Translated from the Hebrew by Jerrold Landau
Donated by Aron Charad
My father was a small-scale merchant who dealt in the buying and selling of chickens, eggs, fish, fruit and other such products. He would send the merchandise for sale in the regional city of Vilna. During the time of Soviet rule, father worked as a warehouse keeper in the bakery of the Kort family. His job was to receive the flour and deliver the bread. I worked in the tailoring workshop, my brother Yisrael worked as a firefighter, and my brother Moshe worked in a print shop.
After the German invasion of Russia, unrest pervaded the town. The Soviet officials began to withdraw, leaving us to our fate. A portion of the Jewish population, especially the young people, began to escape in the direction of the old Polish-Russian border, with the hope of entering the Soviet Union and remaining there until the fury had passed.
In our house we thought that all of us must flee, but father was opposed. What happens to the People of Israel will happen to Reb Yisrael, he said. [In other words, he'd share the fate of whatever befell the Jews of Braslav.] We, the sons, were already of age, and we decided to set out on our own. My sister Sima remained at home with our parents. Along with us, a large group of young people headed toward the town of Druya [Druja, about 34 kilometers northeast of Braslav/Braslaw, next to the Dvina River]. Along the way, we met the wagon driver Pesach Shkolnik and his daughter Libka; they were traveling in the same direction. The next morning, we were shelled from the other side of the Dvina River. We were told that the Russians were prohibiting people from crossing the [pre-1939] border. Discouraged and disappointed, we returned to Braslav. It was difficult for us to walk the 40 [sic] kilometers by foot. We walked only at night, with the flames of burning villages lighting our path.
When we entered Braslav, we learned that the German Army had already arrived. In our house we found only our parents, our sister was no longer there. We learned that the Germans had arrested members of the Communist Party as well as the Komsomol youth. My sister was a Komsomol member, and everyone had advised her to quickly leave town, despite rumors that the situation wouldn't last, the Russians would repel the Germans, and she'd be able to return. Several months passed, Sima didn't come back, and we became convinced that she'd been killed somewhere.
Several days after the entry of the Germans, Soviet airplanes bombarded local concentrations of the German army. The next day, the Germans arrested
a Jewish girl [Beilka Deitch] and two lads, accusing them of cooperating with the Soviets by signaling the airplanes and pointing out the bases and shelters. After being tortured, they were taken out and killed.
The next victims were 14 Jews who were murdered based on the slander of a Polish work supervisor, who informed the Germans that the workers had been careless on the job. Our work was stripping bark off logs of wood at the railway station, after which the wood was sent to Germany. We worked without a break. It was forbidden to raise one's head or take a rest.
In Slobodka [about 11 kilometers northeast of Braslav], there were army barracks. The Germans learned that the Russians had hidden weapons there during their retreat. We were sent there. We dug, found the weapons, and loaded them onto the railway cars. We loaded barrels of water onto trucks; after we finished the job, a German ordered us to climb onto the barrels. Suddenly we realized that another German was aiming his rifle at us. We were very frightened. One of them photographed the event. We unloaded the barrels at the bakery and received a loaf of bread, a not-insignificant return for the fright.
When the ghetto [in Braslav] was established [officially on April 1, 1942, although Jews in the region were being concentrated in Braslav before that date], we were ordered to leave our homes and enter the ghetto, where we lived together with the family of Leizer Frumin. We gave our cow to our Polish neighbor and asked him to bring us a bit of milk from time to time. We also gave many articles of clothing to sell to a farmer from the village of Diedushki [Dzieduszki, 12 kilometers southeast of Braslav]. In times of need, we exchanged belongings for food.
Nine of us lived in the tiny dwelling. In the ghetto, we already knew that the Germans were liquidating the Jews. News reached us about the liquidation of Jews in neighboring villages. We didn't believe that it was possible to hide and save ourselves. The Germans received a great deal of assistance from the local Christian residents, who knew everything that was happening in the town. Nevertheless, people began to prepare hiding places.
[Meanwhile] the Germans were sending messages of assurance through the Judenrat [Jewish Council], stating that nothing bad would happen to the Jews of Braslav, since they were diligent and obedient workers.
We, the four men in the family, decided to prepare a hiding place to use in case of need. We began to dig together with our neighbors, the Tvoretzki family. Their house seemed suitable to us for this purpose, since it was located some distance from the street and was close to the mountain. The work had to be carried out secretly, in quiet. We had to watch out for not only the police but also the eyes of neighbors. The entrance to the hiding place was below the bathroom.
Early in the morning of Wednesday, June 3, 1942, we heard shouting outside and orders to come out of the houses. Some people managed to hide, but we thought that in all the commotion we'd be able to flee to an outlying village, to our acquaintances. We were mistaken. On leaving the house, we saw that we were surrounded on all sides by armed men, who were leading everyone in one direction. We were forced to advance together with everyone else. Our family walked together, and when we neared the house of Falka Katz we began to run behind the houses to get back to our hiding place. Shots were fired at us from the direction of the mountain, but we succeeded in going down into the shelter. We stayed there for three days, but were captured on Friday, the third day of the slaughter: Someone went out to fetch a bit of rainwater to drink, and a policeman noticed him. They ambushed us like dogs. The police and gendarmes arrived immediately and demanded that we leave our hiding place, or else they'd throw a grenade inside.
The family of Meir-Yossel Deitch, relatives of the Tvoretzki family, was together with us. Some of them succeeded in getting away. My two brothers also succeeded in escaping from the police. The rest of us were arrested and taken to the gathering place in the building of the tax office. I was taken there along with Matus (Matityahu), with father and mother behind us. In the building, we met other Jews who'd been captured in other hiding places. Everyone's fate was sealed. I recall Chaim-Aizik Maron standing there, weeping bitterly. I remember a large room in which many articles of clothing had been thrown. First names and surnames had been written on the walls, and next to each one was the word umgekumen (perished).
While we'd been in the ghetto, mother had given articles of value to each of us, saying that we should keep them until a time of need, so that we might save ourselves and survive. Now, confined in the tax office, I tried my luck, knowing that our end might come the next day. Next to the door sat a policeman, as well as a member of the Judenrat wearing an armband (I won't mention his name). I gathered my courage, approached him and offered him an antique watch made of gold, from the days of Czar Nicholas, if he let us go. He refused and ordered me to move away from the door. Later, I tried again. By this time it was already dark, and next to the door sat just one sleepy policeman. To this day, I can't explain how I slipped past him into the yard. In the yard lay the bodies of people who'd been murdered. I jumped over the corpses and ran through the yards until I reached the house of Leib Gurevitz. There I encountered a Jew, who dragged me to shelter. This time, I was saved. I sat there, frightened and trembling with emotion. There I also found my friend Meir Gurevitz.
But we had to leave this shelter. The police and the Germans were moving from house to house, searching every corner, and it was very difficult to hide from them. Meir's mother, Rachel, told us to flee. My mother, Isel, of blessed memory, was from the village of Diedushki, where several Jewish families had lived previously. Mother had gone to school with the villagers, and many of the girls in the village were her friends. She'd known every farmer there, and in the summer we'd gone there for vacation. Now I decided to flee to that place.
At the entrance to the village was a bridge guarded by the Germans. On the way there, we met the sister of the policeman Kolkovski [Kolkowski] and found ourselves between a hammer and an anvil. But fate was kind to us: The two guards were lying asleep next to the bridge, with their weapons at their sides. We managed to cross the bridge without being noticed, but then they awoke and began shouting at us to halt. Frightened, we ran in different directions; we were separated and never saw each other again. After the war, I heard that Meir had entered the ghetto in Glubok [Glubokoye, 72 kilometers southeast of Braslav], where he'd been killed.
