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Tales of Tykocin
Holocaust Survivors


The Fight for Life

 

The Story of Kopel Percowicz (Pikervitz)

Translated by Selwyn Rose

The first days of the German conquest of Poland found me away from my home in Tykocin. Together with all my extended family we were in nearby Bialystok but when the Germans commenced to build the ghetto and force the Jews inside, we made our way back to our hometown of Tykocin.

We found Tykocin just as we left it – quiet, serene and calm just as it had always been. Life continued on without any conspicuous changes. The Jewish people generally felt well except for one negative trend that troubled them – the ferment among the Christians, especially those who had suffered hardship from the Russian occupation and caused them to seek revenge among the Jews, several of whom had filled managerial posts during the Soviet occupation.

The atmosphere in town slowly became unsettled and the Jewish population began to retreat into their homes; trade almost ceased and the sources of income diminished drastically. Some, who had taken into their homes sufficient stores of food in expectation of trouble, stayed in their homes and held out with what they had, while others were forced to turn to some other sources of income. Many wandered round the local villages seeking a day's work for a little food from Christians whom they might know.

I too, went looking for work in the nearby community of Stelmachowo and found work with Zilinski, a villager that I knew from before the war.

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One day (about three weeks before the catastrophe descended upon Tykocin), Zilinski came home from the town church and told me that there was talk in the church about the Jews. Either he didn't know exactly what was said or he didn't want to tell me what they were about to do to the Jews but he did say that if we sensed any danger I should bring my wife and children to his home. He also told me about large trenches that had been dug in the Łopuchowo forest. He said they were intended to be used as camouflaged tank emplacements but for all that I wanted to see them for myself and try to understand their intended use. Towards evening, my Christian friend led me to the forest and there, before my eyes were two immense trenches – about 10 meters long five deep and five wide – these trenches were not for tanks. My heart told me something bad was in store.

I returned to Tykocin. I told my family everything I had seen and heard and mentioned my doubts and suspicions. I insisted that we leave town immediately and seek sanctuary with one of the Christian villagers known to us. My mother didn't want to listen to my demands. She stated that we should stay where we were with all the other townsfolk saying: “Whatever happens to the community will happen also to me.” The whole family adhered to my mother's words and nothing I could say would make her change her mind. Thus we remained in town until that bitter and fast–approaching 28th August when the whole Jewish community arose early in the morning and gathered in the market square and with tired eyes and hearts full of doubts, stood with their bitter fate before them.

That same morning, after a hard, sleepless night, I arose at 5 o'clock, dressed my children in their warmest winter clothes and put a slice of bread and some lumps of sugar in each of their pockets for anything that might happen.

On my way to the market square I saw our neighbor Avraham Yitzhak the “sugar–seller” – standing next to a telephone pole, erect to his full height draped in his prayer–shawl and phylacteries reciting his “Confessional”.

In the market square I found many families already gathered standing in groups and exchanging information and considering among themselves what they should do. Most of them were busy guessing what the intention of the Germans was and what the implications were of gathering all the Jews together in the square. There were those who stated that the intention was simply a formality as part of the organization of transporting everyone to the ghetto in Bialystok while others considered that the ghetto would be created in Tykocin itself and this was in order to clear the area so that the ghetto could be prepared. No one, it seemed, considered – or wanted to consider – what, in truth awaited the Jews of Tykocin.

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From all the streets, lanes and passages entire families continued to hurry to the market square where they were swallowed up in the general crowd that was already congregating in the city square. Germans were nowhere to be seen; managing affairs were Polish clerks from the Municipality who had erected tables and benches at the edge of the square and were sorting through pages containing the names of all the Jews of Tykocin.

Suddenly there was the sound of motor–vehicles approaching. In a moment armed soldiers enclosed the entire market square. A sense of self–preservation filled my being and with some kind of instinct I jumped from my place and filtered through the crowds and under the very noses of the Germans escaped from the square. Through one of the small side–streets I arrived at “New Town” the Polish area, where I hid in the courtyard of a Christian for a few hours. Later on I left the city and finding a way through the fields made my way towards Bialystok. Near Popelnya I met Moshe and Mendel Turek both of whom had also escaped from the market square.

For several days we hid with a Christian woman villager in Sacharki. She tried to discover what had happened to my family and even went so far as to travel to Tykocin especially to find out but returned when she got as far as Tykocin to discover that the militia had closed the entire town and no one was allowed either in, or out. At midnight on the second day, I stole in by way of the windmills into the “Staruska[1] cemetery and eventually the courtyard of my house in Tykocin. Unobserved I moved from room to room examining every corner and even called some of my dear ones by name hoping that one of them was hiding – no one answered.

Mourning, depressed, heavy– and broken–hearted at the tragedy that had befallen me, I returned to my hiding place. At the first opportunity, on one of the dark rainy days, I joined a convoy of wagons of Christians transporting food to Bialystok. Thus, hiding among the wagons, lest the Christian wagoners recognize me, I got to the outskirts of Bialystok. Next to the bridge not far from Złotoria, I saw a group of Jewish men repairing the bridge. Among them I recognized a few people from Tykocin like – Yehezkiel and Kopel and Penzuch. I joined them and began to work as they were. While we were working I told them what I knew of the catastrophe and destruction in Tykocin. They advised me to join them and together with them I managed enter the walls of the ghetto.

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In the Bialystok ghetto I stayed with my sister–in–law – a “living–widow” [2] – who had no idea of her husband's fate nor that of her baby son born within the ghetto and was given the name – Ghetto… My main occupation was installing cookers. I had plenty of work because many families were living together in one apartment and each one wanted a stove of his own. Sometimes I would install four stoves, one in each corner of the room. I made my living from this work and even sustained my sister–in–law and her child for more than a year. Later on I joined the “arbeitsamt” (works department), a group of artisans who worked at building and installation activities within the walls of the ghetto.

During this period I occasionally had the opportunity to get out of the ghetto and by this means I could buy foodstuffs for my sister–in–law and another eighteen souls who remained from my extended family who were all dependent upon my income. Clearly it was impossible to sustain that many people by ordinary means. Therefore I needed to find additional sources and one of them was by bartering locally–produced brandy with the Christians guarding the ghetto, for which I would receive sacks of coal and bread which were among the most essential items during the hard winter days and nights. Also, through my status as a “connection” with Moshe – also from Tykocin – who was among the members of the Jüdenrat, I could exchange coal and potato vouchers and he would give me in return a number of vouchers for which I could get extra coal and potatoes. This “Idyll” continued until 1942 – the period of the first “Aktzia [3]”.

The first three days of the “Aktzia” I spent hiding in an attic I had prepared. I had hidden the eighteen relatives and another 2 families there as well. But on the third day, we understood that the hiding place was no longer secure and we were forced to leave. Like others who had not found a suitable hiding place, we entered Finkle's textile factory on Kupiecka Street.

Among the tens of workers who operated the machinery, were hundreds of people, women and children, hoping that the Germans would not enter the factory, while all the artisans and professionals (holders of “white cards”), were not included in the “Aktzia”. But even that location was not safe especially as the hundreds of women crowding the building could easily arouse the suspicions of the Germans. When I examined the structure of the factory I saw that under the floor were a number of empty areas. Alongside one of the massive steam–boilers I excavated an access to these areas and hundreds of women and young children found shelter from the first “Aktzia”.

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The problem was how to obtain food and water – especially for the children and babies, who were suffering from hunger most of the time, and the sound of their crying would disclose their whereabouts. Among those who found shelter beneath the factory was Mr. Avraham Yitzhak, the undertaker of the new Bialystok cemetery. He said that there was a large quantity of potatoes stored in the cellar of his home on the cemetery grounds. The question was how to transfer them from his house to our shelter when the streets were swarming with armed German and Polish guards who opened fire at anything moving.

