Son of Batia and Yaacov
(From testimony at Yad Vashem)
Translated from the Hebrew by Laia Ben-Dov
Footnotes Added / Donated by Jeff Deitch
When the Russian-German war broke out [in June 1941], I was drafted into the Red Army. The war developed so quickly that they even failed to form us into battle units. The Russians left the town [of Braslav/Braslaw] and withdrew eastward, and we, the draftees, scattered in all directions. I returned to Braslav. As Jews, we knew we had to leave and escape the approaching Germans. I told my father our entire family should leave the town, but he disagreed, saying, The Jews of Braslav won't abandon their homes. With a group of young people, I headed for the Russian border. Unfortunately, the Germans were ahead of us, and so everyone returned to the town.
With the Germans also came decrees, one after another. Shortly after the Germans arrived in Braslav, I and all the [other] Jews were taken to the swamps outside the town [June 27]; the threat of death hovered over us all. There the first martyrs fell from among the sons of Braslav: Shlomo [Zilber] the shochet [ritual slaughterer] and Chaim Milutin. After a night of horror, toward morning all of us returned to our homes, which had been broken into and robbed. It felt as if our lives had been returned as a gift, because we hadn't thought we'd leave the swamp alive.
News arrived in the town about the destruction of the Jews of Yod [Jod, on December 17, 1941] and Dvinsk. Refugees arrived in Braslav from Dvinsk: the famous Rabbi [Israel-Alter] Fuchs, the Shlosberg, Kravetz and Solomon families and others. In Braslav itself, things were still quiet. Some men of the town wanted to believe that Braslav was a blessed town and its Jews would live to see the day of redemption.
This situation continued until April 1942. Then came the fateful turning point: The enemy established a ghetto in Braslav [on April 1] and closed in it all the Jews of the town. The situation worsened from day to day. Those who were taken for forced labor brought a little bit of food into the ghetto. Each day, Jews were murdered. [For example] a group of men worked on the train tracks. One day, a German from the camp approached us, chose from among us 17 men, and killed them. The bribe that was taken didn't save their lives.
Among the Jews in the ghetto, some called for opposing the Germans, but the majority didn't want to hear about it. We began to prepare hiding places, bunkers that would be ready when needed for children and the elderly. We hoped the younger people would acquire weapons by then and fight the Germans and their local collaborators. But the hope
of getting weapons went unfulfilled, and the bitter day of 17 Sivan arrived [June 2, 1942, one day before the massacre began]. On that day, as on previous days, we went out to work next to the train [station]. At a certain moment, a German turned to us and said, Jews! You're so young; you should live. Hide yourselves, because something bad is about to happen.
When we returned to the town after work, we told this to the members of the Judenrat [Jewish Council] and all the Jews. A great sadness fell over the Jews of Braslav. No one knew what to do to advance the fateful hour and rescue their families. I and some other young people who were in one house decided to remain awake all night. I put a bit of food in my pack and decided to leave the house at the moment of calamity. I asked my father not to stop me, and not to tell my mother about it.
It was three o'clock in the morning. The 18th of Sivan [June 3]. Through a small window, we saw two gendarmes walking. One of the young men said, Let's go out. Let's attack them and take their weapons and uniforms. Somehow his words reached the ears of the women in the room, and they locked the exit from the house [keeping us inside]. In Braslav, they won't kill the Jews, they declared. Sometime later, we heard shouts from the street. This was the police, who'd arrived from the direction of the lake and begun to drive everyone out of their homes. The young people from our house went outside; in their hands was anything they could find to defend themselves. They didn't have even one pistol. Among these young people were Naftali Fisher, the son of Zalman-Yaacov, and Avraham Fisher, the son of Baruch. They struggled with a German, trying to take away his rifle. He raised a shout, and other Germans rushed to help him. They opened fire, and a few of our young men fell.
After this, I had no chance of returning to our bunker. I ran toward the lake. I wanted to swim to the other shore, but unfortunately on that side were Germans with machine guns, and they shot anyone who succeeded in approaching. I stayed close to the ground, lacking strength. Recovering slightly, I raised my head and saw Jews running toward the priest's yard. I too began to crawl toward his house. A large group of Jews had gathered there, even though the Germans were shooting at us. I entered one of the buildings near the priest's house and went up to the attic. Above I saw an opening, through which it was possible to go down into the granary, which was locked on the outside. I entered and dug myself into a pile of straw.
After a number of hours the Germans arrived, accompanied by local police, and they opened fire on the Jews who were hiding in the priest's buildings. With the first shots, the priest, a good-hearted man, came out and saw the scale of the tragedy befalling the Jews of his town. He became very upset, suffered a heart attack and died immediately.
In those hours, the killers didn't enter the granary where I was hiding. I stayed there for three days. On Friday afternoon [June 5], through a small opening I saw two gendarmes, police and firemen coming with the woman who owned the granary, asking her to open the door for them. I didn't know what to do: go out, attack them and die immediately, or try my fate and keep sitting in my hiding place? I sat there with bated breath. The police entered the granary and then left. Suddenly, I heard them uprooting boards from the floor, yelling Out! and shooting. When the shooting stopped, I heard the familiar voice of the policeman Krivko [Kriwko] saying, Barmapov, come out of there, and Barmapov answered, I'm seriously wounded and can't move. Fire another bullet so that I won't suffer any more.
After some time, the policemen left. When night fell, I went out of my hiding place and saw, next to the granary, the bodies of Moshe Barmapov and Luba Sheiner [this might refer to Leba Sheiner]. I was afraid. I returned to the place where our family's bunker was located. When I got there, to my disappointment I found it empty of people. Only a bit of bread
and my sister's coat remained. Sadness. I stayed sitting in the bunker until after the Sabbath. I hoped that maybe a relative would come, but no one did.
At night I went to an acquaintance, a [Gentile] farm woman who lived some distance from Braslav. I asked her to go into the town to find out what was happening. She agreed, and after a few hours she returned and told me: Of your people there's no one. Your father's sister, Sara-Leah Vishkin, and her little son Chaim, are in the Jewish school where all of the refugees of the massacre are gathered. She added, They're saying they won't shoot any more Jews. I went to the school. There were Jews there, among them Chaim Munitz, who'd been a teacher in the Jewish school and become the head of the Judenrat [the former head, Yitzchak Mindel, had been killed at the start of the massacre]. He [Munitz] recorded the names of everyone who came there. There were adults and young people, elderly and children. The adults adopted the children whose parents were lost, calmed them and promised them, Your parents will come back soon . . .
A day passed. Next to the school gate, there was no guard, so I went outside. I met my aunt [Sara-Leah Vishkin, née Reichel], who was in utter shock. [Earlier] when the police had found the bunker and approached, the people [inside] had tried to scatter and flee. The police had opened fire, killing her husband Tuvia [Vishkin], son Yoska [Yosef] and daughter Nechama. My aunt also told me that when they were closed up in the house where they waited for the murderers, others had brought them clothes of Jews from the death pits, and she'd recognized some of these as the clothes of family members. These were their identification certificates, she said, and gave them to me . . .
I went further into the town. Bodies of Jews were scattered everywhere. Next to my grandfather's house I saw the bodies of my uncle, two children and my cousin. I was stunned. I ran back to the school; maybe my young sister, who was 18 years old, had come. But she wasn't there. She was found by the young people who were busy gathering the bodies, to bring them to burial. A bullet from the murderers had struck her heart, and she'd died without suffering. I didn't weep; I had no more tears. I only asked that they bury her together with the martyrs of the town. Sad. I was sad.
Where should I go? I went up to the attic in Zerach Ginzburg's house, which stood near the lake. I sat there for two days. I wanted to get far away from the town. At night, I walked along the shore of the lake, and next to the casino I stopped to look around, maybe there were Jews inside. And indeed, upstairs I found several families, among them Rabbi Fuchs with an ailing woman [Rachel Citron] who was the daughter of the Gaon from Rogatchov. The woman told me that a Gentile knew their location, and in exchange for payment he brought them food. I sat with them for an entire day, and at night I returned to my hiding place. While I was with them, I tried to warn them about the Gentile who knew where they were, but they said there was nowhere to go in any case; what would be would be.
