We Run Away to Freedom in the Woods
Like a column of fire there now stood before our eyes, in those spring days, our goal-to run away from the camp, head for the woods, the sooner the better! But it was not so easy to carry out our resolve.
Throughout the winter I had worked in the camp at my old ghetto calling: carpentry. I had built one large and two small sheltered outhouses, laid down flooring and devised a kind of berth for sleeping in the tents, and set up furniture and various conveniences in the hospital tents. I had made shelving for the kitchen tent and the food tents, crafted handles for hatchets, spades, and shovels, and fashioned tables with benches for the Germans. After showing such versatility, I became the right hand man of a German master carpenter in charge of building barracks.
Carpentry gave me many opportunities to work under a roof, protected from the cold, snow, and wet. Equally important, it enabled me to keep my genuine leather homemade shoes from completely falling apart. By contrast, my friend Bobrov, who had wooden hands and was not suited to the delicate work of carpentry, suffered greatly, having to do the hardest jobs outside in the woods, swamps, and roads. After a long negotiation, I finally work:ed out a deal with my German master (Eric we called him-a simple, honest, fearful workman, about fifty years old, who quietly cursed Nazism but trembled before every insignificant S.S. man or overseer). Under my supervision, Bobrov and a few other acquaintances from our ghetto years were allowed to become carpenters and barrack builders.
As Bobrov and I hammered nails, we had more opportunities to be alone and think through our plans to run away. We also got together with another prisoner-turned- carpenter named Gershon Yakobson, a big, burly man with a huge, shiny bald pate.Yakobson was quiet and refined, but his soul was embittered. Like Bobrov and I, he had lost his whole family, and he was also in the same age bracket as we were, the late thirties.
The specific and great advantage we saw in Gershon Yakobson was that he was actually from the area where we now found ourselves. Born in nearby Vindav, he had most recently lived in Riga and owned a lumber business. He had also spent a dozen years in the village of Ugale, which was not very far from our camp. There he had been the manager of a large saw mill belonging to the lumber company Phoenix. Gershon Yakobson was as familiar with the forests, highways, and byways of the region as he was with his own five fingers, and he was very well liked by the farmers of the area, as well as by his former salesmen, wagon drivers, and suppliers of wood products. He was
exactly the partner we would have wished for.
Besides Gershon Yakobson there was a cousin of his in the camp, Laib Yakobson, from Riga, and a friend, Benjamin Vospy, a butcher from Kreitzburg (Krustpils). Both were husky, simple young men of our people, about 25 to 28 years old. Together we formed a conspiratorial group of five, determined to take off into the forests at the mercy of God.
Of what did our worries and preparations consist?
One could say of nothing at all, and-of a great deal. The main problem was to get decent and proper coats and pants, even if they were rags. How could we take even one step in our brightly striped concentration camp clothing, which would give us away immediately? On the other hand, how could we get other clothes when we were always surrounded by enemies, watchdogs, and snoopers? Clever indeed was the Germans' idea of dressing us in such bright colors-that was often the greatest obstacle to running away.
But the five of us were already in such a psychological state that no obstacle could make us hold back. In a variety of ingenious ways, and with the greatest possible foresight, we were able to organize from farmers and from my German master carpenter a few old civilian coats and pants. And at this point I must remind the reader of that woman I knew from Kovno who had given me her six hundred marks to take care of. The two hundred marks that I kept as a reward were here and now like a gift fallen from the sky: For that sum of money my master, Eric, provided me with two or three coats and three pairs of pants, probably dragged out of a garbage can somewhere, and...he never said a word about it. Did that simple, obedient Yecke (German) understand why I needed such clothing rags, or did it never occur to him that Jews might dare to do something that is not permitted by orders of the high command?
Almost as hard as obtaining the clothes was the task of getting them out of the camp grounds and hiding them in a handy place where no one would be likely, God forbid, to stumble upon them. On that issue my master Eric again became useful to me, this time in a more indirect manner.
The strategy that Bobrov and I came up with worked in the best possible fashion. We each put on extra pants and coats under our prison garments, and in the middle of our workday, we pointed out to Eric that we were short a few thin blocks of wood needed to complete the foundation of a barrack. He did not dare allow one of us to leave the camp grounds alone, because any inmate who went one hundred meters from camp alone got shot, so he allowed himself to be talked into taking us to the place in the woods where we could cut the blocks. On the way, at a certain pre-selected spot, we both said that we needed to step outside-that is, relieve ourselves in private. One of us remained alone with Eric, making it a point to ask him about his family back in Bavaria, about his wife and children, his cow and garden, and his abandoned carpentry shop. (Damnation, his worktables stood empty and no one was working there!) Meanwhile, the other one of us-the one who was stepping
outside-would set to work. In the process ofletting down his pants and then pulling them up again, he would throw off the extra garments and hide them under a specific tree stump where the rain would not get to them. We went a few times with Eric into the woods, under various earnest pretexts, and gradually transferred to the chosen spot our entire reserve of precious clothing.
