by Zushka Gitlitz
Translated by Harold Gitlitz (Zushka's son)
The Gentiles Go Wild
A few days after the start of the Nazi-Russian war, the Christians of the shtetl, and surrounding areas, attacked the Jews and stole their belongings. To be honest, there were no human victims at this time because the Jews chose not to resist.
The Jews had abandoned their homes while the Christians took many of their possessions. Still, they were not able to take everything, because the Jews had hidden their more valuable clothing and goods a few days earlier.
The Murders Arrive
The Germans entered our little village of Ilya on June 29, 1941. It tore at our hearts when we first saw them. Their armored vehicles stretched out in a long chain and they broadcast prerecorded messages in the Russian language encouraging pogroms against the Jews. Each citizen has the complete right to do whatever he wants to the Jews and he will not be punished for this.
About a month after the outbreak of the war, a German headquarters was established in the village. This fact alone caused great fear for the Jews of Ilya. When the headquarters first summoned the Jews to a meeting, we thought that this is the end they will kill us all. In spite of this, all the Jews came to this meeting, old and sick, men and women and even children. They assembled us in rows and ordered that everyone, even ten year old children, must wear a yellow patch on the front and back of their garments. Anyone who is seen in the street without this patch will henceforth be shot.
Later they ordered that 15 people be chosen for a Judenrat or advisory council, whose purpose would be to mediate between German headquarters and the Jewish inhabitants. To be honest, the Judenrat ruled as best they could, but their work was very difficult and heart wrenching. The committee led us in a very responsible way and dealt with the concerns of the Jewish community with objectivity and understanding with a Jewish heart. The first head of the committee was our rabbi, Rabbi Abraham Ramaz. The Germans placed 50 Christian police at the disposal of the Judenrat. They were assigned to help the committee enforce all their decrees, but were never used.
The Forced Labor
The German headquarters chose 250 able bodied Jews, men and women between 15 and 50 years old, and sent them to do forced labor. The Jews had to assemble in the market at 6:00 A.M. and were sent to work from there. Each Christian was given the right to take people from this group and have them work for them. At first, they didn't assign us any work because their goal was to merely torment us and make our lives miserable. The Jews were given the worst tasks to do. We had no choice but to do them.
Our main work was to clean toilets. Our Christian overseers told us we must do this only with our bare hands. We also removed the waste from toilet pits with our bare hands, placed the contents in containers and carried it on our backs to the fields to be used as fertilizer. This sort of work was understandably done only in the summer. One sweated terribly carrying these loads, while the waste also leaked out of the containers, on to our bodies and smelled up the air. After doing such work, one lost one's appetite and could not eat anything.
Upon returning from work, we helped each other wash in the river. Even then they would not leave us alone, as young Christian boys would throw stones at us, while we were not permitted to respond. When we were assigned to construction, it was very difficult work, beyond human capacity. We were forced to remove logs from the river in late autumn after it began to freeze. These logs weighed more than two horses could drag.
The official ration was composed of 100 grams (3.5 ounces) of bread per person per day and no more. However, we did not starve at first because we secretly bought bread from the Christians for clothing or for currency, even though it was punishable by death.
Aside from forced labor, the Judenrat committee was forced to burden the Jewish community with various forms of collections which were ordered by the local commandant. Each week the Judenrat had to deliver something different to the Vileika commandant. One week it was beds and mattresses, another week it was leather working equipment. These demands had to be obeyed, otherwise all the Jews would have been killed.
The local commissar wasn't the only one who demanded tribute from us as trucks would arrive from the Minsk region and take away the last of our goods and possessions; manufactured products, blankets, clothing and the like. The Germans then sent these needed goods such as production machinery and raw materials, which they took from us in the name of the Reich, to Germany by way of the train station in Vileyka. This was official robbery. Eventually they emptied the shtetl of everything.
Evil Decrees and the First Massacres
Jews were not allowed to use the side walk. This was strictly forbidden and enforced with the death penalty. It was done merely to make our lives miserable. No one really knew what would happen to them the next minute. Besides this, our spirit was shattered after our first violent deaths. The victims were Zamke Chaikin and Baruch Zimen who were arrested as communists and killed the same day. They were also looking for Manke Kapelovitz who yelled out death to the facists, before leaving on official business right after the start of the German invasion. Manke was fortunate to disappear. Instead of her, they arrested her mother, Gitl, who was later set free. Still they didn't escape their fate as they were all killed at a later date.
