by Libe Levitanus Ziadlin (neé Papkin)
Translated by Eilat Gordin Levitan
I was about fifteen when my mother Beile passed away. After a short time, we left our hometown Potashnia and moved to Druya. Despite being the youngest of three children, taking care of the home became my duty. I also had other responsibilities; I was an assistant to my father Shlomo Izhak Papkin in his workshop/ factory for cleaning flax, of forty workers. In the year 1934, I married Yekutiel Aharon Levitanus, a native of Druya. We sustained ourselves through a grocery store that we owned. When the Soviets entered Druya in 1939, my husband had to quit the store and become a clerk in a cooperative (private ownership was not allowed). Together with him worked a Polish man by the name of Mr. Petrovsky. During the Polish times (1920-1939), he worked for the tax department. The minute the Soviets arrived, Mr. Petrovsky became very afraid. My husband tried very hard to help him and to make sure that nothing bad would happen to him. He said many good things about him to the new rulers. This Polish man was very kind and repaid his debt to us by allowing my husband to work in the mill as soon as the Germans took over in the June of 1941. This job was very important for my husband because the location of the job was outside of the ghetto that had been established for the Jews. Working outside the ghetto enabled my husband to purchase food for our family of three children. My husband also helped other families who were not able to leave the ghetto.
Shortly after the Germans entered Druya, they divided the Jewish population into two groups: people whom they identified as useful and those deemed to be useless. Not only did they divide them, but they also put them in different streets. Our family lived on the street of the public bath that had been added to the area where Jews were allowed to live. Only people from the first group lived in these streets. Many Jewish families tried to find places to live in this area, since it was perceived as less dangerous. We took in our relatives, the families Papkin, Halperin and Friedman. In our four rooms, there were twenty-three souls. My father, who during normal times was very involved with the synagogue, established a prayer time in our house. Three times a day, Jews would come to our apartment and pray. Praying was not the only purpose of these gatherings; men would come to discuss the news and to plan how to escape from the nails of the eradicators on the day that ghetto liquidation came. Some people wanted to build hideouts in the attics while others preferred hiding in the basements. I thought that the best solution would be to take my children to one of the farmers. The other Jews made clear to my husband that since his work was essential for the German mill, he would not be able to escape with us. They argued that my husband's escape would alert the Germans to a Jewish escape. Since we had no choice, the people who left with me were my three children, the son of my brother and our neighbor Zalman Quinn. We left for the village Staiky, about five kilometers from Druya. A Christian by the name of Maslyakov helped us. We hid in his barn and after being there for two weeks, my oldest daughter who was seven started complaining. How can we be in a hideout while my father and grandfather stay in town, always in danger? she asked. Despite knowing that this expression only meant that she missed her father, I was greatly influenced and I decided to return to town. I made myself feel better by stupidly assuring myself that our return would make our fate no worse than any of the Jews in Druya.
The first day of my return to the ghetto, I took my aunt, Feige Shugel, to a Christian doctor, named Valansky, who (clearly) lived outside the ghetto. Valansky was a very good man and loyal friend. He refused to take any payment for the visit, explaining that we would need the money for the coming troubles, but his main concern was not our money. This Polish doctor knew the future fate of the Jews and he told us in secret that the Germans planned to liquidate the ghetto during the next forty-eight hours. Truly, most of the Jews had known that without a miracle from heaven, the ghetto of Druya would eventually be liquidated like the other ghettos nearby. However, many had still clung to the hope that there was something to be done and that a miracle would come somehow. But to hear such a clear warning from the Polish doctor shook us to our cores. With heavy hearts, we returned to the ghetto and told people the sobering news. It was already too late to do anything substantial about the imminent liquidation. The only thing we could do was to watch, to be on our guard day and night, to be ready to escape when the murderers started the liquidation.
