They Burned the Town
by Yehoshua Yaffe
Translated from Yiddish by O. Delatycki
Twenty eighth of June 1941. The Russians escaped and the Germans had not arrived yet. Every day German planes were flying in and throwing bombs. Many people were running out of the town into the fields of corn, the small wood in Brecianka or into the barns of the Jewish villagers in Rawinka and Lachowicz. Through the town passed streams of evacuees and Russian soldiers, sweaty, dirty and sad with grey, hungry faces. They faced the Germans and barely managed to escape alive. They were trying to get away as far as possible from the front, as far as possible from danger and death.
In the barn of Ele the Black, on the way to Peresike, 18 Jews were concealed. They were lying in family groups, one next to another on the spread out straw and were listening for the sound of aircraft. They suddenly heard the rev of a motor. They all quickly returned to the barn and crawled into the straw, lying in deathly fear, hoping that a bomb would not hit the barn and kill everybody. Some of those who tried to escape to Russia returned to Novogrudok. They were not allowed to cross the 1939 Soviet-Polish border and hence they came back. The roads were strewn with thousands of corpses, overturned cars and carts with dead horses. Over all of this flew German aircraft, threw bombs and shot from above. There was no alternative, there was no salvation, one had to expect anything. There was a rumour circulating among the non-Jewish population that the Germans would arrive on Saturday and whoever would not be at home would not be allowed to return. This prompted us to leave the barn on Friday night and go home. The streets were empty. The doors to some houses were open, in other houses doors were nailed down. Inside were people who were waiting for tomorrow. They wondered what new trials the new day would bring. The night passed quietly and on the next day there was only one air attack. We went back to the barn.
The day was hot, the sun was as intense as in the middle of Tamuz. The air was sultry in the choking tightness. We were afraid to go out onto the street. Vehicles were travelling in all directions through the town. The sound of the aeroplanes grew louder. In large units they flew down closer to the ground, like crows, and started to bomb the town, as if they were in a race to destroy what the Jews had built in hundreds of years. The bombardment continued for a couple of hours. The fire bombs ignited the timber houses. The whole of Novogrudok was one burning blaze. It was impossible to walk close to the burning streets. The flames were spreading like fiery tongs. The choking smell spread for many kilometres. The night began, but there was no night. Mighty flames rose to the darkened night sky and painted the darkness. It looked as if the sky was burning and enveloping the earth in a red blanket. The tin sheets on the roofs were bending and crinkling in the heat. As soon as it was dark, the aeroplanes flew away. The streets were filled again with endless columns of Soviet soldiers going east. We were returning home to see if anything could be saved. We walked in the fields between Grodno and Slonim Streets. We came to the Synagogue square. The roof in the Old Synagogue had a large hole in it. Sections of the wall were broken off and strewn on the ground. The Big Synagogue was burning from all sides. The fire was rising from the inside of the building fed by the prayer books that were moulding in the bookshelves on the wall. Alter the verger would air the books in the summer by spreading them on the grass. Now the fire consumed the books and the mould and converted them to black ash.
The Shoemakers Synagogue was burning from the back. My father called for people to help extinguish the fire. We found tin buckets and poured water on the walls. But it was no use. The fire had too strong a hold. We just managed to extract a few scrolls. We ran to our house to try and save some clothing and food.
Next morning I was walking through the burnt out streets. The brick houses disintegrated to their foundations, and from the timber houses only chimneys remained. They were standing upright on piles of rubble. On the roads burned bodies of people were lying, who were killed by fragments of bombs. Not far from the row of shops, near the old manège [a square used as a bus terminal] was lying the body of the kosher butcher from Lubcz and the wind was blowing the hair of his beard. It was the only part of his dead body that moved. Next to him lay his prayer shovel. Near by lay the body of a farmer clutching a bundle of leggings. He died scavenging the contents of the clothing factory. On the other side of the row of shops lay the body of a Soviet officer with a torn stomach. He was hurrying people from the market square and was killed whilst doing so. Anna, a farming woman from Slichovichi, who was a cleaner in Jewish homes, was robbing them during the bombardment. Now she was lying dead in Grodno Street next to the Orthodox Church. Jewish clothing and candle sticks were strewn around her. The old Rudski, who was always collecting bits of wood, corks, bottles and rusty iron, would not leave his house and see it burn. He was carrying water trying to extinguish the fire. But the fire was fierce and Rudski burned with his house. Ginienski, the hardware merchant, was trying to extract his savings from a pile of wood. His daughter ran to help him, having left her 2 year old child with her husband. Both father and daughter perished. A few months later, during the first slaughter, I saw her husband, Shabtai Nachimovski, with his daughter in his arms, on a truck which was taking them to their death in Skrydlewo.
Next morning, standing in the centre of the town in the market place one could see the houses next to the railway station, the mosque with the glittering half moon at the end of Waliker Street, the ornate gate to the Jewish cemetery with the large words בלע המות לנצ, the Rachelo and Sieniezyc Street were completely wiped out. The Polish church was left untouched. The Synagogue square was a burned heap with the four walls of the big synagogue protruding through the rubble. They were the sad remains of all the burned synagogues, which for hundreds of years were the source of spirit and enlightenment of the Jewish soul. Two thirds of the town was wiped out. In the few remaining streets four thousand [this figure is almost certainly a substantial underestimate] members of the Jewish community were bundled in.