One rainy night, three of us made our way towards the cemetery without being seen and arrived at the surrounding wall. Strewn here and there in the streets, and especially piled alongside the wall of the cemetery were dead bodies, shot by the SS, as a result of the previous “Aktzia”. I jumped over the wall and made my way through the bodies to the undertaker's house. The doorway was blocked by corpses. I pulled the bodies away from the doorway and made my way down to the cellar where I filled three sacks with potatoes but when I carried the first sack on my shoulders to the arranged meeting point at the wall to pass the sack on to my colleagues, I didn't find them there. I carried the sack on my shoulders all the way back to our shelter. There was great joy; many people restored their souls with the first food, albeit just a few frozen potatoes, that had passed their lips for several days. In spite of the fact that the mission had involved great danger it was not the only operation I had undertaken during the first “Aktzia” in the Bialystok ghetto.

The daring operation occurred a few days before the end of the “Aktzia” and only by a miracle from heaven did I survive. It was, in fact, just a normal day. The work in the factory proceeded as usual and tens of families were down in the underground shelter, lying silently and without movement. Suddenly I heard desperate shouting: “Help! Help!” I left my hiding place and saw, hanging on a wall a young Jewish man, injured and bleeding. He had thought to exit the ghetto climbing the wall but was spotted by an SS man and shot with a “dum–dum” bullet. The lad remained hanging with half his torso

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above the wall. No one dared to approach him. I sprang from my place and sprinted towards him, caught him and ran with him through twisting alleys and got him to our Jewish hospital. In the meantime, the German who had shot him arrived at the spot and began looking for the rescued injured youth. When I returned to the bloodied factory court–yard the German spotted me and with a drawn pistol in his hand began running after me through the narrow dimly–lit corridors and passages of the factory when I suddenly found myself in a dead–end and heard the footsteps of my pursuer coming closer. I flattened myself against a wall and said to myself: “Well, this is the end of it all! What can help me now?!” The German stopped a few paces from where I was standing and shone a small pocket flash–light down the darkened corridor catching part of my body in its light and called out: “Dirty Jew, come out of there!” But instead of squeezing the trigger he turned off the flash–light and walked away. It was a miracle that he was dazzled by his own flash–light and didn't kill me. To this day I don't know by what right I was still standing there.

After the “Aktzia”, life within the ghetto walls returned to normal. But all was not as it had been. The shocking disturbances and constant fear engendered by the first “Aktzia” left its mark upon me; my nerves were shredded. The despair grew upon me; the pain and horror I endured each time I recalled the fate of my wife and children who were slaughtered in Tykocin imposed upon me an ever–deepening depression – my life failed to recover its previous steadiness. For days and nights on end I wandered the streets and alleys of the ghetto without eating a morsel of bread. Slowly but surely I descended into a world dominated by drunkenness and a total dependence on alcohol and on more than one occasion it was possible to find me rolled up on a sidewalk, somewhere, as drunk as a lord.

During that period I was again force to “play the game of ‘hide and seek’” but this time with the Jüdenrat instead of the German SS; as a qualified artisan they looked for me everywhere to mobilize me with their “arbeitsamt”. For weeks on end, I hid myself away in a hiding–place I had prepared in an attic away from the eyes of the “militia” and the delegates of the Jüdenrat. One day, when I was well and truly drunk and not fully responsible for my actions, I stumbled with confidence into the Jüdenrat building. They immediately detained me together with tens of other young men who were caught for labor outside the ghetto. (These jobs were particularly dangerous especially for those sent to the village of (unknown?) because of the brutality of the Ukrainian guards towards the workers; they were known to beat them unmercifully until the blood flowed and few from those who were sent survived to return). At midnight

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when I awoke and had sobered up from the brandy, and was clear–headed enough to understand the implications, I immediately began to organize everyone and we broke down the doors of where we were being held. The escape succeeded. The following morning a general curfew was announced in the ghetto and a new hunt began for all the escapees especially for me – for in the meantime it had been discovered that I had been the organizer of the revolt and escape. Again I had to spend a long period in isolated hiding in my attic hide–away.

Most days the Jüdenrat was short of skilled workers and they turned to my sister–in–law asking her to get me to surrender and go with a group of workers to Jagatowo. On their part they were prepared to forget the business about the escape from custody and even promised to keep my sister–in–law and children adequately supplied with necessaries. I reported to the engineer Lenkowitzer and Dr. Zonenband, the heads of the Jüdenrat and they even guaranteed that they would return me to the ghetto every two weeks to be with my family. In Jagatowo we were employed in refurbishing an old hostel and making it fit for use as a convalescent home for the Germans. The work conditions were good but after two weeks I wasn't taken back to the ghetto as promised so I went to the chief engineer and told him that I would escape. Only then did he agree to let me return to the ghetto with a supply–vehicle on condition that I came back again together with the return journey of the truck the following day. Friday night I spent in the bosom of my family. The following day when the vehicle appeared accompanied by several militia–men to make sure I returned to work I ran away from the house. Suddenly I got fed up with the whole thing – with the Germans, with the work and with the Jüdenrat. Again I didn't care about anything, I only wanted to stay with my family for Shabbos and eat a little bit of the “tcholent” that I loved so much. And perhaps because of that I stayed alive – because the following morning the final “Aktzia” started. It began with the murder of all the workers at the hostel in Jagatowo. They also began the man–hunt in the ghetto. Thousands were caught and crammed into railcars and transported to extermination camps. I managed to infiltrate myself into a group of professional artisans employed by the Gestapo outside the walls of the ghetto. We were three–hundred people in the group and throughout the period of the “Aktzia” we were housed in the local high–school building. Afterwards we were transferred under heavy guard to Grodno and from there to Łomża in trucks. We were ninety men enclosed in each steel truck closed almost hermetically. It was a hot summer day and we were almost suffocated. It was a pressure–cooker in which seven of our group died and when the doors were eventually opened in the prison yard in Łomża, the bodies of the men who had fainted and died spilled out onto the ground.

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For three months we were held in the prison – three to a cell and each day we received 100 grams of bread and a little bitter black coffee which we also used to wash with in the morning. The hard winter days of 1943 brought many fatalities to us. Towards the end we had some relief and salvation in the shape of slaughtered chickens. The Germans decided to exploit us as a latent work–force and about 300 “shadows” of what had been men, barely able to walk and delivery of slaughtered chickens began to the prison. intended for export. Our job was to pluck the hens, clean them and prepare them for shipment. Twenty–five chickens a day by each man was considered a normal quota but the work was exhausting and well beyond our strength. But there was a positive side effect – during the work, when the Germans weren't looking, we would manage to extract most of the stomach and liver. The “booty” we swallowed where we stood and pulled pieces of fat torn off the flesh as a dessert. Very slowly we began to regain some strength and even began to imagine that there was a pinch of salt in it that turned it into a real feast for a king.

In January 1943 we were transferred to Gdańsk and from there by a small railway to Stutthof, on the peninsula. As the train crossed the bridge over the water many people jumped but when my turn came the train was already over the land again. At midnight we arrived at the Stutthof compound. Strong, dazzling flood–lights greeted us. The Germans stripped us and put us in a long wooden hut. The following day they started to distribute the usual concentration camp clothing. The man distributing the clothes took care to give each man the size “most suitable” to him: the tallest man received a size that was absurdly small while the shortest correspondingly large making walking very difficult. It was a recognized feature of the camp and anyone caught attempting to change with someone was severely punished.

After two months of hard labor at Stutthof camp there remained from the original group of three–hundred not more than forty men, among them me and my friend Velvil Siekerewicz also from Tykocin. The conditions in the camp were terrible but the cruelty of the Polish guards controlling our work hewing trees in the adjacent forest was ten–times worse, more than once beating a man to death. I recall once they caught an exhausted Jewish man and thrust him alive into an ignited furnace. Before burning him alive they removed his gold teeth.

