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During the Slaughter, in the Ghetto and in the Forests

By Bat Sheva nee Brunstein Riar

Pages 339- 373Translated by Eilat Gordin LevitanIn June 22nd, 1941, I was busy preparing for a party of “Pidion HaBen” (a religious celebration for a son who reaches a month in age) for my first born, Yehudah. All of a sudden, my mother (Yente Brunstin) came running to the house and announced, “MY daughter, don’t waste time cooking or baking. The Germans declared war on the Soviet Union and they are quickly approaching the town. Only God knows what will now happen to us.”
As soon as my husband Jonah Riar, who worked in the town Molodetzno at that point, found out about that situation, he left work and walked home and arrived during the night. Instantly, as the invasion started, the Germans swiftly advanced in “Blitzkrieg” as they named it, the Russian Army was decimated and many of troops lost their units as pandemonium spread The next morning our town was left without rulers. The farmers who lived in town and the environs abused this condition, and they immediately started looting and pillaging the town. Jewish possessions became free for all. This fact seemed to point to the beginning of the end, and ominously it foretold the future of the Jews.
Three days passed and during dusk, I stood with my husband Jonah and looked out the window from our apartment. We started shaking from anxiety seeing a German soldier riding on a motorcycle, behind him rode hundreds and thousands of Germans in different vehicles. Some came in cars, others riding motorcycles, others in tanks, trucks, armored cars, and all sorts of transportation. Day and night the German vehicles rolled through town, heading east without any stops. Within a week, the Germans put a police headquarters in town, and their first mission was to arrest all those who were suspected of involvement with the Communist Party.
The first among the Jews to be arrested were Zalman, son of David Chaikin (nicknamed Zamka) and Baruch Zisman. Their arrests took place at four in the afternoon, on June 28, 1941. Already the next morning they were taken to the forest near the Haobichik and were ordered to dig a hole. There they were shot and buried. When their wives, Fania Chaikin and Leah Zisman, came to bring them food in the prison in the local Gmina, they were notified by the guards that their husbands had been killed. Clearly the women didn’t believe them, and no one in town believed, but it was true. To find out if this information was true, the families paid large amounts of money to villagers who opened the graves during the night, and cut some of the clothing of the murdered men, and brought them as evidence of the tragic occurrence. The families paid large sums of money and were able to bring the bodies of their husbands and sons to a proper burial in the Jewish cemetery.
The members of the German police changed many times, but the pattern of desecration seemed to be consistence. After a few days passed, an order came that all Jews of the town must arrive every morning near the headquarters, and from there they would be sent out to different jobs such as cleaning the streets, the toilets, and other work such as this. The German headquarters confiscated a few of the large Jewish homes, and the house of my mother-in-law was amongst those homes. The Germans now lived in the front, and in the back rooms lived the family of my husband.
The German residents would enter the home of my -in-laws (Chaia- Pesia and Noach Riar) and have a long conversation with my husbands’ sisters; Yoheved (Shapira) and Taibe. They introduced themselves as a caring German, and warned them that soon they would be replaced by the SS, who would torture, kill, and burn all the Jews. They emphasized that the bodies of torched Jews warmed them themselves, at certain times. My sisters-in-law would tell me about these awful tales, but we couldn’t believe that such tortures were possible in our century.
At that point, we discussed it and said that no logical person could consider that such tales could be a daily, systematic occurrence.
One time, after a night of drunken revelry at a dance party that lasted until the morning hours, the Germans returned to the house of my in-laws. One of the drunken German men, instead of going to his place, tried to break into the area where my in-laws lived. Of course he found the door locked, so he tried to break it in and the handle broke, hitting him in the face. He became furious and started screaming wildly, saying that he would kill all the males he could find in the apartment, because it must be that they were trying to hurt him. When the males heard this, they jumped out into the yard. When my sister-in-law opened the door, the German jumped in and started looking for the men. Lucky for us they had time to escape. The German could not calm down and he decided to look in the next home, the home of Sheinke, where my husband and I were staying.
When we heard the knock, I asked Jonah to open it, but his heart felt something bad and he asked me to open it. When I opened to door, the German soldier came in with his gun drown and screamed, “If I find one man in this house, he will immediately be shot.”
My heart fell, but I tried to control my nerves. I knew that the fate of my husband, who was hiding in the bed, depended upon my calm behavior. I invited the soldier inside and sat on the bed, trying to hide my husband, and quietly taking care of my little baby Yehudah, who was lying near the bed. Since the German didn’t seen Yonah, he left to the area where Sheinke lived to look for men.
Her sister, Itka Alperovich, who lived on the other side of the wall, heard everything and ran to the headquarters to call a German officer. When the officer came, he told the soldier to get out of the house. So now it was proved to us that the horror stories of the Germans were true.
Still, we tried to tell ourselves that it was just one incident, and asked, “Why would they kill us for no reason? It couldn’t be true.”
As this unit was replaced, the next unit ordered us to establish the Judenrat. A committee of the Judenrat had to work diligently in a job that was very difficult and unpleasant, but the Jewish community understood the difficulties they encountered. The Germans would order the Judenrat to collect different taxes from the Jewish people and to supply swiftly all the needs of the Germans, which kept increasing. The first order was to confiscate all the cows. They were taken for the German Army and that really hurt the poorest population, since the cows gave them milk for survival. Next they ordered 400 bushels of wheat and 3000 meters of carpeting. Clearly everything that they demanded they received, although it was difficult to find these goods.
Together with those demands, the Germans told the Judenrat to bring 10kg of gold. It seemed like there was no end to their demands. Although the members of the Judenrat knew that it was very difficult for the Jewish community to fill the orders, they had no choice but to hurry them along and urge them to do it. They were under the illusion that this would save the lives of the community.
As the winter months approached, the Germans ordered the Judenrat to collect all the warm clothes that the Jews had, and to give them to the military. Fur coats, boots, warm blankets, wool socks and gloves. After much tribulation, we were able to reach our quotas, and we tried to believe that this would save us all. I believe that Germans succeeded in making the Jewish population complacent by keeping them under the illusion that they could stay alive as a prize for fulfilling all the demands that were put on them. They were helped by the fact that in the nearby towns, there were many massacres already in Radoshkovich, Molodeczno, Vileyka, Kurenets, and Dolhinov. But here the Germans didn’t kill the Jews of Ilja other then the two during the summer.
Every Jewish survivor who arrived to town from a massacre in another town was received happily and we shared our homes and our food with them. So despite the fact that they would say we shouldn’t have illusions and that our fates had already been decided and it was only a matter of a time, people refused to listen.
I remember a young man from nearby Pleshensitz who came to us after the massacre there. He insisted that the Jews should prepare some dry bread and escape to the forests. Only a few listened to him, but most of the community said that he was insane. But then came the bitter day and what we so feared occurred…..
On March 17, 1942 as dawn came we realized that the Gestapo had surrounded the town. They started taking Jews out of their homes and herded them into the central Market Square. Not one person left his home willingly. The Germans and their local collaborators took the Jews out of their homes by force. It took only about an hour and all of the Jews of the town, old, women, and babies were in the central market, surrounded by Germans with drawn weapons. I won’t give details of that bitter day. Even today I cannot bring myself to discuss that, but I will try to tell about a few special moments that have left an eternal imprint in my heart.
While we were standing there, surrounded by the Gestapo, waiting for our deaths, a few of the police from the local population came to us and announced, “Jews, these are your last minutes on this earth. Give us the gold and the money that you hid. Anyway, you’ll never be able to use it.”
Since the community had already given up, some started telling them where they had left their possessions. Even my husband Jonah wanted to give his knife, but I told him not to, since I thought they would get mad that he was only giving them a knife. I remember that Hillel Kopilovich told one of the Germans that in his house he had gold and silver. The German took him out of the line and brought him to his home to take the treasure, but Hillel really wanted to take his tallit and fillim, and to try to trick the German. As soon as he took his tallit, the German thought there was gold inside the cover of the tallit, and he pulled it out of his hand and realized he had been lied to. He became very cruel and started beating him until blood spilled everywhere. Hillel returned all wounded and covered with blood. The German kept cursing him, “Cheating bloody Jew.”
Even today I don’t have the ability to describe that horrible feeling we felt when the Germans started making a selection of who was to live and who was to die. The Germans needed only small portions, about 20 families of skilled workers. Amongst them they chose my husband and I, with our child Yehudah, to live.