I laid in the field all night and entered the village early in the morning. I met my older brother, Yisrael, at the home of our good friend Mikita Sevelevitz [Sewelewicz], and later my third brother, Moshe, arrived. Mikita took us to his acquaintance, Vanka, in the village of Buyavshchitzna [Bujewszczyzna, about two kilometers east of Dzieduszki], who belonged to an ancient sect of the Orthodox Christian faith. He hid us in his house for several months. We slept in the attic, dug into piles of fodder and hay, while the lice and mice ate us alive. When we learned that a second ghetto was being set up in Braslav, we went there. The people in this ghetto numbered several hundred, some of them from Opsa. The Judenrat also consisted of several Jews from Opsa. Mikita and the Polish neighbor with whom we'd left the cow would bring us a bit of food. The ghetto was surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by policemen; one of them was the former conductor of the band in which I'd played. Later Vanka, the farmer with whom we'd hidden, came to us and told us
of a rumor that our ghetto [the Opsa Ghetto in Braslav] would soon be liquidated. He suggested that we return to his house. With his agreement, we dug a hiding place there under the sheep pen.
[In this way] Vanka saved us from certain death. A few days after we left the ghetto, the gendarmes and police arrived, led everyone to the pits, and murdered them. This was on the eve of Purim, 1943.
We remained with Vanka for several months. After it became known that he was hiding Jews, he asked that we find another place for ourselves. As always, help came from our friend Mikita. He found for us a farmer in the same village, Kasan was his name; at his place, we dug a shelter in the cowshed. We covered the walls of the pit with the doors of the village bathhouses, which we stole from nearby villages during the night. Once, as we were attempting to take down a door, we saw the shadow of a man and became very frightened. We learned that he was a Russian officer who'd escaped from a prison camp near Dvinsk. He joined us, and we lived together. Later, we found out that the farmer had also hidden Leib Sherman and his children.
|Notice from the War Commissariat informing Sima Charat [sister of Rafael] that two of her brothers, soldiers in the Red Army, had fallen as heroes on the battlefield:
Yisrael Charat, fell on September 9, 1944
Moshe Charat, had been gravely wounded, dying on September 20, 1944
Translated from the Hebrew by Laia Ben-Dov
Donated by Jeff Deitch
When the Germans and Russians divided Poland between them in September 1939, I was a lad of 15. Suddenly I became an adult. Life's routine was broken; everything changed. We went from being cattle traders in independent Poland to farmers in Soviet Russia. Ten hectares of agricultural land were divided between my father and his two brothers. At home, we were, in addition to our parents, four sisters and three brothers: Masha, Moshe, Sheina, Sara-Gutka, Libka, Tevka [Tuvia] and me. All of us from the Biliak family, a respected family. After the Holocaust, only two of us remained: me and my brother Moshe. Masha our big sister was married in 1933 to Yankel Glazer. At home, she caused us a lot of problems and anguish, like Hodel in Tevye the Dairyman. Our Masha was an active member of the Communist Party, which was illegal in Poland. Occasionally they'd arrest her and put her in jail in Braslav [Braslaw] or in Lukishki [Lukiskes Prison] in Vilna. This would happen in the runup toward the workers' holiday, May 1, and also before the anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution [October-November]. She was [also] arrested when they found Communist propaganda material in the attic. Before the war began, she and her husband had two children, Avraham-Itza and Rivkele. The third child Velvele was born during the war, and he was half a year old when the Nazis murdered the Jews of Braslav.
We parted from our big brother Moshe with a sad heart. He was drafted into the Polish army, in the war against the Nazi invader, at the beginning of September 1939. Their advance was much faster than expected, and it could be estimated that within a few weeks they'd take all of Poland. We grew worried about our fate; we feared the Germans.
Then came the decision of the Soviet authorities to rule over eastern Poland (as they said, to free the areas of Belorussia and western Ukraine). With flowers and kisses and shows of happiness, we willingly received the Red Army. We began to grow accustomed to a new, strange way of life [Soviet rule]. We became accustomed to shortages and standing in line for necessities, and we also learned to be afraid. The men of the NKVD would sometimes take unwanted families and send them to distant locations. Jews from Braslav were sent as far away as Siberia.
We lived under the Soviet regime for about two years [September 1939 to June 1941]. Frightening news reached us about the Nazis' treatment of their Jewish population. Then, before we understood what would happen, it became our turn.
We were astonished when we heard that the Germans had invaded the Soviet Union [on June 22, 1941]. We were shocked by the strength and rapid advance of their army. The Red Army withdrew, sometimes in confusion, deep into Russia. On the fourth day of the war, the last Russian officers and their families left Braslav. The civil government, the police and the party, also left. We remained without a government. There were no Poles, the Russians had fled, and the Germans hadn't yet arrived.
On the fifth day of the war, the Germans entered Braslav. First a number of patrols riding on motorcycles, and then the army. They located themselves opposite our house, in the yard of Skuriat and along the length of Lake Dryviata [Dryviaty]. After that, they changed locations and moved the army next to the train [station]. Remaining near us were a number of their workshops and a bakery that was established with three large machines to supply their bread. They grabbed people [Jews] for various types of work. They also took me for work in the bakery, with 20 other men. We worked from morning till night. Each order from them began with Du verfluchter Jude [You cursed Jew]. Many times they dragged me to work at the train [station]. We worked many hours at hard labor. We loaded weapons, hay, wood and other things. Despite our good work, they beat and cursed us. If a Jew had a beard, they'd grab it and shake his head in every direction.
After that came a succession of things: a Judenrat [Jewish Council], Jewish police, yellow patches, a prohibition to walk on the sidewalks and a prohibition on buying in the market; contributions of large sums of money, valuables and good clothing.
The day before Pesach 1942 [on March 31, 1942], an order was published requiring Jews to leave their houses and property and move to a ghetto. The ghetto ran along the entire length of Pilsudski Street, and it was divided in two. Across the bridge, in the direction of Slobodka [to the northeast], the elderly and their families had to gather (nicht arbeits-fähig not fit for work), in other words: the dead ghetto. Our house stood within the elderly ghetto, and we very much wanted to stay in our house. My father went to his friend, Rafael Fisher, a member of the Judenrat, to consult with him. Rafael told him, You can remain in your house. All of us are sentenced to be destroyed. They might destroy you earlier. We moved to live together with the family of my uncle, Mulka Biliak, my father's brother. Everything was done in a big hurry: the crowding in the house was great, the conditions were terrible, the children were crying. We received a little bit of food from the Gentiles in exchange for some clothes and valuables. We knew that the ghetto was temporary; they were concentrating the Jews before destroying them. We had to find a hiding place and try to remain alive. We dug a pit under the house, pouring the dirt into the river under the bridge. We made an opening in the floor to go down [into the pit], well camouflaged. We prepared water and food in the pit. On June 1, 1942, they ordered the Judenrat to send to Slobodka (10 kilometers from Braslav) 100 young people to clean the army barracks, mostly girls. I and my sister Libka were among those drafted. They gathered us all in the yard of the Judenrat. On June 2, Tuesday morning, we went out on the road. Gendarmes and armed police who rode on bicycles accompanied us. The [Gentile] people of Slobodka pitied us and gave us water and a bit of food. On Wednesday morning, they gathered us again and we were told that we were returning home. Our happiness was boundless. We walked in loose order. Along the entire way, we met patrols.
As we approached Braslav, a unit of gendarmes met us. Brutally and with curses, they began to crowd us together and speed us up. Shlomke Shapira, walking next to me, said I have a feeling something's happening in Braslav. Come, let's run away. At a suitable opportunity, we rushed from the group. Hirshke from Zamosh [Zamosz] joined us. We hid until the group moved far away. Later, I was told by my sister [who stayed with the group]: Only after the group entered Braslav did everything become clear to them. The marches to the extermination pits were at their height. The city was full of Germans, Lithuanian police, Latvians and locals. On every side there were screams and shots, beatings and curses. In the group [coming back from Slobodka] there was fright and confusion. A few tried to escape and succeeded, as did my sister. Others were shot and wounded. The soldiers took most of them to the pits and killed them in cold blood. And my sister further told me: Next to the gate of the cattle market they saw two bodies, of Avramke and Naftal Fisher [Avraham, the son of Baruch Fisher, and Naftali, the son of Zalman-Yaacov Fisher]; they'd fiercely resisted the police who came to take them to the pits, and the police had shot them.
