|The capture of the city of Skalat, one night, by the Kovpak Brigade, in July 1943, plus the joining of the Partisans by a group of Jewish young people, that night, left echoes in Holocaust Literature. We have gathered all the material, which has been published on this topic a moving experience, still remembered by many of us.|
By Baruch Amitz
In the days of the German's destruction of our town, we young men and women awakened and warned everyone, especially those who cherished illusions and who put our community to sleep in the face of the coming danger of destruction.
Confused and stunned, we searched for guidance and direction. We sought a directing hand, but it did not exist. Where are the leaders? we asked ourselves. We realized that we had to act on our own. We decided to flee to the forest and to organize ourselves there.
The first pioneers Shalom Schechter, Ya'akov Orenstein, Kuperschmid, the Brick brothers, Yaver and others who made the decisive step and escaped to the forests, under especially difficult conditions, paved the way for those who came after them.
We reached the forest from the Ghetto, from the Skalat labor camp, and later from the Kamionka labor camp. We had left behind the bodies of our families in Belzec, and in the mass graves in the fields of Novosilka, near Skalat.
The days of terror were gradually farther behind us, but we still felt fear within our hearts. Without a homefront, surrounded by loneliness and dread, we continued to feel the cruelty of life as we waited for the hour of liberation.
When we arrived in the forest, we encountered many hardships. We wandered from one hiding place to the next, worn and battered, lacking weapons, and isolated.
Even though there were some individuals, here and there, who did not try to deceive us or sell us out to the Germans during this dark time and it is forbidden to forget them they were very few. Remembered for their kindness, Zachur La Tov, are the people of the small village, surrounded by the OstraMogila Forest.
Every night our people, Fishel Feinstein, David and Herschel Shapiro, Pisi Sass, Shamki Epstein, Mottel Brick, Nadzya Weinzaft and others, would drag dried tree branches into the bunkers in the forest, drag sacks of potatoes, or dig and perfect the bunkers.
I remember how with Nadzya Weinzaft and Mottel Brick, we entered the village of Horodnitza in the middle of the night and took spoils from a rich peasant known as a Nationalist Ukrainian. When we came to his home, he was so terrified that he handed over everything we wantedfood and clothing. We also wanted weapons. Though we were certain that he had large quantities of weapons and ammunition stashed somewhere, we didn't find any.
Many of us felt compelled to take food and clothing from the peasants by force. To achieve that, we constructed ‘rifles’ made of wood and, in that way, instilled fear in the peasants. We would steal into the peasants' fields at night, take potatoes and other foods hidden in their cisterns, in order to quell our hunger. Our raids increased the hatred of the peasants towards us, with additional intensity.
We felt orphaned and abandoned, but we knew that we were the last of the Jews of Skalat, and that our obligation was to avenge the blood of our loved ones. It was clear to us that our going out to the forest was not yet equal to the image of the partisans who fought the German enemy. Our task was, therefore, to win the status of fighters worthy of the name. To make that happen, we needed weaponry, but weaponry did not exist. After several months of wandering among the thickets of the forests, we reached the conclusion that we would not be able to hold out for much longer in our circumstances.
In the second half of 1943, reports reached us of Partisan activity in the forests nearby. We did not know with any clarity who the Partisans were, but we searched for ways to get in touch with them. The Partisans paved the way for us. After a difficult battle with the Germans, they captured Skalat. We decided to join them at any cost.
Our appearance in the Kovpak Brigade aroused the attention of all the partisans especially the Jewish partisans. After a crushing threemonth journey, we stood solemnly, arranged in two columns, to receive weapons. We were about eighty people from Skalat and the vicinity. Only a small handful of our entire town merited this honorstatus. Our pride was immense.
In the order of the day, the partisans informed us of their intention to organize and set up the ‘Seventh Squad.’ This was a team solely made up of Jews soldiers and commanders. I still remember the words of the commander of the Squad. He spoke to us in Yiddish.
Remember! We, here, represent the Jewish People. We will carry ourselves honorably. Let us not embarrass our Afflicted People. Our presence as a brigade, as a separate Jewish unit, serves as testimony and proof that not all the Jews were led like sheep to the slaughter!
We were so energized by these words, and by this solemn assembly, that tears flowed from our eyes. We received weapons, and that very night we, the Jewish Seventh Squad, took part in a battle at a Ukrainian village near the Zabroch River. It was our first battle, face to face with the Germans. In this encounter, we destroyed several German positions and killed several tens of Germans. And we took away weapons and ammunition.
Our heroic stand in that first battle instilled in us a feeling of bravery and valor. On the day after the clash, when General Kovpak was informed of the details of the battle and of our active participation in it, he approached us and blessed us with his words:
Honor to you, sons of Maccabees! This was, in our eyes, the greatest appreciation that we could receive from a Russian commander to be seen as Jewish fighters and avengers.
The road ahead of us was still long. Our main goal was to sabotage and damage the petroleum refineries in the Carpathian Mountains. Overcoming difficult and complicated situations, we reached the summit of the Carpathians. And there, we fought under especially difficult circumstances against special German mountain regiments. Yet, we had great success in carrying out our mission.
I do not have any doubt that we, the group of Jewish youth from Skalat, proved ourselves to be fierce and courageous fighters.
In the seventh row from the bottom, on the right side, Skalat is mentioned
The sun came out and dried the earth, and birdsong could be heard through the trees. We did not manage to get even a bit of sleep, since we were attacked by the Germans here. Not far from this spot was the town of Skalat. When our arrival in the forest became known to the Germans encamped in the town, they came out to attack us. Our men of the Third Squad and the Lankin Cavalry killed many German soldiers, and caused the ones still alive to flee in every direction.
