Translated by Eilat Gordin Levitan and Gil Ben Villa
Anatol Wertheim was the head of a division in the Jewish family camp created by Shalom Zorin.After Warsaw was conquered by the Germans in 1939, I escaped and arrived in Stolbtsy.
Anatol Wertheim immigrated to Israel in 1956.
As you know, Poland was divided by Germany and the Soviet Union, and the eastern part of Poland, the regions of Volhin, Polsia (now in Ukraine), Eastern Galicia, and the regions of Vilna-Bialystock (now in Lithuania- Belarus) were annexed by the Soviet Union. For me it was the first meeting with the Jews of Belarus, both from territories that used to be part of Poland and territories that belonged to the Soviet Union after 1920. Many of the Soviet Jews, amongst them also Soviet Jews from Minsk, reached the liberated regions, as the Soviets called it. They were appointed to different positions in the annexed areas. For me this meeting was very fascinating.
Despite the fact that there was no apparent anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union, there were no marks of any distinctly Jewish culture. Most of these Soviet Jews could speak Yiddish and did not deny their Jewish origin. Truly in the Soviet Union it was difficult to deny it since in their Soviet identification cards it stated their nationality as Jewish. But to be a Jew was only an origin for most of them, without connection to Jewish culture, traditions, and political, National aspirations. There was a Yiddish newspaper in Minsk, but it was essentially a Russian newspaper written in the Yiddish language. The contents were typically the same Russian data that you could find in other newspapers.
The new Soviet rulers tried to establish schools where the language used was Yiddish in the liberated area after 1939, but these schools had no Jewish content. No distinct Jewish history, no Jewish literature were explored in the curriculum. Once again, only the language was Yiddish, but the curriculum was purely Soviet. Soon the parents said, If it is so, why should we send our children here? Then they would only have a more difficult time attending universities since they do all their studies in Yiddish. If the content was the same, they might as well go to Russian public schools.
In the year 1940, I was a teacher in such a Yiddish school, but the number of students kept decreasing at that school. The population experienced difficulties in getting accustomed to the Soviet rule. For us refugees who came from the region of Poland conquered by the Germans, it was relatively easy to get used to it. As refugees, we had little choice. We accepted the jobs that were offered to us and adapted to the new system. But the local Jews, who mainly were owners of stores or were craftsmen, were not allowed to keep their stores and shops and had to find clerical jobs with the unions (Soviet worker groups, cooperatives). They were also fearful of retribution. There was no official anti-Semitism, but we knew the Belarussian population had negative feelings toward the Jews and we were fearful of pogroms. Ironically, there were even some Jews in Stolbtsy waiting for the Germans to arrive as if they would save them from the economic hardship that they experienced in the Soviet Union. The Germans entered Stolbtsy in June 22nd of 1941. Immediately they started the massacres. They killed some Jews to make the population fearful and they ordered us to wear the yellow tags. They registered all the men from age 16 to 45 and ordered them to go to work. A Judenrat was established. Its main job was to coordinate the work assignments. They started forcing Jews to work in Baranovich and Minsk, and they established the ghetto.
Originally the members of the Judenrat were the prominent and respected Jews of the town. They tried to soften the punishments the Germans inflicted, but eventually they were forced to fulfill the Germans' orders, and that caused anger among the Jewish population. They started seeing them as collaborators. Slowly they lost control and some thought that only the lower element people who started taking control would keep them alive. In 1942, rumors started arriving in the ghetto that there was a resistance movement and some partisans arrived in the forest, Red Army soldiers who were left behind when the army retreated, and were now hiding in the forest. Some of them organized into fighting partisan units. Some of them were truly of high caliber and fought the Germans out of a genuine loyalty to the Soviet people Others who were with the resistance were wild hooligans, and they would go to the villages and confiscate food.
