by Reuben Liand [Roman Liandov]
On June 24, 1941 when the Germans were approaching Olshan, I was 19. I knew what to expect, and decided to flee. Along with three others, Sarin, Fodiev and Meltzer, we left at noon on bikes, on the way to Minsk. The road was clogged with Russian soldiers, who were fleeing in disorder. When we got to the train station in Bogdanov, 12 km. from Olshan, German airplanes bombed the station and we had to keep going. On the road to Volozhin, we passed the bodies of civilians and soldiers, wounded or dead from the airplane bombings. We were also forced to hide a few times to evade them. We were held up briefly at a Soviet control point, mistaken as spies.
We reached Volozhin by night and were told that the Soviet civilian authority had fled. We sought out a former Olshaner, Elia the Watchmaker, now living in Voloshin, and spent the night there. Before dawn, we left on the road to Rokov. There we met many Jewish families on wagons and on foot. In the woods near Rokov, German airplanes strafed the woods constantly and we had to remain hidden. After 34 hours we finally got to Rokov, where there were many Jewish fugitives. The sandy road to Minsk was also clogged with weeping refugees carrying packs and little children, and we could hear gunfire in the distance.
At the Former PolishRussian Border
Thousands of people were crowded at the border. Posted on boards fastened to trees were warnings inscribed in large letters in Russian: Unauthorized entry over the border is prohibited under penalty of death. We pressed forward to reach the Soviet guards, who told us that the border was closed to civilians, and that we should return; at night, anyone found near the border would be shot.
People hurried back towards Rokov, and we joined them, after we found that the decree would not be canceled. In the shtetl there was no light in the houses, but no one slept. We sought shelter, but were repeatedly turned away because every place was full. We spent the night in a wooden shed, which had a roof. At dawn we headed toward Radoshkevitzi, near the Polish border, but on the way learned that the border was closed there also. We were advised to try another route to the border and we hastily decided to steal across using byways and fields. As we approached our destination, there was no forest and we could be seen from afar. We were unconcerned and careless. We went through thorny thickets where we had to lift or push our bikes. We encountered no one.
From a distance we saw a road with many soldiers. It became evident that these were retreating Soviet soldiers. We followed them and arrived in Zoslov, the first Russian town with a train station. Above, an air battle was going on between the German and Soviet planes. We could see pilots jumping from their burning planes in parachutes. A train loaded with soldiers and civilians was slowly leaving the station. We entered Zoslov and our spirits were liftedwe were behind the Iron Curtain! At a restaurant, the waiter brought us some bread, but demanded to see some I.D. We snatched the bread from the table and ran out. On the street, people were excited and fearful about the news that the Russians were abandoning Zoslov, and German tanks were approaching.
On our bikes, we got on the trail to the capital of White RussiaMinsk. German planes were strafing the road and it seemed safer for us to lay in the ditches until they passed. Gunfire and missiles whizzed over our heads. We could see in the distance that Minsk was burning. The towns in the area were filled with refugees, fleeing the almost constant bombardment. We spent the night in a small clearing near the Soviet soldiers, so that we might flee with them. Exhausted, I slept til morning, and we were again on the way to Minsk, which was in flames from the bombing. The road was filled with bodies of dead and wounded. Parents were searching for children, who were terrified, weeping and lost. We passed abandoned military vehicles and tanks, which had run out of gas.
In the forest we were suddenly halted by four soldiers, guns drawn, who told us to raise our hands. They asked if we had any weapons; Sarin and Padaiev had to give up their revolvers and we were all searched. We were taken off the trail and ordered to sit, guarded by two armed soldiers. The other two led off our companions, Sarin and Podaiev. After two hours, which seemed like ten, they returned. We were set free and quickly resumed the road to New Borisov. But we never made it because soldiers and civilians were streaming toward us; German units had cut off the trails in the woods. Confused, we finally made our way back to our last stop, and decided to stay there.
Among the Peasants in a White Russian Town
Now we saw few refugees. We were in a remote hamlet, and we asked some peasants if we could buy some food. The answer was, Nyet, golubchik [No, little dove]. We sat down with a group of peasants who were chatting. They asked us where we came from, since our clothes indicated that we weren't local, and our bikes weren't a Russian brand. We told them that we came from Olshan. One of them went off and returned shortly to tell us that he had talked to his wife and she was willing to cook us some potatoes. And in a halfhour, he invited us to his home.
His wife was awaiting us there, and also his 17 yearold daughter. The table was set with a white tablecloth and three pieces of bread. We washed up and sat down, as our host set down a large bowl. Our hostess put on a white apron and brought in a pot of hot potatoes, which we quickly polished off. Sarin offered 50 rubles which our host declined. I stuffed them into our hostess' hand and she thanked us.
The host went into the kitchen, then returned and told us not to get up, because his wife was preparing some more food. The smell of pickled onions pervaded the house. He brought in a freshly baked loaf of bread and a knife, while his wife served a skovorade, scrambled eggs cooked in lard. We cut up the bread and ate all of the eggs. We thanked them and declined any more food. The peasant invited us to stay overnight; his wife had already prepared a room. On the wall was displayed a decorated icon of the Virgin Mary; a small candle was lit below it. The windows were covered by drapes so we could not see outside. After a few minutes we undressed and lay down, but didn't fall sleep because we could hear gunfire and airplanes. When we looked out, we could see shadows of the planes flying and shooting overhead. Suddenly some gunfire hit a window in our house. Before we could get fully dressed, the watchman ran in from the street and led us out from the house into a cellar which had been dug out under the house. There sat our hostess with her daughter. I was trembling from the cold and from fright. The hostess crossed herself and prayed. The earth shook from the bomb blasts. The daughter, Stasha, who was also trembling, fell into my arms and I also held her as if we had been old friends.
When the shooting stopped, we emerged from the cellar. The sky was red from the burning towns. We went back into the house and got some sleep. When we arose in the morning it was raining, and there was little movement outside. Our hostess served breakfast and we sat down with everyone. Since we had eaten so little for several days, we really appreciated the groats, hot milk, oat latkes with skovorade of pickled ham.
Afterwards I again offered them 50 rubles, and we intended to leave, but it was still raining, so we waited until noon. The hostess told us to wait until afternoon, but the rain continued. Sarin and the peasant went out in the rain to find out what was happening. On return, they had several impressions. They were told that Minsk and Barisov were already in German hands. Our groupSarin, Fodiev, Meltzer and I decided to leave. Our host showed us the way to avoid Barisov and get back on the road to Minsk.
Sarin and Fodiev tore up their documents. They hid their party registrations and revolvers in a crevice under the roof of a stable. We marked the place well in case it would be possible to retrieve them. We checked our bikes, pumped up the tires, but then decided to stay the night again because of the continuing rain.
The Germans Arrive and are Greeted Warmly by the White Russian Peasants
My companion, Meyer Meltzer, older than I, had formerly been in the Polish Army before the war. He had repeatedly urged me not to come with him. He had been captured by the Germans in 1939 and had been freed as a resident of Olshan, which had been annexed by the Soviets after the Polish collapse. They had not noticed that he was Jewish, and had let him go.
He tried to make me aware of how I would seem to the Russian soldiers when we were stopped at various points. He was Polish, a zapodnik [person from the east], he felt less concern for the Soviet citizens. But I could be killed either by the Germans or the Russians, so which town should we choose?
Sarin had wanted me to go with him back to Olshan, so before going to sleep, in Meltzer's presence, he asked me if I was staying or going with him. I said I would go. He said he would wake me at dawnand those were the last words I heard from him. I fell asleep, and as if in a dream I heard him ask if I were going. But I fell back to sleep and I didn't wake until later. Meltzer was sitting near me and he told me that I had not responded to Sarin's call, so he and Fodiev left.
I quickly got dressed; the host tried to reassure me that they had not gone far, and I could chase after them. I got on my bike and tried to follow the tracks left in the mud, but couldn't find them. I returned to the town to rejoin Meltzer, and we set off on the road to Minsk. There was little activity in the town, only a few pedestrians. The bridges had been torn down. As we approached Minsk we could see many tanks from the distance marked in front by a red insignia. At first we thought they were Russian tanks, but when we got closer, we could see that the tanks were manned by German soldiers, with black swastikas.
Peasants lined the streets, watching the tanks. We merged with them and also watched. We heard the peasants talking to each other, and one of them, pointing to some young fellows astride the tanks, remarked, See, they are the same as we. Another said, I remember the Germans well from the first war, and things were better for us than under the Bolsheviks. Compared to the Bolsheviks, they were good cultured men.
A cold chill ran down my back, and I knew that we had to get away from this spot. We moved off from these people and got on the road with our bikes, quite near the cheerful smiling Germans, who were driving along. When traffic was interrupted by a collapsed bridge, the tanks and other vehicles had to reroute. We were stopped by some German soldiers, who demanded our I.D.s. They were no longer smiling and now seemed hostile.
Meyer Meltzer handed over his document, and his Sprovka, written in German and stamped with the German eagle, which I now saw for the first time. He had been freed by the Germans and sent home to Russia in September 1939. One of the Germans tore off our caps briefly and asked, Soldaten?. Nyet I replied in Russian and shook my head. After reading his documents, the German asked Meyer, Are you Jewish? Yes, he answered. Communist? Together, we answered, No!, and shook our heads. He returned Meyer's papers, and leafed through my documents, looked at the passport photo, returned them and ordered us to ride off.
We got to the control point, where German soldiers on all sides were leading away young men under suspicion, including soldiers and officers of the Red Army, now dressed in civilian garb, and some who had been imprisoned by the Soviets and were now liberated from their camps. It was evident that the Germans were interested only in discovering Russian soldiers, since the Control consisted mainly of a head inspection. Anyone whose head had been shaved was considered a soldier and was taken prisoner. Those with hair on their heads were freed.
We quickly pedaled away towards Minsk. In the towns that we passed, the German soldiers were dealing with the peasants, exchanging their tobacco and cigarettes for eggs and lard. The soldiers brandished three fingers, In three days Moscow is finished.
Beginning of the German Occupation
When we got to Minsk, we were stopped and taken to a control point. On the sidewalk behind a table sat a German officer and several civilians. Near them was a long row of men, protected by German soldiers. We didn't wait to get to the control table, but when the soldiers were distracted, we raced away on our bikes and merged with the civilian pedestrians. We searched for a Jewish face, found a woman and asked where to find a Jewish neighborhood. She told us to go to the East Bridge, where there were lots of Jews.
The city was still burning, entire neighborhoods and streets were devastated, and corpses were visible in the ruins. We got to Starre Vilenska, near the East Bridge. The shops and businesses had been looted. A few people were carrying food items and household wares.
