With Russian and Jewish Partisans
in Revenge Warfare
This is How My Life as a Partisan Began
And again-shall I take it for predestination, luck, good fortune, or God's supervision? I don't know. I have no understanding of such matters. But in any case, not my thoughts, not my wisdom, not my heroism, and not my will played the main role in the events I am about to relate. On the fifth or sixth day of hopelessly dragging myself around in the great, dense forests, I did in fact meet up with partisans, with genuine Russian partisans, and-how did I do it? In a bizarre fashion, and at a time when I was already on the point of bidding farewell to the last bit of life remaining in me.
I was walking at night, in deep thought, on the central path that Arvids had pointed out to me, and suddenly I heard, in the distance, a slight noise and the ring of human voices. In the twinkling of an eye, I was lying stretched out on the ground, quite close to the path. I looked out from the thick foliage and saw five men walking by, armed from head to foot, and I could hear clearly that they were speaking Russian. My heart leapt. Partisans! I was eager to run out to them, but for a moment I held my.self back. Who knew who they actually were? They might be Russian bloodhounds, spies, betrayers, who were in the service of the Germans! There were plenty of such people roaming around in the woods, creatures who had been bought. And besides, was I certain that I had heard right? Were they really speaking Russian? Couldn't I have just imagined it? No, that could not be!
A feverish inner battle ensued. Should I show myself to them or not? Should I go out onto the path, stop them? Yes!... No. Yes!... No. Was I not running alone into the teeth and claws of the beast? No, that couldn't be. They were certainly Russian partisans!
This lasted only moments. Before I knew it, I was standing on the path and
shouting to them from a distance:
Hey, comrades, halt! Please stop!
In a moment, I was confronted with five Russian machine guns. I advanced toward them with my hands half way up. A couple of voices shouted back to me:
Who are you? Stop! Don't come any closer!
I'm one of your own. You can see that.... Put down your machine guns. I will tell you everything. You can see, can't you, that I don't have any weapons, and that I have come to you by myself ....
They lowered their machine guns half way, and two of them patted me down and inspected me from head to foot. One of them, apparently the eldest, asked:
Who are you, anyway? And what are you doing here in the woods? Have you been following us for a long time?
Now I was no longer in any doubt that these were genuine Russians and partisans. I was leaning against a tree, with all of them around me, and I began to tell them, as briefly as possible, the truth about myself, the pure truth. I saw that they did not have the patience to listen to the whole story, so I made it shorter. The eldest of them spoke again:
You think that we have to believe you, and that we really do believe you, just like that? Is that what you think? Well, you're wrong. I think you are a spy, a 'bloodhound' for the Germans! That's what you are! Right?
That kind of welcome I certainly didn't count on. At first it took away my language ability, so great was the shock. But after that, I set about defending myself, stressing that I was a Jew, after all, who had suffered for three years in German concentration camps, losing everything. I told them that I had run away from the Germans together with four comrades, and that they had been shot, while I had managed somehow to save myself. I said I wanted to join a partisan group; I wanted to fight, to take revenge, and....
One of the group, a short and heavy type, interrupted me:
Wait, wait! Wait! What was it you said?Your comrades were shot, but you they did not shoot. They allowed you to live. That means then that you sold out your comrades, that you handed them over to the Germans. Right? Say it-you are a German spy, a betrayer. How much did you get for turning in your friends?
I protested, with all the passion and pain of my soul:
How can you talk like that? I have handed over my comrades? I am a German spy? I hate the Germans like death, and would strangle every one of them with my own hands! Why do you not understand? They caught all five of us in the woods and took us to be shot. They took us right to the edge of the grave, and it was there that I escaped and ran away. Whether that was a miracle, or God's doing, or chance, I cannot say, but I did not run away from the murderers until the very last moment. Can I be a betrayer, a German spy? I am a Jew, after all, who has suffered so much from the Germans, who has run away from them, and who....
Oh, we know those stories. A Jew, was in German concentration camps. They killed all the Jews, and...you remained alive! Not for nothing did you remain alive. We know it. We know....
As it continued, I got more and more heated and tried to bring out the truth, but to everything I got one and the same answer:
Oh, we know, we know.... Moscow doesn't believe any words, and not even tears. We know, we know....
One remained to guard me, and four went off to the side to determine what was to be done with me. When they came back, I had the feeling that things looked bad, very bad. They ordered me to go ahead on the path. They said
they would follow me. I understood what that meant-a bullet, or a series of bullets, from behind, in the neck or the back.
