We Want to Live, Take Revenge -We Run Away Again
On the Road, From Camp to Camp
A sunny, burning hot June day. All around are spread out succulent green fields, gardens, and woods, and in their midst, on the road, dragging themselves along are two lengthy columns of a few hundred men and women in striped prison garb. Uphill, downhill, the two long columns wind their way along. The people are tired, hungry, and thirsty, and can barely drag their feet. They want to get a drink of water from the farmers' wells beside the road; they want to stop for a while; but the supervisors who are driving them won't allow it. Quick quick, keep going forward! There is an order that today, by nightfall, they must reach their destination.
The driven ones that's who we are, the Jews from the Popervaln slave camp. They are driving us, it turns out, to one of the camps around Dundaga, also in Kurland. With astonished eyes the villagers look at us from their homes and fields and shake their heads. I look at them, the villagers with their homes, gardens, children, flowers, and I think... Yes, I think... There still exists a normal life in the world. People live quietly in their homes, with their families, with their everyday concerns and work. Oh! What a joy that is, how beautiful and happy it must be! Did I also live that way once, long ago, or that is a distant, vanished dream?
I drag my feet across the sandy, dusty road, like a driven animal, and I think, and think, and think purposely about human life. I was once a human, with thoughts, with feelings, with dreams, longings, strivings. I was someone with a will, with a home, and with dear ones...and now?
Around the town of Dundaga, in the Kurlandish part of Latvia, three large work camps had been built for Jews, and they were named Dundaga One, Dundaga Two, and Dundaga Three. This was a forested area on the shore of the Baltic Sea, off to the side of main roads and front lines. Here, as in Papervain, the Germans had hoped for a long life. They had built barracks for their reserves and had concentrated a few thousand Jews to carry out the necessary work. The regime and living conditions in these camps were the same as in Popervaln.
First they brought us to Dundaga One, where we were at the disposal of the famous camp commandant Zorge and his even more famous camp elde a young German Jew, a former professional boxer, whose name (may his name be forever obliterated!) I do not remember. The fame of this elder derived mainly from his nasty beatings. Our Scheinberger was, compared to him, a dog, a pup, a dud. And we did in fact sample, in our time in Dundaga One, the roll calls, maneuvers, and hand signals of Zorge and his Jewish assistant.
We began to comprehend that in human or, more correctly said, inhuman meanness, depravity, and vileness there exist no limits, no measure.
And imagine who else we encountered in Dundaga One? Yes, in fact, it was Scheinberger himself, that same Scheinberger whom the commandant, on our last night in Popervaln, had arrested and imprisoned in his barrack, in a tiny room. But how dreadful Scheinberger now looked it should only happen to all my enemies! He was dressed like all of us in a striped prisoner's coat and trousers, and what's more, the particular garments he had been given were so wide and long that two Scheinbergers could have crawled into them. But the main point was his face. It was frightful! One eye W!lS beat up, or maybe completely knocked out of place, and the other he could barely open. His entire countenance was battered and swollen, the nose and lower lip split. His head was covered with bandages, and he limped on both feet he could hardly walk. Gone was the former Scheinberger, the Popervaln camp elder in his elegant coat and his fanciful little boots. No more would he torment us with his barking commands, his moralizing speeches and slaps, and his devotion and loyalty to the Nazi murderers. A simple beat up, downtrodden Jew: that is what became of the great Scheinberger, and...is he still alive? And if he is, does he have the right to live, to get pleasure from living, from freedom?
From Dundaga One they drove us over to Dundaga Three, and installed us in large, well lit barracks that had been abandoned by the departing German soldiers. These comfortable new quarters seemed like splendid palaces after the low, dark, dirty tents of Popervaln. During our first days there they didn't drive us to work, either, and we were not worn out by superfluous roll calls and maneuvers. If it were not for the weakness in our hearts and the gnawing hunger, made worse by the food portions, which were reduced by one third (one hundred grams of bread, a plate of watery soup, a spoonful of marmalade, and two glasses of coffee per day) if not for all that, we would perhaps have felt as though we were in my father's vineyard, as the saying goes.
The five of us, the former runaways who were caught, could get a little rest, and the wounds on our bodies could heal somewhat. Here we could, bit by bit, forget our great crime, and rub off and smear the special brightly colored circles on our clothing. We slowly became like everybody else. But in truth we had not reformed at all. We five used to go off to some quiet comer or other in the camp courtyard, lie on the grass, and talk and dream again about forests, paths, and trails, broad stretches and...freedom. We were making new plans, figuring out how to run away from the camp or from our journey on the road.
Our quiet life in Dundaga Three did not last very long, however just a few days. We quite often saw that the Germans were restless, gloomy, nervous, overwrought. That made us happy, even though it frightened us. We also saw that the roads were full of autos, freight cars, and trucks, every one of them packed with various military and non military things with furniture, baggage, valises. German civilians, wives and children, were in the vehicles
as well. Their faces showed confusion, fear, and turmoil: the feeling, so familiar to us, of running and not knowing where one is running, or whether one will be able to run away. How satisfying to finally witness that! To live to see that moment!
We ourselves, meanwhile, were transformed into beasts of burden. We were obliged to carry dozens of thousands of heavy grenades, cannon balls, and other ammunition from the hidden military camps to the railroad station. From early in the morning until late at night, long columns of men and women moved along the roads, dragging the heavy loads. They would fall down, get up, and again go forward, beneath the rain of shouts and blows from the unnerved and beastly S.S. officers.
On one of those journeys I noticed a few pretty young Jewish girls who were struggling under the burdens they had to drag along. Behind them were three seventeen or eighteen year old gentiles, S.S. officers, armed with thin, bendable switches. They were constantly beating the naked feet and necks of the girls with these switches. The girls fell down, wept, begged them to stop, but no the young Germans would neigh like horses and do it some more. For them it was a pleasure to torture the girls, to beat their feet until they drew blood.
