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[Col. 575]

The Last Mile

Yehuda Ambrus

Translated by Khane-Faygl (Anita)Turtletaub

 

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The Sabbath of Repentence, 1941. At the crack of dawn, all the towns of the Sventzian area were surrounded by Lithuanians, volunteer bandits. They forced all the Jews out of their homes, arranged them in rows and then drove them like cattle, on foot, in the direction of New Sventzian.

That day happened to be very hot. Long rows of thousands of Jews filled all the streets and roads. The local Lithuanians stood on both sides of the road and laughed at the Jewish martyrs being driven to their deaths.

Three kilometers from New Sventzian they found the former camps of the Polish Army, which were at that time called “Poligon.” Eight thousand Jews from the Sventzian area were brought there. There on a hill stood wooden barracks. All around stretched the large Baranover Woods. At the foot of the hills, through the meadows the Zhemyane River flowed quietly.

All of the Jews who had been brought there were driven into those barracks. The crowding of those barracks was horrendous. There wasn't even enough room to stand. It was very hot. Everyone was desperate for a bit of water. Food wasn't even mentioned.

All these Jews were in despair: all of them felt that this was their end, their death.

Yom Kippur. Rabbi Kamoykhi from New Sventzian said kol nidre. Eight thousand Jews, men and women prayed together with him. Soon the whole area echoed with a mighty cry that carried far, far across the woods, fields and villages and I thought that it had to reach heaven.

[Col. 577]

These thousands of people also prayed the next day.

Mi bamayim umi baeysh, mi bakhanika umibaskila[1] Never before in history has that prayer had such immediate application as on that day.

Each person thought to himself: “Who knows what strange death they have thought up for us.”

Utshuva, utfila utsedaka, maviron et rau hagezeyra.[2] During that horrific week, this was of no avail, and the bestial decree was not annulled.

The hangmen were not at all moved by the wailing of the Jews. Their bestial eyes thirsted for Jewish blood, and a few days later they succeeded [sic].

On the eve of Sukos two high-ranking police officers came to Poligon. They immediately issued an order demanding that all Jews gather in the large area around the barracks.

One German gave a speech. He promised to free all the Jews if they would give him a large contribution.

The Jews didn't understand that they were being duped and immediately selected a committee, which began to gather the money. Jews took off their watches and the rings. In the course of a few hours they had gathered together two large buckets of jewelry and other precious items.

The German officers and the Lithuanian policemen had gathered together a lot of gold and packed their suitcases full of the valuables and immediately left. The Jews were locked up in the barracks. Only then did they understand how bitterly they had been deceived.

A few days later the Lithuanian police mobilized hundreds of peasants from all of the surrounding villages

[Col. 578]

and told them to bring spades to Poligon in order to dig ditches. By Monday, the second day of Sukos, the graves were done.

Then the Jews were driven out of the barracks and led, in small groups, to the ditches.

When everyone stood by the ditches the machine guns began to shoot, and they continued for two days in a row. Even those who had only been wounded were thrown in to the ditches; the children were tossed into the graves alive. Many children were stabbed with knives.

These human beasts hardly cared whether or not all the Jews were actually dead when they gave the order to cover the ditches with earth.

For hours afterwards the screams of those who had been buried alive eched throughout the whole area. The victims wanted to get out of their grave. For several days afterwards the ground could still be seen heaving.

The fresh hill was still only by the weekend, and the 8,000 martyrs remained quiet for eternity.

This story of Jewish deaths must not remain untold. It must be told to our children in all schools. Especially emphasized must be the fact that in addition to the Germans, the Lithuanians also took part in this act of destruction.

Without the help of the Lithuanians, it would have been a lot harder for the Germans to carry out this cruel decree on the Jewish population.

The martyrs of Poligon demand that the Jewish people take revenge.

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[Col. 579]

The Death of a Ghetto Jew

Moyshe Shutan

Translated by Khane-Faygl (Anita)Turtletaub

Cool days arrived. Autumn began to waft into the ghetto.

A group surrounded the ghetto with barbed wire, which they had been told to remove from the synagogue. Now they worked near the only gate through which people could go in and out under the watchful eyes of a Lithuanian policeman.

Hirshl returned from the other side of the ghetto.

“What's going on in the ghetto?” he asked the worker.

“It's not good. We are separating ourselves from the world.”

“And why are people gathering there near the synagogue?”

“Shukhman ordered all the elders of the families to go out. A new decree. They're talking about a contribution of money. It's a triviality.”

“You're joking,” Hirshl called and went into the house. His head was spinning. He sat down on the bed.

“What is it? Don't you feel well?” his wife, Rivl, called out. “See how pale you are? Did something happen?”

“It's nothing,” he mumbled barely moving his lips. How can this be told? He thought. When he went back into the ghetto, he saw two trucks packed with Shaulists (?) They were happily and drunkenly singing. Behind them was a third truck laden with barrels, from which came white powder smelling of bleach. At that moment, it knocked him off his feet. They were driving in the direction of New Sventzian where the camp Poligon was located. Horrific thoughts came to mind.

Rivl brought him a drink of water.

[Col. 580]

“Drink and get into bed. You'll feel better.”

“No, I won't lie down.” I'll go see what the commandant has to say.

“They'll manage without you. Look, you're as pale as chalk.'

Hirshl, however, did not hear. He couldn't sit in the house at such a time and went out.

At exactly one o'clock, just as he had told Meyer, the Lithuanian commandant actually came to the ghetto accompanied by his policemen. With a smile on his face he responded to everyone's greetings. Then he requested that everyone arrange themselves in rows of three.

“I have an announcement for you from the German authorities,” he called out as he played with a rolled-up piece of paper in his hand. “But before I tell you the announcement, I will call out your names and each one of you should form a row in the same order,” [he said] as he pointed to his left.

One after the other those called went out and stood at the indicated place. There were also, however, names of Jews who were not there.

Meyer, the head of the Jews, who stood separately to one side, told the commandant that they were all at work outside the ghetto.

“Leyzer Gordon,” the commandant called out.

Leyzer was not there and Meyer wanted to say something, but suddenly Pinke ran out and placed himself among those who had been called out.

Now everyone felt that something awful was imminent.

The commandant continued to read the list.

[Col. 581]

Hirshl waited for him to call out the name of someone not present and then he would also go over, but the reading ended.

“Who are you?” the commandant asked the remaining 15 men, who had not been on the list.

At first all of them were stunned and did not know how to respond. Finally one of them said: “From here, from Sventzian.”

“You will have to go to the commandant,” and he turned to the two policemen and gave them the appropriate order. He took Shukhman with him.

* * *

Stomp was impatiently pacing in the prison office. He saw the approaching Jews through the window.

“Well, what do you say to my plan?” he turned to the commandant coming in. “That is all.”

His face was beaming with happiness. He hadn't counted on so much.

“Come,” Stomp tugged at the commandant's sleeve. He also told Meyer, who was standing in the yard, to come along.

Quickly running through the courtyard, he ran into the jail, where the Jews were.

He immediately ordered all the Jews to form pairs near the half-moldy wall of the dark jail corridor, where a little light barely shone through three small, grated windows.

The commandant and the policemen stood to one side. They understood that he, Stomp, not they, were in charge here.

“I have ordered the ghetto to collect a quarter of a million rubles,” Stomp [said] turning to the Jews. “And I have also taken you, as collateral. You must understand that your fate is dependant only on your fellow Jews. You and your families are in the ghetto illegally, right? This sum is quite a small price, thanks to which you will be able to remain in the ghetto in peace. During the time you are here, I will permit your head-Jew to convey your regards to your families. I am now giving you a half hour to speak freely to him.”

All of them threw themselves at Meyer as if he were their savior.

[Col. 582]

“Back. Back” Stomp called out. “Stand individually in the same order as before.”

“Brothers, I know that a great responsibility has been laid upon the ghetto,” Meyer called out bitterly. “We will do everything we can to free you.”

Everyone envied Meyer. He was free. Nevertheless, they appreciated the fact that there was someone who could convey their regards [to their families].

Everyone individually sent messages calming their families.

Stomp crossed his arms over his chest and looked on with interest. He noticed that three men stood there with their heads bowed and did not send a message.

“Don't you have anything to convey to your families?” he asked walking over to one of the three.

Hirshl stood, looked the German right in the eyes. He did not move a muscle or a nerve.

“Don't you have any family here?” Stomp again asked with false tenderness.

“No.”

“The announcement was, after all, for all the eldest of families to step forward.”

“I came out of curiosity. I just wanted to know what would be said.”

“So that's it,” Stomp was transformed in the blink of an eye. “You lied to a German S. S. man, damned Jew? Where is your family?”

“I don't have any family,” Hirsh responded with the same cold-bloodedness as before.

Stomp lifted his hand and with a quick movement let it fall on Hirshl's cheek.

“Silence, Jew!”

Hirshl tottered from his place, but he did not fall. He continued to stand and looked the German right in the face.

Stomp was beside himself. His eyes began to roll wildly around in directions, and in the end they stopped on Hirshl's hand, on his finger where he wore his wedding ring.

