« Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page »

[Page 128]

From bad to worse
(The Holocaust and the period preceded it)

Told by David Rybeck and written by S. P-Bar

Translated by Mira Eckhaus

Edited by Erica S. Goldman-Brodie

After the fire in the occupied Olkeniki that was caused by the Russian planes air bombs, the townspeople crowded into houses that were saved. The rabbi lived with Mark, the pharmacist Sternin stayed with Eliyahu Borman, Yosef Levin and his son-in-law with Zvi Polachek. Some of the residents moved to the nearby Jewish village of Dakashnia. The Lithuanian Konitzky was appointed as the commandant of the town. He also had a deputy. Later on, an officer appeared in the town who came with his wife from Lithuania, from the town of Zesmer. We received news by emissaries among the farmers about the situation in the towns of Lithuania, which was very bad and in a dead end.

On Saturday, Yechiel Kaganovich and Berel, his brother-in-law, came to my house and said: “David, we came to you as the emissaries of the town, please come to the rabbi's house, everyone is gathered there for a meeting and we are waiting for you to do something, because we don't know what else can be done”.

Ever since the Germans entered the town, I had not had a haircut or shaved. I was walking as if I were in mourning , and when I would walk into Rubinstein's liquor store, they would remark me that I did not shave. They implied that the situation was not so bad because the farmers were telling them that there would be relief, etc.

All the residents of the town sat in the rabbi's house. Since the commandant lived in my house, it was suggested that I buy it for money. They recommended that I be joined by Reb Chaim Cohen, one of the town's elders and its dignitaries, so both of us would represent the town.

The next day they collected 5000 rubles. We handed them over to the commandant Konitzky, but he refused to take the money, because in the meantime he lost his power and greatness, for he had not persecuted the Jews aggressively. We therefore returned the money to the owners.

In the fourth week I was expelled from my home, which turned into the residence of the new commandant. When the second commandant took possession of the town, I came to do some lobbying before him. He reassured me by saying: When I studied, my fellow students were Jewish. In the end he asked: How can I help you? I told him that rioters from a nearby village had come to rob Yechiel Kaganovich, who lived on the edge of town. He promised to help.

We decided to bribe him with cloth for a coat and gifts for his wife. We sent the farmer Zirnis, riding a bicycle, to the nearby town of Eishyshok to bring Monish Fain's suit for the commandant. We bought the cloth for the suit for 500 rubles, from Aharon Karpowitz.

The second time I turned to him for help, was when the farmer Gelebs went wild in town and made a real pogrom. In those days I lived in the house of the late Zvi Polachek with my wife and five children.

When the Nazis arrived in town, most of the people remained with no property and were hungry after the fire. They divided their bread among themselves.They would even send onions and meat to the poor, secretly. The families in town who were arguing before, reconciled. “Now there are no haters in the town”, said Sarah Berkowski, “and we know how to behave in times of need.”

The youth and adults were sent to work in peat fields near Orani. (Some of the townspeople worked in the peat fields near the town even in Russian times).On Sunday morning, they would leave for Orani and on Friday they would return home walking a distance of about 35 kilometers.

One Friday, Benny Abrashka, who was 20 years old, came and said that while working, a farmer approached him, put pressure on his foot and told him that the Jews of the nearby town of Orani were no longer there, and warned him not to come to work tomorrow. Benny Abrashka told Yossele Senzhnik about it and suggested that they will flee to the forest, before it will be too late. Yossele did not want to leave his father and mother and did not go with him.

During the Soviet era, Zvi Senzhnik, the old and kind Hebrew teacher, was a guard in the cardboard factory, and now he was in need and poor. The situation in town, which was cut off from the nearby towns and villages, was unbearable. Farmers came and talked about the hardships and disasters of Lithuanian towns, but the townspeople did not want to believe them. Pharmacist Sternin said, “I do not believe it, it is not possible that people would be killed for no reason”. His daughter-in-law, who was the wife of his only son Shaul, would dress up and walk the streets of the town, as if nothing had happened, because she did not believe in the impending disaster. It should be noted that except in a few cases, the Germans and farmers knew how to disguise their behavior. They behaved towards the town gently, so to speak.

The Nazis ordered the people of the town not to dare to take off their hats as a greeting, because the rank of the Jew is too low that they don't even deserve to bless them, the “upper race.”

On Saturday we sat on the fence of Y.Zubiski. An old German passed in front of us. I ordered the people not to take off their hats, only I got off the fence and walked on the side of the German. When he asked why we did not greet him by taking off our hats, I told him about the order that had been issued. To this he replied, that this is stupidity and should not be taken into account. Only then I told all the presents to greet him as usual.

Rumors chased rumors. Jews whispered secrets outside the city on the meadow, on the sides of roads and in the corners of houses. The youth was

[Page 129]

like in a trap. The boys grew a beard and were very confused. The farmers would come and spread rumors that drove people crazy.

Yosef Levin - the son-in-law of the rabbi, a man of morality, wise and solemn, was pessimistic - he believed in everything. His son-in-law, Moshe Uziransky, would say again and again: “If I didn't have a wife and children, I would have taken a backpack and run from border to border”. His son-in-law, Yosef, would reply: “If there was a quiet corner somewhere, I would run there, but the Nazi is tricky and he would find me anywhere.”

My father-in-law, the old Samuel Jacob Payne, would go from one pharmacy to another and asked them to sell him poison, so that he could die with dignity. It is said that the pharmacist Sternin and his family poisoned themselves in the market in Eishyshok before the roundup of the Jews (Aktz'ya).


The last night

The commandant, accompanied by policeman Razis, came at three o'clock at night to Zvi Polachek's house, which was also my place of residence. Razis stood outside the door. The commandant pointed to the number 5 of the large clock that hung on the wall: “You have time to save yourself until this hour, later on do not address me with complaints”. He had a large flashlight in his hand. He asked for a blanket, gave it to the policeman and sent him away, so that he would not be present during the conversation. He stopped the pendulum of the clock and pointed to 5 o'clock.

Nakel Polachek, the wise mother of the family, turned to my daughter Miriam and said: Merele, what happened? I said: “It's bad! We must leave this place until 5 and escape”.

The Polachek family consulted with Yosef Levin and with the son-in-law Moshe Uziransky, they decided to stay. According to Yosef Levin: “The angel of death is everywhere”.

Even before that, it was possible to escape to nearby towns, to Eishyshok and Radon, where for the time being it was much better than in the towns near Lithuania. But we did not have the strength and courage to leave the houses and wander abroad.


The escape

I left the Polachek house, crossed the street, all the way to the fence of the pastor's garden. The night was dark. My little one ran after me and cried. I heard shots. I returned to the house. Nakel stood stunned and murmured: “fintzer is mir” (“Darkness is everywhere!”).She held the handle of the lock, and said she would not go. We asked her that if my brother-in-law Meir Fain came, would she tell him that we had fled to the forest. I could not inform the people of the town, and therefore I turned to the Marchenka River.

We passed the pontoon bridge on the way to Sulza. We crossed the Sulza River on the beams and from there we headed to the village of Drazhnik. I spoke with Yekutiel Soltz, who lived about a kilometer and a half from the town. From my hiding place, I saw two policemen holding flags and chasing Yekutiel to the town market. But he evaded them and went to the forest too.

On the way to Drazhnik, my whole family was with me, except for Abrashka, who was among the peat diggers in Orani. Early in the morning, Meir Fain's wife came to the Polachek house to look for us. She said there was a mess in the Polachek house. The dough was in big bowls, ready for the holiday, the pillows were scattered on the beds and the belongings were out of place, just the same as at the time of a fire. She asked the members of the house about us. Their answer was that they do not know where we were.

Meir Fain fled in the morning to Franka in Asmashuk, a place where he had previously left a wagon with clothes in it for later use. In Drazhnik, we remained hidden in the granary for 7 days. Through the cracks we saw how the farmers from the area drove in wagons the property of the Jews that was looted after the slaughter in Eishyshok. The wagons were laden with clothes and bedding. The farmer brought us to the forest, to the swamp. We stayed there all night and could not find a way out. The farmer was religious and would ring the bells in the church during prayer. According to him, he told the pastor at Olkeniki that he was hiding Jews, but the pastor did not believe him. This farmer wanted to take my new boots from me, but I did not give them to him.

The “Shaulisim”, (the “shooters”, an organization of semi-military volunteers) the Lithuanians came to capture us but did not find us, because we had evaded before. There, in Drazhnik, I heard through the wall, a farmer telling his neighbor, that he wanted to save Yechiel Kaganovich, but it was already too late. From the swamps of Drazhnik, we moved to Chebutar Lautints, and then we stayed 10 days in Samashuk. Our shepherd showed us the way to another village near Samashuk as a hiding place, and we left to Samashuk.


The meeting with my son

In Samashuk we met our son Abrashka. He returned sick from the peat mines in Orani. His legs were swollen. There were rashes on his body. We did not know if our son, Abrashka, would get there. The farmer arranged the meeting between us. Abrashka could not stand on his feet and the farmer brought him on his hands. My son was speechless, he looked at us and did not know us. We stayed in Smarshuk until he recovered and then we went together to Radon - to the ghetto. We were in Radon 8 months, until May 10. In Radon we found some of Olkeniki's residents, Avraham Tiken, Yekutiel Soltz, Gedaliah, the son-in-law of Sarah Leah the potter. They migrated to Novograd, and after the slaughter there, returned to Radon. When they talked about what was happening in Novograd, nobody believed them. Then they joined the partisans. In Radon were Monish and Meir Fain. Monish was killed in Radon. Meir was also in the Lida ghetto,

[Page 130]

and he probably hid in the village of Chebutar, and the farmer who hid him killed him in the end.

It is said that Bashel Zubisky fled the market in Eishyshok. It was said that her son Itzke also gave money to the guards, and was freed, but later he returned to the market and went to the slaughter. Bashel lived with farmers for about a year and since then disappeared. .Her recent known place was with the farmer Keirsha in the village of Titiancha.

My wife was killed in Radon Ghetto. She came from the villages to the ghetto and sought refuge. They did not agree to let her enter the Ghetto with 4 children. The children cried, but no one related to them. Later on, they took her to “work” and she never returned. I escaped from Radon with my four children to the Marchikanchi Forest. My daughter Merele escaped alone from the ghetto to the villages. We spent a few days in Marchikanchi, our friend Kobrowski found out that we were in the area so he picked us up and we stayed with him for 6 weeks. We went from there to Purich, where I worked in the soap industry for the Germans. Grodno was then annexed to the Third “Reich” and Jews still traveled there by train and were not concentrated in the ghetto. We stayed in Purich until November, 1942.


They are killing my children

When the slaughter happened in Purich, I ran away with the children. I passed the fence and dodged and the children went alone to Grodno and were there until the establishment of the ghetto. From there, the children fled to a Shchuchin, which is near Lida, in a group of 14 people from Orani and Olekeniki. All of them were killed on the way. Abrashka, my son, was shot in the legs first and then they killed him. I fled from Purich to Marchikanchi. There I met my daughter Miriam. In November, the Jews of Purich and Marchikanchi were gathered in the ghetto. The Jews of Marchikanchi went underground. After the Germans bombed the bunkers, the Jews fled to the forests. Some of them I met in the forests. From this group survived only my daughter Miriam, myself, Yaakov Kobrovsky, Livka Levin and Rachel Magidovsky.

One day I went to the village of Yanzigara, about 9 kilometers from Marchikanchi to look for food. One farmer told me secretly that his neighbor had brought the Nazis. I escaped to the forest wearing farmers' sandals (“laptes”). I had some food with me. In the forest I found a Jew wounded by gunfire. I was looking for a place for us with a farmer, and here I see two policemen standing next to the farmer and ordering me to raise my hands. I did not raise my hands and started running. They shot after me. I felt my coat sleeve is burning, but I was still alive. I ran in the frost on the frozen river. In the middle of the frozen river there was a kind of stream of water and an abyss beneath it. I passed the running water and fled to the village of Dogridanchi. I found my daughter Miriam there. On New Year's Day, I went with all the farmers to church. I was met by a farmer I knew who asked us how I, Mr. Rybeck, was going to church? I fled from there to Klasnik and from there I returned to my daughter Miriam in Dogridanchi. During the escape in the forest, we decided that if we stayed alive, we would meet in this village. In this village the Jews prepared a cave-bunker. When a Lithuanian farmer named Jonas came to look for Jews, we entered the cave. The farmer begged us to leave her property because she feared for her life. The Lithuanian farmers told us to give the Lithuanian child sweets so that he would not reveal our hiding place to the police. When the Lithuanian policemen arrived, the boy fell asleep and did not wake up.

From the cave I fled to the open field and hid in a haystack. From there I walked on the way towards Olkeniki. I came to Yurkinza. My daughter Miriam escaped from the shooting attack in the vicinity of Marchikanchi to Pushche-Benache. We later met in Yurkinza and together with my daughter we came to Olkeniki.

[Page 131]

From the Brink of Doom to the Land of Resurrection

Chaim Beit Yosef - Zubiski

Translated by Mira Eckhaus

Edited by Philip Shapiro


The First Days

When that terrible storm broke out, which raged for over five years, it swept large parts of the world with its storms, changed the patterns of yesterday's world, destroyed our nation's most vital organs, and left its other parts wounded and bleeding.

In those first disastrous days to the world, I was in Smorgon, and only a month later I visited my hometown, Olkeniki, where I had spent my childhood and youth.

To be clear, we did not know only youthful contentment and happiness in our town. I experienced many difficulties and hardships in my childhood. And yet, the atmosphere in the period of the First World War and in the years that followed, with their own troubles and sufferings, was quite different from that of the period at the beginning of the Second World War.

In the First World War, when the Cossacks were about to abandon our town under the pressure of the approaching Germans,[1] they looted the food supply, took the animals they could take with them, and killed the rest [of the animals], but they did not harm the local population. In this regard, they would not [specifically] discriminate against the Jews. There was, to be sure, great trouble in general, but there was no danger to human life. Such was also the general feeling. We treated the situation as a problem that would pass with time. After that, in the war between the Poles and the Bolsheviks, when Lithuania rose to life, even then things were not so peaceful, and yet the feeling of security never left us. Even later, when the Poles fought the Lithuanians and our town passed from hand to hand many times, the population never thought that there might be a danger to [civilian] lives. I was a child in those days, and I remember very well how every time the Polish and Lithuanian armies would take turns occupying the town, they would raid the houses to rob them of loot. Sometimes it was the Polish soldiers and sometimes the Lithuanian partisans. But the residents were imbued with a feeling of freedom and security and were ready to fight for their lives, property, and honor. When the raids became frequent, the residents organized themselves; and when the [occupiers] raided a house to rob it, the residents would start shouting and immediately a louder cry of protest would rise from all of the other houses, and that caused the robbers to leave quickly. They knew very well that the residents were organized and their opposition would be fierce and bitter.

That period of war and the days after it had passed. Peace reigned in the world and in the region [during the inter-war period]. Life in the town returned to its course, and while sometimes difficult shocks were experienced, but there was no uprooting.

