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The day the war started in Grodno, 1941

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The day the war started in Grodno, 1941

by Shimon Zimmerman
Translated by sixteen year old Oren Levitan in honor of his great-uncles,
Benjamin (Nyomka) Shulman, Zalman Uri Gurevitch, and Nachum Alperovich,
who as teenagers fought the Germans

Riva nee Gordon and her husband to be,
Shimon Zimerman
as Partisans in 1943 in the Varshilov brigade in Naarutz (Belarus)

I was 17, a student in the technicum for economic studies in Grodno, on the shores of the Nemun River. I did well in my studies and received a scholarship in Stalin's name. I was the head of the school's student body and was very involved with the communist party. Full of plans and dreams for the future, I was absolutely sure that the communist rule that two years prior had replaced the radical anti-Semitic Polish rule was heaven on earth for us, Jews. This idyllic fantasy didn't last long. On June 21, 1941, I finished my finals with high marks. In good spirits, my friends and I went to see the choir of Yordnah. The next morning, I was planning to go back to Kurenitz to spend my summer break in my hometown. What happiness I was anticipating, seeing my parents, girlfriend Riva, my good friends, and having a good time every minute of my summer vacation.

Instead of leisurely getting up and going to the train station, exactly at 4am I was awakened by sirens from the dorm alert system, then the sounds of aircraft, German messerschmitts, and explosions everywhere. At that moment I had no idea of the tragedy that befell me, and I never imagined that my days of youth were over. That teenage celebration of life, schoolwork and having casual fun with friends would be replaced by a daily struggle to survive. I was sure that everything would be like the songs we sang – Stalin would give the orders, and our pilots would clean the skies of the messerschmitts. Marshal Voroshilov, the head of Russian army, would take the Red Army to swift triumph and knock down the German infantry like a samurai from Japan, and I would come home only a few days late.

But as high as the expectations so were the depths of the disappointments. Already in that first day I knew it was not like the songs we sang. Grodno shared a border with Germany at that point in time, and now was heavily air attacked, the bombing growing in intensity. The Soviet planes that just managed to take off, as Skidal airfield was destroyed, were chased and hit by the German messerschmitts, and fell out of the sky like paper toys. The Germans had absolute control of the skies. The bridge that connected the city that was parted by the Nemun River was the only way to go east, but it had a huge traffic mess, and nothing could move because of the innumerable out of order vehicles.

In the afternoon, we got an order to gather in small groups and leave Grodno. Carrying our packages on our backs, without instructions as to where to go, no food, and no information about what was going on, we chose partners. Our group included 8 guys and 2 girls. We took off from the largest synagogue in Grodno; prior to the war it was used by our school for lectures. We started walking toward Skidal-Lida. The whole town was girdled with traffic, broken army vehicles, and torn telephone wires; the communist authorities left the city hastily in great panic while German aircraft were continuously attacking and pushing inland…

Encountering hardship and danger, we finally managed to leave Grodno. We were tired, hungry, and lost. The roads were filled with civilians and soldiers who ran in a frenzy. The German planes flew very low, almost touching the ground, shooting at everyone below with machine guns.

We reached a forest and decided to rest. At dawn we saw horrible images. The road was filled with wounded and dead and no one took care of them. The Russian soldiers didn't know where their officers were. They took off their uniforms, got rid of their weapons and ran for their lives.

Hundreds of prisoners of all nationalities – that were mostly imprisoned for being late for work – were supposed to go that day to Skidal to build an airfield. Instead they left the prison camp half-naked and mixed in with the crowds going east.

Because of all this pandemonium, the second day, I was left only with one friend of the entire group; the rest were lost. On the third day, four prisoners from the Skidal camp joined us; we were on the road to Dolhinov, 30m km from Kurenitz. We ate fruit and vegetables we found in the fields, and drank from every dirty puddle. The heat was unbearable and the flies wouldn't leave us alone. On top of it all, I had new shoes and my feet were all swollen and when I took my shoes off the skin came with it.

Hungry, in a daze, and bare-foot we continued east. The train did not work and every kind of public transportation was destroyed. There was no private transportation because gas was not available. We reached Lida and took a longer route; circling the burning town, we continued to the direction of Ilya. We came close to the road that would take us to Minsk, the capital of Belarus.