The sight of torture will never leave my eyes. I saw my handsome, talented, dear brother Yakov, his body was lifeless in the middle of the street. Until today, the ripping calls of my little brother Elimelech ring in my ears. He said to me with a heart-wrenching cry, “But I am so young, why do I have to die? Why do I have a death sentence?”
The torturous image of barbaric sadism that was so thirsty for blood forever stays with me. My husband’ sister, Yocheved Shapira, who was selected to be killed, handed me her beautiful little daughter Henia, with her golden curls, to be given to her sister Zipora (Korbynik) who lived in Eretz Israel. But a German sharp eye discovered the transfer, and with cold blood, he pulled the girl out of my arms, holding her by her golden curls, and threw her with full force on the road and shattered her skull.
It was about 40 degrees Celsius below zero, and those condemned to death stood frozen and in shock. Here and there were young people who tried to organize rebelion to jump the killers and escape. They were told by their parents not to do it, that maybe God would save us in the last minute.
All of a sudden I heard the voice of my mother in law, who called my husband Jonah to not forget to pray Kaddish for them so that their souls would go to heaven. Surrounded on all sides, the Jews of Ilja were taken on their last walk, their final steps…. Many walked apathetically, as if they were lambs in the slaughter. Many wore their tallits. They were pushed into the icehouse, which was situated in an empty lot near the house of Veinus. The machine guns shot at them as they were walking in. All the doors were then locked, and the building was set on fire. The sounds of “Shema Israel, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai HaEhad” kept coming from inside it until everything became quiet and all became dust.
Picture 1. The Brunstein family
Standing from left; brother Ytzhak who came to Argentina before the war. The author, Bat- Sheva. Brother Yaakov who perished on. March 17, 1942
Sitting; parents; Yudel who died before the war and Yente who perished on March 17, 1942. The young Elimelech (melech) Brunstein who perished on. March 17, 1942 is at the bottom
Picture 2 the Brunstein brothers who went to Argentina; on the right, Binyamin whom when the book was written lived in Argentina and Baruch who died in Argentina at a young age.

The ones who were sentenced to live were locked in the barn of Tartavich until the killers finished their destruction of all the Jews in the town and burning their homes. We were freed only at night. We settled in a few houses across from the big synagogue. The houses we settled in started from Sarah Racha Sinders’ home (mother of Melech and Wolf), and ended in the house of Baruch Levin. Surrounding these homes there was barbed wire and this was a temporary ghetto for the few survivors.
The next morning, Zusman Gitlitz and my husband were ordered to collect the bodies of the Jews that had been shot near their homes or in their hiding places. My father-in-law, Noach Riar, was able to hide during the massacre and survive. I asked him to live with us. He asked me to go with him to his home to take something. I refused and said to him, “Only yesterday you were able to escape death and now you are already trying to risk your life? I will not go with you.” My heart told me that something bad would happen, but my father-in-law was very stubborn and insisted that he should go. The son of his sister, the young boy Itzhak Alperovich, felt pity for him and joined him. They went to the house and opened the door. A Gestapo man came by, and he shot and killed them on the spot.
My husband Jonah and Zusman Gitlitz, who collected the bodies, happened to pass by at that moment across the house. They received orders from that Gestapo man to take the two additional bodies. Jonah who was dismayed to see the body of his father refused to work for them any longer. For that he paid dearly. The Gestapo man beat him mercilessly, and he was wounded badly. Blood spread everywhere, and he had to lie in bed for several days until his wounds healed.
A few days passed and my husband Jonah was transferred to the Vileyka Ghetto Camp for work, and at this point, my son and I were still in the Ilja Ghetto. I very much wanted to join my husband, but it was very difficult to even get in touch with my husband. Since Jews were not allowed to send mail, I had to illegally transfer notes to him by local people who went to Vileyka. But at this point there was no way to receive permission to join him.
Life in the Ilja ghetto continued, but now there were no illusions about our fate. Most of the people knew that their days were numbered. In order for them to survive, they started organizing groups to build bunkers and hideouts, but no one wanted to have me join, fearing that my baby would cry and the hideout would be discovered. My soul was very bitter and I cried continuously. When the holy day of Shavuot came, finally the miracle that I so hoped for occurred. All of a sudden, there was an announcement in the Ilja police to have Rishka Epstein “Yankel Sheina’s” and I with my baby to be taken out for transportation to Vileyka. So finally, during the holy day, we joined our husbands.
It didn’t take long, and the rest of the Jews in the Ilja Ghetto were massacred. Although most of them hid in their bunkers and hideouts, they were all caught. A few tried to escape, but they were shot while running. Only three people succeeded in reaching the forest: Shraga Solominsky, my husband’ cousin, Chaim Riar, and David Rubin. Shraga Solominsky and David Rubin joined the partisans and after the war came with us to Israel. Chaim Riar who also joined the partisans, was killed during a partisan mission near the village Olkovitz. It seemed that once again the hand of fate decided in the last minute to give us (my child and I ) a reprieve and let us survive.
Life in the Ghetto of Vileyka was unbearable. The women had to harness themselves instead of horses, and to pull firewood. They also had to clear the snow from the streets, to clean the toilets, and other work. After a while they divided the population into two camps. The professional men who were under Commissar Schmidt and the women under the Jew from Kurenets, Zisting.
After half a year, the women’s ghetto was liquidated and most of them were killed, and then arguments started in our ghetto about escaping to the forest. I was all for escape, but my husband Jonah said that our baby would never survive life in the forest. I answered that it’s better he die from starvation or from freezing than that we should all be killed here by the Germans.
Meanwhile, the idea of escaping became more and more favored by the Jews in Vileyka, so we started preparing for life in the forest. First we wanted to collect weapons and ammunition for the partisans. As the contact between the Ghetto and the partisans and other Jews in the forest increased, there was a Christian farmer who would bring wood for the German Commissar. This Christian man brought regards from the Jews who lived in the forest. The husband (Yerachmiel Shapira) of my sister-in-law Yoheved, who perished in the first massacre in Ilja, was amongst the Jews who hid in the forest. He would send us notes via the Christian farmer demanding that we should join him. The partisans demanded that we should transfer bullets and ammunition. The head of the camp/ghetto, Schatz, a Jewish guy originally from Austria, arranged for weapons. Some were stolen from the Germans and some were bought. We took anything we could.
During the winter of 1943, a few days before the holy day of Purim, something unexpected occurred that made us run to the forest before the planned time. The farmer who was our contact with the partisans came to the ghetto to transfer the bullets that we would hide in a hollowed out piece of wood, which had been specially made. After the wood was put in his wagon, it seemed like the police needed his wagon, so one Gestapo man came and took the wagon from the farmer. When the Jews in the ghetto found out about it, they assumed that the police realized that we had been transferring weapons, and now they were going to get their revenge, so we fled unorganized.
My husband Jonah took his yellow star off and walked out of the ghetto and out of the town in quick steps. I also took off the yellow tag and started walking through the main street of Vileyka, carrying my little son Yehudah. So like this we walked. First Jonah, and I many steps behind him. When we arrived to the outside edges of the town, he disappeared, and while I was looking for him, I encountered German soldiers who were training. I knew that I had no choice and that I could not retreat, so I walked confidently forward, resolved to walk straight, although I didn’t even know where I was walking. So like this I passed by the German soldiers, and they didn’t seem to suspect at all that I was Jewish.
I couldn’t find my husband, but I remember that in one of my conversations we decided that if we got lost, each one of us should try to reach Hatzentzitz. So now this became my goal. I found myself by the public slaughterhouse and the burned bridge on the river Vilja. I reached a small house near the slaughterhouse. I entered the door and told the Christian owner that I was a Jew. I continued saying, “Now they are murdering us, but I prefer to be killed while escaping.”
The Christian man looked at me and said, “Too bad. You are still a young woman and you might bring something useful to this world.”
He told me to wait there until nighttime, and then he would help me cross the frozen river. So he did that and blessed me with good luck. So now I was across the other side of the river. This was a dark, wintry night. I was in an unfamiliar surrounding, with a baby in my arms. The first thing I tried was to enter the forest and get lost deep in it. This was the first time in my life where I was in a wintry night alone in a forest. As I was getting deeper and deeper, I saw from afar, blinking lights. I kept walking until I reached a small house. Without considering the danger, I knocked on the door and entered. I put the baby on the bench near the entrance and asked the owner to let me rest. The owner gave my baby a little milk and he gave me some food. Only then did he ask me, “Who are you? Where are you going in such bad weather?”
