by Munia Yossilevski-Yaron
Translated by Ann Belinsky
R' Aharon, son of Munia Yossilevski, was born in Swerznie in 1892, and was among the first of the partisans to fall from the 3rd Battalion of the Zhukov Otriad, in the morning of 12th February 1943 near the village of Hominki south of the small town of Kletzk.
My father zl, was one of the elders of Swerznie. He loved his small town and felt himself really to be part of it. He would always say: It's nothing that the anti-Semitic government is temporary and will pass. He was resolute, as a rich and influential person, and was sure, as were many others like him who lived in Exile, that you can't delay the inevitable.
may God avenge their blood
He was a believing Jew, God-fearing, observant and charitable. When something troubled him, he would find relief in pouring his heart out before his Creator in the heavens in the beautiful synagogue in our small town.
I remember the last Yom Kippur before the Holocaust. My father zl stood dressed in his white Kittel, wrapped in his tallis and a skull cap on his head and praying with meaning and special emotion when reading the words: Who by fire and who by water, who will live and who will die… he raised his hands high above and tears poured endlessly from his eyes. He believed that Don't despair, there is hope… and prayer and tzedakah will avert the severe decree…
His world and confidence began to collapse after the first slaughter in Swerznie. Life in the ghetto, the rejoicing and derision of our gentile neighbors and friends, with whom he had lived and worked together all his life, depressed and brought him to complete despair. The same gentiles, whom he believed in, expelled him from his house which he had built with toil and painstaking work. After the second slaughter, when his wife, daughter and most of the women and children of Swerznie were murdered, he walked around gloomy as a shadow and took no interest except in reading and studying holy books. He saw our bitter fate as a command from above, a sort of a finger of God perhaps we have sinned and we must be tortured and suffer.
When he heard that the youth in the camp were beginning to organize and were talking about purchasing weapons, about a revolt, uprising and escape he did not believe his ears. He said to me: We must not violate the edict and why are we better than our dear and beloved mother? I remember the last evening in the camp, when we, the members of the underground, took out our weapons from their hiding places and announced that in a few minutes the revolt would take place in all conditions and circumstances, my father zl understood the seriousness of the moment. Overcome by emotion, he collapsed and fell on his bed, but recovered quickly. With youthful energy he got up and announced: Sons, I stand by your side. I'm a soldier and veteran of the First World War. I will avenge the vengeance of the blood of my people. He came together with us to the partisans, to the Zhukov otriad. He volunteered for the first operation of our lads and separated from me quietly and peacefully while saying:I am going to show our enemies the force of my arm blood for blood.
This was his first and last operation, for he never returned from it. The remnants of the group who remained alive told me that my father zl fought fearlessly and the success of the first operation owes much to him, but the enemy overcame our fighters after receiving great reinforcement.
Among those who fell was my father zl. We didn't manage to take his body and the bodies of the rest of the comrades from the hands of the enemy, who forbid their burial for a long time, and by their bodies the enemy posted a sign on which was written: The end of all the Jews and bandits will be like this.
After the war, I visited the grave of my father and the rest of my comrades who fell in this operation. The Soviet government had put a sign there: Here are buried brave avengers, their glory is forever.
With sadness and grief, mixed with pride, I bid farewell to the grave of my father, bitterly crying his fate. Although he did manage to escape from the ghetto, he did not win life and redemption.
May his soul rest in Paradise.
She was born in Swerznie in 1922, and murdered the day after Yom Kippur 1941, in the murder of the thirty youths of Swerznie.
Duba did not get to be a partisan. She was murdered among the first when the men were digging their own graves in the town cemetery. During the slaughter the German murderers tormented their victims. Before each murder, the victims were asked for their last wishes. The sadistic murderers enjoyed doing this, and when each victim asked and begged to be left alive, they would shoot them in the forehead with a sadistic smile.
may God avenge her blood
When it came to Duba's turn to speak, she raised herself erect, clenched her fist and announced loudly: I will not ask you for mercy and entreaties. You are criminal murderers, damn Germans, you will pay for our blood. You will also feel a revengeful Jewish hand that will repay you for what you have done to us… Vengeance, brothers and sisters!!!