A woman looking out of her window spoke to us in Yiddish. She told us she had just returned from the town where she and her daughter had been visiting at the time of the bombing. When she got home, everything had been taken. Her husband had been drafted into the army. She said, You see how everyone is looting the stores. I would have gone too, to get some food, but I have no more strength, and didn't want to leave my daughter. But I would let her go with you. I was willing to go with the girl. The woman went upstairs as we entered, then came down the broken wooden steps with her 14 year old daughter. We stowed our bikes and the girl and I went off to find some food. People gladly showed us the way to go, but everyone was headed that way. We came to the cookie factory, too late to find any cookies, but we got some sugar and crackers, loaded our bags and came back. We weren't worried about eating, we slept all night. Meyer had told me, as we lay down, that he intended to leave at dawn, to return to Olshan. I couldn't persuade him otherwise, and said that I was was going to stay in Minsk. At sunrise, I accompanied him to the bridge, where we bade farewell. I never saw him again.
Getting Acquainted With Olshaners Living in Minsk
I knew that a number of Olshaners had moved to Minsk, including Beryl and Tema Koslovski, our distant cousins, with two sons and a daughter, whom I knew personally. After the fall of Poland, when the Soviets took over eastern White Russia and eastern Ukraine in 1939, the mother and daughter had come to visit us in Olshan. And now I was questioning older Jews here, asking if they knew any Koslovski, who had worked at the Torarner Station.
Finally I was told of a Koslovski, a young man, a civil engineer, who might be one of the sons. I was directed to his address, and as soon as I entered the house, there was Tema Koslovski. She remembered me and welcomed me warmly. I met the lovely Miriam, a niece, 17 year old Margolia, and a granddaughter, child of her son Avrasha. An older couple also lived with them, the Ratners. He had been a teacher in Minsk, and their home had burned down.
Tema introduced me as a close cousin. Our mothers had been very close like sisters. Everyone asked about their families in Olshan. I told them all the news and about my wanderings and flight to Minsk. They listened to all this and sighed, wondering where their children were now, or if they were still living. Tema's sons, Avrasha and Elia had been drafted into the Red Army.
I became a close member of the household. Tema showed me two houses which had been her property. One house fronting on the street had been requisitioned as a government food warehouse. In the other house had dwelled her son Avrasha and his wife and child. We occupied half of the house on the hill. The other half was inhabited by a Christian, Olga, and her sister. Her husband had also been drafted.
Tema regretted that she had not taken anything away from the warehouse, like all the others. It would have been possible to obtain some supplies, but she was distracted, and the warehouse had been emptied, leaving only four walls and some stalls. There was a locked wooden shed on the hill, whose contents were unknown. We decided to open it. I procured a hatchet and furtively tore open a board and entered. There we found about 20 cartons of soap, which we unloaded at night. We hid them in the house and put 5 or 6 underground in back of the Koslovski property.
The Germans issued a decree in Minsk, directing that all men aged 1618, and those older than 50, were to assemble at various designated points. Anyone who did not comply would be shot. We decided that I, being 19, would report to the site where those over 50 were assembled, together with the Ratners and Koslovskis. The site was a huge plaza, next to a park and an adjacent burned neighborhood. Many thousands of men had gathered, and women too who had accompanied the elderly and the sick. We waited from 10 in the morning until 3, when a notice was posted on a tree. A truck pulled up and a German officer addressed the crowd in broken Russian to explain with gestures around his neck, that any disobedience would be punished by hanging. Then he sent everyone home.
The fate of the younger group was quite different. They were not sent home, they were surrounded by soldiers, and stayed the whole night. At dawn the Christians were released, and the Jews were roped off. The Germans selected out those who were younger or who were more educated, and sent them off to work camps. Most of them were in fact shot and a few were sent to concentration camps in Minsk, from which they never returned. The remaining Jews were beaten and flogged and were not given any food, except for some brought in by the townspeople.
Under the German Terror Regimen
I stayed with the Koslovskis. We traded soap for food, and sat in our house bewildered, not knowing what to expect. Often the houses were searched by the Germans seeking men for slave labor. Several times I avoided them by hiding. But once two soldiers entered suddenly and caught me. I was taken to a crowd of captured Jews, including children, youths, girls and elderly. We were forced into a three story building which used to be a shul, and directed to empty everything out, for this was being readied to be used as a military warehouse. At evening, everyone was released to go home. But I along with another strong youth was ordered to dig some ditches on the hill. We doubted that we'd be released so we decided to flee.
No one actually knew me in Minsk, and this was an advantage because no one in the White Russian community had identified me as Jewish. There were White Russian police on every corner, armed with clubs, and they clobbered any Jews encountered. Posters on the walls exhorted the people to report any Jews or communists. One notice announced that the people of the town of Ashmen had killed all the ‘damned Jews who had drunk Christian blood in the past’, and asked the Christians of Minsk to follow the example of the Oshmen Christians.
Dealing With the Jews of Smorgen
I knew that there were Jews from Smorgen nearby, and I knew many of them. My mother came from Smorgen, where her brothers and their families lived. I used to see them when I visited my family in Smorgen. I was told that other people from Smorgen, Oshmen and even Olshan lived nearby. In particular, I was told of a Smorgen boy, Avrohom Rutchanski, who was connected with a partisan group outside of the city and that might be a possible contact for me. I remembered that he had attended my school in 193941, before the Soviets took over, and that he had been a militant in Smorgen. He was about 34 years older than me. I had also met Rivke Yacov of Oshmen, who was living with Dovid Baron (Dimka Baronov) a boy from Minsk. Dimka's cousin, Chaimke Kolnitchonski, also lived with them. We were the same age and became friends. He came from a barber's family and he had worked in Olshan in 1937, later in Ashmen, and was also acquainted with Rivke Yacov. He was working as a barber for the Germans.
With the people from Smorgen and another friend from Olshan, Avke Kaplan, who had originally been drafted into the Red Army, we planned to return to Olshan.
Slave Labor and Suffering
Near us lived a native German, Mishke, who worked for the Minsk police. He knew that Tema Kozlovski was trading soap for food, and at first, he got some himself. Then he sent several police the next day for more soap business. Finally he brought some Germans who demanded all of the soap. After taking the supply, they beat Tema severely. I was away, but When I returned at noon, I was arrested with other Jews, brought to the police station, and put in chains. Then the Germans beat us with heavy clubs, especially those who looked healthy. One 50 yearold man, was selected as an example. He was beaten mercilessly and collapsed. As he lay unconscious, they poured cold water on him, then beat him some more as he awakened.
These two hours seemed an eternity. We could not recognize each other because we were so bloody and swollen. The Germans also became weary, were sweating heavily, and they took frequent breaks. During one such break, I managed to sneak out, and escaped home. I would do anything to escape the Germans. I would usually run off from the work crews, to avoid the blows from behind and the other forms of murderous punishment.
Building HideOuts in the Minsk Ghetto
After 3 months the Minsk Jews were driven into a ghetto. We left Toprovski Street and moved to #5 Zamkove Street. We occupied the second floor of this large two story building. From our room a little window led into the corridor, which we boarded up to conceal from the Germans that there was a second entry to the room. We also created some hideouts. Our largest hideout was underground, under the basement. The entry was very constricted, and not everyone could fit. Above the steps were several cabinets, two of which were converted to hideouts. These hideouts saved us from capture by the Germans.
After a month in the ghetto, my friend Chaimke Kolnitchonski, and I had saved up some food. We went to work at the station. Chaimke had introduced me to the Germans as a barber from outer Russia. I could speak enough Russian, and didn't look like a Jew. I gave my name as Liandov Roman Adolfowitch. The Germans gave me a pass with that name, employed as a barber. Chaimke was identified as a ‘connection’ and also got a pass. I pretended that I didn't understand what the Germans said to me, so Chaimke translated into Russian.
Every morning, the Germans brought in chickens, ducks, eggs and samaganka [homemade brandy] from outlying towns, and they spent all morning eating and drinking. Most of them then fell asleep. We had eaten and decided to get as far away from the Germans as possible.
One of them, an alcoholic, used to fall asleep, with a big bottle of brandy above his head and a smaller one next to it. With his eyes closed, he continued sipping without stop. He was a real ruffian and was always brawling with his comrades. We planned to steal the large bottle, which he would assume was taken by his comrades, and that would start a fight.
And that's what happened. We stole the bottle, emptied it, washed it and broke the bottle, so there were no traces. When the German got up and saw that his bottle was gone, he accused one of his comrades of taking his bottle. They started arguing, fighting broke out, and the others joined in, creating a bloody mess. We returned home, satisfied that we had done a great deedwe had seen the Germans fighting each other..
The First German Solution Aktion
After I had worked at the station for a while, I became ill with rheumatism, diagnosed by the Minsk doctor Charno, in the ghetto. I was in bed for three weeks with fever. When I was finally able to get up, the first mass killings were starting in the Minsk ghetto. At dawn, November 7, 1942, we heard the Germans shouting outside, children crying and some shooting. We looked out the window and saw that the houses on Zamkove Street were being emptied of Jews who were being stuffed into open freight trucks, festooned with red banners. The Germans prodded their victims with bayonets to make them move faster.
Our house had not been disturbed yet, so together with Tema and her daughter, we fled from the ghetto. Luckily we made it to Maprovski Street, where Tema had previously lived. We were welcomed warmly by the good Christian lady Olga who gave us shelter and breakfast, and sympathized with our plight. We hadn't had time to warm ourselves, when Olga looked outside and saw Mishke, the German policeman, whom we knew well. She turned pale and told us to hide. Tema and Manye hid under the beds, while I went into the back and waited for Mishka.
He came in and immediately asked Olga where she had hidden her guests. He soon got to the back room and pointing his gun at me, asked,Where is the old Jewess and her daughter? I said I didn't know. You don't know? and he hit me in the head with his gun. Come on out, you'll be better off.
Tema and Manye crawled out, joined me and begged our captor not to beat me. He pushed Manye with his left hand, and pointed the way with his gun. He ordered us to walk down the middle of the street, not on the sidewalk, while he walked behind with his gun pointed. He bragged to the White Russian pedestrians, proudly proclaiming, You see, the Jews wanted to escape from their death. Tema asked where he was taking us, and he replied, To the Tower. She offered him money, but Mishke was not interested, and pushed her to go faster. I thought that this time I was done for. I wasn't able to run because I was so weak from my recent illness. That was the only time that I thought I would die.
