by Shraga Soliminski
Donated by Florence Koplow
Translated by Milette Shamir
I am Shraga, the son of Eliyahu and Chaya Solominski, who was born in 1909 in Ilya and lived there continuously until its demise. Hereby I give my written testimony, aiming to immortalize the events of the destruction and extinction and pass them on to the next generations.
I will forever keep engraved in my heart the horrendous deeds of destruction and blood, of the eradication and loss of thousands of Jewish communities and my town Ilya among them, that was erased from under the heavens by the blood-thirsty Nazis and their various assistants....
|Shraga and his wife Chasya
- who perished in the Holocaust
On the night of 3/16/1942 - the date of the first massacre, I was awakened from my sleep by the stamping of boots and marches, the sound of military commands, women's cries and children's wails. I felt that the end has arrived for all of us... I decided to hide and maybe I could escape. I exited the house. Everything around was covered with snow, that was coming down continuously in the last few days. I quickly dug a hideout very deep in the snow. It was indeed very cold, but I lay quietly underneath, fearing the fate that was in store for me. More than once I felt the boots of the Germans over my head and body, they were walking around looking for survivors, as if they had not yet filled the quota they assigned for themselves. I don't know how long I stayed in this condition... I continued to lie down and one prayer in my heart, that the Germans will not discover me...
After many hours I heard the voice of Shlomo Koifman, calling for all the survivors to leave their hideouts, promising on behalf of the Germans that they will remain alive and no harm will befall them. I then realized that I was buried underneath the snow for almost 24 hours.
Very gradually I freed myself from the heaps of snow, shook it off, and stretched my bones, my whole body paralyzed, my hands and feet frozen and their nails dislocated. I took heavy steps as if I was filled with lead. I was hungry, craving something hot... Craving to hear a familiar voice... I was terrified and weary to death. Thus I entered the house of Ben Zion Broide. But fearing the Germans, he would not let me in. He closed the door in my face. I stood outside, lonely... My legs led me to the house of the tailor Pesach Gilman. I knocked and knocked on his door, fearing that another door will be shut in my face and I shall remain outside.... After a while the door opened and I was let inside. Pesach Gilman and his brother-in-law Geitlitz took pity on me, shared their bread and bed with me, gave me food and drink and a place to stay.
Early the next morning Shlomo Koifman came in and added our names to the survivors list, declaring that we must all move to the ghetto that the Germans instituted, where all the survivors will henceforth live. The boundaries of the ghetto were fenced with barb wire and set in the area between the house of Kelman Greenblat and the house of Baruch Levin. Every day the gate opened; through it people were taken out to work and returned in the evening. A specialist in machinized flour mills, I received a pass to go, undisturbed, to work.
Despite that, the constant abuse had not stopped. I too was ambushed on the way to and from work. One day, one step separated me from death.
As I returned from the mill one evening, I was suddenly ordered by the German guard to halt. Since I was used to that, I almost did not pay attention and continued walking. The guard opened fire, I was frightened and began running with all my strength, jumped over the barb wire fence, entered one stable, then another, and finally hid in an old barn. I passed a few hours there in fear of being discovered, and then came out to the sound of Shlomo Koifman's cry, warning me never to repeat this act. Only thanks to his intervention I was saved this time, but if it ever happened again no one could save me.
This is how we lived in the ghetto; isolated, with no connections to the world. Among us was also the rabbi of the town, Rabbi Avraham Eliyahu Remez and his wife, who survived. The conditions were unbearable, the shortage of food was severe, and people were literally hungry. Every evening as I came back from work, I would smuggle food products as much as I could, although I knew how large the danger involved was. Hunger and survival instinct instructed me to do so...
Following German orders, the ghetto elected a Jewish council - a "Yudenrat," that included Shlomo Koifman and the brothers Motel and Isaac Sinder. I must mention the fact that they always did as much as they could to help everybody, and they informed the ghetto in advance of any impending disaster. These representatives constituted for the Germans a regular address for the blackmailing of Jewish property: gold, money, precious stones, jewelry, furs, and expensive clothes. Deluding themselves that they will thus stay alive, the Jews gave everything to save their souls. But after the Germans felt that there was nothing left to extort, they performed the second and final massacre. That is how the brothers Sinder, the members of the council, found their death. Isaac Sinder was shot in the back of his neck by a Gestapo officer, while attempting to extract gold hidden under the ceiling to give to the Germans.
Thus days and nights went by... One clear day, in the early hours of morning, we felt an unusual commotion in the German headquarters at the big synagogue opposite the ghetto. We felt the belt of German guards tighten around us. Upon the command to go to work, I went as usual but had an obscure feeling and fear that not all was normal... And indeed, what I fear has occurred. As I returned to the ghetto that evening I found it surrounded by army and police, who began taking the families out of their houses and concentrating the men, women and children. I understood what was going on. Along with Simcha Feigelman, Feigel Sinder, Rasha Gutman with two daughters, and others, we hid in the cellar of Chaya Dvosha Dobrovski's house. My brother-in-law Yechiel Segelovitz covered the door to the cellar with a rug, and he himself hid in the stables of Kelman Greenblat. Fortunately, the Germans and their helpers did not especially search the house where we hid. I suppose they couldn't imagine that the house standing directly opposite the German headquarters would serve as a hideout. They searched it anyway, checked the walls and floor, and went on to other houses, which they searched more thoroughly.
Shocked and contracted we lay in the cellar. Through a crack we could see how the survivors were being led on their last journey, to the Vines lot - the place of the execution. We could hear the shouts of the women, the cries of the children, and the firing commands and the echoes of the shots. My brother-in-law Segelovitz's hideout was discovered, and they took him out and made him join the death rows. I clearly saw how he was being led, but suddenly he jumped, broke through the rows and escaped running, the Germans chasing him and shooting. Apparently he felt that his end was near anyway, and preferred death in escape. He did make it to the river, but there he fell down and surrendered to the murderers' bullets. Shmuel Kagan went even further, but his fate was similar. He too surrendered to the enemy's bullets.
... The shots continued for a long time but then silence prevailed. We continued to lie down, our hearts heavy. At midnight we clearly saw by the light of the full moon the Gestapo guards near the house. A decision formed in my heart: I told my friends that we could not continue to stay in our hideout, for the Germans could discover us in the morning and we would not be able to escape then. And we acted on this decision. We concentrated the money we had and, crawling, we began to advance through the back door. We thought that the Germans would not discover us so readily, but they immediately spotted us and commanded us to halt. We ignored the "halt!" orders. We ran to the barb wire fence, to reach the river as soon as possible, as the Germans were chasing us and shooting. As we jumped over the fence our clothes tore, but we paid no attention.
We continued to run in order to increase the chances for escape. The Germans did not, of course, cease chasing us and a storm of bullets came down on us from every direction.
... I reached the river first, jumped in the water and swam with all my remaining strength and crossed it. I looked around and saw that only Feigelman was behind me, all the rest still haven't arrived and I knew nothing of their outcome. It seemed that the Germans did not continue to chase us. They probably assumed that most of the runaways are still in the domain of the ghetto and ran to catch them. It was clear that we did not have much time to wait and see what was the fate of our hideout companions. We ran to the forest...
The forest was no stranger to me. I knew it well from those beautiful and distant days. I could therefore serve as a guide to Simcha Feigelman and advance through hidden paths that provided us with safe sanctuary. In the meantime daylight arrived, and our clothes dried. We continued to wander in the forest and so our first day went by. In the evening we turned to the local peasants that we trusted not to give us in to the Germans, in order to get some food and clothing.
