Spring 1944. On that same day ten planes appeared. Every hour a plane came. First the seriously wounded were evacuated. After them, the young pregnant women whom the partisans had promised to marry if they stayed alive and returned home peacefully, were flown to the Great Land (as it was called by the Russians). The second in command of the staff and the doctor read the names of the wounded from a list they held in their hands. Forty-five people entered every plane.
It happened in White Russia near the town of Motol. They found a place within a big forest, and the airplanes were called from Moscow to transfer the wounded to hospitals in Russia, far from the front. At the same time, there were about 300 wounded in the partisan brigade who were brought from Poland. During the entire winter, no suitable place was found to land planes without being discovered by the Germans. Only three months before, they found an ice-covered lake and decided to land the planes there.
And indeed, a few planes arrived and took away some of the wounded. One plane broke the ice and was stuck for a whole day. An entire battalion worked the entire day to get it out, but when it was almost ready to take off, a German plane spotted it and set it on fire with a bomb. It was already the end of winter, the sun brought warmth, the snow melted, and bare ground could be seen on the outskirts of the forest. Remnants of snow only remained on the branches the sun could not reach.
The planes immediately found the place and landed in the center of the forest. The partisans who were leaving said goodbye and promised to return after they recovered. And indeed, it often happened that partisans left the hospitals and returned to their units to keep on fighting. Tumult and noise prevailed. The partisans said goodbye to the young ladies. Neighbors asked to send regards to their families. Those leaving entered the plane quickly and took off. In less than an hour the next plane landed. The pilots jumped quickly from the airplane, greeted the partisans with a wide smiling Zdrazvootsye! [Translators note: Good day!], as though they were returning from a pleasure trip and had not just crossed the fronts.
We had already been wandering three years during difficult battles with the German army and nationalistic Ukrainians. There was not a night that one of our friends did not fall. Every day there were more wounded. We brought them in carts and we had to treat them and protect them during every battle. They were often shot. When German planes bombed, they were lying in carts and could not move. There was a strict order not to abandon the wounded, and we obeyed that order.
We had already forgotten that once there had been a normal world where human beings were human beings, where people had their own homes, and where a home had its own people, where the house had a bed for sleeping, a bench for sitting, a table for food, a book to read. For sleeping, the partisans put a rifle under their heads. They also covered themselves up with a rifle. Forests, endless forests. Villages, innumerable villages. Uncountable Germans and whistling bullets.
The pilots would check the engine, sip a little something, warm themselves up, hand over their weapons and everything else they had brought with them. The people boarded the plane, some of them on stretchers, some of them using canes, some of them with their heads bandaged. The door closed, the engine was turned on. There was a strong gust of wind. All the people moved aside. The plane rose up and disappeared. I would hear the battalion commander say that if the Germans did not discover this today, that would be good. We would be free of the wounded and could go on our way.
Four months had already gone by since I had been wounded. A bullet hit my lung on the right side. I was already feeling better even though the wound had not yet healed. The constant staying in the cold impeded the healing of wounds. I did not walk. I received a riding horse. When I rode, the rifle knocked the wound, which also prevented its healing. Finally, I took a pistol off the corpse of a German officer, and the commander let me ride without the rifle. The cold reached forty degrees below zero and my feet froze. I was forced to get off the horse and run to warm myself up. The wound got wet, the blood froze underneath the shirt, but fortunately, I had a large appetite. I ate fat meat and drank a lot. That and milk cured me. I still did not participate in battles, but I was already going out on guard duty.
One day I stood from four until six in the morning together with Golobinka. The worst hour for guarding is four in the morning, but standing with Golobinka is better than sleeping. I knew who this Golobinka was, and he even knew who I was. But he had no idea that I knew his name was not Golobinka, and that he was not the man he pretended to be. Two years with the partisans are more than ten years of normal life. Two years of daily battles, attacks on garrison units, blowing up railroads, marches of thousands of kilometers throughout Poland, Ukraine, White Russia, Galicia and the Carpathian mountains. Long nights lasting forever. Watching the dawn banish the night, crawling together on all fours, entering a house at night, changing underwear, taking off the lousy underwear and putting on country underwear, coarse and clean, drinking vodka together, two years of talking and conversations while standing guard during long winter nights.
He called me Robinson because, like other Russians, he could not pronounce my last name correctly. They remembered Robinson Crusoe and turned to me: Robinson, are you cold? You should wear warm clothes. If your mother could see you, standing like that with the rifle! Shah! It seems we are hearing something. The Germans are standing three kilometers from here in the other village. We need to be careful. I load my rifle to go out and see what is going on. A nightshirt hanging on a branch caused the noise. Golobinka calmed down, set up the shooting machine, patted his hands, and stomped his feet until he warmed up.
Did you have enough sugar and could you buy meat every day? How much did a pair of boots cost? Did you work on Shabbat? Perhaps today is Shabbat, I think to myself. Could it be Shabbat? Without Papa and Mama? Mama prepares for Shabbat, Papa returns from the synagogue and brings Shabbat, but Shabbat does not bring Papa and Mama.
Is there anything this Ukrainian did not want to know? You know Robinson, I knew a lot of Jews in our village, good Jews. The elderly Jews were observant, some of them grew beards, they studied Torah, but the young ones were different. They already went to the Comsommol [T.N. a Russian youth group] together with the Russians. There were young Jews who loved Russian girls and also the other way around, and there were Jewish youths who turned their parents in to the police for dealing and managing businesses. What was this like where you were in Poland?
In Poland we were allowed to work in and manage businesses. We lived freely. Sugar was sufficient and nothing was lacking. Everyone would buy according to what he could afford. You know Golobinka, Shabbat was the most beautiful day in our lives.
Afterwards we would both be quiet, and keep on standing for a full hour, listening if the Germans might be sneaking in. What does Golobinka think about during those hours of silence? He is probably thinking of his home, the wife he left, his brothers and sisters. He was thinking of the warm oven, the burner they lit with pieces of wood, of the Cossacks and harmonicas and their neighbors, the Jews he spoke about so often.
So I imagined Golobinka's thoughts. Winter or summer, when Golobinka reminded me of the Shabbat, I was already home. I looked around carefully, to see that everything was all right, if we do not hear footsteps or see Germans, and I was carried off on the wings of my thoughts.
The last hut at the edge of the village is always a poor hut. The old peasant already remembered six wars. In the hut, those who had finished their guard duty before us sat down and added wood chips the peasant cut every day for the partisans every night. In the middle of the room there was an opening in the ceiling, from which four thick iron wires were dropped down to hold a square piece of thick tin. They put the woodchips on this. The woodchips burned quickly, and there was a constant need to add wood all the time so the fire would not go out. This was the source of light. After twenty-five years of Soviet rule, the peasant still had no notion about a kerosene lamp.
The hut with a straw roof was covered with snow, and only a weak light penetrated through the tiny windows. The snow covered them in symmetrical forms and the entire area was white. Without the signs of a fence, we would not know which direction was which. The guarding position was two hundred meters from the hut near a thick tree where there was darkness, and the path where the Germans stood on both sides could be seen. Where the path was, we did not exactly know because it snowed non-stop. From both sides of the path the forest went on for hundreds of meters, a thick forest, and when we stood on guard duty and looked both ways, it seemed to be where the world ended.
When I was on guard duty and heard noise, I would advance until I was sure the noise came from the trees and no Germans were approaching. For some reason I see myself at home on the Sabbath eve when I am on guard duty, everything is silent, and I do not hear any shots. I see the white tablecloth and on it the two ancient silver candlesticks and the two small brass candlesticks. Every corner is covered with a white tablecloth. The large room that was used all week as a workshop and business are now as white and clean as snow. Tablecloths cover the sewing machines and work tables. At the edge of the large table, two challahs are placed, covered with a small Shabbat cloth. The candles that Mama lit were spreading their light now. After the lighting of the candles, she sits down and breathes a small sigh of relief because Mama already starts preparing Shabbat on Thursday morning when she goes out to do her shopping. On Thursday evening, she bakes bread for the whole week, challot and cakes for Shabbat, round and long cakes, an apple cake and a big baking pan full of rolls for Friday morning breakfast.