We were led to Nimiger Street, on the edge of the ghetto. Suddenly a group of German soldiers shouted at us and started shooting in the air. Mishke was frightened and hid in a doorway. With all my might I ran towards the Germans, along with Tema and Manye. When we approached them they only asked where we lived. I pointed to the house near where we stood. Quick, run into the tower. In the tower we found an exit to the next street, and so we were free from Mishke. The Germans who had freed us, were guarding the properties confiscated from the empty ghetto houses, which had not been looted by the civilians. We came home to #5 Zalkova, where nothing had been moved. The Aktion had targeted only part of the ghetto, up to Zamkova Street. The other side of the street had been liquidated, but not ours.
The Second Aktion and the Childbirth in Hiding
Several weeks later, the second Aktion was carried out in Minsk, including the other side of Zalkova Street. We could not escape, all the streets were guarded. I hid in our hideout, while the others including Tema and her daughter stayed in the house. In our little dugout, we had huddled with a 15 year old boy, and an older woman with her pregnant daughter. There was no room for any movement. Soon the Germans began to search, and then began to check the basements. But they did not find us. After the cries of those who had been captured died down, we realized that the houses were now empty. We could hear the voices of the murderers who were searching the houses.
At night, the pregnant woman started to have labor pains. She had suffered in silence, but her agonized movements had caused some noise. The men warned that they might stifle her if her movements were too noisy. In the darkness, she continued to labor, and then gave birth on the floor. Her moans quieted down, and we heard nothing of the actual birth. But the woman's mother pleaded that someone should enter the house to find a scissors, for the placenta was bleeding and she thought that might be fatal. I was chosen to do this. The door into our house was blocked, but I heard sounds within and called. Tema opened the door; everyone was there, they had not been molested. Two more neighbors had also found shelter here. I told her why I was there and what had happened. Tema gave me a scissors and some thread to tie off the umbilical cord, and additional instructions.
I returned, and the mother helped me to find the cord. I cut it with scissors and tied it off. In a little while the infant began to cry. Our survival was at stake and we grimly agreed on our only dismal option. We smothered the child, carried it outside and buried it in the sand.
All night, the Germans carried out their mission of liquidating the ghetto, using torches and probes to find the hidden Jews. About 6 AM, they left our neighborhood. We ascended from the basement and encountered others who had survived. From our house emerged the Koslovski family and their two neighbors. The Germans were in no hurry to liquidate the whole ghetto entirely, they did it by neighborhoods. Those who had successfully hidden moved to another part of the ghetto. Tema, Beryl, their daughter Margolia and I moved in with the Potashnik family.
Some days later I met the woman whose baby we had suffocated. She wept, mourning her lost child, and wanted to know the location of its burial site so that she might make a proper burial in a cemetery. She brooded that her child might have lived if we had not had to make that terrible decision. Sadly, she acknowledged that we had no other choice. This had been her first child. She had married just before the war, and her husband had been drafted into the army.
We stayed a week with the Potashniks, then moved to Tankovaya Street, where we found a hiding place under the stairs leading to a little house which had two rooms. I didn't report for the work which was being managed by the Judenrat. Whenever the Germans caught anyone hiding, they brought him to the Judenrat to torture him publicly and then shoot him. Several times when I passed the Judenrat, I saw the bodies of the executed boys and girls on the bridge. The Germans deliberately let the bodies stay for several days to frighten the people.
German Jews In The Minsk Ghetto
Half of the Minsk ghetto had been liquidated. The houses of those who had been evicted were occupied by White Russians. A few streets of the remaining ghetto were occupied by German Jews who had been brought from Berlin, Hamburg and other cities. They were jammed into the closed part of the Minsk ghetto. The German Jews were privileged; they received a normal bread ration before going out to work. While the Russian Jews got 100 grams of bread, the German Jews got 200. Their ghetto had its own Judenrat and policemen, who guarded the gate, so that no Russian Jew could deal with those Jews exiled from Germany.
Trade consisted of exchanges of materials. The German Jews had brought a lot of things with them and they were glad to exchange them for food.. The Russian Jews used to buy clothes, watches and other valuables, and later traded them to the White Russians for food, such as flour or lard.
Often I visited Chaimke Kolnitchonski, who lived with Rivke Yakov from Ashmen, with her sister's children David and Mishke Baron. Mishke had been in the army and had been released from German captivity. They all lived together and worked outside the ghetto in the laundry of the headquarters.
Rivke ran the household. Chaimke, who had been labeled by the Germans as a ‘hybrid’, worked as a group leader, who conducted the Jews to their various work sites. David Baron didn't look Jewish. Sometimes he didn't come home at night. He also worked in the laundry but had a connection with the Minsk underground Communist party. Chaimke told me all this and also told me that David had a connection to the partisans and really would like to join them. But we were ‘zapodnikes’, from the east, meaning Poland, and the partisans had no confidence in them. He advised me to speak with David, to see if I could join them.
My Relationship With the Patrols
Chaimke told me that for now he couldn't take me to a partisan connection. But at the auto repair plant he had heard that they were looking for a barber, and that I should apply for a job there with my documents as a White Russian. I took the suggestion and two days later I started my work as a barber at the auto repair shop. I had my tools and my documents and got there about noon. It was in another part of town and nearby were twostory white barracks housing German soldiers.
I spoke only Russian and they didn't ask me any questions. An officer told me to get to work, to cut his hair and shave him. Afterwards, apparently pleased, he slapped my shoulder and gave me some cigarettes. He got dressed and told me to come with him. He brought me into the workshop office and introduced me as a barber and I worked all day in the barracks. I was given a special place, but at first I went from room to room, serving only officers. Some would pay me, others would not. I went home in the evening.
I had been warned that not far from the workshop, patrols were common, and that I shouldn't go any further. I went back to the barracks, but I was uncomfortable because there were only German soldiers there. I turned to some Christians who lived nearby and asked if anyone would let me stay there for the night. One of them invited me in. A young man sitting there was unfriendly at first. He quizzed me about my identity and address. I told him I was working here for the Germans as a barber, and that I lived on Maprovski Street. I had gotten off the street because of the patrols . He invited me to take off my jacket and make myself at home.
I sat there anxiously and reflected that this was the wrong place for me to be. It got dark outside, and the family started to come home. I took note of whoever left the house, and when I noticed that the young man was drowsing, I thought about how I might pass myself off before it was too late. At the right moment, I put on my tunic with my document and tools and slipped away. It was dark outside, and wandering around the barracks could be tricky. Then I remembered seeing a large gym, where no one lived, and I managed to get in unnoticed.
The door was very wide and opened only slightly. I lay down between the door and the wall. I finally closed the door because of the cold. I wondered what to say if I was found. Various thoughts ran through my mind. I wasn't worried if the Germans found meI would be responsible for myself. But it would be worse if I were found by the White Russian police. I couldn't sleep at all. At dawn I heard the sound of soldiers' boots in the corridor. Two soldiers came in and lit their pocket lights after opening the door. I scrunched up my legs and pretended to be asleep and the Germans ignored me. In the morning I got up, left the gym, and worked at haircuts and shaving again. I asked the older German if he could get me an affidavit for my business, and he agreed. At the end of the day I returned home to the ghetto.
On the second day, going to work, I was on a quiet sidestreet and was suddenly halted by a German soldier and a White Russian policeman. My documents were approved after a superficial inspection. The German directed the cop to take me to an alley where a group of Russian youths and girls had been assembled. From all sides, captured Russian youths and maidens were assembling, then along with other such groups, were brought to the Surzeschke Market. All along the way we were accompanied by concerned Christians, families of the captives. The Germans assured these worried observers that they should not be concerned, that we were being taken to Germany to work, and would return when the war was over.
The Market was jammed. There were stalls which had once been stocked with merchandise. We were driven into the stalls under guard. A German gave a speech and assured us that we were being taken to Germany to do war work, and that at the end we would be wellpaid and given houses with land. The Minsk people had brought food supplies and clothing in packages for their relatives and said their goodbyes. Everyone got a package except me. I stood there quietly and thought only about how to escape, before we were led into the delousing baths. It was rumored that the baths were the last step before being transported, and I feared that I might be trapped. When the order was given to start leaving, much weeping and clamor followed, and the soldiers started pushing us out of the stalls. In the confusion, I seized the opportunity to snatch an empty pack, sneaked out through the gate and escaped once more. When I met Chaimke again, I told him that I wouldn't go back to the car repair shop again.
At the General Commissary
Chaimke had been advised to bring me to a job at the general commissary, because his nephew Dimke Baronov wanted to talk to me. Dimke told me that at the commissary, the shoerepair and tailor workshops were together. The job consisted of opening the door for German officers and their ladies when they came to the shops. Until now this had been done by a Jew, but now a directive had come down to replace the Jew with a Russian. I would be presented as a Christian to work at this job, so next morning I went to work at the Commissary on Ploshtzad Svobodi [Freedom Place].
The management of this place consisted of Lieutenant Shtamp, and Chief Engineer Hinig. Most of the workers in the shops were Jews. The head of the commissary was later blown up by a mine placed under his bed by his girlfriend, who belonged to the underground. The rumor was that she had been Jewish. Besides the German supervisor, there were also brigadiers and colonels, and also civilians. Most of these civilians were Jews using fake family names, and nationalists as well as mixed breeds.
I was paid 200 grams of bread daily and two meal vouchers [stolova] for lunch and dinner. Lunch consisted of a watery soup mixed with corn meal, sometimes a horse bone. The evening meal was a little tea or coffee and 100 grams of bread. This was not enough food for me, so I tried to manipulate the rations, and thought about how I could get some more food.
I had received my I.D. card as a Russian, and the document also described me as White Russian. The secretary in the chancellory of the labor division where I had gotten my documents was a young German woman who was in the military service, and was the daughter of the engineer Hinig. This office was in the vicinity of the shops where I worked.
I Become a Shopper, Get a Revolver and Prepare to Join the Partisans
Max was one of the German Jews, who spoke a little Russian. He came from Lodz and in childhood his family moved to Germany. Max was about 40 and had a 17 year old daughter. He was sort of a supervisor of the German Jews who were doing lumber work, sawing and chopping trees. I told Max that if anyone in his group would like to barter something for food, then I could handle it. He eagerly accepted the idea, and next morning he brought me a man's suit.
After work I took the suit to the market which I knew well, and traded it for 2 kilos of lard, a loaf of bread and 2 kilos of potatoes. In the morning I brought these items to Max, who was pleased with my work and I inspired his confidence. At my request he brought in gold objects and other clothing from his friends, and I again traded them successfully at the market.
We already had enough food and money, but Max asked me to go to the market daily to barter for food. I finally declined because I had enough. The only one I told about my dealing was my best friend who I saw every day, Chaimke Kolnitchonski.