The Gestapo Appears
Two months had passed since the arrival of the Germans in the shtetl when the first members of the Gestapo were spotted. That same day they shot Serkin and her daughter in their home and Yankele Lapidus and Golda's son Moshe who had just finished work near Sirkin's house. This was done to show the Jewish inhabitants that We are here.
The shoemakers workshop worked for the German killers with great fervor. We were given orders that we must produce a certain number of shoes and boots. We made great efforts to meet these demands which were always clothed in death threats. We delivered the finished work to the district commander in Vileyka. From time to time, they demanded special items which the shoemakers from Ilya had no idea of how to make; ski boots for example. We were really confused when the order first arrived but we put a great deal of effort in making them and they didn't come out too badly. I worked as a shoemaker's sewing machine operator in the workshop. I could thank specializing in this skill for making me very popular with the murders as a vital skilled craftsman.
Troubles, always more new troubles, fateful sentences and misfortunes. A group of Gestapo men's truck broke down in the shtetl exactly two days before Purim. They mobilized twenty young boys and ordered them to push the vehicle to Shasinska, a small town about 14 kilometers from Ilya. The boys took shovels with them so that they could clear the snow from the road and push the vehicle. It took them an entire day. They arrived in Shasinska physically exhausted and barely alive just before sunset. The Gestapo planned to pay the boys for their extraordinary effort in a special way, Gladiator games. They ordered the boys to pick up their shovels and to form two rows facing each other. They then ordered that one row remain passively still while the facing row were ordered to hit them with their shovels. They were then ordered to switch roles after the first row was very bloodied. Now the ones who were initially beaten up, now bloodied their assailants. The Germans, standing at a distance were still not through with them.
One of the 20 boys, Yankel Rabunski, Laika Sasik's son, a strong, handsome 18 year old young man, seeing the performance, picked himself up and ran away. The Germans began shooting at him with machine guns but did not hit him. He certainly had the opportunity to run away and disappear but as bad luck would have it, he was killed with the help of Christian peasants. They hunted him down and handed him over to the Germans. You can imagine what happened to him. The Germans almost beat him to death, then threw him on a truck going to Vileyka. After the rest of the young men were freed and sent home, they beat Yankel to death and threw him into the swamps. This was later told to us by peasant eye witnesses.
The young men who miraculously remained alive, returned home but could not report more about Yankel Rabunski's fate than what they had seen with their own eyes, that he had been thrown on a truck going to Vileyka. His mother, Laika, who thought that my special relationship with the butcher's county commandant, could bring her salvation by freeing her son, begged me to travel to Vileyka to try to get him released. The Judenrat had also urged me to make this effort, as he was a member of our Jewish community. It was not a simple assignment and entailed the taking of great risks. During this period of time however, no one knew what the next morning would bring and what his fate would be. I decided to go.
Resurrection of the Dead
It was on Purim eve, 1942, that I decided to quickly travel to Vileyka. The following day, Purim Tuesday, perhaps a miracle would occur and my mission would succeed. Prior to my arrival, I knew that Vileykan Jews lived relatively unrestrained in the town, however on the day of my arrival, all of Vileyka was surrounded by the Gestapo. They went from house to house, driving and concentrating all Jews, including myself, to an area near the prison. They rounded up about 1500 Jews; old, middle aged, young and children. Later they started shooting with machine guns and killed them all. The miracle that I had hoped for didn't happen, but a miracle did happen to me. I was not hit by a bullet. During the shooting, I collapsed out of fright, was covered with bodies and soaked in their blood.
Lying under the dead bodies, I felt that I was still alive. I tried very hard not to move and to just listen to what was happening around me. I heard only the cries and moans of the seriously wounded around me. The Germans quieted them down with more gun fire. Afterwards, there was a complete silence. Upon opening my eyes, I noticed it was night and I decided to flee, but in which direction I knew not. I could hardly crawl out from under all the people shot and lying on top of me. As I arose from the grave, I looked around me to see where I was. I decided not to go in the direction of the town out of fear of falling back into the hands of the murderers. I instead went in the direction of the Vileya river, despite the fact that she was wide and deep in this location. I also discovered that an angel lived here. I knew him from the time that I worked in this area. My feet led me about 3 kilometers down river, where my Christian friend lived. I came up to the house and knocked on the door. He answered the door and, upon seeing me, went silent. I then told him what had happened to me. When I finished telling him, he kindly gave me some water to wash myself, a change of clothing and also some bread and milk. Later he had his son take me to the other side of the river. I thanked his son profusely and left. I then quickly found the open road back to Ilya, but wasn't sure if I should take it, only to fall back into the hands of the murderers again. Instead, I moved among the trees of the nearby forest. In this way, I got to Ilya before morning and was able to report what had happened to the Vileyker Jews and to me.