But now, at the beginning of the Second World War, how times had changed! Who could have imagined a partnership between these two worlds, between fascism in its extreme form – the Nazis – and communism. Nevertheless, the agreement between them was signed in August 1939, and, shortly after that, these two whales attacked Poland and conquered it in a short time.[2]


Under the Communist Oppression

Olkeniki came under the Russian occupation [in September 1939].

Another world emerged immediately. One month after the occupation began, I visited my parents in Olkeniki and saw that a surprising change had taken place in the town. I did not recognize it. Its appearance had changed and it had a different spirit; the air that I breathed was different. I don't know what I was expecting to find in Olkeniki. For some reason I thought that Olkeniki would not change under the conqueror's rule, perhaps because this town had always symbolized to me peace and security. It was a typical Jewish town which had not undergone major changes in generations. It was a place with the same easy-going atmosphere, full of the brotherhood that characterized our brothers who lived in small towns in Poland and Lithuania. There lived several dozen Jewish families, who struggled all their lives for a meager livelihood, as small shopkeepers and unimportant artisans, who, in great straits, earned their livelihood. If there was a milking cow in the barn of one of the Jews, its owner was considered as a ba'al ba'it (a homeowner). And whoever possessed more than that, was called nagid.[3] And so life had flowed and rolled on for generations.

But when I came this time to Olkeniki, I found an upside-down world. No more peace, no more complacency. Everyone was walking with despair and on every face was the fear of tomorrow, as if a sword [of uncertain fate] was dangling over everyone. The people were afraid of everything and there was not a day when this was not greater than that of the previous day. The town's regular and cohesive life crumbled day by day. A certain part of the youth was dazzled and swept away by the [rhetoric of the] new communist regime and would help the occupiers to further destroy the rest.

I hardly knew my father and mother. During the few weeks that I had not seen them they had become very old. I had known Father as a man full of courage and confidence, a solid man against whom nothing could move him from his place. Mother also was not an ordinary woman. She was wise, her mind was clear, and she understood every situation correctly. And now, I found them lonely, full of despair and trembling from terror. The dispersion of the family and concern for their children troubled them greatly.

In those first war days, Lithuania there was still

[Page 132]

independent. The Moscow government very carefully guarded the independence of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.[4] It would only use the military bases in these countries; therefore, Lithuania was cut off from Poland. Vilna and the [Vilna] district were still part of Poland.[5]

My sister Tzipora lived with her family in Lithuania. I and my brother, Eliyahu, were in Smorgon, and the roads were dangerous. Back then, in normal times, Father used to hold family meetings from time to time, and now the disconnection and dispersion burdened him very much.


The Approaching Holocaust

On the same day that I arrived in Olkeniki and came to my parents' house, I found some friends there, among whom were Yitzhak Piklani, Gad Zandman, and others. I was really shocked at the sight of their faces. Yitzchak Piklani had just lost his son, Yosef, who served in the Polish army and was with the regiments that had fought fiercely on the island of Westerplatte near Danzig. This place became very famous at the time because of the bloody battle between the Poles and the Germans. I listened to the words of the people, who were desperate. They predicted calamities, and did not see a single ray of light to dispel their darkness. I tried to put some optimistic tone into the conversation. I tried all kinds of ways to encourage them. I repeated the same things that were known to everyone, that the fate of the residents of the Vilna area was better than that of others because there were rumors that Russia was going to return Vilna and the district to Lithuania. The Lithuanians had never given up on [their hope to regain] Vilna, their “eternal capital.” They waged an unceasing struggle throughout the twenty years that Poland occupied Vilna. They had severed all relations with Poland. Now that Poland had been conquered and overrun by Hitler and Stalin, who each took a share of [Poland's] territory, Stalin had acquired Vilna as part of his share of the spoils. Even in those days when the independence of countries had no firm basis, Lithuania did not let up on its pressure to obtain Vilna. As mentioned, rumors spread that Russia was going to give Vilna and the district to Lithuania. I got caught up in these rumors in order to encourage those who were gathered. I tried with all of my persuasive power to explain to people that this could become a reality and that life could return to its normal course in this place.

But Father dismissed my words with a wave of his hand. He turned to me and prophesied his gloomy, cruel prophecy, and these were his words:

“Chaim, my dear son, you are talking about this or that area and see the state of things in a limited way. You should know that the war actually hasn't started yet. Rivers of blood will continue to flow until this terrible war comes to an end. However, things will develop in whatever way they develop – our destiny as Jews has already been decided. I feel the danger hovering in the air. I know our gentile neighbors very well, but I have never seen such an attitude, nor did I imagine that in such a short time their attitude towards us would change in such a way. Those gentiles who are our neighbors, who have lived with us all these years in brotherhood and joy and treated us with great respect - now it is almost impossible to recognize them. Overnight, they have changed their skins and now are abusing us like wild animals. Consider in your mind what will be our fate if we are at their mercy. Indeed, the future is blacker than black. I don't see any opportunity for salvation unless God in heaven will see our poverty and the pressure upon us and maybe He will forgive, maybe He will have mercy…”

These were the last words I heard from my father. The next day I left my town of Olkeniki, and there I left my dear parents, whom I never saw again.

From then on, troubles began to befall us frequently. And even I exhausted my agony to the fullest. I went through the path of torment into the great Russian hell; I was exiled as a political prisoner, deep in the interior of Siberia. I was released and participated in battles against the Nazi beast until the end of the war.[6] I will talk more about all of this later. Finally, crushed, broken, and shattered in body and soul, I returned to look for my loved ones, my parents, my family, and my relatives. I didn't let my mind rest even for a moment. I ran from place to place hoping that I might find someone who might have some information about the fate of the town and its inhabitants.


The Destruction Affair as Described by Gershon from Dvig[7]

I happened to meet Gershon from Dvig, and I heard from him for the first-time details about the terrible destruction. And here is what he told me: In Dvig, a town that was thirty kilometers away from Olkeniki, which for the previous 20 years had belonged to Lithuania, the Aktziya took place in June 1941. That day, at dawn, the Germans began to go from house to house and take out all of the Jews, men and women, old and young. Everyone was ordered to gather in the market square, where a “selection” was to take place. Gershon sensed the approaching danger and was convinced that they were all going to be executed. But when he told people his opinion, they mocked him. He turned to my brother-in-law, Moshe, who was preparing to go to the market square with my sister Tzipora and their children, and suggested that he and their families should flee from the town together. This was still possible at that time because the Jews were not confined in a ghetto. He tried to convince him that they were on the verge of extermination. But Moshe refused to accept his words. “It is not possible for them to kill women and children for no reason,” he said. “Surely, they will sort them in the market square and those who are qualified for work will be sent to labor camps. At the most, they will set up a ghetto here, or transfer them to a ghetto in another town. It's not worth wandering around with babies.” Gershon decided not to delay any longer. He managed to get a cart, took his wife, who was pregnant, and fled from Dvig. When he moved some distance from the town, he heard the sound of gunshots.

Gershon arrived in Olkeniki and immediately headed to my father's house. He

[Page 133]

found several families there, who had made Father's house their temporary apartment. He was upset and agitated and as soon as he entered the house. He addressed everyone: “Gentlemen, I ran away from Dvig. I only want to rest here a little. We have to run away from here, too.” The people looked at him without understanding his words. They were still living with their illusions. Since the roads were not in a good condition, no news about extermination and the like had reached their ears. They looked at Gershon and thought he was out of his mind. He turned to my father and said to him: “You should know that all the Jewish residents of Dvig were exterminated, including your daughter Tzipora, her husband, and their children. The residents of the other surrounding towns, Hanishak, Butrimants, did not escape their bitter fate either. They were captured in the Aktziya and were exterminated. And you sit here complacent and do not feel the Holocaust that is about to unfold on your heads.” The people stood as if petrified and rolled their eyes with much pity, as if this was [the ranting of] a mad man. Father broke the silence and said: “Brethren, this Jew must have suffered some severe shock that damaged his mental stability, or he is overwhelmed by fear and therefore exaggerates the danger. It is impossible that they will gather people, including women and children, and kill them for no unjust reason. He foresaw the time when they were gathered, and fear took over him, until he saw imaginations as reality. They must have moved the people to some ghetto or sent them to labor camps.” Gershon was helpless. They didn't believe him, and there was nothing he could say to convince the people that he spoke the truth and that his story was true.

Nevertheless, Gershon continued with his story. Apparently, something stuck in their minds, especially when they saw that after resting for a few hours he continued to be persistent in to his words. Therefore, everyone gathered and began to analyze the news that Gershon had brought. Voices were heard that things should be clarified immediately. But how? One said one way and another suggested a different one.


A Woman's Heroism

Finally, my mother, may she rest in peace, a brave woman with a strong character, stood up and suggested that she would disguise herself as a farmer's wife and with a decent amount of money she would surely find some farmer who would be willing to travel with her in the surrounding villages and, in this way, she would be able to learn the fate of the Jews living in the surrounding towns. Silence prevailed in the house. They all understood the danger of this act, and they appreciated the magnitude of the sacrifice, but they were equally eager to know what had happened, because it was a matter of life and death, and there was no other way. Father struggled hard with himself. He was unable to be parted from Mother under these conditions, even for a short period. However, he finally recovered and said: “The roads are dangerous, the job is extremely difficult, but our fate is at a critical juncture, and a clear knowledge of what is happening may shed light on things. Well, my dear Batia, you have volunteered for your people. Go and succeed, and come back in peace.”

He burst into tears, and after him everyone cried bitterly, tearing hearts. Mother put on peasant clothes, disguised herself as a non-Jew, and set off. She managed to get through the whole area. A few days later she returned and confirmed all of Gershon's words. Not only did he not exaggerate, but the situation was worse. The [gentile] people had lost the image of God and all had become bloodthirsty prey animals. The Jews had become their fair game. They were being murdered in cold blood for one and only sin - for the sin of being Jews!

Gershon could not rest still. He felt the approaching evil, and so he left Olkeniki and fled to Radun.[8]


With the Coming of the Holocaust

Heavy clouds were hanging over Olkeniki. Everyone felt the approaching Holocaust; no optimists were left. The residents gathered from time to time to consult and plan how to prepare themselves for the future. There were several families who moved their children from the town to farmers' houses and other different places. All were under constant vigilance, but days passed and nothing happened. As a consequence, the vigilance dissipated and the people began to return to their homes and walked more confidently. Their desire to be close to their place of residence and not to wander overcame their fear. There was another reason for this, there was a gentile commandant in the town who could be trusted. He was also paid weekly in gold and was on guard for such payment. It was clear that he received his information from a first-hand source. He promised that as soon as he heard of an Aktziya that was about to take place, or of some other danger, he would immediately inform us about it, so that the Jews would be able to escape for their lives in a timely manner. He was in contact with one of the townspeople, and everyone trusted him.

During the Rosh Hashana holiday[9] the situation was tense, but quiet. And even though the people were depressed and broken, they still prepared to welcome the approaching holiday. The individual who served as the liaison between the residents and the commandant announced that there was no reason to fear and no visible danger in the foreseeable future. To some extent, this announcement calmed the residents, who even brought their children back to the town for the holiday. They were hoping for a miracle: Would not God save them? …

The Holocaust happened very quickly. On the eve of Rosh Hashanah, at midnight, the commandant came running to the house of the liaison, woke him from his sleep, and announced that within four hours, meaning at four o'clock in the morning, the Nazis would surround the town and take all of the Jews to an unknown place. There were only a few hours left to escape. Out of fear and panic, the communicator [the person who was expected to pass such information to the Jews in the community] did not have time to deliver the news to the townspeople and his relatives. He alone with part of his family fled to the forests.

[Page 134]

The Expulsion from the Town and the Destruction

At four o'clock in the morning, the storm broke out. Olkeniki was surrounded on all sides. The “Gestapo” men[10] appeared with German and Lithuanian soldiers and began to rudely knock on the doors. They did not give the people any time to get dressed, they took everyone outside. They took out even the old men and the babies from their cradles. They immediately separated the men from the rest and sent them onto the road leading to Eishyshok.[11] Some of the young people suggested that they should attack the guard that was leading them, and try to kill them and escape into the woods. But others stood against them and convinced the others with their explanations that if this were done, the soldiers would take revenge upon the women and children. “And as long as there is no proof that we are being led to slaughter, we should not act rashly.” They still needed a proof… They further deluded themselves and believed the words of the Germans, who said that they were being led to a labor camp. Here, too, the moderates prevailed, and the young people acquiesced.

The ruse of the Nazi predators succeeded. They felt the unrest and feared that opposition would break out. Therefore, they separated the men from their wives and children. First, they led the men alone, and afterwards the women and children. They planned their actions down to the last detail. When all had arrived in Eishyshok, they gathered everyone in the stables in Juryzdika [Jurzdika], and in the synagogue. And two days later, they transferred them to the large square in the horse market.

Only now did the people begin to understand their situation and looked for ways to save their lives. Among the Lithuanian police officers there were those who were willing to look the other way in return for a decent bribe. And so, several families managed to save themselves, including Meir Fain and his family, Monish Fain and his family, and others. My mother and my brother Yitzchak, may he rest in peace, also managed to get out. They begged my father to go out with them, but he refused. They thought that if they left, he would come after them, but when he didn't come, Yitzchak returned to persuade him to run away with them. In the meantime, the farmers of the area tipped off the German police and told them that the Jews had managed to bribe the Lithuanian policemen and had filtered out through the market, scattering around the area or fleeing into the forest. The Germans immediately sent for reinforcements, and mounted horsemen formed a tight chain around the market. The fate of those who remained was decided. Sheinke, an eyewitness who had stayed in the market and was saved because they assumed she was dead, told me: When the Germans appeared and blocked the ability to escape from the market, she saw my brother Yitzhak tearing his hair and slamming his head on the ground out of despair. The bitter and hasty end was well known. The people were ordered to dig pits, and when the pits were ready, they shot everyone. They did not show mercy or compassion, even for babies. A few that they assumed were already dead were saved. This was the end of the Olkeniki community; the end of my father; and the end of my brother Yitzchak, may God avenge them.

Only my mother, who was outside, was left alive, broken and devastated. Only the hope that my brother Eliyahu and I remained kept her alive and gave her the physical strength to continue her existence. And so, disguised as a Lithuanian villager, she wandered around, from town to town and village to village.

I was told by eyewitnesses who had seen her in one of the villages in Lithuania about six months before the defeat of the Germans that she encountered a Lithuanian, who recognized her as Jewish. He shot and killed her.

This is not the place to glorify and praise this wonderful woman who did not lack courage as well as intelligence. She was a woman of valor[12] in every sense. May she rest in peace and may God avenge her.


