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Memoir of infancy in the Vileyka camp

by Wolf (Zev) Rabunski

Translated by Jay Rabunski

“Dedicated to my parents, Rose nee Chosid and Wolf (Zev) Rabunski,
for my children and grandchildren to become aware of our family history”

Chapter 1

I was born in 1938 in a shtetl named Kurenitz. At the time of my birth, the region belonged to Poland. Kurenitz was part of the Vilnius district and set about 80 kilometers distant from Vilna. During the term of the Polish rule in the Vilnius district, (1922-1939) the profession of the head of the household greatly influenced his family social standing and reputation in the community. If you were a minor tailor, a shoemaker or a handyman your family would be considered a lower class family. If you were working in an office, you were middle class family. If you owned a reputable business, you were considered as part of the upper class. Grandfather Mendel Chosid, my mother's father, was a businessman. His line of business was selling herbal pharmaceuticals made from natural vegetation such as weed, grass, mushrooms, wheat and tree roots. He would collect the specimens in the fields and forests that surrounded the town and later he would export it all over the world to be sold as natural medicine. Mothers' mother was a descendent of the Shulken family, who was well known in the area on their own rights. Due to the numerous properties, they owned in many areas of Poland, they owned forests land, farming land and other real estate the land that they had owned near-by would be leased out to the local population for farming.

My very beautiful mother had one brother who was in business with my grandfather, he was a chemist. His name was Paul Chosid. He would travel all over Europe, selling the raw materials grandfather collected to be made to medicine. My most vivid memory of him prior to the war is the oranges and fancy chocolates he would bring me, from abroad. Such delicacies were considered luxury items, which were rarely found in Poland. He was a very caring uncle. He was a tall and very handsome man with sparkly blue eyes and full of charm. The family's original last name was Frankfurt. My great-grandfather came from Frankfurt Germany. At the time he left, the region had a large Jewish population. He was forced to move east. He was a very religious and righteous man therefore the Rabbi of Vilna had changed his name to Chosid, which means, “a very religious man”. Grandfather Mendel was known by everyone as a very kind and generous person and people would take advantage of his very large heart. (I seem to take after my grandfather). Grandmother was about four to five inches taller than grandfather was and she was the boss of the family.

Mother was an outstandingly beautiful woman. She was a member of a Jewish youth organization, "HaShomer Hatzair", (the young gatekeepers) which was a Zionist socialist movement that emphasized the necessity for all Jewish youth to immigrate to Eretz Israel (Palestine) to work the land. Their principal belief was that we must create a State for Jews. The State of Israel should be on our ancient land. Mother was also very active in sports. She loved to sing and dance. Most of all, she loved people and was very kind to them. I think she was very much like her father.

The great inflation of the early 30's affected the economy of Europe. In addition, the Nazi movement gained power in Germany, anti-Semitism was spreading rapidly in Poland. My grandfather's business began to dwindle down and the family was compelled to move to a different town, the town in which I was later born, Kurenitz.

When mother was a teenager, she met my father. father was an extremely handsome man. Blonde and with deep green eyes. Certainly, he did not appear Jewish. Father was born in Kurenitz. His father Yitzhak Rabunski was at one time the Mayor of the town, my grandfather Yitzhak was a devout Communist. He believed very strongly in Communism as the solution to the Jewish problem. He might have changed his mind regarding communism had he lived longer. He died in the early 1920's, at the young age of 50 after a bout of tuberculosis. At that time, there were no antibiotics and tuberculosis was usually a fatal disease. When my grandfather died, he left five children, without a man to provide for them.

My grandfather's sister, Hada and brother in law Eliyahu Alperovich died a few years prior to my grandfathers' death. Their children were sent to America to live with their older sister all except for the youngest girl Noima who was less then two years old at the time. She was left behind to be raised by my grandmother who was at this time also running a large factory that previously belonged to her husbands' sister and brother in law. The factory would produce root beer out of black bread and sugar, called Kvas. She had soon joined in partnership with her brother, who was the father of Shimon Peres, the ex-prime minister of Israel. The maiden name of my grandmother was Perski. She had several brothers and sisters that were scattered all over the world. One of them was the father of Loren Becall. (Who used to be called Perski).