A few months passed. We really wanted to join the partisans. I couldn't find out anything more precise, because I didn't have any contacts. But I knew that you had to have a gun before you could be accepted. One day, I noticed a young Christian lad, about 17, walking near the house where I worked, as if he were seeking someone. When I asked him who he was seeking, he didn't answer, but then called me aside and told me that he had a new unused blank passport, which could be used by anyone who might fill in the blanks. He knew that the Jews needed this and would gladly buy it. If I could sell one to the Jews inside the shop, I could keep the profit over his selling price.
I agreed to this transaction and he said he would bring the document tomorrow. It was evident that he was interested only in the money. In the morning he brought this blank document, an udostovyenye, affirmation that served as a passport. On very close inspection the stamp might be seen as false. I gave him ten gold rubles, and asked him if he could get me a pistol. In order to get gold coins for this I had to go to the market a number of times to barter the things that Max had brought me.
One day on the way to the market with some items to sell, including a rubber coat which I was wearing, I was suddenly halted by two guards, one in front and the other in back. Are you Jewish?, said one of them and asked to see my documents. I also showed him my work permit from the commissary. They didn't believe me and told me to take off my coat. There they found the traces of the yellow stars which had been removed. I responded that I had bought the coat from one of the Jews who worked in the commissary shop, and that the traces of the yellow letters didn't worry me, because I wasn't a Jew. I spoke all this in Russian. I told them to take me to the commissary, where I knew the head officer, and I also mentioned the chief engineer Hinig. I also said I could identify the Jew from whom I had bought the coat. I was quite calm, because even Max didn't know I was Jewish. I put up such a good front that the guards released me.
When I had accumulated sufficient gold, I acquired the pistol along with 8 bullets from the Russian boy, and I hid them in the grass near a devastated house close to the commissary. I thought it was a good spot and I checked it frequently. However, in a few days, when I checked I saw that everything looked disturbed. I searched, trying to convince myself that I had gotten mixed up, but in fact my pistol and bullets were gone. However I found a hidden grenade, wrapped in rags, like my gun, so I hid that in a different area. Again I started ruminating about how to get a gun. The grenade was useless as an entry, even if there were an opportunity. So I set about dealing at the market place, handling only small items like rings, earrings, watches.
The German Secretary and Theft of Documents for the Partisans
The secretary at the commissary, the daughter of the engineer Hinig, was 18 years old with a round face. She didn't crack a smile during work, just like her father. She prepared the orders for the labor brigade, gave out propusken [passes], leaves, extended leaves and prepared various documents on her typewriter. There were two typewriters in her room, one for her, the other for her father. The round rubber stamp with the ‘birdie’ was there too. All the documents signed and stamped by the lieutenant in charge and the head engineer were issued by this girl. She would often ask me to fetch one of the workers to come to her office. She even gave me some cigarettes, and I had gotten her to extend a pass for someone who wasn't working. As a gift, I gave her a pair of earrings
Some weeks later, Chaimke told me that a barber institute, a parikmacherske, was scheduled, only for the commissary workers. and that we would be working there. The session lasted a few days and was held in the reception room of the Chancellory house. There I made some contact with the underground partisan organization in Minsk, for which I had been yearning. Chaimke and I were asked to steal some of the blank documents from the desks of the secretary and her father. These blanks were inscribed in big letters, The General Commissary of White Russia, and had the round stamp with the emblem of the German eagle.
The assignment to steal the blanks was given us by Norusevitch, who also received them from us. He was one of the first Jews in the underground and had been sent into the forest. There he was the commander of a partisan group. Before that he had worked as a manager in the commissary, and had been identified as a mischling, of mixed origins. In autumn 1942 Norusevitch was shot by the partisan command, because he had refused to take orders from other Russian commando groups.. He was a heroic comrade, and was probably killed because he was Jewish.
We had carried out our assignment very well without mishap. With several valuable pieces of jewelry from Max, I approached the secretary when she was alone, and offered them for sale. Chaimke stood watch to warn if anyone was coming. She spoke only German and I only Russian. We communicated by hand gestures, so I understood what she wanted. In order that I might visit more often, I would bring in slightly different items, not quite what she wanted, pretending that I hadn't understood.
The blanks lay on the desk. The stamp was locked in a cabinet on the wall. If the stamp was needed, she unlocked the cabinet, then locked it again after replacing the stamp. Often she left the key in the lock, or she went out for a few minutes. We utilized those occasions. Chaimke alerted me, I would enter, use the stamp on the blank forms on the desk, as many as I wanted, then restore the stamp and lock it back in the cabinet. Everything went smoothly.
We provided more blanks than were requested. The stamped documents were used for various purposes. With the help of these papers, cars were driven out into the woods carrying Jewish boys and girls, who had been working in our commissary. The blanks were entitled: The work detachment of the General Commissary includes men and women, sent into the forest to do forestry work. The numbers of men and women were listed and also the director and so on. The signatures of the lieutenant and the chief engineer were forged.
At 6AM, the vehicle would enter the ghetto, just like other trucks, that were taking the Jews to work. People were already standing in place to be picked up, holding saws, axes and other tools for forest work. The driver was a Christian, Valodya, who had been driving trucks for the commissary. He was accompanied by Norusevitch, and they both had legitimate documents. Weapons were hidden under the hood.
It was about 40 km from the city to the forest. Valodya would drive the truck to a certain point for the workers. After a few trips, Norusevich would stay in the forest, and only Valodya knew where to meet him. The partisans took away the workers, and Valodya drove back. One of these trips included: Chaimke's cousin David Baronov, who had also been a unit leader at the commissary, Rivke Yacov, Chaimke Aginski, his Christian wife, and others.
Partisan Activities and German Terror
In Minsk it was already known that the partisans were lurking in the forest, attacking the German transports. In response the Germans carried out deadly missions against the partisans, and would hang them in the public squares of Minsk. In the ghetto, the Germans intensified their terror campaign, by the ‘liquidation of the Jews’. Many of the Jewish workers at the commissary were seized and shot in an Aktion.
Chaimke and I had carried out our assignments from the underground. In order to take care of the boys and girls, we used to steal tools from the warehouse such as saws and axes. I remember one case where we were in the process of carrying out the stolen tools, which we hid in the closet of the Chancellory, near the back door of our house. When we left, we had in error taken the lock with us. We had gotten it from engineer Hinig. We intended to retrieve the tools after work to keep on the hill, for the workers who were to be driven off by Volodya.
While I was alone in the barber shop, suddenly Hinig came in and asked me to unlock the closet. I was terrified, I was sure we were goners. I told him that Kolnitchovski had the key, and that I'd get it when he returned, and then unlock the closet. He became angry and ordered me to go find Kolnitchovski and get the door opened. He left, I quickly unlocked the door and threw the tools out onto the hill outside. By the time Hinig returned, there was no trace left in the closet. I gave him the key, and he ordered me to remove a broken stool to move into the furniture shop.
Shortly thereafter, Chaimke and I had procured pistols and bullets and were waiting for the call to go into the forest. I didn't want to chance hiding them as before, lest they be stolen, so I decided to carry them with me. I bought a pair of German military boots with wide uppers and stuffed my gun into one of them. I was on the way to the market to do some more trading, when suddenly on a side street, I encountered two German soldiers. One of them pointed to my boots, had me sit down and told me to take off my boot. He took off his own left boot, which was damaged, and pulled off my left boot, which did not contain the gun. I thought I'd have to flee barefoot if I had to take off the other boot containing the gun. The soldier started to put on my left boot, but fortunately it was too small. He gave it back to me and retrieved his own boot. And so I evaded another seemingly disastrous mishap.
On April 5, 1942, Chaimke, as a group leader from the commissary, accompanied a group of Jews into the forest. At 5:45 AM, I was picked up; Valodya was driving. Chaimke was bearing a sign identifying him as a group leader. I sat in the truck and we drove into the ghetto. After our documents were checked, we picked up the people standing ready to go. I knew most of them who had worked at the commissary. We drove out of the ghetto to the east bridge, where I said farewell to Chaimke and the group, and I returned to my work earlier than usual.
It was past the time when Valodya should have returned, and our people were getting restless, uneasily checking outside. He finally returned at 11, and reported that everything went well, but the partisans had not been there as scheduled, because they were engaged in a battle with a German unit. The newcomers had decided to wait in the forest for the partisans.
The Tragic Fate of Chaim Kolnitchovski and Our Underground Fighters
No vehicles or people showed up, and three days went by without a message. The engineer Hinig demanded to know where Kolnitchovski was. Certainly something must be amiss since he was absent from work. He directed me to check Kolnitchovski's residence. When he returned next day to demand an answer, I turned to a Jewish girl, Bronia, who worked cleaning up the shops and toilets, to explain in German my rehearsed statement, that Kolnitchovski had gone off to Ruzivevich where his father had died. Hinig listened to me, searched deeply into my eyes and said, He‘s crazy. Why didn't he tell me? I could have given him a pass. He's probably a goner now. I looked him steadily in his eyes and said nothing. He knew that I ‘could not’ speak German, that was always Chaimke's job.
The fate of the group was revealed on the 4th day. A young Jewish girl of 17, who had been in the group led by Chaimke, had returned to Minsk. She was short, didn't look Jewish, and appeared to be 1314. She related that after the partisans had failed to appear, some decided to return to the city to try to reconnect with a messenger from the partisans. Chaimke, another boy and this girl set off on the trail, but were halted by a German patrol, who decided that their documents looked suspicious. So they drove them back to the Commissary, allowing the young girl to escape.
Two days later on April 9, three soldiers brought Chaimke and his comrade back to Minsk. They had first been checked at the Commissary, where their documents were identified as forged. Both of them were thrown into jail. Additional participants and ringleaders were arrested, including Duner, who was thought to be a mischling and Milinke, who had passed as a Christian. On two successive days, Duner was taken to the City Garden and seated alone on a bench. Near him on another bench were sitting Germans disguised as civilians. If any of the pedestrians greeted him or stopped near him, they would be arrested afterwards.
Volodya disappeared after this disaster. After the first news from the partisans, I fled into the forest, and met up with one of the Jewish comrades from the underground, Lapidus, who arranged my connection with the partisans; he himself returned to Minsk. He told me that Chaim Kolnitchovski had not betrayed anyone, and was executed by hanging in the Minsk public square in May 1942.
In Those Days
April 15, 1942, at dawn, I went off in the forest with a partisan scout, a 17 yearold Jewish boy Mischke. He looked like a peasant from the town, wore peasant's clothes with a white pack on his back. I was also dressed as a peasant, with a knit cap, Russian soldier's pants,, stuffed into my German boots, where I still had my gun and bullets. I also had my Russian documents, which were needed if I crossed a control point. In my pack I had bread, a piece of lard, a packet of tobacco, a warm knit sweater and an old jacket.