Now as she sits after lighting the candles we see the fatigue on her face, but also the glory of the holy Sabbath, and from her mouth comes out a sigh mixed with gratitude to the Master of the Universe, and Papa returns from the House of Prayer of the Lublin Hassidim. He greets with a broad Gut Shabbes! and Shalom aleichem! Aleichem shalom! to the sons Mama so wanted to grow up and be religious Jews and scholars. Then Mama's eyes would shine. All the week's labor was worth it just for that moment alone. Mama, why does warmth pass all through my bones when I see you? It seems I am sitting next to you and you are crying. Why are you crying so much? Why did God give you so many tears to spill? You cried because of the girls, and because of the boys, and when you became ill you asked yourself what would happen to Papa and the children when you would not be home. You worried about everyone, also about the poor neighbors, and perhaps because you were righteous you did not have to see the flood that came upon the world. You did not see when the German wild men came into our town, and ridiculed and denigrated everything the Jews held dear, cutting off the beards of the finest and decent Jews, desecrating the honor of the women, and setting fire to the synagogues. And as for the end, the bitter end, it is surely better you did not see it with your beautiful and delicate eyes.
I suddenly feel a push at my ribs. What time is it Robinson? Please go to the guard station now and see why they are not coming to replace us. I go into the hut. The heat presses up against my face. The two guys who need to replace us are Humiak and Volinatz. They are hurrying to get dressed. They were already late by ten minutes. Humiak comes from White Russia. He enlisted with the Cossacks and during one of their battles with us was taken prisoner. Because he gave himself up from his own free will, he was given his life as a gift, and they took him into my section. He would call me by the name of Rozenson. Rozenson, you know what I say. Let Stalin and Hitler fight by themselves. Let them both go out to a duet. What do they want from me? I want to sleep, I'm cold.
Golobinka is freezing cold there, go to guard quickly!
Rozenson, I want to show you something nice. If we stay here tomorrow and it's quiet, I will show you. They got dressed quickly. Volinatz ate a slice of bread and ham (he always stuffed himself) and they both went out. Golobinka entered, freezing cold, stood his submachine gun in the corner and began to prepare tea. He has a few sugar cubes, and he drinks a pot of tea every night after he returns from guard duty. I smile at the sight of the sugar. After every sip Golobinka lets out a sigh of great enjoyment.
Golobinka, you know what. You can go to sleep. I will sit for a couple of hours, and I will wake the guard myself. Next time you will sit.
I understand Robinson, and he went to sleep. From the burner his feet seemed like pustules, straw shoes bound with woven threads. Everyone sleeps together, the whole family, also the beautiful Katinka with the lovely braids and good black eyes. I would have said she was Jewish.
The old peasant is still awake. He cannot fall asleep. He thinks about what will happen in the world. Not far from the village, at only a distance of forty kilometers, there was a town with a railroad station. He would travel there twice a year. Katya, Vanka, Natashka, they would all sit on the sleigh and travel to the town to shop for the New Year. There was a tailor there, an honest Yevryeĭskie (a Jew), who would renew everything. He would make clothes that were quite old look really new. Where is he, Barko the tailor, and his wife Beila?
When I entered a week ago with all of my section, with the submachine gun in my hand, freezing cold and dressed like all the Russians, we warmed ourselves up and ate the potatoes and meat the partisans brought with them. After we poured full cups of Samogan into ourselves and our moods were overflowing with gaiety, Volinatz picked up the harmonica and the Russians broke into a Kazatzka dance. The old man began to shout at me that I should also dance. I tried to dance, but I did not manage to do it like the Russians. Afterwards I sang the song Umru Ia, Umru Ia When I die, they will bury me, but no one will know where my grave is. Only when spring comes will a bird visit and sing a song. When the bird leaves, I will stay alone in my grave again. Everyone cried and tears came from their eyes. Afterwards the old man approached me and asked me in a whisper if I am a Jew. I answered, Yes, I am a Jew. Now the old man sat down and stared at me.
Maybe you have a little tobacco.
Yes, my father, I have some fine tobacco. He tore off a piece of an old Belorussian newspaper and gently folded it into squares, so as not to waste even one piece of paper. I poured out tobacco and we both rolled cigarettes. We wet the edges of the paper without tongues to stick them together. Afterwards we pulled burning sticks of wood out of the fire and lit the cigarettes. We inhaled the smoke nicely and exhaled steam like a train engine.
How did you stay alive? They killed all our Jews. The neighbors and passersby told us that not far from here there are big pits where six thousand Jewish are buried. It is frightening to go to the forest today. They say that Jews who were not killed are wandering around there. The Germans give a bottle of Vodka for every Jew. Also from our village, many went to the forest and removed boots, coats, and furs from the Jews. They brought the Jews to the police station and received vodka. I am old for these things. I tell you, my son, all of this is from God. God commanded to kill all the Jews because they killed Jesus. Golobinka is snoring loudly, but it is good he is snoring. Otherwise, I would have been in deep silence. You will be a Russian now. My grandfather told me it is written somewhere that one of these days they would kill all the Jews. I will tell you something. A few Jews came here, but no one let them come in to get warm. They say there is a young Jewish woman somewhere nearby, but I do not know exactly in which house.
I sat and added wood to the fire without stopping. Between my legs, I held the submachine gun and I pressed it more and more. I inhaled the tobacco so I would not feel the bad odors from those who were sleeping. In the peasant's hut the weapons stand in the corners of the room, and outside the noise of riding is heard. The person on duty is surely checking the guard stations. Half a liter of vodka, a pair of boots and fur, not a bad price for a Jew, and of what are they guilty? God commanded to kill. Everything is from God, so it is written. Grandpa said. The children are sleeping on the stove, they are warm. In the forest, it is cold, it is cold for Jewish children, my sisters and brother-in-law are in the forest. I throw the fur off from me. For some reason I am too hot. The metal of the submachine gun is better at heating than ten furs. All the Jews were killed by God. You will remain a Russian. Humiak is outside with Volinatz on guard duty. Together with me is another Jew, Glaz.
Once I went into the house from guard duty and found Glaz crying. What happened, Glaz?
Were you remembering your home and parents? No, Humiak told me that it is a shame Hitler did not kill all the Jews. I did not think too much and approached the tall Humiak. Listen, Humiak, I know that you were a policeman with the Germans. One more time, and I'll shoot you like a dog, even though you are so big. Humiak was shaking after that. He shared his last slice of bread with me.
Avdishuv is a Tartar from Alma-Ata who served in the Red Army and was taken prisoner by the Germans. He escaped together with a group of soldiers. They joined a partisan unit. Avdishuv was a section commander. I looked at him when he slept alone in a corner. He was extremely tall. His long legs in his big shoes stuck out from under the Russian coat. His black hair was wild, his face was pale, and his nose now looked longer than usual. It was good that he was sleeping because he did not give me any rest. Why does he want to put me into the Communist party? He spoke with me in a whisper when no one else heard. Sankeh, you know, you are a serious person. You should be a member of the Communist party and keep track of all the 'boytsy' [T.N., fighters] and tell me how they are behaving and what they are talking about together. I kept on making different excuses. When the unit passed by one of the villages in Belorussia, where the families of three boytsy lived, they begged to be allowed to visit their homes. They went for a few days and one of them did not return. Someone spread a rumor about one of the two who did return that he was planning to escape. Avdishuv and the politruk [T.N. Russian for political commissar] asked me to follow Ostapovitch, but I told them I cannot and do not want to take part in this.
Avdishuv was annoyed and flashed his big black calf eyes at me. You know Sankeh, what a serious matter this is that you refuse to meet your obligations to the Communist party.
The nights were dark then and we walked about fifty kilometers each night. The Germans held all the roads, and therefore we wandered through deep Belorussian swamps that came up to our knees. I would see Ostapovitch walking. In my eyes, he was the good Belorussian guy. I could not believe he would escape, and I was glad I did not promise to follow him. But I did not tell anyone about their proposal to me.
After a few days, at an hour when we were already far from his village, I went out to guard at seven after breakfast. It was in the fall. I stood at the guardpost with Arkinazin, a Russian fellow from the area of Moscow. A short fellow, red-faced, with red hair, he hated the Germans because they murdered his parents. That day we stood on guard not far from the guard station, near the forest. A wind blew and the leaves fell from the trees and covered the ground. Arkinazin covered the shooting machine with a piece of canvas. He was very diligent about keeping it clean. He was very nervous because there had not been a German attack for some time. A feeling of revenge was burning within him. Sankeh, you are not a Jew, you love to fight. He did not love Jews.
I see Avdishuv walking with the sergeant major and taking the little Belorussian Ostapovitch and all three of them going deeper into the forest. Avdishuv walked with his long flat feet and held a small Russian cavalry rifle. The sergeant major did not go into battle; he did not risk his life. The guys fought. They risked their lives, were killed, brought food supplies from the German warehouses, and he would pass them out. Arkinazin stared at them with his small eyes that could hardly be seen in his fat red face. Sankeh, look, partisans. Where are the partisans going? What do they want from him? He is a good guy. Arkinazin does not know that now I see the end of the game. Not a half hour went by, and Avdishuv and the sergeant major returned with the boots and possessions of the little Belorussian. Fear went through my entire body. For the first time I saw terror in the army that fought to liberate the world from the Nazi German government.
