Escape from Popervalen, 1944
Jacob: So one day by the end of]uly, an order: All the camps from this neighborhood-Dundaga I, Dundaga II, Dundaga III, and Popervalen, my camp-should gather in one place. I don't remember, in one of the Dundagas, I or II. We were put in long columns, men and women, and driven towards the Dundaga. It was probably around thirty kilometers from us in our camp.
Well, I missed one point, and I have to turn back-an important point. Being in Popervalen, in my camp, I made friends with, first of all, Bobrov, as I told you. Then there was Jacobson-Jacobson; in Europe, we pronounce Yakovson-GershonYakovson, a tall, big fellow. His cousin Laib, another Yakovson. Vospy, a strong young man, a butcher. So how many were? We were five: myself, two Yakovsons, Vospy the butcher, and Bobrov.
So people-I don't know, I had luck in the camp-people liked me, and I didn't know them. I was from Lithuania. They were Latvian Jews. And somehow we talked. Let's try to escape. Let's try to escape. Gershon Yakovson knew the whole region. His business was forest business. He had a mill-cutting into boards, a sawmill-so he knew all the farmers around. They delivered the material to him in the sawmill, and he knew perfect Latvian, the local language. So he was the leader. To make the long story short, after talking, we decided one night to try to escape from the camp. The camp was surrounded with two rows of barbwire. I was a carpenter before, so I had some tools. The most important tool was pliers to cut the wire. And we kept it in a certain place. I kept it.
Now how to...yes, it's a lot of details. I cannot help it. We were dressed-we were called, jokingly, zebras. Why zebras? Our clothing was white, blue, striped clothing, special. If you escape, they see you for a mile. Everyone had something zebras. So how to get to some clothes to cover the zebra clothes? Yakovson managed to get something like this, a few jackets, just to cover the upper part. I was in good relationship
with the head of the building, Eric the German. We played a trick upon him, and he let us out from the region where the building was, just to go for natural human necessity-what we have to do a little farther in the woods-and we had the clothing with us. I had it, and Bobrov. So we hid it in a certain place under a tree, in case nighttime we will escape, we will find it and change. That was a great help. And beside this, we hid there a big loaf of bread what Yakovson got from the farmers around. They were willing to help him.
And one night, when we decided to escape, we came out silently from our tents, crawling to the fence around, and now the pliers that I had was very handy. We cut one fence, spread out, and then we cut the other one. And crawling-certainly, we were bleeding the hands, and watching the guards around when they were away from this place-all five of us escaped out of the camp.
And from there we were running already freely in the woods. We know nobody will be here. We came to the place where the clothing was hidden, and we put it on ourselves not to show our zebra clothing. We grabbed the bread we had. We had rucksacks on our back, and we were free, out in the woods. I am telling you our joy. Grown-up people and our age came out free, and we were just jumping like children.
Now Gershon Yakovson, our leader, was leading us now to a certain place. We called it Ugale, in Latvia, where his establishment was, where his sawmill was, nearby. He said, There I have a farmer, a good friend of mine. He will give his life to save us. It's about fifty, sixty kilometers to walk, about sixty kilometers. And amazing how he knew-as a wood man, as a forest man, he knew the forest, looking at the trees and looking at the sky. So we walked the whole night without stop. And when the day broke out, we decided daytime it's still too dangerous to walk. And we stopped in a place to sleep.
I will continue further what happened to us, the
most important. I heard-we heard-later, from inmates back in the camp, that was a great, great uproar. Five inmates escaped. And the search started with hunting dogs, special dogs, blood dogs or hunting dogs, they call them. And for large, large area they were searching us in the woods. So meantime, we were free people.
Back in the camp-I have to go back to something what's important-our only recreation was Sundays, when they left us alone, more or less. Six days, we were driven here, there, for needless work to do. But Sundays, they left us alone. Levin what I mentioned-we called him the tzadik Levin-was organizing the minyan to daven [group of ten men to pray]. He was davening every day, three times a day. He preserved it. And, I don't know how, I develop a habit to write down on a piece of paper the events what happened. And besides, I wrote it in a form of poems a lot of things what happened. In the book, there are the poems in Yiddish. And the rumor spread that Yakov Rasein-my name was Rasein in that time, how we pronounced my last name-writes...not poetry, who could call this poetry?... poems about our lives. So coming Sunday, we gathered in the camp. That was every Sunday. Levin and people had a minyan, and after the minyan, Levin delivered like a political lecture, like we are sitting here, and we are listening to a skilled lecture, and his mind was so clear-a lot of knowledge and talking, discussing. And after that, they said to me, Yakov, read all your poems what you....