I didn’t lie to him nor did I try to avoid answering. I said that I was escaping from the Germans. They let me rest and sleep there, but the next morning they asked me to leave. I thanked the owner for his kindness, and said that I was not planning on staying there anyway, and that I planned to reach Hatzentzitz. I asked how I should continue without encountering the Germans. He said that if I continued a certain way, in his estimation I should reach my goal. It only took ten minutes after I left the house and reached the main road. I felt behind me that there was a German police. I was too fearful to go right or left to return to the forest, which might make them suspicious, so I kept moving forward quickly. I had one hope in my heart, that there would be a house near the road so I could go there until they passed. Finally I reached the house, but the owner of the home refused to let me enter. She said that the Germans were in the town. I begged her with eyes filled with tears and implored her to at least take my baby. It seemed like I succeeded in getting some pity from her. She motioned to me to walk behind her, and she took me to the pig sty. After hiding there for a few hours, she returned and told me that the Germans had come and asked if there were any Jews in the village, and then they left.
Her story made me feel confident enough to ask her where I could meet with the partisans without using the main road where there were many Germans. Surprisingly, she was very kind. Her husband brought me past the village along a side road, and instructed me in how to reach the village Phozba. He thought I could meet with the partisans. Finally, I started believing that I was on the right road, but as you will find out, I still had to go through the seven levels of Gehennam.
I reached the village Phozba in the afternoon. I entered the first home and asked if I could get some hot water for my child. They inquired about where I had come from. I didn’t tell the truth, but my accent told that I was Jewish. Despite the fact that this village was a large one, immediately there was a rumor that a Jewish woman with a baby in her arms had come looking for help, and all the residents of that village were warned by one another to not help me.
Night came and I was hungry and thirsty and frozen. I walked with my child who slept in my arms, and I cried. I didn’t know where I was going. Was I going in the direction of the partisans or directly into the arms of the Germans? All of a sudden, a door of a small home opened, and at the entrance stood an old farm-woman. She asked me why I did not ask her for help. I said, “Because here there are only mean people. Not one of the people I asked for help let me enter his home.”
The farm woman said to me, “My daughter, the war is not over yet, and who knows what our own fate will be?”
When she finished her sentence, she opened the door wide and asked me to enter. She prepared warm meals for my son and I. She changed our wet clothes and gave us some dry clothing, and then asked who I was and what was my wish. I told her the entire truth, that I was looking for partisans since my husband joined them. Now I am trying to save ours lives.
I was wondering if my husband was really able to survive this difficult road? Was he sitting there patiently waiting for me? I went to sleep, and at one point the farm woman woke me up, saying that soon the partisans would arrive. While we were waiting, a Christian woman from Vileyka came by and told the homeowner that she saw many bodies of Jewish women and children lying in the streets of Vileyka, and they also found many men who were killed in the forest. This news made me feel horrible, but I couldn’t think too much about it as the homeowner said, “Let’s leave your baby here, and I will take you to the forest, and together we will join the partisans.”
It seemed like my hopes were coming true. As I met the first partisans, I told them the entire truth, and when they asked what it is that I wanted, I asked them to take me to Hatzaetzitzn. They didn’t refuse but they said I had to wait four days, since now they were on their way to destroy a train. I refused to wait four days, but they said, “Do as you wish” and they left.
I stayed with my hostess for another night. At three in the morning, another group of partisans arrived. I asked them what I should do. When they asked, “Why do you have to go to Hatzetzitzin?” I told them that it was where I had made tentative plans with my husband, who was somewhere with the partisans. They told me all the villages that I should go through to reach my destination.
Since there were many attacks by the partisans, the Germans kept guard in most of the villages that I was to go through, but it seemed like the partisans didn’t know about it at that point. Since I took out-of-the-way roads, the first village that I reached had a river that I had to cross to reach it. I didn’t know what to do to overcome this obstacle, and I decided to throw the baby like a ball to the other side of the river, and I would cross it by swimming. With resolution I did it.
I crossed the river by swimming and reached my son who was lying on the ground, wounded and bloody. As a result, my child stopped talking and had a strange look in his eye that yelled, “Mother, what did you do to me?” I took my kerchief and wet it with the river’s water and washed his face. I put it on his wounds, but blood continued to gush. We were wet and frozen and hungry, but I didn’t lose my resolve. When I entered the village, I entered the first home and the homeowner asked me what happened to my child. I cried hysterically as a result, but didn’t answer her at to what had happen. So she put some bandages on his wounds and gave us some food, and we continued.
The next village was near the town Viyazin, and I could see it from afar. I walked fast and determined, knowing that once I reached it I could rest from the long road and enable my baby to rest . I entered the first home but as soon as I opened the door, I was in shock. All the blood came to my face and my heart raced. In front of me stood a Christian man who I knew. He had been a regular customer in our store and knew my parents by their first names, and also me. But I stopped myself and pretended to be calm and said in Polish, “Good morning.”
Later on I found out that he also pretended and said to me, “Who are you and where did you come from?”
I said that I came from Vilkiluki, and that the Germans entered and everyone escaped. And now I am on the way to Shtakovotizhna, near Hatzenzeitz, where I am going to work in agriculture. The farmer said, “It’s very interesting but I know someone in Ilja who looks so much like you, like a mirror image of you. That woman is the daughter of Yudel and Yente Brunstein.”
I pretended to be naïve, “Where is Ilja?”
But since I wanted to change the subject, I asked him if I could have the baby rest here. Unwillingly the farmer let me change the subject. Finally with emphasis he said, “Since you look so much like the daughter of my acquaintances, I will let you eat and rest, and even to sleep.”
I lay down but I couldn’t sleep at all. I kept thinking, “Should I tell him the truth and disclose that I am Jewish or should I act like I knew nothing of what he was saying?”
Early in the morning I heard the farmer and his wife whispering about the strange resemblance between the daughter of Yente Brunstein and I. I decided to tell the truth, and the farmer thanked me for being honest. He said, “Even if you didn’t tell me, I would show you the road, but surely you would fall into the hands of the Germans. But since I am thankful to you parents for some good deeds that they did for me, I will take you to another road that goes through the partisan area.”
I took that road safely and arrived to the village Kozli. Here I was lucky once more. When I reached the outskirts of the village, I encountered children playing. When I asked them if I could cross the river, they said yes but they emphasized it was not a good idea now since the Germans had entered the town.
This made me very upset, but I didn’t think much. Immediately I went back and hid deep in the forest, staying there until dark. As dark came, I decided to go to the other side of the river, and if I couldn’t, I preferred to drown than to continue a life with no chance of survival. I didn’t want to enter any homes in this village, since even before the war I knew that they hated Jews. Many of them were murderers and thieves, and this was the first village that did pogroms when the Germans entered, and they started the pillaging and looting from the Jews.
When I reached the shore of the river with my son in my arms, I encountered two villagers in a boat. I greeted them with good evening and asked them to transfer me to the other side of the river. They asked me who I was and asked me where I was going. Once again I repeated the old tune, saying I was a refugee from Vileyki Loki going off to find work. They invited me to sit in the boat, and in a few minutes I was on the other side.
I thanked them with tears in my eyes and in my imagination I saw myself in Hatzentzin, but it wasn’t so simple and easy. When I asked the villagers to show me the direction, they showed me the right directions but I was so excited and confused that I walked in the wrong direction, going back in the direction of Ilja.
Only when I reached the village Zaborya with the light of the bright moon did I see the cross on the Catholic Church that I started questioning the directions. In the crossroad of the main road of Zaborya I encountered a farmer who told me I was only a few kilometers from my town Ilja. I thanked him for this information and continued, but as soon as he disappeared, I turned around and ran into the forest. I ran all the time through the forest, to a certain direction but I didn’t know where I was. I became all drenched and filled with sweat, and after I couldn’t walk anymore, I sat and rested. My dress became frozen, my teeth were chattering, but lucky for me the child slept through the entire time. Maybe the clear air caused this.
I rested a little bit before continuing on my way. My frozen dress kept making noise while I was walking, and in my imagination the noise became like the sounds of bullets being shot at me, but I continued my walk resolutely. Many times I prayed that a wild animal would kill me, or that even a German would get me. But I encountered no one. Since I walked for such a long time, it seemed to me that the road had no ending. I was so tired that I kept falling. Finally I just sat on the snow and fell asleep until morning came.