Smorgon, A Short Time Before the Holocaust

As I mentioned above, I lived in Smorgon when the war broke out.[13] Smorgon was an orderly town. Its economy was based mainly on agriculture, but it had large linen factories. There was also no lack of small craftsmen and those artisans, who made a living from each other. Trading life was normal and Jews made a decent living. Within a few days, all of this faded as if it had never been. The presence of the Polish army in the area did not last long. Within a few days the Polish regiments came apart and their defeat was complete. The soldiers scattered everywhere and within a day transformed into thousands of individual deserters. On the first day, the town's economic and civil life stopped. The anarchy before the entrance of the Russians into the town was great. The communists, who had been underground, lifted up their heads and began to organize.

The situation in those days and the morale of the Polish soldiers can be understood by one small example: Three young men from the communist underground who were armed with pistols managed to take control of a company of about two hundred Polish soldiers who were armed with light and semi- heavy weapons, disarmed them, and held them in detention for two whole days until the Red Army entered the town, And this occurred despite the fact that at that time, by chance, about five hundred officials and Polish railway workers were also in the town and were also more or less armed and were responsible for coming to the aid the government if needed.

The Russian army entered Smorgon on the fifth day. On the first day of the week, a perfect Russian administration arrived. The internal government was transferred to them within a few hours. They came with complete lists of all the residents, indicating their occupations and trades. The high Polish bureaucracy immediately disappeared, and in its place appeared Russian officials. As was customary under Soviet rule – immediately in the first days – everything of value disappeared from the market. The Russian officials, according to orders from above, emptied the town. They took out the food, clothing, etc., and moved these to their warehouses. The only goods that remained were those that had been hidden from the communists. The official prices of foodstuffs were, of course, low, and the queues

[Page 135]

were long, but those who waited achieved nothing. Trade and crafts ceased completely. The residents soon got used to the common manner of trade in [Soviet] Russia – one needed to barter for essential commodities. The atmosphere in the town became tense, full of fear and suspicion. The fear was also reflected in the clothing that people wore. The beautiful, bourgeois hats that they used to wear disappeared. Respectable overcoats disappeared and shoes were replaced by boots. All of this was done to gain the trust of the Russians and their servants, who were bustling everywhere. The people were afraid to exchange opinions about the regime, the situation, etc. In every corner, there was a listening ear, and even if there wasn't, it seemed to exist. The residents knew very well that any suspicion of disloyalty to the [new] government, even the slightest one, could lead to severe consequences.

The Russian administration took over not only material life, but also spiritual life, culture, and art. Everything was placed under the supervision of the authorities, who did not even spare the lives of the schoolchildren.


In the Communist “Paradise”

I remember a case that happened in the early days of the Soviet regime. I was sitting one day in my house. Suddenly, the door opened and Mr. Fisher, the director of the Tarbut Hebrew school,[14] walked in and immediately fainted. After I managed to revive him and he calmed down a little, he told me what had happened. The [Soviet] inspector in charge of the schools came to give his first lecture to the students. He told them about the paradise of the [1917 Russian Bolshevik] revolution, about the rule of equality in Russia, in which a new world was being built, a world founded on honesty and hard work, about the rule of the workers, who managed after many generations of slavery to free themselves from their exploitative rich oppressors, about the regime that was a model for all nations, etc. He told them that there were traitors as well as counter-revolutionaries who wore disguises, infiltrated every good society, and subverted the foundations of the Soviet regime. It was therefore necessary to fight against these traitors by all means. No one had the right to evade the sacred duty, which was assigned to everyone, to expose the traitors and reveal them so that they would be punished. Even the children were required to support this sacred action and help as much as they could. It was important to explain to them how and what would be their form of help. He told them about one case that had happened in Russia in which a young child in the third grade in public school saved the regime. The child's father was a high official in the government but in fact was one of the traitors who plotted to bring down the regime, and who managed to cover up his treacherous actions all the time. Once he accidentally uttered some words in front of his child that proved to the child that he was indeed a traitor. This honest boy did not hesitate and, aware of the role assigned to him, immediately went to his teacher to inform about his father's words. The teacher delivered the information to the appropriate place. The official was immediately arrested and, after a vigorous investigation, his vile and treacherous actions became clear. He was tried and executed. And the boy, his son, received an award of excellence. However, the treacherous family did not accept the spy's failure and harassed the boy in all kinds of ways until they finally succeeded in carrying out a plot to kill him. The government did not forget the faithful little savior and erected a monument in his memory. And every year all of the children of the area gathered near the monument, recalled the memory of the loyal little citizen, and dedicated themselves to follow his ways, which are a sign and an example for everyone, to be loyal to the regime, even against the parents themselves. “This example should always guide you,” concluded the inspector. You must remember that our regime always suffers from traitors and spies who harass it, and you must try to discover them even in your own home. This is your great duty to the new regime that does not spare efforts to build a new and happy world.”

These things had a terrible effect on Fisher and disturbed his spirit. Not a short period of time passed and he was dismissed from his position and exiled to Siberia; and the school's other teachers were also dismissed from their positions and replaced by teachers brought in from Russia.


The Eve of the Escape

The war in those days took place far from us and we did not feel it. However, it became increasingly clear that its end was remote. Great concerns filled the hearts, especially for the peace and integrity of the family. Rumors were spread, which were not misled, that the Soviet government was going to return the Vilna area to Lithuania. Lithuania was still free and the roads from Lithuania to the free world were still open. It was possible to leave Europe through Lithuania. Because of this, I decided to take my family and move to the Vilna area and from there to Lithuania, which would serve as a springboard to the great free world. I contacted one of the railway officials, a Pole who remained at his position. This clerk was loyal, and I could trust him. He promised me, for a decent fee, a train car in which I could transport my family with the things that I found necessary to take with me. That night, when I had to transform my idea into practice, a high-ranking Soviet officer together with his troop unit suddenly arrived to stay at my house. Of course, all plans for that night were cancelled. On the following day the officer was transferred to another place. I completed all of the preparations to leave the town that night. But my struggle with fate was hopeless. That day my mother came from Olkeniki to visit me. When Mother heard of what I was going to do that night, she objected strongly. With all of her persuasive power, she tried to explain to me that the act that I was about to do was beyond all reason. Here, in Smorgon, I was well-established, with a lot of property and a significant status. How,

[Page 136]

she claimed, could I leave behind a large property and move myself, my wife, and young children, a four-year-old boy and a few-months-old girl, on bad and risky roads and in distant places. “You are going to lose the certainty in your life by your own hands because of a suspicion that the situation here will get worse.” Such and such were Mother's claims. She finally managed to dissuade me from my plan and I stayed.

Today, after the passage of a long time since that period, when I try to find the logic in my actions and thoughts during that period of time, I cannot find them. Everything was so confused. All the orders of life were unstable. I was about to give up my possessions and all of my past and run away. Since I didn't run away, I thought I could manage my life and affairs as before. I deluded myself into thinking that my property still belonged to me and was privately owned by me. We were caught on both ends at the same time: On the one hand, complete despair and a lack of all hope; and on the other hand, great illusions without any sense. The reality penetrated our consciousness day by day. With each passing day I realized that my property was slipping out of my hands. And even so, when the messenger of the town arrived and informed me that they were going to break into my warehouse in Michailishuk,[15] I rushed there at midnight to stop the burglars. Michailishuk was a town about forty kilometers from Smorgon where my warehouses were located. My brother, Eliyahu, was in charge of them. However, standing up to the stress at that time was difficult for him, so he left everything and ran away. I pleaded with him and convinced him to return. Maybe together, with our joint forces, we might be able to hold on to what we had. This is how things continued for several more weeks.

I soon found out that as a businessman and owner of property, my situation was worse than that of others. The authorities started harassing me, initially in small matters, in a polite manner, and later on their attitude towards me became more difficult. I was often called in for brief interrogations and inquiries. Finally, I learned that I was soon to be imprisoned. The time I had was short. My escape plans could no longer be carried out. I couldn't take my family with me either. And so, in the middle of the night, I hastily said goodbye to them and ran away. This was my farewell to my beloved [family], whom I never saw them again. A new and black page opened in the diary of my life. I quickly got tired of wandering from town to town, and in them I was also in danger. Therefore, I came secretly to Michailishuk, where I found my brother, Eliyahu, and together we decided to sneak across the [Lithuanian-Soviet] border to the Vilna area, which had already been handed over [by the Russians] to the Lithuanians and was completely closed. But we did not get far. We reached the town of Kymilishki, close to the Vilna area, where we were arrested and imprisoned. We were then transferred to the prison in Wileyki.


In the Russian Prison

A lot has been written about the Russian prisons and the interrogation methods that were used in them. The whole world has been standing for many years dumbstruck by the vision of confessions of deeds that were not done. Confessions of people who were strong in body and soul, people who had endured excruciating torture in other regimes and had not given in to any pressure, yet in the prisons in Russia they broke down, confessed, and said everything that they were ordered to say. Furthermore, they confessed even when they had no illusions that the confessions might save them from death.

What was the solution to this great riddle? Only a person who has experienced interrogations in these prisons will understand the answer. I sat in the Russian prisons for a considerable time. During a period of many months, I had not heard of anyone being beaten or physically tortured. I do not mean to say that the Russians did not physically torture their victims. The interrogation rooms were isolated, so an outsider could not know about what was happening there. I, however, had not heard of it. The conclusion is this: The Soviet method of interrogation was mainly psychological and based upon a deep understanding of the powers of a person's will. At the disposal of the Soviet interrogators – and there was no shortage of interrogators, just as there was no shortage of those to be questioned – was the terrible weapon called “time.” In physical torture, a person can withstand until the end – death. This is different in the other tortures, the psychological tortures, in addition to the other conditions in which the prisoner is found. There is no end to the torture, only an end to man's power to withstand it. Those who confess, when they do confess, are already dead, having suffered an absolute spiritual death. This, in my opinion, is the solution to the riddle of confessions in Soviet prisons. Things will become clear later as I progress in my story, according to the order of events.

The prison conditions were extremely bad. We were placed into a narrow room, four by four cubits,[16] in which about forty prisoners were crammed. Of course, the beds upon which to lay our tired limbs were a matter of imagination. We barely found a place for everyone on earth to sleep at night. We would sleep with one's head between another's bent knees. The food was in small quantities and of poor quality. In the morning, we received a yellow water which was called “coffee,” and a small slice of bread, which was barely enough for one meal for a small child; and once a day we received a soup, which is what they called that dark and thin liquid.[17]

Well, we were really hungry. The prisoners in Russian prisons are always hungry. Hunger tortures you day and night; there is no escape from it. Some ate their bread all at once, because it was not enough to satiate them, and thus the distress of hunger did not ease until the next day. There were, on the other hand, the frugal ones, who would divide the bread and eat it little by little, each time equal to the size of an “olive.” The equal side of both of them was that they were all starving. The hygienic conditions were terrible. We were not given water for bathing. The body wastes went into large pots inside the room, and the pots were taken out once a day. The stench was terrible, and the dirt and filth were horrible. We had hundreds of lice.

[Page 137]

Here, in the Soviet prison, I witnessed again the superiority of those who had a strong spirit over those who had strong and massive bodies. Those who held on, and did not lose the image of God, were not the ones with muscles, who seemingly had more physical strength to withstand the difficult conditions; rather, it was the thin ones, who were weak in body but strong in spirit. In our cell Jews were mixed with Poles. There was almost no common language between them. After my stay among them for a few days, the attitude of the Poles towards the Jews changed for the better. I would try as much as possible to maintain morale and decency. I succeeded, as was possible under the same conditions, in evoking an attitude of respect on the part of the prisoners: Even the guards addressed me politely and with courtesy. There were some yeshiva boys among us who held on well, by the strength of their faith. On Saturdays they would gather together and sing Sabbath hymns. They amazed us by their endurance. When Passover came, they gave up bread, which meant completely giving up all food for eight days. We would collect among ourselves the potato crumbs that were in the soup and give that to them. They persisted until they fainted from weakness and lack of nutrition. I realized then how great is the power of the faith that unites a person, even in a place where all of existence was based solely on the word “bread.” Every day, the imaginations, dreams, and thoughts of the prisoners were about “bread,” because the hunger was terrible. It made people to go crazy.


The Interrogation

I waited anxiously to be called for the interrogation. I wanted to know what was expected of me. I did not feel guilty, and I thought they had no basis upon which to accuse me of anything. I was sure that after an interrogation, they would recognize their mistake [in arresting me] and I would be released. Meanwhile, time crawled. Thus, it took six weeks until I was called in for an interrogation. It was in the middle of the night. The cell door opened with a screech, and we all woke up in fear. They called my name. I went out into a long dark corridor; I was ordered to stand on my toes for a long time. Finally, I was taken into the interrogation room. I was seated on a chair. An electric lamp, which was aimed at me, illuminated me with a strong light, and the questions began. I explained that I wanted to move to the Vilna area because my parents were there. They accused me of being a spy, and claimed that they also had “evidence.” When I tried to argue how could a Jew be willing to spy for the Nazis, the enemies and destroyers of the Jewish people, my words were met with ridicule: “A Jew is capable of doing anything for the sake of money.” Things were repeated many times because the interrogators were changed from time to time. The one person who did not change was me. The interrogations lasted for weeks, only at night, and for long hours. During all that time I hardly slept. As soon as I would go to sleep, a soldier would appear and wake me up and bring me before the interrogator.

I could not describe that period. The words “nightmare,” “nightmarish dream,” are too poor to describe that state of mind. I was cut off from my home and family for no reason. I felt myself humiliated and oppressed. I knew that I did not do any injustice. I knew that I was being interrogated not because I had committed a crime, but because they needed to fill the slave quota. The interrogations were staged. And so, I treated them with contempt and disdain. I did not live in reality. A dark fear was in my mind, and in my soul. I confessed to everything and signed. Then, I was told that since I had confessed and signed, they would try to release me soon. A few days later I was transferred to the Molodechno[18] prison.


The Trial

The prison in Wileyki was heaven compared to the prison in Molodechno. The cell that they put me in was so small that it barely had enough space for two people. Eighteen people were crammed into it. I was kept in this suffocating cell for six more weeks. I cannot imagine that Hell could be worse than this prison. The small amount of bread that was given to us was as dry as wood. We got less water than in Wileyki. The sanitary conditions were terrible, although not worse than in Wileyki, because they couldn't be worse, but here the spareness was greater. At the end of six weeks, we were suddenly transferred to another prison. We couldn't believe our eyes: It was literally a paradise compared to the place where we had been before. Spacious rooms, good and nutritious food, bathrooms with soap. We were sure that justice had finally prevailed, that our integrity became clear to them and that we were about to be released. In this prison I met my brother from whom I had been parted in Wileyki. We waited for the trial. One day they brought us before the judge. We were eight prisoners. The procedure went very quickly. A brief indictment was read, and the judge immediately read the verdict – eight years of work in a labor camp! We had longed to hear the news of our liberation. We thought the sentence was a joke. We looked at each other. We couldn't believe what we were hearing – we were still living in illusions. We had concluded that the whole imprisonment was nothing but a mistake that would soon become clear. In spite of all the suffering that we had endured, the illusion grew stronger when we were moved to the orderly prison; and now, it was shattered to pieces. We were naive and did not know much about Russia and its police. We did not know anything about their labor camps. We were about to experience it firsthand.