Back in Ilya
I came home neither dead nor alive. My journey of returning back home had sapped all my strength. When I returned to work again, I felt that I was falling off my feet. I had no choice but to go to the German doctor for an examination. I don't know what happened, but he excused me from work for 2 weeks.
Returning home from work, I longed to fall into bed. This was just a fanciful wish because we hadn't had any beds for a quite a while. The local peasants had stolen them from us before the Germans had even arrived. I had to lie on the ground on top of a small pile of straw. I lay there on the ground for 8 days when someone came to us with the news that the Germans had killed all the Jews of Radeshkowitz. Upon hearing this terrifying news, a panic ensued in the shtetl. Now it was clear to everyone that our turn was coming next. All of Ilya's Jews just sat, waiting for their deaths.
To the Slaughter
Eight days later, March 17, 1942 (25 Adar), the Gestapo arrived from Vileyka. They surrounded the shtetl from all sides, and the police (Germans and local Christians) occupied the streets and prepared to carry out the executions. To be honest, many Jews had prepared hideouts, places that were prepared for just such an eventuality. They were for the most part, of little help in this critical moment. Almost all the hiding spots were uncovered and the Jews killed.
I was still lying ill when I heard shooting coming from the marketplace. Strange sounds were also coming from the streets. I didn't feel well enough to go outside to determine what was happening, but the situation was getting more foreboding from minute to minute. I finally decided to get dressed and to look into the street when just at that moment, I heard the door open and 5 people enter, 3 Gestapo accompanied by 2 policemen. The children were still asleep but they ordered us all to get dressed and accompany them to the market. My wife, Dina Leah, woke the children and dressed them very warmly due to the heavy frost.
This is the way we went on our final journey. The snow scraped under our feet and glistened like diamonds, but we were in great despair and made our last spiritual stocktaking. I will never forget the horrible picture that I saw with my own eyes. When we passed Reuben Kagan's house, his daughter Shifra came out carrying a beautiful little boy, while the Gestapo drove her faster and faster. Suddenly, Shifra tossed down the child and started to run away. The little boy remained lying on the snow, crying and sobbing. My wife who was also going to the slaughter couldn't watch the child's distress picked him up and took him with her to the collective slaughter. The police shot at Shifra but she escaped and hid for a short amount of time. They later found and killed her. When we arrived at the marketplace, we saw more than 400 people standing in rows. More women and children. The size of the group was increasing. Later they even brought the infirm on sleds. This is how they gathered and concentrated all the Jews together. Many of them wore tallesim and t'filim, wanting to die with Shmah Yisroel on their lips.
An Offer of a Lost Soul
During this time, the police which were made up of local young gentiles, walked around and demanded that the unfortunate Jews give away their last possessions, reasoning Jews, these are your last moments anyway. Later they demanded their possessions using more forceful measures. They beat and bloodied the Jews with sticks, demanding money and gold. They also used psychological measures, promising, Jews, those of you who hand over your possessions will be allowed to live. When the Jews heard that they could remain alive, they wanted to buy themselves out of a frightening death. Almost everyone announced that they had hidden certain valuable things and demanded that they be taken home so that they could retrieve and hand over these possessions. The Germans thus escorted the Jews to their homes and received there the last of their beloved possessions. Later they brought these Jews back to the marketplace and had no mercy with their fate.
A Bloody In-Between Show
Then the action started. First, they not only shot the young children being carried by their mothers, but they forced these mothers to carry their dead children. Even though blood from the children who were shot ran down their mother's arms, none of the mothers even cried. Everyone's heart truly turned to stone. No one shed a tear. Everyone became hardened. They kept us in this anguished situation from 6 in the morning until 12 noon. Later an order came that we should leave but where? No one knew. The sadists led us from triumph to finality. They at last brought us to a field with barrack that the Soviets had used to store vegetables. However instead of taking us through Minsk Street, they forced us to go through a field covered in deep snow with a great deal of ferocity and would shoot anyone who stumbled or fell on the way. This is how the death train stretched, with the mothers holding their dead children in their arms. When we finally got to the assigned spot, we were ordered to remain standing. What would happen to us next, no one knew, though we felt our lives were over.
