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[Column 123]

During the Holocaust

Y. Morbatzik

Translated by Esther Snyder

In July 1941, the rumors of the Nazi atrocities reached us: as soon as they entered a settlement they killed in cold blood all the men aged 13 to 65. Very few survived and together with the elderly, women and children they faced death.

The residents of Lakhva who survived the first wave of Nazi murders always felt the sword hanging above their heads; no ray of light could be seen on the horizon nor was there any hope for the morrow.

This is how the hell began.

The hunger, the back-breaking labor, the freezing cold winter and the mental depression took their toll on the people who became emaciated and weakened day by day.

Jewelry that had been handed down from generation to generation, festive clothes for Shabbat and weddings, and merchandise that hadn't been stolen were traded with our Russian neighbors for a loaf of bread or some potatoes.

Such trading was dangerous because the Russians were prohibited any contact with the Jews and certainly not supplying them with food. As the Nazis advanced on the eastern front, so increased the suffering and anguish of the Jewish population and thus their spirit of faith was broken.

At the approach of the Passover festival, it was decreed that the Jews be locked up in a crowded ghetto. We were forced to put up barbed wire around the ghetto ourselves. The division of the meager living space was accompanied by contention. The intercession of the heads of the Jewish Community (Judenrat) with the authorities did not help nor did bribery ease our situation.

We were allowed only two hours to leave our homes and property and move into the ghetto. We had to carry our possessions on our backs after undergoing a careful check by the men of the SS who robbed from us anything they desired and left the rest for looting.

Frightened, pushed, shoved and cruelly beaten we were forced into the ghetto. We spent the first Seder night squeezed into a tiny room with another 10 -15 persons. The Festival of Freedom turned into gloom and sorrow; the executioner's axe hung over us and there was no escape.

Bringing food into the ghetto was prohibited and those who worked outside the ghetto were thoroughly examined on their return. Death was the penalty for anyone carrying provisions into the confines of the ghetto. Despite this, the members of the Jewish Community (Judenrat) and the Jewish militia bribed the police and endangered their lives by conveying small amounts of food into the ghetto via river boats. The food was distributed among the poorest families.

However, this “supply” in addition to the ration of 200 grams of bread per person was insufficient to satisfy their hunger and the people ate potato peels and bits of leftover food from others.

Groups of adults and children who were suffering greatly from hunger and were able to evade the forced labor tried to sneak out of the ghetto and find some food in the nearby villages, given by good-hearted farmers who didn't ignore the cries of the starving children.

At the end of July 1942, a group of five children was shot and killed by the police. The children had been going through the villages searching for food but found instead their death. Slowly, the private supply of food ended due to the strict watch of the guards and because the assets of the Jews used to buy food were depleted; the residents of the ghetto faced annihilation by starvation.

The tragic deaths of the innocent children who were murdered by the local police, was a turning point that aroused the Jews in the ghetto from their passivity and depression and gave rise to a daring thought: to die as martyrs for the sanctification of the Holy Name (Kiddush HaShem).

The youth who had a Zionist education always knew how to fight back against the rioters and burglars during the Polish Republic and now they awakened. They understood that when there is no possibility of waging a war of “David against Goliath,” then there was a possibility of a war of revenge as in, “I will die with the Philistines.” (From the Biblical story of Samson.)

Life in the ghetto continued as usual: hard labor, starvation, abuse and oppression faced us every day. Then an idea began to grow – defending our lives and taking vengeance on our oppressors.

The initial contacts with the farmers to try to obtain weapons for self-defense were unsuccessful, yet time was of the essence. The chief executioner had already given the order and our fate was sealed.

One after another the Jewish settlements in our area were destroyed, among them Mikshevitz, the neighboring town. And that was the sign to take action: under the supervision of the “Judenrat,” the youth guarded the ghetto at night and took note of any activities in our area.

In secret, it was decided and told to the youth, that in the event of any action by the murderers to destroy the ghetto, they should revolt, fight back and beat the murderers. Fervent efforts were made to obtain weapons for the planned revolt.

Finally the rumor reached us: farmers are digging holes in the forest near the train tracks. On 22 Elul 1942, at midnight, the ghetto was surrounded by large police forces. All our attempts to get near the ghetto fences to see what was happening failed. Threatening with guns and shouting orders the police prohibited us from being in proximity to the fence. Then we knew: our fate was sealed.

The people were aroused and excitable; different groups debated what to do: whether to escape from the ghetto under cover of darkness or to defend the ghetto. We all had one goal: not to be led like sheep to slaughter. Our activities raised suspicion among the head of the town and the police, who cunningly tried to calm us by claiming that a great number of people were needed for labor and the large police force was meant to prevent evasion from this work.

The youth, who understood the gravity of the situation, demanded immediate action: an attack on the police force, fleeing the ghetto and escaping to the forest in the dark of night. There we hoped to find the Partisans.

In the morning, we heard the sounds of gunfire from the town of Kozengorodok and we knew that our brothers in the nearby town were no longer alive. The police force was increased and a company of SS arrived armed with machine guns. The announcement of the chief executioner was short: “For security reasons it has been decided to destroy the ghetto. Everyone must enter their homes and wait for orders!”

The indifference of the murderer reading the verdict was intolerable. People didn't obey the orders but instead gathered in the road between the houses on the riverbank. Quietly, an instruction was passed among the residents of the ghetto: to prepare flammable materials (oil, kerosene, etc.) and when the signal was given, they should ignite the houses and run into the street carrying axes and knives.

The SS and the police opened fire and hundreds of residents were killed. The ghetto went up in flames and while fighting for their lives, and in the midst of gunshots, the people broke through the fence, escaping from the ghetto and fleeing the town.

The Germans and the police stood nearby spraying death with their gunfire. The Russian citizens joined the murderers and took part in the killing. Some motivated by looting and robbing and others by the frenzy of a wild animal that smelled blood. The struggle in the ghetto lasted about one hour during which time 1500 Jews were murdered – men and women, old and young who gave their lives for the sanctification of the Holy Name (Kiddush HaShem). Their bodies filled the streets of the town and the flames of fire consumed the remainder of the ghetto.

About 500 people including the elderly, women and children succeeded in escaping the hellish flames and fled in all directions attempting to reach the forests and swamps, to find the area of the partisans.

The SS, the police and some of the local population chased after the escaping Jews and combed the area to locate and liquidate the survivors. Those that escaped hid in the swamps during the day and travelled at night until about 120 Jews who remained from the Lakhva ghetto reached their destination, near the Lana River.

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