During the thirties, my grandmothers' brother, Shimon's father, Getzel Perski, joined a special commando unit in the British army, it was purely Jewish unit. The unit was sent to Palestine to fight the German Army that was trying to gain control of North Africa. He took with him a large sum of money that was part of the cash flow of the factory to be used for the war against Germany. That left my grandmother back in Poland with meager means of support. My father started running the factory, which by now produced just enough income to put meat, occasionally, on the family's table.

Times had changed and after the partition of Poland in 1939, the soviets entered our area. The Soviet Ideology was greatly different then the Polish. Very rapidly everything turned upside down, the handyman, the tailors and proletariats became the "ideal people of the Soviet society". They were now rewarded with good political positions and owners of businesses were now castigated. We at this time were very poor. At night, our dining room tablecloth would double as our bed cover. On cold nights we would sleep on our self-made stove for warmth and would cover ourselves with the tablecloth.

My parents were young and very much in love. There were many anecdotes of which I was told by their friends, some of whom had been with us during the horrors of the holocaust and survived. Others had fled to England, Russia and other parts of the world prior to the Holocaust. The anecdotes indicate that father was very much in love with my mother even during their high-school years. He would turn very jealous if mother would just talk to someone else. Some times, he would turn violent. My mother was very attractive. She was recognized as the most beautiful girl in school. Her real name was Rachael. However, her name was altered to Rose because she wore very bright and colorful clothes, she had a unique style and people nicknamed her Rose.

At the dawn of World War 2, father attended school to become a professional man. He was studying to be a CPA. My Uncle, Alan (Eliyahu), who was known as very bright man, was drafted into the Army. My Uncle Leo ever since early youth had more of a carefree attitude about life and my grandmother did not approve at all of his lifestyle. As my father had told it he was the kid who would constantly be blamed for anything wrong that happened in the household. He would often be punished for no reason at all. It seemed like he could not find his place amongst the hard working, ambitious Rabunski family members. He unceasingly liked expensive clothes and the best of fruits, such as oranges, which, in Poland, were almost impossible to get. As he was growing up, he often got himself into trouble. From what people had said father would usually get him out of those troubles.

My Aunt Hannah was a young teenager. She was actively involved with the Zionist movement and was considering marriage. At that time, girls used to marry at the age of 16 or 17. Naturally, we were not observing any religion, only tradition, since as I told you my grandfather was an active Communist and that affected the entire family out look on life. As I mentioned before there was a cousin living with us, her name was Noima (Naomi). She ended up living with my grandparents in my father's home due to both of her parents passing away shortly after she was born from unspecified disease that was not curable at that time. She grew up in the house as another child, she was truly part of the family.

During the soviet rule, my father had to find other jobs due to the fact that the factory was seized by the authorities.

My parents were married on January 13, 1937. From what I am told, it was a beautiful, outdoors wedding and all the young people from the surrounding areas came to celebrate with them. father took on jobs such as carrying heavy loads of rolls of fabric, loading them onto a horse and buggy and ridding throughout the night, to distribute the goods to the town of Vilna. On the way, he would stop and converse with numerous merchants in other villages and would attempt to sell them the Kvas that he used to manufacture. He would also pick up every empty bottle that was left, by virtue of that back then, bottles were refillable with a pressure cork.

All I can remember, as a small child is that the place I lived in was a Rustic little house on Hazza Gestle. (The Pig Street.) It was a distressed section in the Hamlet of Kurenitz. As well as remembering my parents being in love. Father was the kind of man that could never raise his voice at me. He was a very gentle. Very emotional. In time of great stress, mother would have to take over. She was the stronger one. She was constantly positive about all things. My father tended to get depressed quickly. As years went by, I discovered that it was not just my imagination, these were the real facts of life in our household.