The first days under the Germans
Novogrudok was burned-out. Thousands of people lost the roofs over their heads. All was gone with the fire: clothing, furniture, kitchen equipment. The worst was the loss of the stored food. Many were left without bread in the morning after the fire. They worried about the loss of food and thought of what tomorrow may bring. The Soviets closed down the synagogues and the shops in town. They established a large shop selling grains and flour. The store was hit by bombs. The doors were shut by chains and locks, but the sacks of flour fell on the footpath through the burst walls. This was an opportunity for the bereft people of the town to put away some flour. Jankef the coachman was delivering for years sacks of flour from Brojdo's warehouse to the shops. He was used to handling 80 kilo sacks. He grabbed a sack of flour under his arm, like a child lifting a toy, and took it to his wife and three children. The family found shelter after the bombing in Harkavy's synagogue. He left the sack with his family and went to fetch another. Other people followed his example. They came from all directions. Jews returning from their morning prayers stashed away their prayer books and carried sacks of flour to their families. People were helping each other to lift sacks on their shoulders. Others were apprehensive and did not take the flour. Women whose husbands went east were helping each other: two or three were carrying a sack together. On the way they were resting on the staircases of the preserved houses. With the backs bent, twisting in all directions, they carried the sacks home. Some dragged the sack on the footpath, pushed it, groaned and sweated till they brought it home. The weak could not make it and fell under the burden. Even ten year old children were attempting to move the sacks of flour. If they succeeded they were showing off their strength. Suddenly there was a sound of approaching vehicles. This caused a panic. People were running away from the streets and the market place. Everybody thought that the Germans were coming. Some were hiding the sacks of flour under stairways and hiding themselves behind the sacks. But they worried unnecessarily. The troupes passing through town were the stragglers of the Red Army, who, tired out and blackened, were making their way east. The Jews waited for the column of trucks to pass and started shifting the flour again. It was not always that simple. On the third day of the war a bomb fell next to the railway station and landed in the military food store. Talia, a strong and solid Belarus, who worked in Zilberman's printing works, loaded sacks of sugar onto a carriage and intended to drag it home. He was stopped by a Russian officer who asked him who allowed him to rob Soviet goods. Talia answered 'The Germans are coming and they would take everything'. The officer replied 'The Germans would not defeat us and you would not rob our property. We sacrifice our blood to combat the Fascists.' He shot him on the spot and left him lying in the street. Elsewhere a member of the NKVD found, in the shoe factory, a farmer from the nearby village of Pucewicze, who had crammed leather uppers of shoes in a sack. He was shot and the black uppers turned red.
Everyone was looking for a place to stay. Some went to their friends or acquaintances. Families moved into kitchens, in barns and in lean-to's where wood was kept. Even those who lived in one room found a place for those whose homes had burned down. Everyone saw the Jewish misfortune. They were also helping each other with food and clothing and tried to console the despairing.
Two days later the first German vehicles came into town. The Jews were hiding in their homes. There were among them a few curious ones who wanted to see how a German looks, those heroes who thought that they would conquer the world. Through the streets travelled the self assured Germans, with strong, elongated faces. They looked down on everyone. They did not react to the welcoming greetings of the non-Jews, who came out to meet them. Like devils they rushed through the town and disappeared back along the Slonim highway.
On the 3rd of July Novogrudok was occupied by the German army. The Polish population re-established the police, and by supporting the Germans they wanted to be accepted by them. They were later bitterly disappointed.
The German soldiers were bored in the ruined town. They were looking for some entertainment. In among the burnt out streets a German came across an elderly Jew with a white beard. The German stopped the Jew in the middle of the street and started pulling at strands of his beard. A group of the locals stood opposite and laughed. The German sadist was satisfied, he managed to gain acceptance by the local population with his bestiality. He went further and met a Jewish woman with a child in her arms. He kicked the woman in the stomach with his heavy soldier's boot. The woman and child fell blooded to the ground.
There was no bread in town. Next morning there was a queue in front of a bakery. In the queue were both Jews and gentiles. A German soldier was passing by. He expelled all Jews from the queue and gave them a beating. The gentiles were supportive of the event. They would eat the bread and the Jews would go without. A second soldier arrived. He interceded on behalf of the Jews and told the shopkeeper to sell them bread. 'One cannot live without bread' he argued. But by the time the Jews rejoined the queue bread was sold out. In the city store there were cucumbers for sale. There were no Germans about. The shopkeeper decided that he would not sell to Jews. And the gentile customers saw to it that Jews would not enter the shop. Jews disappeared from the streets. When they saw a German they would vanish if they could. But the Germans would come from nowhere with sticks in their hands or rubber whip and would beat every Jew they came across. The Germans started to catch Jews to force them to work. They would drag them from their homes. The Germans would also search Jewish homes for gold and other valuables. They took also clothing and underwear and sent it to Germany. There was a shortage of wood for cooking. Late in the afternoon I went to the row of shops in the centre of the market place and removed a door from one of the shops. Two of us carried it home. The sun was setting. The last rays were colouring the sky. The new head of the police force appeared from nowhere. We showed him with sign language that we were carrying the door to the German command post. He let us go. We brought the door to the back door of the command post and leaned it against the fence. After it became dark and no one was allowed to be outside, we crept to the back of the command post and took the door into our home. With the help of everyone, the door was demolished into pieces of timber. We hid the pieces under the beds. We had enough fire wood for a week.
