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[Page 550]

What my eyes have seen

by Pnina Hayat nee Potashnik

Translated by M. Porat

The first and second “Actions”

1941; The Soviets left Volozhyn in haste. The Germans entered the town without any resistance. The first sign of the Germans in the area was the unit of parachutists that descended near our home. Armed forces entered the town shortly after. The constant air bombing set the town on fire.

We were immediately forced to participate in various hard labor chores. The principal forced labor sites were the Polak's & Rapoport-Perelman's saw-mills. The women cleaned the Gestapo lodgments. We walked to work in groups. As soon as we would arrive they would start thrashing us with whips.

We were ordered to put yellow patches on our sleeves. With time it changed to a yellow Star of David with the word “Jude” in the middle. We were forbidden to use the sidewalk. We had to walk in the middle of the road like horses. They ordered us to move into a designated Ghetto area. Shortly after enclosing the Volozhyn Jews in the Ghetto the Germans pushed inside its fence also the Jews of Olshan with their town-Rabbi. The congestion became unbearable. We were very deficient in nourishments. Bringing food inside the Ghetto was difficult and dangerous. From time to time the bandits harassed the ghetto inhabitants. They encroached into our lodgment and beat us mercilessly demanding money and valuables.

On October 28ththe Gestapo ordered us to assemble on the Ghetto Street. All the inhabitants were forced to come. They chose some 200 people and enclosed them into the cinema local. Leading them on the walk to the cinema area was Yani Garber, the Judenrat Head. He was told that they are all taken to work. However they were all led by groups of ten to the adjacent sport square and shot to death. Zviya Lunin was among the conveyed to die, but she survived. The Nazis let her free. The quota, as they said, was completed. This time the German accuracy saved a Jewish life (not for long). After that “First Action” the ghetto area was reduced. Shneur Kivelevitsh was elected as the Judenrat Head.

Many months passed and then some tormenting news reached the ghetto. The Germans geared up for a new slaughter. Rivka Dratvitski's husband, a gentile, who was friendly with the Jews, brought the information. Thanks to him many people were saved. Sunday, May 10th, 1942, at five in the morning Shneur Kivelevitsh appeared in our home and told us that the ghetto is surrounded. He advised every one to hide. The Germans enclosed the ghetto and meticulously looked for the Jews. They killed on the spot those who were found and refused to expose friends or relatives hiding places. My brother Yehuda, Osher (Itshe Bers) Perski, his son Ruvke and I, decided to run away. We passed the Volozhynka stream near the bridge and concealed ourselves in a grove. Some local Christians chased us. We could hear them saying that they are looking for us.

When they left, I walked to Horodok; Osher Perski with his son to went to Zabrezhe. The Jews I met in the Horodok Ghetto were in a very agitated spirit. They just heard about the recent mass slaughter in Volozhyn.

The evasion from Vol' Ghetto to Kaldiki village

After the “second Action” the Volozhyn authorities reduced the ghetto area and enclosed inside the remaining little group of Jews. They assured them that the rest would work and be safe. I believed this false promise and returned home. I worked with some Jewish girls, among them Miriam Kagan and Rachel from Mejeyk, in a carpenter's team. Our manager was Yezierski.

Once, as we were ready to return to the ghetto, we realized that the Germans were surrounding the ghetto, and some Jews were running out of the gate. We threw away the yellow patches and looked for a place to hide. The Germans shot at us and killed ten girls. Miryam Kagan and I hid in a wheat field. At night we went in the Mejeyk direction. After a lot of wandering we arrived in the Kaldiki hamlet. We knocked at a peasant's door and implored him to give us some nourishment. We were swollen from hunger. Despite the fact that they were poor they shared their food with us.

We walked through the hamlet and deciding that we have nothing to lose. We knocked at a door of another remote house. A peasant opened the door, led us into the adjacent barn and locked the door. After a couple of frightful hours the landlord opened the barn and invited us to his house. It was a single room house with two big beds, a broken table and an oven. Here lived the Righteous Gentile Ivan Kovalski with his family: wife, three daughters and two sons. This poor family received us cheerfully and with unusual warmth. They cried with tears seeing our wretched appearance. After we warmed our frozen bodies and had a hot meal, they equipped us with blankets and led us back to the barn.