During this same period we also saved food during meals, and secretly prepared pieces of zwieback to take with us. Of course, we could not prepare a great deal of that bread, and if we did, we would certainly not have been able to get it out of the camp without being noticed. But the question of food did not trouble us very much. We would manage somehow.
Even so, we still had to endure many days and various bitter experiences in camp before we found the opportunity to take off to the woods.
I Go to Work in the Staff Headquarters
With spring came a sudden change in my work assignment. The senior German officers who directed the camp's construction projects had decided that they wanted gardens so that they could grow early varieties of green vegetables. The S.S. staff in the neighboring courtyard had already staked out huge plots of land in which Jews would be obliged to labor and produce a dozen kinds of greens for the aristocratic officers. After the collapse of a few newly . minted camp gardeners (who were probably gardeners only in the same very limited sense that I myself was a carpenter), Scheinberger had been ordered to find the best educated professional he had, someone who could establish and lead a large gardening enterprise.
Knowing that I am a trained agronomist and also have knowledge of gardening, the Germans designated me to lead the work of greens gardening at the staff headquarters. Oh how little taste I had for that assignment! Thoroughly accustomed to building barracks, I didn't have even the slightest inclination to become a gardener for the Germans. I did not want to go and produce green vegetables for them to eat, and in addition I reflected that my new work assignment could complicate our plans to run away. But no matter. They had designated me to work in the staff headquarters and I had to do it. I cursed them, those Germans with their gardens, and I wished that they would not live to eat those greens. (And I got my wish: They never did live to eat anything from the gardens that we, the slaves, had cultivated for them.)
It turned out that my work at headquarters was useful, though-not only for me, but also for many of my fellow slaves. After Levin had been forced to leave headquarters, I was able to carry on some of the practices he had started. However, I did not do even one tenth of what he had done-because I didn't have his spirit, his will, or his courage. The one thing that I did do consistently was to bring newspapers, information about the battlefronts, and news about the international situation into camp. Only rarely did I smuggle in leftover food.
The people who probably benefited the most from my employment at headquarters were my comrade Bobrov and a few dozen other Jewish smokers.
Bobrov was a terribly passionate smoker, and for a piece of cigarette or a sniff of tobacco he was fully capable of selling his mother and father. Trading a half of his poor portion of bread for some tobacco was nothing new for him. When I reproached him for such foolishness, he had only one answer: Smoking is as important for me as bread, and sometimes maybe more important. So I have to combine not eating all I want with not smoking all I want. I, the weaker smoker-or more honestly, the non-smoker-would disapprove, but gradually I came to see how desperate smokers can become when they lack anything to smoke. May we never be tested on what we can become accustomed to. Smelly, befouled, filthy cigarette butts and tobacco droppings from other people's mouths, picked up from the ground or from gutterssmokers in the camps used to pursue these things as though they were precious stones.
And suddenly Bobrov was overwhelmed with this kind of wealth. Every evening I brought him, from staff headquarters, pockets full of cigarette butts, tobacco, unsmoked cigarette halves, and even whole cigarettes in unopened packages. Smoke, brother, the forbidden German tobacco, and give some to your fellow smokers! I would think. Smoke as much as your heart desires, and get a bit of pleasure from concentration camp life!
My garden chief, the raking crew leader Kellert, was the key to my success in securing tobacco. May he forgive me for having fooled him (if his Nazi or half-Nazi soul is still wandering around anywhere in our world), but I told him I was a great incurable smoker, and so he used to collect for me, from the tables and ashtrays, tobacco and whole packages of cigarette-butts (kips in the vocabulary of that era). He would add to that his own or stolen packages of cigarettes. Forbidden German tobacco and forbidden German newspapers (both of which had a bad smell and weren't worth anything)-those were the greatest gifts to me from my garden chief, who was pleased with my knowledge as an agronomist.
To be entirely honest, I must also admit that from time to time he would throw in a couple of stolen loaves of bread and some leftover soup from the kettles. I would distribute the food among the garden brigade, a few men and a couple of dozen of the most recently arrived Jewish women from Hungary. What a joy it used to be for the famished and weakened Jewish Hungarian women to receive an extra piece of bread and a little soup!
The Jewish women from Hungary-they were a new part of our sad lives as slaves. Not so long ago they were free people, in their own land, in Hungary, and overnight the same misery that we ourselves had been enduring for several years came upon them as well. They were driven out of their land and sent to the hell of Auschwitz, where they were separated from the men, from their brothers and fathers. They, the women, were then scattered over
dozens of slave labor camps. A group of a couple of hundred was transported to Popervaln.