And at that point I began to reflect: Where does the unnatural inclination to torture pretty young girls come from in these young men? What has become of youthful delicacy, love, gallantry? Where and how and under what circumstances are children raised to become wild animals with such sadistic, bloodthirsty tendencies? After all, these particular young men are not exceptions. Almost all Germans are that way!
And again I turned my thoughts to Goethe, to Schiller, to Nietzsche and their whole Nobel gang:
Do you see it from your Olympian heights? How do you like it? And what do you have to say about it? Open up your books of poetry and philosophy about the beauty and the exaltedness of your pure blooded men and supermen. Let's take a look what are you saying there? And really, out of curiosity, what do you, you Nobel people, have to say now?
That same evening I saw one of the girls mentioned sitting in camp, on the grass, among the rest of the crowd. She was almost still a child, about sixteen, from Vilna, and people called her Asnale. She had lost all of her family, and was left alone. She showed her beaten up, bloodied feet, and wept bitterly. Suddenly, she noticed in the grass a few little flowers with tiny white petals (we call them romashkes or ramunkes). She tore them out and began picking off the little petals one at a time, to find out if we would remain alive or not. She became so earnestly absorbed in her quest that she seemed to forget, for a while, her bloodied feet and her pain.
That scene made an oddly deep impression on me. I took up my tiny pencil and crumpled bits of paper once more. This is what came out:
The young Asnale is walking by the river
An enemy comes, he has children and parents
There is no longer youth now, no joy, no dreams,
A clearing in the woods entirely enclosed by barbed wire
What can it mean, that suddenly all of us
|This camp has not been cleared and is new.
They count us, we share secrets, we suffer hunger,
The bread is barely enough for one chew.
We wrack our brains, and even more our tongues,
We chase after news It's frightening!
We keep glancing to the other side of the barbed wire
We are, after all, stuck somewhere out in the sticks!
What's happening in the world? What will happen to us?
In the concentration camp, among all the large crowd of heads
Will we live or not live, we will live, we will not live?
Will we live or not live? Life has been beautiful...
But suddenly there is heard a whistle and a command shout:
Prepare yourselves for the march! Quickly! Quickly!
We will live or not live, we will live or not live, Says the last command of the murderers ? ? ?
|(Written in the Dundaga concentration camp, 1944.)|
Like Nightly Ghosts By the Light of the Moon
The command had been rung, loud and clear:
Get yourselves ready to take to the road, to march! Quick, quick, Quicker! In three minutes line up in the square! Faster, faster!
This time they did not sort us out, but made a very rapid head count, and thoroughly searched our packages and knapsacks to see if we were carrying any forbidden things. We were saying goodbye to our last Kurland camp, Dundaga Three, and would set out on the road again in long columns.
Where were they driving us this time? No one knew exactly, but we were heading in the direction of Libaver (Liebauer) harbor, and according to all kinds of rumors, we would be transported from there by boat to Germany. Not everyone believed that, though. In Libaver, some said, they were loading Jews onto old, broken down boats and barges and taking them out on the open sea, where they would either drown them or leave them to die. Fine prospects, and just when the Russian armies, who might rescue us, were so close that we could hear cannon fire. So close that everyone was trembling and fleeing. Some of our Latvian guards themselves seemed ready to take off at the first opportunity.
But meanwhile things were not good for us. Oh, not cheerful, far from cheerful was how we then felt in our hearts! But why begin telling new stories of how terribly hungry and thirsty we were, how exhausted? This time the Germans drove everyone forward, forward for several days without stopping. Women and men could barely drag themselves along under the burning sun; they were walking and falling, walking and falling. Dozens of the fallen and the left behind were shot, as were those who were caught trying to run away. By now, you surely must have some notion of what it was like. I shall spare you the details and instead take you with me and my four companions into the woods. For that is where we had now, for the second time, fled.
We made our escape late one night in the beginning of July. They had driven us across the Venta River, where we had had to wade, because there was no bridge, or else it had been broken. We were lying in a night shelter not far from the riverbank, closely guarded by German and Latvian S.S. officers. Our fellow prisoners were lying spread out on the ground, heavy from fatigue, hunger, and dampness, but the five of us both Yakobsons, Vospy, Bobrov, and ! were awake, waiting feverishly, tensed up. At last the officers called out for a few people to go bring water from the river, for drinking. We jumped up, grabbed our packages, and took the pails we had brought from camp.
Under the guard of two Latvian S.S. officers we went to the river. We walked slowly, not hurrying, talking quietly. We knew we had to run away right then, that this was the opportune moment, and we dare not let it slip away. The plan was ready. We were determined to carry it out, even if it would cost blood and lives.
When we reached the river, we drew our pails full of water. We started back to the night shelter, leading the way with our guards behind us. It was now good and dark out. Suddenly Bobrov took a fall on a stone, stretched himself out full length, grabbed his foot, and started to scream at the top of his voice:
Oh! My foot! I've broken a foot! Help me! I can't get up! Oh! Oh! Help me, help me!
We all ran to him, bending over to see what had happened, and the S.S. officers did the same, either instinctively or out of curiosity. That's what we were waiting for. Like animals we threw ourselves upon them. Bobrov suddenly became healthy and sprang up. A life and death struggle began. We operated with our fists, with stones, and with our pails, and they with rifles. But when they tried to aim and shoot, we didn't let them. We tore the rifles from their hands.
Finally, one of the officers got a good blow to the head with a stone and Laib Yakobson seized his rifle. The other officer, who had managed to run off a couple of hundred steps, started to shoot at us, and Yakobson answered him with the rifle he had taken, firing until all the ammunition was gone. That officer ran away, but now we had another problem. The shooting had resounded in the stillness of the night like thunder. The guards at the night shelter would certainly have heard it. Yakobson gave the S.S. man a few last blows to the head with the rifle, and we grabbed our packages, setting out at a gallop for the nearest forest.