I woke up to the sounds of dogs barking from afar and decided to go in that direction. Every time the dog barked, I got up and walked. When he stopped, I rested. Finally I reached a farm house. It seemed that the farmers were still asleep. I knocked on the door. The owner came and asked me what I wanted. I asked if I could rest there, and he went back in the house and asked his wife what he should do. He said to her that there was a woman with a baby in her arms and that she asked to rest. His wife agreed.
As I entered, the couple started asking me questions. I said, “Forgive me, but I am so tired that I can’t answer you.” I lay on the ground, which was made of clay, and I lay down with my son and fell asleep.
I don’t know how long I slept, but when the owners woke me up, it was already dusk. The winter sun sent its last rays through the windows, some of which had no glass. The owners of the home gave me food and asked me the usual questions, “Where are you coming from? Where are you going?”
I was already desperate and the hope of meeting with my husband, which kept me overcoming the obstacles, was almost gone. In many ways, I lost my will to survive, without hesitation, I told them openly of my situation and said, “You can give me to the Germans to be killed”, and I really meant it because I could not continue like this.
The farmer understood me and said kind words, “Don’t worry, you’ve finally reached the partisan area. You are now in the village Huta. Last night, there were to Jewish partisans here, Solominsky and Riar from Ilja.”
When I heard the name Riar, I was so excited that my eyes started to fill with tears. I thought he was talking about my husband Jonah, but later I found out he was talking about his cousin Chaim, but still my spirits were lifted. Meanwhile, night came and I decided to continue towards Hatsetzin. Maybe I could encounter some Jews amongst the partisans and find some information about my husband.
The villager who walked with me said, “You can continue without fear. Here you will encounter no Germans.”
I continued utnil I saw a flickering light and I decided to go there. It was a small ranch, Bartizky. I entered the home without waiting for them to let me in. I found a place to sit, and they asked me once again, “Where are you from? Where are you going?”
When I answered I was from Ilja, they didn’t hide their feelings, and with surprising openness they said they did not feel any pity for the perished Jews from Ilja. They only felt pity for the Riar family. When I said to them that I was a member of the Riar family, they didn’t believe me and said, “We know all the family members.”
I explained to them that I was the wife of Jonah. When I said his name it seemed they were really happy. They gave me new clothes for my son and good food. Since I was in a hurry to continue, they suggested I should go to the village Starinski, that was located near Hatzentzitz. I took my son in my arms and with renewed confidence walked in the direction of the village Starinski. Although it was in full light, fear left me entirely. I reached the village in the evening and was immediately stopped by a partisan who brought me to the headquarters in the village.
The interrogator asked me many questions, and I answered them honestly. “Shoot her,” he said, “She’s a spy. How could it be that young men who tried to escape from Vileyka were killed, while she with a baby in her arms is here while the road is filled with German soldiers? This is unbelievable.”
All my explanations were not accepted. They asked me where I intended to go, so I told them “ I was looking for my husband, who I thought was in the area of Hatzentzsitz.”
Meanwhile, many of the villagers came to look at me, the Jewish spy. One of them asked me who I was, and I said I was from Ilja, and the daughter of Yente Brunstein. The Christian man made the cross and asked the interrogator not to shoot me, since he knew my parents and even knew my grandmother and I couldn’t be a spy. But still the investigators did not listen to me.
I said loudly, “Never mind. Your bullet is also a bullet, but still it would be easier to die with your bullets than from a German’s bullets.”
This made the interrogator think. He asked one of the Christian men to bring some of the Jews from Hatzentzitsz . “If they recognized you, you would be believed. “
The Christian men brought some Jews, and I didn’t recognize them, but when they started talking I recognized the voice of Chaim Yosef. I said loudly, “Chaim Yosef!” but he didn’t recognize me. He knew my mother Yente; everyone knew her, but they didn’t know me. In spite of this, the interrogator released me and told them to take me with them, but the Jews didn’t want me to join them since they didn’t want to take care of me and my baby and supply us with food. I promised them that I would not be a burden to them, that I only wanted them to take me out of there. Finally, Elka who came from Minsk and who lived here with Shimshon from Hatzentsitz, agreed to take me with them. She carried the child in her arms and we all entered the bunker. In the middle of the forest, in the ground, they dug trenches and covered them and camouflaged them, and that’s where they lived. When I first entered the trenches, I couldn’t see anything, but slowly my eyes got used to it, and I could see that this was a trench of about 10 meters long, and about a meter and a half wide. The walls were made of pine trees, and they separated us from the ground. On the two sides of the long wall, there were beds made of branches of trees so only one person at a time could pass through the width of the trench. Before we came there, there were 19 people living there, so now with my son and I there were 21 souls in a very crowded condition, without sufficient air or water. There was no chance of washing clothes and barely any places to wash, so it wasn’t a surprise that this was an ideal place for lice, which were everywhere. Their survival depended on going to the nearby villages and begging for food. When we returned from such difficult workdays to beg for food, which would be a piece of bread and once in a while potatoes, we divided our time for our second duty, which was to get rid of the lice. Each one would hold lucgyna, a burning piece of wood. We would take our clothes and get rid of the lice. When this chore was finished, dinner would be made without washing our hands. In one of the corners of this trench, there was some sort of oven where they cooked the meals when they had something to cook. My first meal I was invited by Chana the wife of Shimon. It was some kind of vegetable without any salt or oil or fat. I couldn’t eat it, and even my son couldn’t eat it. They gave us a place to sleep and since I Was so tired from my long journey I slept well.
In the morning, I woke up happy thinking that soon I would meet my husband. Chana gave me breakfast that contained four potatoes, two for me and two for my son, and we ate it with a great appetite. I tried to befriend everyone here, but I felt especially close to Elka from Minsk. She seemed to understand me much better than the others. I told her how I feared for the fate of my husband. Many times I would talk to my little son, I would ask him whether is father were alive, and he would shake his head positive.
A few days passed and I asked my friend Elka, “How do you get the food?”
She told me that they begged the villagers. I started shaking. How could I do that? I didn’t even know the roads. But the will to survive was stronger than my shame and my fear; after four days my friend Elka gave me a backpack and said, “For the first time, we will go together, and this will make it easier for you spiritually. Eventually you will get used to it.”
The sense of starvation at that moment eliminated all the shame. I left my baby with the other people in the bunker, and together with Elka, we went on our way.
When we arrived at the first village, she told me to go to the first house and ask for a piece of bread. I entered the house but when the woman asked me what I wanted, I became red and then white and I could hardly say the sentence, “A piece of bread.” Immediately I started crying hysterically. The farm woman understood I was new in this “profession” and said, “It must be your first time but you will get used to it.”
When I heard her I became even more distraught and cried even louder. She gave me half a loaf of bread. I lowered my eyes and left her home broken. Elka waited for me. When I encountered her, I cried again but she had nothing to say other than, “You will get used to it.”
She suggested we go to a few more homes, but I refused. I asked her to take me home since I was fearful that I would not be able to find my way.
When we returned, I gave a piece of bread for my son, and the rest I hid as if it was a most valuable treasure. When the bread was finished after four days, and again I felt the pangs of hunger, I left with my neighbor in the bunker, Segal, to another village. He went to one area and I went to another, and we received potatoes, and a few pieces of bread. When I returned, my neighbor Chana said my son was scratching and suggested that I should see if he had any lice. I insisted that this could not be, but the child was restless and crying. I didn’t know what was wrong since he could not speak, so I decided to check him, and when I looked, my eyes darkened. The child was filled with lice. I tried to clean the dirt as much as I could. From then on I knew that when my child was crying I should check his clothing.
Since our daily condition was very difficult, and the shame of receiving food was so strong, I trained my young son to not ask for food supplies from other people. Like this our life continued for a few more months. After some time, Jews arrived to the forest. They were the survivors who had escaped from the Krasne ghetto in the last minute before it was liquidated. Amongst them was Mulik Dubrovski from Molodechno, his wife Shulamit, Bela Kaminski, and others.
Meanwhile, spring arrived and all the neighbors who lived with me decided to go to other areas since most of the villagers in the area knew the exact location of our bunker, and there was a chance that one of them would inform the Germans. To my sorrow, none of the people wanted me to join them. They didn’t want a small child whose cries would give up the location of the hideout. I thought that maybe I should stay there by myself, but who would take care of the baby when I was out looking for food? I cried to my friend Elka and said, “All of you have difficult times, but my situation is much harder with a little baby. It’s not the starvation that I fear, it’s the loneliness that I would feel.”
Elka said she was very sorry that she could not help me because she also needed the help of others. And this was true. A family that she didn’t know before helped her.