A cold sweat poured over me. Was this the end now, here in the woods, and from whom? From my own people, one could say, from friends, from protectors, and such an ugly end, accused of being a German spy, a traitor! I felt an ache in my heart at the terrible, undeserved insult. But I quickly controlled myself, sat down on a collapsed tree, and said quietly:
Listen to me, comrades! I see what you think about me, and I see what you intend to do with me. I understand very well. I have already witnessed and learned quite a bit in the last few years. Death does not frighten me, nor does the prospect of being shot, but the fact of such·an ugly, undeserved, and unjust death at your hands, at the hands of friends and fellow avengers, whom I have been seeking everywhere in the woods for many long months now-that pains me to the core. I am prepared for death. Do with me what you will. But you should know and remember that I am not a spy, not a traitor, and not a betrayer of my comrades. I did not sell out to the Germans, I am not doing it now, and I will never do it. On the contrary, I hate them, the Germans, and bum for revenge against them, just like you, and maybe even more so.... Yes, even more than you. Don't forget, they took everything I had, even the life of everyone in my family, and-here you actually want to shoot me! Oh, that is too reprehensible, too great an injustice! I have been searching in the woods for such a long time for partisans, and I even want to fight with you, to take revenge on the murderers, on those dogs!We have only one goal now, you and !-revenge! Hear me out!
I saw that they were listening attentively to my words. I stopped talking for a while, reflected briefly, and then continued to talk:
Hear me out, for what I want to tell you! I understand very well who you are and what you are doing here. I seek to go on the same road as you, and I can help you a great deal. Listen: If you want to organize a partisan group in the woods, between the Venta River, Ugale, and Piltine, I can be very, very useful to you. I know the woods there as well as I know my own five fingers. I've dragged myself around all over the area. I also know a few local inhabitants and displaced Russian people on whom one can safely rely. Yes, I know one of the local people, Dooks, Arvids Dooks. He and his comrades also wander around there in the woods, like me, and he was the one who showed me how to get here. Oh, he is certainly the first person we ought to look up. He is one of our people, and in addition a born woodsman. I know where he can be found. I can take you straight to him. There are also escaped prisoners of war roaming around there in the woods, and one could easily organize a fighter group of a few dozen men. You will see that yourselves. I....
The eldest interrupted me:
What was it you said? Piltine? Right? Do you know a certain Stepka or Stepan Goryatchov there? He is a Russian civilian prisoner who lives in a one-
story house belonging to a Latvian, in the village of Rabatzems. That can't be very far from Piltine, ten kilometers probably....
I doq't know Stepka, but the village I know very well. It's a large village, which stretches for a few kilometers into the woods. Tell me the name of the owner of the house, and I will lead you straight to it. Oh, I know that area very well. Also, my woodsman friend, Dooks, is from the same village. If you wish, we can go there, even tonight. I will be able to find the way....
One remained with me, and four went away to one side to consult. I could hear them talking heatedly among themselves, and finally the eldest called out:
The devil take it, maybe he is speaking the truth! We have to be cautious
with him, but let's try! We'll see. Right? Hey, what's your name? I am called Yashke. Yacov, that is my real name.
Then I added:
Comrades, rely on me. I am not the kind of person that you took me for at first. You will see, and you will not be sorry. You can always manage to shoot me if you decide I am not telling the truth. I am not preparing to run away from you. On the contrary, we'll yet accomplish something together. Oh, how I want to tear their bodies apart, to spill their murderous blood! Come, let's go. Now it's dark enough.
We set out upon the road, with myself as the sixth person. My five new
comrades had parachuted into the forest, and they were armed not only with automatic machine guns but with hand grenades and small pistols. They also had two portable radio stations on their backs, and they carried land maps, compasses, binoculars, white masking tape for camouflage in winter, and who knew what else in their special parachutist's back packs.
They-Kolka the great, Kolka the small, Mitka, Sashka, and Vanya-represented the command staff that had come from the big partisan base to organize a partisan brigade in my woods. They were bitter young people, valuable teachers with long, hard experience as partisans. I-Yashke Litovitz (Yashka the Lithuanian), as I was then called-was at first their pathfinder, escort, and communications person, their Russian, Lithuanian, and German translator. Thereafter I, too, became an avenger, a spiller of blood, and in that fashion my genuine life as a partisan began.
Bloody Battle, Revenge, and Settling Scores
My partisan life began in the so-called kettle of death in Kurland, on a small tract of land where a German army of more than a million men was encircled, firmly locked in, and pushed close to the edge of the Baltic Sea. There we, the partisans, ground the Germans underfoot.
The Germans remained encircled in Kurland until the end of the war, when their entire military machine was in Russian hands. Only then did we, the organized and well-armed partisan battalions, attack the enemy from the rear,
doggedly and without rest.
