by Azriel Shilovitsky (New York)
(became Irving Shiloff upon immigration to US)
Translated by Janie Respitz
On a beautiful bright summer day news spread that war broke out between Germany and Russia. Immediately we saw groups of people gathering in circles, whispering and listening to the news.
The joy of the Christian population, which was not delighted with Soviet rule was unimaginable. Their happiness which only grew on the first days of the war confused Soviet officials who captured trucks and began to flee eastward.
A sorrowful impression was made when they brought the first wounded from Dvoretz, where the Soviets had built a military airfield. The Germans bombed the airfield on the first day which resulted in many casualties.
Immediately, on the first day they began to mobilize the population into the Soviet army. A few hundred boys were mobilized. The mood in town was black. Mothers cried for their sons, and wives for their husbands.
Worst of all was the news that the Germans broke through the front and were moving forward. This news confused everyone even more. Young men, who had not as of yet been mobilized, began to think about running away to Russia. This was the atmosphere in Zhetl from the first day of the war. Of course, no one slept that night.
The next day the atmosphere was stressful. Rumours were spreading that the Germans would be dropping troops that could be expected at any minute. The Soviets authorities began to prepare to escape despite the false information they were spreading saying that their army staved off the Germans.
The following day, the Soviets packed up trucks with belongings and people and left Zhetl. Jews who had been hired by the Soviet authority left with them.
That evening will stay in my memory forever, since such a scene is difficult to describe with words.
The Jewish population became a flock of sheep among wolves, which can destroy them at any moment.
Those mobilized were concentrated in the priest's garden, but slowly they went home as they were not sent anywhere. On their way home the Christians accompanied them with mocking songs which stabbed and wounded their Jewish hearts.
On Wednesday the 25 th of June German planes swooped down over Zhetl wanting to bomb Kaplinsky's sawmill but hit a nonJewish home and killed a Christian woman.
From that day on we began to smell gunpowder. We heard gunshots coming from everywhere. The troops were shooting. People were afraid to stay in town as they felt something was going to happen. Whoever had Christian acquaintances, went to stay with them in the villages in order to wait it out. Some feared fire, others a battle and the result was, people packed up their valuables and left for the villages. The poor remained and waited at home.
The town was without authorities until the 27 th of June 1941. During that time the Christians robbed the Soviet warehouses of furniture, flour and sugar. They dragged things out all day and night.
During these days parachutists were landing around Zhetl. They came straight into town to the Jewish homes and collected eggs, 2 for each man. They went civilly accompanied by a non Jewish town dweller who pointed out the Jewish homes.
What we awaited arrived. Friday evening a Soviet military truck left Slonim. The troops were dropped off at the cemetery and shot. The truck was from an outpost of the retreating Soviet army.
The truck drove off and it became quieter. The army which followed the truck stopped and spent the night near Bodzhelan on the road to Slonim. The following day, Saturday, when they tried to tear through the town, a large battle broke out.
The scene was horrifying. Hulnik's house on Slonim Street was set on fire by an artillery shell. People thought the whole town was burning. Everyone carried their belongings out of their houses and suddenly a German plane appeared
and began to shoot the unprotected civilian population assembling outside their homes. This increased the panic. Luckily it began to rain and the fire was contained.
The terrible battle lasted all night. The entire town lay on the ground. Pious Jews wrapped in prayer shawls prayed to God that the battle would not stop, but to the contrary, continue providing the Germans would not enter. That night a German tossed an artillery shell into the home of Khaim Elye Meir's who lived on the corner of the marketplace and Novogrudker Street, killing Khaim and his son. These were the first two sacrifices Zhetl brought to the German alter.
A few days after the battle there were robberies. Peasants robbed warehouses and Jewish homes.
The next day, Sunday, the shooting became weaker. The Germans immediately took 50 Jews hostage. They explained, in the event a German would be killed in Zhetl, all 50 Jews would be shot. Among the 50 Jews was the future Zhetl hero, the lawyer Alter Dvoretsky.
That evening they took another 30 Jews to cut hay for the Germans. That was their first job. The next day they released the hostages and the hay people. But in their homes everyone was crying as they were sure they would be shot.
At first, the Germans did not treat the Jews too badly. It was explained that they were front soldiers but soon the civil authority would arrive, the S.S and S.D. and then we would have to worry.
And that is what happened. Two weeks later the German army left. During that time individual soldiers went to Jewish homes collecting eggs, soap, and here and there stole a few things. No greater horrors occurred.
One fine morning a field commander showed up and according to a list the Christians prepared, arrested 6 Jews who were ostensibly hired by the Soviets, took them to Novoleniyie and shot them. These Jews were: Etl Ovseyevitch and her daughter Dina, Alter Gertzovsky (Mordkhai Kikes), Shimen Levaronchik, Avrom Guzovsky and Yudl Bielsky.
This murder left a difficult impression. From then on they began to hide. Every time a truck filled with Germans arrived in town all the men would hide. Some in cellars, others in attics, while others lay in gardens until they left.