First left the family of Shimon from Hatzentsitz, and then the family of Shimon from Zahuta, and Chaim Yosef from Hatzentzitz and his household, and for the time, only the family of Levin from Radishkovich stayed, but they were already preparing a new place, and that meant I would stay alone. This made me feel awful, and I had to plan what I should do next.
I realized that there were some villages in the area that my parents had many dealings with, so I suggested to Chaim that we can go to a more distant village where I knew the people and they would give us food for a week. He looked at me as if I was crazy, but I didn’t stop asking him. The reason I asked him was double. First I wanted to gather a large amount of food, but I also wanted to show them that I was useful so that they would let me join them, since they also had a small child.
Finally, Chaim and Isaac Levin left with me in the morning on the way to Krabiaki, where I knew most of the farmers. When we arrived, Chaim and Isaac realized that all the villagers there knew me and were helpful. They gave us large food supplies that contained bread, eggs, milk and potatoes, and in this time it was a huge gift. Now I felt that they would let me stay with them. When we arrived, we divided the food, and I received enough food to last for a few weeks, but what I feared for came. One day Chaim notified me that his family would transfer and they would not let me join. I said that I would not stay there by myself for even one minute, and that I would leave and God would be with me. When he saw I would be very stubborn about it, he agreed to let me join, and I took my son and carried the food in my backpack. We started wandering from one location to another. We met many other villagers who were wandering, and we asked them why they were wandering since they were not Jews.
They said that the Germans had a blockade in the village in the forest, and that they were looking for Jews and Partisans, and they shot whoever they encountered.
We started walking east, but in a few days we started to hear the sounds of machine guns and planes, and we changed directions according to the sound. After a few days, we encountered all the families that we met before. Yosef from Hatzemsitz knew the roads in the forest very well, and he walked ahead. Even the non-Jewish villagers accepted him as the leader without questioning. Amongst the Jews I met Mulik Dubrovski from Molodechno. I also met Shulamit and his first wife Batya. I don’t know why, but Batya who I so wanted to befriend did not befriend me. She did not want me to join them, and she would chase me with a stick. Clearly I did not pay attention to her and walked behind them from a certain distance. During some of the time when we could not receive any food from the villagers, the men were able to steal some food, but I couldn’t do it, since I carried my son on my back. So our stomachs became enlarged from starvation. Despite the fact that the child was practically starving, he didn’t cry. This was the time of the blockade and we were in great danger, so it seemed that he felt the tension. At one point, the wife of Zalman gave me a few leftovers from a porridge that she had made. My son and I started fighting over the food, competing for the small scraps.
During the blockade, thousands of villagers had their farms set on fire. Many escaped to the forest, which was now crowded with people. As the Nazis retreated, people started returning to the west. At first I didn’t know whom to join since no one wanted me, but finally Mulik Dubrovski and Shulamit felt sorry for me and asked me to join them. We went to the area of Praveh’s marhses and there we encountered many Jews from Horodok, Krasne, Volozhin and hatzentzitz I became very good friends with Mulik and Shulamit. They were a very nice couple. Everyone who encountered them would be charmed. They were kind and loyal friends. Whenever Shulamit received food, the first thing she would was to go to my sun Yehudah to share the food with him, so now my condition improved a lot. I had someone to share my worries and fears, and when I had to leave to get food, Shulamit would take care of my son and I knew she would do her utmost for him.
When I passed through a village, Mishitz, I encountered the partisan Moshe Eliezer from Nyaka, who was an old friend of my husband. I told him my situation, and he asked me where I could meet him again. He promised to come to see me and he told me that I should not be a beggar anymore. The next day he came with a wagon which had a sack full of potatoes and loaves of bread and a lamb, and clothes for my son and others. Do you know what a treasure it was? Now everyone tried to befriend me since I had such variety of food. Truly the food didn’t last very long, but this was a good period in which I didn’t have to worry for my son. I stayed constantly in the house, but finally I had to return to begging since the food was finished. In the place where we were located, all the villages around were very poor so the villagers didn’t have enough for themselves, so we had to go far to find food. We were in the area of Kramnitz, in a beautiful dry forest on a hill, but to reach the forest was very difficult. You had to go through mud which reached all the way to your waist. And we had to go through that every time we wanted to reach a village.
When we walked through the mud, no one would help. Each one wanted to get out of there as soon as possible, so this situation prevented me from begging for food too often. So as a result of it, I limited the amount of food that my son and I would eat. Each would get only two potatoes a day. Sometimes my son would demand another potato. I would beat him when he kept demanding. One time, I became so crazy that I pulled him by his hair and wanted to kill him.
In the summer there was much rain and we rotted from the wetness. We were not able to build an adequate shelter since in our group no one knew how to cut wood and build housing. So we just hid under the trees. It seemed that everyone’s legs became swollen and our tattered clothes were filled with lice. In all the forests there were Jews from different towns. Some of them knew how to take care of themselves. For example the Jews of Horodok were very well equipped. They knew how to use an axe and saw. They were able to get a supply of nails, and they built themselves huts. They would cut trees and make campfires where they dried clothes and killed the lice, and also to keep warm. They were very tough and didn’t let others enjoy their privileged conditions. I was particularly disliked by them since there was one family who had choked their babies with their own hands before their escape from the ghetto, and when they saw me fighting for the life of my child, they felt guilt, remorse and envy.
Another family from Horodok who were known as the “cold- smiths” had a son that was a member of “Hanochem” partisan brigade. He came to visit his parents and I told him about my husband, who I still hadn’t found. He said that he was together with Chaim Riar and that he would give him a letter from me. I wrote Chaim a note telling him about my situation and asked him to arrange for a place for me near him. When the Horodoker returned to his unit, he didn’t have time to give the note to Chaim since he was immediately sent on a mission, but he gave it to a Christian man in the unit and asked him to give it to Riar.
Strange fate: this Christian man was sent that day to the headquarters of another partisan unit; “The Fighter”. He found out that there was a person by the name of Riar in this unit, so he gave him my note. When my husband Jonah read the note, he was in shock, until this point he did not know what had happened to me. Now he recognized my handwriting….

I kept visiting the smith from Horodok, the father of the partisan to whom I gave the letter, but he didn’t receive any information from his son. All my thoughts were with the note I sent to chaim, but I had to continue with going to the villages, begging for food. Once when I went to a village, I heard loud shots that came from nearby, and I encountered some Jews running away to the east. When I asked what happened, they said that it seemed like the Germans had found the location of our camp and they were bombing the area. At that point I had a big sack filled with food that I was carrying, and this slowed my retreat, but as soon as I heard what they said, I ran home since I had left my son with some neighbors. I had a big dilemma. Should I throw away the heavy load? But how can I let go of such treasure during days of starvation? So I threw away my heavy boots instead and ran barefoot.
The neighbors were waiting for me impatiently. They asked that I not join them. Everyone was against it, fearing that my child would reveal their escape route by crying. I was devastated and decided to just stay in the area no matter what. So for a few days I stayed there all-alone with my son, and we had plenty of food, and I was in apathetic spirits about being found by the Germans, but once again I was lucky. After a few days of relative peace, the neighbors returned to the area.
My spirit kept giving me hope that my letter would reach the appropriate people. One evening I heard someone yelling, “Bat Sheva! Bat Sheva!” I was fearful once again that there was a blockade, but when I came near, I heard someone saying, “Bat Sheva, your husband arrived!”
My heart shook, but my brain did not understand. Could it be? Is the period of loneliness and being chased finally over? Jonah went to me and held me in his arms and took Yehudah and didn’t let us go. Even now I cannot describe the excitement of the meeting, but one thing I am sure: even the trees of the forest cried with us.
The next day, we left for Kramnitz. Jonah came with a carriage with another partisan, so now we didn’t have to walk anymore. It took two days and then we arrived to the base of his brigade, Halochem.
Now we were in much better conditions. We lived in a hut and we had a sufficient amount of food and in the condition of being a partisan in the forest, could anyone wish for more than that? Now the main problem that I faced was how to get rid of the lice, which was not an easy proposition in the condition of constant travel. Finally, Jonah received permission to take me to a village where they had a bathhouse, and there we were able to get rid of the lice. It was as if my son and I were newly born.
But life seems not as simple, since after many months of practically starving, now that I ate regularly I would become sick, but after a short time I recovered. After a short time, Jonah was sent on some missions in derailing a trains in the Vileyka area. I stayed with his unit. From then on, I had everything needed. As time passed, many parents and wives of the partisans came to the area, and they built a camp of huts especially for the family members.