With a smile, Chartchik told me about the battle. In the ripe grain that covered the fields stretching from the forests to Skalat, chains of Germans marched and combed the area looking for Jews. They paused every few steps, kneeled on the ground, and opened fire upon the field and forest in front of them. The commander of the Third Squad had given the order not to open fire until his instruction to do so. Our men crouched in a ditch dividing the forest from the fields of grain, with their fingers on the triggers of their machine guns and submachine guns. Chartchik said that quiet nerves of steel were required. Imagine! Our men watching the Germans in front of them a distance of four hundred, three hundred, two hundred meters, and still waiting to open fire on them until Karpanko would give the signal, a loud whistle, and, all over, our weapons simultaneously opened a hailstorm of fire, and mowed down the attackers and the grain together. As one, the fighters of the Third arose and, with a great shout, spread out over the Germans. The remnant of the German troops began a panicky retreat. A few succeeded in reaching the town. At their heels, the Third Squad and Lankin's Cavalry pursued, and entered the town to battle with the German garrison force and the Ukrainians of the civil administration. Our men of the Third burned, damaged and destroyed everything, while Pavlovsky took large quantities of liquor, wine, sugar, oil, butter, flour, meat, articles of clothing and leathers. During the conflict, they encountered a detention camp of Jews fenced in with barbed wire. They set the Jews free, and immediately the Jews showered the partisans with kisses and tears of joy.
I stood at the crossroads and saw the men of the Third Squad when they returned from the battle, clothed in new uniforms, and wearing boots, which they had looted in Skalat. They were marching and singing and the forest rang with their voices. We only had two killed and several wounded.
We moved back into the forest and finally reached the military staff. Patti and I went to see the Jews who had been liberated in Skalat. Near there, we found more than one hundred men, women, and children, young and
old, sitting and eating in the shade of trees. I approached one of the men and asked him in Yiddish how he was doing. I asked him to tell me about the camp and about the people of Skalat. He told me that, in the city, there was a camp, where the people had worked at forced labor. From time to time, the Germans would find people from among them and ‘transfer’ them to an unknown place. Theirs was the last group imprisoned behind the barbed wire fence, waiting for their sentence, until we came and liberated them.
The survivors were confused, excited, and sad. They didn't know whether they should rejoice at their deliverance, or to cry bitterly over the hundreds of their loved ones who had perished. When they fixed their gaze upon me, I saw fear in their eyes. All of a sudden, I realized that I was dressed in a German uniform from my head to my feet. My explanation pacified them. Patti circulated and talked to them. It was clear that many of them wanted to join our brigade, particularly the young people among them. I wondered what would happen to the old people and the children. In our situation as a wandering brigade, engaged in incessant battles with the enemy, it would be impossible to have them join us. And Patti believed that they would be able to remain alive by finding refuge with the local peasants or in the forests.
When I returned to the camp, Eli Shcharbata told me that he had been called to the staff, to meet with Kovpak and Rodaniov. They explained to him that they had decided to organize all the liberated Jews from the Skalat labor camp into a special squad. But these Jews would need preparation and intense training until they would be fit enough to enter the ranks of the partisans. He also told me that Kovpak and Rodaniov were appointing me as Commander of this Squad. Shcharbata had requested a delay until the evening in order to consult with Patti and with me. Patti believed that there was no alternative but to forego our belonging to the Third Squad which was dear to us, and which had absorbed us so well and to devote ourselves to setting up the new Jewish squad. I too was of the opinion Jewish honor should stand above everything, and that it was important to devote ourselves to turning these people into soldiers, and into worthy partisans. Before meeting with the command, we agreed on the following suggestions for the structure of the squad: the Commander of the Squad Yoel Shcharbata; the Political Commissar Chaim Vitshin (Patti); the Commander of Section A Gad Rosenblatt; the Commander of Section B Adam Cooper; the Commander of Section C Zisi Chaitchik. The new members of this squad were very weak and needed to get stronger. They also needed to acquire battle training and travel discipline. We suggested that three section commanders be appointed, instead of the usual two, that every section should have twentyfive men, and that each section be divided into two subgroups. We also decided to ask the command to transfer all Jews from the first troop into the new squad. This reinforcement would aid us in solidifying a fighting and stable squad. In addition, we decided to submit a special request to favor our group, which had been expelled from the brigade, and to join it to our national squad.
Toward evening, Shcharbata returned from the staff, rejoicing and very encouraged. He told us they had agreed to everything, and consented to all the requests. In addition, they recommended providing automatic weaponry, arranging transportation, and special treatment in all aspects of the squad, such as favoring the squad with status equal to the other partisans.
We brought all the people of Skalat into a special area of the forest, which was set aside for us. Shmuel Fishfaider was appointed quartermaster, and he, Shcharbata and I approached the staff to take delivery of weapons and the means of transportation. We received sixtyfive rifles and ten wagons for transportation of supplies and ammunition. We also
began arranging an internal organization, and placed the people into sections and subsections. The entire squad numbered seventyfive men, including ten young women. I set up a special camp for my section, and began training my men in the care and use of rifles and grenades.