The wind got stronger, the trees bent, the leaves fell off, it began to rain. Avdishuv and I did not exchange a word until we were replaced. The Russians said there would be a need to stand guard longer because another fellow was missing ... Avdishuv slept and I was still not a member of the Communist party.
Again I heard horseback riding. Someone jumped off the horse, shook the snow from his boots and opened the door wide. Tritak, the Komzvod entered with a smile on his face. How are you, Robinson?
Everything is fine, comrade commander.
There are no Germans?
No, my comrade commander.
We need to be prepared. He ordered me to tell Avdishuv to come to him quickly and he left me. I woke up Avdishuv. Comrade commander, get up, go quickly to the Komzvod. I understood they were preparing something. Avdishuv was very fearful. In battle, he would make in his pants and would always stay behind. He was appointed as commander because he was a member of the Communist party. When he returned, he ordered us to hitch up the sleighs and be ready in a half hour.
The peasant stared at the people getting dressed quickly. Arkinazin already stood ready with the shooting machine by the door, and he seemed to be talking to himself. Quick guys, there will be watches, boots, everything. The second and fourth company went out. The sleighs galloped quickly. There was silence. The path was white, gleaming as in daytime. Only huts covered in snow and white forests could be seen. Everyone sat and held their weapons in their hands. The political commissar rode on his horse behind my sleigh and sang in a whisper Ociy Cernye [Translator's note: Dark Eyes, a Russian folk song.] He was tall, as good-looking as a movie star, and he could sing romantic Russian songs very well. He came from Moscow and would always tell me how he went out with Jewish girls: Sankeh, I would rather be dancing with Jewish girls now than riding here. It is three years since I saw a city, a sidewalk. When the war is over, how will we be able to go around like human beings? You will introduce me to Jewish girls Sankeh. I will tell you a joke about Jews. You won't be angry? What does a poor Jew need? A small piece of bread and a wagon of butter. You know we say: a Tartar can cheat a Russian, an Armenian can cheat a Tartar, and a Jew can cheat an Armenian. But you, Sankeh, you are not a Jew. You eat everything, drink everything, fight as well as the others.
The sleighs were slowly galloping along now. This was the last village. Another eight kilometers and we would arrive at the sovkhoz. [T.N.; farms made up from the estates of the former aristocracy]. The Germans were fortified there and we needed to attack from two flanks. The second company went out to the right side and the fourth to the left side. Moskolenko went with the cannon between the two companies. Moskolenko's coachman was an Uzbek, and his name was Borisenko. He would often ask his commander: Comrade commander, one soldier, one rifle, two soldiers, one bread -- why? We went off the road, we parked the sleighs and fed the horses. Here we had to walk on foot four kilometers in the deep snow, and the political commissar shouted at the fighters whose boots squeaked, Idiot, quiet. The Germans are close. And in the end, we lay down beneath the trees.
It was already four in the morning. The Komzvod showed Avdishuv where our unit had to attack. I saw that Avdishuv was shaking like a fish and Arkinazin was making fun of him. We got very cold lying down. We waited for the white rocket, a sign to start the attack, and the political commissar did not allow us to make any movement. The commando unit had already come back. Everyone was in German uniform. They brought the German sentry with them and a few peasants. And then the rocket was seen. Strong shots rang out. Next to me, Arkinazin's shooting machine was clattering. I shot from the machine gun that had a magazine with twelve bullets, and I had to replace the magazine every time, and as number two on the shooting machine I needed support to load the magazines. It was a flat wheel of seventy-two bullets. I worked diligently, and I had to walk behind Arkinazin.
The heat increased. The Germans opened terrible fire, the bullets whistled over our heads. We advanced up to the first huts. I went in with Arkinazin to one of the houses and we continued to shoot through one of the windows. Avdishuv stayed behind. The political commissar kicked him in his legs to advance. The Germans entrenched themselves in the only home of the Whites. We shot with a cannon, but did not manage to overcome them. The second section got the warehouses with food supplies. We took out the supplies and the cows. Arkinazin and I went out towards the village center, but it was impossible to pass through. Arkinazin was lying in the middle of the road and he kept on shooting, but he was wounded with a bullet in his hand. I took the shooting machine and both of us went into one of the houses.
When I opened the door, I saw three rifles in the corners of the room. First of all, I grabbed the rifles. On the beds were lying three Ukrainian policemen. Arkinazin bandaged his hand himself and I shouted to the unit: Quick, onward, police,
Shutzmanim. [Ukrainian policemen]. Volinatz entered. The policemen got out of their beds. Arkinazin and I put on the policemen's clothes, their new uniforms, we put on their beautiful boots and good watches. I gave two rifles to Volinatz, and I carried the shooting machines and two rifles by myself. Three young policemen are standing in their underwear and shaking. The shooting was fierce. We threw grenades at the Germans who were bombing on their way. We advanced from house to house, but we could not cross the village. I led the policemen to headquarters. The platoon commander approached me and asked me what I wanted to do with them. I am bringing them to headquarters, I say. Idiot, why are you taking them to headquarters, where they will keep them alive. Stupid, they killed your sisters and your brother and you are glorifying yourself with them. The platoon commander put them against a wall. My hands were shaking. The war had already been going on for a year. I saw thousands of Jews slaughtered, murdered by bullets, thrown into pits. I walked and marched over bodies, but I had not yet shot anyone up close. What do you think, idiot? Both of them emptied their magazines and the three Ukrainians fell. Arkinazin studied his watch and decided to switch with me, because my watch was bigger.
The dawn was breaking. We emptied the magazines, we took out the cows. The entire unit was at headquarters. The shots stopped. Avdishuv asked who wants to go and blow up the warehouse. The road we had to go on was well guarded by the Germans. With every movement, they opened up a barrage of bullets. I saw the Jewish fighter Glaz beginning to get ready. Everyone was staring at him, but no one said a word. Avdishuv tapped his shoulder and smiled his stupid smile. Everyone peeked into the window and saw Glaz walk and fall. When he fell, they all shouted, He was wounded, he fell, he was killed. But Glaz got up and kept on walking. He was crawling towards the warehouse. The warehouse began to burn. We heard an order to withdraw. We ran back under a barrage of bullets. The political commissar said to me, You are returning like a general.
At night there was happiness in the hut. We cooked borscht with potatoes, we ate delicious German bread and meat to our hearts' content. I had to go out to guard duty from 12:00 until 2:00 together with Humiak. I thought about the policemen. The platoon commander Tritak was also a Ukrainian, and they were Ukrainians, but it is a healthy people without sentimentality. Humiak shouts he is cold, he does not want to fight, Stalin and Hitler are arguing and he needs to fight. You know, Rozenson, I have something for you, but do not tell this to Golobinka. I found a picture of his father in his pocket. Do you want to see? He took out the picture. I took it in my hand. I looked at the picture and did not say anything. I did not reveal my amazement. This was a small picture, like one from an identity card, and on it a Jew with a long white beard. I turned the picture over. On the other side was written: Golobinsky.
Humiak, if you do not return the picture to its place, I will shoot you like a dog. You are not a human being, I said angrily.
All right, I will do it Rozenson, but why does he not say he is a Jew? Why do you say you are? said Humiak.
Towards morning, when the planes arrived, I stood at the last watch guarding with Golobinka. A year had gone by since Humiak had shown me the picture, but I did not mention this, and I did not ask Golobinka about it. Nevertheless, I was already completely certain he was a Jew, but all of our conversations took place on the same subjects: how was life in Poland, if there was anti-Semitism, if there was enough food. I described the lives of the Jews to him, the Shabbat about which we talked a lot. I told him stories and told him all about Jewish life in Poland, the political parties that existed after the Jewish people were divided into two parts. A large part of the people were convinced that only a Communist revolution would solve the Jewish problem. You know, Golobinka, in our town there were Jewish youths who would hang up red flags and distribute communist literature and even give communist speeches in the houses of study where Jews prayed. The Polish police would forbid this. They sat in jail ten full years and even more. Others fled across the border to Russia to help build communism. Good boys, huh? Golobinka did not look me in the eye, he slanted his gaze as though he was looking around to see that no Germans were coming, and said, as if to himself: And where are they now? They died like dogs. They are rotting in the subarctic forests of Siberia and in the camps. You know what they say by us, Robinson? With us, there are three types of people: those who sat, those who sit, and those who will sit. There in the camps they leave you alive, but no woman will want you anymore. When they enter the camp, the commander says, 'Beast, you will live, but a woman will not want you.'