We were sure the Red Army would stop the invaders from coming there, but that didn't happen. The Germans' strategy was to put units in the back of the Red Army; they put small units everywhere and that helped them to create demoralization and panic in the Russian army and local authority. Later on, we found out that the general of the Minsk front was a German collaborator and helped the Germans capture the city. Everything around us was destroyed and an enormous marching German army, extremely organized and prepared with every equipment and supply you could imagine, continued going ahead like it was a never-ending army parade.

I understood that all was lost. I dug a hole in the ground and made a mental note of where it was and put my party membership and professional cards in the hole, hoping to retrieve them one day. In no time we were in the hands of German soldiers who took us to the German headquarters. A young German soldier with a baby face asked me where I was going, I explained I was a student and was going home, I showed him my student ID (I didn't even remember that it said I was a Jew). He left and came back with a higher authority officer and explained to him that I was a student and pointed to my long hair, then they both left. Later the baby-faced soldier came back and gave me a sandwich with jelly and egg. He gave me my ID card back and let me go.

My friend and the other guys with buzz cuts were taken blindfolded. The Germans suspected that they were soldiers in the Red Army. So in the heat of the afternoon of June 24 1941, I stood shocked and confused after my first meeting with the Germans. I was 20-km from Radeshkovitz. The town where the poet Mordechai Tzvi Maneh, who I admired so, was born.

Before I was let go by the Germans, I was sure this was my end; just thinking about it brought tears to my eyes. I was an only son and could imagine what my parents were going through. My girlfriend, Riva and my parents would have never known where I was buried… The sound of what turned out to be two German planes chasing a huge Soviet plane brought me back to reality. I saw them hit the plane and tons of papers and maps dropped from the sky. The Russian pilot parachuted not far from me. I just lay there frozen with fear. A few minutes later pastoral quietness took over. I first stood, and then ran, not knowing where to go. Not far from there, I saw a little farmhouse. I knocked. The farmer was scared to let me in, but he gave me a piece of bread and cucumber and showed me the way to Ilya, a town where my uncle lived.

When I arrived in Ilya, I learned the Germans had not entered yet. At the Soviet headquarters of war, I saw many armed soldiers. A policeman hung warnings on the street that two people had been executed for stealing something from a factory. At my uncle's home, there were a few Jews, merchants and businessmen during the time of the Polish control, and they were happy about the defeat of the Red Army! I was shocked and couldn't understand. Despite their knowledge of Hitler's views of the Jews, Jewish people were sitting so content, not even considering what was to come. The poor people truly believed nothing would happen to them, that they would manage!

At dawn, the German army approached Ilya, marching in the direction of Dolhinov. With help of relatives, I left Ilya for Kurenitz. The Germans entered Ilya. I immediately crossed the river Vilya at a hidden place and took the forest way to continue. I saw the Red Army taking groups of prisoners from Vileyka, handcuffed with barbed wire. The family members were chasing after the prisoners. I couldn't explain to the families that 20-km away the Germans were approaching.

My legs were cramped and full of cuts from walking barefoot. I arrived to Kurenitz. Across from the train tracks on Costa, I saw Dishka, daughter of Zalman Mendel, strolling around with a basket in her hand collecting mushrooms in the forest. When she saw me, she threw her basket in the air and ran to my parents to let them know I was alive. A few minutes later, my parents and girlfriend came running to kiss me. For a moment we forgot the impending madness all around us.

Riva nee Gordon Zimerman with her father,
Shabtai Gordon and the rest of the family
Other than Riva and her oldest sister, Michla,
the entire family perished on 9-9-1942 in Kurenets

1923 Kurenets

Riva with her grandparents, Nechama-Risha née Gelman and Mendel Alperovitz perished in Kurenets, 9-9-1942 [sitting in the middle] on their right; their daughter [Rivas' mother] holding Michla. Above her: Shabtai Gordon holding Riva.
Left of Shabtai and Riva: sisters of Rivas' mother, Emma née Alperovitz Zivoni [died in Israel c 1996]. Rachel née Alperovitz wife of Levik Alperovitz died in Israel c 1947.
To their left: their brother in law, Zalman Pinchas Alperovitz. Under him, his wife, Helena née Alperovitz Alperovitz holding her son Jaime.
Bottom from left: Two of the children of Zalman Pinchas and Helena Alperovitz, Benjamin and Maurico A. [the family lived and died in Argentina]. Sitting on the right: the youngest and only son of Nechama-Risha née Gelman and Mendel Alperovitz; Eliyahu Alperovitz [perished in the Holocaust].