The First 120 Victims
This is how they played a game of cat and mouse with us until July 22 nd, 1941. On the 23 rd of July an S.S detachment arrived in Zhetl from Novogrudek and ordered all Jewish men between the ages of 16 and 60 must come to the marketplace.
Not knowing what awaited them, the Jews gathered at the marketplace, beside City Hall which was then within the parochial wall. The S.S stood in the middle and the Jews stood all around. Then they read names from a list prepared by the Christians of all the Jewish intelligentsia, took them to the side and later took them to Novogrudek and shot them. Among them were the rabbi and Alter Dvoretsky, but they were both ransomed at the last minute.
The rest, approximately 500 Jews were forced to walk through the streets singing Hasidic melodies and Hatikva while being filmed by the Germans.
A few days later the same murderers returned. Who ever did not actually see them could never imagine the murderous German cynicism. When we asked where the men were they claimed they were working and took gold, suits and boots ostensibly to give them, but at that time they were all already in the after world.
Sad days arrived. Jews would gather and discuss among themselves how this all will end. There were optimists who believed redemption would soon come, while others saw reality with open eyes.
What was interesting were the prophecies told in the name of various rabbis. At first they said the war would last 7 weeks. When it did not end after 7 weeks they extended it to 21 weeks. With time they kept extending the terms of the German defeat and our redemption.
However all these discussions took place in order for us to thoroughly enjoy smelling salts and fool ourselves as the Germans were advancing and we did not see any signs of salvation.
A particularly difficult experience was on Yom Kippur under the German occupation. Of course they did not allow us
to go to the House of Study to pray. Everyone prayed at home which made it even more oppressive. During the Festival of Sukkot a truck filled with Germans arrived in Zhetl to mobilize horses. As always, when a German truck arrived in town, you would not see a Jew on the street. In Zhetl there was a depressed Yeshiva boy, Yakov Noyakh, Shayne Raynes' son. As always, he went out walking on the street. The German's were angry that everyone else was hiding, so they grabbed him and shot him. Zhetl offered yet another sacrifice on the German altar.
The following day an announcement was made that a permanent headquarters was coming to Zhetl. Everyone understood these would be our hangmen. They set up their headquarters at Motl's (the Abdzhirok) on the corner of Slonim and Hoyf Streets. They immediately began to order blankets, furniture and other items from the Jews.
On the 1 st of October 1941 not a single Jew went out on the street. That evening news spread that headquarters ordered a list of Jews. We only imagined what this list meant.
One edict after the other was thrown at us. One demanded we send 4 glaziers to work. The second demanded 15 carpenters and finally we received an order from a higher authority that Jews had to give up all their gold, silver, copper and all other metals. This did not bother anyone as we had resigned our assets long before.
First thing in the morning on November 28 th 1941 we began to hand over our gold. Everything went normally until 10 o'clock. Jews brought their possessions and the Germans took them. However the Germans did not want things to go so smoothly. When it was Mrs. Libe Gertzovsky's turn, the Germans accused her of hiding two gold rings in her pocket. Willing to instill fear in everyone with this prank, they took Mrs. Gertzovsky to the middle of the street and shot her in front of everyone. This event shook up everyone.
After this murder we clearly saw our lives had no value. We began to understand we had to finally think about taking our fate into our own hands.
Meanwhile a rumour was spreading that Jews who were working would receive certificates that would be taken into account during a slaughter. Of course Jews began to chase after certificates. Some became forest workers, while others combined various small factories of shoe polish and brushes. Some were prepared to pay a lot of money for a certificate. However the fact was that this was a German trick to delude and mislead.
On the 15 th of December 1941 an order was given to send 400 men to work at the airfield in Dvoretz. We thought this too was a trick, but this time the men were actually brought to Dvoretz to work.
After that edict, another one was issued on December 25 th forcing Jews to hand over all the furs they possessed.
The next day you saw Jews walking around with collars torn off their coats.
We were shocked by this following event. A few days after this order the town was shaken up by an action against the Gypsies. At night they surrounded them, brought them to the marketplace and in the morning, shot them.
After that event the Jewish population was convinced the same fate awaited them. From January 1st 1942 rumours began to circulate they would soon create a ghetto in Zhetl.
On February 22 nd 1942 we received an order saying all Jews in Zhetl must move to the ghetto which they made on Lisagura and part of Slonim Street until Shushne.
Even before this game, an order with various edicts was given to the Jews. For example: wearing yellow patches and not walking on the sidewalk. The yellow patch in the form of a Star of David on the back and on the left breast humiliated and broke everyone, despite the fact the more intelligent and courageous Jews like Alter Dvoretsky claimed to the contrary, it should be an honour for us and was the first to put on the yellow patch.
The same day the Judenrat was formed comprised of the following: Chairman Shmuel Kustin. Members: Hirshl Benyaminovitch; Alter Dvoretsky; Yehuda Lusky; Moishe Mendl Leyzerovitch; Eliyahu Novolensky; Dovid Senderovsky; Feyvl Epshteyn; Shaul Kaplinsky; Rabbi Yitzkhak Raytzer; and Berl Rabinovitch.