Shortly prior to the war, the common conversation in the shtetl was concerning the Germans plans to invade Poland. My grandparents from both sides were mature and looking forward in their thinking and realized adverse times were coming and wanted to make certain kind of move. They tried to immigrate to Palestine or to America. However, due to both families having financial difficulties at that point and visas that were very hard to obtain, even for well to do people, we had no means to go anywhere.

I remember my very early childhood. One vivid recollection from happy times is of Russian soldiers who would come to our village occasionally. They would eat outdoors at wooden tables and bring with them their accordions and vodka. They certainly had lavish parties. I was, for some reason, always selected out of the crowd and placed on the table around which they would dance. I guess dancing was a component of my upbringing even as a little boy of two-years-old. I would constantly be dressed with the finest of clothes by my adoring grandparents. As it turned out, I would be the only grandchild they would get to know, they all perished when I was four. I was blond with curly hair and I, as my parents, did not appear Jewish. I was called Ishia, which is a Russian name for Isaac. They would clap their hands and drink their vodka and go on and on with the singing and playing and would have me dancing on the table. This is something that is very hard to forget since I would always be rewarded by my parents and grandparents with new clothes after such occasions and I specially remember getting a pair of white boots. Therefore, life went on peacefully in the Community of Kurenitz under the kerosene lamps and with the handmade stoves and firewood that we had to fetch for heating and cooking.

I can remember the fresh fruits and vegetables that my grandmother would buy in the local market. I guess, as a child prior to the war, I thought life could not be any better. In Kurenitz, people were not wealthy in finance, but people seemed very happy. I did not know what a funeral was. I heard only of weddings and celebrations before the war. 

On June 22, 1941, Germany attacked Russia.

My Uncle Paul was able to escape to Russia with his girlfriend (later wife) Brunia, shortly before the war he was living in another shtetl. The day the Germans invaded Russia he hired a horse and buggy. He asked his girlfriend and her family to join him in his attempt to cross the old border, only his girlfriend took the offer. My Uncle Leo and my Aunt Naomi had also escaped to Russia on the day of the invasion, each to a different place. The entire family tried to escape though unlucky for the rest of us, we were turned back by the Russians when we reached the border. The Russians had different policies toward refugees depending on what point of time you reached the borders.

My Uncle Alan, a tall, handsome man, who was a very quiet and very peaceful man, was drafted earlier into the Russian Army. As we now know, he was killed in one of the major battles in St. Petersburg, Russia and buried in a massive grave.

The Germans eventually entered our village. It was very peculiar and scary for me to see different uniforms as well as an army with heavy machinery, tanks, and men dressed with helmets, pushing, shoving, and screaming at us in foreign language. The inhabitants of the village were divided into groups. Families were separated. Kinsmen were sent to different locations.

A couple of months past, one night father, as other Jewish men from our town was taken from our house by the police. The Germans sentenced them to be shot the next morning for being communists, only they were sentenced in absence, and were told lies about were the Germans were planing to take them. Now I know that the other men were killed in a massive grave that they dug with their own hands. They were killed together with their wives and children. This "actzia" was later known as the "killing of the 54".

My mother, who was very clever and radiant woman realized the danger that my father was facing when father was taken out of the house, and immediately decided to do something to try to save him. She snuck out of the house during curfew time, which was from 7:30 at night to 5:30 in the morning. She went directly to the SS headquarters. I tried not to ask. As I said before, you do not ask or question anything that happens. I remember my mother coming back hours later, with her clothes totally ripped, beaten up, and full of blood. She could barely walk. She walked like a hunchback. You could see in her eyes the pain and the fear. I could read her feelings. I saw Hell in my mother's eyes. Her eyes reflected an internal burning flame. Every time she took a step forward, it was as if kerosene was added to the flame. I tried to comfort her by hugging her, but my mother, who loved me very much, pushed me away harshly. I guess she did not feel clean. I never spoke to my mother about those incidents. Even when my mother was ill in her later years, it had never been brought up. Whatever my mother had to do that night, father was released the next day. He was the only one of the men who got the death sentence that day who survived.

