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The Story of Simon Chevlin
Friday, April 16, 2010
By Joanne Degnan, The Packet Group
It was 68 years ago this week that 14-year-old Simon Chevlin crawled out of his hiding spot in a neighbor’s barn to find that 1,200 Jews in his village, Dolginovo, had been herded into a building, doused with gasoline and burned alive by the Nazis.
”The next day, we had to come back to bury them,” Mr. Chevlin told the children of Beth El Synagogue attending Yom Hashoah services Sunday with their families to mark Holocaust Remembrance Day.
”There were so many burned bodies, mass graves,” he said.
Mr. Chevlin, 82, of Plantation, Fla., has dedicated his life to educating people, especially children, about the Dolginovo massacre and the harrowing odyssey of the 270 who initially survived. The group, mostly old men and women and children, hid in the forests for months until a Russian soldier, Nikolai Kiselev, risked his life to lead them approximately 620 miles on foot through Nazi-occupied territory to safety behind the Soviet line, Mr. Chevlin explained.
”We walked for 10 weeks with no food, no clothes, no maps and moving only at night,” Mr. Chevlin said. “God saved us for only one thing. Someone had to tell this story.”
Mr. Chevlin, the uncle of Beth El President Brian Chevlin, makes public appearances all over the United States recounting his story at screenings of the Russian-language documentary, “Kiselev’s List.” The 25-minute film with English subtitles recounts the horror of what happened at Dolginovo, located in present-day Belarus, through interviews with survivors now living in Israel and the United States.
”The children here tonight must know what happened so that they can continue to tell the story,” said Brian Chevlin before the film began.
Mr. Kiselev was a Russian soldier and prisoner of war who escaped from a train bound for a Nazi concentration camp and made his way back to join up with Belarusian partisans — local men serving as an underground militia fighting the Nazi occupiers. The 28-year-old was ordered to relocate hundreds of Jewish survivors who were hiding in the forests near Dolginovo — an order two other partisans had refused to carry out because the mission was viewed as suicidal.
”They were helpless people that had no chance to survive,” Brian Chevlin said. “The Russian’s generosity is what saved these people.”
The Dolginovo survivors often came under attack during their journey, Simon Chevlin said, and the wounded had to be abandoned because their inability to keep up endangered the entire group’s survival. One of those left behind was his 75-year-old grandmother, Briana Katz, who was wounded with shrapnel in both legs shortly after the Dolginovo survivors started the long walk to the Soviet border in August of 1942.
”We couldn’t carry her so we had to leave her in the woods to the animals to die,” Mr. Chevlin said.
The story of Mrs. Katz, recounted as the “Grandmother of the Woods” in the film, fortunately had a happy ending. Although left behind with the other wounded, Mrs. Katz miraculously survived and was rescued by local partisans. She was reunited with her family after the war and lived to be 90.
But it was not a happy ending for the entire Chevlin family. During one incessant German bombing toward the end of the journey, the group scattered and became separated. Afterward, Simon Chevlin’s older brother, Nachman, couldn’t be found. Years later, it was learned Nachman, under the mistaken impression the entire Chevlin family had been wiped out, joined the Soviet army and was killed in battle.
Of the 270 Dolginovo survivors who had started the journey in August 1942, only 218 were still alive when the group got to the Soviet line that November, Mr. Chevlin said.
Answering a question from 12-year-old Justin Goldstein, of Plainsboro, Mr. Chevlin admitted he’s still plagued by nightmares of what happened 68 years ago in Dolginovo.
”I dream about it almost every single night,” Mr. Chevlin said. “My wife, she is ready to divorce me because I wake her up at night with screams and cries. I see my brother. I see my friends.”
Mr. Chevlin said he also works as a volunteer tour guide at the Holocaust Memorial in Miami, which commemorates the lives of the 6 million Jews who were murdered by the Nazis in World War II. Visiting schoolchildren often ask him why he doesn’t have numbers tattooed on his forearm like other Jewish Holocaust survivors, he said.
”’Where’s your number?’ they say. I have to explain to them that the Christian family that was hiding us in a barn, 10 of us, didn’t put numbers on us,” Mr. Chevlin said.
He said he tells the schoolchildren only Jews at concentration camps were tattooed with registration numbers.
”Fortunately, for my family, they didn’t get us,” Mr. Chevlin said. “That’s why we have no numbers.”
Mr. Kiselev, often called the “Russian Schindler,” died in 1974 without ever receiving official recognition for his heroism, Mr. Chevlin said. Five years ago, Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Authority in Jerusalem, finally added Mr. Kiselev’s name to its wall of honor at the Garden of the Righteous.
”Last year when I was in Israel, I took a count family by family, and from the 218 that he managed to save, today there is 2,340,” Mr. Chevlin said as the synagogue erupted in applause. “From my family alone, there are now 210 between all the kids and the grandchildren.”