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Chapter I

The Origins of the Brichah

The Brichah movement first arose in places like Baranowice, Rowno, and Wilno, formerly Poland, and Czernowitz, Romania, in the aftermath of the Shoah. As a result of rampant anti–Semitism and Russian repression, desperate and isolated Jewish survivors banded together to form a heroic movement that quickly transitioned into a major enterprise that would help thousands of Jews reach Palestine and other safe havens.

Baranowice began in 1871 as a railroad station on the Smolensk–Brest route. On August 1, 1919, Baranowice received city rights and became a poviat (county) center in Nowogródek Voivodship. Control of Baranowice changed multiple times. In 1919 it was in Polish hands, then Soviet troops retook the city in July of 1920, only to have the Poles retake it in September.

In 1921 Baranowice had over 11,000 inhabitants (67% Jews, with the rest being mostly Belarusians, Poles and Russians). Soon the city started to grow and became an important center of trade and commerce for the area. The city's Orthodox cathedral was built in the neoclassical style in 1924–1931; it was decorated with mosaics that had survived the demolition of the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Warsaw. The city was also an important military garrison. Because of the fast growth of local industry, in 1938 a local branch of Polish Radio was opened. In September 1939, Soviet forces occupied the city and immediately introduced Communist order. All Jewish clubs and activities were closed. All Zionist activities were forbidden. The Jewish press was censored or closed. All Jewish political organizations like the “Bund” (Jewish socialist movement) were closed.

 

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Eliezer Lidkowsky

 

Eliezer Lidkowsky refused to abide by the new rules. Lidkowsky was born in 1908 in the small hamlet of Jeslo in present day Belarus and later moved to Baranowice. He was an active leader of the “Dror” or “Freiheit” Zionist youth movement that called for young Jews to go to Palestine and build the land along Socialist lines.[1] Lidkowsky was soon arrested by the Soviet secret police for conducting Zionist activities and was sentenced to 18 months in prison. He served his term and was released, joining his wife and children.

 

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The City of Baranowice prior to World War II

 

Five days after the Germans invaded the Soviet Union, they entered the city of Baranowice. At the start of the city's occupation by the Germans there were some 12,000 Jews living there, of whom about three thousand were refugees from Western Poland. The German soldiers – together with local Poles and Byelorussians – began breaking into Jews' homes, intent on robbery, looting, and abusing their occupants. Anti–Jewish regulations were promulgated daily including curfews and arm bands.

In September 1941 a Judenrat or council of Jewish elders was established that carried out Nazi orders regarding Jewish citizens. Soon after a ghetto was created. The Judenrat and the ghetto police had their headquarters at the main gate, across the street from the Gestapo building. The ghetto was terribly overcrowded, but actions and selections began to drastically reduce the Jewish population.

Many Jews actually worked for the German army, among them Eliezer Lidkowsky. Eliezer and his brother Abraham saw the helplessness of the Jewish situation and began to organize a group of Jews to defend themselves. The brothers eventually left the ghetto to join the partisans in the forest, but were not welcomed by the non–Jewish partisans. Other Jewish groups organized and headed to the forests. Slowly the Jewish partisans increased in number and formed their own unit. They fought in spite of the daily difficulties and blatant anti–Semitism among the non–Jewish partisans.

In July 1942, the Jewish ghetto population was sent somewhat further, 70 km (43 miles) north to Kostopil where they were all killed. Mrs. Lidkowsky had refused to join her husband in the forest and decided to remain in Baranowice where she was murdered with her children. The ghetto was subsequently liquidated.

The city of Baranowice was liberated by the Red Army on July 6, 1944. A significant part of the Polish population of the city had been expelled by Soviet authorities to Siberia and Kazakhstan between 1939 and 1941. The remaining Polish population was being squeezed out of the city and forced to move to Poland proper. About 250 Jews survived the Shoah and soon also left for Poland. The area became Soviet territory according to the Potsdam Agreement. Later on, a memorial complex of 20 thousand square meters was established, commemorating the killing of 17,500 Jews during the Holocaust.