So I read one poem or two, and people cried, all around. We used to gather in his tent, maybe thirty, forty people, more than capacity, over and over, and people cried. The first what I read what I wrote for them was called Lebediker Messim. I'll translate it: Living Corpse. [Sighs] Since then, it became a habit and a duty of me to read every week a poem or two poems.
In the same camp was a young fellow around nineteen, twenty: Lackus, Elia Lackus. He had a nice voice, so he, to the words what I wrote him-how to express myself? - he fit in the music, mostly from Russian folk music, a beautiful tune, and people start singing. I'll never forget the scene, and the people around were singing and crying. Singing and...crying. [Voice cracks] Well, they liked it. So my duty was to deliver some poem-maybe thirty, forty poems I had-every week.
There was another socalled poet in the camp, one fellow, a Lithuanian from Ponevezh, whom I knew before. And he was also com ing up with this, but people didn't like or not accepted. So he was double unhappy, being an inmate and not accepted as a poet of the.... I know his destiny. He perished later on. So that was another event. So we spent about a year time, so can you imagine living here?
Josh: You were talking about the escape, and then you went back in the story.
Jacob: Yes, I'll come back. Another, a third thing. There was a man from Czechoslovakia, from Prague. He was a lawyer, a man in the forties, maybe fifty, and he got friendly with the Jewish manager there the head, Stein berger-and they didn't send him to any work. He spent somehow. It came to the German, to the Nazi head of the camp, and he called Steinberger, and he said, So-and-so complained, 'I cannot work.' Just for the eyes of the whole inmates, the commander said to Steinberger, Come on, I'll tell you something. He took him out, just outside of the fence, just a little hill, and he shot him. We feed you, we give you eating.
Many people died during the year. One was an acquaintance of mine, a pharmacist from Kovno, who died from tee'-phus. How do you call it?
Josh: Typhus or typhoid?
Jacob: There was a doctor. He was a veterinarian doctor. He should help us. It was a tent, so-called a sick tent, and when people came to com plain to him about this, he said, If I cannot help animals, how can I help you?
[Laughs] Means we were lower than animals. There was nothing to do, no medicine. So there are many episodes, and I won't take more time about this.
I finished before that we escaped from the camp. We were free in the woods, and Gershon Yakovson was leading us to his friend, a farmer, where we'll find safety. We were equipped with big sticks, branches in our hands, in case no other way. So we went the first whole night. We walked away. Daytime, we rested. We had some good food, bread. Everyone had a loaf of bread; Yakovson got it for everyone. And some dried meat-that was very important-some hard, dried cheese. So we organized to have it orderly, three times a day to rest, and to eat little by little.
One was a big eater, the butcher. He would have eaten all the food in one day, in one time, even. He was unhappy. He couldn't get too much. Water we had from the brooks around.
So next night we walked, I would say, carelessly-walking and talking and singing. Suddenly, before us goes out a group of armed people, maybe eight or ten. Stop. Who are you? Well, we didn't have to tell them. Just under the jackets what we had was the zebra clothes. Ah, you are Jews, escaped? We are looking for you.
No, there were not looking for us. They were looking for escaped deserters of the Latvian army, Latvian associates with the Germans, and occasionally they came upon us.
Well, that was the end. Sit down, sit down. Your hands this way. [Gestures]
And Yakovson happened to know a couple of them. He was dealing with them, talking. Look, what is? Can you? We will give you this; we will give you that.
Nothing helped. Anyway, we were arrested. Suddenly, abruptly, our freedom ended. We were brought to a place and returned back to the camp.
So I said we escaped the camp. Now we came back again, and now torture started, punishment. What we were beaten unofficially, on the way or coming into the camp, doesn't count. But the Germans and the Nazis liked order; so every day, every morning, we were taken out in front of the row, of the lines: Yakovson-the first he was, the head higher than everyone else-and other Yakovson, Bobrov, myself, and the butcher Vospy. And two rows of Nazis, young, brutal fellows, was standing, and we had to walk through slowly, and everyone kept beating us with whatever they could.
About a week or ten days later, they forgot, little by little, about us. We were left alone, but Yakovson was not forgotten. When we were standing in the row, and he was above all, and the Nazi manager came, certainly, he saw him. ', Yakovson, die jude, veifluchte jude [cursed Jew], schweinhund. We were a mixture of between a swine and a hund and other names I don't want to mention them. He was beaten extra. And you know, life goes on, and after two, three weeks, it. ...
On the way to the Dundaga, walking, I was walking and dreaming, thinking, Look, a beautiful day. The sun is shining around our woods and meadows, and the birds we can hear. People are working. How lucky they are. How lucky they are. And we? What are we doing? What happened? No home, no family, no children. Nothing. So just walking and dreaming all the way. And I tell you, the dream helped me a lot, maybe. It helped me a lot. I tried to forget the
realistic surroundings and going in my mind somewhere, somewhere else.
