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The Escape from Ghetto

by Yeoash Alperovitch, Israel. (April, 1982)

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Yeoash with parents
Liba [daughter of Yiza Michael Alperovitz]
and Mordechai Alperovitz [originaly Shapiro]

Last week we watched on TV a movie “The Wall”, which showed the resistance of the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto. This movie reminded me of how my family and I escaped from our Ghetto in 1943.

The Germans occupied our area in June 1941. After several months they organized a Ghetto in the city of Vilejka, about 5 miles from the town (Kureniec) where I was born.

The Jews of Vilejka were killed a short time before, but we were sure that they were evacuated to a work camp in another area, exactly like the Jews from Warsaw, according to the movie.

In the Ghetto there were about 300 people, most of them women with children. After a short time the Germans divided the Ghetto in two: one – for specialists and the other – for people without defined specialties. Our family (father, mother, my young brother and I) was enrolled in the list of the specialists Ghetto, because my father and I became “Carpenters”

We were sent to another place, about a mile from the common Ghetto. It was a big hut near the workshops where we worked. We were about 100 people including the specialists and their families. I was at the time 15 years old.

About one month later the non-specialists Ghetto was liquidated and burnt down. We could see it through the windows of the workshops. Now, all we could do is wait for our turn and it was only a matter of time till our turn would come.

During the first two weeks, six young boys escaped from our Ghetto and they looked for a connection with the partisans, who only recently began to be active in our area. They needed guns and ammunition badly.

Most of us intended to escape from the Ghetto in a short time, but we had two big problems.

First of all: the Ghetto was guarded only at night, so we had to go out from the Ghetto in daytime. But in the daytime all the men were in the workshops, which were guarded. At noon we had an intermission for about a half-hour.

There were a lot of German camps around the ghetto, including the Gestapo, so we decided we must escape at noon, and during that half hour cross over, with the families and children, about three miles of snow without being seen by Germans. Three miles from the Ghetto was a big forest, and we hoped to hide there until night. This was the first problem.

The second problem was even worse one. Some families had many children and they objected to the idea of going out of the Ghetto. Those people had a good reason for the objection. It was winter, snow and very cold. To go into the woods with little children in winter meant hundred percent death for the children. They said that if they would waited, may be the Russians will return to this area and the Germans would not have enough time to kill them.

Furthermore the Germans have threatened to kill all of us if somebody would escape, so they objected to anybody escaping and even observed at night over suspected people. This was a real complicated problem, which did not have a clear solution.

In the meantime we found a way to get guns and ammunition, we arranged a connection with the young boys who escaped and sent to them guns and ammunition. We also got guns for ourselves.

The method to send ammunition was organized this way: We made two thick wooden boards, which had holes along them. We filled the hole of one board with ammunition and closed it very carefully. The boards had the same measurement as regular boards of a wagon.

A farmer who lived near the woods would come once a week to Vilejka and leave the horses with the wagon near the hospital, the wall that was adjacent to the Ghetto.

One of us would come to the wall and take out the board from the wagon and put in our board with the ammunition, which was exactly the same. The farmer would return to his horse and wagon and ride home. The boys from the woods would come at night to this farmer and take out the ammunition.

It was March 1943. The Germans still needed us, so we were still alive. But rumors arrived from all over the area about liquidations of Jewish communities of our area. We knew that the time we had at our disposition was not long any more.

We made preparations and plans how to escape, we even got guns. But the problem with the big families remained. Those families didn't like the whole idea of escaping and they made every effort to prevent it. The solution of this problem must come, may be, from heaven, and it actually did.

It was the beginning of the spring. At daytime the sun would shine, but the nights were still very cold. The snow began to melt, but at night the surface would be covered with ice.

We had been waiting for the farmer, who would take the “board” once a week. We looked through the window and saw the farmer coming on time. Then we saw one of our people taking the farmers board and putting ours into the wagon. Ten minutes passed and we saw the farmer come, he took his horse and wagon and went away. Everything was perfect as usually.

But five minutes passed, and somebody in the workshop shouted, “We are lost! The farmer with the “board” was caught by the Germans”.

Everybody ran to the window and saw the farmer with his horse going along the street and a policeman was going behind him. The direction was to the Gestapo.

It was about 20 minutes before the lunchtime. We consulted quickly what to do and decided to run out of the Ghetto at once.

We went out of the workshops and told the families what has happened. We told them to prepare themselves and the children to leave the Ghetto in five minutes.

We took down the yellow stars, which we wore constantly, we took the little bags, which were prepared and went out of the Ghetto. According to our plan (which was prepared for an occasion of escaping) every two-three persons went in a different direction in silence.