The noble paysan Kovalski saving the Jewish girls

It happened at Saturday evening, November 14th1942. On Sunday morning we were served with a breakfast. We left some food to take away, being sure that Kovalski will expel us. At noon he came in and seeing the food remnants he asked us “Why?”. We answered: “We are sure that you would not hide Jewish girls much longer. You are endangering the life of your entire family. For that reason we decided to go our way”. Kovalski, offended by our answer, said: “ Dear girls, my family and I, we decided to let you live with us. Your fate is our fate, our home is your home”.

It was a very cold winter. We froze in the barn. Kovalski, the good soul, invited us in his house to conceal us upon the oven. It was a not aired, a very hot place. Kovalski used to lead us every day for a couple of hours into the potatoes cellar to breath some air. The children cooperated with their parents, and at danger, they warned us with agreed signs.

One day German soldiers encircled the Krazhina hamlet, some 500 meters from us. They assembled all the hamlet inhabitants, spilled kerosene, set fire and burned all of them. They did it as revenge. Some partisans killed Germans soldiers, and took their retreat through Krazhina. Kovalski was conscious of the danger that awaited him and us. But he did not abandon us, on the contrary, as a good softhearted father he calmed and encouraged us. However I had a premonition that we are in danger staying at this house. Partisans were very active in the near by area. Fights and shootings broke from time to time. The Kovalskis asked and begged us to stay. But we decided to go. Kovalski made some journeys in the surrounding communities looking for traces of the Partisans.

He found a troop of Partisans and brought us to them. They were hostile, suspecting us as agents of the German intelligence services. They arranged a quick trial and convicted us to death. Before the execution hour approached a Krazhina partisan asked us who we were and from where we came. When I told him my name, he informed me that my brother Yehuda Yosef Potashnik is serving as a partisan near by. The Krazhina partisan told his commander that I am a well-known partisan's sister and he tore the paper with the verdict.

I was transferred with Mariyasha Kagan to Baksht. There were many active partisan units in the area. My brother Yehuda Yosef took me to the Lidayev partisan unit, in the Nalibok forest.

After some days the Germans surrounded the entire area. We hid in pits and other hiding places. When they left we concentrated in an outlying corner of the Nalibok forests. We established there a winter camp in which we lived until the Volozhyn liberation.

After the liberation we returned to Volozhyn. I went to see Kovalski. The relations between us tightened. He visited us every day. His son and daughter worked in town and dwelled in my house. In 1945 I left Volozhyn to Poland. In 1947 I made Aliya. All that time I wrote letters to Kovalski but I had no answers. In 1966 I received his address. Kovalski with his family lived in Ural. Without delay I sent him a vestments package. He confirmed with joy its reception and sent his thanks. Since then we correspond and I send him and his family members presents, thanking this noble man for saving my life.


Translator's note:

Kovalski Ivan, his wife and two children. “Dear girls, my family and I, we decided to let you live with us. Your fate is our fate, our home is your home”. Photo p. 553

Kovalski Ivan, his wife and two children

Pnina Hayat, Born in Volozhyn (as Peshka Potashnik), deceased in Israel 1974, VIB photo: p. 588, (seated, 1st, on right).

Potashnik Menahem Mendl, Rabbi, Pnina's brother, born in Volozhyn, Volozhyn Izkor Book committee member in USA., VIB Picture: p. 661.

Potashnik Yehuda Yosef, Pnina's brother, born in Volozhyn 1905, deceased in Israel 1965. - VIB Photo: p. 36 counted from left.

I remember: Peshke and Mendl Potashnik were employed at our family business (Grind & saw mill) in Volozhyn before the war.

[Page 554]

Pages about the Volozhin Holocaust

Fruma Lifshits (Gapanovitsh)

Extracts translated by M. Porat

The Soviets occupied Volozhin on September 17, 1939. I returned into town from Ivianits to teach Yiddish in the Hebrew School, which was turned to by the Communists to function as a Yiddish Primary School. In 1940/41 the Tarbut School finally was turned a Russian School, the Polish School to a Belorussian and the Polish Gymnasia to a Russian High School.

