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[Page 155]

The Struggle to Survive

by Wolf (Zev) Rabunski

Translated by Ari Solly Gordin

“In honor of my grandfathers, Dr. Sali Gordin and William Burk,
both possessed a noble and generous spirit, and are greatly missed”

On the Road

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Wolf (Ze'ev) Rabunski
[first cousin of Shimon Peres]
son of Eltka nee Perski and Yitzhak Rabunski

Three days after the Germans invaded Russia, my family, like many other Jews in town, ran away east toward the old USSR border. After encountering many difficulties on the road and being turned away at the border, we decided to return to Kurenets. My wife and child returned directly with other women and children. My good friend, Leib Putrpas and I, decided not to return immediately because we believed that the women and children would be spared by the Nazis, however the young men would be castigated. We decided to return using a longer, more secluded route. During the late afternoon, we reached the little town of Krivitz. We entered at a fateful moment, immediately after the gentiles from the town and the surrounding villages raided the Jews and their homes. As soon as we entered the town, we were caught by some Polish police who were now working for Germans. They beat us severely; their punches were brutal and exact. As soon as they were done with us, they were planning to take us to the German authorities to be put in a POW camp. They continued to beat us mercilessly as a group of German soldiers came to the area, looking for people to clean some barns nearby. One of the soldiers approached me and asked me to identify myself and explain what I was doing there. I made up a hasty story that we were imprisoned by the Russians and that we had quickly escaped and wanted to return to our homes, and that we didn't know why the townspeople were beating us. He ordered us to come with him. As he was taking us to the stable, he noticed one of the town homes where all the doors were open. He entered and stole a record player and some records, ordering me to carry the record player and Leib Putrpas to carry the records. As we continued, he saw another home and decided to steal something there too. We were ordered to wait outside. We decided to run away. We set the stolen goods on the ground and quickly made our way to the fields behind the house.

Evening came and it was growing dark. After a long walk, we asked one of the farmers where we were and he told us that we were near Neyaka, a small village about 10 kilometers from Kurenets. Many of the Jewish residents of Neyaka were involved in business with and had relatives in our town. We decided to rest for a bit until we felt better. We were badly injured and we hadn't eaten for awhile, and we were exhausted. Leib Putrpas knew an old man, named Valah, who lived in Neyaka. He wore a long, white beard, and walked with a limp. Valah was well known all over the region as a most gracious host and as a man of noble spirit.

The village, Neyaka, was small and we found Valah's house with no difficulty. Frightened and in pain, we heard of what was happening in Neyaka. Valah told us that a few days earlier the Germans had come to the synagogue and thrown out the Torah books, and now the Jews are sitting on their luggage ready to run, but nobody knows where to go. The Christian villagers avoided them like the plague, and at best, they treated them as if they were total strangers.

"Don't worry children," Valah said, "God will not desert us. The main thing to concern us with right now is your safety. Go in the barn and sleep on the hay. Tomorrow, we will see what we can do for you."

Only then, when we lay on the fresh hay, did we feel the extreme exhaustion and horrible pain that the beatings from Krivitz had caused us. The wounds burned like fire, and it was impossible to fall asleep. Our clothes stuck to our open wounds and we turned from side to side trying to alleviate the pain until the morning came. At the break of dawn, we heard the birds chirping and we smelled the wonderful scent of freshly cut fields.

Valah couldn't sleep either. He was very concerned about us and got up very early to see how we were. We heard the sound of someone walking with a limp, and realized that it must be him. "Good morning!" he greeted us cheerfully, and announced that we would get porridge to satiate our hunger. We were very excited, for it had been days since we had last eaten like normal human beings. Now that the morning light came, Valah saw that we were hurt. He saw our bruises and immediately ran home. He brought his daughter, who carried a pail of hot water, back with him. They peeled off our bloody boots and shirts. The pain was unbearable since the clothes were sticking to our bodies. They then started washing and feeding us as though we were babies. Valah would encourage us in good spirits, "Eat, children, eat! We must gather our energy so that we can dance when the enemy is annihilated. You know that they took the Torah's from the synagogue and desecrated it. You will see that God will not take it quietly."

We asked him if he knew anything about what was happening in Kurenets. He said that it was impossible to have any contact with other towns as no one could come or go anywhere. "You need some more courage, my children," he said, "Big troubles have come to the nation of Israel; we must stay strong to overcome them. Lie down and get your strength back for a few days, and then we will see what you should do."

He covered us in more hay, and we started feeling more energetic and rested.

Through that time, other Jews started coming to visit us, asking what was going on in other towns. We told them about the troubles in the neighboring towns. Nevertheless, Valah told us not to worry, and kept saying, "We must fast and ask for forgiveness. In the history of our nation, we have known bigger troubles than this and we still see miracles and salvation." The Germans, who were camping in the train station in Kanahanina, started coming to Neyaka to scare and rob the few Jews who lived there. We realized that there was much danger here too, and one of these days we would get caught and receive a similar reception as we did in Krivitz. Thankfully, we were able to escape from there, but we felt that now we were out of miracles.