Anyway, as I said, in Dundaga we felt like on vacation, but the food was scarce. The food consisted a little bit black water-they called it cof fee-sometimes stinking, and in the morning, they gave us a piece of bread. The bread was not bread; it was mixed with straw. And the piece of bread had to be for a whole day. And noontime, we got again a little of the black water they called it coffee. And in the evening, a little bit of soup, they call it soup, with the bread what we had. Sometime, occasionally, we get a piece of--how you call this?-marmalade.
Anyway, I see Goldie sitting beside, your mother, and she is listening, and she thinks, The same thing, I know it; we went through. They went through the same thing in another part of that corner of the earth.
So after being in Dundaga a couple of weeks, one morning, Aufstehen- standing in a row, and the new Jewish oberjude, Kappel, came out. We are going to continue our march. All the camps from that area: the three Dundagas, Popervalen. Maybe there were about a thousand Jews or more, more than a thousand. Where were we going? Nobody knew for sure, and nobody told us. Rumors. Rumors we are going to the port city of Windau, and then we will be put on barges and brought over to Germany. And people who knew things said, Nobody comes alive to Germany. They sink the barges in the middle of the sea to get rid of the Jews. Nobody believed that we'll come. Mommy knows about this, too. Their group went through the same in another place.
So walking and dreaming, and we came to a river, Windau River. We passed with the river. It was not deep, in half [gesturing across his waist], and it was evening already, and for rest on the ground-it was not cold that time-and waiting till next morning. Now here, too, we
need water for drinking, and the river was not far, a few hundred yards. So who would bring water? We are tired, and we can't step even one step. So again, our group-myself, Bobrov, the two Yakovsons, Vospy: We are going to bring water for camp. We have our plans ready what we'll do. The main thing was not the water.
We got some pails, some big cans, and we were sent to the river two guards, the rifles, guarding us, and we came to the river. It was already nighttime, dark. So it was happy moments here. So when we came to the water-suddenly, all five of us jumped, overpowered the guard. The main hero was the butcher. He was strong. He could be a wrestler. All of us. I was not a baby, too. Anyway, we grabbed the rifles from one; he was wounded but escaped. The other one was killed on the spot. Nothing happened to us, but we couldn't use the rifle. The rifle was damaged. It fell on the stone or something. It was useless.
Anyway, it was quiet, and we listened for a while. Nobody paid attention from the camp. So we felt free again. See, the will to escape in me, and, I suppose, the same in my friends, was so strong that nothing stopped us. The second time we are escaping now.
Now, what to do farther? Again, the joy was so great, and unluckily, it was the moon was out. So we were half naked and jumping in the moonlight. I was thinking myself if somebody would see, would say we are crazy; we are meshugoyim, or we are wild beasts, whatever, but not human beings.
I don't know it's good or bad, I always analyzed myself, I remember. I always saw what is going all around. It could help me, could not help me. I don't know. Again, we took off our clothing what we had, the rem nants of the clothes, and trying to cross the river in order to come again to the friend of Yakovson. And Yakovson, I heard him saying a prayer, a silent prayer, asking God to help us. Everyone probably said a silent prayer, with the bundles holding high on our heads. And Yakovson, the tallest of us, had a long stick and trying the ground wherever he walked. And he gave co mands-a step right, a step left, go straight aheadso we crossed the river, luckily, and we were on the other side. We were dancing again, wild and jumping from joy. We are really free. [Sighs]
Now we organized, and we started walking direction to Yakovson's friend in Ugale. And here was even farther away, maybe sixty, seventy
kilometers. We walked again all the night, without rest and without stopping, to be farther and farther away, and we knew nobody would look for us, and nobody would search for us, because it is outdoors and not in a camp. Maybe some mates will notice that we are missing. And when daytime came, we rested under the bushes, under the trees.
History repeats itself It was like the first escape in the beginning; it was similar. On the third day, we thought we are very far. Again, a group of Latvian guards found us, and again the same agony. We were arrested and brought to a village by name Zlekas, not far, and I remember Gershon said, No luck, no luck. We were so dose already; maybe it was about fifteen, twenty miles to his friend, the farmer. No luck.
So we dropped hands, and what can you do? We know what is expecting us. Just to ready-made pits, holes in the woods somewhere, and to drop us alive, half alive, and bury. Again, Yakovson tried to talk to some of them; he knew them. And they said, We would like to help you with all our might and all possibilities, but cannot be done. We are under command of So-and-So. They were collaborators of the Nazis, Latvian collaborators. And we were in jail for three, four days, probably. We were fed well what's possible. And they inquired of the high com mand somewhere what to do with the five Jews who tried to escape and were captured.