The murderers went through the rows and removed all the craftsmen and their families; tailors, shoemakers, blacksmiths and all other crafts. This amounted to 40 men who they separated from all the others. The others were then told to undress and lay their clothing next to them. The bloody murderers didn't need their clothing because they had already taken their best and the Jews wore only rags with patches. But the butchers knew all too well that gold and dollars were sewn into some of these clothes.
The Butchers Revel
Groups of up to 10 naked people at a time were driven into the barrack. When everyone had been forced into the barrack, the Vandals locked the door, doused the barrack with kerosene and ignited it. Imagine the cries that were heard when the smoke started to choke them and when the fire consumed these holy martyrs. When the gruesome, bloody, inhuman tragedy had played itself out, most of us wanted to throw ourselves on the fire along with our loved ones. I personally had a wife and three children there.
I Want to Die
The murderers understood our anguish and locked us up in a shed until the cries of the victims ended. They were all dead and burnt, but the odor lingered over the entire area for quite a while. They then freed us, all of us who were left alive. We sat hardened in our locked mole cage. All of us emerged in deep sorrow, wishing that we were dead. It was already night, but we were not aware of it, because our thoughts were with our holy martyrs and perhaps steadfastly with God, in any case, not on earthly matters. The shouts from the police, telling us that we were free and could go home, woke us from our stupor.
Did we hear back home? We then thought, Where should we go? The blood of our dear loved ones was ceaselessly calling and screaming revenge. Out of habit, my feet brought me to my former house. When I stepped across the threshold it looked as if a pogrom had taken place there. Everything was broken and destroyed and even the floor was ripped up. Only the walls remained standing. Each of us felt the same, we could not find peace at home. This is how we all wandered around, lost, until we got together in a house and laid there on the floor together as if we were all severely wounded until we experienced the dawn of the following day.
In the Burial Society
Very early, when I looked out into the street to see what was happening, the police arrived and ordered Jonah and me to harness a horse to a sled and to ride around the shtetl and search everywhere in every house and gather the bodies of the people who were shot and to bring them to the large wide pit where yesterday the entire Jewish community was killed. We picked up the bodies of 80 of our neighbors and put them on top of yesterday's fire, which continued to smolder for 10 more days. I will never forget the moment when Jonah found the body of his murdered father. He did not want to touch him. For this, he received a severe beating, and not a small one either.
Destined to Remain Alive
Two days later, a few Jews were seen who had the opportunity to stick themselves into hiding places and were not found by the butchers on the day of the pogrom.
Naturally, they were afraid to show themselves on the street, fearing that they would immediately be shot. The Jews who were officially spared were not afraid because of the orders of the commandant. The commandant had said that he will not shoot anymore Jews, even the ones that hid, but who could believe him based on his murderous sense of justice. When their hunger eventually forced them out of hiding, they one-by-one, reported to the commandant who had merely recorded their presence and then immediately freed them. When all the remaining Jews finally came out of hiding, we counted about 200 people altogether.
The entire surviving remnant of the Jewish community that remained alive after the first slaughter had been gathered in a few houses on Synagogue Street. These dwellings were surrounded by high barbed wire and was called the Ghetto. The crowding was frightening. Everyone slept on a little bit of straw on the lower floors. There we lived, the productive element who worked for the Germans. Each of us left early in the morning and returned in the evening, after being searched by the Gestapo at the Ghetto's gate. Anyone discovered trying to bring in good, was shot. We had to smuggle in food because there was hunger and need in the Ghetto. The solidarity we had there was never greater than that which we had in those dark days.
In midst of all this, we never had a real feeling of security here. If any Jew did not obey the Gestapo, they were shot. The feeling of living under these circumstances, is impossible to describe.