In the casino they told me of a hiding place where Shachna and Chinka Band were located. After searching, I found their place. In the attic also were Leib Burat with his family and another family. While we were sitting up there, all the time we heard Gentiles coming in and out of the house, looking for things to steal. That same day, I asked Leib Burat to give his older children permission to go with me to the forest, but he wouldn't agree. Only on my second visit to them did he give his son Chaim permission to join me.
When night fell, the two of us went on our way. First we wanted to get to the casino and see the people there. After walking a few minutes, suddenly we encountered a hail of bullets. We quickly fled in different directions. I lay down for some time until it grew completely quiet and then continued on to the casino. I entered, calling out to the people in a whisper. There was no answer, the place was already deserted. At the time, I didn't know what had happened to these good people. I found out only years later, after the war.
[After the war] I met a Jew who'd been in the casino attic on that tragic day, and he told me what happened: After their hiding place was discovered, all of them were arrested. They sat in a jail that had been made in Blacher's bakery, guarded by a policeman from Latvia. Rabbi Fuchs spoke continually to the policeman, telling him he didn't have to carry out the evil deeds of the Germans. The rabbi spoke and spoke, until finally the guard was convinced. He opened the jail door and said, Go, all of you, to wherever you want. The people went out, and with them Rabbi Fuchs and the daughter of the Rogatchover Gaon. But the woman [Rachel Citron] collapsed and was unable to get to her feet. The policeman told the rabbi, Leave the woman here and go; you're a young man. I'm giving you your life as a gift. The policeman put the woman back in the jail, and Rabbi Fuchs also went back inside; he said he wouldn't leave her. Thanks to Rabbi Fuchs, nine Jews were freed at that time, among them Chaim Kagan.
Completely alone, I remained sitting in Riva-Dina's [sic] attic for a week, until all my food was gone. One day, through a crack, I saw Gentiles robbing the neighboring house of Abba Shmushkovitz, and while doing that they found him hiding with his family. Soon the police arrived, drove them outside, and took them, accompanied by blows, to the pits.
Again, I returned to [Leib] Burat's attic, and here too there was no one. The murderers had found them also. Only the son, Chaim Burat, who'd left with me earlier, survived. Today he lives in the Land of Israel.
I decided to go to a village, and at night I set out on the road. Outside, I was greeted by strong rain. In the forest near our town I was unable to find cover. I continued until I reached a small building that served as a bathhouse for a farmer's family that was living nearby. I sat inside it all night, and in the morning I looked out to see if the rain had stopped. Unfortunately, I was seen by a shepherd who was pasturing his cattle close by. He quickly ran to the farmer and told him. The farmer immediately came running, opened the door, and when he saw me he said, Very good. For you I'll get 50 kilograms of salt. He locked the door and went away. Knowing he'd gone to call the Germans, I tried to break through the door but failed.
I decided to escape through a small window high up on the wall. I broke the glass and stuck my head outside. The shepherd, who was still nearby, tried to prevent my getting out, but after much effort I succeeded, fleeing to a field of standing wheat and getting away. Crawling slowly, I reached another building, which also was a bathhouse, and entered. I hoped to rest there before continuing.
After some time, another farmer appeared and saw me. To my great surprise, he turned to me and said, Don't fear, I won't do anything bad to you like Kazhik [a policeman in the region who was known for his cruelty toward Jews]. Stay here as long as you wish. He's a good-hearted man, I felt. The farmer brought me food and something to drink, and told me that the Jews in Opsa and Vidz were living quietly and nobody was harming them. I decided to go there.
Before midnight, I went out on the road, arriving in Opsa toward morning [Opsa was about 18 kilometers southwest of Braslav]. Here I had friends and relatives. There were also survivors from Braslav. I stayed in an apartment with friends, who took me in with love. Unfortunately, after a few days in Opsa I was seen by a policeman from Braslav who'd come to Opsa. His name was Kolkovski [Czeslaw Kolkowski]. He entered the apartment where I was staying and said he was going to arrest me. His argument was that they'd killed all the Jews of Braslav and my fate must be like theirs. The pleas of my hosts didn't help. He told me to come with him. I turned to him and said, Kill me here. But you've a family in Braslav, and you should know that those of us who survive will take revenge on all the murderers of Jews. Then you'll need our help. My words stopped him from using force. He turned to his companions and said, What'll
we gain from killing him? I quickly exited the house and ran to the cemetery. The police fired in the air and then left. When night fell, my relatives came to the cemetery and took me back to their house. That same night I left Opsa on the way to Vidz, arriving toward morning [Vidz was about 20 kilometers southwest of Opsa].
In Vidz I also had acquaintances. We were a group of 20 people who'd lost their families. We lived together in a deserted house, going outside only at night. The people called us the rabbits. We stayed there with the hope of obtaining some weapons; we wanted to go to the forest and join the partisans. Unfortunately, after a few days it became clear to us that this was impossible. We couldn't keep sitting in Vidz. We were forced to go out to a labor camp in Podbrodz; the Judenrat in Vidz was obliged to send 20 young men to it [Podbrodz, or Pabrade, was about 70 kilometers southwest of Vidz, in Lithuania]. The way there was difficult, and we suffered many humiliations and tortures. I wasn't content to stay there; it was impossible for me and other young men like me to remain slaves to the Germans. We decided to join the partisans at any cost and found a way to escape from the camp. For half a year we wandered the forests, in indescribable conditions. With time, we acquired weapons and were accepted into the partisan otriad Kostas Kalinauskas. The climax of the actions in which I took part was the destruction of two freight trains carrying soldiers and equipment to the [eastern] front.
Within the framework of the otriad, I was able to see the end of the war.
Translated from the Hebrew by Laia Ben-Dov
Footnotes Added / Donated by Jeff Deitch
I was born on 11 Elul 5679 [September 6], 1919 in the town of Disna [Dzisna, about 72 kilometers east of Braslav] on the Disna River, on the Polish-Russian border.
Those years, the years of the final stages of World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution, were years of riots and robbery, carried out by the soldiers of the Russian armies (the Whites and the Reds) and by other rioters and hoodlums. My parents were forced to abandon their property and the flour mill that was the source of their income; together with their three children, they moved to live in Braslav, where my father was born and where the family of his father and mother lived.
I was then three years old. As if in a dream I recall the main street, Pilsudski Street, which ran the length of the town. On one side of the street, to the west, flowed the waters of the large Lake Dryviaty, and on the other side, beyond the mountain that stood in the center of town, was the small and deep Lake Novyaty.
At the time of the retreat of the Red Army [in June 1941], I, my husband Leib Gamush, our little daughter Pesia, and my father-in-law, Chaim Gamush, were in the town of Vidz [Widze, about 40 kilometers southwest of Braslav]. A week before the war broke out, my husband had been sent to Minsk to a teachers' conference, since he was the principal of the school in Vidz.
When the news came that war had broken out, the town residents were seized with fear. My father-in-law advised us to return immediately to Braslav to be with the family. We took his advice, and the next day we went there. My father-in-law, his oldest son and his four children, like many other Jews, set out, some by car and some on foot, in the direction of the old Polish-Russian border [east of Braslav]. I remained in Braslav with my brothers and sisters, because we thought it was impossible to leave with small children.
When German planes started to bomb the withdrawing Russian army, the supporters of the Nazis began to raise their heads; they grabbed people, especially Jews who worked as clerks in the government under the Soviet regime, as well as teachers and ordinary citizens who were suspected of being Communists; they were tortured and murdered. In this way, Beila Deitch and Yaacov Musin were caught and killed.
At the initiative of the Germans, a local police force was organized, whose members
wore the swastika on their sleeves with great pride.
The Germans continued to bomb civilian trains, increasing the number of dead and wounded. Confusion reigned over everything; in addition, the Soviet regime wouldn't allow people trying to save themselves to enter its territory [that is, to cross the pre-1939 border east of Braslav into the USSR], and it even closed the crossing by shooting. Many people returned to Braslav just like they'd left it.
Among the local policemen who volunteered to serve the Nazis were Stankivitz, Kolkovski [Czeslaw Kolkowski], [Stefan] Zhuk and Kozlovski [Kozlowski]. They felt themselves to be our rulers; they'd enter the homes of the Jews and rudely demand whatever they wanted. A number of days later, the German army covered the roads and the entire area.