The Judenrat was directed by the clever and talented Alter Dvoretsky to whom we must show gratitude for his proud accomplishments for Zhetl Jewry.
by Pesie Mayevsky (Petach Tikva)
Translated by Janie Respitz
Immediately after they took my father, which happened in the first weeks of the German occupation, hunger knocked at our door. My mother who worked and sewed her whole life was broken after losing father. She could not advise us on how to get food.
It was late summer 1941. The front moved deep into the Soviet Union. There was still no ghetto and we were still free to leave town. The Jews of Zhetl, carpenters and tailors went to farmers in the surrounding villages and worked for next to nothing, for bread.
Our house was without a breadwinner. My mother sewed a bit but this was not enough to support us. We, the children had nothing to do. The days were long, filled with fear. We tried to find a way to run away from our house. Every morning, me, my little brother Khonyele, the youngest, my sister Hindele, and our cousins Khoniye and Tolyie would run out of town in order to collect mushrooms in the surrounding forests.
It was quiet and peaceful in the forest. As they were always peaceful, the treetops rocked against the blue sky as if nothing happened.
It's quiet in the forest. Here, a few Jewish children find comfort and protection among the trees and glades. How quickly we learn to find mushrooms and notice where they grow. We lift the moss and find yellow caps. Here and there are all sorts of mushrooms including the red capped and prestigious ceps.
We return home in the evening with baskets full of mushrooms. We clean them, string them together and hang them to dry. Evening settles on the sad window panes and we continue to dream about the free forest. This is what happened every day until the fall.
Our mother struggles to earn a living. She tries to sell our clothes but she can't. In order to do business with the farmers you need a man. They would trade anything for some food and they are hard to please.
We go digging for potatoes with a couple, with bad luck, at a farm house about 2 kilometres from the Slonim highway. The woman told us we would soon be paid for our work but meanwhile her husband tosses the potatoes on a heap and does not pay us. In the interim we are forbidden to travel so how can we go and demand our pay? They created the socalled Jewish quarter and you now needed a permit to leave town.
Mother once again examines our clothes and deliberates what to sell.
Not your father's things children she asks and lays them to the side. This was her way of ensuring our father was still alive and will return.
At the Farms in Ludzhit and Kashkali
Winter is coming. The hunger in our home is increasing. We are hearing rumours about the great slaughter in Novogrudek as they entered the ghetto. Zhetl's youth are trying to receive permits as forest workers, cutting down trees in the surrounding forests. Jewish boys arrive at farms in Ludzhit and Kashkali with permits. Girls also receive permits and work at collecting and burning the cut branches.
My mother remains at home with my eldest sister Khane. Khonyele, Hindele and I go to Ludzhit and Kashkali. A few goodhearted farmers took pity on us and gave us some food. We help the farmer's wife with housework, and since I know how to sew a bit, I take the risk and begin to sew by hand for this gentile woman and her household.
We also go to the farms and take work from the housewives. We bring it home to our mother and once it is complete we bring it back and receive peas, beans or flour. We also bring our clothes to the village and trade them for food.
Armed with our permits, Hindele and I go through the frozen forest. It is still dark. Every shrub looks like a wolf or a German.
We knock on the farmer's windows and they give us their linens to sew. We prod through the deep snow. The road stretches for 9 kilometres. It's very cold and we are both shivering. We avoid Miravshchizne and walk through the forest to the Slonim highway. With our hearts pounding we walk through the field which stretches past the palace and as we cross the footbridge over the lake we arrive across from Khaim Feyvl's house.
Here we feel safe. Our house is near the stream. We quickly ran in to see our mother. Her sad and fearful face does not express good news. She takes the work from us.
Children she says, it is uneasy in the ghetto, people are saying the Germans have arrived, it is not advisable to sleep here.
Mother turns around and I see she is crying. How can she send us back so many kilometres in the cold snow? And where to? But it is uneasy here and she wants to save us.
Warm up children says mother who is becoming thinner and smaller by the day. She fed us a bit of black noodles, and we left, out again into the deep snow.
We walk through the forests, but where to? To the farm house, to knock again and think of an excuse why we returned so quickly, because it is difficult to swallow the donated piece of bread. Hindele and I cuddle together on the hard bench covered with a bit of straw and cannot fall asleep.
Khonyele Works for 4 Kilos of Bread
Later this period would seem satisfied and happy.
Walking through the forest and fields came to an end. The winter froze our little windows. The house is empty. We are looking for a way out. They are taking Jews to forced labour. There are people who pay others to go work for them, they don't want to face danger or receive beatings.
My little brother Khonyele, the only man in the house, feels the responsibility to provide for us. He looks for the people who are willing to hire someone to work, and he goes to work using someone else's name.
They pay 4 kilos of rye flour for a day's work.