In the Homes of Israel, there is no light

It had been months since we had left our town, and it seemed like the Germans were winning one victory after the next. We kept asking ourselves, "Is there no force that can stand up to the Germans? Where are the Russian Katyushas, Vanyushas, and all the other renowned weapons that the public constantly heard of?"

After consulting each other and Valah, we decided to leave for Kurenets. We left at night with heavy feet and heavy hearts. A heavy rain fell and drenched our clothes. Finally, we reached the hills of Belashi. From afar, we could hear the sound of the carpentry mills of Zokofsky. From another direction, we could hear the dogs barking in the village of Poken. There in the valley was our town. Occasionally you could see light in one of the windows, yet not one light from a Jewish home. In the homes of Israel, there was no light.

Our hearts were beating fast with excitement. Soon we would see our dear ones; my baby boy, my wife, and the rest of my beloved family. But how difficult it was to return to our hometown crawling on barbed wire as if we were some kind of criminals escaping prison! The farmers had already cut and stacked the hay, as if no war was happening at all. All this excitement made me forget my wounds and pain for a while.

I approached the alley and waited for the German patrol to distance themselves before I crossed the street. I reached my in-law's window and knocked on the shutter quietly. My mother in-law woke up and asked, "Who's there?"

I answered her, whispering, "It's me, your Velvale". She woke up my father-in-law and asked him to go see.

All the commotion woke my wife, and she approached the window and said excitedly but controlled, "Mother, Volvol is here!" After receiving many hugs, kisses, and tears, I went into the bedroom. I stood next to my son's bed. Through the illumination of a candlelit bottle, I saw my sleeping baby. He was sleeping with a little smile on his face, as if he were greeting me from his dreams. We decided that I must not be seen, and that even the child shouldn't see me fearing that he might tell someone of my arrival through baby talk.

There was a Christian man in town who was called the Parifa, since all of his torn clothes were connected by parifas, instead of patches. After we left, he had become the governor of Kurenets, and we had to be very careful.

I hid in the basement, amongst the many healing herbs that my father in-law used to deal with. The next morning my mother came from her home in Myadel Street to visit the baby, and was very excited to hear of my return. She fell on me crying, saying, "My son! My son! The only son who is still left in town!" Her cries woke up the baby and I had to immediately run back to the hiding place.

I looked at my son from a hidden corner and I heard him talk to other children outside the door. He said, "My daddy will come and bring me a little horse."

From then on, mother came to visit me daily and bring news. She was very sure that God would not leave us. She said "Rosh Hashanah is approaching, and God would bless us with a good year." My little sister, Chanaleh, started coming every evening after a day of hard labor, and she tried to cheer me up. I also kept in touch with my friend, Leib Patrapas, by writing letters to him. Life continued peacefully until the week of Simchat Torah.

A few days prior to Simchat Torah, I decided to start sleeping in my own bed every night. The town had settled to a certain routine, and it seemed relatively quiet. This was during the time that most people worked in labor camps, thinking that by doing so, the German authorities would spare them. The baker, Abraham, would come to visit me in my hiding space once a week. He would sit on a haystack and smile to me, saying, "People are telling me that this German business will last for a few hours, or days at most in my opinion, it's a matter of weeks." Abraham told wonderful tales, and I enjoyed listening to him. He told me "fairytales" and I wanted him to continue with the stories because the tales he told me encouraged me and encouraged him. Mother would pat my back and say, "You see, my son? You are so depressed. Cheer up and have faith like Abraham has." She told me this every time she left our house, encouraging herself that good days were still to come.

One time, my son, who still didn't know that I was there, laid in his little bed, I kissed him and immediately left for the hiding place. The child woke up and said, "Who kissed me?" My wife answered that it was Grandpa. My two and half year old answered, "It couldn't be Grandpa. Grandpa's beard is not prickly. Maybe it's daddy." I heard him from my hiding place and tears came to my eyes. My wife continued trying to make him go back to sleep while singing a lullaby of hope and happiness. One morning while I was sleeping in the house, the boy asked to sleep with my wife in my bed. He immediately recognized me and we met for the first time since I'd left town. He hugged me tightly and clung to me. We all cried with happiness and he said to me, "Now I know that a few days ago it was you who kissed me and not Grandpa. You have a prickly beard and Grandpa does not."

All of a sudden the child jumped up and said, "Daddy, run away, the Germans are coming." My wife got scared and told me, "Little children are very sensitive. There is light outside. Take your boots and hide." In just a few minutes, we heard knocks on the doors, windows, and everywhere. I was trying to get out of the house through the window that was facing the yard. Pelvic, Parifa, and Beetah from Vileyka Street, who now worked for the Germans, saw me, therefore now there was no way I could run.

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The Rabunski / Chasid family

Simchat Torah, 1942

My father in-law opened the door and let them enter. My son started crying, begging me to carry him. They ordered me to immediately get dressed and go to the police station. They said, "You never registered with the police and you are escaping from doing your share of hard labor."

