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The Struggle to Survive (cont.)

By the train tracks

I had no time to consider each moment seemed fateful. I was walking and my heart beating in pain from all the horrible failures, from all the plans that did not succeed. I reached the forest, it was getting dark. As night was approaching, the snow became hard again. I was walking amongst the young pine trees looking at the snow that maybe I would see footsteps. I was walking from one place to the next. My heart was bitter and feeling guilty. Why did I separate from my wife and son? Why was I so relying on the Christian woman and her promises? Still, I was hoping that they reached the forest and the Germans did not catch them. All of a sudden, I heard footsteps. I hid behind a bush, listening, with the gun ready to shoot. I heard Yiddish. It was David Kapelovitch and his wife, their two daughters, and their son Natchkah. They were happy to see me that they finally found someone else.

I asked them if they saw my wife but they saw nothing. Gitel, David's wife, was a very clever and energetic woman. She said, “We must run now past the train tracks. If we pass the tracks, we will laugh at the Germans.” From afar, we could hear the sounds of explosions and shooting. I told her that I was not planning on running but that I had to find my wife and child. In my opinion, it was too dangerous to run now since the Germans probably had found out that we escaped and had put more patrols. However, Gitel would not listen to what I was saying. There was no convincing her. They said their good-byes and I was questioning at that moment, “What if they are right? What if my wife also went across the train tracks?” I decided to go with them. I ran and caught up with them. The train tracks were not far, at the edge of the forest. By the area around the train tracks were trees and bushes that were cut, so now you could see everything. The Germans did it for the guards so they would have an easier time spotting the partisans. I heard shots from the direction of the train tracks and I said to Gitel, “Listen Gitel. There are many shots.” Nevertheless, she was very sure in her opinion saying that this was an illusion and that the shots were coming from another direction. The children looked very scared like little fawns. Their clothes were too short and too tight. They had grown up in the camp. Their teeth were knocking from fear. I saw a shadow of a person walking on the train tracks. Quietly I pointed out the shadow to Gitel, but she refused to pay attention. Her husband, David, said, “How good it would have been if we were on the other side of the tracks already. At least 150 meters away from here.” The sounds of the shots stooped and everything quieted down, Gitel said, “Now is the moment to run and cross the train tracks.” She did not wait a minute. She spoke and ran. She was first, walking as if she was the main officer. Behind her walked her son Natchkah. Again, I explained to her that if she wanted to cross the tracks, she must crawl. Nevertheless, she walked erect because it was hard to crawl on the frozen ground. Unexpected, there was a shot, and Natchkah started crying. “Abbah, Eemah!” Immediately, I fell to the ground in a puddle that was slightly frozen. With my hand lifting the gun so that it would not get wet. I yelled to them, “Lie on the ground!” No one listened to me and everyone ran to save the son. Now the killers had a clear aim. I could not see anything, but I heard voices saying, “Save! Save!” With the rest of my strength, crawling, I returned to the forest, hurt and wet. When I reached the forest, I started running away from the place. Now it was getting much colder and my wet clothes started freezing. I ran from one bush to the next. All of a sudden, I heard a sound of someone running on the snow. I listened and I heard a voice of a child saying, “My hands are very cold daddy. Will we find Mommy and Ruben David?” When I approached them, I saw that it was Yitzchak Alperovich. He was digging with a shovel. What was he doing? I don't know. When he saw me, he was so shocked that he threw shovel, took his child, and started running. I yelled to him, “Yitzchak, why are you running?” He recognized me and came to talk to me. I asked him about my wife and child and he asked me about his wife and child. We stayed under a bush whispering questioning what we should do. I told him what had happened to David the tailor and his wife.

