Grandma Yafa Sheina (nee
Recorded in Hebrew by her two granddaughters Efrat and Ayelet
Translated by Eilat Gordin Levitan
Transcribed and Edited by Kevin Lo
Translator’s Note: I called Yafa in Kfar Saba and was
amazed at her crystal clear memory of events from her past. When I mentioned to
her that the brother of my grandfather (Meir) also lived in Kfar Saba and that
his name was Natan Gurevitz, she recognized him as her neighbor whom she had
liked very much. She recounted many precise details about his life. She told me
that the wife of her cousin Avraham Even Shoshan also came from Kurenets, the
shtetl where Natan and Meir Gurevitz were born. Yafa writes poetry and one of
her poems about a partisan can be found in the Volozhin Yizkor book.
Grandma Yafa was born in 1924 in the shtetl of Horodok. At that point in time (1921 -1939) the area of Horodok was considered part of the Vilna region and the Vilna region belonged to Poland. Today it is split by a border near the city of Vilna (Vilnius) in Lithuania. Horodok is on the border side of Belarus.
My grandma is a Holocaust survivor, daughter of Dvora and Yosef Lidsky, both of whom were brutally murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators during the massacre in Horodok during the summer of 1942. They were murdered with many of the other Jewish community members of Horodok, mostly old people and children. Dvora and Yosef had
four sons (Rafael, Michael, Shaul and Eliyahu) and two daughters. Only Yafa and two of her brothers survived the holocaust (One was Raphael, who came to the land of Israel before the war) .
My childhood days were full of happiness, enveloped by loving and nurturing family. Our family was well-liked and greatly respected in the community. Our grandmother, Sara Chana Gurevitz, spoiled us extremely while our father Yosef identified himself with the Zionist movement with all his essence and soul. In our community, my father was known for being more progressive and open-minded. Born into a traditional background in the nearby shtetl Lida, he had been educated in the famous Volozhin Yeshiva. He met my mother Dvora nee Gurevitz while visiting Horodok during the time he attended the Volozhin Yeshiva.. He raised us with strong values of compassion for all human beings, respect for our traditions and history, and love for the land of Israel. He was very involved in public work and put much time and energy toward the betterment of the community, particularly in regards to the children's education. He did much for the establishment of the Tarbut school and was the first teacher of the Hebrew language in Horodok
His great love for the Hebrew language and Zionism was first ignited by his uncle Rozenshteyn, the father of Avraham Even Shoshan. Abraham (1906, Minsk - 1984, Jerusalem) was a Hebrew linguist and lexicographer, recipient of the Israel Prize (1978) and the Bialik Prize (1981). My father was also greatly influenced by the poet Bialik, another student of Volozhin. He has met Bialik and often spoke of him. His dedication to the children's education was resolute and he often traveled to Vilna in search of excellent teachers of Hebrew to educate the Horodok children.
My mother's family (Gurevitz) lived in the area for multiple generations. Her family was very pious and steeped in traditional ways. She was a very unusual and capable woman who was able to resourcefully support her family. She spent her days occupied with the toils and tribulations of providing for her family. She was a proud mother with great dignity, integrity and self-assurance. Her strength was unyielding and they could not break
her spirit even in the worst of times. She would dedicate all her energy until her last breath toward the betterment and survival of her children.
Horodok was a lively Yiddish shtetl filled with both traditional and progressive Jewish institutes. There were synagogues, a bank, and a Gmilut Chesed society, an interest free loan institute. Also, there was the Tarbut school, where most subjects were taught in the
Hebrew language. There were many sports and cultural activities for the youth to participate in. There were a few Zionist Youth movement groups, like Hashomer Hazair, Bnai Akiva and the most popular in Horodok, Bitar. Like all my contemporaries who attended Tarbut, I too joined Bitar. All my brothers participated in sports and other activities. My oldest brother Rafael became a Chalutz and was able to make Aliyah to Eretz Israel. The family expected him to be the trailblazer and we anticipated following him to Israel as soon as we received our certificates. Unfortunately, as soon as my brother Michael departed on his way to Eretz Israel, Germany invaded Poland. Although he had already embarked on a ship, he was forced to return to Horodok.
Under the agreement between Hitler and Stalin, our part of Poland (the eastern part) was annexed by the Soviet Union during the month of September in 1939. As soon as the area was taken by the Red Army, no Zionist activities were permitted. The Tarbut Hebrew school became a public school. My father, with the help of my brothers Eliyahu and Michael, dug a deep trench in the backyard and buried the Hebrew books, the Gmara, some educational books and the Zionist flags. They knew that if the Soviet authorities came across such books at our home, they would surely exile us to Siberia.