The day ended, and the sun set over the Zabroch. In all the expanses of the forest, campfires were lit, each section with its own campfire. I too lit a campfire, and I sat with the men of my section all around me. The fire lit up the darkness, and their hearts warmed. I was happy to sit with them, as brothers in arms engaging in the work of revenge, as one teaching the Sons of Judah the bow. As I scanned the faces of the men of my section, I asked myself: are these the people who were liberated three days ago from the camp in Skalat? Were these the same people who, only a few days ago, were ‘bond slaves’ condemned to death, imprisoned, enclosed and waiting for the redemption of death? They had changed their clothes, shined their boots, straightened their statures, and now a spark of hope was in their eyes. Their entire look said ‘freedom!’
I introduced the two commanders of the other subsections: These are your commanders, I said, who will lead you in the battles which are anticipated for you. They are veteran fighters who have already been tested in many firefights. It is essential that you listen to them. We, the men of the command, will ready you and aid you in overcoming the difficulties of becoming partisans. Fortune has smiled upon you and brought the Brigade to Skalat, to battle the enemy and to liberate you. Now, you, too, have weapons to strike the Nazis, to kill the murderers of our parents, our children, and our wives, the destroyers of our people. Guard your weapon from every patrol! Use it properly to shoot your target! Don't disappoint us! Don't disappoint us! Don't disappoint the name of the squad or its honor with deeds that oppose the laws of the Partisans! Remember that the mission of our Brigade, military unit number 00117, is the fulfillment of order No. 200, which prohibits taking anything from the civilian inhabitants of the place of battle, neither food nor clothing. Remember that anyone who transgresses this order commits a capital offense!
During the conversation, I was asked, Where will we be directing our movements, and will we pass through Skalat a second time? I replied that the norm in the Brigade is never to ask where we were going. The route of the journey and the plans of action were exclusively bound by the military secrecy of the Commander. And our hearts were energized by our conversation.
Afterwards, they erupted in a lively songfest, when one of the veterans raised his voice and began singing one of the Songs of the Partisans, which were beloved by us. The song was about a young Partisan who fell slain, there on the rocky soil, in a virgin field. The rest of this veteran's companions followed after him. And the echo of the forest carried the sounds of the song as far as the mountains of Zabroch and its forests.
Only a few minutes passed, and the roaring of airplane engines assaulted our ears. Five airplanes flew above the river to the forest opposite. The sounds of bombs thundered, and the rattle of machine guns sawed the air. The planes circled above and shot without letup. From the forest and from the river below, we heard the cries of the wounded.
I crawled and reached a bush near which I had left weapons and clothing. The airplanes, which had completed their murderous work, disappeared. I hurried to the camp in the forest. In my heart, I sensed bad things to come. I reached the squad, and my world became dark. The field was cut by craters the bombs had made. Several wagons were smashed, and the horses lay with their bellies torn open. On every side, screams of the wounded burst forth. The remaining people lay terrified, shocked, and powerless. I began to assemble the men of the squad and to organize help for the wounded. Among the wounded were Shcharbata, Adam Cooper, Zisi Chaitchik, Fima Galfand, and many others. Almost all of the leaders of command had been affected. We laid the wounded on the wagons that remained intact, and sent them to the medical department of the staff.
Surely, bad luck! So many wounded among us, and this, only a few days after our victory and reorganization. There was no free time to devote oneself to anything other than the Partisans who had emerged safely from the bombings and held muster. In the line stood fortyfive men. All the commanders of the sections and subsections were wounded. Only the Political Commissar, Chaim Vitshin, two subsection commanders, and I were left uninjured
I was still standing with the Partisans when the squad courier appeared and informed me that the Commander of the Brigade, General Kovpak, and the subs, Polkovnik and Varshigora, were approaching us. I was in a state of confusion. A meeting would happen suddenly, in such terrible circumstances, after the bombing, when the squad camp had been destroyed, and all around was chaos. I had not managed to calm my mind, and here Kovpak was striding toward me, while he was leaning on his shepherd's staff, and next to him Varshigora and Bazima. I gave an order to stand at attention. I straightened myself and reported to them regarding the fortyfive men arranged in a row, and about all the rest who were wounded and had been sent to the medical camp. The Seventh Squad, MajorGeneral, are arranged at your command.
Squad, stand at ease! ordered Kovpak. He stood and surveyed the men, was silent a bit, and afterwards he said:
It is imperative that you know that we are soldiers, and ahead of us is a difficult, long road. I understand the difficulty of your becoming accustomed to that, but there is no alternative. It is incumbent upon you to be Partisans, like all the rest, or not to be in the Brigade. Those who seek to part with us are entitled to do so, and we will assist you to get along in this environment, just as we have already arranged for many of you, from the day you left Skalat. The weak, and those who are afraid of the difficulties, may leave the rank. But those remaining are obligated to follow all the laws of Partisans. Many of you were wounded, but we will try to help you heal. During a bombing, one should get down on the ground and lie motionless. From now on, Comrade Grigory Rosenblatt will command you, and as a political commissar, Comrade Patti Vitshin will continue to serve.
Kovpak handed the command over to me and went on his way with the men in his staff. I asked Patti to speak with the men of the squad and encourage them a bit. I took the list of my soldiers, to see whether there were any among them with a military past, in order to appoint them to positions of subsection commanders. I found two who had served in the Polish army. I took them out of the circle of those reclining in conversation, and persuaded them to accept the position. They were afraid to take upon themselves such a responsibility, especially with untrained people, but eventually they accepted their new posts.
The squad courier informed me that in another two hours we would be going on the march. I went over to the medical department of the staff to visit the wounded. I found almost all of them there, except for Shcharbata and Fima, who had been only lightly wounded, and requested a wagon to take them to the squad.