“You dog-like Jew! You want to fool me!” He grabbed Hirshl's hand and shook that finger before his eyes.”

Hirshl could stand no more. With his other hand, the free one, he pushed the group leader so strongly

[Col. 583]

that Stomp fell across the whole width of the corridor. His hat fell off his head onto the floor. His back hit the wall hard and he barely managed to hold onto it with both hands so as not to fall down.

He stood there for a second not knowing what hit him, but he soon recovered, leaned on the wall, quickly took out his revolver and shot.

Hirshl tottered. He grabbed his belly with both hands and bent over he took several steps toward Stomp.

Stomp immediately straightened up, took a few steps to the side and shot twice again.

[Col. 584]

Hirshl turned around, opened wide his blue eyes wanting to see just a bit more light of the world through the small barred windows. But he immediately fell on his back near Stomp.

Stomp pushed him several times with his feet and walked away.

“The head of the Jews, come with me,” Stomp barely managed to howl.

Shukhman followed him with shaking feet.

“You will also have the same end if they find out in the ghetto what happened here. Gather together the money. Understand?

“And now, damned Jews, march out of here.”

Meyer left.


[Col. 583]

Margumishak – the First Mass Grave of Sventzian

Dr. Moshe Kuritski

Translated by Khane-Faygl (Anita)Turtletaub

The Germans left our neighborhood in 1918, capitulating on all fronts, and Sventzian was occupied by the Red Army. This, however, wasn't the end. The power began to go from hand to hand: Bolsheviks, Poles, Lithuanians and Bolsheviks again.

In Sventzian, the Bolsheviks organized a “Revcom” (Revolutionary Committee) with the sailor Reznikov at its head. The majority of the Jews were confirmed members. Among others were: the Brumberg brothers, the female teacher Fisher Mendl Kuritski and Fayvl Gertman.

As everywhere, chaos and nervous fear ruled Sventzian. The slightest thing was enough for someone to threaten someone else with a revolver. The members of Revcom used to receive their wages in kerenkes, the money that was printed for the [short] duration of Kerenski rule. The population didn't trust the worthless money and only wanted the former Russian rubles of Nikolai II with the picture of Yekaterina on it and large numbers. One could still buy something from the peasants for the katerinas. Clearly speculation at that time grew, and along with it

[Col. 584]

the poverty of the already impoverished population of Sventzian.

One Friday morning a peasant brought over a wagon of fish. The Jews, male and female, charged the wagon in order to buy fish for the Sabbath. All of a sudden, people began to run [from the direction of] Vilna St. The marketplace was filled with screaming!

“Jews. Escape! Hide!” Bolshevist patrols arrived from Vilna St. These were the patrols from the infamous Latvian shooters, Lenin's former personal security guards.[3] Along with them came a group of policemen from the Cheka, led by the well-known Bolshevik Yankovsky.

The wild murderous faces of the Latvians did not bode well. The Jews scattered and hid wherever they could. I remember that Boris Brumberg came running to us and hid in the attic, because my father Mendel Kurtsky worked in Revcom.

It turned out that they had a list of “bourgeois” who were to be arrested. Since in the eyes of the [general] population the Jewish shopkeeper, merchant and speculator were considered to be rich, they did indeed

[Col. 585]

then gather all the Jews together: Velvl Brumberg, with his two sons and daughter Dora, Mendl Taytlboym, Elye Shpiz, Khono Vilkamirsky. Of the Christians—Oysmont and Volinsky. Those caught were brought to the small-train station and locked into a train car.

When the train began to move, a feeling of “justice” awoke in the Lithuanian officer and he threw Brumberg's daughter out of the car. That is how she remained alive. The train was stopped in the village of Morgumishok, about three kilometers from Sventzian. They took the vulnerable arrestees out of the train car, drove them into a small woods, where the drunken Latvians murdered them.

Sunday morning, a peasant came and told about the murders of the

[Col. 586]

Sventzian residents. It is worthwhile to note that Brumberg's oldest son was an active revolutionary, who belonged to the “Bund” and collaborated with the Soviet authorities in Sventzian.

The unnecessary, bestial murders made a deep impression on the whole population of the areas surrounding Sventzian.

When our region was occupied a second time by the Poles, Yankovsky, the leader of this bloody deed was caught, and he was shot in New Sventzian.

This is how the bestial mass murder of Svantsyan Jews was committed in Morgumishok in the year 1919.


[Col. 585]

Illustrious

Figures in the Ghetto

Khane Shlanski (Rabotnik)

Translated by Khane-Faygl (Anita)Turtletaub

 

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1) Reb Moyshe Binyomin Aster

To this day, Reb Moyshe Binyomin Aster, the old, gray [haired] Jew with the nicely-combed, white beard, teacher of the first-grade boys, stands before my eyes.

A pair of clever eyes looked out from under his grown-together brows.

He was the oldest Jew in the Sventzian Ghetto, an elderly man over 80 years old.

For decades he had a kheyder, where young boys from Sventzian sat at long tables, and he persistently knocked the Hebrew alphabet into their heads.

[Col. 586]

Students lefts; students came. There was always learning going on at Reb Moyshe Binyomin's kheyder. That is how the year's flew by until Hitler's beasts occupied Sventzian.

In the ghetto this elderly Jew felt totally lost. He was appreciated and people were always coming to him for advice about something, and he always had good advice to give them, a good compliment, a bit of comfort, a word of consolation.

He even married Jewish children in the ghetto and used to say: “May Jewish children save themselves. May they be happy.”

It was difficult for him when his wife died in the ghetto. At that time no one was permitted to accompany the bodies


Translator's footnotes

  1. From the Yom Kippur service where it discusses the various forms of death that are decided for people on that day Un'saneh tokef: “Who by water and who by fire [. . .] who by strangulation and who by stoning.” Return
  2. Repentance and prayer and charity will avert the evil decree. Return
  3. Cheka was the first of a succession of Soviet state security organizations. It was created by a decree issued on December 20, 1917, by Vladimir Lenin. [Wikipedia] Return


[Col. 587]

The Struggle For Life

Dovid Lishanski (Reshafim)

Translated by Anita Frishman Gabbay

 

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When Hitler's band marched into Sventzian I was barely twelve years old. My father was a tailor and he was called Ben–Zion Lishanski. My mother was called Baila. She was the daughter of Reb Velvel and Gitel Tzernatzki. My grandfather on my mother's side was the son of a long line of the Tzernatzki family, of Reb Chaim Tzernatzki,

[Col. 588]

that lived in Dzhikevines, a small hamlet three kilometers from Haydutishok.

My grandfather, Reb Chaim, was a Jewish land worker (peasant farmer), and was known throughout the region as a great man of charity, a Jew, a Tzadik and a hard– working man.

Since my early childhood I was raised

[Col. 589]

in an atmosphere of hard work. My father was always sick and an air of poverty always whistled in our house. My mother needed to work, otherwise we couldn't survive. We lived on Vilner Street, in Schtalperin's house. In 1934 we moved to a smaller house, on the Shul–Hof, where my father, z”l, died of tuberculosis. My mother became a widow with five small children. My older brother, Shloimke, went to work on a kibbutz and my brother, younger than him, Chaimke, began to work as an errand boy for the Folks–Bank. I and my younger brother Velvele, studied in the Jewish Folk Shul.

As my mother didn't have any means (inheritance) to pay rent, we moved to another house. This last place was on the horse–market where we were neighbours of Yankel Kramnick and Zelman Legumski. Here we lived when the Second World War broke out.

In 1941, when the Germans overtook Sventzian, I was a twelve year old boy. I lived to see the first mass murder of my life. Over one hundred Jews were taken from the village and shot. This was very difficult for me.

Barely recovering from the first shock, another one came. One time while standing in a row waiting for bread, I saw the Germans capture four Russian “deserters” and they hung them in the middle of the street right in front of our eyes. For a twelve–year–old, this was another unbelievable horror. I couldn't forget this for many years.

A few weeks later, a decree was issued that all the Jews were to be led to Poligon. I heard the leader of the Judenrat, Moishe Gurwitz, saying:

“Jews, it's burning! The great fire is getting closer, whoever can save themselves, save themselves!”

My mother left to the neighbour, Yankel Kramnik, and discovered their plan to flee to Michaelishok. She told us our situation and we agreed to join them in their wanderings. Besides us and Yankel Kramnik's family departing, Dovid and Gershon of the butcher's family joined us, also Zeidel the braggard and his entire family.

[Col. 590]

We left the shtetl, twelve of us, at night by foot, and two gentile women were our guides. We managed to avoid the Lithuanian patrols and arrived at a village, where we hired wagons to take us to Michaelishok, it would be quicker. We said good bye to our guides and left.

We found out that these gentile guides revealed our secret and in a few hours we were being chased.

The days had began! The sun peaked through the broken branches of the trees. We heard shooting coming from our direction, and within seconds, we jumped from our wagons and fled into the forests, chased by Lithuanian police. I was beside Yankel Kramnik and we hid amongst the thick trees. From our hideout we heard our dearest screaming, “Hear Oh Israel (Shemei Israel), save yourselves!” We suddenly heard some haggling with the Lithuanian police, they wanted our gold to allow us to continue on our journey. The bandits took everything of value and allowed us to continue.