Their arrival made our hearts ache. Mostly young and middle aged women, they looked as if they had once been beautiful and well cared for. But now they were dressed in special black-and-white-striped prisoners' garb, and their hair cut down to their roots (which was still something unfamiliar and overwhelming for us). They stood there in the middle of the courtyard, pressed against one another, frightened and questioning, not knowing into what new hell they had fallen. Helpless tears poured from their eyes, and from our eyes also.
For a whole day they waited in the middle of the camp, famished and filthy, because no tents had yet been made ready for them. Late at night, a dozen or more of our tents were evacuated for them, and we ourselves were packed more tightly into the other tents. By the following morning, they were just as much a part of our miserable camp as the rest of us.
Let There at Least Remain a Remembrance of Us
By the end of April, we were ready to carry out our plan to run away from camp. Now the chief question was: When should we take off-in the daytime during work or at night? And what is the best way to do it?
We, the five traitors, were scattered in different work places-Bobrov and Gershon Yakobson in the barracks construction site, I in the gardens of staff headquarters, and Laib Yakobson with Benjamin Vospy on the road or in the forest. All of us were under constant surveillance while we worked. It might be advantageous to take off during the day, but how could we do it quickly, discreetly, all at the same time, or at least within a few hours of one another? And how could we meet quickly, all five of us, at the place in the woods where our human clothing was hidden?
Should we instead run away at night, straight from camp, cutting through the barbed wire fencing? That plan, too, had favorable features and faulty ones. The greatest risk lay in cutting the wire and crawling out of the camp, since we would have to do it almost under the very noses of the nocturnal guards. On the other hand, if we could succeed in doing it without being seen, we would have a long, quiet night ahead of us. We could travel farther and farther away from the camp and into the forests.
I myself had another problem to deal with before we set out on the road in God's care. In the course of my two and a half years in ghettos and camps, I had assembled a considerable amount of written material, both in songs and in my diary. Some of it I had already hidden in Dvinsk, in the cellar of the building where I had worked. But here in the camp there were no such hiding places, because we were always under the open sky or in paper tents. In the end, I hit upon the plan of putting the written material in flasks and burying them in the ground.
But this was another difficult task. A few of us, including my acquaintance
from Dvinsk Nachum Pressman, spent days trying to scavenge a dozen empty flasks from the Germans and transport them to the garden. Then Pressman helped me roll up the pages of writing, stuff them into the flasks, and cork and coat the flasks so that we could be certain no moisture would get in.
The last and hardest job was to bury the flasks in a suitable place. While Pressman and a few other informed members of our garden crew stood guard, I dug a hole between two old marked trees on the border of the garden. We were almost caught: One of our supervisors noticed me digging. I told him I was trying to find out how deep down in the earth the groundwater was, as my garden chief had ordered. Fortunately, the supervisor did not notice the flasks full of papers, which were lying a few steps further on, covered with leaves. After he went away, I quickly placed the flasks into the hole, threw dirt over them, then leaves, and placed a large stone on top to mark the spot.
Nowadays, I sometimes wonder why we were so intent on saving and hiding those poor records of our tragic lives. But I was determined to bury my flasks, and despite the danger to themselves, Pressman, Levin, Bobrov, Margolis, Hamburger, Shmushkovitch, Goldberg, and many others were devoted to helping me. Perhaps the reason was that although we wanted desperately to live, we could hardly believe, deep in our hearts, that we would be able to hold out against the bloodthirsty wild animals who wanted to destroy us. My friends would often say to me:
Let there at least remain a remembrance of us, if we ourselves are not destined to live. Let the world at least know later, from these writings, that we were dragged to this place, and that here we were still living, thinking, and feeling.... When we had finished burying the flasks, my friends and I felt that we had accomplished an unexplainably important thing, one with enormous human significance. We never stopped to consider that if we all should perish, the writings might also lie buried in the earth forever, completely unknown just like us.
We Run Away From the Slave Camp
A profoundly dark night. A fine rain patters on the roofs of the tents and in the leaves of the small forest nearby. For us, the five traitors who are running away from the Popervaln slave camp, it is a wished-for kind of night.
We have quietly stolen out of the tents, and we are now lying on the ground near the barbed wire fence, behind the great latrine. We listen carefully for the footsteps of the watchman on the path along the outer side of the fence. He goes all the way up to the comer of the fence, very close to us, then turns about and goes to the other comer of the fence. We hear, just barely, how his footsteps get farther away on the trampled sand and leaves of the path.