The order to begin the destruction of the Braslav Ghetto on Wednesday, June 3,  came from the Gebietskommissar [district commissioner] from Minsk. The night before the massacre, we noticed forces arriving in the town and spreading out around it. These were Einsatzgruppen [mobile killing squads], Lithuanians, Latvians and locals. To assist, vehicles arrived loaded with gendarmes from Gleboki [Glubokoye, about 70 kilometers southeast of Braslav]. On this day [June 3] they went wild; they murdered and slaughtered multitudes of the Jews of Braslav.
That night, the street of the ghetto was quiet. Patrols circulated outside. When they went away from our house, I snuck out and entered the family hiding place. My sister Libka had already managed to come. My family was saved from the massacre on the first day, except for my sister Sheinka; we didn't know what had happened to her when we all went down into the hiding place. Apparently, she was grabbed and killed. The next day, the soldiers continued their work: they broke the doors and windows of houses, turned over furniture and looked for hiding places. We were lucky; they found no one in our house and didn't see the entrance to our hiding place. In our hiding place, my sister Masha's baby Velvele was crying. We were afraid his cries would reveal the hiding place and its inhabitants, and my sister put a feather pillow over his mouth, and then the crying stopped. The massacre of the Jews of Braslav continued for three days. In the first massacre, our family lost two of its members [Sheinka and apparently Velvele, who it seems was suffocated].
We knew our shelter was just temporary; we had to flee. Even before the massacre, my father had gone to speak with farmers from the neighboring villages. They showed a willingness to help us when needed. One of them was our friend Petro the priest from the Belmont church [Belmont was about seven kilometers southeast of Braslav]. On Friday night [June 5], we decided to try our luck. We went out: Father, my sister Masha and her husband Yankel [Glazer], my sister Libka, my brother Tevka and me. Mother remained in the hiding place with her two grandchildren Masha's children. With them also was my sister Gutka [Sara-Gutka], who didn't want to leave mother alone with the children. We decided: We'll find a safe place, then come back and take them with us.
At the entrance to Belmont, there was a large bridge, well guarded by the Germans, so it was necessary to go around it. We asked for help from an acquaintance who lived near the bridge. After midnight he put us all into a boat, made a big detour far from the bridge and brought us into Belmont. The priest was surprised to see us and happy that we'd come. He'd thought for sure that we'd been killed. He received us with food, drink and tears in his eyes, and promised to help us survive. First, he took us into the church and locked it. To his congregation he said, It's better for the church to be locked and not used as a hiding place by undesirables who are passing through. On Sundays, he'd return us to his house and open the gates of the church to the worshippers.
A number of days after the massacre, the oppressors passed through Braslav and announced on loudspeakers that all those who were hiding could come out; nothing
bad would happen to them. My mother, my sister, the children and many others with them who had survived believed the announcements and went outside. All of them were gathered into the yard of the Judenrat and some days later they were all taken to the pits; their end was like those who'd gone before them.
Yankel, Masha's husband, decided to return to Braslav and bring the children, mother and my sister. We didn't yet know that they'd already surrendered themselves and been killed. When he reached Braslav, he was caught; they beat him and killed him. The priest [in Belmont] began to look for safer places for us. He took Masha to a farmer in the village Zaravtzi, where they hid her under a large Russian stove; the chickens were also kept there. Father, me, Tevka and Libka he brought to the village Piatoshki to two brothers who weren't married. They hid us in the cellar under the cowshed, and at night we'd go up in the attic, where we had a lot of air and a larger living space than in the cellar. We paid them generously for all of their kindnesses: the lodgings and the food, the communication between us and the goodness of their hearts. For just one thing was compensation impossible the fear. Whoever hid a Jew lived in constant fear. The villagers were warned continuously not to hide Jews, and woe to the person who had a hidden Jew found in his house. His fate, the fate of his family and his possessions, was sealed. The house and its contents would be burned, the animals taken, and the entire family would be killed. Once the brothers hinted to us that a few of us would have to find another place [to hide]. We heard that in Opsa [18 kilometers southwest of Braslav] a ghetto still existed; we had acquaintances there. We decided to separate: Father and my sister Libka would stay where they were, my sister Masha would move to a neighboring village, and I and Tevka would go to Opsa. We said our goodbyes, and we parted from the brothers who'd put their lives in danger because of us. They told us how to go on the roads and paths, through the forests and villages. On the way, villagers helped us. All the time, we faced dangerous threats; we were afraid but continued onward. Everyone was looking for Jews: the Germans naturally and the local police they were drafted to do this and did their work faithfully. Every Gentile who caught a Jew and turned him over to the authorities received salt as a reward. (There was a great shortage of this necessity.)
Before the entrance to Opsa, a local Gentile told us how to enter the ghetto without being seen. He pointed to a small wood not far from where we stood, and told us that two bodies were lying there: Mulka and Chemka [Nechemia], the sons of Leib Sherman. They were two young sons of Braslav, like us, who'd been caught, tortured and beheaded. We approached and identified them. We wept. In our minds arose gloomy thoughts. We couldn't stay in the Opsa Ghetto for two reasons: First, it was closed to Jews from outside, and worse: every day police from Braslav visited, and they might recognize us. If caught, we could expect certain death. We kept going, somehow, for another 20 kilometers. Exhausted, we reached the Vidz Ghetto [the Widze Ghetto, about 20 kilometers southwest of Opsa]. Here we were allowed to stay for some time. Three weeks passed; we'd only just managed to recover and rest a little. Then an order came for the Judenrat to send a group of young men to the labor camp in Sventzion [about 45 kilometers southwest of Vidz]. They put us in this transport. The camp [in the Sventzion Ghetto] was on Vilna Street, in an area fenced in with barbed wire. They took us inside and separated us into miserable huts. We were about 500 Jews. All of us worked at repairing the train tracks from Sventzion [sic] to Podbrodz [Pabrade, about 27 kilometers southwest of the train station at Nei-Sventzion and 32 kilometers southwest of Sventzion]. They put us to work early in the morning and returned us late. We worked at hard labor for half a year, supervised by the men of Todt. Then we were told they were transferring us to the Vilna and Kovno ghettos. From trustworthy sources, we learned immediately
that the destruction of the labor camp was part of the overall plan for destruction, and that some of us would be sent to Ponar.
Meanwhile, in the autumn of 1942, the Germans established another ghetto in Braslav. When this became known to my father and sisters, who believed the Germans' promises of no more killing they went to the ghetto. In March 1943 [March 19], the ghetto was destroyed and all of them were killed. Now from my family, just I and my brother Tevia remained, and unfortunately the two of us became separated. He decided, with his friend Shlomo Yechilchik, to go to the Vilna Ghetto; I, Moshe Milutin, Yerachmiel Milutin and his wife Esther, all of us from Braslav, decided to go to the Kozian forests, where we'd heard partisans were organizing themselves, and join them. We snuck out of the camp [at the Sventzion Ghetto] and went on our way. We arrived at the village of Kamyelnik, near Lintup [Lyntupy, about 13 kilometers southeast of Sventzion]. We asked one of the farmers we met, and who seemed to be a decent man, if there were any partisans in the area. We'd found the right person. Because we were Jews he put his confidence in us, telling us the partisans had passed by that night and he'd inform us when they came back. The time Pesach Eve 1943 [April 19]; spring. For a week we hid in the forest and then, when the partisans returned from their mission, the Gentile [arranged for us to meet] with their officer Charitonov. In the course of the conversation we asked him to accept us into the otriad, and we showed him our weapons. He was convinced of our desire to fight the Germans, and he agreed to take us.