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On another occasion I recall I was myself destined to be cast into the furnace; it was a winter's day and I felt my strength leaving me and that I was again unable to go report for our arduous work. I stayed in the barrack–block and feigned illness. The Pole responsible for the block gave me the only thermometer available in the block and in order to raise its temperature I began to rub it aggressively until I broke the mercury–bulb and the beads of mercury spread all over the place. When the “Blockmeister” returned and saw what I had done, he ordered everyone out of the block and even sent the block's doctor, Dr. Zonenband to work. He closed and bolted the block and he, and his deputy, responsible for our food and general order, ordered me to kneel and they commenced whipping my exposed back with thin sticks. I was forced to count the number of strokes out loud, When I reached twenty and my entire back was burning like fire and blood began to sprinkle from my back with every blow, I said to myself: “Koppel – While you are still alive do something; soon – it will be too late!”

“Let me die with the Philistines!” [4] I shouted, and with the last of my strength I sprang up grabbed hold of the chair over which I was bent and with tremendous effort smashed it down on the head of the deputy. The “Blockmeister” grabbed an iron bar and rushed towards me but I was quick enough to avoid the full force of the blow and countered with a few good blows back at him with a slat from one of the beds. The deputy fell down. With the last of my strength I stood on his neck with the wooden shoes I was wearing and I heard him gasping and snorting for air between life and death. In the meantime the deputy recovered somewhat and began beating me with all his might. Nevertheless I managed to retain my pressure on the Blockmeister's neck. Then I heard him grunting “Help, help! Let me go and I give you in exchange your life,” he whispered to me with the last gasping of his life, his eyes rolling back in their sockets. I released the pressure on his throat and with great difficulty he staggered to his feet and stretching out his hand to me said: “I give you your life!” From then on his attitude towards me changed for the better. He allowed me to remain in the barrack and even brought me extra food. During the first few days I was completely confused and for many hours remained lying down unaware of my surroundings or unconscious; the deputy fed me with a small spoon and occasionally even gave a cigarette. Every time he said to me: “I will make sure, Jew, that you remain alive.” – Only then did I realize the influence and importance of self–determination and the respect it commanded in the eyes of others. I had regained my self–respect in my own eyes.

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…And from Stutthof to…Birkenau – notorious and most infamous of all the extermination camps – near Auschwitz (Oświęcim). When we arrived at Birkenau and saw the thick smoke rising in a tall column from the smoke–stacks our hearts contracted; we felt that indeed our long wanderings had finally come to an end. Our suspicions grew when we were ordered to strip and enter the shower–room. We knew from all the rumors we had heard that the Germans camouflaged the gas–chambers and gave them the appearance of being simply shower–rooms, bathrooms or steam–baths. With the slamming and bolting of the door behind us we were a group of forty men all alone in the big shower–room. Panic erupted and grew to hysteria. No one wanted to open the taps from fear that instead of water a strangling gas would come forth. Terrified and helpless we stood in the center of the room like sheep led to the slaughter…to our infinite relief and good fortune our terror was misplaced and out of the shower–heads came water and not gas. Later we heard that our transport was not programmed for extermination. As professionals and skilled artisans, the present intention was to exploit us as far as possible in building and maintenance work. And indeed, the following morning we were transferred to the work–camp at Buna where we were employed in the various factories in the area. I met two people from Tykocin there: Mendel Surawicz and Fishl Makuzna(?)–Gass – I have no knowledge of their subsequent fate.

The conditions in the work–camp were significantly better than in the extermination camps we had experienced until now. But for all that there still hovered over us the perpetual danger of the “Selektsia” that always ended with being sent to the gas chambers and crematoria,

At the beginning of 1945 as the Russian front approached Warsaw, our entire camp, which numbered between eight– to ten–thousand souls, was transferred one night in a forced–march westwards. It is unnecessary to point out that anyone who failed to keep pace and lagged behind and “interfered” with the “good order” of the march, was shot on the spot. And indeed many were they who simply had no strength to keep up with German “ordnung” found death with a bullet to the head and were left there by the side of the road.

When we arrived at a nearby town we were allowed to camp in one of the brick–making factories. When no one was looking I climbed on to one of the half–destroyed kilns, covered myself with some bricks and waited to see what would happen next. After a few minutes the order was given to move and the officer in charge counted the number in our group and found one missing. He shouted out to the empty factory: “You had best come out of there or you will be shot”. I continued to lie still and quiet in my hiding place. The group moved out and another group came in and after that yet another one. For three days, non–stop, group followed group.

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Suddenly, on the fourth day all was quiet. The groups had stopped and neither was there any movement of vehicles on the near–by road. I came out of my hiding–place and slaked my thirst with some melted snow outside the factory and began to look for something edible to satisfy my extreme hunger. When it got dark I walked into the fields and began to dig at any small mound that I thought may be a winter–store of buried potatoes and sure enough fortune again smiled upon me and I found a nice stockpile of potatoes that I took back with me to the factory. When I got there I found I had two “companions” in there, also hiding and who had also fled from the convoys and hidden there for a few days without any one of us knowing of the other's presence.

While we were still busy preparing our “meal–fit–for–a–king” warming ourselves by the fire we had made to cook with, two German officers suddenly burst into the factory. I was struck dumb with surprise and, yet again, the Angel of Death stood tall and threateningly before me. But the Germans, trying to flee from the approaching Russians were not interested in liquidating a couple of “Yids”. They asked where the factory owner, local baron or landowner lived and we directed them to a near–by house that we knew was empty. When the Germans were a little distance off, we exploited the moment and ran away into the fields. The following morning I returned there alone. The factory was empty and the pot still stood in its place. I filled my stomach and climbed up onto the brick kiln.

The next morning I crept out of the factory but the instant I showed my head the air was split with the sound of a shot and a bullet whizzed by me missing me by a mere few millimetres and splattered against the wall next to my head. From a distance I could see two figures. They were two Soviet scouts from the spearhead of the Red Army and one of them was a Jew from Leningrad. When I told them I was a Jewish survivor from the camps they fell upon me with hugs and kisses. He told me to hide because there were still Germans in the vicinity and promised me he would return. Towards evening he came

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back this time accompanied by a tank and five other tank scouts. That night we broke into one of the near–by houses, and in the cellar found some real “treasure”: choice wine, brandy and lots of tasty items. We had a real serious meal that lasted until midnight. A few of the soldiers were as drunk as lords, others relieved themselves of their weapons and lay down to sleep half–drugged.

Towards morning one of the guards rushed into shouting in a frightened voice: “Hey, Guys! The Germans are coming and indeed from a distance we could hear the dull sound of vehicles. On the road, no further than half a kilometer from where we stood we saw a convoy of German tanks coming towards us from the west at speed. The Russian soldiers were not long recovering from their fright and surprise – with great speed they climbed aboard their tank, placed it behind the house where we were, swivelled the turret towards the leading German tank and began firing with deadly precision. The first two tanks burst into flame and blocked the road; the other tanks collided with each other. The Russians began pounding the whole file of tanks before the Germans thinking, perhaps, that they had been ambushed by at least a brigade could recover. White flags began to show and tens of Germans began to climb out of the turrets and with hands raised on their heads began to form up in soldierly style facing front. It was a sight worth seeing: tens of polished, disciplined German soldiers standing in line shaking with fear. When the five Russians approached them – unshaven, unkempt hair and in frayed untidy uniforms – the Germans could hardly believe that they had surrendered to such men.

Inside the tanks we found full crates of booty and other looted goods that the Germans had intended to take home with them. When one of the Russian soldiers offered me a fine silk article and a pair of nylons saying: “Here, take these home to your wife or sister!” I burst into tears…

When I got to Bialystok the first “welcome” was from the mouths of two Polish policemen who said: “Hey, you, Jew–boy! So for all that Hitler let a few of you get away – pity.” I immediately understood that there was no place for me in that contaminated land and so together with my brother Shmuel that I met in Tykocin we decided to immigrate to Palestine.