I warned him not to go to the train tracks. All of a sudden, we heard the sounds of German voice, “Rashkas Slinchas.” We started running and I lost Yitzchak and his child. I did not hear any more German voices but I could hear many shots that were getting closer and closer. I lied there all by myself and a thought came to me. I never shot my gun. What if the gun does not work? I must try. Among all the shots, no one would hear my shot. From all the ammunition that I had collected through time, I was only able to take seven bullets. I pulled the trigger and shot. The gun worked. From near the train tracks, I heard sounds someone walking and someone saying, “God, what did you do to us? Mommy and daddy, your situation is better. You already live in a better world.” I tried to see who it was. At first, I saw a shadow on the snow and slowly I saw a short person wearing boots with a dark coat and messy hair. It was a woman who was limping. All of a sudden, I recognized Dinkah Spektor. She stopped, confused, and scared. She fell on the ground saying, “Where am I?” The snow around her was red from the blood coming from her leg. The blood kept coming, so I took my shirt and tore the sleeve and put it on the wound. I started covering her bloody footsteps and transferred her to another location. She told me that together with many of the camp workers, she already passed the train tracks and on the other side, they met German soldiers who shot all the escapees. She told me who ran with her and who she knew was killed. How she survived, she did not know. Instead of running to the Kurenets area, she somehow returned to the other side of the tracks back to Vileyka. She did not see my wife and son. I put some snow on her wound. Quietly, she twitched from pain. I thought that I should take the other sleeve and put it on her wound. Unexpected, I heard more steps, quick steps. I peeked from the hiding place, it was Doba Alperovich. Her jacket was open and her hair was messy. I yelled to her and she stopped but couldn't see me. I yelled to her again and she saw me and started crying from excitement. She also thought that she was on the other side on the way to Kurenets. Lacking any energy and depressed, we decided that when night came we would cross the tracks. From the bushes, we could see the road. I saw some people riding bicycles. I crawled closer to the road and saw that it was a farmer that I knew from the Soviet days. He greeted me, “Hello,” and told me that I must quickly go to the other side of the forest since the Germans were coming to this side. He blessed me and quickly departed. I returned to the girls and told them. We decided to somehow go near the road to Molodetchna. Dinka had horrible pain. Doba and I supported her and walked toward the road. All of a sudden, we heard horses running, and the sounds of Belarussian and Latvian voices. We fell on the ground in the bushes. I held my gun ready. We could see them. They were policemen. We all decided that we would commit suicide if they caught us. Dinka was begging that she should be shot first since she was wounded anyway and would not survive. Doba was begging that she should be shot first. Dinka was shaking so much while talking that she sounded as if she was stuttering. We were all watching the killers' every step hence we would not fall in their hands alive. I was almost ready to use the gun, but Dinka stopped me, “Maybe you should wait a minute.” Doba said, “They are coming right by us. What are you waiting for?” unanticipated, I saw the police going in our direction turn to the right. They continued looking for people in a further direction from us, so now we had some hope of escape. Finally, we could not hear their talking. It was getting much darker and the air was getting colder.

A meeting at midnight

We waited for the late night to come so we could pass the train tracks, but we were not lucky. The night was very clear, the moon was shining, and the snow was very bright. We stayed lying on the ground and our clothes froze and became hard. I looked at my watch, it was 10pm. I decided that we must leave. I was also starving. I helped Dinkah get up. She was lying on the ground and it was impossible for her to move. I tried to encourage her to get some strength telling her that we must go to the other side of the tracks, because if we stayed here until daytime, we would be dead. From among the trees, we could see the lights of the houses where other people sat safely in their homes. We walked and the snow was making a swish sound beneath our feet. This made us very upset. We were very fearful. We thought that someone was waiting behind every tree. We reached the edge of the forest. We hid under a bush, looking at the train tracks that were about 50 meters away from us. All of a sudden, we saw red flares then green flares then other colors. The Germans were busy watching. They were not going to sleep. We went to another area and we saw shadows of people on the train tracks. We heard sounds of talking but could not understand. It was already midnight and the watchmen were busy patrolling. Without warning, we heard the sound of breaking snow as if someone was running.