In the outskirts, at a designated spot, we met a Christian couple in their forties, Ivan Ivanovich and his wife. Both were dressed as townspeople. They said they were messengers from the underground Minsk Communist party, and they accompanied us through side streets. We avoided the towns and anywhere there might have been German posts or police guards.
We didn't speak at all the whole day until sunset when we entered the Kolodiner Forest, in the Uzder region, and eventually came to the partisan outpost. Only Mischke was allowed in, but later a partisan led us to the partisan camp, whose commander turned out to be Ivan Ivanovich. He was a tall Russian with a yellow beard. The group also contained Dimka Baronov, Rivka Yakov and some other acquaintances who had been in the group with Chaimke. They had connected with Ivanovich's partisans, who were one of several groups in Nikita's organization.
There were other groups in the Kolodina forest, disorganized and disinterested in any collective goal. There were also bandits, who posed as partisans, in order to rob the peasants. One gang was composed of former Soviet prisoners who only accepted exconvicts who had been in prison for more than 10 years. The Communist commanders at the head of the groups were connected to the Minsk Underground. Commanders of other partisan groups thought that messengers from the city were German agents, on spying missions in order to send future German combat groups who would destroy the partisan camps. There were various shades of opinion among the groups, leading to propaganda battles with the goal of unifying forces under Nikita's Otriad. Sometimes armed clashes and bloodshed occurred between the groups, and commanders were shot down.
The partisans in this area consisted of about 50 per cent Jews, 40 percent Russians, soldiers who had escaped captivity, 10 per cent White Russians, residents of the area. Commanders known as Jews included Israel Lapidus and Elisha Norusevich from Minskthey belonged to Nikita's group. Nikita himself had been an officer in the Red Army. He looked Jewish, some said he was Jewish, but I never did find out.
Our camp was deep in the forest near a swamp which blocked any access and defended us against any of the frequent attacks by the Germans. Since my arrival no one had asked me who I was or where I came from. My comrades from the Minsk group were familiar with my work for the Underground. After I got settled, Rivka Yakov gave me a blanket and I fell into a deep sleep under the open sky.
In the morning Ivan Ivanovich summoned me and asked my name. I answered, Romke. He repeated this smiling, then pulled a rusty rifle out of his box and gave it to me. He asked if I knew how to handle a rifle, and I answered,Da, tovarich commander! I knew how to take apart and reassemble my pistol, but I had never handled a rifle before.
Ivan Ivanovich told me which squad I was to join. You may part with this rifle only if you are dead. Meantime, go clean it up! and I left with my hands full. That was the happiest moment of my life since I had left my home in Olshan.
I immediately got to work disassembling and cleaning my rifle. I was able to take it apart, but I was unable to put it back together. I didn't want to ask help from anyone and continued to puzzle over it for quite a while. Nearby was sitting a 13 yearold boy who noticed my problem. He hobbled over on one leg, leaned on his stick, grinned at me.You don't know how to put it together. Give it to me, I'll show you.
I was embarrassed, but handed over the gun. He sat down and put the parts together. He did this several times to show me the proper technique. I looked around to make sure that nobody saw that I had been taught by this young boy. His name was Bebe, a Jew from Audze. When the Germans were killing the Jews of his town, they had forced them into an open ditch and shot them all. Bebe lay there with all the others, but he had only been wounded in the foot. When the murderers had finished, they left the ditch open. He was able to crawl out, and eventually was found by the partisans. He was assigned to clean the rifles, while his wound was slowly healing.
Partisan Activity in 1942 and My First Battle Experience
In the evening after sunset, the partisans left their camp, to carry out their assigned duties, such as finding food from the towns. In partisan ‘lingo’, that was called bombiashka. A rozviedka [foray] and svioz [connection] with the nearby peasants were other missions. In addition, we were also sent to kill individual policemen who used to come visit their families, or any peasants who had collaborated with the Germans against the partisans.
We were also to disrupt and burn the milk stations where the peasants had been forced to deliver their milk to the Germans. This was actually a relief for the peasants who then were relieved of this milk ‘tax’. In addition we had to go on raids to tear up the train tracks. At night there were only a few men in the camps. The partisans were busy all night and slept in the daytime. There was no scarcity of weapons, which had been abandoned en masse in the woods by the fleeing Red Army soldiers who were then taken prisoner.
One night the commander gave us an assignment for 8 men and a leader. Our goal was a bombiashka and we had to traverse a field in single file. We neared our designated town at night, and two of our men went in to see if there was any danger. We stretched out behind the town. In case our comrades encountered an enemy, we were to light a fire to guide their escape.
To complete our mission we appropriated a horse and wagon and two sheep from a peasant, whose son was a policeman. When we collected more food from the peasants, that set off a chorus of barking dogs. As they quieted down, we approached the cemetery behind the town. Suddenly we were assaulted by a burst of gunfire and flashes of rockets. We fled under a hail of bullets, leaving our booty behind, and our partisan comrades were lost. Dimke Baronov was wounded in his foot.
Subsequently our group was merged with Lapides' group. Our new camp was surrounded on all sides by swamps. At one spot we could cross over on tree branches. In our new camp, a bloody event occurred. At the order of Lapides, the partisan Mishke Baronov, a brother of David Baronov, was executed because he refused to obey an order from the commander to carry a kettle. The Jewish commander had made him a symbolic victim, to enforce discipline.
After camp had been set up and food was cooked, two of us were assigned to one of the raiding posts. We took food and water for a whole day. Our path took two hours and led us into the edge of the Kolodina forest. Across from us was the little town where we had lost our two partisans. Our objective was to observe the road into the town.
I climbed up a tree to observe any movement in the town. My comrade was guarding the trail below. At night, we switched places. Before dawn, I got up and walked back and forth to warm up. When the sun came up I noticed a man in the distance walking in my direction. Impulsively, I decided to ask him for some supplies, and approached him so that he wouldn't see our hiding place. When we got closer, my identity became obvious because of the red insignia on my cap.
I asked him where he was coming from so early. He said he had been at the mill near Kolodina to grind some corn, but didn't know how to do it at night. He had spent the night in the town, because he was afraid to be out in the dark. He named his home town, but I'm ashamed to admit that I didn't even ask him where he'd left his horse and why he was going home. I asked him for some supplies and walked back a way with him.
He gave me some food items, and I asked him to cut me a little tobacco. I walked with him a little further, actually nearing the place where my comrade was sleeping. I happened to look around behind us and to my consternation, saw groups of crouching soldiers running on the road on both sides, quite close to me. I dashed into the woods. The soldiers chased after me, shouting in Russian, Shtoi! Ruki vierd! Nie s'miesto! Stop, hands up, don't move!
My buddy was already up, bewildered by the shouting. I yelled at him, let's goGermans! [in fact, they were Latvians], and we ran into the forest downhill, chased by the Latvians, ordering us to stop. They didn't fire at us because they didn't want to attract more attention. With our last energy, we made it into the swamp and crawled as far as we could. Our pursuers didn't venture into the swamp. We heard some shooting in the direction of our former hideout, and a little later, in the direction of our camp. Above the forest, an airplane droned back and forth shooting and launching grenades.
After we had rested, we left the swamp intending to unite with our comrades in the partisan group to take part in the battle. We saw only the Latvians, from whom we tried to remain hidden. Possibly we could have killed some of their scouts in the forest, but we wanted to evade them. We were unable to locate our camp, so returned to the swamp. At dusk we resumed the search, and finally found the remains of the campfire, but it had obviously been abandoned. In the distance we could hear occasional gunfire.
At the camp we found burned tents, discarded clothing, and piles of debris. We looked for something to eat in the cooking area, and saw overturned pots and a few peeled potatoes and some meat The pots and other utensils were shattered and hacked to pieces, so the Latvians must have been there. We found a little packet of coals left over by the Latvians, and we used them to cook. After eating, we decided to stay in this spot in case some lost comrades from another group might come, or perhaps our commander might send a messenger. And that's what happened. In the morning, two scouts from Otriad arrived, and a little later came two lost partisans. All six of us set out to find the Otriad. That morning we were also joined by another group of wounded partisans, and then we found our section ‘hospital’.
Nikita and the Otriad had fled to the east, leaving their wounded behind, and a few healthy ones to care for them. We stayed with the group, and helped to care for the wounded. Every few days we'd move to another camp, and we carried along the wounded.
Traitors in the Partisan Group
After a few weeks, we were found by the partisan Mishke Kodreshov. He said he had been sent by Nikita, and he was really a lieutenant in the Red Army. His mission was to take all the wounded, whether they could walk or not, and all the other remaining loyal partisans, to reunite with Nikita. So we all set out to try to find Nikita.
Along with me and my comrade, there were now 8 of us: Elioshka Kozotchin, a Russian who had a rifle and a pistol, Reuben, a Jew with a rifle; the wounded were: Dimke Atchminakov, a Ukrainian; Vanke Militin, a Russianthey had pistols. There were also two Jewish girls: Sara, armed with a revolver, and another unarmed girl whose name I don't recall. Kudreshov had a rifle, and I had one plus my pistol. As we moved eastward, Dimke's wound had opened so we had to go very slowly. Atchminikov was very loyal to Nikita, and encouraged us to keep moving at night and rest during the day.
One day, while I was on day watch, I observed a man, and followed him, hidden. He was alone, paused to listen, then kept going in the direction of our camp. When he heard a loud sound, he hid under a bush. I knew the noise came from our camp, so I ran up to him, pointing my gun at him. He raised his hands and I brought him into the camp. He was searched and was found to have only a small knife. He said he was a Russian who had escaped from a prison camp into the forest and had intended to join the partisans. His name was Alyoshke Alexeyev; he was tall, fairhaired and spoke perfect Russian. Our commander, Mishke, believed his story and allowed him to stay with us. A few days later, chatting with me, Alyoshke admitted to me that he had actually escaped from the police.
I told this to Mishke, and to the wounded Dimke, who, like me, had distrusted the newcomer. We both felt that we should shoot him. Mishke summoned him and we grilled him while threatening to shoot him. He maintained that he had come voluntarily, that no one had sent him. Mishke ordered me, in front of Alexeyev, to take him outside the camp and shoot him. I unleashed my rifle, and ordered Alexeyev to walk ahead and not to turn his head around. Mishke was behind me, and as I raised my rifle about to shoot, Mishke shouted, Don't shoot! He approached Alexeyev and urged him to confess, and we wouldn't shoot him.
After a short dialogue, Alexeyev confessed. The Uzde police had sent him to find the location of the partisan camp. The little knife was to be used to make cuts on the trees to mark the trail. He didn't have a chance to do this, because he had met us and decided to stay with us in the forest. Mishke kept his word, and let him rejoin the group.