Translator's Footnotes:

  1. “Old” cemetery Return
  2. In Jewish law a woman whose husband's present fate and/or whereabouts is unknown Return
  3. Aktzia (action), – the roundup of Jews for degradation, expulsion, work, or execution. Return
  4. Judges XVI: 30 Return


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I Escaped from the Market Square

The Story of Yitzhak Peler, a Survivor of Tykocin's Holocaust

Translated by Selwyn Rose

Tykocin, the 23rd of August 1941 – Sunday towards evening: life in town flows along in its usual way. Everything is according to the normal day-to-day order. The bridge across the river hums with strolling couples coming and going along the town's streets. Here and there one sees a group of happy noisy children hurrying along the street to get home before dark. Suddenly one hears in the distance the muffled sound of drum-beats coming closer. In a flash everything goes silent. The noisy hustle and bustle is silenced and life suddenly stops. From round the corner appears the figure of the drummer, the town-crier, who, as is his daily custom walks the streets of the town beating his drum and calling out the Municipality's official announcements, except that this time his announcement heralded disaster and tragedy: “All Jews, young and old, must report tomorrow morning in the Market Square.”

Like a peal of thunder in a clear blue sky the fateful announcement fell upon the ears of the devastated community trying to explain the strange order. Everyone was astonished; the heads of the community wondering and confused, had no advice, and the town was in turmoil…

The following day, Monday, early in the morning, nearly the entire Jewish population congregated in the Market Square. A few members of the militia were there and a couple of policemen. Men and women up to the age of fifty stood together in ranks 5 abreast forming a long line of people stretching for about a kilometer. At precisely 7 o'clock heavily armed SS men appeared accompanied by four large trucks and a few smaller vehicles. They surrounded the mass of people, loaded their weapons and shouted: “Hurry-up!” The trucks were loaded and began to move out.

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When that convoy disappeared another 4 trucks appeared and continued loading the women and children, until there remained only women and children babes in arms and the old, sick and exhausted. While for the old and the exhausted with no strength, the Germans left alive 4 men, I among them, who were ordered us to throw the old people onto the trucks as if they were sacks of sand and stones.

Four trucks, overloaded with women, children and old men moved away. An hour later they returned empty. Again we had the shocking sight of the trucks being loaded with the women and old men. And thus the spectacle continued for yet another three trips – the trucks came, loaded up and went - four times. When I realized that we had been kept alive only to save the Germans from working hard and that when the work was done it would be our turn, I said to my companions that we have to escape. With that in mind I turned to one of the Polish police officers and asked if we could go and his answer was a heavy blow with a metal rod he was carrying in his hand. I made a few more attempts with different policemen but with the same result. Eventually I decide to escape whatever the consequences: I approached the policeman but before he could react, I gave him a shove that threw him completely off-balance and I began to run with all my strength through the twisted lanes and alleys until I got outside of the town. Once there, I hid in a large pile of hay until dark. During the darkness I crossed the river and arrived at the near-by village of Piaski. I met there a few other escapees from Tykocin – my brother, Aaron Peler and his son, Berl Brenner, Shaul-Leib Trachamofski and Haim the tailor's wife. The Christians in the village wouldn't allow us into their homes and we were forced to camp out in the fields until Wednesday. For the first two days we heard shooting and shouts coming from the direction of the £opuchowo forest, where they had taken our loved ones – May G-d avenge their blood.

From among the few survivors that I met in Piaski, I was told that my 12-year old daughter had also escaped from the market square together with my sister-in-law and found sanctuary with one of the Christian families in town. I immediately got in a boat and crossed the river back to town and began searching among the Christian families I knew but all my efforts to locate them failed. Using the opportunity I made my way back to my house but there was no sign of a soul and I broke down and cried bitterly. When I made my way back to the boat I discovered the Polish policeman, Hanyk Augustinowycz and two other “Yoks” with him who began chasing me. They caught me and dragged me to the police-station and stood me in front of an investigating German. He asked me where I had been when they took

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everyone else from town and I showed him a document from the authorities from a week previously allowing me to travel to Bialystok to take the sick daughter of our pharmacist. The German was unsympathetic and ordered me to be detained while awaiting an order for my execution. I turned to the Polish policeman and asked him the whereabouts of my two daughters who worked in the police-station and he said cynically I needn't worry about them: “They are beyond all worry.” The secretary, well known to me was also present turned to the German and requested that I be transferred to an adjacent building where a few other Jewish artisans were being held and together with them I could still be useful.

The German called me back and ordered me to be transferred to that building and registered with the “Jew-workers” (smiths, builders and carpenters), and there I met with seven Jewish men – Yoskeh Plonsky, Shaul the smithy, Jaskolka, the son of Laybl Perko and others. We fell on each other's shoulders crying from joy and relief mixed with the pain and agony and loss we had all suffered. The following day towards evening they placed us under the guard of just one man. I immediately suggested that we escape. The others agreed whole-heartedly but thought we had better do it individually or just one or two together for a better chance of success.

Just before dawn Yoskeh Plonsky and I escaped and not knowing which way to turn we wandered almost aimlessly around the villages in the area. For three weeks we hid in the fields and forests. The villagers that we knew gave us small amounts of food but were not eager to have us in their homes. During the first days of Succoth we arrived in Bialystok and stole inside the walls of the ghetto. This was before August and any of the notorious “Aktzias” took place and life for the time being continued normally. In the ghetto I found my sister-in-law together my little daughter – she had been with me up until the time of the first “Aktzia”.

On the 5th February 1942 the signal was given for the first “Aktzia”. I, and about forty other men and a woman, found a hiding place in a small area behind a false room. The Germans carried out a search but failed to discover our hiding-place. When the “Aktzia” finished my brother Aaron left the ghetto and paid a handsome sum of money to a villager he knew to hide us in his house when the next similar “Aktzia” took place in the ghetto.

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And it wasn't long in coming – on the 16th August 1943 the “Aktzia” began. My brother and I failed to get out of the ghetto in time and one fine day we found ourselves standing in a long line on Jurowiecka Street, walking towards the transport for liquidation. Suddenly there was the sound of an explosion and machine-gun fire from the direction of Smolna Street. It was a group of young Jews who were rebelling and had met the Germans head-on with a spirited defense; the houses in Smolna Street and Fabryczna Street began to go up in flames. Our column began to disperse and we spent the night in one of the near-by deserted houses.

The following morning they took us outside the walls of the ghetto to Piotrkowska Street. On the roofs of the houses stood Germans covering us with machine-guns and on every side the whole length of the wall were armed Germans. The square on Piotrkowska Street was encircled by tens of Ukrainians armed with clubs and a crusade of punishment by the Germans began – surrounded on all sides we were slowly crushed closer and closer together; the pressure increased and became choking. The Ukrainians began striking out with their clubs indiscriminately, the heat and pressure was unbearable; people began to remove articles of clothing and the women began to let go of the little ones they were holding in their arms – people were trampling on those standing next to them. For two days the Germans and their Ukrainian helpers abused us. Only at dawn on the Thursday they relaxed the pressure, but only to begin cramming us into railroad wagons – ninety souls in each; men women and children were all in separate wagons. This is where I was separated from my little girl.

As soon as the train began to move the wagon erupted into feverish activity: the people began to pull the inside of the wagon to pieces, breaking the planks of wood and trying to break down the doors. The Germans perceived what we were doing, stopped the train and methodically begin to spray the wagons with devastating machine-gun fire. Ten people in our wagon fell before the train began to move again. Again we started work and with the help a few tools we had amongst us that we had managed to hide, we broke a hole in the side of the wagon and had begun to organize ourselves to jump when the train stopped again. The Germans repeated their previous tactic of spraying the wagon with machine-guns and again we had victims. This time the Germans opened the wagons and demanded all the tools we had. Only then did they feel more secure and for the third time the train continue conveying us on our journey to death.