From the mouth of our holy friend, Duba, the quiet and modest, proud and courageous, went out the first command to organize, arm ourselves and revenge!
At the first inaugural meeting of the rebels of the Swerznie Ghetto, which took place in one of the dark wet cellars of the ghetto, we went over Duba's last will. It was used by us as a sort of oath of allegiance for the underground and a command for war on the enemies of Israel.
Duba, you will forever remain etched in our memories.
May her memory be blessed!
He was born in Swerznie in 1925. He fell in the partisan war in the summer of 1944.
Nathan remained lonely and forsaken in the Swerznie Ghetto. Alone from an extensive family from Swerznie, he lived together with me in one room and we slept in one bed. We shared the meagre morsels of bread, and bonds of brotherhood were forged between us.
He was among the graduates of the Tarbut school in Steibtz. A member of a Zionist movement. Nashka Rivah-Kaylas is what he was called in Swerznie. He was among
the first in the underground and its organizers in the Swerznie ghetto, and by order of the underground, he carried out a daring and dangerous action by bringing a second rifle into the ghetto.
The rifle was hidden among the bushes on the banks of the Neiman far from the ghetto. Nathan knew the great danger of failing, God forbid. Nathan worked not far from the hiding place of the rifle, loading of logs onto the wagons before they were transferred to the saw-mill. In a trick, claiming that he had been wounded suddenly in his leg by a log hitting him, he asked the foreman to free him from his work. The foreman, a cruel Gentile, slapped his head, honored him with a good kick on his backside and threw him out, threatening him that if he did not appear the next day to work he would tell the Germans and his fate would be sealed. The ruse succeeded, and also his Jewish workmates, opposers of the underground, saw him limping and sent away from the work area.
may God avenge his blood
Nathan sat on the bank of the Neiman as if he wanted to wash his wounded leg, and without being seen put the rifle under his trousers and tightened it with a rope to his leg. Very slowly he got up and twisted his face as if suffering from intense pain and asked one of the workers to give him a stick to lean on, for his knee was wounded and his leg hurt. Someone gave him a coat, which covered most of his body and his workmates shared his sorrow. Limping and leaning on the stick, he passed through the streets of our small town where Jews were already forbidden to walk. In the middle of the way he met the traitorous Russian policeman, a native of the town, the Russian murderer, Lonik Shakodinski, who participated in killing Jews in all the surrounding small towns. He attacked him with curses: who permitted you to walk in the street when it is forbidden? What are you doing here, damned Jew? Nathan met face-to-face with the bitter death, but the desire to live and avenge gave him energy, and he didn't lose his nerve and said quietly: I was hurt. I was let go from work and I am hurrying to the ghetto to get treated. The murderer berated him and urged him get quickly into the ghetto. Nathan entered the ghetto and went down to the cellar of the headquarters, took out the rifle from under his trousers, hugged and kissed it. Tears flowed from his eyes without stop and wet the barrel of the rifle the weapon of revenge. When we visited him in the cellar, we saw him lying down, hugging and stroking his weapon. We kissed from happiness and he slowly recovered from his success… we asked him where he had gotten the courage and heroism while standing face to face with the murderer? and Nathan answered: that his senses were dulled, his eyes darkened and his ears heard nothing. In front of his eyes was revealed the picture of the slaughter and the killing, and the screams of the martyrs echoed in his ears. He saw them and heard their cries, and from them he drank courage and energy, and he would avenge their blood.
Nathan came together with us to the partisans after we breached the Swerznie camp. He was in G Company of the Zhukov otriad. At the beginning of the summer of 1944, when the Zhukov otriad went south, Nathan remained to act in the area of Swerznie, attached to one of the companies in the area.
Many of the inhabitants of the area, who participated in the killing and looting of Jewish property, felt the force of Nathan's arm.
In daring and most dangerous action, in broad daylight, in the attack on a German convoy on the Nesvizh-Swerznie Road, Nathan was amongst the first of the attackers, who caused many casualties in the enemy camp. Nathan was overpowered a bullet split his head open. When Nathan's death became known to the gentiles, haters of the Jews they congratulated each other: Thank God they already killed the White One. He was called the White One because he was blond.
Nathan, our beloved comrade!
Your comrades from Swerznie, and soldiers of the platoons that you were active in, bow their heads to your memory.