It became clear to us that Mishke had not been loyal to Nikita. He had not admitted that he wasn't leading us to the Otriad. His plan was to create his own group. I also noted that he didn't have any desire to fight the Germans, but had some other plans. It happened that I accompanied Mishke on one of the scheduled sovchozn in the Audzer region. Alexeyev and Ivan Miliutin also came with us. At the entry to the sovchoz was a little bridge, a trap for the partisans. As soon as we passed over, we were fired on, and Ivan Miliutin was killed.
Next, I was with Kudreshov in a town on a scouting mission, and he drank too much Samogen [homemade brandy]. One of the peasants asked him, in my presence, when he was quite drunk, Tell me, brother, who are you fighting against? He answered, I'm fighting against the Jews, the Kolchoz'n, and against Hitler. I didn't show my dismay at my ‘comrade's’ answer. But I planned to leave the camp soon.
When we returned to the camp, I mulled over several possibilities. Perhaps I should just shoot him in the head. But I didn't want to waste one of my cherished bullets. I had confidence in the Ukrainian, Dimke Atchminikov, that he was loyal to Nikita. So I suggested to him that we leave Kudreshov and go search for the Otriad. Dimke's wound was healing, and he was able to walk better. We were joined by Reuben and Kozotchin, and left Kudreshov, Alexeyev and the two women, to depart to the east. We came to the Kapuler region, crossed Lake Nieman, in the area of Piasetzna. We learned from some peasants that there was a partisan group led by Mayer Bazianka. We were resolved to join the Otriad and its leader, and intended only to join this group temporarily, just to get information on how to achieve our goal.
That night we were on the road used by the partisans. We had to be especially careful that our encounter with these local partisans should not be misunderstood, and that there must be no conflict between us. After all we didn't know the lingo of these unknown partisans.
We were in the Velyeshiner Forest, in the town of Velyeshin at night. We heard some wagons arriving. The speakers' voices sounded strange, so we hid. Otherwise the town was asleep and totally silent. At Dimke's order, we stopped the next wagon to pass, hoping that it was manned by partisans. Dimke went up to the wagon, which was indeed full of partisans. When they saw this strange armed man, they quickly dismounted. Dimke introduced himself and asked for their leader. The partisans surrounded him and ordered him to stand there and wait for the next wagon, carrying their leader, Orlov. When Orlov arrived, Dimke introduced himself again as a partisan in the Otriad, and that he was not alone.
We approached at Dimke's call. Orlov made sure there were no others, then ordered us to lay down our weapons in the wagon. Dimke refused his order, and we didn't want to give up our weapons. Orlov explained that they were going on a mission, and would have to send us back to camp along with two guards, and it would be impossible to let us go with our weapons. So reluctantly we handed over our bullets and grenades, but kept our rifles and revolvers. Orlov agreed to this, and sent us back on the wagon with the guards, to the Storitser Forest. Until morning we were under guard, and then Mayer Kapuste showed uphe was related to one of our men.
The Partisan Brigade Clashes With a German Group
Kapuste and Natchalnik listened to our story as we told them about our past, and our intention to find Otriad. They praised us for our loyalty to our commander. However they assured us that Nikita and his group had gone far past our area, so we were obliged to stay in this brigade. Moreover, the directive stated that any small disaffiliated groups would be considered bandits, and would be shot by the partisans. We were told that there were already a number of other partisans from Nikita's group, just like us. At the end he told the guards that we were free, and told the cook to feed us. We weren't too happy about being obliged to stay, but we didn't have the nerve to object.
Later, three group commanders appeared, accompanied by three former Nikita partisans. One of them was Dimke Baronov, wellknown to me, and we were designated as Otriadniks. I was to be named Tshopiev, and Baronov (Dimke Avseinikov) was now named Fartchamyenka.
Liova Hilshtik, the Jewish commander, was the first one to organize the partisans in the Kapuler sector. He had no military background. He was middleaged, born in Kapuler. Before the war he had been a lawyer working for the Kapuler administration in the office supervising cattle production. All the original Otriad members were Jewish, and they were called the Yevrieski Otriad [Jewish Otriad]. Later, from Zhukov's group, Hilshtik accepted all the Jews, including elders, women and children, that the other commanders had been unwilling to accept.
Dunaiev, a bona fide lieutenant, about 30, was clad like a cossack, and was thought to be one of the better commanders in the Otriad. My group commander was Zizhkov, and his superior was Roshkov, also a real lieutenant. He was dark, didn't speak Russian well and knew about Jewish history. He never identified as such, but it was assumed that he was Jewish.
As in the other Otriads, there was a scarcity of rifles. After a week in the Otriad I told my commander that we had once been in a town in Auzder sector, and a peasant had offered weapons to me that had been abandoned by the Red Army, and he had buried them. He was willing to show me that hidden place. Zizhkov told his commander Roshkov and Donievin, the top commander. I was assigned to get the weapons. I took off accompanied by a comrade, Bandarenka. Before sundown we were on the main road that led from Minsk to Slotzk. We were on the edge of the forest, and had to cross 200 meters of open field to reach the road. We decided to go for it and not wait until dark.
On the road were military and civilian vehicles, and peasants were working on the field. When there was a lull in the traffic, we dashed across the field to the road. While we were running we heard the sound of an approaching vehicle. We made it across and immediately hid under some shrubs. A truck came by and then halted. The driver, a German soldier, climbed out and lifted the hood of the truck, poked around a little, then returned to his truck, took out his rifle, and crept under the truck. In the truck cabin sat a second man, wearing an officer's cap, with white officer's epaulets and a revolver. He got out of the truck too, turned his shoulder away from us and peered at the woods on the other side of the road. I ran up to him, seized his revolver and shot him. The soldier got out from under the truck and pointed his rifle at me, but Bandarenka gunned him down, hitting him in the rear. He dropped his gun, and Banderenka quickly seized it. I retrieved the officer's ID and ordered the soldier to march into the woods. He held one hand over his rear which was running blood. He could gasp onlyKaput, kaput?, and I told him Nisht kaput, and prodded him with my gun to make him go faster.
The sound of traffic could be heard and that led the soldier to stop, saying he couldn't go any further, he was exhausted. I tore off some material from his shirt and stuffed it into his mouth, and bound his hands behind him. He was terrified. I would have shot him, but the sound of the gun would have betrayed us. Banderenka clobbered him several times from behind, and when he was dead we pulled off his boots. A fusillade came through the woods from the road, where we had left the truck and the dead officer.
Later, we got to the town, our destination, and were told by the peasant that some other partisans had come by after I had left, and he had offered them the guns. They dug them up and departed. And so we returned to our camp. The news had already spread about the killing of the Germans on the road, only they didn't know the identity of the responsible partisans. I produced our booty, with the officer's insignia, and Banderanka brought out the boots and the rifle, so that proved that we had been the ones who had killed the officer and later, the soldier in the woods.
The Relsen War [Relsovaya Vaina]
After this event, my esteem rose among the partisans and the commanders. They had confidence in me. I asked that several partisans should be assigned to me so that we could go search for weapons in an area leading to Holshan. This idea came from my hope that perhaps I could save some of my family, Velvel and Rachel Liand. They were already over 50. I imagined what sort of work they could do for Otriad. I tried to imagine my 16 yearold sister FrumeShirele, who had stayed with my parents she could be a partisan. I was not frightened by these fantasies. They might perish here, but better to die with a gun in your hands than to be deceived into mass butchery. I tried to imagine who of my friends in Olshan would decide to unite with me? What a dangerous fantasy! My hopes dissolved into nothing. Olshan was quite far away, and my notions were rejected.
We passed through the Alexandreva Forest, and on the Saturday of the October Revolution holiday, the entire brigade gathered in the Storitzer forest in 1942. The nearest towns were Storitze, Zapolye and Schwvidizi.
On November 7, 1942, German units attacked us with tanks, starting from Storitz. We carried our defenses to the edge of the woods and took up the battle.I was in the front line with Roshkov's unit. The chief commander of Otriad, Dunaiev, was with us. We took up our defense lines toward Schwidizi and Zapolye. We fended off the German infantry, so they attacked with tanks. Our artillery unit opposed them, and smashed the first tank which approached us. But we were too weak to withstand these forces, so we retreated. On the way, Dinaiev was killed. Zhukov took over the command but he was also killed later. We had lost Storitzer forest and retreated to the Veleshiner Forest.
I was transferred on staff of Otriad, as a scout. Captain Revens had commanded our unit. With 20 partisans we were sent on a monthlong mission to the railroad sector, which ran from Stolbzi, Kuidenav into the woods not far from the Neyegorelya station. Our assignment: to paralyze the rail traffic in that region.
Under Revens' direction, we set up demolition points on the rail line, to blow up the transports off the tracks. Then we would shoot down the personnel with hand guns and grenades. That wasn't an easy job because the trains proceeded very carefully, and were followed by a fortified train which could unload a hail of bullets and mines in defense. We carried out this assignment well, with very few casualties.
At the same time, other partisan units destroyed and disabled the Mitkovich station in the Kapulye sector, under Roshkov's direction. I took part in many of these socalled Relsolvaya Vaina [Relson Wars], which consisted of tearing up the railroad ties. Each of us carried enough material to tear up 4 ties. Every attack by us on these tracks damaged dozens of kilometers of railroad, thus stopping the German military transport system. We also engaged in a two hour battle with the Germans in Audz, stayed until dawn and afterwards destroyed the Commissary and burned down some German facilities, all without any casualties.
In the Storeh Darogi sector, partisans under Vasil Ivanovitch, were unable to destroy the German police station. Then a group of 30 partisans under Roshkov combined with local partisans to demolish and drive off the police force. We knew that in the next town, two policemen were meeting their families. At night, we entered the town, along with an informant, a peasant who showed us where one of them lived. Roshkov and I entered the house, and warned the cop's wife and father that we intended to kill him, along with them, and burn down the house. The cop came up from the basement, surrendered to us and we shot him down. The second cop was also killed as he tried to escape.
In the nearby woods we encountered a car carrying two Jews from Slotzk, who were cutting wood for the Germans. When we attacked, the driver and two guards managed to drive off and escape. But we rescued the two Jews; Herschke Krevitski, and I can't recall the other's name. Both of them were accepted into our group.
Forced Mobilization, Connection of Volunteers and Propaganda Among Police
Mobilizations were organized by the partisans, to enlist the young men and women. If they refused, they were considered deserters, and were forced to leave home. We demanded that the people not be neutral, but to join our ranks. A secret propaganda war was also waged against the police and the Ukrainian battalions who served the Germans. White Russian girls who were in contact with them, were used by us to befriend some officers among the Ukrainian draftees, to induce them to break away from their service to the Germans.