Now we were partisans. We had to prove our will to fight and revenge ourselves on the Germans and their collaborators. At night, we went out to the base. In the river, near Paltrova, on the way to their mission, the partisans had submerged two boats. Now we had to take them out and use them to cross the river again. But here we met a surprise. A Lithuanian police unit knew of our movements, apparently because of a denunciation, and they were waiting for us. When we approached the place where the boats had been hidden, they directed heavy fire at us. We fled in disorder to the nearby forest and hid. We'd passed a serious baptism of fire. The next day, we met in the partisan base in Paltrova. At first, they joined the Braslav group to the otriad in the name of Chapayev, but after a number of weeks, they transferred us and a few others to the otriad named Spartak [the Spartak brigade]. In the Kozian forests additional Jewish fighters joined us, as well as Russian soldiers who'd fled German imprisonment. Within a short time, they appointed me officer of a section in the second otriad and Yerachmiel Milutin the assistant officer of a patrol section. I went out on most missions together with Moshe Milutin.
In Vidz, there were many gendarmes and local policemen. They plotted against the villagers with the excuse that the villagers were helping the partisans; they took their possessions and even burned their homes. It was decided to teach them a lesson. On the orders of Commander Strikov, we went out, hundreds of partisans, to attack the uniformed men in Vidz. In addition, we were ordered to take control of the pharmacy in the town and get medicines from it. In a surprise attack, we killed many. We also lost some [fighters] killed, among them six Jews.
To guard a certain important section of the train track near Voropaivo station [Woropajewo, about 55 kilometers south of Braslav], the Germans built bunkers. From these bunkers, they guarded against attacks by the partisans. We received an order to destroy the bunkers; we had to blow them up with the soldiers inside. According to the report of the patrols that surveyed the target, 500 Germans were there. Under the leadership of Ponomariev [Arkadi Ponomarev] we went out, 250 partisans, to carry out the mission. When we got near the place, we divided into squads. The bunkers were equipped with machine guns. In our hands was a new Russian anti-tank gun (PTR) that was excellent for cracking bunkers. We approached in the dark, without them sensing us, until we were 50 meters away, and on command we opened fire with all our weapons. Our success was complete; we blew up the bunkers and killed the Germans.
At the beginning of 1944, I was appointed officer of the punishment section. The group numbered six men, and besides me there was another Jew, Tzalka Malozhki. We received our instructions from the intelligence department next to headquarters. We acted against traitors and collaborators with the Germans, denouncers, murderers of Jews and the like. Sometimes we carried out the death penalty in the place where they lived, and other times we brought them to headquarters.
When they came to destroy the Jews of the second ghetto in Braslav [the Opsa Ghetto in Braslav, which was liquidated on March 19, 1943], Leizer Biliak fought against them with all his strength. With his pistol he shot and killed a German, wounded several others and then succeeded in fleeing. The Germans promised a reward to whoever handed him over to their security forces. Leizer knew the village and the place where his relative Yerachmiel Biliak was hiding. When he got there, he found Yerachmiel's brother Chontza with his children; they also had nowhere to go. Yerachmiel's hiding place was too small to contain them all, so Leizer went out with Chontza to look for another hiding place. In the course of their wandering, they entered the village Matseshe [Maciesze, 13 kilometers southeast of Braslav], to their acquaintances the Primchenko family, and asked Alyocha, the head of that family, to allow them to rest and wash. Alyocha agreed, while signaling to his sons that they should notify the Germans that two Jews were in his house, and that one of them was the wanted man Leizer Biliak. Within a short time, the gendarmes arrived and arrested Leizer and Chontza. They took them out to a nearby hill and shot them.
Two weeks later, villagers told us the story. We decided to take revenge. Three times we went to the village: I, Yerachmiel Biliak and Moshe Milutin, and with us the partisan Pitka Kasharavski, to kill the father and the sons. Twice we returned, because not all of them were in the house. The third time, we found them all. We were prepared for them to resist or try to escape; three of us took positions around the house. Alone, I entered. They recognized me and immediately understood why I came, and they grew very frightened. They tried to escape. I shot one of the sons and killed him. The second son and Alyocha were killed outside by the friends who'd came with me. Consolation? No, but still it was revenge.
At the end of the war, my brother Moshe and Yehuda Graber retrieved Leizer's and Chontza's bodies and brought them to burial next to the pits [in Braslav]. May their memory be blessed!
In the summer of 1944, the Braslav region was liberated, and much more. The partisan units disbanded. I was drafted into the Red Army, and I continued to fight the Germans in the framework of the first Pre-Baltic front until victory over Hitler and his army. Then I returned to Braslav. I went to see with my own eyes the pits next to the train [station] that were filled with thousands of Jews. I also learned that my brother Tuvia [Tevka] had been killed in the police station of the Vilna Ghetto. With the help of the Red Cross, I located my brother Moshe. I'm not the only orphan. Of our family, we two survived.
Translated from the Hebrew by Jerrold Landau
Donated by Jeff Deitch
On September 1, 1939, at the outbreak of the German-Polish war, I was immediately drafted into the army, as were many others from Braslav [Braslaw] and its surroundings. We were taken on the first train to Sventzion [Swieciany, about 85 kilometers southwest of Braslav]. Many draftees from different towns and villages arrived there a lot of people. In the evening we had a festive gathering, on the initiative of the locals and artists from among the draftees. It was a pleasant and enjoyable event, despite the shock and astonishment of the outbreak of war and the sudden enlistment. But the evening didn't end as planned. In the middle of it, a Polish officer arrived riding on a horse and ordered us all to enter the train cars waiting for us at the station. We were about 2,000 people. All of us were already wearing army uniforms and carrying guns and food. We obeyed the command at top speed, and the train set out. I was able to find a seat, and because I was very tired I fell asleep. We knew we were being taken to the front to fight the invaders. To tell the truth, I'd no wish to fight for the Poles, but this time I knew I'd be fighting against the enemy of the Jews.
We approached Lomzhe [Lomza, about 380 kilometers southwest of Swieciany], but we couldn't enter the railway station. German airplanes had preceded us and bombed the railways and everything on them locomotives, wagons and war equipment. We passed the town. The bombing had also damaged living areas, and houses were burning. We passed wagons carrying wounded and dead. In some of the places, bearded Jews stood looking out for Jewish soldiers, and they offered us food and drink. We also endured a bombardment as we crossed the bridge over the Narev [Narew] River outside Lomzhe. The airplanes hunted two targets together a bridge and a large Polish army concentration. We had already crossed the bridge when it collapsed. Many of our soldiers were killed or wounded, and we hadn't yet hurt even one German.
We were ordered to dig ourselves in and fight. A long time had passed since I'd received any training, and the others were the same as me army reservists. We fought an entire week and suffered many losses, but we managed to hold the line for a time and inflict losses on the enemy. Once, we even launched a counterattack; we forced the enemy to withdraw with many dead and wounded, but this was a passing episode. The next day, they repaid us with such a blow
that we couldn't recover. Only a few of us were left, and we scattered in every direction.
Three of us ran in one direction; me and two shkotzim [a disparaging term for Gentile young men]. We sought shelter. At night, we walked along a canal. In the morning we were discovered, and the enemy shot at us. A small grove was in front of us. We advanced, bent and crawling, and one of the Gentiles was hit in the eye by a bullet. We wanted to rest a little in the grove and care for this wounded man. Suddenly, there was a shout: Hände hoch! [Hands up!]. One of us succeeded in running away [while I and the wounded Gentile were captured]. We were taken to a small village and the wounded man was bandaged. After a while, the man who'd escaped was caught and shot; they suspected he was a spy. The two of us were transferred to a prisoner camp in another village.
For several days, I worked in a field bakery and ate well. On the fifth day of our stay in the village, I noticed increased movement by the Germans around us. The same day, we received a command we organized ourselves like good soldiers. We were taken out of the place, and we marched … We were told we'd have to march to Hamburg. None of us could estimate the distance, but it seemed very threatening. We walked. The food was meager, and the drink also was limited.
All my life, I'll remember that chaotic march and what happened to us on the way. We were very many prisoners; I can't estimate our number. We arrived in Hamburg two weeks later with fewer than half our people. A sane man would never be able to understand why they had to kill so many people on the way. What a satanic idea it was!