Where did we get our renewed strength? As though on wings we carried ourselves to the woods, springing over pits, stones, and fallen trees. In the woods it was now quite dark, and you could not see where it was safe to put your foot down. We went ahead blindly and just barely managed to meet up again. We came very close to losing our hero of the evening, the shooter, Laib Yakobson, in the dark, dense forest. When we were reunited at last, we sat down for a conference. In the woods, and in the darkness, we did not really feel very secure.
In the opinion of Gershon Yakobson, who was familiar with that area, our best course was to go back across the Venta River, because there were huge forests on the other side, and he knew that territory even better. And we all agreed that if we were going to go back across the river, we must do it that same night, because it would be easier to wipe out our trail that way.
Resolved! We got up quickly, and feeling our way in the dark through the thick forest, we set out in the direction of the Venta River. However, we strayed about, lost, until midnight before we got there. And as though out of spite, the
moon came up and poured its frightening silver gleam on the riverbank, on the water, and on our striped convict's clothing.
In that forested region the Venta River was quite wide and streaming, but in places it was flat, so that one could wade across. We struggled for a good couple of hours before we hit upon that kind of flat spot. We were like wild, ghostly night demons as we wandered about in the moonshine, on the barren riverbank, and as we waded in the river with our packs of belongings on our heads and water up to our necks. Because Gershon was the tallest among us, he took the lead, feeling out the river bottom with a long stick and giving orders:
Go to the right! Go left!Go straighttoward me! Here, swim a little bit! Well, did you feel the bottom? Now go straight to the bank! Well, all across?
Even though it was a July night, a couple of hours in the water had caused us to shiver from the cold. In order to warm ourselves, we began jumping, doing gymnastics, and wrestling with one another, and for a little while we quite forgot who we were and where we stood in the world. Then we took a look at the night sky it was already becoming paler. It was almost morning. Like ghosts we headed for the great forest, and soon we had gone deeper and deeper into the thickest part of it.
When the sun was high in the sky, we crept into a dense clump of young trees, took bread, butter, and cheese out of our packs, and divided the food into five equal portions. We ate up our belated evening meal. Then we took out our blankets and tucked ourselves in. We were already half asleep when we heard one ofLaib Yakobson's Russian cusswords:
Po matere! Why am I shlepping this empty rifle, the devil take it!It doesn't have any bullets in it! What good is it to me now?
With those words, he threw the empty rifle down among the young trees, and in no time we were all asleep, as though we were dead, breathing the fresh forest air.
That is the way our life in the forest began, now for the second time. We had enough food·for a couple of weeks five large loaves of bread, some butter, and smoked meat all of it obtained stealthily from farmers, mostly acquaintances of Gershon. Now that food was carefully rationed. Three times a day we allowed ourselves pieces of bread with a little butter or meat, which we would wash down with river water, as much as our hearts desired. But that did not mean we had lost our appetite, and wouldn't have been able, with one rip and one swallow, to eat up all of the bread and butter, and a little something else as well. Believe me, we could have done it.
Our strategy, at first, was to hide out in the deepest part of the forest for a short time, waiting until the danger had passed that is, until the Germans had withdrawn and the Russians had come in. But things did not turn out as
planned. The Russian army did not seem to be in any great hurry to arrive, and meanwhile the Germans and their Latvian assistants were lording it over the whole area.
We were lying in the wilderness day and night with open eyes and ears. We could hear the noise and reverberations from the front, the booming of the cannon fire and the zooming of the airplanes. At times it seemed the sounds were coming closer; at times they seemed more distant; and then they would stop altogether. A mixture of hope, doubt, and despair filled our hearts. In the meantime, our small supply of food was declining, so that we began to eat only twice a day, taking even smaller portions of bread. How long could we go on lying in the woods, not searching, not undertaking anything whatsoever?
We decided that Bobrov and I should go out to the main road about twelve to fifteen kilometers away and see what was happening there. We would set out after dark, because we did not dare to take even one step during the day in our highly visible striped prisoner's clothes. We would, we agreed, meet the other three members of our group in around two days, at a place that we would find by looking for certain marks we had made on the trees. Once there, Bobrov and I would give three short barks, like a dog, and the others would give three short barks back.
All night long Bobrov and I wandered around in the woods, without roads or trails to follow, and only in the morning, worn out and soaking wet from the swampy pits we had dragged ourselves through, did we find the main road. We crawled into the deep foliage at its edge and camouflaged ourselves with green branches. We began to look and think about what might be happening in the great wide world. But very quickly we fell fast asleep, so that not even machine gun fire would have roused us.
When we woke up, the sun was already high overhead, and could reach us through the trees with its burning rays. We took another look at the highway and now there was lively activity in progress. German military autos, freight cars, motorcycles, and wagons were on the move. We could also see faces but this time we did not notice the nervousness and confusion that we had seen among the Germans a couple of weeks ago. Also, we didn't see any German women traveling with the men..The women had already been sent back to Germany, it seemed. It was not evident that the Germans were running, retreating, and...we became sad at heart.
We spent the whole rest of that day lying beside the great highway, eating a little something, and quietly talking and thinking.
You know what? It would be a good thing to make use of this day to obtain some weapons, I remarked. With weapons in our hands we would be feeling a lot differently, and we would be able to do something also. You see how the German dogs are running around on the highway? Oh, to knock off at least a couple of them!
Yes, be a clever fellow and get some weapons! How are you going to get
them with empty hands? And while you're still in your prison clothes? You can't even stick out your nose! Try it, go out among people, you'lllook great! Bobrov answered sarcastically.
But then I had an idea. I once read something, or heard it told, that one can also accomplish something without weapons. Not only can you do away with someone, but you can also easily take away his weapons. Just listen....
And I told him of a particular episode about which I had once read, or heard. Then, when I looked up, I could hardly recognize him. His eyes were burning; he jumped up like a man possessed. I quieted him down a little and reminded him that this was not the place to get overexcited.