My time in Kurenitz

On the 25th of June, 1941, the Germans hadn't arrived in Kurenitz yet. The Russian authorities left, and the town that was almost exclusively Jewish, was left without official control. The goyim farmers from the town's neighboring villages started coming toward the town with horses and buggies. Their aim was to take all the supplies that was left from the Soviet times. All the hooligans, criminals, and Jew haters lifted their heads with pride and newfound presence. One of the Christians from the town organized with the help of the Jews a line of defense for the Jewish homes. A group of Jews, amongst them, my two cousins named Shimon Zimerman had a watch patrol, and everyone armed themselves (in other shtetls the Jews were rubbed out as soon as the Russians left). When the Germans came to town and saw my two cousins they killed them. Only a few days later, we found out about it and gave them a Jewish burial.

Shock and fear spread among the Jews, and they locked themselves in their homes. Two days after their arrival, the Germans collected all the Jewish men from 16 to 60 in the center of town. The German commandant said that all Jews had to wear a yellow star, everyday they had to participate in forced labor and make themselves useful, they couldn't walk on the sidewalk, only in the center of the road like horses, they couldn't gather more than three at any time, and they were only allowed out during certain hours. They had to choose Jewish representatives (Judenrat) and they had to obey the Judenrat's orders.

We didn't want to believe that this was the beginning of the end of Kurenitz as the end of the rest of the Jews in eastern Europe. The Germans' first step was taking away all our rights not only as citizens, but as human beings. Our self-respect was walked all over. We were demeaned and humiliated in front of our friends and neighbors. Gentiles that were once our friends stopped talking to as if they never knew us. The shame and lack of control over our own lives made some of us not want to live anymore. Every month a new group of Jews would be executed; the first group for being communist, the second for being loyal to the Polish ways of old. But still people held on to hope, thinking of miracles that would keep them alive. People became very religious. On a regular basis the rabbi would announce another fast. We simply didn't want to believe that a cultural nation like the Germans could be so cruel and insane. When rumors spread about the annihilation of neighboring Jewish communities, many refused to listen. People refused to believe that all the males of the neighboring town of Vileyka, only 7 km from Kurenitz, were executed on the second week of the Germans arrival. People of our town sent them food and clothing, The Christian merchants pretended they were still alive so their relatives and friends would continue buying and sending supplies. Only after the war ended we found out they were all buried next to the Vilya River.

The Judenrat on the one hand wanted to please the Germans and on the other had to encourage the Jews to comply with the rules. They thought that if the Jews made themselves useful, the Germans would keep them alive. But they didn't always do their jobs perfectly and favoritism was rampant.

At the beginning, I worked with the prisoners of war; they were transferred through towns towards Germany and their situation was horrible. When they came to town they would sleep on the ground at a field that belonged to Chaim Zukovski (Zukovski was executed two months later with 54 Jews of Kurenitz – they were taken to the woods and dug their own grave and then were shot and thrown into them with their wives and children). Later on I worked in Luban farm and my last job was in the labor camp of Vilyeka as a carpenter even though I had never held a saw in my hand prior to the war. With the agreement of Shotz, the Jewish head of the camp, my girlfriend Riva got a job as a printer in the printing press in the same camp. She was put to work with a printing press so she could secretly send printing material to our Jewish friends who joined the resistance and were printing fliers telling the local residents not to support the Germans and to fight.

For a few months I worked for Foster, the infamous head of the German army in the area. After every actzia (a planned action where the Jews would be systematically killed), he would come to me and say, �Today we annihilated the Jewish residence of the town. I brought a few usable Jews, get them a job.� (In 1958, I went to Germany to give a testimony against the Nazi criminal, he was then a successful industrialist from the Ruhan region, who excused his deeds by saying he was only following orders and that in the war with the underground he lost an eye. In spite of my testimony that made people cry he got a symbolic punishment because of his top-notch lawyers.)