We left our hideout and continued on our way, tired, but finally we arrived in good health in Michaelishok.

They led us to a house that belonged to the community, where we spent the night.

The next morning we learned that there was no place nor anything to eat here in Michaelishok. Our mother decided to go to Svir, where her aunt Surel Drutz lived.

The road was terrible, we heard German automobiles or Lithuanian police. We left for the forests to wait until they passed. Although the road was a short one, it took an entire day.

[Col. 591]

Finally we arrived exhausted in Svir, hungry but alive. This was no small feat in those days.

When it was pitch black we made our way into the shtetl through the side streets. Our aunt, Surel Drutz, still lived in her own house. Her daughter Baila with her husband Abraham Weiskunski from Sventzian were there with their thirteen–year–old son.

They welcomed us with great joy and so no one would see us, they led us to the attic where we went to sleep on the straw.

The next morning Shloimkeh and Chaimke decided to continue to Gluboke, and in Svir remained my mother Sheine, my sister Zelda, our small brother Velvelke and I.

Three times a day our aunt came up to bring us food. She told us that she is doing her best to integrate us into the Svir community.

In a few weeks time she managed to include us in the community and we came down from the attic and became citizens like the rest of the people of Svir.

In the meantime terrible news came to us regarding the fate of our Sventzian Jews, most of whom were slaughtered in Poligon. In the Sventzian ghetto there remained only several hundred families.

In addition, we also found out that our entire family from Haydutishok were also murdered in Poligon. One of the survived saw Bethilah Kutnik. She told him the fate of the Jews of Haydutishok and said very few survived.

A month later we received a note from Shloimkeh and Chaimke that they left Gluboke and returned to Sventzian. They were in the ghetto of Sventzian.

Day by day life for the Jews of Svir became more difficult. They were gathered in a small ghetto, on the Shul–Hof, and is was very confined. Most went hungry and bare foot. I went to work as a water carrier and wood cutter for a Polish hospital. A Jewish girl from Sventzian worked there as a nurse, Luibe Gurwitz. She was my angel and from her I often received a piece of bread and some soup.

[Col. 592]

This is how we lived until the S.S. men arrived and ordered the liquidation of the Svir ghetto. We decided to run back to Sventzian, through the Olshever woods. We said good bye to aunt Surel and her family and in six hours we were back in Sventzian.

Our skin shivered when we passed the streets of Sventzian. We passed some empty fields and finally arrived in the Sventzian ghetto. Our brother Shloimkeh was not to be found. I was exhausted. One foot was completely swollen, I lay down on the hard ground and fell asleep.

A few days later I got work in a Mayantec, seven kilometers from Sventzian. I was there the entire summer of 1942. I returned to the ghetto in the winter.

Our lives were unbearable. An epidemic broke out because of the lack of space. Mother should have been spared, she would have put order in the ghetto for sure! My brother Chaim was also amongst the sick. In order to help him I went to work in the hospital. My sister Zeldke also got sick several days later, then the entire family was sick except for me. I was amongst the last of the sick and was in less danger.

When we were released from the hospital we learned the ghetto was to be liquidated and deported either to Vilna or Kovno. Our family was on the Kovno list.

They brought us in a transport to the New Sventzian station, and chased us into a wagon. It was barred shut from all sides so that we could not escape, late at night we felt the train moving.

First, we arrived in Vilna, but they didn't let us disembark. It started again, and we had a strange feeling this was not the way to Kovno.

Several minutes later, some knew we were going to Ponar. The train stopped there, Lithuanian bandits opened the wagon and ordered us out.

[Col. 593]

At first, we went hand in hand. When we saw that we were going to be separated, we kissed each other, and left like sheep to the slaughter. During our march, an old Jew fell and the S.S. man called out to Yitzhak Gilinski to help him back in line, when he got back in line he pulled my brother Shloimkeh and told him” to run.” Hearing this, many started to run in all directions, no one cared where they were running, they ran in all directions.

The Germans and Lithuanians were taken by surprise, entirely confused and when they finally realized what was happening they started to shoot.

The bullets were flying past my ears. I also noticed the direction my brothers were running. I also noticed my mother running after us. I stopped and screamed, “mother, run faster!”.

Finally I arrived in a closeby forest, where I found only three escapees. These were: Avraham Zipelevitch, Zenke Zaretski, and Chaike the weaver's seven year old youngster.

We heard shooting from all directions. We ran deeper into the forest until we came to an open field. We saw a peasant ploughing the land. We cut through several fields and came upon a village.

We knocked at the first door and begged for food. The Christian threw us out.

It got dark and cold. We were without coats and shoes. Late at night we saw a small hut. We knocked again, this time we came across good gentiles. They invited us in and fed us. We warmed ourselves and regained some of our strength.

They let us overnight in their stable. Understandably, none of us could sleep. We lay in fright and thought about the fate of the other escapees.

In the morning we went to thank the good Christians for welcoming us. They told us to go to a nearby hamlet Farubanik. A lot of Jews were working there and from them perhaps we could find out what happened to our families.

[Col. 594]

We listened to them and went in that direction. On the way we noticed a group of people walking, we didn't notice who they were when suddenly someone called out–“Bere Leibele, come here!”.

This voice I immediately recognized. This was my mother! We came across one another and started crying from joy that we found each other.

In the meantime, all those that escaped decided to go to the Vilna ghetto. They didn't see any other way. When we arrived in the ghetto they quarantined us, then they brought us bread and tea.

Mother was very weak and couldn't stop worrying “where is Zeldke. Where is Chaim and Shloimkeh? Where is Velvele?” She didn't stop pleading and grating on our nerves.

A day later I discovered the gruesome details, our sister and brothers were murdered.

I didn't tell mother this. We found a cousin of ours from Ponevezys in the ghetto, Yehoushe Tzernetzki, who was a teacher in Vilna before the war.

He lived with his wife, mother– in– law and daughter in a small room but welcomed us and shared his last piece of bread with us.

Several days later I was taken to a training workshop and mother remained with our relatives. They taught me carpentry. I went to check on mother every day after work.

The days of certainty didn't last long. One day they encircled the ghetto and told us we were going to be deported to Estonia. I didn't want to go and hid in a attic. I heard a Jewish policeman screaming, “Leave your hideouts, we are going to blow up the houses!”

I left the attic and they brought me to a gate where many Jews were assembled.

Men were put into trucks and children

[Col. 595]

were put on the side. I was considered a grown– up, as I was tall, luckily for me they put me into a truck.

They brought us to the Tavarover station and again they checked us.

Then they chased us, like animals, into a wagon and shut it.

In the wagon I met a friend from Sventzian, Velfke Drutz. I made a plan with him how to escape.

The journey lasted the entire night, at noon of the next day we arrived in Riga. The police made another check and then we were off again. On the second day we arrived in Estonia and we were let out of our locked wagons.

From the station they chased us on foot for seven kilometers until we reached a large, fenced work camp, surrounded by barbed wire and German and Estonian police. They threw us in cells, fifty Jews to a cell. It was so tight, we couldn't stretch our legs. For food we received a piece of bread and soup without salt.

We worked laying railway tracks and making new lines. As we were feeble from our wanderings, the work was very difficult for us.

Meanwhile winter arrived and we had to endure the cold. No one had warm clothing. We all wore torn and patched clothing. I got sick and the doctor told me to remain in my cell.

When the foreman saw me he chased me out and on top of this gave me twenty–five lashes. He told me to dig a trench where we could bury the garbage.

When I finished my work, I couldn't move and didn't have the strength to go for my food. Shloime Bresler, a friend from Sventzian who worked in the kitchen, brought me bread and soup to my cell.

The work camp directors changed in the time I was there.

[Col. 596]

The new director needed an errand boy and they chose Shloimke (Bresler). I took his place in the kitchen.

It got easier from then on. At least I had more to eat and the work wasn't as difficult as laying tracks in the ground.

Meanwhile the front got closer and the work camp had to be liquidated. One day they gathered us together and told us they were bringing us deeper into Germany.

They brought us to an open port, but we didn't see any ships. We stayed in this port–city two weeks, until a boat arrived. They threw us in like animals. We sailed for four days, the fifth we arrived at the concentration camp Stutthoff.

After we disembarked they threw us into a large room and shaved everyone's heads. They dressed us in prisoners' clothing and wooden shoes. We immediately noticed that we were being strictly guarded, more strict than in the other work camps.

One day I suddenly came across my cousin Yehushe Tzernatzki, in whose place we hid in the Vilna ghetto. From him I learned that my mother died during the liquidation of the Vilna ghetto.

I was with him for several days and was overjoyed that I could speak with a close person. I spent three days with him, then I had to leave.

In Stutthoff the conditions grew worse day by day. Everyday hundreds died from hunger and cold. They were taken to the ovens and burnt.