Patti requested five new wagons from Pavlovsky, in place of those that had been damaged in the bombing. Pavlovsky was angry about the request, but eventually ordered the wagons turned over to us. In addition, three wagons of wounded were added to our supply train.
At dark, we left the forest. We moved in behind the Ninth Squad of Bakradza. The entire way, we kept an eye on the sections so that they would not lag. We made sure that every one of our men would travel, in turn, for a quarter hour, in a wagon. And because of this action, the Partisans were able to rest through the journey and were greatly encouraged. Patti and I decided not to ride on our horses. We tied them to the wagons and went on foot, with all the rest, during the entire journey southward (Rosenblatt).
In Men of Pure Conscience, Varshigora, Kovpak's assistant, relates the story of the conquest of Skalat by the Partisans.
Also below is a chapter of The War of the Jewish Partisans in Eastern Europe
by Moshe Cahanowitz
Regarding the rescue of the remnants of the Skalat Ghetto, in East Galicia, by the legendary Partisan commander Major General Kovpak, we have two confirmed sources: Russian and Jewish.
A Russian Witness:
Skalat remained engraved in our memory because of an additional incident. Miraculously, there still was a Jewish ghetto in this settlement in the summer of 1943, or, more accurately, only a remnant of it. Beyond the barbed wire fence, there were Jews who were craftsmen: tailors, shoemakers, leather workers. The Germans delayed putting them to death, but kept them barely alive with starvation rations, and forced them to work for their needs. More than three hundred people among them women, children, and the elderly were freed from their slavery by the youths of the Karpanko Squad. A great multitude of broken and tormented people attached themselves to the Third Squad and followed after it. Their appearance in our camp brought us to great confusion. We knew that if they remained in the city, they would all be killed the next day by the Fascists. But, at the same time, we did not have any way of taking these unfortunate souls with us. We were a military unit, carrying out a complicated march. Would weak elders and women be able to hold out under the tribulations of our war march? But there could not be any other alternative. During the night, we thought about their fate. Kovpak ordered Pavlovsky, who was appointed to oversee matters of the physical stock, to use a number of wagons for the weak. The healthier ones were obligated to keep pace behind our marching line.
The Commander and the Commissar left the solution of this new worry for our next encampment (Varshigora 427428).
According to the assistant to the commander of the brigade, Piatro Varshigora, many of the Jews of Skalat were wounded in the German bombing of the forest encampment, the day after their rescue. The bright clothing of the Jewish women revealed the location of the Brigade's encampment to the German bombers. The following is Varshigora's dramatic description of the development of decisions in connection with the survivors of Skalat:
Kovpak came to the refugees' encampment. The unfortunate people were still shell shocked as a result of the bombing. After a few moments, I heard his order: Get up, arrange yourselves in rows! These strange soldiers stood in two rows. On the right stood pious elders in their kapotes, long, black, Chasidic coats. The women stood in the second row behind the older men. Several held the hands of older children. And on the left were young girls. Along the rows strode the elderly commander, for whose
head the Fascists had promised fifty thousand gold pieces. He explained to the people, while stroking his cane, how to be careful and to be protected from the enemy's bombs. Please listen to what I'll tell you, and please look. He removed his hat and the rays of the sun, which came through the tree branches, lit up his bald head.
I have grown old and bald in wars. I have seen some things. I have seen death in my lifetime, more than once. Therefore, you can rely on me. The most important law in war is never attempt to prevent it. March toward it with power. War, too, is a coward. It does not adversely affect the brave. And an airplane is not a matter of war. Why flee from it? Lie down quietly. One must camouflage the bright headscarves and dresses. How to camouflage? Very simple. Break off a branch and cover yourself.
Kovpak broke off a tree branch, took a girl from the ranks, grasped her hard, stood her before the row, and put the branch in her hand.
And now look and see!
The girl covered herself with the branch. A whisper of excitement passed among the people who, only yesterday, wandered around seized with panic and trembling at the time of the bombing. In the ranks of the youths, laughter could be heard. The older men shook their bearded heads as a sign of agreement, as if reading the Torah.
While looking at his new military units, the commander faced them with a favorite expression of his: Did you understand? That's it!
After he returned to survey his new recruits, he thought for a moment and said, Now I want to have a serious conversation with you. We are men of war. We march toward serious matters. Even though I take pity on you, I will not be able to gather all of you into my troop. Let each person weigh his or her strengths on their own, whether he or she will be able to fit into the life of war. Is this more than you can bear? Decide for yourselves. I ask you to choose. Everyone who wishes to and is able to bear arms will remain. Those who hate Fascists may remain. And those who do not fear death and who are ready to sacrifice life for the Motherland will remain! But for anyone for whom this is not in harmony with his strengths or spirit do not go with us! I'm telling you plainly, do not go with us! We will help all those who wish to remain here. We will divide you among the villages. We will hide you among the civilians. We will leave food for you.
But if you enter the ranks of our unit, you will swear a loyalty oath, and if you violate your oath, you will receive a punishment. This should not be seen as an insult, because, with us, there is one law for everyone, for the Russian and for the Ukrainian, for the Tartar and for the Jew. Think this over until the evening. Consult with your elders. Toward evening, I will send my command to you. And now, disperse!(Varshigora 432439).