All the begging and crying didn't help. They only gave me enough time to put some healing pads on my ear, which was still hurting a lot from the beating I got in Krivitz. The police department was very close to our house. It was located next to the house of Eetzah Chaizes (Yitzhak Zimerman) where the stores of Eetzka the husband of Lea and Hirsha- Mendel the tailor used to be. When I entered the police station, I saw a policeman taking Zalman Kasdan, the husband of Chaya-Tzertel. Zalman himself was from Globoki. We greeted each other by silently shaking our heads. From the expression on his face, I could see that he was very surprised to see me there.

Sokolovsky, the assistant to the head of the police from Vileyka Street, had yellow hair that stuck out like a porcupine. He greeted me mockingly, "How are things in Moscow? You must have just returned from there." While talking, he started hitting me hard right in the head.

I told him, "Kasick, what are you doing? You're hitting me? We went to the same school, we sat on the same bench. What troubles did I ever cause you? I always gave your father jobs to take supplies to Vileyka."

He answered, "I am not the same friend from school. Go to the next room and wait for the policeman, Ezaivitz. He has many many things to talk to you about."

Ezaivitz was a farmer. His farm was located a short distance from Kurenets. He was a one-eyed man. He lost his other eye in a drunken brawl. They took me to a room with a window, next to which was a big piece of plywood that was used to darken the room at night during the bombing. After a few minutes, they brought Kasdan back through the room on the way to a third room that was now used as a prison. When they opened the door to let Kasdan in, I saw that there were many Jewish people in the room. This looked very ominous to me. The movement amongst the police was very rapid. They kept running from one place to another, bringing more and more people. They brought Velvel, the son of Asher the haberdasher, they brought Zalman Gelman from Kosita Street. Here to my room, they brought Esther Charnas and David Kapilovitz, the tailor. They brought the father in-law of Moshe Markman and then they brought Nachum, the son of Michael and Pesia Alperovich. Everyone who they brought after Esther Charnas they left in the first room, Sokolovsky room.

Next to me stood a policeman, it was the son of Zusya, the one who brought water to the town's homes. All her days, she worked for us and her son was almost raised in our house. I was waiting for the officer to come. Meanwhile, I saw that many Christians were standing in the market as if they were waiting for something to happen, watching the police headquarters. I saw the son of Yadviga running in haste and bringing shovels. I saw the prior head of the post office that was very friendly with us at one time. When he saw me, he said to the son of Zusya, "Watch him very carefully. This bird is capable of escape and can fly through the windows."

Next, they took out from the prison room Shimon Lieb, Baruch Kremnick, and Asher, the son of Yehoshua Alperovich. We greeted each other, and they all looked at me with amazement. They thought I had escaped to Russia long ago and didn't understand why I would come back. All of a sudden, I sow the Christian mob outside running in panic. A big group of Germans riding on motorcycles was approaching the police headquarters. One German, tall and nervous, with many badges that I did not recognize, entered the room. From his manners, I knew that he was a high officer. He asked me if I was a Communist. I answered that I had nothing to do with Communism and never had anything to do with Communism and that I was simply waiting for the head of the police to return. The German officer left the room and the two watchmen, who did not speak German asked me what the German officer had told me, I said "he asked me to stay for now, but he will let me go soon." This must have left some impression on them because they left me and went to the front room. Outside there was some commotion. They brought a lot of shovels and axes and other tools.

Another German man entered the room. He was fat with a flat nose, he wore shiny boots with skulls on them. Right behind him, entered Mataras, the mayor of Kurenets. They were going to discuss something privet and didn't want me there so they put me in the third room, the prison room where many people from Kurenets were crowded in. The heat in this room that was only two and one half meter wide was unbearable. I stood right next to the door. The people in the room immediately asked what I had seen outside. I answered, "My dears, whoever knows what to say will say it." Still I was persuaded to tell them about all the commotion that I saw through the window, I spoke about the German officers who came, and about the shovels, they carried. Zalman Kasdan interrupted me saying, "Why are you spreading unneeded panic here? It must be that the partisans blew up some bridge and they will take us to fix it." Shimon Leib said, "How could anyone comprehend such horrible idea that they will take, just like this, innocent people and murder them?" Chaim Zukovski, who was totally exhausted and could hardly stand on his feet, said in a broken voice, "My dear people, David Motosov once told me of what he had seen when he ran away from the occupied areas of Poland prior to June. I will believe anything. I believe that the Germans are capable of the most evil crimes." Asher, the son of Yehoshua, said, "If they will really take us to be killed, we must try to escape. Maybe someone will be saved." Others were sitting and reciting passages from the Bible. A few were sitting quietly with a frozen expression on their face.