One Sabbath night [presumably June 27], they ordered all the Jews out of their homes. They told them not to take anything with them and to arrange themselves in the main street along the banks of the lake. All the Jews of the town, men, women and children, from young to old, were put in rows of four, surrounded by Germans, armed police and dogs, and ordered to walk toward the Dubki [Dubkes] forest. The Jews walked in the rain, while trying to quiet the cries of the small children. No one knew where they were taking us. Everyone felt certain that this was our last journey. The Germans warned us that it was forbidden to step out of the lines. Anyone who did so would be shot! Two men tried to go out of the line [Shlomo Zilber and Chaim Milutin], and the Germans shot them immediately, killing them.
I walked with my small daughter in my arms. My sister Roza [who was married to Eliahu Shmidt] held the hand of her daughter Sonia, and with her other hand she carried the very young Chayala. The Germans separated us from each other and from our brothers.
My brother-in-law [Eliahu Shmidt], the husband of my sister, wasn't at home at this time. A month before the war broke out, the Soviets had begun building a military airfield next to the town of Skidel (near Grodno), and he was drafted to work together with many other young men (Chaim-Katriel Deitch, Hirsh Maron, Rafael Deitch and several young men from the towns of Druysk and Slobodka). In the first bombings of the airfield that was under construction, many were killed and those who survived scattered in every direction and tried to return home. But we didn't think that Eliahu, Roza's husband, would be able to return home safely.
They brought us to the swamps [of the Dubki forest] . . . after we stopped, they ordered us to sit on the swampy ground. From among the congregants they took out the elderly shochet [ritual slaughterer] [Aharon-Zelig] Singalovski, cut off his beard with a knife, sat him on a motorcycle and drove him through the streets of the town. Due to great fear, the old man died of a heart attack.
We sat in the mud with the children until Sabbath morning [presumably June 28]. Then they told us we were free to go home. Exhausted in body and spirit, I, my sister and my brother decided to stay with a farmer we knew [outside Braslav]. His name was Franus Kolkovski [Francis Kolkowski].
With our last bit of strength, we reached the farmer's house. He took us inside, gave us lots of food, and my brother went back to town [Braslav] to find out what was happening there.
The next day, many German military officers and men began to arrive in the area where we were staying. General Romuald set up his headquarters not far from Kolkovski's house.
We were seized by fear; the farmer was also very afraid. We sat hidden in his house until my brother came with my husband, Leib Gamush, who'd returned on foot from Polotsk [about 115 kilometers east of Braslav], because the train in which he'd been traveling had been bombed. He told us that on the way he'd seen burned and destroyed villages. On the roads and in the forests were many bodies of people who'd been killed. A few days later, Eliahu Shmidt, Roza's husband, also arrived. He was unshaven and wore farmers' clothing, and he told a similar story of the horrors he'd seen on the road.
Once more, we all were together. We decided to return to our own house [in Braslav], even though we knew that while we were away the Christian neighbors had stolen our possessions.
Toward morning, quiet and fearful, we slipped into the town.
We put the house in some order and tried to live as normally as we could in dangerous times. Our neighbors returned some of the furniture, aiming to atone for what they'd done.
The period of decrees began; the Judenrat [Jewish Council] was established and took orders from the German authorities. Each day men and young girls were taken for various kinds of work. Many men worked at the train station cleaning logs and loading them on freight cars. Those who went out to work were uncertain if they'd be able to return home, and this happened with 13 Jews who went to work at the train station and didn't come back. Every day someone disappeared, and afterward it became known that the Germans or the police had murdered him. Likewise, the Germans frequently forced the Jews to contribute money, jewelry and valuables to their war effort.
One of the policemen was Shliachchik, a Volksdeutsche [ethnic German] who under the Polish regime had worked as an accountant at our windmill; with the help of Eliahu Shmidt, we bribed him to make things a little easier for us.
We suffered from hunger; the farmers were afraid to bring food to town. Even so, we succeeded in obtaining a bit of food. Since we lived at the edge of town, conditions there were more comfortable and enabled us to form ties with the local farmers, who came to grind flour.
Sometime later, it was decreed that we had to wear the yellow patch, on the left side of the chest and also on the back; we were forbidden to walk on the sidewalks; we were allowed to be seen in the street only until sunset. After that, the ghetto was established [officially around April 1, 1942]. All the Jews of the town were concentrated in one street. The rest of the streets were emptied of Jews. The crowding was terrible and caused sickness, hunger and other problems.
The local doctors --- Levsha [Lewsza], Baretzki [Barecki] and Emilianovitz [Emilianowicz] --- lived in hiding [sic] and, putting themselves at risk, helped the Jewish population with medicines and other medical assistance. But it was forbidden for Jews to be hospitalized.
There were no newspapers, and it was impossible to get news from outside about what was happening in the nearby towns or the world in general. Only those who worked outside the ghetto could sometimes bring pieces of news and stories of killings and massacres that were being done to the Jews in various places.
We knew that when the Germans were winning we could expect days of relative quiet, but on days of a retreat or loss at the front they'd cruelly revenge themselves on us. Sometimes Jews from other places slipped into the ghetto, from towns where all the Jews had already been murdered and only a few survivors had succeeded in escaping. We hid them and joined their fates to ours.
Men of the Gestapo took Jewish girls for themselves to serve them with everything. Through these girls, the Judenrat learned what the Germans were planning in the near future, and we also got some news of what was being done at the fronts and in the region. Sometimes we'd find a magazine in the garbage, and in this way we could scrounge another bit of news.
On Tuesday, June 2, 1942, toward morning, 100 young girls were sent to Slobodka nearby, to clean an army barracks. We never saw them again. Toward evening, we heard of the disaster
that was about to happen [later on the early morning of June 3]. The ghetto was surrounded by Gestapo men, gendarmes and police. It was clear to all what would happen. A few people succeeded in fleeing to the forest or other places.
We stayed in our house and waited nervously for what was coming. After midnight, two armed policemen broke in, and with the barrels of their rifles, they pushed us and threw us outside down the stairs. They didn't allow me even to take my little daughter, who was asleep in her bed. They hit us with the barrel of the rifle and took us outside. I wasn't aware of where we were going. Suddenly, I found myself in Rabbi Abba Zahorie's yard. Somebody dragged me there and then took us into an old bathhouse, which already contained several Jews who hoped to find a hiding place there. But after a short time, again were heard voices and shouts, crying and shooting. They discovered us, and with blows they took us outside. One of our group, I think it was Mendel the locksmith, was shot on the spot. We who remained were taken toward the Yiddish school. In the confusion, I succeeded in slipping away and fleeing in the direction of my aunt's house. I found my Uncle Yerachmiel [Bik] and went with him. He took me, together with other people from my family, into a hiding place dug under Rozin's crop storerooms. This hiding place had been prepared by my Uncle Yerachmiel. It was dark inside, and I stumbled against the bodies of people who were lying curled up next to the foundation stones of the storeroom. Among them was my uncle [Yerachmiel Bik], my aunt [Mania] and their little daughter [Perla]. Their older daughter [Tzila] was the first sacrifice among the girls who'd been sent to Slobodka. There I also found my cousin Chaim Munitz with his wife and his toddler son; Chana and Zusman; Batia with her two children; and more. The entrance to the hiding place was blocked with a large stone; it was hard to breathe. Occasionally shouts and shooting were heard from outside, as well as footsteps. Each time a child began to cry, they would silence it by suffocation. This is how Chaim Munitz's two-year-old son [Rafulik] was quieted. There was no food and no water. We had to relieve ourselves right there. The stuffy air and the stench were dreadful.
We lay there, like cattle, for three or four days. We lost our sense of time. But despite it all, the gendarmes and the police found us. They stood at the opening and yelled, Come out, stinking Jews! They had some Jews standing next to them who advised us to come out, otherwise the police would throw grenades inside, and they promised us there'd be no more shooting, because we were needed for work.
One by one, we left the hiding place. The clean air almost knocked me out. All of us, filthy, wrapped in infected rags, arrived at the schoolyard. Someone gave me a bit of water; another helped us to wipe off the filth and even found cleaner rags to exchange in a corner of the room.
I saw among them the Jews who remained from the first massacre. In the next room lay Chaim-Aizik Maron and another elderly Jew. Both of them were dying and beset by madness. I understood that we'd reached the last extremity; this was the end of the road. All of us thought of just one thing: how to get out, how to slip out and flee from there. Zusman Lubovitz, his wife Chana and their son Arieh succeeded in escaping and taking with them Shaul [Blecher], the son of Chana's sister Batia. Batia refused to escape and stayed behind with her pretty daughter Bluma [Blecher]. Both of them would be killed.
