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Thus It Began

Chapters from the Underground

by Nachum Alperovich

Edited (in Hebrew) by Aharon Meirovitz

Translated by Eilat Gordin Levitan

(Granddaughter of Nachum Alperovich's first cousin, Meir Gurevitz)

Edited by Sandra Krisch

There is strong evidence that during World War II many Jews fought the Nazi annihilator and did not go to their deaths like sheep, as has commonly been thought. Considering the hardships the Jews encountered, the hostile environment, and the methods the Germans used to trick and control the Jews by consistently promising to “let them live” if they were “useful and obedient,” the evidence of courageous resistance becomes obvious. As someone who experienced the evils of those days as a teenager in my hometown of Kurenets and afterward in the forests with the Resistance, I can present many examples of heroic stands by Jews. Even if the Resistance was not always physically present, they treated the enemy with open hatred and contempt.

I was told about our town's residents, Zusia Benes and Leah (daughter of Chaim Yisrael Gurevitz) Benes, an old couple. The day the Germans came to seize them to be slaughtered, they burned their wooden home and jumped in the fire; consequently, the Germans did not get to touch them.

Leib Motosov and Leib Dinerstien encountered similar fates. They jumped in the fire wearing their prayer shawls saying, “Hear, oh Israel!” before the Nazis had a chance to shoot them. All the examples I have used so far are of people who were old and could not physically fight the Nazis; I have no doubt that if they would have had the chance, they would have fought them fiercely. Moreover, if I mention the older townspeople, I must mention Chaiale Sosensky, a teenager of about fourteen or fifteen. When the Germans came to get her, she scratched the faces of the policemen with her nails and prophesied the day of revenge. I was told that she was severely tortured but continued to curse the killers.

During those days of horror, the Jews of the town were not allowed to have contact with each other, so we don't even know the extent of revolt, particularly in the cases of families who did not survive. However, even the little that we do know makes me feel deep respect for my townspeople. Another tale I must tell is that of Israel Alperovich.

Israel was a deeply religious Jew. When he escaped to the woods with his family, he continued keeping kosher. He starved for many days but did not allow himself to eat the bread and other food brought by the villagers, fearing that the food was not kosher. Israel only ate potatoes that he baked in the fire, and he eventually died of starvation. I see much heroism in his deed: he never lost his spiritual essence and his deep beliefs. When I compare his final journey to the journey of the many thousands of Russian POW's who, while passing through our town, fought each other to get to food that was thrown to them by the Nazis, I can particularly respect him.

Another resistance was by Arka Alperovitch, who attacked a policeman who was taking him to be killed. Arka managed to strike the policeman in the head and take his rifle away; he escaped to the fields, but other policemen killed him. Yankeleh Alperovich, the son of Orchik and Maryl showed another example of bravery. I will tell about his act of bravery later.

First, I must tell you about my mother in a few sentences. Her resistance to the enemy was heroic and lasted throughout all the days of the Nazi occupation, until the German killers took her from her hiding place to her death. Even there, she never stopped cursing them and despising them. She spit in the face of one of them and hit him with her skinny, tired hand. For that, they killed her right on the spot. Days later, the villagers who saw the incident were still talking about it. They were amazed at how brave my mother was.

Most of these heroic occurrences were spontaneous, but the story that I am going to tell you is about organized, thoroughly thought-out resistance that was done by a small number of teenagers. We were members of the youth movement Hashomer Hatzair in Kurenets, even in the days of the Soviets; we worked in secret on our commitment to the youth movement. The group numbered only about ten to twelve people; it was small only because it had to be underground. During the Nazi occupation, when people realized the existence of our band of resistance, many who were years older than we were implored us to let them join our troop.

The active members of the troop in 1941, when the Germans invaded our area, were: Yitzhak (Yetzkaleh) Einbinder age sixteen, Benjamin (Nyomka) Shulman age fifteen, Shimon Zirolnik, Zalman Gurevitch, the brothers Elik and Motik Alperovich, Chaim Yitzhak Zimmerman, and I. Later we were joined by Berta Dimenstien, Noach Dinnerstien, Josef Norman and others. I was seventeen at that time. The only survivors of this group were Zalman Gurevitch, Yosef Norman, and I. Yetzkaleh Einbender and Nyomka Shulman were renowned for their heroic deeds and their complete commitment to fighting the enemy. Yetzkaleh received many important medals after his death. Our strong commitment to fighting the enemy came from our involvement with HaShomer Hatzair; the movement's slogan was “Brave and Strong.” For us it was much more than a slogan. It was our way of life and our motto. Another important rule of the movement was absolute commitment to looking out for each other.

HaShomer Hatzair precepts were: to help each other, to live a life of purity both in the physical and spiritual sense, to cherish nature, to love Eretz Israel, and to train to be farmers in our homeland. This way of life was encouraged and achieved by means of journeys through the forest and participation in summer and winter camps alongside youth from other towns. Those youthful experiences helped us, especially during the hard times of the German occupation.

