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[Page 307]

After the Liberation

By Zev Rabunsky

Translated by Eilat Levitan and Kevin Chun Hoi Lo

Where are we going and whom will we find when we arrive there? Only the Christian town natives, most of the Jews perished in 1942. Now the Christians were the new heirs of our possessions and their only interest was that nothing be left of the true owners so they could receive their belongings without any disturbance. Amongst the town residents we only encountered a few that expressed goodwill – a few even endangered themselves by assisting us. Well-known were Konstantin Bakatz and Ignali Biruk (there were two Biruk brothers; Vladia Biruk was most evil to the Jews. Iganli Biruk saved many Jews) and maybe another two or three Christian residents. The vast majority took an active part in our destruction; some killed with their own hands and others used their words to incite our annihilation. Among them the best known was the Pap, the Belarussian priest with the yellow beard and the little fox-like eyes. He used every opportunity to give dirty salacious sermons in the Christian prayer home.

How could we return to Kurenets and even look at these people's eyes? We did. I was among these returnees. We, the broken vessels, approached the town.

I passed by the last house in the first street on the way back from the forest, which had belonged to Pieshka family, which had perished in its entirety. We came near Miadel Street and this big silent fear prevented us from walking there. We had a strong desire to choose another road because we were all acutely aware of what was at the end of the street: the common grave of our townspeople. Our hearts were filled with fear but in some unexplained way, we were pulled there. All around us we found huge weeds and bushes that messily covered the area since the time of destruction. We walked through there crying, some weeping to themselves and others screaming in anguish. We were finally free to express our pain, to cry from the depths of our hearts. When I reached the beginning of the street, I saw that our home had been burnt to the ground. I said to myself, “This is very good.” I only felt bad that the storage area in the basement survived. This was the place where we had held ice for our soda factory. Life in the last few years taught me to comprehend things in the most suppressed, rigid and emotionless manner. I stood at the center of Kurenets' market, which had been burnt to the ground and choked by weeds. I walked to the home of my father-in-law, Mendel Chasid, who had perished, and I saw the same picture. We entered the home of Moshe Benyamin and we lived there. During the war, a shoemaker had lived there. He had escaped with the retreating Nazis, fearing the punishment that he would get from the Soviets for collaborating. The house was filled with children's shoes and we knew very well to whom these little shoes used to belong. After we entered, my wife and I arranged the room and then went outside to see the celebratory parade of the splendid Red Army. It came from Dolhinov Street and Kusita Street toward Smorgon and Vileika. Tanks with long cannons shook the entire town. Heaven and earth were trembling with this strong army. The children of Israel that in previous wars would run behind the tanks with excitement were now all dead. Now only Christian people stood on the side of the street looking. From afar I saw huge posters ordering all the male residents age 55 and under to immediately enlist in the army in order to break the head of the Nazi snake. The Christians stood around looking and I felt that I was not part of this world anymore. This earth rejected me, scorned me, purged itself of me. A big wall came between me and this earth. All of the sudden, as if coming from within the earth, the murderer who threw Jewish babies into the fire, Vladia Biruk, rose from Vileika Street. Upon seeing me he greeted me with a wide “Shalom Aleichem.” Seeing his smiling face, I thought about how before the war he was the head of the fire department in Kurenets. He probably learned from his appointed job that you do not extinguish fires; you feed them by throwing in Jewish babies. My arms and legs shook when I saw him and I spat in his face, calling him a murderer to his face. “Your hands are covered with blood. How dare you greet me? You will pay for all your bad deeds.” The farmers looked at me as if they had seen a messenger of bad news. How dare a Jew have such chutzpah? At this moment I was too weak to do the murderer any harm. All I did was scream at him that he will pay for it all.