A Jewish Eye Witness:
When they entered the city, the Kovpak Partisans took control of the German warehouses, destroyed the buildings of the German institutions, blew up the bridges, and all this was done with the active help of the local Jews. When the Partisans began preparations to leave the city, nearly all the Jews
asked that they be taken too. But the Partisans refused since, according to their words, soldiers, healthy people, were essential for them, and not Jews from the camps who dragged their feet with difficulty. Nevertheless, about thirty Jews from the camps, who were healthier, followed behind the Partisans, and in no way wanted to remain in a place where certain death awaited them. The soldiers drove them away with clubs, but they continued to follow. After several attempts, they received weapons and, after the passage of several days, they were joined to the Partisan unit. The majority of the Skalat youths died in the great battle in the Carpathian Mountains (Weissbrod, Death of a Shtetl)
After the tightened German encirclement, when routes of retreat and movement for Kovpak were blocked by greater German forces, fierce firefights broke out during the crossing of the Lomnitz River, near the city of Dlatin on the River Prut. Kovpak lost a sizable percent of his fighters. In those encounters, many Jewish youths who had joined him on his march, especially those who were liberated from the Skalat Ghetto, fell in battle (M. Cahanowitz).
by Chaim Vitshin
The Germans blocked the road near the town of Skalat. Gathered in the town was a very large contingent of armed local police from the Shoto and Miezhibozian S.S. units for Galicia, for whom this battle would be the first taste of combat.
The march to Skalat was very difficult. All night, a driving rain fell, and the roads were muddy. The Partisans wallowed up to their knees in mud, and the horses pulled the baggage with difficulty. Toward morning, we entered a grove and stopped to rest. Wet to the bone and weary, we tried to kindle campfires in order to warm up a bit. We succeeded but with difficulty. The wood and the kindling were very wet. But after about half an hour, we stood, hundreds of Partisans, in small groups around campfires, and we dried out our clothes.
Toward morning, shots opened up around the grove. These were scouts who approached the enemy posts and tested their positions. The shots did not arouse particular attention. We were accustomed to shots. On the contrary, quiet would arouse suspicions. At ten, the battle for Skalat began. The Third Squad, under the command of Karpanko, and armed with submachine guns and machine guns, was sent to the battle and was joined by Lankin's Cavalry. The command of the brigade underestimated the strength of the enemy units, and sent only two squads toward them.
The Partisans set an ambush in the high standing grain, which extended from the grove to the boundaries of the town. The enemy marched forward, with upright posture, through the standing grain, with the goal of attacking the brigade that had encamped in the forest. This mixed multitude of pogromists, dressed in shining uniforms, with the accompaniment of obese and beerbellied gendarmes, moved very slowly and cautiously through the high grain, thinking that they would surprise the Partisans weary from the night march. In order for the harvest to be more efficient, Karpanko ordered his men not to open fire, except at a smaller, closer range. Lankin's Cavalry did not participate in the ambush. They were camouflaged at the edge of the grove, and their job was
to block the path of the retreating enemy. The attackers, who were cautious and tense when they entered the standing grain, showed signs of fatigue. However, their tension lessened. They believed that the battle would begin in the forest and, for that reason, started to gather on a dirt road, which led between the fields of standing grain to the forest. Karpanko set the ambush from two sides of the road. The Germans and the Ukrainians now marched on the path in a procession and at a quick pace.
When the column approached, fire poured out from close range, by one hundred submachine guns and tens of machine guns. The Nazi defeat was absolute. The Germans were mowed down by rapid fire. Those who succeeded in escaping, at this stage, attempted to flee through the standing grain in the direction of the city. Lankin, who had been viewing the battle from the forest, struck. As agreed, Karpanko ceased fire, and Lankin's Cavalry leaped with a gallop after those escaping. When Lankin reached the town, he did not encounter any resistance there. The Germans who had succeeded in escaping from the battle with their lives, and from the hooves of Lankin's Cavalry, got into their automobiles and fled from Skalat.
Meanwhile, the Third Squad also reached the town, and two units took control of it. A large amount of plunder fell to the hands of the Partisans. Pavlovsky, director of our physical stock, was especially happy. Located in a storehouse in Skalat, was a very large stock of sugar and butter. All the wagons were ordered to load at least a sack of sugar and two chests of butter. After several hours, Karpanko and Lankin returned with their soldiers, now dressed in new German uniforms, and singing joyfully after they had managed to sip a respectable mouthful of German ‘rum.’
The road southward was open. In order to prevent the enemy from recovering from its loss, we left the Skalat grove in the afternoon, in the light of day. The mood was jubilant. The comfortable and refreshing weather, after a night of rain, and the victory over the Germans made us forget the difficult night march, which had preceded the fighting. My squad left, first in line. But the entire time, thoughts troubled me concerning the fate of the Jews who had been liberated from the labor camp in Skalat. Zoshia Chaitchik and Yosef Gorenstein, who participated in the battle, and broke through into the town, told me about their liberation. What would be their fate? Would they exploit the opportunity to escape into the forests in the area? Or would they remain in Skalat and wait for the return of the Germans who would annihilate them? The Partisans told us that the Germans had left weapons in the town, and that the Jews had led them from position to position to uncover the weapons. It incensed me that our Ninth Squad had not participated in the battle, and that we had not come into contact with the Jews of Skalat. Grisha Rosenblatt, Yoel Shcharbata and I, now in the Ninth Squad, were three of the Veterans of the Jewish Unit from the forests of Tzumani.