But the enemy also did not spare us. We were constantly attacked and pursued by thousand-man armies of Germans with their reinforcements-Latvians, Lithuanians, and Estonians, in addition to vlassavtzes, who were a mixture of traitorous Ukrainians, Russians, Usbeks, Cossacks, and other Russian-Asiatic prisoners of war. Whole armies of Germans, with all these outcasts, attacked us in the woods.
A few times we were encircled. We broke through blockades. We had many victims, and were not far from total annihilation, yet we continued to carry out our assignments at every opportunity-disrupting, destroying, burning, annihilating, slaughtering, and spilling the blood of the enemy.
We conducted an embittered and just battle for death and for life. A battle in which we had every chance of dying, but dying a worthy death.
I am not prepared, at this time, to tell you about the life my comrades and I led as partisans. That would be a much too great and exalted chapter. Justified revenge and score settling is holy; it has no place in a book that describes the dark years of ghettos and concentration camps, the years of enslavement, degradation, torture, and meaningless death. Partisan life, bloody battle, and revenge-these are things unto themselves and separate, to which we shall yet come, on another occasion, and in another book.
I shall only offer a few observations I made at the time about partisan life. Among the many, many hundreds of partisans in Kurland and western Lithuania, there were a few dozen, and maybe as many as a few hundred, who were Jewish. The Revenge Song was quite popular among them. It used to be passed on from one person to another and sung. Here it is:
|Our life is not worth anything
And our tomorrow is-our now
... We live but predestined moments,
Chiseled in blood and fire.
In our hearts there bums revenge-fire,
We are now the revenge-takers.
|We cut with the sword of revenge
For the blood of children, wives, men,
With which the earth is now soaked.
You too have a long account to settle...
Now your life does have some meaning
|(Written in the woods of Lithuania and Latvia, Winter, 1944-5. Jewish partisans sang it in the forests of Latvia and western Lithuania.)|
|To the eternal memory of my four comrades
-Laib Bobrov, Gershon Yakobson, Laib
Yakobson, and Benjamin Vospy-who,
after running away together with me from the
concentration camp, perished at the hands of
murderers on the 12th of August, 1944, in the woods near
Zlekas (Vindaver Circle, Latvia)
We are running from the slave-camp... Dark is the night. ..
For many weeks we went hungry... pursued, suffered,
|For years, like slaves, you had lived in the camps,
Yet you had remained bold and determined.
You had always and courageously striven for freedom
It was the thought of freedom that drove you.
For years you had been bloodied, and gritted your teeth
And helplessly and powerlessly you suffered.
Barely did a beam of light appear...and-then you said: NO!
At the time, you hoped that, with weapons in your hands
We know the murderers, comrades, we know them quite well
|(Written in the partisan base in the Zhurer woods, Kurland, October, 1944.)|
(photo by G. Kadish, Kovn'o, 1945)
Our partisan brigade, which had been asselbled mainly from runaway prisoners of war, conducted its operations in 'the wooded areas of Shpareh, Usma, Ugale, Piltina, and at the end, in the woods around the rivers Venta and Abava, in Kurland.
Here is a reflection of our partisan battle in the death bowl of that period:
In the Death Bowl
|The enemy is lying in its dugout stronghold
In Kurland's tightly crowded encircled bowl.
Trenches, bunkers, fences, dugouts
Are built up left and right
Fields are strewn with buried explosive mines
Fortifications are placed row after row.
The woods are being noisily chopped down
The enemy's army is ready for battle.
And encircled and closed off from dry land,
The Baltic states have been free for years,
And do you, the enemy, think you will be helped
By your power, army, and hatred toward us?
The Red Army, the freedom-fighters,
Are for now still leaving you alone to rest.
When comes the time, and the freedom bringers
Will loose the hounds of the war-machine,
Then everything will crack. Steel and fire
Will annihilate you, as in Crimea!
Meanwhile, into the death bowl, in the middle,
But now, in the death bowl far below,
And lo!...we already experience consolation!
The wooded thickness is what protects us.
The circle tightens and presses the enemy more,
And we at the enemy's back ever more firmly
|Strike a blow! A stab! A rip! A bite!...
Right here, in the death bowl, annihilated
|(Written in the Kurland woods, Winter,1944-5)|
On one occasion, I was sent with my comrlde Siomke, a tender twentyyear-old from Siberia, on a kind of mission. Our task was to figure out the hamlets and villages where certain special a'erman groups were going to requisition wheat, hay, straw, and animals from the farmers. We, of course, planned to wait for these groups beside the road and welcome them as was proper, with lead and fire.