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In spite of the fact that we had succeeded in opening an escape hole in the side of the wagon we discovered we were unable to jump because the opposite railroad track was there and anyone trying to jump would inevitably smash their bones to pieces on the rails – all our toil had been in vain but we didn't despair. With renewed determination we fell upon the opposite wall and with the last of our strength and three hours' work managed to break a hole large enough for one man to squeeze through and jump. The first one to go was a woman dressed in man's clothing. I was next in the “queue to freedom” and I saw her fall on a log of wood and smash her body on the spot. I closed my eyes and jumped into space after her, hearing behind me the sound of the machine-gun rattling off a broken string of bullets. When the train had gone by I stood up feeling myself all over and discovering to my great surprise that I had only a few scratches. Suddenly I saw approaching me Lazar Olsztein who had also jumped from the train and after him his brother Ziskind. We fell on each other's arms kissing each other. Four others joined us and we set out together to find a suitable hiding-place. We hadn't managed to get far before we saw a group of Christians coming towards us armed with pitch-forks. We ran from them into the near-by forest. After about an hour we discovered that the forest had been surrounded by Germans and Poles. There were shouts and the sound of shooting. The Germans combed the area and found many Jews who had managed to jump from the train. We managed to hide ourselves among the trees camouflaging ourselves with branches and leaves and when darkness fell we found the courage to emerge from our hiding place but again we were spotted by three Poles who threatened to report us to the Germans. We bribed them and redeemed our lives with wrist-watches and the other small items of jewelry that we had in our possession. They left us alone and went their way but we still felt quite insecure. We separated into two groups. I and my two friends from Tykocin made our way back to our home town.

We arrived in the vicinity of Tykocin, so well-known to us, but the Christians whom we knew so well, were loathe to welcome us; they were not as they used to be and were reluctant to have us enter their homes. The most they would do – and that only rarely – was give us a little food and send us on our way. We hid at the farm of a Pole we knew, near Stelmachowo, for eight days. A Christian named Kalnyowski kept us at his farm for three weeks but wouldn't agree to more. We had no chance of finding shelter among the Christians of the area so we decided to make our way in the direction of Bialystok and look for the Christian who had been given a considerable sum of money by my brother to prepare a hiding place for the members of our family. I didn't know his name only the name of the village where he lived.

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It was dangerous to ask Christians questions so we walked in the direction of the village hoping that luck would come our way. We moved only by night and when we eventually arrived we began looking for him and after a long search found the man but he refused to allow us into his house. We insisted with him explaining we were only three adults, even falling at his feet and begging for our lives. Only after promises of awards did two Poles, Josep and Stasiak Razzbowki, agree to give us shelter.

For the first four weeks we hid among the reeds and rushes at the edge of the lake. It was already the beginning of winter and the water and weather were already cold especially at night. And we were forced to lie for hours on end in the chilly water in bare feet dressed only in the remains of our summer clothing. Then we found out that our two Christians were hiding two other Jews: Bezalel Viloga and Shmuel Peler my cousin, who had mysteriously managed to escape from the walls of the ghetto while the liquidation of the ghetto was at its height.

The incident concerning my cousin's escape sounds like a real legend but the story which is told is as nothing compared to what really happened: at the time of the “Aktzia” Shmuel was ordered to bring a group of sick and exhausted women to Piotrkowska Street, on his flat-top trailer harnessed to his horse. (That was where the Germans and their Ukrainian helpers were to carry out the “punishment action” against the Jews). When he arrived with his trailer and passengers at the exit from the ghetto the German guard asked him: “Where are you going?” and he answered: “to the place where they are taking all the Jews.” The German directed him to follow the convoy of women being conducted to Piotrkowska Street. When the horse and trailer left the walls of the ghetto behind and was out of sight of the German, Shmuel turned the horse in a different direction. Once out of the city, he stopped the horse, unharnessed it from the trailer, jumped astride it and galloped away in the direction of the Christian where his father, on the previous occasion had left money to buy protection and a safe hiding place for his family and since then he had been in hiding with his family without any of knowing of the presence of the others.

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As November and the winter approached the Poles prepared a special shelter for us close by in the forest, about two-hundred meters from their farm. It was a deep bunker dug in the ground and well-camouflaged with a large mound of soil. The first day there we felt stifled and all of us thought that here was a real grave ready-made for us. Fortunately evening and darkness came and we were able to make a small opening in the roof of the bunker so that some fresh air could filter through into our grave-like shelter. There we stayed for ten continuous months.

In the summer, a few months before the liberation, Polish partisans appeared in the surrounding area and around Tykocin, many of them members of the Kraków Army, not known for their love of the Jewish people. These partisans would actually visit the Poles who were hiding us and on occasion stay overnight or change shift with the other guards. Those nights were a real nightmare for us.

One morning, about a month before the liberation, the farmers appeared and told us we had to leave. They took us to a near-by forest and there, among the trees they had built for us a temporary refuge. We were there for two days when we suddenly heard footsteps approaching. Two Polish partisans appeared from the Kraków Army and with them a neighboring Christian. They asked us what we were doing there and how long we had been there and when we replied just two days they relaxed and promised us no harm but that we should stay there and not move. They said they were going but would return soon with a couple of women. The moment they went, we ran from the place and found another hiding-place in the same forest but the partisans found us and took us back to where we had been where we found two young Soviet women. We all stayed there together in the hiding-place and the women assured us there was nothing to fear because whoever came near the place wouldn't leave alive. With that, they took out two pistols and indicated a few hand-grenades. We later learned that they were two Soviet parachutists who had been dropped behind enemy lines. They had a small transmitter and kept contact with the approaching Red Army. From them, we able to keep up to date and informed on what was happening on the eastern front. One of the women was a Jewess and when we told her that we, too, were Jewish she showed great pleasure and thereafter made sure we lacked nothing.

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One of the Polish partisans was very anti-Semitic and we were always worried that he may be conspiring against us. He even threatened the Christians who had harboured us faithfully that the day would come when he would “settle accounts” with them but fortunately for us the two women always supported us and they even warned the anti-Semite unequivocally what would happen to him if any harm came to us.

One day, a platoon of Soviet soldiers appeared in the forest and together with the two women parachutists made their way westwards. It was a signal that we could leave our bunker freely. We were among the first to enter Bialystok after the Germans had left. We found only a very few Jews: Abba Brenner, Ya'acov Rozen and his wife, the two brothers Okun and Friedman and his wife all of whom had hidden in a bunker.

The joy of freedom was not complete; it was deeply marred by the sorrow of the destruction and the terrible holocaust that had been visited upon us.


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With the Russian Partisans

The Story of Eliezer Choroszucha

Translated by Selwyn Rose

On the 22nd June at precisely four o'clock, Kiev was bombed and we knew that war had broken out.

 

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And indeed, exactly as it is related in the well–known popular Russian folk–song of the period so did it happen: One fine day without warning, aircraft of the Luftwaffe penetrated western Russian airspace and with German precision began bombing the central Russian towns and villages. The massive Hitlerite army began their “goose–stepping march to further conquests – eastwards. The war had started.

Tykocin, occupying an area in the vicinity of the Russo–German border found itself facing another invasion. Indeed, June 21st 1941, was the day war broke out, the Russian army began a hurried, panic–stricken retreat. The few Russian soldiers still in Tykocin abandoned their posts and retreated eastwards towards Russia, their homeland.

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Many Jewish youngsters from Tykocin, who, at the time of the Russian conquest were occupying key–positions with the Soviet authorities, some at the head of the town's municipality, were forced to abandon their jobs and their home–town and move eastwards. Basically they were concerned with the fear that the Christians would seek revenge for what they saw as the deprivation and discrimination they received at the hands of the Soviets and their Jewish helpers and with the retreat of the Russians they began, indeed, to avenge themselves on Jewish property. Among the escapers I knew of Shalom Rosenberg, Dov Rumianek, Eliezer Paritz and others.