 

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Liquidation of the ghetto of Rowno on July 13, 1943.
Notice the carts lined to haul the few possessions and the people carrying bags.

 

Eliezer Lidkowsky and his brother Abraham survived the war with the partisans and helped liberate the city of Rowno, near Lwow. Rowno had been captured by the Nazis in June of 1941. Anti–Jewish policies immediately affected the Jews. Mass selections and killings took place. At the time, roughly half of Rowno's inhabitants were Jewish; of these, about 23,000 were taken to a pine grove in Sosenki and killed between November 6th and 8th.

Rowno is first mentioned in 1283 as one of the inhabited places of Halych–Volhynia. From the second half of the 14th century it was under the Great Duchy of Lithuania and from 1569 it was in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. Following the partition of Poland in 1793, Rowno became part of the Russian Empire. In April–May 1919 Rowno served as the temporary capital of the Ukrainian People's Republic. With the Riga Peace Treaty of 1921 it became a part of Poland. In September 1939, the city of Rowno was occupied by the Soviet Army.

On February 2, 1944, the Red Army entered the city of Rowno. Only 30 or 40 Jews from Rowno had survived the Shoah and they warmly greeted the Jewish partisans who arrived with the Russians. About 250 Jewish partisans including the Lidkowsky brothers remained in the desolate city. With the help of another partisan, Itzhak Reichman, the brothers began to organize a Jewish community. Meetings were held and the group soon had 12 members. They received permission to open an artisan cooperative where Jewish survivors worked for a living. The workshop became the Jewish refugee center where survivors flocked to get information or help. The Jewish population grew and soon located a rabbi who took over the local synagogue and began to organize Jewish religious life.

Eliezer needed money to expand the services of the Jewish community in Rowno, so he went to Moscow seeking funds. He met the famous Yiddish actor Salomon Mikhoels and the Yiddish writer Itsik Fefer, both members of the Anti Fascist Committee set up by Stalin to gain Western support and sympathy for the Soviet Union during the war. However, he returned to Rowno empty handed. Meanwhile Jews continued to arrive in Rowno seeking help.

Lidkowsky and the other Jews in the community felt isolated and this feeling increased daily. The surrounding areas had been cleansed of Jews. Survivors would arrive in the Rowno area, see the desolation, and quickly leave for cities with a larger Jewish population. The Soviet Administration did not provide help to restore the communities, especially Jewish communities. So it was left up to Jewish individuals who were closely watched by the secret police. Zionist activities were totally forbidden.

Lidkowsky and some of the partisans did not want to remain in Rowno. They saw the Poles leaving for Poland and they too wanted to leave, but to Palestine, not an easy thing to accomplish since the war still raged in Europe. Suddenly a window opened. The Soviet Army liberated the city of Czernowitz on March 28, 1944. Czernowitz was close to the Romanian border where the Port of Constantsa or Cernauti was located on the Black Sea. Lidkowsky remembered the period when ships used to leave the Romanian port with Jews heading for Palestine. The idea was discussed among the partisans. They agreed to send a group under the leadership of Abraham Lidkowsky to the city of Czernowitz and if feasible further on to Romania. The young partisans were determined to head to Palestine and live in a Jewish environment despite the tremendous obstacles and dangers along the way. And their efforts would help create a safe route for groups of Jewish Shoah survivors to follow.

The group set out along a southern route in the direction of the Romanian border. The train tracks were dislocated and bands of Bandera supporters, extreme Nationalist Ukrainians bitterly opposed to the Soviet regime, spread terror throughout the countryside. Stalin was vehemently opposed to a separate Ukrainian state. Slowly the Jewish group made headway, often stopping in places where there were once large Jewish communities, now desolate. A few survivors were seen here and there. Finally the group reached Czernowitz.