Escaping and reaching the forest was not so difficult. The dilemma that we were faced with was that the Germans threatened that if any Jew escaped, the others would pay the consequences, and people felt great responsibility to others who would be left in the ghetto. It was clear that during the daily inspections, the Germans would find out some had escaped and the entire ghetto would pay the consequences. Truly we all knew that they would eventually kill us all, but we didn't know when they would do it. How could you let yourself be responsible for shortening the days of thousands of people in the ghetto? And who knows? People tended to be eternal optimistic, Maybe something would change in the front and bring us a savior in a short time. In Stolbtsy there was a main train station (Brisk-Minsk railway) and it was clear that it would not be difficult for us to sabotage the trains, but once again we thought it would mean the annihilation of the ghetto. So the escape to the forest started only after the first Action, when it became clear that the Germans would carry out their final plan, and thus we had nothing to lose.
In the winter of 1942-1943, the resistance movement in Belarus started organizing according to military samples. There was a high command that was connected to Moscow by air and by other ways. Each partisan headquarters had battalions of 400-500 people based there, divided into three companies. Each battalion was assigned to a different region where they would go on resistance missions against the Germans, and they would also confiscated supplies from hostile villagers. Each battalion was headed by three people: the military commander who was responsible for the combat missions, a political commissar who was responsible for policy and propaganda, and the secret service commander who was responsible for sending out scouts and spies and maintaining internal security.
A few battalions made up a brigade, and each brigade had a troika at the head. Together a few brigades formed a division covering a larger area. On top of everyone there was the supreme headquarters of the entire Belarussian territory, and General CHERNISHAV Platon who was the secretary of the party in the region of Baranovich before the war was the supreme commander. Also there were some partisans who were outside the military command in the forests of Belarus, wild units of partisans. As you know, by the winter of 1942-1943, all the ghettoes in Belarus were liquidated except for Minsk and Baranovich, which were liquidated in October of 1943 (also Globoki).
When the Jews realized that the ghettoes were being liquidated, they started running to the forest to reach the partisans, but they were greatly disappointed. They thought that once they reached the forest they would be saved, but many times they encountered the wild bands of partisans who robbed them and sometimes even murdered them. There was a rumor that the Jews brought treasures with them, so these partisans treated them that way. Even when Jews encountered organized Soviet partisan units, they were not happily received most of the time. Since many Jews came with women, children, and old people who were not fighters, they were usually rejected. Those people became obstacles to the resistance. The reason they became obstacles was that the Germans who knew Jews were hiding in the forest would come there to look for them, so this caused more visits from the Germans which were unanticipated by the resistance. The complaints went all the way to the supreme headquarters of Platon. He became aware of the dilemma that was caused. Stalin's order was that every Soviet citizen whose life was in danger must be saved, so he tried as much as he could to use the Jews who came to the forest as fighters with the partisans. At one point, Shalom Zorin came to him and suggested that a family camp of Jews who could not be fighter should be established. Platon realized that this could be the solution, and helped Zorin as much as he could.
Who was Zorin? He was a Minsk native who escaped to the forest and took part in the resistance. He was the commander of a partisan company. He was a simple man, a carpenter by trade, and he didn't have a formal education but he had strong leadership qualities that found expression and received accolades in the forest. In his camp there were trained majors of the Red Army who were under his command and agreeably took orders from him. He was the superior authority in the family camp, and in the eyes of Platon, he was the superior authority in anything that had to do with saving Jews. He could have made a huge career for himself in the partisan movement, but he preferred to save Jews over his personal career. He was a Jew that was blessed with a warm heart, and all his energy was devoted to saving Jews.
When we arrived in the forest, I came to Zorin's camp. Zorin was the main commander. There was a political commissar by the name Bigelman, a Jew from Minsk and a Party member. The third person was a Jewish intellectual from Minsk, he was the spy unit leader. I was the fourth commander, and we became the four people in charge of the battalion.
This battalion started as a small group of 30 to 40 people with personal weapons. It was a unit that was used for special jobs under the direct command of Platon. In this battalion there was a company of 80 people that had both military jobs and was responsible for supplying food for the rest of the camp.
How were they able to arrange for food? Certain regions were designated as having hostile villagers whom resisted the partisan movement, so we were allowed to confiscate food from them. Clearly they did not give to us willingly, so the unit had to fight them and the Belarussian police for the food.
There were also some units of saboteurs who would put explosives on the train tracks and in the train stations. Taking part in such sabotage operations would also entail killing hundreds of Germans and confiscating their ammunition. After the Germans would be killed or they had run away from the train, we would organize a transfer of all the supplies and ammunition that they had left behind. Sometimes you could find on those trains some first-class liquor and champagne, and they would be taken by the resistance.