The Horror Journey

There is no one who can be compared in endurance to this creature called man. He has the power to adapt to all conditions and all situations. If a person had asked me while I was a free man if I would have been able to go through prison conditions like those I went through, I would certainly have replied: No! But what are the conditions I went through compared to those that are yet

[Page 138]

to pass – those bitter days and cursed nights! Who knew how to distinguish between day and night on that terrible journey to the labor camps! They loaded us as they would load cattle, in freight cars, with a terrible density. According to our guess, there was room in our freight car for ten head of cattle, [yet] we were sixty people. The iron doors of the freight cars were locked behind us. There were two barred windows in the freight car which had to provide air for the people. People shouted that they were suffocating, but it was like a voice crying in the wilderness…

The journey had begun. It lasted two months, with long breaks. We were not taken out of the freight cars even during the breaks. The food we were given once a day consisted of a hard-as-iron piece of bran bread and a salted fish tail. Thirst tormented people terribly. The choking atmosphere and the heat were hellish. Horrific screams were heard all the time: “Water! Water!” No one responded to our calls. At night, guards would pass by and check the doors of the freight cars, lest there be any holes in them. The people had stomach diseases, but no one treated them. Those were the conditions under which we were moved from place to place. We thought that this terrible journey would never end. But everything has an end. One day the train stopped, the freight cars' doors opened, and we were told to get out. We arrived at Kotlas, which is located on the northern bank of the [Northern] Dvina River.[19] We were at the gates of Siberia. At the beginning of our journey, we were two thousand, now there were a few hundred missing, those who did not have the strength to finish it and had died on the way.

The depression of our spirit was great at that time. However, sometimes, a ray of light would sneak into the darkness, and a light of hope would be kindled and flickered in the great despair. Such a thing happened when they took us out of the train and seated us in a large empty lot that was enclosed by a barbed wire fence. A rumor spread in the camp that a revolution had broken out in Germany, and that Poland had been liberated. No one knew the origin of this rumor, which very rapidly passed from one end of the camp to the other. It was necessary to discover the truth of the rumor. Thirty rubles were soon collected, which were given as a reward for a glimpse at the newspaper of one of the guards. A viewer had seen in the newspaper what he wanted to see. The imagination of the people was working in full swing and joy prevailed in the camp, but only for a short time.

The next day, we were loaded onto barges [long, flat cargo boats] that were towed by a motor boat which was about to make its way north. The capacity of a barge was only a few hundred people, yet we were about three thousand. A new section of hell opened before us and we went through all of its horrors. The food was disgusting. There was almost no drinking water. The river water was not fit for drinking, but the thirst was so strong that the people could not overcome it and drank the river water. The results were severe stomach ailments. Diarrhea attacked everyone. The people stood in a permanent line in front of the toilets, which were located at the end of the boat. The queue never ended and continued during the entire journey. The people walked in it in a circle. Usually, only seven days would be needed to make this trip, but this terrible journey lasted three weeks because several times the boat needed to come to shore to unload the dead.

When we finally got off the ship, the majority were sick and the rest were in a state of exhaustion. We had to continue on foot for eight kilometers. They ordered us to follow the road and warned us that anyone who deviated from the road would be considered a fugitive and would be shot without prior warning. The people were exhausted and helpless. They barely carried themselves and their bundles of clothes. On our way we discovered a stream with clear water. The people who were so thirsty forgot the warning, fell upon the water, and started guzzling it madly. A hail of shots was fired at them and the water of the stream turned red from the blood of the drinkers. The eight-kilometer road was full with our dead.

We had to wait until the next day for the train that would take us further north. In the meantime, they brought us to a sort of empty transit camp. There were no huts or tents, and we had to spend the night under the sky. The area allotted to us was about ten dunams.[20] The lot was swampy and muddy, crossed lengthwise and widthwise by many ditches. The stench that rose from there was unbearable even for us. The area was full of the excrement of the thousands of prisoners who had camped here before us. Carts with barrels of water passed before our eyes. We saw them, but we could not drink from them. There were a few among us who, in exchange for some garment, shirt, etc., got a can with half a liter of water. With no other option, the people drank swamp water. In the middle of the night, under the cover of darkness, our guards attacked us and robbed us of our remaining clothes. In this robbery we felt for the first time what the labor camps were like.

The next day we continued our journey by train, under the usual conditions. Then we were transported by road for thirty consecutive hours in greatly overcrowded trucks. On every journey many of us died before we reached our destination.


The Transit Camp

The labor camp that we arrived at was nothing more than a transit camp. Here, we had to go through a training period and adapt to the working conditions. We were all novices; there were no veterans among us. All of the ranks were composed of our men, the heads of the groups, the brigadiers,[21] etc. Our guards were composed of criminals and a small unit of soldiers. In the entire area that lay before us from the top of the hill, we saw no structure, neither permanent nor temporary, neither a tent nor a shack. We were informed that this was where our labor camp would be. We were allotted four hours to build temporary shelters from the branches of the trees. We organized ourselves into groups and began working. At the end of the four hours, they gathered us all together and the camp commander lectured us in short words about our future in this place, about our roles, and our life conditions.

[Page 139]

He opened his speech, as was usual, with a few patriotic sentences about the importance of work in itself and its importance for building a great Russia. In Russia, he said, everyone worked. Everyone who wanted to exist - worked. Everyone who worked – would eat, and whoever did not work – would not eat. We had to carry out a work plan that needed to be finished within a certain period. The work would be divided into quotas, which in the camps were called “norms” – a general norm, a group norm, and a norm for individuals. Whoever fulfilled his “norm” would receive a full daily food ration, which was about seven hundred grams of bread, and sometimes also a serving of soup. One who exceeded the “norm” would receive additional food. One who did not meet the “norm” would receive [a reduced ration of] food proportionate to the percentage of his work quota that he completed. We did not understand much of his lecture, but time taught us very well the meaning of his words.

They divided the people into brigades, each with its own brigadier, who was appointed and responsible for fulfilling the work quota assigned to his men. He divided the brigade into small groups. Every morning he assigned to each group its work quota for the day, according to which food was distributed. The brigadiers were responsible to others who were in charge of a number of brigades, and they in turn were responsible to the camp commander, who apportioned the work [among the brigades].



Even people who were used to hard physical work were not able to fulfill their norms, as were written on paper. It was beyond human strength. And even a full food ration was not enough to satiate a person. In fact, the norms were never met. That being said, how were the work assignments fulfilled? The answer is: In Russia everyone, from the dying prisoner to the camp commander and those above him, steals and lies. A full work quota, as planned in the offices of the NKVD[22] and the government, was never filled, nor was it possible in any way to fulfill it; it was fulfilled only on paper. If the prisoner had fulfilled sixty percent of his norm, he announced ninety. The one who fulfilled seventy percent, announced the fulfillment of the norm. The brigadier, who was responsible for the norm of his brigade, must inform his superior in the same way. Likewise, those superiors must inform their camp commander, and since there are prisoners who fulfilled only thirty percent of the norm, the rest are filled on paper. The lies are passed from one to the other, sometimes by normal trickery, and sometimes by bribery. There was no other possible way. The work according to the plan of the government offices was not feasible, and the general fear of those in the lower ranks forced them to behave in this way. And what about inspections? Indeed, there were inspections, [but] the quota accountant rarely came and checked to see if the work had been done according to the plan. Sometimes he was also deceived, and sometimes he allowed himself to be deceived in exchange for something. The question that arises is what happened in the end? How did the government act towards this collective “connection?” To be sure, the government was well aware of everything that was going on. Sometimes it punished severely, but usually it turned a blind eye. Because, after all, the work was being done with a minimum of investment. There was no shortage of prisoners who could be worked hard. The camps were always full. Indeed, death shockingly killed many of them, but the ranks [of the workers] were always filled. The NKVD made sure of that. Without all of these lies, the prisoners would not be able to last even a few days. And, thus, they managed to extend the dying period for a longer time. The common phrase, “No one returns from the labor camps,” was correct and true to some extent. Russia was building its country with the lives of many millions. Every meter of the railway in Siberia is soaked in the blood of thousands of victims.

From all of the above, it should not be assumed that thanks to the mass of lies, the prisoners were saved and their living conditions improved. It only helped them to not die in the first days of their work.

The problem was that in our camp, like many other camps of first-time prisoners, the brigadiers who arose from among us did not initially understand what was happening and accepted the norms as they were. The results were terrible: People died in masses, norms were not met, calculations were performed correctly, food was allocated according to the calculations, and the people died. Over time, the situation changed a little.

We continued the construction of the railway to the north. We withstood harsh weather in the month of July, when the ground was covered with snow and mud. The people were exhausted, and our diet was extremely poor. It is hard to describe our suffering.

I should add something about the working conditions. The great principle of the Soviet government was minimal investment, both in working materials and in food for the workers. We had to create the working materials on the spot. Even a place to live for ourselves we had to build from materials that we did not have. Only the most necessary would be brought. On the first days, we didn't have a roof over our heads and we had to create one. There were a lot of trees in this place.

I will tell one small example of how things went in this regard. We had to prepare wheelbarrows. We had planks and they gave us wheels, but we couldn't find any nails, and we didn't know how to assemble the materials to make a wheelbarrow. I turned to the supervisor, a criminal prisoner, who was experienced in these matters, and his answer was that he didn't see any problem here. Seeing that I did not understand what he said, he pointed with his hand to the telephone wires (in the cold places the telephone wires are very thick). At night they took us outside and, accompanied by soldiers, we took down about three kilometers of wires. That same night we cut them into nails and assembled the wheelbarrows. We buried the rest in the ground. When the lack of telephone wires was discovered, they started an investigation, which ended in nothing.

[Page 140]

When I arrived at the camp, I was still wearing a suit. A criminal prisoner who was in charge of us told me that if I gave him the suit he would keep me in the camp for domestic work, which was relatively light. I asked him for other clothes to wear and handed him the suit. I, my brother Eliyahu, and a man named Hana Yavetz were in the camp and worked on erecting the big tent, assembling the wheelbarrows, and a few other small jobs, which ended quickly. The prisoner in charge, who had received the suit from me, told me that I could continue to work inside the camp, but that my brother and Hana Yavetz had to go to work outside. Hana Yavetz had injured in his leg; he had an ugly wound that was oozing blood and had pus all the time. We tried to keep him close and supervise him. I couldn't accept him leaving for outside work with an injured leg. That is why I left him in my place, doing work projects in the camp, while I and my brother Eli went to work outside of the camp.

That first day of my work outside, I felt what it meant to work in the cold, snow, and mud. We were outside of the camp for more than twelve hours. Using all my strength, I managed to complete only thirty percent of the norm. I received no bread that day. I learned a lesson and realized that the will to live is very strong. On the first day I was sure that I had reached the limit of my ability, but the next day I tried harder and got the portion of bread and soup.

They would count us when we left and when we returned to the camp in case someone might have gone missing. Even though we were a long way from a settlement and the people were so exhausted that no one thought of running away, they nonetheless still counted us every evening. The count took a long time. They always discovered that one or two were “missing” and until they realized that everyone was present, a long hour would pass. The people collapsed on the spot.

After a stay of one month in this camp, we were no longer novices. From then on, we were separated and scattered to different camps. Now my time had come to taste the taste of a real Russian labor camp. This transit camp was a laugh compared to the labor camps we were transferred to.


Camp and Another Camp

I was in thirteen different camps. They more or less resembled each other. The same norms, the same constant hunger, the same suffering, and the same agony. Hundreds of these camps were scattered across the vast expanses of Siberia. Hundreds of thousands of people who were torn, without reason and without explanation, from their families and sent to this land, were dying in them. From the day they were torn from their families, no information about them was heard. Neither did they hear anything from their families, nor even anything about what was going on in the world. Who could count all of those hundreds of thousands of victims whose bones are scattered across the snowy lands of Siberia. Who could count all those who would come after them!…

The Germans used gas chambers, sophisticated crematoria, and exterminated millions methodically, with typical German precision and directly. The number of victims of the Russians does not fall short of the number of victims of the Nazis. But the Russians did not condemn the people to die. The conditions in the camps condemned them to a slow and protracted death, perhaps without intending to. A chain starts with a single link, but from there begins the assembly of the whole chain. This process and this form suited the needs of the Russians. Russia must be built; the natural treasures of Siberia must be exposed. But the execution expenses were enormous and there was no money to finance them. In the offices of the party and the NKVD a solution was invented: The prisoners. There was no shortage of prisoners in the Soviet Union and when they ran out others would come under them; sins and crimes were not lacking. A person did not have to sin in order to be sent to the labor camps. People existed and sins existed and when needed they are joined together to provide the cheapest labor force in the world. The budget for food for the employees was minimal. And so, the big factories were established all over Russia. This is how they developed remote areas where no human had set foot. This is how the railroad was built along thousands of kilometers in the far north; this is how the enormous treasures that are buried and preserved in the frozen lands of Siberia were to be exposed and exploited.

Outwardly, the Russians boasted of their civilized labor camps that they did not allow the prisoners to degenerate and provided them with employment. Beautiful words. Today, no one believes anymore that these words were true. All those who escaped from the Russian hell and managed to infiltrate beyond the iron walls, spread and revealed to the wider world the truth about the slow-death camps, about what was done to the prisoners while they were alive, and to what a low, terrible, and vile rank they lowered the man who was created in the image of God. People stopped thinking and acting like human beings. Their lives were centered solely on norms, food, and sleep.

The internal regime in the camps was in the hands of the prisoners, vile criminals. Most of them also served as the brigadiers and those who allocated shares of work. There is no need to describe the treatment of the prisoners if these are those who were in charge of them.


The “Jackals” of the Camps

In the labor camps we met a new type of people that we didn't know about until then. But, in fact, this type were the real rulers in the labor camps.

They called them “jackals.” These creatures were prey animals of the worst kind. Human life had no value in their eyes. Even their own lives had no value in their eyes. They did not have any human emotion. Human values, such as mercy, understanding, etc., did not exist at all with them.[23]

[Page 141]

Most of their lives had been spent in camps, to which they were sent at a young age. Here, they received their education and here their characters were shaped. When they were released, they did everything to return to the camps. There was no place for them outside of the camps. They did not know any other kind of life; the camp and the surrounding forests were their soul. They would live in groups, and everyone feared of them. Even the brigadiers, the superiors, and the NKVD officers did not dare to provoke them. There was no punishment that scared them. It was easier for them to kill a person than to kill a flea. If they discovered anything of value on any person, even if it was clothing on his body, they would immediately take it for themselves by force. They would take gold teeth out of people's mouths without anyone protesting. When a shipment of food arrived at the camp, they would immediately take for themselves whatever they wanted and in whatever quantity they wanted - and no one protested about it. They would go wild and abuse the prisoners to the point of horror. Woe betide any man they dealt with. They would play cards that they had made for themselves from other people's property. They would sometimes bet on the eye of one of the prisoners they did not like. And the loser had to gouge out the eye. More than once it happened that after such a game of cards one of the jackals would rise up and stick his claws into the eyes of one of the prisoners. These things are hard to believe. But I have witnessed them and deeds even worse than these.