I was drawn to HaShomer Hatzair from a very early age, following my older sisters' example. My oldest sister, Hannah, was one of the first youths in our town to join the movement. Later, my sisters Henia and Rachel joined the movement too. Hannah spent many seasons in training camps. She yearned to become a chalutza and was waiting for years for a permit to leave for Eretz Israel. Her dream was finally realized in 1938, still without a permit. Using fake papers, she reached Israel on a boat of illegal immigrants. I was the only son—we were one boy and five girls. Our mother was very brave and clever. In 1917, she was very committed to the Russian revolution. Although she was married at the time and had two young daughters, she deeply believed in and fought for communism. Eventually, she lost some of her zeal for communism.

At our house, my mother's brothers (Castroll) were often mentioned. Two of her brothers left for America before I was born; one of them had a candy store. His financial situation was not great and I remember that in one of his letters he wrote, “I have a sweet business with a sour income.” My mother's other brother in America was Chanan Castroll. He was the secretary of the Communist Party in New York. In 1938, he was a member of a committee that went to Moscow, and people said that he even met Stalin! Hence it must have been a familial trait, this interest in political action.

Father, on the other hand, was very different—quiet and much more cautious. Perhaps his somber encounters in youth made him cautious. When he was very young, he immigrated to the United States, but was not satisfied with the way of life in the U.S. After a short time, he returned to the town.

Mother was very involved with the youth movement, and sometimes I felt that if she were younger, she would have chosen the path of the youth movement. From this, you can probably gather that I never needed to rebel against my parents, even though outwardly it seemed that their lifestyle was similar to that of the rest of the town's Jews. Half of our house, which stood in the market center, was for our personal use and the second half was a fabric store.

My education was the typical education in the shtetl. First I went to a cheder, and later to Tarbut school, where we spoke only Hebrew; there I finished four grades. There was no fifth grade, so the next year we had to continue our studies in a Polish public school. When the school year started I was tested, but I failed the test. Considering that I barely knew Polish, this was not a surprise. Instead of putting me in fifth grade, they wanted to put me in third grade. The teacher and headmaster in the school was a Polish man named Mataras. Mother, who was fluent in Polish, came to Mataras and told him that I knew the material; it was only the language that I was weak in. Then she started talking Yiddish to the principal and repeated everything she had said earlier, but in Yiddish. Mataras said, “How are you talking to me, Madam? What happened to you?” “Nothing happened,” my mother said in Polish, “I was telling you the same things in Polish, a language you know well; in contrast, now I said it in a language you have no knowledge of. This is my son's state. He knows the material; he just doesn't know the language. If you accept him, you will immediately realize that he will be a good student and in time will overcome the language barrier.”

Mataras was very impressed with my mother's cleverness and accepted me to fifth grade on the condition that I would work very hard the first half of the year, and he would then reevaluate the situation. When the first half-year came, I was still unable to overcome the language barrier, so my mother went again and asked to extend the period; he gave me another half year. By the time the end of the year arrived, I was one of the best students in the class.

It was well known in town that Polish people love gefilte fish—especially the way the Jews make it. Therefore, at the end of the school year mother made some gefilte fish delicacies. She brought the “Jewish gift” to our Polish headmaster, who was so kind to me. Our families became friendly from that day. We also had friendly relations with the Polish teacher of mathematics, Mr. Scrantani. He was very happy with my progress now that I could speak the language and he would always test me with math riddles—a subject that I was very able to perform. In 1936, I graduated from seventh grade in the Polish school.

I was very capable with technical skills. These were financially hard times in town; father was hardly able to support the family. Now he suggested that I should get a profession so I would be more independent and be able to help the family. Father started working as an accountant in the lending establishment, Gmilut Chesed. However, that still was not enough, so we decided that I would go to work as a blacksmith in the neighboring town of Vileyka.

I worked at an establishment that belonged to a Christian man. In that place, there was another young Christian man who was constantly drunk. One day, he came to work and started torturing me. He took a container full of gasoline, started pouring it on the ground around me, and threatened to set it on fire. I ran out of the establishment and returned to Kurenets. My parents decided that I should never go back there and that I should look for another profession.

We had a relative in Vileyka named Mandelis who was a merchant of bicycles and radio equipment; he even had one motorcycle, which was a new commodity in our area at the time.

Vileyka was a more modern town than Kurenets and it had a printing house that was owned by a Jewish man named Flexer. Flexer was very successful and decided to open a second store to sell bicycles. Mandelis was very upset, and decided to open a printing shop in retaliation. He bought printing material and stole Flexer's best worker, a man by the name of Abraham Berkovitz.

I had an aunt in Kurenets, my father's sister, Reshka Alperovitch. She was a very capable woman, well known in town and even outside of town. She was a widow, and besides taking care of her home, she ran a store that was renowned all over the region. Aunt Reshka said that in her opinion it was much more respectable to work in a printing house than to be a blacksmith. Since my aunt's opinion was much respected by the rest of the family, I joined the workers of the printing place as an assistant, along with a young man named Yosef Norman. After Yosef was trained and learned the profession well, Flexer offered him a large sum of money. He started working for him, so now I was the only worker in the Mondavi printing house that was under the management of Abraham Berkovitz.