We passed through forests, groves and villages, and another forest was ahead on our route. We were told to take off our shirts, stand in order and walk in single file, one behind the other. The path was very narrow, and there were cut trees on the side along the entire path, like markers along the path. The forest was very dark and dense. As we advanced, some Germans stood on both sides of the path opposite us, waiting for us, as if greeting a military parade. Our many guards started to push us forward. As we passed them, they shot anyone who happened to be in front of their pistol muzzles. We started to run and bend over; we stepped on the bodies of our fellow soldiers. By the time we came out of the forest, our ranks were much reduced. We continued the tiring march. We were frightened, tired and wounded. Even the little food we had I couldn't put in my mouth.
In Hamburg, we were placed in a camp with an electric barbed-wire fence. The guard was increased, and they were armed with machine guns. We were put into miserable huts, with no windows or doors. The roofs were sloped to the ground.
|Recruits of the Polish army, September 1939. Eliahu Munitz
(first from the right)
and Hirsh Chepelevitz (third from the right) later fell in battle.
The Incident with the Coat
On the way to Hamburg, not far from the road we'd passed through, I'd seen a Polish officer lying dead on the ground. It was autumn; it was cold already and raining outside, and our clothes were torn and ragged. I removed his coat from him and put it on. It was ragged, but anyway it was a coat. At night, in the open huts we slept huddled together, covering ourselves with the coat.
There was a well with a hand pump in the camp yard. One morning I went out to wash, and when I came back … the coat was gone. Where's my coat? I asked. No one in the hut knew anything about it. I went outside, walked around the hut, and there was a Polish prisoner from a nearby hut, holding my coat. I approached him, yelling in anger, Why'd you take my coat?! You damned Jews, he replied. I hit him so hard that he fell against the sloped roof. I took the coat from his hands and returned to the hut.
The camp guards heard shouting, saw prisoners gathering, and called for help and entered the camp. They asked questions, investigated, and took me outside. My friends, Jewish prisoners, grew concerned about my fate. Outside they investigated, asked questions, took photographs, and took me into a nice building. I waited a bit. A door was opened, and I was told to enter; a severe-looking German officer was sitting at a well-ordered desk. I stood there trembling. In one second, many thoughts passed through my mind: They don't need many reasons to kill a Polish prisoner, let alone a Jew. To the officer's question about how I'd arrived there, I answered that I hadn't wanted to fight, so I'd surrendered. My answer satisfied him. He went on questioning me and wrote down every detail. To his question where I came from, I replied, Braslav. He repeated and asked, From Breslau [in Germany]? I responded, No, from Braslav in Poland, not far from Vilna. He asked me to describe the town. I told him, It's not a big city. It has several streets, a mountain in the middle [Castle Hill], and is surrounded by large lakes and forests. Then he asked me to describe the area. I mentioned villages and places I knew very well, not understanding why he was so interested. When I mentioned the Belmont estate [about seven kilometers southeast of Braslav], he yelled Oh mein Gott! and again I understood nothing.
I noticed the man had changed. His tension had disappeared. He grew more relaxed, as did I, a little. He pushed a button, and his adjutant came in. He asked for coffee and bread rolls. It didn't enter my mind that they were for me. He invited me to sit and offered me food. Now it was his turn to confess. He told me that during World War I he'd arrived in Braslav with the German army and been appointed the officer in charge of Belmont the yard and the property. I felt that he enjoyed the nostalgic memory. I enjoyed the coffee and the fresh rolls. Now, I thought, he'd do something good for me.
The interrogation and conversation ended. He said, Now they'll imprison you. You'll also go on trial. You've attacked a Volksdeutsche [ethnic German], and you'll have to defend yourself, justify yourself, and prove the coat is yours. Otherwise you'll be shot. A push on the button, and the adjutant entered. A door was opened, I was taken down to a cellar and placed in a very small, narrow cell. There was no room to lie down, sit or even bend my knees, just to stand up. In the door was a little opening, and on the ceiling a small, flickering lamp. The next day, through the door opening they gave me salted fish and cabbage with water. I knew I'd be tormented by thirst if I ate the fish, so I tossed it back through the opening. I ate the cabbage and drank the cabbage water. It was hard to stand in the cell; I couldn't find a place for my aching feet. This went on until
soldiers came and took me to the trial.
German officers were sitting in a row, and I stood in front of them. They began with the question, Why did you strike a Volksdeutsche? I responded, Because he stole my coat. Can you prove it's your coat? Of course, I answered. Show us, they said. They put the coat on the table, and I pointed out one by one where the tears and patches were. They checked everything. I went on, Please, look at the belt at the back of the coat. One of the buttons is tied with an iron wire. They checked; it was true. I also said that the right-hand pocket was torn and likewise tied with a wire. They checked also true. After consulting among themselves, one of them said, The proofs are correct. You're released to return to the camp. The coat will be given to the Volksdeutsche as compensation for the beating.
My Jewish friends welcomed me back with joy. The next day [September 23, 1939] was Yom Kippur. We fasted and prayed, and at the end of the day food was thrown to us. I couldn't find out who told them we'd fasted or who'd thrown the food …
After several days, an officer came and asked for volunteers for work in the village. I volunteered along with several others. We helped villagers at assorted jobs. They were very satisfied with us, and in return they served us good, varied food. Our guards, every day the same ones, decided we were all right and there was no need to guard us. They went to enjoy themselves in the farmers' houses. Trains passed nearby, and for some reason they slowed down. We decided to escape. We took advantage of the guards' absence and jumped on a cargo train headed for Poland. After a ride of several hours, we calmed down from the excitement. We were no longer prisoners.
We were six, two of us from my area. In German-occupied Poland, friendly Jews explained to us how to continue on our way. They told us that Bialystok and our entire district were under Russian control. We crossed the area of Poland that was partitioned between Germany and Russia. We crossed relatively easily the new border that divided Russia and Germany and reached Bialystok [some 400 kilometers southwest of Braslav]. I breathed with relief the escape had succeeded. But woe to me if I'd been caught.
Many things happened to me during the escape. I'll briefly tell them. We had to hide because of sudden searches. We walked long distances. Sometimes we ate, but we suffered much from hunger. We had to replace the torn clothes with something more sensible. We had to be very wary of Polish policemen collaborators with the Germans. My loyal friends were the Jews who helped me a lot on the way.
In Vilna [about 165 kilometers southwest of Braslav], I separated from my friends and took a train that brought me home. I was very happy when I met in the train car one of my townsmen, Yehuda Fisher [probably the merchant son of Avraham-Leib Fisher]. He offered me food and drink, and we talked the entire way. I answered his questions, and he told me what had happened in the town. On the platform in Braslav, I saw women, some of them mothers, who came there daily in the hope of finding their son or husband returning from war. That's how I met my mother, who fainted from the great emotion. Instead of her taking care of me, I ended up taking care of her. Finally, I'd returned home.
Starting Everything from the Beginning
Mother and I were at home. Father had already died before the war. I couldn't find my brother Zerach, who'd been drafted to serve the new homeland in the Red Army. We only received a few letters from him. Once we got from his commander a letter praising Zerach and saying that we should be proud of him. He was an excellent soldier and an excellent tankman.
I wanted to return to normal civilian life as soon as possible under the new Soviet authority, which was new to me. Here, you didn't do anything without the authorities' permission. There were permissible things as well as restrictions. You weren't allowed to trade as before and couldn't own a business; everything belonged to the state. It was the employer, the one that provided for you. I was accepted as a fireman, but when they learned I'd been trading under the former authority, albeit as a small-scale merchant, they fired me. After a while, I was accepted in a government linen company. I returned to normal life.
War Again?! The Germans Again?!
A year and a half passed. I worked, and mother managed the household. In the evenings and on rest days there were meetings with friends, drinking a cup of tea, and conversation. Sometimes, I went to watch a Russian film.
Suddenly, like thunder on a clear day, the war between Russia and Germany broke out [on June 22, 1941]. The Germans were pressing hard and advancing. During the first two days of the war, I was completely beside myself. I ran from place to place and from person to person to hear and see what others were doing. On the third day of the war, I decided to escape to Russia; I was afraid of the Germans. I said goodbye to my mother. She was helpless and didn't know what to say to me. She wept. The escapees all ran in one direction to Russia. I went by train for part of the way and continued on foot. There were many Jews along the way.