When I got to Bialystok, I found the place in a state of chaos, confusion reigned everywhere. The town was in the hands of shady characters from among the Polish population that enjoyed the “inter–regnum” created by the retreating Russians with the Germans not yet present and in control. Nevertheless, here and there on the streets the last of the Russian soldiers were still to be seen but they were unable to exercise control and the Poles began to harry them and prepare the ground for the coming of the Germans. The Jewish population feared to be seen on the streets – their blood was cheap.

During the first few weeks of the threatening Nazi regime I hid in my Uncle Shlomo Silberstein's house. When they began to gather all the Jews into the Bialystok ghetto I escaped the town and made my way towards the near–by town of Horodok (Gródek). Horodok had not yet experienced the bitter taste of the Nazi regime; the Jewish population still walked the streets of the small town freely and the Byelorussian population had not yet commenced to persecute them, as had their Polish brothers, and apart from the yellow badge that distinguished the Jews and made it hard for them to get work and a general freedom of movement during curfews, the Jews of Horodok felt little discomfort under the yoke of the Nazi authorities. For more than a year I remained in Horodok. The whole time I worked in my profession as a tailor for a Jewish woman whose husband had been mobilized and sent to the front whence he never returned. I managed the business for her until November 1942. The woman, who was a member of the Jüdenrat in the town, cared for all my needs and even acquired a resident's permit so that I could stay in town and continue working without fear of being expelled. In Horodok I met Elka–Haya Zolty, from Tykocin, who had managed to escape from the Market Square the day the Jewish community was liquidated.

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In November 1942 the Jews of Horodok, who numbered about 2,000 souls, felt that things were changing. Strange rumors about the urgent demand to local farmers for 600 horses and carts began to circulate around town. From one to the other, shocking stories were told of the liquidation of entire communities of Jews. The Jews, anxiously concerned for their fate, began to ponder on what evil malignancy the Germans were planning for them. Before any fateful decision the members of the Jüdenrat gathered in my employer's home and debated what steps should be taken. At that meeting I heard for the first time about the demand for the horses and carts. My decision was final and uncompromising: I was determined to escape from there – and as soon as possible. I even advised my employer to leave Horodok, but she put all her trust and faith in the head of the Gendarmerie [1] who had said to her: “You have nothing to fear. For as long as I am in charge here nothing will happen to the Jews – and about the horses and carts, they are intended to convey fodder to the German army camp in the vicinity of Bialystok.” And, indeed the explanation of the pretender was accepted by many of the Horodok Jews who remained in their hometown awaiting their bitter fate.

With twilight one rainy autumn night, I left the house with a “bite or two of food, for a snack” and made my way to the near–by forest. Alone, the only one to leave town, I wandered around the forest all night long. Towards morning, I heard shooting from the direction of the town. Around mid–day, I walked out of the forest to the adjacent roadway and asked a Byelorussian passer–by what the shooting was all about and what had happened to the Jewish community of Horodok. He told me to get away from the area as quickly as possible because they were loading all the Jew onto carts and hauling them away to an unknown destination and about seventeen individuals, who had resisted – among them Elka–Haya Zolty and her husband, residents of Tykocin, were shot dead on the spot. Another day passed with me wandering around the forest doing nothing until I decided to return to Bialystok and join my uncle and grandmother who were in the ghetto. I knew it was no easy matter sneaking into the ghetto but with no alternative I decided to try my luck.

After a long walk through the forest's bushes and shrubs I arrived at the approach to Bialystok towards evening. Here I had to cross the bridge (Królowy Most) guarded by a German outpost. While I was still lying by the roadside, wondering and uncertain what to do, a heavy truck stopped by me and the driver, who seemed to me at the time an angel from heaven, invited me to join him in the cabin. While we moved on I learned he was a Russian prisoner working for the Germans. He guessed I was a Jew and said: “I know if they catch us they'll shoot both of us on the spot. Nevertheless, stay with me as my driver's mate; just keep your mouth shut and don't say a word to anyone until we get to Bialystok.” While he was

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talking, he smeared oil and grime all over my face and turned me into a real “second driver”. In front of the gate he stopped the truck and parted from me in a friendly way. I found myself a hiding place close by and waited for the return of the Jewish outside working party when I would try to infiltrate myself into their group and into the ghetto. But I hoped in vain. During those very days, the days of the liquidation of the Jews in the Bialystok County, outside working parties ceased and the ghetto was securely closed.

When it got dark I began to look for an alternative way to sneak into the ghetto. I thought of sneaking in by way of a small side–alley close to Fabryczna Street but while I was still walking towards the alley two German soldiers suddenly appeared in front of me. They asked me what I was doing there and I answered in Polish that I was returning home and pointed to a nearby house, not knowing that it was the Police station. “Then, go, they answered ironically. I had not taken more than ten paces when I heard the “snick–snack” of a rifle–bolt being drawn. With every last bit of strength I could summon, I began running down the alley in a zigzag. Suddenly I was brought to a dead stop by a high stone wall with a couple of layers of barbed wire on top in front of me. Behind me I heard the footsteps of my pursuers who would certainly catch me this time; there was absolutely no way out of the trap I found myself in. With slow deliberate steps and a devilish ironic smile of a sure prey they came near and one said: “Well? Why don't you keep running?” – those were the last words I heard before his rifle butt came crashing down on my head…when I regained consciousness I found myself spread–eagled on the road covered in blood with a number of German officers looking down at me amazed at my injuries. Then I heard one of the soldiers ask: “Shall we put a bullet in his head, now? What do you think?” … Another German officer who was there prevented him from having the “pleasure” and said they had clear orders to bring all Jews caught outside the walls of the ghetto to the chief investigating officer.

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In the Police station in Sienkiewicza Street they stood me facing the wall and ordered me not to move an inch. And thus, for several hours I was forced to stand immobile. When eventually the investigating officer arrived and heard the report he reprimanded the soldiers for not shooting better and bringing him a “stinking Jew”, filthy and repulsive with blood and dirt. He ordered me sent to the ghetto. The “gesture” stunned me completely and I thank my Creator for the great miracle of life that He had given me. That same period it was in the interests of the Germans to imprison as many Jews as possible within the confines of the ghetto – especially the remnants of communities already destroyed. That, too, goes to explain the “generous” behavior of the German officer.

I was received with open arms within my own family and remained with them – my uncle, grandmother and cousins until April 1943. As a professional worker, employed full–time in a factory, the first “Aktzia” of February 1943 passed over me, leaving me unharmed but ensnaring more than twelve–thousand Jewish souls and transporting them to extermination camps. But it made a strong impression on me and from that moment all my efforts were directed towards finding a way out of the damned ghetto which, sooner or later, was doomed to total liquidation.

I heard rumors about an underground movement that was operating in the ghetto, acting under difficult conditions under the very noses of the Germans. The conditions were so dangerous that one could only be accepted as a member on a veteran's recommendation. A friend of mine from Tykocin, Dov Rumianek recommended me and I joined one of the cells of the underground that met in Zytnia Street 8. There were about 15 members of the cell and our main worry was how to get hold of weapons and ammunition. We also went through initial training in the operation of small arms and the use of hand–grenades in a cellar in Jurowiecka Street. I belonged to the “Yudita” faction, named for the girl who was the leader of the group. She had succeeded in forming an independent contact with Russian Partisans operating in the local forests. In contrast to the central underground organization that only operated within the ghetto itself, “Yudita” diligently pursued the forming of independent contacts with other Partisans in the area and even sneaked many of its members outside the walls of the ghetto.

There was not a peaceful relationship between the underground organizations. More than that, they accused each other of undertaking irresponsible operations; there was much tension and conditions of secrecy between them. Nevertheless, a few days before our destined escape, I revealed my secret to my uncle in spite of the fact that I knew he was a fervent member of the “Bund” and as such considered by the underground in general as opposed to all their activities and he even pleaded with me to break all contact with the “Yudita”. He was also doubtful if the escape plan would be successful, believing it to be impracticable – and would fail. But when he saw I was determined and had no intention of leaving my cell, he gave me his blessing and we parted in peace.