The location was a pretty long distance from the headquarters of the brigade. I lived together with two other families and became good friend
Two partisans were assigned to our camp to provide us with food. Our clothes became tattered in time. Since there were concerns about the sanitary conditions, the partisans built a primitive bathhouse in the area. The camp also had 11 cows that we took turn in taking out to pasture. When my turn came, I explained to everyone that I had never done anything like this and I preferred to do any hard job other than this one. But people stubbornly said that I must take the cows so I had no choice but to go. What I feared came true: I didn’t know how to control the cows, and they entered fields that had vegetables and wheat and caused much damage. The local farmers started cursing me, saying, “She must be a Jew. Our people know how to herd cows without causing damage.”
I listened without responding since I knew that they were right.
At that point, a partisan unit walked by. There was a Jew among them, and when he heard them curse a bloody Jew, he came to me and asked me if I am really a Jew. When I said yes, he helped me gather the cows and the herd and bring it back to the camp.
I returned to the head of the camp Piotr Iskovitch and said to him, “I returned the cows. I don’t want milk for my child, and I refuse to herd since I don’t know how to do it.”
“What kind of a Communist are you? How could you not know how to herd cattle?” He was a longtime communist and it seemed that he didn’t particularly like Jews. Still, being the one Jew among 70 Christian people here, it was at time better than being with Jews. I got along well with them.
When Piotr Iskovitch asked me, “What was the occupation of your parents?” I answered that my father was a shoemaker and my mother was a seamstress, and my husband was a locksmith. This proved that I came from a pure proletariat background, and I was better accepted by him.
Originally, the partisans who took care of us and supplied food for the camp were Robitsky and Lewinsky. When they were replaced, the two guys who came said that during the attack on the train from Vileyka, a few partisans were killed. I was very fearful and immediately asked the fate of Jonah, but I didn’t want to ask directly, so I said, “What happened to the partisan troop that came from here?”
He said, “The luck of a Jew. There was only one of them who we took out on the mission, but he returned safely.”
This was all I needed to hear, my Jonah was alive!
More families came to the camp. They were Christian people from Vileyka. When I told them I had been in the Vileyka Ghetto and escaped at the last minute, they were surprised. There was a rumor that all the Jews had been killed. [This rumor was erroneous; quite a few survived.]
Months passed and I didn’t see my husband. He kept taking part in missions, but I would get notes from him.
The summer was gone and fall came and the rain kept coming, and it became cold. We stayed in the huts and then expected to receive orders to build underground shelters, but the orders didn’t come. Winter came and there was heavy snow. My son and I were still barefoot, and our legs became swollen from the cold. Finally they built bunkers, and the first bunker that was built was given to me along with 30 other families. I must say that those bunkers were much improvement over the bunkers I lived in when in the forest near Hatzentzitz.
Fate is strange and unexplainable. It seems like all my tribulations and unbelievable hardships caused me to be extremely healthy in an almost miraculous way. When I lived with the 30 Christian families, each and every one became sick with typhus. Despite the fact that I slept next to them and I breathed the same air and took care of them when they were sick, neither my son nor I became sick with typhus. The brigade doctor was very busy and had no time to visit our camp. My neighbors prayed that I would get sick, since the doctor was Jewish and they were hoping that Dr. Kottler [from Dolhinov] would visit them if he heard there was a Jew who was sick. So when I didn’t get sick they tricked the doctor and informed the partisans that my son and I had become sick.
When my husband Jonah heard the rumor, he went to the doctor and begged him to come with him. When Jonah came with the doctor to the camp, they found all our neighbors were sick and my son and I healthy, which was much to the doctor’s surprise given that we were surrounded by sick people.
Although he checked all the sick people, he had no medicine to give them. In spite of all of it, eventually everyone healed. The situation went through some changes. The partisans who were supposed to bring us food were called back to active duty, and now we had to take care of ourselves. They still sent us food once in a while, but the food was not as plentiful as before.
When spring came, the camp was Dismantled. All the people were transferred to the village Mistanovich to live in homes of farmers. If I said that they received us with open arms, it would be an exaggeration. But with pressure from the partisans, the owners of the farmhouses received us Reluctantly with gritted teeth.
It seemed like my tribulations, which didn’t leave physical scars, would leave deep emotional scars. During the nights I would scream out of my sleep and mention names that were unknown and in a language that the farm owner did not understand, so she told everyone that I was insane. At first I didn’t understand why everyone I encountered from the village kept asking me questions. Since I answered logically to all the questions, they shook their heads and said, “What does your hostess want from you? You seem perfectly normal.”
I didn’t answer them but in my heart I felt, “If only you went through a little bit of the pain that I suffered, you would all become insane.”
One night when we were all in deep sleep, we heard knocks from the door and a deep, manly voice said, “Is that where the Jew with the baby lives?”
I was very fearful that someone wanted to harm me, so I went to my hostess and said in a threatening voice, “If you give me up, my husband will come here and kill you.”
Although she did want to get rid of me, she was fearful of my husband, so she said, “There is no Jewish woman here.”
But it didn’t seem to satisfy the man. He kept knocking and threatening to break the doors and the windows if they didn’t open up to him. I didn’t know what to do so I went to the window and asked, “What do you want?”
The man answered, “I am a Jewish partisan from Kurenets. I found out that there was a Jewish woman here and I came to ask if she needed any help.”
I thanked the man and told him I didn’t need any help, but the fact that I was a Jew seemed to have spread around the area.
One day, a young woman came from a nearby village and introduced herself. When I first asked if she was a Jew, she acted as if she was very insulted, but she still kept coming every week. One time, during a deep, heart-to-heart conversation, she told me her story. She was from a Jewish background and had been born in Minsk. During her studies in the university, she met a Christian man who she married. She lived with him very happily and had a little girl. When Hitler came to the Soviet Union, her husband arranged for her and her mother to get Aryan papers. They moved away to the village Kashtinivitz, where they became teachers. Their daughter didn’t know anything about her connection to Jewish ancestry. She would play with all the Christian kids and together they would curse the children whose mother was a Jewish pharmacist.
One time the girl came home and said that today she saw many Jews, and they didn’t appear different to her than the Christian people. The woman said that she could hardly contain herself. She left the room and started crying, but she still didn’t tell her child that she was a Jew.
In the village where she lived, no one even considered the possibility that she was Jewish, and in these times it was a very bad idea to let anyone know. When I asked her what happened to her husband, she said the partisans had killed him…..
Finally, my husband came for a visit, and when he realized the mistrust I had with my hostess, he moved me to another family where I had very good relationships and I helped as much as I could with the house chores and everything seems to be going well for us…...
It was the spring of 1944, the Germans started another blockade of the forest and the villages that were under the control of the Soviet partisans. As a Jew I knew I must escape. The head of the village, who was appointed by the Communist Party told me politely that the Germans were very near, and that I as a Jew, faced greater danger then anyone else. So I said goodbye to my hostess. It was filled with tears and was quite sentimental. I took some food and put my son on my back, and I walked out to the unknown.
On the road I met with some Christians I knew, amongst them were the Postchod family from Pleshensitz. When I asked if I could join them, they were very positive and let me join. We kept running away from the enemy from one forest to the other on the way east.
We were exhausted and indifferent to our fate. The Christian people felt that they could always give themselves up to the Germans since they had a chance there, but I had no choice. I had to escape, like a wounded soldier. So I left my Christian friends and continued running. I was hungry and thirsty and my legs were swollen and I could hardly walk. On my back I carried my son who was as hungry as me.
The forest was filled with farmers who tried to escape but didn’t succeed. They had their horses and carriages and their cows. I walked amongst them and I begged for food. Once in a while I would receive it, and many times not. For my thirst I drank cow’s urine.
When these Christian men who were mostly from Vileyka decided to give themselves up to the Germans, I had to sleep by myself. But where should I go? I didn’t know what to do. I knew that the fact that my son Yehudah was circumcised would cause the Germans to immediately identify him as a Jew, so I decided to continue and arrived at a place where no one would know me or suspect that I was a Jew. I took my skirt and exchanged it for a little girl’s dress. I put it on my son Yehudah, and instead of a skirt I wore a sack. The village woman who exchanged the sack and the little girl’s dress with me thought I was insane, but I knew that this was my only choice to save my son and myself.
