Return to Dolhinov Home Page
Return to Dolhinov Stories Menu
The Struggle To Survive
Ytzhak Norman of Ramat Gan, p. 596 of the Dolginovo Yizkor book
Translated by Eilat Gordin LevitanOn the 22nd of June, 1941, Molotov, the foreign minister of the Soviet Union, announced a surprise attack on Russia and immediately panic broke out. Previous months had seen high rates of unemployment in Dolhinov, and some of the youths had found jobs in Vileyka. I was amongst them. That day, numerous trains left Vileyka, all crowded with people who wanted to retreat deep into the Soviet Union. All the young men from Dolhinov met to decide what to do. A decision was made in favor of returning to Dolhinov, where our families lived. We believed there was no reason travel deep into the Soviet Union as there was no way that the powerful Red Army could be defeated. We thought that the army would recover quickly and serve as an iron fence to protect us, eventually defeating the Nazis.
We left on foot and walked by night. We returned to Dolhinov and found that everyone was well, but in a dark, depressed mood. Even worse was the extreme delight and celebratory mood of the Polish population toward the Russian withdrawal. The Poles arrived at the gates of the town, prepared as if to greet a most respected guest, waiting for the Germans to arrive, bring them bread, salt, and flowers. Their first reaction was to loot all the stores that were still filled with Soviet merchandise, especially food and alcohol. They started a looting party, when, all of a sudden, a small Russian unit returned in armored cars. We didnt know where the Russians had come from, but immediately they began to bring order back to the town. They even shot some of the looters, and all the Christians started running away. Some were wounded and one was killed. A Soviet soldier made an excited speech that a day of great vengeance would come. The soldiers then went back into their armored car and left town. After the day they left the central market of Dolhinov in this manner, we did not see the Red Army until the area was freed in 1944.
Life Continues In Town
Life in town became very difficult. At first we were able to receive food, but there were ominous signs of death in the air. Although there were no specific threats at that moment, we knew violence could erupt at any time. Occasionally, German soldiers would arrive in town to spend a few nights here, and any communal activity became very difficult. They started giving us orders via the Judenrat. We had to supply the soldiers with everything they needed, and we never had the option to refuse. Like this, we continued with life. Each day we had to be present for forced labor.
It seems that there wasnt a day without someone dying, amongst them some of my relatives. Chaim Itzhak Pressman was executed outside of town by a German who we called Der Schwartzer Yakke (the Black German). During those days, Jewish runaways from Minsk and Pleshensitz arrived in town and told us about what had occurred in their areas. Their entire Jewish communities was rounded up and killed, and only a few were able to hide and escape. All of this foretold of what was to become of us, too. We started praying together in private homes. Even people who were not observant prior to the war now became religious, and we all hoped that the day Geula (the arrival of the Messiah or in this case the defeat of the Nazis) would soon come, and with it would arrive the day of revenge.
The Germans entered Vileyka as soon as they invaded the Soviet Union. Most of the Jewish men who were found were killed shortly after the Germans arrived. So now the Germans took Jews from neighboring towns to work there. Vileyka became a Gebiet Stadt, where the Gebiet Kommissar lived (the Gestapo Commissar).
The other enterprise of the Nazis was the jail. The jail in Vileyka was infamous even during the Soviet days. Now the SD and the Gestapo settled there, using it as their headquarters. People were afraid to be even seen in that area. There were two units of Jews that were sent from Dolhinov and other neighboring towns to work for the SD and the Gestapo. I was in the group working for the SD. The reason we worked there was that the Judenrat had been ordered to send 20 Jews to work in Vileyka. Leaving Dolhinov, we knew what awaited us. We were sure that none of us would return alive, but we couldnt refuse to go. It was in Vileyka that our true tortures began. I lived with my uncle, Yitzhak Norman, who was still alive at that point.
The day after we arrived, we went to work. I worked with Loshka Riar. Loshka Riar, prior to the war, had come from a spoiled well-off background, but he worked admirably now. We were forced to do hard labor, cutting trees for firewood and distributing the wood to each room of the SD. The winter was extremely hard. There were many days that the temperature was 40º C. The Germans kept shooting above our heads, for hours at a time, and each shot made us feel as if we were gravely wounded.