Some time later Professional people were put in a labor camp in a town nearby called Vilejka. At a later point, their wives and children joined them. Anybody that the Germans decided is capable of performing hard labor was also put in other camps in Vilejka. . The camp we were sent to was located in barracks that were put up by Polish laborers who were also imprisoned by the Nazi's. You could see in between the spaces between the boards when you would lie down on the wooden beds without mattresses. Some days I would be alone so I would lie on the bed looking to that space to see if my parents were coming back.

Life in the Vilejka ghetto was horrible. The men would be taken out every morning to small factories that were set up by the Germans. There, they would make uniforms, shoes, medicine, and war products. The day would start at 5:30 in the morning when everyone would be taken outside for a head-count. It was very cold and we had very little covering for our bodies. Horse and buggy's would come and load us up to take us to our destinations. Breakfast would be given out before work, which would start at about 6:00am. Breakfast consisted of bread and pig fat and a mixture of hot water that had the color of tea. There was no sugar or salt. Salt was a very expensive commodity during the war. The women would also be taken out, with the children, and a head-count would be taken. Some of the women would be taken to work in a hospital for wounded German soldiers. Some would be reserved to care for the SS soldier's families.

The children would be crowded in one massive room we were forced to grade buttons for uniforms. Some would be ordered to put medicine into bottles according to color, which would then be sent to the German front for the soldiers. Some of the women that were pretty were taken for experiments in a hospital and some for personal use for the SS soldiers and their collaborators.

I can remember on several occasions seeing my mother coming back to the barracks with her clothing ripped and with a terrible gaze of horror in her eyes. As a young child, I could not understand precisely what was going on. Being curious and concerned, I would ask some of the older boys in the camp why my mother looked that way. However, they would never answer me. The rapes and the experiments were so horrible that they did not fathom how to explain to a three-year old child what was going on. At times, I would see her cry until there would be no more tears in her eyes. Her face would be red and there would be scratches on her arms and her legs. She would sometimes sink into my father's arms when he returned from work shaking with horror, crying and saying, “why!?” There was constant dread and terror in her eyes. They would quietly comfort each other, trying not to let me see their reactions. However, since we were all living in one very small room, about 6 by 10 feet, one could not help but see everything. I would sometimes see my mother's personal clothing full of blood. Buttons missing from her clothes. You learn, very quickly, not to ask questions anymore, you just try to survive another day. You learn to keep quiet, to stay in your corner, since you fear that tomorrow might not come, that there might not be another day for you. You learn fast what pain, horror and death is. You learn not to say anything, but to wait solely for the little bit of food, the little bit of bread and water. You learn to watch your meager personal belongings, especially your shoes. You become aware that people you know disappear with no trace. They just vanish and no one talks about them any more. I still don't know to where my grandparents were sent. I knew not to ask. The constant fear for your life makes you sort of numb to any emotions and blind to the brutality of your surrounding.

So life continues and you don't think of tomorrow. You just hope of surviving today.

One day in November, I remember my father taking me by the hand, and going to a group with another 40 to 50 men with their children. We were driven by horse and buggy outside of the ghetto quarters near a field. I remember many German soldiers with heavy machine guns and automatic weapons surrounding us. We were told to remove all of our clothes. I think at that time that people were more like animals than humans. I don't think anyone thought of decency, modesty or shame. The German soldiers were brutally hitting all of the men with their weapons to hurry them up. It was cold. In the distance, about 10 to 20 feet from us, there was a massive crowd of young women undressed, nude as the day they were born. I guess as a child in the ghetto, nudity meant nothing. A little time passed by and I can remember the sound of the machine guns. I could see pieces of human flesh scattered all over. There was a big hole, which had been dug by Polish laborers. All of the men with the children were forced to identify their beloved ones. They were pushed by the German soldiers with clubs and weapons, shouting “Filthy Jews, you'll be next.” I remember my father identifying parts of his sister, Channa, he started vomiting. I did not ask anything. I grabbed onto him, holding him so tight.