I felt that I was going to choke so I started banging on the door saying that I need to go to the bathroom. Betar from Vileyka Street came in. He took me outside and held his rifle pointing at me ready to shoot if I try to escape. I was taken to the yard next to our house. I looked if someone from my family is around. Thinking that at least, I can look at them for the last time. I started begging Betar, "You must let me run. I know you are going to kill us. Take the thousand rubbles that I have and release me. I had never hurt anyone." He refused, but still took my money. I kept begging him "please let me run and shoot after me and explain to the Germans that I ran and you were shooting" but he would not be convinced.

It was a beautiful day, a sunny day, and the morning of Simchat Torah that always filled our town with singing and dancing. Now, I was walking right next to my home with a death sentence hanging over my head. There was no place to escape to. Everywhere we were surrounded by barbed wire. Now Betar was taking me back to the police headquarters. Betar wanted to take me back to the prison room. I told him, "Why are you doing this? I am supposed to wait for Ezaivitz and the German officer." No talk helped. With a kick, he threw me back in the room. After a few minutes, I started banging on the door again. A different policeman came. I immediately put my foot in the open space between the door and the frame so he couldn't close it. I said, "Please permit me to go out and get some water. I must take my valerian pills. I am dying." He refused, I pushed my way out of the room while begging. "You must let me take my pill and then you can put me back in this room."

Now I was in the room where I had stood before. The policeman accepted the fact and brought me some water. All around was commotion, and the policeman did not return. Through the window, I saw him walking with a German officer holding a box. Now I was in a room with the people who came with Esther Charnas. Many thoughts and ideas came to my head. I thought of tricks and ways to get out of there, but I couldn't find a real solution. Again, I looked at the big plywood and decided to hide behind it. I asked everyone in the room to stand next to the plywood to hide the opening between the wood and the wall and they all did it. I made myself very little sitting behind the plywood. I heard the sounds of the steps of the Germans entering. The door of the prison opened and I heard them counting eight people to take out. Again, they counted eight people and took them out. Each time, they counted eight. Nachum, the son of Pesia nee Kastrel and Michael Alperovich, who was standing at the edge of the plywood whispered to me that they took out Ruben, the tailor, Asher the son of Yehoshua Alperovich, and Zalman Gelman amongst other. Then he told me that they gave them shovels and they took them to Kosita Street. He said they were surrounded by many German guards. After a few minutes, Nachum said that they were taking the families of the people who were imprisoned in the room. They took their Parents, wives, and children. I quickly glanced out of the window fearing that some of my family would be there, but I did not see them. I prayed that they would have run away in time. Once more, the Germans entered and took the rest of the people from the prison room. First, they took them to the market, then they took them to Kosita Street. I hid behind the plywood wondering what my end would be like. Soon, I thought they would come and get me. I kept pondering about the tragic fate awaiting me.

All of a sudden, I heard the tone of Ezaivitz voice. He announced Esther Charnas's name, and ordered her to go to the front room. There he ordered her to lie on the bench. She begged for pity but to no avail. She was thrown on the bench and they started hitting her with a whip. I heard the counting of the Germans and her screams, first very loud, then very mute. She must have fainted. Soon afterward, I heard them throwing her outside the building. They did the same to almost everyone in the room. I decided that it would be much better to be whipped than to be killed. Therefore, without much thinking, I stood at the end of the line to be whipped. Next, they thrashed another man who fainted immediately, and was thrown out. All of a sudden, Ezaivitz who had only one functioning eye managed to recognize me. He started screaming, "What are you doing here?" He gave me a powerful kick and threw me back in the prison room. Locking the door behind.

Extraordinary luck

I was alone in the room. Now I knew that my fate had been nailed. Soon, they would kill me. From afar, I could hear shooting. It was perfectly clear to me that right now the people who had sat in this room half an hour ago, the residents of Kurenets, my neighbors and friends, were lying in their own pool of blood. I heard echoes of what they had said in this room. I heard Kasdan saying, "They are taking us to fix a bridge." Shimon Leib saying, "How could it be that they would take innocent people and kill them?" Chaim Zukovski saying, "They are capable of anything." I could still hear the passages from the Bible and Asher son of Yehoshua saying "lets try to escape". Most of these people were raised together with me, we were like one big family since early childhood and now they were lying there lifeless. I was so worried that my family was with them. Could my little boy who warned me, "Daddy run away the Germans are coming," be with them? I was looking for something in my pockets to commit suicide with. I wanted to die by my on hands, but I couldn't find a thing. I decided to use my belt. I tried to reach the window, but the window was very high, almost to the ceiling. So I closed the door from the inside and tried to connect the belt to the door handle. The other side of the belt I put around my neck.

All of a sudden, I heard knocks on the door. I didn't open it, but I couldn't commit suicide without opening the door. They broke the door and saw me with the belt around my neck. They brought with them more prisoners. Yechezkel Zimerman (Charles Gelman), Chaim Yitzhak Zimerman, Tuvia Sosensky, Shmuel Blinder (son of Pisel), Moshe Mordechai Peretz, and a few more who's names I cannot remember. They were just brought there from Luban, where they worked in the agricultural farm.