My uncle [Yerachmiel Bik] also slipped out with his family, through a side door. He said to me, Take an empty pail and run, as if you're going out to bring water. Tell the guard you're coming right back, but --- don't come back. This is what I did. With the empty pail I entered the cellar of the hotel that had used to belong
to the Bik family, and I hid in a concealed corner. At night, I quietly approached the entrance of the cellar. There I saw my uncle and the members of his family. He asked me where I was going. I replied that I'd try to reach the farmer's house where we'd stayed after the march to the swamp [in late June 1941, when all the Braslav Jews had been marched to a swamp in the Dubkes forest and forced to stay there overnight, as described on page 264]. He joined me, and we went out into the dark night. We tried to see but not be seen.
We knew the Gentiles were searching for Jews with the help of searchlights and dogs. So we followed the shore and swam in the water of the lake that lapped on the sands. I don't know which path we took, but after some time we reached the forest. I didn't know the area well, but I hoped for the best. The danger and the will to survive sharpened my senses. And so, toward morning we reached the farmer's house. We were afraid to knock on the door because the farmer's nephew was a policeman. We stood close to the walls of the cowshed, so that we'd meet the wife of Franus Kolkovski, who'd come to feed the pigs. In the dark, I fell into a sewage pit, and my uncle got me out with difficulty.
When the farmer's wife saw us, she burst into tears and couldn't utter a syllable due to her great surprise. She motioned to us not to move from our places and to wait. After a short time, she returned with her husband and brought us food and drink.
Franus opened the gate of the stable for us and told us to go up on the pile of hay. He gathered all of our infected clothing and brought me clean clothes. I felt as if the gate of the Garden of Eden had opened to us.
Washed and full, I warmed myself in the hay and fell asleep. Asleep, I heard the voice of the farmer calling me. He came up to us again, bringing us warm milk and bread, and told us that he'd paid a visit to the town. All the houses had been sealed up and they were planning to destroy the rest of the Jews who still remained. He added that my little brother Abrasha [Avraham Bik] was alive and that he, Franus, had taken him in a boat to the other side of the lake, to a farmer by the name of Skuriat in the village of Dukiel [Dukiele, 6.5 kilometers south of Braslav]. He'd also learned that my brother-in-law Eliahu Shmidt was alive.
From our friend the farmer, we learned about the bitter fate of my daughter [Pesia] and my sister [Roza] and her children [Sonia and Chayala], who were murdered by the Nazis. As he told us, tears streamed from his eyes; he cried together with us . . .
We hid with him for five days. After this he told us that one of his neighbors had denounced him and said he was hiding Jews, and he asked that we leave. Toward morning, he brought the four of us [Liuba, her uncle Yerachmiel, and presumably his wife Mania and their daughter Perla] to the other side of the lake and showed us the way to the house of the Skuriat farmers, two brothers and their families. On parting, he told us that if we need help, we should tell him. We parted from him with kisses and tears.
In the morning, when the farmer Skuriat found us in his stable, he told me that my brother Abrasha had already been with him for two weeks. From an excess of emotion, I grew so weak that it was necessary to pour water over me to revive me. The farmer hid all of us in his granary, fed us, and even gave a pillow to my uncle's wife [Mania] and the girl Perla [daughter of Yerachmiel Bik and his wife Mania].
After a number of days, my brother-in-law Eliahu Shmidt arrived and all of us, six souls, stayed with the farmer for a week. Then we were forced to leave. First of all, it was clear that it was hard for him to support six people; second, he worried that our existence at his house would become known in the village, and this could endanger not only our lives but also his and the lives of his family. Eliahu decided that he, my brother and I would leave
the place and try to reach the forests surrounding the town of Yod [Jod a.k.a. Jody, 25 kilometers southeast of Braslav]. There, according to what he said, his sister Ahuva and her husband Shmuel Mintzer were hiding at the home of one of the farmers (they survived, made aliyah to the Land of Israel and became members of Kibbutz Afek).
The name of the village where we hid was Taljie [Taleje, 4.5 kilometers west of Yod], and the farmer was Viktor Beinarovitz [Bejnarowicz]; his brother Paluk, a widower with three children and miserably poor, lived not far away. All of them were good people with a strong will to help others.
My brother-in-law Eliahu helped them with food and other items, and they were so dedicated to him that Viktor was willing to travel to the ghetto to ask my sister to come and hide at his house, because harsh rumors were circulating about the risk of destruction. But my sister refused to escape without her husband Eliahu, who was worried that the Germans would begin looking for him.
When we arrived at the village, we didn't immediately enter the farmer's house, but hid in the bushes and observed what was happening around us. The farmer's small daughter, who tended the cow, saw us and became very frightened. Eliahu signaled to her to approach us, and he explained to her what to do. Despite her youth, she understood what she should do. She ran home and told her father. And we, quietly and in hiding, one by one entered the farmer's house; there we met Ahuva and Shmuel.
As I mentioned, these people were very poor. In the spring they'd pull the straw from the roof to feed their cow. We knew this, and thanks to the connections we had with the farmers in the area, we succeeded in obtaining potatoes, a bit of barley and other commodities. The farmers truly put themselves at risk for us.
Here we found out that my uncle [presumably Yerachmiel Bik] and his family, who'd hidden in the village of Dukiel until the spring, had been turned over by local farmers to the Germans, who murdered them. Eliahu's sister Breina, her husband and children, were also murdered in this way, and so was his other sister and her family. Misfortune wasn't scarce at this time.
A few other Jews arrived at our farmer's house, searching for a hiding place. Kalman Pinchov, his wife Slava and her brother came also. The farmer was a good-hearted, merciful man, but --- he was afraid. Despite his fear, he agreed to let them stay with him. The place was small and narrow, and Shmuel Mintzer began, with the help of us all, to enlarge it. At night, we began to dig a hiding place under the stable. We poured the dirt on the roof of the stable and the cowshed. This is how we built a hiding place for all eight people. Rumors reached us that for every Jew turned over to the Germans, a farmer would receive a sack of salt, and by our calculations eight sacks of salt were a sizeable possession. A worry entered our hearts: Maybe the farmer would be tempted and turn us in, but at the same time we knew that if it happened our hiding place would be revealed, and this implicated him. So we calmed ourselves. Only the members of his family were afraid. We decided to split into two groups and ask the farmer's brother-in-law, Strenchevski [Strenczewski], to agree to hide some of us and have the farmer's brother Paluk also hide some Jews from our group. And this is what happened. The members of the farmer's family were partners in our rescue. We saw the farmer calm down, his spirit lightened and he'd travel to our village acquaintances to get food for us. Among these acquaintances were people who cautioned Beinarovitz not to betray us.
I wish to name the villagers who helped us in our distress: Franus Kolkovski,
Anthony Patzevitz [Pacewicz], Skuriat and his brother from the village of Dukiel and another farmer from a village near Ikazna [Ikazn was about 14 kilometers east of Braslav], Tolstov [Tolstow] was his name. After the liberation we searched for them and found them, and we helped them with all the means at our disposal. To this day, we keep in contact with them and send them money and packages of clothing and food.
In 1943, almost all of the [remaining] ghettos were destroyed. Many Jews in them died of hunger and sickness; and others couldn't find the spiritual and physical strength to keep going and killed themselves, while a few fled to the forests and joined the partisan movement. At the time, there were many rumors about organized groups that stood ready to fight with weapons in hand. They were concentrated mainly in the forests of Kozian [Koziany], Zamosh [Zamosz], Gleboki [Glubokoye] and around Vilna. These groups were attacking German military posts, destroying train tracks and trains that took soldiers and ammunition to the front, and burning bridges and storehouses of food and military equipment. In this way, we learned that the German army was suffering defeats at the front and in many places had begun to retreat. Russian soldiers also joined the partisan groups; they'd succeeded in escaping from imprisonment or had been wandering the forests since the first days of the war. And so a serious fighting force was created, which organized itself in a united framework [under Soviet control].