So next morning came the oldest of them and told us, We are going to bring you back to your camp. And we knew there was no camp anymore, no people left. But he said it just to make our destiny, so to say, easier. We knew it at once. And the same day-noontime; it was hot-we were ordered to walk with them, about eight, ten people, rifles, and escorting us. And awhile before, about an hour before, we saw that a group of people, of their people, went somewhere with shovels to some direction, and now they told us to follow. We understood dearly. The pits were prepared, and that was going to be the end.
So we walked about a mile, two miles. They told us to go to the right. The headquarters was to the left. We should have gone to the headquar ters and hand us over to the Germans, and now the commander com manded us to go to the right. We understand we were going somewhere else. Certainly, we were silent and nothing. What can you say?
To make it short again, we were brought into the woods, and we
were brought to the place where a big hole was dug, a pit. And the old est of them-six people were, with rifles-told us to stand near the edge of the pit.
Bobrov was a smoker. For smoke of a cigarette, for a butt of cigarette, he could give away everything. As a matter of fact, he gave; he did. He gave away the bread what he used to get before to get a smoke of a cigarette. When I worked in the headquarters before, I used to bring the butts-hundreds, bags-and to give it to Bobrov. He was happy.
Anyway, What do you have to say? they asked. Or not; I am not sure. Bobrov said, Give me a cigarette. So one lit a cigarette and gave it to Bobrov, and we were standing, heads down.
I said to Yakovson, Gershon, let's try to escape. Let's try to jump and to spread in all the sides. Maybe one of us will survive. We thought all the time that we were the last Jews left. All were killed. I said, Let's one, at least, escape to tell the story what happened to us, to Jewish people.
No. No luck, I have no luck, he said. We were so close, so close to that place, to Ugale.
And now I say to his cousin, Let's try to escape.
Cannot. [Shakes his head] They dropped the hands. I talked to the butcher Vospy. He said, My feet are killing me; my feet are killing me. The shoes, I cannot step even one step.
Finally, I said to Bobrov, Look, let's run; let's jump.
Yakov, I cannot do anymore. Let us go to our wives and children. His wife before, in the beginning, was in the same ghetto with my wife and children. Let's go to our wives and children. Let's join them.
But-I don't know what kind of spirit was in me - l was not ready to give up. I was not ready to give up. Let's do something. What can we lose? I say. You see behind us down the pits, and in a minute we'll be dead; we'll be there. I cannot.
And he repeated again, like in a dream, Let's go to our wives and children. Let's go to our wives and children. That's all he could respond.
So I saw they lifted the rifles and taking the targets, and I bent to the ground to take out something from the bundle, I made believe. And so bending, with the hands to the ground, I just jumped quickly as possible, pushing myself like in the air and running in one side.
No-before that, I forgot to tell you, I asked Gershon Yakovson, Where is the best place to run, to go in what direction? You know it. And he said, This direction. When you go the other direction, you will come to a village; there are people. And in this direction, you are going deeper to the woods. So I knew, more or less.
And I jumped and running. Bullets are just-how you say the right word?-by my ear, whistling, and went through the hat. I had some hat on my head-through the hat, and I didn't stop for a moment in running, with the last power I still have, running. How long, I don't know. Until I stumbled on something, and I fell on the ground, in high grass, and I was waiting to see.
In a few minutes, I saw two men with the rifles, running and looking, and I said to myself, Should I run farther or just rake a chance to stay here? I dug myself deeper to the ground, deeper in the bush, and they ran by, farther away. I don't know how long-maybe a half an hour, maybe an hour or so-l was there and continued.
Now, slower and in evening time already, I came to a road, a wide, dirty road. Other side of the road was a village with a church. Again, thoughts came: people are living normal life in a village. And to the right side is a pond, a water pond, a small one, and nearby is a big barn. Farmers, when they harvest, put away the harvest in the barn until threshing it. They don't do it like the big one here, threshing on the field. So I say, It's the best chance I have is to penetrate into a barn. That's all I can. How? No strength, exhausted. But with my last strength-the barn was closed with two big gates-with my last strength, I spread the gates. I opened a narrow opening, and, like a mouse penetrating, I penetrated through the two halves of the barn gates. And inside, there was a big, big straw haystack, straw left from last year, so I penetrated, again like a mouse, into the straw; and I was sweating and hot and losing my breath, and in the straw I approached against the wall. And I put my nose into
two boards to have a little fresh air, and there like a dead one I stayed without moving for a day and a half, probably.
I just heard again three or four of the guards, somewhere else on bicycles with rifles, passed by; and they tried the gates to open, and one said like, Leave it alone. How could a man penetrate it to the half of the gate? And I was left alone there.
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