Later farmers began to appear in town. They came with their carts and left them in the side streets. They were not allowed to trade with Jews. But they would sneak into Jewish homes through the back doors, pretend to borrow a pail to fetch water for their horses and in the mean time exchange a pood [about 16 kilo] of flour for a cushion or a kilo of butter for a pair of shoes. The Jews were selling their last possessions for food. They sold their bed linen, their clothing. They could never wear it under the Germans, but if they would survive they would get new clothing. In the mean time the farmers acquired the best items.
Tormented and murdered
On the 3rd of July 1941 the Germans occupied Novogrudok. Three days later they selected some members of the Jewish intelligentsia religious, cultural and public figures - and killed them. The German policy was to eliminate likely leaders of an uprising. The military commandant announced that all Jews of the town must gather in front of the command post to elect a Judenrat [Jewish committee]. There were not many Jews who wanted to work with the Germans. Some pre-war communal workers may have thought it their duty to participate. They were the first to be massacred. The majority of the Jews were hiding in their homes and tried to avoid going out. The police went from house to house forcing people to go to the command post. They assembled forcibly a few hundred men. This is when their hell on earth started. First they were packed into one room. They were vary cramped. But this too did not last long. Every few minutes another person was removed from the room. No one returned. The Germans had with them a Pole who knew everyone and it was on his say so that people were sorted to either live or die. The interrogation was short: name and surname, occupation. Those selected to work were placed left, the rest to the right. Those on the right were led outside. They were divided into groups of ten. Each group was attached to a Gestapo functionary. Each Jew was given two buckets of water, which they had to carry to the third floor, whilst they were beaten on the way with rubber truncheons. Each one who brought to the top less than half a bucket of water was handed over to a second German, who took the victim to a room to polish the German's shoes. The Jew was polishing and the German was lashing out over the body of the victim with a rubber truncheon till the Jew fainted. The body was dragged outside and thrown into a truck.
The other group of Jews was lined up in the yard and water was poured over them from the top floor of the building. When the water was emptied the buckets were thrown on the terrified Jews. An order came: 'anyone injured, stand aside, but quick'. Anyone who was slow in following the orders was told to fill the buckets with water and run upstairs. Two Germans stood at the water well and were beating everyone who was drawing water. The Jews were pushing each other at the well, each wanted to get to water as soon as possible and get out from under the lashings. Some Jews spilled water, others fell. The Germans kept up the punishment, had drawn blood and were laughing. And again, anyone who spilled more than half a bucket of water was sent to polish boots. In the end the whole group of beaten and bloodied bodies were thrown into the trucks, together with those who were put their previously. The truck was not full. The commandant came over and ordered to put ten more Jews in the truck. Two Germans went into the room where the Jews selected to work were kept and grabbed more Jews, accompanied by savage beating and wild shouting. The commandant approached the truck again and said that the truck was too full and they would all suffocate. He ordered to remove half of the Jews and shoot them on the spot so that the rest would have more space The Germans started shooting in the air. The Jews were jumping out of the truck. They pushed each other and were running around the yard. The yard was fenced in. At the fences stood Germans who kept the Jews off the fences. The Jews were running from one end of the yard to the other and were met with beatings and laughter. They were ordered by the commandant to stand in a row. The Germans were beating anyone who was slow. An order was given: 'those whose initial of their surname was A to K must lie down facing the ground, from K to S with the face up, from S to the last must stand on all fours'. They were lying in that position for about ten minutes till a second truck arrived. All Jews were packed into the two trucks. The trucks drove off. Nobody saw any of them again.
Later they took to the remaining Jews who were detained. They were told to clean the building, to wash the floors and the walls, scratch off all the pictures on the wall. They were told to work fast and were encouraged by beatings. But at least they remained alive. They were allowed to go home weary and bloodied. They returned to their wives and children who were glad to see them. The bereaved families of those who had not returned were in mourning and nobody could help them, because all were overwhelmed with their own troubles and every day brought new anxieties and disasters.
The front line was moving further east towards Moscow. The command had gone and was replaced by a new one. The Judenrat proposed by the Jews was accepted by the Germans. The Judenrat had to provide workers for the German army and for the town council. Wearing of yellow patches by Jews was made compulsory. A Jew was not allowed to walk on the footpath, or have any commercial dealings with gentiles. Jews were anxious to go to work because hunger was acute. Those who worked were given by the army a cooked meal of sorts. They could also exchange at work items of clothing for food. One gradually became used if not immune to the insults by the gentiles, to the beating by the Germans and the police and to the work. Jews were made to clear the debris of the burned houses. Many worked in the German military barracks others worked in town.