Life under the Soviets was worse for many people since they were considered enemies of the Soviets. Still, we felt relatively safe where we were, especially when refugees started arriving from the western part of Poland (under Nazi occupation) and told horror stories about Jews being killed. In June of 1941 Germany attacked the Soviet Union. My brother Shaul escaped east, deep into the Soviet Union, on the day the first Nazi
troops entered Horodok. (We were never sure what ultimately happened to my brother Shaul. He might have died during his escape. There were rumors that he had died from explosives. Nothing was clear.)
The Nazis roared in on motorcycles and they wore uniforms and iron helmets adorned with skulls. They gathered all the Jews and chose people from the Jewish community to form the Juddenrat. Soon there were orders that all the Jews, with no exception for children and women, had to wear a distinguishing tag on their clothes, both on their backs and fronts. It was a yellow star, something worn to show that we were a lesser people. The Jews were not allowed to walk on the sidewalks, but only in the streets with the livestock. This was meant to demean them, to crush their spirits. We found that our world had begun falling to pieces around our feet; everything was being destroyed around us. We became very scared and we sensed that our future would be filled with danger and tragedy. Per the instructions of the Germans, we were forced into hard labor, like tree-cutting, road construction, etc.
In the nearby town of Krasne, they established a German labor camp and fifty women from Horodok were taken there to work on the railroad lines. Jewish refugees from other towns started pouring in; they had escaped massacres from other communities. Christians from the area told us that in some areas, like Molodechno and Volozhin, all the Jews had been murdered. The Germans kept demanding payments from the Juddenrat. These payments had to be in dollars or gold and the Jews had no choice but to pay quickly because there was always the threat that they would have to pay with their lives. The Juddenrat always encouraged us to pay as much as we could to save ourselves. On the other hand, they suggested that the young people try to escape since they knew what the future would bring (but where could we go…?). The Germans kept punishing us and constantly belittling us. They took everything that we owned.
One day, the Germans announced that we all had to live in a small area. We had to leave our homes at once to move to the ghetto. We were given just a few hours and with just a few mattresses and clothes, we left. Even in our worst nightmares, we had not imagined that we would have to live in such conditions. We were constantly starving, belittled, tortured. We lived in a small cramped room with another family and it was awfully claustrophobic and the food that we had brought from home disappeared very quickly. We were constantly on the verge of starvation. Anticipating the day of liquidation, my brothers Eliyahu and Michael secretly built a hiding place. They were assigned to cut wood in the forest, so once in a while, they would bring us food that they had been able to get from the villages. They would go away from a few weeks and then return.
Many people became sick from the poor hygienic conditions in
the ghetto. My mother implored me to take the yellow tag off and crawl under
the fence (to bring food). I left the ghetto despite the danger. I had to cross
a river and I swam to the other side while holding my mother’s treasured
silverware above the water. This was to be used to barter for necessary food.
And so I arrived at the home of a Christian woman, who had been the friend of
my mother. When she saw me, she crossed herself and cried with me about my
horrible condition. She gave me a sack of food and she walked tearfully with me
to the river. She asked me to be very careful. When it became dark, I swam
across the river and crawled back under the fence to return to the ghetto. My
parents were ecstatic to see me well. They had been very worried all the time I
was gone. On another occasion, when we couldn’t take the starvation anymore, my
father sent me to another village, to a Christian man whom he knew. When I
arrived, the father of this man gave me potatoes, bread, and cheese and helped
me return to the ghetto. After a while, the ghetto was surrounded by many
guards who were very scary-looking. Any attempts to leave the ghetto became
very dangerous. Only fate sustained us. Mother became very worried and always
watched over us. She never slept. One early morning, she woke us all up and
screamed that the Germans had arrived with many tanks and weapons. She cried,
“Surely it was liquidation time for the Jews!” She announced to us, “Children,
escape quickly!” She took four gold coins out of her dress and gave each one of
us a coin. “Maybe these coins will help you survive.” She suggested hiding at
our old home, then gave us one last kiss and we parted forever.
With the last of my energy, I arrived at our old house. Using a rope that had been tied to the roof of the sukka, I was able to get to the attic. From the tiny window in the attic, I could see the horror, but mostly only heard the screams and cries. I saw trucks filled with little children taken to be slaughtered. Many people were killed on the spot and their bodies were thrown onto the road. I could hear the soldiers remarking that they had killed them all. Finally, when it became deathly quiet after many hours, I went down to the house and slowly crawled through the meadow to the river. I thought that maybe I should just drown since I had no reason to survive. Still, the words of my mother came to me. Maybe there would be a saner world elsewhere. I kept swimming and all of a sudden, I felt a sharp pain in my chin. I thought this was a fish but when I touched the area, I took a bullet out of my neck. A German soldier had shot me.