Khonyele brings his hard earned flour home and mother kneads the dough while crying. Her tears are kneaded into the bread. I know mother is crying because father is not here and she never would have wanted her only son to be the provider. My poor overworked mother. Now I understand how bitter this bread was for her.
On February 22nd, 1942 the ghetto was locked and hunger tore through our orphaned house.
We Bring Potatoes
Passover is approaching. There are Jews in the ghetto baking Matzah. In our house we cannot talk about it. My uncle Yenkl brings us a bag with a bit of Matzah, so we do not feel ashamed. My mother cannot rest. She is embarrassed in front of the neighbours and won't eat anything not Kosher for Passover. We remember we are owed for the potatoes we dug. Khane receives a permit to bring the potatoes.
The ghetto is now enclosed with a wooden fence. The only entrance is the small street in the marketplace, beside the Judenrat, between Yisroel Kagan's house and Mania Dvoretzky's pharmacy.
Hindele and I go to the gentiles to get our potatoes. The couple is hesitant as they look for excuses; the potatoes are frozen, they are afraid, but finally the farmer takes small frozen little potatoes, loads them onto a wagon and takes us home. He does not give us the half we have earned.
We ride with him. He arrived in town. We go through Slonim Street. Hindele and I walk behind the wagon with our hearts pounding. In our pockets, the paper permit which should be our protection. The ghetto wall cuts through the street at Binyomin Levaranchik's house. We turn onto Hoyf Street. Krashinsky's house is now the gendarmerie. Two policemen are standing on the sidewalk. Suddenly the gentile begins to shout in his loudest voice:
How do we enter? I look at Hindele she is petrified. My hands are trembling. All we needed was for a German to come out of the gendarmerie and teach us a lesson for our insolence.
But a miracle happened. The police said nothing. No Germans came out of the gendarmerie, we arrived at the entrance to the ghetto in peace and then we felt secure. The gentile brought the potatoes to our house. Mother came running and we tossed the potatoes into the corner, near the small oven in order to defrost them.
A pile of frozen potatoes, a treasure in our starving home! It took a lot of suffering and self sacrifice to obtain them.
After Passover mother goes to work as a seamstress outside the ghetto. Khane goes with her. They receive a permit saying they are useful Jews and receive an extra portion of bread. At work they trade our clothes, but how do you bring the food back into the ghetto, when you are so helpless, without a man at home? My uncle Yenkl Dzhentshelsky helps us a lot. He comforts us saying he will not leave us. However my mother is ashamed to say how great the hunger is in our house.
After the first slaughter when the ghetto became smaller, we lived with Simkha Rabetz and other families in Pilnik's house. We were shoved into a small corner of a room. Mother struggled with all her strength to maintain her dignity. When she returned from work she would stir the noodles made from buckwheat flour and serve everyone a plate. We would sit at the table to eat.
You have good children called out Shifra Rabetz, who lived with us.
Yes replied mother with a suppressed voice, I really do have good children. She turns her head so we don't see her cry. Then she goes outside to the steps in front of the house and allows herself to cry freely.
However this period as well was later looked upon as happy. I missed those days and called upon them in my fantasies and my dreams.
In the Zhetl Closet
On August 6th 1942, during the second slaughter, my mother, my brother Khonye and my sister Hinde were killed.
The struggle was futile, the will to be saved futile, hunger, suffering, experiencing anguish and fear. My sister Khane escaped to Dvoretz. Me and my fiancé, Hirshl Patzovsky and his brother Yenkl turned up in Novogrudek ghetto and were housed in the Zhetl Closet.
The Zhetl Closet was a symbol of loneliness and hunger in the Novogrudek ghetto, but also a symbol of battle. It was crowned with the name train station due to the constant escaping of its inhabitants.
A few people from Zhetl brought money with them. However the majority were naked and without means to live. The portion of bread was 1/6 of a loaf, filled with straw. In addition to this, in the morning we were given a bit of black water, coffee, cooked from burnt buckwheat, and in the evening a bit of thin soup, where with a little light we searched for a piece of potato.
The soup was brought from the general kitchen and in the closet it was divided by the light of a match. From time to time we received white cheese which was very sour and blue from mold. Our bosses chose to give it to us instead of throwing it out.
It was the same as a prison. The same guards and the same food. White patches with numbers were sewn on our backs. Shoemakers and tailors offer some advice because in the workshops they have contact with customers and they can steal something from work which they could later sell. The saddest is the plight of the carpenters. They swell up and die of hunger.
The Zhetl Closet is starving. At night we lie on top of the third bunk and dream about food. The smoke from the clay oven is suffocating, we can't bear it. Avreymke, Khaim the harness maker's son in law and his son Moishele are eating potato peels which Shmuel from Maytshet is throwing away. Hirshl and I would also like to taste this delicacy, but we are ashamed. We try to eat the burnt buckwheat from the coffee which is thrown away in the kitchen, but it is so bitter, it burns our throats. What could we do?