At eight o'clock in the morning the gentile supervisors would pick up the workers from the Judenrat. A German feldwebel [sergeant] would arrange the workers in rows and hand them over to the supervisors. This arrangement continued for more than a week. The Judenrat had to meet other demands, such as to furnish quarters for the Germans, provide bedding, crockery etc. Some members of the Judenrat tried to rationalize the demands. The accountant Landau argued that in the First World War the Jews were also made to work. He concluded that the Jews were a proved and tested nation. They suffered and can get used to suffering. 'We would also get used to the Germans' he concluded. 'And what happened to the missing people?' asked the lawyer Zeldowicz, who was the chairman of the Judenrat. 'The judges used to rummage in the criminal code before sentencing a man. This time more than seventy people disappeared and there is no word of them'. 'And who knows if after the first disappearance others would not follow' somebody else added. The conversation in the Judenrat was interrupted by the German feldwebel, who told them in confusion that this morning the commandant would be present at the departure to work. 'We are very pleased, Herr feldwebel' said Landau 'let the commandant see for himself that the Jews are ready to help the Germans win the war against the Bolsheviks'. 'We don't need the Jewish help. Why did only few workers turn up? Let all Jews go immediately to work'. He left the Judenrat banging the door. 'The Germans are cooking up something' said the chairman 'the commandant is coming himself'. 'What can we do?' said Dobrin 'we must provide more workers, otherwise things may turn out badly'. 'Workers, workers' said the brothers Israelit and left with a few other members of the Judenrat to chase Jews to work. The commandant lined up all Jews in a row and kept the Judenrat separately. He spoke briefly 'The German army is at the gates of Moscow. Jews must work for the German army. If they would, their lives would be spared. We need also the Jewish intelligentsia to work. I would separate the intelligentsia from the workers.' He approached the members of the Judenrat. He asked the chairman of Judenrat 'what is your profession?' 'I am a lawyer'. 'Yes, this is good. You would defend the interest of the Jews in the German Reich'. He put him on his left. 'And your profession?' he asked Landau. 'I am a bookkeeper'. 'That we definitely need. You would provide statistics of the work of the Jews'. And he put him next to the chairman. 'And your professions?' he asked the brothers Israelit. 'Merchants' they replied. 'We don't need swindlers in the German Reich' and he put them to the right. In this manner the commandant went through all those standing in the yard. Teachers, bookkeepers, lawyers and all other professionals he sent to the left and the others he distributed among the supervisors. At the same time other Germans were going to all the Jewish homes and arrested all members of the Jewish intelligentsia. They have even taken the teachers of the Cheders [Jewish religious primary schools]. They were removed to an unknown destination. The gentiles were spreading various rumours: that those taken away were seen not far from Baranowicze, others said close to Minsk. Some wives have gone to look for them and they too disappeared. A few weeks later alarming rumours came from the small towns. All Jews from the township of Rekov were burned alive in the town's synagogue. In Ancewicze and Horodyszcze all Jews were killed. I tried to contact farmers I knew. They were afraid to let a Jew into the house. They were told by the Germans that anyone hiding a Jew would be shot with his whole family. I had no alternative but to go to work. We worked for the town's council. We were sorting various implements and materials for various workshops. Our store also supplied the Judenrat with everything they required. One Friday a messenger from the Judenrat came and asked for 25 brooms for the commandant's office. We found out from the messenger that new Germans had arrived and ordered from Judenrat 40 silk eiderdowns with covers, forty tables, ten wardrobes and 15 pairs of boots. They had to supply also sixty workers with 25 brooms. We became very depressed. Why do the new Germans require 60 workers? We were wondering if it may be a preparation for a new slaughter. We thought about it and asked the Polish supervisor to try and find out what this was all about. He returned and told us that the Gestapo had arrived and there was a need for caution. He suggested that we should remain overnight in the store and lock the doors. But what about the parents and my wife at home? I went to see my brother who was working in the food supply department. My brother was about to go to us. The chief of the food supply department was fond of my brother. He fed him and gave him food to take home. He regretted that my brother was a Jew. Before I came he asked my brother if he had men in his family. 'I have two brothers' my brother answered. 'Where are your brothers' the German asked. He was visibly concerned. 'They work in the town's supply store' my brother answered. 'They must come to me to fetch water' the German said. We started to carry buckets of water from the pump in the market square to the food supply office. We poured the water into a bath tub, emptied the tub and began filling it again. In the mean time the Judenrut tried to locate workers. They took workers from other enterprises and transferred them to the Germans. Niankowski came over and told us to leave the buckets. My brother called the German and Niankowski disappeared. In the yard of the Judenrat some workers arrived, but quickly left. There was too much commotion in the Judenrat. Everyone thought that from the anticipated work nobody would return. The Judenrat succeeded in rounding up 40 workers and taking them to the Germans. The head of the Gestapo took the workers to the jail and told the Germans to go to town and catch Jews. The Judenrat decided to hide. Several workers had returned home from work and did not know of the events. They were caught by the Germans and taken to the jail.