We thought bitterly that we would not abandon these Jews. We would distribute weapons to them and lead them to the forest. I marched, and pain burned in my heart. Was destruction to be the fate of these Jews? A fierce despair assailed me. I looked at those Partisans marching around me, men from distant Tomsk, from Siberia, from Leningrad, and from the Caucasus. Among them were fiftyyearold seniors and seventeen year old youngsters. With what confidence they marched, and they showed no fear of the absolute destruction stalking them. Many of them could have stayed at home. Who is making them march, I wondered, only the elderly commander? Was there something special in his power or in his ability to lead hundreds of
men into battle, to marches and to severe tests? There is no doubt that some idea united this camp. I conversed with these men, who were simple people, collective farmers and industrial workers. I did not discover in them anything exceptional. Those who marched here were not stronger, certainly not brighter or more understanding than my destroyed brethren.
And I asked myself: why would thousands of Jews not march with me here? Behold, around me moved hundreds of men believing in their future, yet here I was, the Jew who carried in my heart a heavy feeling of guilt that no outcry could assuage.
Night descended. I attempted to free myself from the pressing burden of my thoughts. Indeed, we had spoken much about these concerns within the Jewish ranks in the Tzuman Forests, and, since then, many months had passed. The winter had passed, and the summer of 1943 had arrived. During this time, we had crossed thousands of kilometers, we had reached Kiev, and had encamped in the hinterlands of Homel. We had conducted bitter battles with the Germans. We had sabotaged trains and had sown fear in the hearts of collaborators with the Germans. We were certain that the Jewish people had ceased to exist. We did not have knowledge of Jews outside of this adversity. We understood that all of Europe was an execution block and a graveyard for Jews.
The sudden knowledge that the Partisans, who had participated in the battle and conquest of Skalat, had liberated many Jews from the labor camp, aroused excitement in our hearts, and, at the same time, gave us a feeling of impotence. We were so close to them. Maybe we would be able to save them. We hadn't been able to come in contact with them. Though I went out on this march at the head of the column, it wasn't until the next day that I discovered that the Jews liberated from the camp in Skalat had been walking behind the column. They numbered close to a hundred people and among them were numbers of young women. The appearance of their faces, their poor clothing, their weak eyes, and the uncertain marching stood out against the background of the men who were marching in front of them. It brought us to tears. We wanted to embrace them, to kiss them, and to cry out in a loud voice, but I felt that they were in need of a different treatment. There was a compelling necessity to impress upon them that we were upright Jews capable of fighting. And though tears choked in my throat, I greeted them with an encouraging smile. We presented ourselves as Jews. With our appearance, their eyes lit up and their bodies straightened. There was a rustle of admiration among them. They stood around us, hardly believing their eyes.
At that moment, we were unable to stay with these broken Jews. We were forced to return to our squad. We encouraged them and called to them to walk in our footsteps to the nearby encampment. They were not accustomed to a march. After one night, weariness overcame them, but we encouraged them. They were embarrassed at their weakness and at their slow walking. We prayed in our hearts that the brigade would reach the encampments and that they would possibly be permitted to rest. The appearance of these Jews in their ragged clothing, shattered and broken, after their time in the German Labor camp, did not encourage the Partisans to want to help them. In fact, those in the rearguard of the brigade either ignored or browbeat them. It would require a concerted and immediate effort to prevent their expulsion from the protection of the brigade. However, with our appearance, the Partisans did not dare to insult them. But we did not want to rely on the ‘politeness’ of the Partisans, so, on the way, we met with the staff and requested that the liberated Jews be allowed to stay and march with us.
With the losses suffered by the brigade in the Carpathian mountains, we received orders to retreat, and to move to the region of Glushkavitz, which was in Belarus. We wanted to take the Seventh Squad, but those who had come from Skalat did not want to go with us. Many of them wanted to go through the mountains to Hungary, and others planned to return to the Skalat region and to take it back. In vain, we urged them, but they stayed firm (Vishkin).
(third from left, in the company of his officers)
by Dr. Hillel Zeidman
Skalat was a small shtetl in East Galicia, in the region of Tarnopol, not far from the former PolishRussian border. Skalat was the center of its district, and the headquarters of the governor. Around it were no less than seventy villages, and the peasants of the villages would come once a week, on Tuesday, to the fair in Skalat, sell their produce, and buy vital supplies in the shops. Jewish merchants would buy the harvests of grains, and Jewish shopkeepers would sell supplies, as was usual in a Jewish town. The Jews lived in relative tranquility, would marry off sons and daughters, and would ‘await deliverance.’ As the burdens of earning a livelihood became heavier with higher taxes, the weight of such pressures distressed the Jews. In the villages and in the town, cooperatives were formed with the goal of ‘liberating’ the peasants from the Jewish merchants. AntiSemitic societies arose which preached a boycott of the Jewish merchants. Often, Jews experienced harassment and persecution.
Through an Expectation of Certificates
Nevertheless, life flowed somehow in its old channel. Most of the Jews of the city were Husiatyn Chasidim, and there were four Husiatyn study houses in Skalat. The Jewish younger generation was already proZionist, and for the most part aspired to go to the Land of Israel.
Some of them had already traveled there, and the remainder prepared to go. Essentially, they were ready at any time, but they awaited travel certificates that were distributed only sparingly. Skalat, a border city, was captured by the Russians after the outbreak of the war in September 1939.
Conditions gradually became more severe. Not because the Soviet regime was antiSemitic, but because, in aiming its arrows at commerce and the bourgeoisie, it unintentionally adversely affected the Jews.