We reached the nearby village. We knocked on the door of a peasant whom we knew well. He opened the door, looked at us, and made the sign of the cross. We appeared as ghosts to him. According to intelligence that reached him, all the town's Jews were killed, so how could we be knocking on his door? Having recovered from his shock and fear, we asked him to sell us food for a few days in exchange for a few dollars. We also asked him to take a letter to the mechanic in our flour mill, so that he would send us enough clothes to survive in the forest. We let him know that we would come the following night to receive the clothes. After the "deal" we left the peasant's hut and went about 15 kilometers deep into the forest. As we walked we came across chopped wood arranged in rows. We decided to hide inside the "shtibel" and for that purpose we emptied it of wood and settled in the empty space. Thus the rest of the day went by, and again a morning and an evening, and the second day in the forest was behind us...
In the evening we turned toward the village. Taking extra precaution we approached the peasant's hut. The fear that he may have brought the Germans did not abandon us. Having checked the premise carefully, we realized that no danger was on hand and knocked on his door. The peasant opened it and let us in, shaking with fear. He gave us the bundle of clothes that the mechanic send for me. I divided it on the spot, half for me and half for Feigelman. On our request the peasant sold us more food products, and made us swear that we would come to see him no more, since he worried for his family. If the Germans or other peasants would find out that he was helping the partisans, his end would be bitter. We understood his wish, thanked him, and returned to our hideout in the forest...
...Indeed we imagined and hoped that soon the situation would change; the Germans would have to retreat and we would survive. But reality was different. The Germans advanced every day and settled in new places. We felt this even though we had no reliable intelligence. We continued to hide as our supplies were running out and our clothes too scarce to withstand the freezing cold at night. After our food ran out we turned to a peasant and asked him to have pity on us and sell us some food for our money. This peasant, who had dealings with us in the past and sold us wood, knew me well - pretended that his pity was aroused and sold us two loaves of bread and some butter for gold. We returned to the forest.... the next night we returned to the same peasant and knocked on his door. He indeed opened it, but I immediately saw that he did so reluctantly. He refused to sell us food, claiming that he is afraid of the authorities and that anyway we would not be able to break through the German blockade. To save ourselves from further suffering he proposed that we go back to Ilya and give ourselves up to the Germans, perhaps they would not kill us. He emphasized again and again that he saw no point in our deeds, since all the Jews were already dead anyway. We quickly got out of that place feeling depressed and in our hearts we feared that we had fallen into a trap. We got away a distance of about 10 kilometers from that place, moving in a different direction, and reached one of the peasants that I knew well. I knocked on his door. He opened and with fear mixed with astonishment he looked at us: "you are still alive? how is this possible? Kazora bragged to me that he killed you with his own hands!" I answered that I managed to escape and I am now asking him to sell us food for the full price. The peasant who genuinely pitied us gave us food for a week and warned us to take extra precaution. The Germans were setting ambushes at night around the villages of the area to catch partisans. We thanked him very much and went on our way. Only at dawn did we reach our hideout...
...Thus days and weeks went by. We entered our hideout only at night; during the day we stayed in the nearby forest in order to keep a watchful eye and follow all the occurrences. This was indeed beneficial; it seems that our hideout was discovered by a shepherd who saw us going out and told the Germans about it. One day, when we left our hideout as we did every day in the morning and hid in the vicinity, we suddenly heard Russian and German commands to leave the hideout or be killed on the spot. We did not answer of course and began to crawl in the opposite direction without attracting the attention of the Germans. Since no answer came they attacked the hideout with hand grenades and gunshots, from which echoes reached us in the distance. We again underwent a whole day of fear in the forest. Despite this, hunger made us go back to the hideout to see whether any food or clothing remained there. When we reached the spot we saw that our hideout was burnt down and destroyed and the food and clothing were no longer there.
....We decided to leave this area and find a hideout in the forest on the other side of the river, and we did so. In the meantime daylight arrived and we could not reach any village in the light of day. We were therefore forced to wander in the forest during the day, shaking from the cold, hungry, thirsty and freezing. This time our hideout was a bush of forest berries, and when at noontime we saw peasant women gathering the berries, my friend Simcha began to fear for us and muttered: "now we are surely lost." I tried to cheer him up and get his hopes up, relying on our past experience. I claimed: if we thus far managed to overcome dangers, it its not impossible for us to be saved this time. We continued to hide underneath the bush. As she was gathering berries, one peasant approached us, but it seems that she saw us and escaped in fear, assuming that she came across partisans. But I recognized her and began calling her name. I saw her calm down, return, and approach us to talk. I told her that our situation was bad, that for the last few days we had no food or clothing. She, on her own, offered to put us up for the night and give us food and clothing. We reached her house that very night and she served us bread, butter and milk, and refused to accept anything in return. She generously offered to bring us products to the forest every once in a while. Thus two weeks have gone by. We got used to the situation, but did not feel comfortable continuing to accept things from her for free. Since she refused to accept money, we parted from her, thanking her for her important assistance, and told her that we decided to move to another spot. Before we left she told us of the war situation, from which we gathered that there was no hope for its eminent conclusion, since the Russians were retreating on all fronts and the Germans were successfully advancing. The destruction continued but its dimensions grew bigger. What they did previously only to Jews, they now did to the Polish aristocracy as well. It was clear that we needed to be more careful.
...We wandered in the forests, changed our hideout again, and reached another place. One night we went towards the residence of a Polish man - a landlord of a small mansion. We knocked on his door and the door soon opened before us. The landlady saw our condition and our torn clothes and gave us clothing and food. From her speech I gathered that she already knew that I had survived a long time ago and was surprised that I didn't come to her sooner. Moreover: she offered that we come to the hay threshing-floor every night, where we would find food ready. At the same time, she warned us about the son of a neighbor who had joined the German police. We did not doubt her good intentions, but feared lest we would walk into an ambush, because a dog's barking could indicate that strangers were near at hand. We thus decided quickly to get out of that place. We thanked the hostess and went in another direction.
At two o'clock at night we knocked on the door of another peasant and asked him to sell us food. We knew this peasant well, and although he was scared he sold us what we asked for. But with this our money ran out. We left the peasant's house to return to the forest. As we were about 30 meters away from his house someone ordered: "halt." We assumed at first that these were Germans or Ukrainians and started to run. A storm of shots were heard and bullets came whistling by. Only a few more hundreds of meters separated us from the forest. But my friend Simcha began to fall further and further behind. When I saw this I could not abandon him, I returned in order to die along with him. Eight people carrying guns aimed at us approached, calling: "who are you." I understood that these were partisans and not Germans. We told them what we had gone through and that we wanted to join the partisans, in order to fight the Germans and get revenge. They did not listen to us and thought that we were spies, considering the fact that my friend Simcha did not escape at all. Simcha claimed that he didn't escape because he understood that they were partisans and hence friends, but to no avail. I therefore told them that the partisans in the area know us well and can testify that we were not spies, and moreover: among the area's partisans there is a commander called Kabilkin who knows us well. At one time, when he escaped from German prison camp and even before that, I helped him with money and weapons. I felt that they were beginning to listen to me, that the conversation became less suspicious and aggressive, until finally we were given the address of where to meet with the partisans. But under the excuse that they were on their way to a military operation they fiercely demanded our boots. We begged to keep them, since we couldn't walk in the forest barefoot with no food. Our claim that there are rich peasants in the area from whom they could take was accepted. But, to play it safe, they left guards with us and went to search at the peasants'. After they came back empty handed, since the peasants hid everything for fear of partisan confiscation, they took our boots and coats, promising to return them when they got back.