Our supervisor was the most awful German, often beating us mercilessly with a baton. Throughout the time we worked there, we ran to supply firewood to each room, hoping that he would not catch and beat us. Since I was among the strongest of the workers, I volunteered to be the last one to run, receiving most of the beatings. It is very hard for me to express in writing all the torture and the humiliation that I endured. I felt as if I was drowning in horror, and soon I started to vomit blood. The German seemed to be even more disturbed that I would not give up. Others fell down and immediately he shot and killed them, but I seemed to have the physical ability to withstand the pain. In this way the days passed. One day, we were sent to bring hot water to clean the toilets. In order to get the water we had to go into the jail, but when we knocked on the door, we were beaten on our heads, and the door was slammed in our faces. It was clear that we could not return without the water, so when we did not return, the Nazi policeman Shernagovich started whipping us, especially me. He ordered me to lie on my stomach and to flip up the hill. Clearly I would not be able to do this, but it is still hard for me to image how I was able to try. I simply would not give up.
One evening, a few days before Purim, in March of 1942, all the men who were still alive met and decided to send a messenger to Dolhinov, to inform the Judenrat of what was happening, and to beg them to do anything they could to help us. We threatened the Judenrat that if they did not do it, we would no longer be responsible for the fate of the Jews of Dolhinov or Vileyka, and would try to escape. (The Germans said they would annihilate the entire community if the workers attempted an escape) Only a day passed before the Judenrat paid a bribe allowing us to return. I know it must have cost a lot of money, but we saw it as a Purim miracle.
Tragically, during that Purim day when we left Vileyka, learned that those remaining of the Jews of Vileyka as well as those of other towns in the area had been murdered when they were taken to work. Vileyka, the noble Jewish City that was so dear to my heart, since my fathers side, the Norman family, belonged to Vileyka. Most of my holidays were spent there with relatives and now it was completely annihilated. I was heart broken. When we heard this tale of horror, the Jews started building hiding places, mostly underground ones or between double walls, or in attics. Everyone was looking for a hideout, and then a day came when the Germans came in large numbers to Dolhinov. It was at an early morning hour, and we didnt have time to hide. We started running to our hideouts, but they started shooting. The bullets whistled everywhere. We kept running, but we didnt know where to go. Everywhere, death awaited us. I was working on a new hiding place when I heard the shots. As soon as I heard them, I ran home, where I met my aunt Batya Chevlin, who was running to from neighbor to neighbor and telling them to run out of town since they were all panicked and didnt know what to do.
I ran and was shot at but the bullets only tore through my clothes (without hitting me). I ran across a bridge, past the river, through the cemetery, and into the forest, away from town. My uncle, my grandmother Briana Katz, and my brother Shimon succeeded in escaping and went to a Christian friend in the village Sloboda. This friend put himself in danger to save us.
When I left the cemetery, some Christian hooligans started chasing me, but they couldnt catch me, and I arrived in the forest. When I arrived there, I stopped for a minute to look back. I heard more shots, but they were far off, so I rested a bit. When darkness came, I would continue towards the home of our Christian friend. I didnt know if my relatives had succeeded in getting there.
During the day of the killing, the Christian woman in Sloboda was very brave. She went to look for me and the son of my uncle amongst the bodies. When she found the guys from the Jewish police, they said they hadnt seen us, so she figured that maybe we had survived. She went back to my uncle and aunt, who were hiding in the barn, and said that she didnt think I was dead. They didnt believe her and kept crying. When I arrived I knocked quietly on the door, and as soon as they saw me, they all started crying spontaneously. Like this I joined a family of 10 people.
The food was brought by my uncle Arie Leib Hevlin, ZL, from his Christian acquaintance. He would go late at night to far away places and would carry the food for all of us. He was too fearful to let me or his son Nachman, ZL, go since there was a great chance we could get caught, so like this he continued for three months.
One day, two policemen were killed by the partisans near the village in which we were hiding. A big group of Germans came to the village, and they started shooting in the air. We immediately wanted to jump outside since the village was near a muddy forest. So we went up to the attic to jump from there, so we would not be caught alive by the Germans. We knew that any Jew who would get caught alive would be tortured and killed. All of a sudden the Christian woman who we called Henke stood in the entrance and said, Are you crazy? When I did what I did I took the chance that I would get caught and punished, so dont leave.
A miracle occurred: the Germans left and we survived. After some time, the Germans announced that all the Jews that survived the Action could now return home and everything would be fine. We returned and found pandemonium. At that point they said we should move to the ghetto. There it was very crowded and there was a lack of food. Life was very bitter and the atmosphere was filled with fear. My grandmother, as well as the rest of the family, did not return with me and stayed in the village with the Christian people.
The Concentration of Jews in the Ghetto
Every day I would go to work and I would work for the German troops who were responsible for the telephone. Because I worked for them I was free to leave the ghetto.