The partisan groups had increased, so that some brigades were united under command of Kapusten. The combined unit was in contact with the White Russian staff of the partisan movement, headed by Kozlov, who was in the Lvov sector. There we had an airport, where Soviet planes brought us discarded weapons, medicines and propaganda. They also took away the severely wounded. Every unit had a radio and a transmitter, and also a small printing press, to publish a little news bulletin, Krasni Partisan. The latest news from the front was supplied by the Soviet Information Bureau and distributed to the civilian population.
Germans and Their Helpers. The UkrainianVulasavzes, Captivity by Partisans
I was transferred to the observer staff of the brigade. There were six of us and we each had a horse. We were assigned to a specific sector, but stayed in contact with the other units. Whenever Germans or their Ukrainian allies were captured, after evaluation, they were always executed.
Whenever we led the German captives to the execution spot, they always asked for mercy. That's how the German ‘heroes’ begged for their lives. They claimed that Hitler and the SS were to blame, that they were just innocent farm boys, so young, with wife and child, and we should let them live. The Ukrainians were different. They didn't beg, they looked at death calmly. When one of them was shot, the next didn't say a word as he waited for his death.
In one of the towns we captured six German soldiers and an officer, who had come into town to get supplies. After they had dined on some roast chicken, they lay down to rest in a barn. We surrounded them and took them prisoner. None of the soldiers would answer our questionsthey all deferred to their officer, only he could speak for them. And when we turned to the officer, he responded arrogantly, Who was this army which had captured them? He would speak only with a staff person. When he was told that we were partisans, he wasn't so arrogant. He knew just like the others what was going to happen.
In winter 1942, after two months as a scout for the Otriad under Zhukov, referred to earlier as the Jewish Otriad, I joined the staff of a brigade which was 50% Christian, under command of the Jewish commander Liova Hiltchik. Our assignment was to destroy a police station near the Orlikov Forest. The preparation for the attack was done by the Otriad scouts, two 17 yearold boys, Mischke and Chanon, both from Kapuler, and two local Russians, Barbarenka and Varoboy. The leader of the group was Petrotchenka, a Russian army man, who had escaped from a German prison camp. The overall operation was led by Captain RebusKuriltchik, and I was his assistant.
There were supposed to be 50 policemen in the town, protected by bunkers and in trenches. During the freezing night, our scouts had spread out along the edge of the woods, not far from the town. Then we heard the sounds of artillery and gunfire. That meant that our scouts who had been sent in to find an informer, had been detected by the police. Captain Hiltchik was upset and began to curse.
Impatiently, we waited for a message from the town, to confirm that they had been observed on entering the town. The captain ordered me to go into the town to find an informer. My companion was the scout Voroboy. In our white hoods we ran across the snow, sliding and tumbling. Any minute I expected some gunfire, just like the first scouts had encountered. I thought that the Captain had made a foolish mistake, to send us in under fire, but frikaz [an order] was frikaz.
We approached the town and heard some suspicious movements on a peasant's hill. We neared and observed that the peasant was saddling a horse. We took him prisoner, and I asked him why he was saddling the horse and where was he going. He said he was wakened by the police, and, like all the others who had horses, he was ordered to bring his horse to the police station. It was evident that the police were in a hurry to get away. That was supported by the fact that we entered the town without any resistance.
Instead of taking along the peasant, I told our second scout, Voroboy, to rush back and inform the captain. I directed the peasant to take his saddled horse down to the street and leave it tied up there. I waited on the hill to see if any of the police would come out for the horse. From another height I saw a group departing and my peasant told me that they were heading for the police station on the other side of town. He also told me a few things about their defense positions.
Then Petrashenka arrived, and said that I shouldn't move until Voraboy got there with more forces. After they came, they were to surround the station. Petroshenka and I were to pursue the departing group while Voraboy stayed with the peasant. Unopposed we reached the police station. High mounds of earth dug from trenches were piled up around the structure. We watched the door to see if anyone would come out. When an armed policeman came out, Petroshenka shot him down. Then a hail of bullets descended on the police station.
We realized that these bullets were coming from our side. We entered the police bunkers, where we found abandoned police uniforms. When the shooting subsided, we heard some cries coming from the rear. Petroshenka recognized the voice of his scout Barbarenka, one of those who had been dispatched earlier to find an informant. In a room we found Barbarenka, tied up on the floor. He was confused, his hands and face were frozen because he had been kept out in the snow too long. He was changed, unrecognizable. One policeman lay there dead, the others had fled. We set fire to the police station and returned to camp, bearing Barbarenka.
More Battles With the Germans and the Struggle With Fatigue
In winter 1942, when we were being pursued by the SS and the regular German army, we were forced to leave the Kapuler region and move east. There we continued our partisan tactics and crippled the railroad system. However a sudden attack by our enemies resulted in big losses of our men and transport. A number of wounded partisans were left behind at a socalled hospital.
The brigade reached the left side of Lake Meritchanke, which had been on the RussoPolish border in September 1939. We checked out the main town there, KrasnoSlobode; the German garrison and police had left, and were gone also from the surrounding area. We were ordered to return to the other side of the lake, to the places where we had already fought the Germans. Our assignment was to find out where the Germans were, and to unite with our partisan hospital. We left camp before dawn.
After the night frost, the swamp was frozen, and our boots broke through the thin ice. It took some time to get to the edge of the lake which had thawed. Aided by a leaky boat, we managed to get to the other side. There we found a farmhouse owned by a Pole whom I knew, who had served in Pilsudski's army. We were wet and chilled, our hands and feet were numb. Inside the house, we warmed ourselves at the oven. The peasant pulled off our boots and rubbed our fingers. We ‘danced’ around until feeling returned to our toes. We didn't get all dried out but we changed our socks, and then continued our trip.
Around noon we realized that the Germans were no longer pursuing us, and had withdrawn to the other side of the rail line. We found the partisan hospital and informed the responsible comrades about the location of the brigade which they could join when possible. Then we returned to the farmhouse and paused, deliberating if we should try to get across the lake at night with the leaky boat. We decided to go on to another farmhouse, also owned by a Pole, about 2 km away. I had never been there before. Possibly there would be a boat there, but at least we could eat and get some honey, which was plentiful at that farm. Although we got food and honey, the farmer didn't have a boat after all.
We rushed to get back to the boat that we left behind. There it stood, full of water, just as we left it. We scooped out the water and gripping the boat on one side we swam behind it. But the water quickly leaked in from the other side, and by the time we got to the middle of the lake, the boat had filled and was sinking. Fedke yelled at me, Swim for your life! and he dived into the lake. The boat slowly settled down while I held on until the water was up to my neck. I was almost to the shore and I swam a few meters until I could grab some reeds protruding from the lake. It was harder for me to swim to the shore, than it was in the Holshan lake, from Moshevich to Schneider's mill, less than half a kilometer. The wet furs, the bag of coal, the flask of honey had all sunk to the bottom. Fedke was in the lake somewhere, I could see his hat floating. He surfaced briefly, then submerged. I was sure he had drowned.
I finally reached the shore. Nearby I saw a stack of hay, bound with cords. I grabbed a strand of rope and with my last strength pulled myself up on the ground. Then I saw Fedke come to the surface of the water. I threw him a rope and despite my exhaustion, I finally managed to pull him out. He could barely stand. He held on to me, but we were unable to walk. We couldn't pull our legs out of the swamp, into which we sunk kneedeep. My hands and feet became numb. Looking at the pale face and blue lips of my friend, I felt that we were doomed. We hugged together to share some warmth. In the end, miraculously, we had been seen by our partisan comrades who had been observing the lake. They ran to our help and dragged us out of the swamp. More comrades came and carried us back to camp.
Fedka needed immediate treatment. He was already unconscious. I was rubbed, my legs were massaged. I was dressed in dry clothes, wrapped in furs, and I recovered. Fedka suffered severe frostbite injuries.
At the order of the White Russian wing of the partisan movement, Roshkov was transferred from his rank as brigade commissar, to a staff position, and he asked me to come with him. When the commander of the brigade, Shestapolov, informed me, he added that if a company leader was needed, that Roshkov should send me back.
Roshkov's aide saddled his horse ‘Gniad’, and I saddled my ‘Strelka’ and we were on our way, about 150200 km. We had two difficult places to traverse, the MoscowWarsaw highway, and the railroad line. We made it to staff headquarters in several days. After Roshkov got his orders, he was sent as commissar to one of the local Otriads, a small one, in which some men didn't even have rifles. Roshkov introduced me as one of his most capable and heroic ‘rozviedtchikes‷ (scouts). I wasn't really interested in his words of praise for me, I longed to return to Kapuler, to my brigade, which was very near and dear to me.
In a certain part of the LyubanerKapatkevitcher sector, the Germans maintained their police, supported by soldiers, and they knew about the augmented partisan groups. At night they would keep watch on the places where the partisans were active. My local contacts were very helpful though it was dangerous to enter or leave the town or farm. They would inform me with certain signals, for example, opening one or both gates to the stable, adding or moving a scythe, and various other changes that could be seen from a distance.
Under Roshkov's command, the Otriad carried out important assignments, such as attacks on the German bunkers, grenade assaults, cutting wires and cables that served communications along the road, attacks on the ‘somatchaves’, the White Russian police stations.
Epidemics Among The Partisans
In winter 1943, the front came closer. Large units of the German regular army attacked us, and partisan resistance weakened. The Germans occupied the towns and the woods and slaughtered all those locals who were unable to hide in the forest. After killing the old men and women and the little children, the Germans took their cows and burned their houses.
The small number of locals who had survived with their families deep in the forest, were overcome by hunger and cold, and an epidemic of typhus and lice ensued, which spread to the partisans. Very little medical help was available, even for those wounded by the German mines. I'll never forget the screams of my comrade ‘rozviedtchik’ Michael, about 30. He had stepped on a mine, and part of his foot was torn off. He contracted blood poisoning and our doctor performed an abovetheknee amputation, using an ordinary wood saw. Michael was unable to tolerate this and he died. I remember another case of an 18 yearold partisan who had the same injury and surgery and he survived.
We didn't lose a lot of men, but our communications system was disrupted by losses of horses and wagons. My ‘Strelke’ was wounded, but I wasn't able to part with her. In spite of all, the Otriad survived in the forest, and I went on foot. Soon I became ill and the doctor was certain that I had contracted typhus. I was taken to an isolation ward in a town about 15 km distant from the camp. I took my weapons and my ‘Strelke’, special permission of Roshkov.
The town was crowded with typhus patients. Every Otriad had specific people assigned to take care of their sick partisans, who were stationed in various houses in the town. They were on guard against any attack, ready to evacuate. After two days in bed in the wellheated room, together with very sick patients with high fever and delirium, I began to doubt whether I really had typhus. I began to press for my discharge, but the doctor convinced me that I really had typhus, only a less severe form. I was transferred to a different house, where patients had already passed through their crisis, and in a few days I was discharged.