...Depressed and astonished we were left alone with no clothes and no food. My friend began to argue again for the hopelessness of our journey - "in any case we are done for" - he claimed. In response I said: - "there is no room for despair. You saw with your own eyes, my friend, how many hardships we encountered, and despite all we managed to survive, there is thus a foundation for the belief that the sun is yet to shine" - Again I insisted that the only way left for us is to join the partisans; the war will not end so soon and we are consumed by feelings of vengeance. We will fight and avenge. And maybe we will survive. But if we are destined to die, it would be better to die as warriors. I spoke thus for a long time until he was encouraged.
At nightfall we crossed the river and reached a village. We headed towards the house of the peasant Sunitz. I knocked on his door, he opened, and when he saw me he said, conspicuously happy: - "I'd have you know, Solominski, that the commander of the partisans knows you well and is looking for you. He told me that in the past you gave him full aid and even brought forth proposals to send the youth to the forests and direct them to the partisans." From him I leaned that Chaim Riar is also among the partisans. As he stood looking at us he noticed that we had no shoes or clothes, that our feet were wounded and bleeding. He immediately entered the house and called to his wife: - "get up, come out, and see who's here."
She came out, took one look at us and started to cry. She said in tears: "we will give you everything you need to be dressed well." She brought us boots, pants and clean clothes. We changed everything. We received food. I started to feel like a human being again. Finally they asked me to return. "Tomorrow the commander will be here and you can talk with him yourself about everything." We returned to the forest feeling good. Even Simcha's mood improved. We wandered all day until late in the evening, and at around 10 we headed towards Sunitz's house. The night's silence carried from the distance the sounds of riders galloping in the our direction. We hesitated. We feared, might these be Ukrainians and not partisans?... Half an hour went by and complete silence prevailed. We therefore decided to approach the house and came across a peasant standing on guard in his yard to prevent surprises from the German side. To my question whether there were people in his house, he said: "the commander, escorted by a few partisans."
We entered the house. Commander Kabilkin jumped up and shook my hand:
"Let's drink cheers to your escape. Who is the fellow with you?"I answered that this was my escape companion, that we ran away from the Germans together. The commander looked at him, examined his face thoroughly and after a prolonged silence he said: "Him I could not accept to the partisans. First of all, we don't have enough weapons. Second, I see that he cannot even walk, and certainly he would not be able to fight." I entreated with him to accept him, since I could not abandon my friend; I asked that he finds some kind of work for him. After some deliberation he answered, that out of a duty to repay me for the help I gave him in the past, he could have Simcha join a civilian convoy that is being led through the forest and across the front line. He immediately gave the right order. My mind was put to rest. We sat down and conversation flowed; he asked me how long we've been in the forest, what was my opinion of the war, etc.
I candidly told him that no matter what occurs, the Germans will not win. The war might indeed last for a long time, but eventually the Germans will lose, just as Napoleon lost in his day. I expressed my opinion that we must recruit more and more partisans to fight the Germans from behind, to disrupt their links to supply centers and to prevent the transport of supplies and equipment to their advancing garrisons. He was satisfied by my explanations and my adaptability, and informed me that soon he will recruit me for action. He asked me whether I knew the way to Khachenchitz well, and when I answered in the affirmative he was satisfied. He poured me a large glass of Vodka and said in a celebratory tone: from now on, know that you are devoting your life to victory, even if it takes a long time. We stood up, shook hands, and drank to victory.
We sat for many hours that night in the house of the peasant Sunitz. We drank and we ate. The commander and his friends burst out in song, but I and my friend Simcha could not adapt to this careless atmosphere. All that we've been through in the forest and until this meeting constituted a barrier that separated us from them. At the same time, we could not get up and leave either. We now tied our fate to their's and our lives depended on this group. We sat down, therefore, and awaited the hour when we will have to make a move. Finally an order was given to get going.
Parting with Simcha was difficult since we went through a long trail of suffering together, and more than once stood in the face of death, and now we had to part, maybe forever. But the knowledge that he would be transported to a safe haven and would be able to work, calmed me down. The hope that one day we would meet again beat in the hearts of both of us. We thus embraced and in our hearts expressed a wish that this hope would be fulfilled...
In early morning I therefore arrived along with Kabilkin and his friends at the partisan headquarters. We began planning for future operations. As I knew that a few days would pass before we needed to be positioned, I began to tour around the headquarters. I aspired to know whether more Jews from Ilya survived. I found out that Shlomo Koifman and his wife, the owners of the pharmacy, survived, my friend Nachman the barber, and Ben Zion Broide the soda manufacturer, since the Germans still needed them. I did not delude myself as to their future. I knew that the minute that the Germans no longer needed them they would be executed. I made efforts to save my friend Nachman, to bring him to the forest through a special messenger that delivered a note from me to him, but he would not hear of it. He assumed that his life was safe and asked the peasant that I leave him alone and never bother him again. He therefore stayed in Ilya awaiting his unpreventable fate...
A few days and weeks went by. Our regiment organized and trained in the meantime. Although its weapons and equipment were scarce, it had the will to fight and avenge. We thus named it "The Avenger," and it lived up to its name.
The Operation at Khachenchitz
Soon the day that we have anticipated with tribulation and yearnings has arrived; the day of revenge on the destroyers of our dear and loved ones. One evening we were told that we were to leave that very night on an operation. We organized in a platoon consisting of 3 sections and I was appointed the commander of one of the sections. The weapons and equipment were, as I mentioned, scarce, and only 2 machine guns were made available to the platoon; guns were few and not enough for everyone, only grenades were given to each and every one. Upon an order we all quickly assembled at the destination spot - near the fork in the road to Khachenchitz. After we gathered, prepared and ready for battle, commander Kabilkin appeared and explained the headquarter's orders, the goal of the operation and the means of its execution. He informed us that in a few hours a German army and police convoy was to pass by on its way to Khachenchitz to collect taxes, meat and other supplies. We were to position ourselves quietly, carefully camouflaged, so that the Germans would not notice the ambush. Upon their return in the light of day, we were to surprise them, attack, and kill the Germans and policemen, but not dare hurt the unarmed civilians who were recruited as forced labor. We were to confiscate the weapons and supplies and retreat unorganized to the base. While he explained the operation the commander asked for our opinion; I suggested that each class operate at a distance of at least 100 meters from another, so that we could cover the whole convoy and prevent its reorganization. My suggestion was accepted. We positioned ourselves thus in between the forest trees near the road. Tense, anxious, but disciplined we lay down in ambush and watched the convoy pass and enter Khachenchitz. We lay and waited...
After a few hours the watchmen informed us that the convoy had left Khachenchitz and is on its way back. The convoy consisted of 38 armed men, equipped with the best weapons, and in their midst the commander of the German police. It also consisted of many unarmed civilians who were recruited for forced labor. We lay down silently and awaited its approach to the fire zone. Since my section was closest to the road we were the first to open fire, and immediately afterwards the agreed-upon whistle was heard. The Germans were baffled. Scared and frightened they began to run around, not knowing from whence the attack came. Our fire increased, and the Germans, who found themselves surrounded, stopped resisting. They began running away as our bullets killed them. Thus we had our revenge on our hated enemy that day. Sixteen Germans lay defeated on the battle field. The police commander and a few other Germans were captured, the rest managed to escape. We earned a load of weapons and equipment and confiscated the supplies that consisted of all kinds of goods. We were very delighted and happy since this was our initiation rite - the first organized operation on this scale.