Immediately I separated myself from these people so no one would know me. My plan was clear to me: Yehudah could only speak Russian, and if no one would check him naked, the Germans would never suspect he was a Jew. And I would pretend to be either a Pole or a Russian as needed. So I continued going. I met people who had not known me before, and not wanting to be alone I kept following them. But there was an incident that caused them suspicion that I was a Jew. During one time when we rested, they decided to clean themselves from lice. I was asked by the woman who sat next to me to kill her lice. The farm people would do it very proficiently with a knife, but I didn’t know how to do it. The farm woman was very surprised and said, “You must be a Jew.”
Clearly I denied it. I said I came from a big town, and in the big towns, this was not a common practice. My son spoke perfect Russian and he did not cause any suspicion. He looked like he could be any other girl.
We didn’t stop anywhere for a long time. The Germans kept coming behind us, and we escaped until we arrived at the town Brisav. The area was crowded with people and there were many bodies on the ground. No one had taken care of their burial.
My son kept asking, “Mother, why are they sleeping on the ground?”
But I didn’t answer.
On the road I met the teacher from Kastanevich who I befriended before (the Jewish woman who originally came from minsk,who told me about her hiding the fact of being a Jew.) She was now with her mother. They asked me to join them and they shared their food with me. When they asked me what happened to my dress and why I was wearing a sack, I told them about making my son look like a girl. They said that I was very clever for doing it.
A few days later, the Germans came to the forest where we were resting, and they started shooting with machine guns and artillery. The entire forest was burning from all the artillery shells. The two partisan units, “Halochem” and “Hanokem”, tried to break through the blockade and fought like lions. We kept hearing them shouting, “For Stalin!” and “For the Homeland!” Hundreds of people were killed. I, together with my son and Grunia and her mother, entered inside the hollow trunk of a fallen tree and we lay there because we were exhausted. We couldn’t run any farther.
The battle between the Germans and the partisans continued the entire night. It was a battle for life and death. The partisans were fighting with their backs against the River Berezina. The next morning, Grunia told me that it seemed that in a few minutes the Germans would arrive in our area. I always carried a belt, thinking that if the situation became critical, I would commit suicide. I put the belt on my neck and on the neck of my son and started tightening it, but Grunia started yelling at me. “You went through so much trouble and now you are committing suicide?! This is very foolish.”
So I took the belt off my neck with a big sigh. In a few minutes we were taken prisoners by the Germans, who brought us to a central location where they kept thousands of POWs. From afar I could see many familiar faces of Christian people, amongst them the Postchod family and some people from Vileyka. I tried to avoid them.
Amongst the thousands of POWs, Grunia was very noticeable for cleanliness and her nicer clothes [the rest were dressed like farmers, she had been university-educated], so clearly she was noticed by the Germans and they investigated her. She showed them her IDs, and presented herself as a pure Russian. Clearly she spoke very good Russian, but that was not enough proof for the Germans. They asked who here knew her, so she pointed to me. When I was asked to repeat her information, I repeated all the information that was in her IDs. When my son realized that I was talking to the Germans, he started crying. The Germans ordered me to take the child and stand with him.
One of the Germans pointed at Yehudah and said, “It’s a Jewish child.”
We were called to a special investigation by an SS man who spoke good Russian. When he started questioning me, I didn’t get confused. I said speaking both a little Russian and a little Polish that I came from Vilna. When he asked me where my husband was, I said, “In the army.”
He started beating me with a baton all over my body, but I denied being a Jew. I said I don’t even know any Jews. The German became very agitated and started yelling at me. “You speak a little Russian and a little Polish to get me confused, but you will not succeed! We will kill you in a most torturous way. We will cut your fingers off one at a time. One for having a Jewish child.”
But I kept repeating the same thing, that I am not a Jew. They never thought of checking the child because he looked like a girl.
He wore a dress and he had long hair that was combed like a girl’s and he didn’t cause any suspicion of him being a boy. The SS man kept hitting me all over my body and I heard my child crying bitterly. But I kept insisting that I was not a Jew.
Another German officer came, and the SS man said that in spite of the fact that he tortured me, I denied the fact that I was a Jew. The second German looked at my face and put his hand on my shoulder and announced in German, “Her nose is not a Jewish nose.”
I pretended not to know what he said. After much discussion they decided to bring me back for more investigation the next day.
The Germans ate and drank and fell asleep while guarding us. Sleeping Germans surrounded me, each separated by about a meter. I felt that I would not survive another interrogation, so I decided to try to escape to save our souls. I thought that it was better to get a bullet in my back than to go through the seven levels of Hell.
I tied my son to my back with a belt and said to him. If you want to survive, don’t make any sounds until we are far away from here. My child was only four years old, but he matured before his time. He knew the dangers. We lay on the ground and I started crawling between the sleeping guards until I was about 30 meters away. I then got up and with quiet but fast steps, I entered amongst the bushes where no man ever walked, and I was swallowed amongst them. How long we lay there, I don’t know, at least a few days. Finally I couldn’t stay there anymore. Despite the fact that for my safety we should have stayed there, we were very hungry. We had only eaten some of the wild plants and grass around us. Also, I felt very lonely.
We kept walking, not knowing where go. We were lucky to find some food that had been thrown away in the forest. It was rotten, but it saved us from starvation.
During that walk, I thought of the suffering that seemed to never end, and deep in my heart I was sorry that I was not killed with all the Jewish residents of Ilja during the massacre that took place more then two years ago. I couldn’t understand where I had the strength to continue the struggle to survive. I stopped this short, thinking of better times in the past. I was so deep in thoughts that I didn’t even realize I was right by a farmhouse.
When I realized I entered the house, it seemed like my face and the way I was dressed made the farm woman identify me. She immediately said, “My daughter, liberation came.”
I became very confused. I didn’t understand what she was talking about and I asked her.
“The Germans broke their neck,” she answered in cold and simple terms.
I asked her for something to eat. She had no bread but she gave us a few potatoes that we devoured. After she told me where we were located, I decided to try to find my husband, who I assumed was located about 100 kilometers to the west.
The woman warned me that I must not walk through the forest now, and must avoid out-of-the-way routes since the remnants of the Nazi army were hiding now there. So I took the main road, and I dreamed of two things: to see my husband alive and to eat a good amount of food. I went through many, many villages without fear. When I entered the homes and asked for food, people asked me, “Why are you wearing a sack?”
I happily answered, “For my skirt I saved the life of my son.”
It took more than two days until I arrived to the area where my husband’s unit was located, but the brigade was not there. They were on a mission chasing the Germans. I waited for them and finally they returned. I stood there looking, and despite the fact that Jonah was amongst the first to arrive, I didn’t recognize him. All of a sudden I heard a sound, people calling, “Your husband is here!”
When we finally faced one another, he saw that I was without our child. He seemed very upset and his face filled with sadness, but he didn’t mention the child. I immediately said, “Happily, our son is alive and he is staying in a temporary shelter that I arranged for.”
My husband could not stay there any longer. He had to continue with his brigade as they were on the way to liberate Vileyka. I stayed there for a few days, and then returned to the village Mastinivitz, the place where I lived before the German blockade.
The farmers who knew me were very happy to see me alive. While I was in that village pondering the future, the Soviet Politruk arrived and started establishing kolhozes (Soviet agricultural settlements). Needless to say, the farmers were very upset by this. They said, “Why did we fight the Nazis and make our village a partisan base?” But no one listened to the complaints, and diligently they established kolhozes that replaced private ownership of farms. They suggested that I join a kolhoz that I send my child to center (where he would stay day and night). I refused and put my child on my back, then walked to my hometown Ilja. When I arrived there, the sun was setting. I crossed the Tatarska alley. I was tired and exhausted and my legs would not let me continue. As if there was a magic wand, the Christians came out of their homes to look at the miraculous sight.
“Bat- Sheva and her son returned alive.”
Many of them asked me to enter their homes, but I continued without answering….
When I arrived at the central market, the center of life of the Jewish town in the past, I realized that everything had been burned to the ground. Only the Christian homes survived. I became confused and didn’t know what to do. Around me there was a crowd of Christian people. One of them told me that today they saw my husband arrive in town. I didn’t know where to look for him, but I knew that someone would tell him that I had arrived and we would meet.