During the night we could not sleep, since we feared they would kill us while we slept. Days filled with work and prayer passed. The food was not sufficient and we tried to be enterprising about getting more food. There were some Christian neighbors that brought food through a hole in the fence, but our main problem was our fear. We heard news that the day of the annihilation was coming soon. We worked very hard in building hiding places in the ghetto. In the house that I lived in with my cousin Nachman Hevlin, ZL, I built a double wall inside the cowshed. Fearing that they would notice that the wall had gotten smaller, we added firewood near the wall. The entrance to this hideout was through the attic. There was a very small door that was hidden and it was very hard to recognize it. One day, when I was working for the Germans I heard them talk about an important guest. For me I knew it would be a very unwelcome guest, so as soon as I finished work I ran to the ghetto to let others know. We started organizing to get to the opening in the fence so we could quickly run away, but we could not do it until it got dark. We all had the same opinion, that anyone who could escape should do so, but here we were surprised when we came near the fence. The fence was very tall and we saw that we were in a blockade situation and there was no way to escape, so we all hid. We went in the double wall, without any food or water since we hadnt prepared any.
As soon as daylight came, we heard the Germans going from house to house with Christians from the village scouting the homes. They would take the Jews out of their homes and I could hear cries and begging, but it all ended with shots, and later on we heard explosions from grenades since many of the Jews who were hiding in tunnels refused to come out. When they refused to come out, the Germans threw grenades to bury them alive. We heard everything from behind the wall, I heard how they took the sister of Yakov Segalchik from out of her hiding place. She begged them to let her live, saying she had young children. They asked where her children were. When she did not tell them, they shot and killed her. We heard them come to our house, search, and destroy everything. They even went to the roof to look, but they didnt discover us. Most of the Jews were killed in the cowshed that belonged to Beryl Isaacs. This was just a short distance from us. It is very hard to forget this day of gehennam, but its very hard to forget it. We anticipated that at any minute they would catch us.
As soon as darkness came, we organized
to run to the forest in small groups. It was quiet outside, so we thought that
by then all the people in the ghetto had been killed. We said to each other
that it was clear they would look for us in the morning and find us in our hiding
place, so my cousin Nachman and I came out of the hiding place. We found the
opening in the fence and we got out. It was total darkness outside. We started
running. We were very fearful that there would be patrols out there, so we went
to the roof of our old house, which was nearby, and there we hid the entire
day. In the yard there was a shallow well, so it was easy to get some water.
We were exhausted and couldnt even think of food.
When morning came, the Germans started searching for the Jews. From the attic we could see carriages filled with Jews bodies. They searched the home we were hiding in, but they only searched in the house, not bothering to look on top of the roof.
When it became dark, we went down and started running to a haystack at a Christian home. These Christians were friendly to us. We found two sisters from the Haifetz family, ITka and Michla. The rest of their family members had been killed. We decided to separate since there was a better chance of at least one of us surviving. The son of my brother (or was he a cousin?) and I left and returned to the place where the rest of the family was hiding. Amongst those hiding there was my brother Shimon, my grandmother (Briana Katz), and Gershon Yoffe, who was a relative.
We didnt enter immediately our hiding place since we were afraid they would discover it. I knew that the inhabitants of the neighboring village Zamshutzi, so I met a Christian who immediately recognized me. He felt pity for me and gave me half a loaf of broad. The bread loaves in the villages were huge so it was sufficient for the entire day.
We hid in the bath house. All day we drank water because we were very thirsty. When night came, we walked about two kilometers to the place that we hid in. As time passed, I started going with my uncle to gather food. Many times, we received food form the head of the village Zamshutzi, Iulius Korianovich, a noble Christian man who knew all the time where we were hiding, and the name of the Christian man who hid us. Although he worked with the Germans as the head of the village, we were absolutely certain he would not inform them about us. He kept an eye on us without ever telling them. Like this we hid there for ten weeks in the attic.
The Christian woman would give us food every day, and to avoid any suspicion by the neighbors she would scream to the pigs to come to eat, and only then go up to the attic to give us food. During those visits she would give us encouragement, telling us that the Germans were losing the war and that the Russians were gaining on all the fronts. During that time, when we all sat there in the darkness and didnt know the difference between day and night, this greatly encouraged us.
Two Germans were killed by the partisans not far from the village, so the Germans attacked the village and started shooting everywhere. We were sure that the Germans had found out about our hideout, so we wanted to jump down from the attic. The house was next to the forest, but the Christian woman came up and didnt let us go, fearing that we would get caught while jumping out. When I hid you here I took the chance that I would get caught and my fate would be your fate. For this reason you should not move. Maybe they are not even looking for you.