We have two small pairs of pliers. Our movements are noiseless, calculated. We cut through the lowest rows of the barbed wire. How hard it is now to carry
out such a simple, trivial task! Shush, stop cutting, the watchman is getting close! We press ourselves further down to the ground, and remain lying there, frozen. Then his footsteps are getting farther away again. In the darkness, we resume cutting the barbed wire with our pliers, gently, slowly, noiselessly, holding our breath. The devil take it, how thick, sharp, and hard the wire is!
Finally it seems the hole in the fence is already big enough. Crawl! No, wait, let the watchman come and then go back again! Oh, how the heart beats! It seems like an eternity till he comes close to our comer, turns around, and goes back again.
One after the other, quickly and quietly, we crawl on our stomachs through the hole in the fence. The sharp-edged wire tears and bloodies our hands and faces, sticks into and scratches through the camp clothes to our skin-but who cares now? We have, at that moment, only one goal that overwhelms everything else: to crawl on our stomachs, unnoticed, as far as the forest.
- Remain lying down! Quiet!
Without words, with only hand contact, we pass the message on, each one to the other. The watchman draws near to us again in the darkness; he is no more than five or six steps away. At that moment, it occurs to me that we ought to attack him quietly, knock him out cold and take away his weapons...but I remind myself at once that that would be much too risky, both for ourselves and for those remaining in the camp, who would no doubt have to pay for our actions. We need only one thing-to disappear, so that until morning there will not be a peep out of anyone about us.
The watchman remains standing a while longer in the comer, and seems to look around in the darkness. Suddenly a whistle and a guttural, specifically German outcry cuts through the stillness of the night. As if stabbed by a sharp knife, my heart stops. Then it begins to beat wildly and rapidly, as though I were rolling downhill. We ask wordlessly, grabbing one another by the hand:
- What happened? Have we been spotted?
But it's nothing. The watchmen are only calling to each other. Another two watchmen come to our comer. They light matches, smoke cigarettes, and stay for a while. It seems to us that their conversation will never end, and that our hearts are beating so strongly they will hear them. We press ourselves further into the ground. We lie flat and frozen, like dead men. God, help us, don't abandon us! my lips whisper silently, and I'm sure the lips of the others do, too; at such moments, everyone remembers God and his help.
Finally, the watchmen go their separate ways. We hear ours tum around, and his footsteps get farther away. Now we crawl on our stomachs without stopping, and so quickly we can hardly catch our breath, and...we roll into a pit filled with water. That's how we know we have reached the forest, which is a few hundred meters from the camp. There, already a safe distance from the watchmen, we sit down to rest a little.
But who can sit for long? We pick ourselves up, and as though carried on
wings, we set out through the woods, in the thick darkness, without a road or trail. We move straight ahead to the larger forest beyond without doubts, and we even talk among ourselves, in a half-voice, because we know that now, at night, in the forest and in the rain, we will not encounter even a live dog. We are not thinking, and do not want to think, about what awaits us in the morning. We are free, we are proceeding according to our own will, and for us that is everything!
When we come to the stump where our respectable human clothes are hidden, we change into them quickly. At the last minute, we decide not to throw away the camp clothes here. We will take them with us and get rid of them somewhere else, in an even more secure place. Now we have just one task-to get as far away as possible from here. The night is short; we must hurry, without stopping. We come upon a narrow forest trail, and we head in the direction of Ugala, the village where Gershon Yakobson once lived, and where he has many friends among the local farmers. That is supposed to be sixty or seventy kilometers away, further on through the woods and side roads-much further.
By the time we had set out on the trail toward Ugala, the rain had stopped, but the trees and grass were still wet. We were soaked through from head to foot. Morning had come, but in the thickness of the woods it was still quite dark. When the sun at last lit up the treetops from the eastern side, we assured ourselves that we were going in the appropriate direction. We sat down for a few minutes to eat some suchares (dried pieces of bread) and decide what to do next. Gershon offered his opinion first.
By day, in the daylight, is a risk, even walking in the woods. There is no telling who you will come up against, and we don't have any weapons....
But we want to get as far as possible from the camp today, Bobrov argued, so we must go in the daytime. It's understood, don't go out on the great highways, and avoid small villages and forest huts! But it is better that we should go....
We can't know what is better. It's possible that lying hidden among thick trees is better in the daytime than walking, showing yourself, and making yourself conspicuous in public.
Now Vospy entered the debate. But the field police at staff headquarters do have bloodhounds, he said, and they will certainly be looking for us in the surrounding woods. Bloodhounds will sniff you out even in the thickest woods, so isn't it perhaps better to go forward today, and not stay so close?
And if you get farther away, do you think there won't be any policemen and bloodhounds?