We were lying on the ground quiet and scared. Could the Germans be searching so late at night or could it be Jews? We were very fearful. From afar, we could see the barracks with the red flag and swastika. We could see two shadows going toward the barracks. It must have been the watchmen returning from the patrol. Then we saw the running people returning to where they came from, stopping in certain spot and searching for something. For some reason, in my heart I was very sure they were Jews who were lost like us. I started running and the girls tried to catch me being fearful that they would lose me in the dark. The two shadows must have heard our sounds. They stopped, as if they hesitated, I stopped and waited too. A woman's voice started calling, “Don't shoot!” It was like an electric shock going through my body. I recognized the voice, I could not talk for a second. I then yelled, “Rosa!” My son immediately recognized me and yelled, “Abbah!” He ran to me and we all started hugging and crying from excitement. The second shadow was of Batshevah, the wife of Yitzchak Alperovich, with her children. Doba and Dinkah started hugging Batshevah and her children. I told Batshevah that around 5pm, I saw in the forest her husband with her son but I had lost them. I carried my little son. He hugged me very tight and said, “Now we won't leave you daddy. Now we will be with you.” Somehow, he felt much safer now, believing that I could protect him. Life seemed much dearer now, I had a reason to live and fight and try to get out of here. The tracks, the tracks. How could we pass the tracks to the other side? It was already 1:30am. I tied my son on my back using a big kerchief that my wife had. My hands were free so I could use them if I needed to. While we were walking, my son whispered to me that the Germans caught his mother and him but somehow his mother convinced the guy that they were not Jewish and he let them go. They went to Navashevah's house, but she did not let them in. We crawled all around looking for a way to cross, but they watched the tracks everywhere.

The double floor

kur181.jpg [15 KB]
Chavi Sarah née Babiniyar and husband,
Yermiyau Alperovich

We lay on the snow not knowing what to do. All of a sudden, an idea came to me. It seemed stupid at first. I told it to my little group. We must return to Vileyka. They all looked at me as if I was insane. “Kill us right here before you take us to Vileyka,” they said. I explained to them that we must not stay here until daytime to cross the tracks. Tonight there was no chance. Since we were not very far from the barracks that used to be the Zsinstand camp, which was half destroyed and was empty, we could hide there during the day. I also reminded them that in the wooden barrack, there was a wooden floor and between the two floors, there was an empty space of about 30-40cm or slightly more. Therefore, we could hide there in the open space. Furthermore, tomorrow they would stop watching the tracks so carefully and we would be able to pass. I explained that I knew the hiding place well since I had used it on occasion. The women said, “Do as you wish. Without you, anyway, we are lost.” Time was getting short and we had to quickly do something. Immediately I tied my son on my back and I walked in front of my little troop. I held the gun in my hand and we walked quietly. No one made a sound. We reached the main road. I lied in a ditch looking. I saw no one so I signed to my group to pass across the road. We reached the Jewish cemetery. I looked at the graveyards, jealous of the dead who died a natural death, had stones on their graves, and had a Kaddish said. Among them was also the burial place of my dear friend Yermiyau Alperovich. Yermiyau, my dear friend, with the heart of gold, committed suicide not being able to take the torture. He drank poison and died with horrible torture. We tried to save him by taking him to the hospital but he begged to die. I could still hear the cries of his wife Chavi Sarah nee Babniyar with her two children and one more on the way. On his grave was a wooden plank that we put as a memorial.