You know, Golobinka, there was also another type of youth, who travelled to the land of the Jews: Palestine. There they work in the fields like real peasants and share everything even more than in Russia, and at night they stand guard. They say there is a Jewish army there. There was a great Jewish leader there who came from Russia and fell in a battle there with the Arabs. He had been an officer in the Russian army in the past. He had lost an arm and when he was wounded, he said that it is good to die for the homeland. It was strong poison for him. He looked to the side and pretended indifference, as though he did not care about it. But I felt he was asking me to tell him more and more.
The dawn rose. The sun was not visible. From the dark night a grey light came through that became lighter and lighter. As the horizon grew clearer and wider, we discovered in front of our eyes new huts, new trees and paths that went on to White Belorussian villages. The old peasant carried a pile of wood he had cut down and left yesterday. Katinka ran with two buckets that were hanging from both sides of her shoulders. She held one of them, and the other swung back and forth and hit her. She was cold. Her shoes were covered in mud. The borders of the tops of her boots were white, stuck to her thin legs. Her old fur was already torn and short. Underneath it, a cloth skirt with colorful stripes was visible.
The war already penetrated our bones and its end was not in sight. The Germans were already running back.
Every day you could read in the Latest News of the Partisans that Kiev was already liberated and the front was near Kovel.
In another half-hour we went up to stand guard. It goes on forever. Robinson, what shall we eat this morning for breakfast? Potatoes again? There is not enough bread. In a little while, we will travel west from here, where there is everything. Patanin, the new commander, approaches and asks if everything is OK. He says, Rozenson Sankeh Davidovitch you are travelling today to the Great Land. You can go now to make preparations. You can leave everything. There in the Great Land you will receive everything. I could not believe my ears. Patanin, the new commander, was an officer in the Red army, from the young officers. He studied in the university in Moscow, was counted among elite circles, and did not especially love Jews. I felt that, and there were always tense relations between us. And now, when Patanin received an order from headquarters to send the boyetz [fighter] Sanak, the Jew, to the Great Land, he carried it out officially and disappeared immediately. Robinson, when you will get out of the hospital, where will you go? Do you have a family? The farewell from Golobinka was difficult. He wondered why he had not been wounded.
I was sure there were no more Jews, and that if anyone remained from my family, he would only be in Palestine or in Siberia. Do not take it to heart, Golobinka. It will be good. We will still drink together in the Great Land.
I went into the hut and began to go over my possessions. I took out the Russian military coat that was stained with blood and shot through from both sides with a bullet. I threw the fur off and threw away the rucksack in the middle of the road. Farewell, fellows. I gave Patanin the weapon and I left headquarters.
I went to headquarters feeling like a drunk. Was this really happening? They were sending me by plane to a hospital beyond the front to recuperate? It had been a full month that I was standing guard, my wounds had not yet healed, but I felt good. My lungs were punctured, and so the doctor had decided to send me to a hospital. There were so many who were wounded more critically than I was, and also many who felt worse. I almost felt like saying at headquarters that I could stay and someone else should go in my place. Half-naked partisans came running from the huts to the well holding towels. There were those who carried portions of bread and meat for the whole day, and others went to replace those on guard. I arrived at the edge of the village. In the house where the headquarters was stationed there was a sense of being on alert. The Germans were about forty kilometers away, and here an entire state was being run in its own right: an army staff, cannons posted upright, planes arriving, coming, galloping in on horseback, and quickly leaving on the way back. They bring orders from the general command of the next village. I wondered if I should go in or go back to my unit. What would Patanin say? Suddenly I saw myself in the room. The Commissar, the commander of the battalion, and a third man I did not know were sitting at the table.
Who are you? the Commissar asked.
Sankeh Davidovich, fourth company, second section, first class.
So, this is Robinson who was wounded in his lung while accompanying the wounded. Do you have family in the Great Land?
I do not know.
Where are you from?
From the west.
Yes, you will stay a Soviet, a working man. We are also in Poland. Everything will be Soviet.
The battalion commander handed me two documents. One of them I was supposed to present in the hospital. The other one was my service record and mentioned how long I was in the partisan regiment. I said to them all Farewell, and I went out.
Vaska, take your papers. I am waiting for you, I said to another partisan in my section who was also wounded and was waiting to be sent together with me to the hospital.
While waiting I looked over the documents I had and learned from that I was a good fighter, I fought for two and a half years, and I participated in many dangerous missions. I killed forty-two German soldiers and officers. I smiled to myself. I did not know how many I killed. Apparently, they have a good way of keeping count. Why not forty-three or forty-one, and why is that important? Let's go! We jumped onto the wagon, which was hitched to two horses, and began to gallop towards the airfield.
Vaska said he would not stay in the hospital for long. He wanted to go home as quickly as possible to see his parents because he felt good, even though he was wounded twice. He recovered from his wounds staying with the partisans. The whole time he fought, he was responsible for the shooting machine. You know, Sankeh, I live not far from Kiev. I will spend a few days in the hospital, I will take the money coming to me for three years and clothes, and I will go home. I have sisters and I hope my parents are alive. In addition to the kolkhoz, we have some cows and a plot of land. I will work on the land. I will rest after my three years of wandering.
And you will get married, I say.
How do you know? asks Vaska with a smile.
I see it in your eyes.
I was sure I would marry the first Jewish girl I would meet after the war immediately. But now I was completely confused. I did not know what was going on inside me. I thought I was the only Jew left in the world. I thought of Golobinka. Who was he talking to now? He was certainly thinking about me.
You remember, Sankeh, the evening in the village in the area of Slonim?
I remember. What, you still think about her?
Yes, I cannot forget.
I saw it all. She was beautiful and glowing, with a bright face and long black braids. Her eyes glowed like two flames. She fell in love with you from the first moment.
Yes, Sankeh, how did you know?
I saw it all. We arrived from the village at eight in the evening. We took the nicest hut in the village. There was also the platoon commander. I had a half liter of vodka and meat that I took for the way. Our platoon commander sensed that, and he stayed with us. We divided up the guard duty into single hours because we were tired. First we lay down on the road for four hours, and we shot at a truck with Germans. Do you remember how they shouted 'partisan dog'? Afterwards two small cars arrived with two officers and an engineer in them. I asked them why they are killing the Jews.
Yes, you ask all the Germans we catch. Who knows if they left my parents alive. They set villages afire and killed the population.
What was her name Sarah. I remember how she answered our invitation and ate with us and immediately you were looking at one another. I saw you were lost. I went out first to guard. When I came back, you sat with her, on her parents' bed, and the two of you were ablaze like fire. You had to stop the Germans. They were driving us crazy that night. We were forced to retreat by the river. Do you remember when Gershon collapsed and we dragged the cannon in the river beneath a salvo of bullets? Afterwards you left our section. Today we are travelling together again to the Great Land.
Sankeh, in our village there are beautiful young ladies. Come with me.
No, Vaska, I cannot. I have to get well, to go around and wander until I find someone from my family. I have a sister in Siberia and I also have someone very far away. You know, Vaska, there are moments when I feel I am the son of another nation. It seems to me that I am a genuine Russian, and sometimes it seems to me that all of you are Jews. Once I was sure that every nation has a different kind of life, but now I see that all people are equal and think in the same way. You know, Patanin hates Jews. He would always tell me jokes about Jews, but I see in him a slyness and egotism greater than that of the Armenians and the Jews.
I will tell you, Sankeh, we hate the Jews who take the easy jobs. When you come to offices, the Jews are sitting and we are doing the hard labor.
We were getting close to the airfield, and I did not want to get into discussions with the small and good Vaska. Sankeh, we are going together on the same plane. Good. Together. The partisans were concentrated in the sparse grove. They were all loaded down with large packages. Everyone was dragging junk with them, bundles of rags, German uniforms, Ukranian furs, boots, blankets and also underwear and women's clothing that they confiscated from the rich peasants. I stood to the side. I forgot why I did not eat breakfast. Everyone was standing and eating, talking, and patting each other on the back. The sons of the same places decided to travel together to their villages. In every place we heard the same words, Let's drink! Vaska, as though he understood, handed me a slice of bread and cut me a piece of meat with a knife. We ate with appetite. We saw a plane land. We rolled a cigarette of tobacco.
What time is it Sankeh? Is it already 10:30? When will we go? When will they call us? I do not understand what is going on here. All the young ladies who slept with the commanders are being sent first, and the wounded, even the critically wounded, are sitting and waiting. You see, healthy sons of the village who did not fight are standing there. Why are they sending them to the Great Land? It's a dog's life, you understand!
Vaska approached the airplane to watch it take off. I sat down under a tree and began to doze off. I sat with closed eyes like a daydreamer. The noise of each plane that took off was so loud it was hard to fall asleep. If I had killed the German, he would not have shot me, and I would not have been wounded, and I would not be here now. Very few remained alive so long after two years of fighting. Hundreds fell. I remember them. They would say about me that I was made of steel, no bullet wounded me, and those who were wounded had already gone away a long time ago. Those were already new ones who arrived later. From the second class three veteran partisans remained.