I decided to join the partisans, but meanwhile something unexpected happened: The Germans, in their fight against the partisans and the Jews, were sending out spies and collaborators to uncover them. These people would wander the forests and the villages and sniff out people like hunting dogs. One day, while we were sitting in the farmer's house, an unknown woman came in and began to chat. Eliahu grasped immediately that she was one of the collaborators sent by the Germans. When she left the house, we immediately fled to the forest. Shortly thereafter the Germans arrived, and they began to burn the village houses with the residents still inside them. It was impossible to run; I, my brother and Eliahu dug ourselves into the snow under a tree. Eliahu's sister and her husband remained in the house under the stove, because they hadn't managed to get out. The Germans entered the farmer Strenchevski's house, where the Mintzer family was hiding. They interrogated him about whether any Jews were there, and he told them that if he knew where they were, he'd immediately turn them over, because he needed salt. The farmer's three children stood silent and afraid next to their father, saying nothing. Fortunately, they didn't burn the houses of the Beinarovitz brothers, nor the house of their brother-in-law, Strenchevski.
The Pinchov family escaped to the forest and joined a family camp near the partisan camp. And I, my brother and my brother-in-law went to the forest to meet with Jews. Little by little we were absorbed into the surrounding forests, a not insignificant number of people. We met Jewish partisans who came to visit and help us with food. Our morale improved a great deal, and the food was much better than at the poor farmers' houses.
At this time, the partisans were causing much trouble for the Germans. The Germans were afraid to enter the forests and were forced to send reinforcements to protect their trains.
It wasn't easy to win acceptance into the ranks of the partisans. First of all, they didn't accept people without a weapon, and second it was hard for Jews to gain acceptance into the units because of anti-Semitic feelings among the partisan ranks. But if a Jew brought a weapon, he was accepted. They accepted me as a nurse, because there were wounded who needed care. I and my brother Abrasha, who was then only 15 years old, were accepted into the partisan group Bondarenko. Eliahu, on the other hand, decided not to join the partisans. He wanted to meet with his sister and brother-in-law
the Mintzer family and stay with them for a while. My brother worked in the kitchen and supervised the horses. He was ready to carry out every type of job.
Several groups of partisans operated in our vicinity. There were brigades named Zhukov, Kosygin, Spartak, Melnikov, Bilov, Antonov, Lenin, Bazikin [or Bozikin] and others. Most of their officers had been officers in the Red Army, and a few of them were sent to direct the partisans under Soviet command. They had links to the regular Red Army at the front.
I was given a small pistol and took part in operations with the partisans as a nurse caretaker. I organized a small field hospital to collect the wounded. I'd send messages using the local farmers, who would travel to Braslav, contact the local doctors and bring back medicines, bandages and other medical supplies. Later, our officer, Bondarenko (a lieutenant), made contact with other partisan groups from around Polotsk, and on certain days they'd land helicopters [sic; the Hebrew text here said masokim] and evacuate the severely wounded to the Soviet Union. I always accompanied the wounded to the meeting place, despite the danger. All around were German forces, which sought to ambush the helicopters, firing at them. Once, when I was accompanying 12 wounded, we encountered a German unit that was withdrawing. Each side began shooting, and the helicopter was unable to land. The pilot flew away and returned; finally he succeeded in landing and taking away the wounded. But we, the group accompanying the convoy, were cut off from our unit and found ourselves caught in a trap. The forest was what saved us. Thanks to the Kozian [Koziany] forests, which extended to the Russian border, we succeeded after much difficult wandering in joining the partisan group of Sazykin and Zhukov, and we returned safely.
In the depth of the forests, there were many marshy swamps. I witnessed the terrible sight of people who, fleeing the Nazis, ran into the swamps and were drowned in them. Every little puddle that looked innocent, green and safe turned into a death trap. There, in these swamps, in a battle with the Germans, the praiseworthy partisan Shlomo Musin from Druya [about 34 kilometers northeast of Braslav] and his girlfriend died in a battle with the Germans.
Many partisans fell in battle with the Germans while guarding the camps. Once a large enemy force laid siege to the partisan camps with the aim of destroying them. The siege lasted three weeks. After wandering behind the German searches, in the end we approached an area of hard ground. This was near the town of Sharkovshchitzna [Szarkowszczyzna, about 20 kilometers southeast of Yod]. All around, echoes of shelling could be heard. We were very close to the front, which spread out around Polotsk. During this difficult time, I received greetings from my brother Abrasha. The man who brought me the greetings told me my brother had remained alone in the forest during the siege. Alone, without food, there was no one to help him; he'd been cut off from our group while the Germans were shelling our camp. With the help of several friends, I reached his location and found him broken and exhausted, spiritually and physically. I didn't know whether to be glad that I'd found him or to cry when I saw his poor condition. Several weeks passed before he recovered. This was close to the time of our liberation from the yoke of the Nazi conqueror. Then I learned that among the saved were also my brother-in-law Eliahu [Shmidt], his sister [Ahuva] and her husband [Shmuel Mintzer], and Zusman Lubovitz and his family. I also met Yerachmiel Milutin, who'd helped many people. Yerachmiel was a valiant hero, one of the excellent partisan fighters.
The front was approaching quickly. Around us, the thunder of shells and bombs was constant. At night, the skies lit up from the fires raging around us. Our unit's scouts
now told us that we were surrounded in battle, and we weren't to move away without an order, to avoid throwing our lives away. Meanwhile, groups of partisans went out on operations, to destroy the remnants of the retreating German army and to burn bridges, to prevent the enemy from taking anything with him. Liberation was near; it was necessary to celebrate it, but only now did we feel the scale of our tragedy and destruction. I envied those who were no more; I didn't believe in the future. I felt like a man who'd been sentenced to death and then set free, without knowing where he should go or what reason there was to keep living.
And then the big moment arrived. [The region was liberated around July 1944.] At night we were told we could return to the town, to see the Red Army advance and to catch the local collaborators. We went out to the town of Sharkovshchitzna. They told me to go immediately to the hospital and the drugstore, to safeguard the medicines and organize for emergencies. A group of people was available to help carry out the mission.
There were no Jews in the town. The non-Jewish population tried to justify themselves to us and find favor; the residents expressed a desire to help us. We saw through their hypocrisy, because of the anti-Semitic behavior they'd shown under the Nazis. We had to stay alert, because we knew that many murderers were still walking around, and many of these criminals had fled to the forests. The struggle hadn't yet ended.
The Soviet authorities began to organize life in the liberated areas. When a draft order was issued to young men who'd served in the partisans, my brother decided to join [the regular army] and avenge the blood of our dear ones.
|Certificate of decoration of Liuba Gamush [for her service as a partisan nurse]|
He was only 17 years old and lacked experience. He was sent to a unit that was battling German units in the vicinity of Dvinsk and Riga, which hadn't yet surrendered. After fighting for only a few weeks, he fell in battle along with 60 other fighters near Dvinsk. Thus, I lost the last member of my family. My little brother, who'd endured so much suffering for so long, was unable to see the great day of liberation.
At last I was freed from the ranks of the partisans, and I received a decoration from the government of the Soviet Union for my work as a nurse in the partisan movement.
I returned to my town of Braslav, and there I met the Lubovitz family, which had settled in the house of the Blecher family. My brother-in-law Eliahu lived in his house, which was still standing. I met Chaim Kagan, and he told me about his brother Moshe, who was in Russia and planning to return. In Braslav there were a few other Jewish families, from Druysk, Slobodka, Yod and other places. Masha and Mendel Maron were also there, and all of us worked to gather the broken pieces and put them together.
In August 1945, I connected my life with that of Moshe Kagan, who returned from Siberia. He got work in a fisherman's cooperative. This was the work he loved, since from a young age he had stayed busy, like all the members of his family, fishing and renting lakes from the estate owners.
Almost all of the Jews had been lost. I worked in a clinic. The local farmers, wishing to cleanse themselves morally, would bring us food. They also returned many items they'd stolen during the Nazi period, saying they'd taken the possessions to guard them for us.
The Soviet authorities weren't so enthusiastic about punishing the criminals and collaborators. In the first days after the liberation, several brave Jews took the initiative and with their own hands avenged a number of denouncers and traitors. Shortly after this, those who remained scattered and hid until the anger passed. Now they were living in quiet and contentment.