One morning the overseer told me that I will be taken to another work camp. Several days later I was in a work camp near Danzig, where I spent over nine months.

There I worked in a ship factory. I worked mostly at night. I went to work by train and we passed through several streets of the city.

[Col. 597]

Are hearts were saddened when we saw how normal people lived. They sat in coffee shops, they laughed, they danced, and they played, as if there was no war going on.

As I couldn't sleep I became sick and I was sent to a hospital. I thought these was going to be my final days.

However, I recovered and I was sent back to the work camp. One day a new decree was issued, we were going to be deported further into Germany. They immediately began to select the healthiest ones. We had to go by foot and many couldn't make this difficult journey, so they said.

I willed myself and said, I am feeling wonderful, and I was listed as one of the healthy ones. Later we found out, the weak ones were murdered.

In the meantime, Russian airplanes bombarded Stutthoff. The bombs flew over our heads and created destruction in many streets. The German police quickly evacuated us from the work camp and sent us by foot thirty kilometers.

Half way I felt, that I could not continue. My friends helped me, carrying me under my arms to the neighbouring village. You can understand, we knew that you could be shot on the spot if you showed weakness.

To my good fortune we arrived in a work camp where they sent us into a barrack.

Here we found many Russian prisoners, who told us, that men were falling like flies in this lager. There was no food and surveillance was very strict.

We noticed right away piles of people and they didn't intend to bury them.

I watched how the kitchen operated. In the evening, slowly, in the dark, I approached the kitchen to scavenge some garbage. I found several rotten potatoes and pieces of bread. I returned to the barrack and satisfied my hunger.

My work here was to dig trenches. One day the camp supervisor came on his horse and told us to stop working. We thought he was joking.

[Col. 598]

In a way we understood that this was a good sign. The Red Army must be approaching. They took us to a large forest and there we met an evacuated civilian population. These were Germans that ran away from the bombed German cities.

Nighttime, I noticed that there was barely any guards watching us. I quickly took the opportunity and escaped to a village and hid in a hut for a long time.

When I got out, I didn't know where my group was. Walking, I noticed Russian prisoners sitting, so I sat amongst them. They were all gentiles and I was the only Jew amongst them.

I spent the night with them and the following morning the Germans arrived, told them to get up and continue “we have to march further” they said.

I got up and continued with them. I felt my strength giving out and wanted to sit down to rest. At that moment an old German ran to me and said: “young man, keep going, if not, you will be shot”.

I suddenly regained my strength and ran ahead. Luckily we arrived at a blockade and we couldn't go further. A group of military blocked the road. The leader told us to lay down on the field and therefore I was able to get some rest.

In the evening we arrived in a German village and they put us in a dark cellar. It was so tight I wanted to choke.

They chased us again the next morning. I couldn't walk and was at the rear.

In the end the last group left and I was left alone.

It was quiet all over. I felt an unnatural quietness. Suddenly I heard tanks arriving in the village and the people were screaming:

[Col. 599]

“Hurrah, hurrah!” I knew right away that these were my liberators, the Red Army.

When they picked me up in the field I couldn't walk, I was very weak, barely able to speak.

A Russian officer looked at me and ordered they take me to the nearest hospital.

I spent over two months in this hospital. When I recovered, I decided to return to Sventzian, perhaps I can find an acquaintance who survived.

In Lodz I met some of my friends from Sventzian: Motel Feigl, Yitzke Rudnitzki and Berke Yocai. They begged me not to go and to remain in Poland. I listened and remained in Lodz.

In those following days a Halutz Kibbutz was founded. I immediately joined and became one of its first active members.

I had a cousin in Eretz Israel, Motel Tzernatzki, a son of my mother's brother, Yitzhak, who was a teacher in Vilna for many years. I found out

[Col. 600]

he was a member of Kibbutz Amir, in Emek Ha'hula.

I wrote to him and wanted at that moment to be reunited with him.

In 1946 my wish to make Aliyah materialized, although in an illegal manner. The English captured our boat and sent us to Atlit, where I tasted a life in a concentration camp on Israeli soil. In addition to all that I had overcome, this was the last thing I needed now.

In the end they finally freed us from Atlit. My friends and I went first to Ramat Hashupat, then our group left for Yehehem and finally we decided to found our own kibbutz, in Emek Beit Sha'an, which we called Reshafim.

This is my home where I live with my wife and children.

After so much suffering I finally arrived, like they say in Hebrew, to the land of our final resting place and the land of our ancestors.


[Col. 599]

My Wanderings Through Hell

Yehudit Michelson

Translated by Anita Frishman Gabbay

 

Sve0599.jpg

 

Our lives were filled with tears and darkness! When the Germans occupied Sventzian, each day we were faced with new decrees: more arrests each day, and every day we received news of our murdered Jews!

[Col. 600]

This is how we lived, in constant fear until the High Holidays arrived.

Friday evening, Shabbos Tshuva 1941, we learned that the Germans were planning to evacuate all the Jews of Sventzian. My husband and I, and our 3 children, decided

[Col. 601]

not to wait, but to leave the shtetl immediately. We gathered our few belongings that we were able to carry and set out wandering over fields, through backroads in the direction of Kamelishak.

It seemed that the situation would be better in Kamelishak, because the shtetl was in White Russia. Also, I had family there.

When we arrived, we discovered that our hope was a false one.

Life was not better here than in Sventzian.

The Kamelishak Jews were living in a ghetto. We had to join them in the ghetto, where we lived until October.

Life in Kamelishak grew worse day by day and we were informed that the Germans were planning to murder all the Jews here. We didn't wait, we left immediately.

We snuck out almost naked, without shoes and we couldn't bring anything with us. The nights got colder. The region was unfamiliar. We didn't know where we were wandering, we didn't have anything with us!

We wandered for about 15 kilometers and grew exhausted! We climbed a shed and decided to rest for a short while.

Suddenly, like something sprung out of the earth, an old peasant appeared with an axe on his shoulder. He approached us and asked who we were and where we were going? When he discovered that I was a family member of the Kuritzki family, he invited us to his home until the war ended.

One small deed! Such luck! Such Joy!

We didn't believe our “ears”! It took us awhile to grasp the “gift” of our situation!

We found out this peasant was called Zeike, and he worked for my uncle, Gershon Kuritzki as a chauffeur for 40 years. He brought us to his house right away and hid us in his attic.

[Col. 602]

Three calm days passed! He came to us with tearful news, the town learned that he was hiding Jews. We had to leave.

His heart was heavy, and requested we leave our 14 year old daughter, Bailka with him. Our son, Shaoulka, he brought to another peasant. He found another place for us, together with our other son Moishe, a Christian about 5 kilometers away. The town where we were hidden was called Baran, one Jewish family lived here: Avraham the Baraner with his wife Eides and daughter.

Dr. Reizevski and his entire family were at his home. They escaped from Podbrodz with some other Jews, altogether they were 12 persons.

Someone reported them to the authorities and a few days later the Germans arrived at Avraham's house and shot all the Jews. No one remained! This had a great influence on all the Christians who were hiding Jews. They were scared to death. If information “leaked” out they would be killed together with the Jews.

We had to move again! Our wandering began again.

Shaoulka had to leave! Zeike didn't want Bailka to leave, but we wanted to take her with us. If we were to die, we wanted to die together! He couldn't hide such a large family and we no choice but to leave for the forests.

The cold was everywhere! The forests were covered with snow. All the roads were impassable. We had no idea where we were going.

We even deliberated to return to Kamelishak. However, we found out, the watch over the ghetto was very strict and no one was allowed to enter.

[Col. 603]

So we crossed the forests. We had no choice. The hunger exhausted us and with 3 children, it was even harder.

Yankel, my husband, went to a peasant to beg for a piece of bread to feed the children. This Goy told him to go to Svir, here the “Jews were better off”. He showed us the way and we left for Svir.

Eight kilometers before Svir, we stopped at a farm, where only one Jew lived, called Suske. We arrived at his place, ate a little and rested a short while.

Suske helped us and set us in the right direction to Svir. Svir belonged to White Russia, and the ghetto was quiet (calm). We met several Sventzianer families and thought we finally arrived in the right place.

We stayed several months; then, March 15, 1942, we received the bad news; we were going to be sent back to Lithuania. We were frightened of the Lithuanians, so we left and returned to Sventzian.

After the liquidation of the Jews from the Sventzian ghetto to Poligon, there still remained about 300 “useful” Jews in Sventzian. In the Sventzian ghetto we found many of our friends, who were bribing the police and were buying their “useful” status. We did the same and remained here for about 9 months. Life was very difficult, we were sent to the most difficult jobs. Quite often, Jews were caught, men and woman, and sent to other work camps. We suffered from hunger and cold, but we managed to endure! And remained here until April 14, 1943.

[Col. 604]

Space was tight. Life became more and more dangerous. We heard that the Germans were planning to liquidate the Sventzian ghetto.

Groups of young people organized themselves in the ghetto, started planning to leave and join the partisans in the forests.

March 27, 1943, 25 young men and 1 girl left the ghetto, our son Shaoulka was amongst them.