I was still standing in the market when I saw two people riding horses. One of them greeted Vladia Biruk. I wanted very much to know who had come. To my surprise I realized that the person who greeted Biruk was my manager Romankov from the tax department. He knew Biruk very well since he paid the allowance for the fire department. I came near and as soon as Romankov saw me he started screaming with excitement, “You are alive!” He hugged me and started kissing me. My self-assurance began to return and I told him a short version of all of the bad deeds of Vladia Biruk. My first request was that Romankov shoot Biruk on the spot. He started asking Biruk if what I was saying was true. I did not wait for an answer. I tried to take Romankov's weapon to do justice myself, but Romankov tried to calm me down and said that too much assertiveness now could harm me in the long run. He said that once the Soviets took over, they would put Vladia Biruk on trial and every culprit would be punished. At that time, Biruk escaped, but his escape was temporary. From what I know, he was later sentenced to twenty years in prison and killed when he tried to escape.

Romankov asked me if anyone had survived from my family. When I told him that Rosa and my son (Jay, now lives in Florida) had survived, he became very excited. He patted me on the shoulder and told me that I was truly amazing for surviving against all odds. He pulled his horse closer, told the ediotant to wait and walked with me to where the house of Nechama Risha Alperovitz used to be (she perished with her husband Mendel, son Eliyahu and some grandchildren from the Gordon family). We went to see my family and Romankov cried like a child when he met my family. He took my four-and-a-half-year-old son in his arms and pulled him against his heart, sobbing. My wife joined him and started crying, incapable of comforting herself. Romankov finally stabilized and told us that he himself did not know the fate of his family because he spent the entire time in battle. He had been appointed the governor of the town Postov ( Postavy). At first they wanted to appoint him to be the governor of Kurenets since he knew Kurenets from before the Nazi occupation and was very attached to the people there (during the Soviet time 1939- 1941). However, he could not accept this because that would be too depressing since most of his friends and their children had been killed there. Romankov said to me, “A horrible war is now taking place, but you, the Jews, have given too much already and since I know you and your capabilities as an administrator, I will find you a job near me so you do not have to enroll in the army. I am sure that much good will come from appointing you.” I immediately told him that Leib Futerfas, who had worked for him, and his wife Ethel Sepelevitz had also survived. (Leib Futerfas died of a heart attack in Berlin in 1948.) He was very happy to hear this news and told me to fetch Leib. I took Romankov's horse and quickly arrived at Dolhinov Street at the one surviving home of Meir Aharon the builder, which had now become the home of Leib and Ethel. I told Leib that Romankov had summoned him and that he must return with me. The meeting between Leib and Romankov was also filled with sentiment. Romankov had little time, though, as he had to do something more concrete for our situation. He took out a pencil from his backpack and told me to write something. I said that I had forgotten to write since in all the years of the war I never had a pencil in my hand. Romankov immediately wrote two permits of travel for us to be workers in the tax department in the area of Postov, where a new department was to be organized. He told us to leave Kurenets the next morning and to go to Postov. There was no way to get to Postov other than by foot. Romankov departed sentimentally and told our wives that he would send for them as soon as possible.

The hour of parting was very difficult. I had to say goodbye to my family, but there was no other choice because this was a great opportunity that would not be repeated and therefore had to be taken advantage of. The next morning we walked a distance of eighty kilometers by foot. The road was very dangerous at that time since instead of being filled with hiding Jews, the forest was infiltrated with remaining soldiers of the defeated brigades of Germany and their assistants in the local villages. It took us three days to get to Postov and the story of the walk itself could fill a few chapters in another book.

We were very afraid to meet the Christian population that resided in the area. We found a run-down abandoned home that used to be a carpentry enterprise and slept there. In the morning when we came out, the local population looked at us as if we were animals that had escaped out of a circus. It was not difficult to recognize us since we had just came out of hiding in the forest and we were still barefoot and our clothes were tattered. We found Romankov sitting in a nice looking office. He was very happy to see us and immediately ordered one of his people to find appropriate clothes and shoes for us. We washed and we had the opportunity to look in a mirror to see our own faces, the faces we had transformed into, for the first time in years. Since the roads were filled with marching armies we could not even send word to Kurenets to inform our wives that we had arrived.