Soreh Lidsky and her father sleep beside our bunk. At first they cooked dumplings from white flour almost every day which they would eat from glass jars. Then they began to starve like everyone else.
We look for a solution and find an ingenious idea. There are a lot of rags in the ghetto, stuffing from pillows. We collect them, cleverly weave the holes with thread which we pulled out of the fabric. We paint the blankets, and Soreh Lidsky who sews very well, cuts them into little dresses, coats and children's blouses. Where can we find thread? We find old socks and unravel them to get thread, and secretly sew at work, in the tailor workshop.
The head seamstress in the workshop, Mrs. Zilberman, a good, kind woman from Novogrudek, helps us out. She has contact with clients on the outside and she takes pity on us seeing how we were suffering. She sells our clever patchwork items outside and we receive a small pittance.
Once, Hirshl risked his life and stole a piece of wood and sold it for a portion of bread. Wood was a rarity, there was nothing to cook on. But stealing a few pieces of wood
was risky because wood is not a button, it is difficult to hide.
During the day we sit in the workshop. It is lunch time. Everyone goes home, two steps away to their meagre meals. I remain in the workshop and do not go. My neighbour at the table, an older woman asks me:
Why don't you go eat?
I went earlier, I replied. She looked at me in silence. The next day, when she saw I remained again, she did not ask.
I Get Sick
I got sick with pleurisy. Dr. Kagan who was in the ghetto brought me medication. He told me I must be better nourished and get more air.
I lie on the third bunk, high up. Under me the two clay ovens burn, where they cook on hotplates without chimneys. Clouds of smoke cover me, I'm actually choking.
Dr. Kagan gives us a few hundred marks. We take the money and immediately make a plan. Yenkl was still wearing a suit from home. He will sew pants from a sack and will go without a jacket. He will resew the suit and pay the debt.
Basieh Rabinovitch brings money and a bit of flour in a cup. Quite a treasure. I was refreshed. Hirshl snuck out of work and cooked me some noodles.
It is the winter of 1942. The frost freezes on the brick walls of the Zhetl Closet, but I am sweating large drops of sweat, like tears streaming from my face and hands. I am lost in thought and I realize it is good that my mother and the other children did not live to see this, because it is all futile, futile…
After I recovered, I received a stable position, washing and cleaning the infirmary in the ghetto for a portion of bran bread.
The Last 235 Jews
It is the eve of the last slaughter in Novogrudek ghetto. We are 500 Jews. However, this is still too many for them. One fine morning, they made a list of the better tradesmen who will receive an additional portion, meat once a week, smelly tripe, and an extra 1/8 of bread. In the Zhetl Closet they are scrubbing and cleaning the tripe. Water is rare and one must risk their life bringing it from the pump on the other side of the ghetto.
In the Zhetl Closet they are cooking the tripe in rusty tin cans. We are delighted and think: who knows what their intentions are with this distribution. Perhaps the Germans have ulterior motives with this extra food.
One day a truck in fact arrived with additional bread. They set up two camps. On one side, the privileged who received the smelly tripe and thin slices of bread and the other side, those who did not have such luck.
From the other side of the ghetto a gang of brown, green and black bandits tore through the ghetto. They led 250 Jews across the ghetto and shot them before everyone's eyes.
The last 235 Jews. The rope around our necks is tightening. They begin to dig the tunnel from the Zhetl closet. Hirshl is sick from hunger. He is suffering from terrible stomach cramps. The doctor says he must have a diet that is nourishing. He must not eat the thorny straw bread. He is constantly vomiting. I receive a bit of flour and bake cookies on the tin sheet which he eats like a small child, small burnt cookies and boiled water.
Yenkl can no longer see as soon as night falls due to lack of vitamins. As soon as the sun sets he is blind and has to feel his way to his bunk.
God only knows where we found the strength to bear the intolerable! None of us died of hunger. Later, when we remembered these times, we longed for them.
The tunnel is ready. The last days before our escape there was food in the ghetto. All the reserves in the kitchen were distributed. Nobody hid anything for the next day. We eat potatoes until we are full. Bread too. What more do we need? The maximum we can take with us is half a bread. We cannot take anything more with us in the tunnel where we must crawl on all four. When we get out of the tunnel we must run as fast as possible as far from the ghetto as possible.
The last day. There is excitement in the ghetto. We are leaving. While crawling inside we hear the shooting. A wet rain slaps our faces as the darkness takes us out to freedom. We run. Bullets are falling at our feet. We are together,
Hirshl and I. Yenkl ran and joined a group that ran toward Zhetl, but never arrived.
We are running like hunted animals. We are a group of five. Hirshl, me, Kalmen Shalkovitch, Noyekh from Fanikart and his sister Sorkeh. After an entire night of non stop roaming in a vicious circle, we remain lying in a small forest 4 kilometres from Novogrudek ghetto.
The Germans are chasing us. We hear shooting, voices. With a small pocket knife and our hands we dig a hole to hide in. It is pouring rain. Our clothes are soaking wet and sticking to our bodies. Sorkeh and Noyekh are in a hole together, Kalmen in another and Hirshl and I in our dug out hole. We were afraid to dig a big hole as it could be noticed. We are twisted and cramped.