We arrived in Disna [Dzisna, about 72 kilometers east of Braslav]. A lot of people had arrived there from nearby or further away. All were in a rush, afraid the Germans would precede us and then we'd be lost. We heard airplanes pass above us, on their way to targets in Russia. A train arrived bound for Polotsk, which was our destination [Polotsk was about 35 kilometers southeast of Disna]. The crowd pushed itself onto the platforms and into the compartments. The locomotive whistled, and we moved out. We were one day ahead of the Germans, maybe only a few hours, we thought. But the train had only just started to pick up speed when German planes attacked us with guns, dropping bombs on us. A tumult broke out. We tried to hide under anything available, putting something over our heads to avoid being hurt. Many jumped from the speeding train. I jumped too and was unhurt. The train continued on, and the planes disappeared.
Some of the people from Braslav met in an open field and discussed what to do. Chances of escape were growing slim. Some said it was better to be back home when the Germans came. We decided to go back. The way was long and tiring. Many of us tore our shoes, and it was very difficult to walk barefoot. We could get water from anywhere, but we were hungry and it was harder to get food.
While we were at the entrance to the town [Braslav], Russian soldiers entered from the direction of Slobodka [the northeast]. We were surprised were the Russians still here? At exactly the same time, the German Army was entering opposite them, from the direction of Opsa [the southwest]. I went home.
The Germans Are with Us
On the first Friday after the Germans arrived in Braslav [June 27, 1941], they gathered all the Jews and expelled us to a large swamp behind the city. Gendarmes with guns and machine guns guarded us to prevent our escape. Two Jews were killed during the round-up the shochet [ritual slaughterer], Shlomo [Zilber], and the youth Chaim Milutin. We were terrified. It was said they'd kill us all in the marsh. I walked with my mother, and beside me, struggling along, was the elderly rabbi, Rabbi Avraham[-Abba-Yaacov] Zahorie. We lay in the marsh for a day and a night. On Saturday morning, we were told to return home. Most of the houses had been pillaged by the Gentiles. To my good fortune, our home was untouched.
Soon after that, they ordered us to wear the yellow patch on our chest and on our backs. We weren't allowed to walk on the sidewalk. It wasn't permitted to stay outside from evening until morning. It was forbidden to buy from Gentiles. There were many other prohibitions as well. The Judenrat [Jewish Council] was in charge of executing the orders, and they were carried out strictly. It was headed by Yitzchak Mindel, and several Jewish policemen were in his service.
In the spring of 1942, the Jews were ordered to leave their houses and gather along a small street that was announced as the ghetto. We had to leave our houses and belongings, and we moved to a small house with two other families, the Valin brothers. I succeeded in selling a few belongings to the Gentiles. With the money, I bought wheat and hid it behind a woodpile. On Passover Eve [April 1, 1942], several families joined together to bake matzot [unleavened bread]; they invited me to join them. We worked for several nights in the cellar of the house of Abba Shmushkovitz, the former bakery owner. I was so happy that I had some wheat and was able to prepare some matzot as well. Mother was happy.
The Judenrat received a new demand from the authorities, to send them two men able to do mechanical work and locksmithing, and two more to take care of the horses. At the Judenrat, it was decided that for the mechanical work Moshe-Chatzkel Milutin and another youth from Kovno would be suitable; and for the stable work and taking care of the horses they sent me and Chaim Munitz, the son of Shmuel-Yankel. The stable and the locksmith workshop were near one another. There were many horses in the stable, and there was a fenced yard. Both of us had to care for the horses, clean manure from the stables, feed and water the horses on time, and take care of the equipment. We had to work hard, for many hours, to meet the authorities' demands. But I must admit that the officer in charge treated us nicely. He didn't get angry, yell or hit us. Things continued in that manner for about half a year [actually just two months: early April to early June].
Since it was forbidden to leave the stable unattended, we arranged that one of us would go visit his family each night. The day before the ghetto was liquidated [on June 3-5, 1942], I left with the German officer to go to one of the villagers in the area to get hay for the horses. He went on horseback, and I went in a wagon hitched to two horses. The German officer went back as soon as we finished loading, and I arrived back at the stable late that night. I told Chaim, I haven't visited my family for two nights; they [sic] must be worried. I'll wash up a bit and go and see my mother. Chaim said, While you're washing and getting dressed, I'll go see my family and come back soon. Then you'll go. I agreed. But we didn't know what was about to happen the next day. Chaim couldn't return.
Early in the morning [June 3, 1942], a local policeman came and took me to jail. Before that he told me to take off my clothes, and he took my shoes and trousers, which were in good condition. I didn't understand the reason for my arrest and didn't yet know why Chaim hadn't returned. That morning and throughout the day, I heard a lot of shooting, the sounds of guns and machine guns. I didn't understand why they were shooting, and I didn't know that one kilometer away
the Jews of the town were being exterminated. In the afternoon, a policeman I knew passed by. Through the bars, I asked him why there was so much shooting, and he told me everything. How can I possibly say all that I endured during those days and nights?
Several days later, the German officer for whom I worked arrived, released me, and told me to go back and take care of the horses. Could I go back to that life of routine again? Caring for the horses, feeding them? And my mother? I hadn't even said goodbye to her. Perhaps she'd looked for me by the pits, wanting to face the end together. These thoughts raced through my mind. Could it be that I, Chaim-Eli, son of Malka-Reiza and Yitzchak from the village of Galis [probably Gajlesze, about 11 kilometers southeast of Braslav], brother of Zerach (maybe he was fighting now against the Germans) was the only remaining Jew? Why hadn't they taken me with all the others? And why had they thrown me behind the bars that morning?! …
The next day, my friends came back. Moshe-Chatzkel and the youth from Kovno had run away to the lake and hidden themselves there during the days of the massacre. They said this to the German officer too. We worked a little, walked around, and talked a lot. The German didn't demand much of us. We saw the Gentiles carrying wagons full of Jewish property from the ghetto.
One week after the massacre, while we were in the stable yard, a Gentile acquaintance passed by the fence and, without stopping, told me that my mother and some other Jews were in the Judenrat yard [alive]. The German allowed us to go. I shouted, I have a mother! We were told that policemen had passed along the ghetto street and announced there'd be no more killings this was a German promise. People [presumably including his mother] had come out of their hiding places, which the murderers hadn't managed to find during the days of the massacre. Moshe-Chatzkel found his relative Esther [Rusonik] in one such hiding place. We discussed sending her out to one of the villages.
The German told me to bring him a slaughtered pig from the Ostropolsky sausage factory. He also asked me to get some good bedding, and suggested I look for them in the houses of the Jews. This was an excellent opportunity to get Esther out of there. I harnessed a horse to a wagon, loaded it with lots of hay, and went out. I put the pig on the wagon and had also found some good bedding for the German. I went to Esther's hiding place, and suggested she come with me. I wrapped her in sheets, took her out from the house, laid her down in the wagon, and covered her with straw. I gave the pig and bedding to the German, and this time I heard a good word from him Danke schoen [Thank you]. Moshe-Chatzkel transferred Esther to a Gentile acquaintance, Slitski, who promised to protect her and take care of her.
On the 10th day after the ghetto massacre, we heard shooting again. This time we guessed what it was. Indeed, on that day they liquidated all those who'd survived the first massacre. Wagons laden with clothes arrived near the stable. When they unloaded the wagons, I recognized my mother's dress. I murmured, Baruch Dayan Emet [Blessed Be the Righteous Judge].
Now we knew for sure that there were no Jews left in Braslav. Any who survived must have escaped and hidden themselves. It was very dangerous to remain; we decided to run away. But to get out through the gate to the road, even at night, was very risky. There were German forces in their offices and their accommodations. Gendarmes and police also patrolled during the night. Any Jew caught would die. At night, we dug under the foundation of the stable. The place we came out to was an open field. People didn't search there.