The Butchers are not Sated
A few days after the massacre, while looking out the window, I noticed how a Gestapo man was leading Isaac Sinder and his family to see me. The murderers caught Isaac on the street and demanded leather, otherwise he would shoot him. Since Isaac really didn't have leather, he led this man to me, thinking that perhaps I had a small quantity of remaining leather. The member of the Gestapo then asked me if I had any leather. I answered him that there might be some left, because my wife hid some in the attic a few days prior. He now took me with him too. I went up to the attic, him following me. He held his pistol in one hand and helped me to search with the other. Finally, we found the bundle of leather. When we came down from the attic, Isaac was still in the house. The Gestapo man told Isaac to carry the bundle for him, but this didn't save him from death. He now demanded gold from him, so then Isaac led him to his home. The Gestapo man thus got his gold, but still shot Isaac. I later carried his body, still warm, and placed it on the still burning funeral pyre.
I Leave Ilya
I didn't remain in the Ilya Ghetto very long. A short time later, an order came to transfer a sewing machine operator, a shoemaker and a locksmith to the Vileyka Ghetto. This duty fell on Shepsil Epstein; Jonah, Noah's son and upon me. In this way we were torn from Ilya and were unable to see its final destruction with our own eyes.
They put us in a covered, closed and locked truck. We really weren't sure as to where we were going. Who knew what these killers were planning and if we were really going to Vileyka. Out of curiosity we peered through a crack in the truck's cover to see if we were going in the direction of Vileyka and discovered that we were really going there. After about an hour of traveling, the truck stopped and was unlocked. We were ordered out of the truck and into a nearby wooden barrack. It was a very cold winter and the barrack, which was made of thin wooden boards, had broken doors and windows with trash piled above our necks. When we went in there, we found about 50 Jews from various towns; Kurnitzers, Smargoners, Oshminers, Miadelers and others. We asked them, how long were they there? They answered, about 2 weeks. It took us a few days to get used to the cold and other difficult conditions. Our group, which was called specialists, was taken from time to time to the train station and forced to load and unload goods. It wasn't easy to unload cases of glass in particular, as they were very heavy, fragile and had to be unloaded carefully. Any mistake in this task would mean death.
We survived until after Passover when it got warm. We didn't starve anymore because we secretly traded clothes for bread with the Christians. There were Jews that worked for the S. D. (Sonder Dienst) or Special Service. They had to put up with troubles and plagues. The S. D. would hit them in the head with sticks. If anyone fell, they would take out their pistols and shoot them like dogs. This is how 3 months went by.
Together with My Brother
One day, we received word that the Jews of Krivitz had been massacred, however my brother and his family had survived. I made all necessary efforts to try to bring him to my work depot. We were hoping that our depot would survive and remain standing because the Germans still needed our work skills. After a great deal of effort, I was in fact, able to bring over my brother. Later, more Jews arrived from the surrounding towns.
In the Vileykan Ghetto
There were about 700 Jews left in the Vileykan Ghetto that were engaged in many types of work each day. We secretly acquired a Sefer Torah and even prayed, but were very careful to keep the Germans from discovering us. On Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, all those who had the opportunity, prayed and fasted. In the barrack where I lived, we organized and strongly resolved that if the Germans tried to kill us, we would all resist as best we could. We would not make it easy for them to murder us and they would have to pay a heavy price for it. We were prepared for them each day and set up a sentry system among ourselves. This really saved us from death. One evening, a car drove up to our barrack and stopped. Our sentry heard this and immediately woke us all from our sleep. We quickly dressed and were ready to put up a resistance. The Germans noticed that we were ready for them, reconsidered and drove away. The following morning, they explained that they merely got stuck in the mud. They saw our preparedness and how each visit would be construed as their wanting to kill us and would lead to a real clash.
In the Forest with the Partisans
Someone came to us announcing that the ghetto would soon be liquidated and that if we wanted to remain alive, we had only one option, to join up with the partisan groups which could be found in the forests. This was not an easy decision as we would have to endure long periods of hunger and fear. Alas, there were no other real alternatives, as we were the last few Jews remaining alive in the entire region. Our deaths would wipe out the memory of any Jews ever having lived in this region.
The decision of whether to go into the forests was not a matter of will alone, we would also have to acquire weapons, which we had already started to do. I don't want to stop here nor to describe our life in the forest. This is an epic that has to be told by my friends and myself. Their stories contain enough troubles and miseries for us all. I have enough ability not to disguise the frightful reality of hunger, need, cold and misery. It is good that this period has come to an end and we are free people again.
Our task is now to say Kadish for all our dead who did not live to experience liberation. May their collected and dispersed bones and ashes be blessed in the Book of Life. May they be a blessing on their unknown grave diggers and a reminder for us all, for our children and children's children forever.
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