A whole book could be written about the language in the camps. Simple human language was not heard there. In the camps there was a special language: Curses, insults, and obscenities, which could make the walls blush. The camp's lexicon of curses was certainly the longest and most complete in the world; it was inexhaustible and never finished. You never heard normal human speech. The language of speech in the camp alone was enough to understand the slope upon which man had deteriorated to complete degeneration.

In mentioning the “jackals,” I would like to talk about one of them and his life story:

He was the brigadier in charge of me in one of the camps and his name was Sven. He was a “jackal,” a muscular and frightening man. His actions and behavior were no different from those of his friends, and everyone feared of him. But somewhere deep in his heart there still remained hidden a human spark that would flicker from time to time. Probably by nature he was of a good quality, but life had changed him a lot. I was in his brigade for six weeks. In these weeks I gathered some strength after long months of slow fading because his behavior with people was different. He explained about high norms and getting extra food for his people. He didn't rush the work and didn't oppress people. In the middle of the work, he would disappear and suddenly return carrying by hand two buckets of soup which he forcefully took out of the camp and distributed the soup to the people. He liked to stop work in the middle, and then light a fire, gather us around him, and tell the story of his life over the many years he had had in the camp. He would end each story with the words: “And now, look and see what they did to me, and what they made of me.” His stories were long and shocking, and reflected all of the horrible reality of the camps. From the stories it was possible to see Russia's regime of “equality and non-discrimination.”

He was born to simple parents. His father was a poor laborer who barely managed to support himself and his home. The boy attended school together with several students whose parents were NKVD officials. He would visit their homes and see the life of pleasure that they lived. While the rest of the residents did not obtain the essentials, these officers' children brought to school the best food available. The jealousy ate Sven from the inside. He was not able to understand how every day he was dying of hunger and lack of everything while the children of the NKVD officers would eat their delicacies. He was a young child when he started stealing. He was fourteen years old when he was exiled to the camps in Siberia. Here, he encountered the most terrible revelations of corruption. His educators were all kinds of criminals. When he was released, he was not able to fit in with the regular people. He returned to his evil ways and was sent back to the camps again. He was unable to live anywhere else, only in these forests. “If they had sent me after my first theft to a decent camp, and taught me a profession, I could have lived among the regular people.” And he finished: “Look what they made of me!” …

This is how we rolled from one camp to another one, isolated and cut off from the rest of the world, at the mercy of rampaging criminals. Only luck and superior physical strength saved people from death. People would die from lack of nutrition, from arduous work, and from the severe diseases that attacked them because of the hellish conditions they were in. Almost no medical treatment was given.


My Brother Eli

I remember that one morning the chief foreman came by and announced that if the daily work quota was not met, they would not be content with just reducing the food rations, but would also not allow us to return to the camp. The cold was terrible - forty-five degrees below zero. I, my brother, and another young man from Vilna worked in one group. We had to uproot the trees from an area of about a hundred meters. The snow was as hard as stone. We had to break it, cut down the trees, and cut them into sections that could be moved. We knew that the decree and the punishment would be carried out in full, so we exerted ourselves with all of our might. We worked continuously with superhuman effort for fourteen hours. It was six in the evening when we collapsed from exhaustion. The other groups also stopped working. The norm was not met. It was beyond human strength. Although there were a few who had managed to fulfill their norms, the general quota was not

[Page 142]

met. The nachalnik[24] and the lead foreman moved from brigade to brigade and inspected the work results. The inspection did not put their minds at ease. They ordered us not to return to the camp. Apparently, this decree was the result of a bet in a game of cards. The men collapsed and fell asleep in the snow. At ten o'clock at night the inspectors came and brought us back to the camp. Many had frozen forever in their sleep, and others had lost limbs that were frozen in the terrible cold. This was one such instance out of many.

I held up well through all our troubles and suffering. I was strong in body; I didn't lack vigor either. But my brother Eli was very weak. His strength was running out day by day and he wanted to die. I would try to work more, in order to get more food, which we would share equally. It happened that Eli had almost frozen [to death] in the middle of his work. I would make him run and exercise, take the rags off his frozen feet, and warm his feet on my body. Thus, with a joint effort, we passed the days. We would strengthen ourselves, hoping for a miracle to happen to us. We didn't know anything about what was happening in the German occupation area. We never imagined that the Nazi monster had invented the most horrible inferno that the human mind has ever invented, an inferno that systematically destroyed millions, and did so according to all the principles of science and technology. It's a miracle that we didn't know, since we would not have been able to go through this hell without the hope of ever meeting our loved ones.

To conclude - I don't know what was worse: The German extermination camps or the Russian labor camps. In both of these camps millions perished. The difference is, perhaps, in the approach. The Russian authorities did not deliberately torture or execute outright. Nor did they differentiate the Jews from the others. On the other hand, the Russian labor camps continue to exist to this day, long after the destruction of the Nazi monster.

In camp number seven we worked on building a road from trees. My brother Eli and I were in the forest and we were cutting trees. We were alone. Eli then reached the limit of his suffering. He stopped his work and shouted at me to let him die. If he had a little mental strength left then, he would surely have committed suicide. But we were empty of everything. We had lost all the strength of our souls; we lost the last thing, the will. He collapsed and began shouting the chapter in the Psalms: “Shir Hama'alot, Mima'amakim Kra'aticha” (“A song of Ascents. Out of the depths have I called Thee).[25] I, who had held on the whole time, was so shocked that I started hitting my head with both hands. I lost control of myself. Finally, I got up, took Eli with me, and we entered to the depth of the forest, where I made a bed of branches and leaves. We curled up together and fell asleep. We had nothing more to lose. We slept like this for about six hours. The guards looked for us everywhere. There was no fear of escape. They thought we had committed suicide. We were awakened by the sound of their calls. We got up and set off. We were met by an NKVD officer and the camp commander received us. We prepared ourselves for a severe punishment. But to our surprise, the camp commander turned to us in a fatherly voice and asked: “Brothers, what happened to you?” I explained everything to him. I told him about Eli's precarious physical condition, and that his repeated requests to the supervisors to be examined by a doctor had not been answered. And now we had no more strength left. One of the greatest miracles happened. They didn't punish us; on the contrary, they took pity on us and gave us a whole week off from work. Indeed, a great miracle happened to us, but without such miracles, I probably would not be telling now all of the things that happened to me. There is no brush in the world that will be able to paint the life of the camp and the abysses of corruption that are revealed there every hour. How did they turn man into a beast of burden and labor, someone who has nothing in his world but food and sleep. The brain did not work, except for the fulfillment of the most primitive demands. The past was dead and the future did not exist at all. We lived in an unfading fog, in a world of chaos. There was nothing, except for food and bodily pains, that could bring the people out of their indifference. Only once did something from the outside world burst into our sealed minds. It was in June 1941, when the war erupted between Germany and Russia. This news managed to infiltrate even the slave camps.


False Hopes

The news broke and electrified everyone. A glimmer of hope ignited in our hearts. We did not know what awaited us, and what we might gain from this war, but we thought that some change would take place in our monotonous lives, the end of which we could not even imagine. But even these faint hopes were soon lost and vanished like smoke. Our situation had not only not improved, but worsened much more. There was less food, and the quality of the bread was worse than it had been. We were hungry, and even though we were far from indulgence, we were tired of this spoiled bread. Even the working hours were increased. We were already used to working fourteen hours a day, and now they were increased. They would wake us up at three o'clock in the morning and bring us back at seven o'clock in the evening. The guard that was placed upon us became more severe. They started to be strict with us about trivial things. Until then, they had rarely beaten us. Now, they began to beat us brutally for every slight deviation. At the workplace, we had boundaries marked, and anyone who crossed the boundary by a few steps was shot. There were prisoners who took advantage of the opportunity - they intentionally crossed the border and were redeemed from their torment forever. All of our prayers for redemption were in vain. At that time, they began to sort us according to our countries of origin. To their credit, it should be said that the sorting was only by country of origin, and not by race or religion. There was no one who could explain the reason for this sorting, and there was no discrimination for better or worse treatment.

In those days, hundreds of Poles from around Vilna were brought to the camp. They were military men who had been held in prisons. When the war between Russia and Germany broke out, the Russians transferred them to Siberia. I found among them some Poles from areas in the vicinity

[Page 143]

of Olkeniki and Michailishuk whom I knew as decent people. They also knew me and my family. But everything I heard from them was only about the period of the Russian occupation. From their words I learned that the situation had not changed much since I left. The rest of the stories that this shipment of prisoners brought with it were imaginary stories that were far from reality. Well, my knowledge didn't get much richer and I didn't find any comfort in their words. There was a slight advantage when these prisoners came because they brought some cigarettes and tobacco with them. The demand for these commodities was very high in the camps. People were willing to give a daily ration of food for less than a cigarette. I was also among these people.

The dismantling of this camp, which was, as it seems to me, the tenth in the number of camps I passed through, was different from the usual. We were led to think that there was to be a change in our situation. This camp was completely dismantled. Even the camp commander was exiled with us. Since they had no means of transport, they decided to eliminate the food stocks. On the day of the dismantling, we were given abundant food rations, plenty of bread and soup, and we even got porridge, real porridge. Therefore, we thought that there would be a change for the better in our situation. In the depths of a person's soul, even in the worst situation, there is always a glimmer of hidden hope. In our situation this little spark almost died out, but it was enough to turn into a flame when we saw some change. Everything soon became clear. But that day we were satiated.


The New Camp

We had to make our way to the new camp on foot. I don't know how to describe this road. It was one of the hardest journeys I had been on. During the seven days that the journey lasted, we hardly ate anything. We were constantly assured that the food was about to arrive. These were only promises. The strongest among us held out, and the weak collapsed. The road was full with our dead. On the way I would encourage my brother Eliyahu and beg him to be strong, just a little while longer and the end of the road would be reached. I pondered in my heart about the end of life, about the death that would redeem us from our suffering.

I talk about that road with almost factual dryness, but is there a pen that could describe those terrible days? There is no person who can tell about those days of horror, in which every second was full of terror, and every minute was hell. A journey that continued without end. There was no food, there was no water, and, every now and then, someone who just yesterday worked together with you collapsed and now was lying in the snow eternally. And the journey continued, a journey of skeletons, bodies without souls and without desire. Even the last and only desire that was left among us, the desire to eat, had also faded. We walked with stupid indifference. What pushed us to continue on our way? The will to live was deeply rooted inside us. In our minds we didn't know about it. We only wanted to die, but our legs, with their last strength, stumbling, walked toward a place of a deep darkness.

This journey did come to an end. This time we were all completely exhausted; there was no one capable of coming to work. We were all “dying.” In the jargon of the camp, this situation was called “muzelman.”[26] We were all “muzelmen.” The commander of the camp where we had arrived did not want to “buy” us. There was no choice but to bring in doctors who would determine what to do with this shipment of these “muzelmen.” The doctors separated the sick from the healthy. The sick people were put on carts and sent to a hospital. I was among the healthy and stayed in the camp. Eli was sent to the hospital.

The departure of my brother Eli affected me greatly. This was our first separation since the trial. I didn't expect to see him alive again. He had been the last support of my life, and now even that was broken. From that day, all my actions were without energy, and everything was done mechanically. My brother was not by my side and I had no source of encouragement. I lived in darkness without a single ray of light of hope to brighten my darkness. My mental state also affected my body and my strength began to run out. The work was extremely difficult for me. I barely managed to fulfill a norm that would save me from starving. The nutritional situation in that camp was one of the worst. The bread was sticky, like paste, and about fifty percent of it consisted of water. The conditions of that camp were reflected in the situation of the people. Many died. There were also suicides often. Not a single day went by without finding at least one hanged prisoner. I was not capable of suicide. This idea was foreign to my nature. Otherwise, according to my state of mind in those days, I would certainly have done so. But I prayed to die. I prayed with all my heart that death would come and rescue me from my misery.

That's how I went through ten days of horror. And then, suddenly they brought Eli back to the camp. The moment that I saw him was surely one of the happiest moments of my life, especially when I saw that his face had changed for the better. Although he was thin and skinny, he was clean, neat, and healthy. He had spent ten days in the hospital. He did not return to his normal state, but he had a human form. He brought with him a piece of bread and three packs of smoking tobacco. He had a letter with him with instructions not to be taken to work for another ten days, during which time he must receive a bread ration of eight hundred grams and soup twice a day. I used all of the tobacco since Eli did not smoke. Smoking gave me a lot of energy and was more important to me than the soup and bread that we shared between us. Eli always tried to trick me so that I would get more of the bread and the soup; more than once a fight broke out between us because of his actions.

After the end of Eli's ten days off he returned to work. We left for work as usual, at night. Heavy rain fell on the ground. We walked about three kilometers to the workplace. We arrived soaked to the bone, and the cold and hunger bothered us a lot. Even the brigadiers took pity on us and they

[Page 144]

asked the guards to allow us to light a fire to dry our clothes and warm up before we started working. Surprisingly, they agreed, but they allotted only thirty minutes for it. We lit the fire, but the thirty minutes had passed by the time the fire was lit and we were settled around it. All of our pleas were to no avail. The soldiers scattered us with shots in the air and put out the fire. We started working without being able to speak to each other due to pain.


The “Release”

That morning is deeply etched in my memory because of the events that took place there. We were a group of four prisoners: I; Eli; one named Sobol, who now lives in Belgium; and the fourth, who was a Polish lieutenant. I heard a chirp, lifted my eyes, and saw a beautiful bird swinging on a branch above my head. The contrast between our situation and the picture before me brought me to tears, which I could not stop.

At that moment several people appeared. They ordered us to stop working. We looked at them but we did recognize them. They were strangers in the environment and did not fit in. Their clothes were also neat and tidy. They asked us if we had any wishes. We answered unanimously: food and freedom. Our answer did not put their minds at ease. We thought that one of them said that our first wish is the surrender of our common enemy - the Nazis. And that in order to fulfill this purpose you will be ready to fight together with us until the final victory. We answered something in response. After a short dialogue, we were informed that from now on we, that is, all Polish subjects, were released by virtue of a general pardon by the central government of the Soviet Union, according to a personal order of the great Marshal Stalin.[27]

The guard received the necessary instructions and we were immediately returned to the camp. Everywhere, we saw the parade of the released slaves marching toward the camp. All of the brigades of Polish subjects returned. We were shocked. The magnitude of the news, which came so suddenly, was beyond understanding. We could not believe that all of this was reality. It was too good. We were afraid that the kick of one of the guards would soon wake us from the mirage dream and bring us back to the gray reality.