On Tuesday, at three in the morning, my husband while on guard duty realized that the Germans were going from home to home, ordering Jews to gather at the market square for census . Immediately, we were ready to escape, but we had no plan or any idea really for where to go. The Germans had people guarding all of the main streets and bridges. The chance to save ourselves was limited. During the short time that we had, my husband thought that if we split up and each headed for separate directions, there was better chance that at list one of us would survive. My husband Yekutiel Aharon took in his arms our little baby Dovidke, who was only a year-and-a-half old. I took the two older kids, Chaia Miryam who was seven, and Meirke who was four. We didn't even have a chance to say goodbye. We just started running. As we left the house, we saw our neighbors, Moshe and Libe Sarah Shapira. They stood there in shock, not knowing what to do. They were leaning on each other and their faces showed their utter desolation. With frozen eyes, they stared at the tragic pandemonium that swept the streets. I yelled for them to run behind us before the Germans came. With tears in their eyes, they answered that there was nowhere to run and that they would rather meet their deaths in their homes. They would prefer not to die in an empty street. We continued running and encountered their son, Avraham Shapira. While moving, I yelled to him, Where should we run? His matter-of-fact answer froze my blood: There is no chance to survive. Nothing is left for us but to march towards our graves. I didn't have time to analyze our condition, but for a split second, a cruel thought came to my head. Here is a young man who has no solution but to accept his own death. So what chance to survive does a woman with two young children have? In such condition, the rational mind doesn't control you. The overwhelming desire to live was like a lunacy, an urgency to hold on. I continued running, clutching the hands of my young children, who were dragging behind. After a few minutes of mad running, I passed by two women who screamed in hysterical shrieks, Don't shoot us! We are from the useful group. Don't shoot! They crumpled to the ground, hit by the murderous rain of bullets. This sight shook me so much that I did not even feel my daughter letting go. A little later, I realized that she must have fallen without me knowing it. Still, I held on to the hope that she had run ahead of me. And this is how I lost my oldest daughter, Chaya Miryam.
Chaos roared around us, muddling my senses and driving me forward in a state of hysteria. I continued holding my son Meirke's hand and ran through the alley that would take us to the river Druyika. I suddenly noticed a German chasing us with a rifle. He tried to shoot at us and in a split second, I decided to jump to the side into the yard of a Christian farmer named Kuzma. For an instant, the German killer could not see us. Until this day, I still do not understand how I thought of this idea. I decided not to enter the home of the Christian man that I knew. Instead, I crawled under the steps at the entrance of the house. Quickly, I pushed my son into the narrow area and I crawled behind him. I used a rock to cover the entrance. The killer came to the building, but did not see us. He immediately ran into the house of the Christian Kuzma and his wife. They were in shock and didn't understand why the German was looking for Jews in their home. The German insisted that there were two Jews hidden in their home. He had seen them with his two eyes. The confused German ran to find other killers to assist him in looking for us. Meanwhile, the wife of Kuzma, who had realized where we were hidden, covered the opening with the pigs' trowel. After a short time, the German returned, accompanied by a few policemen. They searched diligently inside the house. When they didn't find anyone, they left the home disappointed and angry. From my hideout, I could see the boots when they came in and when they left. After the killers left, the wife of Kuzma came to me and tried to comfort me, pretending to talk to the pigs eating from the trowel. She asked me where my husband was and expressed her sorrow that he was not with us in the hideout. After a few hours, the Germans set the ghetto homes on fire. Huge flames roared from the wooden homes. The fire spread quickly through the crowded homes. The house of Kuzma was in danger. The wife warned me about the approaching fire. I told her not to worry. I promised her that for her good deed, nothing bad would happen to her home. Miraculously, I was right. After some time, she returned to me and told me with happy tears that the fire had stopped not far from the house. This naïve Christian woman saw in it the hand of God. First, she thanked God and secondly thanked me for the great deed that I had allowed her to do. She fully believes that because of that deed, God had saved her home from fire. Since she was so filled with emotion, she agreed to look for my daughter and husband in the alleys of the ghetto. She returned and all she could tell me was that our house had burned to the ground.
By noon, all of the shooting had stopped. It seemed as if the Germans had found no one else to shoot. They continued to look in the homes that had not burned, hoping to find hidden Jews. While looking, they found dozens of Jews in hiding. From under the stairs, I could see farmers with weapons taking from the bath house nine men and one woman. They used the back of the rifles to beat up the poor souls. With eyes filled with tears, I recognized among those taken to their deaths, Avraham Levinson and Malka Kupkin. Shortly after, I saw Moshe Rivkin and Ben-zion Dvorman. They had been hiding in the garden of a farmer, near the bathhouse. The farmer had found them and given them up to the Germans. Once in a while, the wife of Kuzma would describe the horrifying events that she saw. She said that most of the people that had been caught were taken to an open pit like sheep to the slaughter. Among the few that walked to their deaths with their heads held high and threatening the Germans with vengeance were the sister of Doctor Sliver and Fanya Barbakov. These two women stood out amongst the rest for their education and character. They marched on the last road for martyrdom, the same weathered way that ancient martyrs walked. For two days and one night, we lay under the steps of the house. We barely ate or drank. Kuzma and his wife were very poor farmers and during those days, it was hard for them to get food even for themselves. The woman did give us a piece of dry bread, but my child refused to eat.