When Permission was Granted the Destroyer
But in some way, ‘they got along’ and continued to await Deliverance. Instead of Deliverance, the GermanyRussia war broke out, and at the beginning of July 1941, Germans had already taken the town.
The Germans indeed gave permission to the Destroyer, the Ukrainian pogromists, and a pogrom immediately broke out against the Jews. The Ukrainians did their work with an especially awful cruelty. The pogrom lasted several days. More than 200 Jews from elite households and families were murdered. The Ukrainians' slogan was ‘Revenge against the Bolshevik Jews.’
Afterwards some calm returned. It was very bad. There were persecutions, hunger, seizures to labor camps whose meaning was death. The people suffered, gritted their teeth, and hoped to endure the days of starvation. But they did not endure.
A Clean Euphemism for Impure Acts
In the summer of 1942, the Germans began to remove elderly people from the city. No one knew to where they had ‘disappeared.’ Afterwards, they began Aktziot, the Aktions. This was the euphemism for the awful murders in which millions of Jews were exterminated. They did not say ‘pogroms,’ they did not say ‘killings,’ only ‘Aktions,’ or ‘deportations’ or ‘expulsions,’ and so these more neutral terms replaced the real descriptions for these evil deeds, and this terminology has remained through the present day.
On October 20, 1942, the Ukrainians, under the leadership of the S.S., spread out over the Ghetto and seized Jews. Yet, before this, an order was given that all the Jews from the nearby towns, from Podvolochisk, Grzhimalov, and others, and even from the small villages, were obligated to move to Skalat. Apartments did not exist for several thousand Jews from the vicinity. Therefore, the new ‘residents’ rolled around the streets, or several families lived in one room, in crowded and awful conditions. These Jews were adversely affected first.
Three thousand Jews were seized and rounded up in that Aktion. The S.S. men and the Ukrainians pressed them into the synagogue. They held them for two days, without food or water in awful crowding. Afterwards, they took them to the train. They ordered them to stay several hours on their knees on the extensive earthen area in front of the station. Afterwards, they pressed them into cattle cars and transported them to Belzec.
It is Better to Die among Jews
The remaining Jews were taken for hard labor. They thought that the matter was concluded, and that those who remained would continue to remain. Strange information circulated in the Ghetto. People told of wonderful dreams, from which they concluded that deliverance was already not far off. However, on November 9th, a second Aktion came and, again, 1500 victims were caught. Again, the Germans and Ukrainians gathered them into the synagogue, with the accompaniment of blows and shots, and eventually these Jews were also sent to Belzec.
Then people began to escape back to the villages to hide with the peasants, with acquaintances, old friends, with money bribes, much money. The Ukrainians searched for them, and when found, seized and shot them. Many were unable to bear the constant fear of death and returned to the city. They wanted to live among Jews. But if it was decreed for them to perish, all they wanted was to be among other Jews, together with all of them.
The people were registered for labor and continued to hope that, from now on, they would remain alive. The days of Passover approached. Spring appeared in the land and, with it, the Red Army approached. The Jews absorbed the information about the Russian advance. Since November 1942, there had been only silence.
But on April 7, 1943 (Nisan 2, 5703), disaster came again. Suddenly, the Ukrainian murderers came with the S.S. men, surrounded the Ghetto, and took away its young and old. Again, they dragged 2,000 Jews to the synagogue. Among those seized to die was the Rabbi of the community, Rabbi Yitzchak Rosenblatt.
Deliverance is Approaching and the Trouble is Near
Scenes of terror occurred in this Aktion. The people already knew what it meant, and they wanted to live. People hid on the ground, between the graves in the cemetery, they fled to the forests, hid in holes, in cellars, and in the attics of the houses. A vicious hunt took place for the unfortunate Jews. The Ukrainians immediately shot those attempting to escape. Gentiles, residents of the city who initially hid Jews, informed. Pursued and hunted, few people were left of what was once a large, thriving community.
When Passover came, information arrived concerning the advance of the Red Army. It was spring in the world. Nature began blossoming and awakening to new life and, together with it, weak hopes for deliverance were awakened in those remaining. They thought: ‘if they've let us remain until now, they will let us remain for the future also, and we will already live to see the end.’
But the wicked enemy did not think this way, because he plotted in his heart to go to the ends of the earth to uproot the Congregation of Israel to the last man, woman and child.
Psychological Preparation for the End
On the first day of the Festival of Shavuoth, June 5, 1943, our enemies expelled the remaining handful of Jews who were seized in their hiding places in Rodvalutzisk, Rimliv, Tarna Roda, Satanov, Kodrintz, Toist and the villages back to Skalat. And again, they gathered for a cruel hunt of all the remaining Jews still in Skalat. Now there was a group of Jews who had come from other places and did not have a place to live, who lodged in the Synagogue. This made it easy for the murderers to find them. There, into the synagogue, they pressed all of the last Jews of Skalat. They imprisoned them inside and surrounded the synagogue with a cordon of strict guards from the Ukrainian militia. Two days and two nights, they held the Jews, with awful crowding, without water, without food and without air. Outside, shots could be heard without letup. Those were shots aimed at Jews who tried to escape when they were discovered somewhere in their hiding places, or Jews that the children of the Gentiles had informed on, handing them over to the Germans. So the last remnant of Jews was brought to the synagogue, including those who had succeeded up until then in concealing themselves from the eyes of the Destroyer. The S.S., along with the Ukrainians, searched and scoured all the holes and hiding places, and it was not possible to conceal oneself from them.