Nevertheless, isn't it better to get as far away as we can from the hot breath of the Germans? Can you imagine what is already going on? What kind of a stir is happening in the camp?
The word camp had the impact of a burst of lightning. Go! Let's go! we
all agreed. Go in daytime, as well as at night, without stopping, just go and get as far away as possible from the accursed slave camp!
The Denunciation and the Revenge
Three nights and two days we strode through the woods without sleep and without rest, if you don't count the couple of hours when we lay down for a while on the second day. Our eyes would close from fatigue, and our feet could barely drag themselves along, and our entire bodies became heavy, as though soaked in lead. But we did not stop. We kept going forward, ever forward.
On the morning of the third day, Vospy, who looked much like a farmer, went into a small hut that we had seen from a distance and returned with half of a loaf of bread and a pot of sour milk. And on that same day, late in the afternoon, an event that we could not have expected occurred, striking us like a thunderbolt in the middle of a bright, sunny day.
As we approached a crossing in the forest, we suddenly heard shooting nearby, corning from all sides, and a loud outcry in German:
Halt! Remain standing! Hands up!
We found ourselves surrounded by a couple of dozen German police officers and field guards with rifles aimed at us.
Who are you? Where are you going?
It did not take long for them to find out who we were and what we were doing there in the woods. With pleasure and smiles of satisfaction those savage countenances looked at us. They ordered us to sit down on the ground, in a single row, one near the other, and not to move from the spot. Four men with automatic rifles and grenades remained to guard us, and the others disappeared somewhere.
For us it was clear that our three-day freedom had come to an end. We were once again in the hands of murderers and wild animals. And what would they do with us now?
We're out of luck, said Gershon Yakobson, sighing heavily. But the beginning was good. We had already covered more than half the way ...and then this happens....
To which Vospy remarked, I understood at once that this would happen. They must certainly have denounced us.
The rest of us were beside ourselves. What did you understand? Who denounced us? Who are you talking about?
There, in the little hut that I went into. There were three men sitting there, Latvians, and they looked at me oddly, laughingly. Who knows who they might have been? They told the woman in charge to give me bread and sour milk. Probably it was they who denounced us. And maybe they were themselves bloodhounds and spies?
Why didn't you tell us about that earlier?
Why would I go tell you things that would frighten you? I didn't pay any
attention to them, just as long as I could get bread to eat. And if I had told you, what would we have been able to do? Go underground? Run back?
What do you mean, what could we have done? Everyone jumped on Vospy. We would have seen.... Maybe we would have hidden ourselves right here.... Maybe we would have turned in a different direction.... And may- be....
So we sat there, pressed together in a single row, and quietly bickered about our new disaster. It was later confirmed that the Latvians of the forest hut had followed us and denounced us to the German police. The Germans themselves told us about it, marveling at their quick and easy victory. They had given the Latvian dogs five packages of tobacco and two pounds of sugar for their fine work.
But for that work, for their denunciation of us, they later received a reward from me as well, from me in person, from my own hands. I want to finish telling about those Latvians, and for that purpose I will rush ahead of myself': I met up with two of them again, face to face, some seven or eight months later. I sought them out in their home and made a brief accounting.
By that time our group of five was no more. I had new comrades-hundreds of Russian partisans and a few Jewish partisans. We had our great work to do together, but I also had in mind my own people. I remembered what had happened, and was waiting for the day of revenge.
Together with my Russian comrade Semyon and my Jewish comrade Vilchick from Vilna, I located the home of the Latvians. Then we all dressed in German uniforms and presented ourselves as German police officers who had come to ask for their cooperation. We found in the house a father, a son, two women, and a few children. I told the men that we had once, thanks to their help, caught five runaway Jews, and that we now wanted their help again. Those words worked well as a test: It became obvious that this was in fact the same little family that had done my old friends and me such a fine service. They were ready once more to help the Germans catch Jews. More than that we did not need....
They became seriously frightened when I revealed who we really were and they learned that I myself was one of the five Jews they had denounced. I could imagine that people in their situation would be far from happy, and could not expect anything good to happen. Tears, screams, and falling on their knees and calling out to God did not help them. Vengeance, sacred vengeance, was stronger and higher than everything else.
At first we wanted to shoot the entire little family, including the two women and the children. But my Jewish heart relented, and we left the women and children in peace. The two men we did shoot. Unfortunately, the second son, who was also guilty, could not be shot, because he wasn't home at the time. For that reason, we told the women and children to get dressed and go to their neighbors, and then we set fire to their house. During that same winter night,
we three avengers marched a very long distance across woods and swamps, and in that way we made our tracks disappear.
That is how it went in my life as a partisan. As you will later understand, there was nothing outrageous, and nothing of a criminal nature in the actions I committed. They were righteous vengeance.