They escape to the woods

Immediately after we heard that the Jews of Kurenitz were killed, on 9-9-1942, we, the young people of the camp decided to escape to the forests. The plans were complicated and difficult to achieve: first the danger of crossing the train tracks that were watched constantly by the German patrols and then to cross the Vilya River and the German troops. And more importantly each of us had a difficult time leaving our relatives with no hope. We also were worried that if we escaped and saved ourselves the rest of the Jews in the camp would be killed, but we still decided to go. Since I knew well the roads in the forests, I was the head of the first escape unit. One Saturday afternoon the Germans gave us an order to go to the train station to take down the cargo. Marching in one straight line, wearing the yellow stars, we walked in the middle of the street in the direction of the train. We came through a checkpoint and one of the Germans asked us where we were going, I said, “to take the down the cargo.� He hit me with his rifle and said, “That is the way Jews go to work? Run.� We ran like crazy to the other side of the train tracks and minutes later we were in the forest. From far away we heard shots. But the night came and we knew the Germans would not search at night. After an hour we met up with the rest of the groups, and we started going deeper into the woods, hoping to meet the other escapees from the town along with the underground fighters.

Just prior to dawn, when we exited the village of Viloci, we saw two Jews from Kurenitz who had just returned from a night mission to get food. They took us to the thickest part of the woods near Andrieky, where most of our shtetl's Jews who had managed to escape on the day of slaughter stayed. Also some of the underground fighters under Didia Vassia hid there. It was a morning in late autumn of the year 1942. The frost had already frozen the top layer of the earth, and it sent chilling shivers through our spines.

In the woods there was total quiet. We saw a very depressing site. Sitting around little camp fires dressed in rags, sat families of escapees from the slaughter of Kurenitz. Their faces were black from thick smoke. Only their eyes were shining and it was hard to recognize them. I found out that a few days before my parents had fled to the east with a few other families.

We came full of excitement, we succeeded, and we escaped from the German camp to freedom. Now we realized we must confront the difficulties of every moment's survival. The winter, the snow, and the cold were coming. The underground fighters were going to go east for the winter, and they would not take us. Where could we go? Where could we live? All around us we saw families with little children, old men and women, single survivors of entire families, people who saw the woods for the first time in their lives with no knowledge of the area. They go to find wood for the fire and can not find their way back.

The branches of the pine trees were our roofs, the fire pits our homes, and the ragged clothes our blankets. There were a few families that were luckier. They escaped Kurenitz with their entire families and with some supplies. They knew the area and knew farmers that lived near by that would help them. So, even here people were not equal.

A relative of mine, Nechama, and a few of her cousins, invited Riva and me to their fire pit. They shared baked potatoes with us. I was extremely tired but could not go to sleep. I wanted to study the situation so we would have the best chance of survival. I tried to join the underground but failed because I didn't have a weapon. They wanted to take Riva, but she wouldn't go without me. Riva had a watch that they wanted, so we reached an agreement that they would take us to the East in exchange for the watch, but this plan fell through because my feet were in too bad of a condition to go.

Winter was coming so we decided to prepare. There were two ways to go about it, first to prepare food for the winter months, and , to stay in a hole in the ground, losing all contact with the outside world until springtime. Although this was the best chance to stay alive, we chose the alternative, to build a concealed hiding place (zimlanka) with a few other families, get food and information at night. Particularly during snow storms, so no one could see our foot steps. The main reason we chose this route was because we were hoping we could join the underground.

We were 7 families, including 9 children, with the help of Roman, who was our underground contact. We built a Zimlanka (deep in the ground hide out) in the woods between Jazerio and Liaznitzi. I have to tell you about Sina, a Jew, member of the judnerat of Kurenitz, who joined our group, who even in the woods had a horse, a sled, and a rifle. He was afraid to leave the hiding place so he used us for what he néeded. Yosef, son of Yunkele Kiva, and I would go to the Kurenitz area during every snow storm, and right under the German's noses. We would enter a farm holding Sinas' rifle, and scare the farmers so we could take whatever we néeded. We never actually used the rifle though. We lived like this for two months. We had food, water from the snow, and potatoes that we had stolen from the farms. To combat the ticks we used fire. Moshe, the son of Yunkel Kiva from Kurenitz, was very handy and made us Lutinutz, little pieces of wood used as lamps and lapses, which are boots made of parts of the woods with a rubber sole. He also built two fireplaces made from a special material he found in the woods. Each family had one cooking tool and we took turns cooking. We had more than enough wood.