We will be comforted by the resurrection of Zion, of which you so much desired to be among its fighters and founders. Sadly you did not achieve this, for you were cut down before Zion arose.
May your memory be blessed for eternity!
Born in Swerznie in 1927 and fell in January 1944.
Yitzhak or Itz'keleh, as we called him in Swerznie, saw with his own eyes how on their entrance to the town the Germans, murdered his father and mother in their bed. The bullet that split his mother's heart hit his leg, and he, with his little brother and sister, were taken by my parents into our home.
Yitzhak was the son of a well-to-do and honorable family owners of the bakery in the town. He was a pupil of the Hebrew Tarbut school in Steibtz, alert and clever, with praiseworthy instincts. In the ghetto he was very active in getting bread for many, and more than once endangered his life by leaving the ghetto and smuggling in bread which he had obtained from the Christian manager of the bakery who had worked with his late father.
After the underground was organized in the ghetto, he was among those who went out to get weapons for members of the underground, and one night brought the first hand grenade into the ghetto.
After the escape he came to the partisans and was in the G Company of the Zhukov otriad. He was well-liked in the company by its commanders and soldiers. He participated in the first operation, in the battle of Homiki, south of the town of Kletzk, and was among the very few who survived and returned. He was a courageous fighter and was among those who broke out from the sawmill in Swerznie the action which caused fear among the gentiles and the German soldiers in the area of Swerznie.
The essence of his life was revenge and his thirst for the blood of the enemy did not know satiation.
may God avenge his blood
In face-to-face battle with the enemy he knew no fear, and was among the first in the reconnaissance groups before any operation and he was only a youth of 17. Proud, fiery, raging for revenge and reparation.
Our dear Itz'keleh, who the enemy's hand was unable to hit directly, hit him indirectly. During the siege, when we left the camp in the coldest days of January 1944, he was critically ill and the doctors could not determine the nature of his illness. When he was moved on a sled, for there was no possibility even to put him under a roof, he breathed his last. His body was cold, but his eyes were half open and his mouth gaping as if he was shouting: Go forward comrades! Revenge on the enemy of the Jews!!!
He was buried in a military ceremony. By the open grave, our brave and sincere commander, officer of the Red Army, Commander of the Zhukov otriad, Lieutenant Bernov, eulogized him with these words: Comrades, we bow our heads to the memory of Yitzhak our brother…our brother in arms, Yitzhak son of Yosef, a brave and avenging fighter who knew no fear. Honor to his memory!!!
His grave was dug on the exit of the village of Meshiki, on the main way leading to the forest. A sign was placed at his headstone: Yitzhak! Your memory will never leave our hearts, from the hearts of your friends in the underground of the Swerznie Ghetto and G Company of the Zhukov otriad. Your daring actions were a guiding light in our war with the German enemy, and have added strength and bravery to the remaining townspeople of Swerznie in their war for the freedom of the Jews.
May your name be remembered forever!
by Khave Bernshtein
Translated by Ruth Murphy
I was destined to be almost the last witness to the death throes of Jewish Svershzne that was finally liquidated on January 31, 1943.
It was two years of suffering and misery, first in the ghetto, and then in the labor camp, always living in fear of the next day, because death lurked in all paths and in all places, every moment, every minute. Today when I reflect on the past, it's hard to imagine how I found the strength and courage to want to stay alive, at any price, and in all circumstances. Not only me, but each one of us, even after witnessing the first massacre, seeing our children thrown into trucks like pieces of wood, and seeing how the unfortunate victims at the Jewish cemetery were ordered first to undress, and then go into the pit, so that the murderers could share the clothing that wasn't bloodstained. Despite these experiences, our thoughts were focused, from time to time during a period of twenty-four hours, on how to escape to freedom, that is how to reach the forest and find the partisans. And then things could take their course, and perhaps we would succeed in staying alive.