When we arrived at the camp, we realized that, indeed, our lives had reached a turning point. All of the faces glowed with happiness; the people trembled with joy. Barbers were ready at our service. They cut our hair and shaved us. After that, we were put in the bath and were given buckets of hot water. It had been a year and a half since I had washed my body. When I took the rags off of me, I was shocked by my thinness. There was not a trace of flesh on me, even the bones had shriveled. I weighed about forty kilos. I could wrap my arms around my brother Eli. We received clean and warm clothes, and even new and good shoes. We ate bread and butter, as do real human beings. We were like dreamers. We received decent clothing, and good food, and we were treated like free people. It was too much for one day.

This was typical of the Russians and their regime. In one hour, when their interests required it, they were able to transform from predators to perfect gentlemen.

Later on that day, we were loaded onto cars and were driven to the south. Until that day we had known only one direction - north. We returned, therefore, on the same roads that we had paved, on the same roads that were paved with our dead. We were thrilled by our release. We could not be indifferent. We were led along the path that was built by hellish torment, by infernal torture, and by the cruel hunger of living people who left behind bereaved families, who were waiting in vain to return to their families, who were far away, and who were cut off from the world without hope or expectation. Here their corpses fell, they who did not even get a proper burial.

That day we returned a distance of one hundred and fifty kilometers. We boarded trains and continued on our way until we reached Kotlas. It was at the end of Yom Kippur in 1942.[28] The labor camps were behind us. We were not prisoners, but neither were we free. A lot of toil and hardships were ahead of us before we became completely free.

There was a lot of traffic at the train station in Kotlas. We found there thousands of families of refugees who had fled from around Moscow and the Ukraine. Among them were many Jewish families. We were informed that the destination of our journey was Central Asia, specifically, that we would proceed through the Urals to Uzbekistan, and then work there on collective farms (kolkhozy).

At the Amu Darya River we boarded boats that were supposed to bring us to the city of Nukus. On the ship we met Hana Yavetz, with whom we had been together in the first labor camp before we were separated. Now, we were reunited. There was another rather elderly Jew with us named Rosenblit from Smorgon. The journey was not the most comfortable because of the provocations of the Poles, who used every opportunity to harm the Jews. It was as if they had no other concern after their release except to harass us. When we arrived in the city of Nukus, we were about two thousand people, of whom about five percent were Jews. We had to go to the surrounding villages and work in them. This was our release. Old Rosenblit's leg was broken and he walked on crutches. They brought small carts with two wheels. There was not room for all of us. I asked the supervisor of labor for the collective farms to put Rosenblit in one of these carts. He immediately fulfilled my request. As soon as the carts started to move, the Poles immediately began to harass him. All of our pleas and pleadings were of no avail. They lifted him forcefully and threw him from the cart to the ground. The village was twelve kilometers away and we couldn't leave him there alone so we stayed with him until we managed to find a cart that would take us to the village.

[Page 145]

The Polish Hell

We spent about two weeks in these villages. We worked in the fields for a good diet. We began to digest the fact of our release from the labor camps. We tried to organize our thoughts, to plan how to find out about what was happening in Poland, but before we could recover, we were awakened in the middle of the night and sent on our way. No one knew where. We were being shaken again. At the gathering point, we met all of the same groups with whom we had left Kotlas. There were about two thousand of us. As usual in such situations, speculations began, which quickly turned into certain conjectures that the war had ended, that a revolution erupted in Russia, that the refugees and deportees were being returned to their homes, and more speculation of this kind that spread with the thick snow that began to fall upon us. They brought us to the river bank. It soon became clear to us that there was no change in the situation. They were only going to change our places of work, moving us to work on other collective farms, as if we did not suffer enough. We had to go through the Polish hell. It was a diabolical hell for seven days. We boarded two barges (flat ships). The capacity of each could accommodate about three hundred people. They crammed all two thousand onto these two ships and set off. The ships were partly open. The weather was harsh. The snow fell without stop and it was very cold. Now we, the few Jews on the ship, realized that we were among beasts. The hatred of the Poles for the few Jews who were among them was the hatred of snakes. Everyone sought shelter from the cold and wetness. The Poles denied this to us. But the real suffering began when we set off. Tugboats towed our ships. The water began to freeze and the ships proceeded ponderously. It was at that time that the hunt began. Six Jewish boys received deadly beatings, were thrown into the water, and soon drowned. The rest ran like mice to find hiding places. Eli and I managed to find a hiding place behind a Red Cross hut which was on the deck. We hid there all day, silently lying still. But when the night arrived, a cold sea breeze began to blow, the temperature dropped to fifteen degrees below zero, and I felt that I was freezing. Eli, for some reason, did not suffer as much as I did. The cold did not bother him as much. We both curled up in our rags, one next to the other, but it was to no avail. It was beyond me. I told Eli that it would be better for me to get out of that place and take a risk than to freeze in the place. Eli got out and managed to find another hiding place, under the stairs that led to the deck. And, indeed, that place was much better, because it was protected from the winds, and so we managed to fall asleep.

We woke up in the morning and saw the Poles standing in prayer. They had not noticed us yet. We discussed what to do in order to save ourselves from the wicked who were about to kill us. We considered trying to move to the other ship. Maybe the situation there would be better than here. But, how could we do that without being noticed? An old Polish woman heard our whispering. She looked at us and discovered that we were Jewish. Apparently, her “conscience” “bothered” her, and she thought of easing it by taking revenge on two Jews. When the Poles finished their morning prayer, the old woman turned to them with a scream: Kloptsi (guys), there are two Jews in front of you, why are you standing still?” They didn't remain still. The lust for murder was ignited on their faces, and tens of hands stretched out toward us. They attacked us and started beating us brutally. We started to run away. I tried to protect Eli with my body. I was full of blood. Thus, we retreated until we reached the first aid hut. The medic was standing outside. We prayed that he would come to our aid [but] he turned to our pursuers with an evil laugh and said: “Hit them dry blows, I don't have enough bandages to dress their wounds.” I realized that we were in an extremely dangerous situation, and that if I didn't do something bold we would be lost. I grabbed a board that was lying on the deck and started hitting them with all my might. This sudden turn, from fleeing to attacking, stunned them. I took advantage of the moment, quickly approached the deck rail and without hesitation jumped into the water. I grabbed the chains that bound the two ships and climbed through them and got on board the other ship. I knew nothing about Eli's fate. In all the commotion that arose while I was hitting blow after blow, he disappeared from my sight.

On the second ship, the condition of the Jews was immeasurably better. There were about eighty Jews who had organized themselves into a group and occupied a separate part of the ship. There, they held out against the hostile Poles, who were only strong when they encountered individuals. Under the stairs that led to the deck there lived two families, a doctor and his brother-in-law with their families. When I boarded the ship, they took me and treated me with great devotion. They dressed my wounds, dried my clothes, and covered me with blankets and pillows until I warmed up. Only then did I notice Eli's absence. I immediately asked to come back and look for him. But they stopped me forcefully, claiming that I could not be of any use to him and would only harm myself if I were to leave the protected area. I had twenty-four hours of profound worries about my brother's fate. The next day, the ships approached the shore to receive equipment. We left the ships and went to the beach for a few hours. There, I found Eli and my happiness was boundless. In the confusion that struck the rioters when I fell into the water, he managed to avoid their gaze and hid himself in a narrow hole behind the first aid hut. There he laid the whole time without moving and thus managed to stay alive. I put him on the other ship and revived him with a little boiled water. The few Russian officials, who did not show any discrimination towards the Jews, were too few to be able to protect them from the cruelty of the many Polish hooligans. Even this suffering road

[Page 146]

had come to an end. It claimed its victims from us by the Poles, the hunger, and the cold. We arrived in the city of Urgench. Here, the ships dropped anchor and we were brought ashore.

From then on, we felt the fact of our liberation. We moved forward on our way to redemption. We no longer suffered as prisoners, although we were not free either. We worked on collective farms, and also in coal mines, but under humane conditions.

It was before dawn when we reached the village. The Uzbeks who lived in the village came out to meet us and let us into their huts. They prepared good food for us and for two whole days we were not allowed to go to work. We used these days to rest.

We worked on the collective farms with the Uzbeks for about six months. We worked in the fields, and after work we helped them with their farms. Our wages were only food and clothing, but the attitude and everything else was excellent. During this period, we recovered and our strength returned to us.

At the end of six months, we were transferred to work in the coal mines in the Leningrad region. At that time, the front was not far away. We worked in the coal mines for about six months. The work was arduous, and the conditions were not easy, but the humane treatment and normal food instilled in us the feeling of freedom.

While we were in the labor camps, we couldn't think much about our families because we didn't even remember ourselves. After our release, we were to a great extent tormented by longing and worry. The newspapers talked about the Germans' acts of cruelty and horror. We also heard different rumors, and even though we thought it was war propaganda, we still could not be complacent. We were afraid and anxious. I found relief in working tirelessly, even when it was not required of me. But this was the only way to calm my longing and my worries for my home. My strenuous work, in which I invested all my energy, calmed me down a little.


With the Polish Army

Our status in those days was that of Polish soldiers, awaiting full recruitment while the Polish army was becoming organized. We were going to serve in the Polish army for the liberation of the Polish homeland. We did not yet know in those days that its land had become a large cemetery for millions of our brothers and sisters, that the Poles collaborated with the Nazis in all acts of cruelty against the Jews, and sometimes even surpassed them in their cruelty. This cruelty was known to all. The entire Polish population revealed its hatred, a deadly hatred, for the Jews. Everyone took advantage of the opportunity to get rid of the Jews, whom they hated. In those days we knew nothing about all this. We were alert and ready for battle. We aspired and expected to go to the front not only to beat the Nazis, as Jews, but also for the liberation of Poland, as Polish citizens.

On one of those days we were called up for service. The Polish army was in a state of organization led by General [Zygmunt] Berling and the writer Wanda Wasilewska. We went through a series of trainings around Moscow, and we went to the front in May 1944. We were impatient. All the hatred that had accumulated among us over the years wanted to erupt. We longed to throw ourselves into battle with all of our energy - to fight, to beat the predator until its defeat.

In our battalions, the Jews comprised about ten percent of all of the soldiers; about ten percent were Ukrainians; and the rest were Poles. The command in the higher ranks was in the hands of Russians of Polish origin, or Russians who had good fluency in the Polish language.

Around the Bug [River] we encountered the Germans. This was the first battle we were thrown into. After that, we participated in many bloody battles. The Germans were already in a state of constant retreat, but they fought fiercely. One of the battles which claimed many victims from us was after we crossed the Vistula. We occupied a small area in the vicinity of Warsaw, which they called Palice, where a hard and cruel battle developed. When the residents of Warsaw rose up [against the Nazis] and raised the flag of rebellion, our battalions were among those that stormed Warsaw from the outside. We were pushed back, and our losses were heavy. Later, we took part in the great offensive on Warsaw and, after its capture, we advanced to the Bydgoszcz Pass. We reached the military city of Diedritz, where we were delayed by strong enemy forces. For many weeks bitter and cruel battles took place there. Our battalions took part in the battles for Kolberg, a port city on the Baltic Sea. We also participated in the famous Battle of the Oder. For many days we were immersed in a sea of blood. Registrars should record the memory of these battles for future generations, battles in which blood was shed like water.

I am not a historian [and] my purpose here is not to tell the story of the battles that raged in the Second World War, that our battalions were only a drop in the sea of armies of millions that participated in the war. I mention these battles in order to talk about the dedication of the Jews, who fought as lions. They were about ten percent, but they were often the spearhead in all these battles. I tell this as an eyewitness, as a person who actively participated in that entire campaign. And indeed, when we arrived at the beginning of May 1945 in the vicinity of Berlin, the ratio of percentages in our battalions changed, from the ten percent that we were at the beginning of the battles, we only remained about three or four percent. The conclusion: The Jews were killed in the battles, according to the ratio, in greater proportions than other nationalities.

In those days everyone knew it. The handful of Jews received a great abundance of signs of excellence, and everyone spoke in praise of the Jewish warriors. Only after the war did a deliberate silence of all the heroic deeds of the Jewish soldiers begin.

[Page 147]

The Terrible Truth

When we left the training camp near Moscow and started moving toward Poland, we were full of worries. Now, we thought, we will find out for ourselves what was the fate of the Polish Jews. The hope of reuniting with our loved ones grew stronger in our hearts. We heard a lot about the horrors of the Germans, but, as I mentioned above, we doubted their truth. Now we were about to be convinced of this truth ourselves. We passed through Rostov, Kharkiv, and Belgorod. We lingered everywhere. We searched and searched – [but] there was no sign of Jews in all these places. We researched and demanded but all our efforts were in vain. The Ukrainian population was silent. All of our questions were responded to with one answer: unknown. The Russians answered briefly, saying that the Jews had been sent to labor camps, but they didn't know more than that.

The terrible truth about the Holocaust was revealed to me when we crossed the Polish-Russian border. We were in a small town called Rokitno.[29] Our plans to move forward immediately were disrupted by German planes, which bombed the railroad. We had to stay there for two days while the railroad track was repaired. As I was passing through the street, I suddenly encountered a little boy about twelve years old who was wandering alone. His eyes that met mine and shook me. There was something in his eyes that shocked me to the core. Before me stood a child, but his look and expression were that of an old man. I addressed him in Polish and asked him if he was Jewish. He started to run away. I shouted after him my question in Yiddish. The boy stood in his place and cried bitterly. Indeed, he was Jewish, the first Jew from Poland I met. I approached him, hugged him, and kissed him. I promised him that nothing bad would happen to him. I told him that I was a Jewish soldier and would help him as much as I could. I brought him with me to our temporary camp, and we gave him food and water. When he regained his spirit and calmed down a little, he told me his story:

When the Germans rounded up the Jews and started shooting them, he threw himself on the ground among a pile of bodies and thus escaped death. At night, under the cover of darkness, he managed to evade [the Germans] and escape to the forest. After a few days, he came out of his hiding place and returned to the city, but not a single Jew was left alive. He was alone. He knew very well that if he stayed among the Poles and they recognized that he was a Jew, they would hand him over to the Germans. Therefore, he returned to the forest and since then he had lived in this way - hiding in the forest or in the farmers' barns. At night he would go out to look for food and then go back into hiding. After the Germans withdrew from the area, he stayed for a short time and then went to look for his brother. He found no one. Now, he feared the Poles just as he feared the Germans. He was without hope and did not know how he would continue to live alone in the sea of wicked gentiles. That was the story of the old boy.

I was amazed at his intelligence and his courage, and at how he had managed to live for years in hiding, alone and in such terrible conditions. Trouble and suffering had made him an old man. I found it hard to believe that a twelve-year-old boy was standing before me. We promised to take him with us and take care of him. And, indeed, we took him with us. When we arrived at Rubena, where several dozen Jews had gathered, we left the child among them. Our battalions continued on their way.

All of my illusions were shattered. I realized that all of the stories that we had heard about the brutality of the Germans were true. The reality was much worse than what we heard. The boy's story pushed away the fog that was in front of me and removed it all from my eyes. I knew that the same incident that the boy knew about, the extermination of all of the Jews in his city, was the fate of the rest of our brothers who came under the German occupation. Hope and anticipation gave way to terrible despair. Only one desire filled my heart: Revenge! To take revenge on the brutal killers; to kill them until they are exterminated.