We were the only Jews in the market place and we continued to drag the buckets of water. Suddenly the chief of the food supply office came running and told us: 'Enough water, go and hide'. He took us home and we hid in the cellar. Children were running around in the streets. They were stopping Jews and imploring them: 'Jews go to work, otherwise our fathers will be shot'. Apparently the Germans announced that if the required number of workers would not be available the Jews in jail would be shot. But everyone knew that when the right number of workers would be found they too would be shot. The required number was not found and those arrested were not seen again. To the list of women who lost their husbands another 60 names were added.
This was the last of the series actions when the Germans took out the Jews behind the barracks and shot them. They would say that the men were sent to work. Later the Germans became more blood thirsty.
We harvest potatoes
The land which belonged to large landowners was taken over by the state under the Soviets. The Soviets escaped and left a large field of potatoes. The land belonged in the past, in the Polish days, to the landowner Truniewski. The potatoes had to be harvested and the Judenrat was told to supply the workforce to do it. Over a hundred Jews, in the majority women, came to harvest the potatoes. Each worker would arrive with a large bag which was taken home filled with potatoes. In addition, each worker was supposed to be given a pood of potatoes for every day's work. Nobody was too keen to work and ways were found to do little. The Polish supervisors were also not concerned if the job took another week or more to finish. There was no shortage of Jewish labour and the Poles were paid by the day. The days were cooler and it was pleasant to be in the fields. Our supervisor Walowski, a young Belarus, was a communist before the war. He had compassion for the Jews. He saw to it that nobody would work too hard and that everyone should have potatoes to take home. 'You need it more than the Germans' he told us with a smile, 'but you must be cautious'. One morning before work started. he gathered all the Jews and gave a brief summary of the political situation as he saw it. 'The Jews don't suffer alone, but all people who want to live free and honest lives are suppressed. Those who would survive would see the defeat of all the fascist murderers. But one must be cautious.' Once when some Jews were sitting idle he told those that worked to join them and he called a lunch break. Suddenly the Germans arrived. This time we got away with a fright. Walowski would load a pood of potatoes in a bag and carry it for the elderly Jews who lived in town. He would leave the bag in one of the Jewish homes and the Jews would distribute the potatoes among themselves. After a time Walowski was caught and the Germans arrested him.
We were sitting in the field, far from the town and our thoughts left one no peace. The families were left in town in the hands of the Germans, who robbed and beat up everybody. If a person was caught he disappeared. Nobody ever returned.
This situation did not continue for long. The road was jammed with trucks loaded with heavy boxes of arms. Not far from us one truck overturned. The driver was killed and some boxes were strewn in all directions. The movement on the road stopped and the German soldiers suddenly saw before them Jews. A German came over and ordered that all Jews must go to the overturned truck. There he separated the men from the women, counted them several times whilst beating them in the process. The Jews were told to turn upright the overturned truck. We tried, but without success. The truck was buried in the ground. They lined up the Jews and removed from the line-up every fifth man. Fourteen men were separated. They were made to lie down with their face down. The others were sent off to try again to upturn the truck. When they had not succeeded again, three soldiers started beating severely the fourteen lying on the ground. Twenty more men were made to lie on the ground and given a severe beating. Next all other men were made to lie on the ground and those that were previously beaten were made to upturn the truck. The truck remained overturned. After all Jews were severely beaten and some women had blood running from them the Germans permitted the Jews to unload the truck. When unloaded, it was possible to upturn the truck and reload the boxes. The Jews were made to lie down again and the Germans fired automatic weapons over them. The whole incident lasted for three hours. After the Germans departed the Jews were made to return to dig potatoes.
The District Commissariat was in the building which, in the Polish days, was the wojewodztwo [district pre-war Poland was divided in 16 wojewodztwos]. In the adjacent houses lived the German high echelon officials. The houses of the Germans were surrounded by burnt out ruins of brick houses all houses in Slonim street and the Synagogue square and most houses in the Yiddish and Waliker streets were in ruins. At that time the first partisans made bold attacks on the Germans. The Germans were concerned that the partisans might infiltrate among the ruins, close to their homes and attack them. The Germans ordered that the burnt out ruins of the houses should be demolished. They made the Judenrat responsible for that job.
This job started in the middle of winter, when the frost was severe. Snow was spreading and the cold penetrated the bodies. Everyone was reluctant to do this work, because they had become used to the work they were doing. This work was heavy. The walls had to be broken up with heavy crowbars. The bricks were held together with mortar for hundreds of years and they would not come apart with ease. A few dozen workers were standing, looking out for the Germans. Nobody was keen to do this work. It was bitterly cold. Everyone was hungry. And the member of the Judenrat was shouting and swearing. This did not help. He started begging us to do some work. He reasoned that if the Germans would come and see that no work was done they would punish the workers. But this did not help matters. At that point a German was noticed. Everyone grabbed the crow bars. The walls were attacked and holes appeared. Bricks and sections of walls were flying in the air.