During the second night, Kuzma told us that we had to escape since the Germans had brought in trained dogs to search for Jews. Kuzma walked in the dark to find a safe way through the alleys and returned to tell me which way to take to peacefully leave Druya. Luckily, it was a rainy and dark night. We walked through the gardens and fields, climbing fences until we reached a shallow part of the river. I was carrying my son on my shoulders and I had a stick in my hand that I used to check the depth of the water. I was able to cross the river safely. I wanted to arrive at the house of Petrovsky. Many times, he had promised us that he would come to our aid when troubles came. It was near midnight when I came close to his home. When I looked through the window, I was in shock. A group of totally drunken German soldiers were sitting by his table, playing cards. I immediately ran off and continued to the river Staiky. After much tribulation, we arrived at the house of the farmer Maslyakov. I had hidden here before the liquidation. Before I knocked on his door, I thought that perhaps it would be too dangerous to hide in his home since many of the villagers knew that Maslyakov hid Jews in his house. There was no doubt that someone would tell the Germans and that his home would be searched. I had to let my little son know about the worries, so I told him that his father had given this farmer some valuables to keep until these turbulent times passed. My child answered that we shouldn't ask this farmer for help because the farmer might want to kill us in order to keep our belongings. I decided to try my luck with other farmers. I went to the village Shalcin and knocked on the door of a farmer's wife, who had known me a long time. She only gave me a piece of bread and urged me to leave since the Germans were still searching for Jews. She told me that only yesterday, some farmers had given Israel Baron and Leibetske Katsef to the Germans.
As dawn came, we arrived at the village Seromshchina. Since it was already light, we hid in a small building that was used as a bathhouse. We crawled inside the oven and found many stinging insects, worms and other vermin. The stings made every part of our body ache and my son lay there quietly, crying from the pain. We could hear the sound of the Germans looking for Jews. One of the killers suggested that they search the bathhouse, but another said that they had already searched and found no one. Once it was dark, we left the bathhouse. Our legs were numb from lying down for so long and we had difficulty walking. After recovering, we went to the village Potashnia. I had great pain in my legs and Meirke had wounds from the day that we escaped from the ghetto. These wounds had become infected, so I told him to use long strips of cloth to cover his wounds. Limping and in great pain, we arrived at the village, where a loyal friend by the name of Stepha Sokolovskaya lived. I remembered that she had moved to a new home, but I did not know which one. I was very upset that I had not taken the time to visit her new home before all these troubles had started. I was very miserable. To ask anyone would have been to ask for a sure death. All of a sudden, I remembered that Stepha had taken a large amount of big nails. At that time, I had asked her why she needed the nails and she had responded that she needed them for the door and to build some steps in front of the house. Immediately, I started looking for an old home with new steps. I found such a house, but I was not sure it was the house of Stepha. After looking in the through the window, I saw some pails and I recognized them as a gift that I had given her. I knocked and after a short time, Stepha answered the door and she could hardly believe her eyes. I asked her for shelter and she said, Meirke was like a son to me the moment that he was born. I had held him in my arms and whatever happens, I will treat him like my own son. She gave us food and drink and then we hid in the barn. We lay down for many days, watching time pass by slowly. Thousands of thoughts came to my head. Maybe someone from the family had survived. Lying like this was boring for my child. I didn't know how to keep him occupied, so I told him stories until my imagination ran dry. We kept playing guessing games and even the planes that we heard above us became games about whom they belonged to. I asked Stepha to find something for me to do and this good woman brought me some knitting. I taught my son how to knit and this knitting saved us from boredom and depression. Once in a while, I let myself get out from under the hay to walk in the barn freely.