When the police left, the new comers told us that Arka, the son of Ruben, (Revka Teiba's Alperovich) from Myadel Street attacked one of the policemen taking them and ran to the fields. However, the Germans shot after him and managed to kill him. We all agreed that it was a much better way to die than to wait for them to kill us. Shmuel Blinder, the son of Pesach, took out a small Sidur. He read passages from it. We all repeated it after him. We excepted that any minute they would come to take us but we had waited there for a long time and we could see that dusk was coming. Finally, we heard heavy steps. The door opened and Sokolovsky, the assistant to the head of police, came in. He had red eyes from years of being drunk, he said, "Today you are the lucky ones. For now, you are all staying alive." He looked at me and said, "You are particularly lucky. You have escaped death for now. But you won't escape forever." He told us to leave. He asked if we have any valuable things to give him. However, we had nothing.

We all hastily left the death room. Outside it was getting dark. We went through the fields. There was total silence around us. There was not one lit window, one other person walking. I hid behind the houses of Shmuel Eetzi and Artzik the son of Gutza Dinerstien. Moshe Mordechai Peretz joined me, we hid there until there was total darkness. I entered the house of Yosef Alperovich, the son of Mendel Chezkales'. His wife, Leah, the daughter of the Maizel family, was my wife's best friend since early childhood. She fell on my neck kissing me and crying and told me while sobbing who was killed today. I asked her nervously what had happened to my family and to my great relief she told me that the police came to take them but they managed to run away prior to their arrival. Leah couldn't stop sobbing. She wanted to give me something to eat but I could not eat anything I just wanted to go see my family. They didn't let me. Yosef said that he must go first to check the road to my house to make sure it is safe. He went through the gardens and when he returned he said that my family had just returned home. Crawling all the way, I managed to reach my house. I found out that my son was hidden behind the cowshed of our Christian neighbors covered with branches and bushes and like that, he lied there the entire day. My wife hid in the fields. My mother, when she saw me, fainted from excitement. Everyone was sure that I had been taken to my death. Again, days of hiding came.

Usable Jews

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Mendel Chasid

The winter of 1942 was extremely cold but that only made us feel happy imagining the troubles that the Nazis were having in the frozen battlefields. Therefore, although it was very difficult for us, considering we didn't have any firewood for our furnaces, we still prayed to God that more snowstorms would come. Rumors started that the killers had retreated from the battlefields. The Jews who worked for the train station would bring us the good news. They would say that large amount of supplies are going west, meaning they are retreating. The villagers were ordered to clean the snow from the roads and to put yellow sand on the ground. All the Jews were ordered to do this even during the night. They would work nonstop. The police were very cruel. They would beat them mercilessly. Still, in our hearts we were full of hope reasoning that like Haman, that was destroyed in Purim, this would be the fate of our current enemy.

This was how the very religious among us thought. Many of the orthodox Jews would fast every Monday and Thursday reciting Tehilim passages and waiting impatiently for Purim to come.

There was a big letdown and dreadful sadness when Purim had finally arrived, that was the day that the Nazis killed the residents of our sister town Vileyka, the few who survived the first actzia. Many of the Jews from Kurenets that were taken there to be used as forced labor in the train station were also murdered. Now, Jewish Vileyka, our young beautiful sister town was erased from the Jewry map with hardly a survivor.

When people found out that the rumors of the inhalation were based on facts, they all started to look for hiding places. They started making tunnels and underground hideouts inside fireplaces, between double walls, in basements, and in attics. Everyone was looking for a hideout knowing that the day of slaughter of our own town Jews would come soon. The day after Purim, it was unbearably cold but we ignored the freezing weather. We kept running from one person to another in attempt to find out if anyone we knew survived the killing in Vileyka. Through gardens and fields amid homes, we reached each other. No one had any fences--the fences were used as wood in our fireplaces. The streets were empty of Jews. It was just too dangerous to use them.

A rumor spread that all the "professional people" will be taken to work for the Gveent Commissar in Vileyka and all the usable Jews were to be kept alive for the duration of the job. Therefore, everyone tried to become a "usable Jews". We all wanted to stay alive. I didn't have any usable profession and I was very depressed. It had been eight months that I had been escaping hard labor. Now, I had to find a profession that would keep me alive. I really didn't trust the promises, but still, as if I was a drowning man looking for a stick, I was hanging on this opportunity. After a lot of pondering, I had an idea. I would register as a tanner.

My father in-law, Mendel Chasid, had supported me in this idea. He said that he would also register in the Judenrat as a tanner and together we would be able to learn the profession. I had no knowledge of the job but I knew that my father in-law, prior to the First World War, had a workshop for leather goods and he knew some information about the profession. Therefore, I was dangling on this profession. I went to the Judenrat in the house of Yechiel Kremer, the son of Yekutiel Meir, and I registered. The crowding in the house was unbearable. Everyone was looking to be saved. They all came to register as professionals. Merchants, shopkeepers and teachers, became carpenters, glassmakers and any other handy profession. Shotz, the head of the Judenrat registered all of them. He was a Jewish survivor from Austria. He knew German fluently. Now, he controlled the miserable Jewish community. I didn't envy any person who Shotz didn't like. After crowding in lines with the rest of the people, I reached Shotz. My face was completely new to him. He registered me as a tanner and told me that at three in the afternoon, they would take all of the registered people to Vileyka.