Oh, you bandit, he scolded in a restrained voice. Why have you never told me about this before? It is after all a brilliant idea. I have also heard about such things in the past, but I had completely forgotten about them. Look, we also have wire close at hand remember the wire fencing around the group of young trees that we saw not very far from here?
Bobrov was so eager to get started that I could hardly hold him back, but we waited patiently until it was early evening and getting dark. Then both of us got up cautiously from our hiding place and began carrying out our new plan.
We found the fence Bobrov had noticed around the group of trees and carefully removed from it a length of wire a couple of dozen meters long. We rolled it up, carried it closer to the highway, and there, in a suitable spot, we tied one end firmly to a tree. Now for the hardest part. We waited a little longer, until it had become still darker, and then, in a moment when the highway was empty, we ran across together, carrying the wire into the woods on the other side. There we attached the other end of the wire to another tree, but much less firmly. The wire was now lying loose across the highway. To make it less noticeable, I went out again and spread a little sand over it. Then we sat down in our hiding place to wait. We were waiting for our victim for a German riding a motorcycle.
As though out of spite, a few automobiles passed by, and a whole line of freight trucks. They ran over the wire without noticing it, but no motorcyclist showed up. We were beginning to lose our patience, thinking that all of our work had been wasted. A few more automobiles passed, and we keep our eyes peeled, but no motorcycle was heard or seen. I was lying on the very edge of the highway, listening alertly. Then suddenly I heard a weak noise. This was not an automobile, but a motorcycle. I ran over to Bobrov and shouted to him:
Pull on the wire! Around the tree! Harder!
We both grabbed the wire, tugged on it, wrapped it around the tree a few more times, and hung on with all our strength. The next minute crash! A powerful blow to the wire, a clattering, and also, it seemed to me, a shout (although I'm not sure about that). My heart started beating wildly. We would
have liked to run quickly onto the road, but instead we crept along slowly, and we looked. We could see the road clearly. There was no living soul there now, except...our victim. He was a German S.S. man, a unit commander. He was lying there, dead, with a smashed and bloodied head, and his motorcycle was lying some distance away, also smashed up. We ran over and took his automatic machine gun, his ammunition, and a watch that was hanging out of his pocket. We wanted to take other things, but suddenly an automobile was approaching. With a strange, animal like speed, we leapt across the highway and disappeared into the forest. Before long we heard shooting, and a grenade exploding, but by then we were laughing. We were already far into the forest, protected by its darkness and its depths.
Finally, we stopped to catch our breath and sat down on the ground. Our joy was tremendous. We now had a weapon, and what a weapon it was an automatic machine gun, and quite a bit of ammunition to go with it! We moved out to a place where the moon was shining, and I examined the gun, tapping on it from all sides. I noticed that it was bent, and that the trigger ring was broken. What a shame! We tried to load and unload the ammunition; we tried to shoot; but it was clear that the machine gun was useless now. It had been smashed up together with its German owner and the motorcycle.
In our new heartache, we did manage to find some small comfort. We had, after all, wiped out an S.S. unit commander and his motorcycle. That was revenge, revenge! At least a drop of revenge for the rivers and oceans of spilled Jewish blood!
Still, we were both unsatisfied, angry. Also, we were hungry, hungry as wolves. And at that point a new plan was born, which we carried out that same night. We moved closer to the river, found a peasant's small home, came quite close to it, and, hearing no dog barking, we quietly broke open the door of the pantry.
It was worth the effort. That night we became rich with six loaves of bread and a few pieces of smoked meat. And right there in the pantry we drank our fill of sour cream and buttermilk, so much that we could scarcely move. We took the food and drink quietly and in good spirits, just as we would have done in our own home. Bobrov was especially lucky: he found a treasure of homegrown tobacco leaves! After our fine feast, he smoked a long, stinking cheroot, which gave him great pleasure. Our mood now was better, more exalted, and we set out to rejoin our comrades in the forest.
Do you suppose that we found them so easily? We did not. We sweated and blundered through that night and another night, plus an early morning, before we finally noticed the marked trees, lef loose our dog like triple bark, and heard their response in the dense forest.
Bobrov Tells a Story
Our peaceful return, the valuable foodstuff we brought with us, and our
account of how we wiped out a German unit commander and his motorcycle greatly cheered up our comrades. Everyone was inspired to perform similar partisan undertakings, as we now began to call them. But with our account of how we had crept, uninvited, into the food pantry of a peasant and reduced him to poverty with that part of our story Gershon Yakobson was not happy. That did not please him at all.
You do not realize what can come of that, he argued. There will arise a big hullabaloo, because thieves, burglars, and robbers have appeared, and there will be a suspicion that they are runaway Jews or other forest vagrants. They will start looking for the culprits or spying on them, and that can't be good for us. It is wiser to sit quietly and make sure they do not hear a peep from us.
No, Gershon, now you are being too cautious, his cousin Laib answered him. And what should we do in the meantime? What should we eat? Should we let ourselves die of hunger? Or is it better to go and beg the farmers for a piece of bread, to play the beggar with them so they can betray us? You remember, don't you, what not long ago came of doing that.... No, it's better to go during the night, and take what you need by yourself, not begging but taking.
The most necessary things now are weapons. We need to use every means available to get weapons. With weapons in our hands, we will be able to live like an independent group on our own resources, said I, getting in my word.
Vospy and Laib agreed. Vospy said, Certainly we must see to obtaining a couple of guns, and maybe also hand grenades. Laib, Gershon, and I are former soldiers and know how to make use of them. You will learn quickly yourselves. We should see to it that we take a walk over to the road more often and....
Don't be in such a hurry; don't rush, said Gershon. We have enough to eat for a few weeks. Let's sit quietly and wait it out. We'll see what else will happen. Not far from here, I have a lot of farmers that I know. We'll see if we can connect with them.