Despite the fact that many asked me to come to their home, I refused to enter any Christian homes. My heart wouldn’t let me do it. I remembered what they had done to us Jews of Ilja during the Nazi period. I sat on a rock and thought, “Why did I return here? Why did I come back to these murderers? Those people destroyed my family, my parents and my brothers, my friends, men and women, old and young… An old Jewish community that lasted hundreds of years…”
I wanted to go away, but where? This entire country is tainted. There is not one piece of land that is not saturated with Jewish blood, the blood of people of toil who were pure and honest and became martyrs.
From afar I looked on the valley of death, the place where they were taken, shot, and burned alive. I stood in shock across from that field, covered by endless, bottomless mourning. I felt much sentiment and desperation for the awful fate of the town where I was born, raised, educated and married. This was the town where my ancestors of many generations had lived, and now I was faced with desecration and destruction, complete desolation. I felt a hand on my shoulder. When I turned around I saw it was Jonah, who stood behind me in shock and in depression. Looking at the burial place of his parents and his town, his eyes looked off to the distance, and in his mouth he said a prayer, “Yitgadel, Veitkadesh, shmaia raba.”….
The night came and we returned to town. Virami, the Christian man that Jonah had worked for before, stood at the entrance to his house. He asked us to come and stay with him. I refused to enter. I knew that he was guilty in many ways for the death of my beloved brother Yakov by refusing to give him a shelter. (later I found out that he was the one who gave him to the Germans), but Jonah said with no sentiment, “Bat Sheva, not one of them is better than him. So where should we go?”
Virami gave us a huge meal, but when I sat at the table, which was filled with all sorts of finery, I lost my appetite and could not touch the food. His wife gave me a dress for a present, but I didn’t even thank her. Despite the fact that I received a very comfortable bed with pillows and blankets, conditions that I did not have for a very long time, I couldn’t fall asleep. I kept planning how to get revenge on the murderers.
The next day we received an apartment that used to belong Chaia Raizel Kagan (Shimshelev). Despite the fact that this was a small and unkempt apartment, I was very happy to get out of the home of Christian murderers who I couldn’t look in the eye. In another side of the house lived Hala Rodnitsky. I started looking for my family possessions. Ante Borikivich had my parents’ bed, which I confiscated. From Seska Kondertsunuk I took back the mattress and the blankets. From Vlodia I took the sewing machine, and like that I temporarily fixed our room.
My son refused to recognize his father. He kept saying to me, “Mother, what does this stranger do here? Kick him out!”
For many years we lived alone and he couldn’t understand why Jonah was with us now. I explained to him that this man was his father, and because of the war, he had to separate from us, but now he was back. Jonah felt very sad and said, “The day my son will call me father, I will be the happiest man on earth.”
He always played with him and tried to befriend him and receive love by giving him toys. My son had never seen toys before. Finally there were good results and the heart of the boy was softened and a connection was established. One time, when Jonah left the home for a few days, my son came to me and said, “Where did “the man” go? When will he return?”
Meanwhile, a few more survivors returned to town. Amongst them were two cousins of my husband who came after much tribulation and journeyed through the Soviet Union. They were Yitzhak Shapira and Yitzhak Hadash. They lived with us. All the survivors who came alone (not in family) found a warm shelter with us. They, like me, truly understood the sense of loneliness. Despite the fact that we were poor, we shared everything with them. My husband had only one top shirt and three people used it. Each week, another person would use it.
For my son to return to normal life was very difficult. He only spoke Russian and refused to learn Yiddish. When I put salt in the soup, he refused to eat it, and he said I was poisoning him. He refused to eat anything that was cooked since in all our time that we stayed in the forest he hardly ate anything cooked. We only ate bread, vegetables and water. He would always say, “Bread, water and potatoes. Those are the only good things to eat.”
I found out that the cow my parents owned had been taken by a Christian man. I went to court and won my case, and the cow was returned to me. So now we had a good supply of milk.
Once our conditions improved, I started thinking of revenge again. I couldn’t rest. I couldn’t get it off my mind. I decided to bring to justice all the local murderers of my townspeople and my family. I got in touch with the NKVD and brought cases against the Christian people who killed Jews in front of everyone. Amongst them were Virami, Yanoshkovich, and others. The seat of the court was in Vileyka. I came to the trials and said, “The people who stand before you, your honor, during Hitler’s time spilled the blood of devout Communists.”
In my heart I knew if I just said Jewish blood it would not have much effect, but the judge said, “If what you are telling me is the truth, they are not less guilty even if they only killed Jews. The blood of Jews is not to be spilled without punishment.”
They received life sentences. When the judge asked me if this was sufficient, I said no. I couldn’t continue living in town. Every step I took, every hill reminded me of the terrible tragedy that my townspeople and my nation experienced. Almost the entire Christian population took part in their murder and in the plundering. During Sunday, they would dress with the clothes of the Jewish people who had been murdered, and go to the church to pray, and this would make my blood boil.
It wasn’t enough that they took part in the murder of the Jews, but they also stole their belongings. I was determined to leave the place, but I was pregnant and that prevented me from accomplishing this task. But there was a small incident that gave me the push to move to a place where I could live amongst Jews. I would do my shopping once a week, and I was delayed in town. When I returned I found my son standing in front of the locked door and crying. When we entered the house I asked him what happened, “Did someone beat you up?”
He answered that no one beat him up, “But when you left, I entered the apartment of Aunt Hala, and she called me Jewish. I said to her I am not Jewish, but she insisted that I am Jewish.”
I said to him, “The aunt was right, my son. You are a Jew.”
He refused to listen and said that this couldn’t be. “When we were in the forest you kept telling me that I am not a Jew. And all of a sudden you tell me I am Jewish?”
When my husband returned from work, I said, “If you don’t want to raise a Christian boy, we must leave immediately.”
My husband said, “You are in the last month of your pregnancy. So let’s wait until you deliver, and then we will leave this place.”
We left with very little possessions; a few pieces of dry bread, some soap, some pillows, a small wooden bath to wash our daughter, who was two weeks old, but I was fearless. The only fear I had was of starvation and lice. So like this we left Ilja forever, though she will forever stay imprinted in the tablet of our hearts, an imprint that is filled with anger and bitterness.
Our first step was to go west, to Poland, and from there to Vienna. They didn’t let us transfer the dry bread across the border. In Vienna there was a lack of food at that point, so we continued to Italy, where we went all over, going south and north, east and west, and we stayed there for two and a half years. First to Bari and then to Talkisa. The Joint and UNRA took care of us. Here there was plenty of food and we lacked nothing, but our deep desire was to go to the Land of Israel. Here we met agents sent from Israel to help us. We particularly befriended Mrs. Tal, who acquainted us with the spirit of the Land of Israel. Many of the Jewish refugees that constantly arrived from Italy were organized according to their Zionist political parties before the Holocaust. We got in touch with the Revisionist Party that we had belonged to as “Beitar” members before the Holocaust.
We wanted to immigrate to Israel as soon as possible, but the fact that we had two young children was an obstacle. First they wanted single people and young couples without children who were needed to help in the War of Independence. After a long time in Sarkisa, my husband wanted to move to the camp Tinsitza, where people of all nationalities of Europe were accepted. There were amongst them even some Germans. When my son heard some people speaking Russian, he ran home very happily and with excitement announced, “Mother, here they speak like me!”
In Rome there were many Jewish survivors who lived in kibbutzes, where there was a better chance of immigration. We really wanted to join the partisan kibbutz, but for some reason, Jonah encountered many obstacles when he tried to enlist there. One morning, I joined him in his visit to the immigration office in Rome. Jonah pointed out to me the Israeli agent who was responsible was a guy by the name of Krapusky, who is now the Secretary of Kibbutz Ein Harod. Jonah said that he was the man who decided. I approached him and said, “Mister, could you tell me how many gloves do I need in order to talk to you?”
The man was embarrassed by such straight talk that he wasn’t used to. He asked me what I wanted and I explained to him our situation and asked for his help, to be enlisted into the partisan kibbutz in Rome. When he found out our political affiliations were not Socialist (the Revisionists were non-Socialists), he said that there was no chance of us being accepted into a kibbutz. He turned his back to us and started walking, but I didn’t let him go. I started crying, telling him our situation. While I was talking, another door opened and another Israeli agent by the name of Schwartz who is now the Secretary of Kibbutz Tel Yosef, came out and asked what we wanted. When I explained to him our situation, he immediately arranged for us to go to the partisan kibbutz in Rome, where we stayed until we immigrated to Israel. Now when I am writing this memoir which is devoted to the book that will memorialize our town Ilja, my son Yehudah who was together with me through the torturous journey through the ghetto and the forest, is an active member of the Israeli Defense Force.