When we begin to comprehend we had escaped from the Germans we feel hungry and there is no food. While running we both lost our bread. We tap our pockets and find wet sticky pieces of bread. Hirshl has a bit of salt and I have an onion. We eat it and we feel hungrier.
We are afraid to leave our hole during the day because the road is solid. At times we hear footsteps in the forest as well as passing wagons.
At night we crawl out and lick drops of water from the trees. Our mouths are dry and our throats are burning. The rain has let up a bit and we stretch our broken limbs. We are tired. We lie down again in our holes, even though it is crowded, it's warm.
Ten Days Without Food
One day, two days, three, four, five days! We are lying alive in a grave and rotting. We are very weak and we do not have the strength to think about taking the risk of leaving the forest.
At night, the men go into the field and return with raw potatoes. They dunk them in a bit of salt that we have and Kalmen eats twelve potatoes. Hirshl eats two, he can't eat more than that, Noyekh eats as well. Sorkeh and I absolutely cannot eat raw potatoes. I try to cut a small piece with the pocket knife, but the nauseating taste makes me vomit. I spit it out and I am envious of Kalmen as he sticks his knife into one potato after another and eats them up.
We don't have any matches to make a fire, and anyway, we are afraid to make a fire. We found, somewhere, leftover berries from the summer and acorns and we devour them with great appetite. Not far from our hiding place is a forest road where there are signs of farmer's wagons. We see holes made from wheels and in them puddles of rain water. We bend down and drink the muddy water. We don't feel the mud, we lick until the end, down on all fours.
The rain falls harder, our clothes are emitting vapour and sticking to our skin. We return to our hole. However my feet don't want to budge, they are like wood, my head feels empty and bare. I see red spots before my eyes, circles, sparks. My hands are soft as cotton. Hirshl carries me back to our hiding place. Day is breaking and we must disappear. I lie there and cry.
Hirshl I ask, tell me, will we survive to tell this story in happier times?
Of course he says, of course we will survive, but he did not.
We begin to list all the foods we ate on Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot, Passover, on the Sabbath and even on a regular weekday. We list the best delicacies from home. It seems to me that a satiation is pouring through my limbs. We are drunk from talking. It is becoming warmer. I fall asleep.
The sixth day, the seventh, eighth and ninth…on the tenth day Hirshl and Noyekh left to find a house to get food. Whatever happens, will happen!
They went out and found a farmer and his wife. They were taking potatoes from the field. Their farm house was nearby. Trembling and pale they approached the couple and asked for food. They invited them into their house. They went in. Right near the door was a trough for horses and pigs. In the trough were cooked potatoes. Through the torn peels they saw a very soft dough. They threw themselves into the trough like wild animals and ate. The farmer's wife crossed herself and cried. She fed them and gave them half a bread.
With this treasure in their hands they ran back to us. Hirshl carried the bread, real black tasty bread. He sliced it like a cake and gave everyone a slice. We could not believe our eyes, nor our hands that were holding black bread.
In Bielsky's Detachment
After a few weeks of wandering we arrived at Bielsky's detachment.
Apparently, who ever had experienced great hunger could not be easily coerced.
We walk through the plains of Nolibok. People are divided into groups. Each one had his supply from which he eats. We are assigned to the group of A.G. Shushantzes. A family of uncles with their nieces and nephews. They are eating, but they do not give us any food.
Hirshl is feverish. His temperature is high. We are embarrassed to ask for food. We beg with our eyes, but no one shows compassion. The air in the forest is fresh. The pine and fir trees smell good. All of our limbs come alive. But the hunger is torturing us.
They are burning fires, everyone unpacks his package, they are slaughtering pigs, roasting, cooking and eating. From time to time I can't bear it any longer and ask, Hirshl cannot ask. They toss me a slice of bread, a few kidneys. I catch it, but have nothing to roast them on. When everyone finishes eating I swindle a tin can and roast them quickly.
This road also came to an end. We arrived at the camp in the steppe. As Hirshl overcame his illness he wanted a gun; he is after all a former soldier and not afraid. They learn however that he is a carpenter and the general staff does not allow him to leave.
He works. He chops down trees and builds many huts. Simple huts and palatial huts for the privileged. And once again the pot with a bit of thin soup, frozen potato peels without salt. Each one sits with his package and eats. Those who leave prepare food for themselves and their households.
I go to work in the kitchen and no one sees that I steal a few potatoes which I put into my pant's pockets, which have holes. Roznhoyz, the supervisor, takes my stolen potatoes. The blood disappears from my lips.
Today, I don't recall the stealing with shame, rather with deep sorrow and pain.
The front is approaching. In the forest you can hear powerful Soviet canons. We are awaiting the victorious Red Army, and together with Hirschl, I dream about the great day of liberation. But this is when the greatest tragedy happened. Hirschl fell in battle against the Germans on July 4th 1944.