A farmer with a white bag in his hand was passing by. He stopped not far from the Jewish workers. He had a piece of butter and wanted in exchange a pair of galoshes. The Jews were amused. Some of them wore galoshes to work on the previous days hoping to exchange them for food, but there were no takers. The gentiles were looking for textiles for a suit or a dress. And today, when they had with them fabrics, the gentile wanted galoshes. A few Jews approached the farmer. The first pair of galoshes he was shown was not to his liking. Two more Jews came with their galoshes. At that moment a German appeared from nowhere. He wanted to arrest all three Jews. He accused them of neglecting their work and trading with farmers. The Jews started to plea with him, asking him not to take them to jail, where they would surely be shot. The German demanded gold. But the Jews did not have gold. They said that they had long ago sold any gold they had. He answered that he would take watches, money, anything of value that they had. The member of the Judenrat went to the workers and asked them to surrender anything of value . 'We must save three Jews from death' he told them. When the German saw that the Jews gave them everything they had, he took a stick and started beating them. Than he told them to start working and left.
Schmitt, the German director of works, came over leading a big dog. He was not interested if the Jews were working or not. He has one aim - to beat Jews. He was running around hitting anyone who was handy with a rubber truncheon. Other Germans also took an interest in the work. Every so often somebody would come over to see whether the Jews were working. Each one of them wanted to show his importance. They were shouting, cursing, beating the workers and shooting into the air. We were used to it and we learned not to be afraid, like an old horse that got used to the whip. This was one of the worst places to work in. Nobody wanted to work there. The Judenrat, to encourage people to work there, gave them double rations of bread, which helped to recruit the required number of workers.
Novogrudok was a small town. Water was drawn from the wells. There was no running water in the houses. The Germans decided to install water mains in the German colony and to have running water in their houses. Trenches were dug and pipelines were installed. It was winter. The soil was frozen. The work was hard. The work had to be completed quickly because it was inconvenient for the German hausfraus to fetch water from the wells. The Jews were required to work around the clock. They were told to dig without interruption. People were hungry in the Ghetto and some volunteered to work at night. They received a three fold ration of bread. At night it was possible to snooze at times. Most Germans were asleep. On one particular night only three Jews were working in a certain section. It was a very cold night. The furrier was scheduled to work that night, but his 17 year old son replaced him. In another household a man replaced his brother. He meant to replace him for a night's work. In fact he died instead of his brother. It was one o'clock at night. The strong wind was blowing the snow from the frozen earth. Most houses were immersed in darkness. Most people were fast asleep. The three Jewish workers were standing in the long, narrow trench and were trying to warm their frozen hands. They rubbed their fingers, which were needled by the frost. They were in town for the first time since the Jews were hoarded into the Ghetto. A German policeman was standing nearby. He was responsible for the security of the town. He was casting hostile looks in the direction of the Jews. The Jews had not heard in a long time spontaneous laughter of happy people. In the Ghetto everyone was gloomy and disconsolate. But here, in the trench they could hear laughter from the house of the District Commissar. They were amusing themselves and were happy that they conquered the world. Those were drunken voices. And suddenly there was a shout like that of a wild beast: 'Come here, Jews!' Three Germans were standing on the steps of the veranda. At first the Jews thought that perhaps they might be given leftovers to eat. This did happen at times. After a meal, the scraps were sometimes given to the Jews, as to dogs. The Jews came out of the trench toward the open door. The district commissar took out his revolver and shot the three of them. The laughter continued unabated. The corpses were thrown into the trench onto the fire. Zejdl, the son of the ferrier, survived. He had a small injury to his hand. Having been injured he lost consciousness, but the fire brought him back to his senses. He crawled away from the fire and removed the two dead bodies. He remained in the trench and kept rubbing his frozen hands. Later he crawled into a ruin of a house and waited their till daylight. A fresh white snow covered the surrounds and the shrunken dead bodies. Strong winds were blowing the snow over the surfaces. The telephone wires were shaking. Ten workers had come to replace those who worked overnight. They were surprised that there was no fire in the trench and the three workers had disappeared. They jumped into the trench and found the dead bodies of their friends. Shortly after, the son of the ferrier came out of the ruins and told them what had happened. There was nothing they could do and they had no one to speak to. They could not start working till the district commissar would wake up and give permission to bury the bodies. I went with the other workers to the Jewish cemetery to bury the dead. We brought the bodies on a peasant's sleigh. I looked around and saw the grave stones. Some were very old. All was deathly quiet. On the nearby mound was an old burial stone with a barely readable inscription. One could decipher that here lay buried an old Jewish man from the Novogrudok of old, who lived his unremarkable live. If somebody would come here many years later and ask who was buried in the new grave, he would be told that all Jews were killed in a mass slaughter, but those two were shot and burned for no reason at all by a German murderer. And they were the last to be buried in this cemetery. The man guilty of the murder was in charge of the whole district. He had no reason for killing the Jews, who did not do anything wrong. He was thirsting for Jewish blood. He could not go to sleep without it. The burned bodies were buried. Somebody recited the Kaddish. And the world was silent. The sun was covered by grey clouds. The wind blew stronger. And the earth was covered with clear, white snow.