I met other partisans and learned that the Starobiner sector was nearby, commanded by Kuriltchik. I decided to visit him in order to return to the Otriad. On the way back, I encountered Roshkov. He told me that a change in staff resulted in his appointment as commissar of the brigade in MizrachPalesieh, on the other side of the Liuban sector. And he wanted me to go with him.
20,000 Partisans Surrounded By 60,000 Germans
After two days travel, we reached our destination in a town. After eating, I joined the rozviedtchik unit, whom I had never met. Weary, I went to sleep. I was awakened before dawn by the alarm bells, set off by a German attack. They had captured the outpost and gunned down the partisans who had been trying to escape into the forest. This was the start of the great German blockade of the partisan region which lasted for a month.
This was a battle between the regular German army of 60,000 and the partisan brigades, about 20,000, who were squeezed into one area by the Germans. Our area was the Palesyer swamp; it was closed off on two sides by the deep broad canals, dug out before the war in order to dry the swamp. On the other side of the canals, the Germans prevented any escape by the partisans. The third and only free side was heavily guarded. The Germans attacked us on the fourth side, confining us to the canals. Up until the encirclement, the brigades carried out their missions as collective actions. Now, after the blockade, each unit pursued its own goal of breaking through.
At night, Soviet planes would drop off sacks of supplies and firstaid equipment, but unfortunately most of it was captured by the Germans. Our foes advanced on the surrounded partisans and secured the high points which were dry. They lit fires in the night. The Soviet flyers thought these were fires set by partisans, and dropped their packages there. We however were trapped in the swamps, and were unable to light any fires.
Occasionally we would retrieve a Soviet package from the swamp during the night. At dawn German planes attacked us with grenade launchers and gunfire, and with propaganda telling us to surrender, before it was too late, to avoid certain death, etc. We used these papers to dry berries and tree leaves before smoking them.
The Germans flew missions over the swamp, which was still frozen in spring 1944, despite the bright sunny days. In small groups we hid in the tall grasses and avoided any conflict, hoping we wouldn't be uncovered. However, in one contact with the Germans, we opened fire at the last second, and inflicted losses. The panicked Germans fled, leaving their dead behind. We ran in the opposite direction and again hid in the tall grass until night, and again avoided the encirclement.
After these battles, we lost Roshkov. He had sent me to take a message to our commander, and when I returned, he was gone. His body was never found among the dead. Our transport and horses had been captured by the Germans. After the loss of Roshkov, I succeeded in getting out of our trap with another group. After a few days trekking through the forests and swamps, we came to the StareDorogi region. In a foray into a nearby town I met three partisans from the Svorov brigade; their commander was Ivan Vasilievitch, who knew me.
I asked about some of my comrades, and decided that I would go with them to the Svorov brigade. I knew the road well on the way to the Kapuler area. I also knew that my leaving my last commander without permission, was a capital crime. However I didn't feel committed to that unit, since I was only Roshkov's messenger. My rifle and I belonged to the Tchopoyev brigade where my services would again be used.
That night we arrived at the Slutzker sector, where the Svorov brigade was camped. Several days later, a messenger came from staff and I went with him to meet with the commander Ivan Vasilievitch. I told him about Roshkov's fate, and the events in the area where I had been. Also, I told him of my hope to return to the Tchopoyev brigade in Kapuler, and asked for permission to go alone.
Though the commander knew that I was familiar with the partisan trails to the Kapuler region, he advised me not to go alone. He proposed that I stay here until either a messenger came here from Kapuler, or one was sent there from here, whom I could accompany. Meantime, I would be appointed to the rozviedke staff and would be assigned a horse and saddle. I was well acquainted with that brigade which had been one of the first in the partisan struggle. I often went scouting with Ivan Vasilievitch and met up with the otriads in the forest.
The Return From The Dead By Roshkov and the Fates of Jewish Partisans
A few weeks went by and then one evening at sunset I was summoned by the Rozviedke commander. When I arrived at his tent, I was met by three unfamiliar partisans, who were standing there expectantly. The commander informed me, Roshkov lives! These comrades come from his group. I was left astounded and speechless.
I finally stammered, That's impossible. Are you saying that I had deceived you?
He interrupted, That's possible. Roshkov has asked that you return together with these comrades. Yasno? With my head lowered, I answered, Yasno!
The three partisans shook hands with the commander and so did I.
One of the partisans was a commander Vuvoda, whose camp was near the Svorov brigade. On the road, I sensed that he didn't regard me as a criminal. I asked him to tell me how Roshkov had survived. He didn't know him personally and had not seen the new commissar Roshkov. But it was wellknown that Roshkov had been lost during the encirclement and had disappeared. Apparently he had been saved by a peasant who found him lying unconscious in the swamp. He brought him home, and after he regained consciousness, he rejoined the brigade. He seemed healthy to the other two who had seen him the night before. These two were to return tomorrow, along with you, he added.
It was already dark when we arrived at Loshtshina, which used to be a big partisan camp. I crawled into an empty tent, but couldn't sleep all night. Should I let myself be taken to Roshkov against my will, or should I flee, to the Tchopiev brigade in Kapuler?
In truth, I was glad that he was alive, but I couldn't understand why he was so intent on my return, why was I that important to him? It occurred to me that possibly he needed me as a symbolic victim, to enforce more discipline in the group, as he did once before in the forest when he executed the Jewish partisan Grishke Krevitzki from Slutzk. He was not even an antisemite; even the Jewish commander Israel Lapides had shot a Jewish partisan, Michael Baronov from Minsk. Not to speak of the antisemitic commander Anantchenka, who shot the Jewish partisan Parsesaski because he was Jewish. It was rumored that Anantchenka had wanted his weapon.
I didn't know what the brigade commander had in mind, his attitude towards Jews was unclear. I didn't recognize a single Jew in this partisan group. I knew only that Roshkov was a cultured man, a doctor from StorehDarogi. I agonized about my fate during this sleepless night, and finally decided that I wouldn't go back with them. I thought that I could take off at any convenient point along the way. I worried also that they might have been ordered to disarm me, and I wouldn't have any way to resist them.
At dawn, I left the camp, taking the road towards Kapuler, using the partisan trails and supply points which were wellknown to me. When I reached the Ouzder region, on the SlotzkMinsk road, I encountered heavy traffic. I waited until night, and then by the next day I reached the Tchopiev brigade in the Velishiner Forest. The Otriad here was named ‘Dunayeva’ in honor of a dead commander. The leader was my first commander Vuvada Zizshov. He greeted me cordially and proposed that I stay with him, and he assured me that he would discuss my situation with his superior Shestapolov. I didn't agree, and let him know that I had to see the commander right away because of my history.
Along with Zizshov, I rode my horse to staff headquarters, not far from the otriad. Shestapolov greeted me with a smile, and asked me about Roshkov. I told him everything I knew, i.e. that Roshkov had arisen from the dead, and had ordered me to return to his brigade. The commander questioned me closely about the circumstances of the encirclement, then slapped my shoulder and called out.Provilna zdielal [welldone!].
Tzishov then requested from Shestapolov that I be allowed to remain in his otriad. He'll stay on staff here and we'll see later, he responded to Tzishov, who then rode back to his otriad. A few hours later, scouts reported hearing artillery fire on the other side of the SlotzkMinsk road. Since I had just come from that region, Shestapolov asked me what I thought was going on. I told him that two days ago, while I was at the Svorov brigade, they were getting ready to attack one of the ‘sovtchozn’ in order to capture the cattle that had been collected there by the Germans. Again I saddled my horse, again the ‘rozviedke’, the reunion and the thirst for victory, nkoma.
Like most partisans, I could not imagine the historic day of the partisan parade in July 1944, when the tortured city of Minsk was liberated. Sovtchoz was the site of a battle with the German forces. Shestapolov decided to join in and support the embattled partisans, so I became his assistant. We galloped off together to the new battle position. We met up with the commander of the Svorov brigade, Ivan Vasilievitch, and the commanders conferred. After, Shestapolov and I returned to our camp which now occupied a favorable position for the battle. We awaited the onslaught of the Germans, but they decided to avoid the conflict. So the fighting subsided as the Red Army began to advance toward us. The Germans retreated under the mounting threat of increasing partisan attacks. At our camp we could hear the sounds of heavy artillery.
Liberation and Back to Olshan
In July 1944, after major battles, the Red Army had driven the Germans out of Minsk. All partisans were assembled in the liberated city. After the grand parade, accompanied by speeches about the heroic fighters and the party symbols, the forest brigades were mustered out. Half the brigade, including me, was immediately inducted into the Red Army. Many of these were former police, White Russians and other ethnic groups who had initially worked for the Germans and had later joined the partisan ranks. The other half was composed of Soviet personnel who had been sent to special schools for indoctrination and leadership.
I was confirmed as an inspector,sliedovatel for the Kapuler district. I was immediately intent on being allowed to go to Olshan to find out what happened to my family; permission was given. When I arrived in my home town, the huge transformation was obvious. With deep sorrow I learned about the terrible fates of my loved ones. My father Velvel and mother Rachel, together with the rest of the Jews of Olshan, Smorgen and Kreve, had all perished in Zielanka. My sister Frume had miraculously survived and now lives in Israel. After a short stay in Olshan and Oshmen, I emigrated to Israel.
In concluding this Yizkor book about Olshan, certainly we have not completed the description of our vanished shetl, where our parents, grandparents and great grandparents were rooted for centuries. Unfortunately, the greatest intellectuals of our town who would have been able to recreate the historic foundations of Olshan, are gone.
Nevertheless, blessed is that handful of dedicated Jews who have taken on this duty of describing whatever they remembered before the Holocaust, and what they themselves experienced during the Holocaust, thus creating a memorial for the remembrance of these tortured Jews of Olshan.
The most important parts of the Yizkor Book are the chapters about the fate and suffering, the sea of blood and tears. Blessed are they who were so dedicated to inscribe the days of horror and darkness, which we must never forget to our last breath. And do not forget the German Nazi murderers and their accomplices, the enemies of our people who spilled so much of our blood.
We express our deepest thanks to the Olshaners in Israel and America who provided the means and support for the publication of this book. Special thanks to our friends in America, Moshe Baron and Yakov Kaplan, who raised most of the financial support.
Special thanks and acknowledgement to our dear Shepsel Kaplan, who initiated this good deed. With persistence and patience despite his age, he took on this holy work, dedicating his energy and time so that this memorial to Olshan should be as beautiful as possible. Thanks also to our compatriot Meir Shli (Zeidl Bagdanovski) who edited the Hebrew part of this book, and who collaborated in this difficult task.
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