My father was shaking, trembling. He was all…green. His eyes bulged out of his head. His mouth went crooked. He held me as tight as he could. I guess tears could not come out of either one of us, because we had no more tears. He mumbled with his crooked mouth and his shattering teeth. His body was bent, his hands were numb and I think his legs were just about to give out. The Germans forced us to get dressed again. The men were taken back to work. The children were taken back to the massive room. That day, I could not tell the difference between any color. I can still remember and will never forget a woman with a soldier's belt was hitting me very hard because I was not putting the right colored buttons into the right place. I felt no pain. I could hear her screaming at me, yet she sounded to me like an echo coming from 100 kilometers away. I looked forward for the punishment, I rather liked it. There was a lot of blood coming out of my little body. I was just skin and bones. Yet, I felt no pain. Moreover, if I did feel it, I looked forward to the pain, I wanted to torture myself.

I guess the woman that was of Jewish decent, could understand what was going on in my little head. After a little while, she stopped hitting me. I did not bother cleaning my wounds and sores. I wanted it to stay their forever. I can remember my father coming to our tiny place that night, I could not recognize him. His eyes were almost closed. With his fists and feet, he was kicking and banging against the wall, without letting out a sound. I could see his agony and his bitterness. My mother was aware of what was happening. She tried to calm him down. She herself was trembling. This is something that one can never forget. It will always stay with me. Many nights, that vision comes up. And when it does, I think of death. I think of Hell. And I know what Hell is like.

Days had gone by and fresh vegetables would be brought in to the camp on a daily basis by horse and buggy for the SS soldiers. A Christian man would deliver the vegetable. The buggy had two layers. On the top layer would be vegetables, on the lower layer, the partisans smuggled weapons for us to be used when we break out of camp. We clearly knew that one day we would be killed and it would be done in a horrible way. We had been paying for the weapons with personal possessions we had hidden in the ground. Gold fillings, gold teeth, etc. also we were smuggling out bullets we stole from the Germans and gave to the partisans.

I understood, somehow, from all of the boys whispering among themselves, that something big was about to take place. Being it was a labor camp, it was not watched quite so closely. There was not so much security as compared to the death camps. I understood, after a while, that we would try to break out one day. You get to be smart and knowledgeable at a very young age if circumstance call for it. Moreover, you say nothing, you keep all the secrets. You do only what your parents tell you to do. There is never a “no”. There is never a “why”.

One day in February of 1943, the vegetable wagon came as usual, to supply the SS men with fresh vegetables. We saw an SS man stop the wagon, and we thought that he had found the layer where the weapons were concealed. Panic spread in the camp among the women who were running and screaming that the SS had detected the weapons.

Unfortunately, we did not have time to find out the real reason the Christian man, who was so helpful to us, was stopped. A German SS Officer had stopped the wagon to be used for his pregnant wife to be taken to the local hospital. However, the panic that spread could not be stopped. German soldiers started to run into the Jewish crowds that were running away, shooting everyone in sight. Mothers and children, husbands and wives, separated. Children were left all alone. My father, who had a pistol, left my mother and me alone. I understood what it was. I started begging my mother, "do not leave me, I want to live".

My mother's chances to survive with a four-year-old on her arm were almost non-existent. Yet my mother ripped off the Jewish star from her clothes, which we all wore and put on an old Russian scarf and covered me in her arms. I could feel her trembling heart. She started to run towards the hospital. A German SS man stopped us and said to us “Zine Ze Ad Uten?” (Are You Jewish?) He was screaming, shouting, and pointing his automatic machine gun at us. Mother replied in Russian, “No, my baby is sick, I live in the Village, and I am in need of a doctor.” She opened her scarf and showed him that she had a baby in her arms. She showed him only my face. I guess that due to all the panic and commotion, the SS soldier let us be. It was truly amazing luck.