One day, a farmer entered the barn and saw us. I had known this farmer for a long time and usually, I would have trusted him. He pretended that he had not seen us and immediately left. I told Stepha about this and we decided that it would be best that we not stay in the barn and instead hide in the attic of our home. This new hiding place forced us to be in total quiet. The attic was a very difficult place to stay since there were many rats and they bothered us all the time. Like this, we passed a few more weeks. One day, Stepha came to us and she let me know what had happened to my husband. Yekutiel Aharon had been killed by the murderers' bullets while escaping from the burning ghetto with the baby in his arms. After some time, Stepha heard that the neighbors suspected that she was hiding Jews. One day, from the attic, I saw two German soldiers accompanied by two policemen in a horse and buggy. They were going in the direction of the house. My child also noticed them and we became very frightened. I thought that our fate was sealed. My child started crying bitterly and begged me to find a way to survive. My heart almost broke, but once again, our good luck came through for us. The Germans stopped at a farmer's house next door and searched. They found no Jews in hiding, but they found plenty of Jewish possessions and valuables (that they had either stolen from Jews or been given by Jews for safekeeping). Since there were so many valuables in that house, the Germans were very busy loading the carriage. Finally, they left in a hurry, probably wanting to hide the valuables for themselves. During the many hours that they searched the house, Stepha was extremely fearful. After the danger had passed and we were fine, Stepha, one of righteous gentiles, came and said to me, Who should I thank for being saved? My Jesus Christ or the god of the Jews? I answered, I think our salvation came from the pure prayer of an innocent child reaching the heavens. As winter came, we could not stay in the attic any longer. The only place for us to hide was the very narrow space underneath a brick furnace in the house. This space was two by two-and-a-half meters (about six by seven feet) wide.
During winter, Stepha (like all farmers) put the chicken indoors to keep them warm. There was no real floor in this place and it was covered in feces. This hide-out was absolutely awful. We lay on this ground covered in animal waste. Above our heads, ashes also fell from the furnace. The air was very smoky and murky in such a way that it stank. The fact that my little son and I survived in these conditions for a few months is a testament to the limitless human ability to survive. During late night hours, the good-natured Stepha helped us out of the crawlspace so that we could breathe a little fresh air and stretch out our legs. However, every time we left the hide-out, we were not able to stand on our own. Stepha would help us walk, but we also had to use the walls and furniture to support us. We never risked sleeping in the house, fearing that uninvited guests would arrive, even at midnight or early in the morning.
Many Jews had given their valuables to their non-Jewish farmer friends so that in case they survived, they could get it back. My Aunt Feige had given her belongings to a farmer from the village Potashnia, where we were hidden. Most of the farmers who had taken in Jewish belongings for safekeeping expected that no one would survive and that there would not even be anyone to inherit it. This particular farmer had done some investigation and found out that all of the members of my Aunt Feige's family had been murdered. However, he had suspicions that I had survived and was hiding somewhere. Since he didn't want any heirs to come claim the valuables, he tried very hard to find me so that he could inform the Germans and make sure no heirs would survive. He knocked on Stepha's door at midnight and Stepha was shocked that he was at her doorstep at such a late hour. She asked him what he wanted and he gave her a nonsensical answer, but Stepha understood what he really wanted. The farmer was very upset that he could not find us. In his anger, he went to the Germans and said that he was almost sure that Stepha was hiding my son and me. They were just about ready to check the house, but it seems that heaven took care of us in a special way. Since this was wintertime and it was very cold, Stepha kept something burning in the furnace that we hid under. This was the night of the first of February. I woke up extremely hot and choking on smoke. Immediately, I realized that cinders had fallen on the hay that we were sleeping on and it had ignited. I immediately got out of the hideout and woke Stepha. The fire was spreading quickly, but Stepha was too afraid to call her neighbors for help since Meirke and I had to go hide in the barn. She could not do anything. By the time we were ready to leave, important minutes had passed and by the time the neighbors came with buckets of water from the well, the house was engulfed in flames. Stepha had quickly erased our footsteps in the snow that went toward the barn. I don't need to tell you that the house and all of its contents were lost in the fire.