One week later we left. We cut through the barbed wire fence of the ghetto, together with us were: Chaika Lass and her husband and son, Yochnan Michelson with his wife, Shimon Buskanyetz and his wife, Chaika and Leia–Sura Bushkanyetz.

We were truly lucky because the following morning the Jews of the ghetto were deported to Vilna and Ponar and all were murdered.

We decided to go in the direction of Margumshak. One of our former employees, Zapkovski, invited us to stay in his barn. We stayed here for a week, when, a Saturday morning, his wife came in and threw us out. We didn't know what to do nor where to go! Perhaps we should turn ourselves over to the police! Our wanderings weighted heavily on us!

Yankel devised a plan. We should return to Sventzian to hide in Flexser's house, which was removed from the shtetl.

We left in that direction, exhausted, but making certain no one would recognize us. When we reached the small hill, from a distance, we noticed a Lithuanian patrol leaving the house. We ran into Roginski's stall, no one saw us. For 3 days we hid here, and on the fourth day, Roginski's worker arrived, Oziole.

When he saw us, he was frightened, became white like the wall, and directed us to leave immediately. This was a moment of complete terror for us, the middle of the day, to leave now meant a sure death!

[Col. 605]

Sve0605.jpg

Yacov Michelson

 

I threw myself at his feet, I begged him to have mercy on us: please let us stay until the evening, until dark!

Nighttime, we departed with our belongings in the direction of Dratshiani. Hungry, tired with exhaustion, we barely dragged ourselves to the house of the nobleman Leon Pilinski.

He received us in a kind manner and agreed to hide us in the bath house on the estate. Three times a day he brought us food and stayed for a week, when he arrived to tell us the region was being searched and he was afraid to risk everything. He still allowed us to remain in his fields and forests. This is how we survived the entire summer of 1943.

Meanwhile, it started to become colder. We couldn't stay outdoors any longer. We began our search where to spend the cold evenings. Not too far away from Pilinski, the widow, Markowski lived. She had a bathhouse built from wood, there was even an attic.

[Col. 606]

We decided to hide there and climbed into the attic at night. When it rained, we went there in the daytime.

One time, when a storm arrived, we lay there and to our bad luck, one of the workmen also came in to escape the downpour and dry himself off.

At that moment, Yankel lit a cigarette. The worker smelled the smoke and thought a fire broke out and ran to extinguish it.

He almost fainted when he saw us! Yankel, calmed him down. He begged him not to tell anyone about us and offered him 70 ruble. He told him to go into town and buy some whiskey.

As soon as he left, we grabbed our belonging, and like a thunder bolt, we left. We arrived at a far away hamlet, where 3 brothers lived, the “Siberiekas” as they were known in that region.(from Siberia). After much deliberation they agreed to hide us in their attic. We stayed 3 weeks, and then they came to us that the Markovskis' employee got drunk and revealed the story how he discovered us hiding, about the smoke which he thought was a fire and everyone was now talking..did you ever hear such a story? Jews are hiding in the bath house! The “Siberieka” was frightened and we had to flee again! No amount of pleading! We had to pack up again and leave.

Summer was now over. The corn in the fields were very tall. We set up our base amongst the corn and remained there, until the harvest. We soon had to find another place to hide.

Near to the nobleman Pilinski, lived the Christian Ostrovik, and I remembered, he used to bring merchandise to my mother,

[Col. 607]

so I proposed to go to his place.

And this is how it was, truly, he was afraid to let us into his house, but arranged for us to stay nearby.

A few hundred meters from his house, we found a pile of stones which Ostrovik bought before the war to build a new house. We decided, that we were going to build a “malina” here in this spot, under these stones.

Yankel and Moishele worked for 3 weeks, until they completed the “malina” (hideout). They had to dig deep pit, and the piles of fresh earth were brought and dumped into the nearby stream.

They chopped a lot of branches from the nearby forests and covered the malina, so that it was out of view. We prepared our potatoes, vegetables and other food products to sustain us the entire winter.

When we went into our malina it was so dark, we couldn't imagine that we would be able to remain in this place for long. In the end, we managed and survived in this hole for 109 days.

From time to time, Yankel left in the dark night and went to Prince Pilinski, he was very generous to us. He often gave Yankel milk for the children. One time, after a holiday, he sent us delicious sweets. Other times, he left a newspaper so we could read and inform ourselves about the news from the front.

Finally the winter ended. The fields became green. One time we heard footsteps near to our malina and someone speaking in Lithuanian. I immediately woke up Yankel and we heard the trees that were covering our malina were being dragged away.

[Col. 608]

We were almost certain, that we will be captured. They will discover our malina and capture us!

Soon, the footsteps and the talking was heard at a distance. We got out of the malina, crossed the small stream and left for the nearby forest.

We stayed in the forest for a week, shooting started nearby.

We returned to our malina. The shooting lasted several days. Shrapnel flew over our bunker. Everything around us was filled with holes from the bullets and shrapnel.

When it was quiet, we left our hole. It was still! We left to find out the situation and why the shooting? We were informed that the Germans fled the region!

We were free! The hour of our Liberation arrived! Exhausted, worn out with half rotten clothing, we barely dragged our bodies to Sventzian.

The city was still smouldering! All the Jewish homes were burnt! Everywhere we sensed our loneliness, like at the cemetery! I sat down on our porch, where our house stood, destroyed and naked, and fainted. They took me to the hospital where I remained for 2 weeks.

When I left the hospital, I noticed, that no one from Sventzian partisaners, who fought the Hitlerite beasts and their blood thirsty Lithuanian helpers, returned.

The return of the refugees were minimal, these remnants of the Jews of Sventzian community. No one want to remain in this destruction!

We all decided not to remain amongst the graves and left our Sventzian.

We ran away from this destruction, from the death and the murders!


[Col. 609]

My Shtetl

Leah Svirski (Sventzian)

Translated by Anita Fishman Gabbay

Written by her in the Zhezemir ghetto in the book “Songs and Poems from the ghetto
and lagers” together with others, collected by S. Katcherginski: transcribed by H. Leivik

My Shtetel
Outside, in the bright night––
The moon, the stars, twinkling
My small shtetl is sleeping and deep in thought
So quiet and so beautiful in every corner.

I alone am awake,
I lie awake and am not at peace,
The moon is tricking me and laughing
The stars are testing our lives.

Unforeseen horrors
Are staring down at me
And through blurry windows
I watch my city in shreds.

 

Sve0609.jpg

 

A lonely and tearful picture
My eyes are tearing like floodwaters
My shtetl is frightful and wild
Swept over by pools of blood.

Oy, shtetelah, my dearest
You transformed yourself
I don't want to see you any longer
In the condition that you are in.

Where has your spirit gone!
Look what has became of you
Oy, shtetelah, my dearest
It would be better if I had not been born!


[Col. 611]

Our Destiny

Leah Svirski (Sventzian)

Translated by Anita Fishman Gabbay

We have, all of us Jews, the same miserable destiny
One has to endure, one has to accept
We are living with tears, in desperation and in fright
And two years have already passed this way.

They threw us out of our homes like dogs,
Wandering through unknown lands
They choose our brightest and our dearest
And they were gone in an instant.

 

Sve0611.jpg

 

Tortured and beaten! We didn't give in
To hunger and cold–
With anticipation, with hope and with shame
Like the gypsy–bands–
We have to remain silent, this is not our time!

They shall torture us
Beat us and torment us
This pain will not last forever
We will not submit
We will overcome this pain––


[Col. 613]

Ponar

Zalman Motzkin

Translated by Janie Respitz

 

Sve0613.jpg

 

Once a spa stood here, but the whole region was more familiar with the small train station called Ponari, which was 12 kilometres from Vilna.

The small station was surrounded by forests and fields which stretched for tens of kilometres around. Now, we can find the ashes of more than 120 thousand Jews from Vilna and the entire province.

In 1939, when the Soviets captured the province, they began to build giant oil bases in the Ponar forest. Thousands of workers were commissioned to dig large trenches where the Russians wanted to hide large quantities of burning materials, to prepare themselves for the eventual air attack.

Ponar became well known in the Vilna region for a variety of reasons. Some knew it as a spa, some as a train station, others for its lumber business and others for the giant oil base.

Ponar played an important role in the economic life of the Vilna region until 1941, when suddenly, the war between the Germans and Soviets broke out.

June 24, 1941 Ponar was captured by the German human animals. From the first days these beasts were delighted to find the huge trenches and already decided to use them as mass graves for thousands of Jews.

As we know, the Germans fooled their victims by telling them there was lots of work in Ponar, telling them: – You must take some food and the bare necessities.

Slowly, they noticed, that from the tens of thousands that left to Ponar, no none returned. That's how they learned of the horrific mass murder.

By the end of 1943, when Hitler began to face great defeat, the Germans decided to wipe away the tracks of their horrific actions in Ponar. To achieve this they brought 50 Jewish

[Col. 614]

workers who were forced to dig up the graves and burn the corpses.

I was among the 50 men.

We arrived in Ponar in December 1943. Our first task was to prepare wood for burning. We worked the entire day, from early in the morning until late at night, after which they made us walk back to Vilna.