I went with my father and held his hand. My young brother went with our mother and held her hand. We agreed to meet each other at a certain point in the woods and then continue together.

On our way we met some Germans, but they didn't recognize us as Jews and didn't pay attention. First we went along the street and the road. Later we turned across the field.

We knew exactly that in twenty minutes (when the intermission in the workshops is over) the Germans would be behind us and hurried on.

We were about a half-mile from the forest when we heard the noise of the German cars and motorcycles behind us. They jumped down from their vehicles and ran in our direction shouting and shooting. The distant between the Germans and us got shorter and shorter.

When the Germans were about 150 feet from us, some of our people took out their guns and began to shoot at the Germans.

The Germans stopped for several minutes, apparently to organize their pursuit according to the new circumstances. This short stopping allowed us to reach the woods.

The Germans continued the pursuit us in the forest, shooting from the machine guns and using dogs. Many of us were killed or caught by the Germans.

needless to say that each one of us has a different story of this day. To finish the story briefly I will tell you the results of this action for our family.

My father and I arrived at the Partisan's Zone after four days. My mother was killed in this action. It is not clear why the German, who killed my mother, let my brother go (he was then 9 years old). Somehow or other my brother remained alone in the woods.

After rambling for four days in the cold woods and without food he was only about one mile from the city of Vilejka. A good farmer found him and gave him to a Jewish partisan from our town. He brought him to us. His whole body was swollen and he was unconscious. Nobody even believed that he would live. After several weeks he was recovered, but only physically.

For years he shouted at night and held our father's hand even when he slept. He shouted “Don't leave me alone!” (My brother died in Israel in a work accident, when he was 24 years old in 1958, before I came to Israel. I didn't have an opportunity to see him after 1944).

To conclude I would say that the escaping, generally, was the least of the evils we could choose. Despite all that had happened, deaths of many people and suffering of many others, there were positive results of our escaping.

First of all about 60 people out of 100 succeeded to escape in this action and about 50 of them survived at the end of the war. It was a lot, relative to other Jewish communities of our area.

Secondly, my cousin and I had the opportunity to be witnesses in a court at a trial of the chief of the gestapo of Vilejka and tell to hundred of young Germans who were present in the hall, what had happened there.

Being in Ghetto we didn't believe that even one of us would have the chance to do it.

Finally, the Germans didn't kill a part of the specialists of the Ghetto after our escaping. They continued working up to the time the Russians liberated the region. But just before the Germans left, they killed all of them. After the liberation we found a letter from one of the victims, which said: “We can already hear the cannonades of the Russian cannons, but we are sure that we will not be alive when the Russian army comes.” The same fate was waiting for us.

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Yeoash as partisan

One more question of this story requires an answer: What has happened with the farmer and the board with the ammunition?

The answer of this question is very simple. – Nothing.

Yes nothing. A policeman asked the farmer to take his wife to the hospital. So he brought her to the hospital and then he went home safely with the ammunition.

After our arrival to the woods, we adapted ourselves to the conditions of the new life. It is hard to describe how we could sustain ourselves in such conditions in general, but I want to note one interesting phenomenon, which has a connection with our topic.

A short time after our arrival in the woods my orientation in the forest was incredible. The same was with some of my other friends. Now I often hardly find the way driving in Tel-Aviv, but then, just in the woods, I was able to find the way from one point to the other without apprehension. Can you imagine that we went for ten miles and more looking for food in a certain village, and return “home” in the middle of the night through the forest and came exactly to our base. May be we recognized the trees, the plants, the ground, but in addition to this, we got a special sense, something similar to a sense of an animal, who was born in the woods and lives there. The first Partisans came to our area from the eastern district in beginning of 1942. They began to organize bases to stay, and till the end of the year they already became a serious force. The Germans knew about it, but they didn't realize how serious the situation was. They thought that they were just a little group of criminals. So they decided to “finish” them before they became a serious force. But it was already too late.

The Partisans were already organized in real military units, equipped with serious weapons, and they were ready to fight the Germans. The main forces of the Germans were far to the east, so they collected people from the gestapo, the S.D. the gendarmerie and other small units, which took up position in this area. Together they were several hundred soldiers. The commander of this action was the chief of the gestapo of the city of Vilejka.

The villagers around were ordered by the Germans to come with their horses and sleighs (it was winter) and take the Germans to the Partisan Zone. The Partisans knew exactly every step of their action and were waiting for them and prepared for them an excellent reception. Shortly there was a short battle between the Partisans and the Germans. About 40 Germans were killed and wounded. The chief of the gestapo was wounded in the head, was taken to a hospital in Berlin and returned after several months with only one eye. (That was why I recognized him easily after the war at the court in Bochum).