Meanwhile, as we five apprehended prisoners sat together that afternoon, the German police never took an eye off us, and we thought about the worst that might happen. What could they do with us, if not hang or shoot us? Would they do it right here in the woods, or would they drive us to some other place? Why were they keeping us here so long? I was determined to run away at the first opportunity, not to let myself be taken to the grave like a sheep. Let them shoot me from behind, I thought.
It turned out, however, that for now they were not going to shoot us. At nightfall, a group of armed Latvian auxiliary police arrived and led us away to a nearby village. There they locked us up in a special house that served as a village jail and kept careful watch over us. They took away all our things, including the knives we had obtained. In the morning, the same group of auxiliary police came and told us they were driving us back to the Popervaln camp. One of the Latvian police had known Gershon in the past, and he comforted us, saying that the Germans no longer seemed to be shooting Jews. If they were, they would have shot us on the spot, no questions asked, he pointed out. But they had not done that, had they? No, he said, they need all healthy Jews in Germany as laborers....
He easily won us over with that kind of talk. After two days of being driven along, carrying heavy loads, we arrived back in Popervaln camp, limping and terribly exhausted. The Latvian police handed us over to the camp commandant and his assistants, and they received a receipt saying that the five criminals had been delivered in good order.
We Are Punished; We Become Zebras
For running away from camp they did not shoot us, and they did not hang us. But do not rejoice too soon, and do not suppose that we got off without a punishment. For running away from the slave camp (and not so much for running away as for having been unsuccessful....) one must be punished publicly, before the eyes of everyone, so strictly and so frighteningly that nobody is ever tempted to imitate such foolish behavior.
But why should I trouble you with new tales of beatings, blows, floggings, and other sadistic torments? And if this time I myself, in person, was among those who were bloodied, soaked with water, and bloodied again-so what? After all, what is so important about my body, and in what way am I different from everybody else? The sun didn't get turned off because of my misfortune, and the birds didn't stop their singing. The blows and the stinging lashes I felt exactly as everybody else did, and exactly as you, God forbid, would have felt
them if you had, perish the thought, received that honor yourself.
No, I am not going to relate the story of my blows and my lashes with all the details. I am too ashamed. I will just ask you a few questions.
Do you remember that in talking about blows, beatings, and lashes, I earlier used the expression until I had felt it myself on my own hide? Well, I was referring to this moment, now, when I truly did feel it, quite unmistakably, on my own hide. And do you remember how battered and bloodied that group of water carriers became, how they were soaked with cold water, then given the official number of lashes, and then soaked with cold water again? I can't guarantee that the same enforcers were assigned to beat up on me and my four comrades, but I do know that the technique, the cruelty, and the severe pain we experienced were comparable.
True, there was a difference. The water carriers received only twenty-five lashes each, but we received fifty-twenty-five one day and another twentyfive the next morning. In the opinion of the German doctors, fifty Nazi-ish lashes all at once were too much even for a Jew. The chances of remaining alive afterward were too small. And besides the number of lashes, there was another difference between our punishment and that of the water carriers. When the water carriers received the lashes and then the cold water and the dreadful burning pain over their whole bodies, we had to stand and watch and suffer heartache. This time, by contrast, my four comrades and I had to receive those torments, and others had to stand there and watch and suffer heartache. The difference is perhaps not all that great-until it comes to your own hide. Then it hurts a little bit more.
What I can assure you of is that I did not laugh, and I did not even think about how I might entertain you with an account of such fine things.
And what else did I say about the water carriers? That they regained their health. That from such trivial punishments one did not die in those days. Exactly the same things you can now say about us, and even a bit more: One did not die from fifty lashes, either, or from other doubled blows and trivial punishments. As evidence for that, you have the fact that I am still among the living.
From that time on, the camp authorities looked upon the five of us as dangerous and extraordinary criminals. They adorned our clothes with unusually wide and gaudy stripes, and they painted on the backs and on the chests specific bright red-and-white circles in order to distinguish us from the other, simpler outlaws.
But it was Gershon who suffered the most. With his tall, broad figure and his shiny bald pate, he always stood out, even from a distance. The bright circles he now had to wear only made it worse. Whenever the commandant would go by our row during roll call, he would order Gershon to step forward, and the other four of us with him. Then he would deliver one of his moralizing lectures, and accompany it with blows:
You, cursed Jew Yakobson, you are the leader of this group! How can you dare to do such things? Things are too comfortable for you with us, you God-cursed brothers, you dirty Jews, you swine-dog people, you smart alecks, you...you ...doubly damned! Things are too comfortable for you here, and that's why you are so bold and want to run away from our camp! Well, what am I to do with you, you filthy Jew Yakobson? I ought to shoot you and your companions, like mangy dogs, but it would be a waste of bullets. Here, that's for you! (a slap) Here, for you! (a smack) Just wait, young man, I will make all of you behave in orderly fashion! Now be gone! Get out of my sight!