Slowly, the few surviving Jews returned from hiding to Postov and took possession of their broken homes. After a few months, I had the opportunity to bring my wife and son to Postov and we began a routine life in the Soviet Union.

Almost a year passed. It was the springtime of 1945, the day after we took out the double windows of winter. I was busy with work and suddenly I sensed someone walking nearby. This person was dressed in black and he had long hair in the back. Without asking questions this shady creature went into the manager's office. Since the manager was not there, it was my duty to greet any arrivals in his place. I stood up and entered the room. When I opened the door, I felt as if my hands and arms had become paralyzed. Sparks began flying out my eyes. Across from me I saw the person who during the Soviet days had been my Russian teacher. This was the Pap, the Kurenetser from Dolhinov Street. This was the infamous Pap that during the Nazi occupation was not famous as a Russian teacher. Rather, he was famous for being one of the darkest enemies of Israel. Every Sunday he would give a sermon in the Christian prayer house, telling Christians to take their axes and anything else they could find in their homes and kill the Jews. He forbade his parishioners from exchanging any food with the Jews and from being involved in any commerce with them since he declared that all Jewish possessions would fall into Christian hands anyway. These sermons were no secret to the Jews since all the Christians would talk about them openly. Once in a while I would see this Pap in the labor camp in Vileika. He would come to the head commissar of the Nazis and would express his wish that they would quickly annihilate all the Jews of Kurenets. Here, this criminal fell into my hands.

The Pap immediately recognized me as his old student. He extended his hand to reach me but instantly realized his fate. I caught him by his hair and started knocking his head against the wall with all of my strength. I did not care that this could get me in trouble for becoming an official government worker who could not control his need for revenge. I could not stop myself. Only one thought filled me, that I must kill him with my own hands as payment for the spilled blood of my mother (Etka Nee Persky, sister of former prime minister; Shimon Peres' father), my sister, my in-laws and my Jewish brethren. Other clerks who came into the office after hearing his painful screams thought that I had lost my mind and tried to separate us but failed at doing so. Leib Futerfas, who also heard the screams, ran to the office. When he saw that it was the Pap from Kurenets, he became even more enraged than I was. Now the other clerks realized that this was not a simple matter since both Leib and I had both lost our minds. They soon understood the situation since we were the only Jews. They finally separated us and the Pap was covered with blood. He was put in an ambulance and sent away to the Narodnyi Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del (NKVD). The next day we were sent to the NKVD for investigation so we could tell them all that we knew about the Pap's bad deeds. Leib's wife Ethel, who now lives in America, begged the head of the police to let her at least scratch out the Pap's eyes as retribution for all the spilled blood that was caused by his incitement. Such a reception he must have not have seen even in his worst nightmares. The Pap had not been successful when he attempted to escape with the retreated Germans. He knew that he could not retreat to Kurenets since the Soviets would put him on trial. He thought that in Postov he would be able to hide out. However, it was the Pap's bad luck that two surviving Jews of Kurenets happened to meet him here. The head of the police comforted us and said that the Pap would receive his due punishment and that he in a short time “he would become a shepherd with a whip and that he will wear slippers, walking behind the white polar bear at the edge of the north”.

One day I found out that the Pap had been released from the jail at Vileika and he was walking free in the area. I could not find rest in my soul. I traveled to Vileika and after much tribulation I stood in front of the head of the NKVD asking how this could be. He calmed me down and told me that “this bird will not fly away” since “there are hundreds of eyes watching him.” He was released so he could lead to other collaborators in hiding. After some time I found out that they had captured the Pap, as well as Vanka, the son of Shorekvas, and Doctor Shastakovitz, the heads of “the committee of the liberators of White Russia from the Communists.” I had the special privilege to be invited to Vileika during the investigation. I could not spit in their faces anymore as I did to Beruk and the Pap. An armed policeman stood and watched the prisoners. In my testimony I did not spare them and I told all that I knew. Each one of them received twenty years of imprisonment.

May all the enemies of Israel appear the same way as these three did during this investigation.

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