Regarding the camp the people were split into two factions: one consisted mostly of young people who were the sole survivors of their massacred families, and had nothing left to lose. They believed that every minute spent in the ghetto was a shame, and that all the promises by the Germans that there would be no more slaughters, were nothing more than a deception. The sooner one could flee into the woods, the greater the chance of staying alive. The opinion of the second group was quite different it consisted of older people who had been fortuitously saved from the earlier massacres and also some parents who had succeeded in having their children with them. They demanded, at all costs, that they should wait out the winter with its terrible cold, as they could not set out for the woods in such freezing weather with old people and small children. Once spring arrived, then they could decide what to do. The youth did not agree and waited for a chance to escape and indeed the opportunity came even sooner than imagined.
The people in my block in the camp my husband, his parents and I, Mayshke, son of Hertzl and his son, Bernshtein with two children, and a few other people who were in Mayshke's house, did not know that there would be an escape that night. After a hard day's work and in
May the Lord avenge their blood
fear, we lay down to sleep. At eleven-thirty that night, a refugee by the name of Adon-Olam, ran into our block and shouted, You're sleeping? The entire camp has already left.
By the time we dressed and ran to the wire fence at the brook where the opening had been made in the fence, to aid the escape from the ghetto, the German guards from the ghetto had already rushed to the scene. With heavy blows, they returned us to the camp. We were a group of about eighty people, but before the escape, the camp numbered over three hundred and sixty. The Germans issued a command that no one was allowed to leave their house. Mayshe Pinnes, the son of Dvashke, who lived in Khane Sorke's house, was at that moment in Shimon Tzirre's house. He tried to run over to his own residence, but the Germans shot him and wounded him severely in the stomach. He ran into his house and fell on his bed, in terrible pain. Then the Germans walked from block to block and chased everyone into the synagogue. When the murderers went into the house where Mayshe lay, he begged them to shoot him, as he could not bear the terrible pain. They did him this favor and shot him dead.
They assembled us all in the large synagogue. The night was a terrible one. People sat in the semi-darkness of the synagogue and trembled, aware what awaited us the next day. Quiet weeping could be heard. From time to time, the Germans would bring in small groups of Jews whom they caught wandering around aimlessly, not knowing which way to run. Others were brought with frost-bitten feet, who could not walk any further, and had no choice but to return to the camp.
Early the next morning they assembled a group of around one hundred and thirty Jews and as always, the detachment from the sawmill, arrived and took us off to work. At the sawmill, fourteen Jews with expertise still remained bookkeepers and a barber. Among them were my two sisters, Rokhl and Tirtze along with her husband Levin, and their son, Hillel. There was also my son, Noakhke. As we arrived at the sawmill, my sister Rokhl saw us and began to scream terribly: Why did you not run away And with this she fainted and could barely be revived.
with the last Jews of Shvershzne
May the Lord avenge her blood
The Germans issued an order to the local police that if they found a Jew wandering around, they were to do nothing to him, just bring him to the sawmill. And there were indeed, a few such instances, when a couple of Jews were brought in, on the Sabbath day. Yet we knew well what awaited us and sought ways to escape. Unfortunately, during the day it was impossible to flee because the guard around the sawmill had been reinforced. When we completed our day's work, we were led back to the camp, as usual. No one can imagine the tragic farewell that I took, of my child, who during the entire time at the camp, was in hiding with my sister at the sawmill. As if he had a premonition that this would be the last time we saw each other, he stood with a sad look and tears in his little eyes for a long time, as they led us back to the camp. I begged him to return to the house, but he replied that he wanted to watch me walking out the gate. The image of him standing there leaning and watching, will accompany me, until the end of my life. Returning to the camp, was terrible. All those remaining, gathered together in a couple of houses, afraid to be alone in their own homes, feeling that every minute could bring terrible news. No one undressed or ate, afraid to go to sleep. Yet the night passed peacefully.
Early the next morning the guards at the sawmill came and took only 20 people to work. This was suspicious, particularly to those who were afraid, and each interpreted it in a different way. Fear rose from minute to minute. The remaining men, who were left in the camp, began to try to get permission to bury Mayshe Pinnes at the Jewish cemetery, as he had been lying dead since Friday evening. All requests were met with rejection. Having no option, they buried him in his bloodied clothing at Mordekhai Shvart's place that was close to the big synagogue. It is worth mentioning that at this place, the graves of Shoshanah Shvarts and her child, as well as Hillel Movshovits, are also located. They were shot in the first slaughter on 5 November 1941.