I ran home to take something for the road and to say good-bye to my family. I cried when I came home. I knew that shortly I would have to say goodbye to my son, my dear wife, my mother, and my mother in-law. Abruptly, I decided not to go and to stay here. If it were our fate to perish, we would perish all together. Every corner in my house was dear to me. I was married only three years ago. Mother started crying, and I joined her. "My son, my son," she said, "Don't forget your lonely poor mother. Don't forget son that all my days as a widow, I only gave for you my children. I already lost my dear Yankeleh to this war, don't forget me my child." My wife and my mother in-law joined her crying. I decided that no matter what, I would not go to Vileyka. My father in-law said, "You cannot let go of an opportunity to be saved. Maybe someone will be saved. God is full of mercy. We must stop the crying in the name of God. Collect something for the road and let us go." Here, the cries became louder. Everyone was hanging on me and we couldn't separate.

Then, Israel the tailor came, he separated us and said, "It's getting late and we must depart. Later will be too late." Hence, my father in-law and I left the house. We all met next to the Christian prayer house. We left like soldiers in lines. All around us stood our relatives to say goodbye as if it was a funeral. Some of the Christian town natives were dressed in black suits with gray ribbons on their sleeves, with shiny boots and rifles on their shoulders. They were watching us. These people grew up with us; they went to the same schools with us. Now, they became collaborators, killers of the town's Jews. They took us in long lines through the empty town's market. It was freezing and the snow was making loud noise under our feet. The wind was whispering as if it was crying for us. Our guards kept hitting us with the ends of their rifles. We were walking as if we were sheep ready to be slaughtered. The closer we got to Vileyka, the more they hit us.

We entered Vileyka. The doors and windows of most of the Jewish homes were all broken. Broken furniture and dishes were thrown all over the streets. The wind blew parts of clothes. This was what was left from the beautiful Jewish Vileyka. The only people we saw there were the German police in their light green uniforms and their shiny helmets with skulls on their uniforms.

A tanner and the painter

Our guards wanted to please the German rulers, so they started beating us harder and they made us run all around Vileyka so we could see the destruction of the Jewish quarter. Then, they brought us to the Gveent commissar. We stood near the main building and here came one of our most fateful moments: would they accept us as professionals or would they turn us back to Kurenitz? There were just a few more Jews left in line when my time came to stand in front of the Germans scum. He was dressed in a uniform with many medals. He held a stick in his hand. "What is your profession?" he yelled in my face. I tried to give myself an expression of confidence and I answered, "I am a tanner." I saw that everyone who was present from my townspeople, were very surprised that I had lied, and they looked at me with sorrow. "How old are you?" he asked. I said, "Twenty-six." "How many years have you worked in this profession?" "Twelve years," I answered. "I know how to prepare leather for fur coats and for shoes." To the right, he screamed so for now I got a sentence to live. Next, was my father-in-law. He asked him the same questions. When he answered, "Fifty-six," he said, "To the left." I was shocked. My father-in-law looked at me from afar signaling me with eyes full of tears. Nevertheless, we were not allowed to say anything.

This is how Hendel decided the fate of the entire community. Standing on the side trying to be seen as little as possible, I didn't know whether it was good or bad that I had lied to Hendel. What if tomorrow I would have to prove my knowledge in this profession? In front of Hendel stood a huge man, a survivor from the slaughter in Rakov. He was dressed like a villager with a rope around his waist. When he was asked, he also said that he was a tanner and obviously he was immediately chosen as a professional. All my hopes and thoughts were with him thinking that he was a real leather man. As soon as they sent him to the right, he approached me as a member of the same profession, and, at first, I was very happy. He immediately said that he would assist as much as he could. He told me how strong he was, that he was as strong as ox and that he could help me with anything if he were next to me, the professional! When I heard that, it was as if my world as darkened. All hopes with him were lost. One liar meets another liar.

When evening came, it started getting very cold. The police collected us and took us through the alleys to a broken building. They announced that all the people who were not selected would be returned to Kurenitz the next day.

Here, I met again with my father-in-law. We would separate this night. We sat in a room corner on the cold floor and my father-in-law started teaching me the secrets of the profession. The names of the processes, the chemicals that I had never heard of, what tools to use, what to do first and next. I was totally depressed and ready to give up. I didn't think that there was any purpose in this. It was clear that I didn't know the profession, but my father-in-law would not let go. Like a teacher with a student, he was announcing things, testing me, and asking me to repeat everything, checking to see if I understood. Everyone else was lying around, thinking that we had lost our minds. This was a sleepless night, hardly anyone slept a wink. The night lasted as if it was a whole generation.