And that is the way it was. The Germans just made a lot of noise and then left the village. During that time, the Germans started conscripting young men for forced labor in Germany. So the young men started hiding, and the Germans would search for them, going house to house. We were fearful that they would somehow find us, so we decided to leave the village and go to the forest, although we knew it would make our life more difficult, we had no choice. So one evening, we left for the road. We crossed a few dozen kilometers until we crossed the old Polish-Russian border, where there was a thick forest where one could hide during dangerous times.
In the forest we were surprised to encounter the sisters Feyga and Gita Shreibman and also the brothers Leibe and Hershel Radoshkovich. We were so happy to be together like a big family. We continued walking, and after some time we reached the other edge of the forest, near a village whose name I dont remember. Here we felt much more free, and we contemplated the possibility of joining the partisans, since we knew they were in the area. But how to find them, we had no clue.
At night we would search for food, knock on a door or a window and beg the villagers but most of the time they hardly had any food for themselves. They were kind and gave us a little bit to eat.
One day when we sat in the tent that we had built from tree branches, we heard steps coming near us. We were scared, but we realized it was only a villager who came to cut wood. He came to us and said that we shouldnt fear him. He wouldnt harm us. Quite the contrary, he was willing to help us if we needed anything. After talking to him, we felt that we could trust him, so we asked him if he could get us weapons. He agreed on the condition that we give him gold, since he could trade it for seeds [other farming supplies?] and then after the harvest he could sell his products and get money for weapons. So thats what we did, and he gave us a rifle, which made us feel safer.
This man told us he had other Jews in the area, he could even identify them by name. Although they were pretty far away from us, we decided to walk there. So Gershon Yoffe and I went on our way. It took many, m any hours. We left in the morning, and only in the evening did we arrive at the edge of the river, where we sat to rest, and immediately fell asleep.
All of a sudden, a loud noise woke us from our sleep. Immediately, I went near the river and heard people talking in Yiddish. I saw a pretty large group of people carrying sacks filled with something. As we came nearer, I could recognize their voices. Amongst them were Pola Smorgonsky, Feygel, and others. We found out that they lived in the midst of the forest and built something that looked like a refugee camp. During night time they would go and look for food.
Immediately, I wokee Gershon up and said, Wake up. You wouldnt believe it, look who I found! We must join them since they told me that near this place there is a partisan base, and they feel like they are at home [have good relations with the partisans?]
So we joined them. We feasted and rested. They had a lot of food from their night search, and I decided that Gershon should stay with them. He was very miserable since he not only lost his parents, but also his family [he was married].
Zelig Dimmenstein, who was there in the camp with his father and his sister Somka, joined me to bring back the rest of the family. We walked day and night. During the day we walked along the edge of the road so that we could jump into the forest if we encountered any Germans. In the evening we arrived at the place, and when we saw that there were empty tents, we were very scared, but we were so tired that we just entered one of the tents and fell asleep.
Late at night I heard voices near the tent. I didnt even have time to escape, but then I recognized the voice of my brother Shimon, and my cousin Nachman, talking to one another. They told us they had encountered a group of Christian men who had come into the forest, and that was why they escaped and fled to a place far from here, deeper into the woods, which was very isolated and would not be easily reached. The next morning they took us there, and there we felt much safer.
We divided the work. Each night another group would gather food. We would come to the villages and go to the head of the village and ask for a horse and buggy. We didnt let them put the lights on, so they would not see that we had no weapons. We knew that there were some Jews who had been murdered since the Christians realized they could not defend themselves. We always left at least one outside, and they would sing Russian songs so the Christians would assume there was a group of partisans.[printer error?]
One evening, I went with some partisans to get food. They had weapons. We arrived to the village Miltza, about 20 km from the forest, to a wealthy Christian man. He said he had no food, that the Germans and partisans had both taken food from him, why would he have any left?
I went with one of the guys (sons?) of Pola Hendel. We entered the barn and saw two huge vats (barrels?). When I turned it around, I saw it held meat products and other food, so I took a little bit of it and returned to the house. All of a sudden I heard a shout in Russian. Stop! Who are you?
I was very scared, and threw the food away, thinking they were policemen or Germans. I ran until I arrived at the field in a zigzag motion, the way they had taught us to run to avoid being shot. Still, they succeeded in catching me. They pointed their weapons at me and asked who I was, having realized I was a Jew. I became braver and asked, Who are you?
They said, We are partisans. We can see you do not have any weapons. We could shoot you, but we see you are brave. How did you dare to come here and get food?