We wanted to go through the fields to some acquaintances in the nearby villages. At the time, we didn't know where the massacre had taken place. There, not far from the train station, we saw the burial places of our beloved ones. There were long, large pits. We saw how the pits were exploding from internal pressure, as if from an earthquake.
We separated. My friends went to a Gentile blacksmith whom Moshe-Chatzkel trusted. I went to the village of Murazha [Murazh, about three kilometers northeast of Braslav] and hid myself under a pile of straw in the barn of an acquaintance, Taduvka [Tadowka]. After two days, he discovered me, gave me food and asked me nicely to go. I wandered from place to place until winter came, eating anything I could get. Winter began, and it started to get too cold to wander around. I went to the village of Pantilayki [Pancielejki, about five kilometers north of Braslav]. It was snowing on the way. I arrived at a house and climbed into the attic of the barn. In the morning, when Anton [the house's occupant] came to feed the cows, he noticed footprints on the snow, climbed up and found me. He was astonished to see me, and willingly agreed to help me.
I remained with him about a year and a half [roughly the second half of 1942 to early 1944], with a short break during a certain period he was afraid that his daughter-in-law would turn me in, and he asked me to leave his place. I went from him to another small village, Zarach [Zaracz, six kilometers west of Braslav], to a farmer named Milevitz [Milewicz]. He had a large family with seven children. They willingly accepted me. They put me in the bath, gave me a change of clothing and food, and hid me in the barn. A short time later, they heard that a Jew from Braslav had been caught by the gendarmes, been unable to withstand the torture, and told them the name of the village and the family who'd hidden him. The Germans had killed the family and burned the entire village. The family hiding me became afraid of hiding me any longer. I went back to Pantilayki and met Anton near his house. I asked to stay with him for a while. He agreed that I could stay with him, and he also told me that a new ghetto had being built in Braslav. If I agreed, he was willing to check whether they'd accept me.
Meanwhile, news began to arrive about the Russian victories and German retreats. The evil daughter-in-law now changed her tune; it was convenient now to be nice to me. Once, she came up to the attic and said, Don't be afraid of Anton. He needs you now and wants to keep you. He's a criminal. She told me that during the great massacre of the Jews of Braslav, two Jewish women had thrown themselves into the pit without being hit by the bullets. They were Eidel and her daughter Chana Munitz [mother and sister of the Chaim-Noach Munitz described on page 250]. At night, after everyone had left, they'd emerged from under the heap of corpses, naked and covered with blood, and come there. He, Anton, had turned them over to the police for salt and a lighter.
After Anton checked in Braslav and told me I couldn't be admitted into the ghetto, I left him and went to look for the partisans. I went from place to place and from one partisan unit to another, but they didn't want to accept me without weapons. In the otriad of Polish partisans I was told clearly, We don't accept any Jews. Then I went to the village of Babuli near Zamosh [Bobyli a.k.a. Bobyle, about eight kilometers southwest of Zamosh]. I entered the command room of the otriad and said to them, I don't have a gun, but I'm an experienced soldier who wants to fight. I'm not leaving here. Instead of being killed by the Germans, I prefer to be killed by a Russian bullet. Please kill me now. The officer was impressed by my words and asked me to wait, while he went to speak with his superiors. When he returned, he told me I was admitted to the otriad. I was glad. I received an otrezanka [sawed-off rifle] and took part in the majority of the otriad's actions. Later I was transferred to a special mission unit and put in charge of a 12-man unit. We were ordered to cross the old border and organize a new otriad under Morozov's command.
We proceeded on out-of-the-way roads for many days, avoiding encounters
with the German Army. We crossed the Dvina River near the city of Disna and reached our target. We organized quickly; the new otriad under Morozov's command began intensive activity. Now the enemy was between a hammer and an anvil. The Red Army was repelling them, and as they withdrew the Germans encountered our fighting unit. Together, we inflicted on them losses of soldiers and arms.
… It was the spring 1944. The Red Army soldiers continued to expel the invaders from their land. In the liberated areas, the partisans had stopped their activity and joined the regular army formations. When Minsk, the capital of Belorussia, was liberated, we applied to join the army. We were concentrated in a camp. In a festive roll call, we were informed that a Polish division was fighting by the side of the Russian army. I joined the Second Army. We began moving. I passed a course in Vilna and received the rank of corporal. We received Polish army uniforms. Around Poznan [about 280 kilometers west of Warsaw], we battled the retreating German army and took part in expelling them from Polish land. We were in Munich [sic] when the Wehrmacht [German army] announced its surrender.
The war ended on May 8, 1945. I remained serving in the Second Army until October that year. I was released from the army on October 4, 1945.
The next step was aliyah, immigration to Israel.
|A bronze medal was awarded by the Polish army to Chaim Deitch
for action and bravery in battle against the German invader.
Translated from the Hebrew by Laia Ben-Dov
Footnotes Added / Donated by Jeff Deitch
Blessed be the L-rd, my Rock,
who traineth my hands for war,
and my fingers for battle.
--- Psalm 144:1
On the second day after entering Braslav [Braslaw] [in late June 1941], the Germans gathered all of the Jews of the town and took them to the area of the [Dubki/Dubkes] swamps opposite the village of Rozeta [just southeast of Braslav], where they kept us all night. When it grew light, they ordered us to go home. Everyone had been driven out [to the swamp], also the elderly and the children. There was a lot of crying. A German accompanied us, and with him was a translator of Polish. We asked the German what they planned to do to us, and the translator passed on his answer: They'll pour boiling oil on you and burn you. Chaim Milutin and Shlomo [Zilber] the shochet [ritual slaughterer] grew frightened and tried to flee. The Germans chased after them, grabbed them, and in the presence of all of us they shot them. Chaim managed to shout, Jews! I'm falling in sacrifice, avenge my blood! Shlomo was killed by the first bullet. Eighteen bullets were fired at Chaim Milutin until he breathed his last; he was only 20 years old. We took their bodies to the town, to the cemetery, and when we conducted a taharah for them, I counted 18 bullet holes in his body. Chaim was my brother's son. We buried them and parted from them forever.
Two days later, again they gathered all the Jews of Braslav, as well as some refugees who'd come from Lithuania and Latvia, and they drove us all out behind the Russian [Eastern Orthodox] church, where they separated the men from the women and children. Again, they held us there all night. The next day, they returned us to our homes.
The German headquarters was located opposite my house. I saw how they arrested Beilka [Beila] Deitch, [Aharon-Zelig] Singalovski the shochet from Sventzion [about 90 kilometers southwest of Braslav], and another man. A man by the name of Shliachchik, who lived in Braslav, brought about their arrest; it became clear that he was a German agent. Shliachchik testified that he'd seen Beilka Deitch signaling to Russian aircraft to bomb the German army, which was on the main road at the entrance to Braslav. And indeed, that same day the Russians did bomb the Germans.
I also saw how the police brought Zelig Ulman, his wife and their small daughter to the Karpovitz [Karpowicz] forest [just to the west of Braslav]. Zelig and his family hid with some Gentiles in the village, and these handed them over to the Germans. Jews hid likewise at the hutor (farm) of Shavenski [or Svinski] and in the villages of Milashki [Milaszki, about 20 kilometers south of Braslav], Bukashki, Shalia, Rapovshchitzna and others, until they were freed by the Red Army.