I see with great clarity in front of my eyes the forest and the German who shot me at close range. I talked to him, I wanted to catch him alive, to show them at headquarters that I was a hero. It was at the beginning of the winter, in the year of 1943. Snow had already started to fall. We were marching from Belorussia to Poland, because the front was advancing and we were bombing the Germans who were retreating on the roads towards the east, full of pride, gloriously dressed. They slaughtered and murdered in the towns and villages, cut off beards of Jews, raped Jewish girls, looted the stores and sent everything home to Germany. Now they turned their feet around, worn out, barefoot, with overgrown beards, dirty, hungry and thirsty. In front of every partisan, in front of every soldier of the Red Army they lifted their hands and begged for their lives. The towns were empty of Jews, the villages were burned. Cats and dogs were running around hungry. The world had come to an end. There was silence along the roads. Except for partisans shooting, nothing was heard. Tra-ta-ta-ta and advance further. Nevertheless, at certain points groups of Germans still stood and defended the withdrawal. On that same day our battalion stood at Brzyska Wola in Poland. When we were about to leave, our class was assigned the mission of accompanying the wounded. There was a large convoy of wounded. I was number two on the shooting machine of Arkinazin. That same day I was feeling especially good. I put on new shoes and I also remember the night at the hut well. I came in from guarding at midnight. Why didn't she go to sleep but stayed to warm herself by the stove? Everyone was sleeping. The platoon commander sat on the straw on the floor and smoked, and she sat near the stove and warmed her two red cheeks, wearing an apron over her dress, without shoes. The platoon commander Tritak could not fall asleep. It was warm in the room, and one of the partisans was snoring. The mother and child were sleeping in the bed. White bare arms were visible through the white cloth nightgown. Long black hair covered white shoulders. Maybe that's why Tritak was not sleeping.
I had to sit for one hour until the guard duty would change outside. I sat down near the stove. Why don't you go to sleep? she asked. I did not know her name and did not care.
You are a young man, aren't you? she asked.
Go to sleep. Aren't you cold?
No, you are a nice guy.
Remember, you are on guard duty, said Tritak, the platoon commander and fell asleep. I hugged her and she was quiet. I hugged her more and I kissed her. Suddenly, she got up from her place and went out through the door. I did not go after her and stayed on guard.
Towards morning they changed my weapons: they took the rifle from me, and gave me the submachine gun.
Winter 1943. The convoy went on for a great distance because it was made up of more than a hundred small wagons harnessed to horses. The escorts walked on foot. Before the convoy a battalion marched and a company brought up the rear. It was already four o'clock in the afternoon. All day long there was silence. We were all tired already and we thought about which village should be our camp. Darkness was beginning to fall, and suddenly shots were heard from the forest. We travelled on an empty road on the outskirts of the forest. Bullets began to fly over the heads of the wounded. It happened with such suddenness that we all became confused. Arkinazin was red as a beet. Sankeh, let's go, and we started to run to the forest. Where the forest began there was a canal. We lay down there and began shooting, Arkinazin from his shooting machine, I from the submachine gun, and a few others from rifles. We went forward, crawling into the forest. There was still weak light, but dusk was falling quickly. We ran and shot. I heard calls in German: Forward, forward, partisan dogs! Arkinazin, I hear the Germans shouting, Vorraus. [Advance in German] They are there on the hill, an entire group in grey uniforms. Arkinazin lay down and changed the magazine. I was shooting and also the others behind us. Arkinazin rose up again and released an entire salvo. He shouted, Where is the company? using the Russian lexicon. The Germans were coming closer. They were running in different directions. I heard shots from the left side, perhaps because our people were fighting there. I lay down to load the magazine of the shooting machine. Arkinazin was standing near a tree, I handed him a magazine. He changed it and kept on shooting.
It was already dark, but the snow was shining and the ground was smooth from the first wet snowfall. On the hill there were no longer any Germans visible. The shots stopped. Everyone lay down and looked, but suddenly, from the side, a few shots were heard. Arkinazin called, Sankeh, I'm wounded. He was wounded in his arm now for the second time. I grabbed the shooting machine, and I shot in the direction from which the shots had come. At the same time, I noticed a German soldier who approached and shouted like a wild beast. I yelled at him to throw his weapon and raise his hands. I called out in German, which was perhaps Yiddish, but at the same time I felt heat in my body and wetness under my shirt. I was attacked by weakness. I fell on the ground and shot from the submachine gun with my last strength. I did not see the German or Arkinazin anymore. From a distance from the left side strong shots were heard and shouts of Hurrah, hurrah! Those were the partisans who attacked and chased the Germans into the heart of the forest.
Next to me stood two fighters. I asked them to help me walk. My weakness grew and I felt my life was ending. It was very hard for me to breathe. I lay down on the snow. The thought that the Germans might catch me alive gave me no peace, and I begged, I am begging you, fellows, take me, I am dead. Bandage me up because I am dead. I felt cold. I put my hand under the military coat. There was a lot of blood. Wetness. I lay down and passed out. The other fellows near me were gripped with fear and thought they were already in the hands of the Germans. Sankeh, wait. Soon a medic will come. They took me, going somewhat backwards, and put me down again. At that moment I heard the voice of the new company commander, an Armenian who had been with us only a few weeks. Do not be afraid. There are no more Germans. It was a difficult battle, but we drove them away. A few of the wounded fell and were killed, but you and Arkinazin thwarted the attack. They unbuttoned my clothes and bandaged the wound, but not in the correct place. The bullet penetrated the left side of the chest and went out from the other side. Afterwards they led me. After walking for a half hour, I was able to lie down on a bed in a warm house. The medic bandaged my wound and shouted because they did not bandage me immediately. I lost a lot of blood because of that.
The battalion commander entered and spoke with the medic in a whisper. He approached me, and patted my head. Never mind. Do not take it to heart. It will be okay. I was wounded seven times in battles. You will get well and you will fight. He talked again with the medic and went out. After the medic bandaged me properly and bound the bandages over the correct place of the wound, no more blood leaked. The wetness decreased, however the pains got worse. I felt stinging pains. After a short time, movement began outside. They took me out and put me down in a nicely padded wagon full of straw. That was the carriage and horses of the platoon commander. There was also the best coachman. We travelled at a great speed. I shouted non-stop that they should slow down because my pains were terrible. Bandits, why did we not stay to sleep in the same village? Why are we already running at such great speed? Help! Every time the carriage went over a bump, I shouted and cursed, and the coachman spoke to me softly in a whisper: Do you want to stay with the Germans? It is better to suffer and flee from them.
At around 12 o'clock at night we arrived at the village. They handed me over to the sanitary department. They gave me a warm bed well made. A doctor came in, looked at me, but did not do anything. He simply took my pulse and said, Who knows if he will last until the morning? Give him warm milk if he can drink, he whispered to the female medic and left.
I was lying down with open eyes. It is not a hut. A warm house with beds, a table and chairs. Light came in. It was already morning. I saw the female medic next to me in a white apron. Where am I? Where is my mother? Why, she was just here by my bed. I saw her very clearly. She asked me to eat the challah as in the past at home, braided challah, fresh and warm, and a plate with a piece of fish on it, and the taste stayed in my mouth. Eat, she said, and you will get better. I saw her glowing face with the beautiful and lively eyes and her warm hands. It seemed my mother was the one who helped me stay alive. I felt a hand on my head, and I heard a voice talk to me in a whisper: How do you feel? I did not answer. I was afraid to speak. Do you want to drink something? Warm milk? I nodded with my head as a sign of agreement. She brought a cup of warm milk to my mouth. I drank it all at once and fell asleep again. When I woke up the second time, she was standing there again with her hand on my head. I did not see her face, only her white apron, and I felt her hand on my head. You know, the head doctor was here. I told him you drank the cup of milk, and he said perhaps you would stay alive. He ordered me to give you lots of milk and fat foods. She bent down and said: My name is Marusia.
Vaska sat and smoked tobacco nervously. Sankeh, what do you think? Come with me to the village. You will work in the field, take a young lady. Do not take it to heart. It will be good. Airplanes come, airplanes go. There are less people now and it is getting quieter. The hour is already three, then four, and then five in the evening. The last plane arrived. The papers are presented, we go up a few stairs and then really crawl into the plane. The plane was empty. There were only two long benches, very low, on both sides. We all sat down, except for one who was not able to sit. He lay down in the middle on a folding cot. After I sat down, I wrapped myself up in the military coat that had holes in it on both sides and was dirty from clotted blood. Except for that, I did not have anything. Vaska looked out of the window. A terrible noise was heard from the engine. A fat heavy Russian sat across from me. I felt he was staring at me as though he would devour me. Some long minutes passed and he did not stop staring. I could not hold back and I asked, Why are you staring at me? He answered: You are a Jew. Look, also a Jew is travelling to the Great Land. And he was red as a beet.