What was the job of the rest of the people in the camp? Originally they feared they would get demoralized from sitting around with nothing to do in the forest, and other partisans could seem them as parasites, so Zorin found ways to make them productive. He established a large central hospital. The Jewish chief doctor of the hospital (Mrs. Stein) had a team of nurses and doctors under her. The hospital contained dozens of beds. There was an orthopedic department, a gynecology department, and internal medicine department. This hospital unit served the entire partisan force in the area.
Small workshops were established in the camp that also served the partisans in the area. They were for shoemaking (making new shoes and fixing old ones), a bakery, and a small meat processing shop. Each partisan battalion had a herd of cows and pigs, and they would bring their cows and pigs to our camp. We had specialists who knew how to process the meat. In the entire region, everyone ate meat that had been processed in the camp of Zorin. Also there was a warehouse for building bombs. It was a very primitive process, but those bombs functioned well. Also there was a workshop for repairing weapons. It was amazing how inventive the people were under such conditions in the forest. Without machines, and only with their hands, they were able to accomplish all this.
In the camp there were about 70 children of different ages, so a school was established with a few grades, and the teachers were Jews from Minsk. The curriculum was the typical curriculum of a Soviet Russian school and they also studied Yiddish there.
Also, they established an adult school there, and each person of age had a job. This made everyone feel that they were contributing to the war effort.
In the Zorin camp they started celebrating Jewish holidays. In the forest conditions, among people who had grown up in atmospheres without any Jewish traditions, the celebrations were not as diligent as they would have been otherwise. The only thing we would do was we would gather, make a statement that it was a holiday and we would eat some better food that day. We would inform them of the situation and sing songs. I must say that the food in the camp was of pretty high quality.
How did I, who had no military experience, become a commander in the battalion? When I met Zorin, after a short conversation he concluded I was intelligent so he appointed me as the commander, and I stayed at that job until the liberation.
Translated by Eilat Gordin Levitan and Ona Kondrotas
The daughter of Israel and Fruma Davidson, Rachel Shmailovitz was born in Minsk in 1933.Our home in Minsk was traditional. My grandfather, the father of my mother, was a Jewish slaughterer and performed religious circumcision. At home we spoke Yiddish. During all the Jewish holidays our relatives came to our home. At Hanukah, we lit candles and our uncles gave us the traditional coins. During Passover, all the family members sat around the table and we carried out the traditional Seder ceremony. We also attended the synagogue. There were many Jews in Minsk besides us who maintained Jewish tradition. We loved attending the Yiddish Theater in Voldoaski Street. My brother even studied the Hebrew language secretly with a special tutor. The food we ate was Kosher, per wish of my grandfather.
She immigrated to Israel in 1959, and now lives in Ahsdod.
In the summer of 1941, at the time of German invasion of the Soviet Union, I had finished first grade at a public Soviet school. Near my home there was also a Belarussian school, but we were not pressured to attend one or the other school. Each person chose according to his or her wishes.
As soon as the war started and the German shelling of Minsk began, we attempted to escape on the carriage that my father had arranged for us. The roads were filled with refugees. Some were walking, others where riding, and yet other modes of transportation were used. We soon realized that all the roads were closed for us. The Germans were faster than us, and so we had to return to Minsk. As soon as the Germans arrived in town they took Father; he went together with all the other captured men of Minsk. In the camp they were taken to, Jews and Christians were separated, and all those Jews who admitted to having an academic degree were apparently killed.
Father was able to escape with the help of my mother, who came to visit him, bringing him women's clothing to disguise him. Together they escaped from the camp. This was a very dangerous thing to do, since at that point no Jewish man was allowed to live at home, and the Germans had announced that anyone found at home would immediately be shot, along with his entire household. At that point, we lived in a private residence with a big yard where we grew vegetables. We had a patch of potatoes, carrots, and a chicken coop. We had prepared an extra supply of food some days before the war because we had heard rumors of an impeding war.