The next morning the same thing would happen, and the day after that again, and so on until at last. ..we ran away a second time.
In camp, we were carefully avoided. In the presence of a German, or even Scheinberger, our fellow inmates didn't dare go near us. They didn't want to be suspected of associating with them, with those who wore bright-colored circles and who got a stem lecture and a serving of smacks every morning. Even so, our spirits were never broken. The determination to run away again was not weakened for one minute. We just wanted to recover a little, and allow our split-open hides to heal, as well as our many terribly infected wounds. The three-day freedom we remembered so well was calling to us, and enticing us into the woods.
Meanwhile, nervous and restless days came upon everyone. There were rumors that the Germans were liquidating a number of camps and work places, and that the Jews were being transported to Germany. We heard that the Russians were already close, much closer than the German newspapers were reporting. The talk was that wherever the Germans could not transport the Jews, they were annihilating them on the spot.
The commandant issued an order that the hair of all men should be cut short with a little machine, and that a broad stripe should be shaved from the forehead all the way across the top of the head and down to the base of the neck. Our camp barbers were worn out from cutting hair and shaving stripes. And then suddenly a huge transport arrived with specially striped cotton prison clothes and canvas-covered wooden shoes for us. Another order from the camp commandant: We were to give up our old coats and pants and put on these brand new clothes. We interpreted this as meaning that they now considered us more valuable than before. They were making us more recognizable among all the other simple mortals. Changes were coming, and even great changes, but...who knew what would happen to us?
We, dressed in the striped cotton prison clothes, were called zebras by the Germans (because those animals have striped hides). We had no names other than zebras. Because zebras had become so fashionable in our camp, and because I could not come to one of our literary evenings without a new creation, I wrote a zebra song (although, alas! my whole body was still on fire from my punishment, and I could hardly manage to present anything literary).
Elke Lakus set my song to a motif from Russian Chastushkes (comical folk songs), and the audience sang it and enjoyed it.
Here is my zebra song:
|Far away in the African wilds
Where culture is strange and new
There live zebras, mild animals
That run and jump, completely free.
In Europe-land, long blessed
But zebras have very smooth
They call us by zebra names,
Do you, zebras, wish to change places
Here you will become acquainted with
You will see how a world enslaved
Tell us if, in the wild, you have such things
|Child Murderers of the highest rank?
You, the animals, do have higher standing
So sooner come to us, you zebras!
(Written in Popervaln-Dundaga concentration camp, May 1944.)
Confess the Truth, You Cursed Band of Jews!
It turned out that our camp in Popervaln was deemed too crowded, too small. In the spring they began to build a very large new camp three or four kilometers away. Some Jews were working there steadily and even staying overnight. But suddenly the Germans brought those workers back down to the old camp. They stopped all construction. We sensed very clearly that our days in the area were numbered, and maybe our hours.
As I returned from work one evening, I could see even from a distance that many Jews were terrified and confused. What has happened? I wondered. Why are people so upset? I soon learned that a commission of high-ranking S.S. officers from headquarters and elsewhere had come down into the camp and were conducting a review. They were searching in the tents, taking a head count, and who knew what else?
When everyone had returned from their work places, they lined us up for
roll call, and there appeared before us the grand uniformed officers and subalterns of the S.S., the higher-ranking chiefs of the construction crew, and the camp commandant. They counted and recounted us several times, and called out our names, and...could not believe that everyone was present. We didn't understand at all what was happening, or what or whom they were looking for, until an officer stepped up and addressed us in these words:
We know very well that you have a hidden radio set, with which you pick up information and pass it on to the Russians. We know it. We also know that the chief criminals have tried to run away from camp, but as I can see, they didn't succeed. So you had better confess the truth peacefully, confess where is the radio set hidden. If we find it ourselves, it will be worse for you. Better confess! I give you five minutes time to consult among yourselves, and say in which tent the radio set is hidden....
We were all standing there with mouths open, astonished, listening to the speech ·of the handsome older officer with the intelligent face of a teacher or a minister. He spoke quietly and convincingly, and his accompanying officers stood there with earnest expressions on their faces. It seemed they believed implicitly in the truth of his statements. Presently the officer turned to our camp elder:
Scheinberger, you surely know about the radio set and about everything that is happening here. Remain for a bit with your brothers, think about it, and confess everything. I advise you to do that, because it will be better for you, Scheinberger, and for all of you. If not, it will be bad, very bad, for all of you. Take my advice. Tell the truth and give us the radio set.