I felt that it was very dangerous for us to stay in the barn itself, so I decided to hide in the attic of the barn. I could not find a ladder to the attic, under which was standing a cow. I suddenly had a good idea. My son Meirke and I stood on top of a cow and got up to the attic. Only smoke and ashes remained of the house. The farmers who helped fight the fire returned to their homes and Stepha entered the barn. I could see that her face was wet with tears, but I could still see a look of satisfaction on her features. She pretended to talk to the cow and said that the house had been lost by fire. While the fire was being fought, the farmers had told her that the next morning, the Germans had planned to search her home. If it weren't for the fire, they would have discovered us and she would have gotten a death sentence too. Good-natured Stepha's happiness at not being discovered mixed with her sadness from losing her home. For two days, we lay in the attic of the barn. It was extremely cold (minus twenty degrees). If we hadn't lain underneath the haystacks, we would have frozen to death. I did not want to start looking for another hideout so soon, for fear that the killers would find out that we had been hidden at Stepha's house. I decided to stay there for a few days, but poor Stepha was now practically starving and she could not give us any food. After two days, we had to leave the barn. My son's shoes had been lost in the fire and the only clothes that I had for him was my old sweater. I used the sleeves as pants and shoes for him. Using the remnants, I covered his little body. Stepha gave me boots and thus, we left in the direction of the village Stuyuki. We had a good family friend living there, he once served as a medic in the Polish army by the name of Vladislav Sokolovsky.
It was on the other side of the river that crossed Potashnia. We walked on top of the ice that covered the river and to my bad luck, I did not notice a weak part in the ice. I fell in and it was only a miracle that I did not drown. I was in shock, wet and shaking from the freezing water. Immediately, my wet clothes became frozen. It was fortunate that we were close to the home of Sokolovsky. I knocked on his door and he recognized me from my voice. When he saw me frozen like an icicle, he almost fainted from emotion. Sokolovsky welcomed me into his home and immediately brought me clothes to change into. Since he was a medic, he took very good care of us. We lay close to his big furnace and we were revived. Sokolovsky went around looking for other clothes to us. He knew about the death of my husband and other two children, so he was willing to risk his own life to provide us with shelter. Meanwhile, daylight came and we had to leave his home before his children woke since we did not want them to find out about us. I wore the clothes of his wife and Sokolovsky put Meirke in a big basket. In this way, we went out to the barn in his yard. This barn was also used as a supply store. We climbed into the attic and hid in a dark corner, where we had a view of the village. Sokolovsky gave us very good food. He would come often and tell me news of the war. We stayed there for three weeks. One night, I lay there awake and heard suspicious sounds. It sounded like someone was trying to climb up, but there was no ladder to the attic. Whoever was climbing was trying to use some pegs on the wall, but he failed and fell hard. It sounded like he was wounded and I could hear his painful moaning. Finally, he seemed to recover and he left the barn. In the morning, when Sokolovsky entered the barn, he immediately noticed that something was not right. He quickly understood what had happened. It had been one of the neighboring farmers who was very suspicious of he was hiding Jews. The night before, the farmer had arrived at his house for no particular reason. It seems like later on, he had tried to look for the Jews that he thought was hiding there. His aim was to give us to the Germans in return for seven kilos of salt as a reward for each Jew.
Sokolovsky said very apologetically that he was too fearful to hide us here anymore, but he assured me that he would find us a new hiding place. I advised him to go to the farmer by the name of Vladimir (nicknamed; Vlatshka) Paskevich who lived in the village on the other side of the river. Mr. Paskevich had bought from my father a few years ago a home and a store. Ever since that day, they had been good friends. After some discussion, Paskevich agreed to let us hide in his house. On a very dark night, we left the house for a journey of two kilometers. After we started walking, we heard the sound of barking dogs from all directions. I was very surprised to find so many dogs running in an open field, instead of guarding the homes of their owners. In the dark, I saw the shining eyes and realized that they were not dogs, but angry wolves looking for prey. The shining eyes seemed to come closer and closer and I was very fearful. I realized that the fields were filled with haystacks, so we decided to hide underneath them. We immediately went inside the stacks and for some reason, the wolves left us alone. I decided that I could not risk our lives like this and I returned to the barn of Sokolovsky. I found out that Sokolovsky was also worried since he had heard the sounds of the wolves and was sure that they would harm us. He felt very guilty for sending us out in such a night. When he found us alive in his barn, he was very happy. The next night, he walked with us until we got to the river. He told us where to cross the river without endangering ourselves and then he returned to his house. We arrived at the village and at the last minute, I realized that it was guarded by two people. We had to turn back, but I could not go back to Sokolovsky.