At around one o'clock in the afternoon, the 20 people who had been taken to work in the morning were brought back. They brought us the sad news that early that morning, 31 January 1943, the rest of the Jews of the Steibtz ghetto had been liquidated. Half an hour later, the gates of the camp were suddenly opened, and armed policemen entered. They consisted of young gentiles from Svershzne and Steibtz, escorted by a German. They issued an order that all Jews had to come out of their houses and lie down on the snow. The policemen ran from house to house, searching to make sure that nobody was hiding. In the ensuing panic, a few Jews took the opportunity and hid themselves. My husband Berel, and I, decided to hide in Mayshke's cellar.
May the Lord avenge his blood
When I jumped into the cellar located in the house, I felt that someone else had jumped in after me. I was sure it was my husband. But it turned out that this was a young boy, a stranger.
Sitting in the basement, I kept hearing the screaming and the weeping, and also how Mayshke offered money to some policemen he knew, in return for hiding him. They agreed to this, but after receiving the money, they beat him and his son Yisroel-Nossen murderously and chased them outside into the snow. Some people were hiding in Mayshke's attic, which had a concealed entrance through the store. The murderers would not have known at all about the attic, but among those hiding there, was Velvl Brokhes, who had gone mad from fear and ran around in the attic and later hanged himself there. The murderers heard the running around in the attic, began to look for the entrance, and found it. Then they chased everyone down from there.
Approximately twenty men were hiding there, among them, my husband Berel. The policemen descended with great joy, seeing that a Jew had hanged himself and that they would need one bullet less. I heard all this while lying in the basement. After all the Jews were driven out of the houses, the policemen packed up their garments and laundry, and left them near the door. Afterwards they forced everybody onto trucks and took them to Steibtz, where they were all shot dead. While traveling on a truck, Itshe Yankelyevitsh threw himself at a policeman and cut the policeman's hands with a knife.
After the liquidation, when it was already dark, I heard the policemen returning to remove everything that they had packed up, all the remaining belongings of the Jews they had killed. After they departed, the boy and I, quietly went out of the basement. We stood for a while in fear, not knowing what to do next; then I heard, in the silence of the night, someone speaking Yiddish quietly, in the house. I realized that someone else had saved himself, and when I came closer, I met three people: My father Yerakhmiel Goldin, Lippe Bernshtein, and Leime Farfl. My joy was indescribable. I asked: Father, where did you hide? He told me that he had stood behind the door of the store, and the murderers did not see him. He also told me that he saw my husband Berel, among those taken from the attic.
After a short discussion, we decided that there was no option, other than to escape from the ghetto at night; but because the streets were filled with drunken policemen and local White Russian residents who were celebrating their brilliant victory over the last Jews of the Svershzne ghetto, we had to wait until late at night. When things had quieted down, all five of us wrapped in white sheets, and masked by the whiteness of the snow, so that we would not be noticed by murderous eyes, quietly came out of the house, and crawled on all fours to the river. As we approached the river, we saw three rows of barbed wire that the Germans had repaired this past Saturday, after the escape from the camp. We had nothing with which to cut the wires, so Lippe Bernshtein went to the house of Shmuel the ritual slaughterer that was near the river, where a shoemaker lived. Searching in the dark, he found pliers with which he cut all the wires. At this moment, Leime Farfl fainted. In addition to all our fears, we still had to revive him and drag him across the little river and through the wires.
Everything had to be done so silently that the German guards, who were still guarding the ghetto, would not hear or notice. As we crawled past the synagogue, we heard someone coughing. Who was there, how many were there, and what their fate was has remained unknown.
We set out in the direction of the forest, near the village of Pogorele, but because the terrible wind and snow had covered the road, and because of the darkness of night, we could not find our way yet, and wandered around for a long time. Seeing that day was beginning to break, and that it was impossible to continue in daylight, we returned to Svershzne and entered the barn of a Christian woman we knew, who allowed us to spend the day there. From this Christian woman, I found out that the 14 Jews at the sawmill - among whom were my two sisters, brother-in-law, my son, and my sister's son were left alive. At night the Christian woman came and told us that we must leave without fail, because she was afraid that if her son found out that we were there, he would immediately call the police and we would be shot. We had no choice, so at 11pm we set out in the same direction that we had decided earlier. As we came close to the hamlet Karolinne, we heard the approaching hoof beats of horses behind us, and shouting in Ukrainian, to stand still. We scattered in all directions and lay down on the snow with the white sheets in which we were wrapped, so that our pursuers would not notice us. Nevertheless, they began intensive gun-fire in our direction that lasted half an hour. When the shooting ended, I heard an order being given, that they should not ride on the direct road that we had taken, but go through the fields on another side. Apparently, they feared that we were partisans in hiding.