Prior to the war Czernowitz had been a major Jewish center. A 1930 census indicated that 42,592 Jews resided in the city (representing 37% of the total population). After being designated the capital of the new Habsburg crown province of Bucovina in 1849, Czernowitz enjoyed several decades of development, a process stimulated by the economic and political emancipation of Jews, which was completed after 1867. The Jewish population increased significantly from 4,678 (out of a total 20,467) in 1850 to 14,440 (out of 45,600) in 1880 and 28,610 (out of 87,235) in 1910. The proportion of entrepreneurs who were Jewish reached approximately 90 percent after 1900. It was therefore not by chance that parliamentary representatives of the Chamber of Industry and Commerce, founded in 1850, were mainly Jews.

In 1930, the majority of the Jewish population of Czernowitz declared Yiddish as their mother tongue. There were disputes between the Yiddishists and Hebraists, as well as among Zionists, social democrats and supporters of the Union of Romanian Jews. The squabbles weakened the ability of the community to react to increasingly virulent anti–Semitic manifestations, events that occasionally had the passive or even active support of the authorities. The Jewish population consisted of Orthodox Jews, Hasidim, Zionists, (ranging from Revisionists on the right, to Shomer Hatzair, Bundists and assimilated Jews on the left).

 

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A group of Jewish writers with the Yiddish newspaper
Tshernovitser bleter (Czernowitz Pages), Czernowitz, 1930s
(Left to right) Itsik Manger, Josef Lerner, S. A. Sofer, Naftali Herz Kon
(The Ghetto Fighters' Museum/Israel)

 

In June 1940 Czernowitz was occupied by the Soviet Union. As in other cities Soviet authorities immediately implemented a Communist order, resulting in the deportation of about 3,000 wealthy Jews to Siberia. Romanian and German forces reoccupied the city on July 5, 1941, with precise orders from the pro–Nazi Romanian government of Ion Antonescu to punish Jews for their apparent attachment to the Soviet Union. Following a wave of assassinations, culminating in the murder of Chief Rabbi Abraham Mark and the torching of the temple, a series of repressive measures was instituted, depriving Jews of civil and economic rights. On October 11, 1941, a ghetto was established that concentrated approximately 5,000 people in the former Jewish district of the city, serving as a transit point before their deportation across the Dniester River. From October 1941 to May–June 1942, more than 32,000 people were deported to various camps and ghettos in Transnistria.

To prevent a complete paralysis of local affairs, several Romanian notables, led by Mayor Traian Popovici, managed to obtain approval for 17,000 Jews to remain in Czernowitz, where they were to perform compulsory labor. It is estimated that after the city was reoccupied by the Soviet Army in 1944, approximately 30 percent of the Jewish population had survived.

With the liberation of Czernowitz, the surviving Jews began to breath. The Jewish community started to organize and some synagogues began to function. Zionist clubs were still forbidden and all Jewish activities were controlled by the Soviet government. Czernowitz Jews who had been sent to Siberia and Kazakhstan began to return home. Abraham Lidkowsky and his team began to look for jobs since they had to support themselves, and everyone had to work in the Soviet Union in order not to attract attention from the authorities. Abraham sent one team member back to Rowno to report to Eliezer that he could begin to send small groups of partisans to Czernowitz. Meanwhile Abraham connected with local Jews in Czernowitz and was soon introduced to Rabbi Meir Kahan, with whom he shared their plans. Rabbi Kahan was a Zionist sympathizer who introduced Abraham to other local Zionists. They began to organize places for the incoming groups of Rowno partisans. Arrangements were also made with border smugglers to help cross the Soviet–Romanian border. All these activities had to be done in total secrecy, for the Soviet secret police were everywhere. Unexpectedly, a group of partisans headed by Ruzhka Korczak and Dr. Samuel Amarant arrived from Vilnius (Wilno). They were a part of the Abba Kovner group of partisans in Wilno who were looking for a way to reach Romania and the port of embarkation for Palestine.