Bobrov did not take part in our discussion. He was lying on his back with one leg over the other and looking at the light little clouds that swept by in the sky. He was taking pleasure in being alive, smoking a thick, long cheroot of homemade tobacco rolled up in a piece of newspaper. He was stinking up the little trees.
After a good midday meal of bread, smoked meat, and warm river water, we all lay down to rest. Everyone thought his own thoughts and dreamed his own dreams. I remembered Bobrov's stories about his former life, about his encounters with various people and situations. He used to enjoy telling stories, and in the three years that I had lived with him, I had learned all of his stories by heart. But I never grew tired of them. So interestingly and simply was he able to tell them, and with such warmth, such understanding of the
human soul. And he himself possessed such a fine, deep soul, and such a well thought out conception of life.
Bobrov, how about telling us a story? I said to him. It's been a long time since we heard any word from you, but now we all have enough time. Tell us something!
He let himself be begged for quite a while. But we all gathered around him.
Eh, what do you want from me? I have already told you all my stories. I don't have anything new to tell you. For a while he remained thoughtful, and then he said, You know what? I will, in fact, tell you something about my youthful years. How I almost got married to a gentile girl my word of honor, a young, pretty gentile girl, a picture of beauty. Hear me out; I will tell how I was so much in love with her, I would die for her, and I will tell why we did not, nevertheless, get married.
This happened after the First World War, when, as you surely know, my family came back from Russia. We got settled again in our hometown, Baltinova, not far from Resheetse. We had a very large house there, a tannery, worth a fortune, and we began again to live as in the past. Our father managed the tannery, and we, the brothers, occupied ourselves with the timber business. We lived well, even richly, there is no denying it, but it was not the way it used to be. We, the brothers and sisters, were adults by that time, and we were already on the lookout for another kind of life. We were drawn to the big city, to the world, to broader enterprises, to a broader life. What can I tell you? My two older brothers settled in Riga and opened a saw mill with a large supply of wood materials, and I soon left my father's house and began to work with my brothers in Riga. And here begins the story that I want to tell you.
I was at that time a playboy, as the saying goes, eager to have a lively time, dancing, having fun with girls. I was young then, you know, and not ugly, it seemed, and there was no shortage of money and radiance. In a word, I was a young man with style. Well, it was bound to happen that I met a gentile girl, a Latvian girl, pretty as a picture. A 'painted beauty,' I tell you young, blonde, slender, with the face of a goddess and fine limbs. And clever to boot, and delicate, of course! The Jewish girls I knew could not compare to her. How could I not fall in love with her? I was eighteen years old, and as you know, those are the best years. In short order we both fell in love, head over heels, inseparable, hopelessly lost. What were we going to do? We thought and we talked about getting married. We would be able to make a living, after all. I was employed; she was also employed she was a cashier in a state institution. Yes, we would make a living....
Our passionate love affair stretched out for a year, and maybe longer. Acquaintances were saying that we were going to get married, and that maybe we were already secretly married. My brothers in Riga also knew about our affair, and so did my father and mother at home, in Baltinova. One day I
received a short letter from my father saying that I should come home for a few days because he was on the point of buying a 'delyanke,' a piece of forest property. It would be a great bargain, he said, so I should come and take a look at it; he, my father, was already old and weak, and he wanted me to complete the purchase and do everything necessary for the transaction. By the next morning I was at home with my father and mother. I spent the night there, and the following morning I hitched up our fastest horse to a light sled and started off on my way to see a certain farmer Garalsky, an old acquaintance of my father's who was supposed to show me the delyanke and give me all the necessary information. His place was about thirty or forty kilometers away in an area where there was a community of Russian peasants.You know the type: Latvian Russians drunkards and thieves, each one worse than the others.
The journey was a sleigh ride, what you call a real sleigh ride! The forest road was flat, like a table; the frost crackled, the trees crackled, and the horse flew like an arrow shot from a bow. He threw his thin legs long and high, so that his horseshoes gleamed and sprayed a snowy dust on me. Oh what a run that was! A wind, a storm, a genuine full blooded 'Orlovsky race horse.' There was no horse equal to him for miles around. And the end was that they stole him away from us. Oh, what a pity that was! But that's another matter.... Yes, where was I? I was going to Garalsky's house. It took less than an hour, probably, and I arrived at the village where he lived.
I did not find Garalsky at home. He had gone off somewhere. I had no choice, so I stayed there and waited. I met his wife a tall, blonde gentile woman, already more than forty years old. She was clever and energetic, and apparently had been very attractive when she was young. And there were children a house full of children, big ones, small ones, tiny ones, and a baby still being breastfed. A big producer, this Garalsky, I thought to myself. But I took a good, careful look, and there was one thing I could not understand: How come that among the blonde, light complexioned children there were also dark ones with pitch black hair and remarkable, I would say, Jewish or Gypsy facial features? Ha? Something odd ... How did such black creatures get here among the flaxen haired children in a gentile family?
In the evening the master of the house came home. We did not know each other before then, so I was seeing him for the first time. We sat down at the table to eat the evening meal. We talked about business, about the forest, about grain, about the present hard times, about horses, about the great frost. We had a little drink of the whiskey I had brought with me, and I noticed that there was something odd about the master of the house, something not quite open. He was holding something back, as though he were not quite at ease in his own home. What is the matter with him? I thought to myself. Is he sick, or is that the way he always is? He was sitting there so gloomy, so silent, and if I took a quick look at him, he immediately looked down, as though he were ashamed of something. There was some kind of strained silence that reigned
in the house between this man, his wife, and their children. The tiny children clung to him, and he patted them and even smiled to them, but the older children behaved like strangers around him. They didn't go over to him, they didn't speak, and they even avoided looking at him. I saw that Garalsky was a farmer, already close to fifty years old, with black, curly hair and a black, curly beard, and now I understood that the dark haired children looked exactly like him, like their father.