The Germans were looting
The Jews were confined to the Ghetto. Villagers moved in to their houses. The Germans took the furniture. They were sending it to Germany. The Jews were made to sort and carry the furniture. Farmers' carts were moving from house to house. Jews were carrying from their own homes wardrobes, beds, buffets, tables and chairs and were taking them to the tall building of the former Polish court for sorting. Room after room was filled with various wardrobes sorted by size, colour and the variety of timber it was made of. In another room were wardrobes with mirrors, two door, three door, with or without cornices. Similarly, beds, tables and chairs, buffets and bedside tables were sorted. The Jewish group engaged in sorting the furniture consisted of one hundred men. In charge was Rauter, a crazy, wild animal, who walked around with a rubber truncheon in his hand and would hit anyone who was handy. He lined up in the court yard the hundred Jews and began counting. When he would count to ten he would hit the Jew before him, and on and on till he counted to a hundred. Ten workers with one carpenter attached to them were sent to the fourth floor. The next group of ten and a carpenter he sent onto another floor and so on. The last forty Jews were to remain on the staircase to carry the furniture from one floor to another. When Rauter was present one had to work quickly else the truncheon went into action. Workers were running from one floor to the next with a wide wardrobe. Rauter was behind them with his truncheon. After about an hour he would go away and return after lunch. Whilst Rauter was gone the workers rummaged among the clothing and household goods that were robbed from the Jewish homes, to find something that they could exchange with a farmer for food. As soon as Rauter returned, everyone would resume moving furniture. Up the stairs and down the stairs. At one time Rauter sent everybody to the fourth floor, where a few dozen wardrobes were stored. He told the workers to bring them down to the yard. Each wardrobe was to be carried by four workers. They started moving the wardrobes down the stairs. It was difficult to manoeuvre the wardrobes over the banisters. One wardrobe got stuck on the stairs and would not move. Rauter started shouting and hitting the workers. The wardrobe slid from the hands of the workers and slid down the steps. The stairs were strewn with broken wardrobes and injured workers trapped under the wardrobes. The workers started freeing those injured from under the wardrobes. Rauter assembled all the workers in the yard. He counted them to make sure that a hundred were present. He put to one side those injured. He was aiming to have them flogged for breaking the German furniture. At that moment a big truck arrived. Three of the nicest wardrobes were loaded on and the truck together with Rauter departed. He needed three wardrobes but ordered forty to be taken down the stairs. Rauter was not present when the Jews left for the Ghetto. The Jews used the occasion to take bundles of cloth to exchange for food and they broke out pieces of wood from the busted wardrobes to use for fires in the Ghetto.
At the end of Grodno street was a small lake. They called it Szumski's river, because the owner of the house near by was named Szumski. During the New Year celebrations Jews used it for Tashlich. But in those days I was not praying very attentively. I looked at the big willow trees, the tall lake grasses that grew out of the lake and the shrubs on the shore. Many varied birds warbled in the trees. The frogs croaked in the swamp. And by the time I stopped listening and looking all around me, Tashlich was recited. I would join the elders walking back to town. It was not safe for a Jewish boy to wander alone outside the town. Before the war, at the end of winter, farmers brought on sleighs into town large blocks of ice from Szulski's river for the soda water makers and restaurants. That year ice blocks were not produced, because there were no shops and no restaurants in town and no one was buying ice. The farmers from near by villages moved to town and lived in Jewish houses and acquired many Jews possessions. They were not interested in producing blocks of ice. The Judenrat was told to send five Jewish workers to cut blocks of ice from Szulski's river. They need ice in the German hospital. Five of us went. The winter was still cold and there was severe frost in March. We went onto the ice. We took off our gloves. Our fingers began to freeze. We took our tools and started hammering the thick layer of ice. We made no impression on the ice. I did not know how to do the job. But we learned in a hurry. We went closer to the shore, where the ice was thinner and we all started to hit the ice in the same place with mattocks. And the ice gave way. The block of ice floated on the water. One of us ran to retrieve the block and fell into the river. We pulled him out quickly. He was soaked right through and was shivering. Frozen lumps of ice were hanging from him. The German did not allow him to get into a house he should stay and see how lumps of ice should be recovered. Shortly after, with G-ds help, the German fell into the icy water. When we got him out he was covered in ice. We took the German and the Jew into a house near by. The farmer's wife busied herself drying the wet clothes. The German was furious and as soon as his clothing was dry he went outside and took out his wrath on us. We were all wet from sweat and water. We loaded the lumps of ice onto the farmer's sleighs. We looked back on the episode. We thought that we had become quite skilled in chopping and removing lumps of ice. We went back to the Ghetto in our frozen garments. All five of us became sick and had a high temperature. We spent several days in bed.