As soon as the Germans announced that all Jews had to live in the ghetto, we exchanged homes with a Christian man who had lived in what was now designated as the ghetto. We were able to bring all of our belongings with us. Other people moved to the house we lived in also. The adults would go daily to work in a colony. We had a shortage of food supply, and everything that we had prepared ahead was soon eaten, so we started exchanging clothes and other possessions for food. To carry out such trade, we had to secretly go to the 'Aryan side'. To do this was extremely dangerous.
Most of our gentile neighbors treated us very nicely, but they were fearful of being discovered as being such by the Germans and during the pogroms were too frightened to assist us. We, the children Ð I was seven, my sister was four, and my brother two Ð were also very fearful. At night all the homes were dark, and there was no electricity, only oil lamps. I remember that there were young people's meetings nearby, during which they would talk of escape from the ghetto. The young people would collect weapons and falsify IDs. Mother was able to get such a fake ID for my father stating that he was of Tartar origin.
During the first raid in November, we escaped. Harnessing a horse that we had hidden at the neighbors, in our carriage, we were able to arrive all the way at the shtetl Rakov. On the way, we encountered a few checkpoints, where the Germans asked us to show IDs. They looked at my father's document where it stated he was a Tartar, but found no fault with it and let us pass. When we arrived in Rakov, we pretended to be Christian. Father said that he was a widower and mother was his neighbor, and some of the children were his while the others the neighbor's. We found residence with family who knew that we were Jewish. Both of my parents worked for them during the nighttime, and remained hidden during the day. Some time later, the daughter of the family married a Volksdeutcher and we had to escape.
During the night we returned to Minsk in a carriage and entered the ghetto through a fence, leaving the carriage behind. Upon returning, we found that murders were already a daily occurrence at the ghetto. We were able to escape these killings because Father was very good at making hideouts. He arranged a very clever hideout for us inside a toilet in the yard. He constructed a tunnel under the hole of the lavatory, and from there we could reach an attic that was used previously to keep vegetables in. One time, Father with his brother and his brother-in-law was planning to leave the ghetto as someone reported them to the police. Father was able to escape and reach a hideout, but his brother-in-law and a few other Jews were caught and murdered. The Germans brought trained dogs to smell out father and the rest of us; they came by the hideout, but since the toilet smelled so foul, they were unable to pick up the human scent.
Following that day, Father left the ghetto, hiding with a Christian woman of Tartar descent. During his escape, Father's head was wounded and for a long time needed bed-rest. The woman of Tartar origin fed and took care of him. Some of the food that she brought him he would share with us. In the mornings, I always joined a colony that left the ghetto for work, and returned in the evening. By miracle, I was never caught leaving the colony: as soon as I reached the other side of the ghetto fence I would run to the home of the Tartar woman, who would give me two sacks with food, and I would carry these to the place where mother worked, near the train station. She would later bring the food to the ghetto. Until this day, I cannot comprehend how, as a little child, I was able to carry 32 kilograms on my back every day.
After each raid, the Nazis decreased the parameter of the ghetto, as, proportionally, the ghetto population also decreased by thousands each time. We now lived in a home that belonged to our grandmother, who had been killed during one of the raids. Mother still worked for Germans, laying train-tracks. She received food in her work place, but she gave some of it to us. The children also collected potato peels that were thrown away by the Germans and made food from them. In addition to this, we also received food from Grandfather. After Grandmother was killed, Grandfather was one of the first people to escape the ghetto. He pretended to be a Christian, and found work with a Christian man. The man didn't recognize that Grandfather was Jewish, despite the fact that Grandfather had a typically Jewish beard.
During the visit of Eichmann to Minsk in the March of 1942, a kind German man hid my mother in his home and did not let her return to the ghetto. During the infamous visit of Eichmann, Mother was at work, and at that time, the ghetto was already very small and all the adults worked during the days. The raid started at eight in the morning. Everyone who was in the ghetto fled to their hideouts, but the adults did not let little children enter, since they were fearful the children would cry and the hideouts would be discovered by the Nazis. My little sister said to the adults who refused to let her enter, If you do not let me enter, I will tell the Germans where your hideout is. So they let her in. I was too fearful to go to one of the hideouts with my brother because he was very young and I feared that he would cry and they would suffocate him, so we hid together in an open pit in the yard, where we were discovered by the German police.