There were disagreements in the Vilnius group over the direction they should take. Most of the partisans saw no hope for a Jewish life in post–war Lithuania, but some wanted to continue to fight Germany and others wanted to avenge Jewish deaths. Finally they reached a decision to head to Palestine. This decision was supported by Abba Kovner, Vitka Kempner and Ruzhka Korczak and most of the members of the Vilnius Jewish partisan group. [2]

 

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Abba Kovner

 

Abba Kovner was born in 1918 in Sebastopol, Crimea, on the shores of the Black Sea. His early life was the typical model of Jewish youth of the time. He was raised in Vilnius, which had been the preeminent center of Jewish learning since the seventeenth century. While there he was exposed to every variety of Jewish thought and the teachings of traditional and modern persuasions, from orthodoxy to socialism. Kovner attended the University of Vilnius as an art student, learning to sculpt, and later developed a passion for poetry. Like many other boys his age Kovner became interested in the Zionist movement and joined a local youth group of the “Ha–Shomer ha–Tzairr.” or the Young Guard.

On June 24, 1941, the Germans occupied Vilnius. Several thousand Jews fled eastward with the Soviet Army, but the rapid German advance trapped the majority of the Jews in Vilnius and almost 60,000 Jews remained in the city at the time of the German occupation. Less than a month after the Germans occupied the city, they conducted their first Aktion. Einsatzkommando 9 rounding up 5,000 Jewish men and sent them to Ponary, an abandoned Soviet oil storage facility with large pits designed to house fuel.

On August 31, 1941, led by SS officer Einsatzkommando 9 Oberscharf├╝hrer Horst Schweinberger, the SS established two ghettos in Wilno, referred to as Ghetto No. 1 and Ghetto No. 2. The following day they swept through the city and forced the remaining Jews into the newly created ghettos. About 30,000 Jews were forced into Ghetto No. 1 and between 9,000 and 11,000 Jews into Ghetto No. 2. Kovner and 16 other members of the Ha–Shomer Ha–Tzairr fled the city. Hiding out in a convent of Dominican nuns a few miles outside of Wilno from where they watched as the Nazis conducted a series of actions, against the Jewish community. Jews were then dragged to the Ponary site and murdered.

Abba Kovner had no illusions about the German intentions for the Jews of Wilno. He saw the German behavior against the Jews and was convinced that they intended to kill all Jews. Kovner urged the remaining Jews to organize and resist. A secret meeting was held on December 31, 1941, where many of the youth groups and activists advocating resistance came together to discuss defensive efforts. Although not all in attendance agreed to stay and fight, Abba Kovner took it upon himself to urge what remained of the Ghetto inhabitants to rise up and fight from within the ghetto itself. In an impassioned speech delivered at one of the ghetto soup kitchens, he shouted to those around him:

Jewish youth! Do not trust those who are trying to deceive you. Out of the eighty thousand Jews in the ‘Jerusalem of Lithuania’ only twenty thousand are left… Ponary is not a concentration camp. They have all been shot there. Hitler plans to destroy all the Jews of Europe, and the Jews of Lithuania have been chosen to be the first in line. We will not be led like sheep to the slaughter! True, we are weak and defenseless, but the only reply to the murderer is revolt! Brothers! Better to fall as free fighters than to live by the mercy of the murderers. Arise! Arise with your last breath!

Shortly thereafter the United Partisan Organization or Fareinikte Partisaner Organizatzie (FPO) was formed on January 21, 1942, in the Wilno Ghetto. “We will not go like sheep to the slaughter” was its motto. It was decided that the FPO would be led by a “staff command” made up of Kovner, Josef Glazman and Yitzhak Wittenberg, with the “chief commander” being Wittenberg. Later, two more members were added to staff commandnamely Abraham Chwojnik of the Bund and Nissan Reznik of the HaNoar Ha–Tzioni or Zionist Youth – expanding the leadership to five. The goals of the FPO were to establish a means for the self defense of the ghetto population, to sabotage German industrial and military activities and to join the partisan fight against the Germans.

 

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Itzhak Wittenberg,
Head of Jewish military resistance in the Wilno ghetto

 

The Wilno Judenrat was totally opposed to the military partisan activities. The head of the Judenrat, Yaacov Gens, waged a bitter campaign against armed resistance. The Germans cooperated with him and Wittenberg was sacrificed to the Gestapo, who killed him. One of Wittenberg's last moves was to appoint Abba Kovner as head of the Wilno ghetto partisans.