In June 1941 before the German occupation our family lived in Leybe Berman's house. We sent our girls, Shoshanele and Hayele, both born in Volozhin, to my parents in Radoshkovitsh to pass the summer vacation there. When the Nazis invaded our country, most of the Soviet citizens who lived in Western Belarus ran away towards the old border (Poland/Soviet Union pre-1939). The border passed through the outskirts of Radoshkovitsh. We decided, Yakov and me to follow their path. We took the road to Radoshkovitsh by foot to join my parents and our daughters. We walked the entire night. Yakov became totally exhausted. He stopped near the shtetl. I entered Radoshkovitsh alone. I met there my father only. My mother, sisters Braha and Heina, brother Israel and both my daughters had run away into the Ordanka hamlet, which in normal days served as a summer resting place. The burning town of Radoshkovitsh was overcrowded by refugees from Poland and Lithuania. Meanwhile, my husband recovered and arrived in town. We went to Ordanka from where we took our daughters and continued with them our wandering, this time to Horodok, where Kheyne my elder sister lived.

I went twice to Volozhin. I took some of the clothing we left there to exchange for food for the girls. I had the opportunity to enter the well-guarded ghetto through Pinchas the smith's workshop, which stood near the Ghetto fence. There I met Sonia nee Dubinski the daughter in law of my aunt Keyle Berkovitsh. They were astonished to see me. They were told that our family had been killed.

I returned to Horodok, where survivors of the mass-slaughter from Volozhin and Molodetshno arrived. The Germans established a small concentration work camp in Krasne, a crossroad junction, midway between Molodetshno and Radoshkovitsh. Jews who were able to work from Volozhin, Mir, Lida, Novogrudok, Horodok and other places were brought here to maintain the railroad. My husband was among them. When we separated I told him "Our fate, mine and the girls is determined, but you will survive because you are regarded as an efficient Jew" – such was our na´ve opinion.

Every week some workers were allowed to go and bring food from Horodok into the Krasne camp. My little six-year-old daughter caught a heavy scurvy gums illness. Mr. Ratskin the Judenrat head pitied me and arranged a permit for Yakov to visit us. The bitter end arrived at Shabbat that Yakov spent with us, on July 11th 1942. The Jews of Horodok and the vicinity did not sense the oncoming danger. Their last sleep had been a sleep of the just.

Gestapo and its local assistants invaded the Ghetto at daybreak to take out the Jews. At our home five persons were lodged. There were three hiding places. The hideout in which I concealed myself with my little girls was discovered by the local politsays (as the local policemen were called) after the "Aktion" had passed.

Mr. Ratskin, who was an elderly man, could no support the strangling atmosphere and went outside. His going out disclosed our hiding place. They shot at Yakov and killed him. The murderers gathered all the Jews into the square to be selected. Those they found able to work were transferred to the Krasne camp. The old ones, invalids and children were sent to death. Among the sentenced to die was also Fruma, Tsivya Tsart's mother. She had been beat bestially, until she was covered with blood. The Germans enclosed all of them inside a barn, shot them and burned it.

Translator's note: (as Fruma told me the evening I wrote it) In this barn together with the 900 (nine hundred) Jews of Horodok Fruma Lifshits's mother surrounded by her five grand children also found their tragic fate, among them Shoshanele and Hayele Lifshits.

Yakov had been shot by one of their gentile neighbors in Horodok. Fruma witnessed her husband's death and saw the bestial murderers throwing away his body.

Shoshanele and Hayele Lifshits

Lifshits children: Both were born in Volozhin, Shoshanele on July 7, 1933;
Hayele on April 24, 1936. Both of them were shot and burnt in Horodok on July 9, 1942.


Horodok Memorial

This memorial tombstone was erected in the nineteen nineties near the site where 900 Horodok Jews were slaughtered.
The plate on the left side (written in Hebrew) is dedicated to Yakov Lifshits and to his daughters Shoshanele and Hayele.

I was expelled to Krasne. Heyne my older sister was enclosed in the Krasne Concentration camp, my young sister with me in the Krasne Ghetto. There I met people from Volozhin, among them Yosef Tabakhovitsh and his wife Elke (born Shuker). Tsviya Tsart dwelled beside me and my sister on the same planks.