Fate dealt him the hardest blow: he died on the day of liberation.
by Miriam Shepshelevitch (Bat Yam)
Translated by Janie Respitz
Wednesday, April 23rd, 1941.
It was a warm beautiful morning. There were some people moving in the streets. Around seven o'clock in the morning a representative from the Judenrat came and told us the horrible news. All men between the ages of 16 and 60 must immediately present themselves at the marketplace to be registered. Whoever does not show up will put their families in danger. They will be taken and shot in public.
This horrific news confused everyone. People gathered in the courtyards to seek advice as this was the first German trick. People tried to console one another: maybe this is really nothing more than registration in order to establish the amount of people capable of working.
Incidentally I remember that at our neighbour Khaim Tchemerinsky's the following were sitting on a bench: Zalmen Grin, the old man Hornshteyn, Khaim Meir Dvoretzky, and Leybl Dzhenchelsky. These faculty members, two of whom were refugees, were already known to the Germans, nevertheless they also went to the marketplace along with all the men from Zhetl.
Suddenly, they began to pull people out of the courtyards. Young men with childlike faces and old men with grey beards were hurried, not knowing where to. Many of them never returned.
The women, of course, felt cramped in every corner of their house, and together with their children ran to the marketplace. Already on Hoyf Street you could smell the wild dogs who were thirsty for innocent Jewish blood.
Approaching the marketplace, everything appeared black, as if there was suddenly an eclipse in the middle of the day. The entire marketplace was besieged by the military. The Germans were running around with whips, like poisoned mice, yelling, clamouring and bellowing like wild animals. They banged, pushed and kicked children, women and the elderly.
All of a sudden there was a long list.
Whomever was called from the list had to stand on the other side, and from there straight into the trucks. Who ever did not move quickly enough was beaten murderously.
They read out the names of 120 men: businessmen, rabbis, doctors, bookkeepers and teachers.
When they were all seated in the trucks wives and children began to wail. I will never forget this. My father, who sat at the edge of the truck gave us a sign with his hand not to cry because we will be beaten.
Who was not crying? I think the stones on the footbridge were wet from our tears.
The Germans informed us they were being sent ostensibly to work and we should bring them food and clothing for three days. Hearing these words we breathed a bit more easily, but the murderers had this all planned out.
Returning with the small packages, people pushed toward the trucks but were immediately beaten. A minute later there was no sign of the trucks, and until today we do not know exactly where these 120 Jews died.
After that scene, all the remaining men were ordered to march through the streets singing Hatikva. With eyes spilling blood and broken hearts our men had to drag their tired feet and obey each command: among others, dancing Hasidic dances in the middle of the street.
The Poles walked on the sidewalks and beamed with delight. Many of them even allowed themselves to spit in the faces of the tortured, which were black, like wet soil after the rain.
When the sun set, this horrific spectacle came to an end. Exhausted, tired and despondent, Zhetl's Jews returned to their homes. They could not settle down. It was hard to believe what had taken place that day.
The unlucky women felt their tragedy on the first day, and the children realized they were orphaned. They tried to talk to the farmers who would come and tell deceitful stories in order to obtain goods and make money. People would walk (since Jews were forbidden to drive) to Stushin, Grodno and Lida, but this was futile. Exhausted from the journey and lack of sleep, the women would return home with nothing.
The 120 men were the intellectuals of our town. These are the ones the Germans killed first in order to sweep away an eventual organized resistance. This was their system in all towns and cities.
The Germans killed these 120 men two days later, Friday July 25th, 1941 in Novogrudek, in the forest near the barracks.
Christians recounted how they were driven out of the prison with shovels in their hands and forced to dig a mass grave.
by M. Shepelevitch
Translated by Judy Montel
23rd of July 1941.
Men from 16 to 60 report to the town marketplace to register. Those who try to evade this endanger themselves and their families thus the representatives of the Jewish Council in Zhetl announced early this morning.
This announcement boggled the minds. In the courtyards people gather and consult: What to do? Some want to persuade others that this is only registration and nothing else.
Young and old flock to the marketplace. Tension can be felt in the streets, yet when we arrived at the marketplace our eyes were dimmed. Many vehicles and Germans run about like predatory animals, creating loud noises, screaming, pushing, trampling without mercy on the aged or the young.
Suddenly there was silence. Names are read out. Those named stand on the side and from there they are put onto automobiles. They are 120 in number: shopkeepers, doctors, teachers, rabbis and accountants, from the crème-de-la-crème of Zhetl. A wail bursts out. Who didn't cry?
The cars start up and disappear. And then the shameful spectacle begins.
The Germans commanded us to line up in rows and to march while singing HaTikva. We were also forced to dance. With eyes overflowing with tears and broken hearts, we dragged our stumbling legs and obeyed the orders. By the sides of the road our Polish neighbors were crowded, happy and satisfied. Several of them even allowed themselves to spit in our faces.