I was with them for a couple of days. I went and looked at the delyanke, took some measurements, asked some questions, and finally I turned around and went back home to my father. I told him about the forest there, about the general area, and about the whole business, and then the talk turned to the farmer Garalsky. My father asked me about him, wanting to know all the details, so I told him everything I had seen and thought. But my father kept asking me more and more about him. He wanted to extract from me more talk, more observations and opinions about Garalsky himself, about his family, his way of living. I was losing patience, and I said to my father, 'Why are you so interested in your acquaintance, this farmer Garalsky? Do you not know enough farmers? He is a farmer like all farmers, but you can see that he is not quite himself. Something is missing, lost, as though something has been troubling him for a long time well, in a word, he does not look like someone who is happy or satisfied, and his whole family is also like that. They are like people who have lost their way.'
'Yes, you are right,' my father said. 'People like him, and like his family, cannot be happy and satisfied. But what can you do for him? He has only himself to blame....'
'So what happened to him?' I asked. 'What did he do, and in what way is he to blame?'
'So then you yourself don't understand? I have to spell it out for you?' he asked me back.
'I don't understand what you are talking about,' I answered.
'"If you don't understand, then I will explain it to you,' my father replied, beginning to walk around in the room, back and forth. 'If you really don't understand, then I will tell you that Garalsky is a Jew, a baptized Jew, and his wife and children are gentiles. So does that fit? Gentiles do not like Jews, even when the Jew is their husband or their father. So now do you understand why Garalsky is such an unhappy person, as you saw him, and why he can never be happy and satisfied? I understand it very well. His wife, and most important, the children, are simply ashamed of him. They throw up at him a good dose of his so called Jewish sins, and it doesn't matter whether he is baptized or not. So can such a person, and such a family, be happy? They have all lost their way, as you said earlier. I know him well, Garalsky. I have known him since his youth; we were comrades, and studied together in the same school. Afterwards he fell in love with an attractive gentile woman and married her.
Now you have seen how it worked out, you saw it yourself, and...what else can I say? Enough about that. .. '
With those words, my father left the room. He was upset and angry, but restrained, and never spoke any additional word. And I remained there like someone who has been given a beating, with my eyes popping out and my mouth open. I couldn't speak another word, either. But I then understood a lot, a great deal, and much more than I imagined I would.
A few weeks later, I happened to encounter Garalsky in Resheetse, at the market, where he had brought six geese and a basket full of little pigs, to sell them. I spoke with him, asked after his wife and children, with whom I considered myself to be well acquainted and friendly. He kept his eyes looking downward and quietly answered something or other. And a couple of months later, I heard that his oldest daughter had married a young local farmer, and that during the wedding ball, his son in law, who had been intoxicated, had had words with his father in law, Garalsky. I heard that the groom had treated the father of the bride to a few gross Russian insults, reminded him of his 'Jewish heritage,' and finished by giving him a severe beating.
Still later, I became aware that the whole story about the delyanke was nothing more than a trick on my father's part. Oh! My father, Pinches Bobrov, he really had quite a head on his shoulders! And it was not for nothing that both Jews and gentiles, from all around the area, used to come to consult him, to listen to his opinion and his advice and recommended solution. And now you see that for me too he had found a solution. That was the best remedy, as he later would say, to cure me of my illness of wanting to marry a gentile girl.
Why should I talk to you at greater length? This way or that way, whether it was the right remedy or not, that picture of Garalsky and the way his household looked remained vividly before my eyes for a very long time. Is that a life? He was indeed a lost person. A stranger in his own home and household, with eyes looking downward, as though he felt himself to be guilty before everyone, and superfluous. I saw him with his daughter and son in law, those gentiles, who would throw up to him his Jewishness, and permit themselves to beat him up when they were intoxicated. I saw him as he sold little pigs in the marketplace, a full basket of little pigs and here, too, he was a stranger, as though ashamed, with his eyes lowered. Well, say it yourself, is that a life? No, it is something that is not as it should be! No, it is something false!
This way or that way, but I was no longer in a great hurry to get married. Something like Garalsky's shadow would be standing between me and my gentile girl, Christina, as she was named. And she understood, too, what was going on in me. She did not try to force me, and made no reproaches to me; she didn't rush things, even though I know she was terribly in love with me, and would, for me, have gone through fire and water. She was too honest and serious to take the matter lightheartedly, to make me go against the will of my
family. On the contrary, she kept me from doing many foolish things that I was prepared to undertake.... You know, of course, that when you are eighteen years old, you think everything is light, simple. You think you could splash your way across the sea. But later it turns out differently, you know, don't you.... Well, let's have a smoke!
Laib Bobrov, the storyteller, had spun out a new cheroot and was drawing heavily on the smoke of the stinking tobacco rolled in newspaper. He remained quietly lying down among the tiny trees, lost in thought, sunken deep in his past. We were waiting for him to continue his story. Well, what happened after that? Did you ever encounter her again? we asked, curious and deeply interested.
What happened later? Yes, we used to meet now and then, not often, Bobrov said. But I was no longer thinking about getting married. Soon after that, I journeyed away from that region, and we didn't see each other for a couple of years. I was occupied with business, and traveling around, and a couple of years later I fell in love with a Jewish girl, a teacher from the Ossins of Dvinsk, and we got married. That cured me completely of all my youthful 'sicknesses.' We lived happily, but how happily.... And she knew about every thing with me and my gentile girl. I told her the story. A rare woman she was, a committed, loyal friend, a mother, a.... Oh, what is there now to remember? There isn't anything left no wife, no children, no father or mother or sister in the village there, no brothers, no one. What is there to talk about?
So what became of Christina, the gentile girl? She has probably survived, no? asked Laib Yakobson, in an ironic, laughing it off tone.