It was impossible to preserve hygienic conditions. A typhus epidemic broke out. As a result we were hospitalized in a house outside the Ghetto. We were privileged to be inspected by the Gestapo physician. He supervised the patients and determined by the movement of his cane who would be carried out into the "bath house" i.e. for execution.

After typhus I was very feeble. My father would endanger himself by infiltrating from the camp into the ghetto to bring me some grains to fortify my body. We were brought into the "bath house". The Germans examined our withered bodies, but for some reason our fate was not decided.

Thanks to my poor health status I was released from work for a few days. I used this time to seek food for my hungry friends in the Krasne Ghetto.

Once with my brother in law and with Ester Rogovin from Horodok we went into a hamlet to gather bread. On the way back we came up against guards of the German Police. When they passed near us we distinguished red bands on the "Germans" forearms. Actually they were Russian partisans who had fought a German unit the day before. They had won the battle, took the German uniforms and wore them.

We talked to them and they agreed to take Jews who would carry arms and escape from the Krasne camp.

We returned to Krasne and told everyone the exciting news. We found ways to secretly buy rifles. A group of us had succeeded one day to pass the rails and join the partisans. They accepted us thanks to efforts made by Eliezer Rogovin. A new unit was founded by the name of "Staritski" within the "Tshkalov" brigade. We met some Volozhiners in the forest, among them Feygele Perski, Hirshl Rogovin, Ishayahu Lieberman and Pashe Perski the wife of Simha Perski.

I was transferred into a partisan's arms repair workshop after a little time, where I worked until liberation on July 1944.

From time to time bitter fights occurred between German forces and partisan units. The hardest German attacks broke out in July 1943. During this period many partisan garrisons existed in the forests of Belarus. In order to fight them, the Germans organized the Vlassov army, named after the infamous Russian traitor General Vlassov. Those units were composed of Belarus, Kazaks, Lithuanians, Ukrainians and other anti-Semites, all of them hooligan-murderers. Their first mission was destruction of hamlets and farms near the forests. The fate of the peasants in those hamlets was not much better than of the Jews. Many Christians ran to the forest. The Germans opened an offensive on the forest, by heavy shooting, shelling and setting fires.

Translators note: We found in "PAMYAT' "– "MEMORY" (published by the Volozhin Region Authorities, 1996), page 272, a German-SS officer reporting to his headquarters:
General Commissar Office of the Minsk City
Department No 1 – Politics
  Translated from German to Russian language,
The City of Minsk, May 31st 1943.
To the head of Department No 1:
I'm reporting to your knowledge about the events as follows. Dr. Valkovitsh, head of the Belarus Self-Help Organization notified me that on May 27th 14:00 Ukrainian units of the SS gathered all the inhabitants of Krivsk hamlet into two houses. They set fire the houses. The gathered people were burned to death. A similar event took place in Krazhino on May 21st. Both hamlets are positioned in the Volozhin region of the Vileyka district.
Signed: Langer

We were obliged to disperse. Kopl Kagan, Peshka Potashnik, her brothers Yehuda and Yosef, my brother in law Berman and I, we found a hideout from which we got out just to meet the liberating Red Army.

Together with Peshka Potashnik we went through Krasne and Horodok into Volozhin. I decided very soon to leave the shtetl where each stone was impregnated with blood of our dearest. The Soviet authorities suggested that I teach in a Belarussian school. I refused, as I was not ready to teach youngsters who willingly assisted the Nazis in murdering Jews. I crossed the border to Bialostock in Poland. But here too in the Land of the Jews' extermination camps, where the A.K.(Armiya Krayova) blood thirsty anti-Semites awaited us, I could not stay. I continued my wandering. From Bialostock I went to Lublin, and then with a Zionist refugee Organization, I went through Czechoslovakia to Hungary and Romania.

After the victory on May 1945 we did not want to remain in a communist-ruled country behind the Iron Curtain. With assistance of the Zionist Organization we passed the frontiers to Austria and then to Italy. We did a Hakhshara (training, usually for agricultural work) near Bari and than we waited to go to the Land of Israel. The British Government had refused to deliver the certificates permitting our entry into our Land, so we went to Israel with the Illegal Aliya. Along with 170 Jews, war refugees, we boarded a small boat. I arrived in Erets Israel in September 1945.

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