Our German chief Drap warned us, that if one of us would dare try to escape, we would all pay with our lives.

On the road from Ponar to Vilna the Gestapo forced us to sing and make merry. One song we called “The Ponar Hymn”, the content was as follows:

“Where have our seven good years gone?”

Once, on a winter morning our chief told us that in one of the gas trenches we should

[Col. 615]

prepare a place to live after we finish work. He gave us seven days to complete this task.

The same day, the Germans brought digging and building machines like: shovels, axes and hammers etc…

We soon realized they also brought bottles of benzene and tar and curtains made from braided straw. We quickly understood they were to use the curtains to cover up the place and our work so no one in the vicinity would know what we were doing.

We had no choice. We made peace with our fate and did what our chief ordered.

By January 10th 1944, they no longer sent us back to Vilna at night. They left us in the newly built bunker, which was nine metres deep, and took away the ladder we used to descend.

When we were all down, the Germans shouted from above:

“Here in Ponar are 120 thousand corpses shot by the Lithuanians. Your task is to exhume and burn them all. Not an easy or pleasant task. To ensure you don't escape, you will work with chains on your feet. When the work will be completed, we will return you to your previous unit.”

After this announcement the Gestapo left us alone and placed a guard over the bunker.

[Col. 616]

We all knew what awaited us after our work was completed. They will not want a witness to this action and will surly murder us all.

The question was, how to escape? We would be killed for sure. What did we have to lose?

We slept there on this first night. In the morning, they divided us into 3 groups: carriers, diggers and burners. They bound us all in chains, and sent us to work.

For every two of us, there was an armed Gestapo guard. I was placed with the diggers. They took us to a large grave and made us dig. We were barely digging for ten minutes when we stumbled upon corpses. Apparently, the murderers made a mistake. Instead of taking us to an old grave, they brought us to a fresh one. We quickly realized these bodies had been shot only a few days prior.

This was horrific , cruel work. We had to remove the corpses from the grave. The carriers placed them on stretchers and carried them to the fire. There were planks of wood approximately 7 metres long. About 200 bodies were placed on each plank. They then poured petrol and covered them with branches.

When they finished the first layer, they placed another layer on top. Again, 200 bodies drenched in petrol.

This is what we did the entire day. They placed 10 layers on each fire, burning 2000 bodies at a time.

We worked like this for a month. Then the Germans told us to place a barbed wire fence and mines around our camp, to ensure we would dare try to escape.

[Col. 617]

Every day we had to wake up very early, and with chains on our feet, like criminals, they led us to work.

There was no end to the corpses. Our work was much more cruel than we imagined. We often came across corpses of people we knew. Some of us even found murdered relatives.

It is impossible to describe the horror of those moments.

Working with us was a guy called Yitzhak, and his father. One day, as we opened a grave they recognized, due to clothing and other signs, their wives and children. The young man immediately recognized his mother, but controlled himself and did not start shouting. The Germans guards would have shot him on the spot.

There is no poet that could describe how they had to carry their own wives and children on the stretchers and lay them on the planks, so petrol could be poured on them to be burned.

A few days later, another worker recognized his wife and children, a boy and a girl who were all shot next to each other.

The Devil himself could not describe the scenes that unfolded daily. Until today it is hard to imagine how we managed to endure.

The days passed, and only one thought preoccupied our minds: How could we escape?

We were sure, once our work was completed they will kill us. They would surely not allow witnesses to survive.

The question was: How? How do we crawl out at night from the deep bunker?

One friend suggested we saw through the roof which was made of thick boards. This was a good plan, but the Germans found out, surrounded the bunker with mines on all sides and made their watch over us stricter. They often came down into the bunker to see what we were doing. All our plans failed.

But we did not give up trying to figure out how to escape. They would not leave us alone. No one wanted to burn.

[Col. 618]

As all the other corpses on the fire.

One day, when we were all down in the bunker, I made a suggestion that we build a tunnel ender the trench. This way we could avoid the mines and barbed wire.

At first my suggestion appeared to be a dream, fantasy. But slowly everyone agreed this was the only way out. We began to collect digging tools which we snuck into the bunker at night.

This was no easy task. Any knock would arouse suspicion from the guards. Also, among the people in the bunker, there were skeptics who did not believe this could be done.

The group was divided in two camps; one that became enthusiastic with the plan and immediately began to help. The second saw it as an illusion and looked at as mockingly. They did not believe it possible to dig such a tunnel.

In the end, only eight participated. We thought out the plan and began to realize it. From that day on we had a goal in our difficult lives. We became preoccupied with the idea and dedicated our nights to the project.

First of all we had to find an object that would mask the entrance to the tunnel. For this purpose we asked our work manager for material to build a small cupboard for the bunker. We told him we would use it to hold our bread rations. He suspected nothing and provided the materials for the cupboard.

We divided the cupboard in two parts: in the first we really put food. On the other side we created an entrance to the tunnel.

February 3rd, 1944, at 8 o'clock in the evening we began digging with a small bowl.

We decided to make it 2 metres deep. The work was hard but this was the only way we could go on with our lives.

From then on, we worked on the tunnel every evening.

[Col. 619]

Sve0619.jpg

The action of sending Jews to Ponar

 

The entire day, we were busy burning and burying the corpses. Meanwhile they brought large transports of Jews to Ponar. Jews were arriving from Latvia and Lithuania. The majority were not Ghetto Jews, rather people they found in hiding places or in the forests. As soon as they arrived in Ponar, they were shot. Our job later was to burn them.

One day our leader told us they were bringing a transport of people with contagious diseases and we have to finish them off as quickly as possible.

For some reason, they swiftly took us from our work and sent us back to the bunker. This was in the middle of the day, and their great hurry puzzled us.

Ten minutes later we saw thousands of people go by. Many of them shouted in non–human voices: “save us, save us!”

A short while later we heard shooting, which lasted 3 hours. When they were done they brought us out of the bunker. The leader brought a crate of sausages, whisky and cigarettes and distributed them to each of us. Then he explained

[Col. 620]

If we burn the bodies quickly, we will all receive another pack of cigarettes.

Imagine our situation. A few hours earlier we saw them shoot thousands of Jews. Now they are giving us drinks, food and cigarettes. We could not show how we pitied these victims. They would quickly kill us as well.

We crawled out of our hole and went to the fires. They were all lying there: men and women, old and young. Among them were only 2 children. According to the documents we found, these were Jews from Western Europe. They shot them individually, each one with a bullet hole in his head. Some still showed signs of life.

This, my brothers, was a day's work in Ponar. We had to endure this for a few months.

The difficult, inhumane work did not for a moment stop our rescue work, digging the tunnel. We dug centimetre by centimetre.

[Col. 621]

We hid the dug up earth in our bunks. Soon the centimetres became metres. To prevent the ceiling from falling we placed small wooden posts every 10 centimetres. The height and width of the tunnel was 50 by 50 centimetres.

Meanwhile, the group – leader of Ponar was changed. When the new German arrived he came down to the bunker with guards to see what's doing. Our luck, they were all drunk and noticed nothing.

We soon realized the new leader received orders to finish burning corpses as quickly as possible. To achieve this, they brought us 24 more workers. Among them were a few Jewish prisoners, soldiers from the Red Army, engineers from Kiev.

Since work on the tunnel required more people, we decided to include the new arrivals in our conspiracy. We know had twenty men helping. From day to day it grew longer and we saw we were reaching the exit of the camp.

Also the work of exhuming the corpses was ending. In the first days we would dig up 200 bodies a day, after – 300 and now we received an order to do 400 per day.

Before the bodies were burned, the Gestapo would check every mouth and rip out gold teeth. One of them proved to be a specialist and they referred to his as the dentist. While lying on the planks their mouths would be checked again. Woe to the dentist who overlooked gold tooth or a crown.

We noticed the graves were now emptied and there were no new ones. We believed our work would soon be ending. We understood that when our work ended, we would be killed. Once the last grave of Ponar was empty, we would be murdered.

[Col. 622]

Everyone in the bunker knew that our only salvation was the tunnel. If it would be completed in time, perhaps some of us would be saved and could tell the world of the barbaric German deeds. We began to work with more energy and courage.

There were no more skeptics among us. Those who mocked the plan at the beginning realized the idea was very serious and could probably save us. To the contrary, now everyone wanted to be among the first to crawl out. Each one understood every second stood between life and death.

By the beginning of March 1944 our tunnel was practically finished. We began to make the final plans of how to escape. It was decided that those who were from the region of Ponar should be the first out, so they can show the rest where to go.

Our plan was to meet up with the partisans in the forest, and tell them what we had witnessed in Ponar.

The second question was, when should we go out? We waited for a dark night, but that week the nights were brightly moon lit. We waited until the end of the month.

Finally our last day arrived. In the morning we left for work, and tried not to express any signs of nervousness. Everyone worked with

 

Sve0622.jpg

Dead bodies in the graves of Ponar

[Col. 623]

energy, and the Germans wondered where we found our strength.