The Jews in the synagogue, numbered at about 700, waited only for their end, with a shudder of death, with hunger and suffocation. Children cried. Women fainted. Men lost their minds.
Suddenly, Berle Walowitz ascended the Bimah, wrapped in his tallit, his prayer shawl. He was the son of Rabbi Benjamin Walowitz, who had already been killed in the first pogrom, by the Ukrainians. A great TalmudChacham, a scholar, and a discerning man, he said, Jews! We are standing before the end. Recover, do not lose your minds! And he began saying, along with the congregation, the Confessional. Afterwards, he said words of Torah in the matter of martyrdom, in the cause of Kiddush Hashem, the Sanctification of the Divine Name. Thus, he stood for an hour, on the Bimah, and from him flowed biblical verses and statements of the Sages of blessed memory. The congregation awakened as if from a nightmare, and listened to the words of Berle, the Rabbi's son. He was very honored in the entire city. The Council of the Jews had made all efforts to save him. And surely, he had remained for that reason to the end.
To the Graves which they Dug with their Own Hands
Without warning, the gates of the synagogue opened and wild shouts were heard, Out! Out! No one deceived himself with false hopes with regards to where they might be going. They were already so depressed and despairing from the crowding and the choking, from hunger and from thirst, that everyone pressed toward the gates, in order to be the first to leave.
Outside waited a gang of Ukrainian militia men under the lead of S.S. men. The congregation was ordered to stand in rows, 5 by 5, and to march. Through a cordon of a guard of militia men, who supervised so that no one escaped, the procession of 700 Jews moved ahead, the last remnant of the community of Skalat and the vicinity. The Gentile neighbors went out into the streets to look at this spectacle, and waited for the moment when they would be able to storm into the empty Jewish apartments and carry off the spoils.
Then they did not lead the Jews to the train, nor to Belzec. There were transportation difficulties, and an insufficient number of railroad cars. Outside the city were the fields of Novosilka, on the way to Rodwalitziska. The fields had belonged to the estate owner, Yosef Tenenbaum. The Germans had led some Jews there a few weeks earlier, and had ordered them to dig pits. They had told the Jews that the pits were for storing potatoes for the winter. The Jews did not know they were digging their own graves.
To those same pits, they now led these 700 Jews. They stood them at the edge of these excavations, and ordered them to strip their off clothing, so that the clothes, which were destined as spoils, should not be stained with blood. Berle, the Rabbi's son, refused to strip naked, and remained wrapped in his Tallit. The Ukrainians and Germans struck him with murderous blows, but he did not give in, and finally they killed him with a gunshot, while he remained dressed. This also was the fate of a young woman, Margaliot, who refused to strip her garments. Yosef Tenenbaum, the former head of the community, pleaded for his life, while promising to show the murderers a treasure of money that he had hidden, but to no avail. They shot him as well.
The Groaning Graves
The Ukrainians only had pistols, and their shots did not always kill their victims. Even the wounded were pushed into their graves while still alive. The Ukrainians and Germans completed their work and departed, while the living remained in the graves, their limbs entwined with the flesh of their fellow Jews. An awful struggle with death took place in the mass graves.
Peasants from the neighboring villages heard the cries and groans from the graves. They came near and saw hands and feet struggling to emerge from the soil, and awful sounds arising from the graves. The peasants were unable to bear the sounds, and they approached to take out the living. Among them was the 17 year old daughter of David Epstein. He was hidden in the city somewhere in a cellar. A certain peasant recognized her and brought her to her father. She told her father what was being done in the mass graves of Novosilka. Meir Greenfeld, also, lay secretly in a pit not far from the graves, and saw and heard what was being done. For more than three days, groans and cries arose from the graves, until the people slowly perished, and the sounds of their voices were finally stilled. To this day, the peasants call the place, ‘the Groaning Graves.’
There still remained a handful of Jews in Skalat, about 50 men and women, who worked in a labor camp at the edge of the city, cut off from any connection with the world, and working in crushing labor. A month later, June 20, 1943, the majority of the Jews in this camp were also exterminated and another month later, on July 27, 1943, the S.S. cut off most of the Jewish remnant from Skalat and all the neighboring towns.
The Remnant that Remained for Deliverance
There remained only about thirty Jewish souls. Some were hauled away to Russia as deportees or soldiers, a few fled to the forests to join the Partisans, and several were hidden in villages with friendly peasants. They returned to Skalat after it was liberated by the Red Army, but liberation did not come to them. Nearby, all the houses of the Jews had been seized by the Gentiles. A Jewish house passed from hand to hand for 50 to 100 zlotys, extremely inexpensively. A few houses, slightly larger, which remained intact, were grabbed by Gentiles. A Jew was unable to receive anything in return. Ukrainian gangs also fell upon the Jews. It was said that the regime was not antiSemitic, but nevertheless, there was no place for the Jews. And, to this day, not a single Jew remains in Skalat.
They went to Lower Silesia, and can be found today in Galiwitz or in Bytom. But some of them traversed a farther road. I found several of them in Fahrenwald, and in Munich, and in Neufriman. They look forward to reaching some faraway secure shore. Not one of them has a relative or redeemer in Poland or in Europe in general. Several of them have relatives in America, or in the Land of Israel, and they look to them for help. They hope to leave the D.P. Camps in Germany, where they live as Displaced Persons, as soon as possible, to reach any place of rest. The majority of them lift their eyes to the Land of Israel. They are tired of wanderings, of oppression, of isolation, and of living in exile (Ha Boker, 3 Elul, 5706 (August 30, 1946).
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