My mother hid in section of the hospital that she knew very well. Mother had worked in the hospital. She was a very learned woman, she was a chemist in this hospital at one point. She knew every corner as well as each shelter in that old hospital. At one point that day, she met with two Jewish women. One was wounded in her leg, and the other had two children with her. We all hid in the old hospital until nighttime came. The children had learned not to cry, and not to ask for anything. We knew not to question a thing. The other children were two boys. One was named Al in later years, the other was named Stanley. They were the sons of Isaac and Besheva Halperin. The other woman was from a well-known family in Vilna. Her name was Rachel.

As nightfall came, my mother made a proposal to the others, we should hideout in the Old Russian school in town that had a double-layered floor. There was snow on the ground, and we had to find a way to cover our tracks so that the SS would not discover where our hiding place was. To go across to the area that was controlled by Russian-partisan was infeasible at that point. There were railroad tracks, which divided the constantly patrolled German side of Poland to the area in the forest, were the Russian-partisan had a base.

The German's had placed, every 16 meters, machine guns, and anyone who would try to cross the railroad to the other side would be shot down immediately. Therefore, for five days and four nights, almost all we ate was snow. My mother would sneak out at night to a couple of local farmers which my grandfather used to do business with, and she would bring back some bread and sometimes some boiled potatoes. The women did not ask anything about their husbands, nor did the children ask anything about their fathers. We knew not to ask. Mother was neurotic about dreams and she constantly spoke to her dead mother, in her imagination, in her mind. My mother imagined a dream or a vision. She had heard her mother tell her that we needed to leave this place at once since one of the farmers was going to inform the Nazi's of our hiding place. He would do this because he would get a Kilo of salt for every Jewish head that he would bring in.

Therefore, we quietly made our escape by crawling out that night and we hid in the bushes next to the railroad. This was the first time in my life that I truly feared that my mother did not want me. “She is not going to make it with me”, I thought to myself. I remember her putting me down in one of the bushes and somehow, I knew that she would not return. As young as I was, I looked at my mother and I said to her, “Mom, I want to live, don't leave me”. I knew what life was all about. I did not cry. I did not know how to cry any more. Mother did walk away a good couple of steps, turned around, then took me back into her arms, covered me up with that scarf, and hugged me tightly. She said nothing. I could only feel through her hugging, that it could be the last time that we would be together, or even to be alive. I have seen so much death, and so many bodies scattered all over, I knew what death was all about although I was only four years old.

We hid in the bushes for several hours. It was a full moon night. If someone walks in the snow under to moon, you can see a shadow. However, we knew we could not stay until morning because the Germans were searching the entire area with dogs looking for escapees. We were three women, three children. One of the women wounded in the leg, bleeding lightly. We tried to go towards to railroad. As we proceeded, we saw two shadows from afar coming towards us. Mother and the others turned around with their backs towards the shadows and someone said, “if we are going to be shot, we might as well be shot in the back”. We thought the shadows were of German soldiers. The three women all cried out, “Shoot! We are ready to die!”

Several moments passed by, and the shadows behind us had turned their backs to us. They obviously did not see or hear us. As nothing had happened, we turned toward them and proceeded walking in their direction. They had done the same thing. As we came closer, we realized that one of them was my father. He was with another man from camp. It was the miracle of life. If one wants to believe that the Messiah came, for us he came at that moment.

There were no emotions shown between anybody. My mother, as usual, possessing the nature of a leader, made a decision for all of us that we were to cross the railroad at a certain place where she knew it would be easier. It was a wooded area. Everywhere else the Germans cut the woods to make the watch easier. So, on that February 1943 night, father, the stranger, who I later met, the three women and the three children, successfully crossed over to the area that was controlled by Russian partisans.

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