation of an organized escape to the forests and to fight them. They entered the camp and naturally gained control over those remaining there and only after a general roll call, the meaning of the operation was clarified and they understood that this was not the action of a single individual but rather an organized operation of a military underground organization and they were really too scared to chase after us that same night. Only the next day in the morning with the reinforcement that came from Steibtz, they went out armed with light and heavy weapons to search the area around the camp. The heroes by the pits of death were shown to be cowards and weaklings when opposite them were strength and organization, even when it was Jews with few arms and few in number. I had not yet managed to get to the yard of Zishka's yard when my friend Benyamin approached me, running. When it turned out that I was not in the convoy, he left it
and instead of going forward with them, he turned back in the direction of the camp to search for me. Maybe I was hit by the enemy bullets and needed help. We did not have much time to be happy about the meeting and the success of the operation. Running with the last of our strength we got to the convoy which had already passed the olshnik. We joined the convoy and Benyamin announced to our commander-liberator Tzvi that we had arrived. Tzvi approached to me, put out his hand and we hugged with much happiness. We did not delay a minute. Fast and forwards these were his orders. To advance in the direction of the forest at a distance of about 20 kilometers. On the way we did not come across any enemy force and we didn't need to use our arms. We ran for several hours the rest of the way to the first forest, and from there Tzvi announced a short encampment and roll call of those present. We numbered 130 people: youth, adults, women and also several children. Afterwards we heard that another group, about 70 people, had got to other forests in the area of Naliboki.
The happiness and the emotion that overcame us all in the same forest, the time when we removed our badge of shame it is impossible to describe in words: in this place of encampment we tore the badge of the Yellow Star of David from our backs and waved it above out heads. Higher and higher rose the blue Star of David that had been hidden in the depths of our hearts on our long and difficult journey in our war with the enemies of Israel.
The youth of Swerznie were not brought like lambs to the slaughter. The fields of Belarussia, Polesia, Poland and even the fields of impure Germany are saturated with their blood.
The youth of Swerznie fought and avenged the blood of the children of its people that was spilt by the Germans. The last of our victims was Zeev Ben Simcha Kliatchuk zl who fell on the last day of the war while wiping out nests of resistance of the last of the German murderers in the building of the German Reichstag in Berlin.
After the war I came from battles and revenge, wounded and leaning on a stick, to my birthplace Swerznie. I went to the mass grave for already there was no Jewish life in our Swerznie.
I separated with anger from Swerznie and the Exile for eternity, never to return.
I took my leave from the gardens of Swerznie and its orchards from which not only fruit and vegetables had sprouted but also the Jewish youth, healthy in body and spirit, which knew in difficult and dark times to stand on its national and personal honor and to repay in kind the haters of Israel. The remnants of the Swerznie youth did not lay down their weapons and continued to fight the war of their people until part of the lands of their fathers and ancestors in their homeland was liberated and the State of Israel was established.
May these lines be an everlasting memorial to my comrades, sons of Swerznie, whose blood was spilt on our holy war with the German enemy.
This is partially repeated in Isaiah 4:1 And in that day shall seven women take hold of one man…(war would cause a lack of men to marry).To deliver bread by weight speaks of famine and lack. Return
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