Weakness took me over. I remembered my conversation with Vaska, how it seemed that the Jews are Russians and the Russians are Jews. We looked at each other like a couple of roosters. I could not control myself and I told him in a real Russian jargon, Son of a bitch! You think I don't know who you are. You are the coachman from headquarters. You never held a rifle in your life. You never saw a German soldier. If you had said this to me when I had a weapon, I would have killed you like a dog. Vaska asked me to be quiet.
The noise got worse. Through the window we saw everyone moving aside. The wind pushed them, and they held their hands over their ears. Now we were already up in the air, and we flew towards the Great Land. On the way we looked through the windows and saw villages, fields, and rivers. After an hour of flying, we felt how the plane was going up and down. It was performing different maneuvers, and through the windows we saw sparks floating around the plane. Again we went up and down. It seemed that heavy fire was falling on us. Now we were flying over the front. After three hours we were beyond the front. We were all sitting tensely, and we wanted to know if we were already over the Great Land.
When the noise stopped and the flight became normal, we understood that we had already crossed the front. We all relaxed. During the entire flight I did not exchange a word with Vaska, and he understood that, and he also did not exchange a word with me or with anyone else. We were all tired. There were those who nodded off, and others did not take their heads away from the windows.
After flying for four hours, we saw lights in city houses, signs of a big city. When the plane approached the Kiev airfield, it felt like the brotherhood and devotion that reigned among us for three years melted away like snow on a sun-drenched warm day.
My head was dizzy because of my weakness, and here we all were on the ground of the Great Land. The plane was surrounded by medics dressed in white coats. They wanted to have us all lie down on folding cots, but we said we could walk alone because we felt better. They asked if we were partisans from the regiment of General Kovpak, and then they related to us more warmly. They did not know what to do with all the people. They led us through the streets of Kiev. Good God! What is going on here! Three years, forests and fields, we ran like dogs being chased under a hail of bullets, and here we are, people walking in the streets, on the sidewalks, seeing roads and buses. Is this a dream?
Millions of victims, slaughtered, buried alive, choked, poisoned in the gas chambers, and millions of soldiers who fell, who gave their lives, so we could go on as free people. Is this a dream or reality?
The ambulance stopped before a big hospital. We all got off and a nurse put us into an office of the hospital. The entrance did not seem to be a main entrance. A small gate and a small office. A woman and a man sat there and wrote down the names. We sat and waited for them to arrange us in rooms, but no one took care of the people who were waiting. Everyone was embarrassed to ask the office clerks. The nurses who took such good care of the wounded were not there yet. After sitting and waiting for an hour, and after we saw that no one took an interest in us, we began to wander around the corridors. There we met an elderly woman, a nurse in the hospital. Vaska told her they brought us there and that no one was taking care of us.
And who are you? Eagles? she asked.
We are partisans.
Partisans have a special hospital. Why did you come here? How will you go looking for it now at night? Lie down to sleep here in the corridor. Early in the morning go look for your hospital. Which partisans are you? General Kovpak, oh, oh, vultures, doves, you have your own hospital.
Vaska said: Little mama, are we once again in a partisan unit so that we have to sleep on the ground? We slept on the ground enough for three years.
She looked at him and smiled. She asked him through what entrance we entered the hospital. When she heard that we arrived through the back entrance, she explained to us how to go: Pass through the corridor until you arrive at the other side. Afterwards go back and rub your feet with your hands and you will see that there is everything and that you are able to go on your own, and do what I tell you. Farewell, and she disappeared.
We walked and we wandered in the corridors until we arrived at the front of the hospital and there we saw a shocking picture in front of us. We entered a corridor full of wounded soldiers. Some of them were lying on the floor, their rucksacks under their heads, their arms, legs, and other parts of their bodies bandaged. Moans and groans were heard unto the heavens. Others were standing and leaning on canes. The smell of the wounds was everywhere. On one side there were stairs that led to the second floor. Also the stairs were full of soldiers. On the other side there was a wide open door. There were stairs there that led to the street. There were also soldiers on those stairs.
We went out to the stairs that led to the street. The place looked like a train station. A long train stood there and they were taking out hundreds of wounded from all the cars. They took them out on folding cots, they brought them to the stairs, and a sergeant stood there who shouted the whole time: Officer! Soldier! When it was an officer, they would lift him up all the stairs, and if it was a soldier he would stay in the corridor. The soldiers were fighters who had been wounded recently. You could see the blood seeping through the bandages on their heads. Some of them held their leg in their hands. Everywhere blood was seen through the bandages. When the train finished unloading, it left immediately and another convoy arrived, stopped by the hospital, and again they carried the wounded, and again they kept the officers separate from the soldiers. A heavy feeling enveloped me. They shed their blood for their country, for socialism, for humanity. Officer, officer, officer, soldier, soldier, soldier, echoed in my ears.
Vaska, look, I said. Even here there is a difference between a soldier and an officer.
Sankeh, those are peasants. There is no lack of peasants, but there are not enough officers, so they cure them quickly and return them to the front.
I remember that the battalion commander told me he had been wounded seven times and he keeps on fighting.
We went back to the small lower corridor. We found an empty corner. We lay down on the cold floor, we groped and found that our arms and legs and also our heads were whole. We covered ourselves up with the military coat and fell asleep.
The first night on the Great Liberated Land. A strong train whistle woke us up. It was already six in the morning. The day was coming up. Shivers passed through the bones of all the people. The same noise, the same confusion. Military cots with the wounded were being carried. Good God, where did so many wounded soldiers come from? Now they brought them from here to other hospitals in cars. We stood up and stared at one another. No one was concerned about us. We were forced to take care of ourselves. We combed our wild hair with our ten fingers, we straightened the hats on our heads, we buttoned the coats and went out hungry and frozen to the free streets of Kiev.
During daytime the city looked much more beautiful and interesting. Wide streets, storied buildings that had not been damaged from the war. We walked like dreamers after three years of living in the forests and villages, after the battles and the running around under whistling bullets and after the slumber while walking. Not one of us spoke or asked where we were going. We all walked and everyone looked in another direction. Everyone was interested in something different. Vaska said that he did not like the city because you walk without end. He loved his village and wanted to go home to his village as soon as possible. I walked deep in thought, and I looked at all the stores. I did not understand why the stores were empty. Most of them had even turned into offices. From time to time you would see stores that had Magazine written on them. Very few people were seen on the streets. People ran past us. The men wore black cotton sweatshirts and black hats whose visors were folded upwards. Great seriousness was on their faces.
We passed from one street to another. There was no importance for us in which direction we walked. We arrived at the railroad station, a large and beautiful station. Trains came and went. We turned in different directions, to even wider streets with trees on both sides. We read names of streets. Passersby would turn their heads, stare beyond us, and keep going on their way, without asking us who we were. We saw the streetcar that was already running, and we jumped up on it, and before our eyes a short woman appeared, thin and old, who was driving the streetcar. We travelled, they asked us for tickets, and we said we were partisans. They gave us comfortable places. A woman stood up from her place and gave it to a partisan. I noticed that, and it made an impression on me. I forgot the incidents in the plane, and I again felt like one of the people. One woman asked: Where are you going, boys?
To the hospital of the partisans.
Why, you are going in the wrong direction. We burst out laughing. Everyone was staring at us, and they asked which partisans we were. We said that we were partisans from the regiment of General Kovpak. The people were hearing about courageous deeds of the group of partisans all the time, and they did not know what to do for us. They all began to ask one another where the hospital of the partisans was. They patted our heads. Eagles, doves, how you have suffered. It's good you have complete legs and a full head. I noticed they were looking at me askance because the Ukrainians immediately recognized that I was a Jew, but I gave them an even more penetrating look than the others, and I wanted to find a Jewish face, but unfortunately...
We all disembarked from the streetcar. Now there were already more people in the streets. Vaska went first and asked the way to the hospital for the partisans until a soldier told us how to walk. We were already tired. We were dragging our feet. We already saw people standing in a long line for bread and other supplies. One was running with a loaf of bread in his hand, another was with a bag of sugar. There were no smiles on people's faces. They were all serious, worried.