Certainly she is alive, in Riga. She never married. And you know, the most remarkable thing was that....that I met her a year ago, in Dvinsk, when I was still there in the ghetto. She had looked me up. She knew about everything that had happened. She had heard that I was still alive, and that I was now all alone, and she had come with a plan to rescue me, to take me away from there, using false 'Aryan' papers. She begged me, simply wept; she insisted that I should take her advice and 'let myself be rescued.' She would hide me, do everything necessary; nothing would be too hard for her, but...I didn't want to go. I didn't want to. Why? I don't know why myself. Or maybe I do know, but I don't know how to say it....
I didn't want to go away from all the Jews, from the universal Jewish destiny. The main issue, as I understand it now, is that I could not, and did not want to, go away, of my own free will, from the place where they, my family and all the others, had perished. Such a strange feeling I had inside, at the time. I could not, and did not want to, go away with her, with that living stranger, to rescue myself and leave behind my own people, the dead. I myself don't understand now. It's something odd.... But I did not go, and I do not regret it. No, I absolutely do not regret it. That, I suppose, was how it had to be. If it is intended that I should remain alive, then I will of course rescue my
self, without her help, and without her pity, and.... Am I right or not? I don't know. I don't know.... But that's the way it has to be. That's the way I want it; I cannot do otherwise.
Bobrov quickly and nervously began to draw the smoke from his cheroot, and stopped speaking. We remained seated around him, deep in thought and saying nothing. We were no longer asking any questions, and were not asking for more stories.
The shadows of twilight were spreading through the forest; a melancholy stillness poured out over the whole region like a hauntingly heavy load. We heard the fluttering wings of a late bird and its restless twitter. A slight evening breeze stirred the treetops, and the trees shook slightly, murmured, as though whispering secrets of the night.
As the minutes passed, the air became moist and cool, so that we shivered in our thin concentration camp clothes. We wrapped ourselves in our blankets, nestled between the trees, and suddenly: A oo oo! A oo oo! We shuddered awake. The long, drawn out shriek sailed over the treetops and over our heads. It was a huge night bird's weird call, like the barking and whinnying of animals combined with the crying of babies.
For a long time we couldn't fall back asleep. We tossed on our earth beds in the thickness of the forest until at last the restlessness streamed out of our midst from within, from our aching souls.
The Road to the End
A few more weeks went by in the forest.
We didn't settle in one place; that was too risky. They could have smelled us out, spied on us, and then descended upon us. Also, who knew who might stumble through the woods and come upon our hideout? So we moved often. We wandered in the woods. But our second food reserve was running out. We were again at the point of having a couple of pieces of bread a day with warm river water. And the Germans, it seemed, were not leaving any time soon; the battlefront noises had completely ceased.
We wanted to avoid, for as long as we could, begging for food from the farmers, because we remembered all too well how we had been denounced the last time we ran away. On the other hand, what could we do? We could not, after all, just stay in the woods and die of hunger. We had to undertake something.
We decided to go again to Ugale, thirty or forty kilometers away. There, Gershon Yakobson had many good friends among the farmers. They would certainly supply us with food and, possibly, also help us with a hiding place. And there we would see what to do next. Possibly, we would divide up into two smaller groups Gershon, Bobrov, and I in one, and Vospy and Laib in the other. In that way it might be easier to get food and hide out. But who knew how long this could drag on? We hoped that it would not, God forbid,
continue all the way into winter. That would surely not be good for us.
At twilight we packed up our meager belongings and set out on our way. We were walking single file, one behind the other, on a narrow forest trail when all at once Gershon told us to halt. Further on, behind the town of Zlekas, he knew every little trail, but not here. We seemed to be lost. We would have to go back a couple of kilometers and then make a tum to the left. That would be the better way, he thought, but he didn't know for sure. And we, the other four, certainly didn't know. But we had to keep going.
All night long we stumbled around in the forests and swamps, and in the morning we lay down to rest. We would wait till nightfall and then go further. We ate up our last bits of bread. Should we go find a farmer's house and beg for food? Should we take the risk and show ourselves in our prison clothes? No! We decided to fast for that one day and the following night, until we got closer to Ugale. There we would certainly get food, and we would hear what was going on around us as well.
When it started to get dark again, we returned to the barely beaten woodland paths. We drew near the big town of Zlekas. Here there were certainly Latvian police and German soldiers. But here, too, Gershon knew all of the trails. We made a wide circle all around, avoiding the town and the former baronial mansions, and when we were done, we had no more than fifteen kilometers to go until Ugale. We went straight ahead, even though our weary feet were begging for mercy a little rest, to lie down, lean against something!
To save ourselves some walking distance, we went out onto a wider forest trail. Here, obviously, automobiles and motorcycles had ridden you could see the tire tracks on the soft earth. From behind the treetops, the moon showed itself, and poured out on us and on the trail its terrifying light. We now had about ten kilometers to go until we reached a specific farmer, a good friend of Gershon's, and we wanted to get there that very night. The moon was bright; it was already almost morning. Tired and hungry, we went straight ahead, automatically, without thinking, as though enchanted, and then a thunderous noise, a crackling sound.
For a minute, we stood still, as though rooted in the ground. We could not look around us or to jump to one side, because we were now locked into a circle of automatic rifles and loud outcries in Latvian:
Hands up! Quickly sit down on the ground! If not, we will shoot!... One, two.... Sit down on the ground! We're going to shoot!
And they immediately began to shoot, not directly at us, but a little to one side, past and over our heads.
Overwhelmed and confused by such a sudden tum of events, we instinctively threw ourselves down on the ground. Then they stationed near each one of us two or three police with rifles and ordered us not to move from the spot. What choice did we have? We were obliged to obey. And we also had to give up our weapons the thick, gnarled wooden sticks that we had purposely
prepared for ourselves.
I cannot now give any reliable account of what I was thinking in that fateful moment. But I do remember one thought that pierced through my brain: Oh, weapons! If only we now had genuine weapons...an automatic....