We went back to Stepha, who now lived with her sister. In the dark, we entered their barn and hid there. In the morning, Stepha saw us as she entered the barn to milk the cows. Stepha and I started crying and I apologized profusely for coming back here. I promised that I would stay only until the river became frozen again. Even though Stepha was very poor now, she was still a true friend and agreed that we could stay as long as we needed. We stayed there for eight days and during those days, Stepha would beg for food from the neighboring farmers and she gave most of the food to us. Some of the farmers hinted that they were suspicious that she was going to give the food to Jews. In the meantime, Pashkevich prepared his house for our arrival. He even fired his maid and the two workers that labored in his yard. The first night after the river froze, we were on our way. Despite the fact that Pashkevich expected us, he did not recognize us and could not believe his eyes. The pain and the horrible conditions that we had lived in had changed my face, making me seem like a different person. We hid in the barn in Pashkevich's yard. He bought new clothes for us and twice a day, when he entered the barn to feed his horses, he would bring us food. His neighbors were very surprised that a farmer who was so well-to-do had fired his hired help and started to take care of his own animals. Pashkevich was very clever and provided reasons that did not arouse suspicions.
One day, a female neighbor entered the barn unexpectedly. She noticed Meirke jumping on top of the hay. She became extremely fearful and went to Pashkevich and said that he had a little ghost in his barn. Pashkevich and his wife (named Marila) assured this foolish neighbor that they would go pray in the barn to drive the ghost away. He made sure to tell the woman not to say anything to other people because they would want to burn the barn. Pashkevich did not trust her promise and he decided to transfer us to the home of his brother Stephan, who also agreed to risk his life to give us shelter. He also took great care of us. One day while we were hiding there, a unit of Jewish partisans entered his home and demanded food supplies. Stephan begged them to not take everything he had since he was hiding a Jewish woman and his son in his home. The Jewish partisans were very cruel to him, taking everything from him since they did not care at all about our fate. In great shock, he came to me and told me about their behavior. He said, I am endangering my life for Jews and look at how these partisans treated me! I was very ashamed and did not know what to say. Despite this incident, he did not tell me to leave his home. After a while, some non-Jewish partisans also arrived at his house and demanded that he give them food. Again, he told them that he was hiding Jews in his house and begged them not to take all of the food. The commander of the partisans had said that he could not take with him a woman and a child into the forest, but agreed to leave some of the food. One morning, we were not careful enough and we came down from the attic. At that moment, the daughter of the family saw us. She became very afraid and started yelling, There are partisans hiding in the barn! Her mother tried to calm her down, but she kept yelling. Her mother told her that the entire family would be killed if she didn't quiet.
We were forced to leave this house and returned to his brother Vlatshka. Many of the farmers in this area collaborated with the Germans. Some of them knew that I had survived and suspected that I was hiding somewhere in the village Potashnia at the home of one of my friends. The Germans kept looking for me, one day, they arrived at the home of Pashkevich, accompanied by many collaborators. From the attic, I noticed them coming to the house. At first, they looked inside Pashkevich's house and it seemed like our end was near. I don't know where this idea came from, but I decided to break some of the wood pieces in the roof. I was able to do it and the hole faced the field. Meirke jumped first and I was right behind him. It was a height of three meters and we were bruised by the fall, but otherwise fine. We crawled on the ground until we reached high foliage. From there, we started running into the forest. When the killers entered the barn, Pashkevich and his wife were extremely fearful, afraid for their lives. The search in the barn seemed to take forever. They couldn't believe it when the Germans left the farm empty-handed. They had survived a sure death. For many hours, we lay under a bush in the forest. Meirke was very fearful and cried bitterly. He started asking me, Why do they hate us? Why do they want to kill us? Why do we always have to be afraid? Why can't we be free like the birds in the forest? What could I answer?