We knew we should not stay there. The distance from there to the barrack was about 50 meters. All of a sudden, we heard a loud bark, it was the horrible dog that many of us were bitten by. We ran and we somehow managed to get to the wooden barrack. We found the opening in the floor. We entered the hiding place. Now, I had time to think and I realized that the children were hungry and tomorrow they might cry from hunger and we would be found out. I decided to leave and find some food. Next to the barrack was a home of a Christian woman that many times helped me, therefore I decided to go to her house and give her my watch in exchange for some food for the children. I left the hiding place. The sky was full of stars and it was freezing. Slowly, I reached her house. I stood behind the window and I could hear someone coughing. Again, I had a pang of envy of people who could sleep quietly in their home. I started knocking on the window. No one answered. I knocked louder. All of a sudden, I heard steps of people walking on the road. They stopped and I heard them talking German. They said, “Where was the knock?” I was frozen. I stuck my body to the wall and stopped breathing. When they moved, I entered the yard and, in a little storage area without a door, I hid in the hay. The Germans came in the yard. They lit the place with an electric light. They quickly looked everywhere but finally left. I decided to return to the hiding place. I took two ice balls so people could drink. Everyone was very happy to see me and said that somehow we could withstand the hunger. We lied there hugging each other and we fell asleep.

I kept having nightmares seeing pale tortured children surrounded by SS with rifles. I saw fires on Myadel Street. I saw a woman running with a baby inside the fire looking for a hideout. I saw my mother and my mother-in-law coming to me saying, “Don't run in this horrible time. Hide.” I saw my mother-in-law lighting a candle saying, “Good week to you. Good week. May you be blessed.” The sounds of wooden planks being taken up woke me up. Not far from here were Christian homes and residents would come to the barracks to take pieces of wood for their fireplace. We lied e very quietly hardly breathing. Even the children knew the danger and they put their little hands on their mouths so no one could hear their breathing. We lied this way without food and drink, only snow.

My wife did not let me leave to get food. She also had a dream where she saw her mother who told her that we must wait until Saturday and then we will succeed in our escape, consequently that is what we did. I held the watch in my hand deciding that exactly at 11pm we would leave. I took the children out of the hiding place like a cat taking her kittens. They could not stand on their feet from lying there for so long. But, their behavior was exemplary. They waited patiently with no food for days. Much worse was the situation of the women. When they finally got out of the small space, they fell on the ground and almost fainted. I put snow on their faces to wake them. I knew that in the condition they were, we could not proceed far, so I decided to try my luck again.

I left them there and went through the cemetery to the house of Navashevah. They were not asleep yet in the house. I was afraid to enter the house thinking that maybe they had guests, I stood at the corner of their home waiting for them to close the gate. When Navashevah saw me she instantly crossed herself as if she saw a ghost. From fear, she fell on the ground but quickly controlled herself. She hugged me with excitement and started kissing me. She took me to her barn and entered her home to tell her husband to put the children to bed so that they would not see me. Her husband was very happy to see me. He let me enter their home as if I was their son. I told them that I could not stay long and must get something for the children to eat. When they found out that my wife and child were safe, they could not hide their excitement and they started crying. They apologized and said that there was no way they could let them hide in their house, but it had caused them a lot of guilt. They put bread, butter, eggs, milk, soap, and underwear in a little bag. I wanted to give them my watch, but they were insulted. They told me that almost every one of the escapees who ran to the tracks was killed. We kissed and said our good-byes.

After the war, they told me that the neighbors saw me when I had come to the house and told the Germans. The Germans beat them very badly, and their daughter was sick for many months because of the beating. I brought the food and everyone jumped on it like hungry wolves. Quickly, I tied my son to my back and gave him two pieces of bread to hold. Like this, we left. A train passed the tracks. We waited for a short time and quietly passed the tracks. It was another cold bright night. We quickly moved away and we passed a body of a Jew with a child of about six all naked with their hands on the ground. Until today, we still do not know who those people were. All night, we walked around looking for familiar roads by using the stars for direction. All of a sudden, we saw from a hill the white brick home with a little window slits and we realized that we were once more near Vileyka and this was the jail.