At this time I was still in the Ghetto and I had the pleasure of participating in repairing the coffins for the dead Germans. After this action the Germans didn't dare to come into the woods for a long time.

Meanwhile the Partisans organized a whole “Partisan Zone”. First they attacked the Germans who stayed in some villages of the area, which was close to the “Partisan Zone”, they killed many of them and forced the others to escape. The Germans fortified themselves in the main city of the district and a few other points and abandoned all their camps in the “Partisan Zone”. The Partisans built a small airport, so Russian small plans landed there and brought weapons and ammunition. They had even their own hospital, a mill and a bakery in the woods. The farmers who lived in the Partisan Zone “paid” taxes to the Partisans (It was grain or other agricultural products). It was a “country within a country”. And what was worse for the Germans, the Partisans organized a net of units, which attacked the Germans almost every day. They blew up trains and other military vehicles, killed soldiers and officers. When we arrived to the woods the Partisans were in a process of organizing and all young people made every effort to be accepted in a partisan unit. For me it was a very hard problem. First of all I was too young, and second I was a Jew. It was funny, but even the Partisans (most of the MzAzzz1units) refused to accept Jews. In the summer of 1943 a Jewish unit of Partisans was organized. This unit didn't exist long, but after it was dissolved, other regular partisan units received most of us. I personally was accepted by a unit called “Tshpajevsky Otriad” and stayed there till the end of the occupation of this area.

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Yeoash in 1945

More than a year passed from the time when the Germans came prior into the woods and we knew that sooner or later they would come again. This time they would bring a big force. They had done it already in the eastern areas. But at this time the German army was busy near Stalingrad, where they just began to feel the true taste of real war.

Their opportunity came later when the German army began to withdraw from the eastern areas and they were nearer to us. Now they had two important reasons to “finish” the Partisans.

First of all the army was already near the partisan Zone. And they had an opportunity to attack the Partisans with a real unit from a regular army. What was more important, the Germans understood very well where the wind blew from, and they could imagine what the Partisans would do to the German soldiers, when the army would withdraw from the positions across the Partisan Zone. Anyway in summer of 1943 the Germans organized a blockade around the whole Partisan Zone in our area.

On the sketch below you can see a part of the Partisan Zone. The Germans occupied only one point, the city of Myadel. The Partisans would later surround this city and not even one German would escape till the Russian army arrived in summer 1944. The circle “P” indicates the center of the partisan forces. About 15 partisan units were concentrated in one brigade called Markov's Brigade (later it was called Voroshilov's Brigade). At this time I was in the Jewish unit. Like others, our unit sent people to explore the area determining where the Germans were located. My friend and I were sent in the direction of Gatovichi road. We went along the road in the direction of the village of Gatovichi, which was near the lake Narotz. Near the point “M” where we were stopped by machine-Gun fire. Every one of us jumped into the woods in a different direction. After a couple of hours everyone arrived separately to the camp “P”. Meanwhile other emissaries, who were sent in other directions, returned and the picture of our situation became clear. The Germans surrounded us from three directions. The fourth direction was closed by an impassable swamp, which continued till Narotz Lake. Briefly we were cut off from all sides. We knew that a short time before, the Germans organized a blockade around partisan zones in the eastern area. The Partisans were not organized to lead a frontal fight against a regular army. In such a fight they didn't have any chance. So these units decided to break out of the blockade through the German positions. They concentrated all their forces and attacked the Germans in one point. They broke out of the blockade, but there were many victims among the Partisans and the civilians, who stayed in the partisan zone.

In the meantime German airplanes began to fly over the partisan camps and the artillery opened a fire over the woods. Since we had moved out from the camps the shooting didn't bother us; it was very easy to hide ourselves in the woods. But we knew that in a short time the Germans would come into the woods with their whole force.

Our Brigade chose a solution that was different from that, chosen by the partisan from east. We decided to divide our people into small groups of 5-10 each, to spread ourselves in the woods, especially into the impassable swamp. After this every group would act independently. Our commander decided also to send a part of us, especially those who had families into the woods, to our relatives to help them pass the blockade. At this time the Jewish partisan families were near the camps. Since I was competent in finding my way through the woods I became a guide of about eight people, who included my father and my young brother.

When I returned from Gatovichi road, the evacuation of the people from the camps was in full swing. I knew that my people went to the swamp, so I went to look for them. When I reached the swamp I saw a horse drowning slowly into the swamp. Apparently somebody tried to take things on its back, but it didn't get very far. I had already seen people dying, or getting killed, but I couldn't forget the eyes of the poor horse, which went down little by little into the swamp. When I left the area I still saw the head of the horse.