While our army was preparing for the final assault on Warsaw, our battalions were found in the suburb of Sheska Kempe. My unit was located in a large house where several Polish families lived. We occupied the upper floor and the large courtyard. One day at dawn I got up and went out into the hallway. I noticed a young woman walking around with hesitant steps. She looked at me. For some reason, I had made a good impression on her. She turned to me and asked me, in Polish, if the rumor was true that there were some Jews in this unit. I answered that it was true. She followed up by asking, “Are you Jewish yourself?” I answered in the affirmative. She couldn't hold back any longer and burst into hysterical tears. I tried to calm her down. She hugged me and begged me to help her. I asked her to tell me about her situation. Here is her story:

While the Germans were executing the Jews in the vicinity, she managed to escape with her little daughter. Due to her appearance, they did not recognize her as Jewish. That's how she managed to find work as a cleaning lady for a Polish family. She made up a story for them, telling them that the girl had been born out of wedlock, that the girl's father did not acknowledge her, and that her conservative parents did not want to accept the fact and kicked her out of their home. Since she had no other possibility, she was forced to work in strangers' homes. Her story sounded reasonable to them. They treated her well all these years.

Everything was fine until the liberation army started to attack the area. The bombings and shelling drove away the family whom she had been serving, but she and her child stayed in place. Now she was in this house with a Polish family whose members were imbued with a virulent hatred for Jews. She was feeling that they may have discovered, or may suspected that she was Jewish, and they did not stop hinting this in her presence with various comments. They did not stop cursing the Jews, whom they said were the root of evil, and asserted were the source of all of the troubles in the world. She was very afraid of what was to come. After she managed to survive all the horrors of the Germans and all the horrors of the war, she feared that she might fall victim now, with the arrival of the liberation for which she had waited for so long.

[Page 148]

I turned to the company commander, who generously offered his help. I organized a military wagon that took the woman and her daughter to Lublin, where Jews had already gathered in considerable numbers. We kicked the Polish family out of the house.

I realized how great was the distress of the miserable remains left from the inferno. Their situation was extremely difficult. Those who were individually alone were in constant danger of falling victim at the hands of the anti-Semitic Poles. The solution was to organize them in groups as quickly as possible. When our army arrived in Praga, which sits east bank of the Vistula River and borders Warsaw,[30] we found several dozen Jews there. I was a soldier in the service, but I did my best and helped with everything I could.

Around Kielce I saw the killing pits for the first time with my own eyes. Bloody marks were still noticeable on their openings. We also saw several hidden dugouts where Jewish families had lived. They miraculously managed to stay alive in them until the liberation. Then, they were attacked by farmers in the area who killed them.

Warsaw was also occupied. We advanced rapidly towards Germany. As we progressed, we saw the signs of killing and destruction, and we became increasingly aware of the magnitude of the Holocaust. The remaining [Jews] were only a few. How these survivors managed to survive the great fire that raged for over five years - there was almost no explanation for this. Everyone told about the miracles that happened to them, and after all these stories you stood amazed at the miracle of their salvation.

What kept me going in those days? My life had been a constant nightmare. My sleep was wrecked, and I had horrible dreams. I would wake up exhausted and wet with a cold sweat. In the days I would wander aimlessly in the streets. In every woman who passed by I imagined seeing one of my loved ones, and in every baby - my child. My hopes were extremely slim. I did my best to help my brothers and sisters, the refugees from hell. This duty encouraged me a little in those terrible days. We had another role ahead of us - revenge. The blood cried out to us from every corner: Revenge!


Twenty-five Terrible Days

The war was coming to an end. Our armies were already inside Germany. Poland was liberated and free. As a soldier, I could not move from place to place by myself. That's why I started sending letters. I would send dozens of letters. I deluged Olkeniki, Smorgon, Michailishuk, and the surrounding area with my letters. I sent letters to the post office without addresses, asking that they be delivered to Jews wherever they were. I couldn't do more than that.

One day I was informed that there was mail for me. My head was spinning from the news. My knees started to fail; I was about to faint. A moment later I ran like crazy and burst into the office. I was given two letters. Both were from Michailishuk. One was from a Christian woman who had served as a cleaning lady in my house. She stated the number of Jews who remained alive. She knew nothing about my family. She spoke about individual Jews who had returned. Maybe my family members would come back, too.

The second letter was from Shimshon Dach, a relative of my wife, whom I had not known before the war. He wrote that he saw with his own eyes how my wife and two children were led to a [killing] pit in the town of Voronova, in the district of Lida. But, he added, he had also heard of many who had been saved at the last minute. He said that if they should return to the town, he would inform them about me and immediately try to contact me. My hopes evaporated, but I continued to hold on to the faint hope that someone, one remnant of my family, was left alive.


Elka's Story

A few days later I received another letter. It was from my cousin Elka Shmuelevich from Radun. She lived all the days of the war in that area and knew the whole, bitter truth. From her I learned that of my entire family, which numbered several hundred souls, none remained alive, except for her and my cousin Yosef Hariztal. She also told me about the bitter fate of the Jews of the towns of Olkeniki, Eishyshok, Selo,[31] and Lejpuny. At the beginning of August 1941, the Germans gathered them all in Eishyshok. The killing continued for several days; and they were buried in a large mass grave near Eishyshok.

About nine months after the annihilation of the Jews of the aforementioned towns, the Jews of Radun continued to live in the shadow of death and did various jobs for the Germans.[32] On May 10, 1942, the Germans took a large group of these Jews out of the city and ordered them to dig a large pit. The people knew very well the meaning of digging this pit. The first was Meir the blacksmith from Eishyshok, who didn't hesitate much and started pelting the soldiers with stones. The rest followed him. The German soldiers were so surprised that they started fleeing. Thus, the whole group managed to escape to the surrounding forests.

The great disaster was not long in coming. The Germans immediately surrounded Radun and began to take the Jews out of the houses. But, unlike in Olkeniki and Eishyshok, the Jews here showed resistance and, thus, many succeeded with their entire families to break the chain of the policemen and flee to the forests. Indeed, there were many victims among them, but there were also survivors. There were also some families who managed to hide in the ceiling of a house under the roof. They had prepared the hideout ahead of time and it was hard to spot it from the outside. Among those who hid there were Elka herself, her sister Rachel with her husband Yosef Hariztal, and their six-year-old son Moshe'le. Her mother Bluma and her two sisters, Devorah and Sarah, were so desperate that they did not want to postpone the end any longer. All of Elka's pleas to them to come and hide with them were of no avail. They were sure that, sooner or later, they would be discovered. From their hiding place among the slits, they peeked out and saw how the mother was being led

[Page 149]

together with her two daughters to the open pit. The girls supported their mother on both sides and with shocking courage sacrificed their lives. They heard the sound of the shots, and saw them falling but they could not assist them. Who gave these women the strength to witness this horrible spectacle and continue to breathe, to see a mother and her two sisters being executed, and to lie quietly and not utter a word? The soul wept in secret and the body was petrified. So, they laid until the night. All that day the shootings continued. The killers were busy killing all day long. In the evening, they finished their work. In the middle of the night, those who were hiding managed to escape from the town and ran to the forest.

From then on began their days of wandering that continued throughout the years of the war. At first, they were a group of several dozen people, mostly women and children. During the summer they somehow managed to support themselves. They wandered through the forests from place to place and ate whatever they found. But with winter came days of hunger and hardship. The partisans, who began to organize in those days, did not agree to accept women and children into their camps. They were forced with their meager powers and means to take care of themselves in order to continue living. Therefore, they separated into small groups. In the first winter, Elka's group numbered three women, three men, and one child, the son of Yosef Hariztal, whom I mentioned above. They dug bunkers for them and built beds, that they called narot, out of planks.

A whole book can be written about the means and tactics for obtaining food. They exploited every possibility, using all kinds of ways to get a dry piece of bread. In the first days, they exchanged the valuables they had for food. After that they began to give up the clothes that were not the most necessary. When all of these ran out, they asked for contributions from the farmers around them, and most of the time they were hungry for days. They had to be cautious in order to avoid being handed over to the Germans by the farmers. They invested all of their talent and all of their inventive powers in tactics to persuade a farmer to give them some potatoes and the like. In the second winter, their group numbered twenty people, consisting of eight women, three children, and the rest men. They no longer had anything to offer, and they were like wild animals. At night they went out to look for a prey – a little food to reinforce themselves.

In those days, a new trouble was added to their existing ones. A Russian hooligan named Vinka returned from German captivity. He learned that Jewish families were living in the forests and that there were women among them. This pleased him. He began wandering in the forest and harassing the Jewish families in every way. He especially harassed women. For long months this muzhik,[33] who was a strong man and well-armed, wandered in the forest, interfering with even the little that the unfortunates managed by their ardor to obtain. Once he managed to find Shoshana Norkaneshki from Eishyshok while she was alone. He pounced on her and wanted to rape her. Shoshana defended herself and fought for her dignity with all her might. Realizing that he could not defeat her, he shot and killed her. She was not his only victim. He cast fear upon all the forest dwellers, especially the women who no longer dared to leave the bunkers even for a little while.

The abuses of the thug finally became known to the partisans. Among them was Aryeh Katz from our town. Aryeh was the hero of the company. There were legends about his courage and heroic deeds. He risked his life in the ambushes that the partisans set for small groups of German soldiers. He excelled in derailing trains and in many acts of sabotage. This fellow from our town took upon himself the task of rescuing the unfortunates from the hands of the Russian hooligan. He followed him and managed to shoot him. But the Russian soon recovered and returned to his evil ways.

But Aryeh did not give up. He followed and searched for him for a long time until he finally found him in a farmer's house. The thug's friends informed him that he was going to be ambushed, so he jumped through a window and began to flee. Aryeh noticed him and began to chase after him. After a dramatic chase, he caught him and shot him several times. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief with the monster's death. That day all of the bunkers were filled with joy.


Eliyahu Ariovich, May God Avenge Him

Here is the place to talk about a unique and special person, a famous war hero whose heart was touched by the suffering of the unfortunate refugees hiding in the forests and who devoted all of his energy to helping them. His name was Eliyahu Ariovich from Radun. No matter how much I praise Eliyahu's wonderful deeds, it will not be enough. He was a partisan, but he did not cooperate with anyone. He did everything by himself and as he wished. He would wander in the forests alone and would attack and harass the Germans. He had a stock of modern weapons and he used them properly. His name was known all around and everyone was afraid of him. He gathered several dozen of the wanderers in the forests, men, women and children, built bunkers for them, and supported them for a long time. Among those whom he helped was Miriam Ribak, now Sonenzon, from our town.

The local farmers complained to the partisans that he was attacking them and taking a lot of food from them by force. The partisans did not want to put up with this situation. They tried to influence him, but he did not listen to them. This issue was brought before the commander of the partisans on the spot and Eliyahu was sentenced to death. But carrying out this ruling was not one of the easy things, because everyone was afraid of him. There were also some young men who watched over him and were on guard, ready to help him. Finally, with the help of a Jewish partisan who was assigned the task, they succeeded in convincing Eliyahu to see the commander, saying that the commander only wanted to see him and talk to him. He would like to make some suggestions for him to join

[Page 150]

them to an extent that would suit him. He could accept the offer or refuse. The Jewish partisan assured him that he had nothing to fear, and that no evil would befall him. For some reason Eliyahu agreed and was brought before the commander. There, they took his weapon, handcuffed him, and brought him to the village and the farmers whom he had robbed not for his own sake, but for the sake of the unfortunate and starving refugees. In the village he was shot and killed in front of everyone. Unfortunately, this work was done by a Jew. A tombstone was not placed on the grave of Eliyahu Ariovich, may his memory be blessed.


The Polish Partisans

At the beginning of 1944, Elka Shmuelevich continued in her story, the farmers warned us that we had to be on guard against the Polish partisans, who were then called A. K,[34] because they received instructions to kill the Jews who remained alive in the forests. It was hard for us to believe this news. But the news came from reliable sources. The farmers who warned us were the ones who had helped us all of these years. We started to be as careful as we could be. But it was extremely difficult, because even the partisans wandered in the forests like we did.

One morning, before dawn on Purim in the year 1944, the Polish partisans attacked our bunkers and without sparing anyone, they started killing everyone who happened to be near them. They took advantage of the darkness, when the people were sleeping. But the darkness also helped us. Many of us managed to get out of the bunkers and escape deep into the forest. I, my sister Rachel, and her son Moshe'le hid in the bushes nearby. We heard the partisans returning from their pursuit of the fugitives and bragging about the brutal act of killing the defenseless wretches. My sister was very scared. She was sure they were going to discover our hiding place. She could not control herself and went out to them with her little son. I stayed where I was, without moving a limb, and lay close to the ground, from where I heard and saw everything. She begged them to spare her son's life. She asked them to kill her and let him live. Their answer was a loud burst of laughter. They first shot little Moshe'le, who fell down in his blood at his mother's feet, and then shot his mother Rachel. May their souls be bound up in the bond of everlasting life together with the souls of all the victims of the Holocaust. May God will avenge their blood.

Elka hid until everything calmed down. She wandered to a safer area until the liberation forces arrived and it was possible for her to leave the forests.


Between Despair and Hope

The war ended on the eighth of May, 1945. Our battalions were encamped around Berlin. We were not among those who were fighting for Berlin. Our task was to eliminate several German groups which held on in the surrounding forests and continued their lost war. We were informed that the Germans had signed an unconditional surrender. There was no joy in our hearts. We did not expect such an ending. While we were in the fever of the war, and had deluded ourselves that we had a role to subdue the enemy and exterminate it. After this goal was achieved, we felt that our lives were empty. We didn't know what would happen next. We had nothing and no one to turn to. We didn't know what to hope for. The past was blacker than black; the present – it was an empty space; and the future - what kind of future could we expect? We did not see any hope on the horizon. It was with such feelings that we received the news of the end of the war.

Suddenly a stream of new hope filled us - the Land of Israel. Our land, where we will begin to rebuild, to be and to live among our brothers in the Land of Israel. Perhaps time will succeed in assuaging the terrible pain in the heart, perhaps we will succeed in building a new house for future generations who will not have to live among the predators, among the gentiles. Maybe, thanks to this work, we will also recover a little, and that will be our reward.

In the meantime, we were transferred back to Poland. We settled around Lublin. Our battalion was housed in the infamous Majdanek camp, in the same barracks where our tortured and murdered brothers and sisters were imprisoned. The walls really screamed. There were writings in Yiddish on them, names and wills. The first night I tried to lie down to sleep in one of the barracks, but I couldn't. The bed under me burned my flesh. I imagined as if I was stepping on the souls of my brothers and sisters, as if I was laying on the bodies of the dead. I ran out, even though we were forbidden to leave the barracks at night. The next day I asked for and received permission to set up a tent near the horse stables, which I used the entire time I was in that camp.