In Braslav, we felt the oppression of the cold and the aversion to life in the place where the coals still whispered about the graves of our dear ones. We knew of the camps of the Joint [the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee] and the UNRRA [United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration], which were in Germany, where the remnant of the surviving Jews of Europe was concentrated. We knew that from there it was possible to travel to the Land of Israel. The borders of Russia were still open; it was possible to leave; there were trains that traveled to Poland and from Poland to Germany. We registered, we left our jobs --- and went out on the road.
We entered anti-Semitic Poland, where a multitude of fallen humanity had collected, the murderers and the hooligans who'd faithfully served the Nazis. The Jews in Poland were aware of this and did everything to unite and protect themselves from the aroused population. It was as if the Polish authorities saw nothing, which encouraged the Jew-haters even more.
One morning, my husband Moshe went out to go shopping. Some hoodlums attacked him and beat him murderously; with difficulty he managed to return home. He was beaten and injured all over: on his head, back and other parts of his body. He fainted from the pain. After this incident, we decided to hurry our exit from Poland and together with the Chepelevitz family from Zamosh, the Tzipuk family from Druysk, and another family from Dvinsk, we slipped over the border into Germany. We were caught and with difficulty succeeded, with the help of a bribe, in saving ourselves, but the soldiers of the border guard robbed us and left us with nothing. We returned to Shechichin [Szczecin, now in western Poland, about 840 kilometers southwest of Braslav]. After a week, we tried our luck once more. This time we succeeded and were able to reach Germany. After staying for some time in a displaced persons camp, we arrived in Israel in May 1951, on a ship that brought sick people, among them my husband Moshe, who was suffering from
an illness of the kidneys. He passed away in 1954, and I and my son Eliezer, who then was four years old, lived in a small government apartment in the Shaaria district in Paja in Petah Tikva. I worked at a health-care organization in my profession as a nurse. My bitter fate didn't forsake me . . .
In 1959 my brother-in-law Eliahu Shmidt, who lived in the United States, came to visit us. Again our paths met. He'd rescued me from the Nazi hell, guiding me from one hiding place to another. This time we decided to continue our path together. With the agreement of my son, we arrived in the United States. Eliahu treated Eliezer as his own son. With the help of the fatherly relation of Eliahu and his support, our son improved his education, finished university, and today he's a professor of art and sculpture. He married; he has two children and the name of one of them is the name of his father --- Moshe.
(Widow of Yerachmiel Milutin)
Daughter of Nechama and Yaacov Rusonik
Translated from the Hebrew by Laia Ben-Dov
Footnotes Added / Donated by Jeff Deitch
Under the Soviet regime, our family's situation was normal from an economic standpoint. My brother, Idel [Rusonik], worked as a clerk in the supply chain, the Food and Clothing Authority; my sister Liuba, who was married to Kalman Pinchov from Zamosh [Zamosz, about 16 kilometers south of Braslav/Braslaw], worked at the same company as an accountant; my sister Chasia maried Zalman Gamerov and lived in the nearby town of Slobodka [about 11 kilometers northeast of Braslav]; my little sister Ida studied at the Yavneh school [in Braslav]; and I, after completing my studies at school, began to learn the profession of nursing in the hospital in Braslav. I finished my studies some time before the Germans entered the town.
When the German army invaded the Soviet Union [in June 1941], some of the Jews of Braslav left the town and headed east toward the old Russian border. Some of the youths were drafted into the Red Army. The non-Jewish population still behaved with restraint, out of concern that perhaps the Soviet regime would return. Only some time later, when the Germans entered the town, did the [non-Jewish] residents receive them with bread and salt. They began to collaborate with the Germans and show their hatred for the Jews.
Fearful of what was to come, I, my little sister Ida and my mother fled to the village of Mizerishki [Mizeryszki, 7.5 kilometers southwest of Braslav], where we had a house and a plot of land. After a number of days, I decided to return to Braslav to find out what was happening in the town. As I reached the Jewish cemetery, I met a group of Jews working on the road. Among them was Yerachmiel Milutin, who approached and told me that on the first Friday [June 27] after the Germans' entry into the town, they'd gathered all the Jews, taken them to the swamps in the Dubki [Dubkes] forest and held them there until the next day. He also told me about the killing of Shlomo [Zilber] the shochet [ritual slaughterer] and Chaim Milutin when the Jews were taken to the swamps.
Chaim Milutin was my cousin. When I heard this news, I hurried to the house of my Aunt Rivel [Rivka], Chaim's mother. I found her and her children sitting shiva.
Rivel Milutin was the widow of Shmuel-Yosef, one of the organizers of the Jewish self-defense against the hooligans who attacked the town during World War I.
Back in the village, I told my mother what was happening in town and asked her
to return home. She went back to Braslav with my sister. At that time, another disaster befell our family: My sister Liuba, who was in her last months of pregnancy, entered the hospital to give birth. She gave birth to a dead baby, and due to complications and the lack of blood for transfusions, she too died.
A short time after the Germans entered Braslav, they ordered the establishment of the Judenrat [Jewish Council]. This was the institution that communicated between the Germans and the Jewish population. The head of the Judenrat was Yitzchak Mindel. The rest of the members of were Gershon Klioner, Hirsh Fridman, Levi-Yitzchak Veinshtein, Leib Valin and a number of others. Hirsh Fridman was in charge of manpower and responsible for carrying out the work the Germans requested. The Judenrat was located in the building of the Yiddish school.
On Passover Eve 1942 [April 1], the ghetto was established in Braslav. All the Jews of the town and a great number of refugees from other places were concentrated on the main street --- Pilsudski Street. The Jews lived there in terrible crowdedness, poverty, hunger and illness.
In June 1942 [June 3-5], they began to destroy the ghetto. They took the Jews to pits that had been dug ahead of time out near the train [station], where they killed them. The day before this, a group of girls had been sent to Slobodka to clean the barracks of the army. The next day, they were returned to Braslav and together with all the Jews they were brought to the pits and murdered. Among them were my sister Ida and my cousin Rachel Milutin [daughter of Rivel].
Some of the Jewish residents [of Braslav], who'd heard about what was happening in the nearby towns and the Nazi massacres of the region's Jews, had prepared hiding places in the hope of saving themselves. We too had prepared a hiding place like this, and during the days of the killing we hid: I, my mother, my sister Chasia [Gamerov] and her toddler son, my brother Idel, my Aunt Rivel and her children, and my brother-in-law Kalman Pinchov, his brother, his wife Chalvina and their baby, Shlomo Shapira and Yerachmiel Milutin. All of us entered the hiding place, which was under the garage.
After the destruction of the ghetto [on June 3-5], the Germans announced that all those in hiding could come out of their hiding places; they wouldn't kill any more and there was no need to worry. Some people believed these deceitful words and left their hiding places. All of them were gathered in one place and murdered.
In the destruction of the remaining Jews of Braslav and Opsa, my mother, my sister Chasia and her son, my Aunt Rivel and her children, and the rest of my relatives were also killed. Of all my family, only I remained.
Sometime after the murders I met Chaim-Eli Deitch, who was traveling outside the ghetto in a wagon harnessed to a horse (at that time, he worked in the Germans' stables). I jumped onto the wagon, and in this way I succeeded in fleeing from the ghetto.
When I left the ghetto, I hurried to an acquaintance by the name of Slitski, a [Gentile] fisherman. His house wasn't far from the old cemetery. He received me nicely, and I stayed in his house to sleep. The next day at dawn, he woke me, loaded up the fishing nets, and we went out to Lake Dryviata [Drywiata]. He took me in his boat to the other side of the lake, close to the village of Maishuli [Meiszule, 6.5 kilometers southwest of Braslav and near Mizerishki]. From there I went to the village of Zwirini [Zwirynie, about 1.5 kilometers southwest of Maishuli], where I had an acquaintance named Stepka. I slept at her house and the next day, in the evening, I moved to the house of the farmer Frank Zhuk, who worked our land in the village of Mizerishki. He hid me in the cowshed, in the hay. There I stayed for a week. One day, toward morning, he came and said I had to flee immediately, because the village was full of Germans. I went out on the road leading to Opsa [11 kilometers southwest of Mizerishki]. The road was long and tiring, and I grew exhausted. Despite the danger and uncertainty, I entered the first house that stood at the edge of a village.
In this house lived a woman. I blessed her with the
traditional Christian blessing, Praise the Redeemer Jesus. I told her I was going to Opsa, where my brother worked in the flour mill; I wanted to find out if he'd finished grinding the wheat, and then I'd return with a wagon to bring the flour home. She believed my story, and I slept in her house that night.