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On 28th April at four in the afternoon, my “contact” appeared at my house and told me to present myself at the home of Dr. Datner (today the chief prosecution witness at the trial of the Nazi murderer Erich Koch). In order not to arouse suspicions I sent my small back–pack to the meeting–place of the escapers with a young underground operative. With a heavy heart I separated from my family members knowing that a daring operation was ahead of me.

I found about ten members waiting in Dr. Datner's house, ready to go. Mrs. Datner filled our canteens with tea and cheered us up. At ten o'clock we left the house and arrived at Smolna Street. T\here we were armed with rifles and a number of hand–grenades. We also exchanged our boots for sneakers which were lighter, comfortable and it was easier to scale walls with them. A few minutes later a young Jewish guy appeared and introduced himself as “Haim”. He was responsible for our escape and safe arrival at the Partisan unit to which we were seconded. The escape plan itself was simple but at the same time, very daring. We were to scale the wall which was guarded on the other side by two patrolling German guards walking a fixed stretch of the wall. At 11 o'clock we approached the section of the wall and two of our men began to pace the stretch in parallel with the sound of the Germans patrolling on the other side. We placed a ladder up against the wall and by watching our two colleagues we could see when the Germans on the other side were at their maximum distance from us. At that point, one by one, we scaled the wall. Immediately on the other side we found a hiding place and waited until we were all safely over. Under Haim's guidance, we walking in single file through the alleys on the Polish side of Bialystok we arrived at the railroad tracks and from there to a near–by copse of trees. We spent the day hiding there and when darkness fell, penetrated deeply into the forest. After an energetic hike of several kilometers we spotted a signal from a small flashlight – it was the longed–for lights of freedom for which we had hoped.

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The Partisans were overjoyed to see us and welcomed us with open arms, happy for the reinforcement of Jewish fighters and brothers in arms in overcoming the German invader. Already that same evening, we were sworn–in with the traditional Partisans' oath as rite of passage; in the presence of the company commander and officers, standing upright at attention, on the edge of a swamp in a deserted forest clearing with our right hand upraised, we swore our oath: “To fight to the last drop of our blood, for the liberty of our homeland and the defeat of the Nazi invader.”

The platoon I was sent to numbered nearly 60 men, 40 Russians and about 20 Jews, all of them survivors from the Bialystok ghetto, with Dr Datner at their head as immediate commander. The Company commander was a battle–experienced Russian Partisan with the rank of Major. There was also a company Commissar of higher rank attached to us who had been head of the N.K.V.D., for the whole of Lithuania and was now acting as Political Commissar; encouraging the fighters, explaining the operation ahead before every action, releasing “orders of the day” from the Company head–quarters and reading out Stalin's published “Order of the Day” to the Partisan fighters. And, in truth, it is he to who must be attributed the high fighting spirit and morale of the entire Company known by the nickname the “Kastushia Kalinowski Brigade”, a Russian colonel who was parachuted behind enemy lines and organized the Company [2] operating in the entire area. Our platoon, which was associated with the Kastushia Kalinowski Company, was named “Otryad Philippov – 26th year of the October Revolution” and operated in the Bialystok region.

Unlike the Polish Partisan groups who were known for their hatred of the Jews, we enjoyed the support and respect both from our commanders and fellow brothers–in–arms. The Russian Partisans were noticeably friendly and good–hearted and this national trait governed everything. Although our group maintained a certain independence we were involved in the life of the entire Company and even acquired from them Russian nicknames. On the night of our swearing–in, I used my name Eliezer but the officers immediately renamed me with the nickname “Lazar Kaganowich” and thus I was throughout all the years I was in the Partisans

Our “baptism of fire” came very shortly after a relatively quiet period. Apart from local actions among the Polish population intended mainly as punishment against collaborators and to collect provisions, the platoon was almost entirely inactive. The time and conditions were not suitable for broadly–based actions, mostly because of the large concentration of German forces in the area at that particular time and also because of the hostile attitude that arose of the Polish population, collaborating with the Nazis, following their successive victories. But suddenly, one bright noon–time, we were fired upon by machine–guns and sub–machine guns in a deadly rain of fire. Without returning fire we retreated to within the swamp, knowing well the various safe pathways. The Germans chased us as far as the edges of the marshland but were afraid to continue further.

After that surprise attack, we were split up and dispersed all over the area and quite a few days passed until we could reorganize ourselves into our platoons and companies. But this time without knowing why, we found ourselves suddenly isolated and cut–off from the Russian Company of Partisans. We were a platoon of Jewish Partisans numbering a few tens, most of us survivors from the Bialystok ghetto. Dr. Datner was automatically chosen as our commander in spite of his inadequate knowledge and training in the military. And thus we remained for some considerable time, alone, without sufficient arms, ammunition and no sources of food and other supplies. Clearly under those conditions there was no possibility of any active engagement. Furthermore, as a group of Jewish Partisans we were in added danger, being the potential target of the hostile Polish nationalist groups. Our main role was to keep ourselves out of danger and stay alive.

There was another group of Jewish Partisans roaming the forest, but we had no contact with them. More than that – we were careful not to meet any group of strangers for fear that they would attack us and steal the weapons that we needed desperately to defend ourselves with. Rifles in the forest were the most important item we had and a Partisan without a rifle could be considered dead – as simple as that.

We made our camp on the banks of a small stream running through the shrubs of the forest. Camouflaged by the reeds and branches of the trees we fashioned for ourselves a lean–to and therein we spent our days. At night we raided the local small villages and got some supplies of food that we needed to sustain ourselves from the people, willingly but mostly under the threat of drawn and cocked weapons. And then, one morning, while we were still sprawled in our lean–to, suddenly one of our comrades who had gone outside to shave cried:

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“Comrades! Germans! Hand–grenades!” We sprang outside and a second later a couple of grenades landed in the lean–to but only threw up a mound of earth. We fled all over the place and dove into the thick bushes. A fusillade of machine–gun fire sprayed the whole area but by a miracle the fire was not very good and only one of us was hurt and later died from loss of blood. From all appearances it would seem that the villagers had followed our tracks to our hiding place and informed the Germans.

After more aimless, non–ending wandering about without any purpose or planned activity, we eventually found our mother–company of Russian Partisans. At first only our contact came and informed us of essential information on what was happening in the area but as time went by, the reestablishment strengthened and slowly we began to receive supplies and instructions. Later still we had a new well–trained commander in the figure of a young Jewish man named “Haim” whose acts of heroism became legendary among all the entire Partisan Command. At this time contact was also renewed with the Bialystok ghetto and from time to time a few survivors from the ghetto, now in its final stages of liquidation, who had managed to escape from there, came to join us.

One night I woke up to the thunderous noise of explosions. When we went out from the tent and looked around we could see that the sky over in the direction of Bialystok was red. We knew that the end had come to the Bialystok ghetto. Many from among the survivors made their way to the forest. The forest crawled with tens of individual and disorganized Partisans. The demand for armaments grew and when it became impossible to obtain them from the Germans or other sources, they began attacking other Partisans and steal their guns. The theft of guns was almost “normal” and an accepted way of life and we, too, almost fell victims to a similar event: on one of my regular patrols in the forest I met four unarmed Jewish guys. They told me they were members of a large group of tens of Partisans, from Jasionówka (Yashinovka) and said they wanted to join us. We made a date for a meeting three days hence in a near–by forest clearing. The day before the meeting we raided one of the villages and towards morning made our way in the direction of the clearing a little drunk.

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On the way, we joked around making up “fantasies”, shooting at everything that moved – and that, perhaps, is what saved us. The men from Jasionówka, who were waiting in ambush for us, planning to relieve us of our weapons, got scared and ran.