Anyway I found my people in a terrible situation. They hadn't much food, water or clothing. We moved deeper into the swamp in order to advance as far as possible before nightfall. I supposed we passed over about two miles. We went ahead five more miles the next day, found a relatively dry area and decided to stay there till the end of the blockade. All the time we heard the cannons from the direction of our camps and from time to time airplanes crossed over us, looking for victims. We were sure that the blockade continued. I don't remember how many days we stayed there, I supposed three-four, but our situation got worse. We didn't have any food or water. We drank from the swamp, it was disgusting and many of us were ill from it. In short we decided to try to get out of the blockade. Of course we could sit and wait for the end of the blockade in the swamp, we were sure that the Germans would not dare to come into the swamp. But we could not bear it without food and water and we didn't know how long the blockade would last. Our plan was very “simple”, cross the swamp and during one night try to cross Gatovichi road. We knew the forest, which lay over Gatovichi road very well. We wanted to reach point “C”. There was a house in the forest and we knew the man who lived there. He was a friend, and we were sure that there we would find food, water and clothes.

But we had two “little” problems: First to get over the swamps to the road, and second, we were not sure that it would be possible to cross the road. Anyway we began our “voyage”. It is impossible to describe how we advanced. There were small trees, like shrubs, which had some roots, and we jumped carefully from one tree to the other. The soil was like a mattress with springs and it cradled our feet. It was a miracle that none of our group sank down into the swamp. From time to time somebody shouted for help, when he fell into the swamp up to his waist. To pull out a person from the swamp was a very complicated operation, and we did it several times a day. We also found a partial solution against our hunger. In this area there was a lot of cranberries and they became our main food during our “voyage”. We advanced very slowly, maybe 1-2 miles a day (at night we rested).

My trouble started when the people became anxious about whether we were moving in the right direction. They were sure that they already passed 20 miles, much more than the distance to the road. “Who decided to take a child for a guide” – they said. They were sure that they had no chance of getting out of the swamp. The fact was that we advanced more and more slowly because we were exhausted and hungry.

Somebody even suggested “killing the child, who will bring the death of the whole group”. But that wasn't a serious suggestion, because they knew very well that nobody but I had any chance to lead the group out of the swamp.

After two or three days (I don't remember exactly) I told the people that we were about 2-3 miles from the road. I was sure more than ever that we were near it. The reason was that we passed forest-glades with piles of hay. I knew that in these places the villagers used to chop grass during summer, leaving it there till winter. When the soil froze they came with sleighs and took it home. I was sure that this must be near the road, because the villagers wouldn't go far away deep in the swamp. I saw many such piles going many times along Gatovichi road. Our people didn't believe me even then, and I was very sorry about it.

As the people were tired and exhausted, I suggested that the group remain on a relative “dry island” which we found, while I and another young boy would try to get to the road. When we will find the road we will return to the group and take them. The tired people liked this idea and agreed to wait. That afternoon we left the group and got to the road in 3-4 hours. We lay down near the road and could see German cars passing along the road. We returned in the middle of the night and told the people what we saw. Now the people began to believe that we did go in the right direction. We decided that during the next day we'd reach the road, and at night try to cross it. We got within 200 feet from the road, and lay there until night. We watched the Germans, collecting the villagers. They took them to work to Germany. Their only “crime” was that they lived near to the Partisan Zone. During this time we learned how often and when the German patrols passed along the road. It became clear that the Germans didn't keep big forces here. Certainly because they were sure that nobody could come out from this swamp. We waited till one of the patrols passed along the road and quickly went across it. Now we knew very well the way to achive our goal. We were out of the blockade! The blockade continued on for one more week.

Most of the Jews passed the blockade sitting in the swamp. They remained alive, but they suffered hunger for a very long time. We already had food and clothes. We prepared a tent and stayed there until the blockade was over.

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Yeoash Alperovitz

In conclusion, several sentences about the results of the blockade. During the blockade the Germans burned down most of the villages which belonged to the Partisan Zone. They took many of the people to Germany to work there. This made some difficulties for the missions of the Partisans. But there were also many villagers who escaped to the surrounding forest and returned after the blockade to their villages. The Germans didn't kill many Partisans, only a few, and after the blockade all units were complete again as before the blockade.

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“For Capturing Berlin”

All the fears of the Germans, regarding to the Partisans, came true. Before the Germans withdrew from the occupied territories in Belarus, the Partisans blew up the railways and bridges for hundreds of miles. Escaping from the Russian Army, many of the Germans were killed, or were taken prisoner by the Partisans. During about a month, our unit, as did many others, took part in “purification” of the area from Germans. When they were gone I joined the Red Army, and took part in chasing the Germans out from the very last part of Russia that they still held. Then we chased them out of Poland and finally pursued them to Berlin. But this is already another story.

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