I kept swimming and arrived at a bridge. I tried to reach the bridge and some hands suddenly pulled me up. It was the shochet (ritual slaughterer) of the village. He told me that the Germans had taken whoever survived and was able-bodied to Krasne, a labor camp. Throughout this, he lamented his family members who had died that day. While full of fear, I met my crying ten-year-old sister Rachael (Risha). I found out that my brother Eliyahu and Michael had been caught by the Germans and transferred to the camp along with many of the young people from Horodok . I also found out from her that the older people had been burned alive. They had set the synagogue on fire and many others had been shot over a large hole dug into the hillside. Much of the belongings of the Jews had been taken by the Christians in the area.
When we arrived in Krasne, they put us in a big room with a barber. We had to take our clothes off and they shaved our heads. Each one of us was cleaned completely. There was a large pile of clothes from people who had been killed earlier and they let us choose from this pile. They had taken all the gold and silver from the clothes. We had to sleep on top of wooden planks with mattresses made of hay. Each morning there was a roll call and we had numbers instead of names. In the Krasne camp, there were many barracks made of wood. There were some for the Russian POWS, for the men, and for the women.
It was hard for me to find reason to survive since I had lost my parents. They had waited for their deaths. The conditions were difficult and the tortures and humiliations were horrible. Each day, we left for work, building parts of the railroad with wheelbarrows filled with sand. Like this, we passed months of pain and fear. We had arrived in Krasne in the summer of 1942. The winter came and the situation became unbearable, since we only received food once a day. One morning, I was called to the headquarters and I was very afraid, not knowing what I would be asked. With my legs shaking, they asked me where my brothers were. I answered that they must have been killed, but that if I found out otherwise, I would let them know. They kept hitting me in the back and screaming at me. Finally, they let me return to the barracks. Everyone knew that my brothers had joined the partisans. Only I was unaware of this.
One month later, a local policeman told me that my brother Eliyahu was a good friend of his brother. Eliyahu had sent me some food and a letter in Hebrew. The letter was filled with words of encouragement and that at the first opportunity, they would get us out of here. I kept thinking that maybe they were trying to trick me and then report me. The package had bread, honey, cheese, and I gave some to the other women. Since we had no knives, I cut the bread with broken glass shards. During these moments, I was filled with happiness and hope, that maybe there was a future for us. Soon after, I received boots from my brother, but when a German soldier saw me wearing them, he ordered me to take them, saying that Jews were not allowed to wear boots. He brought me clogs instead and rags to tie them on. All this time, I felt that someone was watching me in order to see if I would give up my brother. Being so fearful, I had trouble sleeping at night. One night I finally fell asleep and in a dream, I celebrated Passover with my father. The next day, I told this to people from my town and one man interpreted it. Just like the Jews in the dream, I had to escape quickly since the Germans were planning to kill me to punish my partisan brothers.
On the night of Silvestre (New Year’s Eve of 1943), I stood by the window of a station and heard the Germans talk about their plans to celebrate with the young girls of the village. They planned to drink a lot. I could speak German well and understood when a policeman entered and said that it was not a problem to leave the station since none of the Jews would try to escape. He also said that it wouldn’t matter since they were planning to liquidate everyone soon. Without much thought, I decided to take advantage of this moment while the gate was open. My sister and I took off our yellow tags and we escaped the camp. It was an extremely cold night and snow was constantly falling. I had no idea where it was we were to go. I felt a strange comfort in the fact that if they were to shoot us, it would be from the back without much torture. It was very deep snow and we kept getting stuck. My young sister kept falling into the snowbanks and crying bitterly. “Where are we going?” she cried. We were exhausted after a night of falling repeatedly through the endless snow.
When we arrived in the vicinity of Horodok, I kept touching the coin that my mother had given me as if it were some kind of good luck charm that would save me. I arrived in the village and saw a Christian woman standing next to a well. I came to her and she told me that she was the sister of the priest of Horodok. When I told her who I was, she crossed herself and cried happy tears. She told me that my two brothers were working, but they would surely be happy to hear of our escape. She brought us some bread and milk and explained the route that we should take. We would go straight, and then turn right, and then up, and up, and then finally when we reached an isolated home on the top of a hill, we should be safe. When we arrived, I heard the sounds of people speaking Yiddish. I knocked with the one clog I had left. My other clog had been lost in the snow.