A new chapter was opened in our lives as Partisans: Russian officers and soldiers parachuted in behind enemy lines and took into their hands the organization of the Partisan companies. Slowly, step–by–step, all the splintered groups and individual groups were gathered together and incorporated into a solid fighting body by the Russian army. Our Company merged with a larger Jewish group of Partisans. Our Commander was a young Bialystok, well–trained and competent and was now known as “Sash'ka”, a Partisan to the very core of his body and a wonderful Commander. Under his command and in cooperation with other companies we began to undertake operations of substance. In the beginning we led punitive raids against villagers in the area and punish them for collaboration with the enemy. It was a period full of activity and events. But we knew we couldn't avoid a serious battle with the regular German forces; our increased activity was not to their liking and they began to track us down. On one cold September day we found ourselves surrounded by a superior German force. It was a bitter fight with no chance of retreat. We repelled the Germans' attacks with bayonets and daggers. Sash'ka, the commander, went after the Germans armed only with a knife and played havoc with them but was eventually wounded. Eighteen of our comrades fell in that terrible fight. But the Germans also paid a high price: tens of corpses littered the battle–scene. The Polish shepherd from Supraśl (Soprashl) who was a tracker for the Germans and led them to us, was hacked to pieces by our men.

As Number Two in a machine–gun team, I was lying down behind a very slight rise in the ground, slightly protected from fire coming in from in front, when all of a sudden I heard behind me: “Hands up!” Without hesitation, I leapt into a bush close–by and from there sprayed bullets in the surrounding area. Bullets were whistling over my head. We organized our encompassing defences on a near–by rise and the Germans retreated leaving behind dozens of dead and wounded. Once again our area became insecure but before we moved to another place we paid a visit to Supraśl and executed all the members of the family of the Polish informer. The public punishment served as a clear lesson to all the villagers who were

[Page 503]

now in perpetual fear of similar reprisals from our Company who they now called “Tempest” because of our sudden violent reprisal attacks.

After the hard and heavy winter that impeded our operations we recovered ourselves and this time we were well–armed. The Russian parachutists carried out attacks on German military bases while we scouted the territory ahead of them, secured the area and covered their flanks. At that time I had the chance to take part in one the biggest attacks. One evening the Major appeared and asked: “Boys! Who wants to come and give the Germans a real beating?” I was among the many that put up their hands to volunteer. After a stiff run of about 3 kilometers, we got to the top of a ridge that overlooked the main highway. We established our position along the crest of the hill and waited in great expectation. After a few minutes we saw a complete Company of German soldiers marching towards us, eight abreast. When they came within range of our rifles, we opened up on them with a withering fire. It was a real “turkey–shoot”. Not one infantry–man remained alive of a Company which numbered about 300 men. From then the entire Bialystok region remained under our entire control. The Germans were afraid to enter the forests. Only heavily armed convoys moved along the roads and even they expected attacks, sometimes in broad daylight. Railroads were sabotaged and entire supply trains derailed. Our control was complete; the Polish villagers were scared of us didn't dare to provoke us again.

On one of our forays to the surrounding villages, it came to our knowledge that in the village of Krynki (Krinek), the priest was hiding two machine–guns in his house, belonging to the A.K. the right–wing extremist Partisan group, “Armia Krajowa[3]. The guns were very much needed by us and we didn't hesitate too much before paying a “friendly call” on him. Only after much “persuasion” by our much–admired Commander, Philippov, when the barrel of his pistol was pressed against the priest's temple proved a convincing argument, did the priest agree to show us the cache of arms.

After that operation of “acquisition” we were now a fully–operational platoon armed with the finest of weapons and as such could join any other group of Partisans operating in the area who would be happy with the opportunity of getting additional reinforcements of considerable strength such as ours. And, indeed, not long after, Philippov made contact with a

[Page 504]

brigade of Russian Partisans named “Chapiavchi”(?). After a short while we joined them but maintained for all that an internal autonomy answerable only to our admired Commander, Philippov.

One day, while we were on a scouting patrol in the forest, we were caught in an ambush. Philippov was quick to react – he commanded us to hit the ground and find cover. As number 2 machine–gunner I was responsible for setting up the machine–gun. We were alert and prepared for battle. But in spite of sensing within ourselves the hostile environment, for some reason there was no fire directed at us. A few more nerve–stretching moments passed by without us knowing who was observing us from among the tangle of bushes and what they were up to. Eventually, a shout pierced the air: “Identify yourselves!” We replied we were a platoon of Partisans but by all appearances this didn't satisfy them and they demanded that one of us disarm himself and step out where he could be seen clearly; he would not be shot. Philippov laid down his rifle and stepped out from his hiding place and walked towards the source of the voices with confident strides and at the same time a few men, dressed in torn and ragged clothes and unkempt hair, stepped out to meet him. They were Jewish men, the remains of the renowned Moshikov Platoon that, under the leadership of Szymak “the Warrior”, a brave and daring Jew, had been very active in the Warsaw region. We discovered later that the platoon had been caught by Polish Partisans of the A.K. whose hatred of the Jews was greater than their hatred of the Germans, and by subterfuge managed to deprive the group of their armaments and then barbarically slew most of the company. Their famous Commander, Szymak was also among the fallen. Only 13 of them managed to flee from the scene of the horrendous slaughter. These three, whose bitter experience taught them to trust no one – even a fellow partisan, saw us as enemies. Philippov tried to explain to them that we were a platoon of Russian Partisans and among our ranks there were many Jews but all his attempts were in vain, their suspicions remained. When he saw the way things were going, he called me: “Lazar Kaganowich, come here.” A few sentences in Yiddish were enough to convince them that we were not A.K. and so I managed to convince their leader, Menahem “Hasayar” to join us and his men followed him.

At the end of 1944 we heard on the radio that the front was moving closer to our area. We were concerned that we might be squeezed between the two fighting forces, but two days before the decisive battle that erupted in the area, the Commander from the Russian army headquarters arrived and advised us of the location of the Red Army concentration and left a number of orders for us to take action. Our task was to kill as many of the retreating Germans and hinder any attempts they might make to organize a counter–attack.

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Early in the morning on 30th July, we set up an ambush at the entrance to a small village that, according to the information given to us, held the German Headquarters and inside they had a number of Russian prisoners from a surveillance platoon. We made a surprise attack, liquidated the Command post and freed the prisoners. After a few hours, while we were still in the village there suddenly appeared as if out of the ground, a number of Russian soldiers. They were really children – just sixteen or seventeen years old, who were serving as a Pioneer Corps in the attacking Red Army.

At the beginning of August 1944, I was released from serving with the Partisans. My first destination was Tykocin. The Polish town was still standing, virtually untouched by the war. In comparison, the Jewish quarter had been reduced to rubble down to its foundations. Of the Study House and the “Chevra Mishnayot” [4] not a trace remained. The sole surviving building was the “shul” (synagogue), now being used as a stable for horses. It was still possible to discern on the walls, the remains of prayers, used as a decorative addition. For about a week, I wandered around the town without seeing a single Jew.

I had one – and only one – aim: revenge. And indeed, this I had the opportunity to do with the help of the Red Army, taking revenge on a few Christians that I knew had collaborated with the Nazis. As one who had been responsible to the Investigation Department at the County Soviet Police Headquarters, which was established immediately after the war, I sent many Polish collaborators to exile in Siberia. But with all that in my heart I remained dissatisfied. In April, while the war was still going on, I became determined to immigrate to Palestine. After much wandering about in various countries in Europe, both east and west – I came into contact with delegates of the Jewish Brigade and within the framework of Aliyah ‘B’ [5] I arrived in Palestine in December 1945.


Translator's Footnotes:

  1. German civil police Return
  2. An extensive search failed to reveal any reference to the given name Kastushia in any form for WW2 but during the 19th Century there was a noted Polish/Russian revolutionary named Konstantin Kalinowski, who was executed in 1864. A follow–up search of associated topics also produced no reference to this specific WWII partisan brigade with that name. Return
  3. The Polish Home Army, eventually the largest Polish Partisan movement of WW2. Return
  4. An advanced Talmudic study college. Return
  5. The clandestine organization for smuggling Jews into Palestine towards the end of the British Mandate. Return

 

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