Our delight increased seven-fold since none of us were hurt and we caught a "fat fish." The commander of the police whom we captured was Ulshuk, the commander of the police in Ilya and the vicinity. He used to boast that he would never be a prisoner but will commit suicide beforehand. The revenge on him and his family was therefore great. We transported him from village to village, from town to town, and made it known among the peasants that Ulshuk defected of his own free will to the partisan camp, hoping that this rumor would reach the Germans and they would destroy his family, which took part in destroying the Jews of Ilya and enjoyed the plundering their property...
After he was no longer of any use to us, we returned him to the forest. It was only so that he would bear the responsibility for the crimes he committed. He was tried before a military partisan court and received a death sentence. How scary and depressing it was to see him on his knees begging for his life. The same traitor who spilled clean blood and dared to enjoy the booty and robbery with inner quiet was now standing and crying for his life. His crimes were proven, his sentence agreed upon: - death by a gunshot! I jumped up and saluted the commander and the judges. I asked that I and Chaim Riar be allowed to be the executioners. Our will was granted. The traitor was made to stand before a firing squad that consisted of both of us. The order was given, and satisfying the feelings of revenge we shot the death-bullets at him.
Who shall brush off the dust from the eyes of our dear and loved ones so that they could see the avenging of their blood? Indeed, among the survivors who gathered, there were judges and avengers.
I embarked on my journey of revenge... This was the first achievement in a long trail of wandering and suffering. As I mentioned, the success of the operation in Khachenchitz encouraged the whole regiment. It improved the mood, increased the stock of equipment and weapons and even contributed to the feeding of the men. Our regiment increased day to day in number as Russian war prisoners and the survivors of the Dolhinov ghetto joined it. We continued to train and organize towards new operations that would serve as payback and revenge...
The Raid on Miadel
...Morning and evening... Evening and morning... One day followed the next and habits became nature and we became perfect forest people. Our scouts and signallers managed to make contact with the residents of the town of Miadel. I found out from them that the Jews of the town were still in the ghetto. I knew that they were destined to die if we didn't get them out in time. There was no shadow of a doubt that they would be destroyed the moment the Germans finished extorting all that was possible from them. I understood that again the hour of revenge was at hand. I presented myself at the commander's and brought forth the idea of raiding the town. I explained to him that the area's vicinity was clean of partisans, that the Germans felt secure and would not think for a moment that they might be attacked. Therefore there was a possibility to act. We would pinpoint precisely the location of the ghetto, become acquainted with the location of the guard and the military camp. After we knew all this we would prepare and surprise them at night, free the ghetto Jews, and capture the weapons and equipment. The commander's answer was that he had to think about it. The plan looked good militarily, but it might bring to the forest elements that are not fighting material, that no doubt exist among the ghetto's Jews. He would therefore consider the situation carefully and decide within two days. I was not unaware of the fact that he wanted to ask the advice of the political instructor of the regiment - the "Politruk" Vulostnoi.
After two days I was informed that an operation was decided upon and the required preparations were being made.
...One autumn evening, the alert was given, and the regiment was ordered to advance to the bank of the river Vilya. In order to reach the destination of the raid, one had to cross the river. There were no bridges near the target zone. The water was deep and very cold. But our scouts had discovered a place where the water was shallower, so the command to take our clothes off was given, and to put the clothes and weapons above our heads, in order not to get them wet. We thus crossed the river. We quickly dressed and began to run the distance of 1 kilometer to warm up. We marched through the forests and approached the town of Miadel, surrounded by lakes and forest from all its sides. At dawn the lakes were visible in the distance...
We settled for a day's rest to finish up the preparations for the raid. Our scouts took care to receive a complete and detailed description of the area and passed it on to the supervisors. The regiment was summoned and at 10 we began our trip on the way to the target. The regiment was divided into 3 platoons; 2 platoons were ordered to operate inside the town and the third was ordered to capture positions near the town to prevent the arrival of German reenforcement and to ensure paths for escape. In response to the commander's call, I volunteered with my friend Chaim Riar and another Christian partisan to eradicate the patrol located in the entrance to the town.
We wore civilian clothes, received guns with silencers, and went on our way. We advanced in a row, I at the head and the two others behind me, without anyone noticing us. It was already midnight when we approached the guard, but he noticed nothing. When we reached an effective distance I shot the guard; the shot wasn't heard but he collapsed. I jumped towards him, he sighed in stifled pain but I, in murderous desire, hit him with the butt of the rifle with all my strength and eliminated him. We quickly told the platoons that the guard was destroyed. Then the command was given to advance towards town. One platoon under my command went towards the ghetto and the second towards the military camp. It seems that the Germans felt some strange commotion and fired some diagnosis shots, and then we were given the order to shoot. Simultaneously from all directions the machine guns, rifles, pistols and hand grenades began to bark. The two platoons attacked the German camp and the ghetto. Terror seized the Germans, and as frightened mice they ran around in pajamas and jumped into the prepared shelters. We washed everyone in our way with gunfire. The platoon under my command, that had been ordered to break into the ghetto, triumphed over the strong resistance of the Germans who guarded it. They expected reenforcement from the headquarters, but instead now saw that the military camp had also been attacked and that soldiers were running away from it in fear. With the first deaths they escaped with haste. We then stormed the ghetto, quickly cut the barb wire, entered the houses, and ordered the Jews to escape to the forest. No one moved.... Instead they complained: what do you want from us? Why are you chasing us to the forest to die of starvation? No one shall leave the ghetto! Our lives were secured until your invasion; We shall not go!!...
I was astonished. I could not believe my ears! Is it possible that these Jews felt nothing and did not know what their destiny was? I do not know whether this was the result of the Germans' anesthesia machine, or whether this was the result of feelings of imagined peace and false security, that "this too will pass and they too will perish." The same feelings that repressed the knowledge of the destined fate and ordered them to wait, until it was too late... I could not, of course, put up with this fact. I could not make myself the laughing stock of the entire regiment. I entreated with them and warned them of what was to be: the Germans will not let you live. If you do not exit the ghetto immediately your fate will be that of the Jews in other towns. But my warnings were to no avail. I lost my temper and said: we must clear the ghetto quickly and burn its houses, if you do not leave of your own free will we will burn the houses on top of you. Go to the forest, and there we shall deliberate on how to help you!" Only then, hearing those clear things, the Jews were frightened and began to escape to the forest. When the houses were cleared we began to burn them. In the meantime, German reinforcements began to arrive, showering us with continuous fire. We were then given the command to retreat. During the cross-fire a few Jews were wounded, including the wife of the dentist who could not continue running. We took her on the shoulders until we could get a wagon to transport her to a safe place where we could give her aid. We hastened as we could to get out and disappear in the deep of the forest, before the German forces that were summoned for reinforcement arrived, organized, and began chasing us. We approached a village, where we took a wagon, lay the wounded wife of the doctor down, and began racing back to camp. On the way 3 partisans from our regiment expressed their anger that they, who are returning tired from a military operation, have to walk on foot, while the "zidovka" is being led in a wagon. Our claims that she is wounded and cannot walk were to no avail. They forced her down and took the wagon. We of course could do nothing but carry her all the way to the base.
This disregard for a wounded woman and its anti-Semitic undertone did not let me rest. It was as if someone slapped my face hard. I was ashamed and could not restrain myself. As we reached the base I presented myself to the commander, told him the story, and demanded that they be put on trial. He responded that with time I will have to get used to more difficult things even. He was helpless and could not change the situation. "Partisans will be partisans, what is one to do?" I doubted the validity of his claims but did not dare express it. I said that ignorant warriors, who do not have regard for the duty of fraternity for their brothers in arms, could one day defect from the battlefield. But the commander did not respond...