Before night arrived, we heard sounds of children talking. I looked under the bush and recognized the three children of Pashkevich. I approached them very carefully, not wanting to scare them. I asked the oldest daughter to let her mother know that we were hidden in the forest. The mother was happy to know that we were fine. She immediately brought some food to the forest for us. After we ate and recovered, the woman, who like her husband had not lost her humanity, told us to return to the home. She said that since the Germans had already searched, they would not be suspicious and look again. Just in case, she suggested that we shouldn't return to the barn. We should instead hide in an old building that stood far away from their home. It was only used during the fall to clean the raw flax material. At night, we arrived at this abandoned building. Since the family needed a reason to go to this building, they made it into a barn for the sheep. Every morning, when they would take the sheep to the meadow, they would bring us food. They did the same when they brought the sheep back to the barn in the evening.
During the season when the laborers came to clean the raw flax, we had to lie quietly in the attic. We were forced to listen to the conversations of the laborers who worked there. One of the most common subjects was the fate of the Jews. They would often tell stories about Jews being discovered in hideouts, about who had informed the Germans and about who had gotten a death sentence. Many times, I heard them talk about my father. One time I heard one of the laborers say that the family of Papkin had perished except for the daughter Libe who was hiding somewhere. She suggested that they should find my hiding place so that they could get some salt as a reward. I shook all over upon hearing such a thing. Meirke also listened to the stories. One time he heard them talk about a Jewish woman who had abandoned her two little children in the bathhouse and then looked for another shelter just for herself. This story made my child very afraid since he thought that I would do the same. I had a hard time convincing him that all of our suffering was just to save his life because I wanted someone who would continue our family line and remember all that had happened. For two months, we hid in this building.
One day, a partisan unit arrived at the house of Pashkevich to obtain some food. The farmer received them happily and gave them a good meal. Since they seemed to like him, he told them about all that had happened to me since I escaped from the burning ghetto. The partisans said that they had already heard rumors about a very brave woman and her little son that the Germans had been looking for. The head of the partisans asked to see me and Paskevich took him to the attic. I asked the commander for permission to join him in the forest. For a long time, the partisans talked amongst themselves, discussing whether they should take me. A small child running around in the forest would cause them much trouble. Even the partisans who wanted us to come with them were fearful that the forest would be less safe for us, that we would fall into the hands of the killers. They finally decided to take us to a distant village where nobody knew about us. This would be a safer shelter for us.
The partisans hid us in a carriage and thus we left with emotional goodbyes the house of Vlatshka Pashkevich and his wife. In deep sorrow and heartache, I want to tell you about the fate of this brave man who had saved our lives. Some farmers who had collaborated with the Germans gave testimony that he had helped to hide Jews. The Germans arrested him and sent him to a labor camp, from whence he never returned. After the war, his wife and I went to a lot of trouble looking for his whereabouts. We looked for him everywhere in Belarus, but we never found him. The partisans left us at the home of a farmer that I knew by the name of Paniznik. He had an isolated farm about fifty kilometers from Potashnia. This farmer knew my father and respected him. We stayed in his home for many months. When the Germans started a blockade against the partisans, Paniznik hid us in bunkers that he dug in the forest. During the time that we stayed in the forest, we met many groups of Jews and Christians who were hiding in the area. I begged them to let my son and I join them, but all of them turned us down because of the young age of my son. They thought that he would be a burden during such a time of difficulty. One day, I met a group of non-Jews. At this time, we were totally exhausted and with much tearful begging, I asked to join them. They refused, but I refused to listen to them. We kept walking behind them. One of them even threatened me, saying that if I did not go away, he would kill us. He actually tried to do what he said. Despite Meirke's begging, he threw a grenade at us, but it did not explode. It seemed like fate wanted us to survive. We later found out that this group had encountered a German patrol and most of them had been killed. In retrospect, it was good that we had not gone with them. As time passed, we were very hungry and cold in the forest. Often, we would wake up in the forest covered in the snow. I do not have the energy to tell of all the troubles that we endured in the month before liberation. How did we survive? Maybe just through a sheer will? It seemed like this force gave us solutions in the most dangerous moments. We often stared death in the face, but luck was always on our side. In July of 1944, we arrived in a liberated Druya. As I said in the beginning, twenty-three people had lived in our room in Druya. Only four of them had survived to the end of the war. Other than Meirke and I, there were also the brothers Galperin. Shlomo Galperin perished soon after the war in a fire. We stayed in the ruins of Druya only for a short time. I married Shlomo Ziadlin, who had also survived with two of his sons. At the end of 1945, we left Druya for the land of Israel.
and Libe Levitanus
|Meirke and his oldest sister,
Chaia Miryam Levitanus
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