In the house sat some young people with weapons. When they opened the door, I collapsed from my extreme fatigue and all I was able to say was that the Germans were chasing me. A Christian woman hugged us and encouraged us. Her husband Basmah was a friend of my brothers. He said to not be afraid and that my brothers would come soon. They had gone to look for me since they had heard that two girls had escaped from the camp. Finally, my brothers arrived and they were very happy. I felt very proud when I saw that they carried weapons. They looked so strong and proud. My brothers were fighters and after all this time, they were returned to me. I was too excited to say much so my sister and I went to the basement to sleep, covered with warm blankets. The next morning, they had a difficult time waking me up. Finally, after so many nights, I had been able to sleep without worries. When I woke up, I forgot where I was and asked where I could get tools to get to work cleaning the snow. Soon enough, I got used to this freedom that for almost two years had been taken away from me.
We received much love from the family Bazlan, the Christian people who had helped us. They were very good people and for us, they were the righteous gentiles. We ate well and we stayed with them for six weeks until we recovered. My brothers and the partisans were very happy and proud that I and my sister had survived the ghetto and the camp. They decided then to take us into the forest with them. They felt that we would be safer there. In the forest, we felt a freedom from the horrors of the camp. The partisans gave my sister and me certain small tasks, like cleaning the rifles and other weapons. We also did other more womanly tasks, like cooking and cleaning. We lived life under an open sky. My brother Eliyahu was the sole Jewish partisan among eleven special mission scouts. He was very brave and took part in many battles and also secret operations, like putting explosions on train tracks for Nazi soldiers to trigger. My brother Michael was a commander of a partisan unit and he also took part in the sabotage of enemy trains and bridges, clearing the forests of Germans. They were very supportive of each other and we all spoke Hebrew to one another in the hopes of surviving the war so that we could immigrate to the land of Israel.
So life continued peacefully until one day in 1943 when the Germans started a big blockade against the partisans. They saw that they were losing the war. Thousands of Germans, aided by Ukranian and Lithuanians collaborators, spread throughout the forest. They started a methodical mission to find the partisan camps and exterminate them. They surrounded the camps and laid siege to the camps for a series of days. Many young brave partisans were killed. Among them were some young Jews who had survived the ghettos and camps. Still, many were able to break through the blockade and escape deep into the forest. Among these were my brothers. We fled into the deep forest. All the camps that the Germans were able to reach quickly, they eradicated. Whoever was left fled in all directions and they shot at us from everywhere. My brother Eliyahu climbed a tree to check the area, so the Germans didn’t see him and left. This is how he survived.
I ran to a marsh relatively far away. I didn’t know the area, so I thought that if all else failed, I could just drown in the water. The mud was fortunately too thick and I didn’t drown. I put mud on my face and body in order to camouflage myself. I saw the Germans coming near me and I could hear them cursing since there was a horrible smell around the marsh. They circled the area with their dogs, but they did not detect me. Eventually, their voices faded into dimness. Still, I thought that they were setting a trap for me since I heard other voices. I soon realized that they were speaking Russian, Polish, and some Yiddish. And so I emerged from the marsh with my hands lifted into the air, as if I were surrendering. I cried out and two young Jewish men came over to me. They asked me for my story and I told them many details about me. They gave me dry pants, a shirt, boots, and some food. They then took me with them back to the base, which had been completely destroyed. Bodies of partisan fighters were strewn about like broken dolls.
The partisans who had survived moved to a new place in the forest. My brother Eliyahu had been preparing explosives and there had been a mistake. Everyone in the unit was killed, but my brother survived, though wounded. He had been able to survive since our brother Michael had found him and carried his bloody body into the safety of the forest. I took care of him and nursed him back to health. I never saw my twelve-year-old sister Rachael (Vashka) again. She had probably been shot during our escape through the forest.
By 1944, the Nazis began retreating and the Red Army swept through the area. The war had ended. We came out of the forest and asked each other, “Where should we go? Are we going to find anyone else alive? No one is waiting for us. What did we survive for?” My brother Eliyahu was sent by the Red Army to Russia to serve the Soviet army and my other brother Michael continued to the front, fighting with the Red Army against the Nazi armies. He was killed in Bialistok.