We looked at the mass graves for the last time, and at the fires. For some reason, our chains seemed much heavier that day. We really wanted to be free.

It was Saturday, Shabbes, and we only worked until 3 o'clock in the afternoon. The guards left to relax. They brought us down to our bunker and suspected nothing, a sign that our conspiracy was successful.

We declared the day a fast day; religious and non–religious recited psalms. One of our friends, a Rabbi, delivered a sermon and made a eulogy for all the dead. His last words were:

“Brothers! Who among us will remain alive, should do everything to take revenge for the innocent blood that was spilled here”.

As soon as night fell we made our last plans to escape. We were lucky, that night was pitch black. In order not to do anything to make the Germans suspect anything, we began to pray and told our guard above it was the last Peach (Easter) and it was a very important holiday.

We noticed how the guard smiled ironically and told his comrade:

“Yes yes, this is their last day…”

Ten o'clock that night was the decide hour. With pounding hearts and shivers over our entire bodies the first men crawled through the tunnel. Because of my praiseworthy actions, I was to be the first, but I was the fourth.

The tunnel was 30 metres long. 20 men lay inside and waited for the predetermined password. Holding our breath we crawled one behind the other. At first there was no air, but suddenly we felt a stream of cold air.

That was the first sign that we were in an open field, behind the fence and the mines.

One of our comrades, unintentionally, fell on a branch which mad a noise in the quiet dark night. The German guards sounded an alarm and turned on all the projectors. This caused great chaos. They immediately began shooting at us with various weapons.

[Col. 624]

The fields around us were covered with hail of bullets. The big alarm bell was sounded. Mines were exploding all around. The projectors actually lit our heads. We really believed we were crawling right in front of their eyes.

There was no way back. We continued to crawl on, toward the forest.

After crawling for half a kilometre, we split into different directions to confuse the Germans.

We believed at least someone would survive to bear witness to their deeds.

Together with four friends, including Mordecai Zeydl from Sventzian , we continued toward the partisans. We did not know the way and stumbled upon German weapon stores, and once again in the darkness heard banging and shooting.

 

Sve0624.jpg
  Mordecai Zeydl, one of the only witnesses of the horrific day, who endured all the pain and suffering. With his own eyes he saw the slaughter of thousands of Jews and with his own hands removed dead bodies and brought them to be burned. With a deep, unhealed wound in his heart he gave an oath that he spilled blood would never stop boiling in him for the rest of his life.

 

One of our four fell, and the others managed to get to a nearby forest, crawl into the mud and hide under branches.

The Germans knew we had to be near or in the forest. They surrounded the area and combed through every bush and tree. They passed by our mud a few times, but – with luck – did not notice us.

[Col. 625]

Sve0625.jpg

The bunker– Jews carrying the dug up corpses on stretchers to the fires

 

We lay there in the mud the entire next day. We had nothing to eat and no water to drink.

The night from Sunday to Monday was also very dark. This is what saved us. We crawled out of the mud and went where our eyes led us. We stumbled upon a river. We found a small boat on the shore, and immediately sailed across to the other side, where we were met with a hail of bullets.

Those guards did not have projectors. This saved us. They shot blindly. We managed to hide deep in the forest. The three of us were not caught.

Meanwhile, the partisans from the Rudnitsky forest knew that tens of workers escaped from Ponar. The German's were not ashamed to admit this and offered 100,000 marks for each of us.

The commander of the detachment “Za Pabiedz” was Abrasha Sabrinsky (Reichel).He received an order from the top partisan headquarters to save the people from Ponar and bring us to them.

On the same day, Abrasha sent out

[Col. 626]

a group of partisans to find us. The head of the group was Tuvye Rubin, a transport worker from Vilna who I knew.

We have him to thank for our rescue, for our lives.

The barbarism at Ponar would not be a secret kept from the world.

Witnesses who saw everything, who dug up more than one hundred thousand bodies with their own hands, and saw thousands shot, had been saved.

For all the Jews in the world I would like to close with these words: “Remember what Amalek did to you! Remember!!!

We, the most cursed generation of Jewish history, will never forget the thousands of deaths and persecution. The spilled blood of small children, our mothers and sisters will boil in us forever. We are alive, and we were saved from the horrors of the Valley of Death for the purpose of telling the world about all that took place in Hell, we must heal the wounds of our people, do everything possible to ensure these things never happen again.


On the Ruins and on the Mass Graves

Sara Katzizne

Translated by Anita Fishman Gabbay

I alone left Sventzian with the Red Army and during the war I remained deep in Russia. When the Germans started to receive many attacks against them in 1944, and they began their retreat from many occupied zones, I received a letter from a former neighbour, a Christian, and he told me that most of the Jews from the Sventzian district had been murdered. I decided to see for myself. I left with my 16 year old daughter and returned to Sventzian after quite a difficult journey.

[Col. 627]

After this long, difficult journey I arrived at our village and saw with my own eyes the destruction and devastation of the town and of all the Jewish people.

The town was half burnt and from every corner there were signs of destruction. At the train station I met Libe Gurwitz, the daughter of Hano(ch) the butcher.

When she saw me she burst out in uncontrollable crying.

In short, but with precise detail, she told me about the annihilation of the entire Jewish folk of the region.

I was the first person she was able to confide in: this terrible and heart wrenching pain, which she carried in her heart all these years.

Liba brought me to Gitel Teitz, who was living in Spitz' house. Gitel, her brother and sister, just recently returned from the forest, and many other Jews who returned from the partisans, also gathered here.

We thought how to take our revenge on those who helped carry out this mass destruction of our Sventzianer Jews. In our town there was a legal Soviet regime, so we were unable to act accordingly.

[Col. 628]

After one day at the Teitz' home, I decided to look at the ruins of our town. I was overcome with fright and agitation at what I saw: Sventzian which was so vibrant and full of joy only a few years ago was now a mass–grave.

Actually it a beautiful sunny day, but my soul was black. Black as the night! The houses were empty and burnt, and here and there blackened planks peaked out.

I went from street to street, it was difficult to hold back tears!

Here, here, was the Old Synagogue, no memory is left from it! Even the exact place is difficult to recognize.

Here, here was the New Synagogue, now a huge heap of ash! From the entire Shul–Hof courtyard, all that remained was the bath house and the house of Shmuel Note the tailor. His son returned an invalid when he came home after the war.

I arrived at the street where my house used to be: I rest on the stoop and I notice door handles, a broken shell, window frames and other things: I take some things as souvenirs of this mass destruction.

All the Jewish homes were burnt.

[Col. 629]

I have a happier thought, better that all these houses are burned! If I had come back to see our former homes still standing and our bitter enemies and former neighbours living in them, I could never endure the pain!

Even after the war they remained the same murderous animals, they killed 2 survivors after the war.

The first victim was Yosef Opeskin's son. He was a partisan and when he returned he became sick. He was brought to the hospital where a Lithuanian nurse murdered him.

After some time in Sventzian, we decided to go to visit the mass grave of Poligon.

Behind New Sventzian, on a small hill, about 2 kilometers away, is a thin forest. Not far from the forest a small stream flows through. At the edge we came to a German sign: Stop, forbidden to enter!

Here, they show me, was the site of the barracks which housed the Jews. They kept them in such tight quarters that it was impossible to lie or sit, so they had to stand the entire time. Through the cracks of the windows they saw the small stream, but they were not given any water to drink.

We approached the mass grave, it became more difficult for me . My feet were like a heavy weight, from a distance I saw a large mountain, 200 meters long and 50 meters wide, this was the GRAVE!

This is what remained of our nearest and dearest!

We are standing in front of this speechless! A mysterious strength pressed against our throats.

 

Sve0630.jpg

Collection of bones from the murdered Jews

[Col. 630]

And a stifled cry was heard: a deathly silence was everywhere!

Suddenly we heard a terrifying clap! Swirski, a former partisan, shot in the air to demonstrate our pain and suffering, and thus we recited the prayer for the dead!

I awaken as if I'm in a lethargic sleep, I look around and then realize the gruesome remains of our beloved shtetelach.

I bend over and pick up some bloodied pieces of cloth, torn pages from books and I feel that something is streaming from my eyes, but this is not from the tears from my eyes but blood from my heart.

I look at the grave and reflect: “how can we take our revenge on these barbaric, murderous people“.

How can they pay for the millions of lives that were cut down!

Young, blameless little children!?

Why did they throw you in these pits still alive?

“Old people! Why did you not have the foresight to be buried in Israel and had to end your days as animals!?“

I feel, my life is over! Why am I still alive?

Some Christian folk approached us, who were witnesses to the mass slaughter.

They told us, the earth was moving and blood was spewing from it.

I press these small pieces of bloody cloth close to my heart, it seems to me that I can hear the wailing of these slaughtered souls.

It seems to me (as if in a dream) that I can see the blood flowing from them! I feel that I am going mad (crazy). Here now, my heart will burst from the heartache!

We returned from Poligon. We could no longer live on these ruins.

A new tragedy came to me personally, I found out that my son that was in the Red Army was killed in Berlin right after the liberation.