Early in the morning, I left the house and continued toward Opsa. I met a Christian woman and we went on together. While we were talking, a farm woman came toward us. She warned the woman I was talking to that I was a Jew, and both of them went away from me. This happened at the entrance to Opsa. I entered the town fearful of the threatening atmosphere.
In the first house in the town, I saw a Jew praying, wrapped in a tallit [prayer shawl] and tefillin [phylacteries]. I approached him and told him I'd fled from the [Braslav] ghetto. He took me into his house and took care of me. The next morning, in his house, I met my brother Idel, Yerachmiel [Milutin], Moshe-Chatzkel Milutin [and Moshe Milutin], who'd fled before me.
On Sunday morning, all of us went on foot to Vidz [Widze, about 20 kilometers southwest of Opsa]. In the community office, we told them we were from Braslav, survivors of the massacre. They forbade us to tell anyone about it, and to protect us they even changed our names. For example, they called me Etty Skopitz, and Yerachmiel was Yisrael. They sent my brother Idel, Moshe-Chatzkel and Moshe Milutin to Sventzion to work on repairing the train tracks.
As I found out afterward, my brother Idel [later] fled to the Vilna Ghetto, and when they began to destroy the ghetto and send the Jews to Ponar, he, together with a few other young men, tried to flee to the forests and join the partisans. The Germans caught them, murdered them and burned their bodies. Yerachmiel and I were sent to Kiakst [perhaps Kiakszty, about nine kilometers northeast of Vidz], where many Jews from Vidz were working on excavations in chains.
One day, when I was cooking food outside our barracks, I suddenly heard whistles. I looked up and saw three men approaching, with Red Army tags on their hats. They asked what I was doing there. I answered that a group of Jews was there, and they were digging in fetters. The men told me they were partisans and wanted to speak to one of the workers. I called over Yerachmiel and Sasha [Alexander] Tempelman. The Russians saw them approaching and saw they were wearing good clothes. They couldn't believe forced laborers would be dressed in such a way, and so they fled into the forest. I went to look for them. When I found them and asked why they'd run away, they replied that they thought I was planning to turn them over to the Germans. I calmed them down, saying they shouldn't be afraid; one of the laborers was my husband and the other was a pharmacist from Vidz; all of us were Jews, and we ourselves had fled from the ghettos. Only then did they agree to meet with our group, and they told us they were partisans and their mission was to blow up the dairy in Rozovo [perhaps Rozowo, about 2.5 kilometers west of Mizerishki], because it supplied dairy products to the Germans. They also told me that they were in an organized group and their camp was located in the forest near Zagorie village [not identified].
We decided to join the partisans and fight the Germans. We went out toward Zagorie. Local residents told to us how to reach the forest where the partisans were located. There were 15 people in our group; I was the only woman.
We met the officer of the partisans and expressed our wish to join them. Unfortunately, they refused to accept people without weapons. They took me because I was a nurse and the camp had no one who knew how to care for the wounded. Yerachmiel and the rest of the men left to search for weapons.
I was joined to a battalion named for Suvorov. In it, there were about 2,000 [sic] fighters. As I looked around, it became clear to me that there were no arrangements for providing medical aid. There was a woman who'd worked
as a veterinarian, and another girl had been a former clerk in the NKVD. With them, I began to establish and arrange care for the patients. There were very few medical materials, and it was difficult to acquire them. We made contact with Dr. Volotzhink, who worked in the hospital in Braslav. With the help of loyal villagers, we sent him money and lists of the medicines that we needed. Slowly, we established a field hospital.
At this time, the Germans were transferring army, weapons and ammunition to the [eastern] front in trains. The partisans were carrying out sabotage missions on the train tracks and blowing up the trains. Among our men were some wounded and I, as a nurse, had to accompany the groups of fighters to provide medical aid if needed. During an operation, I and a few soldiers would remain a short distance away. The wounded would be brought to us for care and bandaging. Those who were killed were generally left where they fell. First of all, this was because there was no chance of removing them, and also because we had to withdraw quickly from the battlefield.
When winter arrived, snow began to fall. The Germans found our footprints and a bitter battle developed, in which we suffered many wounded. I was flooded with work, providing aid to the wounded and moving them to safe locations. Many men left the camp and scattered in every direction.
According to my request, they transferred me to Kiakst, where I again met Yerachmiel Milutin. He was hiding with a village acquaintance, and I knew where he was. We were together again for two months. In that same village, two brothers and a sister were hiding. When the Germans caught them and took them out to be killed, our acquaintance grew very frightened and asked us to leave.
Winter was at its peak. It was cold and we had nowhere to go besides the forest. We wandered among the bushes and trees during the day, and at night we returned to that same villager's house to warm up and receive some food.
One day when we were in the forest, we suddenly heard shooting and thought we were being chased. We fled toward a river that flowed in a forest clearing, hoping to cross to the other side. I jumped into the cold water and began to swim, but quickly began to sink. Yerachmiel immediately jumped into the water and saved me. There, that day in the forest, Yerachmiel promised me with a handshake that he wouldn't leave me again and we'd never be parted.
That night we returned to our villager. We dried our clothes, warmed ourselves and stayed there all night. Toward morning, he asked us to leave his house. We set out for Sventzion. [It's not certain where they were at this point, but Sventzion was about 54 kilometers southwest of Kiakst.]
In Sventzion we found Moshe-Chatzkel and Moshe Milutin, together with several young men from Vidz and the surrounding area. We were a group of about 50 people. We obtained weapons and went to the forests in the area around Sventzion, where we began to organize ourselves and build bunkers. We were helped by a forester who lived in the place. First, we began a search for ways to supply food.
Spring 1943 arrived; the cold ended. We moved to the Zamosh forests, where we met many partisan groups who'd gathered from various locations. We were also joined by soldiers who'd escaped German imprisonment. Several brigades of partisans were quickly established, among them the Zhukov brigade, in which Yerachmiel and I served. There was also the Spartak brigade, in which Moshe Milutin fought, and a brigade named for Markov, in which Moshe-Chatzkel Milutin fought. Partisan activities increased in number and frequency.
In every brigade, there was a doctor and a nurse. I was the only Jewish nurse on the entire medical staff. The other nurses had been sent from Russia.
|Partisan certificate of Emma Milutin, nurse in the Suvorov battalion of the Zhukov brigade|
Generally, we'd provide first aid to the lightly wounded, those who didn't need surgery. The seriously wounded were transferred to Kalazin or Kalinin in the Soviet Union via airplanes that brought us weapons, ammunition, medicines and clothing. The main activities of the partisans focused, as mentioned, on sabotage and bombing of the trains that were bringing German soldiers and weapons to the front, but we also provided help to Jews who hid in the forests. Many of them joined the partisans, becoming daring fighters and taking revenge for the blood of their dear ones.
One day, a group of 80 partisan fighters went out on an operation. I went with them. A difficult battle developed; the Germans surrounded us and we suffered many wounded. Despite this, we succeeded in breaking out and returned to our base. I was very tired and fearful after the battle. I sat in the house of a farmer and dipped my feet into a bowl of water, to relieve some of the weariness from the long, exhausting trek.
Suddenly, one of the camp guards entered and told me that a wounded Jewish boy wanted to come inside. I immediately let him in. He ran to me, hugged me, and crying he asked, Auntie, are you Jewish? Save me, I'm wounded and I want to live. I examined him and found a bullet wound in his leg. I cleaned and bandaged the leg, fed the boy and gave him something to drink. When Yerachmiel came, I told him what had happened. He approached the brigade officer Siromcha to discuss what to do with the boy. Siromcha advised that Yerachmiel and I adopt him as our son, and this we did. He
remained with us until the end of the war, and afterward he continued to live with us for a time. His name is Misha Rabinovitz [Rabinowicz], and he lives today in the Land of Israel and works as a train engineer in Haifa.
In the fall of 1943, a typhoid epidemic broke out in the camp. In the unit's clinic lay many sick patients. To our great danger, the Germans began, just at this moment, to bomb us. One day they attacked and we had to withdraw to the area around Vitebsk [roughly 200 kilometers to the east]. There, there were large and strong partisan forces, equipped with heavy weapons and tanks. We remained there until the spring of 1944, and then we returned to the camp.