The hospital for partisans was at the edge of the city. It was a nice house, called Med-Institue, comfortably arranged. Here we found our home. In the office they registered us quickly and a nurse brought us to the rooms. Twenty people received a big clean room. Everyone received a mattress, put it on the floor, and we lay down and rested. But they did not let us rest for long. To the baths! We went to the bathhouse, and bathed in really boiling water and dried ourselves with clean towels. I did everything they told me to, but I was sure it was all a dream. Suddenly Vaska tapped me on my shoulder. Sankeh, you remember? We recalled how we walked once to bathe in one of the villages. The whole class washed and suddenly the Germans began to shower ammunition on the village. We began to run barefoot in the snow, one with a boot in his hand, and another without pants. He burst out laughing. When Germans run, Sankeh, do not take it to heart. It will be OK. We will not go again to the front, Sankeh. They say here that Kovpak's people will not go again to the front, but to other jobs behind the front.
We ate white meat [pork] from cans. We saw that these were American supplies.
And also white bread, also baked from flour sent from abroad. We said we were eating groceries from the whole world. We gave our clothes to the laundry, we all dressed in clean clothes, and we rested on the mattresses. In the afternoon they showed us a movie about the war, and we saw how the partisans fight the Germans. After the evening meal, a nurse passed through the rooms, asked all of us if we felt good, and informed us that tomorrow a doctor would come to see who needs to stay in the hospital and who could be released. At nine they turned off the lights, and Marusia told us to go to sleep. All the nurses have the name Marusia and all are kind-hearted, I thought to myself.
I woke up from my sleep. In the rooms nearby there was movement and I heard the voice of Marusia. I got up from my mattress and I opened the door to the other room. There was light there, but the room was smaller than my room and there were six beds there, three on each side of the room. Marusia stood by one of the beds and waited. She did not notice my glance. Her hair was wild. On one side her hair was across her forehead and almost hid one eye. She tilted her head to the side and straightened her blouse that was jumbled into her skirt and wasn't buttoned properly. There were no shoes on her feet, only stockings. She was tall and upright, with a long narrow face and a long sharp nose. She was apparently cleaning the bed of someone who was critically wounded. Now she brought back a tin pitcher with boiling water and asked if they wanted boiling tea. Suddenly she noticed that the door was open. Why aren't you sleeping? Lie down and rest, she said, closed the door, and turned out the light in that room. I walked around the room. On both sides partisans slept on the floor. It had been a long time since they slept a whole night without being awakened in the middle of the night to go out to guard. Also on the other side of the room was a door. I opened it quietly. It faced a small porch. From it the city of Kiev was visible. Darkness was all around. The city was asleep. A few lights were visible in distant houses. The Germans left Kiev six months before. Life was beginning to return to what it had been, but there were so many hospitals with so many wounded. What would the soldiers do without legs and arms?
I returned to the room and heard talking in the small room. They want to amputate my leg. I will not let them, even if I die. I looked at my legs and returned to my mattress. I covered myself with the blanket over my head and tried to fall asleep. Tomorrow I will ask her if she is Jewish. She will laugh, go away, and not answer. Even if she is Jewish, she will not reveal it. The Russian Jews do not like to be reminded of their extraction, and perhaps she will tell me this by herself. For some reason she reminds me of someone. I have to remember who it is by myself. It is a bit difficult to fall asleep without feeling I need to guard immediately.
First night at the hospital
It was difficult to fall asleep. The mattress was too soft. In the villages we went through as partisans, we slept on the ground on a pile of straw, or in a forest under an army coat and covered with an army coat. Here the bed was too soft. Something was missing after three years of sleeping all together. Suddenly we left, and now we needed to hold onto it by force under the head or the arm - the partisan's wife, the cold rifle that warms up every partisan. A soft mattress with a white sheet, two blankets to cover me up, a warm room. How can you sleep?
The town went up in flames within a few hours. The Jews lived in the center and everyone had stores: a big store, a little store, a tiny store, fabrics, leather, odds and ends, buttons, foodstuff, flour, sugar, herring, kerosene, porridge, barley. We went to markets and to other towns on days when the peasants gathered to make purchases.
In the cheder where I learned, the teacher also had a small grocery, a tiny store, a meter by a meter. The entire room was three meters. There was a window where you could sit and look out. You could see peasants going in their carts, beasts returning from the pasture, jumping on one another, and the shepherd hitting them with a whip. On the stair in front, a peasant sat with a bottle of vodka. Suddenly he poured half a bottle down his throat and chewed away on a long piece of white bread together with an entire herring. Now he was a little drunk and the teacher's wife sent him away.
Thursday, market day. The large market square has been empty all week long. Except for a few carts with peasants who brought wood and potatoes for sale and the women who sold apples and pears and waited for the Jewish women to come and buy something, it was quiet in the market. At the butcher stands there was more traffic. They cut off the beef ribs, and the women groaned and bought them for the children who worked hard and needed to have an evening meal cooked for them. People stood around the stores and talked about politics. When Yadele the teacher arrived, everyone ran to hear the news from him, but he hid the newspaper and said he does not read the paper. Nevertheless, he would tell us the latest news. When the Polish army went by, he said, They have one small tank, and they take it through all the towns so people will think they have weapons. People talked about politics day and night, on all the streets, in the Beit-Midrash [T.N. literally house of interpretation], next to the shed, alongside Cila's soda store, on the Lublin road and in the boulevard.
The youth were organized in all kinds of organizations: right wing, extreme right wing, moderate right wing, slightly left, more left, even more leftist, communist, and those who always walked around with books in their hands. They brought lecturers from other cities, from big cities. When the speech was leftist, the right-wingers caused disruptions. When it was rightist, the left-wingers caused disturbances. The ones who wanted to travel to Russia had no time to wait until socialism would come here; others wanted to make socialism here, and there were also those who wanted to go to Palestine, but before that they had to work three years in a foreign city, to wash floors, to cut down and saw lumber, and also not to work a little and be hungry for bread. There were also those who wanted to go immediately to Palestine and to fight for a Jewish state. Sitting on the long bench near the Beit Midrash were the yeshiva students, those who returned from the yeshiva, those who are studying there now, and those who were getting ready to travel to a yeshiva. They are cursing all those who want to mend the world and have no time to wait for the Messiah. They are looking at the girls who run quickly in the narrow alleys with the high wooden fences.
On Thursday the town is full. In the market everyone is pushing one another. The cloth merchants set up their fabric stands. The rich people pull large carts full of merchandise. A stocky peasant is driving two strong and active horses, and their owner walks after them, dressed in a new smock with a big pocket where she puts the money from the proceeds. The poor people travel on a smaller cart with less merchandise. Each kind of merchandise has its own place. They shake hands, the men and women peasants, and they sell. Favele, the town loony, stands alone and sells boots. He tries on and chooses boots that will be the most fitting. He shakes his own hand and says, I made a start. He stands like this the whole day, doing business with himself, and he is satisfied.
In the evening everyone comes to the Beit-Midrash, flushed from standing the whole day in the wind. They doven Mincha and Ma'ariv [T.N. recite the afternoon and evening prayers] hastily and go home to eat supper, count their money, pay back loans, so that tomorrow they will be able to borrow again.
At the exit a table blocks the door. It is impossible to go out easily. A small Lithuanian Jew stands there and collects money on behalf of a yeshiva. He is a good-looking man wearing a brimmed hat and growing a blond beard that is nicely done. He writes in a nice handwriting on the receipts.
Behind the oven two fellows are endlessly walking back and forth. They are deep in discussion, talking about Torah or about a good match.
September 1939. The town Kurów is burning and going up in flames
During the first days after the Germans attacked Poland, the stones on the road from west to east groaned under the weight of the masses of people who were walking, cars that were traveling, carts heavily dragged by horses. The Polish army withdrew towards the east, and considered setting up a second line of defense. The people were seized by a fear of the approaching Germans, even though they still did not know and could not imagine how a person would be capable of turning into a four-legged animal. Hundreds of thousands of people left everything behind them, took two changes of underwear, and marched eastward to find a spark of freedom. Quietly they passed in front of the town with bundles under their arms or rucksacks on their shoulders.
It happened suddenly on a clear and pleasant day. It was Friday. The eighth day since the war broke out. Life in the town was going on normally. Preparations for Shabbat had been made, and only the refugees at home from other towns served as proof of the war. Suddenly the house shook, glass panes fell. Not far from our house a bomb fell. We all lay down on the ground in fear. How could it be we did not understand that life ended at that moment, the Jewish life in the town
At that moment the land of Poland spit out millions of Jews. Pick up your feet and go where to go, no one knew, but everyone started to go, and immediately afterwards a few small bombs fell and ignited the small wooden houses.