So I told them I was here with some other guys who were partisans. When I came to get my friends, I found out they had jumped out the windows when they heard the noise outside, and hid. I told them to come out, saying otherwise I would be shot. Finally they came out with their weapons. They greeted one another, and everyone divided the food and each went on his way.
Like this, we continued until the end of August or the beginning of September, when a guy from Moscow was sent to help us cross the front, knowing that in the winter we could not survive out here. Crossing Enemy Lines
The evening before we were to leave, we went in small groups to get food for the road. We even succeeded in getting a few cows, potatoes, and flour. We slaughtered the cows and started cooking the meat for the road. The guide gave a speech and suggested that we should not carry too much stuff, since the journey was arduous and dangerous, and at each stop the pile of things we decided not to bring became larger and larger.
During that day, there were two young men caught wandering in the forest, and after they were investigated there, the partisans decided that they were spies. They decided to execute them, but they didnt have a chance to do so, since the sounds of shots from the guards and we were surrounded. My cousin Nachman Hevlin, who was one of the guards, had just enough time to announce that there was a German blockade, and in a few seconds, shells started landing. People were wounded by the shrapnel, and also by bullets, and wood that had been broken by the shells.
We went deeper into the forest, and we were not familiar with the area. During the entire day, the Germans continued shooting, and searching with their dogs. There was a point where I crawled and hid behind a tree. The German came near me, and I was sure theyd catch me. But they didnt stop, they continued.
As evening came, they didnt stop shooting, but they still stayed in the area. We hid in our hideout in the forest for three days and nights, with no food or water. During the third evening, I left the forest for a field. This was the season of potatoes. I dug and took some potatoes out, and brought them to the forest. While I was digging the potatoes, I lost the few pictures that I brought to remember my family.
We ate the potatoes without cooking them, since we couldnt light a match. When I heard total silence, I decided to go to the designated place that we were told to meet at in case there was an attack. When I arrived, I found most of the people, but a few were missing, amongst them my cousin Nachman. Later I found out that he came there earlier, and when he didnt find us, he decided to go with Gershon Meirson and go to the front, and from there join the Red Army. He was killed as a soldier in the Red Army, in a battle against the Germans. I found out about him from Mordechai Friedan, who was with him in the same Red Army unit.
My grandmother, Briana Katz, was wounded in both legs, and there were others who had typhus, so they stayed in the forest with the partisans. Also, Dr. Kottler, the brave and noble man, stayed with the partisans. The rest of us who didnt join the partisans went on our way. The road was very difficult and dangerous. With us were children, women, and old people, all of us scared and weak. We had to ask the villagers for help. Finally there was no choice but to get some horses. We put all the weaker people on horses. Every day we would exchange the horses in one village with new horses, all throughout the trip.
We walked mainly at night until we arrived at the river. There we crossed the river during daylight, which was very dangerous. I, along with other young men, swam since there were not enough boats to transfer everyone. Once we reached the other side, we encountered more obstacles. The train tracks that the Germans guarded constantly, somehow we were able to cross it and arrive to the front. As we arrived there, we were divided amongst the different villages in the homes of the farmers.
The front, at that time, was quiet. There were no battles. We received food. Where I stayed they were baking bread and they gave me as much as I wanted. I ate too much and became sick with food poisoning. I suffered greatly and I needed help. All of a sudden, that evening, the Germans attacked the area and it became very dangerous, so immediately we crossed the river, where we encountered the Red Army, which had set up positions there to stop the German advance.
From there we continued to Tarakaitz. At that location there was a central train station. Here all the young men were enlisted into the Red Army. We were supposed to be there for only a short time, and from there go to the front. The day that we were to go to the front, a committee of officers came by and said that some of us would go to the rear. After a long speech, they separated us from the other soldiers, and I asked them if they could bring my brother to me since I hadnt seen him since we enlisted. They separated us by age, and he was sent to officers school. Ytzhak Chlorin requested that someone be brought as well, so they agreed and brought the young man, and then they put us all on a train that went deep into Russia, all the way to Siberia. We arrived peacefully to the town Oshiniki, and there we started working in a coal mine.
Editors note: In Israel, I
had a phone conversation with Ytzhak Norman. I was also IMed by his grand-nephew,
the grandson of his brother, who is studying in a yeshiva in New York.
Ytzhak Norman is from the Norman family of Vileyka. His uncle (from his mother side) is Arie Leib Chevlin and his aunt was Batya. His grandmother was Brianna Katz; his cousin was Nechman Chevlin.