Indeed, not long after that the predictions I expressed to the commander were fulfilled. Within a week these three acquaintances of ours defected from camp. We looked for them for a long time until we found their hideout in the forest. In order to subsist they would raid the area's villages, and rob, rape, kill and plunder; they finally fell in our hands and were put on military trial in the forest. The verdict was clear - death by gunshot! This time also I was assigned with the execution of the verdict. I regarded it as the logic of justice. This was my revenge for their despicable act on the way from the Miadel raid.
This event and its anti-Semitic undertones was unfortunately not singular. In time the attacks on the Jews, their property, bodies, and souls, increased. These caused me much sorrow and pain. But I shouldn't jump ahead. I will return to those when I describe the general context of life in the forest and review the partisan warfare in general.
To sum up the operation of " The Avenger" regiment in Miadel, one could say that this was an extraordinary initiation. The operation excelled in its organizational and practical aspects. Although we left the battlefield triumphant, with a booty of equipment and weapons and no losses to our forces, this operation posed difficult problems to our regiment and its headquarters. In time our numbers increased, but the Miadel raid added non-fighting elements to our regiment, women and children. The question of supervision, defense, and supply organization for these people now arose. Besides, we could now expect a general attack any day from the German side, who increased their guard throughout the area. Their watchfulness caused us to have almost no operational zone in the whole area. I thus advised the commander to abandon the area altogether and transfer our operation to another zone. We should remark here that during my stay with the regiment a deep friendship developed between me and the commander. He would summon me every once in a while and consult with me on many issues. Gradually he began to convince me to enter the communist party, and sometimes even tried to pressure me (out of sincere feelings of friendship though) on that issue. I tried, of course, to evade in all sorts of ways. I told him that right now I see nothing more important than to beat the hateful enemy, to cause his downfall and to triumph. Only one thing fills my heart at the moment: - the duty for revenge on the enemy. But I promise this: if I survive I will no longer hesitate and join the party. The commander of the regiment Kabilkin apparently understood my feelings and no longer returned to that subject.
The objective circumstances of fighting in the forest and of the German's watchfulness caused whole weeks to go by without us undertaking any serious operation. We lived in the deep of the forest and trained, waiting for the Germans to feel secure and to think that the partisan threat was gone. In a conversation with Kabilkin I expressed my opinion on the possibility of harassing the Germans even during the cease-fire. I suggested that we organize small sabotage sections to endanger the enemy's transportation routes, and especially to prevent the smooth passing of army trains and supplies to the front, in the deep of Russia. He accepted this idea, and indeed in a short time a few such sections were organized. I too took part in the organization of course, and was appointed the commander of one of the sections.
In those days a Jew from Warsaw named Rotblatt came to the forest and joined our regiment - a chemical engineer by trade. This was a courageous Jew, who specialized in mine construction and the preparation of explosives. We quickly befriended each other and from that time on he never left my side. Since he had the "Aryan" look and a perfect command of Polish, he made our connections with the civilian Polish population easier, and through them we collected the required intelligence on the coming and going of the trains that transported the army, weapons and supplies to the front. Our prime informer was a young Polish teacher, who believed that my new friend Rotblatt, whom she liked immensely, was a Christian Pole. There was nothing she wouldn't do to get us precise information. One day we found out from her that on the Vilna-Molodcheno railway a train full of army, weapons, supplies and other equipment was due to pass at night. It was very important, therefore, to prevent its crossing. We first carefully checked the railway where the mine was to be planted, in order to increase as much as possible German losses. At night the mine was planted, and a cable 100 meters long attached to it. We lay down ready, tense, and wrapped up in the moonlight of the forest, its light above our heads. We lay so for a few hours, spying on every motion in the silence. From somewhere in the distance a train rattle was heard. In a moment we heard the rattling of the engine, and there was the engine with a long trail of cars following it. "The time of revenge!" - I yelled, and 3 pairs of hands pulled the cable simultaneously.... For a split second it seemed that all froze around us, including our breath. But then came the saving thunder. A huge explosion was heard, the earth split open, and a giant earthquake occurred. everything was thrown up in the air, in a distance of hundreds of meters the tracks flew into the air. The engine broke in pieces. The cars toppled over and caught on fire... The skies were lit with fireworks... explosive sounds echoed... boxes of weapons exploded and burned...the cries of the dying and the sighs of the wounded, confused and frightened commands, were heard. How good it was to see the heros of the "Aryan Folk" running around in fright to save themselves.
In order to increase the confusion and to kill as many as possible of the enemy, I gave an order to shoot. The machine guns, pistols, and light weapons spit out continuous fire, and a few hand grenades were thrown into the running and shouting human stew. Only when the eastern skies began to redden and dawn arrived, did we get up and leave the spot, for fear of German reinforcement. We discovered that this fear was justified. An unusual commotion began from all sides and the German reinforcements flowed in towards the shattered train...
With feelings of unending satisfaction we returned to the headquarters. We found out from the signallers the details of the sabotage act we performed: hundreds of Germans were killed, the train was completely shattered, the treasures of weapons and arms were irreparably damaged. In a special order of the day, the commander commended my persistence and operational capabilities. This success was a turning point in our warfare tactics; we began to prepare other sabotage operations and new raids. Again I earned an hour of satisfaction and exceptional happiness. Following a few abortive attempts to cross over the front lines - the members of the civilian convoy returned to the forest - to the location of our regiment's headquarters, and with them my escape companion, Simcha Feigelman. We embraced. A stream of tears choked our throats and we expressed our happiness with the Russian curse ending with "mother." After the first few moments of happiness went by I told Simcha that I now hope that we will never have to part again. I was convinced in the depth of my heart that after our last operations and thanks to our friendship, the commander Kabilkin will no longer resist accepting Simcha in our regiment. I turned to the commander and accepted the responsibility of ensuring that my friend Simcha will be a good, loyal, courageous partisan. This time the commander of the regiment relented. Simcha joined the regiment, participated in operations, and excelled.
All the regiment's Jews: the engineer Rotblatt, Simcha, Chaim Riar and the others, exhibited their courage in the military operations of "The Avenger" regiment and surpassed in their talents and courage all other men. Thus the libelous stories that were generally accepted, that Jews do not want to fight and that they avoid every military operation, were refuted. Moreover: we proved that we persisted with the revenge mission and that we were ready for every call and any job assigned to us. Indeed, in our presence no one dared badmouth the Jews. But the libelous stories did not decrease and despite our position in the regiment we felt isolated and orphaned. We were, after all, the sole survivors of each family, and two from each city; we knew that all that we had was gone forever. Although the will for revenge beat in our hearts and we proved our courage, it didn't have the ability to disseminate the atmosphere of suspicion and hatred. A deadly danger always accompanied the Jewish partisans. A Jewish warrior always needed to take double precaution: he needed to watch out not only for the Germans but also for the guns of his partisan friends who wanted to kill him. Dozens and hundreds of Jewish partisans were killed by their brothers in arms. It was an atmosphere of indifference to the lives of Jews, and most of the officers were also part of the anti-Semitic persecutions. This was due in large part to German propaganda, that consistently declared that the war had erupted because of the Jews and that they were to blame for it. Even if the top officers wished it, they could not stop the murderous persecution of the Jews.