Morning came. The police shouted and everyone who was found useless were put in lines and returned to Kurenitz. At the edge of Vileyka, not far from the Jewish cemetery, a big wooden building was built by the Russians as a school for the children of the laborers. The wooden building was partially destroyed as most of the homes in Vileyka were. The furnaces were broken the doors and windows were taken out, and inside the rooms was snow that came through the broken ceilings. Very near the building there was a kitchen. Right next to the kitchen was a huge dog, probably put there on purpose. Every time we went there to get water, we would feel his bites. The first thing Shuts gave us was sharp barbed wire and told us to put it all around our area. I was put in the same room as Yosef Zuckerman, the brothers Kopel and Eliyahu Specter, Hershel Zimmerman, Yechezkel Zimmerman (Charles Gelman), and Yermiyau Alperovich. Yermiyau had a heart of gold and hands of limitless capabilities. He could fix anything, he was a miracle worker. He was always ready to help anyone. He would go through fire and water to help us. In a short time, Yermiyau built in our room a furnace, and at the first night there was already wood warming in the furnace and we could use it to boil water. He was like a merciful mother to us.

Shortly, all the professionals' people started working. The carpenters were making furniture, the shoemakers were making boots, the tailors were working, the blacksmiths were working, and everyone was busy except for me and Gershon from Rakov. We were walking around aimlessly. I approached Shuts and explained that for our job we needed a separate area. The smell of the leather is very strong and the process of the leather was very slow. It would take a long time until we could produce anything. Therefore, I asked that he would arrange for us a separate house where I could mend the leather according to the rules of the profession. Shuts, the director, understood my explanation and said that very soon I would get the raw materials to fix the leather for fur coats. While he was talking, he said that making fur coats were not as difficult of a job and the smell was not so bad and could be done in one week. Immediately, I told Shuts that I did not want to wait and be idle until the raw material got there, so maybe I could meanwhile be a painter. I knew much more about painting. My request was transferred to Hendel and, with the help of God and my good friend Yosef Zuckerman who tirelessly talked to the other painters and asked them to help me, I became a painter. Gershon from Rakov, who was such a strong man became a woodcutter and would do any work that required strength. At first, we were told to paint the house of one of the heads of the camp, Graveh, a Latvian killer who killed many of the Jews of the towns in the Vileyka district. His apartment was very near the jail.

One time, I was sent outside to get water from the well to be used for mixing the paint, I looked for the well and all of a sudden I saw near the jail a big bon fire. From the direction of the fire, I smelled burning bodies. Right next to the bon fire, I saw a man who I could not recognize with a long stick. He would push the burned bodies into the bon fire and pour gasoline on them. I ran as fast as I could to tell this to the rest of the painters. We went to the back window, and from there, we could see this awful site. We stood there shocked and paralyzed. These bodies were leftover from the Purim killing of the Vileyka and Kurenitz Jews. All of a sudden, we heard the footsteps of the killers coming towards us, consequently we had to leave that scene of horror and return to our job.

My friends, the painters, put a large amount of paint on my clothes to make me look experienced, and I continued painting with them. However, the Jewish head of the camp never forgot my original profession. One day, he brought me two foxes to be used. When I saw the two dead foxes, my heart plummeted. I was sure that my end was near. My friends, the painters, started looking at me with eyes full of pity saying, "What else can we do for you that we didn't do before? Now our hands our tied."

I started thinking very hard trying to remember what my father-in-law had tried to teach me when we laid on the cold floor that night. Trying to remember names of chemicals, the order of the tasks, and the tools that I should use. I decided that if I would not be able to do the job, I would try to escape. First thing, I brought water and put the two fox bodies in it. There was still meat stuck to them and the smell was horrible. I remembered what my father-in-law ordered me to do. I squeezed the carcasses, massaged them, and cleaned them until one could see the white leather and the fur did not fall off. To my surprise, Shuts liked my job, and, again, I prolonged the arrival of the angel of death using chicanery and lies.

The Bathhouse

The sanitary conditions in the camp were very bad. We had no place to wash ourselves and we didn't have clean underwear. The "third Egyptian plague" started bothering us. Day and night it bothered us and we could not find rest. Finally, the Germans decided to take us to the bathhouse. I will never forget that bathhouse. We walked under heavy guard outside of town. We were taken to a big auditorium that was not heated. The glass windows were covered with ice. We were ordered to strip naked. All our clothes were taken and put in a boiler. We were divided into two groups. I was among the first group. The cold weather pricked our skin and we stood there naked. We started hitting one hand with the next, running in place, and kicking with our feet--anything to keep warm. The killers looked at us and started laughing with enjoyment. It was even worse when we entered the next room. There, was ice water. In this room stood a German, next to a pail full of black soap. Each one of us was ordered to go to the pail and there the German would use a paintbrush on every inch of our body. The soap was very stinky and caused a burning reaction. Therefore, the cold and the burning sensations made my body feel as if I was hit with many iron whips. While standing like this, naked, ready to leave the showers, all of a sudden we heard screaming, "Fire! Save us! Fire!" The panic spread all over. People were jumping on top of each other to get out. There was a cloud of black smoke that burned our eyes. The German police kicked us all out to collect snow to put out the fire. Later, someone told us that the one responsible for the cleaning of our clothes was new at the job and put the clock that controlled the water temperature on too high, and this was the reason for the fire. Many of us thought he did it on purpose.