At the edge of the forest

I knew that we must not be too close in the farms. We must hide because the farmers might report us to the Germans. I found a big, thick bush under which we lied and I cut some branches and put them all around us so nothing could be seen by passerby's. We heard the sounds of bells. Some young people must have gone to a wedding. We could hear harmonicas playing and the sounds of drunkenness. At one point, a farmer came to the forest and started cutting trees with his saw. We lied quietly in the bush listening intently. All day long, I looked through openings in the bush. When night came, we started walking away from the farms. We passed through a village that was about 5km from Vileyka. Instantly, I smelled smoke and the smell of burning bodies. From afar, I saw a bonfire. This was the bathhouse where I later found out that they took all the escapees that they found alive and burned them. I was told this when one night I came to a farmer and using my gun, I demanded that he give me bread and show me the road.

After walking all night, we passed by Kurenets from afar. I only saw the sharp top of the church. We could also hear the sounds of the carpentry that used to belong to Chaim Zokofsky who was killed with the 54. We passed there as if we were smugglers. This was the town where we were born, the town that had a lively Jewish community for many generations. I knew the names of the villages where I could find some survivors from Kurenets. It was Katlovetska, Naviky, Starinky, and Rusuky. They were about 15-25km from Kurenets. If we would have used the main road, we would have quickly reached the villages, but we had to use fields and the forest path and at no time used real roads. Our feet were beat from the strenuous walk. My son's feet, who I was carrying the all time, were frozen from lack of movement.

Finally, we approached the village Starazi. We stopped at the edge of the village next to the Christian cemetery. We decided to rest there amongst the gravestones. I left my group and went to find out information from the villagers. I found a little home at the entrance to the village. I could see from the window that the only light was from a kerosene lamp. Around the table sat two children and their father. A woman was giving them dinner. I knocked on the door. When they opened it, the heat almost shocked me. The farmer immediately recognized me as a Jew and said, “What do you want Jew? We have not bread for you. The Kurenets Jews do not give us any rest. They beg us for bread all night. Where are we supposed to get so much bread? How long will you bug us like this?” He told his wife to give me a few potatoes. I told him that I did not want food but that I wanted to find the way to the other villages. The goy was surprised. What Jew does not take food offered to him? At that point, I did not know that the Jews in the forests had become beggars.

I had thought the forests were full of partisans armed with ammunition. We were sitting in the Christian cemetery waiting for late night when the villagers go to sleep and maybe some of the Kurenets Jews would go there. Suddenly, we heard footsteps. Quiet and unsure footsteps. We saw two men walking cautiously and stopping every few feet. I was lying with the gun in my hand, wondering who these people were.

I heard Yiddish. I was excited. When they saw me, they became very scared and started running in different directions, leaving their bags there. I yelled to them, “Jews don't run! Jews don't run!” They came back. I could not recognize them at first, though when they started talking, we recognized them at once and we hugged them. One wore a hat with no brim. His hair was very messy. He had a dirty messy beard. They both wore short torn jackets tied with ropes and their feet were covered with rags. One was Dania Sosensky. He was dressed a little nicer. On one foot, he had a laptza and on the other foot, he had a boot. But Daniel Alperovich, the son of Chaim Abraham, ( who was later caught alive by the Germans on May 1, 1943 when he was sick with typhus. He was then taken to Vileyka and they cut him with a saw into two). At this point, Daniel Alperovich looked awful. Who was saved? We asked. Both of them told us that they would immediately go to the village to get some food and get something for us too. Later, they would take us to the forest and we will find out who was saved. “You must be very hungry,” they said. Daniel Alperovich took out of his bag a frozen latkah. He divided it into two parts and gave it to the children. After a short time, they came back very angry. The villagers did not want to give anything. They carried the children and the rest of us followed to the forest. “Very soon, we would be there,” they encouraged us. After walking 10 km, we reached with our last energy the forest. The yearning of so many Jews that the killers got before they were able to complete this journey.

kur182.jpg [25 KB]
Ze'ev Rabunski with others from Kurenets after the war

kur184.jpg [23 KB]
An unknown Rabunski family member who visited Kurenets
in the 1950s

[he was a high rank official in the communist party]

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