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Horodok Stories

In the War

by Shalom Sneidman
translated by Eilat Levitan and Ona Kondrotas
p 433 of the Smorgon Memorial Book

Summer of 1941

When the war started I was serving in the Soviet army. Together with the rest of the soldiers in my brigade, I fell as a POW near the town of Orsha (Mogilev, Belarus). All the POWs were taken by the Germans to the camp. I was able to change my uniform to plainclothes and escape imprisonment, intending to somehow get to Smorgon, even if I would have to walk the entire way . In the first village I entered, I encountered a German solider.

"Are you a Jew?" he asked.
"Are you a soldier?"
"So who are you?"
"I am a prisoner."

Upon hearing this, the German intended to stop and return me to the camp I came from. All of a sudden, from afar, he saw another POW escapee, and so he started walking toward him to arrest him, too. I used this moment while he was busy with the other to escape. The first thing I did was to exchange my soldier boots for wooden clogs so that I might be mistaken for a villager. Thus I arrived in Minsk.

When I arrived, I saw a POW camp surrounded by barbed wire. When I looked at the inmates, I recognized some of them as people who had served in the same division as I. I went all around the camp to avoid it and reached Minsk. This occurred on the same days that all the Minsk Jews were put in a ghetto. I knew that I could not rely on my costume and wooden clogs to disguise me and so, quickly, I left the town. On the road between Minsk and Smorgon, I met a farmer returning from Smorgon. I asked him if the situation was still calm in Smorgon and its neighborhood. He answered me in a very angry voice, saying, "Smorgon is burned to the ground. All of this happened to you because you Jews breached your union with God. This is the punishment from the Heavens."

I used only isolated trails and out-of-the-way roads in my travels, avoiding any main roads so that I would not encounter Germans. I entered the town of Horodok (near Volozhin), where I met other people from Smorgon. A Jew by the name Berl Greiss, from Smorgon, confirmed the reports of the farmer, saying the town had been burned to the ground. He, together with other locals, had found a temporary haven here. In Horodok, I also found my brother and sister. There, I worked as a carpenter for some farmers until May 1942. That month, we were caught by the Germans and sent to work in Krasne, where the Nazis ran a concentration camp. All the Jewish residents were locked in the ghetto, and the strong among them worked in the labor camp.

In 1942, some brave Jews started escaping from the camp and joining the partisans. Good contacts between the ghetto, the war camp prisoners, and the resistance were established. A resistance movement now started within the camp. Propaganda calling people to escape from the ghettos and go to the forest circulated. The main issue was obtaining weapons, because only with weapons could one survive outside of the ghetto. Anyone who had any money bought weapons from the farmers or from Germans who were not of Nazi beliefs but had come here to profit. They would sell to the Jews for a large amount of money the personal weapons that they had received as soldiers, or other weapons that they stole from the barracks, but some Jews among us did not have any money, and had to steal weapons instead of buying them.

My workplace, a warehouse, often housed weapons brought there for repair. One time, I broke in between midnight to 1AM, broke through the door, and was thus able to obtain guns for my sister and I, as well as some grenades and other ammunition. Since we also worked in the forest, cutting wood, we hid the weapons in a manger. The original Jews who had escaped prepared an escape for the rest of us. We learned that anyone who had a gun or grenade, or, better yet, a rifle, would be happily received by the partisans. When I escaped to the partisans in the forest, my sister stayed in the ghetto.

Before I left, I said to her, "I'll go to the partisans and see if its an appropriate place for you, and if so, I'll come back secretly to the ghetto and take you out."

Pesach Binder, from Smorgon, escaped and joined the partisans before me, leaving his wife in the ghetto. When we decided that the partisan camp was sufficiently safe and women could be incorporated into our life there, we decided to return to the ghetto and bring the women. Just before we were ready to do so, Binder became sick. In the partisan camp, a Russian doctor diagnosed him with typhus. As no typhus medicine was available, the partisans decided to execute the sick so that an epidemic would not take root. There was another man from Volozhin who was also sick with typhus, and both were executed by the partisans.

There was a group of eleven Jews in the camp who came shortly before us. They were now isolated in a separate location, for the partisans feared they would get typhus. I was put with them, and although we lived separately, we received food from the brigade. The Jewish members of the brigade were fearful that all of us would be executed and were very downcast, fearing that they could not save us. We were very lucky, for a Jewish doctor who came to the camp and checked us found that we did not have typhus. We returned to the brigade and arranged a new unit made up of all the people who had recently arrived from the separate group.

Shortly after, we learned that the Russian doctor who checked us was really a spy serving the Germans and planned to kill us. The head of the brigade was a Soviet man by the name of Ivanov. In this brigade there were hundreds of Jews, but in spite of it, or perhaps because of it, the brigade was riddled with Anti-Semitism.

Two weeks later, before the Jewish holiday Purim, we sent a carriage to bring my sister from the ghetto, but were too late. Jewish Krasne had been annihilated, and all its residents had been killed the previous day. Everyone had been killed except for the wife and child of Binder, who were miraculously saved from the execution and arrived at the camp. [editor's note: contrary to this account, others who came from Horodok and Krasne hid and later escaped to the forest. There were close to a dozen, amongst them were members of the Gringaus family.]

In May of 1943, Germans narrowed in on our camp, and many of our comrades were killed in the ensuing scuffle. During that year, the Red Army parachuted some forces near our camp, and among them were Jews who had been in my paratrooper unit. The Red Army met and liberated us in the early summer months of 1944. On October second of 1944 I returned to Smorgon. The entire town had been burned to the ground by bombs and shelling. From Smorgon, I traveled to Lodz in Poland, and then to Italy. From there, I finally immigrated to the land of Israel.