Gathering such information was very delicate and risky work, and I was only able to do it because I knew the local language and the local area so well. And even so, my comrade and I still had to mhsk ourselves, hide ourselves, poke around the villages and the farmers' homes, and disappear from under the nose of the local police and spies. One time, lying hidden in a stable for the night, I dreamed something, or thought it up, and I later noted it down as A Night in the Stable. Here it is:
|The rooster in the stable had crowed three times:
The night is passing, time is not standing still!...
You must, as quickly as possible, get out of here,
You dare not be together with us!
We are house-animals with rights,
-Food we get enough for us...
|-And if we are short of anything whatever
At once our boss takes care of us.
The boss's wife coddles us-
We are, you see, not ordinary types.
-And who are you? For goodness sake!
-You don't have any home, after all, no place!
-Just you try sticking your nose out
-You hear how our dog over there is barking?
I wake up suddenly at the crowing of the hen...
I awaken my comrade: Get up! We've got to go!
|(Written in the Lithuanian and Latvian forests, Winter, 1944)|
On another occasion I was sent, again with my comrade Siomke, on an out-of-the-ordinary and very risky mission. We were to determine where the Germans were making fortifications-where they were locating their trenches, bunkers, and ammunition dumps. We betook ourselves to the appropriate places, did the best that we could, and even mingled with hundreds of local people who were doing the fortification work, until...until they sensed who
we were. We noticed that we were being stealthily followed. We had to get ourselves out of there as quickly as possible, and we hid in a kind of abandoned bunker, a camouflaged hole in the ground that I knew about. It was very close to the Germans, directly under their nose, and we had to lie in it for an entire week and wait for a snowstorm or a thaw that would cover our tracks on the flat, undisturbed snow. We did not dare to take even one step otherwise, because they were looking for us, and if they spotted our tracks, it would have meant certain death. Finally the snowstorm did come, and we set out on a long night march.
Lying in a hole, alive, without moving, and in solitude, was much harder than going on even the most difficult of partisan missions. Here is what, at the time, I felt, thought, and recorded:
| You must have a heart that is hard as stone,
Congealed blood in your circulatory system,
Nerves as strong as rope and wire
And a head that is even colder than ice
Only then will you perhaps endure
The loneliness and the pressure of despair,
That gnaw unceasingly at your frame of mind
In the hole in the ground, in which you lie hidden.
Whether snow or rain, frost or sunshine,
Thoughts are curling themselves up like worms...
Deep snow has covered land and water
|As though wrapped in shrouds the trees stand
And slumber, cooled by winter's presence.
A stillness, frosty and frozen hard
Hangs in the air. No noise, not a peep.
Heaven looks with its starry eyes,
At how white earth is substantial and delicate.
A glorious picture, that also casts a dread!...
Time is creeping, but days-they are running.
Forest trees are being chopped. Ever nearer, nearer
Bombed, demolished has the enemy's position become.
|But once again all is still. Again time creeps
Throughout the heavy, dull nights and days,
And again there is the quandary of despair-hope:
Is it far... Is it near...the brink of redemption? !
A cold wind brushes the treetops
|(Written in the Latvian and eastern Lithuanian forests, Winter, 1944-5)|
In a partisan kind of manner, deep in the thickest part of the forest, around huge bonfires, we celebrated the new year, 1945. At that time, we were more than a couple of hundred men all assembled in one place. Guards were posted far and wide, all around the area, and that night we were not disturbed. We sang, we shouted, we made noise and drank as much whiskey as we possibly could. We had also, at that time, met up with a couple of dozen Jewish partisans, forest people, thieves. (But don't be frightened. They were all ordinary Jews, formerly from Riga, Vilna, Kovno, Dvinsk, Libave, Shavle, Poneveshe, and even Aishishke-good, ordinary Jews, just like you and me.) On this occasion, I read my Jewish partisan comrades some of my writings, among them In Honor of the New Year. Here it is:
|Prosit, new-year! And, l'chaim, to life,
New-Year nineteen forty-five!
A greeting to you, the rulers,
We send in honor of the new-year.
You have spread so broadly war's flames,
You, the armies, enslavers of the world,
|Behind you-only blood and graves...
Man and woman and child lie dead.
All is death ...only over the graves
Do you howl, you cemetery dogs!
Enemy of mankind, force, enslavement
Jewish people you would root out,
Already the suffering has reached full measure
There are masses of seething angry men
With fresh new strength, the liberators
Greetings to you, year five-and-forty
|...Also for us the sun will still shine
Beneath the heavenly tent!
|(Written in Latvian and Lithuanian forests, December, 1944)|
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