We had a contract for three years. The first three years I was supposed to get five “units of currency” per month. In the third year, I was supposed to get ten. Thus I started working six days a week, and on Saturday I would return home to my family and to the youth movement that was so important to me. Among my friends in the youth movement I was much respected, since a person who was able to support himself as a laborer was looked up to. I, on the other hand, truly wanted to continue my studies, but there was just no opportunity to do that since my parents needed the little help I could give them.

During those days, my good friend from the youth movement, Motik, son of Reuven Zishka Alperovitch, was studying in the Vileyka high school. Motik would visit my place of work many times and would always say how jealous he was that I was able to accomplish the proletariat commandment of being productive, while he, on the other hand, must study. He said, “For you, everything is good. If I could only exchange situations with you.” I wished to exchange situations with him. Our printing press was electric, but you could also manually move it either by hand or by foot. Motik came to help me many times and was very excited when I let him use the arm or foot piece, which made him feel like he was part of the labor force. Eventually, I was so experienced that Abraham Berkovitz would let me run the place all by myself.

Even a few years before World War II we could sense that the spirit of anti-Semitism was growing in Poland. Next to the meeting place of HaShomer Hatzair lived a Christian male nurse named Solkevis. Surrounding his home there was a fruit grove. Many times while we were playing in the yard, a ball dropped in the garden. Any time we tried to retrieve our ball, his son would start fighting with us. He hated Jews. There was a funny story about Solkevis. People said that he once came to visit a terminally ill person for whom he could not find a cure, and he decided that the man had a contagious disease. Solkevis started screaming that the house's inhabitant should not wait but should immediately take the sick man out of the house and bury him.

Kopel Specter was the leader of our troop, so whenever we got in trouble with Solkevis's son, he would stand halfway between the son and us, and he would somehow manage to stop the fights. One day, I went to get some water from the well near Smorgon Street. The Christian, Pietka Gintoff, saw me. He took my pail, which was full of water, and dumped it on the ground. I was furious. I took the pail and whacked Pietka on his head. He immediately fell to the ground. A gentile who saw the fight started screaming, “A Jew killed a Christian boy!” After a few minutes, Pietka got up and the Christians who gathered around saw that he was okay. All the Jews who came to see what was happening had to calm the gentiles so there wouldn't be a bigger fight.

Kopel would plan our activities and teach us about socialism and Eretz Israel. He would teach us to sing Hebrew songs and Chasidic songs, and we danced many folk dances, the most popular of which was the hora. Our meetings were not only held in the school, but also in the fields and in the forests. We especially liked to walk to the big boulder, two huge rocks in the middle of a field; we always wondered how they got there. Sometimes, Elik and Motik Einbinder would invite us to the barn that belonged to Reuven Zishka, their father, and there we would hold the meetings. During our vacation, we would walk to the village of Mikolina, near Dolhinov, a distance of about 20 km. There we would spend many days in what we called either our summer camp or our winter camp. We would meet members of HaShomer Hatzair from the Dolhinov ken (unit), from the Dockshitz ken, and from the Krivich ken.

During the winter, we would go to Ratzke to sled. Ratzke was a tiny town. It was probably named after the river that was on its border and it was most famous for its hills; to us, they looked like mountains and we called them the Ratzkelberg. In the evening, we walked in groups through the town. Many times the young Christian kids liked to trick us by putting barbed wire on the road, and sometimes we would get hurt. One time, Pesach, the son of Pinke Alperovich the town's butcher, caught one of those Christian boys getting ready to put the barbed wire down. He punched him very hard. Pesach was a very good-looking boy, very strong and brave, and we were all very proud of him. This scared the Christian kids, and after that, they stopped bothering us. We were especially proud of Pesach, since his brother Tevel was a member of our troop.

In our meetings, we would discuss events that happened very far away from Kurenets. In 1936, we had major arguments among members concerning the situation in Eretz Israel. This was during the bloody fights with the Arabs. We argued about whether the Jews should compromise with the Arabs to keep the peace or whether they should fight. We were all about thirteen or fourteen at the time, and for some of us it was difficult to obey the rules of HaShomer Hatzair. One of the most dedicated members was Shimon Zirolnik. He was a very serious and kind person, and he would always follow the rules and keep a pure lifestyle.

When I was thirteen, for my bar mitzvah my mother gave me her father's tefillin. I was named after my mother's father, Nachum Castroll. Nachum was a shochet in Kurenets for many years. He went blind when he was old. Just before he died, he told my mother that if he were to be lucky enough to have a grandson in Kurenets (he had other grandsons in the U.S. and the Soviet Union), she should name him Nachum and he would inherit his tefillin. I was very disappointed when my mother gave me the tefillin. When my friends had their bar mitzvahs they got new tefillin that looked beautiful, while mine were old and shabby-looking. Mother kept explaining how important it was to keep the tefillin, that it was a tradition that passed for many generations in our family. Finally, I was convinced, and by the time I read the Torah and Haftorah, I could already appreciate the importance of the old tefillin. I argued with my friends and won the argument that mine were superior. Just about then, the youth movement Beitar was becoming very popular in town and we fought with them for the recruiting of new members.

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