They gathered all the people they found, and told us to walk in lines down a slope. While the people walked, armed policemen stood on both sides and shot at us, killing people as they walked. I saw I was standing next to a very tall Ukrainian policeman. I whispered to him, We have a lot of gold at home. Take me to our hiding place and I will give it to you. So he took us from the slaughter. I had a gold crucifix that my parents bought me, thinking that I would appear Christian if I had to escape, so when we arrived to the hideout I gave him the cross and said the gold was hidden elsewhere. I started begging for my and my brother's soul, and cried bitterly. He said, you are very young but very clever, and put us in the hideout and closed the opening with a mattress. We stayed there for three days, drinking the urine of the policemen who relieved themselves in the latrine. I would wet my hand with the urine and put it on the lips of my little brother. We ate the little food I had in my pocket. On the third day I couldn't take it any more and had to leave. I gave up, thinking I could no longer escape death. When I came out of the hideout I found my aunt, who stood and cried bitterly over her daughter, who had been killed in the raid. All the Jews started coming out of their hideouts, and they all stood and cried. Mother was not to be found, and neither was my sister. I entered an empty house and sat there the entire night. In the morning, I took my brother to the place where all the Jews who had survived were gathered. This was in the Jubilee Circle; there I found my sister and grandmother and finally, my mother, too, returned.
The pogroms continued and the ghetto became increasingly smaller. Almost daily, the Germans guarded the Jews and then killed them in the cemetery area. A rumor spread that all the elderly and children would be executed and the remains used to make soap. As soon as this rumor reached us, Father came to the ghetto and took us in order to hide us at the house of the Tartar woman. In this house lived the woman's cousin, who worked for the infamous General Kube. She was a very beautiful woman, and the Germans would often visit her. Her name was Helene Maznik. Consequently, the Germans came to visit a woman at a house where Jews were hiding but had no inkling of it. Soon, we realized that this was a very unsafe arrangement, so the Tartar woman dressed us in farmers' clothing and we escaped to the forest, pretending to be two families: father, my sister and brother were one family, and my mother and I another. We told people our homes were destroyed and we were looking for elsewhere to stay. We walked by foot all the way to the town Rovizevic, about 40 kilometers away. On the way we asked for alms. Nobody suspected that we were Jewish.
In Rovizevic we lived in a barn and Father found work with one of the women there. One day, Father was caught by some Anti-Semites who recognized him as a Jew and wanted to kill him, but he was able to escape. Mother took the children and we fled to the forest, far away from Rovizevic. For four months we lived in the forest. It was an incredibly difficult life. We were practically starving until we learned that a camp for Jewish escapees and their families that had been established by Shalom Zorin and the Resistance movement. We walked there, and when we arrived at the camp, it was as if we had arrived at the Garden of Eden. Together we dug a zimlanka (an underground trench). With the Rovencik family, Father joined the Partisans and took part in their missions. Returning from the missions, they would bring fruit and other foods for us that they had confiscated from the farmers. A school was established in the camp for the children, and we ate together in a canteen. It was here that we celebrated the First of May and other festivities. Shalom Zorin was a wonderful man and took care of all of us.
After the liberation, in June of 1944, we returned to Minsk, where we found a family living in our old home. The daughter in this family had married a German soldier and subsequently escaped to the West with him. As soon as the family saw us, they became very frightened and left the house. We found that much of the possessions that we had left at home were taken, and when we were able to trace them we had to go to court in order to have them returned to us. Father received a job in a shoe factory, and we - the children - continued our studies. At first, there were very few Jews in the schools, and Anti-Semitism was rampant amongst both students and teachers. Nevertheless, I finished tenth grade at the school. We continued to visit the synagogue with Grandfather until he died.
In 1952, I entered medical school and during Yom Kippur that year, I fasted and prayed at the big synagogue in Minsk. In 1956 I was married and Grandfather celebrated my Jewish marriage with us. The marriage was arranged secretly, with only a small amount of guests. I was in my fifth year of medical studies and we were fearful that I would be expelled from the university if found taking part in a Jewish religious ceremony. In spite of all the danger, Grandfather was successful in marrying us according to all the religious customs of our people.
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