I was in constant contact with Aliosha Vasilevski [Aliosza Wasilewski] (the son of the Russian priest). He worked for the Germans in the regional headquarters and secretly prepared weapons to oppose the Germans. (Vasilevski asked [Gershon] Klioner to send him five men to work, and I was among them.) When I came to work, Vasilevski showed me the weapons he'd hidden in the cellar of the regional headquarters. Gershon Klioner --- a member of the Judenrat --- had a list of 95 healthy young men who were organized to fight. Among them were Yerachmiel Milutin, Leib Valin, Meir Kort, Matus Gandler, Berka Fisher, Volfka Fisher, Hirshka Deitch, Chaim-Berka Deitch, and 22 fighters from Latvia, 18 from Lithuania, 35 fighters from the surrounding towns, and another 15 additional young men, among them Hirsh Levin. The list indeed included 95 [sic] fighters, but in the end none of them took action, because the matter became known to the head of the community, [Braslav Judenrat head Yitzhak] Mindel, and he didn't give permission to take the weapons. The Germans promised him nothing bad would happen to the Jews of Braslav; but at the time of the destruction [June 3-5, 1942] they killed him and his family first. Vasilevski was also arrested and transferred to the jail in Glubok [Glubokoye], where he was shot by the Germans. It became known that Shliachchik had slandered Vasilevski to the Germans, saying he was working against them. Aliosha's brother, Dimka [Dima], told me this.
The destruction of the Jews of Braslav began on Wednesday, June 3, 1941 [sic; actually June 3, 1942], at three o'clock in the morning. After the Aktions [of June 3-5, 1942], I joined the partisans. All the people who survived after that were gathered together with the Jews from Opsa, Dubina [Dubene] and other places in the second ghetto [the Opsa Ghetto in Braslav], and they were killed when the German army withdrew. When Braslav was liberated [in 1944], we found an empty town and a small group of isolated Jews who'd managed to return. Among them were Chaim Kagan, Aronovitz, Elchik Shmidt, the Lubovitz family, Rabinovitz from the pharmacy, the sons of Baruch Fisher, Mendel and Masha Maron, Yentka [Yenta] Fisher and a few others. It was heartbreaking to find my town like that.
When I was with the partisans, we took revenge on many Gentiles who'd helped to destroy the Braslav Ghetto. They were residents of the villages near Zamosh [Zamosz, about 16 kilometers south of Braslav]. We burned them along with their houses, their property and the Jewish property they'd stolen; among them was the policeman [Stefan] Zhuk and his brother-in-law Primchenko and Panish, from the police of Meziazh [perhaps the Maciesze that was 13 kilometers southeast of Braslav] who helped to destroy the Jews of Braslav and, according to information that I saw, also killed the family of Falka [Rafael] Fisher and stole their possessions. I gave testimony about them to the authorized institutions. The policemen were caught near Riga [about 245 kilometers northwest of Braslav, in Latvia]. Others hid under false names in the villages that were in the area of control of our partisan unit. We searched for them and found them. Shliachchik and Antosh had run around the town at the time of the Aktions [in Braslav on June 3-5, 1942] shouting, Jews, come out of your hiding places. They won't shoot anymore and they won't destroy you. They'd turned over many Jews to the Germans. This Antosh had worked for a long time for Yosef Bik in the beer factory and spoke good Yiddish.
I was invited to the NKVD to testify against them in an investigation managed by Polkovnik Balkashov at two o'clock in the morning. He came out of the room and said to me, Pass judgment on him the way the partisans would do. I hit him on the head with a stool until he collapsed. After the interrogation, he was hospitalized.
When we were with the partisans, there were people who helped us. One of them was Igor Tominski from Vidz [about 40 kilometers southwest of Braslav], the son of a lawyer. This Igor was a friend of Vasilevski.
[Before the Braslav Ghetto was liquidated] Rabbi [Israel-Alter] Fuchs and two women lived with Zerach Bogomolski. He [Bogomolski] was a great help to Jews who'd fled from Dvinsk [about 42 kilometers to the northwest] and come to Braslav. Once I met Bogomolski when he went to see the manager of the forest department in our region, Mindovski [Mindowski]. He was a friend of the Jews and hid in his house
a few Jews from Dvinsk.
When I was in the [Braslav] ghetto I was sent to work with Mindovski, together with some others: Berka from Opsa [18 kilometers southwest of Braslav], Meir Kort and Matus Gandler and some Russian prisoners. We worked in a factory for drying forest seeds, and we set it on fire. The factory completely burned down.
Artiom, from the village of Lishishki [unidentified, unless it was the village of Leoszki, 14 kilometers northeast of Braslav], who cooperated with the Germans, handed over to them the families of Moshe Goldin, Yerachmiel Bik, and three additional families. All of them were shot.
I pursued and captured him, and after the first interrogation he hung himself in his house.
Of all the fighters, only I and a few partisans remained alive [at the time of liberation in July 1944]. We decided to meet in Braslav and take revenge on those who'd cooperated with the Germans.
We learned that at the time the [Braslav] ghetto was destroyed, Leizer Biliak had killed two Germans and succeeded in fleeing to the village of Kuzmishtzina [perhaps Kuzmovszczyzna, 15 kilometers southeast of Braslav], but the Poles turned him over to the Germans for some money, and they murdered him. We, the partisans, found these Poles, and my nephew Moshe Milutin and his friends executed them. As partisans, we received help from the Soviet army behind the front line. That's how we were given an officer for our unit. His name was Bolovchik. He was a friend of the Jews. With him we carried out many complicated and dangerous activities in the areas near Kovno, Vilna and also in Latvia. We derailed a train that was bringing ammunition to the Germans. We paid in blood for these actions, and our officer Bolovchik fell in one of them. He was an excellent fighter and a good man. He often said to me, If you meet your brother, that means a Jew, bring them to the headquarters and we'll transfer them to Russia, and if they're the kind who are prepared to fight, we'll accept them. He said with complete confidence that we'd defeat the Germans. All of the orders of operation under his command were carried out successfully, and we received certificates of excellence for this. I fought in the Zhukov brigade, in the Suvorov unit --- a unit that took an active part in the war --- and I took revenge for the people of my nation with all my heart.
[Earlier in the war] Musia-Leah Blacher told me they were driving her family out to Pohost [a.k.a. Novy-Pohost, about 32 kilometers southeast of Braslav] and asked me to save her two sons. Unfortunately I was a wanderer myself at that time and had no chance of finding a safe place for the children. When I finally located one, I searched for the children but couldn't find them. I'm glad that every person who I took out of the Braslav Ghetto is still alive [his meaning becomes clear in the next paragraph]. A few of them live in Israel.
I met Peretz Levin in Minsk on the way to the front. I parted from him then, apparently forever. Michael Rabinovitz came to the headquarters where I worked. At that time, he'd fled from the massacre in Glubok [Glubokoye, about 70 kilometers southeast of Braslav], wounded in his leg. I turned to the officer of the brigade, Siromcha. I asked for and got permission to take in the Jews who'd saved themselves by fleeing the [Braslav] ghetto and to offer them aid. I helped the survivors with food, clothing and other items.
In a unit that comprised 12 men, all of them were educated Christians; among them were paratroopers. I was the only Jew.
|In the second otriad, the deeds of the Jewish fighter Yerachmiel Milutin from Braslav were mentioned (he served in the position of deputy officer of the patrols). The group of eight men, and Milutin, the only Jew in the group, encountered an ambush (near Sharkovshchitzna [Szarkowszczyzna, about 40 kilometers southeast of Braslav]). Lacking experience against the enemy, the partisans fled, except for Milutin. Firing a machine gun and throwing grenades|
|one after the other, he defeated the enemy and saved himself. When Milutin returned alone to the base unharmed, his magazines empty of bullets, the officer of the unit --- Strikov --- gathered the partisans and vehemently denounced them, especially their officer, for cowardice at the crucial moment. In contrast, he praised Yerachmiel Milutin, who he said showed unusual bravery.|
|--- From Sefer HaPartizanim HaYehudim
(The Book of the Jewish Partisans), Volume 1
[Published in Israel in 1958]
|Partisan certificate of Yerachmiel Milutin, partisan in the Suvorov battalion of the Zhukov brigade|
The reason for such differences between the English-language summary and the Hebrew is unknown. Aside from human error, in some cases it might be that those who compiled the English-language summary for the memorial book added information to it based on their own understanding. Return
Mr. Milutin said that there were people from Dubina in the Opsa Ghetto, but if so they must've been a small number. Because most of the villagers from Dubina had already been transferred to the Vidz Ghetto in late 1941 or early 1942, according to survivors in the Dubina section of this memorial book on pages 367-392. Return
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