We lie down along the stream. We used to bathe there in the past on beautiful summer days; boys and girls separately. There in the pasture alongside the small stream, youthful dreams were woven. The whole town is lying there now, young and old, women and babies alongside it! Very old people who can hardly walk on foot. Everyone is lying down, hiding and pressing their bodies to the Polish ground, but the ground is cold and pushes them away. It is not warming. My sisters and I run off a few times into the burning house to rescue something from the flames that are going wild and bring it to Papa by the stream. The entire town is lying down here in the pasture by the stream, and then some black airplanes arrive. They descend to a very low height and spread fire from the shooting machines. We press our heads to the ground and silence prevails. A few minutes after we lift our heads, they come back and rain down bullets on the miserable and helpless Jewish population again. People run around like poisoned mice to and fro. They carry bundles rescued from the burning houses. This fire cannot be extinguished. This is devastation. This is the end of wretched Jewish life in the poor Polish town and the beginning of the escape from death. They began to envy people who had already died in their beds and received a decent Jewish burial.
I went for a walk in the town while the town went up in flames. It was Friday, between day and evening, when Jewish mothers used to light candles, the fathers used to go to synagogue, the young girls washed and braided their hair, the boys polished their shoes to shine nicely, they ironed their pants to have a crease, when everything was wrapped around at the same time with pleasant and pure love for the Sabbath day.
Now the entire town is one big light. Everything is built of wood, everything is crackling and burning quickly as though it was being urged on. Quickly, this must not go on for a long time, this must be finished quickly. The butcher stands are burning, they are crackling like scorched wood in a fired oven. I walked on the road. It was as light as daytime there. On both sides, along the street, the houses were burning and turning into one big flame, red as blood. The heavens too were red. It seemed they were also burning. The whole world was burning. I was hit by horrible heat, but I kept on walking. There was still no traffic visible, but individual people were running like shadows on the road and no one said a word. I turned into side paths, and everywhere I saw the same picture. The murderers did not pass over a single Jewish house. I arrived at the streets where the Poles lived, but nothing was burning there. Also the church near the Jewish houses was not burning. Whoever stood on the Christian streets saw the flames of the Jewish houses, saw everything wrapped in smoke. They laughed and enjoyed themselves. It seemed they were thinking to themselves that the Germans are not aiming for them but for the Jews, and it had not been for nothing that they shouted at the Jews before the war, Hitler will come for you.
When I went out from that hell I was seized by cold. I went to the Gentile where my family was staying and I lay down to sleep on the ground. On September 8th 1939, on the Sabbath eve, there was no longer a house, a bed, any human respect, and no tomorrow. We began to sleep on the ground. The Jews slept, they were in a deep sleep, and they did not feel that the town where they had lived for hundreds of years, during so many generations, had come to its end. And when they arose on the Sabbath day in the morning, they were free people, free of home and free of normal human life. An entire people turned into persecuted and tortured dogs were beginning to fear every shadow and tremble at the sight of a fallen leaf.
On Shabbat morning I went to the town. I ran quickly to see what was happening there. Something made me run. It seems I went with one of my brothers-in-law. How quickly life changed. Before, when you came to a Jewish town you felt you were coming out of some quiet, relaxed, and boring Polish slowness, and then you entered into a life with momentum, vitality, noise, and tumult. Rich or poor, but everyone had fun.
Buses would arrive from large cities, bringing merchandise and leaving again full of people. Trucks stood near the stores, peasants and carts filled the markets, and people just walked around in the streets. When we came to the town now, we arrived at the place where the Polish houses ended, but the Jewish houses were not visible. There were no more flames, the blood-red color was already gone, and the skies were no longer red. All around everything had turned black and grey. Coal black, full mounds of black coal, and above grey and choking smoke still rising up. And in this way the colors changed, the red flame changed into black and grey colors. Here and there you could still see red-hot embers, as though they were stubborn and did not want to finish their work, like a fighter who keeps on defending even after being fatally wounded. Still a ceiling beam burning here, half a wall still remaining and about to collapse there. Stairs, stairs, stairs, chimneys, chimneys, small medium and tall chimneys stand and talk and shout: at my place they would bake, at my place they would cook, and at my place they would warm themselves up in the winter. Near me the children took baths in tubs of water, near me the children got dressed to go to school, and the parents warmed themselves after they returned from the market near me.
Pillars of smoke evaporated and disappeared. They looked like clouds in the sky but rain did not fall. It was quite a nice day. The Germans have to finish their battles and slaughter the Jews. So why should it rain
We parted. My brother-in-law disappeared to see his house and I went to the town center, to the market. I approached the pump in the town center, because where should I go? To the black coals and the chimneys? The pump remained whole, as it had been when there were still houses, when there was my house, when there was still life. It did not change. The Germans did not notice it and did not bomb it. Near the pump stood a fellow from the town, lost in contemplation, and near him a lone cat. Both of them stood alone, lost in thought. He thought about what took place here, and she did not understand what happened here. She did not find the stairs, the window with the slot where she would quickly jump inside, drink the milk, and go out through the door. I saw the pump, a friend named Itzhak Levinson and the cat. The four of us stayed here and did not speak with one another. All of us were pondering. And so we stood near the pump and were silent. Each one waited for another one to say something. We did not look each other in the eye because we were ashamed. Why did we remain here? We missed the last train, and we both thought about the same thing: Palestine. A few Polish Gentile men were riding their bicycles and shouted: Yids, what are you doing here? Hitler is coming for you. The cat disappeared with a lowered head. Bent-over pale shadows appeared among the burnt houses, going out with packages in their hands.
You see, Sankeh, our bakery was there, said Itzhak Levinson, and we left the pump and walked to see the oven with the scattered bricks that remained from the bakery. Itzhak stood a few minutes and we continued on our way.
Do you see the narrow path? We would walk on that path to the Betar Scout meetings. Where are those beautiful and wonderful young people? There is no more singing, no more dancing. The dreams of life in a free country vanished into thin air like a dream, and we woke up in a land of fear and graves.
Here was the soda store where the young people gathered on summer evenings. There will be no more beautiful nights when we walk with love pounding in our hearts and pray to God that the night never end.
We walked towards Viwolizia Street and saw the church standing whole, as though nothing had happened. We returned and walked towards the Beit-Midrash. We remembered the wonderful holiday nights, when Yoskeh, the chazan with the long beard, would enter the Beit-Midrash like a king, on Slichot evenings when the Days of Awe were approaching, when the town was seized with fear, and everyone was wishing everyone else a good new year. The melodious voices of the boys from the Beit-Midrash and the House of Study, and of the little boys with their gentle chiming voices.
Itzhak, the synagogue is no longer here, the valuable town property that stood here for hundreds of years. Do you remember, when we were small children, how we were afraid to pass by the synagogue at night? We would pull out our little tallis [TN fringed undergarment] and hold the fringes in our hands, and when the shamash went to open the synagogue, he would knock on the chain three times, so the spirits would disappear. We would go down many steps to the synagogue, very many, and when we went in, it aroused respect and courtesy, and also fear before the sanctity of the place.
The town bathhouse was still standing. We approached the place and saw elderly women putting folding beds and mattresses into it. We peeked inside through the window. It was a terrible sight: people lying down in the bathhouse on folding beds after they found a place of rest there. They were the town poor, who had no acquaintances among the Gentiles in the villages, and not even money to wander to other towns. They went out immediately in the first days after the fire to the fields and dug out a few potatoes so they could hold on.
We returned to the town and there I met my brother-in-law. I helped him spray water on the cellar so the fire would not penetrate inside, and each of us went on his way to his family among the Gentiles. There in the villages the Jews sat among the peasants, bought bread and milk, and waited for the Germans to come.
On the second day in the hospital in Kiev I slept late. I was alone in the room. In all the rooms there was silence. I peeked at the small watch Arkinazin traded with me. It was ten o'clock, and it seemed like it was already after breakfast. I tasted something in the dining room and returned to my mattress. I covered myself up over my head with the blanket and began to nod off. I heard the door open: Fellows, to the doctor, more quickly! It was the voice of Marusia. What does that mean, 'more quickly'? I thought. I heard those words for three years. I do not want to hear this anymore. I pressed myself harder into the hard mattress. I wanted to warm up my exhausted and tortured body.
Is this real or is it a dream? I thought. Am I really in Kiev, in the hospital, lying down freely, not afraid of anyone, not of the Germans, the Poles, the Lithuanians, the Ukrainians? Not afraid of the wind, trees, leaves and bullets whistling by? Family, sisters, brothers, friends, village, Jewish children, pits, pits, digging pits, dig quickly, there is no time because a few thousand Jews are waiting. The men are waiting and grinding their teeth. They are ashamed to cry. The women are waiting and wailing, pouring out a sea of tears. They are not cooking anymore. There is no need. They have cooked enough already. The young boys and girls who have not yet enjoyed life are waiting in line.
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