However tragic and desperate our common situation might have been at that moment, I could not refrain from a quiet laugh, seeing Scheinberger's fear and bewilderment. How surprised he must have been to discover that such a lack of trust could fall even on him, the faithful and committed camp elder! Like a mouse in a trap, he threw himself this way and that, whispered to his policemen and his closest friends, looked at every one of us with eyes that begged for mercy: Help, confess, you bandits! Tell the truth and... don't make me miserable! You can hear, can't you, what they think of me, and....
But we remained silent. In fact, we couldn't do otherwise, because quite simply, we didn't have anything that we could confess. The radio set and the whole fuss about it was a fairy tale thought up by a drunk S.S. man who had heard on his own radio something mysterious that was corning from the Jews camp. Ready to believe anything about the cursed Jews, he quickly concluded that we had a radio set in camp and were in communication with the Russians. Who else would be guilty of all the troubles the Germans were having, if not the Jews? And more specifically, who else would be guilty of the Germans' recent heavy losses on the Russian front, if not the several hundred Jews locked up in the Popervaln camp? It was, after all, well known to everyone that Jews were always and everywhere and in everything guilty-and
on those grounds the officers justified the radio accusation, and the ensuing investigation of us.
It was a terrifyingly bloody night we lived through-our last night in Popervaln. Dozens of S.S. officers spent the whole time ransacking the tents, wandering around the camp, and in general terrorizing people. Scheinberger and a couple of camp police were first given a terrible beating and then were properly fixed in their tent, where they were required to confess. After that, they were arrested and locked up in a tiny room in the commandant's barrack. The chief cook Rudy and a few other camp orderlies somehow vanished-we didn't know whether they ran away or were done away with. Early in the morning, even before the sun was up, a command was heard:
Everyone, without exception, men and women, healthy and sick, are to line up in the plaza for roll call.
The same investigating commission of the day before appeared, but now, after a night of carousing, they were for the most part half-drunk. At their head, walking with a revolver in his hand, was the perceptive S.S. officer who had heard the suspicious sounds on his radio, and with him came a few other S.S. officers. Behind that group were the engineers and supervisors of the construction project, also with revolvers in their hands. I had always thought they were quiet, normal, civilized people, but now, against us, they had been transformed into the same murderers as their S.S. comrades. How quickly people-or rather, Germans-could transform themselves into beasts! Yesterday, these construction specialists were our employers. They gave us quiet orders and instructions, and we carried them out. And today they were prepared to shoot us. How odd was human nature! How could one understand it? Where was the borderline between civilized people and the blind, bloodthirsty animal?
The lead officer took out a watch from his pocket and addressed himself to us:
You, cursed troublemakers who want to undermine us! You even go and have a radio in your cursed Jew-camp! You are sending information to the Russians! I give you two minutes time: Tell us where the radio is hidden! If not, we will shoot all of you, just as you are, from the first one, by the rows. Tell us where the radio is! You don't know? I am beginning...one, two, three....
And speaking that way, he put his revolver to the neck of the first man in the front row. A shot rang out, and a human being, like a tree that has been chopped down, fell face forward onto the ground, without even making an outcry. Instinctively, the whole crowd threw themselves backward, and in a moment there rang out more shots. A few more people fell to the ground. Then the commandant called out with a voice like thunder:
Stay where you are! If not we will shoot all of you!
And in an instant there grew in the foreground a group of several dozen
S.S. officers with drawn rifles and automatics. They lined us up again in rows, but the first victim, Korotkin (a Jew from Riga who worked for a lumber company), was excused, along with the others who had been shot: they were lying on the ground, dead, or in the throes of their last agony, soaked in blood.
The execution squad took up a position on the side and spoke and gesticulated in lively fashion. They were conferring, it turned out, about what to do with us next. Probably they no longer had any hope of extracting the secret of where the radio set was hidden. In the middle of their discussion an S.S. man suddenly rode into camp on a motorcycle and handed the commandant a written document in a sealed envelope. The commandant immediately read through it and showed it to the others. We could see from a distance that most of them had long, stretched-out faces. They quickly broke up and went their separate ways. We had the feeling that this had something to do with us.
The commandant, with a few others, again walked over to us, and an order rang out: Everyone lie down, here, where you are standing! With your face to the ground! Don't get up and don't move! Quickly, lie down! We all lay down, with the rifles of the S.S. officers aimed at us. We lay there on the ground for a couple of hours, and maybe even more.
That same day, in the month of June, the Popervaln camp was liquidated. We loaded the remaining bits of food, clothing, utensils, and other junk onto a few cargo vehicles. Sometime after noon they counted us again, lined us up in a column, and then, under the strict supervision of the S.S. officers and Latvian police, we set out on our way.
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