May the Lord avenge their blood
We continued to lie there for quite a long time and then we began to approach one another. When I came up to the spot where my father lay, I found him without any sign of life, and the snow around him was wet. The murderers' bullets pierced his heart, and he died on the spot. Afterwards Lippe Bernshtein came, and confirmed that my father was dead, for I still thought that maybe he had frozen. We did not come across the other two who were with us, again Leime Farfl and the boy from Mir.
Sometime later a Christian told us that for a couple of weeks, Leime and the boy were moving around in the Foharel forest, and that when they entered the house of a Christian, he called the police, and they suffered a terrible death. I had no choice, but to leave my father's dead body, after kissing him repeatedly. We began to search for a way to reach the partisans. After a few days of wandering from hamlet to hamlet, because no one would let us in to stay the night,
a Baptist allowed us to spend the night in a stable together with a horse, a cow, and a pig -and hid us in a hole and covered us with straw, and this was our good fortune. A neighbor who noticed us entering the farmer's house, immediately informed the Germans, and in the middle of the night the White Russian police came with a German, and they searched the house and the barn and came into the stable. The police wanted to search the stable too, but the German said that it was not possible for people to be here, and not in a frost of minus 40 degrees centigrade. They searched for us in the nearby farms and after not finding us, they left.
We immediately left the place, and after a whole night of walking and running, we made our way to a farmer that we knew, also a Baptist, named Loyka. After much effort on our part, he agreed to hide us in return for a significant reward. He dug a hole in his barn in which Bernshtein and I hid.
From this farmer, I also learned that my sisters Tirtze and Rokhl, who were still living at the sawmill, found out, that our father was lying in the field after being shot dead, so they paid a Christian to bury him in the field in the same place where he had been shot. This was on 2nd February 1943.
From time to time the farmer would bring me news of my sisters, brother-in-law, and my son Noakh who was together with them at the sawmill. One little letter, that was written in March 1943 by my dear little son Noakh and by my sister Tirtze's son Hillel, reflects their sad situation. I present it here, in the form of a photocopy. They perished on 8th August 1943. They were together at the sawmill with Leon Mirski from Steibtz, his wife, Grune and her two daughters, a little girl Rivke Kanterovitsh, Khanke Levin with her husband and child, and a Warsaw girl named Stepa Tsherniyetzska, all of whom perished together.
We lay like this, in a living grave for 18 months until the Russians drove away the last of the German murderers, and we went free. Gradually the few surviving Jews of Svershzne returned, among them my brother Dovid. We went to the field and dug up the body of our dear father and gave him a Jewish burial at the new Jewish cemetery, where the communal grave of the Jews of Svershzne is located. This is the only victim of my entire family whose burial place I know.
Since then, my wounded soul finds no rest, and like shadows, we follow all the tortured and annihilated Jews of Svershzne, as well as the phantoms of my destroyed family. I hear the last outcry of my tormented child, and I will hear him like this, until the last day of my life.
Copy of the letter in Yiddish
Dear Chava, I did not write you all this time because I had the flu. Today, I feel better and am writing a few words to you: We are still alive.
A week ago, on Thursday, we were almost reunited with our loved ones. It was terrible, now it is quiet again, what will be next is unknown.
Noah and I obey all the instructions we receive from our parents and look forward to the moment when we unite with you healthy. From me, Hillel, who is kissing you.
Dear Mother, I'm kissing you many times. Next time I will write more. From me, your son Noah.
Our appreciation and gratitude to our friend A. D. Shkolnik, for his diligence and sincere devotion for the publishing of the Yizkor Book for our destroyed community.
The Committee of the Organization of Former Residents of Sverzshne in Israel.
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