And one more thought I remember. This was something that occurred to me a little later, when it got light out and they were driving us out onto the big road that leads to Zlekas. Gershon Yakobson gave a deep sigh, and said, just as he did the first time we were caught, using almost the same words:
We just don't have any luck. The beginning was so good.... We were so close...and then suddenly well, that's what you get!
Hearing this, I reflected that what was happening now had already happened then, so that between then and now there was no real interruption. It seemed to me that I had already somewhere seen myself and the others walking on the same road. I felt as though something like hallucinations were, for a while, controlling and enchanting my tired mind....
But the reality was bitter, much more bitter than we had, from the start, imagined. We had fallen into the hands of the Latvian police, those fascistic bandits. They were no better than the Germans, and maybe even worse. And they had found us by accident, quite unexpectedly even for them. They had been searching the woods for armed Latvian soldiers who had run away, and instead had chanced upon us, runaway Jews. What had my comrade Bobrov always said? That human beings are governed by fate, by destiny, and that from your destiny you cannot run away....
When they had driven us to Zlekas and handed us over to the local police, we were so exhausted, hungry, and broken that we could barely stand on our feet. The police chief telephoned somewhere and afterwards quietly said something or other to the policemen. They locked us into a room that had iron grates on the windows and held us there for several hours.
Among the police, there happened to be a couple of former acquaintances of Gershon. They could not look him straight in the face. Don't worry, they said to us. They will drive you to Vindave, to the prison, and there they will attach you to a larger party of Jews, whom we have not yet been able to send off to Germany. Don't be frightened; nothing is going to happen to you here.
But they kept their eyes lowered. That I had, at the time, seen clearly.
The police officers quietly vanished, and in their place another group came. They were eight men in civilian clothing, armed with rifles. Two of them went on ahead, taking something or other with them in their hands. We were ordered to take our packs and go. The remaining six drove us, and again led us out onto the big road. We were in front, and they were immediately behind us, with loaded rifles at the ready.
We were walking on the wide, sandy road, and we could see that they were not driving us to Vindave but in the opposite direction. What could that mean?
Where were they leading us?
After we had walked for about a kilometer on the big road, they ordered us to tum into the forest, to the left, onto a narrow little path. At that point, everything became very clear. We all remembered the two men who had gone out ahead, taking something with them in their hands, and we realized that it must have been shovels. There would be a pit already waiting for us. We had reached the end death.
Let's run! I whispered to the others. Let's all throw ourselves suddenly in different directions, into the woods l Maybe someone will be saved....
Yes, we must run, whispered Gershon. Twice we have run, and both times we fell into a trap.... We don't have any luck.... There is no luck.... Others run away, maybe.... Yes, we must run....
I heard his words clearly, but there was something odd about his speech.
His voice was altered somehow. I took a quick look at him, and sensed that his thoughts were far, far away.
Yakovl Bobrov grabbed me by the hand Let's go together! To our wives and children! In one grave...together....
I tore my hand away from his and said to him, in anger, Bobrov, what's the matter with you? What are you saying? I don't want to die! We have to keep on living.... Let's run! Run!... There is still time....
Where are we going to run to now? Laib Yakobson asked. My feet are worn out; I can't take a single step. I can hardly walk any more. Run alone, try! Maybe....
We haven't eaten for two days. Now death is preferable, rather than such a life. I'm dying of hunger.... Eh, it's all the same, death.... so spoke Vospy, the healthy young butcher from Kreitzburg. For a moment I looked at his crestfallen face, and as though it were happening today, I still remember distinctly his appearance and his last words.
They drove us to a freshly dug out pit in the sandy ground. The other two were waiting there, also with rifles at the ready. Bobrov asked for a cigarette; he wanted to smoke for the last time. One of the men took out a cigarette, lit it, and threw it to him. Bobrov caught it and drew out the smoke in long, deep, hasty breaths. Then one of the group addressed us:
You have sinned against the law. You have run away from the Jews camp, and for that you deserve the death sentence. Well, sit down on the edge of the pit, on the edge, on the edge!
Here again, I don't remember exactly what I was thinking at the time. I only know that in a single moment, I saw my whole past life, my youth, my home, all my near and dear ones, and suddenly I felt so sharply pained that I would remain forever lying here, in the sand, among the trees, without any memorial, without the least bit about my death. It was just such a grave that we had come upon a few days earlier in the woods. Who was lying there? And so it would be with me. No one would know or hear anything about me, and
even my handwritten diary would rot in the earth. How could one disappear that way from the world? And what would become of all the feelings and thoughts and.... Oh, God in heaven, what would become of our revenge?
I raised up my head to heaven. Vengeance! The thought sparked a bum in my brain, and it tore me out of my frozen stiffness. Who would take vengeance? Why should I die? No! I didn't want to! I didn't want to!
I felt new strength flowing into me. My heart made a leap. It gave me a lift, raising me up off the spot where I sat.
Comrades! I said quietly and firmly to the others, I'm running, quickly. You do the same run! Let them shoot us in the back, but not on the edge of this pit. Gershon, in which direction is it best to run into the woods, to the left or to the right? Give a look.
Go to the right, said Gershon. Left is no good. That way you immedi ately come to a town.... We must run, we must run.... I mean....
I'mrunning.... Look at me.... Suddenly, aleap...all ofus....maybe some one will ....
And talking that way, I slowly took the pack off my back and looked around on all sides. Then I slowly bent down to the ground, to put down my pack, and with my hands and feet I pushed off and tore away from the place. A leap into the woods, and like an animal, I jumped among the trees. In the last blink of the eye, I saw how Gershon gave himself a shake (or did I only think that?) and dzin...dzin.... Bullets whistled past my ears, with a buzz like fast, noisy bees, hacking off branches from the trees around my head, and making holes in my hat. I didn't look at anything. I just kept running ahead, always ahead....
I never did meet any of my comrades again. All four of them were shot dead. There, in the pit in the woods, was their grave.
(photos taken by the murderers for their own families)
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