During that period Jews from Vilna and its vicinity escaped and reached the forest. They were better dressed and had light weaponry - handguns - and the goal of their coming to the forest was to join the partisans and have revenge. And when they reached the partisans who were a long distance from the regimental headquarters or the brigade the partisans attacked them, took their weapons, striped them naked and killed them, under the excuse that they were spies sent by the Germans. Thus dozens and hundreds of Jews who made it to the forest were shot.
But more than all suffered the Jews who escaped to the forest and were not accepted to the fighting forces. For them robbery and plunder, murder and rape, were daily bread. When sometimes a few partisans were impatient with sitting around waiting for the headquarters' commands, they would get drunk and go on missions on their own. They would attack civilian convoys, rape women, and rob everything at hand. Sometimes they would attack the villages in the area, which were usually friendly to the partisans, and murder, plunder and rape. Thus that Polish village teacher, who served as our signaller, was raped. The poor woman never recovered and lost her mind. But if the offenders against the peasant population were sometimes put on military trial and punished, those who murdered the civilian Jews in the forest walked around free and with no punishment continued their deeds. Among the rapists there were more than once those who had venereal diseases, who passed them on to the raped women. But this did not hinder them from blaming the innocent women for that. This was the fate of that dentist wife who was wounded during the raid on Miadel, who was raped and caught a venereal disease. The rapists blamed her for the disease. The poor woman was put on military trial and was expected to receive a death sentence. I had to work hard until I could prove that she was innocent and bring the real culprits forth.
Thus, then, under these conditions and in this poisoned atmosphere, the Jewish partisans operated and fought. So felt I, and my friends too. More than once we told ourselves that all efforts were in vain. We thought that no Jews would remain until victory, and that we too would be betrayed by our brothers in arms. But the desire for revenge on the Germans was stronger than anything else, and it encouraged us and strengthened our faith that not all was lost. Only due to that were we able to carry on. Thus we carried on, alternating between sabotage acts on German roads and railways on the one hand, and larger operations on the platoon and company scale on the other.
Our regiment's actions during the winter of 1943 were especially remarkable. Our raids on the enemy's army in the area decreased. The enemy's main objectives in terms of supplies and armament were near the Nimen area. In the middle of January 1943 an order reached the headquarters, that the regiment must organize quickly for a trip to the Lida area. On the same day we gathered the maximum number of sleds and horses needed for our movement. Snow and ice covered the land. At night our regiment was prepared; the order was to cross the railway at the Krasne station in the Vilna-Molodechno route and to advance towards the above mentioned area. We also received an order to eradicate any potential obstacle on the way, in order to reach the target zone as quickly as possible. We were more or less adequately equipped. We wore white robes, that served as good camouflage in winter; we sat in the sleds and advanced towards the railway in Krasne. When we reached the spot we came across a strong German guard and went into fierce battle. Our regiment opened continuous and rapid fire, and we thus swept German resistance away. Eight of them were killed on the spot and the rest retreated. We thus crossed the tracks and continued on. That very same night we reached the town of Horodok. Although we could not estimate the German forces in town, we could not avoid a face-to-face confrontation with them. We stormed the town, and the Germans were frightened and astounded and didn't know what was going on. Many of them were killed on the spot, and the rest escaped, leaving behind weapons, equipment, and supply storage. We thus got some arms, weapons, and expensive equipment. We took as much as we could with us, and the rest we destroyed, bombed and burnt.
- - - We continued our advance that very night and were prepared for anything to happen. Five kilometers away from Horodok we again passed by a German base where a strong garrison and police force were located. Despite that, we did not come under fire we were able to continue on. They may have thought that we were a German convoy that was due to pass by that place; they may have feared the strong force of partisans in the area and therefore did not initiate a confrontation. In any case, our route that night did not cross any additional obstacles. We thus managed to penetrate the thick Naliboki forest. We continued inward to the thick of the forest. There we settled down, and released some of the night's tensions. We rested for a few days, sent out scouts to get to know the area, contacted partisans from another brigade in the area. We continued to wait for the rest of the journey.
- -The rest was predictable. On the way to the forest we needed to reach the Biroza river, a rivulet of the Nimen. According to our intelligence, the Germans gathered on the Biroza a considerable stock of wooden rafts for their strategic needs. Our mission was to prevent this. We therefore arrived at the spot and organized a forceful ambush for the Germans. This was in the light of day... A convoy equipped with automatic weapons reached the spot accompanied by trucks to pick up the wood. They stepped into our ambush. We opened continuous fire. They were astounded and startled. We killed almost unceasingly. A large part of them found their death on the bank of the Biroza. And the rest managed to escape quickly in a few trucks. We bombed the abandoned trucks and retreated to the forest without any loss of life. This repeated itself three days later. This time the Germans arrived with very strong reenforcement and a prepared battle plan, but again they stepped into our ambushes. The fire was deadly. Again the Germans retreated, leaving their dead on the battlefield and unable to load the wood.
A week later an order reached us to have "The Avenger" regiment prepared for a wide-dimension raid on the airport in Lida, to damage fundamentally its constructions. One night the whole regiment was prepared for this big operation. For that purpose we sent a vanguard that included 8 scouts and I among them. We embarked, the whole regiment following us at some distance. This was a cold and cloudy winter night, and we advanced quietly. On the background of the snow that covered the earth we looked like ghosts in our white robes. We reached the vicinity of the Lida airport, which was located about 3 kilometers from the city. We toured the area carefully. At some distance from the airport we saw a well-lit house. Sounds of singing and laughter came from it - a fact that testified to its dwellers' sense of security, that they did not expect anything unusual and suspected nothing. We immediately found out that there were no guards in the area and that we could operate. We informed the regiment behind us of that, and then approached the house and surrounded it. We positioned a few partisans with automatic weapons by the windows, and I with 3 men knocked on the door. Through one of the windows we saw two officers from the airforce and a few women, who ate greedily, drank to excess, sang, laughed and revelled, and all were drunk. When after a few moments they opened the door, we barged in. "Hands up!" - I roared. They were frightened, confused and intoxicated, and lifted up their hands. I ordered their weapons to be taken and informed them that they were prisoners. We informed the regimental headquarters of this through as special messenger and that very same night the right message was transferred to the main headquarters of the partisan army, which flew the prisoner officers immediately to Moscow. In the meantime our whole regiment arrived, raided the airport and destroyed its facilities. Whomever resisted was shot and killed. We bombed a few airplanes that were parked on the runways and began to organize for retreat. Dawn had arrived, and we feared that at any moment German reenforcements would arrive. We accomplished the mission with no loss of life on our side and returned to our base. A few days after this operation we were informed that we had to go back east, towards Ilya. Again, the regiment organized for the journey and we returned to our homeland.
Again the operations and raids began. On one dark and rainy night we went on a raid on the village of Kaschinivitz, located in our area. We were informed that there, inside a Polish church, a German garrison fortified itself. Our saboteurs approached the church, planted a few explosives, and caused it to fly in the air including all the Germans that were inside. In that operation my friend Chaim Riar was severely wounded. I carried him on my back a long way until we reached a center for the wounded, where he was immediately put on the surgeon's table. An operation was performed. A bruised bone was extracted and instead they put a platinum tube that remained protracted. He lay down all feverish and writhing, unconscious and with high temperature. He suffered badly. Being unconscious and due to inadequate supervision he extracted the tube and caused bleeding. Thus he left our world. We buried him in the forest near the village of Melinki.