All of the clothes of first group were burned, so now there was a question of how we would return to the camp. There was no choice but to use some of the clothes of the second group. A few gave pants, stayed with their underwear, some gave shoes, and stayed with socks, some gave sheets. This is how we returned. Evil ghosts would look nicer. Covered with black soap, frozen and stinking, we walked through the streets of Vileyka. All through our walk, people gathered and laughed. Little children ran after us throwing snowballs and cursing us. From our eyes, there were tears of blood. We walked hunched with no will to subsist.

Together with our families

We were there for more than three months with very little contact by our families. Occasionally, they would send us food or short letters that we read breathlessly with our hearts pounding. The usual news was about punishments, killings, and tortures. The Jews of all the shtetls in the district were killed at this point. Would our town Jews survive?

All of a sudden, there was an announcement by Shuts that he would give us permission to transfer to Vileyka all the families of the useful Jews. They already had made the same announcement in Kurenets, and the wives and children prepared for the move. It was as if they were going to embark on a voyage to a golden beach. The rest of the town's Jews who were tortured and depressed saw them as the luckiest of people. On Sunday morning, the governor of the district sent us with guards to Kurenets so that we could bring our families. At the head of the group walked the bloody killer, I can't remember his name, but we used to call him, "The Limped." The oven maker, from Vileyka, his cruelty knew no boundaries. When we saw him, we almost fainted. After the war, I was privileged to see him hung near his home.

How difficult was our entrance to our hometown meeting the Christian inhabitants walking around freely, dressed with the clothes that they stole from the Jews, and in their eyes was a mean mocking look of superiority! Can I ever describe both the meetings and the good-byes from the relatives that came to meet us for the last time? The mocking of the gentiles, the screaming of the police, and the deep, dark depression of the Jews who were standing in the market, broken and displaced. I can never forget the last words of my dear mother, "My darling children, we are giving to you the rest of the years of our lives. You must survive, at least when you will be saved you must tell others about our destruction."

The two grandmas and the grandpa clung to their little grandchild crying. The site tore our hearts, but the Christian inhabitants and the police were watching the pitiful site saying words of mockery and cursing. The police started yelling and ordered us to hurry. We started moving and behind us, we left weeping and broken hearts.

In Vileyka, the women were also sent to work. Each morning, they would get up very early to clean the streets, shovel the snow, clean the toilets, and bring firewood to the German homes. In the winter, they would harness them, like horses, to the buggies. In the summer, they would harness them to sleighs only to torture and mock them. Our children were hungry and dirty wearing torn clothes. They would stay in the barracks all-alone and would regularly go to the barbed wire fence to see if their parents were returning. Shuts announced that again we would be classified and the ones who would be found suitable for jobs in the camp would live in a different barrack closer to the head of the unit. Also, they would bring some new workers from Kurenets and other places and their camp would be headed by Zsinstand, a Kurenets native. Shuts, at this point, knew that I wasn't a painter or a leather man, so I was sure that now he would get rid of me. After bribing him, using my good connections to plea for me and a lot of begging, he decided to let me be classified as a useful Jew.

Next to the public hospital was an abandoned home whose inhabitants were sent to Siberia by the Russians in 1940. There were about eight rooms in the house, and now they put there 150 people men, women, and children. The living conditions were unbearable, but, for some reason, they didn't watch us very carefully. Therefore, through the yard, occasionally, my little sister, Hannah, would sneak in to see me. She belonged to the children workers camp of Zsinstand. During those days, sometimes a smile would come to our face. The carpenters told us that lately the Germans ordered a huge amount of coffins, the amount of which was getting bigger and bigger. They said, "Das machen dee maradee rash partisanan. Ze marden un zara saradaten." How happy we were to hear that! A new spirit of hope spread amongst us. We decided that we must escape to the forest as soon as possible. The situation in the Zsinstand camp was horrible. That is where they took children, mostly they were from Kurenitz There were a few from Ilya, Myadel, Smorgon, Keblenek, and Dolhinov. Hendel decided that he could not live without a sport court. He coerced the Jewish children to build him one. Every day the children would break rocks. From early in the morning to nighttime they made gravel to be later put on the ground. They put the gravel in a huge tank, the little children were harnessed to it, and they would take it from one side of the yard to the other. There was a horrible watchman by the name Gadi, who caused a lot of blood and tears to spill by the young children. Still today, I can remember the lines of blood on my sister, Channaleh's back from the whip of the watchman who used it while she was washing his floor.

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