After two months this idyllic stage ended. One morning our contact, Roman, with his son, came and told us that the Germans knew of our hiding places and that we must leave immediately. We had no choice, we took our belongings and put it on our two sleds, one of which I had bought from a farmer, and went to the more hidden away woods and fixed us a place to sleep. With the first morning lights we were awakened by shots. The Germans surrounded us. This was the first blockade. From the shots we understood that they were closing in on us. We had no time to think. We had to try to go through the ring of the Germans or go across an area that was clear of brush that was approximately 500 acres in size. We guessed that the Germans had come from Andreiky and surrounded the woods from three sides. The fourth side that was the part clear of trees was also clear of Germans. The Germans did not believe that anyone would try to go there. Despite the clear danger I decided to cross that area, thinking that since the Germans were at least 600 meters away they would have a hard time catching us. Riva and I were the first to cross the clearing crawling. The snow was melting and in some areas its height was one meter. Above our heads the bullets whistled. But we had no choice, we had to continue.

We were already in the middle of the clearing and could see a wooden area with no Germans, and then a bullet hit me in my left knée. My boot was filled with blood. I couldn't move and I begged Riva to go on without me. I lifted myself up praying that the Germans would kill me and not catch me alive. But Riva caught me and pulled me to the direction of the woods. Exhausted, we reached the woods. There we met some people that succeeded to cross the prairie. I tore my clothes to stop the blood. We had no medicine or first aid kit. The sun went west and the Germans stopped shooting. All of a sudden I saw in the path made by me being dragged across the snow, a very tiny image slowly walking towards us. This was four year old Lazerke, son of Chayim Alperovich. From far away he saw us and followed behind. We waited for him to reach us. His father, mother and little sister were killed and he was the only one left from his entire family. We didn't have enough time to recover and we heard a horse with a sled coming. Everyone ran away but Riva and I stayed because I couldn't move. The horse came right next to us. Riva caught the horse that the Germans must have lost. Inside the sled we found furs that must have belonged to a farmer. We called our friend Itzka Londers, and he took us back to our hiding place.

The Germans destroyed all the underground hiding places except for ours. After a while the partisans started bringing the wounded. Among them was the head of Spats Grofa, Major Orlov. We found out that everyone who tried to cross the German line was killed. Many Jews who were saved from the slaughter of Kurenitz found their death in the first blockade. I knew where the troop of Commissar Shebetznko stayed. They put me in the sled, and Riva, Itzka Londers and I went to get help. Major Orlov gave me his gun. We had to cross some villages. We couldn't go around them because the snow was very high. Before we entered a village Riva and Itzka would knock on a window of a more secluded home to find out if there were Germans in the village and then we would continue. At dawn we reached the front line of the partisans. They would not let us go ahead but immediately let Shebetznko know of our arrival.

Half an hour later, five sleds with partisans approached us. They gave me primitive first aid. They only had cotton but that helped a little. We went back to our places, but we found the Major dead. His partisans joined Shebetznko and together they all left this part of the woods. They didn't feel any obligation to help the wounded Jews. They didn't seem to have any sympathy for the Jews they left behind (Later we found out that Vanka, the head of this group was a Jew hating German spy, and when the partisans found out about his true identity they executed him.)

After the blockade our spirits were very low. We started looking for other survivors. We only found dead people and we buried them where they were killed. At night there was a very heavy snowstorm, so most of the dead were not found. They didn't even get a burial. The Jews that were left form the Kurenitz slaughter and were able to escape to the woods were greatly reduced in number after the first blockade. Most of them left to the woods like Yazni, Jazerio and Lods, in horrible condition. Most that were left behind were single women who couldn't move by themselves. The people who shared our hiding place collected all their belongings; they put me on the sled and returned to our old hiding place in Jazerio.

On both sides of the road the snow was higher than a meter. There was a fierce snowstorm. Two people pulled the horse and the rest pulled the sled. I lay on the sled, frozen and in horrible pain. Finally we arrived at our hiding place and to our dismay we found that it was totally destroyed. We were in despair but we had no choice, the struggle for life must continue. We were tired and hungry; we built a new shelter. It took us two days. Six families lived there, all together eighteen people.

A few weeks later, without medical help or medicine, my leg started to get better. Later, with Riva's help, I started to stand on my leg. We had no information about physiotherapy, but I knew that if I wanted to be able to walk, I must force myself to use my leg. So in spite of the pain I started walking.

for the rest go to http://www.jewishgen.org/yizkor/kurenets/kur315.html