The Russian supervisors
Many Soviet soldiers were cut off and were trapped in the occupied districts. Many managed to dress like farmers and were working in the villages and towns. Some of them worked for the Germans. Some became supervisors of Jewish workers. They were at times worse than the Germans. They were beating us and were forcing us to work hard so as to please their German masters. But the Germans, regardless, considered them as enemies. When the Soviet army started to push back the German armies, the Germans started arresting the vostochniks [men from the east], as they were commonly called. In the middle of February many lorries loaded with the vostochniks drove through the town and came back empty. Initially the Germans packed them into the jail. Later they were taken straight to the military barracks. They were shot not far from the mass grave of the Jews [5100 Jews were killed there on the 8 December 1941] and thrown into one mass grave. Among those were some vostochniks who supervised Jews. They tried to please their German masters by mistreating Jews, and yet their destiny was determined. It was their time to perish. Not all were caught. They were used to deceiving death. They went into the forests and organised the first partisan formations in the district. In the Ghetto they were reasoning that if the Germans were prepared to kill all Russians, they would have no compunctions in killing Jews. The Jews assumed that the Ghetto would be soon wiped out. Every movement of the Germans was followed closely and a new slaughter was expected at any time. The Jews who considered themselves needed by the Germans were those with a trade. In the first slaughter, the Germans refrained from killing tradesmen. The Judenrat endeavoured to organise new workshops where tradesmen would be employed. Groups of tailors, shoemakers, saddlers, carpenters and other trades were formed. People were leaving their previous employment and were endeavouring to become tradesmen. A tailor would put a needle in his brother's hand and call him a tailor. A shoemaker sat his brother-in-law in front of a last and got him to form a shoe. Some became tradesmen through the Judenrat. For money their name was added to the list of tradesmen and they were sent to work in the workshops. The people in the workshops were also Jews and they had pity of the new 'apprentices'. They taught them the trade, to be able to work when the German supervisor visited the workshop. I did not have patronage which would allow me to join officially a workshop. I decided to become a tanner. The only tannery in town, which belonged to Maslowaty, was nationalized by the Soviets. Later it belonged to the Germans. I gave Maslowaty a table clock for the Polish supervisor of the tannery. For this I received a worker's certificate (Arbeitsschein) as a helper (Gehilfe) in the tannery.
The ground bark
During the first few days I was preparing bark in the yard. I dried it in the sun in the daytime and I took it into the store at night. Later I was allowed to work in the lime processing area. We washed the raw hides in a big bath filled with water. We were emptying the bath and filling it with fresh water. Later we placed the skins in a lime bath one over the other. I learned the art of neutralizing the lime treated hides using water cooked with the bark that I dried in the sun and ground. The hides were hung out to dry. The last process was to tan the hides. The work was hard and smelly. One was always wet and dirty. But one presumed that one's work was important to the Germans. Leather was for them a critical commodity. It was assumed that in the case of a slaughter we would be allowed to remain alive. In time we established an accommodation with the Polish supervisor. He was a rabid anti-Semite, but permitted the Polish black marketeers to trade with us, because his cut earned him more than his pay from the Germans. In the tannery we felt secure. We worked in a warm house. As a rule Germans did not come to the tannery. On rare occasions when a German came he was handing out cigarettes. We were, after all, skilled workers. The man in charge was Rauter, who was in charge of all workshops. He assured us that as long as he would be in the Novogrudok Ghetto the workers of the tannery would be safe. But once we had a misadventure. As a routine, the Polish supervisor was accepting from his acquaintances hides for tanning. He was not allowed to do this. Once a farmer brought two hides for tanning. The Pole was not there. Maslowaty accepted the hides on behalf of the Polish supervisor. The chief of the police found out about it. He assumed that the Jews were trading with German property. The supervisor did not admit to his responsibility for the event. As it was usual at the time, all the Jewish workers of the tannery were destined to die. The Commandant did not want to intervene. His reaction was that all tanners should be shot. We went that night back to the Ghetto and thought that we would die due to this cruel injustice. I did not tell the family, but I went to the Judenrat. 'We can do nothing about it' they told us 'this is a matter involving only 9 Jews. The rest of the Ghetto is not endangered. Each of you must try to save himself as best he can'. We decided that we must not run from the Ghetto, because this would put everybody in danger. We resolved to wait and hope for a salvation. Next day we went to work in the usual way. All nine of us were their. We were, of course, depressed and did not talk to each other. At nine o'clock we saw Rauter with his dog and the Commandant of the police with about twenty armed policemen. We were all standing frozen and the Pole was as white as the wall. We were all still and ready for the worst. In the past we had gone through many frightening moments and we learned to live always close to death. The animals burst into the tannery and ejected everybody outside. Rauter spoke briefly: 'We hate Jews, we hate even more Jewish swindlers, but if you would work honourably you would remain alive. I would shoot you today, but I need your production. Next time you will all be dead.' The policemen stood in two rows. We had to pass between them. Every policeman hit us with his truncheon or a butt of his rifle. We were severely beaten. But we returned to the tannery and we started working. The Polish supervisor had become friendlier from then on. He did not believe that we would not betray him. He told us that he did not want to take any of our money in the future. In the second slaughter he did what he could to keep us alive.
When we returned home my wife was very upset with me. How could I keep such an event secret? I explained to her that if I told her what was happening I would not be able to get up and go to, what I thought would be, a certain death.
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