The mood was gloomy. We began to reorganize the place, but the Germans again began to shell us, and in one of these attacks I was injured in my left hand and left breast. In addition to all this, I fell sick with typhoid while I was pregnant. One night, airplanes arrived and brought us military equipment. With them, I, another wounded nurse and several wounded fighters were sent to the rear. From there, we traveled in a train to the hospital in the city of Kalazin. I stayed in the hospital until August 1944, until after the birth of my daughter Liuba. From there I was transferred to Moscow, where I received an apartment and food. A short time later, I returned by train to Minsk [about 195 kilometers south of Braslav].
The partisan headquarters were located in one of the villages [around Minsk]. I reported there, and after the liberation of Braslav and its surroundings I returned to my town [Braslav had already been liberated in July 1944]. I met my husband Yerachmiel, who was busy taking care of collaborators with the Nazis.
We began to build a life for our family. Yerachmiel started working at a leskhoz (a government company that supplied wood). Life wasn't easy; there were shortages of everything, mainly food. I too began to work, in the Ministry of Health, to ease the burden on the household economy.
Following an agreement between the governments of Poland and the Soviet Union, in 1958 we went to Poland and lived in the city of Valbzhich [Walbrzych, in what's now southwestern Poland]. In 1960, we made aliyah to Israel and were sent to Dimona [in the south]. Both of us worked in the Ministry of Defense. Soon after that, I began working as a nurse at a health care provider, and gradually our lives began to move along the desired path.
To my dismay, Yerachmiel fell ill and after a short time, in June 1968, he passed away. He was buried in the cemetery in Dimona.
Son of Rachel and Levi-Yitzchak
Translated from the Hebrew by Dr. Ida Schwarcz
Footnotes Added / Donated by Jeff Deitch
A letter written by Chaim Munitz, of blessed memory, at the beginning of 1946 in Izhevsk (the capital of the Autonomous Republic of Udmurt in the Soviet Union) to his sister Munka Shmutzer in Kibbutz Ein Hayam [near Haifa in Israel]:
I returned to Izhevsk two days ago [Izhevsk was about 1,000 kilometers east of Braslav]. I've been in Braslav [Braslaw], Vilna, Kovno and Riga. I found the postcard from Hannah, a letter from Hannah and David, and the letter written by the three of you together --- Manya, Hannah and Aharon on February 12, 1946.
On the surface, Braslav hasn't changed. The mountain [Castle Hill] hasn't split in two, the water in the lakes is peaceful and quiet, as if nothing had occurred. But terrible things did happen there that are hard to talk about, and even harder to write about.
On the first Friday [June 27, 1941], when the Germans entered Braslav, they gathered all the Jews, took them to the deep swamps near the Dubki [Dubkes] forest, and kept them there for an entire day. While the Jews were in the swamps their property was stolen, and when they returned the town looked as if it had undergone a pogrom. Feathers from the ripped-up bedding flew in the air, as in Bialik's poem, In the City of Slaughter.
While they were being led to the swamps, Shlomo [Zilber] the shochet [ritual slaughterer] and Chaim Milutin tried to escape. Both of them were killed. Later another 13 Jews were murdered after they were accused by a Polish overseer of not working hard enough. (They'd been clearing trees at the train station.) The rest of the Jews were killed in the general massacre of June 3, 1942. Until that date, the Jews lived as if in hell.
On one of the Fridays, the Germans made [Aharon-Zelig] Singalovski, the shochet [ritual slaughterer], sit on a motorcycle that they drove around the town. After they freed him, he died of a heart attack. Then came the decrees: It was forbidden to walk on the sidewalks, people had to wear the yellow patch on the left side of the chest and right side of the back, and finally all the Jews were enclosed in a ghetto on Pilsudski Street, surrounded by barbed wire. It was forbidden for Jews to speak to peasants and of course to trade with them.
The Jews were taken out for heavy labor: washing floors for the Germans, loading tree trunks onto train carriages, knitting stockings and gloves from wool. They received 150 grams of bread a day. The Jews used to exchange their possessions with the peasants, starting with clothing and finishing with sofas, chairs, and tables [to get food]. It was forbidden, but they persisted. They also had to give contributions (ransom money) to the Germans; gold, furs, women's coats. The Judenrat [Jewish Council] and the Jewish police collected the goods and obeyed the Germans' orders.
The Judenrat consisted of about 15 members. The chairman was [Yitzchak] Mindel --- the iron merchant. The others were Levi-Itche [Levi-Yitzchak] Veinshtein, [Eliezer] Mazeh the teacher, Sheinkman the defense lawyer
and others. The policemen were Alter Arlyuk, Leib Valin and others.
The Jews in the ghetto understood that their days were numbered. Some of them prepared hiding places, hoping they'd be able to survive the dark period. They tried not to anger the enemy, to avoid the killing. Of course, this didn't help.
On June 3  the Germans, with the assistance of local policemen, began to remove the Jews from their homes. They gathered the Jews into a building next to the [Eastern] Orthodox church. There they undressed them to their underclothes, beat them and then led them to pits that had been prepared in advance in the forest on the way to Dubina (near the Jewish meadow). The mothers carried their children, and they didn't cry. For three days [after the massacre], blood continued to seep from the pit. Peasants brought sand in wagons and poured it on the pit, but the blood kept seeping forth.
[At the time of the massacre] many Jews concealed themselves in hiding places they'd prepared. The policemen searched for them in these hiding places. Anton Burak had worked for a Jew in a beverage factory and spoke Yiddish. He was also a policeman, and he'd go into the houses and courtyards and announce: Jews you can come out, they're no longer shooting, and so on. Some believed this deceit, came out and were of course caught and shot. Germans and policemen went into houses and shot into the walls, floors, courtyards and the ground. Small children that were in the hiding places would grow frightened and began to cry. In this way, they found the Jews and caught them. They gave some of them a chance as if they could escape, and shot them when they crossed the wire fence [surrounding the ghetto].
|The Munitz family, including Chaim (on the ground, first on the right) and Munka (third from the right)|
The day before the massacre, the Germans sent all the youths, about 80 in number, to Slobodka [about 11 kilometers northeast of Braslav], as if to work. Afterward they sent them back to Braslav and took them to the pits. [Later that year] they brought the Jews of Opsa to the empty ghetto and killed them after some time had passed.
[When the Opsa Ghetto was liquidated on March 19, 1943] one Jewish youth attacked a German who came to chase the Jews (to bring them to the massacre), subdued him, dressed in his clothes and took his rifle. He went out and tried to kill a policeman but missed, and was caught and killed. Another youth killed a German and two policemen with an iron bar.
Some Jews who had hidden at the time of the massacre escaped to the forests. If a peasant hid a Jew, the Germans would kill him and his family and burn his house. For catching a Jew, they awarded three kilograms of salt. There were cases where peasants caught Jews and handed them over to the police. To allow a Jew to spend the night, the peasants charged five gold rubles.
But there were also cases where peasants hid Jews or gave them bread.
Masha [Maron], the granddaughter of Sliova-Chaya, and Mendel [Maron], the son of Chaim-Aizik, were hidden by two young peasant women until the Red Army came, even though they had no money or clothing to give them in return. Later the same peasant women hid four more Jews who gave them some money. Thus, they saved six souls.
The deacon (assistant to the priest) died of a heart attack [in Braslav] on the day the Jews were murdered. Some priests ordered peasants who came to confess that they were hiding Jews and giving the Jews food and clothing. One priest gave David habiznai and his child crosses to wear on their necks --- to save them.
If there'd been a partisan movement in the area at the time, it's possible that more Jews would've been saved. But the partisan movement arose in our area only in 1943, so that only a few people were saved in the woods. Not one of our relatives survived. Those Jews that survived returned to Braslav took back some of their possessions from the peasants, sold them, earned a bit of money and left for Poland.
The graves of the martyrs (the pits) as is seen here, were surrounded with some wire and branches. Their conscience didn't allow them to put up a good fence.
Nothing was left of our house or our grandmother's house. Only the barn remained. On the two nights that I spent there I slept at the home of Rayzka, daughter of Palka and Binyamin Gans. They lived opposite us, and they received me graciously.
In short, this is all there is of Braslav.
It doesn't help to cry. On the contrary, we must live and grow great to spite the will of our enemies --- Am Yisrael Hay [Long live the nation of Israel].
In a few days, I'll write more.
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