Towards evening the shameful spectacle was over. Shattered and broken we went home and found no rest.
Some time later the Poles told us that on July 25th 120 of the best of Zhetl were taken out of the jail in Novogrudok and were ordered to dig themselves a large grave.
by Pesie Mayevsky (Petach Tikva)
Translated by Janie Respitz
That night I was tortured by terrifying dreams. I awoke with a premonition of a tragedy. Then our neighbours arrived and told us that all the Jewish men over the age of 16 must gather at the marketplace. No one was permitted to remain at home.
This was July 23rd 1941, the 28th day of Tamuz, three weeks after the Germans occupied Zhetl.
My father, feeling that he was leaving home forever, turned around three times and returned, each time, taking something else with him.
The entire town gathered at the marketplace. The gestapo read from a list prepared by the Polish municipality, of all professionals, intellectuals, students, religious men and those they suspected (as we later learned) of having an influence on life and the ability to organize things in the ghetto. They were told they were going to work.
In truth the whole procedure looked very innocent. There was a small table in the middle of the marketplace. Everyone whose name was called out had to go to the table and register. Meanwhile, the Germans photographed them.
Sadly, I saw my father among those stopped. I ran up to him at the table and my father said to me:
My child, they are not taking everyone, Khonyele (my brother) is apparently going home.
We later heard in the ghetto that on that day the Germans were supposed to take 300 men, but they succeeded through bribes to satisfy them with 120 victims. Among them was one woman, Shifra Dunetz who they took due to denunciation by a Christian. They also took a few Jews that had been arrested and were sitting in the district jail. As well as my memory serves me I will list the people alphabetically: (according to the Hebrew Alphabet)
Barishansky Avrom Moishe
Berman Avrom Shloime
Gavurin Moishe Leyb
Levit Moishev Levit Yosef
Rozovsky Berl Moishe
Rashkin Yehuda Khaim
Shushan Yehoshuav Shushan Yehuda
Those called were divided. After the Germans went through the crowd and suggested all teachers, merchants, Torah scribes and students should report voluntarily. How naïve we were then. People actually volunteered. Those who remained were ordered by the Germans to march through the streets in town singing Jewish songs. What was one of the songs sung by Zhetl's Jews? Hatikva!
Until today, when I hear Hatikva my blood freezes. I see the Jews of Zhetl marching through the marketplace singing: we have not lost our hope and between the Hebrew words they add in Yiddish we will outlive you.
Oh, Jewish confidence! My brother repeated these words in chorus with all those who marched home. When my father was standing among the accused who could have thought they were going to their death, and who could have imagined what suffering awaited us, and how few would survive until the day of liberation?
The unfortunate were loaded onto trucks and driven away. The rest of the crowd was chased away with stones. I never saw my father again.
Now the great suffering has begun. When we returned to our sad empty house we began to feel our catastrophe.
The next morning the same gestapo men came and spread rumours that with gold you could ransom those sent to work, and they told us they were being sent to Smolensk to build highways.
This resulted in chaos. Every family of those taken away began to dig up hidden jewelry, wedding rings, everything they possessed in order to save their fathers, husbands and brothers. Then we began to receive regards from those taken away. Some said they saw them on the road, or met them on another highway. Soon the Christians from the area began to bring socalled letters from them.
A delegation of women went out to the surrounding region. They said, in Karelitch and Novogrudek they let them return home. But nothing came from this. The Jews of Zhetl did not know that these 120 victims had already found their grave behind the barracks in Novogrudek.
Winter was approaching. At dawn my mother would go into the yard, look at the frozen dew, tremble and say:
Oy vey! Your father left here naked and it is probably freezing cold now in Smolensk.
Poor mother! She could not even begin to comprehend that they took innocent people and murdered them!
…One returned: the little Motele Idliak. The Germans ridiculed and mocked him and let him go. When I asked him once to tell me what happened he looked at me and said:
What, your father was also among them? That's all he said.
At the beginning of 1942, when children from Zhetl, boys and girls were hiding in the farms of Kashkali and Ludzhit, on a frosty evening when the frozen window panes were glittering in the moonlight, Yosef Khliebnik, whose brother Yudke was also among the 120, took away my last glimmer of hope. He told us that Motele Idliak told him that the Germans took all 120 with shovels to dig their own grave.
And you, silly child he said to me, you still hope to see your father?
I could not forgive him for a long time for taking away my last bit of hope. This did not stop me from dreaming, that someone comes to knock on our door. Tired and frozen, father tumbles into the house. On one such day there was a knock on the door at dawn, but it was not my father. It was a good friend coming to tell us we must be prepared.
They are going to drive all the Jews into a ghetto!
…The war ended. Remnants of Zhetl's Jews gathered. Everyone knew our most beloved were dead a long time. But somewhere in a small corner a silly hope gnawed at my suffering heart and I thought: tomorrow, or next week or next month, some of the 120 will appear. Tired and dusty he will come and ask if anyone has remained from his home.
But the road was empty and the last flame of hope had been extinguished.
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