I went to the shtetl Volozhin and there I met other Jews that had survived. We all felt safer together. I had been separated from my one surviving brother and I decided to leave the area and try to reach the land of Israel. I crossed the Polish border and traveled all over Europe, into the mountains of Czechoslavakia, into Austria, to Italy, and all the way, the road was filled with obstacles. We had to have falsified identification papers for all the border crossings. We froze in the snow and crossed innumerable lakes and mountains until we reached the camp Rivoli in Italy.
In this camp, many Holocaust survivors settled in preparation to go to the land of Israel. My brother Eliyah also came here from the Soviet Union. I worked as a teacher in the school Giolar and there, I met Moshe Abramovich. He was also a Holocaust survivor and heroic partisan. He had come there from the shtetl Kosovo. We met because he was a musician and I needed his help for the celebration of Hanukha. Together, we arranged a choir. Moshe played the trumpet in the camp band and we had much in common. We were both members of the Zionist movement Beitar and we taught Hebrew to the refugees. Moshe supported himself by doing accounting work. We fell in love and married in the Rivoli camp. We also took part in a protest against the British, who did not allow refugees to enter the land of Israel. We were prepared to immigrate illegally on the boat Shabtai Luzinski (This boat carried 823 Jews to Palestine. Upon landing, they rapidly intermingled with local Jews and in the ensuing confusion, the British included 350 Palestinian Jews among the 800 “illegal immigrants” that they later deported to Cyprus.), but at the last minute, we decided to not go. This was a lucky decision since this boat was later sunken by the British. Another boat that we considered embarking with was the Altalena (a small ship that arrived off the coast of Israel in the middle of the 1948 war, carrying a group of Irgun men and weapons), but when we heard that the boat was also smuggling weapons, we decided not to risk it. We decided to wait to do it legally.
In the summer of 1949, a year after Israel was declared an independent state, we were able to leave with the boat Azmautn (“independence”) We arrived in Israel in July 27, 1949 with great hopes for new lives in the new country. We built a home in the town of Kfar Saba. Here, we had two children, Gary and Dvora. I was a nursery school teacher in Kfar Saba and I loved my job. It was the delight of my life to care for the children. It was a very happy time after all the anguish and torture that I had endured. I could not have believed during the hard times that I would one day have a family. From the forty-eight members of my large family, only one brother and I had survived.
Yafta and Moshe Abramovitch on the day of their wedding in the Rivoli camp (1948)
Yafta with her brother Eliyahu Litzki
Two pictures of Moshe playing in the camp in Eliyahu (below).
Moshe receiving an award (below).
Yafa and Moshe on the day of their son’s wedding (below).
Dwora Lidski (Yafa’s Mother)
Dwora Lidski was born in Horodok, Poland in 1894 to Eliahu Zalman Gurevitz and Khana Sara. She was a grocer and was married. Prior to WWII she lived in Horodok, Poland and ultimately perished here. This information is based on a Page of Testimony submitted on 26/01/1957 by her son Eliyahu who survived the war as a partisan and later met with his sister in Italy before going to Israel in 1948
Josef Lidski (Yafa’s Father)
Josef Lidski was born in Lida, Poland in 1888 to Kheina. He was a teacher and was married. Prior to WWII and during the war he lived in Horodok, Poland. Josef perished in Horodok in 1943. This information is based on a Page of Testimony submitted on 26/06/1956 by his daughter Lidski Michal
Michael Lidski (Yafa’s Brother)
Michael Lidski was born in Horodok, Poland in 1917 to Yosef and Dvora. He had been a student and was married. Prior to WWII and during the war, he lived in Horodok, Poland. Michael perished in Bialystok. This information is based on a Page of Testimony submitted on 26/06/1956 by his sister Shaul Litsky.
Shaul Litsky (Yafa’s Brother)
Shaul Litsky was born in Horodok, Poland to Yosef and Dvora. He had been a student and stayed single. Prior to WWII he lived in Horodok, Poland. Shaul perished in the Shoah - he had attempted to escape to Russia when the war started, but later died in an explosives accident. This information is based on a Page of Testimony submitted on 16/04/1999 by his sister from Israel, a Shoah survivor.
Rachel Litsky (Yafa’s Sister)
Rachel (Risha) Litsky was born in Horodok, Poland to Yosef and Dvora. She had been a student. She was twelve years of age when she was killed by the Germans in the Bilzka forests near Volozhin while with the partisans. Prior to WWII he lived in Horodok, Poland. Shaul perished in the Shoah - he had attempted to escape to Russia when the war started, but later died in an explosives accident. This information is based on a Page of Testimony submitted on 16/04/1999 by her sister from Israel, a Shoah survivor.