Weeks and months went by, we got used to the forest and became part of it. This is what our life was like, the life of itinerant partisans. During one of the raid operations - when we bombed the Kaschinivitz railway, a serious mishap occurred. During the retreat to the base my leg muscles cramped and I could not take one further step. I remained lying in the snow, and my operation companions almost abandoned me to the cold and to the danger of falling into German hands. When I began to entreat my friends to shoot me rather than let me be captured by Germans, they finally understood that I wasn't pretending, they lifted me up and helped me reach the center for the wounded. There a Jewish doctor from Minsk took care of me - the same doctor that operated on my friend Chaim Riar. Thanks to him I survived.
The Partisan Manhunt April-May 1944
The raid and sabotage operations of the partisan regiments that operated in all war zones and in the various fronts -- both in the deep of Russia and in the Byelorussian regions that belonged to Poland before the war against Hitler -- bothered the Germans very much. Partisan operations slowed down their rapid advancement during the offense, and on the other hand disconnected their bases in the rear and created obstacles for their retreat. This situation forced the main German headquarters to completely eradicate the partisan force. The order was given, and the enemy's army brought forth 30 divisions of Germans, Ukrainians, other appended forces, and the Volsov army (a Russian General who defected along with his forces and moved to the German side at the end of 1941) who advanced in a row in order to put a blockade on our forces. They advanced into the forests. We were pushed further and further, and the noose of the blockade tightened around our necks from day to day. As a result, all the partisan brigades gathered and united and created one long front. Indeed, those were very difficult days. We avoided as much as we could face to face confrontations, but our camps drew closer and closer and an open battle could no longer be avoided. Eventually we entered into a cruel, bloody battle one day. The enemy came very near: and brought forth tanks, airplanes, and artillery. We, on our side, operated anti-tank weaponry. The enemy's loudspeakers tried to convince us to lay down our weapons and surrender, since we were surrounded by a tight iron noose. We responded with a shower of fire and explosives. Thus a cruel and desperate battle began, a bloody battle that lasted for 3 days. On the first day we managed to destroy and render inoperative a few of the enemy's tanks. But in their place others came. The German artillery continued to bomb the forest, the planes bombed us from the air, and the fight continued....
I and the engineer Rotblatt were sent as scouts to collect information on the gathering German forces. We rode horses and approached the house of one civilian near the forest - the residence of one of our signallers. She ran out in fright and told us: all the roads are blocked and through them an unending convoy of armed German brigades, tanks and canons are coming in. We gave her written information for another signaller, but at that moment we noticed an armed German convoy and we spurred the horses and galloped down the hill. The Germans noticed us and operated their artillery. Our situation was bad. We were surrounded.... We continued to ride as the bombs exploded before and behind us. Suddenly Rotblatt's horse slipped, and I felt that both of them fell down. I shivered and yelled for him to run quickly after me. And then he somehow managed to pull his horse up and we continued to gallop. In order to lose our chasers, we digressed about 10 kilometers towards a big swamp. After we crossed it with much difficulty and managed to make it down, the commander of the regiment and the other officers and all our close friends thought that we were no longer alive. This opinion was based on information given by the regimental watch that saw us surrounded and escaping the Germans, who showered us with artillery. He was therefore convinced that we were killed and told the supervisors so.
...In the meantime a day had gone by and nighttime arrived. The force of the fire we were showered with did not diminish. We, too, did not cease firing on the tanks and convoys that came into contact with us. The real and close danger united the regiment's men with all the other brigades. Everyone knew that the difficult trial was still ahead. Thus the fierce and bitter battles continued for three days. The Germans suffered heavy losses, but  they did not spare personnel and equipment and assigned to the battle armed convoys and additional forces... Although our losses were not slight, we managed to retain our strength for the time being. After three days of fighting an order reached us from the Red Army's headquarters to abandon the front and retreat as quickly as possible to the Barzina area. It seemed that the Red Army's headquarters planned a major attack on the Germans; we assumed that we would now hook up with the regular army.
The order was followed. Tired and hungry, craving for warm food, we reached Barzina at night; we settled down for rest. But there was no sense talking about food. Because of the risk of air bombs, there was no possibility of lighting a fire and cooking anything. It had been three days since we tasted tea, not to mention a hot cup of soup. We lay down to rest on an almost empty stomach...
Two or three days had gone by, for now the contact between us and the advancing German convoys was disconnected, but the hunt continued. We felt clearly how the ring of the blockade was tightening around us. From the other side of the front we got some discouraging news. The Red Army's frontal attack hadn't occurred yet; it seems that the Germans found out the details of the plan in advance and that accounted for the delay. Before we got a chance to reorganize and prepare ourselves; before we rested sufficiently from the fights, an order from Moscow arrived that all partisan forces must go back west. Under any condition and for any price we were told to break and disconnect the German front, in order to delay their advance towards Moscow. As I mentioned, the main partisan force was near Barzina in the Smolensk region, and this force had not only to delay the German forces but also to force them to retreat.
The recognition of the inevitability of the situation energized us. All the partisan brigades jumped forth to battle. Our forces had about 40,000 men, surrounded and caught inside the German blockade, a blockade encompassing a wide and big area. Bitter and desperate battles, consisting alternately of offenses and retreats, took place. We fought for every piece of land, and eventually managed, after a few weeks of bloody battles, to break the German front and disconnect its lines. Our losses were many and we lost almost half of our force, but not for nothing! We returned to the Vileika-Ulkovitz line. Again we advanced toward Ilya, to the big communal grave of my family, my friends, my town...
At that time an important event occurred in the western Byelorussian front, that strengthened the partisan movement by much and helped the Red Army's outflank, already positioned at the gates of Warsaw for the last few months. This was the defection of the Volsov regiment with their commander Reyonov. The colonel Reyonov was the deputy of General Volsov that we mentioned above, and along with him he passed with the large force to the German side. For over 3 years they fought against the Red Army and were very dangerous in the war against the partisans. But their big losses on the one hand, and their inability to bring down the partisans and the blows the Germans received on the other, made them hesitate and originate the idea of a renewed and reversed defection. This development did not go unnoticed in the partisan camp.
The Red Army's propaganda began morning and night, through the radio and pamphlet jettisoned in the air, to call on that brigade to return and fight against the enemies of the homeland. It also promised everyone who moved to the Red Army's side amnesty for all the treasonous acts of the past. With the surprising developments against the Germans on the various fronts, a special atmosphere was created to facilitate this propaganda. One morning this brigade rebelled and turned its weapons against its officers who were loyal to the Germans. The General Volsov along with his loyal friends left their headquarters and escaped. His deputy Reyonov conducted official negotiations with the representatives of the partisan movement's headquarters in the presence of a representative of the Red Army's headquarters. The negotiations ended in success and in Dukshitz the brigade joined the partisans. As is the custom in such cases, the brigade was dismantled and divided between the various units in the partisan army. This event strengthened us and we dealt some serious blows to the enemy. We thus managed to pulverize, disconnect and finally break the German front. The breaking of the front by the partisan forces cleared the was for a final general attack by the Red Army, that completely paralyzed for months any German resistance. Thus the way to Berlin was opened....