In those days I would wander in every place that had a reminder of the horrors. I saw the furnaces in which thousands of Jews were set on fire every day. Human bones had also been piled up on the spot. The air was saturated with the smell of burnt human flesh. I saw warehouses full of clothes and shoes of all kinds and sizes. I stepped on the ashes of my brothers and sisters. I couldn't break away from there; I didn't want the pain to go away. People are fed on pleasure or pain and suffering. I discovered this in those days. When I raised my hands to heaven and cursed everything, I cursed the world that was a witness to everything that the Nazi beasts did to my people. Was it just the Nazis? Did not the Poles, Lithuanians, Latvians, and Ukrainians also participate in the mass extermination and brutal torture? In those days I felt the need to be in pain, I needed the pain. The suffering held me alive and I could not break free from it even for a few moments. Every day, at the end of my duty as a soldier, I would run around the city looking for unfortunate Jews like myself, asking to hear about the terrible suffering.

I was released from the army together with my brother. We couldn't go back

[Page 151]

to Poland. We had no one to return to even though I had received a letter from David Ribak that much of my property was in the hands of farmers who wanted to return it to me. I could not return to the same land where I had lost everything that was dear to me. I could not step on the ground that was soaked with the blood of my loved ones. I gave up everything. Now I knew that there was only one way for us and one place where we could live - the Land of Israel. Who could have then imagined that, after everything that has been done to us, there will be a people or a government that will dare to deny us this single corner to escape from the false and cruel world?

In the meantime, my cousin Elka Shmuelevich, whose troubles I told above, arrived. She had hidden in the forests together with my cousin Yosef Hariztal. But as soon as they left the forest, Yosef Hariztal was taken into the army. Elka joined us and together we arrived in Germany on our way to Israel. She came to us weak and exhausted. She was not accepted for the Aliyah Beit[35] due to her poor health. She was lonely until she joined us.

At that time, I learned about the arrival of the Dach brothers from Vilna. I looked for them and found them. From them I learned all the details about the loss of my wife and two children. After my imprisonment, they had helped to move my wife and children to her parents' place of residence in Great Soletznik.[36] When the Germans arrived, they were expelled from Soletznik and transferred to a nearby town. Finally, together with her parents, they were transferred to the ghetto in Voronova. This ghetto existed until May 1942. In the Aktziya that took place there on the eleventh of May, they killed everyone. Among them were my wife Shoshana, my seven-year-old son Israel, and my three-year-old daughter Rachela. When I saw them for the last time, my son was four years old and my daughter was approximately one year old.

* * *

With the conclusion of my words, I would like to dedicate a few personal lines as a memorial to my wife, Raizela from the Strelitzki family and to my children, Israel and Rachela.

I write these words out of appreciation, out of grief and pain, and out of deep remorse. However, I will fulfill a sacred duty towards this gentle and wonderful woman.

Raizela was her name, and I simply called her Shoshana.[37] She was one of the rare women that one meets. She had the nobility, grace, and purity of the eternal daughter of Israel. She was extremely generous and as great as her generosity was her modesty and purity of heart. The acts of charity and kindness she did were many but she gave her charity in secret.[38]

In 1936, something happened to her and she lost all of her happiness. In her developed senses she felt the approaching danger. She didn't hide her concerns from me and started begging me to liquidate my business and leave Europe. Europe is about to be destroyed, she would claim repeatedly, a great disaster is about to befall us… I dismissed her fears all at once. I considered them as illusions, as remote things. Instead of eliminating my business – I expanded it. Instead of selling it, I continued to buy. That year I built two large factories. Raizela, out of distress over the expansion of my business, did not want to see the buildings and indeed she did not see them. The bitter death was early to pick her. Today, when I do a self-examination, I realize how much I hurt her. I did not listen to her words. I did not pay attention to the concerns that crushed her heart and shook her soul. On the outside, at times she seemed to me to be giving up. Out of her kindness and devotion, she did not want to annoy me since she saw that my opinion was not changing. I bought one of the most beautiful houses in the city from the Rudnik family, who had immigrated to Israel. I told her this with joy, but she wrapped herself in grief and said: Others sell and leave and you buy and become established?! I thought in my innocence that I was establishing my future and the future of my family, that I was building them magnificent dwellings that would bring them happiness. I could not have imagined that I was risking the lives of my wife and children.

For my sins I have confessed today, my remorse torments me and will continue to torment me forever. However, one thing can be said in my favor: I did my actions inadvertently and not maliciously; only their good guided me all the days. I pray to be forgiven. I paid a terrible price in their loss; may they rest in peace!

Translator's and editor's Footnotes:

  1. In 1915 the imperial German army drove the czarist Russian army out of Lithuania. The largely lawless Cossack cavalry served as a rear guard to protect the retreating Russian forces. [ed.] Return
  2. The agreement, which is generally known as the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, divided eastern Europe into Nazi and Soviet “spheres of influence” and each regime was assured that within its sphere of influence the other would not interfere. The western half of inter-war Poland was consigned to Germany and the eastern half was assigned to the Soviet Union. On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded western Poland but halted its advance at a predetermined line. On September 17, 1939, the Soviet forces invaded and quickly captured the eastern half of Poland, which included Vilna / Vilnius and Valkininkai. [ed.] [tr.] Return
  3. The Hebrew word nagid refers to someone who is a prince or a leader in a community. [ed.] Return
  4. In September and October 1939, the Soviet government compelled the Baltic states to conclude “mutual assistance” agreements under which the Soviets were given the right to establish military bases in those countries, ostensibly for their own protection. [ed.] Return
  5. In October 1939, the Soviet Union annexed the greater part of eastern Poland by transferring it to its Byelorussian Soviet puppet state, but transferred the Vilna area of eastern Poland to Lithuania, which was still an independent country. For the next several months, communication and travel between the Soviet-controlled territory and the territory controlled by Lithuania was difficult. [ed.] [tr.] Return
  6. In the area that the Soviets conquered in 1939, tens of thousands of Polish citizens who were viewed as posing political threats to the Soviet regime were arrested and deported to slave-labor camps in Siberia. However, five weeks after the June 22, 1941, German invasion of the Soviet Union, Stalin agreed to free the citizens of the former Polish state who were in Soviet captivity (including Polish prisoners of war) so that they could join Polish forces fighting against Nazi Germany. This agreement is known as the Sikorski-Mayski treaty, which was signed in London on July 30, 1941. [ed.] [tr.] Return
  7. Dovig (Yiddish), Daugai, Lithuanian; Daugi (Polish). [ed.] Return
  8. Radun (Belarusian: Радунь; Polish: Radun; Lithuanian: Rodūnia and Rodūnė) is in the part of eastern Poland that the Soviets annexed directly into their Byelorussian puppet state. It is about 40 kilometers south of Olkeniki / Valkininkai. [ed.] Return
  9. In 1941, Rosh Hashana (the Jewish New Year) was observed from sunset on Sunday, September 21, until sunset on Tuesday, September 23. [ed.] Return
  10. The Gestapo was a Nazi political police force. [ed.] Return
  11. This town, known in Polish as Ejszyszki and in Lithuanian as Eišiškės, is 26 kilometers south of Olkeniki. [ed.] Return
  12. The author refers to his mother as an eishes Chayil (Hebrew for “a woman of valor”), a phrase that appears in Proverbs 31:10. The Biblical passage in Proverbs Chapter 31, lines 10-31, lists the admirable attributes of such a woman. It has long been a custom in Jewish homes to recite this passage at the beginning of the Friday evening Sabbath meal, just before the recitation of the Kiddush, the sanctification of the Sabbath. Thus, the author is according great honor to the memory of his late mother. [ed.] Return
  13. During the inter-war period, 1920 to 1939, Smorgon was in Poland. As noted previously, the Second World War began on September 1, 1939, when Germany invaded western Poland. The Soviets did not enter Poland until September 17, 1939. [ed.] Return
  14. The term Tarbut (Hebrew for “culture”), refers to a movement that advanced secular Jewish culture using the Hebrew language. As part of the movement, there was a network of schools in eastern Europe that used Hebrew as the language of instruction. [ed.] Return
  15. This town, which was in Poland during the inter-war period, is known in Polish as Michaliszki. It is now in Belarus. [ed.] Return
  16. A cubit is an ancient unit of length based upon the distance from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger. The distance is often deemed to be the equivalent of 46 centimeters (18 inches). [ed.] Return
  17. The author is probably referring to the tasteless staple of the daily diet in the Soviet camps known as balanda. [ed.] Return
  18. This town, which today is in Belarus, was in Poland during the inter-war period. In Polish, it is known as Molodeczno. [ed.] Return
  19. Kotlas is a town in the far north of Siberia situated at the confluence of the Northern Dvina and Vychegda Rivers. The Soviets established a transit prison there to hold deportees awaiting transport to their ultimate destinations. [ed.] Return
  20. A dunam is a measure of land that is approximately equal to 1,000 square meters. Ten dunams would therefore be about 10,000 square meters –one hectare (which is about 2.5 acres). [ed.] Return
  21. In the Soviet gulag system, the term brigadier (бригадир) referred to a foreman or team leader, typically a fellow prisoner, who could punish a prisoner who failed to achieve his assigned output quota by a variety of means, including, most importantly, determining the ration of food that the prisoner would receive. [ed.] Return
  22. NKVD is the acronym for the Russian term Narodny Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del (The People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs), which was the name of the Soviet ministry responsible for security and law enforcement. The ministry existed from the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution until 1946 and was the forerunner to the KGB, the acronym for the late Soviet era Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (Committee for State Security). [ed.] Return
  23. The Soviet penal system differentiated between common criminals, who were believed to be more likely to become good Soviet citizens than the political prisoners, who were considered “counter-revolutionaries” and therefore “enemies of the state.” Criminals in the sprawling network of the Gulag labor camps were given access to life-saving jobs and goods, and virtually unlimited power to rob, beat, and even kill political prisoners. [ed.] Return
  24. The Russian word nachalnik (начальник) means a boss; chief; or head. [ed.] Return
  25. The Book of Psalms, Chapter 130, Verse 1, is the plea for God's help cried out by an anguished person in the depths of suffering. [ed.] Return
  26. The author's use of the word muzelman is somewhat curious. The term is derived from the German word Muselman, the historical term for a Muslim, and it is believed that the term was used in German concentration camps to refer to starving prisoners who could no longer stand as a result of exhaustion and a starvation-induced muscular atrophy of their legs, thus forcing them to spend much of their time in a prone position, evoking the image of the Muslim practice of prostration during prayer. In the Soviet Gulag system, however, someone in such a condition was referred to by the Russian term dokhodyaga (доходяга), which means a weak, emaciated person who is on the verge of death. [ed.] Return
  27. As noted previously, five weeks after the June 22, 1941, Nazi German invasion of the Soviet Union, Stalin entered into the Sikorski-Mayski Treaty, under which citizens of the former country of Poland who were being held in Soviet captivity were released. [ed.] Return
  28. In 1942, Yom Kippur, the most sacred of Jewish holidays, began at sunset on Sunday, September 20, and ended at sunset on Monday, September 21. [ed.] [tr.] Return
  29. In 1939, Hitler and Stalin designated the Bug River to serve as the boundary separating their respective shares of the territory of Poland. As noted previously, in late 1939, Stalin incorporated into the Soviet Union all of eastern Poland, except the Vilna area. Rokitno, which is northwest of Brest, is a few kilometers west of the Bug River and therefore was west of the “Russian” border. [ed.] Return
  30. Historically, Praga was a small settlement located on the eastern bank of the Vistula River directly opposite the towns of Old Warsaw and Mariensztat. Today, it is a district within Warsaw. [ed.] Return
  31. Dekshna (Selo) [Lithuanian: Degsnės] is a village about 2.5 kilometers west of Olkeniki. [ed.] Return
  32. Even though millions of Jews came under Nazi control when Germany annexed western Poland in 1939, there were no mass murders of Jews in those areas before 1942. Nor did mass murders occur in the parts of eastern Poland that had been annexed by the Soviet Union. Germany itself did not adopt a policy of mass-murder until January 20, 1942, Wannsee Conference. The mass murder of Jews, however, occurred in 1941 in the Generalbezirk Litauen (General District of Lithuania), which included Olkeniki and Eishyshok, as well as Vilna. In this area, day-to-day administration was largely delegated to the Lithuanians who had served in military and civilian capacities before the Soviets took control of Lithuania a year earlier. Because Radun and Lida were beyond the area administered by the Lithuanians, Jews who were able to reach those and other towns in the adjacent Nazi-governed Generalbezirk Weissruthenien (General District of White Ruthenia) were not subject to mass murder until the Wannsee Conference. The mass murders in Generalbezirk Weissruthenien generally occurred between mid-May 1942 and the end of July 1942. [ed.] Return
  33. Muzhik (мужик) is a term derived from Russian culture that generally means to a rustic male peasant. Return
  34. The initials “A.K.” stand for Armia Krajowa, the Polish term for “Home Army.” It was the dominant Polish resistance movement in German-occupied Poland during the Second World War. [ed.] Return
  35. The Hebrew word aliyah means “going up” and refers to people who “go up” to the Land of Israel. Beit is the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The term Aliyah Beit was a code name given to the illegal immigration of Jews escaping Nazi Germany and, later, Holocaust survivors. Such immigration was severely restricted under the infamous “White Paper” which was issued in 1939 by Great Britain, which had a League of Nations “Mandate” to control Palestine between 1920 and 1948. Such immigration only became legal when the State of Israel was established in May 1948. [ed.] Return
  36. This is the Yiddish name of the town which is now in Lithuania which is known in Polish as Wielkie [Great] Soleczniki and in Lithuanian as Šalčininkai. [ed.] Return
  37. The name Raizela is a diminutive form of the name Rose. The Hebrew counterpart is Shoshana. [ed.] Return
  38. The great Jewish scholar and philosopher, Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (1138-1204), who was commonly known as Maimonides, described eight levels of charity. Among the highest levels is giving charity anonymously. [ed.] Return


« Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page »

This material is made available by JewishGen, Inc. and the Yizkor Book Project for the purpose of
fulfilling our mission of disseminating information about the Holocaust and destroyed Jewish communities.
This material may not be copied, sold or bartered without JewishGen, Inc.'s permission. Rights may be reserved by the copyright holder.

JewishGen, Inc. makes no representations regarding the accuracy of the translation. The reader may wish to refer to the original material for verification.
JewishGen is not responsible for inaccuracies or omissions in the original work and cannot rewrite or edit the text to correct inaccuracies and/or omissions.
Our mission is to produce a translation of the original work and we cannot verify the accuracy of statements or alter facts cited.

  Valkininkai, Lithuania     Yizkor Book Project     JewishGen Home Page

Yizkor Book Director, Lance Ackerfeld
This web page created by Jason Hallgarten

Copyright © 1999-2024 by JewishGen, Inc.
Updated 16 Nov 2023 by JH