 

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Abba Kovner, FPO leader

 

During the summer and fall of 1943, Kovner and his resistance fighters carried out acts of sabotage against German military trains and equipment transports, and even set up an illegal printing press outside of the ghetto. One of their key goals was to establish ties to the partisan forces in the forests that were supported by Russia. Kovner also sent emissaries to the Warsaw and Bialystok ghettos to warn the Jewish inhabitants about the mass killings of Jews by Germans in Russia and urged active military resistance. On September 1, 1943, German forces began the final destruction of the Wilno ghetto. Kovner and the FPO made a concerted effort to try and persuade the ghetto residents not to gather for the deportation because they were in actuality being sent to their deaths. The majority of the Jewish ghetto inhabitants refused to believe Kovner, who ordered his forces to attack the Germans. The Wehrmacht brought in light artillery and explosives to flush out the ghetto fighters. But as soon as it grew dark, the Germans pulled out of the ghetto and left it to the Jewish Police.

After the initial skirmish with the Germans, Gens, the head of the Judenrat, tried to prevent further destruction by offering to provide additional Jews for forced labor in Estonia, if only the Germans would leave the ghetto. The Germans agreed and Yaacov Gens was given a quota of Jews to be deported. But the Germans ended up seizing every Jew in Wilno to meet their quota. Only 12,000 Jews remained in the city. Yaacov Gens was killed and the ghetto was liquidated a few days later.

Kovner and hundreds of the ghetto fighters escaped through the city's sewers and other outlets to the Rudniki forests where they joined Soviet partisans on many combat missions. There Kovner and his followers operated a partisan division comprised solely of Jews and performed many heroic acts of sabotage. The division played a key role in destroying power installations, water infrastructures and supply depots. They blew up German transport trains and even rescued groups of prisoners from the Kalais labor camp.

With the liberation of Wilno, Kovner, Ruzhka Korczak and Vitka Kempner, began to activate what remained of the decimated Jewish community. The young partisans began to ponder their future. Did they want to fight the German army and exact revenge or try to escape the madness? Some of the partisans argued that they wanted to head to Palestine to fulfill their ideal of building a Jewish nation. The promise of a true homeland won out and Kovner sent Korczak and Dr. Amarant to Czernowitz to explore

 

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Map of the route that Jewish partisans from Vilnius, Baranowice and Rowno used to reach Czernowitz or Cernauti and then Bucharest, Romania

 

the possibility of crossing the Soviet–Romanian border. Two Jewish partisan leaders had the same object yet were hundreds of kilometers from each other. Both delegations met in Czernowitz. They worked together to create an organization that would absorb transports of illegal Jews in the city and send them onward to Romania. Many local Zionists in Czernowitz assisted the newcomers, facilitated by Rabbi Kahan. Both Abraham Lidkowsky and Korczak dispatched messages to start sending groups of Jews. Meanwhile, Abraham Lidkowsky, Korczak and some Zionist youths managed with the help of smugglers to cross the border to Romania where they took a train to Bucharest. The road was now clear to Palestine. At last there was an opening of hope for those Jewish Shoah survivors who wanted to go to Palestine and fulfill their dreams.

List of Brichah agents in the Soviet Union

AST Awraham M
ECKSTEIN Haya F
EHERENPREISS Joseph M
EHRENHAFT Sarah F
FARBER Fishel M
FELDMAN Raphael M
FRANKFURTER Rabbi Yehoshua M
KAHAN Meier M
KARMIL Moshe M
KARMIL Akiva M
KLESS Shlomomo M
KLESS–VULKAN Genia F
LEONEK    
LEV Fima F
MELLER Yossef M
RITTER Zeev M
ROZMAN Mordechai M
SCOTT Kopel M
SHEVAH Ze'ev M
SHIMONOW S  
SHREIBER Itzhak M
SURKISS Mordechai M

Footnotes

  1. Bauer, Yehuda. Flight and Rescue: Brichah. New York: Random House, 1970, pp 3–5. Return
  2. Bauer, Flight, p.16 Return

 

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