We then reached the forest of my childhood's region. These were places that I knew as well as the palm of my hand. After bitter, desperate and weary battles, after much spilling of blood and sacrificing of lives, we had to find our way in the zone, to collect intelligence on German advances, to train, to organize and be prepared for new operations. This mission was again given to me and the engineer Rotblatt. Again we rode our horses, equipped with a machine guns, handguns, and a few hand grenades each. This was the summer, the season of the standing crop. At noon we reached a certain village. To this day I do not know whether the Germans themselves spotted us, or whether one of the traitors told them of our arrival. In any case, they ambushed us inside the standing crop, and apparently wanted to catch us alive. Without realizing this, we headed inside the village. A door was quietly opened in one house, and the figure of a Polish woman that I knew well stood in the door way, and whispered in Polish: "Solominski, get out of here quickly, for God's sakes, 10 meters behind the house Germans are lying down waiting to catch you, run for your lives!" -- We ran as quickly as we could. After we got away from the house a distance of about 200 meters, we climbed a hill, from which we indeed saw the Germans lying down in the standing crop. We escaped to the forest quickly, but could not go back to the camp without intelligence. I therefore suggested to my friend that we go to a different village. We left the horses behind and crossed the swamp on foot, reached a mansion at the edge of the forest and entered. We asked the peasant what was happening. With growing astonishment he looked at us and said: "I can't believe you survived. The German's assistants are boasting that they managed to destroy all the partisans." We learned from him the German force in the area wasn't big now, that most of it got stuck in the Barzina region. We drank some water; my friend even suggested that we sit down and rest, but I insisted that we hurry up and go back to the forest.
Not long had passed since we entered the forest when we suddenly saw in the distance columns of smoke and fire... We didn't understand the meaning of this; only later, when we advanced about 10 kilometers into the wood and turned to a different village, did we find out. We turned to a peasant in order to complete our intelligence on the situation in the area. We there learned that the Germans entered the mansion and told the peasant that they saw some partisans enter. Where had he hidden them? The fellow told them innocently that he did not know whether they were partisans, they drank some water and left, and human decency demands that we do not keep water away from a thirsty human being! The Germans were enraged. They shut the peasant and his entire household inside the house and lit it on fire. The cries of the women and children who were burnt alive terrified the whole area. Only then did we understand that as we left the mansion the Germans noticed us. Despite the toughness we developed during our travels, I felt sorry for the death of the innocent that we were the cause of... and our hearts ached very badly. From this peasant we found out also that in the area there were relatively few Germans. The German garrison stayed only in Kurenitz and Vileika, areas that now constituted important supply stations for the German army that had advanced beyond Barzina. We were now extra careful on the way to the forest, got on our horses, and returned to the headquarters with our intelligence via another route.
The circumstances of partisan warfare, and our excessive weariness caused a serious pause in our military operations. We now had a few weeks of quiet and inaction. We renewed our strength, trained, and reorganized. I presented the commander with plans for an operation of large scale on Vileika and Kurenitz.
In these two places there were supply bases important to the Germans. In Kurenitz there was a flour mill and a big sawmill and nearby a train station, storage houses and factories, that worked full strength. The same was true of Vileika. These two spots were defended by a regular garrison, equipped with the best automatic weapons and supplies. We prepared the plans for the raid thoroughly.
Late in an evening in July 1944 - we broke into -- we the men of "The Avenger" regiment that turned into a brigade -- these two spots simultaneously. The Germans in Kurenitz fortified themselves well in the police station. We took over the town, bombed for a few hours all the bases and important militarily important locations. We also set an ambush to prevent reenforcement from Vileika. German losses at Kurenitz and Vilieka were very big. In Kurenitz we suffered no losses, but on the other hand the operation in Vileika cost us three dead and 11 wounded. The bridge on the Ilya river that passes through town was well protected by the German forces. A bitter, courageous and persistent battle took place. Despite the losses, the partisans stormed the town, bombed the train station and the tracks, the mill and the bridge. This coordinated attack on both towns simultaneously worked first and foremost on a psychological level. The Germans -- the garrison -- believed that not only the partisans were fighting them, but that a whole brigade of the Red Army advanced and reached the place. They began to escape, some gave themselves up and others were killed. Our forces operated all night. With dawn we began to retreat. The Germans began to bring in reenforcement from all sides. Our forces retreated in an organized fashion and according to the plan.
A few days later an order was give to raid our town Ilya and the Ubudovtzi mansion, that stood nearby and served as a strong and fortified military base. I was the commander of the platoon that raided Ilya. After a battle the German resistance was broken, we took over the police and Gestapo headquarters, burnt it, and we also bombed and burnt the flour mill - my parent's mill. I first entered the mill to save the Polish mechanic, and when he saw me he fell on my neck and wept. I took him out of there quickly, laid down the explosives and lit them. I thus destroyed with my own hands my parent's property... I didn't get a chance to withdraw to some corner, to be alone with myself, to think and recall the precious memories of my past, my childhood and adolescent in our town. We had to retreat again, but I went back there a few weeks after the liberation of Vilna and the purging of the whole area.
The raid in Ilya and Ubodovtzi scared the Germans, who suffered big losses. The assistants to the Germans among the area's peasants were afraid to move about in the area during daylight. They began to fear for their fate, since they saw that the wheel of fortune had turned...
In the meantime, the Red Army had done its job and went ahead from one victory to the next. In a matter of weeks Minsk was liberated and the Vilna area was conquered and purged. One morning we were told that all the partisan brigades were to gather in Minsk. From now on we were soldiers of the Red Army and no longer partisans. A few days later - on a beautiful summer day - there we stood, the whole ex-partisan army - in a parade in the central square of Minsk, and listened to a special order of the day from the commander of the general headquarters, who recited the partisan operations. Waves of joy overtook all hearts, and us too, the surviving Jewish partisans, were swept by it. But in the secrecy of our hearts there was sorrow and bitterness. The order of the day mentioned everybody, Russian and Byelorussians, Lithuanians and Polish, Latvians and Tatars.... Only us, the few solitary Jews, remained anonymous. We fought as Russians and Byelorussians and Poles, but not as Jews. So we stood and marched in the parade and what followed; streams of blood, our loved ones' graves, orphanhood, loss and bereavement behind us. Before us - waves of joy, the sound of the crowd cheering, and on this occasion too we were foreign and anonymous. The victory is ours, but not the Joy!...
Rays of Light from the Abyss
Thus my testimony ends, but I feel that it would not be complete without mentioning those who loved Israel and loved mankind - among the partisans and among the area's peasants (especially Poles) who helped the Jews and saved them from very many and real dangers. They especially helped the non-fighting Jews, with their wives and children, who found themselves in the thick of the forests. This is the place to mention Captain S. - A Christian Russian, the storekeeper of the brigade - who helped the non fighting Jews with food and supplies, and more than once saved them from death by starvation. We should also mention V., the regiment's politruk - who was later appointed the brigade's commissar. He too helped many civilians. He never distinguished between Jews and Christians. And there is the story of one Jew - a partisan called Levin - who was sent to Vilna to get hold of a topographic map of the town and its vicinity and gather intelligence. This man was a coward and never reached the target. He returned empty handed, without the funds that he was provided with, claiming that partisans from another brigade attacked him and robbed him of the money. A wide and through investigation was held and it was made apparent that this was a lie. No one attacked him and he hid the money. The anti-Semites had an excuse to fling around. A conspiracy against the Jews in general began. He was arrested, put on military trial and sentenced to death. He was barely saved from that sentence thanks to the interference of V. the brigade's commissar. V. turned to the military prosecutor and asked that the sentence be mitigated. That he be given the maximum punishment other than capital punishment. After looking the case over the persecutor agreed to this and Levin was assigned with the bombing of an enemy train. If he were to succeed, he'd be free. And indeed that is what happened.
In the beginning of 1945 I was sent to Ilya in order to rebuild the flour mill and operate basic factories for the Red Army. I stood at the heart of town and thought: Ilya my town! What kind of a sight are you, without all your Jews, without all our dear ones who perished in such cruel circumstances?! I felt in every part of my body that it was time to embark on a new journey.
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