[Col. 631]

The news completely devastated me.

My sad story and its ending:

One son I murdered in the forest in 1941, when we were fleeing from the Germans and he collapsed from hunger. My older son fell during his enlistment with the Lithuanian division.

My husband died in Estonia, where he was sent from Vilna (ghetto).

What shall I do now?

Sick and broken, I decided not to remain any longer in Sventzian. I will not live amongst murderers, graves and destruction.

I will run away as far as I can. I wandered all through Poland. From there I left

[Col. 632]

to Germany, and in the end I arrived in the land of our ancestors, Eretz Israel.

It is true, I ran away from Sventzian, but what can I do, I can't run away from the memories of slaughtered beloved ones, which I had in my life.

What can I do now, I can still see the horrible picture of the ruins of Sventzian and the Holy mass–grave of Poligon.

Until today, I can still hear the wailing coming from the mass grave, and I am sure, that the blood of the Jewish holy murdered souls is still flowing from that Poligon hill!


[Col. 631]

Sventzian Was Once Here
My Return to the Ruins After Liberation!

Rachel Voliak (Gan–Tov/Gantovnik)

Translated by Anita Fishman Gabbay

July 7, 1944 we were liberated! July 21, 1944 I was back in Sventzian.

I wandered through the streets of Sventzian. It was nighttime. It was useless to look for a light in a window, it was dark everywhere. Death cried from every corner!

The buildings, with the broken windows, were standing empty and silent. It was quiet everywhere, it looked like I was in a cemetery.

To whom shall I arrive? To whom shall I go?

Sventzian! Sventzian!

In the end I returned to you! But there is no welcome here! You don't remember me!

I am walking, it seems, on Vilner Street: she is completely burnt to the ground. Is his, where Chava Gitel Matzkin's bakery stood? A little further on, lived Urtshik the tailor, a little further, several steps away, was Tzernabrodski's hotel.

Everything was here, here, here, now all that remains are ruins!

[Col. 632]

The ruins scare me! I want to run away! Something is holding me back. I continue and come closer to the church, here, across from the church. This is where my house once stood! Here was our garden and here stood our barn and here was the stream. Most of the folk of Vilner Street came to fetch water from this stream.

And now––––, now our house is burnt, broken, and covered…no memories remain. Everything is upside down and destroyed!

I call out again and again, it is useless!

I approach the cold and bare walls, listening in case there is someone, but no one answers. I only hear my own breathing.

No, no one is home. No one returned.

I continue and I wander aimlessly, among the Sventzianer streets that were once here. Here is, it seems to me,

[Col. 633]

the market square; here, on this place, lived Ruben Abramovitch and Ztesne.

––––Oy, Malousia, how many of my childhood memories are tied to your name?

I remember. One winter evening. You sat together with my young daughter, Sheina, and with the shine of the lamp (play on words, Sheina and shine) you studied, by heart, the lesson of “Mani Leib:” flowers, wreaths, drawn on the windows covered by frost”

And after, from Sholem Ash's “Shtetl”, –––dear summer evenings”.

The two of you studied in the Gymnasia, you were friends until the 8th class. You spent many years together with your lessons, and you had important secrets to share. I always wanted to listen to some of your secrets, but you never wanted to share them with me.

And when the fate of the Germans arrived for the Jews of Sventzian, you, Malosia, you were too weak to save yourself, to run away from the bandits' hands, and to come to the forests with us.

You were afraid of the frost and the snow, you were afraid to sleep on the street in the month of March.

“How can I survive this?” my life is worthless without you, it is all the same to me, what more do I have to lose?”

“You left, Malosia, with the transport, and I never saw you again”

I keep wandering by myself, through the streets, a corpse walking in the dark!

Here, it seems to me, stood Chaia Etel Levinson's house, now I begin to think about her family–––Meir and Riva, Etel's parents–––one of the finest families of Sventzian.

––With how many tears I remember you!–

Mirele and Esterke, you were both ready to go into the forests but at the last minute you changed your minds. The wind and the frost scared you more than the Germans.

Oy! Jewish Children, Jewish sons and daughters! Why were you so frightened to go to the Forests

[Col. 634]

and to the fields? Why were you so afraid of the snow and the cold?

The forests were so thick where the partisans lived in “total freedom”. Even the Germans were afraid to enter these forests.

There was a chance to save yourselves! You were too frightened! And allowed yourselves to be led to the slaughter….

And I continue my journey across the streets, searching and searching…

Perhaps, perhaps, someone will return, a relation, a saviour or just an ordinary Jew!

Nothing, nothing, no one…

Here, maybe here! Here stood our Gymnasia, the most renowned Jewish Gymnasia in the entire region!

In those days we celebrated several good years of our youth between these walls.

Ach! Laughter was once here! What liveliness! How much joyful laughter rang through these halls?

Here, on these destroyed walls, my brother wrote his first lessons in his early years of his youth.

The Jewish Gymnasia was the crown jewel of Sventzian! Now it's only a pile of rubble!

Which is so frightful to see!

I continue further, searching and searching….

And then I arrive at the Shul–Hof, and the 2 synagogues still remain. They stand like “2 witnesses!” that there were once Jews here! And Here is where Jews lived!

It's now nighttime! Darkness is everywhere! Emptiness is all around me! I wandered through all the streets of Sventzian where approximately 2000 Jews once lived! Only a few years ago, these streets pulsated with Jewish vibrance! Now I amongst graves, I am walking through a cemetery! I forget where I am going, I spin round and round!

I am tired, worn out from mental exhaustion and sit down on a stone. I can't think any longer. I can't bear to look at these ruins any longer. I bend over, I break out in a deep, hot sweat! I cry my eyes out over this total devastation, the place of my birth!

Jewish Sventzian is no longer! It no longer exists!


[Col. 635]

On the Ruins of My Home-Town Svencionys

by Brayna Farus-Chasid

Translated by Anita Fishman Gabbay

On a rock, bent over
With “extinguished” eyes,
I sit at a “crater”(grave)
That should be my home,
Where I was born.
This crater should be my house,
I played here,
Cried, danced and laughed here,
Here is where I spent my childhood years.

Now I see my mother, so proud and such a beauty!
Her eyes light up like the blue skies,
She pats my little head, presses me against her breast,
With unblemished hands, pure and Holy!
Here stands my father, with a twinkle in his smile,
Enough already! splashing around in the stream,
You are old enough, you have to understand,
It is soon time for you to begin school.
I hear their words, clear and true,
Each word is measured with honesty and trust.

Through the rays of the streaming sun, a Shehkina(divine presence)
Appears, coming closer, with its smiling face,
Oh, dear father, dearest, I will forever be true to you
A new life is beginning for me now,
A life of learning, knowledge and wisdom,
A life of blossoming, reaping and blessings.

Oh, father, my beloved one! I will be true to you forever.
Every word of yours I cherish,
You guide me, endlessly and without prejudice,
Tired, but proud, I will continue my journey of life.

I see my brothers and sisters running past me,
The pride of my mother. They appear in front of me again
She quietly tells me a secret,
Grow up, my child, and forever be blessed.

Swift like an arrow flies Rochel, my sister,
To bring us help from our neighbour Esther,
Always good-hearted, truthful and pure
She brings joy to our world.
Small children.
She washes and cradles them.
Skillful and caring,
The small squirming body,
Pressing against her breast.
I look at her face
With hope and belief,
I begin to stare and dream
That my Rochel is before me.

[Col. 636]

Now I see my sister Rivka
Sitting at her piano,
Father and brother accompanying her on the fiddle,
Mother, so proud, her eyes are sparkling with joy
The music is joyful and in harmony, a song of yearning.

Suddenly breaking into a small dance,
Mother-father, Rivka-Dovid,
A waltz, a tango, and even a foxtrot,
The whole family is dancing. What a happy scene!

Suddenly, screaming, a disturbance and mahem,
The neighbour is talking to my brother Hirshel,
That brat! That young one! You murderer, you,
Threw dirty stones at my brother Shraolik.

Hirshele, my child, Hirshele my jewel,
You are old enough to understand now,
Pranks are good, with measure,
If you don't obey, you will regret it.

On the wonderful holiday, on the day of your Bar Mitzvah
I still can hear it, even today, Hirshele's parasha at the synagogue
His sweet child-like voice is still ringing,
“today, on the threshold of my 14th year,
I become mature and everything becomes clear,
Ah, Jewish people, I am now my family's pride
To become a true and honest Jew,
To walk proud and follow in their footsteps
To fight for you in dark days, and in happy times to joyfully embrace
Your traditions and commandments, I will remain forever true to you.”

The voice of my brother
Disrupted my sweet dream
Dreaming and sitting here on this naked stone.
Night will soon be here. It is now time to go home
I open my eyes. What happened here?
I break out into a sweat,
How warm and beautiful it was,
Where my house once stood!
My heart is bursting! My heart is going to leave my body,
I remain alone together with small orphans,
No more father, no more mother, sister or brother
Everything is lost in this dark dream!
All that's left is this hole and this stone
And this dark and blemished sky.

September 1945

 

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